Leaving the Island

It is nearly 19 weeks since Bee and I arrived back in Scotland after our time – nearly 2 ½ years – on the island of Tristan da Cunha.  Which means that it is 22 weeks since we left the island itself.  How did that happen?  Where did all that time go?

Bigger questions are all to do with the impressions that we have on re-joining the developed world, which in turn is a reflection of how we had become accustomed to life on the island, and the extent to which our outlooks have changed.  Everyone we meet back here poses the same line of questions, and it is natural that we have become reflective as a result of our experiences.

Perhaps the greatest difference we have been aware of, from the time that we set foot off the boat in Cape Town to face an on-going exposure to the modern world, is to do with the rampant commercialisation that we are all faced with.  On the island choice was limited and basics only were available, which is exactly as you would expect when the shop supplies to a population of just 246 people.  In Cape Town we found shops and restaurants with an endless range of goods available.  We were not used to this!    Not only are the shops full of stuff that we really do not need, but also there are extraordinary numbers of on-line traders looking for payment today for delivery tomorrow. This observation is, literally, brought home now that we are back in Scotland.  We are half way through building our house, and the range of goods available is simply overwhelming.  On the island, there might be a possibility of a new lavatory being available from Public Works if your existing one should crack, whereas here there are literally thousands of different shapes, styles and prices.  The same goes for kitchens, floor coverings, light fittings.  The world has become complicated, and perhaps in the last 2½ years Bee and I have become simplified.

One of the things we have both noticed is variety of bird life and the amount of bird song that we have in Scotland.  Tristan effectively has no song birds.  Certainly the island has interesting bird life, but the birds are generally silent.  The Northern Rockhopper Penguins come ashore to ‘rookeries’ (as if they were rooks!) but the only sound they make is a discordant screech if they are handled, as for example when the Conservation Department carries out a ringing operation in the rookeries.  The Yellow Nosed Albatross is silent, apart from sometimes a warning bill-clicking if you approach within a few inches of them when they are on their nest.  So naturally we are strongly aware of the birds now that we are back home.  The leader of the orchestra is the blackbird, which starts up the dawn chorus at around 4.00 in the morning.  We have friendly robins cheering up every corner of the garden with their song, a range of finches in the trees announcing their territory to all comers.  We have several species of duck flying a circuit on their way to land on the river, and overhead a skein of geese will be chattering among themselves.  Also overhead, swallows and swifts screech as they hunt insects in the evening, and oystercatchers add another dimension to the aerial sounds.  We even have a cock pheasant in the garden, strutting his stuff and calling to the world while his mate looks after her clutch of eggs somewhere in the undergrowth, ready to protect the baby chicks from neighbourhood cats. We have seductive wood pigeon calls and discordant jackdaw calls. Above all are the owls, which add night-time soul to the woodlands with their haunting calls one to another.   It is all so different from Tristan, and no doubt we appreciate the diversity of bird life more than before we went to the sI suppose that diversity is one of the main differences between Tristan and Scotland.  Not diversity in the narrow social sense, but true diversity covering all subjects.  Compared with Tristan, we have here a diversity of farming systems, of trees, of landscapes.  There is diversity of people, and the things they get up to at work and in their leisure time.  There is even diversity of places to go and eat or pubs in which to go and socialise!  This is all to be expected, and after the privations of Tristan da Cunha it is only to be expected that we feel the difference.  Indeed, there is no doubt that our time on the island has sharpened our appreciation of our own country.

A rookery of northern rockhopper penguins
Yellow nosed albatros nesting on nearby Nightingale Island

As also can be expected, one of the greatest differences that we see – and appreciate – is in the everyday shopping.  Where we live in Scotland we have a mini-supermarket just a 5 minute stroll from the door, which is open from 6 in the morning to 11 at night, seven days a week.  What service!  The shop on the island opened at 8 and closed at 2.30, Monday to Friday.  Even then, as can be imagined, the range of goods was really limited.  In particular, fruit and vegetables were often not in stock, or were in poor condition.  This was all part of a chicken-and-egg situation in which poor availability of fresh foods (fruit and vegetables) resulted in a low interest in routinely using such foods.  This is particularly sad when you consider that the island could become self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables, if only there was sufficient interest in each household growing their own.

No fruit and veg in the island shop (but plenty of fizzy drinks)

Island life was delightfully simple – it had to be.  I now have to adapt to complications and regulations that would have been unthinkable on Tristan da Cunha.  For example, we are in the middle of building our house, and it is just astonishing how many and how complex the regulations are that I have to comply with.  For example, the Building Inspector told me that I had to lower all the light switches by 20cms, so that they are easy to reach if one is sitting in a wheelchair.  And the water inspector told me that an outside standpipe had to be equipped with a second double-check valve, in addition to the one already fitted.  None of this on Tristan – there you go through the simplest of procedures to get permission to build, and then you get on with it with no regulations to comply with of any sort.  Possibly the ideal system would be somewhere between these two extremes!

One question is – What Next?  Getting the house finished is top priority.  After that – watch this space!!  We may well go off and do more exciting things, probably involving islands, boats and land use.  It is perfectly possible that I will try to weave stories of our next activities into this site.  In any case, I still have material all prepared for a number of articles on Tristan, and I hope to get these written and published before long.

It is not a busy pub – but it is a pub!  The Albatros bar.





Extreme Storms on Tristan da Cunha

The last few weeks have seen extreme weather conditions of such a ferocity that they have been unusual, even for the windy island of Tristan.

