2015 Tahiti to Easter Island Field Report

Rich Pagen|January 18, 2016|Field Report

Friday, October 30, 2015 - Papeete, Tahiti / Embark Caledonian Sky

We converged on the city of Papeete from distant reaches of the planet for the same reason: to embark on an expedition to experience the culture, wildlife, and landscapes of the South Pacific. After a morning of exploring the Hotel Intercontinental on our own and a group brunch, most of us met local guides who introduced us to the history and culture of Tahiti. The birdwatchers sought out the endemic Tahiti monarch, a striking jet-black songbird found nowhere else in the world, and the rest of us visited the former home of James Norman Hall, an American author best known for the novel Mutiny on the Bounty with co-author Charles Nordhoff. We also visited the Tahiti Museum, with its collection of artifacts from various periods of Tahiti’s history.

Late in the afternoon, we boarded the Caledonian Sky, our home for the next few weeks. We settled in onboard, before gathering in the lounge for a safety briefing. Expedition Leader Mike Messick introduced us to the staff and Cruise Director Lynne Greig gave us an overview of the ship.

Saturday, October 31 - Rangiroa, Tuamotu Islands

We pulled back the curtains this morning to deep blue sea all around us, with the occasional flock of noddies and terns. Just as we were headed into a Zodiac briefing, a call came from the bridge that several sperm whales had been sighted in the area. We lined the outer decks with cameras poised and binoculars in hand, hoping to get a look at these magnificent creatures, the largest toothed whales in the world. We saw the unique blows of the sperm whales, shooting off forward and to the left, a distinguishing characteristic, as well as their large dorsal humps and their tails fluking out of the water when they made deep dives; a very exciting way to start our expedition!

We had our delayed Zodiac briefing, followed by Jack Grove’s snorkel orientation, and a dive briefing with Mike Murphy and Brad Climpson for the divers. Following an early lunch, we arranged our gear for the afternoon, and went ashore for a cultural performance. After the dancing, some of us headed out to search for local birds, while others roamed the village, meeting many local people along the way. The divers went out on their first dive, while the snorkelers jumped in on a beautiful reef teeming with fish. Scissor-tailed sergeants picked plankton out of the water column inches from us, while several huge moray eels darted across the sandy bottom from one large coral head to the next. Three species of sharks were spotted, and an enormous school of paddle-tail snappers congregated around the moored Zodiacs.

Once back on the ship, we put on our Sunday best (Halloween costumes!) and gathered in the lounge for Captain Mike Taylor’s welcome aboard cocktail party. We mingled over champagne and the captain introduced us to his senior officers.

Sunday & Monday, November 1 & 2 - At Sea / Nuku Hiva, Marquesas Islands

Our first full day at sea was greeted with strong winds and a stronger swell; we headed for the first lecture of the day, Peter Harrison’s Tropical Seabirds. Annete Kuhlem followed with House Posts, Rib Men & Giant Banyans—Holy Trees in Polynesia. After lunch, some of us enjoyed the BBC documentary Wild Pacific—Part 1, before a treat by our executive chef—waffles during teatime! Rich Pagen gave our final lecture of the day, Drama Like Your Favorite Soap Opera: Competition, Adaptation, and Deception on the Reef, before our first recap of the trip, followed by dinner.

After a restful night’s sleep, some of us joined Ellen McIlvaine for morning yoga, a perfect way to start the day. Others stepped out on deck to watch the light change on the sea, or to scan for passing seabirds. Following breakfast, we joined Pepper Trail for his talk, There Are No Moa: Extinction on Pacific Islands, before Kathy Robinson presented, Who are the Polynesians?

We enjoyed beautiful conditions outside for lunch, with spectacular views of Nuku Hiva. As we looked out at the rock spires ahead of the ship, flocks of terns and the occasional Bulwer’s petrel flew past, and a hammerhead shark was spotted just below the ship’s railing.

