Atlantic Islands from Antarctica to tropics

Brief descriptions of islands visited during the Atlantic Odyssey. The South Shetlands, Elephant Island, and Tristan da Cunha are dealt with (unfortunately in Dutch only) more extensively in my books about these islands (In de Voetsporen van Shackleton and Het Waterhoentje van Tristan da Cunha).

Island menu

South Shetland Islands

The South Shetland Islands have a volcanic origin, but they are old enough to carry sediments, even with fossils. They form the southern part of the Scotia Arc, the island arc running from the southern tip of South America to the Antarctic Peninsula, via South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

The chain of islands runs parallel to the NW coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Most of them lie in one row, from SW to NE: Low, Snow, Livingston, Greenwich, Roberts, Nelson, and King George Island, the biggest of them all. Low, Snow, Roberts, and Nelson Island are low, and completely covered by a flat, slightly dome-shaped ice cap, which reaches the sea on all sides. There are a few icefree spots along the coast, where a hill forces the glaciers to pass on either side. Most of the coastline is formed by high ice cliffs, where large chunks break off to fall into the sea, in a thunderous spectacle.

Livingston, Clarence, and Elephant Island are steeper and higher, and therefore have icefree mountain sides in the interior. Livingston has the highest peaks (2400 m) en has a rugged, irregular appearance. Clarence is just one single, very steep mountain, 1900 m high. One of the sides rises almost vertically all the way to the summit. Elephant Island has several mountains, the highes reaching to over 900 m.

King George Island is large, but not very high (6-700 m). Like the other islands most of the land surface is covered by ice, but bare, rocky peaks protrude at various places. The coast is deeply cut into many sheltered fjords and bays. The southwest corner is flat and free of ice, and therefore well suited for an air strip. This makes the island accessible and inhabitable, and it is one of the most densely populated (by man) places in the Antarctic, with representatives of Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Uruguay, Peru, Brazil, Poland, Russia, China, Korea, and the USA. Fairly recently there have also been British and (very briefly) Italian inhabitants. Both the Chileans and the Argentinians consider the islands their territory, but the Chilians have the strongest position on King George Island. They have the largest base and the airfield. Anyone who at another base gets something too serious too be handled by their own doctor, ends up in the Chilean hospital. The Polish and the Brazilians get their mail delivered by Chilean helicopter. The fact that Britain considers this part of the world British territory, is of no relevance to anyone on the island.

Between the island chain and the mainland a crack runs through the ocean floor, parallel to the islands. At three locations volcanos have risen to the surface: Bridgeman, between Elephant Island and Kinge George, Penguin Island, very close to the southern shore of King George Island, and Deception, south of Livingston. Deception is horse-shoe shaped, enclosing a sheltered lagoon. Some people think it is just one huge caldera. Others think the horse-shoe shape is a coincidence, and the ring has been formed by a chain of smaller volcanoes. Deception is active: in 1970 there has been a severe eruption, and it is still possible today to take a hot bath by digging a hole in de black sandy beach, which fills with seeping water.

The South Shetlands are almost completely covered by ice. Only 2-3 percent is icefree, often along the coast. This is where all life concentrates: penguins, seals, and the inhabitants of the various bases.

Elephant Island

Elephant Island is one the easternmost islands in the South Shetlands. It is about 60 km long and 40 km wide, and like the other islands, it is mostly covered by ice. Flora and fauna are very much the same as in the other islands in the region, but Elephant Island is especially known as a historic site. This is where Sir Ernest Shackleton landed with all his men after he lost his ship Endurance in the Weddell Sea. From Elephant Island he sailed in a reinforced lifeboat to South Georgia to get help from the outside world. After a terrible journey he landed on the southern shore, and had to cross the island on foot, accross glaciers and high alpine passes, to reach the Norwegian whaling settlement Stromness. Ships sent to Elephant Island to rescue the other men, had to give up three times because of bad ice conditions. By a miracle, all men could be taken of Elephant Island alive and safely, at the fourth attempt.

At Stinker Point, on the southwestern side of the island, there is a place called Wreck Bay, where some bits and pieces of a wrecked ship are lying around (I have been there in 1988, and I have seen them). Only in 1998 these remains were recognised as probable parts of Shackleton's Endurance!

