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.

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Life on Mars – On to Long Beach

Beyond the Pier Head, and past Fort Thornton, the coast indents once more where the largest sweep of sand on Ascension, Long Beach sits.  It is also the biggest of the turtle beaches, where females come in annually to lay their eggs. Turtles are now heavily protected and one of the most prized features for locals and tourists alike, but it was not always so.  At the southern end of Long Beach are low stone walls penning in the sea.  These were the turtle ponds.  It must have astounded the early sailors to see so many turtles nesting in these bays, and the chance of getting fresh meat and eggs could not be passed up.  So when the barracks were built, turtles were “stored” live in these pens, and picked out when ready to be used.  Nowadays eating of any turtle parts is frowned upon, and the beach is protected.  Nobody is allowed to drive across the beach, people living close to the beach side of town are encouraged to deflect or minimize their lighting as it is known young turtles can be disorientated by lights.

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Turtle Pond

I said earlier many people seem to shut out the sea in Georgetown.  Long Beach is the outlet for that; dog walkers and runners, picnics and parties, and of course Georgetown’s gravelly football pitch at the back of Long Beach means you get quite a crowd at the weekend.  Given that it is coated in Green Turtle nests from one end to the other, it is not a particularly pleasant beach to traverse or even have a picnic on.  The big rollers smooth out the forebeach twice a day, in some places eroding out a steep slope so people tend to walk at the edge of the waves.

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Long Beach

The best place to get a view of Long Beach, indeed the whole of Georgetown, is to walk up the hill behind the RAF Commander’s house.  A track runs sharply up the side of a Scoria Cone, an evenly sloped red stone pinnacle, called Cross Hill.  I’ve never been sure if it is called Cross Hill because there is a large white cross on top, or whether a large white cross was put up there because it was called Cross Hill.  Half way up, past the ruins of the old Administrator’s House, is the small unremarkable Bedford fort; nothing more than a gun emplacement overlooking the town.  But what guns!  They were originally attached to HMS Hood, a British Battlecruiser who saw distinguished service in the Second World War. The guns had been taken off in the 1930s and shipped to Ascension Island, and remain one of the few parts of Hood to survive – the ship itself sank in battle in 1941.

I would often walk alone at the end of the day to Fort Bedford, and then try and clamber onwards, passed some old oil tanks and back to the beach.  You had to be careful exploring beyond Georgetown on your own. Although it looked like everything was close by and somebody might come and help, you could find yourself stuck in a small depression and out of eyesight of anyone.  Without water and mobile connections, what started out as an evening stroll could very quickly make you feel lost and isolated.  But it did not stop me exploring.  The walk along Long Beach itself was almost a mile.  If you stayed on the sand instead of the gravel track at the back that was a good enough work out and there were always some others around.  But usually I wanted to go further.  At the end of the beach, past one of the many huts people used to hold parties or barbecues, you could scrabble over the black rocks.  These were usually easier than the lava flows at the back of town as they were rounded down by perpetual wave action.  A pathway is scratched out of the rocks and leads over to a beautiful little black rock arch.  I would sit out here, absorb the sun set, wait for the RMS (more of that later) to leave, or just watch the rollers come in.

Life on Mars – Introducing Edsel

I had been back in the UK for a couple of years, and had started my own consultancy.  I had worked a few times in the Caribbean and helped an ex-NRI colleague with some work on rats in Africa.  I had also started to work with a Kittitian called Edsel Daniel.  Edsel had been a PhD student and when I was working for NRI, a friend in St Lucia, Keith Nichols,  had put me in touch with him to give him some GIS advice for his thesis on modelling beach erosion in his home island.  Edsel had worked for the Planning Department in St Kitts but had decided the world was bigger and had moved to the very reputable Vanderbilt University in Nashville Tennessee.  We corresponded by email for several months and he sent me chapters of his thesis, which confused me greatly as it plotted its way through empirical and physical models of sand dynamics on Caribbean beaches – all I ever wanted to do was to lie on them.

While in BVI, I finally got to meet Edsel.  I travelled over to St Kitts for a long weekend – it was only about 40 minutes flight from Tortola.  He showed me the sights of this wonderful little nation, but also he discussed a lot of his ideas for GIS in small island nations.  His ideas and mine tallied so closely that we thought we would either become deadly rivals or the greatest of friends.  Since he was a lot larger than me, I decided it was in my interest to go for the latter.

We started to develop project ideas and came up with one for Anguilla that after I left BVI, we were able to develop and deliver.  It concerned mapping coral reefs and other coastal resources of this little Overseas Territory.  Edsel invited me over to Nashville to give a guest lecture to some of his students about our work, which I delivered then was able to stay over to celebrate the Thanksgiving weekend.

We met Edsel’s boss at Vanderbilt just before the holidays  and started to talk about where the ideas for these GIS for small nations might go.  I glibly reeled off a list of islands, mostly UK overseas territories as if they would all do our bidding and we had a career set up.  As luck would have it, the conservation officer from the island Brendan had been waxing lyrical about, Ascension, emailed me while I was in Nashville and asked us to put together a proposal for just such work.  Brendan had told this lady about our work in the Caribbean and she felt it was a good idea to have a similar system for Ascension.  So during that Thanksgiving weekend,  we sat around stuffing ourselves with roasted turkey sandwiches late into the night writing a proposal for two years of funding.

