Tahiti to Easter Island

2014 Tahiti to Easter Island: Marquesas, Tuamotus & Pitcairns Field Report

Peter Zika|December 1, 2014|Field Report

Tuesday & Wednesday, September 30 & October 1, 2014 - Papeete, Tahiti / Embark Caledonian Sky / Rangiroa, Tuamotu Islands: After long flights over the Pacific, we took day rooms at the InterContinental Resort Tahiti for some much-needed rest. Once up, we relished views of the saw-toothed silhouette of the island of Moorea. In Polynesian, the name "Moorea" refers to a yellow lizard found on the island. After brunch, we boarded buses and began our tour of Tahiti. The lush landscape provided us several nice viewpoints, including Point Venus, the site of Captain Cook's astronomical observations of the transit of Venus across the disk of the sun. We also admired the home of James Norman Hall, author of Mutiny on the Bounty, brought to film in 1935. At the Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands, our guides interpreted a number of exhibits explaining the Polynesian culture and natural history. There were handmade canoes, stitched together with coconut fiber and caulked with breadfruit latex, colorful feather capes, striking ferns, mother of pearl fishhooks, and nice maps of the region. We boarded the Caledonian Sky and at dusk we were under way, with briefings and cocktails, before enjoying our first dinner aboard.

The next morning, the sun rose over relatively mild seas as we steamed along the perimeter of Rangiroa. Birders on deck saw a number of spectacled and blue terns, and one Tahiti petrel. After our briefings on Zodiacs and snorkeling, we dropped anchor in the inner lagoon. We had a delightful escort of half a dozen bow-riding bottlenose dolphins. The scuba divers went out for their first dive, finding gray sharks, sea turtles, and oodles of fish. After lunch, we visited the village of Tiputa and saw the infirmary, school, and Catholic church, and found a few pearls for sale. Later, we snorkeled all afternoon—fish were everywhere, including a dozen species of butterflyfish, titan triggerfish, and unicornfish.

Back on board, we settled in for a talk from Jack Grove, called An Introduction to the Fishes of Polynesia. We soon went to clink cocktails and meet our ship’s master, Captain Hakan Admarker, who hosted a welcome dinner.

Thursday & Friday, October 2 & 3 - At Sea / Nuka Hiva Island, Marquesas Islands: Thursday morning we heard from Peter Harrison, who discussed Facts and Figures of Feathered Friends, and revealed which came first, the chicken or the egg. (As birds are a direct descendant of egg-laying dinosaurs and lizards, it was the egg.) This revelation was followed by Peter Zika talking about Rainforests. Lunch was taken by most on the Lido Deck, outdoors with shade, a slight breeze, and good view of the surrounding sea.

In the afternoon we watched a documentary on the South Pacific, followed by an ice cream social in the lounge. Edmundo Edwards gave his presentation on The Settlement of the Pacific and the Culture of the Marquesas Islands. During cocktail hour we heard our first recap and briefing, before retiring to dinner.

A golden sunrise and mild seas awoke us the next morning, as we approached the northern group of the Marquesas Islands, with their dramatic volcanic skylines. On deck occasional noddies and tiny Bulwer's petrels were seen, all nesters on the adjacent archipelago. At mid-morning Giovanna Fasanelli regaled us with a presentation, Sharks: Magnificent and Misunderstood. The broad diversity of the world's sharks is imperiled by the shark fin trade, which is devastating shark populations across all oceans. After a short break, we listened to Jonathan Rossouw discuss Biodiversity and the Bucket List, Polynesia.

After lunch, we dropped anchor off Hatiheu Bay, and crossed to shore in our Zodiacs. After a short ride in the local pickup trucks, or walking, we were at the notable archaeological site, Hikoku'a Tohua, rich in Polynesian history. The extensive courtyards were restored and well maintained, and made a perfect venue for dance performances, with a photogenic backdrop of petroglyphs, handsome forest, and towering volcanic ridges. The birders were delighted to find the four endemic birds so quickly, including the Nuka Hiva pigeon. In a massive banyan tree a white-tailed tropicbird was nesting, and most of us were able to watch its comings and goings. About 100 people live in the small village near the shore, where we stopped in a local restaurant for fresh papaya and a swim before returning to the ship. At dusk we pulled anchor and made way towards the southern group of islands in the Marquesas.

