Capturing the Diversity – Farewell to Ascension

What the future holds for Ascension is not certain; the airport on St Helena is changing the dynamics already.  But through the hard sweaty work of many dedicated people over the years, the future of the special plants, animals and environments on Ascension Island have improved, and it is hoped it will continue that way for many years to come.

Leaving Ascension is an emotional wrench.  And you get a sense of just how fragile its connection with the outside world is. I’ve either been taken down by the Conservation staff or bussed down by the Obsidian’s driver, Mervin.  You queue out in the open for the initial check in, then through all the usual checks and out stamps in the passport, but after all that you usually have a couple of hours wait for the plane from the Falklands.  You read, you watch the BFBS or you chat to people you know.  So many conversations start with “I didn’t know you were leaving”.  It is one big happy family until the time draws near for the plane to arrive.

The waiting room is relatively small, but there is a square patch outside set out with picnic tables which is lovingly called the cage.  It certainly does have the feel of a prison exercise ground.  If it is warm, it is worth getting your patch early on.  The cups of pallid coffee and tea or soft drinks from the NAAFI counter keep coming (no alcohol allowed).  And then you start getting twitchy.  The activity out on the apron is increasing.  The fuel truck is repositioning itself.  A bus is set up nearby for the fresh air crew to board.  A fire engine, lights flashings, heads down the runway to check there is no debris.  Often I have positioned myself in the far corner of the cage next to the apron.  From this position you can see past the terminal building towards the sea.  You look and look and look and nothing happens.  And then, and this surprised me several times, a light comes in not directly towards the runway but at an angle, then turns and faces you full on.  No sound, just this light.  The very first time I went home, after the two days delay on the way out, the two and a half weeks on Ascension, the three weeks on St Helena, the time on the boat, and a further delay waiting for a plane…. this was the first aeroplane I had seen for over six weeks.  And I choked a little to see that light.

The light grows brighter, and others in the cage have sensed the atmosphere changing around them and come up to the cage to nose through the chains. Still no noise, but you can see the other lights on the plane now, and it is dropping, tilting slightly in the wind, then sweeping through the runway , bouncing on the tarmac, a sudden shockwave as the engine noise reaches you, and the roar as the flaps go up and the plane is braking, then it all goes quiet as the aircraft disappears behind Command Hill almost to the other end of the runway.  This great long runway that could take space shuttles.  It takes maybe five minutes more for the plane to come into view and finally come to a halt a hundred metres from the cage.

Then a hoard of overdressed Falkland Islanders descend the steps, fill up the cage, draw desperately on their fags and make a queue for the beverages and snacks.  And all at once the Ascension Islanders are not alone in the ocean any more.  The outside world has come to collect them, and soon you are aboard the flight and this little rock, with its quirky livelihoods and extra special geography, fauna and flora, is left far behind.

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Capturing the Diversity – a fatal emergence

I was drawn back to Long Beach morning after morning.  I’d arrive soon after sunrise to see the last straggling females making their way back down the beach.  It reminded me of the descriptions of the sea tanks in John Wyndham’s “The Kraken Wakes”.  They are either unperturbed by people taking photographs of them in the morning, or at least resigned to the fact they can do little about it.  In the daylight you see just how long and lumbering their walk is.  In the time it took me to walk from end to end of Long Beach and back, a turtle may just about make it from their nest to the sea.   If they are lucky they get a helping slide down where the waves have eaten into the beach.   Once in the water, though, and buoyant, they seem to give the land a final wave with a flipper and then skedaddle quickly into the deeps.

A colleague from St Helena, Nikki,  arrived on a flight from the UK while I was there and she joined me on one of these morning walks.  As well as a few adult females making their way back to the sea, we almost stumbled on a nest where hatchlings were poking out of the sand.  In the centre of the nest pit, a cluster of little black turtle heads were poking up.  We cleared the sand away and they started to vigorously flap their slippers and release themselves from the sand.  Some escaped and started to head off in different directions.  By brushing a little sand away we seemed to have started a whole mechanism going below the sand and now the area was erupting with 20-30 little turtles.

Neither of us were turtle experts so we just stood back and watched for a while.  Most of the babies were heading seaward but a few were rambling aimlessly up and down the nests.  Like little clockwork automaton, the legs kept on moving whatever they came across and often they tripped up on themselves and fell back down into the nest, or seemed to go round in circles when they reached an obstacle.  Nikki tried to help some of them reach the sea, but that was probably the worst thing to do. Waiting in the shallows were a shoal of the piranha like blackfish. Almost before a baby had learnt how to swim the shoal were on it, grabbing a leg each and the head and pulling the poor creature apart.  Frigate birds were also patrolling up and down the beach, and the crabs were not far behind.  Daytime is the worst time for a newly born turtle to try and make that treacherous journey.  At night you are still prone to a series of ravenous predators but at least you stand a faint chance. In the full daylight you were doomed.  I don’t think one of those turtles made it that day.

