Henderson Island Report from Captain Paul Watson

Henderson Island
24°22'South & 128°19'West

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society research ship Farley Mowat stopped at Henderson Island today to conduct observations of the ecological condition of the island and to do a wildlife survey. This island is considered one of the most remote places in the world.

In fact, since departing the Galapagos on October 14, we have not seen any other land and only one other vessel - a Japanese longliner some 750 miles northeast of this location.

Henderson Island is indeed the far side of the world. We are in the extreme southeast of Polynesia. This lonely coral island is 14 square miles and is situated about 100 miles northeast of Pitcairn, the closest neighbor. The next closest island, some 400 miles away is Mangareva.

The name of the island as it is today originated when the island was rediscovered by Captain James Henderson of the British East India merchant ship Hercules. The Hercules called at Pitcairn on January 18, 1819, and had sighted Henderson the previous day. The Hercules was engaged on trading voyages between India and South America, and was instrumental in commencing the long association of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (at first through their Calcutta committee) and the Pitcairn Islanders.

Today, the Farley Mowat circumnavigated the island keeping off one-quarter mile. The island is about five miles long and two and a half miles wide. The water is quite deep all around the island.

This is not a volcanic island despite its relatively high elevation of 31 meters. It is, in fact, a coral atoll that was once thrust upwards by an earthquake.

Despite appearances, (i.e. dense vegetation and trees), it is a desolate place without fresh water because of the porous limestone that makes up the island. There is a freshwater spring but it bubbles up from beneath the sea some 20 feet offshore and is accessible only at low tide. There is also little soil, but despite this, the island is covered in dense undergrowth with stunted trees. It is a difficult island to walk upon because of razor sharp limestone ridges and fissures.

It is not a comfortable place for people to live, although a few people once did live here, but none permanently since five hundred years ago. Whatever happened to the Polynesia people on Henderson, remnants of a people marooned from far off Mangareva, is a mystery.

We could not pass by this island without making an observation on the state of the marine wildlife here.

The island is reported to have an abundance of lobsters, crabs, octopus, and a limited number of reef and shellfish species.

The island is also Southeast Polynesia's only turtle nesting site. It is the green turtle that hauls ashore here to continue its lineage. Unfortunately, we missed them. The eggs are laid between January and March each year, and we arrived over two months too early to bear witness to their visit.

The islands once hosted 17 species of breeding seabirds and 9 species of resident land birds, five of which were flightless including three species of pigeons. It is the Dodo of Mauritius that is most famed extinct flightless pigeon. We have forgotten the other species we have exterminated, three of which once lived on Henderson, victims of Polynesian settlers.

A large buried garbage midden along the North coast beach bears a grim testament to human habitation. The evidence shows that during the time of Polynesian settlement on the islands that tens of millions of birds and fish were slaughtered by only a small population over some five hundred years.

The Polynesians also tried to introduce agriculture and the evidence of this is the presence of bananas, swamp taro, coconuts, ti shrubs and candlenut trees. There is also evidence that pigs were brought to the island, but there are, fortunately, no signs of pigs on the island today.

Evidence of basaltic stone tools suggests a trade partnership with Pitcairn and Mangareva. In return, Henderson exported sea turtles and exploited the valuable and much sought after red feathers of the Henderson Parrot, fruit dove, and red-tailed tropic bird.

The island is now home to the surviving colonies of birds. Unfortunately, the one human legacy left behind is rats, and they continue to prey upon seabirds and their eggs to this day.

The people of Henderson died out when contact with Mangareva and Pitcairn was cut off around 1500. There were not enough trees large enough on Henderson to make canoes and the people were effectively marooned.

Polynesia society collapsed on Mangareva due to over-population and the limitation of resources. In other words the ecological law of finite resources dictated such a collapse just as similar occurrences happened on Rapa Nui (Easter Island). The problem was too many people and not enough food. Mangareva society slid into the chaos of war, famine, and cannibalism.

The first Europeans landed on the island in 1606. The passing Spanish ship found the island without any human habitation upon it. This discovery was reported by Pedro Fernandez de Quiros. He named it San Juan Bautista and reported it was only inhabited by birds.

Henderson Island may be uninhabited, but the British officially put claim to the island in 1819.  In 1937, Henderson was visited by the cruiser H.M.S. Leander, and new signboards were erected to reaffirm British sovereignty. The Henderson signboard read: This island belongs to H.B.M. King George VI. It was visited by H.M.S. Leander on 6th of August 1937. Signed J.W. Rivers-Carnac, Capt. R.N.

In connection with the Leander's visits, Flight Lieutenant R.A.R. Rae from a Walrus aircraft took aerial photographs of each island. A flagpole, with the Union Jack flying, was also erected and charted on the island. In December of 1940, the Royal Navy discovered that the Union Jack had been replaced by a Nazi Swastika. The landing party sent ashore also discovered this notice: With apologies to King George VI, this island is now the property of the Greater German Reich.