Upon arrival on Nuku Hiva, we walked or drove up to an impressive archaeological site, which Annette interpreted for us. The site is called a tohua, a gathering place for the local people, where ceremonies of song and dance were held. We spotted Nuku Hiva pigeons, large pigeons with an unlikely call reminiscent of a parrot, or even a monkey. From there, we walked to another archaeological site where we watched a wonderful cultural performance; we couldn’t help but tap our feet to the reverberating bass from the drums, as the performers danced and made impressive deep chants along to the music. We visited a local restaurant for a drink and snacked on banana fritters before heading back to the ship for dinner.

Tuesday, November 3 - Atuona, Hiva Oa / Puamau

An unexpected early call came over the PA system this morning—the scouting party had come across a large group of manta rays—encouraging us all to don our swimsuits and enjoy a morning Zodiac cruise. Whether we watched from Zodiacs or jumped in to observe the mantas underwater, it was a spectacular sight! The tips of their ‘wings’ broke the surface as they moved in formation, plying the plankton-rich waters in constant feeding passes. These magnificent creatures can reach widths of over 20 feet, quite amazing for a creature that feeds on near-microscopic food particles. To top it off, a double rainbow formed over the mountainous landscape of the Marquesas.

After a delightful breakfast, filled with shared stories about close encounters with the mantas, we went ashore at Atuona where ‘le trucks,’ used as the local school buses, brought us up to Calvary Cemetery, the final resting place of both artist Paul Gaugin and musician Jacques Brel. Shirley Metz and Annette told stories about the lives of the two men, before we meandered down the road to the center of town. We found a few shops and a handicraft market, as well as an excellent museum highlighting the life of Gaugin. We also saw Brel’s airplane, which he named Jojo after his best friend.

Over lunch back onboard, we repositioned to just off the small village of Puamau. From the landing site, some of us hiked while others hitched a ride up to an archaeological site that hosts the largest tiki in Polynesia. A tiki is a carving of a human form, often representing the first man in Polynesian mythology, and this site had 18 such tikis, though many had significantly eroded away.

From there, some of us headed to a gorgeous beach for a swim, or to a local restaurant for snacks and a refreshing beverage. Back on the ship, we met for a lively recap during which Jack shared images of us swimming with the mantas, Kathy highlighted the life of Paul Gaugin, and Peter spoke about how he got into expedition cruises many years ago.

Wednesday, November 4 - Fatu Hiva

Towering rock spires were visible along the spectacular coast of Fatu Hiva, as we maneuvered into the bay that hosts a small village, nestled in a low valley surrounded by rock cliffs. A few yachts were moored outside the breakwater, and we cruised into the protected harbor by Zodiac where we were greeted with flower leis and singing children.

The birders set out to search for a few avian highlights from this last stop in the Marquesas, while those looking for a view set up the road to a point that gave sweeping vistas out over the bay. Others trudged up a rocky slope through dense forest to the most beautiful waterfall, which was gently spilling down a moss-covered cliff. The cool pool beneath was most welcome after the steamy hike up from the coast, and many hopped in to celebrate reaching the destination. Others roamed the village, or walked partway out of town past houses surrounded by papaya and breadfruit trees. Locals taught us how they carve handicrafts from the local wood and served the most delicious assortment of cooked bananas, before we watched a wonderful dance performance.

We enjoyed lunch on the ship, looking out across the incredible tropical scenery. The divers and snorkelers explored the rocky coastline, which was inhabited by fish at home in surge conditions. White-spotted surgeonfish roamed the rocky outcroppings as a group, nibbling on algae on the rocks. Several Indo-Pacific sergeants defended nests of purplish eggs on the bottom, while three-spot dacyllus, another damsel, turned a pale color as they engaged in mating behavior.

Thursday, November 5 - Puka Puka, Tuamotu Islands

During the night, we steamed southeast back into the Tuamotu Archipelago. This island group forms the largest chain of atolls in the world, spanning an area of the Pacific Ocean roughly the size of Western Europe! Puka Puka itself is rather unique in the archipelago, because culturally it has affinities to the Marquesas; in fact, its language is derived from there.

We came ashore and were greeted by a whole host of locals, who led us to a shady spot amidst the vegetation where we watched a cultural performance. They served us delicious marinated raw fish, an assortment of fresh fruit, and some very refreshing coconut water. Once the performance was over, we headed off in various groups to take in this beautiful island.