South Georgia, Bird Island

South Georgia lies some 1000 km east of the Falkland Islands, in the northeastern corner of the Scotia Arc. Although it lies at the same latitude as the Falklands, it is much colder, and is largely covered with ice, although at sea level large parts are covered in lush, grassy vegetation. It is very mountainous, and has many peaks of over 2000 m. The coastline is very much indented, and many fjords run far inland. South Georgia is a big island, some 200 km long. The fjords, peaks, glaciers running into the sea, and the green headlands, make South Georgia an extremely beautiful place, sometimes called the Himalayas of the South Atlantic. On top of that, the island teems with wildlife, the most famous being the elegant King Penguins, breeding in huge colonies, and the majestic Wandering Albatross.

Tristan da Cunha, Gough, Nightingale, Inaccessible

Tristan da Cunha (37 degrees S, 12 degrees W) is situated about halfway Cape Town and Buenos Aires, in the emptiest part of the world's oceans, on the edge of the Roaring Forties. The group consists of the main island Tristan da Cunha with its two satellites Nightingale and Inaccessible, and lonesome Gough Island, some 250 miles to the SE. Tristan is a circular volcano, seven miles in diameter, and almost 7000 feet high. The island rises steeply from the sea, with 1000 - 2000 ft high cliffs on all sides. At the base of the cliffs lie a few low plateau's; the largest, four miles long and less than half a mile wide, is inhabited. The 300 inhabitants live in the village of Edinburgh, which is usually referred to as 'The Settlement'. Tristan was discovered by the Portuguese in 1506, regularly visited by the Dutch in the 17th century, and finally colonised by the British in 1816. Like on Ascension, a garrison was punt on Tristan to prevent the French from using the island as a base to free Napoleon from St. Helena. When the garrison withdrew in 1818, Corporal Glass stayed behind, with his wife, his children, and two friends. Marooned sailors and adventurers joined the colony, and coloured women were brought from Saint Helena. Modern Tristanites have European faces with a very dark complexion. The islanders live from potatoes, sheep, stamps sales, and crayfish fishery.

Tristan has a cool, windy, and wet climate. The vegetation is lush and green, with a dominance of grasses, mosses, ferns, and low bushes. Due to human activities, the seabird fauna of Tristan has been severely depleted. Seabirds abound on neighbouring Inaccessible and Nightingale, some 25 miles SW of Tristan. Nightingale, hardly a mile accross, harbours millions of greater shearwaters, side by side with thousands of rockhopper penguins, yellow-nosed albatrosses, sooty albatrosses, over a dozen of other seabird species, and two endemic finches and a thrush. In addition, Inaccessible has the diminutive Inaccessible flightless rail, the smallest flightless bird in the world. In 1994 Inaccessible was declared a strict nature reserve. On Nightingale the islanders are still allowed to harvest eggs and chicks of the shearwaters.

Although Gough is only 250 miles away from Tristan, it has twice the amount of rain, lower temperatures, and much more wind. This is because the subtropical convergence, a sharp demarcation line between two climatic zones in the open ocean, lies exactly between the two islands for the greater part of the year. Yet, flora and fauna of the two islands are very similar. Gough has a rugged, inhospitable coastline, with sheer cliffs, sometimes rising to almost 3000 feet. South Africa permanently mans a weather station on Gough. In 1976 the entire island has been declared a Wildlife Reserve with the highest protection status. Apart from the millions of seabirds, Gough has a peculiar species of finch, and a flightless moorhen. A similar moorhen lived on Tristan in the previous century. It is not clear whether moorhens found on Tristan today are original Tristan moorhens, or derived from imported stock from Gough.

The beaches of the Tristan group are visited by elephant seals and fur seals, whose populations are now recovering after the massacres in the previous century. Shallow waters around the islands are the playgrounds for the southern right whale.

Administratively, Tristan and Gough are dependencies of the British colony Saint Helena. Tristan can only be reached by ship, usually about six times a year.

Saint Helena

Saint Helena (16 degrees S, 6 degrees W) is situated in the heart of the Southern Atlantic Ocean, about 1200 miles north of Tristan da Cunha, and just about as far from the African west coast. The island occupies a space of only 10.5 by 6 miles, and has a rugged appearance. Originally clad in lush green forest, most of the original vegetation has been destroyed by introduced goats and rabbits, after the Portuguese discovered the island in 1502.

