On the RMS – Watching the stevedores

Under the bed was a metal box containing a couple of stout lifejackets.  This reminded me that I was told on being shown to the cabin that the safety drill would take place once everyone was aboard.  There were three short blasts across the ships tannoy and I dragged my jacket out and followed people up to the sun lounge at the top of the ship.

Geoff Shallcross, the fantastic purser, warmly welcomed everyone on board.  He and a couple of crew helped explain all the rules about being on board the ship.  The two major fears were fire and water.  Smoking was banned indoors and outdoors there were strict rules on disposing of butt ends.  All too easily the smouldering remains of a cigarette could end up sucked through the air vents into the bowels of the ship.  We had several minutes of fun putting on the lifejackets.  Once you had the knack they were simple but if you misinterpreted the instructions or just started from the wrong angle you could get yourself tied up in knots.  We were also told about what to do if someone was suspected of going overboard.  One simple trick that makes so much sense to me once told was to fling one of the lifebelts over.  Not so much for the casualty, as the ship moves so fast that it is unlikely your aim could be that good in a swell to reach them, but just as a marker.  By the time the ship has slowed, turned and come back the person could have drifted a long way and is unlikely to be spotted in amongst the grey rolling waves, but at least an accompanying bright orange ring might be spotted through binoculars from the bridge.

Having scared us all to death with the safety drill, we were warmly welcomed on board again and told of the schedule for the rest of the day.  As he did so we could hear the anchor being drawn up and we softly glided away from Ascension Island.

For the other two passages to St Helena, Edsel was alongside me.  One time when we boarded at Ascension Island the captain decided to change the order of service.  We were called early to the wharf and were put on board while the cargo was still being loaded and offloaded.  We travelled over in the new launch (which was covered) and, knowing we had a few hours before heading off, I grabbed myself a cup of tea from the sun lounge and headed out forward to watch the stevedoring.

The RMS is a curious shaped ship.  The rear half is for passengers, the front half contains most of the cargo placed within a giant hold between the bridge and the derrick.  The derrick is on a single swivelling pole but there are two cranes attached to this.  On the day I watched only one crane was in operation and it seemed to be that a generous amount of cargo was being taken off to Ascension.  I think it was probably because it was a month since the ship had last visited.  I was interested to see that a pile of containers had been loaded from the wharf into the hold already and that a few items going off had been left till last.

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It was slow progress and I had time to look over to the mass of Ascension Island in the late afternoon sunshine.  I’ve crawled all over the volcanic peaks and valleys of this island and could pick out and name every feature, the towering Green Mountain the most dominating and for once not with its head buried in cloud.  The island looked so quiet and peaceful even now – the activity of the RMS one of the few dynamic events of the month.  The launch was making another trip across with some more passengers.  The barge was heading out with one container to be picked up by the wharf crane.

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The view back to Georgetown

The crew in the hold were preparing to do some lifting and I realised what was left was not the routine containers but delicate items that needed some careful handling.  Crew were positioned all around the hold, one guy nonchalantly dangling his legs over the side of three stacked containers waiting for the process to begin.  A supervisor got everyone positioned and the crane operator moved the crane’s hook over the deck.  A cradle was attached to this hook – a square formation of clips were made by metal poles fixed between the ropes.  A  series of long slings were attached  to each corner of the cradle and it was dropped deep into the hold.  More crew detached the ropes and spread them out across the lower deck and a car was driven from deep within the ship over the ropes.  Reattached to the crane’s hook the car was gently lifted vertically to the main deck then eased out over the edge of the ship.  More ropes attached to the axles were held in place by four people to keep the alignment of the car square and stop it swinging against the swell or wind.  Ever so slowly it was dropped down onto the waiting barge.  The process was repeated for a second car.  Next pallets stacked high with onions, potatoes and rolls of paper were offloaded in nets.

As the last launch arrived with boarding passengers, the two cars were sailed across the wharf and the last two precious items were moved.  From the ship came a small red wooden crate with about ten grey bags in it.  This was the Royal Mail delivered to Ascension from St Helena (and possible further afield), the raison d’être for the ship in the first place.  Considering the size of the ship and all the other activity, this little box of bags looked pretty insignificant.

A second crate was offloaded from the ship, this time it was empty.  With great care several staff packed it with cardboard boxes marked “eggs”.  I assumed this was a delivery of eggs which had come down from the UK by the Airbridge and was intended for use on the ship; after all St Helena did have chickens.

The crate came back over the side of the ship with more care than for the cars and the mail, placed meticulously on the main deck and offloaded an carried below by hand.  Then, the tidying commenced.  The crew on deck gathered up all the loose ropes and cables and nets, the barge below was let loose from the ship and sailed back to a mooring point in James Bay.  The crane operator took his crane and turned it along the side of the ship facing straight at the bridge.  He then transferred to the other cabin and turned the crane which had been stationary to point towards the prow.  The cranes locked in position by crew at either end of the deck, the operator shut down the machines and descended his ladder to the deck.

I was close by the bridge and I watched the ship’s officers pace up and down.  They could do little till the foreman below had finished his work and tidied up the decks.  Finally the instruction was given and the roof of the hold closed to seal in the containers.  Just one or two containers were left on deck; one a refrigerated unit.

And then we were away.

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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 -Capturing the cats

Much more problematic for the sooty terns were the predation by the introduced mammals.  One of the key drivers for the bird conservation programme on Ascension had been the massive increase in feral cats on the island.  Generations of cats had been introduced on to the island since the first sailing ships arrived, some escaped and bred, and somehow managed to survive in the inhospitable environment.  The main reason for their success was the prolific abundance of bird eggs and chicks.  At one time most of the key bird species on Ascension had all bred on the main land, but, apart from the Wideawakes, the cats in particular had pushed them back to a couple of isolated cliff locations on the south east tip of the island, or the stacks and small islands around.  Boatswainbird Island, the largest of these, was where the most flourishing colonies were and now the only safe place for the Ascension Frigate Birds to breed.

There was only one way to deal with this problem and that was to eradicate the feral cats.  At first hunters were brought in to shoot or capture the cats.  Controversially, cats were often disposed of by throwing them out to sea, where a piranha-like fish called the blackfish would hunt in packs and devour them in seconds.  While at first the cats were easy to spot; they were literally everywhere, after the cull had been underway several months,  finding out where the remaining cats were hiding out became more of a problem.  They were still predating on any birds that tried to nest on land, especially the fruitful pickings at the Wideawake Fairs.  But small populations were still to be found around the rest of the island too.  Poisoning was used for a while, attracting the cats to bait laced with sodium monofluoroacetate.

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Birds and eggs under threat from the cats

Cat eradication programmes are usually conducted on island uninhabited by humans.  Here on Ascension they had to be extremely careful not to kill domestic cats. For this reason exclusion zones were set up around the bases and settlements where no bait trapping were conducted.  Domestic cats were all registered and tagged with a microchip.  In the areas around the villages traps were often used to find the feral cats, and when a cat was caught, it could be checked for a microchip and if a positive reading given could be returned to their owners; if no tag were found the cat would be put down.

As the population of feral cats continued to decline, finding the last few pockets became more and more difficult.  If any evidence of cat activity (particularly cat scat or faeces) was found, then an intensive effort to find and eradicate the cats was focused in that neighbourhood.  When this evidence dribbled out to nothing, a set of cat tracking stations were set up to make absolutely sure that every cat had indeed gone.