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 – 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

Capturing the Diversity – Where The Atlantic comes ashore

The next stage was to traverses one of these lava flows.  I was getting used to crossing these but this one was remarkable.  We had to climb a considerable way to get up on top of it – obviously it had been a thick coating of molten rock which had come down the mountainside at some stage.  It was relatively thin, but as I paused atop it, and looked first up and down, I was astonished to see it looked black in one direction and white in the other.  The lava field had been used as a nesting colony for hundreds, maybe thousands of years, but the birds sheltered on the uphill side of the outcrops of rock, giving them some shelter from the punishing south easterly winds.  So as you looked down, you saw all the guano from the ghost colony, looking uphill all the guano was hidden and you saw the true colour of the rock.

We were trying to make our way to South East Bay now, but again the most direct route was not the easiest, and we instead started heading north west.  I could see how much we had descended from our starting point.  I could not see the NASA site, but you could see the massive lump of earth that it sat on; and it towered above us.  While we plodded along on the surface , it did cross my mind that whatever more walking we did down here, we still had to somehow climb all the way back up there.

South East Bay is one of the most dramatic places on Ascension Island and can only really be seen in its true glory from the top of the cliffs.  From the NASA site, it appears a beautiful collection of coloured rocks and a sweeping bay of frothing water, but only from down here do you get the full impact of just how superlative the terrain is, and how dramatic the full force of the Atlantic Ocean coming into contact with the cliffs really is.

The first thing to strike me was a curious hill on the far side of the bay.  It had a steep white cliff, which had a funny little promontory of white rock sticking out the front.  The white rock was capped by a carpet of lava, this time a deep rusty red colour.  The lava coated the whole backside of a rounded hill.  The effect was to make you think you were looking at a giant white hedgehog with red spines.  It was not a surprise to hear that it was called Wig Hill.  In the centre of the bay, where it more or less turned right angles from the south coast onto the extended peninsula of the Letterbox, another lava flow, another black one, poured down into the sea.  It was obviously  relatively recent and the sea had yet to erode it back to a natural coastline; instead black rocks extended well out into the bay.  But the sea was having a good go.  Massive rolling waves came into the bay at high speed, bashed against the solid rock and sprayed up, some coming higher than the cliffs themselves.  Time after time these waves would crash in, and the spray and froth would fizz and shimmer for many seconds after the undertow had sucked the water back out of the bay.  I certainly would not want to be in a boat down there – you would be smashed to smithereens hundreds of times.  Death would be a mercy.

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Stedson, Simon and Tara monitoring the noddy nests on the cliffside

The main reason for coming to this cliff edge on the western side of the Letterbox was to monitor its noddy colonies.  I was still feeling a bit tender on my ribs, and I had already seen noddy nests, so I volunteered to look after their bags while Simon, Tara and Stedson went down in amongst the nests.  I got another sense of vertigo as I looked down.  Tara said – once you are down there it is not so bad, but I watched those big waves crashing below us, and did not want to chance having more mishaps.  So for about ten minutes I just sat there mesmerized by the strength and beauty of the ocean as it came ashore.

The Letterbox on The Letterbox

We were on an almost flat surface, a red billiard table of fine gravel.  Stedson pointed out a number of small depressions.  These were not some volcanic features from centuries back but in fact the result years of target practice by the military.

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The curious crater

I looked around nervously in case a fighter jet came screaming over the horizon.  Stedson laughed -” it’s not done now”, he said.  On the edge of the cliff we came across more military hardware, this time in the shape of three frigate birds.  They were not animals but wooden decoys and apparently the navy would sail around this side of the island and crew would shoot at them to improve their aim.  Nearby , Stedson had some of his spurges that he had planted out and he checked them as we passed.  They were kept in cages to reduce the amount of cropping any passing herbivore might attempt.  Why a rabbit would head all the way out to this desert when there were rich pickings up on the mountainside was beyond me.

The weather had turned gorgeous as the morning had progressed and as we reached a real live Royal Mail letterbox that is the end of the “Letterbox” walk for Letterbox, we dug into our sandwiches, soaked up the sun, and eased our aching feet, and in my case, my aching rib cage.

