Easter Island was never on my bucket list of places to see. However, I was very excited for this visit learning it was an overnight stop for our Oceania cruise. After five days at sea, departing from Lima, Peru, we arrived in Rapa Nui or Easter Island. It was discovered by Europeans on, you guessed it, Easter Sunday, 1722. I was now going to meet their famous stone faced residents, the moai.
Step One, Get on Shore
Easter Island is very small, about fifteen miles long and seven miles wide. So it is not surprising that this volcanic island has no deep water port to handle cruise ships. Cruise ships such as the Oceania Marina are required to anchor offshore.
All passengers wishing to go ashore must board lifeboats and be tendered through large waves and past rocky shores into the small dock area.
Purchase a Cruise Package vs. Let’s Make a Deal on the Dock
At each port of call the cruise line offers many different tour packages. Aboard modern air-conditioned buses the tourists are whisked off to the designated locales in comfort. But all too often these are conducted by a guide struggling in English who seems to talk 132% of the time. We seldom opt for such tours. However, one big advantage to these tours is you are allowed off the ship first to get on the bus. Not participating in a tour, we had to wait for hours in the ship auditorium before being allowed to be tendered ashore. As is reasonable, the paying customers with a deadline have priority and get off first.
But what a chaotic mess the Oceania Cruise ship made of this process. Many hundreds of anxious people are trying to get off the ship, some with tours, others not. When you enter the ship auditorium you are handed a colored ticket, or if on a tour a specified ticket for that tour. When your ticket color is called, you rush for the exits of the auditorium and line up to get aboard a lifeboat to motor ashore. Those passengers on a ship organized outing get called first since they have paid handsomely for the privilege. As Steve Martin famously said in the movie the Jerk, “Oh, it’s a profit deal.” Our ship thought it best to designate a young girl from Bulgaria with a heavy accent to talk on a microphone to the crowd, explain the process and call out the ticket colors. As best I could understand, her name was Octopus. Many cruise passengers have hearing difficulties in the best of times. None of us could differentiate between colors ‘green’ and ‘cream’ being called, so of course both of these groups head to the exits jostling for position, all refusing to relinquish their coveted spot in line. Those with walking canes had an advantage in the ensuing battle.
Over and over again, our ship acted like they had never handled a large crowd before. Adding to the disembarking process were the exceedingly rough seas. Boarding the lifeboat meant timing the three foot swells just right. That was quite entertaining to watch in itself.
Our Tour of the Moai Sites
Finally ashore, we are greeted by many eager and aggressive taxi drivers and tour directors. With little planning and not knowing what to expect, as well as being motivated by the extreme heat, we accepted the very first offer from a nice lady offering to take us on a tour around the island. I handed to her a list of four main moai sites I wished to photograph. Off we went to tour the statues. When a ship comes to port, anyone who can seems to come to the harbor to try to cash in on the tourist frenzy. We could not have been happier with our cheerful local guide.
Photography note: I took the above photo with dark filters to make it possible to take a three-minute exposure in full sun. The goal was to blur the clouds. Apparently I had used my lens as a shovel in a sandbox somewhere in Peru and the glass was full of dust. At f22 these spots appeared as circles above, resembling bokeh, in photo language. However, in the end, I think it had an interesting effect. So if you wish to replicate this effect, toss much dust on your expensive lens.
A Brief History of Easter Island
Easter Island is part of Chile and is one of the most remote islands in the world. When first visited in 1722, the island was already mostly deforested. No trees more than ten feet tall existed. The population was also in decline, numbering about 3,000 from a high of 15,000 residents. Some theories say the many palm trees were chopped down to aid in the rolling of the 75 ton statues. Others say the rats brought with the original settlers ate the palm seeds and contributed to the demise of the trees. How would the population not become increasingly concerned with the dwindling supply of palm trees? “OK, boys, today we chopped down the last palm tree, now get to work.” It would seem more logical that the rat played some role in the deforestation.
European visitors in 1770 noted that the statues were all upright. However, in 1774 James Cook noted the statues were often tipped over, facing down. Wars between the competing island tribes resulted in toppling the statues which were thought to offer some protections to the tribe who erected them. South American slave traders, smallpox and tuberculosis rapidly brought about the final demise of the island. Chile annexed Easter Island in 1888.
For a couple hundred years, the moai remained in their toppled state. Many remained face down in the dirt. Then in 1960, a Chilean earthquake thousands of miles away, magnitude 9.5, brought further havoc to Easter Island. The stone statues were struck by a tsunami, rolling and tumbling them over 100 yards inland. Thirty-five years later, after much study and work from several nations, the largest group of moai was repositioned to the site seen in the photos of the fifteen moai.
To provide an overview of the Ahu Tongariki moai, above is a view from the nearby mountainside looking down at the fifteen statues. This nearby mountainside is the quarry where all of the stones were dug. The work of digging, carving and moving of these huge statues seems to have stopped suddenly. Some are only partially carved and some moved only a short way down the mountainside.
Rano Raraku, the Moai Quarry
Ahu Tongariki and the Fifteen Moai
This lone moai serves as a greeter at the entrance at Ahu Tongariki.
Moai at Ahu Ko Te Riku
In 1978 during the protracted renovations after the 1960 tsunami, it was determined that the red bits of coral found at the base of the statues were actually eyes. This one statue at Ahu Tongariki has had his eyes repaired so we may envision how many of the moai originally appeared.
Moai of Ahu Akivi
This is a particularly sacred site for the inhabitants of Easter Island. All other moai are facing inland with their backs to the ocean. Here, they look out at a point of sunset during the Spring Equinox. Also unusual at this site is all the maoi are of the same height and appearance. Age has deteriorated their faces today.
Next week I hope to show you the rest of this beautiful Island. Our thoughtful guide pulled over at this section of beach saying it was one of the most beautiful beach spots on the island. I have to agree.