Green Highlights in Ascension

Thursday 14th February 2019

Ascension Island turns out to be a place that is far more captivating than first appearances would lead you to believe, from the tropical cloud forest covered peaks to its pristine beaches, from the large Greenback turtles to the land crabs, even the sun sets have been special.

The passage from St Helena was very slow and rather frustrating. The winds were light, under normal circumstances we would have resorted to the engine but obtaining fuel in Ascension is difficult and with a further 3000nm to go until Grenada every drop of diesel is precious. Ever since our return to the boat at the beginning of the year we have had one date that has been driving our schedule, the 9th February. With only one flight a month into Ascension Island this was the day, our good friend Jonathan, would be arriving to join us for the trip to the Caribbean. With little tourism there are no hotels on the island so our arrival to pick him up on time was particularly important. We sailed into Clarence Bay the anchorage off of Georgetown, the capital of Ascension, at first light on the 9th just a few spare hours before Jonathan’s arrival that afternoon!

Georgetown and Long beach

When I describe Georgetown as the capital of Ascension I should point out that the population of Ascension is only about 800 people. There are only four areas that could be classified as towns, the American base, Georgetown and two small villages. Georgetown has a few houses, a shop, a church, a bar, a police station, the main government offices and little else.

And when I say that the Island receives few tourists, I should explain that so rare is their presence that when we checked in to all the normal authorities not only were we expected but everyone knew Jonathan would be flying in to join us.

Further the shop mentioned above is not exactly Tesco’s, its few short aisles are rather bare and any hope of finding fresh food were quickly dashed. Our diet for the next few weeks will be interesting to say the least. The bar, and our access to internet, has turned out to have rather erratic opening hours and the lasting memory of the much talked about cafe on the American base that we visited last night, will be the delightful aroma of deep fat frying that lingers on our clothes.

Despite all this we have had just the best time, we are so glad we stopped. The people, all in some way employed by the military or the island government, couldn’t have been more helpful and friendly. And the scenery and wildlife have been really special.

Ascension unlike St Helena has some spectacular beaches. The central peaks of the island are surrounded by barren lava fields, and industrial signs of the islands military status are everywhere, oil storage tanks, radar domes, huge arial fields, secret Sam type warehouses etc. etc… so it is wth surprise that you suddenly find yourself enjoying the sight of a stunning beach, the turquoise of the sea and the white of the sand exaggerated by the blackness of the rock.

Stunning beaches

Its not only humans that enjoy this coastline every where there are warnings that sharks frequent these waters. Intrepid as we are and avoiding the high risk times of dawn and dusk we have swam and snorkelled most days.

Shark warnngs

Visitors of a more gentle nature are the large Greenback turtles that incredibly swim the thousand or so miles from their feeding grounds in Brazil to lay their eggs in the soft sand, particularly on Long Beach right in front of the anchorage. By day they swim around the bay popping up next to us with the familiar puff as they breath out at the surface. By night the females climb up the beach and begin the laborious process of creating a hollow above the tide line, laying and then covering the eggs. Monday night we joined the conservation team, carefully making sure not to frighten the females climbing up the beach. They found, in red torch light, a female in the middle of laying, she weighed in at about 200kg and 115cm long. Once the nest has been dug, the turtles go into a trance like state and are not disturbed by an audience, so we were able to watch for half an hour before leaving her as she began to shovel sand to cover the eggs and gradually wake up.

Turtle laying her legs

Tuesday found us walking near the 859m peak of Green Mountain. Now a lush rain forest it has an interesting past. Seen by some as an innovative ecological terraforming experiment and by others as the worse type of man made biological invasion, over the past couple of centuries the mountain regions have been transformed from a sparsely vegetated arid area to the luxuriantly green landscape that gives the mountain its name today. In 1836 Darwin visited the island and noted the lack of vegetation and the complaints of the British marines that the island was “destitute of trees” on discussions with his friend Sir Joseph Hooker, later to become director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew a plan was hatched to increase the vegetation. Plants and seeds from all over the world were planted and the survivors remain to create this unique environment.

