Protecting a Marine Wilderness
Dispatches from Tristan da Cunha
In November 2012, Global Ocean Legacy manager Steve Cole traveled to the remotest inhabited island on Earth: Tristan da Cunha. Located in the South Atlantic Ocean, the British-governed archipelago is about 2,400 kilometers (1,500 miles) from the nearest human settlement.
During his month-long stay, Steve lived with a local family and met with the islands' residents to learn more about their home and their way of life. He went on a swimming expedition to see Tristan's renowned rockhopper penguins and lent a hand at “the Patches,” the islands' farm. He also participated in local conservation surveys, along the way gaining important insights into what makes Tristan such a a special place. Steve explored the possibility of Pew working with residents to protect the islands' rich and relatively undisturbed waters through the establishment of a marine sanctuary. Take a virtual journey to this unique place through Steve's reflections on his time in Tristan da Cunha.
April 3, 2013
By Steve Cole
The main reason I had the immense pleasure of visiting Tristan da Cunha was to discuss with the islanders the possibility of establishing a marine reserve in certain parts of the archipelago's waters.
Tristan's waters are vast, covering an area about three times the size of the entire mainland of the United Kingdom. These waters are also relatively unspoiled and are vitally important for fish species, birds, whales, and seals. The islands' remote location in the South Atlantic Ocean means that a large numbers of species found here cannot be found anywhere else on the planet.
Tristan's waters form the feeding ground not only for the Tristan and Atlantic yellow-nosed albatrosses but also for the critically endangered spectacled petrel, whose population has diminished to just 10,000 breeding pairs, all living on the aptly named Inaccessible Island of the Tristan archipelago. Tristan's islands are also home to 80 percent of the subantarctic fur seal population and to important populations of southern elephant seals. Nearly all of the world's northern rockhopper penguins also make the islands their home.
Tristan's waters also contain southern right and sperm whales, not to mention rapid-swimming fin whales (which can reach speeds of up to 30 kilometres per hour). They are also an important area for humpback whales making their long annual migration from the cold waters of the Antarctic to warmer tropical waters, where they mate and calve. Little is known about the other whales observed around the islands, such as the mysterious shepherd's beaked whale.
Tristan's waters are indeed one of the last true wildernesses on Earth and it is vitally important that we protect them.
And so, as I now sit by the harbour at Tristan, waiting for the cargo ship MV Baltic Trader to take me on the long voyage back to Cape Town, I can't help but reflect on how lucky I have been to spend a month visiting these islands. I was able not only to observe their amazing wildlife first-hand but also to experience the warmth and hospitality of the islanders who live in this remotest of places. It was a real privilege to visit this small and unique community, and get a taste of living among such remarkable wildlife on Tristan da Cunha--the most remote inhabited island in the world.
April 1, 2013
By Steve Cole
The phone rang this morning just after dawn with news I had been waiting for: The weather was good, the seas calm, and our visit to the archipelago's Nightingale Island was on.
I boarded the zodiac speedboat with members of the islands' Conservation Department, and soon we were bouncing across the waves--the “bubble,” as the locals call it--as shearwaters flew overhead accompanying us. After an hour, we neared Nightingale Island and Cliff, our coxswain for the day, landed us on the northwest shore, right in the middle of a colony of northern rockhopper penguins. They seemed remarkably unperturbed as they hopped out of our way while we hauled our day packs onto the rocks. They were soon sitting around us again, new ones regularly swimming in from the sea, before they hopped out alongside us and began to dry out their golden plumes in the sun.
Nightingale Island is, at around 18 million years old, the oldest of the four main islands of the Tristan archipelago. It is also the smallest, at four square kilometers (1.5 square miles). It has two small islets, Alex and Stoltenhoff, just off its northern shore.
What Nightingale Island lacks in size, it more than makes up for in beauty. Large colonies of seals and rockhoppers cover its shores. As we made our way up and across the island, we had to weave around the nests that Atlantic yellow-nosed albatrosses (or “mollies”) had built on the path. The occasional Nightingale bunting, which can be seen only on the island, flitted across our path. We were also clearly near the nests of skuas, since they dive-bombed us because we were getting close to their young.
