2019 Tahiti to Easter Island: Marquesas, Tuamotus & Pitcairns Field Report

2019 Tahiti to Easter Island: Marquesas, Tuamotus & Pitcairns Field Report

Text by: Rich Pagen | Main photographer: Brent Stephenson|January 3, 2020|Field Report

Friday, October 11, 2019        
Papeete, Tahiti / Embark the Island 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, from Tahiti to Easter Island. 

We all arrived at the Hotel Intercontinental this morning, some of us coming a day or more early to explore Tahiti on our own. Before meeting as a group for lunch, some of us took a dip in the pool, or slept in to get our jetlag under wraps.

After lunch and checking out of the hotel, we met local guides who introduced us to a bit of the history and culture of Tahiti. This high, mountainous island was formed by volcanic activity, and is surrounded by coral reefs. Approximately 70% of the island’s population is made up of Polynesians, whose ancestors first settled Tahiti between 300 and 800 CE.

We visited the Tahiti Museum, with its collection of artifacts from various periods of Tahiti’s history. We also explored Point Venus, on the north coast of Tahiti, home to a towering lighthouse, which comprises eight floors and is 105 feet tall. It was here on Point Venus that James Cook set up the Fort Venus observatory to examine the 1769 transit of Venus. This unusual phenomenon takes place once every 243 years, when from the perspective of people on Earth, the planet appears to travel across the sun.

Late in the afternoon, we arrived at the pier and boarded the Island Sky, which would be our home for the next few weeks. We got ourselves mostly settled in on board, before gathering in the lounge for a safety briefing. Then Expedition Leader Mike Messick introduced us to the staff, and Cruise Director Lisa Wurzrainer gave us an overview of the ship.

Following a wonderful dinner served in the dining room, we were well ready for a good night’s sleep.
 

Saturday, October 12
Apataki, Tuamotu Islands

We pulled back the curtains this morning to deep blue sea in all directions around us. Some of us took advantage of the opportunity to sleep in a bit, while others of us were so excited to scan the tropical ocean for seabirds and other wildlife, that we were up for the sunrise. 

We mingled over scrambled eggs and coffee, and then headed to the lounge for a Zodiac briefing. Brad Climpson followed with a snorkel briefing, while the divers gathered with Mike Murphy for a dive briefing. Those of us who needed snorkel gear headed up to the back deck, where the staff were eagerly waiting to assist. 

Following an early lunch, we arranged our gear for the afternoon, and headed out to explore Apataki Atoll in the Tuamotu Islands. The largest chain of atolls in the world, the Tuamotus cover a total land area of only about 345 square miles, despite the vast spread of the archipelago.

A spectacular current poured into the central lagoon with the rising tide, and many of us landed on a large forested motu on the edge of the main channel. Some of us set out to search for the tiny blue lorikeet and atoll fruit dove, both of which make their home on this remote outpost in the Tuamotu Archipelago. Others toured the small community living there, which produce copra and salted fish, and have a small fish trap where they catch the bait for the deep sea fishing they do. 

The divers went out on their check out dive on the outer reef, where rivers of thousands of paddle-tailed snappers streamed past along the reef edge. As the French Polynesian authorities require us to carry a local divemaster while in their waters, we were all lucky enough to have Max, a young, fun-loving divemaster to accompany us on our dives over the next week or so.

The snorkelers jumped in with lemonpeel and flame angelfish, which actively searched the rocky bottom for tasty morsels to eat. The visibility was incredible, with views of a huge school of needlefish hovering just beneath the surface, and a passing gray reef shark investigating the area for potential prey. Groups of small parrotfish, mixed with surgeonfish, wandered the area plucking filamentous algae off the rocky ridges that dominated the snorkel site. 

