Life Aboard Ship, Dispatches From South of the "Roaring Forties"

Life Aboard Ship

#19 July 14, 2004

#18 July 11, 2004

#17 July 6, 2004

#16 July 5, 2004

#15 June 30, 2004

#14 June 27, 2004

#13 June 23, 2004
Bouvet Island

#12 June 20, 2004

#10 June 16-17, 2004
South Sandwich Islands

#9 June 13, 2004

#8 June 9-10, 2004

#7 June 4-6, 2004

#4 May 26, 2004

#3 May 23, 2004

#2 May 19, 2004

#1 May 16, 2004
Punta Arenas, Chile

May 14, 2004
Landfall: Visiting Islands in the Atlantic Ocean

June 16, 2004
South Sandwich Islands

May 30, 2004
Falkland Islands

May 26, 2004
Science on the NATHANIEL B. PALMER

June 24-26, 2004

June 15, 2004

May 30, 2004

Questions & Answers

Sunday, July 11, 2004

I’m sure you have all been dying to find out if we got to Tristan and if we got the fish. YES! A good thing, too, because we are now on our way to Capetown and the end of the voyage.

We finally were able to get ashore the morning of Friday, 9 July. Although the weather was beautiful on the 8th, we still could not land because the swell was too big. The “harbor” at Edinburgh does have a pair of jetties, but it is open to the northwest, and there was a big ground swell that would break all the way across the entrance and then sweep in to break against the sea wall inside. Not safe. We learned later that it’s not unusual for ships to wait two or three weeks before being able to land cargo or passengers. So we waited it out, and luckily for us the next morning it was beautiful.

The “first wave” consisted of our two inflatables with 6 people each plus all our collecting gear (waders, buckets, dip nets and beach seines, insulated containers for keeping fish alive). The Fisheries Officer, James Glass, met us with several assistants, a light truck, and a Land Rover. After all the introductions and some brief discussions, they took us down the coast about three miles to a tide pool area where we were able to collect fish.


Members of the PALMER's science team tidepool on Tristan da Cunha with residents of the island.
It took some time to figure out the best ways to catch B. diacanthus, but by mid-afternoon we had captured 52 of them and sent them back to the ship. We came ashore again yesterday (Saturday the 10th) and collected more, although it was more difficult to catch them owing to a higher swell; most of those we caught were by hook and line in the harbor.

Tristan is an extraordinary place, both in terms of topography, fauna, and society. In the last Bulletin I described some of the island, but to repeat: it is a large volcano, with a central crater about 6000 feet high, now dormant and filled with water. There is comparatively little arable land. In 1961, there was an eruption just to the north of the town, and all the residents were evacuated to the UK for two years. It’s a measure of how much they prefer their own society that almost all of them returned when given the opportunity to do so in 1963. There are slightly fewer than 300 residents of the island, which has been settled since 1810. Tristan is British and always has been, although it was discovered by a Portuguese explorer around 1550. There is no military base, no airfield, only one road. There are only seven family names among all the locals, who (as you might expect) are all related to some degree. Oddly enough, two of the surnames are Italian, stemming from two sailors who were shipwrecked in 1892 and decided to stay on. The island is quite self-supporting because it has a profitable lobster fishery that provides steady income for the government. In addition to their “regular” occupations, almost everyone farms, raising their own meat and vegetables, and fishing.


B. diacanthus were captured in tidepools with seine nets and in the harbor with hook and line.
They are generally self-sufficient except for fuel for vehicles and to run the generators for the lobster processing plant (which also produce all the power for the town). They raise cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, ducks, and geese. The vegetable plots are called “The Potato Patches” although many other things besides potatoes are grown, including cabbage, onions, carrots, beetroot, and pumpkins; the climate is mild and the soil is very fertile. They grow plums, peaches, and apples also. There is one store, which stocks general merchandise, and as you can imagine, delivery of special orders and out of stock items can be irregular. There is no hotel, although there is a fully furnished guest house that’s available for visitors. Perhaps needless to say, there are no short-term visits owing to the fact that there is no regular passenger service! I understand that home stays can also be arranged. It’s possible to arrange transport (six days each way from South Africa, by sea only) but of necessity even a short visit would be three weeks or longer.

The lobster fishery is carried on from small open boats, called Tristan longboats. These are 23 feet long and have a small motor but can also be sailed, which of course they originally were. Because there is no safe harbor, all of the boats are stored on land and are put in and out by crane.


Tristan longboats are used for the island's lobster fishery, powered by small engines or sails.
No native with whom I spoke said they would like to live anywhere else. The lobster fishery provides enough income for the whole island; they have free medical care, education (including university schooling in the UK if they want it), utilities, no rent or property taxes, and only a small tax. In addition, services are also free. Maintenance of private houses such as plumbing, electrical services and so on are also provided; although the owner pays for the material costs of improvements, the labor is free. On Saturday I spent almost all my time ashore catching fish, so yesterday I wanted to go for a long walk and see some of the island especially after spending almost two months at sea, the last month without touching land.

So, I set off to walk to the end of the road south (the longest one on the island). It was about four miles, and I went from rough pavement to dirt to mud track to just following tracks across open fields. One thing I noticed very clearly during my walk was the absence of man-made noise. Except for the surf, the wind, and the noises of sheep and cattle, there was no sound not even birds! Although there are quite a few birds that nest on Tristan (rock hopper penguins, Atlantic yellow nose albatross, three species of petrels, an endemic thrush, and several other locally occurring species) these are not out in the fields and, except during breeding season, not many of the seabirds are ashore.

About 1/2 mile before reaching the end, I was stopped by a closed gate in a fence line that ran down to the cliffs. While I was wondering if I should go through the gate (I didn’t see a locked anything throughout my time on the island), a Land Rover came across the field and stopped at a gate farther down the fence. I went down to it while the passenger, a woman, was unfastening the gate. I asked her if I could walk across the field and she told me that I could walk anywhere I wanted except on the mountain, which would require a guide. Then she asked if I would like a ride, which I accepted. It turned out they were Dr. and Mrs. Bloem, and Dr. Bloem (the driver) was the doctor for the island. They were South African, there on a three-year contract to provide both medical and veterinary services to the islanders and their animals. We had a very nice conversation as we drove (very slowly) down the track to the road’s end, and I would have liked to talk with them longer but needed to walk back to the harbor to return to the ship.


Tristan da Cunha's single road ends and the walker has two choices: the ocean or the mountain.
I think it’s obvious that I liked Tristan and would have enjoyed staying longer, even for several weeks. We were treated very well, and everyone we met was uniformly friendly and helpful. We would not have been nearly as successful in collecting the fish we needed without the help of the local people. I think that time during a longer visit would be filled very enjoyably by walking (hiking) around the island and up on the volcano, bird watching, reading, and generally getting to know the Tristanians. Of course, I would also like to stay in the Falklands and South Georgia for longer, too!