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Mike Fay’s Pitcairn Journal: Fishing in a Homemade Boat

By Mike Fay, NG Explorer-in-Residence 7 April 2012 I woke up early. It had rained most of the night again but not super hard. Bren came up at around 9. She had to bring stuff to the post to ship with the Claymore. People on Pitcairn only get one chance every three months to send...

By Mike Fay, NG Explorer-in-Residence

7 April 2012

I woke up early. It had rained most of the night again but not super hard. Bren came up at around 9. She had to bring stuff to the post to ship with the Claymore. People on Pitcairn only get one chance every three months to send mail and packages out or to receive them back, so they need to be prepared. We were going to hike down the ridge to Tautama this morning but I needed to call the ship first; there was news from Enric.

The plan had been to pick up some of the expedition’s main funders and let them see Pitcairn and Henderson Islands first-hand, but that had all changed now. Neil the captain said that the already bad weather was set to deteriorate. The donors were no longer coming and Enric had decided to terminate the mission early. So we would not be going to Henderson again after all.

I sure would have loved to get a better view of the rat situation. I was hoping to bring Pirate Pawl up so we could check all the transects he and the original team had made. Anyway, nothing to be done. We will probably end up spending a few more days in Mangareva. I wouldn’t mind running around those hills a bit more, especially on some of the out islands.

Launching a Homemade Boat

Neil wanted to go fishing with us so we waited for him to show and then we headed down with the quads to beyond where the sign says “Proceed With Quads at Your Own Risk.” The water was super brown from the continued flood. That big slide on that side of the ridge is still leaking a serious amount of soil into the ocean. What a waste.

We decided to go fishing in Bren’s skiff. That was an experience I didn’t want to miss on the island, just to see how you get out of port in a homemade boat. She says they make them out of six pieces of plywood: three on the inside and three on the outside. They basically build them like frame houses, flat bottomed with 12 mm normal plywood on the outside and 7 mm on the inside. The frame work is a 2×2 and 2×3 mix. It has a curve at the front, a small cover over the bow, two plugs on the back. The measurement is 4×16 feet basically. The outboard of choice here is the Yamaha 30hp 2-stroke, the work horse of faraway places.

The waves were crashing in the port, so the process of launching the boat had to happen quickly between sets. We pushed the homemade skiff in. Bren jumped aboard, tilted the engine down, started it with one pull, and got her turned around all relaxed. Just as a big wave crashed in Bren had the bow to it and brought the boat up to the wall as easily as if she was pulling out of a slip in a marina.

We hopped in, waited out a set of waves, and she gunned it. As we were just about at the break point, she gunned it again to get us above the face of a five-foot wave, and then let off the gas for obvious reasons. Then that flat bottom boat came off the top of that wave and hit like a car wreck on the bottom. It felt like I got a slight concussion from the slam but we were out at sea at last.

Let the Fishing Begin

It was fairly calm, no wind; the various swells made it a bit wavy but perfectly fine. We motored out about a mile toward the west port and dropped the handlines down to about 30 meters. This first hole was Speckle Bottom. With no bite in a minute or so, Bren said the fresh water from the runoff was a problem. We moved further over toward Tedside to the next spot called Seawe Black. There we got some bites and in about five minutes Bren had a two-pound snapper on board. It was almost white.

A few minutes later I hooked into a fish. It fought for about 30 seconds but then I could feel it just kind of floating to the surface. Sure enough when we got it aboard its bladder had come out its mouth and it was not happy. This one was what they call a “fa-fire” or what some call a “coral trout”; scientists call it a “red grouper.”

I asked Bren how many fish we could imagine had been caught off the island since the Bounty landed. We just kind of guessed at about 30 a day, or some ten thousand a year which would put the take for Pitcairners since the Bounty at about 2.2 million fish or about 4-5 million meals. Also ever since the island was rediscovered in the early 1800s, there has been some trade with ships. So with any future fishing management plant there needs to be an allowance for subsistence fishing that includes some trade. People just need to figure it out.

After that we hardly got a bite but we had two fish. We caught a leatherback (fish, not turtle), which is what we caught in Mangareva and the French love, but here Bren kind of laughed saying, “We don’t eat them.”

(Almost) Safe at Home

When we headed back to port after a few hours the surf was up. Bren just kind of cruised in, looked back, and gunned it. We had a breaker chasing us in but no problem. The real trouble was the breakers coming over the wall. Bren went up the hill while we kept the boat off the wharf and she brought in Pawl and Kerry. We had to get the crane going and pull the boat out in the midst of the crashing waves. All in a day’s fishing on Pitcairn.


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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.