I had to sign the book in the letterbox.  The aim of these walks is to allow people to have a target; you open the box to reveal a plastic bag containing pencil and paper so you can log your achievement and read the comments from other visitors.  There is also a little rubber stamp that you can put in a tourist guide to prove you reached the destination.  Most letterboxes are simple sealed boxes or even pipes, but this one was grand.  A proper UK style rectangular shaped red post box.  Like all post-boxes they are stamped with the initials of the monarch of the time.  This one was Edward VII Rex.  Considering he only reigned for about ten years, this is a fairly rare example.  The only other one I have ever seen was in …. Georgetown here on Ascension Island too.

After lunch we ambled over to the western side of Letterbox.  The land here was no longer a billiard table as lava flows had spilled over the underlying geology. But this was the area where the most successful colonies of nesting birds on the mainland of Ascension, save for the Wideawake Fairs.  Several species together flocked together in around 6 colonies, and Tara, Simon and Stedson estimated the number of birds individually and averaged out their findings.  Mostly masked boobies were present here although a few brown boobies were also mixed in.  The rocks around were white with guano and the smell was overpowering.

Capturing the Diversity – two hours in and finally some birds

As we turned the corner I got the first glimpse of Boatswainbird Island.  Too many times I have heard people refer to the Ascension Islands, as if this was an archipelago.  In actual fact it is really only one lonely island.  OK , so there are two, but Boatswainbird is really just an oversize stack, a fragment of volcanic rock which became detached from the main land and is gradually eroding back to sea level.  It has been the lifesaver of the breeding birds, though, a Noah’s Ark against the flood of cats, rats and humans.  The Conservation team travel over there at least once a year to check up on the breeding, particularly the frigates who rarely breed anywhere else.  It has sheer cliffs on four sides good for noddies but a relatively flat top perfect for thousands of other birds to nest.

Where we were heading had a similar make up – a nice flat surface that probably once was coated in bird nests.  But to get there we had to negotiate some difficult terrain.  We were still clinging to the side of White Hill, but that now dropped straight down to the sea and unless we could find a way to drop elevation we would just come full circle and be back at the Devil’s Ashpit.  A gash in the hillside opened up – you could hardly call it a valley.  It was just where when rain fell, water scoured the soft volcanic rock and had dug out a channel. But it was enough for us and we dropped down with it for  a couple of hundred metres.  It continued down over a cliff edge, but here we turned right, climbed up out of it and were on a ridge.  And after an hour of walking, we saw our first bird nests.

Contrasting sharply with the black lava, a bright white Masked Booby sat guarding a nest.  I keep writing that word but hope you have not got the wrong idea.  This nest is no picturesque collection of twigs, leaves and moss; it is not some great architectural structure that would make a stork or a weaver bird proud.  It is a small scrape in the surface of the rock, enough of a depression to stop eggs from rolling too far away.  Nest sites are obviously used time and again, as the rock might be ground down to a thin greyish soil – a little bit more of a cushion for an egg or chick than bedrock.  But what mainly marks these places is the guano all around.  I’ve always had mixed emotions about the smell of shit.  There are theories that the smell of one’s own faeces is in some way comforting and maybe animals feel less disturbed when sitting in amongst their own droppings.  But I would imagine its use was more to deter others to come near as it is so disgusting.  Creatures which rely on the sea in particular have a certain odour to them.  When I travelled through New Zealand on holiday one time, I could always tell when a seal was about by the overpowering pungency of rotten fish coming from its orifices.  And here the guano smell had a similarly acidic aroma.

Capturing the Diversity – Starting the longest walk

It was a good job that Ian did not accompany us the next day.  I’d signed up for the longest of the bird monitoring walks, to an area called Letterbox.  I am not sure it was the worst; apparently the scree run down to Spire Bay and the long steep climb back was the most challenging but it was relatively short.  At the time of this visit, the closest road to the Letterbox was at the NASA tracking station.  From here we were to make a sweep of most of the south east coast of Ascension.  We arrived as early as we could, and the day started out misty with a drizzly rain blown in from the south east.  From the car park you could just about make out most of our route, although it was obscured behind hills or down in dips in a few places.  With Tara and Simon, Stedson had come with us.  He helped out with the bird monitoring if he had to but he also wanted to check up on one of his plant restoration projects down on Letterbox itself.

