Tristan Adventure 1: Journey and arrival

Hello outside world! I’m safely ensconced in Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, the capital (and only settlement) of Tristan da Cunha. For those just joining us, this trip to the most remote inhabited island in the world (some 2100 km south of St. Helena (which is, itself, not close to much else other than similarly remote Atlantic Islands), and a full 2800 km west of Cape Town, South Africa) is one of the perks of my job working at the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science.  I’m down here to do the first census of Endangered Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross (Thalassarche chlororhynchos) on the main island of Tristan, and to work with the Tristan Conservation Department until the end of November. So, needless to say (and at long last!), the next few months I’ll be living up to the “field” portion of this blog’s moniker more than in the past.

A joyful journey to Heathrow along the M1 and M25 (known as one of the largest carparks in England!), a 3-hour flight delay, 9 hours, and one barely passable airplane meal later, I awoke to the trickle of light coming through the shade of the British Airways 747.  Peeking through the blind so as not to wake my fellow cattle passengers, my first sight of Africa was the red sands of the Kalahari Desert and the Skeleton Coast of Namibia.

About 90 minutes later, we arrived in Cape Town on a spectacular day with Table Mountain in excellent form.  A colleague picked me up at the airport and dropped me off at my accommodation in the City Bowl.  The weekend was spent getting orientated, and seeing another friend who works on large mammal ecology and conservation in Southern Africa.  We journeyed around the Cape Peninsula, taking in the fantastic mammals – eland, bontebok, Cape mountain zebra, rock hyraxes (known locally as “dassies”), and a troupe of baboons while he explained the many and varied conservation, human-wildlife conflict, and management issues he and his students were working on.  And what better way to end the day than discussing lion trophic ecology over grilled ostrich on the Waterfront?

I spent two more days running around acquiring sundry and miscellaneous field equipment at the various (and interesting!) specialty shops of Cape Town before arriving at the offices of Ovenstone Agencies (Pty.) Ltd. in Green Point.  Ovenstone operates the fishery for Tristan rock lobster (Jasus tristani), and two ships – the MFV Edinburgh, a passenger, cargo and factory fishing boat, and the MV Baltic Trader, a passenger/cargo vessel.  I went out on the Edinburgh with 8 other passengers, including a dentist making her 4th trip to the island (and 3rd with her now 4-year-old daughter), the manager of the lobster factory on Tristan and one of the supervisors from Cape Town (originally fro Bulgaria), and 4 Tristanians, including a 7-week-old on his first journey after being born in Cape Town in June.

After 2 days, we were into steady northwest winds, and very lumpy seas.  The saving grace of this voyage was I had the luxury of being seasick in the sink in the privacy of my own cabin.  Now, I’ve been on ocean-going vessels in eastern Canada, the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, and off Australia, and never – never! – have I had such a case of mal-de-mer.  Thankfully, by day 6, the winds had shifted around to the southwest and were from behind.  This afforded several days of small luxuries, like being able to eat more than bread, water, and an apple in the run of a day.

But the northwesterlies had slowed us down, and our 7-day passage turned into 8, 9, 10 days.  On the following Friday (i..e, 10 days after we left Cape Town), we pulled into the lee on the southeastern coast of Tristan da Cunha, the engines stopped, and a wave of excitement permeated the passengers in the mess as we chowed down on oxtail stew.  The only problem was that the settlement, and “harbour” were on the northwestern side (as in, on the exact opposite side of the island from which we current found ourselves at anchor).  The winds were too strong, the swells too great, and the boats that were to fetch us unable to leave the harbour.  But a pleasant day was had by all watching early 1990s British mysteries on DVD, and I spent some time getting some old data in order (after a week of not being able to look at my computer screen without inducing emesis, it was actually quite enjoyable!).

Saturday morning came, and the engines started up.  We rushed up to grab a quick breakfast in anticipation of being ashore for lunch.  But it was not to be.  After a quick peek, the seas were still too rough.  Back to the anchor, and Helen Mirren solving murders in 1980s London.  But, in mid-afternoon, things looked promising, we steamed north, and next thing we knew, the Tristan Conservation boat Arctic Tern was alongside, the Tristan flag flapping stiffly in the wind.  We rushed back to our cabins, suited up for departure, grabbed our cabin baggage (stowed baggage and cargo would have to be landed when it was calmer still), and made our way to the deck.  The police boat had been craned up next to the Edinburgh, we hopped in – 9 passengers, 3 dogs, and bits of kit, and made for the harbour.  In a blink it was all over, and we were bailing out onto the jetty, passing gear up the stairs, and shedding our waterproofs and PFDs.

Of all the beach landings I’ve done on islands in Alaska, Newfoundland, and Australia, this was one of the fastest (thanks to the two 120 hp motors), and consequently most frantic.  Literally within 15 minutes, I went from waiting on the Edinburgh to standing on Tristan da Cunha.

But now, I’m dry (aside from the near 100% ambient humidity), warm(ish, it is winter south of the equator, after all), and I’ve had lovely fish pie, date pudding, and cheese sandwiches.  The island store opened again on Monday and after a visit to the Finance Department (which acts as the island bank – it’s cash only on Tristan), I was supplied for the next few days.  Monday was also when the cargo from the ship, including food, fuel, supplies for the store, and the passenger baggage came ashore.  Two barges go out from the harbour to the ship, anchored about 400m offshore, and the goods are craned from the ship onto the barges, which then chug back to the harbour where the harbour crane reverses the process.  When the ship is unloading, most other work on the island stops (particularly that involving able-bodied men), but that enabled me to take care of some running around (see Clarence, the island’s only police officer, to get my passport stamped and say hello, thank Dawn for arranging our accommodation and learn that one must dial 89 and then an outside number, and stop by the admin building to chat finances).  I can also happily report that the bread maker produced an excellent loaf of whole wheat on my first attempt.  I’ve got less than three months to perfect it.

Science-wise, I haven’t even started yet, and we won’t start gathering data until the S.A. Agulhas II takes us 220 miles south to Gough Island in about two weeks.  It took more than 2 weeks to get from my front door to my field accommodation (which, incidentally, is spectacular), but I’ve seen some incredible wildlife (including my first albatross since 2010, and my first wild penguins!), thought a lot about science, scientific expeditions (including the trials and tribulations, particularly those in the days of olde), made some friends, and can heartily recommend the grilled springbok paired with a Western Cape merelot at a little place on a side street in Cape Town near the cable car to Table Mountain.