The Mentawai Islands of Indonesia are one of the most consistent surfing travel destinations in the world. It’s broad exposure towards the vast, southern Indian Ocean provides these majestic islands with remarkable consistency and quality year round.
Ten tourists arrived in Pedang today to tell their story after 24 hours lost in the Indian Ocean, including an American. According to the Associated Press, the anchored tourist boat was hit by a wall of water smashed them into a neighboring vessel, triggering a fire that quickly ripped through their cabin. “They hit us directly in the side of the boat, piercing a fuel tank,” said Daniel North, the American crew member. “Almost immediately, the captain gave the order to abandon ship and everyone got off the boat.” They clung to surfboards and then climbed the highest trees they could find to await rescue.
After a 7.7-magnitude earthquake and 10-foot tsunami hit this region in Indonesia Monday, killing at least 330 people, relief efforts have arrived to help the wounded, search for the hundreds still missing, and bury the dead.
The tsunami hit the Mentawai Islands, about 149 miles south of Padang, the capital city of West Sumatra, along the same fault line as the 2004 earthquake and tsunami that killed 230,000. Less than a day after the tsunami, a volcano erupted 800 miles to the east, killing more than two dozen people and displacing thousands. No travel alert has been set yet by the US Department of State for Indonesia, though a June alert is in affect for Pacific typhoons until December 1.
The Mentawai Islands are a chain of about seventy islands and islets off the western coast of Sumatra in Indonesia. Siberut (4,030 km²) is the largest of the islands. The other major islands are Sipura, North Pagai (Pagai Utara) and South Pagai (Pagai Selatan). The islands lie approximately 150 km off the Sumatran coast, across the Mentawai Strait. The indigenous inhabitants of the islands are known as the Mentawai people. The Mentawai Islands have become a noted destination for surfing.
Following the Pleistocene glaciation, the Mentawai Islands were separated once more from the Sumatran mainland by rising sea levels. The Mentawai people are estimated to have arrived on the islands somewhere between 2000 and 500 BCE, migrating from the north through Siberut and then moving south to Sipora and the Pagai islands. Their Austronesian language, their customs and habits of life indicated as early as Crisp’s report an origin that was distinct from the nearby coast of Sumatra.
A Mentawai village in 1895.
The Portuguese were aware of the islands early in the 17th century: a map dated 1606 shows Siberut as “Mintaon”. In August 1792 John Crisp, an employee of the British East India Company, visited the Pagai (“Poggy”) islands at his own expense to study the Mentawai people. His account was published in 1799, providing the first details of the Mentawai people in western literature. The Mentawai Islands officially became part of the Dutch East Indies on 10 July 1864, not having been subject to the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824. In 1901 the German Royal Missionary Society established a presence on the south coast of North Pagai island at the invitation of the Dutch colonial authorities. The first missionary was murdered, and it wasn’t until 1915 that the first person was converted, with the program then being extended to other islands.
Mentawai Islanders, picture taken 1930.
After Indonesian independence, Catholic Italian missionaries established a presence in the islands. Post-independence government policies relocated the indigenous population into villages, in contrast to their traditional dispersed house groups (uma), with the aim of promoting “development”. Cultural tourism started to develop in the late 1980s, and when in the mid-1990s world-class waves were discovered by some Australian surfers, surfing tourism started to develop.
The island of Siberut was extensively logged from the 1970s after the government granted logging permits for most of the island. In 1993, the logging concessions were revoked and about half the island was declared a national park. In 2001 logging recommenced after a new logging permit was granted for an area of 500 km².
he Mentawai Islands lie above the Sunda megathrust, a seismically active zone responsible for many great earthquakes. This megathrust runs along the southwestern side of Sumatra island, forming the interface between the Eurasian Plate and Indo-Australian Plate.
Earthquake and tsunami activity has been high since the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake. In 1833, the region was hit with an earthquake, possibly similar in size to the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake; another large earthquake struck in 1797. On October 26, 2010, an earthquake in southern Sumatra led to a deadly tsunami that devastated villages in South and North Pagai.