Some of us roamed the village with Annette and Kathy, meeting people along the way, and learning firsthand about what life here is like. Others drove inland to the atoll’s central lagoon, where they swam in the shallow sunbaked water. The snorkelers dropped in outside the reef, where they found pristine crystal-clear water, lemonpeel angelfish nipping at tasty morsels on the reef, and yellow hawkfish perched on coralheads, ever vigilant for passing small fish that would make a delicious meal. Several species of butterflyfish moved about the reef in pairs, and golden gregorys—damselfish that farm and defend patches of algae—were scattered throughout the reef. The divers moved through large groups of black triggerfish, as well as the occasional Picasso and titan triggerfish. Several humphead wrasses and a sea turtle rounded out the dive.

Friday, November 6 - Puka Rua

We awoke to another beautiful but windy morning in the South Seas. As we would not arrive at Puka Rua until after lunch, we enjoyed our lecture series beginning with Jack—speaking about Marine Biodiversity and the Re-wilding of the Sea—and Annette—Palm-Fringed Paradise: What Life on Polynesian Islands was Really Like.

Upon landing, we either walked or took a ‘le truck’ to travel the half-mile road to the interior, coming out on a massive lagoon, which was tranquil compared to the wind-torn sea on the outside. Some of us hopped right in to explore the lagoon with our masks and snorkels, encountering hundreds of sea cucumbers and fish, gathered around piles of old clam shells left behind by the locals after harvesting the clams for their meat.

Nearby, breadfruit and octopus were being cooked on an open fire; there were handicrafts to buy, and a performance of song and dance with lots of swaying hips. There was even a ‘game’ we tried our luck at—throwing a spear at a distant coconut perched atop a 20-meter pole; we blamed our skill level on the pouring rain, though the locals made it look so easy!

Saturday, November 7 - Tenararo, Acteon Islands

After a relaxing breakfast, and some time out on deck, Peter gathered us for his talk, The Birds of the Pitcairn Islands, before Rich’s presentation, Warm-Blooded in a Tropical Sea: Marine Mammal Natural History in the Indo-Pacific.

After lunch, we were ready for a true expedition stop on a small atoll called Tenararo; no passenger ship had ever landed there before! It was a wild ride over the reef to the landing, where brilliant green and purple surge wrasses darted out of the way in the shallows. Once ashore, many of us searched the path of least resistance into the pandanus and palm forest, passing tiny lizards scampering about in the leaf litter, until we finally reached the atoll’s inner lagoon. We found bristle-thighed curlews foraging on the flats, as well as nesting great frigatebirds and red-footed boobies. Others roamed the beach on the outer edge of the atoll, where dozens of (usually) rare Tuamotu sandpipers flitted about quite fearlessly. White terns roosted in trees, while a lone masked booby sat caring for its tiny chick. The beachcombers found broken off purple spines of slate pencil urchins, while the tidepoolers were treated to an exciting encounter with a peppered moray eel.

Those who went snorkeling or diving were treated to incredible visibility and a coral garden, with every color and shape of hard coral imaginable. Both groups had good looks at sea turtles, red snappers patrolling the reef, and the lucky among us even saw a hammerhead shark! Reticulated butterflyfish, spotted puffers, and arc-eye hawkfish are just a few of the species we admired on this beautiful reef.

We received word that the bridge officers spotted a seal in the shallows, and Jack confirmed it to be a leopard seal—a new northernmost record for the species! Our day ended on board, as we watched two humpback whales fluking with the sunset behind them.

Sunday, November 8 - Mangareva, Gambier Islands

A beautiful sunrise illuminated the jagged outline of the mountains of Mangareva. Upon landing, those of us looking to climb up to Mangareva’s highest summit—Mt. Duff, at 1,200 feet—embarked on a steep trail past hibiscus, ironwood trees, and exotic pine trees. Once we reached the ridgeline, we scurried up the final stretch to the summit; from the top, we enjoyed 360-degree views of the archipelago, and the surrounding turquoise water and reefs. It was a challenging but extremely rewarding hike!

