16 April 2017
Arriving by boat offers a different way of getting to know a place: you have the time to discover it. First the profile, then colors and finally its geology. From far away, the tiny island of Kikai doesn’t reveal all its assets: limestone cliffs, a flat surface, fields of sugar cane, and a climate indicating arrival in the tropics. Anchored off the coast for 2 days, Taranauts had time to observe the island from a distance. 48 hours of waiting before stepping on land, or rather on coral debris. The time required for scientists to perform their sub-aquatic ballet, repeating the same gestures as on each coral reef.
Tara left the main Japanese island heading for Kikaijima © Nicolas Floc’h / Fondation Tara Expéditions
In Japanese, Kikaijima means “the island of pleasure”– just right to stir up the curiosity of a team of sailors! Located between the eastern China Sea and the Pacific, between temperate zone and tropical zone, Kikaijima is quite unusual. Each year the coral plateau constituting this small island rises a little more. Beneath the feet of its 7,600 inhabitants, tectonic plates are discreetly moving.
100,000 years ago Kikaijima was a coral reef like any other: a colony of animals building an oasis of biodiversity below the surface. Then, pushed by telluric* forces for millennia, the reef reached the surface and now rises 214 meters above sea level. No wonder this remote island in the Amani archipelago attracts the attention of geologists. The current speed of elevation is impressive: 2 mm per year — one of the fastest in the world, along with the Caribbean island of Barbados, or the Huon Peninsula in Papua New Guinea
Today life in Kikaijima has nothing to do with the frenzy of large Japanese cities. For the islanders living on these 53 square kilometers of limestone, daily concerns are more important than the geological originalities of the island. Landing on Kikai, you immediately feel the peaceful rhythm of life. Some fishing, some agriculture. Only one big supermarket, with a poster announcing Tara’s arrival. Two years ago a new structure was built on the fishing port — the Coral Reef Institute — conceived by Tsuyoshi Watanabe and Atsuko Yamazaki, whom the Taranauts met at a party organized in their honor at the Institute.
Warm welcome committee for Tara’s arrival at Kikaijima island © Noëlie Pansiot / Fondation Tara Expéditions
Tsuyoshi Watanabe, specialist in paleoclimatology and geology, is a lecturer at Hokkaido University. “After traveling around the world, we realized that people here knew nothing about coral. In general, scientists visit a site, collect a few samples, and take them back to their laboratories. So we decided to establish this institute to share our knowledge. Now the children of Kikaijima are familiar with coral and this makes us feel proud.”
We have to delve into the past, look at the geology of the island or to take an interest in its geography to understand its uniqueness. “The coral shelf here has been through different climatic periods”, explains Tsuyoshi. “By studying it, we can go back in time and better understand the past ecosystem of coral, its palaeo-biodiversity…This could give us valuable information on the future of our environment. Kikaijima is situated on a border between past and present. It’s a unique island!”
*telluric: concerning the Earth
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