Pitcairn: A long way from anywhere
Dr Heather Koldewey, Head of Global Conservation Programmes, Zoological Society of London:
Asking anyone to find Pitcairn on a map usually involves some puzzled looks and a lot of searching, before settling on a very small dot in the middle of a very big South Pacific Ocean. Most familiar for the history of the Mutiny of the Bounty, the Pitcairn Islands (of which there are four) are a UK Overseas Territory with a population of 54 people and aspirations of having the largest marine reserve in the world (the Chagos archipelago is the current record holder). Of course, tales of stunning marine environments and the chance to help with a bit of ocean saving is always pretty appealing to me, and that’s exactly why I find myself heading to the other side of the world to a 2×1 mile extinct volcano that is Pitcairn. This is the start of an exciting new project funded by the Darwin Initiative – in collaboration with Professor Terry Dawson (Dundee University) and Robert Irving (Sea-scope) – to develop a fisheries management plan for the 12 nautical mile area around Pitcairn Island and to increase knowledge and awareness of its extraordinary wildlife. All this will help build the case for the new marine reserve.
The journey itself is pretty epic – London to Auckland (via eight hours of expensive coffee drinking and emails at Guangzhou airport), and an evening catching up with the former ZSL London Zoo Curator of Herpetology, Richard Gibson, who is now enjoying working at Auckland Zoo. The global zoo community is wonderful, and Richard kindly united me with underwater videography equipment loaned by our ever-helpful collaborators at the University of Western Australia. And then onwards to Tahiti and a day in Papeete. No beaches and cocktails for me – as this is the home of ZSL’s long term conservation programme for Partula snails, I was fortunate to enjoy an entertaining local dinner with ZSL’s Conservation Biologist Dr Trevor Coote and find out the latest in snail conservation and re-introduction research. I also meet up with my collaborator Terry and we fly on to Mangareva (French Polynesia), with a brief refuelling stop in Tureia which is a coral atoll about a metre above sea level with a landing strip and beautiful surf break. Mangareva is the home of the black pearl industry and a beautiful island with lush vegetation. Not much time for exploring as we hurry to board the Claymore II, the supply ship that visits the Pitcairn Islands only four times a year, delivering basic supplies, carrying Pitcairners coming on and off island and a few tourists.
On this trip, Terry and I were joined by the UK Overseas Territory Department Head from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the new government representative (about to start a one year posting) and his wife, and two tourists – one a Kew-trained plant enthusiast and the other a New Zealander with a fascination for Pitcairn’s history. After two lumpy days and nights crossing the open Pacific Ocean, we woke to find ourselves moored off Pitcairn. I’d got a sense of the vastness of the planned marine reserve when I learned from the ship’s captain that we had entered Pitcairn’s waters on the first morning of the first day at sea….and still had a day and a night to go! Opening a porthole in the early morning to see a striking island rising from the ocean under a thundery grey sky was a spectacular sight. We had arrived and the adventure was really beginning.