The Kon-Tiki Expidition & Seafood

The Kon-Tiki Expidition & Seafood

While back at home in Maryland during autumn, I spent some time browsing the Friends of the Public Library Used Bookstore.  I found a small section of books about sailing.  I was hoping to find some books that would make a good Christmas present for Pete.  I found a few, including one small novel sized book called The Kon-Tiki Expedition.  The few sentences on the back cover introduced a true story about six men who wanted to connect back to traditional sailing and boat building methods and took a trip across the Pacific.  I knew Pete would be interested in this kind of story so I added it to the basket and brought it back to Guam for Christmas. 


We both read the book during while sailing or in Yap.  Pete read it first and insisted I should squeeze it into my to-read pile while we were still sailing.  I am so glad I did!

The author, Thor Heyerdahl, had spent a few years living in French Polynesia. After discovery of many anthropological and linguistic similarities between Polynesian islands and ancient South American Indian artifacts he starts to believe that the south Pacific islands were populated by people from South America, not from Malay regions, as was believed at the time.  When he tries to propose his ideas to other historians and anthropologists he is rejected outright.  Completely shut down.  His friend explains why…

“They’re specialists, the whole lot of them, and they don’t believe in a method of work which cuts into every special branch from botany to archaeology.  They limit their own scope to be able to dig in the depths for details with more concentration.  Modern research demands that every special branch shall dig in its own hole.  It’s not usual for anyone to sort out what comes up out of the holes and try to put it together”. 

The scientists he speaks with claim it would be impossible for the rafts indigenous to the South American coastal regions in Peru and Ecuador to ever make it  across  thousands of miles of Pacific sea.  But Thor is convinced by the evidence and determined to prove his colleagues wrong.  He is able to find blueprints and images of the traditional rafts.  He assembles a crew and finds funding for a four month expedition aboard a balsa wood flat raft, which the crew would build themselves, leaving from Peru and heading for French Polynesia.

This was a great story to read aboard.  During our ten day trip back we had some low points.  The wind would stop and much of the time we were not able to or were refraining from using the engine.  If the wind and engine refused to cooperate at the same time, we would bob and bounce around without any control over how and in what direction.  We would be carried back over our most recent progress with the current.  This was discouraging.  But reading Kon-Tiki made it less frustrating.  Ten days isn’t really a big deal, I thought.  I felt a little more patient.  Even if it took us thirty days, it would be fine as long as we eventually got there.

It was also a good ego check.  Pete and I worked hard on fixing and provisioning the boat as well as preparing ourselves emotionally, mentally, and physically for this trip.  Now we were finally doing it!  We were great adventurers!  Except, now, compared to the six aboard the Kon-Tiki who were…

  1. Sailing into waters that at the time (1947) had no international shipping routes and thus were completely alone their whole trip
  2. Aboard a ship much more exposed to the elements
  3. Had no satellite phone or GPS or chart plotter (though they did have two wireless radio experts aboard, checking in with radio fans as often as possible)
  4. Had no engine
  5. And limited steering ability
  6. And no ability to turn around and sail upwind

Compared to them, what we were doing was child’s play.  Boring.  We are so not adventurous.  Ego?  Uncheck.  Probably for the best.  I don’t think the sea likes a competing ego very much.

The nature of a flat ocean raft is that you and your vessel are truly in the elements, not resting above them as you might on a bigger vessel or ship.  The author describes that in high seas water would seep in and out again through the floor logs and pour over the aft deck in waves, leaving the steersmen in water up to their ankles at minimum and at highest their waist.  The logs were bound together with hemp rope but would shift up and down individually with the bumps and waves (this was advantageous in terms of stability of the vessel but not in terms of getting around).  So there was no totally flat, stationary surface for sleeping. I imagine walking across deck as something like walking across a fun house floor with its rotating and sliding tiles.  The Kon-Tiki did have a cabin made from bamboo with leafy palm roof amidships.  The cabin provided storage for equipment and rations and sanctuary from the elements, at least from the wind and sun.  It took the crew 96 days to get first sight of land and 101 days before they were washed violently onto Raoria reef surrounding a chain of islands and finally walked on Polynesian soil.  Harsh conditions aside, the author describes that the crew adjusted to their new surroundings and challenges within a matter of days.  Then all that was left (after exhausting heavy seas) was plenty of time to observe their surroundings and entertain themselves with taking weather readings, determining their location, reading books, watching their parrot do acrobatics around the cabin, connect with people as far away as Los Angeles via wireless, and fishing.


A small model of the Kon-Tiki raft

A small model of the Kon-Tiki raft


The explorer (ie dominator, hunter, captivator) zeitgeist of the 1940’s rang true through the description of Explorers Club in NYC, filled with stuffed polar bears and large cats (the club is still in existence, but with modern mission of scientific exploration and environmental protection).  I cringe (but with understanding of historical and cultural context) as I read the account of the Kon-Tiki harpooning of an humongous, unidentified sea monster. The creature turns out to be a peaceful krill-loving whale shark, the largest fish in the sea.  A gentle giant that I fell in love with first at the Okinawa Aquarium and then swimming with them in the wild in Donsol in The Philippines.


One of the whale sharks we had an encouter with in donsol.  They are beautiful, slow moving,  plankton eating giants.  And I love them.

One of the whale sharks we had an encounter with in Donsol, Philippines. They are beautiful, slow moving, plankton eating giants. And I love them.

