Henderson Island - uninhabited and a day’s sea crossing from the nearest civilisation - should be an untouched paradise.

Instead, its beaches are a monument to humanity’s destructive, disposable culture.

All along a 2.5km stretch of sandy beach, an estimated 18 tonnes of plastic has accumulated at a rate of several thousand pieces of plastic every day.

Because of its isolation, little has been known about the island, its eco-system and the origins of the trash that pack its perimeter.

Stuff's Andrea Vance and Iain McGregor were the first journalists to visit, alongside scientists on a month-long expedition to learn more about the shameful state of Henderson Island.


Thousands of miles from civilisation

Ever dreamed of being marooned on a desert island, thousands of miles from civilisation and rescue? It happened to Stuff journalists Andrea Vance and Iain McGregor.

Swaying coconut trees, pink-tinged sand beneath the toes and turquoise blue waters breaking over a coral reef.

It's the ultimate get-away fantasy. Until it becomes a terrifying reality.

When our inflatable boat capsized in pounding surf, there was no way off Henderson Island. 

We were stranded on an uninhabited paradise, with no food, dressed in only shorts and t-shirts and limited survival skills.

As night closed in, and temperatures plummeted, we came dangerously close to hypothermia. Our lifeline was a cigarette lighter, flown across the sea to us, taped to a drone.

The day we landed on Henderson Island dawned sunny and clear, the endless blue of the Pacific Ocean stretching for thousands of kilometres in every direction. 

A group of 12 had made an epic six-day journey to the Pitcairn Island group to study and clean up an enormous expanse of plastic rubbish washed onto Henderson by ocean currents. A 2017 study estimated it has the highest density of plastic debris ever recorded.

Over two weeks, photojournalist Iain McGregor and I would document the expedition.

A series of delays -  a lightning strike to our plane, bad weather off the islands and a complex cargo run to Pitcairn Island - had already slowed us down. Impatience charged through us as we made plans to land on the island's East Beach.

Pitcairn Islander Jay Warren made a bed for the night in washed-up fishing nets.

Pitcairn Islander Jay Warren made a bed for the night in washed-up fishing nets.

McGregor and I would be in the first party across from our ship base, to set up cameras to film the reaction as the team first saw the expanse of chewed-up plastic. With the sun beating down, we'd thrown on shorts and t-shirts, expecting to get wet from sea spray on the way across. 

We scrambled down a rope ladder and dropped down into the RIB (rigid-hulled inflatable boat), as it bucked and swayed on the swell underneath us. 

Joining us were divers Jon Slayer and Luke Hosty, who retired from the Royal Marines to make mesmerising documentaries about marine life.

Steering the RIB was Jay Warren, a Pitcairn Islander who has spent forty years navigating the surging seas around the four Pitcairn Islands.

East Beach was half a kilometre from the ship. Halfway there, the deep ocean hits a coral reef, the surf rising up high above it before smashing onto the sharp edges beneath. From there, the water is extremely shallow.

Slayer sat on the bow, looking for a gap in the reef, but the rocky coral runs a relentless line in either direction. The high tide pulled us over it and towards shore. We all held our breath as the boat surged across. Just.

Crossing the reef on the return trip, Warren and Slayer didn't have the same momentum - or luck.

A piece of fishing rope snagged on coral caught in the propellor. As Warren struggled to get free, the boat turned side on. A monster wave flipped the RIB like a toy.

Slayer was trapped under the RIB, his inflated life jacket pinning him underneath.

"[That was] my big concern and there was an urgency to it. If another wave comes in and I am still under the boat when it does get pushed under the reef, that is where the hurt is really going to happen.

"So there was a moment of..." he growls here to indicate the effort, "get to the other side before something turns nasty."

Warren slipped out of the RIB as it crashed down and was bobbing about on the surface. 

Jay Warren and Jon Slayer struggle with their up-ended inflatable raft.

Jay Warren and Jon Slayer struggle with their up-ended inflatable raft.

Both were scraped and bleeding from the sharp, raised coral. Slayer's shirt was shredded.

Watching on the beach, Hosty sprinted into the water, butterflying over the shoals to the upturned craft. Their military training kicked in.

"The biggest concern was to get the engine out of the water as soon as possible," Hosty said.

Slayer pulled on a strap clipped to the RIB's bow, underneath and over the upturned keel.

They both clambered onto the hull, rocking it back and forth and then using the power of the swell to heave the boat upright, as they crashed down into the waves.