Once back on the ship, we met Shirley Campbell for her lecture, Polynesia: The Last Frontier: Prehistory and Peopling of Polynesia. We then put on our Sunday best and gathered on the Lido Deck for Captain Jörgen Cardestig’s welcome aboard cocktail party. We mingled over champagne, and then the Captain introduced us to some of his senior officers. It was a great party, and a great finale to our fantastic day in Apataki!
                                                                     

Sunday, October 13
At Sea

 We are off on our way to the Marquesas, an island group described by some as the most beautiful in the world! On this day at sea, we awoke to some wind, whitecaps, and swell, which have been with us since we left Tahiti. We moved around the ship carefully, as it rocked gently back and forth, and made our way to The Club for our morning coffee.

Jack Grove gathered us in the lounge for the first enrichment lecture of the trip entitled, The Fishes of Polynesia. He began his presentation by showing us a beautiful flying fish that unfortunately landed on deck during one of its graceful “flights” out of the water. The pectoral and anal fins, when spread out, made the fish look like an impressive bi-plane! He then went on to discuss some of the fish families we will encounter on our travels throughout French Polynesia and beyond. 

Rich Pagen followed with his talk, Productivity on the Coral Reef: How Interspecies Relationships Have Built an Empire. Rich introduced us to the very important algae, zooxanthellae, which lives in the body tissue of the coral polyps, and is the key to such a diverse ecosystem being able to thrive in what is generally nutrient-poor water. He also spoke about some of the remarkable and seemingly unlikely relationships on the reef, such as anemonefish living among the stinging tentacles of sea anemones; and the pearlfish, which passes most of its life hiding within the anus of a sea cucumber!

Following a relaxing lunch, some of us gathered out on deck scanning the open sea for wildlife. A few Tahiti petrels, with their long droopy wings, flew low across the sea surface to most efficiently make their way upwind. Others joined Shirley for some very relaxing yoga in the lounge. We then all reconvened for Annette Kühlem’s presentation entitled, House Posts, Rib Men, and Giant Banyans: Holy Trees in Polynesia. Annette highlighted the human impact on native vegetation in the islands of Polynesia, as well as the cultural significance of sacred trees.

We had our first recap this evening, during which Rich spoke about the massive lie-and-wait predators called bobbit worms; Terence Christian tied in the lighthouse we saw in Tahiti to those in Scotland; and Brad spoke about coral reefs in the eastern Pacific. This was followed by a delicious dinner, and some lively singing in the bar.
 

Monday, October 14
Nuku Hiva, Marquesas Islands 

After a restful night’s sleep, we went out on deck to watch the early morning light change on the sea, or to scan for passing seabirds. Occasional pairs of white terns flew high above the horizon, their gleaming white bodies and wings glistening in the sun. 

Following breakfast, we joined Terence for his presentation, 10,000 Miles Distant: The Great War in the Pacific. Terence brilliantly showed how the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, which is credited with starting World War I, quickly fanned out to conflicts in such far flung locations as the islands of the South Pacific we are traveling through. 

In the late morning, Brent Stephenson gathered us together in the lounge for his presentation, The World through a Lens. Brent introduced us to some common approaches to working with camera exposure, as well as some photographic rules that will help us take better photos.

We enjoyed beautiful conditions outside for lunch, with spectacular views of the island 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.     

From the landing site, 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. There we had great looks at the endemic Nuku Hiva pigeon, a massive pigeon with an unlikely call reminiscent of a parrot, or even a monkey! Some of us walked up further with Shirley to several petroglyph sites, where a large fish and a turtle were among the subjects. 

From there, we walked down the road 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. Back down at the seaside, we visited a local restaurant for a drink and snacked on banana fritters, and changed into our swimsuits to take a dip in the sea just off the beautiful black sand beach.

At recap, we learned about the art of tattoo from Shirley, the significance of the dancing we witnessed today from Annette, and a bit about Nuku Hiva’s birdlife from Brent. We then relaxed over a delicious dinner and told stories of our first day in the Marquesas!

