ESA - ARIANE Station
Ascension Island has a long history when it comes to tracking extraterrestrial goings on.
Scottish astronomer, David Gill, visited Ascension in 1877 to view Mars through a range of his instruments during the Opposition of Mars (an alignment of the sun, the earth, and Mars) which occurred in that year.
The Island was used from 1967 to 1990 as a base for space monitoring and tracking by NASA when it operated a tracking station on the eastern side of Ascension at the Devil’s Ashpit during the Apollo program. See my separate tip NASA and the Devil’s Ashpit Tracking Station.
The European Space Agency (ESA) established this station on the North East coast of the island (well away from potential interference from BBC transmissions) for tracking its commercial Ariane rockets after take off from Kourou in French Guiana. It is one of a series of stations tracking take-offs, each of which tracks the rocket for around five minutes. The station it operated by Cable & Wireless Ltd based on an agreement with the ESA. Pre ESA setting up here, European missions were monitored by the NASA facility.
For the past few years now, the Total Carbon Column Observing Network (TCCON) has had a presence on the ESA site. TCCON is a US body which monitors the atmospheres composition and condition, or as its website more eloquently states, it:
“is a network of ground-based Fourier Transform Spectrometers that record direct solar spectra in the near-infrared. From these spectra, accurate and precise column-averaged abundances of atmospheric constituents including CO2, CH4, N2O, HF, CO, H2O, and HDO, are retrieved.”
Isn’t it amazing what you can learn by reading VT and Wabat’s tips in particular?
While the station is at the far side of the Island from Georgetown and there is not a whole lot to see in terms of the station itself, it is worth going out here for the drive ( along a road especially built for the station) and the rather rugged coastline by the station – there are a few small blowholes. Anyway, what else have you got to do of an afternoon on Ascension Island while you wait for the bar to open?
NASA and the Devil’s Ashpit Tracking Station
As part of the NASA Spaceflight Tracking and Data Network, an integrated Apollo and deep-space station (DSS 72) was constructed in 1965 on the eastern side of Ascension at the Devil’s Ashpit.
The original purpose of constructing the station was to support the early Surveyor missions. Because such a station could also support later deep-space missions and Apollo manned missions, NASA decided to build an integrated facility (with a joint-control building) serving both programs. Volcanic peaks surrounding the site provided natural shielding against radar and other radio-frequency interference from the BBC facility and other structures elsewhere on the Island.
Deep space and Apollo missions were separately monitored by two 9-meter, az-el-mounted antennas with high angular-tracking rates. The deep-space antenna (had a nominal communications range of 60,300 kilometres.
Unconfirmed local rumours have it that Neil Armstrong’s first words upon setting foot on the moon’s surface were relayed to Mission Control after being first received by this Tracking Station on Ascension island.
There being no ongoing need for the station, most of it (including all the antenna and other sensitive equipment) was dismantled in 1990 leaving only concrete bases and a few buildings the most important of which being the former operations building which is now used by the Boys Scouts. Picture four is a NASA 1967 picture of the Station.
As such there is actually not a lot to see here today on this windswept part of the Island – Picture five shows how windy it is here. Having said that there is not much to see in terms of the NASA site it remains of great historical significance to the Island and the drive out here is beautiful as are the views out to sea on this side of the Island.
- Historical Travel
Ascension Island Heritage Society Museum & Gallery
The Museum and Gallery incorporating Fort Hayes is located at Fort Hayes and is divided in four sections:
The Main Museum
The Carriage House
Fort Hayes Magazine
Fort Hayes I will cover in a separate tip – Fort Hayes. The remaining sites (within 50 metres of the Fort entrance) are packed with a range of exhibits covering every aspect of the Island’s history and life – especially since 1815 from which time the Island has been permanently inhabited. I will just list broad topics covered here and refer to a few specific items in the museum as I have covered a lot of the Island’s history in my individual tips. Topics, all very well covered by the museum include:
The Island’s naval history and its relationship with the sea
Ascension’s flora and fauna with an emphasis on green turtles
The history of St Mary’s Church and other Island buildings
The Island’s social history through collected artefacts
The USA and Ascension Island
NASA – Tracking Station (including a US flag and patch from the Space Shuttle – Columbia)
Ascension Island and the Falklands War (including a copy of the Argentine surrender document)
History of the Island’s Letterbox walks and completed message books from various walks
Postal history of Ascension Island
The BBC and Ascension Island
Eastern Telegraph Company and Cable and Wireless
A very large collection of old and not so old photographs
If you did any of the Island’s Letterbox walks and didn’t get a stamp on the walk you can obtain one here for free. The museum holds a complete collection of stamps. In addition it has a small selection of maps, historical books and other souvenirs on sale.
