Friday, 16 May 2014

A taste of Polynesia: Exploring Easter Island

Another AlgaeGroup blog entry written in flight (this time en route from Santiago SCL to Atlanta ATL): We had an awesome time exploring and enjoying one of the world’s most remote islands – Easter Island. After 5 hours flying westwards out of Santiago over the endless expanses of the Pacific, this small island appeared on the horizon. I had a window seat and as we flew over it, Easter Island looked very green. After a short loop west of Hanga Roa, the B767-300 landed at Hanga Roa’s Mataveri Airport. Only LAN Airlines fly here, giving them a comfortable monopoly. 

As we climbed out of the plane, the hot humidity and exotic scents of this almost tropical island descended upon us. We had pre-booked a beautiful cottage (cabaƱa) on the outskirts of the island’s capital and only town, Hanga Roa. After relaxing a bit, we took our rental car to drive to the island’s beautiful beach at Anakena, lined with coconut trees and with a ceremonial platform (Ahu) of the island’s famous statues, the Moai. I could not resist the temptation to go swimming in the beautifully transparent and warm waters (and found some Sargassum sp.). The next day, Melina and I drove around most of the central and eastern part of the island, exploring the quarry of Moai statues on the slopes of the Ranu Raraku volcano, the impressive Ahu Tongariki with the biggest series of Moai (re-erected thanks to Japanese generosity), beautiful petroglyphs and other treasures of the island. The next day took us diving in the amazingly transparent waters off the Motu islets (SW of Easter Island proper) and into and around the Three Windows underwater cave. Visibility around Easter Island reaches around 70 m for most of the year – the sea here is ultra-oligotrophic: The lack of terrestrial dust input and land runoff limit the availability of iron, making it a limiting nutrient for phytoplankton growth. In consequence, there are very few fish – but corals (even though low in species numbers, compared to the western Pacific) thrive beautifully. 

Human presence has dramatically altered Easter Island’s biodiversity and ecosystem (and the history of its ecological demise debunks the myth that first nations are more benign to a region’s environment than “civilized” European settlers). Easter Island was first colonized by Polynesians (most likely originating from the Gambier Islands, now in French Polynesia) around 1200 A.D.. Population increased and a fairly highly developed society evolved, erecting hundreds of the famous Moai statues and other monuments. Gradually, the island was deforested and most breeding birds were wiped out. Deprived of most of the island’s original resources, the human inhabitants found themselves increasingly restricted in their life style – with decreasing availability and diversity of food, and lack of construction materials for seagoing canoes (cf. my previous blog chapter and in particular the chapter in Jared Diamond’s book COLLAPSE), limiting both their food supply, mobility and communication with the outside world. Western contact did not bring much positive change either, at least initially – while Easter Island was unclaimed by any nation, Peruvian slave traders abducted most of the Polynesian population to work in Peru’s guano mines (also wiping out the intellectuals of this society – the wise men capable of reading and writing the unique Rongo-Rongo script which remains non-deciphered to this date), missionaries eradicated much of the original, Polynesian culture and a Scottish farming company converted the whole island into a sheep farm for several decades from the late 1800s. At present, Easter Island lives entirely of its tourism due to its worldwide, mythical fame - I would argue that after all, the island is currently in one of the better chapters of its history. Despite the loss of much of its terrestrial biodiversity (including the world’s largest palm tree), it is a very pretty island. The whole land surface outside of Hanga Roa is a national park which is very well managed, the historic sites are indeed well protected and cared for, and what is left of the Polynesian cultural heritage is revered and valued.

All this makes Easter Island a very beautiful and interesting place to visit. We had a great time exploring some amazing cave systems, Ana Te Pora– essentially volcanic lava tunnels similar to the Three Windows Cave which we had already seen under water a few days earlier. Just above the latter – and above the water and in the sea cliffs – there is a Two Windows Cave, which offers spectacular views over the sea. Another cave, Ana Te Pahu (“Banana Cave”), extends for kilometres underground – it obviously provided refuge for hundreds of Polynesian inhabitants during troublesome times in the past; relicts of underground dwellings and other structures are still clearly visible. Our visit was concluded with another very beautiful dive in a reef off Hanga Roa (including a visit to a sunken Moai replica). 

Six weeks away from home, California, Chile and Easter Island – what a trip! I am returning energized and in high spirits for the remainder of the university term.

 Ahu Tongariki


 Black sea urchin in Easter Island coral reef

 coral reef off Easter Island in amazingly transparent waters

 Easter Island coral reef with fish

 Easter Island coral reef

 Easter Island corals

Entrance to Ana Te Pahu Banana Cave Easter Island

 Exploring Ana Te Pahu Banana Cave on Easter Island with Melina

 First sight of Easter Island

 Frit and Melina at sunken Moai

 Frithjof in Easter Island

Melina exploring Easter Islands coral reefs

 Melina exploring Three Windows Cave off Easter Island

 Moai at Anakena

 Moai on the slopes of Rano Raraku in Easter Island

 Sampling at 10 m depth in sea cave off Easter Island

 Spectacular sunset with Moai

 Three Windows Cave off Easter Island

 Two Windows Cave on Easter Island

 View from Easter Island sea cave

 View from Three Windows Cave off Easter Island

 View from Three Windows Cave

 View from Two Windows Cave

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