We were feeling rather hopeless as more turtles were still emerging from the nest, when I spied Jacqui Ellick and her dog.  Jacqui is the queen of turtle monitoring on Ascension Island; she has patrolled beaches for nigh on twenty years.  Her husband, Ray, is a senior manager for Cable and Wireless and Jacqui initially took up turtle counting as a hobby.  Over the years, mainly down to the continuity of her service, she has provided reams of very important data that help scientists like Brendan and Annette monitor the success of green turtles.

We asked her advice on our emerging hatchlings.  She had a kind of modesty that suggested she knew nothing, but you didn’t stay a layman after so much time on one subject.  She shrugged her shoulders and said ” I dunno, I suppose you might just cover them up with sand.”  We piled sand over the black bodies and they immediately went still.  Lesson learnt and more respect to Jacqui for her knowledge.  There are obvious trigger mechanisms in a nest which make the hatchlings move.  And if there is sand covering the top ones they stop moving.  The lack of motion means the pile of turtles underneath also stay inactive.  But if the top ones are exposed then they start moving and the action sends shockwaves right through the nest and they erupt.

On my final morning on Ascension Island, I arranged to join Jacqui on the next count on Long Beach.  Tasha came along too and we had a fantastic walk and logged some useful data.  I’d been working with Jacqui since the start making a simple database to log her counts and we’d refined it over the years, but this was the first chance in seven years that I had seen how she collected her data for real.

Capturing the Diversity- combing the beaches

Counting the turtle tracks is the easy part.  The difficult part is the work needed to be done on the beach to ensure the count is accurate.  Although tracks soften quickly as the wind blows the sand around,  you need to get an accurate count each day (or maybe each week depending on the frequency of turtle nesting events) so you have to wipe the slate clean before you start the counting again.  So the same day that the count is complete, the Conservation Team and any willing volunteers head out to rake the beach.  The first time I got roped into doing this I had not intended to be involved.  I had gone for  a late afternoon walk up to Fort Bedford, but I spotted a sizeable team of rakers out on Long Beach.  I watched them for a while trawl perpendicular to the sea, up and down, up and down, and started to feel guilty, so I dropped straight down through the thorn trees and went across to greet them.  They were only half way along and some were tiring so were pleased to see some fresh legs.

The aim was not to smooth the beach down like the machines which manicure the front of every resort hotel in the Caribbean or Med.  By raking roughly across the whole beach you are breaking the existing turtle tracks up.  By the archaeological principle of superposition, if you see a turtle track over the rake marks, you know there has been a turtle there since you raked. By this method you can distinguish the old from the new and increase the accuracy of your count.

But even so, it is back breaking work, and blister making too.  I helped out on Pan Am Beach one morning.  I was keen to go as for all the years of travel there, I had never made it down on to this beach.  It was a popular weekend spot, partly as it was just below the American base, and the name Pan Am stemmed partly from it being at the end of the runway.  I went with Natasha and Jolene.  Natasha was one of the few staff at Conservation that had worked alongside me since I first visited Ascension Island; if you wanted to know where anything was  or how to do something, she was probably storing it at the back of her mind somewhere.  When others were not strict at recording data in the databases she would be there to get them sorted.  Jolene had been around Conservation for several years too but my trips always had coincided with when she was at school or on holiday.

We dropped down the cliff edge on a rough cinder track and parked up at the beach hut at the far end.  For this trip we did the counting first, then worked on the raking.  As Pan Am was not so intensively used we got away with a simpler method, raking the front of the beach only, and then messing up (I mean marking) the new nests by raking across the tracks made by the female as it left.  It saved a bit of time but it was still a long morning of work.

Capturing the Diversity – counting the turtle tracks

One of the key conservation tasks at this time of year was to record how many turtles were successfully laying on the beach.  Next morning  I joined Sam on Long Beach.  In the clear early morning light, he let his dog off the lead and we started near the turtle ponds and walked the full length of the beach.  As you went along, you looked out for turtle tracks.  The aim was to count all the tracks and divide by two and that gave you the number of the turtles beaching.  But it was a bit more complicated than that.  You had to beware of those turtles who might come up on the beach and, for whatever reason, decide not to nest that night or abandon their digging before laying any eggs; so called false crawls.  So once you got a track you had to trace where it went and if it led to a nest. So there was much tooing and froing along the beach before we were able to come to the final figure.  The fresh nests were easy to spot as the sand was rucked and often still damp.

