Mike Rigney, Naturalist/Certified Photo Instructor
11 Mar 2023
Utupua, Solomon Islands, 3/11/2023, National Geographic Orion
National Geographic Orion
Australia and New Zealand
National Geographic Orion entered the barrier reef of Utupua just after sunrise, and we anchored in a sheltered bay. Soon after breakfast, we went ashore and were greeted by smiling faces and a traditional welcome. We learned about life in the village and observed some incredible dances.
Later, it was time to explore. A Zodiac ride through the mangroves, self-exploration of the school, and kayaking amongst the mangroves were enjoyed by many. My favorite part was how the local kids played with us on the kayaks and Zodiacs. It was absolutely incredible to see how much fun could be had.
We set sail in the afternoon, leaving the village behind. Until next time!
Mike learned early on that the best way to escape Ohio was to become a marine biologist. During college at Wittenberg University he attended a semester at Duke University's Marine Lab — that time only confirmed his love for all things oceanic and ma...
Mike's love for the water comes from growing up on the great lakes where his dad worked as a commercial ship captain. After going to university for mechanical engineering he worked in the automotive, plastics, and aerospace defense industries before ...
Shortly after breakfast, National Geographic photographer Massimo Bassano presented on the stories about Melanesia that have been published by National Geographic. Afterwards, we sailed into the harbor at Utupua, which is part of the Santa Cruz Islands. The island has a population of roughly 1,000 people and is located 66 kilometers southeast of the main Santa Cruz group between Vanikoro and Nendo Islands. Three Oceanic languages are spoken on the island—Amba, Asumbuo, and Tainimbill. These three languages only have a few hundred speakers each and are highly endangered. All three are almost completely undocumented. Everyone went out on the bow while we pulled into Utupua's stunning harbor. Palm trees lined the beaches, and wooden canoes floated in the water. We took Zodiacs ashore, and people from the Nembao village welcomed us with a song and dance performance. The main dancers blew into a conch shell, and a group of people decorated with leaves and flowers ran out to jokingly attack the boat. Everyone gathered on straw mats to watch a series of local dances featuring men, women, and children from the village. Their elaborate attire was made from local materials, including banana leaves and flowers. After the dances, we explored the village and talked to locals. After lunch, we took Zodiac tours to explore the calm waters around the island and observe the mangrove ecosystems that are so critical to this part of the world.
In the morning sun, a few early risers searched for birds with naturalist Mike Greenfelder on the bow of National Geographic Orion . A light yoga class on the sun deck loosened our muscles in preparation for the day ahead. By 7:00 a.m., we were within view of our destination. The views of Owaraha Island and the varying shades of aquamarine in the surrounding reef were breathtaking. Located in the Solomon Islands, the coral island of Owaraha is just over 25 square kilometers. There are three separate villages and just under 4,000 inhabitants. As we plunged our feet through the water and into the soft white sand, we experienced a feeling of magic. Our boats were greeted by shouting warriors who ran to the beach with spears. Just two days ago, we were all going about our lives. Today we were in a small tropical rainforest village on an island. It took a moment for the shock to wear off! We were guided through the village by elders and ecstatic children who shared our high fives and asked for our names. Wood carvings lined with abalone shells were for sale in the village center. The quality of the art was outstanding. Our guests were seated beneath a large tree and treated to a truly remarkable experience of local culture. Musicians in grass skirts played vibrant songs as throngs of dancers took center stage. The first songs told the stories of butterflies, the collection of food, and life on the island. As the show went on, it built to a battle of the mud men. Villagers covered in black mud defeated those in red for the favor of the women of the village. As I sat with an elder during the show, he told me how much it means to have visitors support the community in keeping their rituals alive. We took a two-mile trail, walking over a hill and past the school, which led us to a village on a white sand beach. I walked with Peter, a member of the local school board. He pointed out graves along the way as the children continued to walk with us. Near the water, we came upon an open-walled, sacred structure known as the spirit house. To enter, we climbed over a few logs that serve to mark the space. On opposing sides of the spirit house, ancestral clans of Turtle and Snake are represented. In these spaces, the bones of each clan’s chiefs are preserved. It is believed that the spirits of the chiefs live within the house. When we left, the sun hung directly over us, and the walk back was a challenge. Guests of National Geographic Orion earned the drinks awaiting them on board. There was a playful energy throughout the lounge as our freshly showered guests told stories and laughed about the day. We watched the sun set as we pulled away and headed towards our next island destination.