It opened up new views of the Maldives to me. The story of how they were fighting off sea level rise was a familiar one to me – I even had worked on a project at university in the 1980s exploring the various options. My solutions there had been rather clunky – using material from the inside of the atolls to build up the outside, more sea defences, different land uses. Now I was here I could see that all of these had been tried and more. But my view was that every island was the same and uniformly affected by sea level rise. What I now saw was that while there was that inexorable pathway to submergence from sea level rise, the short term effects of that were affecting one side of the island more than the other. Having a small amount of rise might not impact the coast, but if a storm came in, the accumulation of larger waves on top of an incremental change in normal levels could be devastating for a vulnerable coastline. And that is what I had seen on the eastern side of the island. When the sea is benign there is not issue, but if a storm hits serious erosion can happen overnight – especially if trees topple and the loss of roots shakes free lots of sand and soil.
But what appeared to be happening is the island is migrating. Much of the material that was removed from the east was migrating round to the west, and the island is gently moving towards the centre of the atoll.
The long term dynamics must be more complicated that this and it might take many generations for the island to move a long way, but it was undeniable that most of the slack, the dune and the beach were relatively recent additions to the coral island. The upshot is though that given the small size of these islands and some with a high population density, there is not enough room for leaving the usual setbacks that minimize damage to property in storms.
Is the island stable, eroding or migrating?
My first evening aboard was very quiet, a few drinks around the lounge chatting to guests. Nice to get to know who was going home, who was going to be working on the island, who was just starting out on their holiday of a lifetime. At the bar before dinner I had come across a large Scotsman who was downing a pint of draught lager and getting ready to order a second. He looked rather nervous and at first I thought it was the ship’s motion that was concerning him. He told me he was planning to start on St Helena as the resident dentist. He’d left his wife and small child behind in the UK and was going to get set up and if everything went OK they would follow him over. I could see he was not certain about his mission, and this was the first few hours of “the point of no return”. Here we were, at the mercy of the RMS, heading slowly but remorselessly to one of the most remote inhabited places on the earth’s surface. I could empathise with him a little. I took the plunge to move to the BVI in the October of 2001. There was so much to do to arrange the move, put stuff in storage, work out what I was to do with my house, my finances, as well as contractual arrangements at the other end and finding out what life was going to be like there. Emotions ran high from time to time, from excitement to sheer terror, to chastisement at how stupid I was being for giving up home comforts and familiarity. I remember being taken to Heathrow Airport by my good friend, Vicky, and after a tearful farewell and assuring her that if it was not for all her support and assistance I would not have been able to uproot like this, I went through to the departure lounge and felt a numbness. I was there – my life’s belongings either stored away in a shed in Maidstone ready for transhipment, or being processed into the hold of an American Airlines flight to New York. I’d travelled through here so often but had never felt so isolated.
As I sat on the aircraft and watched the UK grow farther away below me, I had a sense of resignation. It was not a particularly sad moment, although there were tears in my eyes. It was that now I was fated. I had no choice at this point. I just had to sit here and go through with what I had planned. And this was the sense I saw in this dentist’s eyes. He looked nervous, but in fact had just come to terms with his fate.
I suppose the prospect of St Helena had different affects on everyone on board ship. For the Saints, this was a homecoming; they looked forward to being with friends whom they may not have seen for a couple of years. For the holiday makers there was the sense of mystery. For some, like this dentist, it was more about the fears of whether the island, its people and infrastructure would be enough to sustain them. And there were those of us who were planning to work on the island for a short term. For a first visit, I fell more into the holidaymaker sense of excitement. When I returned it was more like a returning Saint. I’d already learnt to love many of its people and wondered at its scenery and could not wait to taste it all again. Second time around I had Edsel with me and could not contain myself at preparing him for the richness of experiences about to hit him. I had to hold back sometimes as I wanted him to explore and get involved himself, and particularly to experience that anticipation of doing everything for the first time.
Edsel at Ascension waiting to board for the first time
Edsel leaping onto the launch