Kiribati: A Nation of Atolls

The 3-hour flight from Nadi, Fiji to Tarawa, Kiribati was about half full and the passengers comprised a mix of iKiribatis, Australian and British expat consultants, a Taiwanese technical assistance worker and 7 South Korean seamen. The latter group was going to Tarawa to join their fishing vessels. They were quite monolingual and spent their time buying duty-free stuff at the airport. The Taiwanese guy was on a 2-year contract advising the iKiribatis at the Taiwanese agricultural mission in Kiribati. Taiwan also has a fishery experimental farm in Tarawa where they helped the locals to farm fish. I was to pass by both on the way to Bairiki island later. He warned me about the perils of drinking untreated water offered by the locals at parties and the lack of vegetables once those shipped in by the rare passing ship was consumed…yes, the problem of remote island states again. A British consultant also flying to Kiribati was also on an agricultural consulting project and told me about his past few decades of working in places such as Kiribati, Tuvalu, Nauru and Samoa. I was the only tourist on the flight.

We arrived in Tarawa’s Bonriki International Airport on time – we were treated to a spectacular sky-view of the enormous Tarawa atoll and its reefs and islands under bright blue skies. Once we stepped out of the plane, we were confronted with the sight of dozens of local children gesturing at us through the terminal fence they have climbed. The immigration counter was nothing more than a well-worn table placed at the head of the queue. This reminded me of Moroni Airport, Comoros. The queue was long and it cleared slowly. Luggage collection was also rudimentary. There was no conveyer belt. You simply collect your stuff which were laid out on the ground. Kiribati probably does not need anything more sophisticated. After all, they only have 3 incoming flights a week.

I found two girls from Mary’s Motel without difficulty. The iKiribatis spoke with an accent that sounded like Nauruan and a little similar to Thai and Vietnamese too. I suppose that was the Micronesian accent. They asked me to wait while sorting out logistics for some Korean seamen they recognized. It was a long wait…I was to realize very soon that the iKiribati people are a very relaxed people who are vague about timing and take a long time to complete tasks. Why rush? This is a very remote part of the world and there are few flights or boats anywhere, or even little public transport from Tarawa to other parts of Kiribati.

Kiribati (pronounced “Kiribass”), located at the central Pacific with the Equator cutting across it, is marginally larger than Singapore (800 sq km vs Singapore’s 710 sq km), but split into thousands of islands scattered across an ocean area of 3.5 million sq km, slightly smaller than the land area of USA of 3.9 million sq km. More than half of Kiribati’s land area is on Kiritimati Island (which is pronounced and meant the same as Christmas Island), located at the far eastern part of the nation. Kiribati has only 100,000 inhabitants, more than half of whom are squeezed into the southern part of Tarawa Atoll, where the main international airport and capital is located.

Tarawa Atoll is shaped like two sides of a triangle and encloses a lagoon more than 500 sq km. The southern arm of the atoll is made up of a number of long thin islands, linked to each other by causeways. These islands are so thin – none wider than 500 meters and many stretches are only 30 meters across - that one can often see two sides of the island at the same time. Since independence in 1979, an increasing number of people from the outer islands of Kiribati have been moving to South Tarawa, which has turned this region into a terribly densely populated collection of wooden sheds and straw huts. Pacific atolls may arouse images of fine white sands under tropical palms, but beware if one is tempted to jump straight into the waters of South Tarawa. The crowded conditions, coupled with the lack of a sewerage, latrine and waste disposal system, have turned the waters of the Lagoon around South Tarawa into an open air reservoir of bacteria and dirt. Beneath the many exotic coconut trees next to the lagoon, I saw piles of stinking decaying rubbish, plastic bottles, cans and waste material of all kinds.

Mary’s Motel is a popular place among travelers to Kiribati. It is located thirty west of the international airport, on the island of Baikiri, which is also where the main administrative centre and foreign embassies are based. The rooms, given the lack of amenities apart from air con, are not cheap at A$77 but the motel provides good service and transfers around South Tarawa.

There is not a lot to do in Kiribati and I have already decided not to visit the Outer Islands for fear of getting stuck and missing the next flight out – domestic flights are often cancelled in Kiribati. I would, however, like to see a bit of Tarawa Atoll and its islets. Given the lack of tourism infrastructure and the rather relaxed attitude of the locals, I would spend quite a bit of time the next 2 days making enquiries about where I could go and how. Often I found myself having to decide if “he will come here soon” or “she would ring you in a while” means 5 minutes, 15 min, 1 hour or 5 hours. It can be frustrating if you are short for time, but at least I have come to Kiribati expecting to do little or even next to nothing. The lack of flights meant I had to stay four full days and nights, and I am prepared to lie down and rot all my time here.

