Four islands make up the Pitcairn Island group and we visited – or at least tried to visit – all four in the last few days.
Ducie Island is a small atoll with amazing bird life. The rocky, rubbly circle of an island is only about 1 km from one side to another, but is home to thousands of breeding birds including Murphy’s and Kermandec Petrels, White Terns, Brown and Masked Boobies and Frigate Birds. Landing with our zodiacs on the island was difficult. A coral reef grows right up to the shore of the island and large Pacific swells crash on the reef and then directly up onto the beach in front. We found a narrow gap in the solid wall of coral reef where we could drive the Zodiacs in, riding the back of a breaking wave to land on the dry reef. Once the Zodiac and all its passengers were inside the reef about four people could drag the boat up closer to the rubbly beach for everyone to pile out. Once ashore, we all walked about 70 meters across the atoll to the interior lagoon. There was no sign of sharks in the lagoon, but there were many chicks and eggs all around on the ground, on exposed tree branches and adult birds were soaring above us by the hundreds. You literally had to be careful where you stepped in case there was an egg or chick underfoot. No people have ever lived permanently on Ducie because of the lack of freshwater and shelter on this exposed and poorly vegetated island. I can’t blame them, because I know I was glad to get safely back to the comforts of our ship at the end of our visit.
Henderson Island is a raised coral platform that is sort of square in shape. The entire island is fringed by rocky cliffs that are about 30 meters above sea level, and unfortunately we were not lucky enough to find a safe way to get our small boats onto the beach with passengers, so only a few of the expedition staff members had a chance to land on the island. We were disappointed not to land here because there are four endemic bird species that live on Henderson – endemic meaning they live nowhere else in the world. Among them are the small black Henderson Flightless Rail and the brightly colored Henderson Fruit Dove. The birds are in great danger because rats have been accidentally introduced to the island and they eat the eggs and chicks at such a rate that these endemic birds might soon become extinct. Great effort in the last few years has been put towards trying to get rid of the rats on Henderson Island with helicopters being used to drop poison into the forests. Unfortunately, someone reported seeing a rat on the island back in the spring of this year, and one of our staff members also saw a rat during her short visit to the island, so the eradication efforts have not worked. Because we couldn’t land on Henderson, our Captain decided to circumnavigate the island, which gave us fantastic views of the huge southern swells exploding on the south side. Some of the waves were breaking with such force that the spray was going up and over the tops of the cliffs – over 30 meters in the air or about the height of a nine-story building. It was incredible to watch those big waves rolling in – from perhaps as far away as Antarctica. From Henderson, we sailed on to reach Pitcairn Island by morning.
Pitcairn is legendary for being the refuge sought by mutineers from the Bounty. I won’t attempt to tell the whole story here, but it’s well worth looking up and reading about. In 1790, a little less than half the crew of the ship set adrift the Captain and those loyal to him in a small tender and sailed the Bounty to Tahiti and then on to Pitcairn. They searched for Pitcairn because it was known to be virtually inaccessible to ships of any size and they thought they could be safe and hidden from the rest of the world there. The punishment for mutiny could be a life in prison, or even death, so staying concealed from the rest of the world was critical for the rebellious crew members. The plan essentially worked and nine mutineers, six Polynesian men, twelve Polynesian women and one baby settled on the island. Today, their descendants – officially 49 people – are residents of the island. Two people are not originally from Pitcairn – the police officer and the priest. There are a handful of others working on the island at the moment, mostly from New Zealand, the country with the closest ties to Pitcairn. One lady told me she had just wrapped Christmas presents for 55 people, so that was her population count for the year. Did I mention we were on Pitcairn on Christmas Day? The whole island agreed to work on Christmas Day to take us on tours, sell crafts, and drive 4-wheel ATVs as “taxis” around the island for us. Instead of enjoying their holiday on December 25th, the islanders opted to celebrate Christmas on December 27th, so we felt very honored to be accommodated in such a way.
The island is dramatic on approach with huge towering peaks jutting out at odd angles and massive, steep cliffs dropping to the breaking surf and rocks below. The hillsides are green and lush and tall coconut palms break out of the canopy and fringe the shoreline. There is one very small access point in a place called Bounty Bay. We had to surf in on the back of big waves with our Zodiacs and then hug the concrete seawall to the left inside the very tiny bay so that we wouldn’t be smashed on the shallow rocks to the right. With everyone off the ship – guests and crew – we more than tripled the population of the island. I spent the morning walking to a spot called St. Paul’s Pool to check out a hike we wanted to take guests on in the afternoon. The walk was steep and hot. The red dirt road and punishing humidity took their toll and I found myself feeling light headed towards the top. We took a break for water and food near the highest point of the island, and the views were stunning looking out over the violet Pacific Ocean and the tumbling green peaks of the island. The pool is down at sea level and a natural vertical rock wall separates this calm swimming hole from the violent waves of the ocean. I dove into the cool blue water just about as fast as I could after that grinding hike. Every now and then a wave would break up and over the rock wall and flood the pool with a mini-tsunami. Small reef fish, shrimp and crabs clung to the sides of the pool and rocked around with the breaking waves.
Back in the town square I had a chance to talk with some of the islanders who had set up their tables of crafts and t-shirts for us. Everyone I met was very friendly and excited to have us on their island. It has been a long time since another ship like ours made landing there – perhaps as much as a year ago. One woman I talked to said six ships are scheduled to visit in 2013, so they are looking forward to a little more business and contact with the outside world. We gave the islanders a big box of our used paperback novels from the ship so they could have some new reading material. It must be a challenge to keep yourself entertained out there without stores to go buy the latest movie on DVD, or even a bookstore. Some local kids showed me around a little bit before I had to head back to the ship. They pointed out one of the longboats that the islanders use to come in and out of Bounty Bay. I think the whole population could probably fit in that one giant longboat. The kids also had an old bathtub embedded in the concrete seawall around Bounty Bay that they could swim in. Every time a really big wave flooded up and over the seawall, the tub would be flooded and anyone in it was rolled around in the big round basin laughing and floating like a rubber ducky in the tub.
The final island of the Pitcairn group that we tried to visit is called Oneo and it is another flat atoll. The waves and swell were not in our favor for a second time in four days and we were not able to land on Oneo. I was disappointed because the atoll looked gorgeous. The outer reef is quite a long distance from the outside shores of the atoll, and the shallow lagoon inside that reef looked to be some nice coral heads and gorgeous long sandy beaches dotted with tall shady coconut palms. The Pitcairn Islanders like to go to Oneo on their vacations. They leave boats and water toys like rafts and fishing poles on the island and sometimes store their gear in old refrigerators that they leave on the beach just under the palm trees. We had to ask for special permission to land on Oneo because the Pitcairners protect it as their own special vacation spot, so it’s a shame we didn’t get to land. Ah well, on to the next stop…the Gambier Islands in French Polynesia. More on that later. Hope you’ve enjoyed the photos and the travel log so far.