The first storm-related events were in connection with the fishing- and cargo-ship the Edinburgh, which arrived off the island from Cape Town on 21 June.  She was carrying 12 passengers, fresh fruit and vegetables and other foodstuffs, and general cargo.  Because of sea conditions the passengers were unable to disembark and the ship sheltered in the lee of the island.  The following day there was a brief improvement in the weather, but a very bad forecast for the following week, and the unusual decision was made to anchor the Edinburgh to the east of the island and to take the passengers off in two RIB’s.  It must have been a very uncomfortable trip into Tristan’s tiny storm-bound harbour.

The weather was monitored closely to seize any opportunity to continue unloading, and an attempt was made on June 28 but had to be abandoned.  It was not until the 9 July that conditions permitted unloading to be recommenced in earnest, and the Edinburgh finally departed for Cape Town on 11 July.  Thus it was three weeks that the ship was at the island, waiting for the weather.  For the whole of that time the passengers who were due to depart on the ship were on permanent standby to go on board, with their bags packed, their good-byes said, and their refrigerators cleaned out.

This was just the forerunner of a very serious storm which hit the island on the night of 18 July.  An idea as to just how serious this was can be conveyed by listing the damage that was done by the storm.  The electrical system went down, and many buildings had some or all of their roofs stripped off by the wind – this included the Admin Building, the Police Station, the Post Office + Tourism Building, the Mechanical Workshop, the School, and the Residency.  The damage done by the storm was not limited to the removal of roofing and walling sheets, but since the storm was accompanied by very heavy rain there was substantial damage done to the contents of some of the buildings.  The extent of this damage is not yet known, but we can probably assume that most or all of the computers and archives have been destroyed.  One of the most serious losses has been the entire communications system, consisting of telephones and internet.  The island was dependent on the use of satellite phones to raise the alarm with the outside world.  Since then a line of contact has been arranged through CTBTO, which has a station on the island with a weak but functioning link to the outside world.

It is a great relief to be able to relate that no person was injured on the night of the storm.  There was also quite limited damage to any of the islanders’ houses, with just one house experiencing significant damage.  Also, the electrical system is now again operational, and by great good fortune the island shop and warehouse were not damaged, so food security is not an issue.

What is remarkable is the speed of the steps that have been taken by the British Government in the few days since the alarm was raised.  An extra-to-schedule ship will be leaving Cape Town in the next few days, bringing materials and equipment to get things repaired as far as possible.  Contractors have been appointed, and electrical and communication engineers will be travelling out on the ship.  Also on the ship will be the Administrator and his wife, who will be breaking off their UK leave and returning to the island to help co-ordinate the works.

The last serious storm to affect Tristan was on 7 June 2001, when 120-mph winds ripped roofs off buildings and when there was apparently heavy loss of cattle.

Part of the Residency roof ripped off
The Police Station – wrecked
The Mechanical Workshop – also wrecked
That’s my old office – and the puddle to the left is where the Agriculture staff tea room used to be
The blue box on its side is the 20′ container that we brought the two bulls in from South Africa – the brown patch is where it used to be before it lept the wall
The assembly hall at the school – where we watched Christmas concerts and where we played badminton


A week of ships

I have mentioned, from time to time, how very few ships there are that come to Tristan, and how their visits are irregular.  Never was this more the case than in the period since our arrival back from leave last September.

Between mid-September and mid-March, a period of six months, we were visited by four yachts, all of which were making their way to Cape Town.  We were also visited by the two deep-sea fishing ships that are operated by Ovenstones, the company with the concession for fishing in these waters.  These two ships, the Edinburgh and the Geo Searcher, normally visit a total of just 9 times each year, and in the six-month period mentioned we had five visits from these fishing vessels.  Apart from the four yachts and these fishing ships, in the whole of the six month period we had NO ships visit!

All of a sudden, this dearth of ships turned into a glut, with visits from a yacht, three cruise ships and a research ship all in the space of six days!

The yacht was a 45’ sloop called Jonathan.  This is one of the more interesting yachts to have visited here.  She was built to withstand the challenges of polar regions, with an extra-thick alloy hull and with generous insulation.  She is owned and operated by a Canadian / Dutch team, and she carries out personal charters for up to five people.  For some time she has been specialising in cruises in Patagonia and Antarctica, but now she is going to move on to new cruising waters.  I suspect that the new waters will be announced once they arrive in Cape Town – if I were in their shoes I would definitely choose warmer waters!  Jonathan dropped anchor here on March 15th, during a spell of particularly nasty weather.

The following day, on March 16th we had the arrival of Le Lyriol.  This small cruise ship is one of the nine ships in the French Companie de Ponant, which bizarrely is the only ocean cruise ship company based in France. This marked a repeat visit since she visited last year also.  She carries 264 passengers and 139 crew, many of whom of course are engaged with the excursions.  They were lucky because weather conditions were good, allowing the passengers to come ashore, to enjoy the unique ambience of the island, to buy handcrafts and souvenirs, and to frequent the pub that had been specially opened for them.

Le Lyriol, with yacht Jonathan in the foreground
A zodiac load of passengers from Le Lyriol coming into the harbour

Sharing the island with the passengers of Le Lyriol were the passengers of the Barque Europa, which also arrived on the 16th of March.  Again the Europa was an old friend, having visited Tristan last year.  The Europa is also a cruise ship, but a very different kettle of fish in that she is a barque rigged sailing ship, carrying only about 45 passengers.  The passengers were of some 25 different nationalities.  As you will see from the photograph, a barque rig is a 3-master, with the for’ard two masts rigged with square sails and the aft mast rigged fore-and-aft.

Barque Europa from the harbour

All these ships had departed by the 19th, in time for the arrival of another cruise ship.  The Silver Cloud is part of Silversea Cruises, based in Monaco and with its main administrative offices in London.  You can get an idea of this vessel with a few simple figures – maximum 296 passengers, 222 crew, and 18 brand new zodiacs!