Tuesday, October 15
Atuona, Hiva Oa

We awoke this morning to gorgeous volcanic mountain scenery all around us, and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast looking out across the bucolic South Pacific landscape. We then went ashore near the small village of Atuona, where ‘le trucks’ used as the local school buses (and other assorted vehicles) brought us up to Calvary Cemetery to visit the graves of both artist Paul Gaugin and musician Jacques Brel. Gauguin settled in Atuona in September 1901, moving from Tahiti which he found didn’t have the savage culture he had expected. He lived in Atuona until his death in 1903. Annette told stories beside his gravesite about his unique life. 

Singer and performer Jacques Brel sailed to the Marquesas in 1975, where he wrote the material for his 13th and final album, entitled, Les Marquises. Shirley spoke to us about his life from next to his gravesite, where he was buried in 1978 following his death from cancer. 

We then meandered down the road to the center of town, where we found a few shops, a handicraft market, as well as an excellent museum highlighting the life of Paul Gaugin. We also saw Jacques Brel’s airplane, which he named Jojo after his best friend. Many of us sat on the deck outside the main grocery store sipping cold drinks, taking in the slow pace of this remote community.

During lunch, the Island Sky repositioned to just off the small village of Puamau. From the landing, 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, we headed back down to the coast, where some of us donned our swimwear for a swim in the waves. The body surfing was excellent, and rarely had any of us splashed around in waves with such stunning scenery all around us.

Meanwhile, the divers set off on a canyon and wall dive, where we sighted schools of blue-striped snappers, two very large one-spot snappers, and an octopus!

Back on the ship, we met for a lively recap during which Jack talked about the endemic Marquesan butterflyfish and other beautiful reef fish of the area, Rich introduced us to the music of Jacques Brel, and Annette showed pictures of the Paul Gaugin look-alike working the register at the local store!

Wednesday, October 16
Fatu Hiva 

Towering rock spires were visible along the spectacular coast of Fatu Hiva as the Island Sky 
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 into theprotected harbor by Zodiac where we were greeted with flower leis and beautiful local music. 

The birders set out on a 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. After three river crossings, and with some good luck, they came across an adult with a recently fledged juvenile.

Those looking for a highpoint with a view set out up the road to a point that gave sweeping looks out over the bay. Others trudged up a rocky slope through dense forest to a stunning, serene 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 this beautiful spot.

Others roamed the village or walked partway 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 about their food and craft-making. They served us the most delicious assortment of cooked bananas and fresh mango and guava, and then we watched a wonderful dance performance with powerful booming drums.

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 goldrim surgeonfish nibbled on algae on the rocks, while scythe triggerfish kept themselves facing into the surge as it pushed back and forth. We spotted a very large bigeye bream hovering off the rock wall, while three-spot dacyllus, a type of large damselfish, turned a pale color as they engaged in mating behavior. The divers spotted several pairs of Marquesan butterflyfish down near a massive cave.

When we took our faces out the water, we saw white-tailed tropicbirds soaring along the cliffs overhead, and wandering tattlers picking around on the rocks above the waterline for food. Rockskippers, fish that are quite happy out of the water up above the splash zone, were in abundance, gobbling up algae off the rocks before taking shelter when the next big wave came crashing in. 

As the ship departed the Marquesas, we mingled on deck over sail away drinks, and huddled together for our group photo, with the spectacular rock spires of Fatu Hiva as our backdrop. At recap, we heard about the Fatu Hiva monarch from Brent, a bit about Marquesan coral reefs from Brad, and the epic story of the freshwater eels of Fatu Hiva from Jack! With a morning at sea awaiting us tomorrow, the bar was alive with merry-makers, celebrating our day at one of the most beautiful islands in the world!

Thursday, October 17
Puka Puka, Tuamotus Islands

We awoke to partly cloudy skies and the deep blue sea in all directions, and some of us took our coffee out to the ship’s railing to take it all in. The wildlife watchers among us spotted a small number of various petrels fly past the ship, but in general we were reminded that the tropical pelagic zone is a very patchy environment, with food concentrated in small areas surrounded by huge swaths of empty space with little visible wildlife.

