Billionaires to the Rescue: Uber Rich Save Remote Pitcairn Island

Takepart.comNovember 27, 2012

Sheila Christian, the elected sheriff of the remote Polynesia spit of rock and palm trees called Pitcairn Island, lurches to a stop on her ATV, jumps off barefoot, and unhooks a metal-wire gate that allows access to the remote corners of the 18-square-mile island.

Zooming down a muddy trail, I try to keep up, but Sheila quickly disappears ahead. When I find her, she is off her machine and squatting, feeding bananas to the island’s monstrous, 100-year-old Galapagos turtle. Shipwrecked here nearly a century ago, the turtle is the reason one-third of the island is fenced off. She was eating everyone’s gardens.

And on an island that is home to just about 50 citizens and is a several days’ boat ride from anywhere, chomping on home-grown veggies can incite mutinies. Or turtle soup.

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Surrounded by wild seas, the island's lone dock is accessed only through a frighteningly short cut in the land that must be approached at full throttle to outrun the waves. The remote island is of course known for perhaps the most famous mutiny in history, that of the Bounty, in 1789, which pitted Fletcher Christian against Captain William Bligh.  

Once Bligh was loaded into a rowboat, Christian’s escape aboard the Bounty led he and his crew of Brits and their Polynesian wives and hostages to Pitcairn, where they burned the ship and lived out the rest of their lives. Sheila Christian is married to Mike, a relative of Fletcher’s 10-times removed.

But Pitcairn is on the verge of gaining a new reputation as home to the world’s largest Marine Protected Area (MPA).

Last week the islanders voted to ban commercial fishing in its EEZ (200 miles off the shores of the group of four tiny islands that include Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie and Oeno). With a financial gift from the U.K.-based Bertarelli Foundation, the British government is considering helping to implement a plan which would protect an expanse of ocean covering more than 322,000 square miles.

The goal of Sheila Christian and other residents here is to turn the deep, pristine ocean that surrounds it into a tourist attraction. Though locals will still be allowed to fish, the MPA protection would keep commercial fishing boats flagged from other nations out of these waters.

The plan is being coordinated by the London-based Blue Marine Foundation, spawned by the successful book and movie End of the Line, which drew focus to just how badly man has overfished the world’s one ocean. The group had previously helped create the southern Indian Ocean’s Chagos Island Marine Reserve, which is nearly the same size as Pitcairn.

The Bertarellis—Ernesto, an Italian-born pharmaceutical king, and his wife, Kirsty, a former Miss U.K. turned songwriter—are the sixth richest couple in Britain ($10.8 billion) and are not new to the ocean-preservation world. They helped bankroll the Chagos Island park and recently gave the government of Belize nearly $5 million toward protecting the Turneffe Atoll, which is part of the largest coral reef in the world.

Their love of the ocean includes spending a fair amount of time comfortably afloat on the biggest motor yacht ever built in the U.K.: their new six-decker called Vava II

Because of their remoteness, the waters around the four Pitcairn islands are thought to be one of the best-preserved ecosystems on the planet, confirmed by a National Geographic and Pew Environment Group expedition to the region in March 2012. Among its findings? A coral reef actively growing at 246 feet below sea level—the deepest yet discovered.

Pitcairn’s residents could use a good-news story: When they were last in the headlines, in 2004, it was due to six men being tried by a New Zealand court and found guilty of sexual abuse of children on the island. When I last visited, the men were still living in the jail they’d had to build for themselves.

The hope today is that if the MPA works and tourism grows beyond the few random tourist ships that stop by each year, maybe so will the island’s population.

Who knows? Diving to the site of the sunken Bounty could become the island’s new treasure.

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A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon Bowermaster has spent the past two decades circling the world’s ocean, studying both its health and the lives of the people who depend on it. He is the author of 11 books (his most recent, OCEANS, Threats to Our Seas and What You Can Do to Turn the Tide, was published by Participant Media) and producer of a dozen documentary films. His blog—Notes From Sea Level—reports daily on issues impacting the ocean and us. Follow Jon on Facebook. @jonbowermaster  |  Email Jon |