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Next on our Journey - Easter Island

Most Isolated Inhabited Island on Earth

sunny 25 °C

Monday, Tuesday & Wednesday April 20 - 23th – At Sea & Easter Island
We are back at sea after a fascinating visit with the Pitcairn Islanders. Time to test out more of the wonderful restaurants and get back to our other on board activities. Now more people were relaxing on the pool deck getting in some sun as the temperatures moderated from the low 30s of Polynesia to the mid-20s as we move ever further south away from the equator.

All of our group (as well as much of the rest of the ship) are very interested in the series of enrichment lectures that are held several times a day in the main theater which probably seats 400-500 people. The lectures are common on all of the cruise lines and are typically given by retired university professors who get some form of compensation from the ships for doing these lectures – free trips perhaps? I suspect that the lecturers who draw the large crowds and good reviews are hired over and over as the lectures are very popular on board activities. The lectures normally have some connection to the area of the world we are travelling in at the time although some are fairly remotely connected but all are quite fascinating. They are the standard fare of PowerPoint slides often with some video highlights thrown in. Today’s lecture was on the history of Easter Island which we’ll be visiting on Friday and Saturday. I’ll cover more on Easter Island later once we arrive.

Sailing on the wide open Pacific

Enjoying Red Ginger Restaurant

Seated in the main theater ready for the evening show

Stage of the main theater

Happy hour in the Horizon Lounge

Lobster being served in red Ginger – Lobster is frequently on the menu, both cold water (my preferred) and warm water (Florida or Caribbean)

Sea Bass cooked to perfection as usual

Several of our group have also enrolled in the hands on cooking lessons given by the senior hotel staff. There is a lovely fully equipped teaching kitchen on Deck 14.

Hazel completing a task in cooking class

Sherry taking a break from the rigors of cooking class

Michael, always having fun – this time in cooking class

We are now crossing one of the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific is the world’s largest ocean and is double the size of the next largest, the Atlantic. The Pacific covers one third of the earth’s entire surface and you could easily fit the entire land mass of the world into the Pacific and have space left over. The massive currents of the Pacific Ocean are major weather determinants in our world. Knowing that we are out here close to 2000 km from any land or human settlement is something you can not experience in many parts of the world today.

Nothing but ocean for over 2000 km in every direction

Easter Island, Saturday April 22
It was still quite dark outside as our ship approached Easter Island at around 8:00 am. For some reason Easter Island is on the same time zone as Chili which it is part of. However, mainland Chile is more than 3500 km to the east of Easter Island so that means that sunrise here is not until 8:40 am at this time of year. Seems a bit strange sleeping in till 8:30 pulling the drapes only to see that it is still quite dark out.

Easter Island as the sun rises at 8:30 am.

Panorama of Easter Island from a distance

Evidence of the volcanic origins of Easter Island

My knowledge of Easter Island prior to this trip was primarily focused on the 887 famous Moai stone statues that stand guard over the island. In almost any story of Easter Island you are bound to see a picture of what look like giant heads. Also during my youth, I was fascinated by all things nautical and read Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 book Kon-Tiki. The Kon-Tiki was an expedition in a huge balsa raft meant to demonstrate that the original settlers of Easter Island could have drifted there from South America on similar ancient rafts. It was a great story of the hardship and adventure during the 4000 km months long “drift.”

Easter Island is the world’s most isolated inhabited island. Despite being a tiny spec in the vast South Pacific Ocean it was discovered and settled by early navigators around the first century AD. Probably due to the isolation and lack of written historical records the island has fascinated scholars over the past seventy-five years or so. Of particular interest has been the origination of those early settlers from 120 AD and what went on between that time and the mid-1700s when westerners first set foot on the island.

The two main theories that existed up until fairly recently were, firstly that the original settlers drifted on large rafts from the coast of South America. As mentioned the KonTiki voyage was proof that this could have been the source. Secondly, it was speculated that it was early Polynesians who came from the west. The Polynesians were known to be highly advanced navigators and explorers of this part of the world. Only recently with the advanced genetic testing methods have scientists determined that the genetic markers found in the bones of the original settlers indicate that the early settlers were of Polynesian descent.

The next closest human settlement to Easter Island is our port of two days ago, Pitcairn Island with its population of 46 people and 2075 km to the west. This is not a crowded part of the world.

Map showing position of Easter Island – clearly not to scale but gives you the idea of the distances and isolation

Rugged coastline of Easter Island

Easter Island was given its name by its first European visitor, a Dutch explorer, who first arrived on Easter Sunday, 1722. The island is formed by the remains of three ancient volcanoes and is only 18 km long and 8 km wide at its widest point. During the thousand-year period from first settlement in 120 AD until 1200 AD the island flourished and grew to an estimated population of 10,000 people with a distinct language and culture. It is believed that the moai statues were mostly constructed during the period 1200 AD to 1500 AD.

Row of moai statues along the coast facing inland toward their subjects. This shot was taken from a distance of 3-5 km giving you an idea of the size of these statues

Zoomed in shot of same pictures

Note the head piece on the moai second from the left

Shot taken from the land side showing the moai facing the land

Scholars suspect that the moai statues were created to honour ancestors, chiefs and other important people. Most settlements were located on the coast and most moai statues were erected on the coastline watching over their descendants before them with their backs towards the spirit world in the sea. The construction of the statues is quite amazing in its own rite. Even more amazing is the fact that these giant statues weighing as much as 80 tons were moved as far as 10-12 km from the quarry location to coastal villages. This is especially amazing given their lack of any form of advanced tools. They had not even discovered the wheel.

