EASTER ISLAND • JANUARY, 2011
Easter Island is the most remote populated island in the world. It’s about 2400 miles west of the coast of Chile (of which it’s part) and it’s about 2500 miles southeast of Tahiti. The nearest inhabited island is Pitcairn (where the mutineers from the Bounty went) which is about 1400 miles away but it’s only two miles square and there are roughly 40 people living there. So Pitcairn’s not exactly a neighbor or some you’d look to for help in a crisis.
With all that said, Easter Island (better known as Rapa Nui in the native tongue or Isla de Pascua in Spanish) is not a primitive place. There are roughly 4000 permanent residents, nearly all of whom live in the main town of Hanga Roa. Even with that small population, they’ve got an amazing number of good restaurants, cell phone service, internet, and they’ve got daily LAN/Chile flights to Santiago and weekly flights to Tahiti.
Getting there is no picnic but not all that bad. We flew American Airlines LAX-Miami, than switched to LAN/Chile for the flight down to Santiago, and stayed with another LAN flight for the final leg out to Rapa Nui. It was about 24 hours (with layovers) to get there but amazingly only a 3-hour time change from Los Angeles since Rapa Nui this time of the year is on Easter Island Summer Time, which is the same as Eastern Standard Time.
However, we did have a small snag in Miami and if you do this trip, especially on your own, you need to know about it
Even though we'd been issued boarding passes at LAX by American, including the two LAN/Chile flights, LAN doesn't honor anything except their own boarding passes. So you have to go to the LAN counter in Miami and trade in your American boarding cards for LAN/Chile ones. On the way back, we had the reverse problem where we got three boarding passes as we started, but in Santiago had to trade in the LAN-issued ones for American Airlines ones. No big deal but just a bit time-consuming.
Easter Island’s biggest claim to fame are the giant mysterious stone carved heads, known as moai (pronounced “moe-EYE”) that dot the island. No one knows exactly why they were created or what they were for, or why they stopped being made. But they’re an enduring mystery, whose story was first tackled by legendary explorer Thor Hyerdahl in the mid-50s. But a lot of what we know about the moai stems from the research and work carried out by an archeologist named William Mulloy. (More on all of this in a bit.)
Perhaps amazingly, there’s diving around Rapa Nui. But the island poses an interesting diving conundrum. Due to the way the ocean currents flow, the waters surrounding Rapa Nui have very little plankton. There’s also not a lot of rain so there’s no runoff (and the island’s mainly volcanic to boot) and there isn’t a large population to contaminate the water with sewage or fertilizer or any pollutants like that.
The result is waters that are amazingly clear. During our stay, we had visibility at times that I would estimate at 150 feet. But the bad news is that plankton-free water makes for a rather hostile marine environment because it cuts down on a major source of food for marine creatures. That, coupled with years of over-fishing by locals, means there aren’t huge shoals of fish like you might expect. That doesn’t mean the diving isn’t good (partly because the corals are REALLY massive and healthy).
In fact, there’s enough diving that there’s not one but TWO dives shops on the island, located about 100 feet apart. We chose to dive with the larger of the two, ORCA Diving. And it was an excellent choice.
ORCA is owned by brothers Michel & Henri Garcia. Henri is a former Cousteau diver who came to the island in 1976. Michel followed two years later and they opened ORCA in 1980. It's actually two buildings, one of which is the retail side of the operation and the other of which is the diving side. It's a really great, well-staffed operation and they took very good care of us.
The general plan was to meet at the shop at 9AM each day (they stored our gear overnight the whole time we were there) for the first dive. Hook up your gear and they'd then take it down to the boat (about 100 feet away at their dock) and load up. While that was going on, you'd climb into your wetsuit and get ready to go. When everything was ready, usually around 9:30, off we’d go for dive #1.
The two boats that ORCA has are certainly nothing fancy but they get the job done. They're open-air, about 20 feet long and 7 feet wide, with three wooden benches upon which to sit. We had the six of us plus our dive guide, Christian Saavedra, and boat operator (Freddy) so that was perfect. In a pinch, you could do 10 divers in a boat.
