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Salas y Gómez Expedition: Departing Rapa Nui

As the Salas y Gómez team concludes its work near Easter Island, Chile, and disperses to points around the globe, marine scientist and expedition co-leader Enric Sala looks back on several weeks in one of the most isolated, intriguing, and ecologically unique corners of the vast Pacific.
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Petroglyphs depicting a tangata manu, or birdman, near the Orongo ceremonial village on Easter Island’s Rano Kau volcano frame islets that were a popular dive site with the Salas y Gómez expedition team. In an annual birdman competition practiced through the mid-19th century, clan representatives raced down a cliff to the sea, swam to the most distant of the islets, retrieved manutara (sooty tern) eggs, and returned them to Orongo.
By Enric Sala, National Geographic Fellow

I left Easter Island by plane, under rain and wind, watching the sea become dark, then disappear beneath a thick blanket of clouds. This weather and the mood it evoked were so different from what we encountered during our expedition, days of sunshine and light breezes. I miss you already, Rapa Nui and Salas y Gómez!
Although the scientific descriptions, data analysis, and interpretations will continue for months, the field portion of our expedition has come to a close. I’m deeply satisfied with the work our team has done. We accomplished all our science and filming objectives, and have forged friendships that will last a lifetime. Yet still I feel a twinge of melancholy at leaving these remote specks of land in the middle of the Pacific: I have fallen under the spell of Rapa Nui, its culture, and its unique marine life.
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A tuna and a shark etched in stone centuries ago at the Papa Vaka site on Easter Island attest to the importance of these fish to its original Polynesian settlers.
We are a team of scientists, filmmakers, and conservationists who came to survey and document Chile’s largest and brand new no-take marine reserve, the Motu Motiro Hiva (Salas y Gómez) Marine Park. We wanted to compare it with the underwater world surrounding Easter Island. There, we expected to find environmental collapse analogous to what occurred on land centuries ago, when (for reasons debated by scholars) the island lost its native palm trees. But what we found surprised us.
Easter Island has the clearest water and some of the healthiest coral communities we had ever seen. We did not expect corals to thrive so spectacularly around an island that is the southern limit of their distribution in the southeast Pacific. And yet they do. Lobsters, on the other hand, are all but gone here, and large fish are extremely rare.
In contrast, Salas y Gómez has large lobsters and pelagic fishes such as amberjacks, black trevally, and many sharks. But the sharks were small (on average between one and 1.2 meters, or three and four feet, in length). They probably belong to the same cohort, only about two years old. What happened to the older, larger sharks that others had seen in these waters in prior years?
The evidence suggests that there has been fishing in recent times at Salas y Gómez. We saw fishing lines and nets tangled on the corals and a shark with a hook on its mouth. To our astonishment, a fishing boat even showed up and dropped its lines illegally in the park next to the expedition’s host ship, the OPV Comandante Toro, while we were stationed on the lee of the island.
The good news: Young sharks are abundant (several times, 50 or more aggregated simultaneously around the Toro’s small working boats), and the newly afforded fishing restrictions should allow them to recover. Such recovery would be a win for everyone, including Rapa Nui’s fishermen, who have watched their catch dwindle in recent years. Healthy marine ecosystems such as the one Chile has committed itself to protecting at Salas y Gómez seed and sustain marine life in nearby fisheries. Without such safe havens and limitations on the scale of fishing, any fishery is destined for collapse–in some cases irrecoverable collapse.
Chile has recognized the importance of the waters around Salas y Gómez just in time, before its sharks are annihilated, as they have been in most locales around the ocean. Now Chile must protect its new park. The Chilean Navy has proven to be a strong enforcement arm, and with the interception of the boat fishing illegally in the park, it has set an encouraging precedent.
This expedition was exceptional for many reasons, most important being that we developed a new model of collaboration in marine conservation. We were three main partners: the National Geographic Society, the conservation organization Oceana, and the Chilean Navy. Never before had we partnered with a country’s navy or operated from a naval ship to conduct our Pristine Seas expeditions, and little did we know that it could be so successful. Commander Andrés Rodrigo of OPV Comandante Toro proved to be a great leader, thoroughly invested in the mission, and the Toro’s officers and crew worked tirelessly and enthusiastically to make it a success. We were proud to be guests on their ship, and are deeply grateful to the Chilean government and its people for making the expedition possible.
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A team bound for dive sites on one of the expedition’s final mornings traverses Easter Island’s southern coast.
Carefully choreographed logistics and terrific teamwork allowed us to conduct 30 person-dives and deploy and retrieve up to three deep-sea drop-cams every day, regardless of the sea conditions. It was hard work. We went to bed exhausted after 17-hour days, of which we spent between three and four underwater, sometimes in a swell that reminded us of a washing machine. But we all did it with passion and commitment, and we had a ball doing it.
One day, I hope to return to Easter Island and Salas y Gómez–islands so incredibly far from other dry land–and find the large sharks, tuna, and other species that their fertile marine ecosystems could surely harbor. Until then, Rapa Nui and Moto Matiro Hiva, you will remain in my thoughts and in my soul.
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Enigmatic moai dot a hillside at Rano Raraku on Easter Island, where stone for the immense statues was quarried and the statues were carved.
Photos by Ford Cochran
The science team shared frequent updates and media from the expedition, including photographs, videos, and links to Google maps, here on the National Geographic News Watch blog. You can also follow the expedition on Google Earth by clicking on the blue ship icon located where the expedition began near Easter Island, roughly 2,000 miles (3,300 km) northwest of Santiago, Chile. (Make sure the “Places” layer is turned on).
National Geographic and Oceana are members of Mission Blue
View all dispatches from the Salas y Gómez expedition here.