At the top of the steep climb we found ourselves in a rare area of woodland, comprised of Island Trees, the only native trees in the Tristan archipelago. This is an important area for one of the world's rarest birds, the Wilkins's bunting, and the Tristan Conservation Department is working hard to restore this habitat. Only 80 pairs of Wilkins's buntings are estimated to remain, all on Nightingale Island. These birds stayed out of sight, although you could hear their distinctive calls drifting through the trees.
After an hour or so spent surrounded by albatrosses nesting at the ponds at the top of the island, it was time to catch our speedboat back to Tristan. As I sat on the shore waiting, I put down the camera, and we all sat in silence and soaked up the wonder of this completely natural place.
March 29, 2013
By Steve Cole
With so many wonderful species to protect, Tristan's conservation department has its work cut out. Staff members have an incredible range of work to complete. One day they might be off to ring Atlantic yellow-nosed albatrosses, and the next day they could be clearing away the New Zealand flax plant, an invasive species, from Nightingale Island.
I was lucky enough to be invited to accompany the team during one expedition around Tristan - to survey some northern rockhopper penguins. We landed on the southern side of Tristan and made our way up through the hundreds of young sub-Antarctic fur seals to the penguins' rookery at Stony Hill. Ninety percent of the world's population of this penguin species live in the Tristan archipelago. Alarmingly, their populations are declining significantly.
Trevor Glass, head of Tristan's Conservation Department, told me, “In the many years that I have worked in conservation on Tristan, I have never seen such a bad year for the penguins.” He added: “It's really important that we quickly find out why populations here are in such decline.”
We spent the day measuring and weighing around 20 penguins we found at Stony Hill before attaching electronic tagging devices to their legs. The signals sent back from these devices will provide the conservation team with information as to where the penguins go to feed and could provide clues about why the species is in trouble.
The conservation team is also busy monitoring populations of Atlantic yellow-nosed albatrosses at study sites on Tristan Island and Nightingale Island. They ring adult birds and chicks as a way of assessing breeding success, adult and juvenile survival, and population trends.
However, it is not all about penguins and albatrosses. The department does great work regarding the islands' flora, particularly on Nightingale Island, by removing an invasive species of weed called Australian brass buttons and by trying to increase areas of habitat covered by the Island Tree (Phylica arborea).The large black seeds contained in the fruit of this often short and wind-cropped tree provide the main source of food for large-billed buntings, including the Wilkins's bunting.
The Wilkins's bunting is critically endangered: only 80 pairs are estimated to exist.
It is an exciting, yet challenging, life working in the conservation department on Tristan. There is simply so much wonderful wildlife here to be protected.
March 27, 2013
By Steve Cole
Land is at a premium on the remote island of Tristan. The narrow strip on which the Settlement lies covers just 1,000 acres, most of which is not an acceptable quality for grazing livestock. This has resulted in a unique system of agriculture, with a degree of centralized control that is rarely found elsewhere in the world.
Livestock on the island are strictly managed to prevent overgrazing. Each family may own just two cows and each person two sheep. Any other livestock must be slaughtered. Chickens provide eggs for the islanders, and mallard and scobie ducks roam free on the Settlement plain.
The small number of livestock that each family is permitted means that little is wasted. Cows are milked, remarkably quickly when the skilled island women do it (and a lot slower when I had a go!). Sheep are sheared, and historically the best-quality wool has been knitted into sweaters, socks, hats, and scarves, all greatly needed during Tristan's cold winters. Lower-grade wool is broken down and used as organic compost for vegetables.
Shearing is still done the old-fashioned way: Sheep shears are favored over the electric variety. I was invited to try my hand at this, and after I had made a proper mess of a now very scruffy-looking sheep, islander Patrick Rogers showed me how it should be done. He sheared a sheep effortlessly in minutes.