I absolutely recommend you visit the museum which is run by very knowledgeable and volunteer members of the Ascension Island Heritage Society - though the first lady I spoke to had just started that morning and knew nothing. By sheer coincidence I had dinner with the same lady that evening pursuant to an invitation from her husband whom I had befriended a couple of days earlier! That's life in a small town of course - lucky I hadn't launched an attack on her ignorance earlier in the day! Doubly lucky if you knew who her husband was - and don't ask, I am not telling.
The only problem with the museum is its extremely restricted opening hours as listed below – but easy to plan around.
Entrance Fee : GBP 2 - Pay at main museum building
Opening hours: Saturday mornings – 10.00 to noon and Tuesday evenings 5.00 to 7.00.
- Historical Travel
- Museum Visits
Fort Hayes is one of four sections of the Ascension Island Heritage Society Museum & Gallery and your museum entry fee includes entry to the fort. Fort Hayes is one of three naval forts in the Georgetown area – the other two being Fort Bedford and Fort Thornton – the oldest and least preserved which I didn’t visit.
This fort was constructed on Goat Hill in the 1860's, on the site of a small battery that had existed there since 1835. Fort Hayes was a major defence, and by the start of WWI, had one six-inch gun, and two 4.7-inch guns, and was garrisoned by 38 men. The fort was named after Commodore Hayes who had visited the Island in 1831. I can find no record of this fort being engaged in any hostile activity.
While there are no guns in place now it is nice to wander round the preserved walls and some of the rooms of this fort. Additionally the fort affords some very good views back to Georgetown and out to sea.
At the base of the fort (to your right as you enter the fort – you can see part of it on the very right of picture one attached) is the reserve magazine which was designed in a way that it could double as a temporary hospital in times of war. Today it is packed with museum exhibits and likewise forms part of the Museum and Gallery.
Entrance Fee : GBP 2 combined entry to Fort and other parts of the Museum – Payable at the main museum about 50 metres further on from the Fort on your left.
Opening hours: Saturday mornings – 10.00 to noon and Tuesday evenings 5.00 to 7.00.
- Historical Travel
- Museum Visits
Fort Bedford – Best View of Georgetown
While there are a few features of historical significance up here which I cover in a separate tip (Fort Bedford – The Fort), the primary reason most people visit Fort Bedford is for the fantastic view down onto Georgetown.
The Fort is located half way up Cross Hill just behind Georgetown. The peak of Cross Hill is a military site and thus out of bounds.
What you see in my first picture is basically the whole of Georgetown, the Capital of Ascension Island. If you have read some of my other tips and seen the photo’s attached to them you may be able to identify a few of the buildings with St Mary’s Church, the Exiles Club, the Government House and the Obsidian Hotel being the easiest to locate. The Obsidian is the first group of building on the left if you follow the road from bottom left into the town.
You can also get a glimpse of a couple of white beaches - Dead Man’s beach being the one between the harbour crane and Fort Hayes – the hill at centre left in the picture. These beaches are not suitable for swimming. I have done a separate tip on swimming beaches.
Looking further round to the right, see picture two, you get a great view of Long Beach, again a non swimming beach but famous as being the most popular spot to see Ascension Island’s world famous Green Turtles. The ruts in the beach are turtle nests. Out to sea, the ship you see is a British Ministry of Defence supply ship which, I think, visits monthly. It does not take passengers but it does bring in the Administrator’s gin supply (amongst other things).