Others opted to explore the small town on the island, including the enormous Saint Michael Cathedral, which is reported to hold no fewer than 1,000 people—nearly twice the population of the island! We roamed the quaint streets, admiring the cozy homes and their accompanying tropical landscaping. There were opportunities for pearl shopping, and before we even set out for our morning of exploration, we watched a wonderful music and dance performance.

During lunch on board, we cruised across the lagoon. From there, the divers set out to explore the inner lagoon, coming across very colorful coral, lizardfish, and a handful of sharks. The rest of us rode out to a beautiful white-sand beach on the island of Akena, where we lounged at the water’s edge, or hiked inland to explore some curious old buildings, constructed of blocks of coral. We enjoyed the lush tropical smells of the forest as we meandered out to the point where a stone watchtower had been constructed. Some of us snorkeled out from the beach to the platform, where huge table corals decorated the bottom, and large schools of parrotfish crunched on the coral.

After teatime on the ship, Jack told us the story of his discovery and recovery of a historic anchor in his talk, Anchors and Atolls. Before dinner, we laughed over cocktails and stories during the Zegrahm Expeditions 25th Anniversary Cocktail Party.

Monday, November 9 - Oeno, Pitcairn Islands

As the sky brightened in the east, we were en route to the famous Pitcairn Island group. With a little luck from weather over the next four days, we hoped to step ashore on all four islands in the group, each significantly different in feel. This British Overseas Territory is spread out over several hundred miles of ocean, with only one island (Pitcairn) permanently inhabited.

We joined Pepper for his hilarious impersonation of naturalist Charles Darwin., with an all-white beard and the proper accent to match. Afterwards, we joined Brad for his presentation entitled, Mechanisms of Dispersal: Life at the Whim of the Ocean.

We stepped out on deck to watch our approach to Oeno, escorted in by careening Murphy’s petrels—more than 12,000 nest on the atoll. We landed on a gorgeous beach, flanked by the turquoise lagoon and lush, tropical vegetation. One low tree was flowering, and countless white moths with blue and red spots eagerly fed on the nectar. We walked down the beach while frigatebirds, red-footed boobies, and brown noddies flew overhead.

As we headed deeper into the island, we encountered numerous Murphy’s petrels, both adults and chicks, the latter of which were just beginning to lose some of their downy feathers. White terns glistened in the sun from their perches on tree branches, while the larger and stockier red-tailed tropicbirds passed high above the trees.

Some of us opted to stay ashore for the entire afternoon, admiring the prolific birdlife, while others headed to the outer edge of the atoll for snorkeling or diving. The divers logged one of their best dives of the trip, with huge Napoleon wrasses, schools of drummers, and a whole host of other fish. The snorkelers experienced a bit of surge and chop at the surface, but were rewarded with excellent looks at oddly curious red snappers, roving bands of orange-spined unicornfish, and the occasional large parrotfish chomping down on the coral with its beak-like mouth.

Tuesday, November 10 - Pitcairn

After breakfast, we donned raincoats and battened down our hatches for the Zodiac trip to Pitcairn Island. The deck crew did a fantastic job loading us safely into the rising and falling Zodiacs; upon landing, we walked up to the only settlement on the island, Adamstown. We met many of the 44 locals, some whom were selling various crafts and honey produced on the island. Later, we broke into groups and fanned out across the island to soak in this historic place.

Some of us hiked up to a cave high on a cliff; a place, legend has it, that Fletcher Christian used to go to be alone. The sweeping views of the coast were spectacular, and we could see the ship far off in the wind-torn sea. We also stopped by the gravesite of John Adams, the only member of the original mutineers still alive when the American trading ship Topaz visited the island in 1808.

Those looking to do the full island tour on foot climbed to the island’s highest point, where we enjoyed near-360-degree views of the Pacific and the dramatic wave-pounded coastline. Others ventured out to the eastern tip of the island, where the trail dropped down to a large rocky pool, partially protected from the crashing surf.

Wednesday, November 11 - Henderson Island

The sky glowed an eerie and hazy orange as the sun came up over remote Henderson Island, one of the least disturbed (by humans) raised coral atolls. Uninhabited, with low steep cliffs on nearly all sides, Henderson’s four landbird species and nearly a third of all its insects and snails are found nowhere else in the world!