Tristan residents also grow potatoes and vegetables in a series of walled fields about three kilometers (about two miles) from the Settlement, known locally as “the Patches.” The finest-quality potatoes are grown there, and they are a matter of pride on the island. In fact they are so good that I would challenge anyone to find a better tasting potato elsewhere in the world. Greenhouses produce tomatoes and cucumbers, and a large walled garden provides other agricultural produce for sale, catering in part to the elderly members of this close-knit community who cannot produce their own.
So while products are increasingly brought to Tristan from South Africa on the monthly ship, agriculture remains very much at the heart of daily life. All islanders look after their livestock and often spend Saturdays working their land down at the Patches.
Neil Swain, who oversees agriculture on Tristan, told me, “The limited land we have here creates a real challenge for us, but we always try to manage it with a view to making Tristan as self-sufficient as we can.”
It is a unique system of agriculture to meet the unique challenges of living on Tristan – a rural community so far away from the outside world.
March 25, 2013
By Steve Cole
After nearly two weeks on Tristan da Cunha, I was eager to see the northern rockhopper penguins for which the islands are renowned. Their rookeries (colonies of breeding animals) are found along the east side of the island. However, the penguins, known locally as “pinnamins,” are not generally accessible by land, and getting to them by sea is difficult because of the large breaker waves that regularly crash into the shore on that side of the island. So Tristan resident Norman Glass and I decided there was only one option: If the boat couldn't land, we would have to get as close as we could and then swim to shore.
Dressed in a thick wetsuit, I left the relative safety of the boat to jump into the cold and turbulent sea. After an adrenaline-fueled swim through the breakers, I hauled myself onto the beach, landing right in the middle of a group of pinnamins.
Resplendent with their distinctive golden yellow plumes, the pinnamins were remarkably tame. I couldn't work out if this was because they knew they had nothing to fear from me, or whether my black wetsuit made me appear to be some sort of huge pinnamin–perhaps a distant and gigantic relative?
An estimated 150,000 pinnamins—90 percent of the world's population–call the Tristan da Cunha archipelago home. They are one of the smallest of the penguin species, and perhaps the most agile. It was apparent how they received their name as I watched them “hop” over the steep volcanic rocks that form part of the journey to their rookeries, located high up in the deep valley above --aptly named “Big Gulch.”
I followed the hopping pinnamins up to their rookeries; they had initially come ashore a few months ago to breed. I was soon surrounded by chicks only a few weeks old. The tiny, down-covered chicks huddled together, with adult penguins standing guard against skuas and other predators while the other adults foraged for food for their young. The chicks grow rapidly, and in just a few short weeks they shed their down and take their first plunge into the sea.
My time visiting Big Gulch revealed how dramatic a place it is, even in the heavy rain. With a steep-sided gorge running up into the mist, its lush green vegetation provides cover for nesting penguins. Atlantic yellow-nosed albatrosses nest only a short distance away in the rocks above. The atmosphere was intense, the silence interrupted only by the sounds of the birds echoing on the cliff faces all around. As often happened on the archipelago, I was struck by the remoteness of this place–a lush haven for wildlife on the truly remarkable island.
All too soon it was time to leave. I packed away my already soaked camera into a waterproof bag before timing my plunge into the surf and swimming back to the boat. Then off we powered homewards, both of us looking forward to putting on a dry set of clothing and a eating a deserved hot meal.
March 22, 2013
By Steve Cole
“Ah, it's a fair walk to the top,” said Simon Glass, one of our guides. “But you'll make it all right.”
“So, is this what a ‘fair walk' means on Tristan?,” I thought this morning as I stared up Hottentot Gulch and the near-vertical path extending up it. That was the understatement of the year, but never mind: I stuck my head down and began to climb. We had a 2,060-meter ascent (about 6,800 feet) in front of us because we were climbing the summit of Tristan's Queen Mary's Peak.
Queen Mary's Peak dominates the island of Tristan. It is a near-perfect volcanic cone, with deep gullies radiating from its summit before it drops near vertically down steep side cliffs to the narrow Settlement plain below.
