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The ocean in our minds: a journey to Pitcairn Island

Written by Jason Cleland, Research Assistant, Changing Oceans Research Group, University of Edinburgh



Pitcairn: the tuff island


Many thousands of years ago in the middle of the swelling South Pacific, a plume of upwelling magma oozed from deep within the Earth. It cooled and hardened into a volcano spitting heaps of ash. The ash lithified into a solid rock called tuff and a new island was born [1].

Pitcairn Island during Operation Redfish expedition (2023).  © Murray Roberts.
Pitcairn Island during Operation Redfish expedition (2023). © Murray Roberts.


Many thousands of years later, between AD 700 and 1100, a group of Polynesians sailed their canoes eastward to the tuff island. Its red rock had long cooled and was clothed in green vegetation, bustling with birds. The Polynesians traded the island’s volcanic glass and basalt with crops grown on a lush isle to the west, which had a large lagoon teeming with fish and black-lipped pearl oysters. But in a time of scarce resources, the settlers were cut off from their trading partners, and the tread of human feet soon left the tuff island[2].


Polynesian petroglyphs on cliffs at Pitcairn’s only beach at the bottom of Down Rope (2023). ©
Polynesian petroglyphs on cliffs at Pitcairn’s only beach at the bottom of Down Rope (2023). ©

A few hundred years later, the continents became more connected by fleets of merchant ships, sailing between the colonies of the British West Indies. On 2 July 1767 (ship’s time), Robert Pitcairn, a fifteen-year-old midshipman from Scotland, stood aboard the British sloop HMS Swallow and spotted the tuff island on the horizon. Naval officer Philip Carteret described it as “a small high uninhabited island not above 4 or 5 miles round…scarce better than a large rock in the Ocean”[3]. It was named Pitcairn’s Island after the lad, whose surname comes from the Pictish word pit, meaning a portion of land, and the Gaelic word cairn, meaning a heap of stones built as a memorial or landmark. This remote ‘rock in the ocean’ would soon become the centre stage of a tragedy that would be mythologised across the globe.


The following year in 1768, James Cook set off on his first and famous Pacific voyage on HMS Endeavour. By April 1769, the crew arrived in Tahiti, where botanist Joseph Banks saw a breadfruit (uru in Tahitian) tree and decided it would be a cheap source of food for sugar plantation owners to give to slaves in the West Indies. Banks was a man of influence, sending emissaries to romp across the globe and pilfer plants for his collection at Kew Gardens. He later used his influence as President of the Royal Society to appoint William Bligh as captain of the HMS Bounty to sail to Tahiti on a first and failed breadfruit reconnaissance mission [4].


The mutineers set William Bligh and others adrift on a small launch (painting by Robert Dodd, 1790). © Royal Museums Greenwich via Picryl
The mutineers set William Bligh and others adrift on a small launch (painting by Robert Dodd, 1790). © Royal Museums Greenwich via Picryl


It seems that during the voyage, an argument broke out between Captain Bligh and his acting lieutenant Fletcher Christian over some allegedly stolen coconuts. On 28 April 1789, Christian led a mutiny. He tossed Bligh and a few of the crew into a skimpy launch and left them for dead in the middle of the South Pacific. The mutineers sailed to Tahiti where some stayed. But Christian lured a group of Tahitians onto the Bounty for a party, took them captive and sailed on to Pitcairn Island, where they scuttled the ship and hid from the British Navy. Meanwhile, Captain Bligh navigated the tiny launch to Timor, over four thousand miles away. He made a shock return to Britain, triggering a search party for the mutineers. But Pitcairn’s rugged cliffs and dense woods were ravaged by feuding and murder. John Adams was the only mutineer to survive by the time the British Navy found the island in 1808, along with the next generation of those who would later come to be known as Pitkerners. On 30 November 1838, Pitcairn Island officially became a British colony.


New world, new ideas


By this time, the peak of the Industrial Revolution (ca. 1760-1840) and its counterpart, the Romantic movement (ca. 1798-1837), were ending. This cosmic clash of ideas happened, in part, as a consequence of the Scientific Revolution (ca. 1543-1687), which replaced a Greek view of nature. The German naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), born in the same year that Joseph Banks first set his eyes on breadfruit, described an increasing anxiety felt by some that the scientific enterprise was undermining the simple and free pleasures of being in nature[5]. Soon after, sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) proposed that the scientific enterprise had led to a disenchantment of the Western mind[6]. Science had tramped through the woods of the world and chased away the gods and nymphs and fairies. Then industry, following in the footsteps of science, had tramped through the woods of the world and cut them down. The idea that nature is primarily an object to be exploited for human benefit did not die among the trees it felled. It has taken root and grown within the modern mind.


