Pitcairn Islands Expedition: Escape From Oeno Lagoon

Today we decided to go into the lagoon of Oeno. Nigel Jolly, the owner of the Claymore II, and Neil Broughton, her captain, took a look at the pass into the lagoon in the morning, and said that they could get us in and out, but that we wouldn’t be able to make multiple entrances and exits over the crashing waves that fringe the reef. From our position offshore, beyond the breaking swell, seeing clouds already building high into the sky, it did not seem the best day for trying this. But they were confident and we were hopeful, so we went with it. It was probably the worst day we could have chosen.

Making Our Entrance

Manu San Felix, Nathan Lefevre, Andrew Howley, and I went on two small boats with Nigel and Neil. The entrance to the lagoon was conducted between wave sets at high speed to try to prevent the boats from hitting the hard corals – which could easily stop a boat abruptly and project us over the bow and into the corals. We held onto our boats praying for an easy entrance, and made it without problems.

We landed on the little island in the center of the Oeno lagoon, filmed and took some photos of the picture-perfect sandy beach with coconut trees, as well as frigatebirds, tropicbirds, petrels, and boobies. Then it became very dark and it started raining like the sky was going to fall.

Diving in the Rain

Since we could not film much under the heavy rain, we decided to dive. We jumped in the water near some shallow patches of pink reefs full of giant clams. Above us, the rain rippled on the surface making a comforting swooshing noise, but the current was ripping and at full swimming power we could not make any progress.

We moved to another patch reef, closer to the island, and saw two whitetip reef sharks. Shortly after we jumped in, the sharks swam into a hole and disappeared. Again, the strong current simply did not allow us to work.

Escape From the Lagoon

Despite our best efforts, the weather did not cooperate today, and we decided to return to the ship. The standard protocol for exiting a lagoon against the oncoming waves is to wait for the right set of waves, and head out zigzagging at high speed while trying to miss the shallow rocks and corals, and trying not to capsize.

Our jet boat made it out easily, but the outboard engine of our aluminum boat hit the bottom – clank clank clank! Some cursing ensued. Neil was at the wheel and lifted the engine a little. Off we went again, and again we hit the bottom. The boat stopped for an eternal few seconds, while we watched the waves building and breaking right in front of us. Neil suddenly told us to hold on, and off we went for a third time, hitting the breaking waves straight on, and jumping noisily. He masterfully took us out of the danger zone. Nathan, who was on the jet boat, told us that a couple of times our boat had jumped completely out of the water.

Once outside of the atoll, we all breathed with relief. Some days at sea are like today: a lot of effort, white knuckles, fast heartbeat, and not many results. It takes perseverance and determination to complete an expedition successfully. Now, as I write, there is lightning in the darkness out there, and rain blowing almost horizontally. I only hope that tomorrow the sea will be nicer to us.



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.