Silver Cloud

The final ship to arrive in this busy week was the RRS Discovery, which arrived on March 21st.  This Royal Research Ship represents the serious end of research into resources in the southern ocean, and I hope to dedicate a future article on research and strategic efforts on fishing in these waters.  She was here on a joint expedition shared by the Blue Belt Programme and BAS (British Antarctic Surveys).   The Discovery arrived here after a program of work around the Falkland Islands, and she was to go on to spend time based on St Helena and the waters around that island.  When she arrived here, she dropped off three specialists to work ashore, and then she went off to carry out ten days research work on the seamounts that lie within the 200-mile Tristan da Cunha Marine Protected Area, then she returned to Tristan to pick up the three specialists, to give a presentation on the fisheries-based observations and deductions so far, to pick up two island hitch-hikers who are off to spend six months on St Helens, and to take a large quantity of potatoes that are being sent from Tristan da Cunha to Saint Helena.

RRS Discovery

There is a particularly interesting historical link between the present RRS Discovery that visited us in March, with the original RRS Discovery that was built in Dundee in 1901 which is now a museum ship in the City of Dundee.  The original Discovery was in fact a Barque.  One clever concept that the original Discovery carried was that the fore two masts, and their sails and rigging, were identical.  This meant that the design carried exchangeability, and that spares of all sorts that had to be carried on board could be standardised across the two masts.  The Discovery headed off in 1901 on the British National Antarctic Expedition, with Scott and Shackleton on board.  Later, in 1925, the Discovery headed off on an Oceanographic Expedition to South Georgia.  One of her duties on the way there was to deliver mail to the island of  –  Tristan da Cunha!




Elections on Tristan da Cunha

With democratic process coming under scrutiny in many parts of the world, and elections being held in many countries including in Europe, the United Kingdom, Turkey and Venezuela, it could be interesting to have a look at the recent elections held on the world’s most remote inhabited island.

Every three years Tristan da Cunha holds elections.  The object of the elections is for the islanders to select members of the Island Council, and at the same time the Chief Islander is selected.  All islanders aged 18 and over are allowed to vote – currently there are 213 persons on the electoral roll, out of a total population of 247.  In order to stand on the Island Council, a person has to be aged 21 or over.

The 2019 election team – the Council Clerk Geraldine Repetto and myself as Presiding Officer

The electoral process on the island is quite straightforward, as you would expect with such a limited population.  I became quite involved in the process since I was appointed Presiding Officer for this year’s elections.  The election was set for 26 March, and this meant that around four weeks before Election Day we announced Nomination Day, with notices announcing that day being pinned up on the notice boards and being sent around the Departments.  This gave the people time to discuss within the community whom they would like to see on the Island Council, and whom they would like to see as Chief Islander.

Nomination Day was fixed for the 11th March.  There were eight positions to be filled on the Island Council, and each person being nominated had to submit a form containing his or her name together with the signature of two supporters.  Each Nomination Form covered two separate events, that is the election for a place on the Island Council, and the election to be selected as Chief Islander.  By the closing time on that date we had 13 nominations for the Council and 2 nominations for the Chief Islander – the battle had started!  It should be mentioned that there are no party politics – the contest is every man for himself.

This way to vote!

The Election itself was held in the Council Chambers.  Voting started off being brisk, but by the time the afternoon came along it was decidedly quiet, with just four or five votes being cast an hour.

There are two ‘variations’ to the voting process, which could be described as ‘Tristan specials’, and which are only possible because of the few number of people and the fact that everyone knows everyone.  Firstly, the Council Clerk went around all the pensioners on the island, to see if they wanted to vote and to offer them help them fill in the ballot paper.  This service was very much appreciated, especially by some of the more infirm pensioners who would have found it difficult or impossible to get to the Council Chambers.  There are 70 pensioners on the island at present, which is 33% of the registered voters, and clearly it is really good to be inclusive towards this large sector of the population.

The second variation can be called the Postal Vote, although it cannot really be described as ‘postal’.  At any one time there are always numerous islanders who are off-island.  For example, at present there are quite a number of people who have gone to Cape Town as medivacs, or for other reasons.  There is a Tristan Fisheries man and his wife in the UK helping the refurbishment of a fisheries protection vessel, and there are two girls at school in Winchester who have just recently turned 18. All told there are 23 islanders who are off island and who are registered to vote.  We arranged with these people that we would accept votes being sent by email, since there would be no problem with being sure of the identity of the individual.  We even arranged to take telephone votes if the people so wanted – the Council Clark would confirm the identity of the voter by voice, and then hand me the phone so that I could record the vote, thus the voter would have the confidence of their voting preferences being handled by a neutral expat.  These ‘postal votes’ reflect the personal touch that we can manage on election day thanks to having such a very small population.

The pile of voting papers before the count started. Each paper contained up to 9 votes

At 6.00 in the evening, we checked our emails to make sure there were no last-minute postal votes, and we started the count.  By 7.30 it was all done, subject to the figures being double-checked in the morning, and the provisional results were telephoned through to the Administrator.

There was one last step needed to complete the list of members of the Island Council.  The Constitution provides for 8 elected members on the Island Council, and for 3 further members to be appointed by the Administrator.  He had the task of judging which three islanders would best make up a good balance to complete a strong and effective Island Council – and then to persuade his three chosen people to accept the position.

We had a poll of 74.6% of the electorate.  We have a brand new Island Council, with only 3 people who were also on the council during the previous term.  And we have a new Chief Islander, after the retiring one served for three terms in succession.  Job done – for another three years!



Fourth (and last) Farming News for Tristan da Cunha

I have published below copies of my local newsletter, the Farming News, which I have been putting out to the islanders of Tristan to keep them informed on what has been happening in agriculture on the island.  All islanders are heavily involved in agriculture – every household owns its own cattle and sheep, and every household grows potatoes in one or more Potato Patches, down on the western plain.