This utilitarian approach to nature has also been expressed through human-human interactions, as seen in a long history of people using other people to acquire knowledge for their own interests. This was widespread during the time of the Bounty’s breadfruit mission, and it continues today in the form of ‘parachute science’[7], where a scientist (normally from a higher-income country) does fieldwork in another country (normally a lower-income country), then leaves without ethical permissions, engagement, co-creation, knowledge sharing, or acknowledgement. This was on my mind as I prepared for my first-ever research expedition as a marine biologist. To my surprise and continued amazement, I would, in some small way, become a part of the very singular story of Pitcairn Island.


Arriving in the Pitcairn Islands, 234 years after the mutiny


In February 2023, I had the privilege of joining the Operation Redfish expedition to the Pitcairn Islands Marine Reserve, led by Cefas and funded by the UK Government Blue Belt Programme. Though the Pitcairn Islands is home to one of the largest marine protected areas in the world (over 840,000 square kilometres of sea), very little is known about the region’s marine biology and ecology. The water is so clear, it is thought that some of the world’s deepest zooxanthellate corals may live around the four islands of Pitcairn, Oeno, Henderson and Ducie. Its marine environment is exposed to relatively few human impacts, so it is much closer to a base ‘natural’ condition than similar environments – making it ideal for scientific research. Pitcairn Island has just under fifty residents, mostly living in Adamstown, and they lead the management of this huge marine reserve. My role in the expedition was to study reef biology using eDNA sampling techniques, and to do interviews with Pitcairn Islanders about their cultural heritage and marine management.


Corals in waters off Henderson Island in the Pitcairn Islands Marine Reserve during UK Gov. Blue Belt Expedition (2019).  ©
Corals in waters off Henderson Island in the Pitcairn Islands Marine Reserve during UK Gov. Blue Belt Expedition (2019).  ©

The journey to Pitcairn took days, flying from Edinburgh to London to Los Angeles to Tahiti to Mangareva (the early trading partner for the Polynesians on Pitcairn). From there, we boarded the MV Silver Supporter and set off for Pitcairn Island. The corkscrew swell of the sea tied my stomach in knots of nautical complexity. No seasickness pill, soda-sipping or staring at the horizon could untie them. There was no land or ships for two days, just the odd flying fish skimming the swell. Two mornings later, I remember stepping onto the deck and seeing what Robert Pitcairn saw: the tuff island with its red rock wearing the sunrise.


Our team worked closely with six islanders on the ship, studying reef biology around Pitcairn, Adams Seamount, Henderson Island and Oeno Island. I worked with a colleague from Edinburgh and two Pitcairn Islanders to collect water samples at up to two hundred metres depth for environmental DNA (eDNA) analysis, a new method that can be used to get a snapshot of marine biodiversity. We let down a fishing line with a Niskin bottle on the end, then sent down a weight that triggered the bottle to close and trap some seawater. The water samples were filtered, stored in a freezer, and later taken back to the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh for analysis. We left some of the eDNA equipment on Pitcairn and we hope, given the recent completion of a marine science base, that future research can be led by the islanders. During this expedition, the islanders led the deployment of BRUVs (baited remote underwater video systems). The bait included four kinds of fish, which all have names in the Pitkern language: red snapper (Epinephelus fasciatus), yellow tail (Thunnus albacares), fafai’a (Variola louti), and snakeskin (Epinephelus tuamoutensis). The video footage showed a high diversity of fish, sharks, corals, sponges, and other marine invertebrates.

Moray eel and corals off Henderson Island in the Pitcairn Islands Marine Reserve during UK Gov. Blue Belt Expedition (2019). ©
Moray eel and corals off Henderson Island in the Pitcairn Islands Marine Reserve during UK Gov. Blue Belt Expedition (2019). ©

 After our time at sea, we stayed on-island for two days in Adamstown. Pitkerners met us at Bounty Bay, waving as we came in, some of them descendants of the mutineers. The Bounty anchor rested at the community centre, and behind it was a museum filled with artefacts such as the Bounty Bible used by John Adams to educate his fellow settlers. I have never been to a place where the events of the past have such a strong and lingering force on the mind.

