In the austral summer of 1988-1989 I spent six weeks on Elephant Island in the Antarctic, with a Dutch colleague and six Brazilians, studying penguins. We lived in a small, container-like summer station, where we heard Shackleton's ghost walk over the roof at night. We flew from Pelotas, in southern Brazil, in a Hercules plane to King George Island, and then sailed with the ship Barão de Tefe to Elephant Island. In 1990-1991 I was back, this time with a larger Dutch expedition, hosted by the Polish in their base Arctowski (pronounce 'Arstofski') on King George Island. We flew in from Punta Arenas in southern Chile, and on the way back we were taken to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego on the Polish ship Arctowski.
Crossing the Drake Passage, there were large numbers of seabirds around the ship. Numerous petrel species, closely allied to the birds of Tristan da Cunha, and no less than six species of albatross. Being immersed for two southern summers in seals, penguins, and albatrosses, all my old Tristan feelings came back, and it was then that I decided it was time to go to Tristan. In addition, over the last few decades, DNA-analysis techniques had greatly progressed. So this is what I was going to do: I would go to Tristan, collect blood samples from Island Cocks, and then I would solve the riddle of the Moorhens once and for all, finding out where they came from.
It is not easy to get to Tristan. Shipping connections are limited. In 1991 there were the two fishing vessels with very irregular schedules, each having a capacity of around six passengers, with very long waiting lists, always giving priority to government officials and islanders who needed medical treatment. It might take years for an outsider to climb high enough up the list to obtain a berth. Then there was the annual visit of the RMS Saint Helena, all the way from England, on her way to Cape Town (no longer sailing today), and the annual relief visit of the Agulhas, changing the team of the Gough Island weather station. In fact the Agulhas was the only ship that would allow you to stay on Tristan for a few weeks, with rather reliable arrival and departure dates. The Agulhas had room for about 40 passengers, but also could have long waiting lists. Before booking, you needed approval for your visit from the Administrator and the Island Council.
Before looking into travel I had to secure my permission. When we were preparing our expedition in 1970 we had to apply to the Colonial Office, which in the meantime had been renamed Foreign and Commonwealth Office. So in early 1991, after coming home from Antarctica, I wrote to them. I heard nothing for three months so I wrote again. This time I got an answer. They said my earlier letter must have gone astray in a reorganisation and changing personnel. They had forwarded my request to the Administrator, and they warned me that receiving a reply might take a while.
After six months I received a letter from the Administrator, He explained that Tristan was not a holiday resort, and there were no hotels, TV or telephone. To see Moorhens I had to go on the mountain, which is only allowed with a guide. There would be no guides available for at least a year, because the male workforce was employed full-time in the harbour project. Furthermore, the islanders did not like nosy outsiders coming to visit. Landing would only be possible with approval of the Island Council. He did not say if he had forwarded my request to them. The message was clear. Please stay away.
I immediately wrote back that my original plan had already been postponed twice for six months, and that I had no problem with waiting another six. So, I suggested, I could come to Tristan in the autumn of 1993 after the harbour project had finished. I also said I would be happy to hire a guide for all the days I would be there, and would he please, please, forward my request to the Island Council. I also wrote to Tristan Investments in Cape Town, who were responsible for the bookings. Their answer was friendly but vague. For the next six months my chances on the waiting lists were zero, and they pointed out again that I first needed permission from the Administrator and Island Council.
I also revived my old Tristan connections. I wrote to Martin Holdgate, who remembered our correspondence of twenty years earlier. He advised me to contact Michael Swales (which I planned to do anyway), who was still involved in Tristan matters. Michael wrote to me that he was preparing a visit to Tristan, to look at the Moorhen situation. They had multiplied considerably since their discovery in 1973, and the people were wondering if they needed to be culled, as a dangerous, harmful exotic species. And, since Michael was held responsible for their introduction, he was asked by the Island Council to come and have a look. Dangerous Moorhens? I didn't get it at all. I had no idea what this could be about. I proposed to Michael that we should combine and co-ordinate our activities, but he did not reply. Months later, he wrote to me that his preparations had gone well, and that he was scheduled to travel in the spring of 1993. He had beaten me to it! I had waited for twenty years and now I was six months late! Unbelievable!
I also wrote to John Cooper in Cape Town, a Tristan and Gough veteran. I asked if his institute could help me to get to Tristan, and explained the Moorhen problem, of which he was already aware, of course. He wrote to me that he and the British scientist Gary Nunn were going to solve the problem using DNA analysis. This was Gary's specialty, and they had already obtained blood samples from Gough. Now they only needed samples from Tristan. I wrote to Gary Nunn, and offered him my assistence. I would be happy, free of charge, to collect blood for him on Tristan. He wrote back that he did not need my help, and that he himself was preparing a visit to collect the samples himself, next spring, 1993. How is this possible! For decades, nobody cared about the stupid Moorhens, and now, all of a sudden, I was facing two competing parties. I could not believe it.
Gary did not go. He could not spare the time. Michael wrote to me that Gary and John had asked him to collect the blood. I almost felt like everybody in the whole wide world was doing their utmost to prevent my going to Tristan. So it was a great surprise when I received a friendly letter from the Administrator, telling me that the Island Council had approved of my plans and that I was welcome on Tristan da Cunha. He told me which steps I had to take to obtain passage and explained the Moorhen problem. According to the islanders, Island Cocks were threatening the Yellow-nosed Albatrosses, by stealing their eggs. They thought it might be necessary to cull the Moorhens, to save the albatrosses from extinction. I could not believe what I read. Moorhens threatening albatrosses! Imagine! It all sounded to me like typical island folklore.
