Ducie Island

Ducie IslandDucie Island is an uninhabited island and atoll of the south Pacific Ocean, annexed to the Pitcairn Islands colony in 1902.
Ducie Island is located 335 statute miles (540 km) east of Pitcairn at 24°40′09″S, 124°47′11″W, and has an area of two and a half square miles (6 km²); it’s one and a half miles (2.4 km) long, northeast to southwest, and about one mile (1.6 km) wide. Ducie Island’s maximum elevation is about twelve feet (4 m) and the few trees there grow to about fourteen feet (4.3 m) at the most.
Ducie Island was discovered by Captain Edward Edwards in the Pandora while searching for the mutineers from the Bounty.
It is named after Baron Francis Ducie, a captain in the Royal Navy.

The lagoon is deep and noted for its poisonous fish and extremely dangerous sharks, it is up to 12 m deep, characterised by a well-preserved death assemblage of a formerly prolific coral fauna, encrusted by a much sparser live coral assemblage.
Presumably the formerly abundant corals have been killed by influxes of cold water at this island which is towards the southern limit of coral growth.
Ducie’s remoteness is evident in the depauperate flora. Acadia is covered in a monospecific forest of Argusia argentea. A second woody species, Pemphis acidula, was recorded in 1991, and there are records from the 1922 Whitney Expedition of a grass and a vine. No other vascular plants are known. Ducie receives visits once or twice a year from cruise ships which land their passengers on the north shore of Acadia.


History of Ducie Island

Map of Ducie Island
Click to enlarge

The island was discovered by a Spanish expedition led by Portuguese sailor Pedro Fernandes de Queirós on 26 January 1606, during an expedition that began in Callao, Peru. Supported by Pope Clement VIII and Philip III of Spain, Queirós was given the command of the San Pedro, San Pablo and Zabra. The fleet was nicknamed Los Tres Reyes Magos (“The Three Wise Men”).
The objective of the expedition was to take soldiers, friars and provisions to establish a colony in the Santa Cruz Islands. Ducie Island was the first of eighteen discoveries on the trip. Queirós named the island Luna Puesta (roughly, “moon that has set”). On the same day, he also sighted two more islands, one that he named San Juan Bautista (“St. John the Baptist”), and the other La Encarnación (“the Incarnation”). It is unclear which one was Henderson island and which one Pitcairn. The confusion was later compounded when a chart produced by Admiral José de Espinosa marked Ducie as La Encarnación, rather than as Luna Puesta.

The island was rediscovered and named Ducie Island on 16 March 1791 by Captain Edward Edwards, of HMS Pandora, who had been despatched from Britain in 1790 to arrest the Bounty mutineers. Edwards named it in honour of Francis Reynolds-Moreton, 3rd Baron Ducie, under whom he had served earlier in his career. HMS Pandora turned northwards from Ducie and, because of this change of course, Edwards did not sight the other islands of the group. If HMS Pandora had maintained its course, it would eventually have reached Pitcairn Island and found the Bounty mutineers.

Some of the survivors of the wreck of the whaleship Essex, which had been attacked and sunk by a whale in November 1820, mistakenly believed that they had reached Ducie after a month at sea in two whaleboats. In fact they had reached Henderson Island. The first recorded landing on Ducie was made in the same year by Captain Thomas Raine of the Surrey, who was searching for the survivors of the Essex.
The first comprehensive description of the island was written by Frederick William Beechey, who arrived in HMS Blossom during November 1825. Beechey’s expedition did not land in the atoll, but members of the crew navigated around it in small boats. Based on Beechey’s survey, the first Admiralty chart of the island was published in 1826. For nearly a hundred years it was the only available map of the island.

Ducie aerial view
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On 5 June 1881 the mail ship Acadia ran aground on the island while returning from San Francisco, Peru after unloading its cargo. On the way to Queenstown or Falmouth for new orders, Master Stephen George calculated a route passing 15 to 20 miles (24 to 32 km) to the east of Ducie. George left the first mate in command at 6 am. Half an hour later, the first mate saw a white line, which he disregarded on the assumption that it was phosphorescence in the water. Later, realising that it was land, he manoeuvred to avoid running aground, but failed.
The look-out excused himself by saying that he thought that the white land was a cloud.
The crew made several unsuccessful attempts to re-float the ship, after which the master sailed one of the ship’s boats to Pitcairn Island. He was assisted there by the local inhabitants and returned aboard the Edward O’Brien, an American boat, to rescue the rest of the crew. The incident was later investigated in a court in Liverpool, where the ultimate cause of the wreck was left undetermined, though possible causes included a calculation error by the master or an unknown current that carried the ship to the island. The court declared the master not guilty of any wrongdoing.
A stone marker with a memorial inscription is located at the landing point on Acadia Islet. It was unveiled to commemorate the recovery of the anchor in 1990. The wreck lies offshore from the memorial stone in about 10 metres of water.