Bounty Bay on Pitcairn Island. A tractor is used to drag a heavy aluminium longboat down the slipway into the bay (2023). ©
Bounty Bay on Pitcairn Island. A tractor is used to drag a heavy aluminium longboat down the slipway into the bay (2023). ©

 I toured the island with some Pitkerners, visiting The Pamai Centre, Down Rope, Ship’s Landing, St. Paul’s Pool, Aute Valley and Christian’s Cave. Mrs. T the Galapagos Tortoise was nowhere to be seen, but her channels of flattened grass ran through Tedside, her favourite stomping ground. On the way back, we brushed by rose apple trees (Syzygium jambos), which bear a white fruit that tastes like Turkish delight.


Signpost on Pitcairn Island (2019). ©
Signpost on Pitcairn Island (2019). ©

Though the island is small, when walking through it, it feels like it could go on and on. The terrain is steep and challenging and my mind would often float on ahead of my legs. Every turn held a new surprise. A bathtub on a cliff. Bee hives with mango-sweet honey. A recycling centre with plastics and glass all stored and separated. Pitcairn reed warblers (Acrocephalus vaughani) flitting through the brush. A lady weaving a basket with palm leaves (the art of tapa), using them to wave away a cloud of mosquitos. A house with honey soaps and obsidian jewellery spread on the porch. The grunt of a quad bike. I sat near Down Isaac’s looking out to the sea, drinking in the sapphire blue, losing myself in it, leaving my scientist hat beside me on the bench. I enjoyed this simple aesthetic appreciation of the ocean. Kant wrote in his Critique of the Faculty of Judgement: “we must seek to see the ocean as poets do, exclusively according to what is shown to the eye when it is contemplated, either at rest, like a bright mirror on the water, limited only by the sky, or else when it is agitated, like an abyss threatening to swallow everything up”[8]. There is a magic in experiencing the ocean simply as it presents itself to our senses and mind, rather than as a reservoir of services for our benefit.

View of Pitcairn Island including Adamstown, with the MV Silver Supporter offshore on the Pacific Ocean (2019). ©
View of Pitcairn Island including Adamstown, with the MV Silver Supporter offshore on the Pacific Ocean (2019). ©


A holistic appreciation of the ocean


The initial impulse that led me to become a marine biologist was not a curiosity about how the natural world works. I enjoyed the way the ocean made me feel and how I experienced it in my mind and imagination. Despite the strong scientific focus of the 2023 expedition, being on Pitcairn reminded me of the tension I have often felt between the aesthetic and scientific appreciation of nature. The pleasure of being versus the pleasure of knowing. Efforts to fuse these two have been made by scientists from Goethe to Rachel Carson. Now with the UN Decade of Ocean Science (2020-2030) underway, I think this is more important than ever.

The Science We Need for the Ocean We Want is a statement that holds together a tangle of ideas and raises many questions and challenges[9]. Ten have been identified for the Ocean Decade, the last of which is to “change humanity’s relationship to the ocean”[10] or to:


Ensure that the multiple values and services of the ocean for human wellbeing, culture, and sustainable development are widely understood, and identify and overcome barriers to behaviour change required for a step change in humanity’s relationship with the ocean.[11]

This challenge underpins the other nine and will likely determine their success. Pitcairn Island recently won the Platinum-level Blue Park Award for exceptional marine wildlife conservation[12]. This is impressive for a small population of individuals with different values, dreams and experiences, tasked with managing such a vast marine reserve. What is it, then, that makes individuals and societies overcome their differences to accomplish something big? Is this possible, even at the scale of saving the global marine environment? How do we ensure that both the means and ends of ocean science, policies, management (etc.) work towards the flourishing of nature and humans at the level of the individual, society, and humanity, without leaving people behind? Scientific research and education are deeply important, but I think the answer lies even deeper, at the level of human consciousness.  


