Tahiti to Easter Island

2010 Quest for Paradise Field Report

Peter Zika|November 27, 2010|Field Report

Monday, October 4, 2010 - Tahiti, Society Islands, French Polynesia: Samuel Wallis, an English mariner, is credited as the first westerner to see Tahiti, in 1767. The following year the French arrived, led by Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, on his circumnavigation of the globe. Bougainville, in addition to having one of the most popular tropical flowers named after him, wrote extensively about Tahiti and its people. He described a utopian paradise and innocent, beautiful people who epitomized the "noble savage," influencing the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Our group gathered today on Tahiti, a fitting place to begin our Quest for Paradise. Some of us toured around the island, enjoying the views of the adjacent island of Moorea, the black sand beaches, the surfers, the colorful tropical ornamentals, and the dramatic peaks rising from the interior of the island. We had a pleasant visit at the home of writer James Norman Hall who wrote, with Charles Nordhoff, Mutiny on the Bounty. Another contingent headed uphill on four-wheel-drive safari vehicles, following the Papenoo River drainage up to Mt. Oroheno. The volcanic scenery was splendid, with sun and showers brushing the highest ridges, at least 25 waterfalls visible at a glance on the steep canyonsides, and a gushing river paralleling the road. The guide informed us that up to 30 feet of rain falls in the area annually. After a pleasant picnic lunch, we attempted to drive even higher on the mountain slopes, in search of the endemic birds like the Tahiti kingfisher and Tahiti reed warbler. Eventually we were forced back by a landslide that completely blocked the narrow road, set off by yesterday's downpour. Returning downhill, we enjoyed many a photographic stop.

Back at the harbor we boarded the Clipper Odyssey in the late afternoon and steamed away for the Tuamotu Islands, some 200 miles distant. Along the way some excellent sightings of the Tahiti petrel were made, before a lovely sunset.

Tuesday, October 5 - Rangiroa Atoll, Tuamotu Islands: Rangiroa Atoll is immense, some 45 miles in length, and is the largest atoll in an island chain, and second largest in the world. The Tuamotu Islands are the most extensive set of atolls on the planet. Polynesian colonists settled these atolls by around 700 A.D. and built stone platforms called marae for their ceremonies. Westerners did not stumble across the islands until 1521, when Ferdinand Magellan was crossing the Pacific on his great circumnavigation.

We arrived mid-morning at the entrance to Rangiroa Atoll, dropping our anchor into sparkling blue water. Many of us spent the morning snorkeling where we admired the abundant butterflyfish, snappers, and occasional dolphins, sharks, and moray eels. Others took a nice trip into the town of Tiputa. They visited the church, school, and especially enjoyed meeting the local children. Even the birders came back to the ship for lunch, after motor troubles delayed their departure for a distant part of the atoll. They eventually reached a pristine and rat-free motu, or sand island, where the Polynesian ground dove is tenuously avoiding extinction. The introduction of rats has been a disaster for these creatures, and only a few hundred have not become rat-food.

In the afternoon a few of us slid back into the water to snorkel from anchored Zodiacs. Others who swam in the morning ventured into town, or caught a bus to the Gauguin Pearl Shop, where we learned about the intricate and labor intensive process that results in black pearls. The shop has hundreds of acres of shellfish dangling from lines, as their gleaming pearls develop. Many of the resulting pearls are imperfect, resulting in high prices for those with perfect shape and color.

In the evening we gathered in the main lounge for the Captain's welcome cocktail party, where we were greeted graciously by Captain Peter Gluschke.

Wednesday, October 6 - Tahanea Atoll: Tahanea is an uninhabited atoll about 30 miles long, with an enclosed lagoon of 338 square miles. In 1947 the Kon-Tiki raft built by Thor Heyerdahl crossed from South America to the Tuamotus, landing on nearby Raroia Atoll. This caused something of a sensation, and it took many years for sensible archeologists to convince the public that exploration and colonization of the Pacific Islands was from west to east, rather than by South American Incan societies arriving from the east. Of course the language, religion, monuments, artifacts, and agricultural evidence all support Polynesian discovery of Oceania, not Incan. Heyerdahl cheated a bit, as the currents and winds on the South American coastline are not favorable for simple rafts departing to the westward, so his Kon-Tiki raft was towed well offshore before it could set out on its adventure.