After breakfast, we joined Brent for his presentation, Seabirds of the Tropical Pacific. Truly adapted to a life at sea, these birds, which we can be found hundreds of miles from any land, only have to return to land to lay eggs and raise their young. Brent highlighted some of the species we may see, and told stories of both their hunting strategies and migrations.

After a few laps out on deck in the sunshine, we then gathered back in the lounge for Brad’s presentation, Coral Reefs: Rainforests of the Sea. Brad introduced us to the important mutualistic relationship between corals and the algae that lives in the tissue of the coral polyps, without which this magnificent ecosystem would not be able to exist. He also spoke about the various species and growth forms of corals that we may encounter on our snorkels and dives.

Over lunch, the ship continued its steam southeast back into the Tuamotu Archipelago, and soon the island of Puka Puka came into view. 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 cold coconuts to sip on, yummy local oysters, and fish prepared various ways. Once the performance was over, we headed off in various groups to take in this beautiful island.

Some of us roamed the village, 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 shallow sunbaked water.

The snorkelers and divers dropped in around the corner on the outside of the reef, where we found pristine crystal-clear water and, interestingly, a disproportionate 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. The visibility approached 120 feet, and the gently sloping reef had nearly 100% coral coverage!

Back on board, we grabbed a cocktail and headed to recap, where Brad introduced us to some different corals on the reef, Annette spoke about how examining the chemical composition of stone axe materials contributes to our understanding of trade routes, and Rich spoke about a moray eel that took down a parrotfish on the reef flat next to the landing.

Friday, October 18
Puka Rua

We awoke to another beautiful day in the South Seas. As we would not arrive at Puka Rua until after lunch, we had a morning at leisure that included sipping coffee out on deck or reading in the lounge. We fueled up on omelets and porridge before heading down to the lounge for the first lecture of the day. 

Terence kicked off the morning with a talk called, War Plan Orange: An Overview of WWII in the Pacific. Terence explained the complex chain of events that brought World War II to the once quiet and remote islands of the Pacific. After the lecture, we spent some time out on deck, watching a couple of red-footed boobies play in the air currents around the ship.

We then joined Rich for his presentation, Drama Like Your Favorite Soap Opera: Competition, Adaptation, and Deception on the Reef. From mantis shrimp feeding strikes to farming damselfish, Rich told stories of some of the amazing ways that creatures make a living in the coral reef ecosystem. 

We enjoyed lunch out on deck under beautiful blue skies, and watched the ship’s approach to the low-lying atoll called Puka Rua. The scouting party headed out upon our arrival to see which of the tiny breakwater harbors might allow us to get ashore. The swell was considerable but the entrance on the west side of the island offered the most protection. So we sped through the wavy channel and disembarked onto a rocky pier. From there, we either walked or hopped a ‘le truck’ to travel the half-mile road to the interior, where we came out on a massive lagoon, which was the most brilliant turquoise. There were handicrafts to buy, and a performance of song and dance with lots of swaying hips. We also sampled some delicious foods, including burrowing clam and a dish of pumpkin with coconut milk.

After impressing the locals with some of our own dance moves, some of us hopped in to explore the lagoon with masks and snorkels, encountering hundreds of black sea cucumbers, and fish gathered around piles of old clam shells.

Others headed out to snorkel at the outer reef, where Achilles tangs grazed on algae, and half-spotted hawkfish perched on coral heads awaiting their next meal! The visibility was so off-the-charts amazing that it was possible to see every snorkeler underwater, all at the same time! Pairs of eclipse butterflyfish patrolled the reef, their false eyespot evident from tens of meters away. And occasional large snappers passed beneath us, looking up curiously at all these humans hovering overhead at the surface.