In addition to the rather thoughtful provision of the very weather exposed seat (picture three) there is actually a picnic spot here (pictures four and five and yes, that is a large chess board to the right of the seating area – where you get the chess pieces from I don’t know). The picnic area was formally opened by HRH The Duke of Kent on 8 November 2012 in recognition of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee. A plaque advises the visitor that the Diamond Jubilee was celebrated on Ascension with “pride and joy”.
Pack your picnic hamper (ok, lets get real – grab whatever you can find from the supermarket or the NAAFI shop on the RAF base) and come up here, relax and enjoy the views and perhaps the sunset. Give yourself a few minutes to look at the historical items here too.
- Historical Travel
Fort Bedford – The Fort
I have written a separate tip which covers the fantastic views afforded those who visit Fort Bedford – Fort Bedford – The Best View of Georgetown. This review covers the historical significance/artifacts of this site.
Fort Bedford is the newest of three naval forts in the Georgetown area – the other two being Fort Hayes and Fort Thornton. It was constructed between 1903 and 1906 and like the other two decommissioned after World War I. With the start of World War II Fort Bedford was recommissioned and armed with two 5.5 inch guns salvaged from HMS Hood during a 1934 refit of that vessel.
The guns, which arrived in Ascension Island in April 1941, had been manufactured in 1918. Soon after their arrival they sprung into action (for the one and only time) against U-Boat U-124 which decided to attack Ascension to create a diversion to let other U-Boats from the South Atlantic have unimpeded access back to then occupied France. Captain Mohr’s tactic worked but his boat was forced to crash dive following a strike from the guns at Fort Bedford – though it escaped. The guns are now the last parts of HMS Hood that exist, as the ship was sunk by the German battleship Bismarck in the Denmark Strait, with only 3 survivors out of her crew of almost 1500.
Sited close to Hood's guns is a small plaque erected to celebrate 50 years of peace since World War II (picture four).
The fort was decommissioned again in 1953.
Just below the Fort and the two Hood guns are two black painted 7 inch guns (picture five) manufactured in 1866 and of the type typically used in battleships at that time. The ruins of Governor’s Lodge, formally Bates Cottage (named after its first occupant) and built for island commandants in 1828 can be seen close by these guns. Post Bates, who died on Ascension in 1838 successive garrison captains occupied the lodge until the departure of the navy from the island in 1903 when it became the Governor’s residence. In 1941 it was taken over by troops of the Royal Artillery detachment that manned the Hood’s guns on Fort Bedford. Post WWII the lodge served as the Island Club and Scout Headquarters before it fell into disrepair and was demolished in 1998.
The area is used now to monitor the mating behaviour of Green Turtles on Long Beach below and houses a picnic facility which I have referred to in my separate tip - Fort Bedford – The Best View of Georgetown..
- Historical Travel
Ascension Island’s Endemic Flora
Your mission - Go find them on Green Mountain without destroying the place --- I found three, maybe four.
Ascension Island’s unique flora is under threat from invasive introduced species (both plant and animal) and loss of habitat, with only small areas of undisturbed vegetation remaining, principally in the highland elevations of Green Mountain National Park. Several hundred plant species have been introduced to the island many of which are invasive including the Mexican thorn. I have written a separate review on land animals on Ascension (most introduced) and their impact on the native flora.
Approximately twenty-five species of plant are thought to be native to Ascension, ten of which are considered to have been endemic (unique). Of the ten endemic plants seven survive – two flowering plants and five ferns. The remaining seven are all approaching extinction and conservation plans are in place to save them. In fact, it was thought that there were only six species left until the Ascension parsley fern was rediscovered in 2009 on an unstable rock face and under threat from an invasive fern. Spore-bearing fronds collected from this fern were sent to Kew Gardens in London which has managed to germinate and cultivate them. Although still vulnerable in its re-discovered habitat, this species has been successfully secured ex situ – in London.
The local Conservation Department is supported by, and works closely with, Kew Gardens. DNA samples from each endemic species are now at Kew for future genetic analysis. Seeds from the two plants have been banked in Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank and spores from the ferns have been cultivated there.
