2017 Tahiti to Easter Island Field Report

Rich Pagen|January 10, 2018|Field Report

Monday, November 6, 2017 - 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. We arrived at the InterContinental Resort, some of us coming early to explore Tahiti on our own. Before meeting as a group for brunch, we took a dip in the pool or attempted to get our jet lag under control.

After brunch, we met local guides who introduced us to the history and culture of Tahiti. This high, mountainous island was formed by volcanic activity, and is surrounded by coral reefs. We visited the Tahiti Museum, with its collection of artifacts from various periods of Tahiti’s history, and explored a ceremonial complex called Arahurahu, one of the most beautifully restored marae in French Polynesia.

Late in the afternoon, we arrived at the pier and boarded the Caledonian Sky, our home for the next few weeks. We settled in onboard, before gathering in the lounge for a Safety Briefing. Then Expedition Leader Michael Moore, affectionately referred to as MiMo, introduced us to the staff, and Cruise Director Lynne Greig gave an overview of the ship. Following a wonderful dinner served in the dining room, we were well ready for a good night’s sleep aboard the Caledonian Sky.


Tuesday, November 7 - Apataki, Tuamotu Islands

We pulled back the curtains this morning to deep blue sea in every direction! We mingled over breakfast and headed to the lounge for a Zodiac briefing; Jack Grove followed with a snorkel briefing, and the divers gathered with Mike Murphy and Brad Climpson to learn about the dive operations onboard. 

Following an early lunch, we arranged our gear for the afternoon, and headed out to explore Apataki Atoll in the Tuamotu Islands. A spectacular current poured in to the central lagoon with the rising tide, as we sped by Zodiacs to explore the area. The divers set out on the outer reef, where thousands of paddle-tailed snappers streamed past along the reef edge. 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 groups of parrotfish snapped up filamentous algae off the bare rock. A moray eel was spotted, twitching every now and again as a pair of blue-streak cleaner wrasses worked its skin for pesky parasites.

The village tour took us to the little settlement Te Here (“love”, in English), where the family of the current mayor of the atoll lives and works. They produce copra and salted fish and have a small fish trap where they catch the bait for deep-sea fishing. The son of the mayor, Vincent, took us across to the other side, where we had fresh coconut. The family showed us their copra drying rack and how they use the fish traps with the help of their five ‘fishing’ dogs, catching about 50 jacks per minute!

Once back on the ship, we met Rob Dunbar for his lecture, Seascapes and Islands of the South Pacific: What Makes the Largest Ocean on Earth Tick? We then gathered on the Lido Deck for Captain Håkon Gustafsson’s Welcome Aboard Cocktail Party, mingled over champagne, and met some of the captain’s senior officers.


Wednesday & Thursday, November 8 & 9 - At Sea / Nuku Hiva, Marquesas Islands

With a day at sea on our way to the Marquesas, an island group described by some as the most beautiful in the world, we were ready for our lecture series to begin in earnest. We began with Rich Pagen’s, Drama Like Your Favorite Soap Opera: Competition, Adaptation & Deception On the Reef, before Annette Kühlem’s presentation, House Posts, Rib Men & Giant Banyans: Holy Trees in Polynesia. Our final lecture of the day was from Brent Stephenson with, World Through a Lens, before our first recap. Jack highlighted yesterday’s snorkel experience; Annette told stories of the small community we had encountered ashore; and Mike showed amazing footage of the first scuba dive of the trip, where thousands of paddle-tail snappers kept the divers company for their entire 45-minute dive!

The followning morning began with several of us joining Sacha Guggenheimer for morning yoga. Following breakfast, we joined Jack’s presentation, Biodiversity in the Sea and Why It Matters, followed by Brad’s talk, Invertebrates: No Backbone, No Worries!

We enjoyed beautiful conditions outside for lunch, with spectacular views of the island of Nuku Hiva off the port side of the ship. Upon arrival, 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 had good looks at the Nuku Hiva pigeon, a large bird with an unlikely call reminiscent of a parrot, or even a monkey. Several were feeding on fruit near the petroglyphs.

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 locals danced and made impressive deep chants along to the music. Afterwards, we visited a local restaurant for a drink and snacked on banana fritters, before heading back to the ship as the sky darkened over the mountains.