We grabbed a cocktail at recap, where Terence spoke about the Polynesian sport of spear-throwing, Michael Moore showed aerial footage of Puka Puka, and Jack spoke about dachshunds and snorkeling. It was a fantastic day in this far-flung outpost in the Tuamotus.

Saturday, October 19
Tenararo 

We awoke to a series of low-lying atolls up ahead of the ship, and the bluest of blue tropical ocean one could ever imagine! After eating breakfast outside looking out across the stunning scenery, we joined Brad for his presentation entitled, Mechanisms of Dispersal: Life at the Whim of the Ocean. Brad spoke about the importance of plankton, the tiny organisms that drift with the currents and make up the base of the ocean’s food chain.

Meanwhile, the expedition team fanned out scouting the first island in the Acteon Group, a small atoll called Tenararo, looking for what opportunities might await us there. The wind had really picked up during the night, and a large swell was coming out of the east. So it took some careful assessment to determine the best plan of action for the afternoon. Mike found a spot on the northwest coast where it was possible to get over the fringing reef, and so we boarded Zodiacs to go ashore and explore this remote island gem. This was a true expedition stop, as the island is uninhabited and few have ever visited! 

It was an exciting 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 out 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 along the shoreline, blacktip reef sharks patrolling the water’s edge, and great frigatebirds and red-footed boobies soaring overhead. 

Others of us roamed the beach on the outer edge of the atoll, where white terns nested in the trees just in from the beach, their single egg precariously perched on a tree branch with absolutely no nesting material. We also encountered dozens of (usually) rare Tuamotu sandpipers, which flitted about quite fearlessly, even taking an interest in walking over and seeing what we were. Tuamotu sandpipers now survive only on the few rat-free islands left in the archipelago, where they feed on insects and nectar from flowering bushes. Their behavior of exploring and foraging in scrubby forest, and even perching in trees, is very uncharacteristic to what one might expect from a sandpiper!

Meanwhile, the divers encountered incredible visibility, and a veritable coral garden, with every color and shape of hard coral imaginable. We came across a small group of sleeping whitetip reef sharks, and were checked out by a very large green sea turtle. 

After all were safely back on board the Island Sky, there was a very festive vibe in the air. We had successfully landed on a beautiful atoll, in conditions that, for a while anyway, seemed like they were going to make such a landing impossible. Following an early dinner, we gathered for dessert and popcorn in the lounge, as well as a showing of the 1984 movie, Mutiny on the Bounty.


Sunday, October 20
At Sea        

Many of us took advantage of today’s “day-at-sea” status to have a bit of a sleep in. While we were doing so, Captain Jörgen Cardestig brought the Island Sky off of Mangareva, where our passports were brought ashore for clearance out of French Polynesia, and where we said goodbye to Max, our French Polynesian divemaster.

After breakfast, Jack told us the story of his discovery and recovery of a historic anchor at Ducie Atoll, in his talk, Anchors and Atolls. We looked forward to seeing that very anchor on display on Pitcairn Island! 

Terence followed with his presentation entitled, Tales of Whales and Woes: The Literary History and Archaeology of the Pitcairn Islands. Terence took us through the story of the misadventures of the crew of the whale ship Essex, which was attacked and sunk by a sperm whale while 2,000 nautical miles off the coast of South America in 1820. A saga replete with starvation, dehydration, and exposure to the elements, this tragedy inspired Herman Melville to write his famous novel, Moby Dick

After lunch and a few laps on deck, many of us caught up on some reading or slipped away for a nap. We then joined members of the expedition team in The Club over teatime to discuss future trips. Brent followed with his hilarious lecture about the world of birdwatching, entitled,Birding 101: An Introduction to Tweetie-birds and the Weird People Who Watch Them.

Then, in the evening, we all met for Recap during which Shirley spoke about Polynesia’s ‘third gender,’ Brad talked about sand cay formation, and Annette introduced us to the ‘ethical barometer’ produced by local missionaries. After dinner, we headed off to bed early in anticipation with our arrival tomorrow at Pitcairn Island.