Walking on a Green Mountain

The islands other highlights include the bright yellow land crabs, crisp horizons that gave us a brilliant ‘green flash’ one sunset, clear rich water from which Jonathan supplied us with an iridescent green Dorado for lunch, amazingly caught from the dingy and donkeys that seem to require refuelling at the local petrol station.

Only customers at the petrol station

Tomorrow we leave for the Caribbean and will be at sea for nearly 3 weeks. Follow us on the tracker.

Swimming with the Whale Sharks

Friday 8th February 2019

Stunning views all around St Helena

St Helena, just a speck on the chart of the South Atlantic Ocean, is home, for a few month each year, to magnificent 10m long whale sharks. Nobody knows why they gather here or why for hours on end they come up to near the surface of the water and seemingly just float about. But for the few visitors to St Helena this behaviour means we get to see them up close and personal.

We arrived in James Bay at 3pm last Thursday and were almost immediately summons to the authorities so they could process our papers before the end of their working day. St Helena, at least when there are yachts moored n the Bay, has a very convenient ferry service that runs between the boats and the yacht every hour. Stepping off the ferry that surged up and down about a metre next to the dock, on legs that had been at sea for over nine days was not easy but we made it. We cleared customs and Port control filling out the normal raft of forms and then in the afternoon heat trudged up the hill to immigration sited at the police station.

We needed refreshments, in town we spotted an Edwardian hotel with, on its first floor, behind wrought iron filigree railings, an inviting breezy balcony. We sat and took in our surroundings over a very welcome cold beer. Jamestown is a thin strip of urbanisation running down a gully between high steep cliffs. The majority of buildings and houses which mostly seem to date from the late 19th century, cluster around the one main street, whilst the newer developments perch on the cliff tops high above.

James Town

The islanders are a rich mix of ethnic backgrounds, reflecting the history of the island as an important staging post for shipping heading east and west around the Cape of Good Hope. Everybody seems to know everybody else and life is led at a slow island pace.

Running impossibly steeply up the hillside is the infamous St Helena ladder, an almost vertical set of nearly 700 steps that rises straight up from the town, challenging visitors to climb it. I’m so glad we decided against it, if my vertigo thought climbing up would be difficult, standing at the top, a couple of days later when we visited it as part of our whistle stop island tour, it looked to plummet straight down.

St Helena Ladder

As is the way in small communities the ferry man turned out to be the man who also ran the whale shark trips, so on the return run to the boat we booked to go out the next morning. The dive boat retraced our track, following the sheer rock faces that we sailed past on our way in accompanied by lively spinner dolphins the day before but this time it was the telltale shadow in the water of two whale sharks that caught our eye. Their fins and tail tips cut through the surface Jaws style, but unlike Great Whites, Whale Sharks are plankton eating placid creatures. We slipped in and they seemed happy to just swim along with us. The trip was very well regulated with no more than 8 swimmers per shark and a limit of 40mins with them each day. It was such a privilege to be able to interact with them so closely, these amazing animal encounters are without doubt for us the highlights of this trip.

Wow! Swimming with Whale Sharks

Raya, with the pressurised schedule we’ve had for the past month, has become rather high maintenance and the weekend turned out to be no different The high pressure hose that feeds the watermaker has starting to split . We quickly filled our tanks with as much water as we could before Rick dismantled the offending piece and with the help of what appeared to be half the island tried to find a solution. They almost got there but were one connection short, luckily he had time to order what hopefully will be the right bits to be delivered to Jonathan who flies out to meet us tomorrow.

We couldn’t visit St Helena without seeing a bit more of the island, so putting down his tools for a few hours, we took a quick tour of the Island. Our guide had spent almost all of his 82 years on the island and was extremely knowledgable. St Helena’s greatest claim to historical fame is as the place of exile for Napoleon. Napoleon spent the last six years of his life, surrounded by members of the French court, in a large villa with exquisite gardens and extensive views. In fact the views everywhere on the island are fantastic, steep green valleys, forest covered peaks and dramatic rock formations all surrounded by a sparkling blue sea. Not too bad a place for a prison cell.

Napoleon’s residence while in St Helena

In between times I was trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to buy some fresh supplies. Luckily we still had some fruit and vegetables left from CapeTown, but that after another 5 days at sea is now almost gone, fingers crossed we will find more on Ascension Island for the 3000nm passage to Grenada.