Magical Mystery Island

Indiana Sarah - Mystery Island from the air. Image courtesy Celebrity Cruises.

Over the New Year break I was asked to be a guest speaker aboard Celebrity Cruises’ flagship Celebrity Solstice, as part of Celebrity Cruises’ enrichment program. Naturally, I said yes … and wow, what an experience!

This was my first cruise and I can tell you Celebrity Solstice is nothing like the ships I normally work on!At a massive 1033 feet (314.85 metres) long, 121 feet (36.88 metres) broad, 27 feet (8.22 metres) in draft, 122,000 gross tons, with a cruising speed of 24 knots and with almost 4,400 passengers and crew, Celebrity Solstice is a luxury force to be reckoned with. All power to the Captain too – this was one tightly run ship!

Indiana Sarah - Celebrity Solstice collage featuring Maritime Archaeologist, Sarah Ward

Over the nine-day cruise, we stopped at Nouméa in New Caledonia, Lifou in the Loyalty Islands, and Mystery Island in the amazing Vanuatu archipelago, which for me was the absolute highlight.

Garlanded with foaming reefs, crystal clear turquoise water and soft, sandy white beaches, Mystery Island is a Pacific paradise. It has no running water, no electricity, no roads, and no phones, Internet or TV.

It also has no residents, yet over 65,000 mostly-Australian tourists flock there every year, generally by cruise ship … and on New Year’s Day, I was one of them!

Officially called Inyeug, Mystery Island is the southern-most of the 80-island Vanuatu chain. Just one kilometre square in area and laying barely a kilometre to the south of Aneityum Island (‘big island’ to the locals), Mystery Island has a past as colourful as the reef that surrounds it.

Indiana Sarah - a traditional boat at Mystery Island. Photo courtesy Shutterstock.

In the 1850s, for example, Australian blackbirders arrived at Aneityum to supply the burgeoning sugar slave trade. They chose Inyeug as a safe haven, not because it was uninhabited per se, but because the superstitious (and then cannibalistic) Aneityumese believed (and still do) that Mystery Island is the home of ghosts who come out after dark, and so no one would live there. As a result, the blackbirders believed they were safe from attack after dark and would not end up in the Aneityumese cooking pot in the middle of the night.

As with many islands in the South Pacific, missionaries and traders made their way to Inyeug in the mid-late 1800s, but it would be another hundred years before Mystery Island was put on the modern map. In the 1940s US troops built a grass airstrip from one side of the island to the other to serve the allied forces in World War Two. The mystery is said to be derived from the fact that the airstrip is impossible to see from the sea and therefore it took some time for the Japanese to determine where all the planes were coming from.

For me, the magic of Mystery Island was not the stuff of legend, but the unexpected opportunity to explore the traditional boats. I was fortunate enough to meet Alan, a local Aneityumese boat builder, who brought canoes across from big island to entertain the tourists.

Indiana Sarah - Mystery Island traditional collage featuring Maritime Archaeologist, Sarah Ward

Most of the cruise passengers ignored him as they floundered around in clear plastic kayaks around the islet, stomped on the reef, or lay burning in the sun. Little did they know what they were missing!

Alan showed me three traditional canoes that he and his family made. All were single outriggers make from Pacific Kauri; one of which was a sailing canoe.

Although I didn’t come equipped to record these, beyond a few happy snaps, I was given a fantastic gift – that of a prolonged paddle out beyond the reef with Alan and our simple one-piece paddles.

I won’t describe the canoes for you; to do some would be a disappointment. I wasn’t there long enough to capture the details. Until I have the chance to go back (and I will) please enjoy the photos.

If that doesn’t suffice, check out Ethnology of Vanuatu, by the late German Anthropologist, Felix Spenser. It records the canoes as he saw them between 1910 and 1912. As any boat geek will agree, it is worth the download fee.

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About Sarah Ward

I’m Sarah Ward, a maritime archaeologist, commercial diver and factual presenter with 16 years experience, both in and out of the water. I’ve investigated sites ranging from the Bronze Age to the modern, across more than 20 countries. A Visiting Professor at Dalian Maritime University and MIT Ocean Discovery Fellow, I am on a mission to bring archaeology to a broader audience, helping people to connect with the past in a meaningful way.

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(c) Indiana Sarah 2019