18 Aug 2018

Atlantic Odyssey 2018 - Part 6 Ascension Island

Ascension Island Frigatebird - Fregata aquila

Ascension Island - flag, frigatebird

We approached Ascension from the east, with the island’s first highlight being Boatswain Bird rocks.

The “Bo’sun Bird” is White-tailed Tropicbird, but the most obvious species present was Ascension Island Frigatebird, which wheeled over the rocks in their hundreds, evidence of a successful campaign by the RSPB to eliminate feral cats on Ascension in 2006.

Boatswain Island

White-tailed Tropicbird - Phaethon lepturus

White-tailed Tropicbird - Phaethon lepturus

In the water there were Common Bottlenose Dolphins and just above the surface, a few Band-rumped Storm-Petrels.

Common Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus)

Common Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus)

Band-rumped Storm-Petrel - Hydrobates castro

Ascension, seven degrees south of the equator, is basically the tip of a large volcano, now with 88 square kilometres above the sea and a human population of around 800 souls.  Unlike Tristan or St. Helena there are no actual local islanders, everyone seems to be there for work, which includes a large air base, and satellite monitoring facilities for for various space agencies. 

Official website : http://www.ascension-island.gov.ac

The capital is Georgetown, a patchwork of some historical buildings divided by cinder tracks.

Georgetown, Ascension Island

Our first activity involved travelling in a convoy to the Sooty Tern colony at Mars Bay. We were guided by staff from the Ascension Island Conservation Department.  I think we kept ALL of them busy while we there.

Scorched landscape

Sooty Tern - Sterna fuscata

It was sobering to think that the Tern Colony is now endangered, due to an increase in rats since the cats were eliminated in 2006.

Sooty Tern - Sterna fuscata (nestling)

Sooty Tern - Sterna fuscata (juvenile)

Then on to Green Mountain, the highest point of the island, where an afforestation programme begun in the 1840s (involving Charles Darwin and Sir Joseph Hooker, no less) has produced some big trees and a rain-catching microclimate. 

"Green", I'd say

A researcher told us about the rare ferns and other plants found and propagated with the help of Kew Gardens (London).

We enjoyed a stroll around the mountain, with fine views of the island in every direction.


Two Boats township from Green Mountain

We passed an odd monument, half of an old-fashioned rowing boat and were told that it was the practice for local winners of sports trophies to display them there, at the road junction; - like this....

In the afternoon the island’s modest museum was opened for us and we  also walked around the old battlements overlooking Georgetown.

Georgetown, Ascension Island

There were photogenic waves at the beach…

In the evening we came ashore, and the expedition team did a grand job getting everyone off the zodiacs at the pier steps.  A nocturnal beach stroll to look at laying Green Turtles was a bit frustrating, with egg-laying going on in the dark, obviously. 

We returned before 05:00 (more exertions for the Expedition Team to haul us all ashore on the pier steps) and we gathered as discreetly as possible - supervised by Conservation Department staff - as the turtles came out of their egg-laying pits and headed back toward the ocean.  It was a great spot to be when the sun came up.

It was actually a lot darker than it looks here (ISO 4000)

Green Turtle - Celonia mydas

Ascension Island Frigatebird - Fregata aquila

Ascension was every bit as other-worldly as St Helena and Tristan.  The RAF is not currently flying from Ascension, it was said that the runway needed repair. No-one seemed to know when or if flights would be resumed. The US Air Force has a large presence at the airfield, but there are no commercial flights from the States either. The island’s only hotel, the Obsidian, is closed. Airlink, a South African Airline, have monthly flights from Ascension to St Helena as an extension of their weekly Johannesburg to St Helena service.

We departed via Boatswain Bird Island, and got another chance to brush up our Frigatebird (and other seabird) portfolios. 

Ascension Island Frigatebird - Fregata aquila

Ascension Island Frigatebird - Fregata aquila

White Tern - Gygis alba

Brown Booby - Sula leucogaster
Brown Booby - Sula leucogaster
Black Noddy - Anous minutus

Masked Booby - Sula dactylatra

Masked Booby - Sula dactylatra

Next stop, Cabo Verde !


  1. Another fabulous account of your peregrinations, John, accompanied by your usual stellar array of photographs. We can only hope that there are plans afoot to eradicate the rats in addition to the cats. As humans we can sure screw things up, can’t we? Here is recommended reading for you, if you are not already familiar with the book. “Wideawake Island - The Story of the B.O.U Centenary Expedition to Ascension” by a young Bernard Stonehouse. Great read!

  2. Humans screw things up ? - once that balance of nature is tipped it seems the most likely outcome !

    Thanks for the book recommendation - ABE books here I come !

  3. White Terns are such a beautiful species..........

    1. Used to be called "Fairy Tern" as I recall - a more distinctive name for a distinctive bird !

  4. Excellent post like the previous ones. I have been watching and reading this blog in recent days, recently I discovered it.
    Best regards

    1. Thanks for the comment, Hernan, You've got plenty of wildlife over there in Argentina !

  5. Wow! What an amazing trip. I'm really enjoying the wonderful photos and comments. Some incredible bif's too!

    1. Thanks, Jeremy, it's taken me a while to get this written up, and I may have to call this "John's What I did on my Trip" blog...

  6. Replies
    1. Thanks, Thomas - Have you been in Yunnan again recently ?

  7. An amazing adventure, John, and your photography is exquisite. I especially love the flight shots. The frigate birds just look fantastic!

    1. Thanks a lot, Russell..... I've been looking at your stuff, nice Swallowtails and dragonflies, etc. but every time I try to comment I get a message saying "You have been logged out." !! (Fault at my end, not yours, I'm sure.)