It has been vital that I have done my best to involve the islanders in the work that I have been doing.  For any progress to be made, and to be lasting, it is of course key that the islanders themselves are involved, and advocacy has been a major part of my work.  It is quite deliberate that I have referred to my final report, which will be able to give every islander a comprehensive picture of the steps that can be taken towards a more productive farming system.

Meanwhile, we are due to leave Tristan da Cunha in about two weeks time.  There are several more articles that I aim to publish in the coming months, when I am off-island.

TDC Farming News                       Issue 4                           March 2019

This is the fourth, and of course the final, ‘Farming News’ that I have put out in my time on Tristan.  As soon as the Edinburgh arrives back from Cape Town, Bee and I will be boarding, and leaving behind our Tristan friends and the farming challenges on the island.

I would like to use this page to summarise some of the steps that we have been able to take in the last 2 ¼ years, to outline the farming future which is now much more clear, and to make some suggestions to increase productivity.

Firstly, the cattle.  The decision to reduce the quota to one per household has been talked about for the last 40 years.  I have no doubt at all that it was the right decision, and that it will result in better pastures and greater production of meat.  It is only now, at the end of March, that we are coming up to the slaughter deadline for the new quota, and it will take at least three years before the reduced stock numbers are seen throughout the cattle population, including the youngstock.  Provided that the situation is handled properly, the increased growth rates will result in one of two possibilities – either owners will decide to slaughter their steers younger than has been the case up to now, or legislation will catch up with the quicker maturity of the cattle to reduce the compulsory slaughter age.  Either way, this will have the same result of having even fewer animals grazing at any one time.    In turn, this will enable the Department to have better control over the pastures, and it should be that in four or five years time the island will be able to start cutting surplus grass for hay, resulting in a stock of hay for winter feed which in turn, of course, will result in even better growth rates.  In my view this all heralds the most exciting period for the proper management of cattle on Tristan since the early days of man on the island.

Contented cattle grazing and lazing on American Fence, February 2019

Whereas steps towards the progress in productivity in the cattle are now in hand, the improvement in the sheep has not yet started, but it is now planned.  It has now been finally decided to introduce new genetics to the sheep on the island by the use of AI, using semen of Cheviot rams from the UK.  Sheep AI is quite different from cattle AI – in some regards it is more simple, and in other ways it is more complicated.  The first sheep AI programme should be happening in a year’s time, and islanders should be able to repeat the programme every three or four years, aimed at continuous improvement and increased productivity.  The Cheviot breed was chosen because it is hardy (thus suitable for  the harsh Tristan conditions), it has a good carcass quality, and it has excellent wool quality.

Livestock are of course dependent on grass production.  Almost all the soil on the island is extremely acid, with pH levels between 4.5 and 4.8.  To start the process of pH correction, in the last two years 70 tonnes of lime has been spread on the pastures.  Improvement in grass production is visible already.  This is just the start of a large long-term programme.  In round figures, 7 tonnes per hectare is needed on the 350 hectares of pasture, a total of 2,450 tonnes of lime.

Spreading lime near Jenny’s Watron, using the new high capacity machinery.  It would be possible to spread 20 tonnes per day with this machinery.

Lime is not, of course, the only requirement for increased grass production.  We also need to see a concerted programme of surface harrowing, and the regular application of fertiliser, particularly Nitrogen.  Urea contains double the percentage of nitrogen of any other fertiliser available, thus it costs half the amount to ship compared with other fertilisers (per unit of nitrogen) and it is easier to handle and spread.

It has been an interesting two years as far as the Greenhouses are concerned.  In the middle of 2017 a consignment of all sorts of horticultural equipment and materials was received, and this enabled the greenhouses to at last start to become properly productive.  We successfully grew salad crops throughout the winter months, we grew a range of culinary herbs, we grew a range of ornamental plants for sale in the agri shop, and we germinated a large quantity of vegetable plants for islanders to grow-on.  We have established the principle of achieving production in the greenhouses, but in the future it will be necessary to work hard to keep the momentum going to achieve maximum production all through the year.

 A full, busy and productive greenhouse in the winter of 2017

In the last two years there have been two incidents in which the entire consignment of imported fruit and vegetables coming to the island shop had to be dumped.  This highlights the necessity, for strategic reasons, of the island becoming as self-sufficient as possible.  My Final Report illustrates a range of steps that can be taken to improve agricultural production on Tristan.  This includes a proposal for the recycling of ground crayfish shells from the factory, which would undoubtedly help crop and grass production.

Bee and I would like to thank you, the people of Tristan, for your exceptional hospitality and kindness to us during our time on the island.  Best of luck for the future.

Alasdair Wyllie – Agriculture Adviser and Editor of TDC Farming News

Tristan da Cunha and SA Agulhas ll

The word Agulhas means different things to different people.  To a geographer, Cape Agulhas is the most southern tip of the continent of Africa.  Many people would think that Cape Horn is furthest south, particularly with its fame among the trading sailors of the 19th century who “Rounded the Horn” on their way to India and the Far East.  Presumably, as these vessels navigated around the southern point of Africa the biggest change of direction was when they changed course around Cape Horn, whereas the change of course just 80 miles later, around Cape Agulhas, was a relatively modest change of angle, prior to the ships running almost due east along what is now the Garden Coast of South Africa.

Bee and Alasdair at Cape Agulhas – to the left is the Indian Ocean, and to the right is the Atlantic

Oceanographers will also know the name Agulhas after the Agulhas Current.  This is a major south-flowing current which runs down the east coast of Africa, roughly from 27o to 40o south.  It is a narrow strip of current close to the shore, varying between 30 and 100 km wide, and travelling at speeds averaging around 2 km/hr but at its maximum reaching speeds of 9.3 km/hr.

