Notes from the Abyss

The musings of geographer, journalist, and author David M. Lawrence

Ascension Island Expedition — Ascension Island, Day One

Visions of Spain

Visions of Spain. (Copyright © 2007 David M. Lawrence)

GEORGETOWN, Ascension Island (March 12, 2007) – The flight crossed Spain – I took some photographs – and apparently flew around Africa rather than crossing over it. For those who stayed awake on the flight, the flight offered a series of movies and television shows, as well as a number of listening options. They also offered TWO pretty decent meals. (And it looked like the other passengers had much more leg room that is normally available on an American airline.

We arrived on Ascension about 0730 the morning of March 9. Since we had already obtained permission to enter, getting through immigration here was a breeze. A woman from the Ascension tourism office gave us a ride to the American portion of the air base.

Arrival at Ascension

Arrival at Ascension. (Copyright © 2007 Steven L. Stephenson)

Welcome to Ascension

Welcome to Ascension. (Copyright © 2007 Steven L. Stephenson)

Maj. Jason Edelblute

Maj. Jason Edelblute. (Copyright © 2007 Steven L. Stephenson)

We met Maj. Jason Edelblute, the commander of the American base, who gave us good news. We would be allowed to stay in base quarters for the duration of our trip – which saved us quite a bit of money. We told him more about our research. After we had a chance to settle in a bit, he took us into Georgetown so that we could meet the personnel at the Ascension Conservation Centre.

The new director at the Centre, Suzanna Musick, was a bit overwhelmed as she had just arrived on the island – on the same flight. Stedson Stroud, a longtime employee, filled us in on what the island was like. I went in search of the bank to get money, but left empty handed as their credit hard machine was out of action. I was able to get money from the Obsidian Hotel, though.

The Ascension Conservation Centre

The Ascension Conservation Centre. (Copyright © 2007 Steven L. Stephenson)

The Obsidian Hotel

The Obsidian Hotel. (Copyright © 2007 David M. Lawrence)

Ascension's general store

Ascension's general store. (Copyright © 2007 Steven L. Stephenson)

After getting money, we went to the store for groceries. Sometime during the afternoon we ate fish and chips at the Obsidian, then Tom and Steve went back to the American base. I stayed behind at the Conservation Centre to help them resolve a problem they had with their geographic information system. I somehow fixed it.

GEORGETOWN, Ascension Island (Wednesday, March 14, 2007) – I spent the rest of the day and night Friday getting to know some of Georgetown. Steve and Tom were pretty jet-lagged, so stayed at the barracks. I was eager to go on a tour to observe green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas), which are about at the peak of their breeding season, so cleaned up and headed down to Georgetown about 6 p.m.

The main drag in Georgetown, Ascension's capital

The main drag in Georgetown, Ascension's capital. (Copyright © 2007 David M. Lawrence)

Ascension residents play a game of skittles at the Saints Club

Ascension residents play a game of skittles at the Saints Club. (Copyright © 2007 David M. Lawrence)

I ate a fishpie and chips at the Saints Club, then had ginger ales bought for me at the bar by various Saints. The club also had a games room with a pool table as well as another room where a raucous card game was going on. Afterward I headed out back and watched a much more serene game of skittles — a precursor of ten-pin bowling.

I enjoyed my brief time there, but had to get over to the Conservation Centre for the turtle tour. I asked the two people that looked in charge if I could use Stroud’s phone to call Jimmy Young, a man I had contacted earlier about diving. A woman there, Jacqui Ellick, helped me track down Young at his girlfriend’s house after my attempts to reach him failed. Young and I set a time for Sunday morning at 9 a.m. Meeting Jacqui was fortuitous — she was the one leading the turtle tour to nearby Long Beach.

The tour began with a brief video and discussion of the turtles at the Conservation Centre. Then we headed to the beach. I helped carry equipment, which (I think) led to Jacqui’s invitation to accompany her in search of females in the process of laying eggs.

Jacqui is impressive. She, like most people on Ascension, is a Saint. Her eyes were as sharp as an owl’s on the moonless beach (we were aided, however, by the lights of a freighter anchored offshore). She could spot turtles where I could barely notice shadows. A few minutes with her, however, sharpened my skills in seeing and hearing turtles.

At first, I only saw them at a distance, but within 30 minutes we began watching one female in a hole closely. She had dug a deep pit, but was stalling toward the end. Jacqui and I spotted several females nearby, however. The first female we watched crawled out of the pit before laying any eggs, but as she aborted, more came onshore.

A green sea turtle lays her eggs

A green sea turtle lays her eggs. (Copyright © 2007 David M. Lawrence)

Eventually we found one laying eggs, and Jacqui called the members of the tour over to observe. In general, flash photography is discouraged when turtles come ashore, but females can be photographed while laying eggs – but only from the back.

Green sea turtle hatchlings

Green sea turtle hatchlings. (Copyright © 2007 David M. Lawrence)

A group of us then released a bucket of hatchlings that had been studied by a graduate student here. The hatchlings were slow to make their move to the sea, so Jacqui began separating them and turning over those on their backs. I began to help, and was so focused on the job that I failed to notice a wave coming for us. Jacqui’s warning and the movement of the others got me up from a sitting position, but my ankles were in water and some hatchlings were under my feet. I did not move until Jacqui told me where I could safely step.

As the night broke up, I hitched a ride back to the American base with Jacqui and Ian. I told Jacqui I would meet her the next morning to help her with her efforts to collect data on new nest sites.

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