The Perilous Hunt for Coconut Crabs on a Remote Polynesian Island

We meet Adams Maihota outside his house in the dead of night. A crab hunter, he wears white plastic sandals, board shorts, a tank top and a cummerbund to hold lengths of twine. He picks a sprig of wild mint and tucks it behind his ear for good luck.

The photographer Eric Guth and I follow Mr. Maihota’s blazing headlamp into the forest in search of coconut crabs, known locally as kaveu. They are the largest land invertebrate in the world, and, boiled or stir-fried with coconut milk, they are delicious. Since the cessation of phosphate mining here in 1966, they have become one of Makatea’s largest exports.

It’s ankle-breaking terrain. We negotiate the roots of pandanus trees and never-ending feo, a Polynesian term for the old reef rocks that stick up everywhere. Vegetation slaps our faces and legs, and our skin becomes slick with sweat.

The traps, which Mr. Maihota laid earlier that week, consist of notched coconuts tied to trees with fibers from their own husks. When we reach one, we turn off our lights to approach quietly. Then, Mr. Maihota pounces.

A moment later, he stands up with a sky-blue crab pedaling its ten legs in broad circles. Even with its fleshy abdomen curled under the rest of its body, the animal is much longer than the hunter’s hand.

Makatea, part of the Tuamotu Archipelago in French Polynesia, sits in the South Pacific about 150 miles northeast of Tahiti. It’s a small uplifted coral atoll, barely four and a half miles across at its widest point, with steep limestone cliffs that rise as high as 250 feet straight out of the sea.

From 1908 until 1966, Makatea was home to the largest industrial project in French Polynesia: Eleven million tons of phosphate-rich sand were dug out and exported for agriculture, pharmaceuticals and munitions. When the mining ceased, the population fell from around 3,000 to less than 100. Today, there are about 80 full-time residents. Most of them live in the central part of the island, close to the ruins of the old mining town, which is now rotting into the jungle.

One-third of Makatea consists of a maze of more than a million deep, circular holes, known as the extraction zone — a legacy of the mining operations. Crossing into that area, especially at night, when coconut crabs are active, can be deadly. Many of the holes are over 100 feet deep, and the rock ledges between them are narrow. Still, some hunters do it anyway, intent on reaching the rich crab habitat on the other side.

One evening before sunset, a hunter named Teiki Ah-scha meets us in a notoriously dangerous area called Le Bureau, so named for the mining buildings that used to be there. Wearing flip-flops, Mr. Ah-scha trots around the holes and balances on their edges. When he goes hunting across the extraction zone, he comes home in the dark with a sack full of crabs on his back.

Mr. Maihota, too, used to hunt this way — and he tells me that he misses it. But ever since his wife fell into a shallow hole a few months before our visit in 2019, she has forbidden him to cross the extraction zone. Instead, he sets traps around the village.

Coconut crabs inhabit a broad range, from the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean to the Pitcairn Islands in the southern Pacific Ocean. They were part of local diets long before the mining era. The largest specimens, “les monstres,” can be the length of your arm and live for a century.

There hasn’t been a population study on Makatea, so the crab’s conservation status is unclear — though at night, rattling across the rocks, they seem to be everywhere.

When we catch crabs that aren’t legal — either females or those less than six centimeters across the carapace — Mr. Maihota lets them go.

If the islanders are not careful, he says, the crabs might not be around for future generations. In many places across the Indo-Pacific, the animals have been hunted to the point of extirpation, or local extinction.

Makatea is at a crossroads. Half a century after the first mining era, there is a pending proposal for more phosphate extraction. Though the island’s mayor and other supporters cite the economic benefits of work and revenue, opponents say that new industrial activity would destroy the island, including its fledgling tourism industry.

“We cannot make her suffer again,” one woman tells me, invoking the island as a living being.

Still, it’s hard to make a living here. “There is no work,” Mr. Maihota says, as we stand under the stars and drip sweat onto the forest floor. He doesn’t want to talk about the mine. The previous month, he shipped out 70 coconut crabs for $10 each to his buyers in Tahiti.

In popular hunting spots, hunters say the crabs are smaller or fewer, but hunters rely on the income and nobody has the full picture of how the population is doing overall.

We visit Mr. Maihota’s garden the next morning where the crabs are sequestered in individual boxes to keep them from attacking each other. He’ll feed them coconut and water to purge their systems, since, in the wild, they eat all manner of food, including carrion.

By daylight, their shells are rainbows of purple, white, orange, along with many shades of blue. For now at least — without mining, and while harvests are still sustainable — they seem perfectly adapted to Makatea, holes and all.

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Chad Kalepa Baybayan, Seafarer Who Sailed Using the Stars, Dies at 64

Chad Kalepa Baybayan, a revered Hawaiian seafarer who was a torchbearer for the art of “wayfinding,” which ancestral Polynesian sailors used to navigate the Pacific Ocean by studying the stars, trade winds and flight patterns of birds, died on April 8 at a friend’s home in Seattle. He was 64.