The Agulhas that is connected to Tristan da Cunha is SA Agulhas ll, which is a ship that is well known on a global basis.  The Agulhas is a South African icebreaking polar supply and research ship that is used as a platform for a wide range of tasks in the southern polar regions.  The Agulhas is owned by the Department for Environmental Affairs, and is operated by SANAP (South African National Antarctic Programme).  The link with Tristan is that every year the Agulhas passes from Cape Town to Tristan da Cunha, then she goes down to Gough Island 220 miles south of Tristan, where she carries out the change of the staff that are based on Gough for a year, dropping off one annual team and picking up the retiring team after their handover.  The Agulhas then returns to Tristan, and onwards to Cape Town.

Agulhas in her home port of Cape Town

On her way from Cape Town to Tristan the Agulhas takes a large quantity of cargo, and many passengers.  Last September the passengers included the RSPB team travelling out to Gough to do work on the mouse eradication project, two new teachers coming to Tristan, a number of islanders returning to the island from medical visits in Cape Town, a number of scientists coming to work on fisheries, birds and seals, a retail specialist coming to help the Tristan supermarket for six months, a large number of visitors coming to celebrate the 100th birthday of their relative on the island  –  and Bee and myself returning from leave!

The Agulhas has some big advantages for travelling out here compared with the deep sea fishing boats that are the other form of transport.  Firstly, she carries two helicopters.  One of the helicopters is used to take passengers ashore, which can be done even if sea conditions are stormy; thus there is virtually no risk of having to wait days on end while sea conditions allow the harbour on Tristan to be used.  The next advantage is that the Agulhas is a large and powerful ship, and is able to stick to a schedule under almost any conditions.  Visitors to the island are able to come ashore, and to have great confidence that they will be picked up 18 days later when the ship is on her return voyage.  The third advantage over the fishing ships is to do with passenger comforts – the Agulhas has stabilisers, comfortable en-suite cabins, good food, and good facilities including a gym and a couple of bars!

The Agulhas was built in Finland, and was commissioned in 2012.  She is built to “Polar Class 5” and is powered by four 3,000kw Waitsila engines.  Her ice-breaking capability is impressive, with a capacity to drive through 1 metre of ice at 5 knots.  An interesting feature is that her decks are heated, in order to prevent any build-up of ice in polar conditions.  The ship’s stabilisers are interesting – being an ice-breaker she cannot have stabiliser vanes sticking out of the side of the vessel, instead she has water balancing tanks which are joined by massive pumps, capable of pumping water from one side to the other in order to achieve a balanced trim.

One of the main engines in the immaculate engine room
The on-board machinery workshop – capable of any task

The ship has a crew of 45, and accommodation for a further 100 passengers.  With regard to her function as a scientific platform, the ship has 8 fitted laboratories and 6 further container laboratories, a library, as well as an auditorium for 100 people.

Our crossing from Cape Town to Tristan was trouble-free, and we made it interesting since I managed to organise visits to the engine room and to the bridge.  On the bridge we found the famous xylophone that is used as a dinner gong – it is a tradition on board that a crew member on the bridge announces meal times by playing a tune over the public address system!

The improvised dinner gong in the bridge

The Agulhas regularly carries out expeditions in the southern polar regions.  One quite recent expedition, in February this year, was to go down into the Weddell Sea and carry out scientific studies, particularly on the giant iceberg known as A68, leading to greatly increased knowledge of the climatic influences from that area.  One last mission, before the Agulhas left the Weddell Sea,  was to launch an AUV (Autonomous Underwater Vehicle) in order to search for the Endurance, Sir Earnest Shackleton’s famous ship which sank in November 1915.  The mission was not a success – they were on station and began their search on 11 February, but on 14 February, with deteriorating weather and sea ice conditions, the AUV lost contact with her mother ship and the mission had to be called off and the AUV abandoned.

The Agulhas off Tristan da Cunha (viewed from our garden)
The settlement of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, viewed from the Agulhas helicopter



Ships + Fruit

One of the deep-sea fishing vessels that comes to Tristan is the MFV Edinburgh.  This trusty boat was built in 1970, and was named Hekla.  People who are familiar with the island of Iceland will know that Hekla is also the name of one of the most significant live volcanoes on that island.

MFV Edinburgh at anchor off Tristan, February 2019

Hekla was bought by Ovenstones, sometime in the 1980’s.  Ovenstone Agencies is the South African company that currently has the fishing concession on Tristan da Cunha.  At that time the ship had a name-change, and she became MFV Edinburgh.  Presumably this was in recognition of the formal name of the settlement on Tristan, which is Edinburgh of the Seven Seas.  Edinburgh is one of two ships operated by Ovenstones, the other one being the MFV Geo Searcher.  In any one year, the Edinburgh is scheduled to make six visits to Tristan, and the Geo Searcher to make three visits.  Each visit from Cape Town may have a number of different objectives, which can include fishing for lobsters among the off-lying islands, delivering cargo to the island, delivering fuel to the island, long-line fishing for pelagic fish on the Tristan sea-mounts, taking lobster back from the Tristan factory to Cape Town, and of course taking passengers of all sorts from Cape Town to Tristan and back again.  Apart from the once-a-year visit of the ship called SA Agulhas 2, virtually all passengers arriving at Tristan or leaving the island will be carried on these deep-sea fishing ships, each carrying up to 12 passengers.

The visits of these ships are not scheduled to take place regularly throughout the year – there can be long periods with no ship, then two arrive virtually together.  This does not affect the fishing operations, but it does have an effect on all the departments on the island who are dependent on these ships for their supplies, not least of which is the ‘Supermarket’.