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Edsel Daniel

 

Life on Mars – Proposition over a daiquiri

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Cane Garden Bay

Brendan put together some great projects for BVI and we discussed at length the overlap between our pet subjects, GIS, environmental management and conservation.  I had done a lot of work in Africa and the Caribbean to date, and Brendan had worked in many countries tracking turtles, including Trinidad and Cyprus, but one place fascinated me…. he had seen an amazing collection of turtles on Ascension Island.

After work one tea time he had arrived back in the Conservation and Fisheries Office in Road Town and I was just tidying up the day’s work before thinking of heading home.  We decided instead of heading straight up to my apartment (where I usually cooked Spag bol or scouse) we would take a pass to Cane Garden Bay, one of the most touristy of Tortola’s beach villages and have a drink at Myetts.

We sat on the stools under the grass roof, still dressed in sweat drenched work shirts and chinos – amongst the others in their surfing shorts and humourlessly themed t-shirts (American tourists thinking they were being ironic, or as many would suggest, “ionic”).  Brendan was renowned for his beer – he drank two Caribs to my one and would always finish up a table of beer if someone had left some.  His large hands were made to carry four bottles at a time from the bar.  But something about the tropical ambience of Myett’s made him choose a strawberry daiquiri.  It came in a frosted cocktail glass, the bright pink liquid specked with ice and yes, the umbrella (a bright mixture of pastel and deep tropical shades ) bobbed about on top.  I went for my favourite mix; brown rum and coke.  His daiquiri would have been blackmailable enough, but he drank it too quickly, his sinuses froze and he suffered the agony of an ice cream headache.  He was lucky smartphones were not around just then.

Enough embarrassment to poor Brendan.  He was doing his usual mixture of talking high philosophy and emotion mixed with base jokes and working class cultural references, with a smattering of logical scientific reasoning thrown in which always made him a delight to be in his company (if vaguely annoying if he decided to act all lecturer like and pull you up for tautology, non sequiturs or even getting the wrong name for some type of grammatical error you had ever suggested he might have made).  And he raved about this small island in the middle of the Atlantic that he visited. He told me of the thousands of green turtles that come ashore every year and lay eggs there, kicking the few leatherbacks on Tortola into touch.  He had visited for several years and monitored them on four main beaches but they were present on almost every scrap of sand on this island. Ascension also had the most amazing bird colonies, huge land crabs, and a Marsscape of recent volcanic activity.

Brendan visited my islands a couple of times while I was on BVI (and we met up once when we were at a conference in Bermuda with other overseas territory conservationists) and introduced me to more of his turtle colleagues.  He would often embarrass me by introducing me as the guy that told him the disgusting joke about Sherlock Holmes, Dr Watson and a jar of lemon curd.  I had great respect for his method of work, balancing the pragmatism of working in someone else’s country with having the integrity of your science.

Life on Mars – Turtle Hunting on Anegada

Another time with Brendan I accompanied him to Anegada, the second largest island in the BVIs; a flat coralline landmass amongst shallow turquoise water.  At that time there were no regular ferries to Anegada, and you flew the ten minutes from Beef Island airport, sometimes stopping off at Virgin Gorda en route.  The approach to Anegada was stupendous ;  because of its flatness it was barely visible from the other Virgin Islands, but once in the air the large fat sausage shaped landmass drew nearer; the large salt ponds in the centre where flamingos played and the stunning set of coral reef heads in the shallow turquoise sea were an unworldly sight.

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Loblolly Bay – Anegada – Sun, Sea and Sand

We went out with two fantastic fishermen to these coral heads, Damon and Jim.  Damon piloted the boat to the circular coral heads in the sandy shallows and we spied hawksbill turtles sparkling in the sunlight.  Once spooked they would flee into open water and by following them closely we ensured they did not have time to take breathe.

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Damon and an injured Hawksbill Turtle

Instead they had a habit of dropping to the sandy bottom to conserve energy and it was a relatively easy job to slip over the side of the boat and reach out with your hands and grab them.  It was essential to make sure you held them behind their front flippers so you could not have your fingers snapped at.  It was one of the few times I was able to open my eyes as I dived underwater and was jubilant as I brought this hawksbill turtle to the surface to be measured, the skin snipped to obtain a DNA sample and tagged.

