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Henderson Island: Castaway Scientists

In May 2015, I joined a team of scientists to go to one of the most remote islands on earth. We were sent by global conservation organisation the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) to investigate a failed rat eradication and study some of the unique creatures that call this place home.

The Location

Way out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles from the nearest continent, lies the tiny, uninhabited Henderson Island. It’s one of 4 islands in the Pitcairn group (famously linked to the Bounty mutineers) and in the past the whole island was a reef, which was pushed up to create a jagged limestone jungle without any fresh water supply.

It's very remote, and very rarely visited. Travel to the island included flights from Sydney to Auckland, Auckland to Pape’ete (Tahiti), Pape’ete to the Gambier Islands; a ferry from the airport to Mangareva Island; and a ship from Mangareva to Henderson (via Pitcairn Island). The isolation of the island led to the evolution of completely unique land birds, and creates a haven for many seabird species, so it’s protected under a UNESCO world heritage listing.

Henderson Island location

The Science

Henderson is home to 4 endemic land birds including my personal favourite, the Henderson Crake – a flightless ground bird with a whole lot of attitude. There are also several species of sea bird who call the island home – petrels, boobies, frigates & more. Unfortunately for the birds there are also rats, introduced by Polynesians over 700 years ago. For some species, like the Murphy’s petrel, the rats kill all chicks within less than 5 days of hatching. Read more about what we were doing on the RSPB blog and in the final trip report.

We also got an opportunity to study the unique (and beautiful) Henderson Island petrel (Pterodroma atrata). These feisty, endangered birds are only known to breed on Henderson, and the results of our research can be read here.

The Plastic

Despite being one of the most isolated locations on the planet, Henderson Island has a serious trash problem. The eastern beach is buried in years of accumulated debris from around the world – we found buoys, toilet seats, fish aggregation devices, Lego pieces, toothbrushes, a butt plug (seriously), lighters, chemical bottles, coat hangers and more. Much, much more. Stay tuned for publication of some papers where we release just how much estimated plastic is on the island, and inside some of the resident fish. We were also devastated to find a large turtle washed up on the beach, killed by the fishing line and net he was tangled in. It seems nowhere on earth is safe from the reach of our ocean pollution.

Alice Forrest sitting on plastic polluted beach - Henderson Island

The Lifestyle

100 days with no fresh food, no internet, no contact with the outside world and lots of coconuts, rat poo, laughs, trekking and card games. We were living in tents in the beach back with a tarp-covered kitchen and a water tank containing 1000L of fresh water, our supply for the 3 months (which all had to be lugged over the reef and into our campsite on our arrival). I was lucky enough to be camped in a fairy grove – inhabited by many early-rising fairy terns. Lucky they have such adorable fluff-ball chicks or their 4am wakeup call would be very unwelcome.

When we weren’t hard at work tagging rats, tracking seabirds or counting plastic, we were keeping ourselves entertained Island Style. We built a hammock out of washed up beach nets & rope, constructed a chess board from scrap wood, cardboard & shells and spent many hours sitting at the top of the cliff watching whales cruise past with our favourite music playing and appreciating the quiet life.

Apart from a brief moment at the end of our trip when we found out that the ship coming to collect us had broken down, and we had run out of canned peaches, it was an overwhelmingly positive experience. While I’m glad to be back in a world of being able to phone my friends and eat fresh fruit, I am definitely missing that magical place, the great crew of people and all the completely exceptional adventures.

(Photos by me, apart from the bird photos which are by the incredible Angus Donaldson)

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