Butaritari is wet and green, with around 4m (157in) of rain a year, and its name roughly means 'smell of the sea' in I-Kiribati. It lies in the northern Gilberts, placing it just over the line in the North Pacific. Described as 'the land that Time picked up but dropped', Butaritari is not far from Tarawa but may seem a world away. One of the main features of the island is the fried breadfruit, a different variety from that found elsewhere in Kiribati.

You can get around by canoe to nearby Makin Island via a beautiful passage through the reef. The island is littered with war relics, including downed aircraft. Fierce fighting took place here in 1942 when a group of US Marines slipped in behind Japanese lines in a feint operation designed to draw attention from the main front through the Solomons. Hollywood later immortalised the operation in a film that had little similarity to the real events, appropriately enough called Gung Ho, and starring Ronald Reagan.


The main village, and the biggest town outside of Tarawa, is Butaritari, and it has a population of around 2000. Butaritari is about 100km (62mi) north-west of Tarawa, and you can get there by ship from Betio or Tarawa, or by air from Tarawa.

Location & Geography

Butaritari is one of the larger atolls in the Gilberts chain of Kiribati, located just south of Little Makin at 3 north of the equator. The atoll is roughly 4-sided and nearly 30 km across in the east west direction, and averages about 15 km north to south. The reef is more submerged and broken into several broad channels along the west side. Small islets are found on reef sections between these channels. The atoll reef is continuous but almost without islets along the north side. In the northeast corner, the reef is some 1.75 km across and with only scattered small islet development. Thus, the lagoon of Butaritari is very open to exchange with the ocean. The lagoon is deep and can accommodate large ships, though the entrance passages are relatively narrow.

The south and southeast portion of the atoll comprises a nearly continuous islet, broken only by a single, broad section of interislet reef. These islets are mostly between 0.2 and 0.5 km across, but widen in the areas where the reef changes directions. Mangrove swamps appear well developed in these latter areas as well as all along the southern lagoon shore. Narrow islets is somewhat characteristic of Kiribati atolls running E-W.

Bikati and Bikatieta islets occupy a corner of the reef at the extreme northwest tip of the atoll, bordering what may be a second small lagoon to the north of the main lagoon. Larger Bikati (2 by 0.5 km) harbors a village. The main village is Butaritari, population now probably about 1800 to 2000. This is the largest village outside of Tarawa. The total island population must now be close to 4000.

Travel to/from Butaritari
Ship from Betio, Tarawa. Air from Tarawa several times per week, perhaps including direct links to other islands of the northern Gilberts (Makin, Marakei and Abaiang).

The runway in Butaritari has been extended to the full length of the old WW2 American strip (about 5000 feet?) and a service Tarawa - Butaritari - Majuro operates. [If my memory does not deceive, this is just what the Island Council were clamouring for back in 1969!]. The new airport building is in the old GEIDA soft drink factory (sic transit Peoria mundi! for the Kiwis amongst us). The international schedule is up in the air somewhat.

Canoes can travel from Butaritari to Makin through an artificial reef passage - a beautiful trip. Make sure you stop at Kiebu on the way.