Editor's note: This is the third in a series following Rep. Sheila Babauta as she travels aboard the Super Emerald on a five-day voyage to Agrigan, Alamagan and Pagan.
SAIPAN – The Super Emerald arrived off the shore of Pagan around 5 a.m. June 3. Rep. Sheila Babauta, who slipped back into seasickness shortly after departing from Agrigan seven hours earlier, remembers lingering outside the bay, killing time before the dawn.
"The captain was waiting for sunlight so we could enter the bay," she explained. Ken Santos, a staffer with the Northern Islands Mayor's Office, sat atop the captain's quarters, his back resting against the outside of the windshield.
"I got out and I sat there with him, and we just entered the bay like that, front-row seats," she remembers. "It was perfect."
Her arrival on Agrigan had been delayed by mechanical issues with the Super Emerald's dinghy combined with shark-infested waters. But docked outside of Pagan, she received a rare blessing to swim to shore.
"I ran off the boat, jumped into the water and snorkeled my way in while they were offloading all the supplies. It was the perfect entrance. I was excited to examine the underwater world of the Pagan bay."
When she reached the beach, she noticed that Pagan's black sand was much finer than that of Agrigan, allowing for a more compact surface and easier walking.
She was quick to meet the four inhabitants – Jordan Ogo, Joe Aldan, Damian Omar and Jamie Hermosollia. Omar and Hermosollia would join her on the Super Emerald, leaving volunteer Aldan and NIMO community worker Jordan Ogo to maintain the island's settlement, including the road leading from the village to the agricultural homestead site.
"Pagan was beautiful," Babauta says. "But we wasted no time playing around. (Northern Islands) Mayor Ben Santos immediately led a team of us to the landing strip. He wanted to discuss transportation to the Northern Islands and barriers that existed."
She added, "We discussed alternatives, possible projects and solutions to the issue. Transportation is essential if we are serious about occupying the Northern Islands. Especially now that residents can apply for agricultural homestead lots."
Pagan's partially destroyed airstrip suffered extensive damage during the island's most recent volcanic eruption in 1981.
"That was the purpose of my trip with the NIMO. As a representative for these islands, it was important to me to observe operations and gather firsthand data to better understand the goals and barriers experienced by residents. I'm grateful the mayor extended the invitation to shadow their team."
Fortunately, even with the limited time she had on Pagan, she was able to see the village and the church – a simple concrete structure with a small altar. Babauta also took a tour of all the federal equipment left behind on Pagan, including satellites and mostly-defunct solar panels.
"I learned so much about Pagan during my short stay. There were old solar panels, battery chargers, even a major cruise ship that docked with tourists just last month. There's so much potential on the island of Pagan, but with that comes increased environmental risk that we must monitor. Right now, we are in no place, financially, to invest millions in the Northern Islands, but we can gather data and make assessments for smarter decisions."
After the inspections, she and the sailors enjoyed a hearty breakfast prepared by Mayor Santos.
"They slaughtered a goat and then the mayor cooked for us," she says. "The mayor and his brothers are great cooks. Imagine if a group of young adults lived on Pagan for the summer to learn these skills, along with environmental education. One day."
She adds that NIMO staff living on Pagan are, for the moment, mostly concerned with general maintenance. The Super Emerald stopped by primarily to pick up workers and three 200-gallon water tanks to be brought to their next stop, Alamagan.
"They loaded these water containers (onto the small dinghy) – the loading and offloading process was strenuous and dangerous. These guys can maneuver anything," Babauta remembers.
"We even transported live animals. There was a calf, two goats, two piglets and a grown pig."
Babauta says she was deeply saddened to leave Pagan. She couldn't help but look backward as the Super Emerald set sail to Alamagan.
"I felt as if my learning experience came to an abrupt halt. I was sad to leave the land, and the people, too," she says.
"I knew not many people have had the privilege of visiting Pagan, so I watched the land as we left, my heart filled with gratitude."
Sophia Perez is a features writer for Marianas Variety.