Martin Clunes: Islands of the Pacific

Martin Clunes Island of the Pacific

3 of 3
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Martin Clunes: Islands of the Pacific

Episode 3

In the third episode Martin explores Guam, on of the 2,000 islands of Micronesia, a remote region of the Western Pacific.

Guam is the closest land mass to the Mariana Trench, the deepest point on the planet’s surface, nearly seven miles beneath the ocean. Since 1899, Guam has been a US territory and is home to a huge military base. 

“It feels very American and its population of 170,000 are US citizens, but Guam isn't a state and people here don’t have a vote in US elections,” Martin explains.

At the end of the World War II, with Guam newly liberated from Japanese invaders, the ships brought a new intruder: the brown tree snake which wreaked havoc on the island’s bird population.  There’s hardly any bird song on Guam. 

Martin meets Suzanne Medina, a wildlife zoologist who’s trying to bring a species unique to Guam back from the edge of extinction. The Ko’Ko bird is flightless, so it and its eggs were easy pickings for the snakes.

Suzanne Medina explains:

“They believe that it was one female brown tree snake that was pregnant which came to Guam and populated our island with her and her offspring, and then it was just kind of like game over for them.”

“By the 1980s, many species of bird unique to Guam were extinct.  The island was scoured for any remaining Ko’kos.  Just 21 birds were saved and taken in to captivity. But attempts to restore the population failed. 

Suzanne says: “By getting to know the birds on an individual basis, figuring out how to work with little personality quirks and – and look for pairing birds the right way, spending time with them, we were able to increase reproduction at our facility by over 400%.” 

Thanks to Suzanne’s programme of rearing, Ko’Ko’s are now breeding back in the wild on a neighbouring island. 

Guam still has one of the highest densities of snakes in the world, around 12 per acre. 

They're a real threat to both wildlife and island infrastructure, forcing the government to take drastic action.

Martin meets snake trappers Roman and Mark from the US Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services at the power station  where the snakes cause power outages about once a week.

In the last seven years, 140,000 snakes have been caught by the Department of Agriculture, which are then humanely destroyed. 

But that still leaves an estimated 1.6 million snakes on an island that is only 30 miles long. The trappers admit they will never be able to get rid of the snakes, but they aim to control their numbers. 

Guam has its own culture Chamorro and Martin visits a school, founded by Anne Marie Arceo, known to the children as Saina Guinifi, whose mission is to reintroduce Chamorro culture, values and especially the language back to the island. 

Anne Marie Arceo explains:

“We try to reinforce just to speak in Chamorro, if they don’t know how, they have to ask how to say it in Chamorro.

Martin joins the children in class but manages to disrupt the lesson when he sits on a small chair and breaks it.

Martin leaves Guam and travels 800 miles southwest to another group of islands within Micronesia.  Palau was also an American territory but gained independence in 1994. 

Now this tiny island state is leading the world in pioneering conservation and sustainability. 

Palau is known as the jewel of Micronesia. Hundreds of islands covered in a luminous green canopy sit in turquoise waters, sheltered by coral reefs. 

In 2015, Palau took the decision to create a marine sanctuary, which now covers 80% of its national waters.  Within it, commercial fishing and mining are banned, and the area is strictly policed by rangers to protect the wildlife. 

Before he can set foot on the island Martin has to swear pledge at Passport Control: 

“Children of Palau, I take this pledge as your guest to preserve and protect your beautiful and unique island home.  I vow to tread lightly, act kindly, explore mindfully.  The only footprints I shall leave are those that will wash away”.

Martin joins Paul Adelbai from the Palau Turtle Conservation and Monitoring Programme to monitor the island’s turtles. Rangers have reported a potential Hawksbill Turtle nest which they think is at risk and Paul has come to investigate.

After half an hour, they recover 66 eggs which are ready to be relocated to a safer place.

