Monday, 23 January 2017

The South Atlantic re-visited

I am writing these lines in mid-air between Ascension Island and the Falklands, after 4 days in Ascension. After a 3-year absence, I am back to the South Atlantic! This flight of almost 9 h, in a high-flying jet aircraft (an RAF A330 Voyager, a military version of the A330 capable of in-air refuelling, troop / passenger and cargo transport as well as medevac purposes) always reminds me of how little of the Earth’s surface is suitable for human activities. During this flight, one doesn’t see any other aircraft or ships – only sky and water in any variation!

The little volcanic island of Ascension has intrigued my curiosity and inspiration ever since I first heard about it from my friend in Dublin, Margaret Casey, in early 1989 (whose brother had been deployed to the island as a meteorologist). On the map it resembles a speck of dust in the middle of nowhere of a very big ocean or, to be a bit more precise, it is about half-way between Angola and Brazil, in the South Atlantic Ocean.

My friends Kostas Tsiamis, Aldo Asensi and I had compiled an inventory of Ascension’s marine plants, based on the collections from our 4 previous visits in 2011 – 2013. I have now returned to the island, accompanied by 2 dear friends, Eleni Kytinou (Athens) and Akira Peters (Roscoff).
We spent our 4 days in Ascension with diving, hiking on Green Mountain and shore-based collections. Eleni and I had 4 very long, fantastic dives at Comfortless Cove, the east side of Triangles / English Bay, Pan Am Bay / Portland Point and also Georgetown Harbour. Our visit coincided with the egg-laying season of the Green Turtles (Chelonia mydas), which meant that we saw many of them during our dives, but also at night on Long Beach (just outside Georgetown, Ascension’s capital). Ascension has recently attracted a shoal of Galapagos Sharks which tend to linger around Georgetown Harbour expecting to be fed by the St. Helenian fishermen gutting tuna and other catch. During our night time dive in the harbour and bay, one such shark approached me from behind, sniffing out my left hand and yellow collection bag – I did not notice any of this, but Eleni did. Since all this was too fast and too dramatic to be captured by camera, she drew an image of the scene by hand:

Eleni intended to trial a new visual survey technique which she had developed for her work in Greece, counting fish along a transect. The challenge in Ascension was the exceptionally high density of fish, including those quite high up in the food web like groupers! 

On our last day (when we did not go diving in order to decompress before our long onward flight to the Falklands) we conducted some terrestrial sampling for my friend and colleague Prof. Steve Woodward at the University of Aberdeen (for studying soil-borne fungal diversity). We hiked Green Mountain and visited parts of the coastal desert near North-East Bay and Cross Hill. Green Mountain is a lush oasis on a mountaintop in the midst of a very hot and dry volcanic desert island. Its famous cloud forest goes back to a suggestion by Charles Darwin, who visited Ascension on the last leg of his epic voyage – the garrison of Royal Marines on the island, initially established to prevent escape or rescue attempts of Napoleon from St. Helena, was struggling with a constant shortage of water. Darwin had the idea that rainfall on Ascension could be enhanced by planting a forest, using trees from a variety of tropical countries around the world. The idea worked, and within a few decades, a totally artificial cloud forest established itself from the sapling sent there by the botanic gardens at Kew and Stellenbosch. Of course this would be illegal today – swamping an island with non-native plants and see which ones become established, while driving native plants into extinction! But it remains a fascinating and unique geoengineering experiment – and Green Mountain is a refreshing getaway, especially during the present hot season in Ascension.

A few more hours to fly to our destination - the Falkland Islands are waiting for us!

Packing in Newburgh (Aberdeenshire, Scotland) prior to our departure

 Waiting for our flight to Ascension Island at RAF Brize Norton

Landing in Ascension Island after a 9 h overnight flight from RAF Brize Norton 

 Another RAF A330 Voyager (same model like the one we came on) on a medevac mission parked at Ascension Island Base

 Another RAF A330 Voyager on a medevac mission parked at Ascension Island Base - close-up view of the refuelling pod under the wing 

Eleni in the pilot's seat of the A330 Voyager. Our disembarkation was delayed due to the medevac mission mentioned above, and some passengers were allowed to visit the flight deck. 

