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.

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.