The pictures attached are of endemic plants I found on Green Mountain and in particular on the Elliot’s Pass walk. I am pretty sure I have correctly identified these ones – if not please let me know. I think I saw another one too but have not posted it as I am unsure. I am not a botanist and sometimes with these things one sees what one wants to see.
Samples of most of the endemic plants (and a few other non endemic native species) can be seen in a small garden bed at the Red Lion car-park where most of the Green Mountain walks start. This is, in addition to an nearby greenhouse and other specific conservation areas, maintained by the Conservation Department to preserve these plants.
Brief botanical details of each of the endemic plants excluding the Anogramma ascensionis, Ascension Island parsley fern (rediscovered post leaflet production) can be found in a leaflet downloadable from http://www.ascension-island.gov.ac/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/endemic-plant-leaflet.pdf
- National/State Park
- Jungle and Rain Forest
Elliot's Pass - Walk Around the Mountain
While the longest of the Letterbox walks on Green Mountain it is actually the easiest walk being pretty much flat – once you have managed the 10 minutes walk up the zig-zag road from the Red Lion via Bell’s Cottage to the start of the walk. The walk starts on your left just before you reach the Old Marine Barracks – you will know if you are on the right path as almost immediately you pass Elliot Obelisk (picture one) just before entering the first of many tunnels on this walk. Fear not, none of the tunnels are long enough such that you can’t see the exit on entering them.
The scenery on this fairly open walk is spectacular as is the vegetation. You don’t need to be a botanist to spot some of the few remaining Ascension Island endemic plants as they are marked on this walk. For example, you can spot the critically endangered Xiphopteris ascenionensis – a small fern, Sporobolus caespitosus a spikey green-grey grass and the larger fern Ptisana purpurascensalso. See my separate tip on Ascension Island endemic flora. Keep an eye out for the descriptive plaques (added in early 2013 when the pass was cleared of invasive species such as Guava, Ginger, Koster’s Curse and Buddleai and widened) and then look thereabouts for the plants.
The pass was built in 1840 under the direction of Lieutenant Wade as a lookout for the Marines of the Mountain Detachment. The Pass was opened by (and named for – hence the Obelisk) Admiral Elliot, Commander-in-Chief of the West Africa Squadron.
The path circles Green Mountain at 2400ft and at the time gave cloud free, and vegetation free views out to sea. Several small lookout caves can still be seen along the path though be aware that nowadays clouds can come down to obscure views and vegetation (mainly introduced) is everywhere.
You will notice a widening of the path on the southern side (towards end of walk). It was widened during World War II to enable US jeeps to get to a now non-existent radar tower along the path. This and a second radar tower positioned on the mountain road gave a 360 degree coverage to detect approaching aircraft. During the War these sites were high secret locations as was everything else on the island which was closed to visitors. Ascension Island only opened to visitors in 2002.
If you only have time for one walk on Ascension Island let it be this one.
- Hiking and Walking
The BBC on Ascension
You will not be able to get BBC television on Ascension Island but rather surprisingly you will use BBC electricity and drink BBC water and drive on BBC roads. The Beeb, as it is affectionately referred too, also used to run the school, hospital and a farm.
For those unfamiliar with the BBC – it is the British Broadcasting Corporation which normally limits itself to the provision of radio and television services with a bit of ancillary publishing and related services.
This range of services offered on Ascension Island probably has UK readers scratching their heads, or worse, wondering how the BBC is spending their TV license money. I hasten to add that I actually have no evidence that TV license fees are being spent building or maintaining roads, power or water plants on Ascension Island. Such expenditure may be coming from some other funding sources.
Anyway I need to explain my first sentence above and let you know the role of the BBC on the Island.
In the 1960s the BBC determined Ascension Island to be a perfect location for the transmission of the BBC World Service (radio) into Africa and Latin America and accordingly World Service transmitters had to be, and were, set up at English Bay – the BBC Atlantic Relay Station – and commissioned in 1966. Reversible antenna arrays permit transmission to Africa during the day and Latin America at night (Ascension Island times). Program feeds, from London, now arrive via satellite replacing pre-recorded tapes previously sent out.
