Cruise Through Tobi and Sonsorol
By Shigeru Motoda
Kagaku Nanyo, Vol. 2, No. 2,  1939.  pp. 44-62

The Tobi Island group (outlying islands southwest of Palau) which rests on the suboceanic Tobi Range and is comprised of the Tobi and Sonsol Islands consists of Sonsol, Pula Anna, Merir, Tobi and Helen. All are no more than a meter or two above sea level and with the exception of Helen atoll are small table atolls of one or two kilometers' diameter. For administrative purposes they fall under the jurisdiction of Palau District and the islands are served four times a year by the Kokuho Maru (2000 tons) belonging to Nanyö Böeki Kabushiki Kaisha subsidized by the South Seas Government. In addition due to recent phosphorus ore mining on the part of Nanyö Kyöhatsu Kabushiki Kaisha on Tobi Island company ships call frequently, while for Sonsol there are frequent visits by the scheduled South Seas mailship.

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. . . I boarded ship at 4:00 pm and we set sail for Tobi. The ocean was completely calm without even small waves on the surface and after the beautiful tropical sunset an almost full moon shown upon the sea. Bathed in the shining moonlight we were able to pass a pleasant time sitting upon the deck all night.

Tobi Island

On Saturday, Jan. 23, upon waking the sea was serene and I shaved for the first time since our departure. Going up on deck at 7:00 am Tobi Island could already be seen in front. Directly across off the starboard side a ship could be made out likewise heading for Tobi. This was the Nushi Maru of the Kyöhatsu Kaisha which had left Palau after us, bound for Manokuwari (?) in New Guinea after a stop at Tobi. The Kokoho Maru came around the south side of the island and the Nushi Maru the north, the two arriving in front of the village at practically the same time at 9:00 am. Tobi Island was discovered by the British ship Duki in 1710, and after this was redisdovered by the Swallow in 1762 and Lord North in 1871.

During the morning I circled the island guided by Mr. Kubota of Kyöhatsu. As in Sonsol and Merir there is an abundance of Heliopora coerulea, Pocillo-pora sp., Goniastrea sp. and Porites somaliensis upon the reef plateau. Large flat table-like clumps of Porites somaliensis with the upper expanse dead are especially noticeable in the area in front of the village, pictures of this having already appeared in articles by both Mr. Tayama and Mr. Eguchi. In the shadow of these coral clumps there are sea urchins, starfish, sea cucumbers and ikari (Jap. name) sea cucumbers, and there is a great deal of seaweed growing close to shore. The reef plateau on the north shore is at a considerable depth even at the lowest tide so that consequently there is a great abundance of primary coral (?). The shape of the plateau and the island is as in Fig. 28, with the northern part enlarged and with a wide rim and the southern part tapering off and with a narrow coral border. According to the Seaways Bulletin, in the area close to the island there is a current heading towards the southeast, a southeast 3/4 east current off the northeast shore and a south southeast current off the southwest shore, all of which are said to have a speed of one to three knots. With this in view, the assault of the ocean currents has influenced the development of the atoll, and ultimately the shape of the whole atoll has assumed a streamlined shape with respect to the current, with the head round and the tail pointed. On the north shore a large number of huge trees have been cast up on the shore. When the Tobi islanders sight driftwood offshore they immediately paddle out in canoes and carve their names on the driftwood with a kaibakku (hand axe) to show their right of ownership and then calmly settle themselves near the tree and begin fishing. The method of fishing is to let down a length of wire with the end bent into a hook and with a leaf which has been soaked in bait and a stone weight fastened on slightly above the hook, and then when the fish is seen to pick at the bait the line is quickly pulled up snagging the fish on the hook. When finished fishing they return pulling the driftwood and use it as lumber. In front of the village in shallow areas of the reef there are large Hippopus hippopus present and these were caught by the islanders to be kept alive for use as food. Tridacna crocea and T. squamosa are other tridacna species which can be seen in abundance. I saw no giant clams (T. gigas) but in former times before the introduction of steel implements the shells used for the blades of kaibakku (hand axes) were undoubtedly Tridacna shells. Walking along the sandy beach there is human excrement here and there and it is perilous walking. As the islanders squat dawn in the ocean to defecate these remain on the sand when the tide goes out.

