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Mike Fay’s Pitcairn Journal: Disaster at St. Paul’s

By Mike Fay, NG Explorer-in-Residence 3 April 2012 I was somewhere in an African village. The roosters were waking me up with their cock-a-doodle-doos.  I opened my eyes and looked up. The dream gone, I rewound my brain until I was in Pitcairn Island. It all came back to me: last night I had set...

By Mike Fay, NG Explorer-in-Residence

3 April 2012

I was somewhere in an African village. The roosters were waking me up with their cock-a-doodle-doos.  I opened my eyes and looked up. The dream gone, I rewound my brain until I was in Pitcairn Island.

It all came back to me: last night I had set up my tent in the rain and eaten fish.  The roosters I heard were of the feral variety and I was way down on the east side of the island near St. Paul’s rock.  I thought about how few places have chickens gone wild. Mangareva was the first time I had ever seen it.  Here on Pitcairn folks don’t really eat them much anymore they say—too much chicken coming frozen from New Zealand to worry much about hunting for them deep in these valleys.


In Search of a Landslide

I heated some water on a Sterno can and wondered where I was going to take myself this morning.  Bren is the island’s preschool teacher and had to work until noon, so I was on my own.  What I wanted to see was the landslide that had come down just to the west during the past few months’ torrential rains.

First I walked down into the little drainage toward the sea.  Bren told me that the islanders had replanted this place because the erosion was bad.  The pandanus had grown in nicely along with taumanu, what they call the “almond tree” here or “hard mango,” which is called elsewhere the “catappa,” actually from Madagascar.  There were also coconut trees.

While it would have been nice if they had planted native species here instead, at least there was vegetation.  Toward the beach it was still barren because the soil had eroded down to red clay and volcanic rock.  I managed to slip and whack my shoulder, so slick is this stuff.  These places on Pitcairn where nothing will grow remind me of Madagascar where they have lost much of the soil to deforestation and overgrazing.


The Urge to Climb

I went back up the hill and just started climbing.  I knew the slide I wanted to see was in the other direction, but I don’t what it is with humans, they have this thing about climbing up until you get to the top.

I was in a dense pandanus forest now that looks impenetrable from the outside but once you are inside it is actually quite open.  The leaves create a dense mat which is impervious and helps to stabilize the soil.  Toward the top I started running into the native species of tapau and rata.  These two trees seem to have survived in pretty good stands all over the island.  It seems like they would have been the two dominants here before the 250 newcomer plants were brought to the island.  There were some beautiful old rata that have probably been here since before the Bounty landed.

So I succeeded in climbing the whole mountain to the lookout point of Ship’s Landing.  Then it was time to walk back down.  Got back to my tent and had some lunch.   Bren showed up and we finally headed off to the landslide.  She said it would take no more than 10 minutes.  About 30 minutes later we arrived on the fresh slide.  It looked like it had actually come off an old slide, just making what was bad worse, further gutting the drainage here.  I wondered how many significant landslides that last storm caused.


Poseidon Requires a Sacrifice

It was getting late and we decided to head down to St. Paul’s pool since there was some good surf hitting the rocks.  From up above it was very cool.  The breakers were hitting the two spires and the whole pool would just explode and turn white with bubbles.  I had to get some video from right down there.

We went down the long flight of wooden and concrete stairs and slipped down the little rock face down to the pool.  I was in good position.  A nice big wave hit the spires and water shot about 60 feet in the air and came over the lip of the pool in a huge surge.  Just then Bren shouted to me from above, “Watch out, that wave is going to take you.”  There was urgency in her voice and that’s not usually the case.  I looked and saw that this surge was coming right across the pool and was going to be above my head.  I just had time to put my camera under the rain fly of the camera bag and grab my backpack as the wall of water hit me.  Then I realized it was going to rip me off the cliff and right into the seas.  I used my camera hand to hold on just in time to see my 5D plunge into the pool.  Damn, I had been impressed I hadn’t lost a camera on this trip.  It had a good lens on it too. Bren immediately took off her pack and plunged in after the camera between wave sets.  She went down about 10 feet and fished that sucker out.

That evening I went back to Mike and Bren’s place to wash the camera out in fresh water.  Can you imagine dunking a $3,000 camera in a bucket of water?  I figured better to have the salt out, but I knew that camera was dead already.


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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.