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Mike Fay’s Pitcairn Journal: UFO Lost at Sea, Stalked by Grey Reef Sharks, and More

By Mike Fay, NG Explorer-in-Residence   Got up before sunrise to get going down to the Edward and Pandora motus on the southwest of the atoll before the scorch started. The fairy terns started to call at 5:50 just before the sun came up.  I got our new kayak out to paddle down because I...

By Mike Fay, NG Explorer-in-Residence


Got up before sunrise to get going down to the Edward and Pandora motus on the southwest of the atoll before the scorch started. The fairy terns started to call at 5:50 just before the sun came up.  I got our new kayak out to paddle down because I also wanted to circumnavigate the small rubble motu with no vegetation on the west side of the atoll.

There was a bit of rain in the night and a fairly brisk headwind. I paddled down and Heather walked.  I guided her across the channel between the motus and we circumnavigated Edward.  It was small and pretty round. We decided to cross-hatch with transects, Heather doing north/south, me east/west. We were going to continue our normal counts of petrels in the tournefortia forest.

We reached Edward which is tiny. We only got a total of 5 petrels. Continuing on to Pandora we did a circumnavigation and then did a total of 7 transects across the motu. We only saw two or so petrels. That was it. We completed our survey without finding any mother lode of birds. That was evident from the minute we set foot on the island, but at least now we had quantified data to prove it. We did score on two more big green specimens of the glass floaters that everyone on the boat had requested.


Visitors From the Boat

In the PM we got invaded from the boat. It is funny how after only a few days on the island, even though I had a team with me concentrated in the transect groove, visitors (while not unwelcome) just take you out of the space you’re in.  It makes it much more difficult to figure out what is happening in this little world. Solitude is what it is all about when you are transecting. I took off for the west side of the island in the kayak to dive a bit and to take pictures of the petrels in flight to get good data on upper and lower wing patterns so we can get good IDs on them from folks who live for petrels.


I got there to find remote-imaging engineer Alan Turchik and cinematographer Neil Gelinas with the drone helicopter. We probably had a steady 15-knot wind, and at altitude probably quite a bit more.  There was a group of great frigates there and Alan flew the chopper up into them which was amazing to watch, like a UFO flying into a group of people hang-gliding on the beach. The birds didn’t seem to react at all, just accepted this new aerial species with grace and poise.

Then I asked if he could fly a short transect over the motu to see if we could test doing a vegetation transect.  He put it up over the forest and said he would keep it low and hang right over the middle. As I watched, the profile of the chopper started to get smaller, and then it began a fairly steep climb and then went with the wind out to sea.  Before you knew it the chopper was just a little dot on the horizon and was obviously past the surf. Alan started running trying get her back, but that thing was gone.

We ripped across the woods to the sea side. As we reached the edge of the cabbage trees on the south side there was this enormous “squaaaawk.”  I looked down and there was a red-tailed tropicbird nesting.  She had scolded me for just about running her over.  We ran out on to the beach and scanned.  There was no sign of our own bird—it was lost at sea, MIA. So the experiment to record canopy using a remote helicopter lasted all of 5 minutes.


Snorkeling in the Lagoon

I decided to take a snorkel of the lagoon next to the exit to the sea, since it seemed to be more full of life on this side. I slipped into the water and as my head went under I found myself in the middle of a large school of silver mullet right at the surface. It was awesome.

I worked my way into a bit deeper water where there are these little mounts of dead coral with coralline algae blooms in blue and pink. In the crevasses were giant clams and hundreds of fine-spined urchins.  Parrot, butterfly fish and jacks started to mob me a bit. I went to where it was a bit deeper, maybe 20 meters with a sand bottom and absolutely clear.

I swam yet deeper and then got that feeling. I turned because stuff does follow you when you dive.  Sure enough there were two grey reef sharks, a good distance below me but big, maybe 5 feet long each. No matter what kind of shark they always give me an adrenaline rush. I knew they would be paying me a visit.  They did a wide circle around me and then darted toward me, and passed me by.  Sharks are so cool. I slowly made my way back to the shallow—I didn’t know how many of those dudes would gather.


Sunset Bird Shooting


Andrew showed back up from the boat. We stayed until late to film petrels and record their vocalizations. I had my 300-mm lens. I felt like I was manning an antiaircraft gun.  Using autofocus I had to get that thing on the bird, focus and shoot at about 50 miles an hour.  After a bunch of tries I got pretty good at it.

Then I had the frigates hovering overhead.  I shot those just for fun, slow and easy targets. I probably got 100 shots of petrel wings, upper and lower, of all the color variations that we are seeing out here.  Andrew got all the variations of the vocalizations.

I felt satisfied that we had done what we could to get good IDs on these critters.  We shot silhouettes of the birds and trees into the dark and then I navigated on water and Andrew walked across the reef to get back to camp.  That is when it got tranquil again. A good day.

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Meet the Author

J. Michael Fay
Mike Fay has spent his life as a naturalist—from the Sierra Nevadas and the Maine woods as a boy, to Alaska and Central America in college, to North Africa and the depths of the central African forest and savannas for the last 25 years. He has worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society of the Bronx since 1991. In 1996, Fay flew over the forests of Congo and Gabon and realized there was a vast, intact forest corridor spanning the two countries from the Oubangui to the Atlantic Ocean. In 1997, he walked the entire corridor, over 2,000 miles, surveying trees, wildlife, and human impacts on 12 uninhabited forest blocks. Called Megatransect, this work led to a historic initiative by the Gabonese government to create a system of 13 national parks, making up some 11,000 square miles (28,500 square kilometers). In 2004, he completed the Megaflyover, an eight-month aerial survey of the entire African continent. He logged 800 hours and took 116,000 vertical images of human impact and associated ecosystems, many of which are now visible on Google Earth. In 2008 Fay completed the Redwood Transect, a new project to learn more about the redwood forest. He walked the entire range of the redwood tree, over 700 miles. Since then he has participated in the 2011 BioBlitz at Saguaro National Park, and is a regular team member of fellow NG Explorer Enric Sala's Pristine Seas Expeditions, recording the life and land above the waves.