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Notes from an author: Patrick Nunn on Fiji's vanishing islands

Geological mysteries and myths of the gods are revealed when sailing in the ghostly shadows of the Pacific Ocean’s vanished islands.

By Patrick Nunn
Published 2 Nov 2021, 08:00 GMT
Ocean geoscientist Patrick Nunn is author of Worlds In Shadow: Submerged Lands in Science, Memory and ...

Ocean geoscientist Patrick Nunn is author of Worlds In Shadow: Submerged Lands in Science, Memory and Myth.

Photograph by Patrick Nunn

Inside the reef there are few waves. When the sun shines, the ocean landscape seems boundless, an unruffled turquoise; both an open highway and a full larder. I once called it a geisha landscape: one so emblematic, so evocative of a place that an unwitting observer might easily be tricked into thinking its outward appearance hid nothing of note. But that’s untrue.

Fiji is a land of contrasts. The noise and the smoke in the crowded cities lie at the opposite end of the spectrum to the effortless tranquillity of Fiji’s smaller islands, with their deserted beaches, unpolluted reefs and grassy hills. But stay long enough, and you learn that this, too, is illusory. The hills have eyes. Their people have knowledge and understandings they hesitate to share for fear you’ll judge them preposterous.

If you ever find yourself in these Pacific isles, go to the Fiji Museum in Suva. In one corner, you can touch the rudder of HMS Bounty, retrieved from remote Pitcairn Island after the rest of the ship was burned in 1790. She met her end at the hands of mutineers who set Captain Bligh off on an open-boat journey of more than 3,700 miles, sailing through Fiji and dodging assailants in Timor. Touch the rudder gingerly and you scratch the surface of the deep history of the Pacific.

Fiji’s most famous archaeologist is Sepeti ‘Mata’ Matararaba, who, over the course of nearly three decades, taught me most of what I know about its vanished islands. Once we were on Moturiki Island, excavating at Naitabale and finding the 2,800-year-old remains of the earliest-known Fijian. To return to Suva, Fiji’s capital, we hired two small boats for a trip that remained inside the reef but crossed the site of the ‘sunken island’ named Vuniivilevu. To show our respect to the people of this undersea land — the people whom local fisherfolk insist can be seen moving around down there on moonlit nights — our boats slowed as they passed over Vuniivilevu, and everyone kept quiet.

Except one person, whose boat’s engine sputtered and died, only to be ignominiously towed into Suva eight hours later. No one was in any doubt what had happened. The spirits of the people of undersea Vuniivilevu, sensing someone disrespecting of their presence, had crippled the boat. An unmistakable sign of the power of the unknown. And if you’re tempted to chuckle, have pause, for every Fijian has heard dozens of such stories. The past lives here in a way that Westerners simply can’t understand.

“To show our respect to the people of this undersea land — the people whom local fisherfolk insist can be seen moving around down there on moonlit nights — our boats slowed as they passed over Vuniivilevu, and everyone kept quiet.”

by Patrick Nunn
Patrick Nunn

Mata and I once travelled to the southern Fijian island of Kadavu. The first thing we encountered was a rock named Solo, on which stands a red-and-white striped lighthouse. There’s not room for much else. But many years ago, according to local traditions, there was a large, inhabited island here named Lomanikoro that one day sank, leaving just a tiny lone rock behind. When our boat entered Solo Lagoon, still a few miles from the lighthouse, it slowed; we bowed our heads and clapped thrice to show proper respect to the people of this sunken land. Mata said that if you listened hard enough, you couldn’t just hear them talking, but also roosters crowing and mosquitoes buzzing.

From Solo, we sailed south to the island of Ono, an extinct volcano home of the ‘vu’ (spirit) named Tanovo. We passed his massive footprints on the cliffs, saw the hole his spear made when he viciously propelled it at a rival; we climbed the mountains that were his knees, looked down on the villages built — propitiously — on his feet. We even ascended to the bottom of his neck, trying to make out his head in the clouds above.

Some cultures have written memories of land being submerged. Many more have shared memories, ranging from the doleful tolling of underwater church bells off the English coast to stories from Australia of a giant kangaroo that wilfully sliced the land apart, allowing the ocean unwelcome ingress. So, as Mata reminded me when I last saw him, we shouldn’t treat stories of Fiji’s sunken islands in isolation. We were drinking sweet milky tea and eating sugar-glazed buns, warm from the oven, in a sidewalk cafe on Marks Street in Suva. “Every culture has such stories,” he said. “How we approach them is key to how we understand them.” 

Ocean geoscientist Patrick Nunn is author of Worlds In Shadow: Submerged Lands in Science, Memory and Myth (Bloomsbury, £16.99). patricknunn.org

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Published in the November 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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