 
Monday, October 21
Pitcairn Island

We arrived off Pitcairn Island’s small breakwater at sunrise, where Captain Jörgen Cardestig and our leader Mike took a look at both the landing and the ship’s rear platform. In order to pull off a landing at Pitcairn, all the ducks must line up because the area is known for very rough seas.

Pitcairn Island 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. 

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 Zodiac, and the drivers expertly timed the trip in by carefully watching the approaching waves. It was an exhilarating ride in, and soon after the Zodiac tucked in behind the small breakwater, we set foot on legendary Pitcairn Island!

From there we walked or got a ride up the short, but steep hill to the only settlement on the island, called Adamstown. There we met many of the 50 locals, some of whom were selling various crafts and even honey produced on the island. After a brief welcome presentation in the public hall, we broke into groups and fanned out across the island to soak up this historic place. Some of us stopped 
by the gravesite of John Adams, the only member of the original mutineers stillalive 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. Others of us headed up a steep exposed slope to Fletcher’s Cave, from which we watched red-tailed tropicbirds perform display flights, and looked out across Adamstown and the beautiful South Pacific beyond.

All back on board safely, we all shared stories over tea about our incredible visit to fascinating Pitcairn Island. Before dinner, we gathered for a festive recap during which we discussed the original Polynesian settlers to the island, the turbulent early years of the settlement after the arrival of the Bounty mutineers, and the efforts to recover what was left of the Bounty during the last century.

Tuesday, October 22
Henderson Island

Some of us got up 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 landbird species and nearly a third of all its insects and snails are found nowhere else in the world!

Henderson Island has had a fascinating history. After the sinking of the Nantucket whaleship Essexon November 20, 1820, the crew arrived at Henderson Island on December 20. All but three chose to depart a week later, the remaining three survived to be rescued from the island four months later! It was also the site of a failed rat eradication project in 2011, during which poison bait was dropped island-wide in an effort to remove the introduced Polynesian rat. 

After a hearty breakfast, we waterproofed our gear and gathered out on deck to board the Zodiacs. In order to get ashore, the 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 so has been able to survive on the island despite the presence of rats. Other rails throughout the Pacific islands have been much less fortunate.

The Henderson Island reed warbler hopped 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. Out on the beach itself, we encountered masked boobies loafing beside low bushes. 

After an exhilarating ride back over the reef, we headed back to the Island Sky for lunch. During the afternoon, the seabird watching was excellent from the outside decks, with great views of Kermadec, Juan Fernandez, and Murphy’s petrels taking advantage of the strong winds. We then joined Shirley in the lounge for her presentation, Wrapping in Tapa: The Cultural Importance of Tapa in Polynesia. 

At recap, Brent talked about the spectacular bird fauna of Henderson Island, and MiMo showed some impressive aerial footage of Pitcairn and Henderson Islands, including a view from above of green sea turtles mating! A delicious dinner was the perfect finale to our wonderful day on Henderson Island.

 

Wednesday, October 23
Ducie Island 

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. As the sky brightened, and with thousands of seabirds swirling around the island, the scouting party headed out to see if there was a safe way ashore in these challenging conditions. After much searching, the call came over the radio that indeed they had found a way in to shore, but that we would do snorkeling and diving first, to allow time for the tide to come in and, hopefully, make the landing as easy as possible. 

The snorkelers and divers found a wonderland of coral, patrolled by a massive school of gray drummers, which were apparently fascinated by our presence hovering above their reef. They cruised around below us, an occasional aberrant yellow one mixed in with the gray majority. Double-saddle butterflyfish explored the reef in groups numbering up to as many as 12 individuals, while curious black jacks made close passes within arms-length of us. And, every now and again, a young masked booby or two came to visit us in the snorkel area, sitting on the water in close proximity and looking below the surface curiously at us.

