Pitcairn Islands Expedition: Hard Rains Lead to Underwater Discovery

The longboat left Pitcairn Island at 7:00 this morning, amidst drenching rains, taking most of our scientists and filmmakers back to the ship for one more day of diving at this location.

Host families had driven everyone down on their 4x4s, and waved as we launched from Bounty Bay, where the mutineers burned the famous ship more than 200 years ago.


And the Rain Came Down

The past four days may have been the most taxing of our Pristine Seas expeditions to date. It did not stop raining, and the runoff from Pitcairn created a halo of muck around the island.

You could see every drop of rain splash into the ocean until it fell so hard that the individual drops disappeared into a mist of blended splashes hovering over the waves. The nearest slopes of the island loomed large and dark while the distant ridges and rocks faded to white in the diffused sunlight filtering through the clouds.

It seemed that the island was going to wash out into the Pacific Ocean. That murkiness, combined with the swell that kept us from diving too close to shore, frustrated us and made us believe that we could not survey and film the richest habitats around the island. It was this very situation though that led to a discovery none of us expected.


Manu’s Discovery

Because of the low visibility we tried to dive deeper than originally planned– beyond the murky halo, expecting to find clearer water. About half a mile from shore, the water was crystal clear, of an incredible deep blue. Manu San Felix, our underwater cinematographer, put his head in the water and came back with a big smile. “I think there is a coral reef down there,” he said.

We jumped right in, and 35 meters below the surface there was a reef with live coral covering almost all the seafloor. In other places we would have expected to find a thriving coral reef like this one at 15 meters depth, but the water is so clear here that coral growth extends far below “normal” depths.


What We Found

We dived to the bottom and it was clear that corals were not the only things thriving at this depth. Reef fishes were abundant, and came curious to check us out. Not many people have ever dived here, and we might well be the first people these fishes have seen.

Large black jacks darted in and out and between us, trying to bite our bubbles. The herbivorous “nanwe” or “rudderfish” (see photo) became very excited and swam around us, grazed on the bottom, and circled us again—during the entire dive.

When our bottom time ended, we ascended very slowly, looking down as a few jacks followed us to the surface. I felt as though we had visited the moon for the first time and we were leaving, returning to our home planet.

Next stop: Ducie atoll.


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Meet the Author
Marine ecologist Dr. Enric Sala is a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence who combines science, exploration and media to help restore marine life. Sala’s scientific publications are used for conservation efforts such as the creation of marine protected areas. 2005 Aldo Leopold Leadership Fellow, 2006 Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation, 2008 Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum.