In the shallow waters off Bokanbotin Island, one of hundreds of sandy spits that make up the Marshall Islands, I suck in a deep breath of air and take a plunge.
Beneath me, a carpet of pale orange fingers swirls along the pickup truck-sized chunk of coral. A dozen clown fish – the same as the orange and white fish that stars in the 2003 Disney film “Finding Nemo” –– nestle in the protective underwater lawn.
I watch for a few seconds, then pop my head out of the water. Palm trees bristle along the sandy shore, and a couple of humans wave from the nearby, shell-strewn beach.
I’ve come to the Marshall Islands as part of a group hosted by Sawyer Products. The Florida-based company, which makes water filters like the one I use for backpacking, uses 90 percent of its profits for a project called the Clean Water for All Initiative.
During my stay, Sawyer – which teamed with a non-profit women’s group here called Kora in Okrane, or KIO –– will deliver the last of roughly 8,000 filters to residents. The filters remove bacteria which cause high rates of diarrhea, giving people who rely mainly on rain collection for their water supply freedom from sickness.
But I’ve also come to learn more about this remote corner of Micronesia. The Marshall Islands are made up of more than 1,200 islands spread out over 750,000 square miles of ocean between Hawaii and Australia. They have a tragic history. Between 1946 and 1958, U.S. military officials tested at least 24 nuclear weapons here, telling residents that their sacrifice was “for the good of mankind.”
Now residents of the low-lying chain of islands are grappling with what could be the devastating effects of climate change. Sea levels are rising, flooding is more frequent, and fresh water supplies are being inundated with sea water.
I wanted to see the Marshall Islands firsthand, before it’s no longer an option.
The Republic of the Marshall Islands is one of the least visited countries in the world. Just 10,500 people visit annually, according to Carlos Domnick, head of the Office of Commerce, Investment and Tourism.
Those who do visit won’t find the plush accommodations and luxurious infrastructure seen in Hawaii or Tahiti. Roughly half of the country’s population lives on Majuro, home to two very basic hotels and a gigantic trash dump, one of the first things you see when you leave the airport. I’m staying at the Hotel Robert Reimers, at one end of the 25-mile strip that’s more cinder block and abandoned cars than white sand beaches and glistening resorts.
Before you go to the Marshall Islands
It doesn’t take long before I realize that the focus here is on the people, who are amazing, and the culture, which is friendly and welcoming. And a quick trip to any of the neighboring islands reminds me that yes, tiny, undeveloped islands still exist in real life.
If you’re considering a trip, keep a few things in mind.
First, dress conservatively. Women – including visitors – are expected to keep their knees and shoulders covered. Although the bikini swimsuit was named for Bikini Atoll, locals don’t wear swimsuits – and neither should you, in public areas. Women swim in shorts and shirts or even skirts and dresses.
Second, filter all your water, even what you get from hotels, or opt for bottled water.
Third, in the Marshall Islands, people use the word iakwe, pronounced “yawk-way,” to say hello or goodbye. It translates to “you are a rainbow,” a surprisingly useful term. Use it often.
Natural beauty in the Marshall Islands
That said, the islands are beautiful. The people who live on them are incredibly generous. And there’s no shortage of fun stuff to do.
We visited four separate islands, each a quick boat ride from Majuro.
The first, a tiny island where American businessman Jerry Kramer runs a small day resort, attracts picnickers and families looking for a clean, quiet beach where they can swim, fish, and jump off a wooden pier into the ocean. Kramer, who came to the islands in the 1960s and owns a construction business, regaled us with stories as we ate barracuda fresh-caught and grilled on the beach.
I can’t stay out of the water, and I whiled away an entire hour watching an octopus snuggle into a cubby hole in the coral and snorkeling over a small plane purposely sunk here as an attraction.
On the island of RongRong, where Sawyer made its final delivery of water filters, we ate curry and banana bread baked in leaves by locals, then swam in a lagoon while raindrops pattered down around us. I felt like I was playing in someone’s gorgeous backyard – which I was.
On Bikendrik Island, where Austrian Susanne Kayser runs a small resort on what was once a coconut plantation, I felt like I’d stepped into a glamorous old movie set from the 1950s. Kayser rents a few un-air conditioned bungalows that open onto the ocean, or you can get a room in her colonial house. We spent a morning sipping cocktails on the veranda and swimming off the dock (American swimsuits are allowed here).
But rising sea levels are creating problems on Bikendrik, too. Kayser says she built a seawall two years ago, but still loses about 2 meters of beach every season. “I’m becoming an expert at building seawalls,” she says. “And I think it’s accelerated in the last eight years.”