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A good view of where we were to walk (from the NASA site) – looks easy from up here

We started just back from the NASA station opposite the Devil’s Ash Pit, a very easy track which ran along the edge of a crater called Cricket Valley, which was deep and coated with a unique ecology of dense scrubby plants.  After about five minutes we turned off onto a narrow path, and that was the end of the easy walking for the day.  This trail passed underneath White Hill and down a steep valley that would eventually drop into the ocean at Spire Beach.  There was a path here but it was one foot wide, i.e. the width of my foot.  The ground rose at a 75 degree angle above the footpath, and dropped sharply away on the other side; indeed the path itself was often at an angle.  Now I do not suffer much with vertigo but I did get a nasty giddy feeling as I went on down.  I had to control it because there was no room to sway around here.  I was glad that the mist was quite thick as it meant I could not see much of the valley below, and my hand kept touching the wall of hill to my right just to reassure me I was still upright. Stedson pointed out another path which dropped away steeply from ours – this was the route down to Spire Beach.  I saw what they meant about this being the most difficult walk and was glad in a way I didn’t have to head that way.

Our path curved around the north side of White Hill and eventually reaches much flatter land with more room to spread out.  The mist was beginning to clear and I could see down to Spire Beach below – a beautiful bay cut off on all landward sides by steep cliffs.  You could see why birds and turtles would think it safe to leave their eggs down there.

Capturing the Diversity – Time for a fag

We continued our walk and covered maybe a hundred individual nests and counted the colonies on at least seven stacks.  We were so busy in amongst the cliffs and the lava field that I barely looked up to see our progress.  When I did the BBC transmitters still seemed to be the same distance away, but then I triangulated with the gold balls behind us and estimated we were about two thirds of the  way along.   At last I could see the large oil storage tanks that was our final destination.  It still took a good half hour to reach them.  There was no footpath, you just had to pick your way from rock to rock, and try not to trip up or get your ankle twisted in any holes you came across.

As we kept on stepping close to the cliffs and stacks to do the monitoring, I was grateful I did not yet have the knowledge that Ascension Island is shaped like a mushroom. Underwater surveys have revealed that the waves and water have eroded away significant amounts of the submarine rock, and that large chunks of the cliff are overhangs into the ocean.  Well most of it has lasted a few hundred years, I expect another couple of hundred won’t hurt, but Ascension may end up with a lot more stacks in future, although the older ones wash into the sea, and some of the island’s precious infrastructure could either get isolated, or tumble in to the sea when the rock breaks.

I caught up with Simon, Anselmo and Ray just as they reached the gravel surface of the little car park at the end of the track.  I looked back, and could see Ian struggling on behind.  It was a good ten minutes before he finally reached us, lobster red face and barely able to breathe, let alone talk.  Ray grinned at him and released the pipe from the water bottle stored in his backpack and Ian took as big a suck as he could muster.  Then he had a cigarette.  We all laughed so hard and Ian grinned from behind the smoke, “Not doing that again, no way” he wheezed.