Once ashore, we were greeted by a small group of researchers who were on the island temporarily to do some research on the introduced Polynesian rats that live here. We walked along the beach in the company of large hermit crabs, where some of us caught a glimpse of the flightless Henderson Island rail. This bird, unlike many of its close relatives, is quite aggressive and thus, has been able to survive on the island despite the presence of rats. Other rails throughout the Pacific islands have been much less fortunate.

We saw the camp that the researchers had assembled, including a basketball hoop they had constructed after finding a basketball washed up on the beach. A reed warbler hopped energetically around the tree branches, while a fruit dove perched in the open giving a few of us excellent looks. Hermit crabs cleaned up kitchen scraps, while tiny skinks darted about in the leaf litter. A few hardy souls climbed up the steep limestone cliff in search of nesting Henderson Island petrels, a dark seabird that nests nearly exclusively on this one island!

Offshore, the divers found a moray eel and very clear water, while the snorkelers braved a little surface chop to find some large and curious black jacks that approached them for a look. Cleaner wrasses happily picked parasites off larger fish, and goatfish rummaged through the sediment in search of invertebrates sheltering beneath.

We returned to the ship for lunch, and watched Peter’s short film about a landing years ago on a rocky pinnacle not far from here, Moratori. This was followed by Rich’s talk, The Tropical Marine Ecological Fringe: A Transect from the Coast to the Blue Water.

Thursday, November 12 - Ducie

At sunrise, the wind and swell pounded the reef around Ducie Island, a remote atoll and the fourth and final island in the Pitcairn group that we hoped to visit on this trip. After an early breakfast, we wrapped our cameras and ourselves in waterproof gear and made our way down to the Zodiacs. Once ashore, we quickly understood what rat eradication can mean to breeding seabirds. Swarms of noddies and white terns flew overhead, while nearly every patch of ground above the beach was occupied by adult and juvenile Murphy’s petrels; an estimated 250,000 pairs nest on the small island.

Above the high tide line, masked boobies sat on their nests in the sand, eyeing us with curiosity as we walked past. Hermit crabs were everywhere, including on branches well above the ground. A few white tern chicks were spotted, their white plumage still peppered with scraggly brown downy feathers. We fanned out to explore the interior of the island, with some of us reaching the inner lagoon. There, brown noddies nested on the rubble, their distinct nest scrapes lined with blue and green scraps of rope and fishing net. Some of us came across a few of the rarer nesting petrels, including a Phoenix petrel that had crash landed in a bush and, in the process, gotten itself covered in sticky green seeds.

The divers came across a magnificent gathering of gray reef sharks, as well as several white-tipped reef sharks in a cave. The snorkelers found a wonderland of coral, patrolled by a large super-male clown coris, a type of wrasse. Reticulated, fourspot, and teardrop butterflyfish were a few of the species encountered flitting about the reef.

Back onboard, we watched the classic movie, The Bounty, followed by Pepper’s presentation, Fighting Crime with Feathers: The Casebook of a Forensic Ornithologist. After recap, we had a feast of Filipino culinary specialties, followed by singing and dancing on the Lido deck.

Friday - Sunday, November 13 - 15 - At Sea / Easter Island, Chile

After making landings on all four islands in the Pitcairn group (a feat rarely accomplished due to the frequent big seas and strong winds), we enjoyed a few days with our lecture series. Kathy kicked us off with, How Many Sexes in Polynesia; Shirley soon followed with, A Voyage to the South Pole. After lunch, we watched The Making of the Movie, Rapa Nui, before Annette gave her presentation, The Mysterious Island: Popular Ideas About Rapa Nui Revisited.

The following morning, distant rainsqualls created the occasional rainbow off the horizon. After breakfast, we joined Annette for Beyond the Moai: New Results of Archaeological Research on Easter Island, followed by a cooking demonstration put on by Executive Chef, Joerg Lehmann. We watched the film, Rapa Nui, before the final presentation of the day, Peter’s Seven Years and Seven Continents. In the evening, we donned our finest attire to join Captain Mike Taylor at the farewell cocktail party.