Healthy imaginations, beautiful ocean


The way we experience the ocean in our minds does and will determine how much we care about the ocean, how we engage with it, what we value in it, the way we do ocean science, and the decisions we take to either use it and/or live in harmony with it. If we want a healthy ocean, we need healthy imaginations. If we want a beautiful ocean, we need to furnish our minds with beauty. The more I learn about myself, other people, and the natural world of which we are a part, the more I see the beauty and value in a more holistic approach to understanding ourselves and the world around us (if indeed this distinction is warranted). I don’t think we can afford to stand above nature as some kind of manager, caretaker, or saviour. We need to stand humbly with it, in harmony. This means learning to undo the habit of seeing nature and the ocean only as something separate that provides us with services. First and foremost, we need to foster an aesthetic appreciation of the ocean, which is something that every human can experience, and can inform and guide the science that some of us do.

St. Paul’s Pool on Pitcairn Island (2023).  ©
St. Paul’s Pool on Pitcairn Island (2023). ©

Pitcairn Island is a Dark Sky Island with no light pollution. On my first night there, I looked up from Ship’s Landing to a glittering sea of stars bathing in the Milky Way. It was impossible to think of anything for a while. When I could think, I thought about the fact that the lights I was looking at had travelled from different distances. Some lights were older than others. In fact, I was looking back in time, and not just to one particular past, but to hundreds, thousands of pasts, all at once and in the same moment: all the lights of human history blazing over an island where the past felt so deeply present. I went from enjoying the light of the stars, to thinking about the science behind that light, to being lost in its beauty again, yet with a new appreciation. For me, this experience resembled a kind of “systole and diastole” between an aesthetic and scientific experience, “never separated, always pulsing”[13], to borrow from Goethe. I saw something of a resolution to the tension between the pleasure of being and the pleasure of knowing. This movement between two ways of seeing is key to fostering a healthier relationship between the sea and human self-understanding.  


Story, art and poetry have a unique power to communicate the beauty of science and the wisdom of life. So, scientists must become artists, communicating our knowledge of the outer world as something connected to the mystery of our inner worlds. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “the meanest natural fact…applied to the interpretation of or even associated with a fact in human nature is beauty, is poetry, is truth at once.”[14] We each have a part to play in spreading beauty, poetry, and truth in the world, wherever we are and in whatever we do. Without joining science and art, we cannot hope to save the oceans. Without a conscious effort to “see the ocean as the poets do”, we cannot hope for the oceans to save us. But if we can dance between the two, there may emerge out of the blue that solid rock of knowledge and subtle lapping of mystery, which reveals to us the magic of reality.



[1] Hekinian R, Cheminée JL, Dubois J, Stoffers P, Scott S, Guivel C, Garbe-Schönberg D, Devey C, Bourdon B, Lackschewitz K. and McMurtry, G. The Pitcairn hotspot in the South Pacific: distribution and composition of submarine volcanic sequences. Journal of volcanology and geothermal research. 2003; 121(3-4): 219-245. 

[2] Molle G, and Hermann A. Pitcairn before the mutineers: Revisiting the isolation of a Polynesian Island. In The Bounty from the beach: Cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary essays. 2018; 67-94. ANU Press.

[3] Baigent E. Pitcairn, John (bap. 1722, d. 1775), marine officer. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 2008. Available at: (Access: 16 January 2024). 

[4] Musgrave T. The multifarious Mr. Banks: from Botany Bay to Kew, the natural historian who shaped the world. 2020. Yale University Press.

[5] Hadot P. The veil of Isis: An essay on the history of the idea of nature. 2006. Harvard University Press.

[6] Weber M. Charisma and disenchantment: The vocation lectures. 2020. New York Review of Books.

[7] Stefanoudis PV, Licuanan WY, Morrison TH, Talma S, Veitayaki J, and Woodall LC. Turning the tide of parachute science. Current Biology. 2021; 31(4): 184-185. 

[8] Ibid. 7.

[9] Singh GG, Harden-Davies H, Allison EH, Cisneros-Montemayor AM, Swartz W, Crosman KM, and Ota Y. Will understanding the ocean lead to “the ocean we want”?. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2021; 118(5): e2100205118. 

[10] UNESCO. 10 Challenges. Available at: (Accessed: 16 January 2024).

[11] Ibid. 12.

[12] Marine Conservation Institute. 2023 Blue Park Award Winners Announced at 5th International Marine Protected Area Congress. Available at: (Accessed: 16 January 2024).

[13] von Goethe, JW. The Essential Goethe. Princeton University Press. 2018; 984.

[14] Emerson RW. Selected Journals, 1820-1842. Library of America. 2010; 335.


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