That night at low tide by the light of the moon I again left with Mr. Kubota and one of the company helpers to observe the reef. Many of the employees of Kyohatsu Kaisha including supervisor Kobayashi Namihide (?) are shell collectors and vie with one another in collecting and admiring beautiful and unusual shells, perhaps thus profiting from the monotonous isolation of the island life. However due to the smallness of the island the Tobi shell stock has suffered a considerable transformation on this account. Since Mr. Kubota was also an enthusiastic collector he happily and untiringly guided me around the reef during the night. Shining the carbide at our feet I was astonished at the truly countless number of spider starfish crawling all over the sand (around 20 per square meter) on the reef plateau now that the tide was finally out. Soft coral swayed in the water between them and blue starfish extended their arms far out. Heading offshore we reached the vicinity of the reef edge, the area around 30 meters back from the edge being of thoroughly hard composition like solid rock and having a slightly higher elevation than the part of the reef close to shore. This phenomenon can also be seen at reef's edge in Merir and Sonsol, and also, in addition to places such as Iwayama Bay in Palau where the coral exists in quiet water not struck by waves, it can be seen on every atoll in places which face the offshore waters. In considering why it is harder and more elevated than the inner part of the reef we must think of some reason why this development only occurs in an environment battered by open sea waves. Darwin has already written of an elevated reef edge covered with Nullipora (?) and Mayor, regarding this phenomenon as being due to calciferous seaweed, refers to it as Lithothamnium ridge.

Observing this elevated reef edge further, great numbers of sea urchins (nagauni--Jap. name) have excavated endless vertical and horizontal grooves on the surface of the rock. Sea urchin holes can also be observed frequently on the Negro head growing on Palau's reef but I was surprised at such a preponderance on the hard area at the edge of the reef. Probably sea urchins exert a great effect in the work of destroying the hard elevated portion of the reef. In con'junction with the advance of the reef plateau as the coral reef develops hard rocks are broken down by sea urchins and perforative bivalves and the crushed sand is then even further pulverized by sand feeders such as sea cucumbers. This is then washed away by the current so that as one portion is dissolved the succession of animals who act in this manner to destroy the reef ultimately perform, the function of creating an atoll lagoon. The destructive force of the powerful waves during typhoons as was observed on Merir Island hurls piles of living pieces of coral up on the reef plateau, but as for the possibility of the reef perishing--since the waves themselves are indeed a necessary condition for the formation of the hard elevated portion of the reef--waves would never perform the function of destroying the reef. The Negro head (nigger head), which in Palau can only be seen in places on the outer reef edge where wind impact is strong, also exists plentifully on the reef plateaus of table atolls in the outlying southwest islands. It can easily be imagine that the reason for this, as Mr. Yamauchi states, is connected to the wind and waves, and I believe the following comments by Mr. Kobayashi Namihide verify this. On one occasion after Mr. Kobayashi's arrival to work on Tobi there was a great typhoon rain, and looking at the ocean the following morning there was a large rock projecting above the surface of the sea where the preceding night there had been nothing. We may surmise that probably the sand beneath a large rock created by the hardening of a dead piece of coral was washed away by the strong currents, and as the rock tilted over losing its balance this one portion came to crop out over empty space.

The population of Tobi Island is 170 persons, and there were four deaths during the preceding year. Apart from this population at present there is a total of around 100 construction workers employed by Nanyo Kyöhatsu in preliminary construction for phosphorus ore mining. Breadfruit trees are fairly scarce on the island many trees with the island name wariappu (south seas apple) and coconut trees are so extensively propagated that the branch government has on occasion issued orders that they be thinned. As there are betel nuts the islanders do not have the custom of mixing these with lime and chewing them. A bonito fishery was originally operated by Nanbö and later continued by Mr. Oba but this is not being carried on at present. In place of using nets the islanders catch miscellaneous fish by standing in a circle en masse on the reef and then closing the circle, kiling the fish with wooden tobikan (wooden spears). In addition as noted in the section on Merir Island, on days when the wind is strong the Tobi islanders also board canoes and launch breadfruit leaf kites (Ill. 34) to catch garfish. In this the tail of the kite is let out for around 30 feet and at the end of this a wad of spider web is bound on with coconut fiber in such a manner that when the tip of the spider web is immersed in the water it opens. When the garfish bites this his teeth become snagged in the spider web and he is pulled from the water. This fishing technique appears to occur in a number of places and according to comments by Mr. Wada Renji (?) in the Celebes a kite is made from chil leaf and bait is attached to the tail of sago palm fibers so that when the garfish bites the fiber ring closes and the fish can be pulled from the water.