The eggs are being moved to a nearby island under the utmost secrecy because turtle shells and eggs are still highly prized by poachers on Palau.  In fact this is the first time the authorities have allowed any filming.   

With Kenneth Johnny, one of Palau’s most experienced divers Martin is diving on an area of the reef where they hope to see an adult Hawksbill Turtle. 

Palau’s ban on commercial fishing is immediately apparent.  The reef is absolutely teeming. They see a school of Bumphead Parrot Fish, an Eagle Ray, a grey reef shark, and finally a Hawksbill Turtle. 

Martin says: “That was amazing.  That’s the most beautiful reef I've ever dived.  Absolutely fantastic.  That was quite a big shark.  It was at least 20 foot long.”

In recognition of Palau’s conservation efforts, UNESCO declared the Rock Islands a World Heritage site in 2012.  Guide, Cobi Jones, takes Martin kayaking to one of the larger islands; Ulong. 

Now uninhabited, it was once the centre for trade that stretched across hundreds of miles of Pacific Ocean.  Cobi shows Martin why an ancient civilisation came all the way to Ulong Island more than 600 years ago.

Martin visits another Palauan island, Peleliu, which also saw bloodshed and saw its inhabitants forced to flee.  But here, it was only 80 years ago. 

The Japanese built a military airfield here and it became the site of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. 

The Battle for Peleliu began in September 1944. A US Major General declared that he could take the airfield here in four days.  But the Japanese were waiting for him, and his men.  The fighting raged on for more than two months. The Americans suffered their highest casualty rate of any amphibious assault in their history with forty per cent of the Marines either killed or wounded.  There was a huge loss of life here, both American and Japanese. More than 12,000 died and many still lie where they fell, undiscovered within the jungle.

Martin joins bomb disposal expert Chris Willis as he travels across the island. Since 2015 Chris and his fellow bomb disposal experts have made safe over 20,000 unexploded devices. 

Thousands more still lie undiscovered. 

A large proportion of the civilian population evacuated during the war never returned. The island of Peleliu still remains haunted by warfare. 

For his last adventure on Palau Martin joins zoologist Ron Leidich and his team to see if they can spot one of the ocean’s most elusive creatures: the Dugong which is a sea mammal, similar to a Manatee, but with a dolphin-like tail. 

It's been declared functionally extinct in Chinese waters, and Palau has the only Dugong population left in Micronesia. 

Martin says: “I’ve tried to film these timid creatures before, but always failed to even see them.”

Ron Leidich explains how the Dugong is protected: 

“In 2009 the core state government had the foresight to create these no-passage zones. Reserve, kayaks, stand-up boards, speedboats, swimmers, nobody is allowed in the Dugong Sanctuary. 

“You’d have to have a research permit to go inside, and that allows Dugong to enjoy the healthy marine environment without any intrusions whatsoever.  So when the tide is high, they're free to munch on sea grasses, algaes and the occasional small marine invertebrate.  As the day goes on, the sea grass beds will become too shallow for them to continue feeding so ultimately they're going to leave the sanctuary.”

Their patient and careful search pays off and Martin gets his first sight of a herd of Dugongs, including a mum and her calf.

Martin Says: “Well what a real privilege this has been to get up so close to these near mythical mystical secretive animals.  Not many people get to see that many up that close, so thank you Ron.

“This second part of my odyssey around the islands of the Pacific feels very different to me, I feel like I've gone deeper and been more embedded in the islands. From living with the kindly and welcoming people of the village of Tilakewa on the Trobriand Islands, to planting rice in a World Heritage site with those lovely laughy ladies in the Philippines.  And witnessing the pioneering and successful conservation attempts of Palau. 

“Despite what seems like the world’s intention to turn us in to one gigantic homogenous community, I am very happy to report that the customs, the traditions, the ways of life on these islands are very much alive and well.

“But in the face of rising sea levels and climate change, it's now up to all of us to ensure that these tiny island communities are allowed to survive.”




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