Researchers Explore Waters off Easter Island and Sala y Gomez Island

February 26, 2011 – By Jen Noelken

Oceana and National Geographic scientists, along with the Chilean Navy launched a scientific voyage to the waters off the Chile coast.  The collaboration effort aims to research the waters of Easter Island and Sala y Gomez Island.  The islands are considered two of the remotest islands in the world.  Researchers hope to collect data in these little studied waters using innovative technology and knowledgeable experience.

A team of eighteen scientists and filmmakers, setoff from the Chile coast on February 22.  The team will collect data from all aspects of the water’s ecosystem including algae, coral, fish, and sharks.  Using robots that can descend hundreds of meters into the ocean, scuba diving and remote imaging the team will collect never before seen images.  The most exciting equipment is Dropcams.  These unique high-definition cameras are an internal aspect of a large glass sphere which can reach depths of 12,000 feet (3,657m).  A National Geographic team-member exclaimed the group will be the first to record life off the islands at those depths.

The first leg of research will focus on the waters off Easter Island.  Researchers expect to find very few fish and most of the fish to be small.  It is said that sharks and lobsters are almost non-existent in the island’s waters.  Easter Island is inhabited meaning, like other inhabited areas, fishing is prevalent leading to a vast decline in large fish populations.

Easter Island’s history is one of mystery and speculation.  Founded by Admiral Roggeveen on Easter Day in 1772, natives refer to the island as Rapa Nui.  Located over 2,000 miles from the nearest population center of Tahiti or Chile, the island is known for stone monoliths called Moai.  Speculation swirled of whom or what built the massive stone faces.  Some believed the Moai(s) had a Peruvian descent, while others believed they were remnants of a lost continent or a result of extra-terrestrial influences.  However, archaeological data suggests the island was discovered by the Polynesians in around 400 AD. 

The island is believed to have flourished under Polynesian direction reaching a peak of around 10,000 people.  Rapa Nui islanders possessed the only written language in Oceania, the Rongorongo script; a hieroglyphic form of writing.  Easter Island became home to many petroglyphs (rock carvings), traditional wood carvings, tapa (barkcloth) crafts, tattooing, dance and music.  Sadly, the island overwhelmed itself and resources became scarce.  Palm forests were destroyed, social order declined and a civil war broke out, followed by cannibalism.  Because of Rapa Nui’s internal destruction, the island became a metaphor of ecological disaster.

After collecting data from Easter Island waters, the team will head 250 miles east to Sala y Gomez.  Waters around the island are home to a new 150,000 square kilometers (about 57,916 square miles) marine park.  Currently, less than 2% of global ocean waters are protected.  However, Parties of the UN convention on Biological Diversity agreed to protect 10% of their exclusive zones by 2012.  Marine parks act as preserves to prevent overfishing, and give plants (and other life-forms) a chance to recover declined numbers.    

Baseline surveys will be conducted on the park’s marine biodiversity.  In contrast to Easter Island, Sala y Gomez is uninhabited.  Marine ecologist and National Geographic Ocean Fellow, Dr. Enric Sala, called the small island, “one of the last undisturbed and relatively pristine places left in the ocean.”  Researches expect to see large fish activity, along with sharks and lobsters.  The study will be the first systematic survey of life in the island’s waters.

The collaboration voyage offers insight into a world of ocean unknown.  But, more so collected data will focus the islands’ current state of conservation and assess the need for new protection measures.  The team hopes to inspire and reinforce the need for protected ocean areas.

Updates on the crew’s voyage can be followed at Natgeo newswatch blog.   

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