South Pacific: Part 2 – The Pitcairns

Oeno Island
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© 2017 The Boon Companion


The essence was timing. You had to hover outside the reef until a roller approached, throw on the engine, and ride through the passage on the crest of the wave.

Dea Birkett, Serpent In Paradise (1997)
(Landing on Henderson Island)

From our starting point on Easter Island, which I described in my previous post,  our ship headed west towards the Pitcairn group of islands. There are four of these, of which only one, Pitcairn Island itself, is inhabited. I’ll leave that one for another post—here I’m going to write about Pitcairn’s less famous neighbours, Ducie, Henderson and Oeno.

“Neighbours” is perhaps too strong a word—they’re dotted over 600 kilometres of ocean, and none of them is more than a few kilometres across. I’ve plotted their positions on a map of Scotland, so you can get a feel for how spread out they are.

Pitcairn islands compared to ScotlandWe sailed for two and a half days from Easter Island before we reached Ducie, and each night we turned our clocks back by an hour, so that we could shift from Rapa Nui time (GMT-5) to Pitcairn time (GMT-8). We saw no other ships, no planes, and no wildlife apart from sporadic flying fish. We were, actually, travelling across an oceanic desert. On a map of the chlorophyll distribution in the world’s oceans, the space between Easter Island and the Pitcairns has the lowest concentration on the planet. Very little phytoplankton means very little of everything else farther up the food chain, too.

Pacific cholorophyll concentrations
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Source of base map

So we were pretty well-rested by the time we got to Ducie, what with all the extra sleep and the fact that the rocking motion of the ship tended to render everyone unconscious between meal times. Ducie is a classic coral atoll—a ring-shaped reef a couple of kilometres across with a central lagoon surrounded by a few low-lying islands. (The technical term for these atoll islands is motu, from a Polynesian word meaning … well … “island”.)

Landing on Ducie Island
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Landing on Ducie, © 2017 The Boon Companion

We landed on the largest motu, Acadia Island. Ducie is so far from anywhere else, it hosts only one plant species—the octopus bush, Heliotropium foertherianum, which forms a dense forest running the whole length of the island, just beyond the high water mark of the broken coral beach.

Octopus bush on Ducie Island
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Octopus bush jungle, © 2017 The Boon Companion

In this forest, birds nest, including most of the world’s Murphy’s petrels, and the gorgeous little White terns, which lay their eggs precariously balanced on tree branches. And since they have hardly ever seen a human, they are ludicrously trusting, just sitting tight and gazing bemusedly at any passing visitor.

Murphy's petrel, Ducie Island
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Murphy’s petrel, © 2017 The Boon Companion
White tern, Ducie Island
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White tern, © 2017 The Boon Companion

We moved gently through the bushes, watching our feet to avoid treading on petrel chicks, which tuck themselves under the shade of low branches, and went to dip a toe in the bathwater-warm lagoon.

Lagoon, Ducie Island
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The lagoon, © 2017 The Boon Companion

On the way back to our Zodiac boats, we picked up plastic waste from the beach and took it away with us—the Pitcairns sit on the edge of the South Pacific Gyre, and intercept far more than their fair share of the world’s floating garbage.

Next came Henderson, very different in character from Ducie—it’s a raised coral platform, ten kilometres by five, surrounded by undercut, overhanging 10-metre cliffs. Just three narrow strips of coral sand offer potential landing places. The beaches are imaginatively named North Beach, East Beach, and Northwest Beach—so if you’re passing you’ll know where to look for them.

If you’ve heard of Henderson at all, it’s most likely because it was recently reported to have the world’s highest concentration of plastic waste on its beaches. (The South Pacific Gyre, again.) It also had a walk-on part in Ron Howard’s film In The Heart Of The Sea (2015), which told a dramatized version of the story of the wreck of the whaling ship Essex. The survivors spent some time on Henderson, which Howard depicted as an utterly barren, black volcanic island, very different from its real appearance.

Henderson Island in "Heart of the Sea"
Henderson as featured in “In The Heart Of The Sea
Northwest beach, Henderson Island
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The real Henderson, © 2017 The Boon Companion

Unfortunately for movie makers, the real Henderson looks like a tropical paradise, with its white beaches and dense forests—a cinema audience would be hard pressed to guess how inhospitable it actually is. The lush interior is a leg-breaking coral maze, so porous  that rainwater seeps away immediately. The trees grow well, but the only source of fresh water is a single spring which is accessible only at low tide.

Our problem with Henderson was that we couldn’t land—a northerly swell was washing on to the potential landing places, shooting plumes of spray up the cliffs and generating dangerous surf on the beaches. We hung around forlornly off-shore to see if conditions changed, and then had to move on. So we had no chance to see Henderson’s fine crop of four endemic land birds, but we did glimpse a rare Henderson petrel shooting across the bow of the ship, with which the birders had to grumpily content themselves.

Surf on Henderson Island cliffs
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

Our last uninhabited Pitcairn island was Oeno (pronounce it in three syllables: oh-EE-no). It’s another different kind of island—while Ducie is a ring of islands around an empty lagoon, Henderson is a raised coral platform, and Pitcairn itself is a peak of volcanic rock, Oeno is a small central island surrounded by a reef about three kilometres in diameter.

Big waves were breaking along the reef edges, but we surfed in on a Zodiac and waded to the shore. Oeno is a place of astonishing colours—the pale green of the reef, the blue of the sky, the white of the sand, and the intense tropical green of the foliage; all feel like someone has taken the real world and adjusted its “colour saturation” slider to an almost unbelievable intensity.

Sprouting coconut, Oeno Island
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© 2017 The Boon Companion
Drying pool, Oeno Island
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© 2017 The Boon Companion
Strawberry hermit crab, Oeno Island
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The aptly named strawberry hermit crab, © 2017 The Boon Companion

The Pitcairners call this place “Holiday Island”, because they come here for a break when the pace of life on Pitcairn gets too hectic. But they obviously don’t disturb the birds, which showed the same tendency to sit tight and ignore visitors as we’d encountered on Oeno.

Red-tailed tropic bird, Oeno Island
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Red-tailed tropic bird, © 2017 The Boon Companion

Everywhere on Oeno, if you stand quietly, you can hear a sound like a distant boiling kettle—the surf breaking on the reef. And while getting across the reef on the inward journey was a matter of placing the Zodiac just behind the crest of a wave and surfing it in (he says, as if he could do it himself), getting out again involved butting through the breaking waves. It was a spectacular journey, but no-one avoided a soaking, and a few folk ended up (briefly) in the water.

Crossing the reef, Oeno Island
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Crossing the reef, © 2017 The Boon Companion

My next post tells the story of our visit to Pitcairn, the only inhabited island of the group.

3 thoughts on “South Pacific: Part 2 – The Pitcairns”

  1. Thanks for some more lovely photos & a nice story about these islands.

    I am surprised that coconut palms weren’t on Acadia Island – especially when you have a photo of the “colonising” one on Oeno. Does the Gyre gimble its way in the wrong direction there?

    1. The gyre flows north up the coast of South America, west along the equator, and then fans out to flow south in a broad (and therefore slow) movement that sweeps across the Pitcairns before joining the West Wind Drift in the Southern Ocean, to head eastwards to South America again. There’s a very diagrammatic representation here. The plastic waste is concentrated near the centre of the gyre, so the Pitcairns get the fringe of that. But the south-directed flow isn’t favourable for transporting biological material along the island chain.

      1. In this case a picture certainly does tell a thousand words and gives a clear idea of why no coconuts. Ta.

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