Monday 15 July 2013

Emae Island

Today’s clinic was well attended with a queue forming around 8:00am when the medical team was ready to start work.  A local leader (whose name escapes me) and Donald the health worker, spoke to the crowd prior to commencement and thanked the team for coming and explained the process –those with severe dental pain will be seen first and others will be given a number and booked into a time slot over the next two days.


Recently nicknamed Fang, our extreme dentist, Lyndon certainly had a full day attending to teeth, with around 12 people seen.  This accounted for around 6 extractions, several fillings and a lot of scaling – which is the removal of accumulated calcium deposits called tartar or calculus.  Lyndon claims that the Ni-vans have the hardest tartar in the world and for those who don’t clean their teeth regularly the deposits can be significant, creating a real barrier to further oral health improvement.

Local health worker Donald was a keen student for much of the day, observing what Lyndon was doing and eager to learn all he could to improve the health of the communities on the island under his charge.

Morinda gave a dental talk to the gathered mothers and in the afternoon to the older children at the nearby school.  Morinda also did some fillings and scaling in the second chair set up next to Lyndon’s in the health clinic.

Tony’s doctoring work was described by him as a typical day in the practice, with around 10 patients presenting a variety of complaints – I heard the word “interesting” used, which kind of accounts for most diseases and ailments.

Christine had her hands full taking patient records, booking patients in for their half hour slot and helpfully assisting Morinda with whatever was required.  Kristie is described by Lyndon, (as he meticulously cleans each dental probe, spade and extractor on the saloon table) as an invaluable dental  assistant – a quick learner with a wonderfully, cheerful temperament.  All this despite her stated aversion to teeth.

In other news, the ship’s crew, now down to four with Christine’s effective defection to the medical side, had a full and satisfying day.  Jon bought some taro and island green stuff and cooked up something of a fish curry storm tonight which he claims is bringing out his feminine side.  A self-confessed non-cook to this point in life, Jon acknowledges that the desire to eat has been a strong motivating influence on his recent galley exploits.

I mentioned fish was on the menu tonight, oh and crab too.  It turned out that our new fishing friend, Michael, came good with a catch; 10kg of assorted big fish plus 3 crabs.  It was the crabs that created the “incident”, or more correctly, one of the three crabs – a coconut crab named Houdini.  It all began with the delivery of the fish and crabs.  I’d gone to bed around 11:00pm last night after writing the Ships Log, only to be woken from a deep sleep an hour later by James in my cabin exclaiming that… “there’s  a motor boat revving it’s engine and tied up on the side and asking to speak with the captain”.

I soon realized that it was the fisherman, who jumped aboard with a string of fish, a set of scales and a rice bag with something heavy and wriggly in it.   His father stayed in the small boat at the back next to the outboard and when I asked  “what’s that in the bag”, he excitedly said, “a coconut crab!”


Now, whilst I’m no David Attenborough, I do know a little about coconut crabs.  Such as, they are very tasty, are quite rare, live to an incredible age and have claws that could easily sever a finger.

With the bag deposited on the deck, Michael went through the agreement he had made with the other man, “500 vatu per kilo, not 700 vatu, because that is too expensive”  He then attached the fish to the scales and sure enough, 10 kilos came up on the dial, “and 1500 vatu for the crabs”  two of which were speared and dead and of course the
coconut crab, already making noises to find the exit to the bag.

I should say that the other thing I know about coconut crabs is that we had one aboard once before, in 2009.  It was tied up with vines like a turkey,  so as not to escape, and of course it escaped; walking around the deck in the dark amongst three sleeping passengers.  We never saw that crab again.

After paying our fisherman 7000 vatu, plus giving him four “D” sized batteries and 5 litres of fuel, it was time for him to go.  Naturally he was keen to get his rice bag back again and blithely poked his hand into the bag, whereupon I said something like … “oh, PLEASE be careful”  (who am I to give fish and crab advice to this man?!).  Out comes the crab, all claws and pinchers … “string, rope, do you have some rope we can tie him up?” asks Michael.  Have we got rope.  There was a piece nearby and so a good job was done in trussing the animal up and then hanging the rope from a metal frame at the mast.  We then waved good-bye to Michael, after handing back his set of scales, wire basket, and rice bag.  It was then back to bed.

The wind, as mentioned in earlier Ships Logs, is painfully strong and has been so for the past 10 days and so I get up from time to time through the night to check the anchor.  Around 3:00am I did this and as I shuffled bare foot along the deck, past the coach house, up to the mast, on my way to the bow, I saw the fish and dead crabs on the
deck in a bucket, then glanced at the rope holding Mr Coconut Crab. And wouldn’t you know it, NO crab.   I directed the torch to my toes, nowhere nearby, that’s good.  But where could he be?  Part of me kind of hoped he’d found his way over the side, then the thought of finding him where you least expect it occurred to me.  There wasn’t a lot I
could do, but look briefly around the deck, check the anchor and go back to bed, which I did.

Around 5 o’clock I was woken by a gentle tap tap tap on my door.  “was that someone at the door, or the wind?”  I opened the door and there was Morinda, who quickly whispered … “there’s a coconut crab trying to come in my cabin” … then as I (bravely) made my way to her cabin right up the front, Morinda asked … “do you know how to pick them up?” … I think I whispered something like … “no, they scare the daylights out of me”  or something to that effect.

Sure enough, the half opened deck hatch in the girl’s cabin had several arms of a coconut crab poking in with his body attempting to follow, the scratching sound it made was kind of spooky.  Grabbing a shopping bag I went on deck and after several timid attempts I finally got our crab into the bag which I promptly tied at the top.

It was then back to sleep to grab what was left of the night.

After dropping the medical team at the beach for pick up by Donald in the Health centre vehicle, the ship’s crew of Ray, Jon, James and I were soon after wards walking across the island to the clinic and the topic of Mr Crab came up.  Someone opened up by saying, “so are we going to eat the crab?”,  someone else said, “I suppose we’ll have to vote on it”, to which I reminded everyone that it’s “not a democracy” … to which the two naval veterans heartily agreed.  Jon then said, “I must confess, I do feel a bit bad eating  something that by all accounts is endangered, is probably 30 years old and delivers minimal nutritional value at the end of the day”. “So it’s agreed”, said Ray, “we’re not going to eat him”. “That’s right, we have redeemed him for a small price and now he will be released”.

Like Jon and his cooking, another chance to get in touch with our feminine sides … or maybe it’s been too long at sea.  But later in the day as the four of us released Mr Coconut Crab onto the base of a nearby coconut tree, I’m sure we all had a mushy, warm inner glow. After all they are amazing creatures.

Smooth seas, fair breeze and live long and prosper Mr Coconut Crab

Rob Latimer