Walking through the village the road is clean but some of the islanders’ houses have no floors and only a front and rear entranceway, the interior being very dark and extremely unhygienic. There are many domestic pigs, dogs and chickens. The islanders of Tobi, while possessing western Carolinian culture resemble rather the Malays by nature and their small build and broad noses are said to be strikingly different from the islanders of Yap, Sonsol, Pulo Anna and Merir. These special characteristics are observable at a glance in the long-bodied short-legged Tobi dolls. The islanders give one the impression of having treacherous and cunning dispositions. The women wear simple light shifts but their garments are exceedingly filthy and their smell assails the nostrils. I saw many islanders wearing medallions on their necks, but these they probably deceived from the Catholic padres. The Tobi dolls well known as folk craft articles are at present being manufactured by only two persons, and even they do not make them unless they feel like it. One of them was said to now be sick abed and when I visited the house of the one making them an old man with a lame right leg staggered out with a doll and a kaibakku in one hand, presenting truly a dismal appearance. Slightly in from the shore on the north coast there is a burial ground. There are about fifty white crosses erected inside with upside down beer bottles buried in the earth for a fence. Emerging on the shore I happened to pass an islander and giving him a cigarette had him drop down a coconut (the market price is one box of Golden Bat cigarettes for six coconuts) and resting my back against the roots of a pandanus tree on the sandy beach I took a rest.

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The interior of the island differs from Merir and Sonsol in that the forests have all been cleared and potatoes planted, with roads in every direction. The ancestors of the islanders surely experienced toil and hardship in constructing these potato fields, and the embankments rising up to almost several meters in height around the island and here and there in the interior stand as evidence of the potato field construction. According to Mr. Kobayashi the method by which the islanders made these potato fields was first to dig up the surface soil to a depth of 2-8 inches and temporarily remove it and then dig out the 3-4 layer of soil beneath, finally refilling the excavated area with the surface soil what had first been dug away. The soil which had been removed from the middle layer was left as knolls and it is estimated that the volume of earth is around 500,000 tons. As the ancestors of the islanders executed this major construction at a time when iron tools had not yet been introduced they excavated this immense quantity of earth using pieces of coconut and Tridacna shell, and it can be imagined that their labor was beyond the power of words to describe. Since there are old people presently alive who say they were made to help in the construction while children, it was not so very long ago that this major work was completed. However since already trees of considerable size are growing on top of the knolls of excavated earth which were heaped up, the beginning of the work probably goes back several hundred years. The area of the potato fields is too large for the present island population but according to the islanders there is a tradition that long ago there were around 1000 residents, and in 1901 when Senfft visited the island the population is said to have been an estimated 500-600 persons. The taro potato fields all fall under female ownership and the men do not even know the borders of their own house's fields.

The amount of phosphorus ore underground is calculated at 200,000 tons and the area in which.Kyohatsu will collect this is now part of the potato fields, however the company set aside 12,800 tsubo (4.24 hectares) for the islanders' food supply. These potato fields which were left are the equivalent of 140% of the necessary amount to produce food for 150 islanders. If the 9,500 yen given to the islanders for compensation is paid in cash it will immediately be absorbed by the padres, so that the branch office is considering various beneficial means of applying the money to promote their welfare. At the time of my visit Kyöhatsu's phosphorus ore mining operation was still being set up, with the office, company lodgings, warehouse, drying shed and transport ship for the most part completed and now a canal over the reef 60 feet in width and one foot in depth is being drilled away so that the transport ship can have access during low tide.

