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Ascension Island, a gem in the South Atlantic

Right in the middle

These days almost any destination is easy to get to, flights find their way to even the most remote of places even if this means limited luggage in duffel bags and landing on a strip of grassland between some woods. A few places though stay quite inaccessible due to entry restrictions. Ascension Island is one of those spots, a volcanic dot located in the middle of the South Atlantic.

The US Army is in charge of the airstrip on the British Overseas Territories island with a Royal Air Force Base. Only flights from the RAF in Brize Norton (UK) can bring in tourists as they accept 10 civilians on each of their flights, twice a week. One hotel, the Obsidian, can accommodate the few visiting people, and because of their monopoly prices are high and rooms very basic. But Ascension is not the place you would visit for a 5 star luxury all you can eat holiday! This place was described by the BBC as the place where nothing makes sense and I can attest the description is very accurate.

I first visited Ascension Island in January 2016, on my way to even a more remote place St. Helena. I would check out the pelagic waters around the island snorkeling, looking for big animals. My next stop in St. Helena (where I would get on board of the last Royal Mail Ship servicing a community: RMS St. Helena) would be dedicated looking for whale sharks. Since a few years some big ones gathered there in their summer months.

Booking the flight and accommodation proved to be a bit of a logistic hassle, you can’t book the flight without having accommodation and then there is also the uncertainty if your entry permit will be approved. All pieces of the puzzle have to fall together and before you they do, it takes a while. The flight dates can change last minute so for people traveling to the UK to catch that military flight: flexibility rules. But…there I was, flying into Ascension on an Air Tanker Voyager Airbus 330, after a night flight, but well taken care of by an excellent crew. Even from the air I could see fresh turtle tracks and nests on the beaches.

The green turtles in Ascension had fascinated me since seeing an Attenborough documentary about them. Between November and April around 5000 females secure more than 30.000 nests. They make the long journey from their feeding grounds at the coast of Brazil to mate close to shore in Ascension and hang around for months laying several clutches a season. Long Beach being a beautiful stretch of white sand with strong roller waves most of the time, is also the beach with the highest number of nests a season and the most accessible for tourists. Several days a week the Ascension Conservation Department takes people on an evening tour looking for female turtles battling the elements to crawl up on the beach and dig their nest. The only light allowed is the moonlight or a red light, not to spook the exhausted animals. Only when they get into a trance laying the eggs you can try and get a bit closer as nothing can stop them in this act. To hear them snorting and panting fighting obstacles in the dark is surreal and the experience of walking the beach at night in the dark and following the sound of nature is priceless.

By day I had some water time further from shore looking for whatever creatures living in the blue. My guide Craig Hall jumped in the water with me and we scarcely chummed a bit of sardines. I was prepared to see sharks but none showed up. Instead we saw big yellowfin tuna flashing by at high speed to feed on multiple pieces in one approach while a wahoo looked up to us from the deep, a female dolphin showing us her offspring and a green male turtle trying to climb on my guide. I never had this diversity in pelagic waters and was just blown away, not focussed on my camera but on mental pictures. Even though my time on the island was limited, the community is so small that I made friends for life. Apart from the military presence there’s a presence of St. Helenians working there and depending on the sea for affordable food. But the remoteness of this gem has also caught the eye of spear fishermen and sport fishermen around the world and Ascension Island is on their maps for a trip of a lifetime, willing to spend a big amount of GBP to catch that record size fish.

Although I fully support spearfishing for food as one of the most sustainable forms of fishing, I’m also convinced laws and quota and size limits prevent abuse, and help to conserve and preserve natural resources, certainly in a remote territory.

During my first visit in January 2016 the UK announced the establishment in of a marine protected area larger than the UK, around Ascension by 2017. Half of the off shore area would be closed for commercial fishing targeting longliner fishing practices. That news was very hopeful but it got me thinking: why only half and what about in shore. Large schools of yellowfin tuna mainly feed in shore on bait fish and are an easy target for spear fishermen. Most of them are truly fishing by the mantra only take what you eat but some let their ego get away with them and will kill to see a bigger one and kill again and …again, hoping on a personal record or a world record. Some call this sport, I call it slaughter knowing that the market of people depending on food provided by the sea is too small on the island to process the amount of tuna caught some months.

But how can you change minds and practices? Many work has been done by the UK government (Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Marine Conservation) and by many conservation groups regarding the implementation of a Marine Park and lots of diplomacy will follow. Closer by shore a change of attitude and common sense will have to prevail and I decided to be the change I want to see.
February I visited Ascension a second time and plans for a sustainable ‘water’ business were brewing with as result the purchase of a vessel in remote St. Helena and the ‘Ascension Island Adventures’ was born. Together with Craig Hall, my former guide, I brainstormed and checked if our ocean hearts were compatible, if we could follow one line regarding a true spearfishing, fishing and sustainable philosophy and if we could offer other water activities as an alternative to watch and observe instead of taking from the sea. Furthermore we wanted to offer residents an affordable water experience since many of them had never seen the island from the ocean. Taking people on the ocean and talking, sharing knowledge might be the easiest way to change how they treat their ‘farm’. It only takes goodwill and there is a lot of that present. In April our boat ‘The Argonaut’ arrived and I visited soon after to scout locations and check the vessel. For a photographer visiting Ascension Island the Argonaut was the missing link: very spacious deck, and shade. My previous visits I’ve got sunburned like never before despite the application of SPF 70. Clearly no sunscreen is prepared for days on and in the water close to the equator.

The boat runs smoothly and has all the latest safety equipment which should be a standard since every rescue I’ve witnessed in my 8 weeks on this remote island could have been prevented if all boats would have had a minimum of working communication means on board. But after the ‘maiden’ weeks came daily business life and within weeks it became clear that the minds that needed change were those of potential clients. Our company Ascension Island Adventures had to stand firm in not allowing slaughter and in respecting our self imposed quota and size limits. A challenge since the daily costs also need to get paid. But being genuine and true to oneself does get rewarded by good karma and the end of 2016 and all of 2017 is filling up nicely in the schedule with some people that despite expecting other practices, did chose to change and fully understand the need to preserve.
Tag and release, catch and release, take what you eat…the core business is fishing, but also the local dive clubs found their way to a stable boat and enjoy their weekly dive trips. I joined them on a few dives and although Ascension Island is already stunning at the surface (but hanging in the blue is not everybody’s cup of tea) once you descend a few meters you witness a very healthy and rich marine environment. No corals or reefs here but a diversity of fish and an abundance that will not bore even the most spoiled divers.
The dives were actually so good that my business partner is putting in moorings at sites with great potential, to not damage the bottom with anchoring. ‘Craig’s corner’, ‘Two mantas’ ‘Little Bird Island’ and many more will follow, most of them with a gentle sloop where keeping you eye on the deep the occasional devil ray, dolphins, sharks or even humpbacks can be seen, and always ending in the shallows to include the safety stop in the dive and even extend it for many minutes.

It’s an understatement that the island in the middle of the South Atlantic stole mine and many other hearts. Dr. Sylvia Earle declared it a Hope Spot and apart from the rich marine environment, the island offers an amazing variation in challenging and easy hikes. It feels like walking through a history class thanks to the excellent work of the local heritage society. My favorite letterbox walk and also the one easily spotted from the air is the Green Mountain trail. Green Mountain is now a national park but once it was the first artificial cloud forest which transformed the higher parts of the island from dry volcanic rocks to a lush rainy wood thanks to Hooker and Charles Darwin!

Ascension will always be remain a destination that requires a bit of preparation and planning to get to, but it is worthwhile! For more information and to be the change you want to see while exploring a gem in the South Atlantic: