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Ina Koys on Pitcairn Island

As Pitcairn Island is a high volcanic island with no fringing coral reef, and only a very small beach, the Pitcairners travel 80 miles to the north of their home to visit Oeno Island, a tropical atoll with a central protected lagune. Oeno Island is the Pitcairner's vacation spot. Trips to Oeno may include half the Island's population, and can last for as long as a week or two.

As Oeno Island may only be visited with the prior permission of the Commissioner for Pitcairn Islands in New Zealand, the islanders feel free to leave their possessions on the island, knowing they will not be taken or vandalized.


Pitcairners vacationing on Oeno Island
Photo by Dave Miller

The report and photographs from Oeno Island below are by Ina Koys in Germany.

Map of Oeno Island

I was onboard the British brigantine Eye of the Wind last year (1997). After leaving Pitcairn we stopped at Oeno for some hours to visit the strange Holiday resort.


The brigantine Eye of the Wind

The first picture is Oeno photographed from a distance - I cannot say anymore when the Photo was taken nor whether it shows Sandy Island or not. I don't think there were palms on Sandy Island, so this picture should show Oeno itself. Slide 1

The first photograph on Oeno shows the weather we had. Overcast, a bit frightening (since the ride from the island back to the ship is neither short nor easy). The weather remained this way during the entire visit -that it why all my Oeno Pictures don't show the dream picture of a tropical island. In the background one can see the masts and jib boom of our ship. And the piece of land hiding the rest of it is what I suppose to be Sandy Island. Even on this photo one can't see that the two islands have no dry land connection. Slide 2

This photo also shows the natural vegetation of the landing site (but not the place itself!). The shrubs should be Tournefortia argentea (syn: Argusia argentea) (all my plant knowledge or guessing according to "Flowers of the Pacific Island Seashore" by w. Arthur Whistler, Honolulu 1992). Under most of these shrubs we found breeding tropic birds. When carefully observing them one sees a red feather on the tail, so they are indeed the red-tails.

Oeno Island is as flat as atolls usually are, with mangrove shrubs, pandanus and smaller herbs on it. There are coconut palms too, but it seems as very often on atolls they are human garden plants, not a natural vegetation. The Pitcairners had planted some other young trees in January - perhaps these are Miro (see below). The little pond on the island is quiet scenic, suggesting it to be a man-made part of the Pitcairn holiday resort. (NB: see notes below)The "hotel" itself is sheltered in the pandanus jungle. So strange to see: A little village, the houses having no doors, everything is open and accessible. Slide 5 . When entering the houses one sees they contain big fridges and freezers and a lot of civilised stuff one definitely doesn't expect on a remote small un-inhabited island in the South Seas. Slide 7 Outside there are rain-fed showers with their plastic tanks amongst the coconuts. Slide 6 There are also outhouses/privies.

The little beach veranda is a bit more romantic than the rest of the village. The other buildings are more substantial, but not what we'd call a solid building in Europe either. Slide 4

What we've found was exactly what the Pitcairners told us we would find. But I took it as a joke - until I saw they had been serious when they told us about all this.

Each year the Pitcairners bring one or two generators to Oeno, but since I've seen the passage and know their boats, I think that within a few years they'll also leave an old generator there and only bring the diesel. We found a lot of broken electrical torches and bulbs on Oeno (and bottles, too) but it is really hard to imagine what one needs them for when looking for a nature experience on an island without any dangers.

On the beach is a playground for the children (I used it too) and some toys are left on the table until next year. If no storms nor tsunamis hit the island, everything is absolutely safe...

The vegetation around the "village" is Coconut palms, but no old ones. Presuming the really old ones aren't used for the houses or killed by a storm, they seem to be cultivated. Slide 8

I photographed Oeno's pond as I liked it best. I think the picture gives the impression that it is larger than it is. On the left hand side there is an area that looks like a plantation with little trees amongst them. Slide 3

The mysterious little trees - MAYBE they are Miro (Thespesia populnea). I am not sure.Slide 9 (NB: see notes below) I have seen some Miro on Islands before and I think I would have recognised it without it looking as strange and lost as it did. It would be important now to check the texture of the leaves (Miro is quite solid, Bauhinias not that much) and anyway the colour of the leaves looks quite ill compared with the picture in my book. This is how Whistler's book describes it:

Thesepesia populnea is distributed from tropical Africa to Hawaii, and is found on all the high archipelagos of Polynesia and Micronesia, but rarely on atolls. It is native on the western part of its range, but is probably an ancient introduction to parts of eastern Polynesia. It grows in littoral forest, on the margins of mangrove swamps, and along estuaries, but rarely becomes a dominant species. The fine-grained wood is much favoured throughout Polynesia for making items such as boat parts, bowls, paddles, gongs, household articles, and handicrafts. The tree also has medical uses: an infusion of the bark is to treat mouth infections in Tonga and Samoa; various parts are used for treating ailments such as centipede bites and headaches in Tahiti; and the crushed fruit is used in medicines for treating urinary tract infections in the Cook Islands.

I haven't seen a living Bauhinia purpurea on Pitcairn even though I know it's there. And my book (a different one since Bauhinias are no shore plants) only has a picture of another species. So a very stretched MAYBE is the most suitable word I can find.

Nature on all of the Polynesian island is very poor, too few species found their way to such far-off places. And anything having the "chance" to get destroyed is already - see the Marquesas Islands. Atolls are a very tough environment and there were never many different species able to survive there. And all the island shores of whole Polynesia are pretty much the same. Maybe it is possible to introduce some new species, but hardly for a long time. Even the coconut trees normally disappear again when unattended! And these tiny (20 cm) young trees do not have the foliage of shore plants, they look like forest plants. So I guess they were there only few weeks when we arrived (late May 1997) and not yet alive anymore.

Suriana maritima. The blossom is small, only a few millimetres wide. The Suriana is a quite common on Oeno, but not an exciting one. The little black things in the flower are tiny beetles. Slide 10

Chris Roche found some albatrosses nesting while he was looking for the memorial for a shipwreck. Later back onboard he asked me, what species the were. According to "The birds of the Tropical Pacific" they must be black-browed albatrosses, but since I haven't seen them it is only a guess.

Under many of the mangrove shrubs we found red-tailed tropic birds, many of them breeding, other ones hatching their offspring. Slide 11

I was very happy to get pictures of a little fairy-tern looking forward for it's very first flight. Since they are so pretty and very difficult to photograph I made a couple of pictures of it. But I didn't dare to stay very long waiting for the perfect shot. It's parents where circling us in despair making me afraid this may attract the frigate birds also living on the island. I didn't want the chick to become their prey. Slide 12

When thinking I had seen everything (except for the albatrosses as I realised when it was too late) I went back to the landing point to get my snorkelling gear and see what I could find under the water line. But it was a bit eerie because there was only sand and a quite strong current - strong enough to carry me into the open Pacific where I did not want to be.

Sandy Island


A brigantine

Sandy Island is not yet a part of Oeno but it's definitely much closer than on the Website map. (NB: see notes below) The passage is very shallow. So it's nearly possible to walk from on island to the other - but not quite. It is more or less in line with Oeno. We first thought it was Oeno itself, but shortly after we realised it was only a Motu and so we called the inflatable back...

When we were there none of us was aware of finding "two" (fact one and a quarter) islands. And none of us had a map as detailed as the one I now found on the Website - possibly not even the captain. And from far the whole island seemed to be one piece. So the first ones of us were dropped on the first piece of land. And when the second bunch (including me) arrived, they said "This is not the "real" island, please take us to the other one!" And so we all went on. This may show you how much it looked like one piece even though it wasn't. So I have a picture of Oeno from a distance and it shows Sandy Island too but nobody would realize. You may imagine it when seeing the boat passage on the map.

One of my watch mates, Chris Roche, is a kind of "professional hobbyist" probably knowing everything about the age of sailing ships and all sailing ships wrecks in the world. He was very troubled not to find the memorial for some castaway sailors which possibly is on Sandy Island as I think now (We hadn't regarded it as an independent island with it's own name). He really combed Oeno for the memorial. (NB: see notes below)

 

Notes:

The shipwreck memorial mentioned is the plaque placed there by Captain Josiah Knowles in memory of his brother, whose body was buried in 1858 on Oeno Island from The Wreck of the Clipper Wildwave. Read the Diary of Capt. Josiah N. Knowles with the entire story!

Howard L Phelps spoke with Tom Christian by short wave radio on Pitcairn Island about their holiday camp on Oeno Island.:

Tom says that a couple of years ago some of the boys took 2 old kerosene fridges and freezer to Oeno. The freezer is not working so it is used for storage only. The fridges were some not used on Pitcairn any more but they do work and are a convenience at Oeno. He said that they also took a pump so they could pump water up for a shower. All the comforts of home ? The bulidings ?? were put up so they would have a little shelter when they cook. He called them two kitchens.

The people do go to Oeno for a vacation, I even have some video that they took while there. I know that a few years ago Tom asked one of the yachts that was going to Oeno to pick up a frying pan that he had left behind. I know Raelene Christian took some coconuts and planted them in the sand some time ago. They took root and grew nicely, she still calls them My coconut trees.

Leon H. Salt Commissioner for Pitcairn Islands commented:

1. About the plantation of small trees:

These trees would be 'Miro', propagated on Pitcairn during 1995 and planted out on Oeno in 1996. Unfortunately, several species of weeds were introduced at the same time. I understand that measures have been taken to eradicate the weeds.

2. About the village:

The 'houses' are communal kitchens and dining rooms. ....... hatch covers or tarps are still stretched between coconut palms, under which everyone sleeps. The rainwater tanks provide fresh water as that which is pumped from the man-made well, is often brackish. The fridges and freezers are used for storage. Usually these days, a small petrol generator is taken when Pitcairners visit and they are able to keep food chilled.

Geologist Rossman P. Irwin III recently commented:

At Oeno, Sandy Islet no longer exists, but rather there is a long sand spit reaching from the northern end of the main island which reaches the area where the other islet used to be. Things change at atolls pretty quickly.

Consult this Map of Oeno Island to see how Sandy Island is mapped. I have not been able to get Rossman P. Irwin III's information corroborated by recent visitors to Oeno. Ina Koys' information is therefore very important.

See also the photos taken of Oeno Island from offshore by John and Jean Frazier in April of 1998. They also visited Henderson and Ducie Islands.

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