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Crossing Pacific

Overview of Trip-Australia to Chile

IMG_0801Our routeDSC02672Orion

November and December 2014

Map of our travels and the Orion.

Our National Geographic trip across the Pacific was a fantastic adventure and expedition. It began in Brisbane as we stayed with Julie and Russ Spreadbury. Julie is a long-time colleague of mine. From there we flew to Cairns, had a brief tour of the city and then boarded the Orion, our home for November and December.


On board we had an amazing group of people from the fantastic National Geographic photographers to outstanding naturalists who were experts on birds, corals, fish, and history. Birute Galdikas who has studied Orangutans in Borneo for the past 40 years was on board as well as many other writers/researchers. Carl Hoffman who had just completed his nonfiction book on the death of Michael Rockefeller in 1961 was researching Pitcairn Island for an article. Photographer and researcher Chris Rainier was on board conducting further research and training for the language culture project with National Geographic. He visits remote villages to train young people to record (visually and auditory) elders’ stories and language. We are rapidly losing languages and National Geographic is trying to record these languages and stories before they are lost. A Swedish travel writer was on board working on his next book. Several other writers of both fiction and nonfiction were on board as well as many avid photographers, divers, birders, and lovers of history and cultures. In addition, we had four World War II veterans on board for the first leg of the trip through Guadalcanal that made the trip very special for both them and us.

Enjoy reading the blog of the travels and even though they are posted from the end of the expedition to the beginning, a map will show you the route the Orion took from Cairns, Australia to Easter Island, Chile.


Corals, fish, whales and undersea shots

mantaManta RayG14_8703Lots of flying fish

1. The diversity of birds, coral, and fish diminished as we progressed from Papua New Guinea to Easter Island. Where there are over 300 endemic birds in PNG there are none in Easter Island.  Fish and coral diversity also diminished.

2. Health of the corals impacts everything.  It is the habitat for fish.  We saw damage to reefs from hurricanes, sewage and human intrusion, wave action, crown of thorns (star fish) and global warming.  However, there is some discussion about the corals adapting to the warming temperatures if the other threats can be kept at a minimum.

3. The Pristine Seas project is very promising.  Whereas only 1% of the oceans are now protected, if we could build that to 10% our oceans would be much more healthy.  It has been proven if parts of the oceans can be protected against pollution, fishing, etc.  those sections will rebuild within 10 years time. And, that is carried over to outlying areas. Check the Monterey Aquarium for a list of the fish we should eat and not eat.  Atlantic farm raised salmon are a big “no!”

4. Sharks are a great predictor of the health of reefs. Where there are a lot, things are healthy because they are top of the food chain.

5. We saw lots of whales in the Samoa/Fiji section of our trip.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA healthy coralOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA pearls in oysterG14_8596 sperm whale sounding flIMG_2133 coral bankIMG_2365 IMG_2448 coral bankIMG_2566 AngelfishIMG_2700 nemo in sea anemoneIMG_3092 crown of thornsIMG_3740 healthy reef, many fishIMG_3914 giant clamsIMG_4083 shark above reef

Easter Island- Rapa Nui

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Rapa Nui – Easter Island – December 18-21, 2014

Pictures included: foundation of one of typical oval houses, the reconstructed moai that were knocked down from the 1961 hurricane, an unusual kneeling moai and one site that overlooks the harbor.  Note the top knot and eye on the lone moai.

The best thing about visiting Rapa Nui was our guide Claudio who had been on our expedition to “educate” us on the excavations and history of the island. Claudio stayed with us throughout the island tours along with his ex-wife, 6 children and 8 grandchildren, many who were guides as well. Claudio is an anthropologist who worked on the island for the past 40 years along with his first wife has a long history as an archeology professor at University of Chile who worked with many of the 26,000 excavation sites on the island. We were with her for one of the days on the island as she gave her sense of the history and politics of excavations.

Rapa Nui (meaning Big Rapa) was populated by Polynesians about 900 A.D. At first the burial sites and worship sites were small, but around 1200 A.D. when the island population had grown, the sites became more elaborate. Giant moai were carved from a quarry and then transported many miles to the various ceremonial sites. Scientists believe that these statues were transported standing up and scooted along ancient roads. Claudio believed it became a competition to see which “tribe” could out do the other as the moai became bigger and bigger. With each site, there were villages with lava rock homes that were built in the shape of ovals. There didn’t appear to be pigs or dogs on the island, but lots of chickens that also had their own rock roosts.

During our three days on the island, we visited 2 quarries, one where the giant moai were carved and the other where the red scoria top knots (hats) were carved. There are still over 300 moai in the process of being carved, lying either broken or partly carved lying as reminders of a once powerfully, vibrant civilization.