Capturing the Diversity – How to monitor the bird nests

It took quite a while before we reached the first birds and they were situated on the first of a series of small stacks along the coast.  Again it was impossible to count every egg and chick, but they monitor using binoculars and count the adult birds.  But nearby, we started coming in to contact with the first birds who were nesting on the mainland.  The species here are black and brown noddies, some boobies and a few tropic birds.  Counting the noddy nests was a bit precarious as they do prefer cliffside perches, but the others tended to nest on the flatter ground.  To be accurate that the right nests are being properly monitored, numbered metal pegs were left at the nest site.  A database had been created by RSPB  that allowed the team to print out the records for the walk they were doing.  This would tell them where there were existing nests (with the numbers of the pegs they left there) that needed to be monitored again.  The job was to find these nests again; usually the team could remember roughly where they were but they also had the GPS coordinates in case they needed guidance.  The tags  meant that you could keep track of which nest you were looking at and work out the sequence.  Then they just had to update the sheet with the new status (number of eggs, chicks, fledglings or abandoned nests).  If the nest is empty the peg is removed, cleaned and used again somewhere else.  This did sometimes cause some problems for the database as peg numbers could get confused and give the wrong data on the printed out monitoring sheets.  One of my jobs was to clean up the mess in the database and help make the system more foolproof.  If a new nest was spotted on the walk then more details had to be captured; the location and the species of bird as well as the nesting status.  And the new peg number.

It was all rather complicated but did help to calculate the nesting success of different species.  It took some time for Edsel and myself to get our heads around how this could be used in GIS.  Yes, we could show the current status of nesting on the islands, but what was more important was that we needed to help them show where some species were getting more successes than failures, and any progression of nesting further and further on to the mainland or in new locations around the coast. Fortunately, the way the database was set up, you could slice and dice it whichever way you wanted, an Edsel had written a canny programme to automatically draw the results of these filters and label them uniquely.  In this way, monthly maps of nest status could be shown, different coloured dots for different species and the labels showing the status, and another map could show in a period how many nesting successes and failures there had been in each area.  Tara, when she did her studies quite successfully showed how the birds were gaining in their nesting confidence and moving further and further away from those refuge stacks they had once relied on to maintain the populations in the islands.

Capturing the Diversity – Starting round the cliff tops

The other bird monitoring walks were nowhere near as easy as that one with the Cripps.  On my first trip, after Edsel had already left with his frozen fish for Nashville, and I was waiting for the RMS to arrive, I set off with a large number of the Conservation officers.  Tara and Anselmo were leaving the island while Tara took up some studies, and a local househusband called Simon was going to temporarily look after the shop.  Tara wanted to give him as much awareness raising and training as she could.  Although a volunteer already, he had to learn the walks and get to know the staff. I liked Simon enormously, a hell of a nice bloke and very conscientious that taking over from Tara, even just to caretake, would be a big job.  So he joined us on this walk, along with Ray and even Ian,  another househusband (his wife was the midwife on the island)  who generally enjoyed a few days working just looking after the office side, had been persuaded to come along.

Tara dropped us off at the golf balls on Pyramid Point not far from Comfortless Cove.  These are secret listening devices.  So secret that they are painted bright white, stand out on a promontory on the west coast and most people navigate by them if they are walking in the area.  So it was hardly hidden away.

As I stared out along the coast we were to traverse, I could see our destination – the cluster of aerials that were the BBC transmitters dominated this part of the island, and we were to be picked up in a car park just beyond them.  But our route had no set footpath, only the conservationists regularly tromped through this area.  I soon saw why.  There are no mountains here, this is another outlet of the lava flow, but the lava is very recent and the sea has managed only to cut into the rock where the tide currently reaches.  So the cliffs are severe, but like all these coastlines, where there was soft rock, the waves had cut away deeper.  The resulting coast was very incised, and birds, still fearful of predators, would prefer their nests to be at the end of spiky promontories and cliff edges rather than next to a nice footpath.  We had to weave in and out between these peninsulas and around the deeply incised coves.  As I later discovered, the gradual erosion of the lava was not always from top down, the waves were niggling away at weaknesses as sea level, below the cliffs, wearing away the rock to form deep caves, or just rushing in to all the gaps in the existing fissures.  From a distance the shoreline looked low and benign, but as you got into the twists and turns of our route, your realised just how dramatic the coastline was.  We turned one corner to be confronted by a beautiful curved arch of lava, like a totally black rainbow.  More rubbly lava overlaid this arched entrance to a watery cave.  Only when I saw one of my colleagues walking over the top, I saw how dwarfed he was by this structure.