Saturday, October 4 - Hiva Oa Island: The birders left for shore early, discovered a large assemblage of manta rays, and continued on for six miles to the distant island of Tahuata, eventually finding an endemic reed warbler and endangered kingfisher. Most of the rest of us boarded Zodiacs to look for manta rays—we found between 50 and 100 of the massive beasts, flapping and gliding, seemingly flying in looping groups, sieving copepods and other plankton. Those with snorkels and masks had an exhilarating swim in the middle of the mantas' circular foraging routes, with occasional minor collisions where a manta wingtip would lightly brush up against one of us. A little later in the morning we landed at Atuona Village and proceeded to the Calvary Cemetery, where we saw two notable graves. One marked the burial of Paul Gauguin, the famous painter of tropical Pacific scenes and people. The other belonged to the much-loved Belgian singer Jacques Brel. Ornamental plantings among the tombs included bleeding heart or bag flower, and pigeon berry or golden dewdrop. Subsequently we spent a little time in the village, at the museum and courtyards devoted to the memory of Gauguin and Brel. A few of us visited the fireman's fundraiser, before returning to the landing and our ship for lunch.

In the afternoon, we repositioned from the southwest to the northeast coast of Hiva Oa, the second largest island of the Marquesas. We boated into the village of Puamau. Four-wheel drive trucks took us from the town to the immense stone tikis at I'ipona Me'ae. Some of us walked back along the road, and took a swim before returning to the ship; a few scuba divers also explored the coast. Some delectable plants were seen growing around the sites, including starfruit, cacao, Tahitian apple, and breadfruit, as well as the perfume plant, ylang-ylang. Back on board we attended the evening recap, highlighted by Giovanna's remarkable video footage of the feeding manta rays.

Sunday, October 5 - Fatu Hiva: Fatu Hiva translates as "Bay of the Virgins." We disembarked early to take advantage of the cooler morning hours, and went hiking on this sparsely settled side of the island. Some of us climbed to a waterfall for a swim, others sought viewpoints a little lower on the ridges above the bay, and some explored the little town, where there was a church service. For those who wished, Marquesan tattoo artists were available. Some wooden carvings, tapa cloths, and other handicrafts were for sale, and we gathered for a dance performance which re-enacted the flight of the tropicbirds that grace the sea. The snorkelers and divers also managed to get wet in the bay, finding flashy endemic Marquesan butterflyfish. The birders were unable to locate any of the critically endangered monarchs that make their last home on the island, but the cliffs, volcanic spires, streams, and vistas left us all appreciating this valley, one of the world's prettiest natural harbors.

Aiming due south, our ship made its way towards the Tuamotu Islands. We gathered on the top deck for a group photo before lunch. After a movie we heard Edmundo discuss Polynesian Navigation and the Tuamotus Islands. Recap and dinner followed, before we enjoyed a clear evening and brilliant moonlight.

Monday, October 6 - Puka Puka, Tuamotu Islands: Puka Puka atoll is six by three kilometers, elliptical, and has an entrance in its reef on the northern side, where the main town of Te One Mahina is located, with a population of 200. Its inhabitants speak Pukapukan, a Tuamotan language that is most related to Marquesan. Historically, in the northeastern part of the Tuamotus, their trade was primarily with the Marquesas Islands to the north, while in other parts of the vast chain of atolls, the Tuamotan language reflects contact with other, much nearer large islands like Tahiti. Nowadays the residents rely on copra for their living, which is picked up by barge twice a month.