MFV Edinburgh lying in Cape Town harbour, viewed from the deck of SA Agulhas 2

The Edinburgh departed from Cape Town for her most recent visit on the 16th of January, with an expected arrival date of the 23rd of January.  This ship was eagerly awaited, particularly for her delivery of fresh fruit and vegetables because the previous shipment was on the 19th of November last year.   However, on Tristan not everything works to plan.  The ship was more than half way across when she encountered engine problems, and had to turn back to Cape Town for repairs.  She departed Cape Town for the second time on January 25th, and finally arrived on the 31st of January, eight days later than expected.  Weather conditions were good enough to get the passengers off that evening, but it was not until the following Monday, the 4th February, before it was possible to start unloading some of the fresh cargo.  Hence, it was some 10 weeks from the last delivery in November to the present one.

The fresh produce was eagerly awaited.  The fruit and vegetable shelves were empty, and islanders were looking forward to stocking up with some healthy food.

Unfortunately, the story does not stop there.  When the first pallet of fresh goods arrived outside the shop, it was found that there was some mouse damage.  In particular, a mouse had eaten its way through some of the sweetcorn, and evidently the cold conditions of the chiller on the boat eventually became too much for the stowaway, because the carcase of the offending rodent was there to be found.

This caused the entire fresh consignment to be condemned.  Five trailer-loads of fresh fruit and vegetables were taken up to the dump at Pig Bite, where they were buried.

A sorry sight – inside the Tristan shop with an empty Fruit and Vegetable counter

There was a similar event with a shipment just before Christmas in 2016.  On that occasion some frozen pig products had been loaded in Cape Town on top of a pallet of fresh fruit, which had then been placed in the chiller unit on board the ship.  The unloading of the ship was delayed by bad weather, the pork thawed and seeped all over the fruit, and the consignment was condemned.

Wearing my hat as agriculturalist, it does seem to me that these two incidents send a very clear message.  This simple message is that it is so important for the island to take seriously the concept of becoming self-sufficient in all possible crops, in order to reduce to the minimum the reliance on imported fresh products.  It is a shame that the islanders have to go without fresh fruit and vegetables while the slow evolution of change takes place.






Visiting boats


We travelled back to Tristan da Cunha early last September, after a long and busy period of leave.  It all worked in very well (at least it has done so far!).  My two year contract was extended for a couple of months, which in turn meant that we had a generous amount of time back in Scotland (and France, and England).  It also meant that I could run ‘hands-off’ on our farming operations on the island, as a sort of trial run, – as well as lining ourselves up for no fewer than four summers in a row!

Through the next four months, we gradually came out of winter in the southern hemisphere, and life continued pretty much as normal.  Farming events continued to take place, expat staff continued to arrive and to leave, and whenever the weather was suitable there were fishing days, harvesting the Tristan Lobster.  However, there was one action that did not take place for that whole time.  There were no visiting ships.

To clarify.  The two fishing factory ships that are operated by the South African company that holds the fishing concession visited as normal.  Each in turn, they arrived off the island, unloaded their cargo onto powered rafts, went fishing, backloaded the packed + frozen lobster from the island, and returned to Cape Town.  These are regular ships, not really visitors.  And in this whole time, there were no visiting ships – no cruise ships, no visiting fishing boats, not even a lonely yacht!

On Friday 4th January, that all changed.  We have three South African engineers working on the island for some months, and for almost four weeks they are pretty much working on their own because the whole island is on holiday.  When they went down to the harbour at 6.30 in the morning to start the day’s work – for the first time ever there was a yacht tied up in the harbour!

Faustin’s Dream in Tristan Harbour

Why would it have been the first time that a yacht tied up in the harbour?  The island authorities always instruct visiting vessels to anchor off; they are never allowed to come into the harbour.  The harbour is extremely shallow, and although it may for a short time have sufficient depth for a shallow-draft boat, when the sea is calm, as soon as any swell enters the harbour it becomes untenable because of the highs and lows that the swell brings.   Some three years ago, contractors carried out a project to deepen the harbour, before which it would certainly have been impossible for a yacht to tie up inside, no matter what the sea conditions.

In the case of the yacht last Friday, it appears that they tried to radio a couple of times shortly before dawn, to check mooring instructions, but since they did not receive a reply they came all the way into the harbour and tied up.  There were some special circumstances, in that they were very short of water and they were running out of food and fuel.  They were on a passage from Brazil to Cape Town, and they had decided to put in a detour to lay in some stocks.  The shop was opened up for them, someone helped them to some cans of diesel fuel, and with typical kindness islanders gave them bread, potatoes and eggs.

Faustin’s Dream heads off to continue her passage to Cape Town

The yacht, called Faustin’s Dream, was a Bavaria 44, with two crew on board – a Frenchman from Lyon and another from La Réunion.  The voyage had started in the Mediterranean, and after passing through Cape Town they were heading eventually for Réunion.  They left Tristan on Friday afternoon, and we wish them a safe passage.

The following day, we had another visitor!  This time it was the Falklands Islands registered fishing boat the Argos Vigo, that had come to Tristan waters to go south and fish on some of the sea mounts south east from here.  They came here to pick up two island observers, which always accompany fishing ships when they are working in Tristan waters.  So, after 4 months of no visiting vessels, we have two in two days!

Argos Vigo, just before picking up her fisheries observers





Mice on Gough Island

Tristan da Cunha is remote, by any standards.  But within the archipelago that Tristan encompasses, there is an island that is considered remote even by the people of Tristan. Around 220 miles further south from Tristan is Gough Island, named after Capt. Charles Gough of the ship called the Richmond, who discovered it in 1732.