In setting up the Relay Station, the first issue was that roads were required to access the chosen location. The BBC built them and continue (via contractors) to maintain them.
World Service transmitters have a huge appetite for electricity to the extent that the BBC were and remain the Island’s largest consumer of electricity. Given this situation it made practical sense that the BBC build an electricity generation facility and so it did and it now supplies electricity to the remainder of the Island excluding the US Base (the US base is self sufficient in electricity and water). Some of the islands fuel fired generators have recently been replaced with wind turbines – seeing very significant reductions in fuel costs –a factor which may have saved the closure of the whole BBC set up in a recent austerity drive in London. The wind turbines blend in nicely with all the other antenna’s, dishes and communications paraphernalia which pepper the island.
Given that the BBC had the power it “naturally” fell upon it to use some of that power to set up and run the islands desalination plant – necessary to ensure an adequate supply of fresh water to islanders. I mentioned in other tips that rainfall is insufficient to ensure a steady fresh water supply. The water is of very high quality on the Island – no need to buy bottled water here.
How the BBC had to develop to a state of self-sufficiency on Ascension really does make one realise just how remote and helpless this place is or would be if left to its own devices.
There you go - not only is the BBC the world's best broadcasting service it serves up a bloody good glass of water too!
Land animals of Ascension – Past and Present
The best known “land” animal on Ascension Island is the famous green turtles. I have written a separate review on these very special creatures Ascension’s Green Turtles
Given its remoteness, there are and have been very few species of land animal on Ascension Island. Go look for them – your own Ascension Island Safari!
Before Ascension Island was colonised by Europeans in the 19th century the land crab, Johngarthia lagostoma, was the only large land animal on the island. This crab lives atop Green Mountain and amazingly makes its way to the coast every year to reproduce and lay its eggs on the beaches. The crabs, while largely nocturnal, can be seen on cooler and damper days. At other times they stay hidden in their holes which can be up to 1 metre deep. I came across a few on Cronk’s Path and Elliot’s Pass walks on Green Mountain.
This land crab only lives on Ascension Island and three other islands in the South Atlantic with the majority of the yellow ones being on Ascension Island. The current population is much smaller than it used to be, to the extent that the species may become endangered soon.
Donkeys were brought to Ascension Island in around 1815 and became feral/wild shortly after. They were used as beasts of burden and primarily to move water down from Green Mountain to Georgetown.
Unintended consequences arose when the donkeys, being herbivores, began eating and almost decimated the already sparse and endemic vegetation on the Island. Added to this they have been blamed for the spread Mexican Thorn as they fed on the seedpods and spread the seeds in their droppings.
Today donkeys are most common on the drier parts of the island below Two Boats and around Georgetown. You will have no problem finding them. The low fences you see around town are not to deter thieves or unwanted human guests but rather to stop donkeys entering people’s private properties. See my St Mary’s Anglican Church, Georgetown review for a quaint and amusing reference to the donkeys.
A number of attempts have been made to cull the donkeys but these have and continue to be typically meet with opposition from local people including many who attribute a certain sacredness to the donkeys – recalling their links to Jesus.
Sheep and goats
Sheep and goats were initially brought to the Island to provide passing ships with meat. While there are still lots of sheep – all feral now and on Green Mountain - there are no goats left on the Island. I understand the goats where used for target practice by the Army in the 1940s.
Like sheep and goats, cows were introduced to provide meat and dairy produce. As I have indicated elsewhere in other tips cows were actually farmed by the Marines but a dictate from Mrs Thatcher in London and rules from the European Union (which Ascension Island, like many places, seem to apply at their own discretion), between them put an end to farming on Ascension – Mrs T decreed that the Marine farm be privatised (overlooking the crucial fact that there were no private citizens on the Island to run it) and the European Union put an end to the sale of unpasteurised milk. The cows were let loose and became feral. While cow pats have been sighted in recent years cows have not been seen for some time. I didn’t see either.