After an hour of steady climbing, we had left the coastal plain of the Settlement far behind. A distant set of buildings was clustered below us. Albatrosses circled around as we headed to the top of the cliffs, known locally as “the Base.” There we rested in the sunshine, and for the first time could see the ash cone of the Peak itself, sloping more gradually up in front of us.
Then the weather turned. Locals often say Tristan can experience four seasons in one day, and we soon found out why: The bright sunshine was swiftly replaced by a damp and swirling mist that closed in around us. There was nothing to do but move on to keep warm. Soon we couldn't see more than a few yards in front of us. We blindly followed our guides as they weaved their way steadily up through the bog ferns, the sounds of nesting yellow-nosed albatrosses, or “mollies” drifting through the mist.
After a couple of hours, the gradient became steeper. We were now on the cone itself, ash cinders uncertain under foot, every two steps forward resulting in one step slid back. Undeterred we scrambled onward and upward, determined to reach the top.
After about six hours of climbing, we emerged from the mist. The summit of Queen Mary's Peak was in front of us. As we sat in bright sunshine, the mist enveloped the island below like a dense white blanket. We finally found ourselves standing on the summit, a place where only a few hundred people had ever stood.
It had been a serious climb, but we knew the job was only half done. After stopping briefly for lunch and a quick dip in the icy pond that sits in the volcano's crater, it was time to head back into the mist. We retraced our steps down the seemingly invisible path back to the edge of “the Base” and the Settlement plain below. Nursing sore legs, I hobbled back to my homestay for a hot meal and a warm bath. I now realized what it means to take a “fair walk” on Tristan!
March 20, 2013
By Steve Cole
Life on Tristan da Cunha has a number of challenges, none more so than balancing the books. The economy of the islands is hugely reliant on the lobster fishery, which provides more than 80 percent of the islanders' income. But they are always keen on finding new sources of income. Whether it's through selling stamps, handicrafts, or other souvenirs, it's important for them to develop additional sources of revenue for their remote community.
This is the task that islander Dawn Repetto set for herself when she took over as tourism coordinator in 2009. She has been working hard to develop new ideas for diversifying the island economy.
Dawn's most recent project has been to launch a new brand of island knitwear. Given the catchy name 37 Degrees South (after the southerly latitude of the islands), the knitwear is made from wool sheared from the sheep that roam freely on Tristan. The men of the island shear the sheep by hand, and then hand the fleeces over to a team of more than 50 women. After the fleeces are spun into loose coils called skeins, they are knit into anything from a thick sweater to a pair of socks.
I had to take the opportunity to get a sweater knitted when on the island, and islander Rosemary Glass kindly agreed to knit it for me. The women of Tristan have knitted all their lives; watching them chat among themselves while working their knitting needles in a lightning-fast blur of activity is really something to see. I was soon the proud owner of a thick sweater, the first item carrying the 37 Degrees South brand.
I asked Dawn whether she had other plans for obtaining income for the islands.
“Well, 37 Degrees South is a great start,” she said. “It will hopefully be a great way of generating income for the people of Tristan, and is also an opportunity to showcase our wonderful knitwear to the outside world.”
But it's not only about the rare island wool.
“Our unique stamps and coins have created interest from collectors for some time now, and I have been working on some other ideas,” she said. “We have even considered bottling the incredibly pure water that we have on Tristan. Balancing the books is essential if we are to keep the community of Tristan alive.”
So who knows what's next on Dawn's horizon? Watch this space!
March 18, 2013
By Steve Cole
Since my first day on Tristan, I had been looking forward to going for a dive and exploring the islands' remarkable and diverse marine life. Equipped with a set of begged and borrowed diving gear, my dive buddy for the day Norman Glass, and I headed out of the harbor in a tiny catamaran. The dive was on.
Our destination was Cave Point, the southernmost point on Tristan da Cunha. A mysterious wreck had been located there a short while ago. Our job was to take metal samples from the wreck so that they could be analyzed by maritime historians. Hopefully, we would then be able to solve the mystery of the wreck at Cave Point.
