Diving Easter Island
by Fiona McIntosh“You come from South Africa?” enquired the big burly Russian as we stood in Easter Island’s little dive shop. “I have dived in South Africa. You know Duncan Pattenden? He is my friend. He has dive school in South Africa. It is also called Orca – same as the one here.” It was strange to be thousands of miles from home, on the most remote inhabited island in the world and be talking about a local dive shop! But Val, my new acquaintance, was no ordinary diver. An ex-commercial diver turned dive instructor from the Russian port of Vladivostok, he spends three quarters of the year working in his home town, and the other three months touring the world’s top sites. This year’s little sojourn had taken him around his current favourites – New Caledonia, Bora Bora and finally a six week stay on Easter Island. I couldn’t help but wonder what interests he has in Russia that allow him to escape the winter chill for so long.
Easter Island probably isn’t on most people’s list of dedicated dive holiday destinations. But if you’re planning a trip to South America it’s worth the expensive detour. In truth, though the diving is amazing thanks to the incredible visibility, most people that take the six hour flight from Santiago de Chile are not looking for a submarine adventure. They tend to be on their way to see the island’s star attraction – the spectacular stone statues that have led to world-renowned and World Heritage Status for the Napa Nui National Park.
The island got its name from a Dutch Admiral, Jacob Roggeveen, who anchored off its shores on Easter Sunday in 1722, although it is believed that the first Polynesians arrived on the volcanic outcrop some 1 600 years ago. Between 1100 and 1650, Rapa Nui carvers created some 900 carved stone moais which are scattered around the island, many of them still in the quarry of Rana Raraku from which they were hewn. It’s an extra-ordinary place – a mountainside littered with giant grey heads carved from the soft volcanic tuff – some with torsos, some standing as if ready to be transported, others still unfinished and part of the bedrock. No-one is sure of their exact significance, but the less outlandish theories suggest some form of ancestor worship – the moai representing ancestral chiefs who were believed to be descended directly from the gods and whose supernatural power protected the community – and perhaps muscle flexing on behalf of rival tribes. It all came to an end in 1680 when wars between various clans resulted in the destruction of the statues – many still lie staring at the sky or face down on the black rock where they fell. But it’s not only the colossal monuments in various states of destruction and restoration that make Easter Island a strange place.
A garland of flowers is draped around your neck as you arrive at the island’s tiny airport – a welcome more fitting of Polynesia than that of the governing country, Chile. Santiago, Chile’s capital city, is some 3 700km to the east, Tahiti is 4 000km west and apart from the infamous Pitcairn Island (home to the descendants of the Bounty mutineers and the centre of major allegations of incest, adultery and sexual abuse a few years ago) a mere 1 800km way, the triangular shaped volcanic island has no near neighbours.
I spent only three days on these black volcanic shores but it was one of the most fascinating and laid-back holidays I’ve ever had. The island, only 30km long, is a cross between the wild west and an archetypal South Seas island nation – macho grouchos in leather chaps with long flowing locks of black hair under their wide-brimmed hats gallop around on their horses, while beach-lovers enjoy the warm ocean and take shelter from the blistering heat of the tropical sun under colourful umbrellas and sweet-smelling tropical flowers.
The dive centre was easy to find – right on the harbour wall of the island’s only settlement Hanga Roa. Although the town has a population of around 3 700, the little houses are hidden in the trees and the only sign of ‘development’ is the main street and coastal strip of guest houses, restaurants and souvenir shops – all within walking distance from the tiny airport. There’s a great surfing wave right outside the tiny harbour and a couple of little beaches and tidal pools where locals hang out every afternoon. In the evening the fairy lights of the bars and seafood restaurants add to the convivial tropical island atmosphere. As a tourist you’re struck by the presence of the extraordinary megaliths. The omnipresent giants, with their long sloping noses, strong brows, deeply inset, often coral-inlaid eyes and prominent chins, line the town’s beachfront but the locals walk and drive past them as if they don’t exist. Mind you, I got the impression that not much fazes the Easter Islanders – everything is low key and relaxed – the whole island, with its year-round mild climate, seems in permanent holiday mode where the trappings of the modern world are largely absent.
The underwater scene
When I asked about the underwater scene I was told that the diving was unbelievable. And wow, it was. Our first dive was to one of the most important ritual sites, Birdman Island or Motu Nui. Following the destruction of the Moai, a new cult, the Birdman cult, developed on the island. During the Birdman ceremonies that continued into the 19th century the chief of each clan, or his representative, would scramble down from the settlement of Orongo, high on the edge of the volcano overlooking the island, then swim across braving the cold, currents and sharks and camp on Birdman Island to await the arrival of the first seagulls. They would then collect the egg of a gull called a Manutara or Sooty tern, swim back and scale the cliffs back to Orongo where the elders of each tribe would have sat and watched the progress. The first man back won the right for his chief to rule the island for the year – he was strangely ‘rewarded’ with a year of fasting and abstinence.
As our gear was loaded we watched two turtles swimming around the wooden boat. The sea was flat and calm – it promised to be a good dive. Birdman Island, a tiny barren outcrop of rock off the south western tip of the island was a slow 15 minute boat ride away. We sailed out of the tiny harbour, easing our way through the line of surfers, then past a big tooth of rock and looked back to the main island. We simply couldn’t imagine how a warrior could have scaled those sheer cliffs carrying his precious egg – even the break in the crater rim of the Rano Kau volcano is high and only accessible via a steep talus of scree.
As we kitted up in a sheltered bay in the lee of the island I looked down and could see the rocks and sand of the ocean bed some 80m below. There was a bit of current so we opted for a drift dive along one of the big walls. It was an incredible dive with piercing blue water and visibility like I’d never experienced in my life. We drifted past coral encrusted cliffs, through big schools of silvery fish and swam into underground caverns. There weren’t a lot of fish, but flashes of colour came in the form of bright yellow Trumpetfish, Long-nosed butterfly and cute little black and white Spotted boxfish as well as several schools of barracuda. Val was looking for a rare endemic he’d only seen a few times on his six annual pilgrimages to Easter Island, and in true Russian fashion, he would swoop down to 50m or to check out likely habitats. On this occasion it was to no avail, but apparently, however, due to its isolation, about 26% of the fish that live in the waters around Easter Island are endemic. The underwater formations were spectacular and unusual, and although there was little in the way of colourful coral, it was really the depth and colour of the blue that was so mind-blowing. On later dives we explored incredible arches, caves and checked out a fake moai on the ocean floor. The dives were great value and Claudio, our instructor, was charming and professional and his dive briefings were peppered with fascinating historical and cultural titbits, so even on this short visit we really felt we knew the place. Three days passed too quickly and Easter Island is somewhere I’d love to return one day.
Diving is from a wooden fishing boat. The hire gear is Scuba Pro and is in excellent knick. There’s also a dive retail shop next to the dive centre. PADI and CMAS courses from Open Water to Dive Master are offered.
Best time to visit:
The best diving months are September to May, though there’s good diving year round.
Temperatures vary from 20ºC in September to 26ºC in the summer months (January and February).
The Chilean peso is linked to the US dollar but Euros are also accepted.
Top side attractions:
In addition to tours around the island to see the moais and rock art sites, you can rent kayaks, surfboards and bodyboards or sign up for snorkelling trips, boat tours and big game fishing. It’s easy to hire a car, but if you’re reasonably fit then hiring a bike is a great way to explore the island.
For more information
Cntact: Orca, on 56-32-2550-375/2550-877,
Contact: Daniela at Hartleys Oceans and Islands, on 011-467-4704
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