In fact, one is subject to a torturously hot blazing sun over here, which caused sun burn by my second day in the country. At mid-afternoon, one hardly sees anyone on the streets (not that there are many people in the country to start with) apart from the occasional Mormons in their schoolboyish shirt and tie. Many iKiribati people could be found horizontal on hammocks, or taking shelter in the maneaba, which are a iKiribati traditional meeting house with open doors and tall pointed roofs that fell sharply to below a typical grown up person’s height, i.e., to enter a maneaba, one must bow with humility as one enters these buildings.

Kiribati is a fairly poor country where most of its inhabitants, even those living in South Tarawa, live on subsistence basis. On the main street of Baikiri, the islet on South Tarawa that is the national capital of sorts, one sees locals walking around barefoot, and the occasional fishermen carrying their net from the beach to their palm-leaf huts. Unlike PNG or the Solomons, I was told that Kiribati is a very safe country with little crime. One could walk around at night without fear.

One of the pleasures of spending time in Tarawa is talking to not just the locals but the many foreigners who come here for business. By business, I do not necessarily anything commercial. In fact, most of the foreigners I met were either related to the fishing industry, work for NGOs or on foreign-government (mostly Australian, NZ, Japanese or Taiwanese) funded projects. The last included employment as a consultant for the Kiribati Government but funded by foreign governments or international organizations. Conversations with locals tended to be superficial or frivolous – perhaps it was more difficult for a casual traveler to meet any local who have thought much of their country and frank in expressing their views. It was through my conversations with expats that I learnt much about life in the Kiribati and the country’s critical fishing industry.

As a small country scattered over a huge area, Kiribati has little natural resources except for its rich fishing grounds, in particular, the tuna. The government derives a large part of its revenue from fishing licenses granted to fleets from countries such as Japan, South Korea, China and Taiwan. I knew next to nothing about the fishing industry, especially the valuable tuna, but I have learnt much from fishing observers and even fishing helicopter pilots who stay at Mary’s Motel or hung out at expat bars. These fishing fleets are very multi-national given the wide range of skillsets required of sophisticated deep sea fishing these days. I would have loved to speak to the Korean crew but they were quite monolingual and tended to congregate among themselves. Instead, I had a few beers with the Filipino, Australian, New Zealander and Pacific Islander members, being individually smaller in numbers and English-speaking as well.

Tom, a hard-drinking Aussie in his early 30s, used to be a welder but got received his helicopter license last year. In order to make quick money as well as clock enough hours for him to qualify eventually as a civil aviation pilot, he has become a heli pilot on a fishing boat – yes, many sophisticated fishing boats these days have helicopter pads. What does he do? Assisted by Roger, a Canadian aircraft mechanic in his mid fifties, he flew across the seas searching for tunas, or large schools of birds that indicated the presence of tunas. Though he could fly much further, he usually flew up to 50 miles away from the vessel to search for tuna. “We don’t fly much further, or it would take way too long for the boats to get there.”

I asked how long do they go away from land each time. Depends, weeks, sometimes several months. The Japanese long line boats are the worst – they go for half a year or more…they need to catch enough to make the money. “It’s a hard life and you just have to get used to it.” Roger, who looked like a retired granddad (and might well had been one), had worked in various onshore mechanical positions, but needed the money after he was retrenched from his last job. And he had been a crab fisherman in Alaska many years before. “There’s no more security in any job these days. Nobody would want to be in this job at my age but I have no choice.”

They told me more about the industry. After paying huge licensing fees, the fishing fleets have to catch as much tuna as possible to make the money back. They do not just invest in helicopters but also state-of-the-art sonar equipment and fish radars of all sorts. “The fish have no chance at all,” said Tom. “How can they escape with all these hi-tech equipment and the seine nets that catch all?” These nets are several kilometers long and weighed down by iron clamps, and when unfolded, quickly envelope all the living creatures caught within a huge area. Then everything is dragged onboard, fish, assorted sea creatures, even those that stay at the bottom of the sea, together with sand and all.

“There is nothing as the dolphin-friendly tuna,” said Tom. The seine nets do not distinguish between different creatures. During his short career as a pilot, he had on one occasion seen 15 dolphins and a tiger shark hauled up in a single seine. A blue whale was hauled on another. The fleets were not licensed to catch these creatures and so the dolphins and the tiger shark were thrown back to the sea – dead of course. As for the blue whale, the net was loosened and lowered but the enormous creature quickly punched a hole before it could be properly released, and then swam away probably with major injuries and shock.