 Arrived with our mountain of luggage in Ascension Island!

Getting ready for our first dive at Comfortless Cove

Galapagos Shark in Georgetown Harbour

Before our night dive with the Galapagos Sharks

 About to jump into shark-infested waters at night

 Akira took this photo of us from the pier head when we were diving off the pier head

Several of the endemic Ascension Frigatebirds off Portland Point 

Sunset off Comfortless Cove 

Long Beach, the main nesting beach for Green Turtles on Ascension Island, after a very busy night

The ESA Station at Northeast Bay, Ascension Island - Ariane rocket flights launched from Kourou (French Guyana) are monitored from here. 

View from the jungle at Elliot's Path on Green Mountain into the coastal desert

Eleni and Akira collecting soil samples for fungal metagenomics on Green Mountain 

In the bamboo jungle on Green Mountain 

In the bamboo jungle on Green Mountain 

 Akira and Eleni at Dew Pond near the summit on Green Mountain

In the cloud forest on Green Mountain 

Psilotum nudum, probably the most archaic, currently living land plant on Planet Earth 

Land crab on Ascension Island 

Fast ARM (Atmospheric Radiation Measurement) station 

Soil sampling near Fast ARM (Atmospheric Radiation Measurement) station  

View from Cross Hill 

The Ascension Island Government Conservation Department 

The recently created Ascension Island flag - note the 2 sea turtles! 

Farewell dinner during our last night in Ascension 

Coast at Comfortless Cove on Ascension's west coast 

Sea cave at Comfortless Cove 

The HMS Bonetta Cemetery at Comfortless Cove. The whole crew of this sailing ship, all infected by yellow fever, were quarantined and essentially left to die here in 1838. 

Sunset at Comfortless Cove

 Our shadows during a full moon tour off egg-laying Green Turtles,
guided by a ranger of the ASI Conservation Department

Egg-laying Green Turtle on Long Beach 

Our full moon tour off egg-laying Green Turtles,
guided by a ranger of the ASI Conservation Department 

Egg-laying Green Turtle on Long Beach  

The moonscape of the coastal desert near English Bay

St. Helenian fisherman in Georgetown Harbour

Pufferfish near Comfortless Cove

Underwater scenery near Comfortless Cove

Hawksbill Turtle near Comfortless Cove

Scorpionfish near Comfortless Cove

Eleni diving off the east side of the headland of Triangles / English Bay

Vast maerl (coralline algal) bed off Ascension's English Bay / Triangles Headland

Moray eel during night dive

Eleni searching for Galapagos Sharks during night dive

Sleeping Black Triggerfish (Melanichthys niger)

Night dives offer very close encounters with fish!

 Night dives offer very close encounters with fish!

Underwater scenery off Portland Point / Pan Am Beach

 Eleni's fish survey off Portland Point / Pan Am Beach

 Underwater scenery off Comfortless Cove

 Underwater scenery off Portland Point / Pan Am Beach

Green Turtle off Portland Point / Pan Am Beach 

 Grouper off Portland Point / Pan Am Beach 

Sea cave full of fish off Comfortless Cove

 The synaptoid Sea Cucumber Euapta lappa during night dive off Comfortless Cove

Rhodolith reef during night dive off Comfortless Cove

Cray fish during night dive off Comfortless Cove

 Night dives offer very close encounters with fish!

Night dives offer very close encounters with fish! 

Night dives offer very close encounters with fish! 

Eleni's light attracting lots of shrimp, fish etc. during night dive

 Night dives offer very close encounters with fish! Pictured here: Grouper

Octopus during night dive off Comfortless Cove 

Our last evening: Snorkeling with Green Turtles off Long Beach

Our last evening: Eleni snorkeling with Green Turtles off Long Beach 

Our last evening: Sunset after snorkeling with Green Turtles off Long Beach

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