Inside the main house, you’ll find artwork that belongs in museums, including paintings by Picasso, who was an acquaintance of Kayser’s mother. A stay on the island doesn’t come cheap, but it includes meals, cocktails, and as much fresh air as you can stand.
A somber reminder
On our last full day in the islands, we took a short boat ride to Bokanbotin island for lunch, more swimming, and the most gut-wrenching meeting of the week – a visit with members of the National Nuclear Commission.
Members of the commission are working to increase awareness about the nuclear testing that took place in the Marshall Islands more than 70 years ago.
Against a backdrop of the clearest water, the occasional baby shark, and waving palm trees, they shared stories of how some of the Marshallese people were moved from their island homes for the testing, thinking they would be able to return afterward.
Instead, they lost their way of life, suffered from radiation poisoning, and were told their miscarriages and birth defects were caused by incest.
Much of the waste was capped by a cement dome called the Runit Dome on the Enewetak Atoll, but that tomb is now deteriorating, according to reports.
Cancer rates remain high today, and there’s not a single oncologist in the islands. The closest place for treatment is Honolulu, and most residents can’t afford that.
Back on Majuro
If you want to learn more about the nuclear testing that took place here 75 years ago, stop by the Alele Museum in Majuro. Besides examples of tools that indigenous people once used to make traditional sailing canoes, old photographs, and an exhibit of indigenous clothing, you’ll find a simple display about the nuclear testing that took place and its impact on the residents.
“I had seven miscarriages. If it wasn’t for what the U.S. had done to me and my family, my children would be growing up like the others,” one woman is quoted next to her portrait, hung next to images of mushroom clouds.
We wanted to learn more about climate change, too, so we met with meteorologist Reggie White, who shared some of the impacts of rising sea levels on the low-lying atolls.
“When there’s a storm surge, things compound and give us more frequent flooding,” White says. Residents can’t get to work, or access the grocery store.
White says he first noticed a change in 2008. Today, rain rates are more intense, and flooding is an almost monthly occurrence.
“I try not to dwell on what could happen. I try to think about what we can do now,” White says. “It’s our only hope.”
Still, some experts say parts of the Marshall Islands could be uninhabitable due to rising sea levels in as few as 30 years if nothing is done.
“We’re seen as the sad country that will eventually face the reality of having no land to live on,” says Moriana Philip, general manager of the country’s Environmental Protection Authority.
But a survival plan is in place, she says, one that includes the “very scary reality that we may have to take down some islands to elevate others.”
Hit the water
If you’re looking for something fun during your stay, put a stop by Canoe Marshall Islands, or Waan Aelon in Majel, on your list.
The organization offers a counseling program for youth, and also teaches them how to build and sail traditional outrigger sailing canoes.
For a fee, the public can take a ride on one of the canoes. “You’ll definitely get wet,” I was told as I climbed aboard for a speedy trip across the bay. Two men manned the sails, reversing direction after about 10 minutes. The water looked like gin, and the feeling of moving with the wind was bliss. For more information go here.
I couldn’t squeeze it into my schedule, but all of the Marshall Islands are part of a shark sanctuary. Scuba diving is considered good, although I’ve heard reports of coral bleaching – and there are several good wreck dives, including the USS Saratoga near Bikini Atoll.
Another pastime? Fishing. It’s so popular that the first Friday of July (during my visit, hurray!) is designated Fishermen’s Day, and the whole city heads to one of the marinas to watch the boat captains bring in and weigh their catch. There’s also music, food, and crafts.
Heading home from the Marshall Islands
It’s a long trip back to Texas, and the islands are situated just west of the International Date Line.
That means when you return to the United States, you get a replay of the day you fly out. I left on Friday evening. An hour after departure, I got to start Friday all over again, just like in the movie “Groundhog Day.”
The bonus day gave me some time to think about my experience.
The thought that the people who live on the Marshall Islands are once again being impacted by the actions of othersClick here to enter text. thousands of miles away is a lesson I’ll take home with me, along with memories of some of the kindest people I’ve ever met.
“I think you live for today and hope for a better future,” White, the meteorologist, had said.
Those words stick in my mind.
And I’m hoping for a better future for my friends in the Marshall Islands.
If You Go
You’ll have to make some connections flying from Austin. I flew from Austin to San Francisco to Honolulu, overnighted at a hotel near the airport, then flew United’s “Island Hopper” to Majuro, in the Marshall Islands.
We booked rooms at the no-frills Hotel Robert Reimers on the main road in Majuro. (Get a thatched-roof bungalow instead of an efficiency room if oneis available.) The other option in Majuro is the equally basic Marshall Islands Resort. For a more vacation-like stay, try the Bikendrik Island Hideaway.
If you visit, filter all drinking water, or drink bottled water, even at hotels.