Friday, November 10 - Atuona, Hiva Oa

We awoke to gorgeous volcanic mountain scenery all around us, and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast looking out across the bucolic South Pacific landscape. We soon went ashore at Atuona, where ‘le trucks,’ used as the local school buses, brought us up to Calvary Cemetery to visit the graves of both artist Paul Gauguin and musician Jacques Brel. Annette shared stories about the lives of the two men, before we meandered down the road to the center of town where we found a few shops, a handicraft market, and an excellent museum highlighting the life of Gauguin. We also saw  Brel’s airplane, which he named Jojo after his best friend. Many of us sat on the deck outside the grocery store sipping cold drinks, taking in the slow pace of this remote community.

Over a barbeque lunch back onboard, the Caledonian Sky repositioned to just off the small village of Puamau. The staff went ashore to see if landing would be possible, but the swell on the beach was too lively to make a safe landing. Instead, Captain Håkon Gustafsson maneuvered the ship along the beautiful north coast of the islands of Hiva Oa. We lined the ship’s railings scanning the rocky slopes for goats, and watching a spectacular backlit blowhole spray hundreds of feet into the air. Flocks of red-footed boobies and black noddies fed on schooling fish, while several Juan Fernandez petrels careened in the strong winds with the much more numerous Bulwer’s petrels.

In the late afternoon, Tom Hiney spoke on, The Highs and Lows of the Intertidal Zone, before recap, during which Rob discussed tsunamis in the Pacific.


Saturday, November 11 - Fatu Hiva

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

The birders set out to search for a very rare Marquesan bird, the Fatu Hiva monarch, an elongated black bird whose world population is unfortunately down to only about 20 individuals. Those looking for a view set out up the road to a high point that gave sweeping looks 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. Still others roamed the village, or walked partially out of town past houses surrounded by papaya and breadfruit trees. In the late morning, we gathered back in the village, where locals taught us how they carve handicrafts from the local wood. They served us the most delicious assortment of cooked bananas, fresh mango, and guava, and we watched a wonderful dance performance.

We enjoyed lunch back on the ship, looking out across the incredible tropical scenery. Then the divers and snorkelers explored the rocky coastline, which was inhabited by fish at home in surge conditions. Dark surgeonfish and white-cheek surgeonfish nibbled algae on the rocks, while scythe triggerfish kept themselves facing into the surge as it pushed back and forth. We spotted a very well camouflaged scorpionfish resting on a rocky ledge, while three-spot dacyllus and a large damsel, turned a pale color as they engaged in mating behavior.

As the ship departed the Marquesas, we mingled over cherries jubilee in the lounge, and we celebrated our time here on one of the most beautiful island groups in the world!


Sunday, November 12 - Puka Puka, Tuamotus 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 it has cultural connections 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 cold coconuts to sip on, yummy local oysters, and papaya in coconut milk. 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, meeting people along the way, and learning firsthand about what life here is like. Others drove inland to the atoll’s central lagoon, where we swam in the warm, shallow water. The snorkelers and divers dropped in outside the reef, where we found pristine crystal-clear water and, interestingly, a large number of yellow fish of various types. Lemonpeel angelfish nipped at tasty morsels on the reef, while 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, their yellow, black, and white color usually diagnostic for this family of fish. Golden gregories, damselfish that farm and defend patches of algae, were scattered throughout the reef, as were roving bands of convict tangs, descending on the reef en masse to feed on filamentous algae. Some of us were even treated to a very special encounter with a small group of bottlenose dolphins!


Monday, November 13 - Puka Rua

We awoke to another beautiful day in the South Seas, with a leisurely breakfast before heading to the first lecture of the day. Rich kicked things off with, The Tropical Marine Ecological Fringe: A Transect From the Coast to the Blue Water, and Jack followed with his presentation, Ichthyology and the Art of Watching Fish.

We enjoyed lunch out on deck under beautiful blue skies, and watched as we approached the atoll of Puka Rua. Though the swell was considerable, the entrance on the north side of the island offered the most protection; we sped through the wavy channel and disembarked onto a rocky pier. From here, we either walked or hopped ‘le truck’ to travel the half mile road to the interior, where we came 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 black sea cucumbers and fish gathered around the piles of old clam shells left behind by the locals after harvesting the clams for their meat.

There were handicrafts to browse and purchase, and a song and dance performance with lots of swaying hips. We sampled some delicious foods, including burrowing clam and a dish of papaya with coconut milk. Afterwards, the divers and snorkelers went out to explore the outer fringing reef, where Achilles tangs grazed on algae, and half-spotted hawkfish perched on coral heads awaiting their next meal.

After dinner, we gathered in the lounge for popcorn and a showing of the 1984 movie, Mutiny on the Bounty.


