EASTER ISLAND - January 6-12, 2019
Easter Island is most famous for the amazing Moai. These are the tall, carved stone statues that are found all over the island (close to 900 overall), and which are thought to have semi-religious connotations when they were first erected. And they were definitely part of our overall plan.
But this is a dive trip first and foremost so we split our time between the two activities. I’d been here previously in 2011, and was interested to see what had changed in the last eight years, as well as if there were any new insights or theories into the purpose and function of the Moai.
Our group was six strong this go-round: Audrey Anderson, Patti Wey, Bob & Laura Mosqueda, Harry Kreigh (a buddy of mine from high school days in Dover, DE), and me (Ken Kurtis). Getting there was fairly straightforward and easy: we flew LATAM (used to be LAN-Chile)non-stop from LAX to Santiago (SCL - 11 hours), then Santiago non-stop to Easter Island (IPC – 5 hours). Both planes were 787s.
If you do this trip, you first clear Immigration in SCL, and then have to pick up your bags and re-check them. Be aware that Baggage Claim is on the first floor, then you go to the third floor to drop bags for the flight to Easter Island, which is really a domestic flight since it’s part of Chile, but then you go down to the second floor to a special “Flights to Easter Island” line to check in. And then back up to the third floor to your boarding gate. There’s also a special “Entry to Easter Island” form you need to fill out but you can do that on-line if you check in there.
Once on Easter Island, we used the same service providers we had used in 2011: Hotel Manavai as our home base, ORCA Diving Center for our underwater adventures, and Josie Nahoe Mulloy as our tour guide for the Moai and the archeological sites. Josie's especially interesting because her grandfather was William Mulloy. He was the primary driving force (along with legendary explorer Thor Heyerdahl of Kon-Tiki fame) starting in the 1950s to understanding the history of Easter Island and he’s pretty much revered on the island. Even though he was an American, think as of him as the Easter Island equivalent of George Washington. His ashes were scattered on the island and his memorial plaque reads, "By restoring the past to his beloved island, he also changed its future." So Josie brings a unique perspective to her tours. As one man put it to me, “You will be learning some very exclusive information from her.”
The Hotel Manavai was adequate, but definitely could use some repairs and upgrades. One change is that the woman who ran it eight years ago (Kim), went back to the US and the new management team isn't quite as on-the-ball as Kim was. Nothing horrible, but little things like a shower head in one of the rooms that was spewing water all over the bathroom and being told breakfast (included) started at 8AM when it was actually 8:30AM.
But a big advantage for this hotel is proximity to the dive shop, which is a little over 200 yards down the road. The hotel is also easy walk to a number of good restaurants (Te Moana was our favorite), as well as the major Tahai archeological site and a nice museum. So the logistical advantages far outweighed the small inconveniences.
Needless to say, Easter Island is likely NOT your typical dive destination when you think of the South Pacific. But the underwater terrain is very interesting on a number of levels. Overall conditions are pretty good too. The water temp was a fairly consistent 75° and the visibility generally averaged around 100 feet and in a couple of places, we estimated it at 200 feet. That’s not a typo: two hundred feet. Some of the unique environmental factors at Easter Island make this possible.
First of all, consider that Easter Island is the most remote inhabited island in the world. The closest civilizations are Chile (of which Easter Island is part) which lies 2500 miles to the east, and Tahiti, which lies 2500 miles to the northwest. Not counting Pitcairn Island (40 people live there and it’s 1,200 miles away), there’s a lot of ocean isolating the place.
This causes some interesting challenges for both fish and people. On the fishy side, due to the way the currents flow and some other conditions, Easter Island has less plankton in the water than any other similar body of water in the world. This helps account for the great visibility but it also definitely affects the fish populations. Since there’s not a lot of plankton, you don’t get a lot of little fish that would normally feast on plankton. This reduces the number of medium-sized fish who would feed on the little guys, and it reduces the bigger fish who would feed on the medium guys. In short, it’s not that there are ANY fish, it’s just that there aren’t MANY fish.
That being said, I thought the fish populations were healthier than what I saw in 2011. Still not a lot compared to your impression of the South Pacific, but I recall that eight years ago, you might be kicking for a minute or two and not see any fish. Not the case now. You certainly don’t see huge schools or shoals of fish on a regular basis (although we did see a few) but overall, better than eight years ago.