We arrived at Tahanea Atoll mid-morning and promptly sent the birders off on a long Zodiac ride to search for one of the world's rarest birds, the endangered Tuamotu sandpiper. They found it on a lovely motu, along with three species of nesting boobies, in an idyllic and rat-free setting. A large group of us went snorkeling, where the coral diversity was lovely and fish were abundant. Three species of sharks were seen, as well as a large Napoleon wrasse. Those who felt adventurous did some drift snorkeling and had quite a nice ride on the tide. Others landed on one of the islands and explored the coral beach. They found a small lagoon with wriggly moray eels poking around in the caverns and crevices. Bristle-thighed curlews and wandering tattlers were occasional on the shore and noddies took a break from their fishing activities for a closer look. Among the wind-pruned scrub were the strange orange tangles of the parasitic vine called devil's guts.

In the afternoon several reef tours were conducted with the glass bottom boat. By then the tide had started to drop, and the current became rather strong, emptying the enormous lagoon within the atoll. After viewing the sunset from the pool deck, we heard from our sharp lecture team at the first recap of the voyage, and then enjoyed dinner as the ship continued its southern traverse of the Tuamoto Islands.

Thursday, October 7 - Hikueru: Today we went ashore on the northern tip of Hikueru Atoll, which was the backdrop for Armstrong Sperry’s novel Call it Courage, which won a Newbery Medal in 1941. The atoll is about nine miles long and ringed by numerous small motus that total about 15 square miles of surface area. The town is small with fewer than 100 inhabitants. We started our visit with some guitar music and festive leis, gently placed around our necks by the welcoming committee. We then split up for walks in different directions. Some sauntered into town, visiting the church which was damaged by a recent hurricane and stopped in the tiny store. Others meandered around looking for shoreline critters and admiring the passing tattlers and terns. Two dogs from town were seen working together to catch a triggerfish in the shallows. Others went for a walk on the northwest side of the island, inspecting the vegetation which included the unusual noni, or Indian mulberry. The compound fruits are white and smelly when ripe, and are pressed to make a foul-tasting extract that is often sold as a modern snake oil. Later we all gathered near the wharf, where the locals treated us to fresh chilled coconuts, cakes, and other baked treats. After a brief shower, we headed back to the ship for snorkeling or a glass bottom boat tour. The water held lovely corals and fascinating fish. Just as we were winding down our outing, a fast-moving humpback whale passed by.

After lunch we heard a talk by Edmundo Edwards on The Origins of the Polynesians and Their Culture. This led to a gourmet ice cream social, which was in turn followed by a lecture on birds by Jonathan Rossouw titled Sexy Tails and Swollen Pouches: The Fascinating Lives of Seabirds.

Friday, October 8 - Nukutavake Island: The Tuamotu Islands remained under the political influence of Tahiti for many years, despite the inroads of missionaries and Europeans. Finally King Pomare V of Tahiti was forced to abdicate, and France annexed the region, declaring it an overseas territory. Its economy was once based on dried coconut—copra—as well as mother-of-pearl. Coconut is no longer a major trade item, and the lustrous shells have been replaced by plastic. These days vacationers and black pearl production stimulate the local economy.

Our arrival was quite an event for the inhabitants of this three mile long island. They greeted us at the small concrete dock and played guitar music. A group of children also sang for us, led by the schoolteacher. After the music, the expedition staff sneaked some ice cream to the landing, and treated the children to ice cream cones. Then we split up and investigated the town and its surroundings. Some of us explored the tide pools in the raised reef shoreline finding gobis, crabs, and reef egrets. Others poked into stores and churches and town streets, and marveled at the new buildings and concrete roads in excellent repair. Birders and botanists headed inland to the north shore of the island where a 3,000 foot concrete runway receives a few planes a week. We visited an ingenious oven, made of concrete, grills, and recycled metal barrels, which is used to dry fish as well as coconut meat.