We managed two dives to explore the wreck. Each was a challenge, because it is located close to the west side of a string of rocks and inside the breaking waves. After being tossed around in the swell for a bit, we found the wreck: a steel-ribbed vessel more than 70 meters (230 feet) in length, with the remains of the hull stretched out in front of us. Little is known about how she came to perish here in this remotest of places. . What we do know is that the riveted method of construction indicates the vessel was certainly built before World War II, making her at least 70 years old.
After taking samples of metal from the hull, we surveyed the rest of the wreck. It must have been a very impressive ship in its day. Around 10 meters (32 feet) across, its mighty frame was now heavily rusted and covered with algae and other marine life; the sea was beginning the process of claiming the ship as its own. Clustered around the wreck, I observed “five fingers,” a fish named after the five finger-like stripes on their backs. There was also a rich variety of seaweed and giant kelp that provided shelter for many types of marine life, including a pink species of starfish and whelks.
On our second dive, we surveyed a wider area around the wreck, where we found two huge anchors three to four meters (10 to 13 feet) across on the seabed floor. Were these anchors connected to the wreck? Or had we found evidence of another vessel that had met her end cast against the rocks in one of the harsh storms that often rock the islands of Tristan?
Air running low, we briefly paused to photograph the anchors before heading back to the surface and back home. As we bounced across the waves in our boat, I couldn't help but wonder what was the story of this vessel, and how did she come to meet her tragic end dashed against the rocks of Tristan?
March 15, 2013
By Steve Cole
All the lobster caught by the fishermen of Tristan da Cunha gets processed at a small factory on the island itself. The factory provides permanent employment for more than 20 full-time staff and as many as 100 islanders in times of peak fishing. It provides essential income to islanders, not only to fishermen but also to the women who pack and process the catch.
Erik McKenzie, the factory manager, kindly agreed to take me on a tour of the factory so that I could watch the processing of the nearly four tons of lobster we had caught the previous day. I was suitably dressed for the tour with rubber boots, a white lab coat, and a particularly fetching hairnet.
I was immediately impressed with the modern facilities. Completed just 520 days after the previous factory was destroyed by fire in 2008, this factory must have been a huge logistical challenge to build, particularly given Tristan's remoteness.
The factory not only was built to strict European Union standards but also had to be able to withstand Tristan's harsh climate, with wind forces of up to 100 knots and seismic events up to 7.5 on the Richter scale.
The factory produces whole cooked and frozen lobsters as well as frozen lobster tails. Erik took me through the stages of processing the lobster, from its arrival and weighing fresh off the longboats through to its boxing up and storage in the chiller before transport to Cape Town, South Africa.
Groups of Tristanian women smiled as I watched them carefully pack up the lobster–my white hairnet was clearly a great source of amusement for them! Older men, with faces showing years of hard-earned experience, sat making up the boxes in the warehouse in which the lobster would finally be packed.
Products from this remotest of factories end up in markets as far away as the United States as well as Japan, where lobster is a traditional wedding dish and sought after for high-quality sashimi. But Erik told me that new markets are needed to help keep this vital source of revenue for Tristanians profitable.
“We run a tight ship here,” Erik said. “We operate to at least European Union standards in the hope that the European Union will soon allow us to send our lobster there.”
So a message to my fellow European readers - keep looking out on your shopping shelves for “Tristanian lobster.” Let's hope we also get a chance to try this fantastic lobster in Europe soon!
March 13, 2013
By Steve Cole
It was 5 a.m., and the sun was just coming over the horizon. Then came the dull sound of someone banging on a “dong,” one of the huge empty gas cylinders that are hung around the village. After nearly a month of bad weather and much to the relief of Tristanians, the dong was finally being rung: It was a fishing day.
There is only one commercial fishery in the Tristan archipelago, a certified, well-managed fishery for the Tristan rock lobster (Jasus tristani), known locally as “crayfish.” While the outer islands are fished by the 62-meter (203-foot) MV Edinburgh, the islanders continue their small-boat fishery around Tristan da Cunha's waters much in the same way as their ancestors have done for generations. On fishing days, the islanders' nine longboats head out of the harbor, their two-man crews armed with lobster pots and small round nets, and each heading to their own secret fishing ground.
