On 3 January 2016, the UK and Ascension Island governments declared a marine reserve covering 234,291 square kilometres around Ascension Island, thanks to funding raised by Blue Marine Foundation from the Bacon Foundation. Blue Marine Foundation is keen that marine protection should benefit the human population of Ascension as well as the bird, fish and turtle populations. So when Winch Design ran a sponsored London to Monaco cycle ride in September 2016 in aid of BLUE’s ocean projects, we were keen that half the funds raised go towards conservation and education work in Ascension.
Ascension is only five miles by six, but its exclusive economic zone extends 200 nautical miles from the island, amounting to an area nearly the size of Germany in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. These waters are teeming with marine life, including sharks, some of the largest marlin in the world and the world’s second largest population of green turtles. On land and in shore, endemic species include several types of ferns and fish, marine plants and Ascension’s own frigate bird.
But while the Ascension islanders have become the newly appointed guardians of such outstanding biodiversity, the island’s infrastructure is sparse, to say the least. Life on the island is tough with resources such as fresh food, which we take for granted in the UK being hard to come by due to the island’s extreme isolation. Sources of funding for Ascension are limited by its very particular status; it is a military island with separate British and American air force bases, governed by complex legislation including the 60-year-old Bahamas agreement, which means that only a limited numbers of civilians can fly on the twice-weekly flight from RAF Brize Norton to Ascension in a plane that is en route for the Falklands. Inflows from ecotourism are therefore currently severely constrained.
On 13 November 2016, Charles Clover and I flew out to Ascension in order to deliver the funds raised from the London to Monaco cycle ride, see first-hand where those much-needed funds would be deployed and to deepen our understanding of how marine conservation might go hand in hand with a thriving economy in future.
The Islander and an abundance of sharks
Our first mission was to deliver the 500 canvas bags which we’d squeezed into two huge suitcases to all three shops on the island, as well as to the school. We hope this will reduce the amount of plastic bags used on island. Plastic in the oceans is of course a global problem and waste disposal in Ascension is particularly challenging due to lack of recycling/treatment facilities.
After hastily writing an article for The Islander (the island’s weekly newssheet) about the £138,000 raised by the cycle ride, we went to the Conservation Centre to meet Dr Judith Brown’s team and hear about the work they are tirelessly carrying out on land and in Ascension’s waters to protect its extraordinary environment.
Later, by the light of a dazzling super-moon, we strolled down to the pier where at least a dozen Galapagos sharks were lazily patrolling the waters just a few feet below us. Apparently there are more Galapagos sharks in Ascension’s waters this year than in living memory, perhaps an early indication that the lack of long lining around Ascension is bringing a return of apex predators.
(Rather poor images taken on my iphone, but I wasn’t expecting to see so many sharks at close range.)
On top of Green Mountain
Early the next morning, I found myself attempting to perform a hill start on a 1 in 3 hairpin bend in our cumbersome hire truck on my way up to Green Mountain. It occurred to me that if the handbrake didn’t hold, that would be the end of BLUE’s current CEO. Luckily it did and I made it up to base camp. So-called because unlike the brown, black and grey landscape of the rest of Ascension, Green Mountain is a lush rainforest. This is thanks in part to Charles Darwin and Joseph Hooker who began an early experiment in climate modelling. The rain capture system still provides some of the island’s much-needed water today.
Funds raised by the London to Monaco cycle will buy equipment so that the stalwart conservation team can clear the historic trails allowing visitors to explore Green Mountain and reach the dew pond at its summit. Cycle ride funds will also go towards signs to inform visitors about the endemic plants such as the fern above, which is found nowhere else in the world.
The Dew Pond boardwalk, in need of repair and Elliot’s pass, tunnelled by marines in the nineteenth Century and now being cleared by Andrew Airnes and Matt Stritch from the conservation team.
Two Boats School
One of the most gratifying afternoons of my life was spent at Two Boats school, where funds raised from the London to Monaco cycle ride will buy a new science classroom, ipads for the older children and a new garden. Two Boats is a lovely school, but as science teacher Janet Birch pointed out, the science classroom is long overdue an upgrade.
Funds raised from generous Blue Marine Yacht Club donors are buying 32 ipads for the older children. This is not only a useful IT resource, but will mean that desktops in the IT classroom can now be distributed to other classrooms and that classroom can be used for music and drama lessons.
The Headmistress, the science teacher and Jude look at plans for a brand new, ergonomic science classroom with round desks and 16 bunsen burners to replace the four existing ones and rather shabby benches.