We arrived at Puka Puka during breakfast, and sent the divers out. They reported several sea turtles, gray reef sharks, and a Napoleon wrasse, among many other fish. The snorkelers were entertained by flame angelfish, yellow hawkfish, and skittish mimic surgeonfish, who were colored just like a lemonpeel angelfish. In town we quickly organized a tour of the island's main road, church, and central lagoon by Le Truck, which made four laps of the perimeter. The cerulean waters of the lagoon provided excellent swimming, as well as tasty oysters, which we were served back at the landing, expertly shucked. A few of the oysters had small yellow pearls. In addition to oysters, we were also served breadfruit, coconut, and pastry. Nearby, the beachcombers found the prickly capsules of ironwood, and small sea slugs. Back on board for lunch, we watched a movie and heard Peter Harrison speak on Tropical Seabirds. After dinner we had a moonlit night and steady trade winds.

Tuesday, October 7 - Puka Rua: Puka Rua is a large atoll, with a narrow entrance near the north end of the elliptical fringing reef. We negotiated the surf and landed in the trim, bright town of Marautagaroa, which has a population of about 100. We received fragrant leis, which included basil, frangipani, and crownflower. About a kilometer away we reached a lovely blue central lagoon, where we swam and snorkeled, searching out octopus and parrotfish. Regrouping, the town's children danced for us, and served us fresh coconut milk.

During lunch on board, our ship was an object of curiosity for several inquisitive boobies, who flew quite close overhead. After eating, we all turned to the water—divers found a school of large tuna, and the snorkelers stayed out until dusk. Fish of all sizes were present, with butterfly- and hawkfish well represented. Throughout the day a distant humpback whale kept blowing. After our evening recap and briefing, we dined and then ascended to the Panorama Lounge for a 70s and 80s music revival and dance.

Wednesday, October 8 - Tenararo Atoll / Matureivavao Atoll: These uninhabited islands are largely rat-free, and still support intact habitat for some of the rarest nesting birds of Polynesia. We had an expedition day, attempting to visit them. When we arrived at Tenararo Atoll we found strong winds and a crashing surf. Scouting Zodiacs circled the entire atoll, but could not find safe conditions for a landing. However, five humpback whales were seen near the shore, and one of them breached several times. We soon left the whummpff of the surf behind us, and navigated towards Matureivavaao Atoll. This was a couple hours distant, so en route we listened to a talk by Peter Zika, Orcas, Lions, and Cheetahs, a curious topic for the staff botanist—in fact, the subject matter was Orchids, Liars, and Cheaters. Later in the morning Matureivavao Atoll was on the ship's beam. Weather conditions had deteriorated, with sustained winds of 30 knots, gusting higher, and a swell breaking over the reef. After a short investigation by scout boat, our Expedition Leader and Captain decided to circumnavigate the atoll, providing us with a nice view of the pale blue inner lagoon and many motus that circle its perimeter. We were close enough to see some of the salt-tolerant shoreline vegetation, which included pemphis scrub, heliotrope trees and pandanus, as well as thousands of coconut palms. Great frigatebirds, red-tailed tropicbirds, boobies, and occasional Murphy's petrels zipped by in the wind, all nesting here in rodent-free conditions. On deck, the birders were thrilled to see a couple of bristle-thighed curlews and endangered Tuamotu sandpipers, as well as fruit doves flying between small groves of trees. When we finally turned towards Pitcairn Island, we left behind the roaring surf, whitecaps in the inner lagoon, another humpback whale, and a bird-dominated wilderness.

As the ship continued east, we watched a movie entitled, Easter Island: Mysteries of a Lost World. This was introduced by Annette Kuhlem, who played a role in the production of the film, at the site of her recent excavation of waterworks on Rapa Nui. After tea time, we heard from Jack Grove, who gave his presentation, Anchors and Atolls.

Thursday & Friday, October 9 & 10 - At Sea / Pitcairn, Pitcairn Islands: Our day at sea began with Peter Harrison and our lecture series with a talk on Birds of the Pitcairn Islands; we learned that the four islands of the group have 30 avian species with five endemics. Our next presenter was Mike Murphy, with an illustrated history of diving, called Ruffy Tuffy Deep Sea Divers. After lunch, a movie was introduced by Peter H and Edmundo, The Making of Rapa Nui. Filmed in the 1990s, both Peter and Edmundo appear in the flick, which describes the difficulties encountered in film production on remote Easter Island. Edmundo then gave his presentation on regional religion, Polynesian Beliefs. After recap and a briefing, we enjoyed dinner as we headed into the slowly diminishing swell.