Yawning and bleary-eyed, I headed out of the harbor with fishermen Larry and Christopher Swain aboard the Sea Spray, the small vessel used by locals to collect the catch from the longboats and bring it back for processing. It was time to truly test out my sea legs, with a day spent out with the fishermen of Tristan.
We soon caught up with one longboat, its storage compartment rapidly filling with freshly caught lobster. A fisherman worked his way through the catch, carefully casting undersized lobster back into the sea. The larger lobsters would be dropped into trays, sealed with the number of the longboat, and handed over to us in the Sea Spray. It was a nervous moment for me as I pulled the trays aboard. Both vessels bobbing in the swell, mindful that I held in my hands not only a tray containing perhaps 50 highly valued lobster, but also the fruits of many hours of labor by the fishermen who handed them to me.
We spent the day going from longboat to longboat to collect the catch, punctuated by Larry and Christopher telling me tales of fishing on Tristan. Larry said when he was an apprentice fisherman, he suffered so badly from seasickness that he would often feel ill as soon as the dong rang, just knowing that soon he would be at sea.
Once the final longboat was safely back in the harbor, we hauled up our own couple of lobster pots and headed back to Tristan with the sun setting behind us. That evening, Larry and Christopher sent up my share of the catch: a whole bag of lobsters. Their generosity was a perfect end to what had been a fantastic day at sea.
March 11, 2013
By Steve Cole
I set off with my local guide, Jeffrey Green, to the day's destination: a breeding colony of endangered Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross, known affectionately as “mollies” on Tristan.
Mollies nest high above the cliffs, on what the locals call "the Base," which rise up from the Settlement plain. Between us and the Base lay a steep, two-hour climb.
It was hard going as we made our way up what Jeffrey had referred to as the "road up to the Base." To me, it was little more than a goat track! As we climbed, I could hear the mollies swooping around our heads as they used the wind to gain altitude and soar.
Once on top, we rested and gazed down at the Settlement plain, about 500 meters (1,640 feet) below. I could see the Base sloping slowly upward in front of me through lush bog ferns and island trees. And in the undergrowth were nest upon nest of mollies.
Mollies are found only on these islands, and are one of the smallest species of albatross, with a wingspan of around two meters (6½ feet). They are also one of the most beautiful, a magnificent sight with their distinctive golden stripe along the top of their bill. Left undisturbed, mollies can live as long as 40 years. However, there are reported to be fewer than 30,000 pairs of mollies on the islands and their population is declining The reasons for this are unclear, but one potential factor is that they get caught on fishing-vessel lines as they dive for fish and squid.
Mollies return to Tristan around August each year to breed. By April, the chicks take that first perilous plunge off the Base toward the sea in search of food. It will be the start of an epic journey: They will not return to Tristan for about five years.
Jeffrey and I spent a couple of hours walking across the Base, as the huge volcanic ash cone of the “Peak,” which dominates Tristan, loomed on our right. Among the nests, we found “molly knobs,” which are clearer areas of undergrowth where adolescent and non-breeding birds court in a detailed ritual by fanning their tails and making loud calls.
Finally, we reached our destination, a series of crater lakes known on Tristan as “The Ponds.” It's a dramatic sight: These cold, dark lakes are sunk deep into the side of the volcano, with mollies nesting all around.
After a hard walk, I couldn't resist taking the plunge, and much to Jeffrey's amusement went for a refreshing swim in one pond. Our time was up much too soon as the sun began to set. It was time to start the perilous descent down the cliffs to the thin strip of land and the Settlement below.
March 8, 2013
By Steve Cole
Poor weather was the norm for several days, with harsh northwesterly winds sweeping across Tristan da Cunha , the largest island in the archipelago and the only inhabited one. But when the sun finally emerged, I swiftly made my way out to “the Hardies,” a couple of rock stacks at the very end of the island's narrow strip of habitable land. A resident had mentioned that there was a colony of seals living on the beach there. This was something I had to see.
