• Through song and dance, the community of Seisia paid tribute to their ancestors who made the the treacherous voyage to the mainland 70 years ago. (NITV)Source: NITV
Seventy years after rising tides forced Torres Strait residents to leave the island of Saibai, the community is thriving in their new home on the tip of mainland Australia.
Ella Archibald-Binge

The Point
13 Sep 2018 - 4:12 PM  UPDATED 13 Sep 2018 - 4:14 PM

Rising sea levels have threatened low-lying islands in the Torres Strait for almost a century.

In January, king tides destroyed homes, contaminated water supplies and breached a $24.5 million sea wall. 

As Torres Strait communities grapple with solutions to combat the rising tides, one group of islanders formed their own solution 70 years ago - making the heart-wrenching decision to leave their island of Saibai, 4 kilometres from Papua New Guinea, in search of a new home on mainland Australia.

"Saibai was very flat and muddy, and we always used to have water problems and threat of malaria and the high sea rise during the monsoon season," says Torres Strait Elder McRose Elu, better known as Aunty Rose.

"I think our forefathers then looked ahead to see what they could do for the betterment of generations to come."

In 1948, a group of islanders - led by Aunty Rose's father, Mugai Elu - sailed more than 160 kilometres over four days on a pearl lugger ship before sighting mainland Australia. 

"They did not have any navigational charts," says Aunty Rose.

"Because they were seafaring people, they were guided by the tides, the currents, the waves, the stars in the sky and the clouds."

Upon their arrival, the Islanders followed cultural protocol and began discussions with the Aboriginal Traditional Owners, who gave their blessing for the families of Saibai to make a new home at what would eventually become known as Seisia. 

'If we left them there, we wouldn't be here'

In 2018, the 300-strong community of Seisia is celebrating its 70th anniversary.

Many descendants of the early pioneers have returned to pay their respects to their forefathers, including Sonia Townson, who travelled from Western Australia.

"It's very emotional," says Ms Townson.

"Our people were a dying race on Saibai – that was the important part for us to move them. Because if we left them there, we wouldn’t be here.

"It’s a blessing to come home to see that it’s growing, but also to have grown here, around young people and coming back and seeing that I come from a very lucky community and very lucky people."

Going forward, Aunty Rose says she wants to continue her father's legacy of welcoming others to Seisia – just as Aboriginal leaders welcomed her people 70 years ago.

"He would always say to us, this is all for you. One day in years and years to come you’ll be able to share this with the people of the world. Invite and accept people, embrace them with your love."

Meanwhile, around 450 people still live on the island of Saibai, which continues to be inundated by rising tides. 

In 2017, federal and state governments funded a $24.5 million sea wall after water began eroding graves at the local cemetery - however this sea wall was breached by king tides in 2018. 

The Queensland government has pledged $20 million over three years, pending matching federal government funding, for additional sea walls on Boigu, Poruma, Warraber, Masig and Iama islands. 

The Point airs Thursdays, 8.30pm on NITV (Ch. 34) or catch up at SBS On Demand. Join the conversation #ThePoint

Sovereignty and lobsters: Torres Strait Islanders battle to own their fisheries
Torres Strait Islanders are pushing for full ownership of the tropical rock lobster catch, but will the federal government's management plan thwart this?