The Gilbert Islands could have been the next Fiji or Tahiti. Fishermen would love the saltwater flats to fly fish for bonefish. Birdwatchers could search the dense pandanus trees for colorful Kuhl’s lorikeets and endemic Christmas Island warblers. Scuba divers could explore more than 200 species of coral, brightly colored reef fish, and wrecks from World War II. Surfers wouldn’t find any competition for huge waves. While beach lovers could claim a different stretch of sand as their own every single day.
Unfortunately, the Gilbert Islands will never have the chance to become the it destination in the Pacific Ocean. Climate change is bringing rising seas. They, in turn, increase the frequency of cyclones and floods. At their highest point, the islands sit just six feet above sea level. So it won’t take long for them to be completely submerged by water. That’s why Anote Tong, the president of Kiribati from 2003-2016, purchased land for Kiribati residents on mountainous Fiji.
The Gilbert Islands, which straddle the equator, have been inhabited by Micronesians for more than 3,000 years. The Spanish, and then the French, started exploring the 420-nautical-mile area in the early 17th century. The British ultimately claimed it as a colony in the early 20th century. But, due to their remoteness, the islands were largely left alone until World War II. In 1941, the Gilbert Islands were attacked on the same day as Pearl Harbor. Fierce fighting ensued between Japan and the United States in what became known as the Gilbert and Marshall Islands Campaign. It was the Americans’ first step in driving Japan back in the Pacific.
The 1970s brought autonomy and then independence to the Gilbert Islands. Its 33 islands have remained quiet and hard to reach in the last 50 years. Farming and fishing dominate the economy. Copra (dried coconut meat used to extract coconut oil) is the major export. While tourism was just beginning to flourish as President Tong began urging residents to migrate. Like the islands themselves, your window to visit the Gilbert Islands is quickly shrinking.