I set off walking along beautiful and dramatic cliff tops as albatrosses soared overhead. Antarctic terns darted around in the stiff breeze, staying close to nests where they had recently laid eggs.
As I approached the Hardies, I noticed a rope hanging down over the cliff and lowered myself to the beach below. There they were: a colony of subantarctic fur seals basking in the afternoon sun.
I was witnessing something very rare: the islands comprising the Tristan da Cunha archipelago are home to about 350,000 subantarctic fur seals, or 80 percent of the world's population. Every October, adult males come ashore to compete for territory on the beaches. They then establish groups of females for breeding. Historically hunted for their pelts, oil, and meat, these seals are now largely protected and their numbers are recovering around the islands.
The males, known as bulls, are fine animals, nearly two meters long with powerful, broad bodies and long white whiskers. They have a rather curious tuft of hair on their heads, which helps distinguish them from the females. The bull of the colony rose up as I approached, letting out a loud bark clearly designed to discourage me from advancing. I decided to heed his warning and settled down against the rocks to spend some time among these fine animals.
The females and pups gradually became more comfortable with my presence and moved closer, their curiosity evident. As a pup came within a few feet, I began to realize something: Seals may be beautiful and cute looking animals, but they carry a terrible stink!
Tucked out of the wind underneath the cliff, I spent a couple of hours among the seals, taking photos and observing their distinctive waddling style. Then it was time to leave, the bull barking as I hauled myself back up the cliff and strolled along the cliff tops once again. “The Hardies” is a special place on Tristan – a seal colony in the sun.
March 6, 2013
By Steve Cole
I have spent the past few days since my arrival settling into life in Tristan's only village, Edinburgh of the Seven Seas. Just 262 people live in what the locals call ”the Settlement,” which is situated on a small, flat plain clinging to the side of a dramatic 2,060-meter (6,758-foot) volcano that dominates the island. Huge cliffs tower over the Settlement, with albatrosses nesting high up on the bluffs.
The Settlement was established in the early 19th century by British soldiers who stayed behind after the evacuation of their military garrison. Over the years, the number of residents swelled as the islands attracted settlers, adventurers, and shipwreck survivors. There are only seven family names here, but their English, Scottish, American, Dutch and Italian origins reflect the wide range of people who have come to make up this rarest of communities.
The islanders speak to each other in “Tristan English.” an eclectic mix of Old English, Dutch, Danish, and Italian, along with a few words from the United States and South Africa thrown in. Although their dialect can be hard to understand at times, the helpful islanders always try to avoid using too much Tristan slang when speaking to visitors.
The islanders are largely self-sufficient, generating most of their revenue from fishing the waters around the islands. They also produce the mainstays of their diet, carefully managing small stocks of sheep and cattle, and growing potatoes and vegetables in a series of walled fields, known locally as “the Patches,” about three kilometers (two miles) from the Settlement.
While tiny, the Settlement has all the needed amenities. There is a school, two small churches, a cafe, a post office, a hospital, a supermarket, and a very helpful tourist center. The rural nature of the islands is always apparent--you often find cows blocking the door to the Internet cafe. Social life on the island is based around Prince Philip Hall, which hosts dances and family celebrations, as well as the Albatross Bar, which understandably can lay claim to being the most remote bar in the world.
When visiting Tristan, most people stay with a family, although self-catering accommodation is available. My hosts, Ricky and Amanda Swain, have made a real effort to welcome me into the island community. Tristanians are regularly visiting one other's homes over the course of the day, and all have shown me the warmest welcome when I tag along.
Since Tristan da Cunha is an overseas territory of the United Kingdom, its inhabitants are British citizens. The UK might be far away, but the links to it are still all around you. Islanders have a London dialing code, and the Settlement has a UK post code. It even has a bright UK red post box for mail. I couldn't't help but be struck by the uniqueness of life on Tristan. What an incredible place!
