Alone on Ducie Island

© Yann Chavance / Tara Expeditions Foundation

21 September 2016

A desert island like Ducie, far away from everything, is always fascinating – catching sight of its shores after several days at sea, dropping anchor and smelling the fragrance of land. But to fully appreciate the character of an island, there’s nothing like setting foot on land and spending a night there.

After 3 days spent off the coast of Ducie Island, the scientific sampling program is coming to an end. We expected to leave behind this tiny piece of land, never having set foot there. The archipelago is so secluded and far away from any other land that you’d never come here by chance. So far, we had to content ourselves by looking at the island from Tara’s deck with binoculars or with images recorded by our drone. Ducie is a thin strip of land shaped in an arc, 2 kilometers long and a few hundred meters wide. An immense coral reef and some islets complete the circle. The limited – and imprecise – maps of the island indicate a passage to enter the atoll within this circle. Not knowing the tides, and seeing the huge waves crashing on the reef around the island, we quickly dismissed the option of being dropped on land from a dinghy.

 

credits-yann-chavance-rivage-ducie-1© Yann Chavance / Tara Expeditions Foundation

To have no regrets, I decided to try one last possibility. After lunch I found a big plastic waterproof container and stuffed inside it my hammock, warm clothes, camera (the main companion of a correspondent), some gingerbread and a few essential tools — string, flint and a knife. I then completed my equipment by filling a bag with everything that was waterproof, including water bottles and a plastic tarp. In a wetsuit (the water here is only about 20°), we set off in the dinghy. Monch, the dive master, took me to the other side of the island, where the waves seemed less strong, almost disappearing after a few meters: it’s my entry.

We stopped about 50 meters from shore without being able to go further because of the reef. I then jumped into the water and swam to shore while pushing with difficulty the container before me.  Regularly glancing beneath the surface, I saw the bottom coming into view. Here, as all around Ducie, everything is covered with corals. No rocks, no sand, just coral as far as you can see. Impressive. Finally, I set foot on the beach, which is actually a huge pile of coral debris. After a final signal to Monch, the dinghy takes off. This is it. I’m finally alone on this deserted island. After stowing most of my equipment in the shade and taking off my wetsuit, I began exploring the island along the shore.

 

credits-yann-chavance-dechets-ducie-1
© Yann Chavance / Tara Expeditions Foundation

Though we’re hundreds of kilometers from any inhabited land, the beach is littered with trash carried by the currents: bottles, plastic crates, buoys and mooring ropes, etc. Despite this, the place is teeming with life. In addition to hermits and other crabs,  birds are everywhere, in the air and on land: massive frigates, masked boobies, petrels and sublime small white terns. In the shade of frail shrubs, on almost every square meter is a big fluffy ball of a fledgling bird. These are Murphy’s petrels: 90% of the global population of this species breeds on Ducie.

I took many photos, including plants: the Council of Pitcairn, which brings together 6 of the 50 inhabitants of the archipelago, asked us specifically to photograph the flora of Ducie if we made it ashore. Mission accomplished. Even for them, the natural wealth of this island remains largely unknown. Another request from Tara’s dive team was to film under the lagoon’s surface. Everyone wanted to know what the bottom looked like. So I finally went back to get my diving equipment and prepared to cross the thin strip of forest to reach the lagoon on the other side.

 

credits-elsa-guillaume-requins-ducie-1© Elsa Guillaume / Tara Expeditions Foundation

This was actually more complicated than expected: I had to cross a tangle of branches, being careful not to step on an egg or a baby bird chirping at being disturbed. With the help of a compass, it took me a good 15 minutes to traverse the 100 meters of vegetation before reaching the lagoon. On a beach of gray coral petrified by the sun, I put on my fins, mask and snorkel. Even before putting my head under water, I saw a dozen sharks around me.

The sharks were less than 2 meters long, but their number and curiosity just bordering on aggression were not particularly reassuring. I chose not to go too far into the lagoon after noticing even bigger sharks further out. They certainly had never seen a human being, and I had no idea how they’d react. After 15 minutes I decided to turn around. There were still many sharks coming closer and closer as soon as I had my back turned.

Daylight was waning so I hurried back over the vegetation to recover my belongings near the beach. I found a clear space between shrubs, with branches strong enough to set up my hammock, and a tarp to protect myself from the rain. I finished my bivouac with the light from my head lamp as night fell under a light rain. Finally I had a few minutes to eat a bite with a beautiful full moon and the cries of thousands of birds around me.

credits-yann-chavance-gygis-blanche-1The white gygis has the particularity of laying a single egg, balanced on a branch © Yann Chavance / Tara Expeditions Foundation

The night was short and very chilly. I woke up almost every hour: once because of birds fighting right under my hammock, and another time to verify that my bivouac was holding up since the tarp was flapping in the gusty wind. As daylight finally broke, I was about to close my eyes for a few minutes when all the birds of the island decided to celebrate sunrise by chirping. I got up and lit a fire on the beach to warm up. A dozen masked boobies watched me with an air of astonishment as I nibbled gingerbread by the fire, enjoying the sunrise and relishing the chance I had: for one night I was the only inhabitant of Ducie Island.

Yann Chavance

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