Rats and Cats
Hardly surprising that one of the first animals to make their way to Ascension Island was the rat which came as stowaways on ships in the 1700s. The first rats are thought to have scampered ashore from the wreck of Dampier’s Roebuck which sunk on the Island’s western shore in 1701. Rats had a devastating impact on the Island’s ground nesting birds and have been credited with the extinction of a small flightless rail, which was common on the Island in the 1600’s.
Even more catastrophic to the Island’s birds was the introduction of the domestic cat shortly after 1815. Cats were brought in to catch the rats – alas, they preferred the islands birds. Numerous attempts were made to rid the island of cats over the next two hundred years with success not occurring until 2002. The bird population has greatly recovered since then.
Rabbits have also made it to Ascension Island – not a lot to say about them!
Exiles Club (Marine Barracks)
The Exiles Club, in the centre of Georgetown, was constructed in 1830 as a single story barracks for the Marines with the second story and the clock-tower (picture three) added in 1848. The clock-tower supposedly replaced the earlier necessity of firing a cannon on an hourly basis to mark the passage of time.
A new barracks was constructed next door in 1903 with the Exiles Club being retained for storage and emergency accommodation until with withdrawal of the Navy from the island in 1922 when the island became a dependency of St Helena (which it remained until the Overseas Territory of St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha came into existence on 1 September 2009). The new barracks were demolished in 1966.
As far as I can ascertain the barracks name – the Exiles Club or Building - was related to Napoleon’s exile to St Helena. In other tips I have mentioned that permanent habitation on Ascension Island coincided with Napoleon’s exile – a British garrison being placed here to intercept any attempts to free Napoleon from St Helena. Off course this may be of the mark and it is so called because everyone here feels as if the are exiles.
With the withdrawal of the Navy, the building became the Ascension Club but in later years was renamed again to the Exiles Club and became a social club for Cable and Wireless staff. Again when it ceased to be a club I can't ascertain.
Today the ground floor has been partially given over to a couple of shops (see my separate tip on shopping -click here) and the verandah has become a favourite shade spot and resting place for roaming donkeys (picture 5).
It is rather sad to see this historic building beginning to decay – in reality I feel that unless there becomes a government need for the building funds will not be available to stop a decline to oblivion. It probably doesn’t fall within the remit of the Conservation Department and the Historical Society lacks funds.
The Royal Mail
The tip here is to buy Ascension Island stamps and other philatelic items from the Post Office in Georgetown. Perhaps this would have been better placed in the ‘shopping” section but I felt you might be interested in mail services today and in earlier years so it’s here. Lest you worry that people coming to Ascension just for the shopping ( ☺ ) might miss it here I promise I will refer to it again under a general shopping tip!
Long before anyone lived on Ascension it had, in the 17th century, become known as the Sailor’s Post Office. It was a place where ships would drop of correspondence for other ships or for other ships to pick up and carry on to another destination. This leaving of messages was an inspiration for the islands existing letterbox walks about which you can read more in my letterbox walks tip.
A more formal postal started in 1867 when the UK’s Postmaster General first sent stamps to the Island for sale. Mail delivery and pickup was handed by a combination of the Union Castle Steamship Company (to 1977) and the Royal Navy (to 1922).
It wasn’t until Ascension Island became a dependency of St Helena in 1922 that it got its own stamps – which were in fact St Helena stamps overprinted with Ascension (picture 4). There was an instant demand for these stamps from collectors worldwide. On 20th August 1924, the first sets of Ascension definitive stamps were produced, and demand increased. A new and still very important export business had been born on Ascension Island.
Today, Ascension Island issue five or more sets of commemorative stamps each year. Stamp designs are agreed by the Philatelic Committee, which consists of members of the public, and is chaired by the Administrator. For those readers who have read my tip All things British – Government - you now know one of the ways the Administrator fills his day!
To protect the integrity of this important industry the Post Office operates within the strict regulations of the International Postal Union so, for example, all first day covers are actually cancelled in the Ascension Post Office – notwithstanding that stamps etc are all printed overseas.
