Below, palm trees line the beach and the shapes of huts, some emitting smoke, stand out against the blinding light of the rising sun.
A team of French researchers steer their motorboat carefully through the reef toward Vanikoro, this fleck of earth that's part of the Solomon Islands, in the South Pacific. They've come here to uncover the island's secrets. "It feels is if we were on an expedition 250 years ago," says Valérie Ballu, 44, a geodesist from Paris. Geodesy is the science of measuring the Earth.
Ballu jumps into the shallow water of a sandbank, then pushes the boat ahead of her. The village on the shore is now showing signs of life. Women in brightly colored skirts appear at the entrances to their huts, babies in their arms. Naked, curious children with frizzy blonde hair run down to the edge of the beach, while men in dugout canoes paddle out to meet their foreign guests.
In less than a stone's throw, two cultures will meet, two different ways of living and thinking. Friendly laughter makes for a good start in easing this initial encounter.
"Momombo wako!" calls Alexandre François, 40, the French group's linguist. He has already lived on the island and studied its languages. The men from Vanikoro recognize him. They call him "the white man from the big island."
These foreign visitors are here because Vanikoro is slowly sinking into the ocean -- or at least that's what they believe. From their boat, the team begins unloading a number of heavy instruments with which they plan to measure the island.
Vanikoro has an area of less than 200 square kilometers (77 square miles), which makes it a bit smaller than Martha's Vineyard. Its 900 residents live without electricity, telephones or regular ferry service. The horizon gives off the impression of standing at the end of the world, and the only way to get away from this place is with a long pirogue, a dugout canoe outfitted with a sail.
The island's inhabitants divide Vanikoro roughly into three tribal areas, and they speak four different languages. Vanikoro lies more than 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) northeast of Australia and, like many of Oceania's islands, was created by volcanic activity, its destiny determined by the rubbing and colliding of continental plates. The researchers from France's National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) plan to spend two days investigating this geological spectacle. More