Vanuatu – Tongoa and Epi islands

An early start this morning as we sat moored off Tongoa Island, part of Vanuatu’s Shepherd Islands.


We embarked in the Zodiacs a little after 7am, with the aim of finding a “fire on the beach” of this volcanic and rather rocky island, indicating our landing spot. Unfortunately there were no apparent fires on the beach, although plenty of wisps of smoke in the jungle above. We spent a frustrating time in high seas and rain, finding the wrong landing site and then, finally, the right one, only to decide the access was just too difficult. We sat in driving, tropical rain, listening to the shouts and drums of the locals, as some of the expedition staff went to investigate. Then it was back to the ship for snacks, before a stern landing on a rocky shore in a big swell – quite exciting.


Photo courtesy Heritage Expeditions

Tongoa Island proved to be a delight, with wild ginger and hibiscus beside the road we walked up. We progressed slowly, spotting cardinal myzomelas, Tanna and red-bellied fruit doves, glossy swiftlets and numerous Vanuatu flying foxes.


Photo courtesy of Heritage Expeditions (Steve Howell)

Two young men greeted us on the road, inquiring if we would like them to collect some birds for us with their slingshots. Chris explained patiently that the only good bird was one free in the trees and that if they killed the birds, no one would come birding again. They seemed to be quite relieved by that and told us they normally used them to bring down flying foxes for food. I had a slingshot (or shanghai, as I used to call it), when I was a kid and used to bring down cicadas from the lamp posts for my father’s collection. I was impressed by the wooden handles of these ones, cut from a special tree, I was told.


Finally the group was shown a huge and very majestic fig tree, which was fruiting profusely. The whole tree was alive with birds and eventually we found the prize we had come looking for: the Royal Parrot Finch, a tiny, exquisite blue and red bird that is found only on Tongoa and rarely seen.


Photo courtesy of Steve Howell, Heritage Expeditions

Overnight the ship moved to a mooring of Epi Island, still in the Shepherd Islands group. By 7.30 am we were off in the Zodiacs, searching for dugong. The dugong is a large marine herbivore, believed to be distantly related to elephants. I had seen one briefly in Queensland, while kayaking in Moreton Bay, but they have been hunted extensively by humans and are rare and very shy. We drifted slowly along the coast, scanning for the smallest disturbance in the water, which might indicate the animal’s whereabouts. I was in the Zodiac that found a single female dugong. The sight of its large curved back, as the animal dived, sent shivers down my spine. Some of the group dived in to film the dugong under the water, but it moved very fast and left most in its wake very quickly. I was pleased we didn’t harass it further. Seeing a wild dugong was special enough for me.


Photo courtesy of Meghan Kelly, Heritage Expeditions

The island of Epi would be a lovely place for a tropical holiday, with pleasant accommodation close to the beach and clear, clear water. While we waited to spot the dugong, we became fascinated with the presence of large numbers of Sea Striders – remarkable pelagic insects that skitter rapidly over the sea surface and congregate in clusters, clearly interacting with each other. Steve Howell spent time perfecting his photography of small and fast things…

As we steamed away north from Epi, we past the active volcano of Amblyn, sitting in the cloud and headed for Espiritu Santo. That evening the dugong paid us a visit, in the clouds.



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