Tuesday, November 14 - Tenararo, Acteon Islands

We awoke to a series of low-lying atolls up ahead of the ship, and the bluest tropical ocean one could imagine! After breakfast, we joined Tom in the lounge for his talk about UNESCO, while some of the expedition team scouted the first island in the Acteon Group, a small atoll called Tenararo, looking for what opportunities might await us there. This was a true expedition stop, as the island is uninhabited and few have ever visited! We boarded Zodiacs to go ashore and explore this remote island gem.

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 darting about in the leaf litter, until we finally reached the atoll’s inner lagoon. There we found bristle-thighed curlews foraging on the flats, black-tip reef sharks patrolling the water’s edge, and great frigate birds and red-footed boobies nesting in the bushes.

Others roamed the beach on the outer edge of the atoll, where dozens of (usually) rare Tuamotu sandpipers flitted about quite fearlessly, and white terns nested in the trees, their single egg precariously perched on a tree branch with absolutely no nesting material.

Those who went snorkeling and diving after lunch were treated to incredible visibility, and a veritable coral garden, with every color and shape of hard coral imaginable. Both divers and snorkelers alike had good looks at sea turtles, red snappers patrolling the reef, and the lucky among us even saw a nurse shark! We looked on as peacock groupers lightened their coloration in seconds upon arriving at a cleaning station, and yellowfin goatfish hovered together in groups just above the reef.


Wednesday & Thursday, November 15 & 16 - At Sea / Pitcairn

After fueling up with breakfast, we joined Brent for Seabirds of the Tropical Pacific, before Dan Olsen’s talk, 19 Men in a Boat: The Incredible Voyage of the Bounty’s Launch. After lunch, Jack shared his story of the discovery—and recovery—of an historic anchor at Ducie Atoll, gearing us up for the Pitcairn Islands. After tea time, we joined the Expedition Staff for a hilarious rendition of Liars Club before recap, during which Rich talked about sea turtle identification and Sacha spoke on plastic and the marine debris problem.

We arrived off Pitcairn Island’s small breakwater at sunrise, where the captain and MiMo looked at both the landing and the ship’s rear platform. In order to pull off a landing at Pitcairn, all the ducks needed to be in a row, due to the area’s well-known rough seas. After breakfast, we waterproofed our cameras and battened down our hatches for the Zodiac trip ashore. The deck crew did a fantastic job loading us safely into the rising and falling Zodiacs, and the drivers expertly timed the trip in by carefully watching the approaching waves.

Pitcairn is most well-known as the site where the mutineers from Captain Bligh’s ship Bounty eventually settled in 1790. Today, the descendants of the four original families still live on this remote outpost, the least populous national jurisdiction in the world. We walked up to the only settlement on the island, called Adamstown, where we met many of the 44 locals, some of whom were selling various crafts. Later, we broke into groups and fanned out across the island to soak in this historic place. Some of us 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. A stop at Christian’s Café afterwards for fish and chips was delicious treat upon our return to Adamstown.


Friday, November 17 - Henderson Island

Some of us arose early to watch the sun come up over remote Henderson Island, one of the least disturbed (by humans) raised coral atolls in the world. Uninhabited, with low steep cliffs on nearly all sides, Henderson’s four land-bird species—and nearly a third of all its insects and snails—are found nowhere else in the world!

In order to get ashore, the Zodiac drivers had to sit on top of an incoming wave to ensure enough water to get over the reef; and they pulled off this trick with mastery! Once ashore, we walked the beachfront vegetation in the company of young coconut 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 has been able to survive on the island despite the presence of rats. We also spotted the Henderson Island reed warbler, hopping energetically around the tree branches, while the Henderson Island fruit dove perched in the open giving a few of us excellent looks. As we wandered through the thick vegetation, tiny skinks darted about in the leaf litter.

Offshore, the divers found black-tip groupers in very clear water, while the snorkelers braved a little surface chop to look down upon roving groups of white-bar surgeonfish picking algae from the platform of rock. Flame hawkfish hid in the branches of coral, and an octopus made a dash across the open bottom, changing from white to purple before our very eyes.

Still others enjoyed a Zodiac cruise along the ins and outs of Henderson, discovering dramatic cliffsides and caves; one cave even had a skylight we could see straight through!

We all returned to the ship for lunch, and joined Brad’s presentation, 2017: A South Pacific Marine Odyssey. In the evening, we gathered on deck for a Zegrahm Expeditions and Stanford Travel/Study cocktail party.