The island of Rapa Nui is volcanic and came together with three large volcanic eruptions that joined landmasses together to form the island from separate volcanoes. We drove to the top of one crater where the last ceremonial center (1400 to 1600 AD) of the Birdman cult resided. Here on the very edge of the crater were stone homes of elders, probably ceremonial chiefs. The birdman cult centered on the young person who could swim to a near-by island to capture the first egg of the nesting year (lots of migratory birds stop here) and return. Thus, at the end of the moai worship, another cult began centered around bird migration and representing fertility. The island by this time had destroyed most of its natural resources including all the trees. And, because there was no more wood, boats could not be built, nor bodies cremated. Scientists believe the sweet potato was brought from South America by Polynesians who left and returned. The sweet potato became their staple along with chickens and eggs. Fishing was never abundant in these deep waters of the Pacific.

Mysteries of the island’s ancient culture still exist. It was a real privilege to be with Claudio and his family, to hear the role they played in the excavations and restoration of many of the worship sites, and to hear their version of the story of Rapa Nui.

Henderson and Ducie Islands

_HEN4875eBlack faced boobieG14_8713White tern with fishPitcairn Tropic birdsTropic birdsuntitled-4Henderson Island Monday, December 15-Thursday, December 17, 2014

Pictures Include: Black face boobie, white tern with fish in beak, tropic birds and Henderson Island-Coral uplift with heavy surf

After leaving Pitcairn Island, we still had 1500 miles to reach Easter Island. Two other islands in the Pitcairn group are Ducie and Henderson Islands, both uninhabited but with large bird nesting areas. Henderson Island is an uplifted coral island with huge (40-50 foot) cliffs and coral surrounding it. Due to the large swells and crashing waves, our boat was unable to find safe anchorage. There are four endemic birds on the island: Henderson Lorikeet, the Henderson warbler, the flightless rail and the fruit pigeon. Because we didn’t land, we could not see any of these four birds, but did get great pictures of the many frigate birds, the red footed and masked boobies and many terns. It is part of the World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

The next day, we circled Ducie Atoll, also a favorite nesting place for boobies, frigate birds and terns. Again, because of rough seas, we were unable to land the zodiacs for a look inside the atoll. However, we heard that survivors of the wreck of the Essex, 1820 (Moby Dick story) landed here for a day. But, because there is no fresh water, nor anything to eat other than sea birds and fish, the survivors left in their two whaling boats. A few survivors actually made it all the way to the Chilian coast. Earlier in 1790, Edward Edwards on the HMS Pandora stopped here to search for the mutineers from the Bounty.   Again we were only able to take a few pictures of birds as we circled the island.

Rats are one of the biggest problems on many of the islands—brought their by the old sailing ships. Scientists are trying to eradicate the rats with rat bait spread by helicopter on places where there are a lot of nesting birds. Unfortunately, unless the last rat is killed, they continue to multiply. Goats have also been brought to some of these islands but are much easier to contain. There once were 600 goats on Pitcairn, but now there are only about 50 who are kept fairly well contained.

Pitcairn Island

untitled-113 Relative of Christianuntitled-25 Wood carveruntitled-16 Bounty AnchorJSimon Pitcairn LookoutDSCF0260Pitcairn Island December 13-14, 2014

Pictures include: grave of one of Fletcher Christian’s relatives, wood carver with model of Bounty, anchor from the Bounty, cave where Bounty crew watched for British, rugged rocks with swimming hole.

On board we watched the MGM version of “Mutiny on the Bounty” starring Marlon Brando. As it finished we went on deck to see Pitcairn Island coming into view on the horizon. Such an amazing feeling! The Orion sailed around the island as we listened to the commentary of three residents of Pitcairn Island who had been in London trying to convince the UK to support the oceans around the Island as Pristine Seas. We learned they are building another harbor they hope will be a little calmer than the one at Bounty Bay. Several rockeries for nesting birds on rocks around the island showed an abundance of birds, but limited to a very few species out here. There are only 4 endemic birds on the island.

In 1789 nine of the mutineers from the Bounty along with 6 Tahitian men, eleven women, and a baby left Tahiti to find refuge on one of the islands, hoping the British Navy would never find them. Six months later after sailing through Polynesia, they found Pitcairn Island mismarked by 175 miles on Captain Cook’s charts. Fletcher Christian, now captain of the Bounty thought this would be the ideal place to hide. Unfortunately the English and Polynesia men did not get along and so murdered each other. By 1808 when the next ship (American trading ship Topaz) came to the island there was only one British man, John Adams along with 8 Polynesian women.   Today in the cemetery are names of Christian, McCoy, Warren and Young. Everyone on the island today traces his or her family roots back to the mutineers.