Excitement was high the next morning as we approached Pitcairn Island at dawn. Most of us transferred from Zodiacs into a longboat, which ferried us down the coast to the jetty. We walked or rode ATVs up a steep access road to the village of Adamstown, nibbled our box lunches, and dispersed across the island on foot. Some of us climbed to the top of the island, with expansive views, while others gained the confidence of pale Pitcairn reed warblers, investigated a cave, or scrambled down to St. Paul's Pool to find rock skippers grazing on damp algae just out of the water. In town, the highlights of the day were the school, Adam's grave, the museum, and the Bounty anchor and cannon. But best of all were the people of Pitcairn, so lively and friendly, whether they were giving us a ride on the four-wheel motorcycles, displaying their handicrafts, feeding us bananas, or giving us maps and directions to Miss T, the 65 year-old Galápagos tortoise that loves to eat watermelon and cucumber in its wanderings across the island.

At recap we learned from Edmundo that Pitcairn Island was colonized by Polynesians. Their petroglyphs, stone tools, and morae all suggest a close affinity with parallel artifacts on Easter Island, and thus they are the most probable ancestors of the population that settled on Rapa Nui. Based on similar evidence, the original Polynesian Pitcairners likely originated in the Marquesas. Pitcairn was eventually abandoned by the Polynesians, and was uninhabited when the HMS Bounty arrived with its mutinous crew and Tahitian wives in 1789.

Saturday, October 11 - Henderson: At first light we pulled in next to Henderson Island, the largest of the Pitcairn group, with a surface area of 14 square miles. Some 380 thousand years ago it was uplifted, exposing a flat coralline plateau with an elevation of 108 feet. Thus the Henderson butte, composed of jagged limestone, is a makatea, and entirely different from the volcanic ridges of Pitcairn Island, which is only one sixth the size of Henderson. As we looked out over the island, a humpback whale was seen from the deck. Our landing was in a narrow slot in the limestone, to a slim white beach lined with coconuts. Half of us landed here, gaining fabulous views of the bristle-thighed curlew, a migrant from breeding grounds in Alaska. Others disembarked the ship for a short Zodiac tour of the coast, featuring sea caves, skylights, tame boobies, and blowholes erupting as regularly as Old Faithful. Murphy's and Henderson petrels flew overhead, and white terns were common. After a few hours, our remaining guests landed, while others went diving in the crystalline waters. Many caverns were present underwater, as above, and the divers found one cave full of trevally. On shore, the beachcombers found coral chunks, shells, and ghost crabs. Those that ventured a short distance inland saw Stephen's lorikeets, reed warblers, and Henderson Island fruit doves, endemic birds clinging to their existence due to the depredations of numerous introduced Polynesian rats. Only two people saw the endangered and endemic Henderson rail, however, many saw the little endemic Peperomia along the jagged cliffs, with tiny bur-like seeds, perhaps dispersed by the rail.

After some wrestling with the rubber boats, we got everyone back to the ship for lunch, as we slowly steamed away from Henderson and to the east. In the afternoon we viewed a movie on the South Pacific, and heard from Peter Zika, who discussed plant pollination in his talk on Sex and the Single Flower. Prior to dinner we met in the Panorama Lounge for complimentary cocktails and canapés, and heard from Mike Moore about our plans for the exploration of Ducie Atoll, by snorkel, Zodiac, and on foot.

Sunday - Tuesday, October 12 - 14 - Ducie / At Sea: With strong winds and a persistent swell, our scout boats were unable to find a suitable landing despite two attempts over the course of the morning, and we had to console ourselves with a few laps around the atoll perimeter with the Caledonian Sky. The sandy shores were densely vegetated with heliotrope trees, and everywhere were Murphy's petrels, courting in pairs, zipping low over the waves, and cutting up close to our perch on the rails. In addition, there were many sightings of herald, Kermadec, and Phoenix petrels. Various other seabirds here included handsome white terns, noddies, red-tailed tropicbirds, and great frigatebirds, all swirling over the motus. As we left the shelter of land, Annette introduced us to the culture and history of Easter Island, in her presentation, The Mysterious Island? Popular Ideas about Rapa Nui Revisited.