In 1969 the atoll was proposed as an “Island for Science”, and was later recommended as a Ramsar Site. Major expeditions that came to the island to record its biota include the Whitney South Seas Expedition in 1922, the National Geographic Society-Oceanic Institute Expedition to Southeast Oceania of 1970–71 and the Smithsonian expedition of 1975. More recent expeditions include a new expedition by the Smithsonian in 1987, one by Raleigh International in the same year, the Sir Peter Scott Commemorative Expedition of 1990–91 and the Pitcairn Scientific Expedition of 1991–92. In 2012, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala produced Sharks Of Lost Island including Ducie and all the Pitcairn Islands. Because of its inaccessibility, Ducie is rarely approached, but cruise ships make one or two landings per year. In addition, unrecorded visits are known to be made by freighters and tankers that dump residues on the island or in the nearby waters.



The vegetation in the atoll is sparse, because of the lack of fresh water. Only two species of vascular plant are currently known to grow there – one of the smallest such floras on any island. Acadia, Pandora and Edwards Islets are forested with Heliotropium foertherianum, though Westward Islet is not.
Pemphis acidula has also been recorded on Ducie; specimens were found during an expedition in 1991. During the expedition of Hugh Cuming in 1827 and the 1922 Whitney South Sea Expedition, Lepturus grass was found on Acadia Islet.
However, it disappeared when storm waves deforested the island some time before the Smithsonian expedition of 1975. Thus H. foertherianum now dominates the vegetation of the islets. Additionally, there are a number of species of coralline algae, including Porolithon onkodes, Porolithon gardineri, and Caulerpa racemosa. The flora of the lagoon consists mainly of dead coral, presumed to have been killed by influxes of cold water. Sparse living coral still can be found; the dominant species is Montipora bilaminata (family Acroporidae).



Though no terrestrial birds are found on the atoll, Ducie Island is well known for the seabirds that breed there.
Birds that have been recorded nesting on the atoll include the Red-billed Tropicbird, Red-tailed Tropicbird, Fairy Tern, Great Frigatebird, Bristle-thighed Curlew, Masked Booby and Red-footed Booby. A number of gull species, including the Sooty Tern, Blue Noddy, Brown Noddy, Lesser Noddy and White Tern, have been recorded, as have several members of the Procellariidae family: Kermadec Petrel, Trindade Petrel, Murphy’s Petrel and Christmas Shearwater.

The island is particularly important for Murphy’s Petrel, as more than 90% of its world population breeds on Ducie.[44] Around 3000 pairs of Christmas Shearwaters, about 5% of the world’s total population, can be found on the island too.

Meanwhile, the Red-tailed Tropicbirds and Fairy Terns that breed on Ducie are around 1% of the world population of each species.

Phoenix Petrels, which previously inhabited the atoll, apparently disappeared between the Whitney expedition in 1922 and the 1991–92 Pitcairn Scientific Expedition.

The island has been identified by BirdLife International as an Important Bird Area (IBA) principally for its colonies of Murphy’s, Herald and Kermadec Petrels, and Christmas Shearwaters.


In the lagoon there are around 138 fish species, which also inhabit southeastern Oceania, the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean. The lagoon is noted for its poisonous fishes and dangerous sharks.
The yellow-edged lyretail, the blacktip grouper, and the greasy grouper are known to cause ciguatera poisoning.
The lagoon is also inhabited by Galápagos sharks and the whitetip reef shark.
The Galápagos shark is dangerous to humans, while the whitetips are seldom aggressive unless provoked.
Five species are found exclusively around the Pitcairn Islands: Sargocentron megalops (a species of squirrelfish), the spiny butterflyfish, the Henderson triplefin (a species of threefin blenny), an unnamed species of Alticus (a genus of combtooth blenny) and an unnamed species of Ammodytes (a genus of sand lance).


Terrestrial Vertebrates
Lizards that inhabit the island include the white-bellied skink (Emoia cyanura), photographed by E. H. Quayle during an expedition in 1922, and a lizard reported in the journal of an expedition in 1935 by James Chapin.
The species of the latter was uncertain, but it was thought to be a gecko, possibly either an oceanic gecko (Gehyra oceanica) or a mourning gecko (Lepidodactylus lugubris).

The 1991–92 Pitcairn Scientific Expedition found specimens of both the mourning gecko and the white-bellied skink.
The only mammal known to inhabit Ducie is the Polynesian rat; there has been a successful programme to eradicate these, to aid the conservation of bird species threatened by the increasing rat population.
Green sea turtles feed on Ducie, but have not been seen to breed there.



The vegetation of Ducie could alter drastically, with consequences for birdlife, if certain plant species (e.g. Lantana camara) reached the island. Great care should taken to avoid the accidental or deliberate introduction of exotic species. For example, soil, seeds or seedlings should not be taken to Ducie.
Visitors should be reminded of the need to take the greatest care not to carry seeds ashore on clothing, on footwear or in camera bags.

This reminder should be given on Pitcairn if the visitors are planning to reach Ducie from the west or, with the co-operation of Chilean authorities, on Easter Island, if the visitors are coming from the east.
Rats were eradicated from the island in 1997. The project with carried out by Wildlife Management International with funding from the British Department for International Development and the World Wide Fund for Nature (British Section).
Logistic difficulties have precluded any monitoring of the impact of this on seabird nesting success or numbers.

The fact that Ducie is only rarely visited means the chance of re-introduction is low.
Ducie appears to qualify for Ramsar status therefore its designation should be promoted after full consultation.
Ramsar designation would recognize and help perpetuate Ducie’s importance as a haven for birds and as a thriving example of biogeographic processes.