Notwithstanding all these stamps there is no postal delivery service on Ascension Island. All postal addresses, are those of employing organisations who collect the mail from the Post Office. Internal deliveries between organisations are to separate boxes, one for each organisation, outside the Administrator's office. Mail within Ascension, other than business mail, is very rare.
Airmail to and from the island is received and dispatched twice a week via the RAF fight that flies between the UK and the Falkland Islands. Surface mail and parcels arrive every month from the UK on the MOD chartered Shipping Service, also en route to the Falklands. Surface Mail to and from Cape Town and St Helena travels on the Royal Mail Ship, RMS St Helena.
In addition to being able to procure your Ascension Island philatelic requirements, those from St Helena and Tristan Da Cunha can also be procured at the post office (or via its online service if you cant make it to Ascension Island).
Since its discovery in 1501 Ascension Island has been famous for the green turtles which nest upon its beaches. See my main tip, Ascension’s Green Turtles for the current day story of these amazing creatures. In that tip I indicated that today man was not a predator of these turtles but that this was not always the case. This tip relates to the time when man was a predator.
Since the islands discovery the turtles have provided fresh meat for passing ships, which would collect the turtles as they passed by. With the establishment of a marine garrison on Ascension in 1817, the turtles became an important part of the diet of residents. In order for turtle meat to be available all year round, a Turtle Pond was built. In 1829 the Boat Harbour was converted to the second Turtle Pond to allow the storage of a greater number of turtles. A turtle pond can still be seen today at the wharf of Long Beach – not in use (picture one)! You can see a harness used to carry turtles in the Georgetown Museum (picture three) while picture two shows a "light railway' in use to move turtles out of the turtle pond.
Turtles were captured, post laying their eggs, and turned upside down and held in this manner until later collected and deposited in one of the turtle ponds for subsequent use. Not all turtles were consumed on the island and indeed some were even shipped as far as the UK for the King and certain Lords and Admiralty who found turtle soup a great delicacy. Picture four shows some Ascension Island turtles on the platform of Waterloo Station, London in 1901.
By the 1920's the trade in turtles had virtually stopped, and the ponds were no longer used for this purpose, although a few were still caught for Island residents. The last documented capture of a turtle on Ascension was in the 1950's.
The turtles of Ascension Island are now protected under local and international law and it is illegal to disturb or harm them in any way.
- Historical Travel
Ascension’s Green Turtles
Ascension’s pride and joy and a must do if you are there in season
For centuries, and probably much longer, green turtles have been coming to Ascension Island’s white sandy beaches to breed. At 3-4 year intervals male and female turtles migrate from Brazil to Ascension Island solely for this purpose. The arduous 4000km round trip is an absolutely amazing navigational feat – rather than a chance landing on this isolated volcanic outcrop in mid-Atlantic. Turtles born on Ascension return there to breed – not just to Ascension but actually to the same beach they were born on. How they do this remains a mystery – theories range from olfactory (smell), visual and auditory (sound) cues, to innate maps and magnetic fields.
These green turtles are the largest of their species measuring around 1.5 metres in length and weighting up to 250kgs by the time they start breeding at the age of around 25.
The female turtles come ashore between January and May, some time after having engaged in an offshore courting and mating ritual that can last several hours. The turtles come ashore at night-time and while being reasonably agile and safe at sea (having made it to adulthood that is) they are clumsy and vulnerable on land and easily scared by light or movement hence the stern instructions not to shine bright lights on them. Take your photos in night mode or just after dusk when many will still be on the beach or returning to the sea.
In preparation for laying eggs the female turtle will seek a position well up the beach and dig a nest of up to a metre deep. She will then lay approximately 100 soft white eggs and cover them up. This process will be repeated several times in a season. Having laid their eggs the turtles will return to the relative safety of the sea – leaving behind an array of what look like tractor tracks down the beach to the sea and a beach that looks like it has been peppered with small bombs.