When I entered the underbrush on Tobi I seem to have been bitten by mites and was tormented by an itching sensation. The distribution of mites in the outlying southwestern islands according to my experience and the comments of others is as follows:

Sonsol mites present
Fanna inhabited by large mites though it is said that formerly they were not present
Merir not present
Pulo Anna ?
Tobi present
Helen not present

On the evening of the 23rd I was treated to a feast at the Kyöhatsu company lodgings. Kyöhatsu's bath is around 20 square meters and coated with cement, finer than anything in Palau. Water can be used plentifully here since if a well is dug down twenty feet pure water comes out. For the first time in a long while I fell asleep with my arms and legs stretched out on a wide tatami mat. At midnight I heard the cascading sound of a squall on the roof through my slumber. I awoke at 6:20 on the following day of the 24th and as the Kokuyö Maru was blowing its steam whistle offshore and waiting, I changed my clothes in a great hurry and boarded the ship at 6:40 with Mr. Kobayashi returning to Palau also on the same ship. We set sail at 7:10. The ship rocked a great deal as it lurched against a strong wind through the whitecaps.

Helen atoll

We entered Helen atoll's channel at noon of the same day. Helen atoll is an extensive atoll which widens out to a diameter of seven miles east-west and, twelve miles north-south, but only one point on the reef at the northern tip forms an island. As the ship entered the channel the boatswain scaled the foremast and gave warning of rocks while the captain stood on the roof of the bridge and called down orders to the sailors in the steering room. After x minutes we passed through the channel without incident and entered the lagoon. We cruised approximately x hours through the atoll lagoon and at x:x am dropped anchor near the island. Upon entering the atoll the color of the water abruptly changes. A comparison of the water within the atoll with ocean water in terms of color, degree of transparency, density and PH is presented in the following table.

  open sea lagoon
water color 1 3
degree of transparency not measured 16
density 25.47 25.48
pH 8.3 8.3

With regard to color and transparency as well as density and pH, and probably other matters as well, in atolls such as Helen atoll with practically all of the atoll submerged beneath the water and not forming islands, there is little variation inside and outside of the atoll.

Within the lagoon there are almost no waves. Looking out from the top of the foremast the indigo offshore waters surround the atoll, set off by the line of breaking waves which forms a border. A grayish-white sandbar extends out from the south part of the island, which is thickly shaded with green trees and appears small enough to take up in one's hand, and on it can be seen seven driftwood trees lying dark upon the ground. The colors of the reef surpass in beauty those of every other place. An area of brilliant shining light emeral blue enveloped us within a periphery of several miles and within this lay the lagoon filled with water of cobalt blue. The unparalleled beauty of this atoll transfixes one much as did Kokos atoll when Darwin visited it on the Beagle. I was grateful that in coming to Helen atoll I experienced for the first time the spectacle of a perfect atoll. Atolls such as Jaluit in the Marshall Islands are too large and the vista cannot be taken in in its entirety in one view, and in this sense they are completely different. But perhaps this is because when I visited Jaluit unfortunately it rained continually and I only saw the dull leaden-colored water of the lagoon joined to the dark sky, the sky and water merging together in the distance. Going ashore onto the island there is a half-demolished hut on the shore of the lagoon. This was formerly built by Nanbö for the production of marine products but subsequently the western shore was cut away by the seawater year by year and sand accumulation grew on the eastern side so that the spot which was the center of the original island became the western tip of the present island and the hut soon collapsed in the water. The coconut and other trees in the vicinity of the hut have their roots washed by the sea and some have fallen over. Extending a rope to measure the width of the island, we found the length at high tide to be 240 meters and the maximum width only 90 meters. According to the boatswain of the Kokuhö Maru originally the land extended to the south as well with an area about three times that of the present and trees of considerable size grew there. Having seen the island in this aspect on every voyage over five or six years, when the ship called here again after three months 2/3 of the southern part of the island had disappeared and it had assumed its present shape. Even now during low tide a long sandbar is exposed to the south. Perhaps because of the prevailing northeast seasonal winds the southwest side of the island is presently being washed away while a fresh accumulation is occurring on the northeast side, so that in effect the island as a whole is continually moving towards the northeast. The western shore in the process of being cut away is somewhat elevated at around one meter above sea level but the eastern coast where new accumulation continues is low. On the east coast there are approximately 30 coconut palms and Tourneforita argentea (Palauan name rirusu, deirusu) is common. This small forest tree is the first to come ashore on the island and one can see a wall of trees fronting on the sandpiles of glittering white sandy beach growing luxuriantly. These trees are called shioki in the Okinawan language and their wood is used to make the rims of underwater goggles. Perhaps because there are no gomanoki (sesame trees) I did not encounter the small land snails mentioned earlier which were collected on Merir and Tobi. The atoll is not inhabited by horseflies or mites and is very comfortable. It is originally an uninhabited island (there were 13 residents in the survey of 1925) but presently a dried bonito processing plant is being built in the center of the island so that utilizing the live bait produced in the lagoon the Nankyö Suisan and Kibi Suisan companies can operate a bonito fishery. For this purpose there were 17 employees residing on the island. Also, in April, 1938 the Midori Maru drifted ashore on this island having been blown astray by a typhoon, saving the lives of dozens of people.