Although factual information is sketchy it appears that many of the statues were deliberately toppled in and around the 1600s. It is not clear if the population lost faith in their power or if it may have happened during a period of fierce internal fighting that appears to have occurred in the 1600s. It is now believed that during this period there was a massive deterioration of the environment leading to social upheaval. The root cause of the environmental problems is believed be the complete denuding of the islands woodlands. With the disappearance of trees birds and animals used for food also disappeared as did boat building materials used for fishing boats. The deforestation is believed to have been caused by two factors, firstly the inhabitants used huge numbers of trees in the transporting of the giant statues across the island but perhaps even more serious was the fact that new trees were not growing as rats that came ashore off the original Polynesian settler’s boats fed on the seeds of the palm trees. By the mid 1600’s a once prosperous island had deteriorated to a subsistence existence which was torn by internal strife in what appeared to be a struggle for resources.

Picture illustrating the barren grassland of much of Easter Island

Almost all of the moai were carved from volcanic rock found on a single site on the side of the extinct volcano, Rano Raraku. A single maoi probably took a team of 5 or 6 men more than a year to complete. Their sizes vary widely and some are as high as 33 feet and can weigh up to 80 tons. It appears that the builders got more ambitious as time went on and the later statues were larger. There are several still in stages of carving that are around 60 feet long. Generally, the statues are believed to have been carved in a horizontal position while still attached to ground. One of the final steps would have been to break them away from the base rock and then transport them to their final resting spot.

Moai statues near the current village square

Westerners (the Dutch) first discovered the Island and its unique people in 1722. By then the islanders appeared to have recovered somewhat from the internal war fare of a hundred years prior. The Dutch noted in their journals that there was an orderly and stable population. There is no other record of any further western visits for over 50 years until 1774 when Captain James Cook visited Easter Island on his epic voyage.
The island continued on pretty well undisturbed by outsiders for nearly another hundred years however records do indicate that the population did continue to gradually decline. In 1862 a Peruvian ship visited the island and brought with it syphilis and smallpox. The impact was catastrophic and by 1877 only 110 people remained on the island. From that time until the 1950s a small community continued to exist in the main village of Hanga Roa. However, control of the rest of the island was turned over to a vast agri-business who turned the island into a giant sheep farm until the late 1950s when it was turned back over to the Chilean government who turned it into a highly protected territory. Today the island’s population has grown back to around 4000 people. The main industry is tourism and there also remains some sheep farming. Much of the island is protected and is part of Chili’s park system. Although much of the island is still open grasslands stands of trees can be seen in many locations and the town of Hanga Roa is filled with leafy palms swaying in the constant sea breeze.

Todays Village Square

Rugged coast line next to the village

Trips ashore have to be cancelled
Although we woke up to sunny skies and warm temperatures the 20 knot (35 km/h) wind that had been with us for the past two days was still here. Since we were out in the middle of the ocean there was nothing to break up the large ocean swells created by the winds. So here we were anchored off Easter Island with the ship rocking to such a degree that we couldn’t board our tender boats to take us ashore. The ship made several attempts to get the tender operation underway however success has eluded them – so near yet so far. We sat on our balcony watching the locals moving around the square by the town dock and saw several moai in a park at the town’s waterfront.

Town docking area, note the breaking waves across the entire mouth of the little harbour where we were supposed to land our tender boats

They were able to drop our tender boats into the water but the platforms that fold out from the side of the ship where we transition from our ship into the tender boats were rolling so much they were submerged at times as the ship would roll back and forth from side to side in the large ocean swells. This was a big disappointment for everyone as this is one of the highlights of our trip. Hundreds of us had shore trips booked to the various points of interest around the Island. This was also a blow to the local economy as the 1000 or so folks who get off the ship all tend to spend a bit of money with the local businesses. After several failed attempts to stabilize things the decision was made to kill some time and circumnavigate the island for four hours giving us all a great view of the coast line while we waited for the winds to settle a bit. Although the rugged coast line prevented us from getting too close to shore we could see the beautiful landscape and the little settlements on the island. In several spots we could see some of the moai statues lined up in a row.

Alas it was not to be, in fact the winds picked up and the swells increased. Soon after our circumnavigation was completed just after noon the decision was finally made by the captain that we would abandon our attempt to land on Easter Island. The weather forecast for the next day was for even stiffer winds along with a shift in direction making the ocean swells even larger. So a two day stay at Easter Island was converted into a sail past.

To add a little excitement to the day we watched from our Deck 10 balcony as some local fruit was very deftly lifted from tiny local open boats onto our ship. A few brave Easter Island port officials scrambled off a small open boat up the little open stairway dropped down at the starboard bow of our ship - not an undertaking for the faint of heart. It was fascinating to watch as our crew maneuvered our ship constantly moving back and forth in order to minimize the risk to the people and goods moving from the two open boats onto our ship.

Despite heaving ocean swells local port authority folks came out in an open boat and boarded our ship in order to perform their official duties

Local vendors bringing produce to our ship in their little open boats

Loading their produce cartons into large canvass like bags to be craned up onto our ship

Loading more cargo into the large white bags

With 1200 disappointed passengers our lovely ship Marina had to abandon our hope of landing on Easter Island. So late in the afternoon we weigh anchor and head off again ever eastward with the setting sun over our stern

Posted by DavidandHazel 07:29 Archived in Chile

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We are really enjoying your posts. You have a gift for taking the reader with you. Even without having set foot on the island (sigh), you are able to convey a wonderful sense of place and history. Hope you are feeling better, Dave. And hope those swells settle down soon.

by Monica and John

Great blog. I don't have to visit now that you have covered the site!

by Joni

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