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Mike Fay’s Pitcairn Journal: Return to Pitcairn

By Mike Fay, NG Explorer-in-Residence 2 April 2012 I can hardly believe it: the Claymore headed back to Polynesia and I got left behind here on Pitcairn for 10 days. How cool is that? 10 whole days on the home of the Bounty buccaneers. The big thing I want to do is to hike up...

By Mike Fay, NG Explorer-in-Residence

2 April 2012

I can hardly believe it: the Claymore headed back to Polynesia and I got left behind here on Pitcairn for 10 days. How cool is that? 10 whole days on the home of the Bounty buccaneers.

The big thing I want to do is to hike up and down every ridge and explore every valley on the south side of the island.  If you look at a map of Pitcairn you can see that the center ridge is pushed way to the south side so the slopes are sometimes steeper than 45 degrees and usually made of clay and rotten volcanic rock.  So the danger levels are high but this is the wild, uninhabited part of the island that I want to see, and before I left the island the first time, Brenda Christian promised that if I came back she would lead me anywhere I wanted to go.


Like Something Out of “Avatar”

I decided to go east to west over the ten days, so the first stop was St. Paul’s at the extreme east of the island.  St. Paul’s is maybe the coolest place in all of Pitcairn.  I reached the edge of the cliff with Brenda.  Looking hundreds of feet down you see an Olympic-sized natural pool of crystal blue water surrounded by a corona of basalt rocks with pinnacles. The whole thing looks like it comes out of “Avatar.” As we gazed below, a breaker hit the rock wall and in a kind of suspended animation, water shot straight up between the pinnacles and gushed over into the pool, turning it snow-white with a trillion bubbles.  Then it all swirled blue and white until calm returned.

We went down the long staircase the Pitcairners have built over the smooth, dark red rocks to reach the pool which empties itself back into the sea via what looks like a white water river.  This place is enchanted no doubt.


Upsides and Downsides of Catching Your Own Dinner

Bren went right down into the pool on the rocks with her pronged spear and skewered five or six crabs for us to use for bait.  We went around the pool to an overhang into the ocean and prepared to pick up some dinner from Pitcairn’s biggest supermarket: the sea itself.  Commercial fishing would wipe this area out in a matter of weeks, but this low level of traditional fishing has kept the Pitcairners and the sea communities healthy for centuries.

Brenda only uses handlines.  We baited them up and flung out weights as far out as we could in order to clear the cliff.  Brenda was fast onto a fish–a wrasse. “Good to eat” she said.  Next I caught what they call here a “rock cod” which is actually a small grouper.  Then I hooked a toge, but you don’t eat those.

Brenda then hooked into a fish that took off like a bat out of hell.  It was big too, taking most of her line right away.  I had visions of a nice big black jack.  She fought this thing for about 10 minutes before it finally came into view.  It was a small grey reef shark about 2 feet long.  It kept fighting right up until it got on the rocks and then snapped the line.  I was happy to see that the line broke right at hook level so he has a chance to survive.  That is the thing I hate most about fishing: injuring something you’re not going to eat. But it comes with the territory.

Bren then caught an opapa which is this beautiful little butterfly fish and then a tahua, another reef beauty of yellow striped in blue.  When you see the colors for some reason these fish don’t seem like they are made for eating.  I asked Bren about the risk of ciguatera, a deadly disease common in larger reef fish, but she said it is not really a problem on Pitcairn. Like many people I have met out here, she explained by pointing out that they didn’t have nuclear blasts here to taint their fish.


Chez Pitcairn

We cleaned the fish and went back up to my camp and then made the mistake of collecting firewood before setting up the tent. A squall came in and provided one more wet night for me.  We were going to barbeque the fish here but Bren offered to take them home and bring dinner back with chips (French fries).  I tried to convince her not to, I would be fine eating peanut butter and jelly one more time…  An hour later she and her husband Mike showed up with white, flaky grilled fish, wine, and hot fries.  What a life.


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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.