Alan and I walked through much of the island with very steep hills. There is a town square that is surrounded by a post office, a church (Seventh Day Adventist), a school and government office. The square in the center is where the island residents gather to celebrate important holidays like Christmas. With only 50 residents on the island, everyone knows each other. We learned that many of the introduced plants and animals have raised havoc with the indigenous fauna and flora. At one time there were 600 goats on the island but now only 50. Rats are a huge problem on many of the islands where European ships landed hundreds of years ago. Rats eat everything including turtle and bird eggs along with grain and other foodstuffs. We walked through the village to find remnants of the Bounty after it was burned and sunk in the bay to hide evidence of the Bounty: the ship’s bell, several canons, the anchor, and the Bible in the church.

Pitcairn lies at 25 degrees south. So it is colder here than further toward the equator. One friendly lady with a beautiful flower garden told us that it even hailed on the island once. They do get earthquakes and a few hurricanes, but right now residents need water for their cisterns. All island water comes from rain.


untitled-88 First Catholic Cathedraluntitled-22 mother of pearl altaruntitled-40Convent for girls

Mangareva and the Gambier Islands- Friday, December 12, 2014

Pictures include: Cathedral that was the first Catholic Cathedral in French Polynesia, alter with mother of pearl icons, remains of the convent where 200 girls went to school.

A day at sea passing the Acteon Group of Islands brought seas too rough for any snorkeling or diving. But, we passed each island in the chain and talked about them and their nesting bird populations. None are inhabited and all are atolls with beautiful lagoons enclosed by these necklaces of coral.

The next day we arrived at Mangareva, the first of the Gambier Islands we’ll visit. Pitcairn, Henderson and Docie are the others in the group we’ll visit. We found Mangareva to be very welcoming and interestingly will be the last place this ship can anchor before reaching the southern tip of South America. We were able to navigate into the lagoon, drop anchor and zodiac ashore.

Catholic missionaries first came to this island in the early 1830’s, built a huge church, established a convent where up to 200 girls were educated and established themselves as “rulers” of the island. The Cathedral Saint-Michel in Rikitea built in 1841 is the largest and oldest of historical churches in Polynesia. The people say that the rapid conversion to Christianity occurred because a Polynesia princess had predicted the fall of paganism and that new person would come to worship one god. To prove this, she was able to find an anchor hidden by one of the former kings who supported her visions.

We walked to the Cathedral with altars adorned with mother of pearl, then climbed to the abandoned convent. Hidden beneath the overgrowth was a deep hole where emergency food stores were kept for the people in the convent should there be a drought or food shortage. A few specimens of ancient carvings (moai) similar to those found on Easter Island, but much smaller were found by archeologists on this island. Mangareva was first re-discovered by British Captain James Wilson who christened the highest peak (441 meters), Mt Duff after his ship. Gambier was the Admiral who financed the voyage in 1825.


141211_French Polynesia_7518unmarked gravesGreeting usGirls greeting usuntitled-6 new roaduntitled-22City officials


Tuamotu Islands – December 10, 2014

Pictures include: cemetery with unmarked graves, the paved white street, officials who greeted us and the children who welcomed us to the island.

Landing at Pukarua Atoll provided a most wonderful afternoon with perhaps it was most welcoming island of all. We landed on a Wednesday afternoon and I’m sure that the entire island population of 100+ were involved in our welcome. Greeted by little girls adorning us with leis and big smiles, we were directed to cross to the lagoon side of the atoll for the festivities.

Strange things were on this island along with an unusually warm welcome. The graveyard had sites that were all identical, plastered white with crosses on top. No identification appeared on graves: no names or dates. Was there a huge storm? Did the French atomic blasting only a few miles away kill these people? The Catholic Church stood on the opposite side of the street. But unlike other welcomes that included the priest, there was no priest to welcome us here so we assumed that the priest lived on another island. Secondly, the road from ocean to lagoon was newly paved by the French and bordered with a wall and plastered pillars giving a very different experience from the usual dirt or shell roads.

The end of this concrete roadway opened upon a beautiful inland lagoon where the festivities greeted us: music, dancing, demonstrations and games. We played throwing the long darts to the coconut on the pole, danced with the locals, and swam with the children. They cooked breadfruit for us in open pits covered with coconut shells and wrapped in banana leaves. There was no evidence of pearl farming on this island, but clearly there was a large production of coconuts for copra sale. Since this is a French Island, it was obvious that the French are supporting a large part of their population on this island. We were welcomed by three magistrates: one man and two women—all who talked to us about their island and pride. It was a wonderful day, warm, welcoming, and relaxing. The 80 passengers on the Orion mixed equally with the 100 residents on the island for a day of play.