Imagine! A whale shark swimming all around your boat for a few hours. I would be a very happy sailor!  We saw a few dolphins on two occasions and caught one mahi during our trip.  Every night we would watch the mini firework show of bioluminescent plankton explode with each crash of our wake’s waves.  We saw a few birds.  But other than that, we didn’t see other sea life.  Reading the descriptions of the life that the Kon-Tiki guys were seeing left me feeling really cheated.


Mahi mahi caught on the second day of the Guam to Yap leg.

Here are a few description of what the Norwegian sailors were seeing everyday alongside their raft….

“Stinging jellyfish as thick as washtubs splashed up and down with the seas alongside the raft, and covered all the ropes with a slippery stinging coating of jelly… we spat and cursed and puled the jellyfish fibres out of our hair….

“Next day we were visited by tunnies, bonitos, and dolphins and when a big flying fish thudded on on board we used it as bait and at once pulled in two large dolphins (dorados, [mahi].  Weighing from 24-30 pounds each.  On steering watch we could see many fish which we did not even know, and one day we came ainto a school of porpoises which seemed quite endless”

“[We] were visited by inquisitive guests who wriggled and waggled about us, and a few of them, such as dolphins and pilot fish, grew so familiar that they accompanied the raft across the sea and kept round us day and night”

“The fight was apparently quite one sided; it consisted of twelve to fifteen big headed, brilliantly colored dolphin [mahi] attaking the turtle’s neck and fins, apparently trying to tire it out… When the turtle saw the raft, it [dove] and made straight for us.”

“And soon the KonTiki began to swarm with stowaways.  They were small pelagic crabs.  As big as a fingernail.”

“We had a different impression, when the great whales came rushing toward us, close to side of the raft… We started when something blew behind us blew hard like a swimming horse, and a big whale came up and stared at us, so close that we saw a shine like a polished shoe down through its blowhole.  It was so unusual to hear real breathing out at sea… We were visisted by whales many times…”

And these are just a few.  The crew even had the luck to have a deep water fish that had never before been observed by scientists flop on deck during the night.  They were preserved the fish in formaldehyde and brought it back with them to the US at the end of the voyage.

The snake mackerel had never been observed by scientists before one flopped up on deck aboard the Kon-Tiki.  They are deep sea fish but come closer to surface at night.

The snake mackerel had never been observed by scientists before one flopped up on deck aboard the Kon-Tiki. They are deep sea fish but come closer to surface at night.

We fished 5 of 10 days it took us to get to get back to Guam from Yap and did not catch or see a single fish.  No wonder fishermen are willing to take the risk of fishing illegally in FSM (or other countries’) waters.  I’ve heard that Chinese fishing vessels will go as far as Madagascar to fish because despite the cost of oil they can make up for it by getting the fish so fast in an area where they are still plentiful.

It makes me think back to the coastal towns I stayed in in Fujian and Hainan provinces during the Beijing Olympic Torch Relay.  The restaurant walls are fish tanks of all different sizes filled with many types of fish and shellfish.  I had a nice idea in my head that because we were by the sea the fish was coming from someplace nearby.  I was probably wrong.

The commercial fishing thing made me think of a conversation I had not too long ago with two biologist, marine-loving friends.  Neither of them will eat commercially caught fish, but both  said they would eat a fish we caught off the back of Absolute because it was a sustainable fishing method, we would eat it right away, and it there would be very little if not any waste.   Since talking with them I’ve learned a little more about the byproducts of commercial fishing (dead sea turtles, sharks, rays that aren’t even being caught intentionally but die in nets or on deck), the wasted fish that will go bad before going to market, in market, or in the fridge, and areas that are already “fished out”.  Could the lack of  marine life around us during ten days at sea be due to non-sustainable fishing practices (or ocean acidification, rising sea level temperatures, global warming )? While still out on the water, the thought of our dying, overfished oceans got me kind of upset and a bit angry.  I would have to find some more about this…

Well, after talking about it with another marine lover we determined that it was probably a mix of things.  Our location probably had something to do with the difference.  The current upwelling is stronger in the Eastern Pacific and thus, might have more marine life.  However, population growth and change in fishing practices since 1947 has probably had a drastic effect on sea life in the Western Pacific as well as the Eastern.  And I am sure that if we had done the sail to Yap and back 60 years ago we would’ve been witness to much more sea life.

I used to refrain from eating meat and only eat fish, mostly because I felt healthier and happier after meatless meals, but also because I thought of marine life as a renewable resource.  The ocean certainly seemed endless while floating about in the middle of it, but its resources are also exhaustible.  Maybe I will be reconsidering my dietary environmental impact again.

If you are interested in learning more about sustainable and non-sustainable fishing practices and how to make environmentally healthy decisions about seafood you eat here are some great resources…

National Geographic Encyclopedia Entry on Sustainable Fishing

Monterey Bay Aquarium Pocket Guides to Sustainable Seafood based on your geographic location within the US (Hawaii is the closest they have to Guam)

Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch page on Ocean Issues 

Monterey Bay Aquarium State of Seafood Report Second Edition updated in 2011 (All three links from Monterey Bay Aquarium are great!  They really have done a great job of gathering this information and making it accessible).

Earth Easy’s Summary and Seafood Tips


NPR’s All Things Considered Story: Is Sustainable-Labeled Seafood Really Sustainable

If you know of other resources please share in a comment!

Interestingly enough, when looking for pictures of the Kon-tiki online I discovered there was a movie made about the expedition produced in 2012.  I had not heard of it!  Clearly, I am not very up on movies.  I’m going blame it on Guam.  It was even nominated for an Oscar.  Here is the trailer… Enjoy!  Or read the book.  It’s fantastic and a quick read.