The remains of last nights’ activity were plain to see. Some previous nests were disturbed and there were what looked like golf balls strewn over the sand.  Crabs were busily picking at them  in full view.  Because the egg laying season was coming to an end, some of the older nests had little tiny footmarks coming out of them and heading mostly for the sea.  The hatchlings were starting to emerge from nests and hundreds of tiny flippers had crossed the sand from about twenty nests the night before.  I saw one that had not made it, a little dead black body splayed in a hole.  And Sam found one poor hatchling who was still alive but had failed to muster enough strength to emerge from his egg.

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Still stuck in his eggshell

We made our count and recorded it in Sam’s notebook then headed back to the our respective breakfast tables.

Capturing the Diversity -Night walk on the beach

It was with great joy that I finally got a trip to Ascension Island in the March.  The Conservation Office was now headed up by Nicola Weber and her husband Sam.  I’d met them first when I taught a short course in GIS down at the University of Exeter campus near Falmouth, where Brendan was now a professor.  The debate about Ascension’s future had settled down somewhat, although many would say it was a stagnation rather than a settling.  There was to be no belonger status, the creation of an airport at St Helena was changing the dynamics for Ascension too.  It had meant that there were areas of the island in decline.  Fewer people were being contracted by the big companies on the island, which meant the population had dropped by about 15%.  The lack of options to be belonger or own property on island had forced several of the little entrepreneurial businesses to give up – even Tasty Tucker had shut.  The one potential bright spot on the horizon was that Ascension was being promoted as a living laboratory – a place where geologists and biologists, maybe even astronomers could come and do science, and there was a noticeable increase in supporting tourism with the arrival of more cruise ships in Clarence Bay.

Along with support from the likes of Exeter, RSPB and Kew Gardens, the Conservation Department had expanded. They now had offices and laboratory space right through their building, and one of the big elements was to construct Biodiversity Action Plans for the key species.  I was brought across to troubleshoot some problems that had been experience with the databases, which after so many years good service, were getting old and clunky, but still provided a fantastically long record of biology and could churn out useful maps and statistics.

On the first day there, Sam chatted casually about the fact he was going to conduct a turtle tour that evening.  My eyes lit up and I asked if I could come along.  He could not believe after so many visits that I had never been on one.  So I explained the timing problem.  With about half a dozen others, we turned up at Conservation with head torches with red tape over them (as they disturb the turtles less when laying),  had a brief talk about the green turtle from Sam, then took the Land Rovers down to the car park at the end of Long Beach, switching out the headlights as we pulled over the hill and on to the beach.

Sam used some night vision goggles to see if there was much activity. It was actually getting towards the tail end of the egg laying season and he didn’t expect to find more than a few each hour up there.  It didn’t take him long to spot some sand being flung in the air.  We trooped off walking along the road at the back of the beach.  Once Sam thought we were in line with the female, he led the way onto the sand.  Walking across here was difficult enough in the daytime, but with only a few dim red lights waving around you had to watch your step.  Not only were you heading up and down the sides of the green turtle nests, and they were deeper than I remember probably because many were fresh and the wind had not yet blown sand back in the depressions, but they were also soft spots in the sand as well as hard, again probably due to the excavations of the female turtles, and your foot could sink above the ankle with each step.

But eventually we got close, and we could hear the grunts of a turtle.  We appeared to have arrived just at the moment of laying; which was useful as the turtle was far less likely to be disturbed.  Turtles are very susceptible during the early stages of nesting to being spooked, causing them to turn back without digging, or leaving a half finished hole.  Once the laying starts, as long as you are quiet and careful not to get in front of her, she goes into an almost trance like state and is unlikely to stop.  Sam focused his red torch on the back end of the female and we all stood behind this so as not to disturb the turtle.  We watched her large floppy ovipositor dip into the deepest part of the hole she had dug.  Shiny white eggs came gently out the end and piled up softly in the sand.  After a few minutes the pile had probably 60-70 eggs in there; Sam was surprised as often it could be a lot more.  But she stopped there and began an incredibly delicate operation with her back flippers.  She would reach wide of the eggs, scoop up sand and gently cover the pile of eggs, sculpting a smooth shape as she did so. She repeated this operation several times, producing a tough casing within which the eggs would have some protection.  I had always wondered how eggs survived on these beaches.  I had always considered green turtles to be the clumsiest of the species.  Whereas I’d seen hawksbill nests hidden away at the beach head, greens didn’t seem to care where they laid their eggs, and I had seen several waterlogged nests in Anegada all that time back in BVI.  Many people on Ascension had said that several green turtle nests might be exposed when another turtle decides to burrow, tens of eggs flung out onto the beach with the rest of the sand.  Here at least was evidence that the nest laying was more calculated.  Maybe this nest would not survive a direct attack, but maybe the weight of another female heading further back on the beach will not crush the eggs.