After a delicious barbeque lunch, we gathered for a movie, before the staff entertained us with, Tales of the South Seas. Following dinner, we continued on our 484 nautical mile voyage towards Easter Island.

With the next two days at sea, we were ready for our lecture series to resume. Jonathan Rossouw began with, Biodiversity and the Bucket List, followed by Jack’s lecture, Biodiversity in the Sea, and Why it Matters. After a break for lunch, we listened to a guest lecture from Professor Paul Ehrlich on Can a Collapse of Global Civilization be Avoided? Finally, Edmundo provided interpretations of Tattooing in Polynesia.

During our evening cocktail, Peter Harrison explained how rat eradication was critical in the Pitcairn Islands. Afterwards Jack, a founding member of the International Birds on Beer Labels Association (IBBLA), presented Susan Orr with a membership certificate and congratulations, for joining this august group of researchers.

The next morning began with Annette discussing Holy Water and Sacred Trees: Landscape Transformation on Easter Island; she was followed by Shirley Metz, who talked about her Journey to the South Pole. In midafternoon we heard a final recap from our Zegrahm Expedition Staff, before Captain Hakan’s farewell cocktails and dinner. Lastly, we enjoyed a slideshow to recap our entire voyage, prepared by Cynthia Gneiser.

Wednesday, October 15 - Easter Island, Chile: Dawn found us at anchor on the leeward side of Easter Island. Customs officials cleared us into Chile, and we boarded Zodiacs for the short trip into Hangaroa harbor, crammed full of fishing boats. Here a few green turtles were swimming around, along with the endemic species of butterflyfish. Boarding our caravan of small vehicles, we proceeded under sunny skies to the central quarry at Rano Raraku. We walked in through the iconic stone faces, and ascended to the quarry, where numerous unfinished works remain in place. Red-tailed tropicbirds were nesting several feet from the trail, and called loudly as they flew around us. Common diuca-finches munched the seeds of molasses-grass, and a few of us saw the elusive Chilean tinamou. The views were superb, looking down the coast towards our next stop, the restored line of statues at Ahu Tongariki. It was a short drive to Tongariki, where we walked down the length of the courtyard, admiring the massive monoliths and the adjacent sea. We marveled at the extensive reconstruction of the site, which was toppled by a tsunami in the 1960s. We continued on to the shade of tents set up at Anakena Beach, under rows of coconut palms. We ate our barbeque lunch with gusto, and a few of us went for a swim under the gaze of several more reconstructed stone men, wearing distinctive red scoria caps.

In the afternoon we visited the dramatic volcanic cone of Rano Kau. From the upper slopes we had excellent views of the small offshore islands where nesting sooty terns inspired the annual "birdman" cult and competition, which ascended into prominence as the construction of stone statues ceased on Rapa Nui, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The last birdman ceremony took place around 1867. On the rim of the volcano we walked the loop trail around the rock village of Orongo, before returning to town for some shopping and a Zodiac ferry to the Caledonian Sky, for our last dinner on board.

Thursday, October 16 - Easter Island / Disembark / Santiago: After an early departure on Zodiacs, we found ourselves in town once more, with its colorful blossoms of Spanish bayonet. The town of Hangaroa is an interesting mix of hothouse and temperate vegetation, all introduced in gardens and as windbreaks. From the tropics are mangoes, coconuts, banana, avocado, guava, flame tree, and hibiscus. Yet many cool weather plants grow alongside, such as loquat, China-berry, white clover, bull thistle, quaking grass, Queen Anne's lace, mission figs, and dandelions. We passed through the floral delights of Hangaroa, en route to Tahai. Three different periods of statue-building were represented here in the ahu, or ceremonial courtyards, covering a time span of 10 centuries. The views of the crashing surf and our ship made a lovely backdrop in the early morning sunshine. We left as a light rain shower moved in, and had brunch at the Hangaroa Eco Village & Spa, again with a scenic seashore view. Finally, reluctantly, we boarded the vans and made our way to the airport, for our homeward flights.

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