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Salas y Gómez Expedition: To Motu Motira Hiva

For days, we’ve dived around Salas y Gómez and stood on deck, staring at its rocky, surf-swept contours. Much as we wanted to explore it above the waterline, a landing looked reckless, if not impossible. Michel Garcia had done it before, years ago, and thought it could be done again. He found a way.
surf pounds salas y gomez
The surf that pounds and drenches Salas y Gómez’s rocky shores makes any landing difficult.
By Ford Cochran
We boarded the Comandante Toro’s tough little Zodiac and its crew steered straight for the island. Once within the unsheltered bay on its southern shore, we veered left, toward a rocky ledge that hovered alternately ten feet above the boat or level with it as the waves fell and rose. “You have to jump,” said Michel, and he did, leaping on the ledge as the boat shot up with a cresting wave and hovered momentarily near its peak. A second later, the boat fell away with the surf, then rose again and another would-be Robinson Crusoe leapt ashore.
Soon enough, we were a full exploratory party, geared up with cameras and notebooks to document this most remote of remote, uninhabited islands.
masked booby at syg
A juvenile masked booby perches atop a rock on Salas y Gómez as other birds circle overhead.
Uninhabited by people, that is: Seabirds are everywhere on Salas y Gómez. Juvenile masked boobies, looking like stuffed animals beneath tufts of white down, greeted us with assertive squawks. Red-tailed tropic birds nestled amid the rocks nearby. Frigatebirds soared overhead, while Christmas shearwaters–an endangered bird with its largest known colony anywhere on Salas y Gómez island–blended into the volcanic basalts.
Surprising bursts of green, the few plants that have found their way to the island and survived exploit crevices in the rocks and sheltered patches atop Salas y Gómez’s crown. Pools of guano from the birds, mixed with sea salts and recrystallized into sparkling minerals beneath the blazing sun, evoked the saltpeter that lured Europeans halfway around the world to mine distant Pacific islands such as this one.
enric and neil beside a tide pool
Enric Sala and Neil Gelinas study photos beside a tide pool.
Without a doubt, though, the gems of Salas y Gómez are its breathtaking tide pools. Michel strips to his Speedo and dives into the first one we reach, which is a study in turquoise, emerald, and violet. It’s filled with coral and fish, plus the occasional urchin–the ocean around us in splendid microcosm.
Some of the pools are red-brown and barren. Others connect via submerged caves with the sea–they surge and roil with the surf. Each is different; all mesmerize. One could spend a long day happily gazing into a tide pool here, studying its colors and the life it contains.
michel garcia speedo syg
Quicker than Lucas Zañartu can set up his tripod and start to film, Michel Garcia strips to his Speedo and plunges into a beckoning tidepool.
We branch off to examine different aspects of the island. Alex Muñoz of Oceana photographs Salas y Gómez and its birds while his colleague Lucas Zañartu records video. Marine ecologist Enric Sala and National Geographic Television filmmaker Neil Gelinas shoot vignettes for the documentary they are making about the expedition. Fisheries expert Marcela Zamorano and marine biologist Leyla Miranda strike out across a narrow isthmus for the island’s eastern lobe. Uri Pate, for whom Salas y Gómez is sacred ground–Motu Motiro Hiva to the Rapa Nui–strides the length of the island and performs a traditional purification ritual.
Too soon, our sojourn here is done. The Comandante Toro sounds its horn–a sign that the tide is rising and our boat is waiting–and we return to the ridge for another perilous leap into the Zodiac. A rogue wave catches Neil before he can jump. It destroys his pocket digital camera, dislocates his shoulder, and nearly sweeps him away. But he clings to the rock and makes it back to the ship with the rest of us.
As medic and dive officer Dave McAloney pops the injured shoulder back together, Neil sums up the visit to the island for all of us: “That was so worth it.”
syg sign
Photos by Ford Cochran
The science team will share frequent updates and media from the expedition, including photographs, videos and links to Google maps, here on the National Geographic News Watch blog. You can also follow the expedition on Google Earth by clicking on the blue ship icon located where the expedition begins near Easter Island, roughly 2,000 miles (3,300 km) northwest of Santiago, Chile. (Make sure the “Places” layer is turned on).
National Geographic and Oceana are members of Mission Blue
View all dispatches from the Salas y Gómez expedition here