As the airplane swoops underneath the clouds, you see small, green islands lined with sandy beaches. White-capped waves crashed against the shore. Blue-green water extends farther than your view. It looks like your South Pacific dream come true. There are no exclusive resorts, laid-back beach bars, or welcoming tour guides, though. But there are islands that may no longer exist a decade—or even just a few years—from now.
Tuvalu is one of the smallest, and lowest lying, countries in the world. It’s three reef islands and six coral atolls are spread out over 400 miles halfway between Hawaii and Australia. They sit just west of the International Date Line and just south of the Equator. The islands stayed under the radar until World War II, when the Americans set up a base and the Japanese, subsequently, attacked them. Today, climate change is the most serious threat to this South Pacific paradise.
Nanumea, the country’s northernmost atoll, might be the most beautiful island in the country. The four-square-mile island sits on a coral reef shelf around a turquoise lagoon that’s now a conservation area. Most people live in the main village, also called Nanumea. Three men are carving a canoe. The Gothic-style Lotolelei Church is the tallest church in the South Pacific. After receiving permission to climb the spire, you have an amazing view of the atoll. Dancers are practicing traditional moves at Maneapa, the meeting hall. Two teams are playing te ano, a game similar to volleyball. While others practice Kaumaile, traditional spear fighting.
Outside of the village, Tekoko, a rare freshwater pond, called “the bath,” is surrounded by palms and pandanuses. The old World War II airstrip is long overgrown. The hull of a USS LST-203 from 1943 is grounded in the reef just offshore. While the old remains of airplane wrecks and bombed bunkers are hidden among the palms.
But the best part of Nanumea is the beaches. Fine coral sand, bath-like water, and views of nearby motus. Plus rows of mangroves being planted along the coastline. Hopefully, they’ll be able to protect the small island during storm surges, so this paradise doesn’t completely disappear.