Living On a Tropical Island


In the first 35 years of my life I was fortunate enough to have lived in severalforeign countries and visited many others.  Among those place was Italy, where I lived for 3 years, and Hawaii, where I lived for a little less than 2 years.  I also lived in Korea and visited, France, England, Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Monaco, Austria, Poland, Greece, Cyprus, Lebanon, Syria, and Israel.  But in 1981 I went to work in a country that is like none other, the Marshall Islands.

In 1981 I took a job at GTE under the auspices of MIT-Lincoln Laboratories to do satellite tracking out in the Kwajalein Atoll which is in the Marshall Islands.  To get there you have to first fly to Honolulu before getting into the belly of an Air Force C-141 for the remainder of the trip.  Kwajalein sits about 2500 miles west south-west of Honolulu.  To put that in perspective, Honolulu is about 2500 miles for the US west coast.

The radar shown below is a UHF/VHF radar named Altair.  It is tasked with tracking near-earth satellites.  These are satellites exist within several hundred miles of the earth’s surface as opposed to those in the synchronous belt, 42,000 miles distant.

The Marshall Islands are a part  of what is called Micronesia and at the time was a part of the U.S. Trust Territory of the Pacific.  That was the result of the removal of the Japanese from these islands during World War 2.

The Kwajalein Atoll is a string of over 100 very small islands that line the top of an ancient volcano.  The largest of these islands, Kwajalein, is on several thousand feet wide by about 2 miles long.  The island I lived on was at the opposite end of the atoll, about 26 miles distant, and was 1 mile long by 4000 feet wide.  I will add pictures of the islands and island life after this post.

The entire population of Roi-Namur was about 400 men, no women.  We were all there to run one of the two satellite tracking radars on the island.  There were Marshallese people who lived on an island 3 islands away.  You can actually walk down the reef at low tide to get to that island.

There are no birds on these  islands, not even sea gulls.  I can only guess that the remoteness of the islands has something to do with that.  The only land animal native to the island is a thing called the coconut crab.  These are very large crabs, some growing even larger than the Alaskan King  Crab.  Their large claw literally had the power to crack open a coconut.  I was told these crabs are good eating.  But catching the coconut crab is discouraged because their population has been decimated.  The picture below shows the coconut crab getting ready to crack the coconut.

The waters surrounding the island were teeming with fish and other critters, such as the moray eel, Pacific spiny lobster, crabs of all sorts, octopi, and squid.  Many of the fish lived in and around the untouched coral reefs.  I learned to snorkel these waters very well and found myself swimming with some really large tuna, even sharks.  This happened in the lagoon side of the atoll and since sharks usually did not live there they did not bother us usually.  We were not in their territory.  The picture below is of a beach on Roi-Namur on the lagoon side of the island.

On any given day you could count on the temperature being about 81 degrees.  The land mass being so small, even though we were only 9 degrees above the equator, the Pacific acted like a huge air conditioner.  I think the all time high temperature was 85 and the all time low was a crisp 79.

The following picture was taken of the reef looking from the shore towards the Pacific Ocean.  This reef is several hundred feet wide.  To be clear, the lagoon side of these islands do not have such a reef.  At the end of the reef, the island drops off sharply going down many thousands of feet.

The picture below is a picture of the reef in the Kwajalein reef.  The camera is incapable of taking a picture that properly displays how colorful this reef truly is.

There is an almost endless variety of fish that live in the reef.  The following picture shows some of them and as with the reef, the picture does not do justice to how colorful they are.

The only type of storms that the islands ever encountered were the monsoon rains.  The islands exist too close to the equator to experience typhoons or other such storms.  We would experience downpours that went on for hours.  There was zero chance of flooding as we were at most a few feet above sea level the rain water either seeped through the ground to the coral below of quickly drain off into the ocean.  But that rain water was also our only source of fresh water.  Curiously, it was discovered that a very large pool of fresh water collected beneath the island.  It literally floated on top of the salt water.

The Kwajalein Atoll is immune to the force of a Tsunami.  That is because the atoll is literally the top of a volcano.  For a tsunami to exert its force it needs a long incline to concentrate its power.  There is no incline around an atoll.

The only vehicles allowed on the island were the two fire trucks, a couple of pick-up trucks, and the aircraft that shuttled us from Roi to Kwajalein.  Our food supplies were delivered by a barge that plied the lagoon two or three times a week between Kwajalein and Roi-Namur.  Lighter time critical items were delivered by aircraft.  When you look at a picture of the island of Roi you will see that the island’s runway literally runs from one edge of the island to the other.  A picture of Kwajalein shows a similar pictures.  The much longer runway there runs down the middle of the island for about two-thirds of its length.

Unfortunately Kwajalein is a place that does not allow for visitors, in case you are thinking you might like to go there.  But there is a near-by island, Majuro, that is also in the Marshall Islands and where you can experience what I did.

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