The fleet was only interested in the valuable tuna for which they were licensed and only had sufficient space onboard to ship back to home markets in Korea and Japan. The other fishes were simply thrown overboard, all dead or would soon die of the trauma. Even for the tuna caught, to save space for the most profitable catch, tuna that are considered second rated – not the right size, sub-species or defects of any kind – were sold at lower prices at the wharf in Betio, South Tarawa. Sometimes, they were disposed at low prices to be used as baits or fertilizers. “There is a lot of wastage. Lots of fish that were caught and thrown back dead, or sold as fertilizers, while a lot of people are starving worldwide.” Tom confessed.

Adam, a fish observer from Vanuatu, confirmed Tom’s statement. Fish observers are a kind of auditor for the fishing industry. They are stationed on every licensed fishing boat to ensure that the boat follow the licensing rules, such as catching only tuna or licensed fishes, or not to discharge oil or toxic substances. At the end of every engagement, the observers would report their findings to a pan-Pacific fishing intergovernmental body. Boats or fleets that breach the rules might be fined or barred from bidding for licenses. “Yes, there are a lot of wastage. The net cannot distinguish between the species. Often, tunas follow schools of small fish, and bigger predator fish such as sharks and whales chased after the tuna. Everything is pulled overboard.” Adam would point out the unlicensed catch and these were thrown back to the sea. “Of course, they are all dead or dying by then,” Adam confessed. “Maybe in 20 or 30 years’ time, there will be no more fish in the oceans.”

While on the high seas, the fish observers live and work together with the fishermen. He has to be careful what he does or says on board. You do not want to anger people to the extent that you risk getting murdered on board and dumped into a fridge, or more likely, thrown overboard like the second rated catch. But observers cannot work 24 hours a day. When they sleep, illegal operations such as dumping of pollutants take place. If the ships breach any rules, observers have a duty to report after the engagement ends. But then, I guess the professionalism of the individual becomes important. The dilemma is somewhat similar to a financial auditor. You must report professionally, but be remindful not to go overboard if the circumstances do not warrant radical reaction. Ultimately, the observer might have to work with the same fishermen again somewhere.

When asked what he personally thought about the possible demise of tuna and sealife in general if hi-tech fishing of this form continues, Tom said, “I just don’t think that much. Maybe nature would find its way to revive. It’s just a job for me and I need my paycheck. If there is a demand for tuna in the Far East, then fishing of this scale continues. Alternatively, you Asians can all switch to red meat and then there would be no fishing of this type.” But red meat isn’t a solution either…report indicates that the production process of red meat is contributing in a major way to destruction of the nature, release of carbon that reside within cattle and ultimately global warming.

I also learnt about sleazy going on’s. Sailors spend a great deal on the sea. They go wild when they reach the shore. I heard stories about their sexploits; as well as stories of how jealous or suspicious wives of Korean captains or crew who flew into obscure ports in Kiribati and Micronesia to surprise their husbands…and of the fights that occurred when they caught their husbands with local girls of the night. More worrying were tales of underaged sex that occurs on the ships. It is rumoured that in Kiribati and some other Pacific states, cash-strapped or hungry parents send their young children to the boats so that they could return with either cash or fish. The Pacific governments deny such occurrences but aid donor governments such as Australia and New Zealand, have expressed concerns.

I have made friends with Japanese and Taiwanese technical volunteers, a Papua New Guinean advisor to the Kiribati government, as well as Australian consultants in Kiribati to assess skills of local technical trainers (“interesting with some pleasant surprises” was the diplomatic reply). Everyone seems to be in Kiribati for work. “So you are a tourist!” they said with slight amazement. Indeed, I haven’t seen another tourist during my stay in Kiribati.

The owner of a Chinese restaurant on Betio Island found it hard to believe I was a tourist. He asked me the same question three times during my lunch at his restaurant, and finally said :“你没有搞错,到这里旅游.” “Something must be wrong with you,” he concluded. He thought he found the answer when I asked about what I heard of Chinese businessmen marrying Kiribati women. Most restaurants and some shops in Tarawa and the only bakery in all Kiribati are run by Mainland Chinese, some of whom have married local women. “This makes business easier. Besides, the iKiribati people are the nicest in the Pacific I have seen,” said the proprietor of Aboy Restaurant who also owns the bakery. He first began a business in Nauru some years ago and also investigated a few neighbouring states but found the locals hostile and jealous of Chinese success. “These are foreign lands. You make money there and they remain poor. Of course they get upset. But I found how nice and appreciative iKiribatis are. And I decided to move here,” he said with his heavily Cantonese-accented Mandarin. “Are you also thinking of marrying a black girl and moving here to start a business?” he asked.

Perhaps marrying a local is preferable to being mistaken as a terrorist. When I told the Government Land Management Office official I was a tourist while buying a huge topological map of Tarawa Atoll, he joked, “Tourist, or terrorist?” Thank goodness he did not arrest me for suspicious terrorist or espionage activities.