In another place we were weaving our way inland. I followed Ray and Anselmo who knew the route well, but wondered why we were coming in so far.  Then I saw the land to my left dropped steeply down and at the bottom, there was the sea crashing in and out.  In another place I spotted an almost perfectly square swimming baths in amongst the bedrock.  I would never have swum in it – with each rock of the waves it would almost empty then refill in a matter of seconds.  In another location, I saw again that Ray and Anselmo were heading inland.  I followed on, with another deep jagged valley of rock below me to the left, and then a high cliff of lava that appeared a hundred feet higher than where I was.  I looked up and saw Ray and Anselmo above me heading back towards the coast.

We moved at different paces.  I was so in awe of the landscape I went quite slowly, Anselmo and Ray were leaping ahead as they knew they had so many nests to find in the next three hours.  Simon attempted to keep up with them, behind me Ian was wheezing away.  Ian was a slim built Geordie who loved his fags.

Capturing the Diversity – a surprise in the water

I was OK.  I used the time to work with conservation.  I say work, for much of the time, I just joined in with their activities like the cat scat monitoring and the bird monitoring.  Graham and Margaret asked if I wanted to join them on a short walk along the north east coast to monitor some noddies.  They picked me up from the Obsidian early on the Sunday morning and we drove the few miles up round the back of Georgetown and north to English Bay.  Just before the power station we turned right and parked next to the BBC’s old beach hut, the Klinka Klub.  The walk to the nesting area was only about half a mile as the booby flies, but with difficult terrain and lots of little bays and humps to negotiate, it took us nearly an hour to get there.  There are a series of small sandy beaches tucked in amongst the end of the lava flow here, as well as a couple of gravelly ones.  While it is dangerous to swim out in the sea here, they do make for more secluded picnics than the popular beaches at Comfortless Cove and English Bay.  They are also some of the more popular Green Turtle nests.

It was the first and only time I walked over the most northerly part of Ascension Island.  From the coastline, where the sea had cut little cliffs out of the lava flows, you could see the gentle sweep of the flow right back up to their source from the central volcanoes.  Those peaks were red scoria cones which glinted in the sunlight in stark contrast to the white and black of the lava.  And then Green Mountain, fat side on, towered above us.

Graham and Margaret were fantastic company; Graham with his job was well respected on island, and one of the right hand men to the Administrator.  He had been very interested in the GIS work Edsel and  I had been doing.  He said he had little need of our skills, but we did find him helpful in passing an eye over some policy statements we had to complete on data sharing and he had a wonderfully dry sense of humour which balanced his sober legal standing.  Margaret, over there as a partner to a government employee, did not need, indeed was discouraged from doing paid work, but she threw herself in to a series of voluntary activities.  They had a lovely daughter who had been with them over the summer holidays, but schooling for teenagers on Ascension was limiting, and like many, she boarded back in the UK.

Graham stopped on a small clifftop overlooking a bay full of rock pools and jagged outcrops of lava.  He pointed across the way and I could just make out that there was more guano on the black rocks there.  This was the small noddy colony we had come to monitor.  We dropped down carefully into the bay itself and made our way a little closer.  Being tight against the cliff it was difficult to access the nests directly.  There were only a few nests to look at and the best technique was to use their binoculars and watch a single nest for a few minutes.  The birds usually shuffled about and if there were chicks in there they would usually make themselves visible to you at some stage as they were often fidgety in the daytime.  You knew there were eggs too if you saw the noddies resting in a certain way, although it was probably impossible to determine how many – a lot of this monitoring had to be best guesswork.

The monitoring results recorded on the sheets, we started to backtrack.  Graham, generally a very quietly spoken man, almost shouted “look there” and pointed to a shallow rock pool only a few metres away.  Tucked along the length of one side, beneath and overhanging piece of lava, was a spotted moray eel.  Normally you only get to see the heads of these when you are swimming or snorkelling, the rest of the body has been carefully reversed into a long hole to protect it from any predators or other aggressive eels.  This one had been somewhat caught out by a retreating tide and had taken refuge as best it could here tucked as far in against the rocks as it could manage.  It gave a marvellous opportunity to appreciate the intricate markings all along its trunk.