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Ascension Island diary - January 2

Day 7 - January 2nd

Up early and off by 08.00 for a trip Mars Bay (to see the Wideawake Fairs) and Shelly beach, before the heat of the day sets in.


Wideawake fairs - Sooty Terns on Ascension Island

Mars Bay is so-called because it was here that astronomer David Gill set-up camp to observe the opposition of Mars in 1877 and from the observations obtained to try and establish the exact distance between the earth and the sun.  


Whilst Mr Gill was busy doing observations, his wife wrote an account of her experiences on Ascension entitled "Six months in Ascension - An unscientific account of a scientific expedition" and this is now available on the web courtesy of geologist Barry Weaver. 


Nowadays there is only the very faintest remnant of their  camp left. However this area has now been taken over by the WideAwakes, the local name for  the Sooty Tern.


These birds are rather unusual, in that their breeding cycle is around 9 to 10 months. Their breeding sites are known as "Wideawake fairs". One of these used to occur on Waterloo Plain, but the birds got displaced when the Americans arrived in 1942 to build the airfield there.


However the birds moved a mile down the road to Mars Bay area.


They nest on the ground, in a shallow scrape.  


Sooty Terns nesting on Ascension Island


Sooty Terns nesting on Ascension Island


Whilst they may look numerous in the picture above, their numbers have dropped off since the 50's, probably due to the presence of feral cats. The cats had been imported by the naval garrison in 1815 to control the rats which had arrived on Ascension sometime around 1700.  However by 1820's a feral cat population had established itself and found the birds an easier food target than rats. The RSPB has recently organized a program to eradicate all the feral cats on the island, which seems to have been successful.[1] The Wideawake bird population on the island has probably survived because they leave the island when the chicks have hatched and don't return until it is the next breeding time. 


2 Sooty Terns in flight on Ascension Island


Sooty Terns on Ascension Island

"cat detector"


All over the island, not just on Wideawake Fair, are little piles of sand, some with titbits, and these are low tech cat detectors i.e. the sand will give away the presence of any cat paw prints.


Les, Lynda and Sooty Terns on Ascension Island


From Mars beach we walk across a lunar landscape of laval boulders and cinders to Shelley beach.


Washed flotsam and jetsom at Shellet Beach,  Ascension Island


Ascension Island might be very remote but it still suffers from the ocean current carried junk and debris of the modern world, as the above flotsam on Shelley beach shows. A study of the flotsam along this stretch of coast was made in 1958  to assist in the study of ocean currents.

Behind the beach are a number of small pools fed by underground passageways from the sea. Amongst the various animals in these pools  are two species of shrimp that are  found only on Ascension Island. 


Shrimps, Shelley beach, Ascension Island, South Atlantic


One of the species, does have close relatives found in subterranean pools in Cuba and the Yucatan. 

One the way back Lynda and Johnny stop to examine a washed up whale bone, and the two medicine professionals inevitably start to discuss exactly which bone it is.


Washed up whale bone, Shelley beach,Ascension Islandn


Meanwhile further along the beach one of the locals is "squidding".


"Squidding" Ascension Island


Sooty Tern Ascension Island


Once off the beach and back up the path, past Mars bar back to the Landrover the ever curious Wideawakes circle above.

After an exhausting morning, off to a deserted  Comfortless Cove late afternoon for relaxing cooling off swim in the sea.


Comfortless Cove


Comfortless Cove was originally called Sydney Cove and then Comfort Cove but at some point after it started to be used as a quarantine location for ships with fever victims aboard someone obviously decided that Comfortless Cove was more in keeping.

The cove radically changed its importance when, in 1899, the first cable from St. Helena, forming part of an England to Cape Town telegraph network, was hauled ashore. The building in the picture above still has the remnants of telegraphic  cables coming out of it.

These days Comfortless Cove is one of the few safe swimming places on the island, and according to the Duff Hart-Davis book, "Ascension - The story of a South Atlantic Island"  it is shark free. Well that's re-assuring to know as we have been in there a few times now. 


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[1] The cat eradication is now deemed to have been successful and John Hughes is doing a part time Ph. D
      on “Will the breeding population of Sooty Terns alter as a result of the eradication of cats and if so why?”