Easter Island/Salas y Gomez 1-22 September 1995
Cordell Expeditions

The Islands


Easter Island

Easter Island lies at 27 degrees 10' S, 109 degrees 20' W, roughly midway between Chile and Tahiti, 3500 km each direction. The nearest inhabited land is Pitcairn Island, 1900 km to the West.

Easter Island (Rapa Nui) is universally recognized as one of mankind's greatest historical mysteries. The enigmatic giant stone statues, called moai, many of them buried up to their shoulders and thereby appearing as disembodied heads, have excited speculation for centuries. While ethnographers have recorded a fragmentary social history that roughly chronicles the rise and fall of the island's society approximately coincident with the Dark Ages of Europe, there is still nothing approaching a complete and unambiguous picture of exactly when, and how, the Polynesians navigated across thousands of miles of open ocean to establish a colony on this tiny and inhospitable island. We have no details of how they made a living on Rapa Nui, what drove them to construct such monumental stone works, the origin and credibility of the recorded oral traditions, and why their culture apparently disintegrated in civil war and cannibalism.

The combination of isolation, superstition, overpopulation, and unchecked consumption of natural resources is widely held to be responsible for the relatively abrupt end of the Rapanui culture. As such, Easter Island is often regarded as metaphor for the Modern World: if Homo sapiens, isolated on the Planet and unaware of any life beyond, treat our world as the Rapanui treated theirs, will we suffer the same fate they did? Easter Island, therefore, together with other significant sites from antiquity, arouse more than casual interest among anthropologists, and indeed among knowledgeable people everywhere.

Easter Island is a small, hilly island of volcanic origin. It is roughly triangular, about 22 by 15 km, with area 160 km2. In each corner is an extinct volcanic crater. The interior consists of high plateaus and craters surrounded by coastal bluffs. The highest elevation is at Maunga Terevaka, 507 m, on the northern corner. The other corners rise to roughly 400 m. Three parasitic craters contain lakes, but these are filled with floating bogs of peat.

The climate is moist, and some rain falls 200 days of the year. March to June are the rainiest. July to October are the coolest and driest. Drizzles and mist are common, and a heavy dew forms overnight. The porous volcanic rock drains quickly. The average winter (July-August) temperature is 22 degrees C (max), 14 degrees C (min). There are no permanent streams; water comes from the volcanic lakes or from wells.

Small coral formations exist along the shoreline, but the lack of a coral reef has allowed the sea to cut cliffs around much of the island. The coastline has many lava tubes and volcanic caves. The only sandy beaches are on the northeast coast.

There are no native trees; Eucalyptus was a recent introduction. The surface is covered with grass, and there are few endemic plants and no native birds. The Polynesian name for Easter Island is Rapa Nui. The island is famous for its enigmatic stone heads. While the generally accepted theory associates them with Polynesians of Asian origin, the voyage of the Kon Tiki by Heyerdahl in 1947 and his extensive investigation of Easter Island (1955-56) provide at least the alternative that Easter Island was peopled from the Chilean/Peruvian coast, and that the stonework was constructed by red-haired bearded Caucasians in their own image.

The European discovery of the island was in 1722, by the Dutch. It was visited by the Spanish in 1770, by the English in 1774, by the French in 1786, and by the Russians in 1804. During the 19th Century, slavers decimated the population. It was annexed by Chile in 1888. For almost a century, the island was operated by a private shipping company chartered by the government of Chile, but in 1953 it was put under military rule. In 1985 the USA expanded the airstrip to provide an emergency landing site for the space shuttle.

There is one town on Easter Island, Hanga Roa, pop. 2000. Transportation is by rented horses, motorbikes, or cars. Outside Hanga Roa the roads are unsurfaced. The population depends on the tourist trade, plus fishing, livestock, and gardening. Most services are available in the town, including money, post office, medical services, film and photography, and a museum. There are about 10 small hotels, ranging in price from $50-100 per night. There are a few restaurants.


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    Salas y Gómez

    Salas y Gómez (SyG) is a low volcanic islet lying at 26 degrees; 28'17" S-105 degrees; 21'55"W, about 225 miles ENE of Easter Island, and about 1870 miles west of northern Chile. It lies on the northern edge of a zone of seamounts that extend at least 1000 miles east of Easter Island.

    The islet consists of several volcanic flows of andesite basalt. It is shaped like "saddlebags," with length 700 m and width 400 m. The area is about 2.5 km2. The surface is strewn with loose, sometimes water-rounded boulders of lava. The surface irregularity is accentuated by crude jointing along which weathering has progressed and by the blocky or "aa" type of lava. The highest point on the island, near the SW corner, reaches to 30 m. The highest point on the western part is 26 m. The bridge between the western and eastern parts can be traversed except during the roughest weather.

    The island is the summit of a very large seamount, 3500 m high, resting on the Salas y Gómez Ridge. The shelf surrounding the islet is elongated in the NE-SW direction. This platform terminates in a well-defined break at about 120 m. On the east side of the island, narrow sharp pinnacles rise 7-10 m above the platform, 30-50 m deep. Larger pinnacles lie north and northeast. One of these, near the charted position of Scott Reef, reaches to less than 50 m. It is about 2 km to the NNE of Salas y Gómez.

    There is no place a boat can be landed reliably. The shoreline is broken by deep narrow inlets, some large enough to accomodate a small boat in calm weather. Many tidepools occupy hollows and depressions along the shore, and these and other protected crannies often contain a layer of loose gravel, apparently deposited during occasional storms. There is practically no soil, although there is a sandy spot suitable for helicopter landings and for setting up a camp.

    The island is inhabited by nesting Pacific masked boobies (Sula dactylstra) and Pacific gray ternlets (Procelsterna albivitta). Insects are common. Terrestrial plants, principally Asplenium, are confined to protected pockets in the higher parts of the island. There is apparently no knowledge of the intertidal and shallow subtidal community, except that the shore is covered thickly with purple sea urchins. No marine floral specimens have been obtained. Swimmers reported numerous curious by not agressive sharks.

    The Polynesian name for SyG is Motu Motiro Hiva. The island was discovered 23 August 1793 by the Spanish pilot Jose Salas Valdes. Its existence was verified by Samuel Delano, 12-15 August 1805. It was described in detail by Jose Manuel Gómez 18-19 October 1805. Other expeditions reached the island in 1806, 1817, 1825, 1875, 1917, and possibly other dates. On 31 January 1958, a group from the R/V Baird of Scripps Project Downwind swam ashore and collected rocks. In October-November 1981, the University of Chile organized an expedition to document a base for future studies. The geographic position was accurately determined by Chile in 1988, and a few dives have been made. About 10 minutes of UV video is available. In 1994 the Chilean Navy installed an automatic light and a tsunami warning system.


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    Last Update: 23 August 1995
    Prepared and maintained by Robert Schmieder, cordell@ccnet.com and Gunthar Hartwig, Gunthar_A._Hartwig@bmug.org