Contrary to the state of the fish, the corals are amazingly healthy and abundant (as you'll see in the SmugMug pix). They are all hard corals and somewhat stubby. Not a sea fan or branching coral in sight. But the coral reefs are quite extensive, there’s very little evidence of coral bleaching (although I did see some), and since there aren’t that many boats visiting and those that do pretty much confine themselves to the harbor area around Hanga Roa (the main town), there’s no evidence of anchor damage either.
Chileans in general but Rapa Nui people specifically are very environmentally-conscious. There are signs and bins to recycle all over and – because natural resources on Easter Island are limited and were actually presumed to be the cause of civil wars in the past – everyone seems fairly eco-aware on the island.
Getting back to the fish for a moment, there are roughly 140 known species of fish that have been catalogued at Easter Island. This compares to about 1,000 in Tahiti. But of those 140 species, about 25% are endemic. “Endemic” doesn’t necessarily mean rare, it simply means that that species is native and only found in a specific place. So an endemic fish could be quite common, like the Rapa Nui Damselfish, which are everywhere you look. Or it could be rare like the Bluebell Toby (Blue Puffer), which is generally found inside tunnels and caverns and only in a couple of places around the island. So some of the endemic species might be really exciting to visitors because we’ve never seen one before but somewhat ho-hum to your guide who sees them all the time.
Because Easter Island is so relatively un-visited and un-explored, you might also find something brand new. On one dive inside Hanga Roa Harbor, during our safety stop I spotted what I thought at first was a small piece of white floating paper being carried by the water flow but which I came to realize was actually a very small – size of my pinky finger fingernail – fish that was undulating to and fro. It was obviously some sort of juvy or larval state fish and resembled the movements of some small fish we’ve seen in other parts of the Pacific. I called over ace dive guide Christian Saavedra and afterwards, he said he’d never seen something like that before. Unfortunately, I was shooting very wide angle on the dive, so couldn’t snap even a bad picture of the critter. But the point is that there are always things you’ve never seen before – and maybe things no one’s seen before – to be discovered.
Speaking of Christian, as I mentioned earlier we dove (again) with ORCA Diving Center. It was founded in 1980 by brothers Henri & Michel Garcia (both now deceased) and was the first dive center on Easter Island. In 2011, there were two dive centers: ORCA and Mike Rapu next door. Now there are 11 dive operations. Three of them are right in the harbor area (ORCA, Mike Rapu, and RapuNui Dive Center), two more are up the street half a block, and the other six are scattered around the island. Although I can’t imagine there’s enough business to support eleven dive operations, ORCA, Mike, and RapaNui seem to be doing OK.
A lot of that is because they all have developed a quite brisk Discover Diving experience. These are single-tank shallow (40 feet max) dives for non-certified divers led by an instructor. The shops seem to be running them throughout the day. And certainly at ORCA, it didn’t impact the “real” diving that we were doing.
The typical dive day, and this is the same as it was in 2011, is an out-and-back single-tank dive. Most of the sites are no more than 15 minutes away so it’s a quick run to the dive site (all the boats are large panga-style open vessels), dive for about an hour, and then a quick run back to the harbor. Then they fill the empty tanks and you do your surface interval on land. While that's going on, they might load your boat with Discover Diving people and take them out for a quick plunge. (The DD sites are right in the harbor, no more than 3-5 minutes away.) When the DD is done (maybe 30 minutes later), the boat comes back, the DD people get out, we load up new tanks for the “real” divers, and off we go for dive #2. It sounds a little convoluted but it works really well and it seems all the dive ops have this pattern down pat.
I can’t sing the praises of ORCA enough. I dove with Christian in 2011 and he’s not only enthusiastic and pleasant, but also an excellent guide and critter-spotter. He’s been diving these reefs for many many years now and knows the ins and outs and where to find things (like the little Blue Puffer).
The ORCA staff is also spot-on. They were always there to help us on the boats, haul the tanks from the dive shop to the boats (maybe 100 feet – they use a wheeled cart), load the boat, and make sure we had everything we needed. They're hustling (in a good way) all the time. When we came back, they were there waiting to help people off, direct you to the fresh-water showers to use between dives, hauled the gear back up, filled tanks, set up the gear for dive #2, and repeat. On top of that, since we were diving with them each day while we were there, we were free to rinse our gear and leave it at the shop instead of hauling it back and forth to the hotel. So each day started with gear which had been rinsed and was relatively dry, and that just made for it more pleasant.