Sunday morning, we looked out over the open sea for our first glimpse of Easter Island, the southeastern corner of the Polynesian Triangle. Easter Island is famous for its nearly 900 large-headed statues, called moai, created by the early Rapa Nui people. It is one of the world’s most isolated inhabited islands, its closest neighbors being Pitcairn Island, 1,289 miles to the west, and Chile 2,182 miles to the east!

We joined Brad for his presentation, Relationships in a Big Blue Marble, then readied ourselves for an afternoon ashore. Upon landing, we set out to visit various sites in the area, including Ahu Akivi’s seven moai representing the chiefs of Easter Islands’ seven tribes. We also visited Puna Pau, a quarry where the red scoria topknots came from; Ahu Akapu, a ceremonial platform with a single restored moai; and Tahai, an ancient canoe landing with extensive stone structures formerly used as chicken houses. From there, many of us walked back into the town of Hanga Roa, where we sipped pisco sours overlooking the black volcanic shoreline and the surfers enjoying the day’s excellent swell. The scuba divers headed out on a spectacular dive, during which they were kept company by enormous green sea turtles.

Monday, November 16 - Easter Island

This morning we awoke to glorious blue skies and occasional puffy white clouds, perfect conditions to explore and photograph more remarkable archaeological sites around Easter Island. We began with Ahu Vinapu, where impressive stonework is still visible, as are several partially buried moai faces staring up at the sky. The ceremonial complex of Ahu Akahanga and Ahu Ura Uranga te Mahina covered a huge area, with spectacular views out over the crashing sea. Toppled moai lay on their faces along the coast, and we peered into a lava tube cave that once provided shelter and a hiding place for the Rapa Nui centuries ago. As we walked through the site, chimango caracaras (a raptor introduced from South America) flew overhead, occasionally perching on the moai themselves.

Our next stop was the Rano Raraku quarry, where all the moai were carved. We hiked along a green hillside littered with dozens upon dozens of moai, which were abandoned in various stages of completion. There was even one unusual moai that was in a kneeling position. Some of us hiked up to the crater rim, for a look at the beautiful lake, as well as more moai perched on the slope above the lake. We continued to Ahu Tongariki, the largest ceremonial site in Polynesia, which was restored in 1996. From there, we visited Anakena Beach, one of only two sandy beaches on the entire island. We enjoyed a wonderful barbecue lunch, a wander around a few archaeological sites, and a swim in the sea.

Back in Hanga Roa, we visited the church, as well as the shops and craft markets, where impressive woodcarvings were for sale. Onboard, the staff told stories of their highlights from our trip at our final recap. We ate dinner with a magical sunset unfolding around us, and then watched Mike Moore’s slideshow of our amazing voyage!

Tuesday, November 17 - Easter Island / Disembark

Our exploration today focused on the Bird Man Cult, which replaced the Ancestor Cult responsible for the large moai statues. The Bird Man Cult maintained that, although the ancestors still provided for their descendants, the medium through which the living could contact the dead was no longer statues, but human beings chosen through a competition.

We stopped in a sea cave and found ourselves looking up at some impressive cave paintings of the Bird Man symbols. From there we drove high up on the slopes of the Rano Kau Volcano, where the temperature dropped considerably, and enjoyed excellent views. We drove further up for a look down into the crater lake, and finally to the end of the road at Orongo.

This location at the southern end of the island, with an impressive crater, steep sea cliffs, and views down over the small islets of Motu Nui and Motu Iti, has always been a significant site on the island. We wandered the restored ceremonial village of Orongo, where elliptical houses made of flat basalt slabs sat perched on the green slopes. It was a very powerful place, and the perfect last stop before heading down to the Hanga Roa Hotel for lunch.

And just when we thought our adventure was coming to a close, our expeditionary skills were put to the test when our outbound flight from Easter Island to Santiago was canceled. An extra night and day’s worth of tours on this legendary island were taken in stride by all, and when we finally departed the island, we truly had tales of adventure (albeit not quite like those of Fletcher Christian’s) to regale our friends and families.

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