His daughter Kala Tanaka said the cause was a heart attack. He suffered from diabetes and had had a quadruple bypass over a year ago.

Many centuries ago, oceanic tribes sailed the waters between the islands and atolls of Polynesia in double-hulled canoes. They plotted their course by consulting the directions concealed within sunrises and sunsets, ocean swells, the behaviors of fish and the reflections of land in clouds. As Polynesia was colonized and modernized, the secrets of celestial navigation were nearly forgotten.

Mr. Baybayan (pronounced “bay-BAY-an”) was a teenager when he joined the crew of the fabled Hokule’a (“Star of Gladness”), a voyaging canoe in which he learned to become a wayfinder under the tutelage of the Micronesian master navigator Mau Piailug.

At the time, traditional Hawaiian culture was in peril. Usage of the native language was declining, sacred lands were being desecrated and fewer ceremonies were being held. In 1973 the Polynesian Voyaging Society was formed in hopes of preserving the region’s seafaring heritage, and it built Hokule’a, a replica of an ancient deep-sea voyaging canoe.

In 1976, the vessel embarked on a historic trip from Hawaii to Tahiti without the aid of navigational tools, in what was intended as a display of wayfinding’s technical sophistication. The trip, which was led by Mr. Piailug and documented by National Geographic, also sought to disprove theories that Polynesia was settled accidentally by hapless sailors lost in an aimless drift. (Mr. Baybayan was too young to go on that famous voyage, although he served ceremonial drinks made from awa root to his crewmates before their departure.)

When Hokule’a finally made landfall in Tahiti, thousands of people had gathered on shore to greet the canoe, and the occasion was declared an island-wide celebration. The voyage’s success galvanized a revival of native culture, known as the Hawaiian renaissance, that included a celebration of slack-key guitar music and the hula.

told National Geographic in 2014, “I will never be a ‘master’ because there will always be more to learn.”

“What it truly does is sharpen the human mind, intellect and ability to decipher codes in the environment,” he added. “It’s also incredibly rewarding to navigate and make a distant landfall. For me, it’s the most euphoric feeling that I have ever felt.”

Pwo. The ritual commenced with the blowing of a conch shell, and Mr. Baybayan was given a bracelet of stinging coral to mark his new status. In 2014, he helped lead Hokule’a on a three-year circumnavigation of the globe.

In his late 30s, while raising a family and juggling jobs as a hotel porter and a ramp agent for United Airlines, Mr. Baybayan decided to pursue a higher education. He graduated with a B.A. in Hawaiian studies from the University of Hawaii at Hilo in 1997. He then earned a master’s degree in education from Heritage University in Toppenish, Wash.

Mr. Baybayan became an educator at the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center, using its planetarium to teach visitors about celestial navigation. He also traveled to classrooms across the country to talk about wayfinding with the aid of an interactive star compass floor mat. In 2013, he gave a TEDx Talk that recounted the history of Hokule’a.

“There are only a few people in the world who can really navigate properly, and Kalepa was one of them,” Nainoa Thompson, a fellow Hokule’a master navigator, said in a phone interview. “But where Kalepa separates himself is how far he took things with education. He broke the rules.

said in an interview in 2000. “I knew that if there was anything in my life that I wanted to do it was sail on her.”

His daughter elaborated: “For him, seeing Hokule’a was like seeing this thing he’d only heard about in stories and history books, but then there it was and it was real. It wasn’t just a story anymore.”

When Mr. Baybayan first joined the crew, he was charged with tasks like washing and scrubbing the vessel. He began learning the techniques of wayfinding in his 20s, and he went on to guide voyages that took the canoe to Cape Town, Nova Scotia, Cuba and New York.

supporter of the construction of a $1.4 billion telescope on the dormant volcano Mauna Kea, a sacred site considered the resting place of gods. Called the Thirty Meter Telescope, it is expected to be one of the most powerful telescopes ever made, but activists have protested its construction for years.

“I’ve heard the comment that the protesters want to be on the right side of history,” Mr. Baybayan told The Associated Press in 2019. “I want to be on the right side of humanity. I want to be on the right side of enlightenment.”

In addition to his daughter Kala, Mr. Baybayan is survived by his wife, Audrey (Kaide) Baybayan; another daughter, Pukanala Llanes; a son, Aukai Baybayan; his mother, Lillian Suter; two brothers, Clayton and Lyle Baybayan; a sister, Lisa Baybayan, who now goes by Sister Ann Marie; a half brother, Theodore Suter; and six grandchildren.

Last month, Mr. Baybayan was in Seattle with his wife to visit some of his grandchildren when he collapsed suddenly one evening.

The night after he died, a group of his crewmates, including Mr. Thompson, gathered aboard Hokule’a for a moonlight passage in his memory. Mr. Thompson, who had studied celestial navigation alongside Mr. Baybayan as a young man, looked toward the stars as he honored his fellow wayfinder.

“I think Kalepa has gone to where the spirits go,” Mr. Thompson said. “Now he is up there with our ancestors who dwell in the black of the night.”

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