The engine kicked back into life. But McGregor injured his back hauling the craft up the beach.

Panting and dripping wet, we gazed out to the reef. Measuring from the back of the wave it was easily six foot, its face towering more than double overhead. 

We must wait out the turn of the tide and hope to spot a channel through the exposed reef. 

Jon Slayer munches on a bread stick, sitting on Henderson Island’s East Beach.

Jon Slayer munches on a bread stick, sitting on Henderson Island’s East Beach.

Midday rolled around and the heat was blistering, reddening our pale, exposed skin. 

Lilac-shelled hermit crabs scuttled in between the debris, making their home in plastic buckets and under the shade of buoys. A distressed sea turtle hatchling lay twitching in the sand. We sat among the trash.

Slowly, the tide began to drop, exposing the bony ridge of the reef, jagging out of the water in an unbroken four-kilometre stretch. 

There was no obvious channel out for our little boat.

Hosty and Slayer swam out to make a closer inspection, picking their way through the coral. 

On the shore side of the reef, the water barely reached their thighs.  At the crest, the waves reared up over their heads, dwarfing them. Swimming over the reef was too treacherous.

Rescue was seven days sailing away from Papae'ete. A helicopter has only flown to the main Pitcairn Island once before - at the very edges of its capacity. Henderson Island lies another 168 km north-east.

Henderson Island’s coastline is cut with limestone caves and caverns - but they are home to a rat infestation.

Henderson Island’s coastline is cut with limestone caves and caverns - but they are home to a rat infestation.

Our only other route out was to clamber up the 15 metre cliffs that ring the island and cut a path through thick, tropical jungle. If we waited for the tides to change, there wouldn't be enough daylight to make the hike.

The last humans to be marooned on Henderson were sailors from the doomed whaling ship Essex in 1820. Their plight inspired the novel Moby-Dick.

Evening high tide rolled in with an even bigger swell, impossible to cross. We'd be spending the night on the beach.

"I'm not my first choice to be stranded on a desert island with either," McGregor said as our predicament started to sink in.

"After 10 days you will become just something adorable," Hosty replied. "Either to eat, or to love."

Warren pulled out an enormous ziplock of bread sticks, homemade and stashed in his bag by his sister Meralda Warren as he left his Adamstown home. Those would be breakfast and dinner. 

With none of us dressed to spend the night without shelter, we needed to make fire. But we had no lighter, and if the RIB contained matches, they were now drifting towards Peru.

Happily, our radio survived the dunking and we signalled the expedition ship. 

On board the Silver Supporter, expedition leader Robin Shackell heard his handset crackle into life. 

Beside him, anxiously scanning the shore, was Captain Sergei Kovalenko.  

They'd spent the day checking the ocean and weather forecasts, trying to chart an alternative pick up point and planning how to float in food and clothing supplies to us.

Slayer updated him with the news that we were stuck until morning tide. We had two drones on shore, used for filming the beach and the rubbish piles from above. 

And unlike us, they could soar over the reef and return to the ship. 

"What we would like you to do is wrap up a lighter in tape," Slayer relayed over the airwaves. 

"We will fly a drone out to you and give you instructions on how to stick it to the drone."

Blades spinning, the drone vanished into the distance. Shackell, and expedition oceanographer Simeon Archer-Rand, appeared on the view finder waiting on the top deck.

They'd wound thick, red gaffer tape around the lighter, sticky-side out. Shackell dropped to his knees for stability as the ship rolled and clamped both hands around the drone.

Archer-Rand fastened the lighter to the underside and Shackell gently let go. 

“I love a bit of improv!” Luke Hosty with the cigarette lighter he guided back to the beach on a drone.

“I love a bit of improv!” Luke Hosty with the cigarette lighter he guided back to the beach on a drone.

Within moments, it was back on the beach. As the sun went down and the air chilled, it was our lifeline. 

With the radio battery running low, we agreed to check in again at 9am. Shackell emailed the Global Response Centre back in London to alert them to the unfolding drama and the rest of the expedition settled down to watch Apollo 13.

Henderson’s coastline is cut with caves and caverns but after disturbing three hefty rats, we decided to sleep on the sand, and began gathering wood. 

Born in Durban, Slayer has spent many nights in the South African wilderness. He built a neat pyramid of small sticks and fed in large driftwood planks and lengths of bamboo at four points.

