Mike Fay’s Pitcairn Journal: “Down Rope”–With a Rope

Note: Due to the unfortunate discovery of a living rat on Henderson Island made by Mike Fay on 27 March, extra time was taken to communicate with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds before publishing his findings. We now recommence with the posting of the remaining entries from Mike’s Pitcairn Islands Expedition Journal in the proper sequence. You can follow the whole series here.


By Mike Fay, NG Explorer-in-Residence

29 March 2012

Last day on the island and I just realized that I became so obsessed with rails and rats, pigeons and lorikeets, that while our camp is about 40 yards from the beach, I hadn’t been back out there since our first day on the island.

It poured last night and I have been up late for the past two nights looking for rats so the patter of rain on my tent fly allowed me to justify sleeping until seven.  I roused myself, had a nice cup of cold Nescafe, and decided to take a walk over to the east beach; no more time to camp over there as planned.


Walk to the East Beach

I noticed straight out of camp that the coconut- and trash-donning boxing hermit crabs were replaced almost entirely by the more diminutive strawberry models who were hanging out under the fringing cabbage tree forest. There were pairs of masked boobies, looking constantly both ways of course, before doing nothing, and I caught a juvenile asleep with his head tucked deeply into the feathers on his back.

There were ten or so great frigates that have been hassling the boobies to make them upchuck their food.  The red-footed boobies and brown noddies cruised the coastline, and the curlews and wandering tattlers were giving their high pitched calls going in all directions. I spotted my one-and-only white version of the Pacific reef heron. So far this is the only individual I have seen in the Pitcairn Islands. Henderson petrels were catching the updraft along the cliff face and being real hams showing how they could lay on the speed as they cruised back out over the sea.

The beach edge went from Suriana shrubs to that Lythraceae (Pemphis acidula) shrub that we found one specimen of on Ducie and that the Pitcairners call “miki miki.” There were toe trees (Cordia subcordata) interspersed in the dense coastal vegetation.  These were apparently introduced to the island by Polynesians and are to this day cut by the Pitcairners for carving.  It has beautiful dark brown wood.

The tide was real high and there are three cliffs you have to get by on the way to the trailhead that brings you to the east beach proper.  Heather from the Pew Environment Group went with me.  We got to the first cliff with the surf crashing at a good clip on the coral faces.  Heather turned back.


Past the First Challenge

I decided to press on and found a cabbage tree stick that I could use to keep me from getting dragged out on to the reef as the waves returned to sea.  Mainly, I was worried about getting my cameras drenched in sea water.  There was a school of large mullet doing just fine in the surf, so why not me, eh?  I made it past the first no problem; it has kind-of a cave and a big rock in front so you can skirt past some of it from the inside.  The second one was the dicey one; it has a long wall then a deep spot in front of a little rock nose.  I waited for the right tempo in the waves and went up to my nipples, but got past no problem.  Third one was a piece of cake.

I hit the entrance to the trail up the plateau face and entered the forest.  The forest here is quite similar to the north side except that it is miniaturized, with the canopy only about 3-4 meters high, but still dominated by Pisonia grandis and various associated Rubiaceae.  The coral is sharper on this trail.  I saw a few fruit pigeons but didn’t hear any lorikeets or see any crakes.

As you get close to the east beach the vegetation gets very wind-sculptured and the Pisonia trees go completely dwarf.  Then you break out into a low plain of ferns on sharp coral outcrops dominated by Phymatosorus scolopendrium ferns. I got to the cliff edge to find a rope—an old rope collected off the beach that was there to ease the first drop off the face.  I thought about Down Rope on Pitcairn (see photos) where there is no rope.  Maybe they mean the rope is down.  The wind was coming up off the ocean and funneling right up the hill to the lip of the cliff that was probably blowing 40 knots or so.  I thought that was great; even if I slipped I would just get plastered to the side of the cliff by the wind and not fall.  It was also raining which added to the fun, but I was enjoying the coolness.


Eerie Reminders of the Past

Once down on the beach the first thing that hits you is that all down the coast is a dense coat of trash.  I took off to the south and came to a very cool cave that forms a perfect arc view to the beach in an enormous sand vestibule.  This would be a great place to hold up as long as you didn’t get horizontal rain from the east, which I am sure you do, actually.

My mind wandered to the three men who stayed on the island from the wrecked whaling ship Essex deciding their chances of survival were greater with no fresh water on this island they had found than drifting at sea.  The next things they found were the next things I saw, which were the remains of several people who died on here long before the Essex guys showed up.  The bodies originally were all lined up side by side.  One was a small child.  Today, after having been genetically analyzed in New Zealand and found to be from ancient Polynesians, these bodies are in caskets with a cross built by the Pitcairners.  They told me that in the past, people had actually raided these graves for bones.

A bit further down the beach I hit the mother lode of trash: mostly fishing floats, nets, ropes, fish boxes, 20-liter containers, buckets, Japanese hard hats, long-line beacons and even a welding helmet and a toilet seat.  The trash density here is several times what it is on Ducie, built up from years of concentration.  I walked down the beach taking pictures every 7 steps so I could stitch it together in one long mosaic to count the debris.  Just think how much of that stuff is down at the bottom of the ocean.


Nature’s Spa Treatment

There were about 10 frigates cruising the beach, harassing boobies.  They flew over me.  The wings of these birds remind me of people who can stop at a stop light and balance on their bicycle for minutes without having their feet touch the ground.  Well these birds can fly almost at a stand still in the wind, their primaries turned down almost vertical with the thumb forming a little winglet and the secondaries fanned for lift.  They can completely control their position.  I put my hand up in the air and immediately they formed around me thinking maybe I had a handout for them.

I climbed the cliff at the southern terminus of the beach.  The trick with climbing is always that it is much easier to get up than down, but I went up anyway.  The vegetation was dominated by tidy tufts of Heliotropium anomalum.  On top was the same fern as further down the beach and the same strong wind.  I slid on my butt and picked my way through the jagged coral below.  It was already time to go so I booked down the beach, climbed back up the rope and before I knew it, I had cleared the cliffs just in time to pack up and be ready for our pick-up at 5:00 PM.  It started pouring but we decamped anyway and got to the beach rendezvous at 4:57 PM.  At 6:30 PM we were still waiting in the rain and I was getting a serious chill.  15 more minutes and still no show.

We bailed and set our tents back up in the pouring rain.  What is cool about these tents is you put them up in a downpour, mop them up, sit naked for an hour or so and then you pull out your sleeping mat and sheet and hop in, crispy dry.  I slept like a baby.  Guess we were going to have one more day on Henderson.


Addendum: The Pitcairn Islands Government and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the two partners in the island restoration project, are mobilizing a trip to Henderson in response to the recent rat sighting. Their aim is to try to confirm rat presence and species, obtain genetic samples, determine whether a small number of rats survived the eradication operation or have since been introduced to the island, and to learn as much as they can about any extant rat population. They will also assess the feasibility of carrying out a hand-baiting around the area of the rat sighting and do this if possible. In the longer term, the operation will have bought precious time for Henderson’s wildlife. Millions of pairs of seabirds have been lost from Henderson since rats were introduced to the island, and the team are determined to continue their work to restore this remarkable World Heritage Site and save the Henderson petrel from its slide towards extinction.



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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.

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