Mid-day featured a scrumptious grilled lunch on the pool deck, then the ship repositioned near a point to the west for snorkeling. Just as we had everything set up, the swell and current deteriorated, so we shifted the boats back near town and got out in the water and glass bottom boat in mid-afternoon. Although the sea was deep, the finned creatures were fascinating, and included a number of brilliant yellow hawkfish. As we concluded our aquatics, the exciting alert was radioed that a humpback whale was breaching off-shore. All our crafts raced in that direction and we all caught sight of the whale and enjoyed a nice sunset from our small craft.

Saturday, October 9 - Maturei Vavao Atoll: Very calm seas and bright sun greeted us this morning. We heard excellent lectures from our staff, including Peter Zika on Island Biogeography and Jack Grove on Fishes of Polynesia Part II. At mid-day we pulled into the Acteon Group in the southern Tuamotus. Pedro Fernandez de Quiros was the first Western mariner to spot Maturei Vavao, in 1605, which he described as "four islands crowned by coconut palms." Of course when the first Polynesians arrived, there were no coconuts at all, but they planted plenty of them.

A scouting Zodiac quickly determined that we would be unable to make a landing over the fringing reef, but snorkeling buoys were set out. Soon we were enjoying the excellent visibility and flame angelfish, spotted eagle rays, and black-tipped reef sharks. The coconut-lined coast was a short distance away, pounded by thundering waves. We continued on our way in late afternoon, passing a scenic series of small islands in the group. The birders were delighted to spot a few Murphy's petrels.

Sunday, October 10 - Mangareva, Gambier Islands: Again we had calm seas as we glided into our anchorage near the town of Rikitea. Some of our party boarded Zodiacs to look for avifauna. They had a bit of rough weather, salt spray, and rain, but were rewarded with exciting views of Christmas and tropical shearwaters nesting in burrows.

Most of us went into town and walked around, seeing several churches, black pearls for sale, and a scattering of chickens and goats. Many homes boasted lovely ornamental plants and we photographed spider orchids, hibiscus, litchi, shell ginger, banana, papaya, fern-leaf aralia, and a host of other tropical beauties. Up on the middle slopes of Mt. Duff we saw the grave of the last regional king, and further along an abandoned nunnery, the Convent du Rouru. Nearby were some vistas of the coral below and volcanic summit above. Several butterflies were seen, and white terns were nesting on large tree branches, watching us walk by with impossibly large black eyes. The long walkers decided to try a descent to the beach on Chemin des 12 Apotres, the Trail of 12 Apostles. They made it back to the landing just in time for the last Zodiac at noon, with stories of their interesting venture along the beach.

Our return to the ship for lunch featured an excellent Indian curry. Some of us ventured back on shore to purchase black pearls, others headed out to the snorkel site. When the Clipper Odyssey set out in the afternoon, the sea began to build and we found there was much more motion in the ocean. This did not deter the birders and from the back deck they were delighted to find the very rare Polynesian storm-petrel, which likely nests on one of the nearby islands that is still rat-free.

Monday, October 11 - Oeno Island, Pitcairn Islands, United Kingdom dependency: We chugged along with a stabilizer out, at ten and a half knots, into a bounding sea. We were on a bearing to take us to the most westerly of the Pitcairn Island group, called Oeno (Oh - n - know). Along the way we crossed south of the Tropic of Capricorn, into temperate waters. Oeno was discovered by Western mariners in 1819, when Captain James Henderson arrived on the Hercules, operated by the British East India Company. Of course, it had long been known to Polynesian explorers from Mangareva. Though they did not establish long-lasting settlements, they did manage to leave behind the Polynesian rat, to the detriment of all nesting birds. The dry land of the two larger and three smaller islands of the atoll adds up to a mere 170 acres, with its highest elevation less than 16 feet. The atoll is hazardous in a storm and in 1858 a clipper ship, the Wild Wave, wrecked on the reef, followed by the Bowdon in 1893.

As the weather calmed and we approached the island, with its brilliant blue shoals, our excitement grew. This island is rarely visited, with no easy landing point, no infrastructure, no airstrip, dwellings, or dock. In 1979 conservationists eradicated the introduced Polynesian rat and as a result nesting seabirds are now widespread. As we penetrated into the interior we found Murphy's petrel chicks, lots of boobies, white terns, and frigatebirds among the heliotrope trees and bay cedar. With some regret, as the sun was setting, we bade farewell to the lovely white sand beaches and fringing coral reef at Oeno Atoll.

