Pitcairn – Small Islands, Big Ocean

"There's nothing there"

“There’s nothing there”

Heather Koldewey, Head of Global Conservation Programmes, ZSL

Heather’s fifth and final blog all the way from the South Pacific:

During the two-day journey aboard the supply ship to Pitcairn, I heard – on several occasions – some of the other passengers look out over the ocean and say “There’s nothing there.” That’s the challenge for those of us involved in marine conservation and trying to inspire enthusiasm for ocean protection. Unless there are whales breaching and dolphins leaping, it’s hard to appreciate that under the ocean waves there’s an abundance of marine life going about its daily business, it’s just that we can’t see it.

This is where organisations like National Geographic are so important, as they bring the wonder and magic of the oceans into our homes. Last year, a National Geographic Pristine Seas expedition spent time in the Pitcairn Islands and captured extraordinary footage of crystal clear waters, stunning corals and other abundant marine life. Not only has this helped to demonstrate the value of the proposed marine reserve, it has also raised awareness and pride among the islanders about the diversity and richness of the waters around Pitcairn. On several occasions, the islanders referred to the film and how excited they were to understand more about what lives in their seas.

Heather and fish!

Heather and fish!

I’ve been longing to dive in Pitcairn since I first read about the marine life there. It’s getting into the latter part of the trip – we haven’t managed to dive yet and I’m getting a bit twitchy. Luckily, we had many different initiatives planned for this trip and have made good progress on the rest, but I’d have been a bit sad if I’d ended a trip to Pitcairn without having gone underwater. There are two things against us – first, the weather has been unseasonably bad with rain and high winds, meaning the sea is rough and turbid inshore and it’s impossible to get the small boats out.

There really are no sheltered areas around Pitcairn so you’re constantly exposed to the elements – I was so impressed watching the longboats launch as the waves crash over the harbour wall. Second, everyone’s busy with the cruise ship and the Claymore II supply ship taking visitors and cargo back and forth, repairing damaged areas after the storm, and keeping everything on the island running. It’s one of the challenges of an island population of around 50 people; there just isn’t the manpower to get everything done.

Off to dive!

Off to dive!

But – as luck would have it, the weather clears and so does the sea, so we can finally get out on the boat and underwater. The water is still a bit turbid, but still around 30 metres visibility (not the usual 70m) so it’s all relative! We dive in front of Adamstown onto a beautiful coral reef – the most southerly location of coral reefs and amazing to see in such good condition. The fish are abundant, particularly the nanwi (Kyphosus bigibbus) which are the most popular food fish here and extremely curious.



Shawn with a spiny lobster

Shawn with a spiny lobster

Diving Operated Videography

Using Diving Operated Videography

Fishing is done by a few of the islanders and shared around the households in exchange for other goods, like cabbages or tomatoes. There’s no nets here and fish are targeted using a spear gun or on hand line. It’s refreshing to see a set up where the methods are sustainable and the fish are just being caught in low

numbers as food. The diving gives me some sense of the environment here and we trial some methods we hope to use for long-term monitoring – in this case diver operated videography. As in Chagos, I get to see big fish, old fish and fish unafraid of divers. It’s always inspiring to be reminded what the oceans should look like.

Pitcairn is unique in many ways – it’s a tiny island with a tiny population far from anywhere, but surrounded by an immense and beautiful ocean. The current initiative led by Pew to protect Pitcairn and create the world’s largest marine reserve has the full support and enthusiasm of the Pitcairn Island community and is gaining traction internationally. There’s still work to be done, but it’s an incredible opportunity and I hope that this project, combined with the efforts of the Pitcairn Environment Group and the Marine Reserves Coalition can help to make it happen.


  1. Hi, Heather.

    What a great personal and professional experience it must be for you on Pitcairn. Have fun. Someone here on Norfolk has mentioned your donating a box made by John Buffett containing locks of hair from our Tahtitian foremothers. This is fascinating. I’m a student of early Pitcairn history. Is there a narrative that came with it? We know so little of the women. (I’m thinking DNA analysis of a tiny strand each.) Regards.

  2. Hi Rick
    Many thanks! It was an incredible experience visiting Pitcairn and felt very lucky to have the opportunity to visit and work there. The family connection was obviously extra special! The box made by John Buffett and the contents are now on indefinite loan in the Pitcairn Museum and the 3 locks of hair were wrapped in paper with names on it. They were Ruth Quintall (19 years old) and the two sisters Martha (21) and Jemima Young (20). What’s quite extraordinary is my daughter is called Jemima!
    I’m happy to send some pictures and more information if you contact me by email heather.koldewey@zsl.org
    Colleen will be returning to Norfolk with many pictures of the box too.
    With best wishes

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