About 6-10 weeks after having been laid the eggs begin to hatch. An especially interesting piece of information (for me anyway) is that the sex of the hatchlings is determined by the temperature at which the nest incubates, and not genetically as is the case with most animals. Nests incubating at 29 degrees centigrade produce a 50:50 sex ratio. Above this temperature, a greater proportion of females are produced, and in nests cooler than 29 degrees, a larger number of males are produced. As the temperatures on Ascension tend to be 26 degrees, recent research has shown that most of the hatchlings here are female.
Having hatched, the hatchlings dig their way out of the nest –3-5 days work – and surface in the dead of night and make a dash for the sea. How do they know which direction to go in I hear you say? They head towards the lowest and brightest horizon they can see and this, 99% of the time, is the sea – bright due to the reflection of the moon and stars. Occasionally they will head in the direction of a lighted house on the shore and one islander told me about how (not long after taking up residence on the island) she awoke to dozens of baby turtles on her verandah as she had left a light on overnight. She returned the turtles to the sea and henceforth hasn’t forgotten to turn all lights off before retiring of an evening.
Those that get their timing wrong and emerge too late to get to the sea in the dark, and alas many do, become prey for the frigate birds. Other predators include crabs and fish. Crabs “line up” along the beach close to the water’s edge and wait to pounce. Watching the crabs and the frigate birds at work just after dawn is a very depressing sight and is the reason you will see visitors escorting young turtles (which are about 3-4 cms long) to the sea at this time of the morning. I mentioned in my introduction page to Ascension Island that I had developed a dislike for the birds on Ascension Island – now you know why. Off course when they get to the sea many other predators await them. Sadly, as I understand it, only one in a thousand hatchlings make it to adulthood.
Thankfully today (at least on Ascension Island) man is no longer a predator. This has not always been the case. See my separate tip on Ascension’s Turtle Ponds for more detail on this.
Worldwide, marine turtles are still eaten (both the turtles and their eggs) and their shells are used in jewellery and other ornaments. Small scale harvesting by coastal communities is sustainable – large scale harvesting by outsiders is not. Other issues threatening the existence of marine turtles include incidental capture in fishing nets, loss of habitats and climate change. None of these are an issue on Ascension, yet.
It is estimated that around 4000 turtles visit Ascension Island each year and while all the 30 odd beaches on the island are nesting grounds the largest and most readily accessible for visitors to view this amazing animal is Long Beach right in Georgetown – a very short drive or less than 10 minutes walk from the Obsidian Hotel.
While the conservation office offers guided tours (around GBP 5) at 9pm a couple of times a week, the best time to go down to the beach is just before dawn – at this time flashless photos can be taken.
Monkey Rock Cemetery
The cemetery, on the upper slopes of Green Mountain, was consecrated by the Bishop of St Helena where he visited Ascension in 1861 to consecrate St Mary’s Church in Georgetown. As noted in my St Mary’s tip, it had taken about 15yrs to persuade a bishop to come to the island – even an 1852 offer of an eleven gun salute didn’t do the trick.
The earliest recorded memorial in the cemetery is 1856 – Eda, an infant born in North East Cottage on the Mountain who passed away at the age of 10 months.
Being located just below “ The San”, a naval hospital/ sanatorium built for fever sufferers in 1867 and now the residence of the island’s Administrator, it naturally became to final resting place of many of the Sans patients. There are a depressingly large number of young men and children buried here.
There are a couple notable recent internments in this rather old cemetery and they are Bernard Edward Pauncefort and his wife Patricia Anne. Bernard was Administrator from 1980 to 1982. Their ashes were interred here in 2010 and 2004 respectively, many years after they had left the island. Clearly the island was special to them – Bernard’s memorial plaque states “his ashes join his beloved wife’s and are now part of the place they both so loved”.
Various plaques attest to the fact that the graveyard is periodically renovated by visiting British troops.
Access to cemetery is via the grounds of The Residency. The path is clearly marked from there and is a couple of hundred metres walk downhill.
Please respect the privacy of the Residency as the continuing granting of public access is at the discretion of the Administrator. It would be a shame if future visitors could not visit this moving cemetery.