Tuesday, October 12 - Pitcairn Island: At dawn we approached the volcanic slopes of Pitcairn Island, famed home of the mutineers of the Bounty. The mutiny took place in 1789, and the mutineers arrived at Pitcairn on January 15, 1790, led by Master's Mate Fletcher Christian, and burned the Bounty to hide their tracks. We were able to admire some artifacts salvaged from the wreck, including many copper nails, the ship's bell, a cannon, and the anchor. Much of this was on display in the small museum, or on the street corners of the central village of Adamstown. There the descendants of the Bounty greeted us, gave us an excellent lunch (the fish & chips were a favorite), and took us on an exhilarating scenic tour of the island. Many of us walked on the trails, but ATV rides were quite popular as a way to avoid the steep muddy slopes. Some of the highlights were the friendly people, the cemetery, the highest point on the island, and sweeping views from near the abandoned radio station. Ship Landing Point was a nice overlook which provided views of the settlement and harbor. As we walked around, every now and then we saw a small brown and white land bird, the endemic Pitcairn reed warbler, snatching insects from tree branches.

At the end of the day we had an invigorating Zodiac ride back to the ship in rising swell. Everyone got safely back on board, and we embarked on a circumnavigation of Pitcairn, with a number of the locals on board to enjoy the ride. We had a great time chatting with them before one of the traditional long boats picked them up from the gangway.

Wednesday, October 13 - Henderson Island: The day dawned lovely and sunny for our visit to Henderson Island, a World Heritage Site. Our Zodiacs navigated through a narrow channel in the fringing reef and landed on the beach. Jack led us on a “survival of the fittest” hike up the cliffs to see the dense low forest of the interior, which harbors ten endemic vascular plants.

Jonathan took the birders into the forest, exploring under the ferns and pandanus, seeking the tiny Henderson Island crake. This diminutive black rail has bright red legs, and has lost the ability to fly. It resembles the spotless crake, a dark rail that flies quite well, and is widespread across the Pacific. Wildlife enthusiasts among our landing party were quite pleased to see other endemics, including a black butterfly, a spectacular endemic parrot (Stephen's lorikeet), Henderson fruit dove, and Henderson reed warbler. These species are surviving due to the extensive and intact forest vegetation, and the rough nature of the terrain. It was a real treat to have the morning to explore its rocks and sand and scrub. We all enjoyed the nesting boobies, confiding white terns, gnarly pandanus, and breadfruit thickets.

In the afternoon we continued east, and listened to a special presentation by Nick and Nancy Hall-Rutgers where they shared anecdotes from their long and fascinating lives. Later Rich Pagen explained reef life in his lecture: Drama Like Your Favorite Soap Opera: Competition, Adaptation and Deception on the Reef. On deck several species of pelagic birds winged by, including the phoenix, herald, Henderson, and Murphy's petrels.

Thursday, October 14 - Ducie Atoll: Extreme isolation and lack of visitors has been a boon to the wildlife on Ducie, as was the removal of introduced rats in 1997. Seabirds were everywhere! Red-tailed tropicbirds nested on the ground under the heliotrope trees with black and white checkered chicks. Angelic white terns tended to their eggs laid without a nest on bare branches. All along the trail and shoreline were Murphy's petrels which allowed us to walk past without too much squawking. The chicks were quite fluffy until the rain showers caught up with them, and they remained somewhat bedraggled for the balance of the day. Masked boobies stood like sentinels along the beaches, inspecting us as we passed. On the shoreline parrotfish and surgeonfish were visible in the pools. Shells were common among the coral bits and the waters of the lagoon were a tropical aquamarine. After a delightful and bird-filled morning, we returned to the ship for lunch.

Snorkeling and glass bottom boating were on the afternoon schedule. Lots of healthy corals, a shark and a large brown octopus were among the highlights. Others continued to beachcomb and found a second species of flowering plant on the island (nunanuna), which was a new record for flora.

Friday - Sunday, October 15 - 17 - At Sea: Our time at sea was filled with a range of educational and more lighthearted activities. Our lecture team enlightened us upon subjects such as botany, birds, Polynesian religion and culture (including the enigmatic stone statues of Easter Island), sharks, biodiversity, and marine ecosystems. We also managed a little bit of fun with an ice cream social, a Polynesian-themed cocktail party, a colorful crew talent show, a rousing game of the Liar’s Club, a friendly trivia challenge between the US and UK passengers, and a lovely farewell dinner gala.