Saturday, November 18 - Ducie

At sunrise, the wind and swell pounded the reef around Ducie Island, a remote atoll and the third and final island in the Pitcairn group we hoped to visit on this trip. As the sky brightened, the scouting party headed out to see if there was a safe way ashore in these challenging conditions, but the waves were too big to safely cruise via Zodiac across the reef flat; we prepared ourselves to explore Ducie’s underwater world instead.

The divers came across a magnificent gathering of gray reef sharks, as well as many curious trevallies, who came right in to see what we were. The snorkelers found a wonderland of coral, patrolled by a large super-male clown coris, a type of wrasse. Hundreds of chubs swirled around the opening to a large cave, foraging en masse on whatever they could glean from the bare rock around the cave entrance. Large pelagic fish, including a huge pair of almaco jacks, intermittently made passes across the reef. Periodically, we looked up to see swarms of sooty terns hovering just above our heads.

Back onboard, we lined the railings for a circumnavigation of Ducie Atoll. Waves crashed into the outer reef as we watched the show of seabirds around the ship. Masked and red-footed boobies made curious passes by the ship, while an endless stream of Murphy’s petrels careened past us. An estimated 250,000 pairs of Murphy’s petrels nest on the small island, 90% of the world population!

Back onboard, we told stories over lunch before gathering in the lounge for popcorn and a showing of the documentary, “Pristine Seas.” Rob followed with his talk, Back to the Future: Climate Change, Coral Reefs & Our Oceans.

Before dinner, we gathered for a rather epic recap, during which some of us were transformed into coconut crabs and attempted to tear apart coconuts with our bare hands!


Sunday - Tuesday, November 19 - 21 - At Sea / Easter Island

After three days exploring above and below the water in the Pitcairn Islands, our lecture series was in full force with presentations from Rich (Warm-Blooded in a Tropical Sea: Marine Mammal Natural History in the Indo-Pacific), Tom (Underwater Gardening: Restoring the Coral Reefs), Annette (The Mysterious Island: Popular Ideas About Rapa Nui Revisited), Brent (Birding 101: An Introduction to Tweety Birds and the Weird People That Watch Them), Rob (Ocean Acidification and Sea Level Rise: Problems and Solutions), and Sacha (When the World is Changing Around You, Challenge Yourself to Control the Way in Which You Respond).

Before we knew it, we awoke and caught our first glimpse of fabled Easter Island, famous for its nearly 900 large-headed statues called moai, created by the early Rapa Nui people. As we steamed towards our destination, we enjoyed Annette’s presentation, Beyond the Moai: New Results of Archaeological Research on Easter Island, and prepared ourselves for an afternoon ashore. We cruised in via Zodiacs, landing in a small harbor; from there, we set out to visit various sites in the area, including Ahu Akivi’s seven moai, representing the chiefs of Easter Island’s seven tribes. We also visited Puna Pau, a quarry where the red scoria topknots came from. From here, they were carried miles to their awaiting moai, where they would be placed on top like hats.

We visited Ahu Akapu, a ceremonial platform with a single restored moai, as well as a site called Tahai, with an ancient canoe landing and 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.

The divers headed out on a spectacular dive, during which they looked upon massive coral heads and were escorted constantly by enormous green sea turtles. Back on board, we mingled over cocktails in the lounge at Captain Håkon Gustafsson’s Farewell Cocktail Party.


Wednesday, November 22 - Easter Island

We awoke to glorious blue skies and occasional puffy white clouds, perfect conditions to explore and photograph more remarkable archaeological sites around Easter Island. After breakfast, we set out to learn more about the fascinating history of this remote outpost.

We headed high up on the slopes of the volcano Rano Kau, where the temperature dropped considerably, and from where we had excellent looks down over the rest of the island. 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.

The ceremonial complex of Ahu Akahanga covered a huge area, with spectacular views out over the crashing sea. Toppled moai lay sadly on their faces along the coast, and we peered into a lava tube cave that once provided shelter and hiding 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 quarry, Rano Raraku, from which all the moai were carved. We hiked along a green hillside littered with dozens and dozens of moai, which were abandoned in various stages of completion. Some of us hiked up to the crater rim for a look at its 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 barbeque 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.


Thursday, November 23 - Easter Island / Disembark

This morning we watched our final sunrise over Easter Island, from the ship that had been our home for the past few weeks. After breakfast, we said goodbye to the crew of the Caledonian Sky, and made our way ashore.

We had reached the end of our journey from Tahiti to Easter Island. The final days of this expedition were dominated by reflection on all we had seen and experienced, and the celebration of the friends, both new and old, we have shared this journey with.

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