Gough Island is around 13 km long and 5 km wide.  It is home to around 10 million seabirds as well as two species of land birds – the Gough Bunting and the Gough Moorhen.  In recognition of Gough being a hugely important place for bird life, with a unique largely unspoiled habitat, the island became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.  It’s classification was added to by being joined by Inaccessible Island (another small island in the Tristan archipelago) in 2004.

Gough Island is uninhabited.  However, for the last 62 years the South African Weather Service has had a lease arrangement with the Tristan Government, and during this time it has maintained a scientific base on the island.  Teams of staff spend an uninterrupted 12 months on the island, the main purpose of which is to monitor weather conditions in order to help with the forecasting of weather in southern Africa.  In addition to the meterologists, the team includes engineers and a medic. There are also normally three staff from the RSPB (Royal Society of the Protection of Birds) who are bird scientists, and whose job it is to monitor the bird population on Gough.

The South African met station on Gough Island             Photo – Richard Hall

The importance of Gough can be seen, for example, in the fact that 99% of the world population of Tristan Albatross nest on the island, and 100% of Gough Buntings nest there.  Both species are critically endangered.  There are also populations of a large range of other Albatross, Shearwater, Petrel and Prion species, some of which are also classified as being endangered.

Tristan Albatross and chick                                                                      Photo – Steffen Oppel

Around 2006, the use of camera traps was able to prove conclusively what a few observers had already suspected.  This is that mice were predating on the wild bird chicks.  Mice had been on the island for many years, probably brought there originally by sealers in the 19th century.  The mice lived in harmony with the bird population, their diet consisting of plant seeds and insects.  Then – they evolved into chick-eaters.  This evolution, the change in eating habits of mice, has been seen in a parallel situation on Marion Island, where by means of careful monitoring during the space of just four seasons, ‘normal’ mice had evolved into predators of bird chicks. The scale of this predation on Gough is enormous – in 2016 it was estimated that mice were responsible for the killing of 600,000 chicks.  Following a scientific study on Gough some weeks ago, this has now been revised and updated to 2 million chicks and eggs a year. There have been some quite gruesome pictures of groups of mice eating albatross chicks alive.  The interesting thing is that the parent albatross just looks on unconcerned.  One stab of the adult albatross beak could easily kill a mouse, and bear in mind that an adult albatross might weigh 2 kg as compared to a mouse of about 25 grams.  The problem is that the Albatross (and other species) have nothing in their genetic makeup to tell them that mice are dangerous.

Mice on an albatross chick – while the adult looks on                            Photo – Ben Dilley

The RSPB team stationed on the island, together with visiting specialists in September / October this year, came up with some alarming figures.  For example, they found that this year the population of the critically endangered Tristan Albatross reared just 309 chicks from of 1,435 nests – only 21% instead of the 80 – 100% that would be the target for the species to have a long-term future.

In recent years, just as there have been huge technical advances in camera traps and other monitoring devices, so also there have been major advances in rat and mouse eradication from islands.  Islands lend themselves to eradication programmes since, provided that strict bio-security measures are introduced and enforced, re-infestation can be prevented, whereas in any mainland situation re-infestation is inevitable.  There have been some highly successful island eradication programmes, including from South Georgia, Macquaire Island off Australia and Campbell Island off New Zealand.   All of these programmes have used helicopters with underslung spreaders that distribute pellets made of a cereal-based toxic bait.  The spreaders are standard agricultural fertiliser spreaders fitted with a small Honda engine, and the bait generally used is one of the second-generation anticoagulants called Brodificoum.

The world centre for this eradication work is New Zealand, and it was that country that the RSPB turned to when it set about the planning stages of an eradication programme on Gough Island.  Initially, the plan was to carry out the eradication programme in the winter of 2019, but this has now been postponed to 2020.  The winter months are chosen because it is at that time that there are no birds nesting, and the mice are keen to find all food alternatives – making them eager for the toxic bait that is used in the eradication programme.

In August + September this year, a small specialised team travelled out on the SA Agulhas 2, the ship used by the South African Government to conduct their annual maintenance and team-change visit on Gough Island.  This team was organised by the RSPB, and consisted of an eradication specialist and a specialist helicopter pilot (both from New Zealand), an aerial systems engineer, and a bird captivity and release specialist.  The purpose of the visit was to have a detailed look at the site so that they could modify and confirm a master-plan for the operation, in order to give this expensive operation the highest possible chance of success.

The interior of Gough Island showing ‘Hag’s Tooth’                               Photo – Richard Hall

The overall plan is that in the early winter of 2020, a logistical team will travel out to Gough Island, to take out stores and set up accommodation on the island – a team of around 30 people will be needed.  The bird captivity and release specialist will be in this advance party.  His role will be to set up a large aviary-type structure, and to capture a good number of buntings and moorhens to act as a security population.  If these species suffer from poisoning of the toxic bait, at least there will be a protected reserve of such birds in captivity, available to be released when the active bait is no longer present on the island.  The albatrosses and the rest of the sea birds do not pose a problem in this respect – the do not come to the island during this time of year, and in any case they do not eat while they are onshore.

Once all the on-island preparations have been completed, the dosing team will travel to the island on a second ship.  This team will include four helicopters (one as a reserve) and a whole team of specialist pilots.  The systems engineer sets out an electronic GPS-based grid pattern of the routes to fly to ensure 100% coverage – indeed each swath is arranged to give 50% coverage of the previous swath, thus arriving at a double dose of the toxic pellets for any given area.  Two applications of bait would be spread, ideally 3 weeks apart for maximum effectiveness.  The winter in these latitudes can be very severe, and it is anticipated that with any lull in the weather the team will have to work from dawn to dusk, to seize the opportunity before the weather closes in again.

