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A Sense of Place with Jennifer Kingsley: Crab Hunting on Makatea

A whole crab, tied up and lying on a kitchen counter

Jennifer Kingsley is a journalist and storyteller who specializes in personal stories from around the world. She is the Field Correspondent for Lindblad Expeditions, a National Geographic Explorer, and an award-winning author who also contributes to the New York Times and National Geographic. She is Canadian. Get Inspired By Photos, Videos, Webinars, Stories, And Exclusive Offers. Sign Up

In this series, she offers perspectives on culture and history based on first-hand reporting experience.

Photography by Eric Guth.

We met Adams Maihota outside his house in the dead of night. A crab hunter, he wore white plastic sandals, board shorts, a tank top, and a cummerbund to hold lengths of twine. He picked a sprig of wild mint and tucked it behind his ear for good luck.

Photographer Eric Guth and I followed Adam’s blazing headlamp into the forest in search of coconut crabs, known locally as kaveu. They are the largest land invertebrate in the world and inhabit a broad range, from the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean to the Pitcairn Islands in the southern Pacific Ocean. Boiled or stir-fried with coconut milk, they are delicious. Since the phosphate mining ended here in 1966, they have become one of Makatea’s largest exports.

Hunters must be extremely careful—coconut crabs have pincer strength that exceeds the biting force of most land predators.

It was ankle-breaking terrain. We negotiated the roots of pandanus trees and never-ending feo, a Polynesian term for the old reef rocks that stick up everywhere. Vegetation slapped our faces and legs, and our skin became slick with sweat.

The traps, which Adams laid earlier that week, consisted of notched coconuts tied to trees with fibers from their own husks. When we reached one, we turned off our lights to approach quietly. Soon, Adams pounced, then stood up with a sky-blue crab pedaling its ten legs in broad circles. Even with its fleshy abdomen curled under the rest of its body, the animal was much longer than the hunter’s hand.

Makatea, part of the Tuamotu Archipelago in French Polynesia, sits in the South Pacific about 150 miles northeast of Tahiti. It’s a small uplifted coral atoll, barely four and a half miles across at its widest point, with steep limestone cliffs that rise as high as 250 feet straight out of the sea.

EricGuth_MTN Makatea-1.jpg
Makatea's incredible limestone cliffs drop steeply into the turquoise sea.

From 1908 until 1966, Makatea was home to the largest industrial project in French Polynesia: Eleven million tons of phosphate-rich sand were dug out and exported for agriculture, pharmaceuticals and munitions. When the mining ceased, the population fell from around 3,000 to less than 100. Today, there are about 80 full-time residents. Most of them live in the central part of the island, close to the ruins of the old mining town, which is now rotting into the jungle.

One-third of Makatea consists of a maze of more than a million deep, circular holes, known as the extraction zone—a legacy of the mining operations. Crossing into that area, especially at night, when coconut crabs are active, can be deadly. Many of the holes are over 100 feet deep, and the rock ledges between them are narrow. Still, some hunters do it anyway, intent on reaching the rich crab habitat on the other side.

An aerial view of Makatea's extraction zone.

One evening before sunset, a hunter named Teiki Ah-scha met us in a notoriously dangerous area. Wearing flip-flops, he trotted around the holes and balanced on their edges. When he hunts across the extraction zone, he comes home in the dark with a sack full of crabs on his back.

There hasn’t been a population study on Makatea, so the crab’s conservation status is unclear—though at night, rattling across the rocks, they seem to be everywhere.

When we catch crabs that aren’t legal—either females or those less than six centimeters across the carapace—Adams lets them go. If the islanders are not careful, he says, the crabs might not be around for future generations. In many places across the Indo-Pacific, the animals have been hunted to the point of local extinction.

Captured coconut crabs feeding on coconuts.

Makatea is at a crossroads. Half a century after the first mining era, there is a pending proposal for more phosphate extraction. Though the island’s mayor and other supporters cite the economic benefits of work and revenue, opponents say that new industrial activity would destroy the island, including its fledgling tourism industry.

“We cannot make her suffer again,” one woman told me, invoking the island as a living being. Still, it’s hard to make a living here. “There is no work,” Adams said, as we stood under the stars and dripped sweat onto the forest floor. He didn’t want to talk about the mine. The previous month, he shipped out 70 coconut crabs for $10 each to his buyers in Tahiti.

We visited Adams’ garden the next morning where the crabs were sequestered in individual boxes to keep them from attacking each other. He was feeding them coconut and water to purge their systems, since, in the wild, they eat all manner of foods, including carrion.

By daylight, their shells were rainbows of purple, white, orange, along with many shades of blue. For now at least—without mining, and while harvests are still sustainable—they seemed perfectly adapted to Makatea, holes and all.

Stay tuned for the next installment of A Sense of Place with Jennifer Kingsley.

Immerse Yourself in the Otherworldly Islands of French Polynesia