March 4, 2013
By Steve Cole
“Welcome to Tristan,” said Sean Burns, the Administrator of Tristan da Cunha, as he shook my hand at the island's tiny harbor. He headed a welcoming party of islanders who warmly greeted the new arrivals from the fishing vessel MV Edinburgh. After crossing about 1,500 nautical miles of the South Atlantic Ocean, I was standing on the most remote inhabited island in the world.
The voyage to the Tristan da Cunha archipelago from Cape Town had taken eight days. The first two days proved relatively calm, with the MV Edinburgh making good headway as humpback and southern right whales blew spouts of water in the distance and dolphins played in the vessel's bow wave. But conditions worsened as we continued south, with 40-knot winds and a seven-meter (23-foot) swell that made for slow progress over the next few days.
Although passengers found the conditions difficult, the fishermen carried on with their work, seemingly oblivious to the pitching and rolling of the vessel. They set about fixing lobster pots and splicing ropes in preparation for fishing for rock lobster, called crayfish, around Tristan.
The birdlife also seemed to thrive in the heavy weather, wandering and black-browed albatrosses gliding over the waves as they followed in the vessel's wake. Endangered spectacled petrels soared overhead and smaller pintado petrels darted around the peaks and troughs of the waves, completely at home in this harsh environment.
At last, the magnificent island of Tristan loomed into view after we had been more than a week at sea. Heavy clouds hung over its huge volcano, making the island look dark and moody. I felt that I had just walked into a scene from the film “Jurassic Park.”
After a night sheltering from the weather in the lee of the island, our vessel headed to Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, the islands' only settlement. We waited there for a brief break in the weather so that two zodiac speedboats could come from the harbor to greet us. Carrying only emergency hand luggage, I scrambled down the rope ladder into the zodiacs rolling in the swell. They raced us back to the harbor; the other cargo would have to stay on board until the weather calmed, likely at least a few days.
But the long voyage was over. After the rigors of the crossing and the mad dash over the breaking waves into the harbor, I stood in the sunshine, surrounded by a smiling, very friendly group of islanders. I had finally arrived.
“Why Tristan da Cunha?”
March 1, 2013
By Steve Cole
I boarded the fishing vessel MV Edinburgh for a week-long voyage from Cape Town, at the tip of South Africa, to a faraway set of islands deep in the South Atlantic known as Tristan da Cunha.
I had been warned that the crossing would be rough and that conditions on the fishing vessel would be challenging, but there are few choices when traveling to Tristan da Cunha. The MV Edinburgh is the lifeline to the islands: its monthly visits for fishing in the islands' waters provide essential income to residents, much-needed supplies from the mainland, and a means of obtaining emergency medical assistance. On this journey, the MV Edinburgh was heading to Tristan to fish for what islanders call crayfish–a tasty species of rock lobster that has made its home around the islands.
Seven days, or maybe more, of heavy seas lay ahead of me, I couldn't't help but ask myself, “Why again am I going to Tristan?”
The simple answer was that Tristan da Cunha ranks among the world's most unspoiled archipelagos. The 262 residents of Tristan live among a dense array of wildlife, much of which is not found anywhere else on the planet. The islands are the only place where you can see such rare species as the Tristan albatross (locally known as “gonies”) and the endangered Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross, or “mollies.”
The islands are also home to more than 90 percent of the world's northern rockhopper penguins and vast numbers of subantarctic fur seals. Recovering whale populations, including the little known shepherd's beaked whale, patrol its shores.
After settling in, I headed up to the bridge of the vessel, where I found the magnificently named Capt. Clarence October Member of the Order of the British Empire in command.
I asked him when I could expect to reach the islands. “It should be around a week, but that depends on sea conditions,” he replied, with his broad and ever-present smile, “But don't worry--it shouldn't be as bad as the trip we took a while ago. That one took nearly two weeks; we had a spot of bad weather.”
It wasn't quite the answer I had hoped for! I was a little apprehensive as we left the safety of Cape Town's harbor and the view of iconic Table Mountain slowly faded into the MV Edinburgh's wake.
Nevertheless, I knew that a week or so of being tossed around in heavy seas would be a small price to pay to have the opportunity to visit Tristan da Cunha, the most remote inhabited island in the world.