You simply can't go to Easter Island and not see the various Moai (the big carved statues). And it's always better with a guide than on your own. In 2011, we spaced out our diving and touring so we did a dive/tour day, then an all-dive day, dive/tour, all-dive, and dive tour. (You can generally cover all the Moai and archeological sites in three half-day tours of 4-5 hours each.) Our tour guide then and now as we mentioned earlier, was our good friend Josie Nahoe Mulloy and while she already had some tours committed, she was able to jockey her schedule so that we did an afternoon half-day on Monday and Tuesday, and a morning half-day on Wednesday. So our general plan this year was to arrive on Sunday, dive/tour Monday, dive/tour Tuesday, tour/dive Wednesday, all-dive Thursday, and 2-tank dive (but a special long-distance pair) on Friday.
Bear in mind that because it’s summertime in January below the equator and because of the way the time zones are set up, sunrise at Easter Island this time of the year is 7:15AM and sunset is 9:15PM (and it’s really not “dark” until almost 10PM). So we would generally get up around 8AM, have a small breakfast at the hotel around 8:30, meet for our dives by 9:30 (usually ORCA starts at 9:00 but since our breakfast always was late, they pushed things back 30 minutes for us), were generally done around 1:30PM, took a break for lunch (more on food later but there’s a WONDRERFUL empanada place right next to ORCA), tour from 3-7PM, and then a late dinner around 8PM, which meant we got to bed sometime between 10-11PM. Rinse and repeat the following day. It sounds busier than it was but we definitely had a schedule.
We all thought the tours were wonderful. Josie is extremely knowledgeable and personable. In addition to the wealth of information from growing up with her grandfather, she’s been living and studying all things Rapa Nui for over 20 years. So she’d also sometimes says things like, “This is what my grandfather thought but we discovered other things and now we don’t think that’s correct.”
Part of the mystery of Easter Island is that much of the history was lost after slave traders raided the island in the late 1860s and removed many of the men and boys. When they were all finally repatriated some years later, they also brought back with them smallpox, which decimated the island. It’s thought that the population dwindled to only 111 people in 1877. So today, all natives of Rapa Nui have descended from those folks.
In 2011, there were maybe 5,000 or so people living on the island. Nowadays, it’s close to 8,000. In 2011, Josie estimates there were about 60,000 tourists annually. Now it’s over 100,000. Most fly in (LATAM flies a 787 once or twice daily from Santiago and our planes were full) but there are also a few visitors from cruise ships. That didn’t happen in 2011. This year, we had one ship spend two days anchored while we were there and it certainly has an impact on everything as the archeological sites get crowded with tour busses and groups. I think our folks got quite tired of hearing me say, “It wasn’t like this back in 2011 when I was here.” Back then, we usually had sites to ourselves. Not so this time. It's not horrible, but it' simply not as isolated as it used to be.
Josie knowledgeably covered all the details about the various sites we visited. One huge difference from 2011 is that back then, the sites (all considered a national park) were run by the Chilean government. Now they’re run by the local Rapa Nui. Moai sites consist of an ahu (the base upon which the Moai sit), the Moai themselves (sometimes singly but most times groups), and sometimes a topknot on top of the statue. Back in 2011, you could walk right up to everything and were simply asked not to go up on the ahu or climb the Moai. But now, all the sites have a marked perimeters (small stones in the ground – very unobtrusive), and you’re required to stay a fairly respectable distance – 50-60 feet – away from the ahus and the statutes. Changes things a little photographically and I’m glad I had my 70-300mm zoom lens with me.
We were very impressed by Ahu Akivi (only inland one), Ahu Akena (by a white sand beach), and Ahu Tongiriki (which has 15 Moai in a row). But the piece de résistance is definitely Rano Raraku which is the volcano slope where most of the Moai were carved and then transported. Work on the Moai seemed to stop suddenly sometime in the late 1800s and there are still around 400 statues there in various stages of completion. Some are fairly completely visible, some have been buried partially in grass, and some are even toppled. But it’s pretty impressive to see all of this and think about all of the manpower and work that went into this.
The same thought applies to the reefs. If you realize that coral grows only a couple of inches per year, and then you see (check out the pix on SmugMug) how massive and extensive some of these reefs are, you can certainly formulate an argument that they’re been relatively undisturbed – despite a couple of documented tsunamis that have hit the area – for a thousand years or more.