No-one is pretending that the task will be simple.  Mice are more difficult to eradicate than are rats, partly because they can find protection from the weather (and the toxic bait) in all sorts of caves and holes.  The whole project is expected to cost in the region of £9 million.  The success of the project will be measured by two elements.  Firstly, 100% kill of the mouse population is needed.  If a single breeding pair remain, then the breeding birds will just have a short respite until the mouse population once again builds up to the present levels.  Secondly, it is vital that the bio-security arrangements in Cape Town and on the island must be so thorough and so effective that there is no possibility of the re-introduction of mice in the future.  I am sure that everyone involved in the project knows full well that they have just one chance to succeed.

A group of Yellow Nosed Albatross, nesting on Nightingale Island

Extraordinary people on TDC

With the development of the society in such a very remote place as Tristan da Cunha, going back over 200 years, it is not surprising that there are some extraordinary aspects to the people on the island, both as far as individual people are concerned, and also relating to how some noteworthy social customs have developed.  That is not, however, the limit to the incidence of extraordinary people on the island.  Some of the expat staff stationed here certainly fit into this category, and some of the visitors also deserve a mention.  All in all, it seems that through its extreme remoteness the island does nurture and attract people who are extraordinary!

Through the eyes of a visitor to the island, some of the working practices are remarkable.  In particular it is astonishing how all members of the community come together for specific work tasks.  For example, when a ship has to be unloaded everyone leaves their normal places of work and becomes part of the unloading team – working as a stevedore on the ship, manning the barges bringing cargo into the harbour, driving a relay of tractors and trailers from the harbour to the warehouse, unpacking crates, and being part of a human chain to stack boxes in the warehouse. There are other events when an ‘all hands day’ can be declared – for example when everyone is needed to replace a roof on a house.

Islanders teamed up to re-roof the church

There are also the examples of remarkable people in connection with the island fishing industry.  For the most part, fishing on Tristan means crayfish fishing.  Each boat is crewed by two men, and eleven small open boats go out on the days that have been declared as ‘fishing days’.  The boats make a very early start, the little boats wallow horribly in the water particularly when they are not making way when the pots are being hauled.  The boys leave the harbour at first light, and in the shoulder months the low temperatures and the chill factor can be really testing. Every man a hero!

Fishing boats coming back into harbour at the end of a long day

Once the crayfish are landed, they are transported to the factory.  The people who work at the factory are also remarkable.  During the week it is largely pensioners who do this work, some of them approaching the age of 80.  They may work for 8 hours or more during the day, or in the evening the factory siren may call them out for an evening shift of anti-social hours.  The Tristan fishing industry is dependent on this reliable and loyal work-force.  It is another example of the extraordinary people of Tristan.

It should not be thought that all Tristanians are alike – they may come together for specific tasks, but they are generally highly individual.  The population today is just 250 people, and I could probably detail them one by one to show how a high proportion of them are individually extraordinary – but that would not go down well on the island.  I must not be seen to have any sort of bias or favouritism!

At any one time, there are around 12 – 15 expatriates stationed on Tristan.   For example, at present these include three teachers, a doctor and a nurse, the Administrator, a finance man, a factory manager and engineer, a retail specialist, and an agriculturalist (me!), as well as a short-term postdoctoral researcher from the Natural History Museum.  Most of these expats are on 2-year contracts, except for the Administrator who is generally here for three years and the doctor who may be here for five months.  In a general sense, the expats can be described as being extraordinary.  They have committed themselves to spending a couple of years on a tiny island where the facilities are extremely limited (shops, restaurants, healthcare facilities, etc), where they leave behind family and friends, and for the most part where the opportunities for professional contact and CPD (Continuous Professional Development) are quite limited.  These privations are not for everyone!

As a result of Tristan’s location, deep in the South Atlantic, there are many scientists and specialists who come to the island.  In the course of the two years that we have been here somewhere over 140 people have passed through.  These may be fisheries experts, conservation specialists, seal experts or bird professionals.  They may be South African personnel going to Gough Island for a 12-month tour of duty, or the team coming off Gough after their 12-month stint.  They may be the construction staff who built the new health centre, many of whom had experience in Antarctica.  Or they may be specialists in seismology, volcanology, global magnetism or nuclear detection.  It is a real experience for the people on Tristan, both Tristanians and expats, to be able to have contact with all of these visitors, many of whom can be described as extraordinary.

Of special mention is the dentist from Edinburgh, who comes to the island every year for three week’s work, bringing her daughter with her.  Her much-travelled daughter slots back into the little school on Tristan, where she catches up with all her island friends.  This must be the most extreme example of taking your child to work with you!

A cruise ship at anchor off Tristan
Our dutch friends at the harbour, with their yacht at anchor behind them

We also have a small number of tourist-related people coming to the island.  A few small cruise ships make a visit, weather permitting, as do a small number of sailing yachts.  That gives us a further  chance to meet some more extraordinary people.  I am thinking here of the two Dutch men in a yacht, who stopped off to buy some groceries and then continued on to Melbourne and finally Adelaide, stopping off on the way at Les Isles de la Desolation.  I am also thinking of the young girl who sailed single-handed from Sweden to Tristan – real adventurers come to Tristan!  And how about the cruise-ship tour guide who came earlier this year – it materialised that before that job, she had joined her partner on a small wooden yacht deep in Brazil.  They sailed the ‘wrong way’ round Cape Horn, and in two years they sailed back to Norway – in fact she made history by becoming the first Norwegian female ever to sail through the North West Passage.  After passing eastwards through the North West Passage, they of course passed Baffin Island – this is the home of another extraordinary visitor we had here for a few weeks this year!

Yacht Lady Free ice bound going through the North West Passage (Photo Cecilie Evjen)
Yacht Lady Free approaching a Beluga whale (Photo  Jan Martin Nordbotten)