So even here on the very far side of the world, the ridiculous squabbles of European nations was felt as humanity slaughtered each other elsewhere to possess as much "dirt" as possible, even when the "dirt" had no practical use other than as a "possession."

When I look at these lonely shores, I think of the first human inhabitants, those Polynesians that were marooned here so long ago. It is not difficult to imagine the stress the islanders felt when they realized that no more trade canoes would visit again. They would have wondered what happened. They would no longer have access to stone tools and to canoes. Equally distressing is that there would be no more marriages with off-islanders, condemning them to incestuous relationships that would exaggerate genetic defects.

At some point, the last inbred survivor of Henderson Island would have looked out over the waters. Having had no contact for generations with the outside world, such an outside world would have become a myth and an ancient memory. Henderson or whatever name they themselves called the island would have been the entire world and their world simply did not provide enough for them to survive.

But as their numbers declined and their society slowly sank and disappeared, they hungrily destroyed numerous species and laid waste to their fragile little eco-system.

It is amazing how events in history connect. Here we are lying offshore this island while en route to a campaign to protect whales in the waters around Antarctica.

Almost two hundred years ago in 1819, a large enraged sperm whale rammed and sank the Yankee whaling ship Essex in the area near the Marquesas. It was this incident that inspired the story of Moby Dick by Herman Melville.

The survivors of the Essex were left with only open boats. They managed to reach the shores of Henderson Island and departed again on December 20th, 1820. Three of the boats set out for South America, 4300 miles away and were rescued on the way, but not until being forced into cannibalism to survive.

Three Essex crewmembers decided to stay on Henderson Island and were rescued by the British ship Surrey on April 18, 1921, after spending 107 days on the island.

Henderson has had hundreds of years to heal itself from the first Polynesian settlers and those Europeans that were briefly marooned, and although those species of birds driven to extinction by the human invaders are gone forever, the green turtles still come and the surviving birds still nest. Octopus and lobster are still in the shallows and the island survives as best it can.

To me the one great attraction of this island is that it no longer is a home to humans. There are so few places where humans have not occupied.

But this virtue is not the fault of lack of trying by people. In 1881, an Australian company prospected the island for guano but were luckily deterred by the relative scarcity compared to other islands. The idea was abandoned.

The Pacific Phosphate Company unaware of the previous survey investigated guano exploitation again in 1907 and came to the same conclusion that the venture would not be commercially viable.

The last attempt to spoil the island came in the early 1980's, when the American millionaire Arthur M. "Smiley" Ratliff attempted to first buy and then lease Henderson Island. Ratliff proposed to bulldoze the vegetation to make a cattle ranch, build a mansion and a small settlement, and build an airstrip. Ratliff visited Pitcairn in April 1981, and the Pitcairn Island Council approved of his plans. Through the lobbying efforts of the Royal Society of England and the American Smithsonian Institution, his request was turned down by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. This decision to protect the natural environment of the island was later strengthened by the signing by these authorities, of the Convention for the Protection of the Natural Resources and Environment of the South Pacific Region on 16 June 1988. This was an important decision, insuring the preservation of the island in its natural state. It would have been a complete disaster for the island's ecology if Ratliff, or anyone else, had been allowed to settle on the island.

Today the island is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We humans on the Farley Mowat have visited but we have taken nothing that belongs here, well hardly nothing. Not a fish, a shellfish, a stone, or a bird but one of the crew brought back a coconut and I am happy to report it was one of the most delicious coconuts I have ever tasted.

Our purpose is simply to bear witness and to report on what we have observed.

Unfortunately, we observed a great deal of plastic trash on the beaches. We recovered a few objects like a plastic broom, a broken toilet seat, an old life ring from a vessel called the Pan Venture, and a few bottles but the high surf made it impossible to remove more than a few pieces of trash.  We were forced to leave behind thousands of plastic bottles and bags, chunks of Styrofoam and other assorted junk. We also observed quite a few plastic nets with floatation buoys.

It was a dangerous landing and departure. The surf was far too rough to land a boat so the shore party had to swim in between the reef in high surf and come back the same way. First Officer Alex Cornelissen was smashed by a large breaker against the coral but fortunately escaped with only minor cuts and bruises.

We did not stay long. We left Henderson to our stern without a light to mar her coast and watched as her dark outline blended into the darkness of the tired day. It was with joy that I saw her disappear knowing that life still survived in her shallows and on her cliffs and sandy beaches. But it was also with a tinge of sadness knowing that even here in the remote vastness of the mid-South Pacific that the plastic debris of modern society blights the beaches and surrounding waters.

It is a hundred miles to Pitcairn's Island where we will briefly stop tomorrow to secure a few fresh provisions and to mail some letters before continuing on across to Melbourne, Australia.