Probably our favorite dives were on a couple of the motus. “Motu” is Rapa Nui for a small island. On our first day, we dove Motu Tautara which Christian referred to as "The Caverns," and where there are numerous tunnels and swim-throughs and the like. It’s a really interesting dive just due to the topography, but also because this is where we found the little Blue Puffer. He hides deep inside a cavern but Christian knew where to find not one, but two of them.
We also saw a number of lobster, out and about without a care in the world, numerous Glasseyes and Bigeyes, some Guineafowl Puffers, and we even were swarmed by a school of what I think were White-Bar Surgeonfish.
On EVERY dive you’re going to see hundreds of Easter Island Damselfish, many Easter Island Butterflyfish (both endemic), and more Trumpetfish than you can count., Big ones too and a lot of golden ones. We also would regularly see Forceps Butterflyfish, Crosshatch Triggerfish, and Sunset Wrasses as well.
The other common fish – but again endemic – is the Orangehead Pygmy Angelfish who are the most skittish things around and very hard to photograph. As soon as they see you, they do a 180 and go back into a crevice and out of sight. Or maybe they slip down the reef a few feet and peer out to see if you’ve gone away or if you spotted them. They’re gorgeous little fish - only 2-3 inches long - and they became part of my weeklong quest to get a decent shot. In 2011, it took me until our very last dive to get one. This year, I did a bit better (as you'll see on the SmugMug page).
There were LOTS of black sea urchins. As in hundreds and hundreds. They are everywhere and they are out in the open. Usually, sea urchins nestle into cracks during the day to hide and then reveal themselves more openly at night. Not so on Rapa Nui. Urchins are all over the place and you’ve got to watch out about getting too close to the reef lest you end up with spines in your hands or heels. My guess – and purely that – would be that the urchins flourish and are fearless due to a lack of predators due again to a relative lack of fish.
The other Motus we LOVED were Motu Kao Kao and Motu Iti. These are three small islands off of the south end of Easter Island (which is in and of itself about 64 square miles, so roughly 8x8 miles). Both of these have very steep drops as well as they’re located about a mile offshore, so this is where we got our amazing 200-foot visibility.
It’s also where we saw our first Triangle Fish. It’s a type of Morwong only found at Easter Island, about 14-inches long, and a bit rare. Although it fish-shaped, the markings on the body make it look triangular, hence the name.
Motu Iti is also where we saw our first Half-barred Wrasse (endemic) which is wrasse-shaped and sized and has black half-bars running down a white body that is trimmed in red. Really a gorgeous fish and represented photographically on my SmugMug page.
A number of our second dives were within 10 minutes of the Hanga Roa harbor (and “harbor” is being quite generous, as you’ll see on the SmugMug pix). One of them was called The Egg because of an egg-shaped cavern within the reef system. Another was Anchors Reef which features two big ancient coral-encrusted anchors, but which also is home to a large fake Moai that was used as a movie prop some years back. Now it serves as a photo op for visiting divers.
But Christian saved his best dives with us for last. On Friday, we journeyed fairly far north (we actually took extra tanks with us and did this one as a 2-tank dive with snacks on the boat between dives) and started out at Omohi. This site featured some very dramatic and deep swim-throughs, caverns, and arches and also - we think - is a place Christian doesn't get to g very often. It's certainly not a Discover Diving site for numerous reasons.
And after that dive, we moved a bit further north to a spot that Christian said he hadn't been to in years (near Hanga Oteo) but which he loves and which we called Blue Cavern Dive. The highlight is a very large cavern, only about 40 feet deep, with a white sand bottom - gotta be careful not to kick anything up - and when you swim into the back and turn around to look back at the entrance, you are presented with a gorgeous and wide view of the blue open ocean, hence the name. Plenty of Bigeyes and Soldierfish inside, and once we exited, we were again swarmed by a large school of White-Bar Surgeonfish.
You're not going to read about Easter Island in dive magazines or hear that it's become the new "in" destination. And it's certainly off the beaten path. But it's a UNESCO World Heritage site, has some pretty good and unique diving, lots of good restaurants, and decent infrastructure to boot (but horrible Wi-Fi), and how many people do you know who have been there? So you get some bragging rights too. Stay at the Manavai, dive with ORCA, and get Josie as your guide, and you will come away with an incredible experience that you'll treasure for the rest of your life.