Rapa Nui: Far From Home

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A long flight from Hawaii to Chile to Easter Island deposited me on one of the most isolated and unique islands in the world: Easter Island, or Rapa Nui in the local dialect. Seeing the “downtown” area was a surprise to my pre-conditioned sense that Rapa Nui was a desolate, isolated island, a once thriving culture full of mystery.

In fact, tourism has increased dramatically in recent years as the Chilean middle class expanded. A plethora of restaurants, two dive shops, and bars line the streets along Hangaroa Bay.

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Upon closer inspection, however, one can still get a sense of the isolation on this small bit of rock in the middle of the Pacific. Plastic containers, such as strawberry containers, are sold in stores. Items most people normally discard with little or no regard to where they end up, in landfills for 1,000 years, are sold here for their utility.

And of course the iconic Moai statues of Rapa Nui do not disappoint. More background on them later. 

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Our Purpose Here

El Niño, the natural phenomenon which creates warming of the oceans, affected many parts of the world last year and carried into this year as well.

We documented coral bleaching after the El Niño in Hawaii and Maldives last year, and here in Rapa Nui, we are also seeing signs of mass coral bleaching.

I’m here working with James Herlan, a Ph.D. student of the Universidad Católica del Norte in Chile. Together we are making great efforts to document this bleaching event, capturing imagery of the reefs in the form of photo mosaics that are 25m x 10m in cover, 3D modeling sections of the reef, conducting fish surveys, and gathering coral samples for microbial analyses. The data from this endeavor will go towards a massive effort to make Hangaroa Bay a Marine Protected Area (MPA). Most of the tourism is concentrated in Hangaroa, and many Chilean scientists believe a collaboration with citizen scientists would greatly benefit the health of the reefs in this area. 

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Our first dive was on the northern shores of Rapa Nui, off Anakena beach, the only sand beach on the island. I’ve never experienced a coral reef quite like this one- incredibly high coral cover, but low coral diversity-one or two species of coral dominated the reef. One of the most immediate and disheartening signs we saw was the nearly complete lack of fish. All large predators and top herbivores were absent from this reef, only very small Kyphosis (chubs) and wrasses dotted the reef.

In addition, a post-doctoral student of ESMOI is sampling the prevalence of “micro plastics” in the waters and fish around Rapa Nui. A plastic bottle in the ocean is fairly easy to retrieve, but how does one recover that plastic when the bottle disintegrates into 1,000 pieces? Usually it ends up in the guts of marine life.

We have much work ahead of us as we plan to survey the southeastern shore as well as Hangaroa Bay.