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Pitcairn Islands Expedition: Getting to Know the Henderson Sharks

This morning we arrived at Henderson Island, where in 1820 three survivors of the wreck of the whaling ship Essex lived for more than 4 months after their ship was sunk by a bull sperm whale, and while their companions made a horrific journey through storm, starvation, death, and cannibalism until finding rescue in the...

This morning we arrived at Henderson Island, where in 1820 three survivors of the wreck of the whaling ship Essex lived for more than 4 months after their ship was sunk by a bull sperm whale, and while their companions made a horrific journey through storm, starvation, death, and cannibalism until finding rescue in the waters off South America.

The island itself is formed of coral thrust up above the waves by plate tectonics. On the side we approached, there is a thin sandy beach then an abrupt 50-foot cliff leading to the incredibly flat plateau that makes up the bulk of the island. Covered in tropical vegetation including coconut and pandanus trees, with periodic exposed limestone cliffs, it looks like a lost prehistoric world. While the island itself formed long after dinosaurs went extinct, Jane, the chef of out ship Claymore II, summed it up well when she said you expect to see a long neck rise up out of the forest at any moment.


Diving at a Coral Tower

As soon as we could, we jumped in the water, and as soon as we did, we saw sharks. Or maybe I should say they saw us. Grey reef sharks from about three to six feet in length came to investigate the divers.

Diving with “re-breathers” that silently recycle a diver’s breath without producing any bubbles, expedition leader Enric Sala, cinematographer Manu San Felix, and assistant Nathan Lefevre were particularly intriguing to the big ocean predators. Several charged right at Manu, bumping his camera with their snouts.

Diving safety officer Dave McAloney and I (the novice of the group) were a bit further away and in standard scuba gear, and the noisy bubbles we expelled seemed to keep the sharks at a distance and make them less inclined to check us out. Which was fine by me. Still, I was happy to see them, knowing that large predators are a good sign of a healthy ecosystem.

The setting was gorgeous. While there was nowhere near as much coral cover as we saw in Ducie, the formations were dramatic, and the fish were plentiful. Dave and I headed right for a large coral pinnacle, a tower of color and life rising 20 feet from the ocean bottom. Swimming in and out of the nooks and crannies, were lots of lovely fish. Jacks, just like we’ve seen at Pitcairn and Ducie followed us around, countless tiny reef fish flittered about the coral, and a few huge red snappers passed through as well.



We then headed back to the ship and reconvened with the fish, coral, and algae scientists and NG Remote Imaging Engineer Alan Turchik, who was busily prepping two drop-cams to record footage at depths far beyond those the divers can reach.

NG Remote Imaging Engineer Alan Turchik preps two drop-cams to send far deeper than the divers can go. Photo by Andrew Howley

After a few hours on the ship consisting mostly of a delicious lunch of squash soup (thanks again, Chef Jane), and a nap we headed right back out to the water. This time we snorkeled a bit to see more of the area, and then headed for a nearby point of the island, where different topography and currents would likely create some interesting and different underwater environments.


Get Busy Livin’

The veteran divers suited up with their re-breathers and jumped in. After hearing the guys’ stories of the sharks from the first dive, and after seeing a fairly large one myself while snorkeling, I was feeling a little less inclined to get in the water this time. As Dave and I put on our tanks and moved to the edge of the small boat to flip in, we saw another shark just under the surface swimming just a few yards from the boat.

I expressed my hesitance to Dave. He paused a minute, and then said, “How about if you go in and see how it goes?” With the reassurance that we could surface if the sharks (or my fight-or-flight instincts) got out of hand, I figured what the heck. Holding my mask and regulator to my face I flipped into the water.

There were the sharks. Three or four of them swimming around, smaller than they’d looked from the surface, and somehow they’d gone from unknowable and frightening to natural, beautiful, and graceful. I laughed to myself a bit, thinking of the drawing of a shark my 8-year-old nephew gave me in advance of the trip. Across the top he’d written, “I hope you see one of these. (Not this close.)”


Mrs. T’s Long-Lost Cousin

After a few minutes they had had enough of looking at us and swam off. Dave and I went in the other direction, following the lay of the land to where the the reef sloped sharply down to the depths.

Here it was covered with live coral and swarming with small reef fish, and again the ever-present jacks. Dave then waved me off to stay back from him a bit. I looked ahead and saw why:  a green turtle was skimming along the coral, flapping its wing-like fins in smoothly undulating rhythm. It was a striking difference from our encounter on Pitcairn with Mrs. T, the resident Galapagos tortoise.

We followed the turtle for a while, swam around viewing coral and small fish and then surfaced. The shark encounter had increased my breathing a bit, and in a mere 31 minutes I’d used up my tank. When we reached the boat, Dave went back under. He still had more than half of his tank left to breathe.

Now we’re back on the Claymore, well-fed once again, and the scientists are busily comparing their data, with Enric at work selecting photos and writing an account of his own experiences today. That is one of the most enriching parts of this expedition to the Pitcairn Islands: there are 13 of us on the team, and nearly as many on the crew of the boat, and while we’re all here together, everyone is having a unique experience, and they all come together to create a patchwork portrait of these incredible islands and pristine seas.

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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.