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The one and only time I caught a hawksbill turtle

Brendan and I also walked almost two thirds of the coastline of Anegada, from the Anegada Reef Hotel on the south coast round to East End Point, the long way.  We looked for evidence of hawksbill and green turtle nesting, and in that day saw the most amazing lagoonal landscapes; shallow seas, great banks of seagrass, the odd nurse shark, waders and land birds, and all the thick scrubby vegetation types that vary over this coral land.  Anegada is a coral reef island and is often thought to be flat and boring to the occasional visitors; most head straight for the eye-aching white beaches and the magnificent coral reefs offshore, but in that day, by treading every mile, I saw the subtle changes in the land from the sandy dunes in the west, the “highlands” of the central north shore with low limestone cliffs coming down to the beach and the long rocky shoreline of the east, where pitted limestone flagstones made walking difficult.  From the flotsam and jetsam washed up on the shore we saw man’s litter – lightsticks used by fishermen, hundreds of trainers, nets, ropes, tyres, even part of an old hovercraft.  We met up with Shaun Kadison, a colleague from my work, and Bill Bailey, an amateur turtle expert who lived on Tortola and had spent many years carefully cataloguing the records of turtle nesting and hatching.  With him we learnt a lot about the turtle fishing, now illegal, and how a boycott of one supermarket because it sold turtle meat led to that territory-wide ban. Tensions between conserving turtles and the ancestral rights of fishermen (some of with whom I now worked in Conservation) were high and like many other projects, it showed that a purely scientific study of such a creature was nary possible.

Mobile phones did not work on the far side of Anegada at the time but Bill had a ship to shore radio that he used and he called up a bar, Neptune’s Treasure, to ask them to prepare lunch for us.  It also proved useful when we were leaving to do the final isolated stretch of the coast, we realised the easiest way would be to walk back to Neptune’s Treasure and grab a taxi back to the little airport.  We got back to Neptune’s Treasure after it had shut for the day, but the barwoman had left an ice cooler of much needed beers behind the bar, and once Bill had radioed the other side of the island for the taxi, we had a while to get them down our parched necks.

Life on Mars – Brendan

This tale starts with a strawberry daiquiri.  Or soon gets to the strawberry daiquiri.  I had been working as the National GIS coordinator in the British Virgin Islands (or BVI) for about four months.  Apart from a quick trip to the UK for Christmas, and a few promises from people to visit when they had time, I had hardly seen a Britisher since I had arrived.  I was not particularly complaining, I was enjoying the weather, the new work, getting to know both the Tortolans and the others who worked with me, and exploring  novel new environments.  But there is something about your native psyche which is inexplicable to foreign minds, and you crave company from your own native land to share a joke, use idioms and can mention references without explaining them.

An email dropped into my inbox one day regarding a Scottish turtle expert who was visiting the BVI to see if he could start a collaboration with the department I worked in, Conservation and Fisheries.  I forwarded it to my boss but replied that I could help out if he wanted.

In the February of that year, this expert turned up at the office.  A huge sweaty Scotsman –rugby build, in a hurry, hassled in the way only any consultant on his first trip to a new country can be – entered my office.  I was lucky to have a corner office at the front of the block overlooking the busiest roundabout on Tortola.  People from the rest of the office would come to me not just to talk to me but to seek sanctuary from the craziness in the open plan office outside.

This expert, Brendan Godley was his name (he would often introduce himself as Godley, next to god,  although I doubt he ever saw himself as so), sat in my office and talked about how difficult it was to get anything organised in BVI.  Of all the people he had contacted before he set off from Swansea where he was a research fellow, I was the only one to reply positively, and he had arrived on the island for a couple of weeks and had no plan of action.  He was staying in a fairly rotten hotel in Road Town (the capital) which had no email facility.  I later learnt what an email junky he was (regularly receiving 50 – 300 emails a day), so “no email” was a total unknown.

I listened to him talk and saw how much difficultly he was experiencing to get his project ideas going.  It was troubling for me, once a fellow consultant type,  to see him floundering when time was limited.  I had spent several months making life bearable on the island (the months of trying to get a bank account, electrics set up, equipment, pay, car, understand how expensive food was), so anything I could do to ease a fellow Brit’s problems, I thought was a duty.

The hotel and lack of email were obviously the biggest bottlenecks so I said, well, I have an apartment with a spare room, and would be happy for him to stay there; it has dial up but it’s a strong connection, and as long as you pay for some food up there, I would be happy for him to crash with me.

So started a comradeship which extends to this day.  Brendan moved up to my apartment just off Tortola’s Ridge Road, and in amongst trying to make sure he could make progress, we had many a long conversation about our histories to date, our overlapping pasts, and life on small islands.  Brendan with his partner, Annette, were turtle freaks.  They studied every aspect of every species of turtle, them beaching, laying eggs, the hatchlings, their DNA, their diseases, their many-miled migrations across the Atlantic.   Tortola was of particular concern as it had a fragile population of leatherback turtles beaching there, the largest and most enigmatic of the turtle species.  I learnt so much from him and trooped the beach at Josiah’ Bay one night to wait for the leatherbacks to arrive. Alas nothing that night but one day later on I was called out from the office in Road Town to Josiah’s to watch a female who was laying eggs in the sand during the daytime; an uncommon occurrence.  She was hot and dry as she deposited fifty eggs in the sand, covered them with her huge back flippers and struggled back to the sea.  But how majestic it was when she reached the sea and this huge tank like body, so clumsy on land, became the perfect marine vessel and we watched her head out to the surf, come up once for a huge gulp of air then speed off into the Atlantic Ocean.

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