Charles and I started our talk to the children by asking them to guess how far it was to cycle from London to Monaco. One of them came in with a close guess of 1000 miles, which we all agreed was even further than to Ascension’s nearest neighbour, St Helena.
Handing out bags for life, a bag being modelled by one of the pupils and Charles showing a clip of The End of the Line while updating the children on overfishing and BLUE’s work.
An issue of great concern for the island is how the population can feed itself. The current Administrator, Marc Holland, has introduced a hydroponics farm, which is flourishing under the careful watch of Regan Tourond. We were reassured that the resourceful islanders are able to make so much out of so little and felt that this boded very well for our conservation funding.
Lettuces in the new hydroponics farm versus right and the current rather limited offering of fresh food in one of the island’s three shops.
Long Beach Hut
The hut on Long Beach is another beneficiary of cycle ride funds. Thanks to Prince Albert, pictured below welcoming the cyclists after their arduous ride, the hut, currently unused, will be converted into a conservation centre. The Ascension islanders will be characteristically resourceful, using this centre not only to show-case conservation work, but also as an extra classroom for the school and a place to hold events right next to the beach where green turtles come to nest. Long Beach is where the turtle interns, also funded by the cycle ride, will primarily carry out their field work.
Ascension’s recovering bird population
Ascension is geologically young, a mere million years, give or take, since a volcanic eruption created the island bang in the middle of the Atlantic. And much of the island feels as if the eruption is very recent; volcanic ash or clinker is used to pave the streets and walking on the eastern end of the island is like crunching over a giant ash pan the day after the gods have had a good fire.
Yet these deserted landscapes are home to colonies of seabirds. Jonathan Hall, our Great British Oceans colleague from the RSPB who was also on our trip, explained that bird populations on Ascension have been decimated since the introduction of rats and feral cats by humans. But mercifully the combined efforts of the RSPB and the Ascension conservation team mean that these bird populations are starting to recover. A perilous drive down a steep track followed by a hike led by conservation team members Kenickie Andrews and Eliza Leat brought us to the masked booby nesting grounds and the thrilling sight of Ascension’s frigate birds feeding their young.
Masked booby, baby frigate bird, baby bird and parents, frigate framing Boatswain Bird Island’s arch.
At the end of the bumpy road to Comfortless Cove, you are faced with a choice: Turn right and you find yourself on a perfect sandy beach from where you can snorkel in clear blue waters and immediately encounter shoals of fish, including several of Ascension’s endemics. Or turn left and find yourself among makeshift graves where yellow fever victims were abandoned by the Bonetta and other ships in the nineteenth century and left to die slowly in the heat.
This contrast is to be found all over Ascension: outstanding natural beauty alongside vivid, and at times grim, evidence of Britain’s maritime history.
Overall, our impression was that this fascinating place, whose isolation is both a blessing and a curse, has the potential to flourish as a hub of conservation in the middle of the Atlantic and a jewel in Britain’s biodiversity crown. But it needs more recognition from UK government and all the conservation funding it can get to be able to thrive. We are so grateful to all the cyclists and sponsors of the London to Monaco ride and to BMYC donors who made it possible for us to contribute so much to Ascension. We hope that this is just the beginning of what we can bring to this remarkable island.
Lizard Rock, where tradition has it that people pour paint if they never want to return to Ascension.
I want to establish an alternative rock on the other side of the road where you can pour paint if you love the island and want to return often. I suggest the alternative rock be covered in blue paint.
The full list of how the London to Monaco cycle ride funds will be deployed on Ascension:
New science classroom for Two Boats school
32 ipads for Two Boats school
School garden, particularly to be used and planted by nursery school children
Conservation Centre at Long Beach hut
Dewpond boardwalk replacement for the slippery and rotten existing one
Nature reserve signage – all the signs on the island are rotting and some are nearly illegible
Ten juvenile shark tags to identify the size of a protected nursery area
A shark tag so that the conservation team can work out how best to regulate Ascension’s waters to allow apex predators to thrive
Ten pairs of binoculars for the conservation team, which will also be used for school outings to the bird colonies at Letterbox
State-of-the-art microscopes for the conservation team – hitherto, samples have had to be flown to the Falklands for analysis
Turtle interns (flights & stipend) to monitor the turtle population on Long Beach
Head torches so the conservation team can be on night-time turtle patrol
Shovels, machetes and wheelbarrows to clear the paths on Green Mountain
1000 reusable bags with ‘More fish, less plastic’ on them
Sunshade on the pier to allow the conservation team to monitor the recreational fishery
Highly sensitive microbalance for weighing zooplankton and stable isotope samples
Educational craft kits for young conservationists