In fact, my visit in October would combine nicely with Michael's visit in April. He could take his blood samples, but in April there are no albatross eggs, so he could not look at egg predation. In October, on the other hand, they have eggs, so during my stay I could look at nesting success, and see if the Moorhens played a role in egg losses. Michael and I agreed on the division of tasks, and he suggested I should come and visit him again during the summer, after he returned and before I would go. He also advised me to contact Mike Frazer in Cape Town, the ornithologist of the Denstone Expedition. Tristan Investments let me know that I was on the list for the October sailing of the Agulhas, but I had to await the decision of the Administrator which of the people on the list would get a place on board. He would decide in July. I had my permission, at last, but it was not at all sure that I could go. I had to be patient.
In February 1993 Michael Swales travelled to Tristan for the third time. In the ten years since the Denstone expedition he had maintained regular contact with the islanders. He had also arranged that young people from Tristan could come to Denstone College for a year to study, so on the island he could be the guest of his own ex-pupils. Michael too had his logistic problems. In 1988 he wanted to organise a follow-up of the 1982-1983 Denstone expedition. In 1989 a team of six went to Fair Isle and the Shetland Islands for field training, but the expedition had to be cancelled when no places on board the ships could be obtained. In 1991 a new team was assembled, going to Fair Isle for training. But again they failed to get a passage so the team had to be disbanded. Finally, six places were obtained on board the fishing ship Hekla, sailing in March 1993. A new team was formed. But then came the message that departure was brought forward to February, and that instead of six, there would only be four places on board. It now fell in the middle of a school term, so taking schoolboys was out of the question. Selection was restricted to pensioners and unemployed people. The pensioners were Michael Swales himself and John Wooley, the cook of the Denstone expedition. The unemployed were two young people who had just graduated: Sara Wright, a biologist, leader of the training expedition to Fair Isle in 1992, and Chris Whirledge, a geodesist with expedition experience.
The return voyage was also not without problems. The idea was to return after three weeks with one of the fishing vessels, but they got stuck for seven weeks instead. They never managed to get a place on board. They were saved in the end by the RMS Saint Helena, visiting in April. That visit also brought Albert Veldkamp to Tristan, ex-pupil of Jan Brander, living in the same street in Vlissingen.
During their seven weeks' stay, they could spend frustratingly little time in the field. They were at Sandy Point on the east coast for a week, and a few days at the Caves in the southwest. And they made several daytrips to the base. But most days they were confined to the Settlement. A fundamental problem on Tristan is the availability of guides. You are not allowed to go on the dangerous mountain without a guide. In lousy weather there is no point in going up, and on days with nice weather there are no guides, because everybody is busy with sheep or potatoes. It was quite frustrating at times, but at least Michael had plenty of opportunity to tighten the bonds between Denstone College and the people in the Settlement.
Island Cock research mostly took place at Sandy Point, and during day trips to the Base, usually just east of the Settlement. They had divided the island into sectors, defined by the radially running gulches, and within each sector the birds were counted. Highest densities were found at Sandy Point, not far from where they were discovered in 1973. They had since spread in both directions in the fern bush zone, and now occupied about two thirds of the island. The area where they occurred had expanded by about 500 metres a year.
In order to catch the birds to take blood samples various techniques were tried, using different types of nets and traps, often with limited success. The best method was to use a dog. A well trained dog is able to catch Moorhens without killing them. Hertbert Glass owned a 'softmouthed' dog, Dandy, and one day he came down from the base with a sack containing six live Moorhens. The story of Island Cocks stealing albatross eggs was confirmed wherever Michael asked about it, but he failed to find an eyewitness, who had actully seen it himself. The story gets even more bizarre. Michael was told that the nasty birds cleverly operate in pairs. One of them shows conspicuous behaviour in front of the albatross, which will then, out of curiosity, bend over to have a better look. Then the partner will sneak in from behind, punch a hole in the egg, and suck out the contents. That is how they do it. They also descend from the mountain at night to secretly steal chicken eggs in the Settlement.
There is an interesting notion that in the 19th century Island Cocks already had an equally bad, or even worse, reputation. When Captain Nolloth visited the island in 1856, he noted that the wild goats, which used to be very numerous, had become very scarce. He did not think they were exterminated by the islanders. He wrote about this:
"Wild cats, which must thrive on the numerous mice by which house and country are overrun, have probably, by destruction of the young, thinned the number of the goats, with perhaps the assistance of the predaceous island cock, which seizes chickens and attacks young lambs in the plain."
Moorhens certainly scavenge. Even our Common Moorhens in Europe do it. And when people see a scavenger eating from a carcass, they easily assume the animal has been killed by it. It is the same with vultures all over the world. People on Tristan say Skuas kill sheep.
A few years after Nolloth's visit, the goats were all gone. In the course of about two years they mysteriously vanished from the earth. Maybe they finally succumbed to inbreeding, being derived from only a few ancestors, or maybe they were felled by a disease. During those two years, sheep infected with scab had come to the island. Scab is not lethal to goats, but perhaps the already weakened animals could no longer cope with winters. Or were they all eaten by the ferocious Island Cocks... A few decades later, the wild cats also disappeared, equally mysteriously, so perhaps they were killed by Island Cocks too (also see chapter Theories).