Friday, 30 October 2009

Ascension on the way home (April)

The MOD flight we get back from the Falklands stops on Ascension Island for refuelling. This means that if we sort it ourselves we can stop on Ascension for 3 or 7 days. A tropical/equatorial (8 degrees south) island is something of a contrast to the Southern Ocean. The temperature is 26-30C but the south-east trade winds mean that hydration and sunburn are bigger problems than absolute temperature. April is an excellent time to visit as the Green Turtles are still laying eggs but early clutches are beginning to hatch, ten minutes from the hotel. I contacted the seabird researchers and went out with them on weekdays. Daria and Ruth also stopped and were excellent company and a very good way of finding out what was happening on the island, aided by the mainly male demographic of the US and UK air bases and aerial technicians. Some of these photos are theirs (thanks).

Laying Green Turtle

Hatching nest

Dead hatchling the next morning

Crab on the beach

Octopus in the rock pools

Turtle pits on one of the many sandy beaches

Turtle Pits, from the days turtles were sold to passing ships. The turtles were turned on their back when they came in to lay eggs and then the following day a float was tied to them before they were turned back over. They dragged themselves to the sea but couldn't sink the float. A small boat then approached them and towed them to these pits where a small crane lifted them into these pits. Thankfully someone realised this was too easy and there would soon be no more turtles so hunting was scaled back and then stopped. There is now a healthy population of Green Turtles breeding on the island, with Hawksbills seen around the island but not breeding.

Some of the volcanic landscape and surprisingly pale sand.

The seabird guys are studying the effects of the removal of feral cats from the island in 2001/2. The cats preyed on the seabird chicks and pushed all but one of the breeding species to just a few offshore rocks. The species than stayed on the mainland, Sooty Tern, survived by synchronising it's breeding cycle, to produce a mass defense against the cats and a glut of chicks so that some survived. They breed every 9 months, including a couple of months absence before they start again. This is in contrast to all other colonies where breeding is continuous through the year with pairs coming and going on their own cycle. Interestingly the 9 month cycle appears to be starting to break down now that the cats have gone and also Brown Noddies have joined the Sooty Terns at their 'Wideawake Fairs' - Wideawake is the local, onomatopoeic name for the terns

Wideawake Fair, doing very well without feral cats around.

Most of the seabirds that remain, including the entire world population of the Ascension Frigatebird, are confined to Boatswain Bird Island, a few other small rocks and some inaccessible cliffs.
Masked Boobies are one of the species that have spread onto the mainland. There were 'spare' adults in the population that couldn't find space on Boatswain Bird Island so breeding pairs have increased rapidly now that the mainland is suitable. A German film crew was on the island for a few days to film the seabirds before joining a German research ship (RV Meteor) to film research at a nearby deep sea vent that was discovered five years ago by a team from Southampton.

Filming Stedson, with a White Tern coming in to investigate. White Tern has been on my want-to-see list for as long as I can remember and they didn't disappoint.

Crossing an amazing recent volcanic landscape

One of the endemic plant species

The path back (the lower line across the slope). Full respect to the Germen who did this with a large tripod across his shoulders.

It's 26C or so, the landscape is fairly unforgiving, so obviously you go on a hash house run with the locals. The loose lava means that you can only run a few bits. Good fun and good to meet other people there. The white staining on the rocks (other than the arrow) is sub-fossil guano from pre-cat times when there were extensive seabird colonies on the island.

Finishing with a cool drink and a bonfire. I felt the kids needed 'supervising' playing with the fire, so I joined in with them.

Comfortless Cove, one of the two bays considered sheltered enough from the breakers to be safe to swim. I got in the water once, but to call it swimming may be an exaggeration.

Comfortless Cove (originally Comfort Cove but changed for obvious reasons) was the place where sick crew members were put ashore to avoid contaminating the islanders. they were given food and water and left to fend for themselves. Not surprisingly there is a cemetery here.

Our catch of three Yellow-fin Tuna from a morning's sport fishing. Also good views of Madeiran Storm Petrel and some spectacular jumps from a Bottlenose Dolphin pod (the latter being more widely appreciated than the former).

Sunday afternoon windsurf lessons, I stuck to the surf kayak.

Yesterday's tuna

We brought the tuna, others had charcoal, plates, knives, sauces, drinks etc. Good evening.

Some people wondered if there was enough on Ascension to fill a week. There is.

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