The runs are relatively short, averaging 5-15 minutes. But what's really interesting was leaving the dock. Because even though we're in the Hanga Roa Harbor, use of the word "harbor" is a bit generous since it implies protection. It's more like the boats are tucked behind a protected seawall. And once you clear the seawall, you need to deal with the incoming swell, which breaks as surf. And it attracts surfers.
So for each dive, we'd back the boat out, spin it around to face the swell, look at where the surfers were, look at where any other boats were, time the swell, and - at the appropriate moment - gun the engine and make a run before the breakers broke and without breaking a sweat.
Freddy was very good at this. I mean, they do it every day and all of their lives so you'd expect him to know how to handle a boat. But Freddy REALLY showed off his expertise one day when we were going out and a boat from the "other" dive shop was going out as well. Freddy ran parallel to them about 20 feet away and as we both went through the swell, he somehow timed the rise and fall and the angle of our boat in such a way that when our nose came back down, the entire splash was directed towards the other boat and soaked them but good. Not sure if that was a friendly rivalry or an "up yours" but it was pretty impressive boatmanship nonetheless.
Once at the dive site, everyone geared up and did a backroll off the gunnel and off we'd go. All dives are guided and Christian was superb. He was very good at keeping an eye on people, leading us through the maze of corals and lava formations, pointing out critters, and getting everyone back safely. (We always dove as a group, starting and finishing together.) Sometimes the boat was anchored and sometimes the boat drifted. But at the end, the boat was always above us so we'd do our safety stop and then surface. Getting back on meant handing up your weight belt, taking the tank off in the water and passing it up, and then climbing up a small ladder back into the boat.
Then it was back to the dock. Christian and Freddy would unload the gear and haul it back up to the shop, we'd change our tanks and take a break, they'd load back up, and we'd be off for dive #2 around 11AM. In general terms, the dives were about one hour of bottom time with about a one hour surface interval in between.
On Tuesday and Thursday, we'd take a long break for lunch and do a third dive at 4PM. (On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, we did land tours in the afternoon.) Although it might seem like 4PM is a late start for a dive, don't forget that we were there at the height of their summer. Sunrise was at 7:30AM each morning and sundown wasn't until 9:15PM (and it stayed light until almost 10PM). So a 4PM start for a dive wasn't a problem at all.
We also loved the hotel we stayed at, the Manavai. It's run by an ex-pat Kim and her Rapa Nui husband Ugo. They’ve got about 35 rooms, some air-conditioned (as ours were) but some not. The AC certainly made it easier to sleep at night but you could probably live without it as Rapa Nui is hot during the day but cools down quickly at night. The rooms were all very nice with two beds, adequate storage, a little refrigerator, a safe, and even a small TV.
The were only two wall outlets but I always bring a couple of power strips with me so that wasn't a huge issue. (You will need converter plugs.) However, check anything you're about to plug into the wall beforehand if you can. I plugged in one power strip that I'd previously had some issues with and promptly blew the fuse for the entire room. Luckily, the fuse box was nearby and power was quickly restored.
Another great thing about Manavai is that Kim's got it rigged up for Wi-Fi. Those of you who have read my reports in the past know how much I love to stay connected via Internet, so Wi-Fi was a HUGE plus for me. And it enabled me to post daily updates to our Reef Seekers Facebook page (www.facebook.com/reefseekers) and hopefully some of you were able to follow our adventures through that.
The hotel's really well-located as it's only a couple of hundred yards up the street from ORCA. So each morning we could easily walk from the hotel down to the dive shop and then back. My only personal issue was that I had to carry my Nikon D200 in my Ikelite housing (with strobes attached - weighs about 20 pounds) back and forth each day so it felt like the hotel was only was only a couple of hundred yards away from the dive shop at the beginning of the week but a couple of miles away by the end of the week.