Monday, October 18 - Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Chile: Today Edmundo, our archaeologist and historian, briefed us on the human history of Rapa Nui to prepare us for our visit. We had learned in his lectures that the island was first discovered some 1200 years ago by Polynesian seafarers. Their oral tradition tells that they left their home islands to the west because of overpopulation and established a settlement about 1100 years ago on the white sands of Anakena Beach on the north side of Easter Island. As they farmed and fished around the island, they established a culture that eventually lost touch with other Polynesian Islands. They ventured to the east and reached the coast of South America, returning with the sweet potato, which became a major food plant on farms of Rapa Nui. Sustained by sweet potatoes, as well as Polynesian staples like taro, arrowroot, and yams, Easter Island eventually supported a population of between 15,000 and 25,000. Europeans first became aware of the volcanic island when a Dutchman, Jacob Roggeveen, found it on Easter Day in 1722. Diseases, introduced by subsequent sailors, decimated the native population and by the time James Cook visited in 1774, earthquakes had toppled some of the famous towering stone statues.

Our first stop was the magnificent stone quarry on the slopes of Rano Raraku volcano which was the source of most statues on the island. The exact technique used to move the goliaths is still not known, but perhaps, like other Polynesians cultures, they used logs as tracks, sleds, and rollers. Overhead red-tailed tropicbirds barked, and swung their red feathers back and forth like pendulums, as they courted over the cliffs.

Our next stop was Hotuiti Bay, site of a devastating tsunami in 1960, created by a magnitude 9.6 earthquake in Chile, the largest earthquake ever measured. On the east coast of Easter Island a 30 foot wall of water crashed inland, scattering the altar stones and moai. An immense reconstruction project at Ahu Tongariki has resurrected the giant stone statues, one weighing 80 tons, at the site of the largest altar ever constructed on the island.

We moved to the north shore of Rapa Nui for lunch at lovely Anakena Beach. Island treats like taro, sweet potato, papaya, and grilled meats were a welcome repast, after tramping the trails through the enigmatic statues all morning. Then we were off to the southwestern corner of the island, at Rano Kau volcano and caldera. The bottom of the crater contains a lake with mats of floating sedges. The steep crater rim gave us a wonderful view of the three small offshore islands where masked boobies nest: Motu Kao Kao (Pinnacle Island), Motu Iti (Little Island), and Motu Nui (the Big Island). We explored the paths around the stone houses, either circular or boat-shaped, a part of the Birdman Cult. We returned to the ship while the light was good and we relaxed, packed, and enjoyed Mike Murphy's photographic recap of the voyage.

Tuesday, October 19 - Rapa Nui / Santiago: We disembarked the Clipper Odyssey after breakfast, and said goodbye to our home of the last two weeks, with all our new friends and the superb crew. In the harbor, we got glimpses of green turtles by the wharf, and some endemic Easter Island butterflyfish were seen in the shallows. Our first stop was the site of Ahu Tahai. Here the slanted altars held statuary on the volcanic shore, with nice views to seaward of the Clipper Odyssey. One of the statues had a reconstructed eye and a red topknot. Those who felt like exploring entered some of the boat-shaped stone houses. As the morning progressed we moved on to Vinapu, site of ancient crematoriums. The stony ground had many teeth and bone fragments, pointed out by our guide Claudio Cristino. The stonework of the altars here showed an interesting progression, from early somewhat loose-fitting volcanic pieces, to later altars with exquisitely-fitted precision placement of the rocks. Over a few hundred years the Easter Island masons had developed amazing skills to move and fit the immense stones that were assembled here. Tropical milkweed was common here, as was guava, and a couple of Chilean tinamous were seen in the brush near the roadside. After Vinapu, we went into town for some browsing, shopping, and a lunch featuring superb ceviche, before heading to the airport and our flight to Santiago, and home. The delayed flight to Santiago gave a number of us an unscheduled and unexpected day in Santiago, giving us the opportunity to explore the museums and shopping districts in town.

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