The divers embarked on what may have been the best dive of the trip, with incredible visibility and 100% coral cover, all complemented by ever-present gray reef sharks and white-tip reef sharks!

Back on the ship, we warmed up with a hot shower and made our preparations for another exciting Zodiac trip ashore. Once there, we quickly understood what a rat eradication can mean to breeding seabirds. Swarms of noddies and white terns flew overhead, while nearly every patch of ground up above the beach was occupied by adult and juvenile Murphy’s petrels, an estimated 250,000 pairs of which nest on the small island (90% of the world population!). We had to carefully watch our step as we meandered across the coral rubble and through the stands of beach heliotrope. 

Above the beach 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 occasionally up 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, 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 seabirds, including a Kermadec petrel feeding a chick and a Christmas shearwater incubating its single egg.

Back on board, we told stories of our adventure over lunch before gathering in the lounge for popcorn and a showing of the film Moana. Later in the afternoon, we enjoyed a very interesting and interactive Q&A session with the Island Sky’s Chief Officer, Hotel Manager, and Maître D’.

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! We then enjoyed a feast of Filipino culinary specialties, followed by a showing of the movie Rapa Nui, cleverly introduced by Annette.

 

Thursday & Friday, October 24 & 25
At Sea

After three big days exploring above and below the water in the Pitcairn Group, we slept in on this day at sea, resting up from quite a busy chapter of our Tahiti to Easter Island trip. We relaxed over breakfast with reasonably calm seas around us and partly cloudy skies overhead.

Rich kicked off the day’s lecture series with his presentation, Sex On and Off the Beach: Reproduction and Raising Young in the Aquatic Realm. From the curious anglerfish with tiny males that physically attach to the giant females for life, to the monotonous mate-attracting hum of a fish called the midshipman, Rich shared stories from the sea that could only be described as “putting the shine on the weird.” We left the talk in awe of the many complex ways that marine creatures bring in the next generation.

After a break with some time out on deck with a cup of tea, we joined Shirley back in the lounge for her talk, Wayfinding: Navigating the Pacific. Shirley spoke about the tools and techniques used by early Polynesians in making their way around the largest ocean basin on the planet. 

We enjoyed a delicious lunch and a bit of a nap before joining Annette for her first lecture about Easter Island, entitled, The Mysterious Island: Popular Ideas About Rapa Nui Revisited. Annette spoke about deforestation and societal collapse, but urged us to not think about it as a people living beyond their means (as has often been depicted), but rather as a consequence of the effects of the arrival of Europeans on the Rapa Nui society. A very resilient people, the local people are adapting to the modern world, while at the same time celebrating their rich and continuing heritage.

Before dinner, we gathered for cocktails and a rousing game of Liars Club, where excessive use of the letter M and the throwing of frogs from the end of long sticks were the topics of conversation! A great time was had by all, and we went off to dinner with big smiles on our faces. The fun continued after dinner with singing and dancing with piano player Florante in The Club.

On Friday, we awoke to a glorious cool morning, with views of the South Pacific in all directions. Some of us started the day with some reading out on the back deck, or a cup of coffee along the railing scanning for passing Juan Fernandez petrels. 

Following breakfast, we joined Jack for his talk, Biodiversity in the Sea and Why it Matters. Marine conservation is very close to Jack’s heart, and we certainly appreciated this as he highlighted the importance of marine protected areas and intact marine ecosystems, not just to the creatures who live there, but to humans as well.

Following the talk, we took a walk out on the deck before gathering again in the lounge for Annette’s presentation, Beyond the Moai: New Results of Archaeological Research on Easter Island. Annette spoke about the intricate carvings found on the backs of moai that were still partially buried in the quarry, rather than standing and impacted by the elements. She also talked about the shift to the birdman cult after contact with Europeans, and how it was actually a blending with the moai cult rather than a break from it. 