Another nice touch at Manavai is that breakfast is included each day. They have an open-air dining area and while they generally start serving breakfast at 8:30, they were great at accommodating us and having our food ready at 8AM. (In fact, they'd have boiling water ready for me to have tea when I came down at 7:15AM each morning.) Breakfasts were generally eggs, toast or bagels, fresh fruit, some sandwich meats, and coffee/tea. Absolutely plenty to get you going in the morning.
Kim and her entire staff were really good about dealing with the weird issues that dive groups can create. What was unusual about this trip is that we're used to going to places where diving is the norm, so the hotels and resorts are used to dealing with divers. But at Rapa Nui, we were an oddity. But if our schedule was weird, or we needed extra towels, or we had to hand gear in the trees to dry, Kim & Co. were more than happy to help us complete the task.
And as we're setting the stage to get into the meat of this report, we also want to sing praises for our tour guide, Josie Nahoe. We connected with Josie through Dale & Kim Sheckler (CA Diving News). Their priest is Father Francisco, who hails from Easter Island. His sister . . . is Josie. So it was almost like we were all family.
But what's really cool about Josie, other than that she's part Rapa Nui and VERY knowledgeable about the island and the history, is that she's also the granddaughter of the aforementioned William Mulloy, who was one of the original principle archeologists doing a lot of the early research on Easter Island. Mulloy not only led many of the major excavations, but who also did some of the first restorations of the ahu and the moai. Even though he was an American, Mulloy is still very much respected on the island and his ashes are interred at a special memorial site overlooking the Tahat Archeological Complex. This was the first site he restored and, according to Josie, his favorite. So it was very nice when we arrived there, sat down near his memorial , and Josie started with, "Hi Grandpa."
So now that you’ve got some background, let's see if we can give you a feel for what it was like to be there.
As we mentioned at the beginning, it takes almost 24 hours to get there. We flew Saturday morning LAX-Miami, then Miami-Santiago (redeye), and Santiago-Easter, which had us arrive at Noon on Sunday. Kim & Ugo met us at the airport and within ten minutes we were at Manavai and within another ten minutes settled into our rooms. So we had Sunday afternoon to explore Hanga Roa, which is the main town.
What's really nice is that there's a lot within walking distance of the hotel (including restaurants and shops). We saw our first moai right down by the harbor. And the Tahat Archeological Complex was about a 15-minute walk away. So we definitely got a feel for the place.
The basic schedule was to dive every morning and alternate each afternoon between land tours with Josie (M/W/F) or a third afternoon dive (4PM T/Th) with ORCA. I thought that turned out to be a really good plan for a number of reasons. They've got about a dozen designated regularly-visited dive sites so that meant we'd do 12 dives over the course of the week (2 each M/W/F and 3 each on T/Th). And this plan gave us three half-day (4-5 hours) tours with Josie and that part was just perfect. It meant you didn't try to see too much in an afternoon. And breaking the land tours up into thirds gave us a real good feel for the island and the culture as Josie was able to lay it out.
The diving at Easter Island was very interesting. Now I'll add the caveat here that I could probably dive in a mud puddle and find it interesting. But, even though the diving has limitations, I really did find it enjoyable.
The first thing to know is that the water temps aren’t exactly tropical. My gauge was generally reading around 72-74ºF, so similar to the dives we do in the Florida springs and probably at the low range of tolerable temperature for corals.
But amazingly the coral reefs are massive and healthy. There are only a few types of hard corals there, and no soft corals, but some of the formations are enormous. On top of that, it seems like a lot of the reefs have been built over old lava eruptions. There were days when we’d be diving what were essentially lava tubes and you'd move from the coral into the lave tube formations (just think of a maze of caverns where you can always see the way out) and then back out on to the coral.
But there is one thing generally missing from Easter Island underwater . That would be fish.
If your idea of a great dive is thousands and thousands of fish surrounding you, then Easter Island is not the place to go. To put it in perspective, it's estimated that there are some 2800 fish species in Indonesia, 800 in Tahiti, 560 in Hawaii, and roughly 300 in California. Easter Island has 126 different species. But of those, 29 (23% - a fairly high number) are endemic, meaning they're found nowhere else in the world. And there seems to be good reason for all of this.
