Island of contrasts

Oct 19, 2010

To the editor: Despite its tropical location just eight degrees south of the equator, Ascension Island is as barren as the Arctic tundra. The tropical island clichés of lush mountainsides, an overabundance of bananas and mangoes, or palm fronds waving over a white beach do not exist there. Only the highest point Green Mountain holds a pocket of flora shrouded in clouds. Elsewhere great hills of red earth tower over a town bereft of trees, and jagged gray cliffs meet the ocean swell in plumes of spray.

We watched this chunk of Mars rise up on our starboard quarter of our 38-foot cutter Heretic as day broke. From a distance, we were disappointed. Saint Helena, the island we had left five days before, possesses the kind of vegetated mountains one expects in those latitudes, and we had thought Ascension would be similar. We immediately questioned our decision to stop there. The island is 290 miles off the rhumb line from Saint Helena to Brazil, 200 miles off the line to Barbados, and many boats skip it.

Soon after anchoring, however, we discovered what these boaters miss. Ascension is an island of contrasts. Its barren moonscape is home to thousands of nesting seabirds, among them the endemic Ascension frigate. Dense schools of black triggerfish swarmed about our hull, and a green turtle poked his head above the water a few feet away. Underwater, moray eels curled under rock crevices, and silvery pompanos followed in our dinghy’s wake. Ashore at night, we waited until the waning moon had risen, and tiptoed over the beach to find it littered with nesting turtles. Huge lumps of the mother turtles dug holes above the tide line or lumbered up from the crashing surf.  Baby turtles, just hatched and no bigger than my palm, scurried down to the sea.

A few days later, as the island sunk into the rolling swell astern, we thought how strange and wonderful it is that Ascension’s Martian desolation hides a place so teeming with life.

Ellen Massey and Seth Leonard left Blue Hill, Maine, in September 2006 aboard Heretic, a 38-foot fiberglass masthead cutter, built in 1968. Since then, they have completed a global circumnavigation. Their route took them through the Panama Canal, across the Pacific to New Zealand and Australia, across the Indian Ocean to South Africa, and then back across the Atlantic to the Caribbean.

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