The Chamber completed the turtle changed completely.  Instead of the delicate mother and sculptor she became the backhoe.  The huge front flippers were used to throw as much sand in the hole.  Now Sam told us we could take more photos and the red torch light was not so necessary and we watched for many minutes as the turtle filled in the nest.  The effort it took to do all this was clearly completely exhausting.  She huffed and puffed with every heave of those giant fins, and she had to stop several times to summon up her remaining energy.  You had to consider that this was probably one of only two times a year this female would come on to land.  She had evolved to operate efficiently in the sea, her huge carapaces protected her from her enemies down there, as well as the pressure of the water, her flippers were made for swimming not walking or digging.

But this urge to create the new generation brought them back on land year after year once they were fully mature.  We all watched with anticipation of the moment when she would complete.  It appeared the nest was covered up, but now she continued to fling buckets of sand all over the place – we had to keep jumping out of her way.  Then she lurched her shoulders forward and began to drag herself out of the nest.  Again this was no quick operation.  Being on land for a couple of hours, carrying the eggs up the beach, digging the nest, dropping them in and refilling the nest had taken its toll.  She’d take a few steps, pause, breathe and look around, then continue on again.  We left her to it.  My first green turtle egg laying.

Capturing the Diversity – Back to Turtles

Over seven years of travel to Ascension Island, you may notice that I barely mention the turtles, which was the original driving force through Brendan’s work for my connection with the islands.  Somehow, all the trips I ever did were scheduled in the second half of the year when there was not much turtle activity.  So all I tended to see was the evidence literally in the sand.  Every beach was pockmarked with old green turtle nests, unless it was washed daily by the sea, it seemed the turtles had laid their eggs in every possible location.  I did see the odd dried out crusty eggshell but very little of the wastage of turtle breeding was not scavenged by the birds and crabs.  Once my trip came not that far before Christmas and I spied a few large turtles out in the open water.  Apparently these were the males waiting for the females to arrive so they could copulate with them.  I sat on the beach in the twilight one evening and watched a male clumsily climb aboard a female; my voyeurism mostly shrouded by the breaking waves around them.  I had left the island before any females started to come up to lay their eggs, though.

So it was a bit hard to visualise what Long Beach in particular would look like with females laying. I got a bit envious of almost anyone else I talked to on the island who felt it was such a natural part of life.  Why did I keep missing this wonder?

Capturing the Diversity – The long slog back

Next goal was the top of Wig Hill and again we were clambering up and down multicoloured rocks – another noddy colony in the cliffs above us at one stage, several more booby nests.  We must have covered 40 or 50 individual nests that day as well as all the cliff monitoring and  colony counts.  But when you get down this way you make sure you do the maximum amount. It would be wasteful to have to make two trips.

From the peak of Wig Hill we could spy more noddies along the cliffs to the west.  This south coast was one of the key areas for several species; Tara told me they tried to count more from the sea when they were on their way to their Boatswainbird Island trips as some of the colonies were so well tucked in to the cliffs.

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A real sense of isolation

Then the time had come to return to the Land Rover.  Wig Hill had already been a climb, but ahead of us was a massif that towered three times the height, and to rub salt in the wound, we had to go down this hill first before tackling it.  We had been walking for over seven hours now, tired and footsore.  But we had to get back. So it was one foot in front of the other, no heroics, sheer stupidity to put on a spurt of speed, but just slow, slow, steady progress.

I stopped looking upwards as it would just demoralize me.  But looking back from time to time was useful.  I’d make sure I would stop before turning.  Wig Hill looked even more like a hedgehog from this angle, and I could see the western part of the Letterbox in all its glory. And each time I looked back these features were indeed getting smaller.

Stedson, a good 15 years older than the rest of us, struggled up that hill.  But he had the stamina of a pack horse and just kept a steady if slow pace.  It was clear that stop start was unhelpful – if you stopped both your mind and body told you that that was the end, and it was a tough job to tell them to start again.

Eventually we reached a col just near where our original path this morning would have taken us off the track round Cricket Valley.  Simon, Tara and myself paused there to let Stedson catch up.  I looked at Simon.  He could not say a word, he was so shattered, but he did permit himself one of those smiles of achievement .  My clothes had been drenched in sweat, and blown dry again by the wind.  It was all worth it for the recovery of the bird populations.

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A shattered tiredness but a sense of achievement