First of all, there's a general scientific theory that life originated in the oceans around Indonesia. That's why the species count there is so high. As you travel away from that region, the number of species in a given area drops. It makes sense since you figure some of the species either don't migrate or simply don't survive the migration &/or the new environment.
On top of that, due to its remoteness and due to the way ocean currents flow in the area, Easter Island has very little plankton in the water. While this makes for great visibility, it also means that a prime source of fish food simply doesn't exist.
If you think about any Indo-Pacific reef you've dove, likely one of the things you noticed right away were all the small fish like Anthias and Damsels who flit in and out of the current and eat plankton and other small food in the water. Those fish, in turn, attract medium-sized fish who prey on the smaller fish. The medium-sized fish attract larger fish, and so on.
But at Easter Island, the lack of plankton translates into a lack of food for these fish. So it's either very hard for these fish to establish themselves there, or they have to do it in limited numbers, or they simply can't exist there at all. With fewer small fish, you get fewer medium fish, which means fewer large fish. And all of this means that you simply don't have a lot of fish in the waters, both in terms of species count and individuals within a species.
Now this doesn't mean that we didn't see schools of fish. We did. But not that often, and usually what you saw were individuals and small aggregations. The fish also generally seemed rather skittish and many times would flee in the opposite direction when divers approached. That also makes sense when you consider the history of the use of natural resources on Easter Island.
The island (don't forget it's only 64 square miles) has a history of being over-populated. Although the current population is 4,000, there were times even as recently as a few hundred years ago, when the population may have swelled as high as 10,000. That’s too many people.
And what that meant was, in order to survive, they decimated the natural resources of the island. Trees were cut down for firewood, animals killed for food, and over-fishing occurred because people had to eat. And when you take an environment that's as relatively harsh as the Easter Island waters (remember - very little or no plankton) it also makes sense that if you over-fish a species and make the population crash, it may be extremely difficult for that population to rebound once the over-fishing stops.
So for a whole bunch of reasons that seem to be somewhat inter-connected, there just aren't a lot of fish to be found. (If you look on the Picture Page of the Easter Island shots, you'll see some wide-angle shots where there's plenty of coral and not a fish in sight.) So you sort of develop a good sense of what to look for and where they might be and you get a bit more diligent at your fish-hunting-finding skills.
You'll definitely see dozens and dozens of the endemic Easter Island Butterfly. There are also Easter Island Damselfish all over the place. And there are enough Trumpetfish to form a marine marching band. There were Trumpetfish of every color and hue everywhere we dove. We also saw a fair number of Goatfish and ran into small schools of Linespot Jacks, who were curious about divers and would hang with us. (They may also have been trying to have us help them scarf up a meal.) But even with this relative "lack of fish", as you'll see from the pictures, there was still plenty of fish to be found underwater.
Probably one of the best finds, and we couldn't have done this out Christian, was the endemic Easter Island Pufferfish. First of all, he's dark blue. Secondly, he generally lives in caves and caverns. And he’s tiny, probably no more than 2-3 inches long. So he's not exactly an easy find. But Christian managed to locate four of them over the course of the week.
And that fact underscores the advantage - not just here but anywhere - of having a knowledgeable guide who not only knows the sites and the fish, but also knows the interests of the various divers so they hopefully can locate the animals or formations that they’ll remember.
One such formation was the underwater moai. Not before you get too excited and think the ancient Rapa Nui preceded Cousteau, we have to confess it's a fake moai. It was created a few years ago for a documentary they filmed there. I'm unclear as to whether it was put on land and then sunk or if it was put underwater for the documentary. But it's lies right outside of the Hanga Roa Harbor today at a dive site called The Anchors because not only is the moai there, but there are also three or four coral-encrusted anchors that are anywhere from 100-200 years old. Very impressive.
Another impressive site were the small islands at the south point of Rapa Nui known as Motu Kao Kao, Motu Nui, and Motu Iti. "Motu" in Rapa Nui means "island". These islands, about a 15-minute boat ride away, feature steep dropoffs, nice fish life, and some of the best viz we had, estimated at about 150 feet.