Jay Warren, John Slayer, Andrea Vance and Luke Hosty settle in for the night around a fire.

Jay Warren, John Slayer, Andrea Vance and Luke Hosty settle in for the night around a fire.

Pandanus fruit husks acted as coal, fuelling the flames. A plastic drum, washed up on the shore, was our scuttle.

We scavenged among the debris to make camp. Fishing buoys become seats. Nets made a hammock, keeping Warren off the ground. A twisted mound of fishing rope, with an inflated life vest as a pillow, was a bed.

As the sun began to slide into the horizon, dozens of hermit crabs emerged from the ocean, shuffling slowly up the beach towards our fire. We had to scoop them up before they fell in the flames. 

Dusk falls swiftly in the South Pacific, and with the inky blue darkness came the cold.

We drew in close to the fire, heads down as the black smoke stung our eyes. McGregor checked his watch: it was just after 6.30pm. He did this every half hour until I threatened to throw it in the sea.

"They'll be five short for the team meeting tonight," Warren said.

It was a very long night. About 9.30pm I started to shiver uncontrollably, great shudders starting from the centre of my body. The skin on my shins burned from the fire, but the sand was damp and the cold seeped into my bones.

McGregor was stiff with agony. I hauled him up to sitting whenever he wanted to lean into the fire. 

I was frightened by how cold I was, so early in the evening. But I kept my misery to myself: these blokes were tough and I didn't want to appear weak. It didn't take long for McGregor to notice my trembling.

Hosty showed us how to 'cuddle' for body heat, laying his torso and legs across McGregor to demonstrate. But for a while awkwardness triumphed and instead, I moved so close to the fire, sparks began singeing my feet.

After a while I lay back down and tentatively leaned in. When McGregor started to shudder, I really worried: we'd barely passed midnight. 

Andrea Vance and Iain McGregor try to keep warm as night falls.

Andrea Vance and Iain McGregor try to keep warm as night falls.

For most of the night we clung to each other, limbs pressed hard together. McGregor's face was icy cold and his every movement produced a wince. Over hours - I stopped counting after five - we developed a rhythm: spooning on one side until one of us was warm, then turning over to warm the other, before finally sitting up to the fire. 

It was like spit-roasting a chicken: but it stopped us slipping off the edge into hypothermia.

In the night, the Silver Supporter drifted around the headland out of sight and its absence, as dawn broke, made me uneasy.

The surf was pounding down on the reef even heavier and louder than the day before. From his hammock, Warren stared hard out to sea, worry etched on his face. There seemed to be no hope of getting over the wave break.

I began fretting about the long walk north. A path was cut years ago but we didn't know where it was. 

It could take hours to find, and then hike. And aside from breadsticks, we'd had nothing but a few sips of cola for 24 hours. 

There were a few mouthfuls of water left and our energy levels were low. McGregor was struggling to stand up and could barely walk. 

After 9am, the tide started to drop again and we knew that it was now or never. 

Jon Slayer searches for a way off the island.

Jon Slayer searches for a way off the island.

The RIB was dragged back down the beach and Hosty and Slayer slowly guided it out to the churning surf, hopping up and over jagged coral outcrops. 

We all counted each wave: five small ones and then three huge, building rollers. We'd be at the mercy of that final wave. 

As we edged closer to the reef the ocean roar drowned out everything, cold, salty spray slapping our faces. With a nod from Warren, we were on. Once we went into those waves there was no second guesses and no way to turn back.

The first wave took us up. The engine bounced off the reef and caught for a brief, horrifying second.

Then the second: throwing us high in the air. I gripped the ropes, gasping in terror. Warren's narrowed eyes never left the reef as the third wave rose up ahead of us. 

It was massive, blocking out the sky and the ship ahead. I braced hard and prepared to leap free of the sides if the boat upended.

The motor cracked the reef again, just as we launched forward at a 45-degree angle. I was in the air again, grasping for the handrails. I'd never been so scared.

Suddenly, we broke through the wave and bounced down onto the deeper, calmer ocean. 

It was over. I could see the crew and expedition team waving madly from the deck. 

I was first up the rope ladder, slipping and clutching the ropes as the RIB dipped low on the swells.  

Finally, first mate Nikita Tkach grabbed the top of my life vest and hauled me onto the deck. I fell into a hug from Shackell and burst into tears.

Words: Andrea Vance

Visuals: Iain McGregor

Design & layout: Aaron Wood

Editor: John Hartevelt