Many trees, pieces of bamboo and Barringtonia asiatica nuts have been cast up on the sandy beach on the eastern shore. For a long stretch the perimeter of the island is sandy beach and over a considerable area there is not one specimen of primary (?) coral. White corbiculas live in the sand and the crew of the Kokuhö Maru collected these for the evening soup. According to the captain, on voyages in May and October the beach is full of sea bird eggs in the process of hatching and presents an incredibly frenetic scene. Mr. Someki also writes that the shore is so full of chicks and parent birds that they literally fill the earth and sky, a grand spectacle of hundreds of thousands of birds of over ten species. The island also produces sea cucumbers and Takase (?) shellfish abundantly and Nanbo has the harvesting rights on these. The Seaways Bulletin states that seafood is plentiful in the lagoon and that it is the habitat of many sea turtles and hawksbill turtles. That evening we made temporary anchorage within the lagoon and with a cool wind whispering against the mast our thorough enjoyment of the cool, clear weather goes without saying. The crew said that they always suffered from the heat during their brief anchorages here and that such coolness was unusual. Being within the lagoon there was no rolling of the ship and with the window left open I had an enjoyable and peaceful sleep.

On the morning of the 25th a sanpan was let down and I went along with ten-odd crew members going to collect tridacna shells under the direction of the first mate. We disembarked from the sanpan on the reef at the southeast part of the island to gather them. In the vicinity an abundance of Hiliopora, Acropora, Porites, Favia, Goniopora and other corals were growing in addition to black sea cucumbers, tridacna, shagö and hirejako, and countless himeshako were boring holes in the reef. I made a special effort to collect baby tridacna clams but in the end found none. The problem of baby tridacna clams has already been reported upon. Thirty-five tridacna of about two feet in length were gathered in about an hour and as the tide had come in we returned to the ship.

At 2:53 pm we weighed anchor and set sail and at x:x we passed through the channel out into the open sea. As we drew away from the atoll the swells were high and the ship began to pitch and roll freely. We reached Merir at 7:30 am on the 26th and went ashore to rest, and h acing loaded 10 bags of copra aboard we left Merir the same day at 5:20 with the wind increasingly stronger. A rim was put on the dining table to prevent the tableware from slipping off. We reached Sonsol before dawn on the 27th, the wind strong but under clear skies, and soon a full moon which seemed to lie hidden between the waves shown down awesomely on the sea of leaping whitecaps. . . .


1.  Map of Southwest Islands
2.  The Nanyo Boeki Kaisha's Kokuho Maru (200 tons)
3.  Captain Mirai on the bridge of the Kokuho Maru
4.  The Kokuho Maru's islander helmsman
5.  Islanders on the deck of the Kokuho Maru (deck passengers)

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28.  Tobi Island (from Kyohatu Kaisha map)
29.  Tobi Island coast
30.  Tobi Island church
31.  Tobi Islanders
32.  Driftwood on Tobi Island coast (Mr. Kubota on right)
33.  Tobi Island coast
34.  Tobi Island kite made of breadfruit leaf (in possession of marine products section of South Seas Govt)
35.  Knoll and potato fields on interior of Tobi Island
36.  Ship passing through Helen atoll channel
37.  Half demolished Nanyo Kaisan hut on Helen atoll
38.  Fallen trees washed by the lagoon on Helen atoll
39.  Helen atoll, dried bonito factory under construction
40.  Collecting tridacna clams on Helen atoll
41.  The catch of tridacna clams (Helen)