When we were diving Motu Iti, it was very impressive to cruise through the channels and watch the swell breaking overhead. You also had to be aware of where you were in terms of depth because when a large wave broke, you could see the white water working its way deeper, and you wanted to avoid that.
Motu Koa Kao was probably the most impressive dive as it's a small, sheer rock pinnacle that rises over 200 feet out of the water (there are pictures on the Picture Page) and bottoms out on a sandy plain around 250 feet deep. It's quite easy to circumnavigate it and that's what our dive plan was. At a depth of 100 feet, we could fairly easily see the bottom another 150 feet below us. And this was a place where we got some small schools of Linespot Jacks, Goatfish, Chubs, snapper, and other pelagic fish. It was a really great dive.
On Thursday we dove Motu Iti & Motu Nui (you do them together as one dive) but our final day of diving (Friday) was probably our best as we did the aforementioned Motu Kao Kao and then did The Cathedral, which is a series of lave tube caverns that not only made for interesting diving, but which also (photographically) allowed me to fill in two holes as I was finally about to get some good shots of the blue Easter Island Pufferifsh and had a close encounter with the elusive and shy Orangehead Pygmy Angelfish, who I had desperately and frustratingly been trying to shoot all week.
On a scale of 1 to 10, I think I’d rate the diving a 6. Certainly not spectacular but certainly not terrible. But it’s also the type of diving that, after a week, you can feel that you’ve pretty much done it.
But . . . you don’t go to Easter Island just for the diving.
The star attraction and what’s known worldwide (and which earned Easter Island its UNESCO World Heritage site designation) are the mysterious stone statues known as moai that dot the island.
I seem to recall first hearing about these when I was a kid. In fact, I’d like to think I heard about Easter Island and Yap, two places where they find unusual uses for stone, at about the same time. And I remember thinking to myself, “I’ve got to go there some day.” (As you might know, I’ve been to Yap numerous times.) So I was very excited to learn more and experience the moai firsthand.
There a few things to understand about the moai. First of all, they’re huge and massive. Most of them stand about 20 feet tall and weight many tons. They actually consist of three parts. “Moai” refers to the actual statute itself. They rest upon a stone base that’s known as an “ahu”. And the moai are capped off with a stone hat that’s known as a “topknot”.
What’s very interesting is that the three different parts of a completed moai are all made from different types of stone. The moai itself was carved from stone found only at the Rano Raraku volcano, also known as “the quarry” and where all the moai were initially carved. (They were then moved from the volcano, sometimes many miles, to their ahu.) Some moai stand alone, others are in groups.
The ahu is yet another type of stone, different in color and composition. And the topknot is yet another type of stone, reddish in color and a bit more porous. So when Josie’s grandfather led the first excavations, just by looking at the type and color of the stone, you could tell what it was you were looking at.
There’s a lot that’s still unknown and debated about the moai. It’s generally felt that they were some form of idol worship and were erected to protect or give power to villages. It seems that they may have started being carved as much as 1500 years ago and perhaps as late as 200-300 years ago. When Easter Island was discovered by Westerners in 1722 (on Easter Sunday, hence the name), some statues were still standing. But by the mid-1800s all had been toppled.
As our guide Josie put it, they had been toppled “maliciously.” During excavations of moai sites, Josie says it was easy to see that before moai were toppled, sharp stones would be placed where the moai would fall, so that they’d hit the stones as they fell and would break. This was especially true for the neck area as many of the moai were decapitated when they were toppled.
It’s thought that the toppling and decapitation took place during tribal warfare, where one village would fight another, and the victors would destroy the moai so that they moai could no longer give strength to or protect the conquered village.
And what this all means is that all of the moai standing on Easter Island today have been restored and repaired. Heads have been glued back on, ahu rebuilt, moai raised up, and topknots replaced. It’s estimated that there were roughly 800 moai carved. 400 of them are still at the quarry. Many others accidentally fell and broke during transport. So, in addition to standing moai, the island is also dotted with fallen moai, frequently face down, at the spot where they tripped. So on modern-day Easter Island, there are only 41 moai standing.