As I walked along the rubbish strewn and dilapidated “downtown” Tarawa (i.e., islands of Bairiki and Betio), friendly locals greeted me “Mauri, mauri” – the local equivalent of hello. The iKiribati people are indeed warm and hospitable. Seeing me wet with perspire from the afternoon heat, a lady offered me a can of drink while we waited for bus. Late at night, a guy gave me a ride back to my hotel when he saw me waiting for bus outside a pub.


An expat told me there is no such thing as privacy in the Kiribatis. The national radio is treated as a telephone system of sorts, since not many people have telephones at home. Job interviews and medical appointments are announced on the national radio. So it is likely for you to hear about your medical appointment next Wednesday from a friend who have heard it from another friend who heard the scheduling from the radio. And everyone would ask you about the results of the appointment for weeks after that.


Like many of its poor Pacific neighbours such as Vanuatu and Solomon Islands, Kiribati too played its China and Taiwan cards. Kiribati used to have diplomatic relations with China, but a new government that came to power a few years ago established diplomatic relations with Taiwan, which prompted China to break off diplomatic relations and shut down its embassy and a major satellite tracking station. (Some alleged the move was secretly supported by the US which was concerned with what it saw as a Chinese spy installation so close to US naval facilities in Guam, Hawaii, Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia.) Interestingly, as an expat commented, the Kiribati government adopted the stand that it had not broken diplomatic relations with China and it is maintaining the position that it continues to have diplomatic relations with both China and Taiwan, the only country in the world to do so. This is, of course, mere semantics.

Since then Taiwan has provided significant aid to Kiribati. All over Tarawa, I saw installations and monuments erected by the Taiwanese government, in addition to the technical missions maintained in Kiribati. When I asked a Mainland Chinese businessman whether they maintain links with the Taiwanese Embassy (one of the only three embassies in Tarawa), he said of course they do, but would expect no assistance from the Taiwanese, as the latter, in his view, “they can’t even take care of themselves.”


Kiribati, or even its pre-independence name, Gilbert and Ellice Islands, might be unfamiliar to most people, but the word “Tarawa” strikes some cord to Americans who are into WWII military history. The Battle of Tarawa in November 1943 was a short but bloody episode in the history of WWII. 4,500 Japanese soldiers took up defence on the tiny island of Betio at the southwestern tip of Tarawa Atoll. The island was heavily fortified with reinforced concrete bunkers, tunnels, barricades, pillboxes and major artillery pieces and mortars. The Japanese rear-admiral commanding the island defenders proclaimed that it would take “one million men one hundred years” to take the island, and gave orders to defend the island to the last man.

In response, the US gathered one of the largest ever congregation of hardware and manpower for a single operation. 17 aircraft carriers, 12 battleships, 6 heavy cruisers and 4 light cruisers, 66 destroyers and 36 transports – a total of 35,000 men. In the heavy fighting that lasted from 20th to 24th November, US forces stormed the beaches and then the rest of the island with amphibious armoured vehicles. Following bitter close range fighting, the island of Betio was secured with all Japanese soldiers terminated, with the exception of 16 captured as POW. US forces lost 1,677 men in what was considered as one of the bloodiest and fiercest battles of WWII. Elsewhere in the Tarawa Atoll, US forces swept through the islets, whilst many Japanese soldiers committed suicide rather than surrendering to the US forces.

Today, many war relics have remained in Betio, despite the island being one of Tarawa’s most densely populated towns. Heavy Japanese guns and bunkers could be found across the island, some along the beach and others in private gardens and family courtyards. The famous Red Beach of northern Betio, which was the scene of major US amphibious landings, remains scattered with remnants of landing vessels, tanks, amphibious armoured vehicles and ruins of all kinds, which were particularly apparent during low tide. Poignant war cemeteries are found at parts of the island, though a Japanese aid worker told me that even nowadays – and during the recent construction of a Japanese aid project a few years ago – human skulls and remains, together with military ordnance are still regularly found across Tarawa Atoll, in particularly, Betio.

<Certain names & events modified to protect privacy of individuals>

Posted via email from Nomadic Republic2


Unknown said…
Well you certainly learned a lot during your short tourist stay. You blog has informed my also and has reminded me of my time there. I laughed and cried at your summation of Kiribati and marvelled at your descriptions of historical events, people and places. What a great story you have told. Excellent photos too. Glad to see you don't have that ill fated photo of me. I've shared many stories of the battle of Tarawa with my Dad who is eager to see your video. Interesting isn't it!!! Best wishes for the rest of your trip. I look forward to keeping in touch. Kathryn (one of those Australian consultants)
Bradpetehoops said…
Very nice in Kiribati, have a great day!