Following lunch, some of us joined Shirley for yoga, or scanned the deep blue sea for passing seabirds. We then met Murf for his presentation, Ruffy Tuffy Deep Sea Divers. Murf told stories of his days as a commercial diver back in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as his time leading dive trips under the Antarctica sea ice, including a trip taking Australian naturalist Steve Irwin to the Southern Continent!

At recap, Shirley talked about the importance of coconuts to cultures from Southeast Asia through to Oceania; Terence talked about stone tools, including constructing his own growing up back in Maryland; and Rich spoke about archaeological digs for Barbie dolls and crescent wrenches! Then we listened with bated breath to Mike’s briefing about our first day in Easter Island tomorrow.

Saturday, October 26
Easter Island

With a coffee in hand, we looked out over the open sea for our first glimpse of fabled Easter Island, the southeastern point 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!

As the Island Sky steamed toward our destination, we lingered over breakfast before joining Captain Jörgen Cardestig for his very interesting presentation, Life as a Harbor Pilot. It was fascinating to learn more about our captain, and to better understand the inner workings of taking ships in and out of one of Sweden’s busiest ports.

We then prepared ourselves for an afternoon ashore, and watched as the ship got closer to its anchorage off of the small harbor at Hanga Roa. There we got our first looks at the impressive and mysterious moai, perched along the coast and facing inland, situated in a position to watch over the people of the island.

We boarded Zodiacs for the ride ashore, landing in a small harbor where a spider web of boat lines crisscrossed overhead. 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 originated. From this quarry, they were carried miles to their awaiting moai, where they would be placed on top like hats.

We also 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 scuba divers headed out to a spectacular site called The Cathedral, a series of underwater caves, tunnels, and canyons almost beyond imagination, with a large concentration of trumpetfish in attendance. Back on board, we mingled over cocktails out on deck at the farewell cocktail party, and feasted on a gala dinner.

Sunday, October 27
Easter Island

We awoke to cooler temperatures and some wind, weather conditions that added an interesting atmosphere to the remarkable archaeological sites we would visit today. After breakfast, we set out to learn more about the fascinating history of this remote outpost.

Polynesian people most likely settled on Easter Island sometime between 700 to 1100 CE, at which time they developed a thriving culture. The exact reason for the society’s later decline is still very much a hot topic of debate; but certainly overpopulation and the subsequent deforestation of the island likely played a role. But European diseases and Peruvian slave raiding in the 1800s were certainly the final straw. With that said, the Rapa Nui culture has reinvented itself and is thriving.

We started the morning with a visit to the anthropological museum, followed by a trip out to the ceremonial complex of Ahu Akahanga. There we found old house foundations, with spectacular views out over the crashing sea, as well as a lava tube cave that once provided shelter for the Rapa Nui centuries ago. Toppled moai lay face-down along the coast, while 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 from rock formed from volcanic ash. There we hiked along a green hillside littered with dozens and dozens of moai, which were abandoned in various stages of completion.

We continued to Ahu Tongariki, the largest ceremonial site in Polynesia, whose 15 huge moai had been restored in 1996. From there, we visited Anakena Beach, one of only two sandy beaches on the entire island. There we enjoyed a wonderful lunch cooked umu-style underground with hot rocks, a wander around the archaeological site, and a brisk swim in the sea. Back in Hanga Roa, we walked the streets of town, and watched the massive green sea turtles forage in the tiny harbor.

At our final recap, many of the staff spoke about highlights of the trip and led a festive rendition of The Beatles’ When I’m 64 (with crucial words changed) for Jack’s 68th birthday.
 

Monday, October 28
Easter Island / Disembark

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

We headed high up on the slopes of the volcano Rano Kau, 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. 

We then visited the church in Hanga Roa, as well as the shops and craft markets where impressive woodcarvings were for sale. We then had a delicious brunch with Pisco sours perched above the harbor, before heading off to the airport for our respective flights onward.

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