And while the common misconception is that they all faced seaward to scare off strangers (many of the ones in the quarry face this way but it’s a coincidence of the geography of the volcano), they actually all faced towards the villages that they served which was generally away from the sea.
Seeing the moai up close is quite impressive and you really get a sense of wonder and awe when you try to imagine carving and then moving these things. It’s estimated it took years for an individual moai to be carved, moved, and stood up on the ahu.
And while it was neat to go see some of the ahus with multiple moai, without a doubt the most impressive place is Rano Raraku where they were all carved from the side of the volcano. There are about 70 moai standing here, many of them upright but buried up to their necks. Still more can be seen in the cliffs, the work seemingly stopped mid-carve for reasons still unknown. And we were told there another hundred or so inside the volcano itself.
Just walking around this area (we spent about three hours here) was amazing. This was what my mental image of Easter Island was and I found it all to be very exciting, enhanced even further by Josie’s comments about the whys and the wherefores of everything.
And just a short ways from Rano Raraku is another treat, Ahu Tongariki. This is an ahu with 15 moai standing, their
backs to the ocean, silhouetted against the sea. Very inspiring.
There were other moai/ahu sites we visited during our land tours, some with moai standing, some with moai toppled. There were yet other places that we didn’t get to that had single moai standing on an ahu. But seeing all of this you really get a feeling in your head of wondering about the exact purpose of all of it and how - or hwy - it aal started. You also get a sense of the amazing amount of work and incredible number of people it took to get it all done. Given the size of Easter Island and the number of people living there, it’s no less an amazing feat that the building of the pyramids in Egypt.
But the moai are not the only mystery of Easter Island. Before I conclude I need to throw in a few words about the Birdman Cult.
During some of the tribal warfare years, they thought there must be a better way to sort things out. And someone came up with this idea of the Birdman. Every year, each tribe would meet in sort of an Olympics. But the only event involved finding the first egg laid each year by the Snotty Tern. And the only place to get this egg was on the off-shore island of Motu Nui.
The way it worked was each tribal chief selected one of his guys to be the one to go find the egg. They all met at the ceremonial village of Orongo, on top of the Rana Kao volcano. All the competitors scaled down a huge cliff and then swam across a channel past Motu Kao Kao and Motu Iti, to Motu Nui. Then the hunt for the egg began. Supposedly, this could take days/weeks/months. But whoever found the egg then had to swim back across the channel and presented the egg to his tribal chief. The chief was then made King and the guy who found the egg was known as the Birdman for the next year. (You’d think a lottery would have been easier.) But it was all a big deal and a great honor and certainly beat killing one another.
What’s very interesting about all of this, other than wondering who came up with this cockamamie idea in the first place, is that each year the people carved petroglyphs in the rock depicting the Birdmen. Those petroglyphs, which are now hundreds of years old, still exist today.
So the Rano Kao volcano and the village of Orongo, which is very scenic in and of itself, are also major stops when you tour Easter because you not only get the postcard view of Motu It/Nui/Kao Kao, but also you see the petroglyphs and get a feel for what this Birdman cult endured.
Easter Island has an awful lot to offer. When we were on our way there, I was telling our group that it reminded me of when I went to Midway Island in 1998 - the diving was going to be OK but not spectacular, and the birds would be wonderful and the two of them together would make for an incredible experience.
And that’s what you get at Easter Island - the diving’s OK (but the viz is sometimes spectacular), the Birdmen are interesting, the giant carved heads are absolutely mystical and wonderful, and the entire thing put together makes for an absolutely unforgettable experience that you definitely need to do at least once in your life.
As for us, I would be happy to take another group back again. For a number of reasons, mid-January was a perfect time to go and I’m happy to schedule that again for 2012. So once you’ve read through this, look through the pictures, and give some thought to visiting Easter Island with me. I guarantee you that it’ll be an experience that you’ll never forget.