Ascension Island: remote South Atlantic

ascension island view from green mountain

ascension pinterest postUninhabited before it was encountered by Portuguese sailors in the 1500s, Ascension’s lonely position in the middle of, well, more or less nowhere in the South Atlantic made it a place of strategic importance since. In the age of commerce under sail, it was a place to water up (once a source was found) and provision (initially by hunting green turtles, which nest in Ascension by the thousands; goats were left later, and farms cultivated).

A British Overseas Territory, Ascension has never technically been settled, as St Helena has, but has hosted residents since the English installed garrisons in the early 1800s as a precaution against attempted escape by Napoleon from his nearby exile. The UK still has an RAF base, and staged for the Falklands War here. The US Air Force has a base, but US military presence has waxed and waned since building an airstrip- “Wideawake”- to support troops in North Africa during World War II. Now, it’s mainly useful as a military and communications hub. Ascension hosts one of five land-based antennae supporting the world’s GPS data that so many people rely up. The European Space Agency monitors their orbits from here. The BBC has a relay station here that transmits the British way of life to Africa and South America.

What does all this mean? Well, there is a freakish amount of wire strung up. Transmitting, of course, but it must be a pretty major listening station too. I’ve lost count of the radar domes.

antennae and feral sheep
feral (yes, feral) sheep graze near some of the huge antennae structures on Ascension

We won’t provision much because all that’s here now is either frozen, or isn’t very fresh (onions, potatoes, etc.). In many ways, ships visiting way back when had better meat and produce than we do today! But we thoroughly enjoy looking into the history of the island, exploring the desolate but strangely appealing landscape.

ascension wideawake airfield
Wideawake airfield among the cinder cones

The museum is full of artifacts from the first centuries of Ascension’s discovery up through the modern era. It has the kind of random hours that speak to a volunteer organization (Monday evenings for two hours, Saturday mornings for two more), so we sneak in at the first opportunity as there are a few history buffs on Totem! Jamie is amazed that we can touch the bell that once hung in William Dampier’s ship Roebuck, which sank off Ascension more than three hundred years ago.

william dampier roebuck bell
at least the 16th century china is under glass
fort georgetown
checking out the grounds atop old Fort Georgetown

What do civilians do on a visit to Ascension? Go hiking! It pales next to the walks in St Helena, but still fun. The trick is transportation to reach them, but it was only about $25 to rent a car for the day, so off we went.

ascension island hiking

We hiked to the summit of Green Mountain, the tallest spot on Ascension – a few score feet higher than St Helena. Interestingly enough, the foliage here is 90% introduced — on purpose! Charles Darwin visited, and along with a british botanist encouraged the introduction of plants…and so they were shipped by the hundreds from Kew during the 19th century.

fragrant "Lady Nugent's Rose" on Green Mountain
fragrant “Lady Nugent’s Rose” on Green Mountain

There’s animal spotting: besides feral sheep, there are feral donkeys (relatively easy to find) and rumored to be feral cows (COWS) in the greener elevations.

it's cute, but do you really want to get close to a wild donkey?
it’s cute, but do you really want to get close to a wild donkey?

It’s the end of nesting season for green turtles, which swim here from Brazil to lay nests by the thousand. They’re plentiful enough in the water that we must take care while driving the dinghy to avoid any dink-vs-turtle accidents. These turtles are huge – more than four feet long, around three feet across! The kids curtailed sleep to make a dawn pilgrimage to the beach in the hopes of seeing a few, and weren’t disappointed. Full moonlight, however, isn’t great for pictures…and it’s not right to use a flash on these gentle giants. This mama throws sand to bury her nest as early dawn gives juuuuust enough light for a blurry shot.


turtle nests

A land crab species found only here and three other tiny South Atlantic islands surprised us by showing up on a wall near the trailhead for the Dew Pond hike – an elevation of at least 1,500′! These tenacious crabs are mountain dwellers and spend most of their time underground, but make an annual pilgrimage to the sea to spawn. It must be an amazing sight.

ascension land crab

It’s not all nature and critters on Ascension…Friday nights are happy hour at the Volcano Club, the open-to-civilians joint at the US Air Force base. Of course we had to go! I must be feeling homesick as we get closer to the USA, because the sight of US brands on the shelves in their short-order restaurant was exciting. In the bar, big screen TVs played FOOTBALL – our kind of football! Want a beer? Choose Bud, and Bud Light. All the music was American. OH MY GOODNESS. Honestly, I got a little misty.

Totem set sail from Ascension today! We’re headed for Barbados; you can see our current position and speed here! We will get comments at sea, so add a little interest to our day out in the big blue. We’ll be able to respond after we reach the Caribbean in late April.

6 Responses

  1. Anxious to hear about the sea state and sailing as you go. Have a safe trip ….I will be thinking of you from my cubby at work.

  2. Thanks for the awesome pics of Ascension!
    Have a great trip across the big pond.
    Looks like I am probably heading to St Maartin to p/u Ethereal on the 27th. Still hoping to see you in Bermuda 🙂


  3. Happy sailing!

    So, if you’re bored in a few days time, here is a good skywatching activity: on April 6, Venus and the moon will be super close together at dawn, but even MORE interesting is you guys are potentially in the area of Earth where Venus gets occulted by the moon, ie covered up by it, after sunrise. Depends where you are on Earth for what time that happens exactly, but sometime around 7 UT I’d wager.

    Issue of course is the sun is already up by then, and the moon won’t be that far away, so while binoculars would help in seeing this please don’t blind yourself if you do decide you’re that bored. 🙂

    More info here if your Internet can handle it:

    1. I’m so glad you let us know about this, Yvette- it was VERY cool to see the proximity of venus and the moon at sunrise!

  4. Good luck crossing the equator.

    To remind you of the PNW; I’m going to the Mariner’s Home Opener Friday in Seattle. Record warm temperatures the next two days, Thursday and Friday down here in NW Oregon.

    Have fun.

  5. Another great post about a place I now want to visit! I see you are doing 7 knots as I type. Can’t wait to read the passage notes and see the line you take to get to Barbados. High fives to all Totem Crew!

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