Pitcairn Islands Expedition: What We Found

In the last 3 weeks we visited the four islands and atolls in the Pitcairn Archipelago (Pitcairn, Ducie, Henderson, and Oeno). We conducted 384 individual dives, spending a total of over 450 person-hours underwater. We counted and measured underwater 40,210 fishes, 5000 sea urchins, 6300 coral colonies, and 14,500 algae. We had a handful of sunny days and calm seas, and many days with big swells, wind and rain. We observed extraordinary things, from the pristine reef at Ducie Atoll formed by pale blue corals looking like giant roses, to the sharks moving elegantly, like synchronized swimmers, over a sandy patch at Henderson Island. We found species never reported before for the Pitcairn islands, including algae, corals, reef fishes, and some deep sea sharks that we still need to identify. All in all, it was an extraordinary experience.

Pitcairn was rough, windy and rainy, surrounded by a halo of murky water. Yet, we saw schools of hundreds of rudderfish grazing on the rocky bottom. And we discovered a previously unreported deep coral reef. Most important, we found a welcoming community of Pitcairners who made us feel at home on that big rock in the middle of the South Pacific.

Ducie was paradise: a coral ring surrounded by crystal clear waters, luxurious coral reefs, and healthy fish communities dominated by top predators such as sharks. Ducie was the most pristine of the four islands.

Henderson was mysterious, with the edges of a green thick forest hanging from dark limestone cliffs. Underwater, we found curious sharks that followed us during our re-breather dives.

Oeno was the atoll that did not want to reveal its secrets – because of rough seas. With persistence and patience we found very abundant carnivores of small to medium sizes, including ubiquitous groupers red and yellow, white and brown, and with all the colors of a peacock.

Now our team will spend a few months analyzing all the data we collected, selecting from the footage we took and editing a National Geographic documentary. The most fun is past, and now the tedious work of data analysis and writing begins. However, the memories of this expedition will be with us forever.

I cannot think of enough words of acknowledgement for the institutions that collaborated in this expedition and made it successful: National Geographic Society, Pew Environment Group, Spain’s National Research Council, US Geological Survey, University of Hawaii, US National Park Service, University of California Santa Barbara, and the phenomenal crew of the Claymore II, who made our work possible in safety. We are very grateful to the Pitcairners at large, who hosted us in their homes and showed to us the secrets of their island. Thanks to the Pitcairn Council and the office of the Governor of Pitcairn, Ducie, Oeno and Henderson for authorizing our stay and providing research permits. And last but not least, we are indebted to our mission partners that made the expedition possible: Blancpain and Davidoff-Cool Water.

(Photos updated 4/11/12.)

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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.