Its favourable climate and position made Saint Helena an important refreshment station for 16th and 17th century sailors, on their home voyages from the East Indies back to Europe. In addition, its isolation made it a good place of exile, with Napoleon as the most famous example.

Saint Helena has over 5000 inhabitants, mostly of mixed colour. May descend from former slaves, but there is also much Indian and European blood in the population. The island has been a British colony since 1653. The Dutch took possession in 1673, but the British recaptured the island in the same year.

There is very little rainfall (200 mm) at sea level, but with altitude the amount of precipitation quickly increases. The lower 1000 ft of the island are arid, and give the island a desert like appearance. But at higher elevations, right to the summit of almost 2700 ft, the island is lush and green, although the original vegetation cover has been almost completely replaced by alien plants and cultivated crops.

Most of the very few species of landbirds have been inroduced to Saint Helena. The only indigenous land bird is the endemic wirebird, a close relative of Africa's Kitlitz's plover. Wirebirds are found today in grazed fields at medium altidudes.

There is also little left of Saint Helena's seabird fauna. Locally small colonies of noddy terns and tropic birds (locally known as 'trophy birds') are found nesting in high cliffs, and some isolated stacks still have small colonies of boobies. The dainty fairy terns have colonised the city, and build their flimsy nests on narrow ledges in the Church windows.

Saint Helena has no airport. The only connection with the outer world is by boat. The RMS 'St. Helena' touches the island six times a year, en route from Cardiff to Cape Town. There is no harbour. Passengers are rowed ashore where they have to step right onto the quay. In periods of havy incoming rollers this is not even possible.

The RMS 'St. Helena' also services Ascension, and once or twice a year touches at Tristan da Cunha.

Ascension Island, Boatswain Bird Island

Ascension Island is situated 700 miles NW of Saint Helena, less than eight degrees below the equator. It is a sun baked, volcanic island, at first sight totally devoid of any plant life. Ashes, lava, and cinders in all kinds of different colours, make up the landscape. It takes a good second look to realize that not all of the island is a barren desert. Like on Saint Helena, precipitation increases with altitude, and above 1500 ft (where fogs may occur) the island turns green. Above 2000 ft the soil is even fertile. The island reaches roughly 2800 ft.

Like Saint Helena, Ascension was discovered by the Portuguese in 1502, but it was too dry and barren to ever become an important station on the East India shipping routes. Yet, the Portuguese immediately introduced goats and rabbits, which almost completely destroyed the indigenous vegetation.

Just like on Tristan, The British put a garrison on Ascension, to 'guard' Napoleon on Saint Helena. But because of the strategic position in the centre of the tropical Atlantic, the garrison was not withdrawn, not even after Napoleon died.

In 1899 the island became a centre in World communication, when a direct telegraph cable was laid over the ocean floor, from Cape Town to Britain, via Saint Helena, Ascension, and the Cape Verde Islands. Direct cables were also laid to Sierra Leone in Africa, and to Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires. The island remained military until 1922, when the responsibilty for the island was transferred to Cable & Wireless Ltd, who managed the cables (and later radio communications). In 1922 Ascension became a dependency of Saint Helena. Cable & Wireless was later joined by the BBC, and, through contracts with the USA, by the US Air Force and NASA. An airfield was constructed in the southern part of the island, right throug a colony of the sooty terns ('wideawakes' - Ascension is also called 'Wideawake Island'). The terns peacefully moved to a nearby location.

Although Ascension has been permanently inhabited since 1815, it never had permanent inhabitants. All inhabitants were contractors and their families, even the farmers, who cultivated vegetables for the others, at higher elevations in the fertile mountains.

Ascension used to have millions of seabirds, which were wiped out by typical mis-management. Only the guano deposits remain as silent witnesses. With the soldiers came the rats, and soon afterwards the cats. Cats were deliberately put on the island to control the rats, but they immediately ran wild and went after the much tastier seabirds. Dogs were introduced to control the cats, but they too preferred another diet. The result was a total anihilation of almost all seabird species. Only the wideawakes managed to survive in numbers. They were the only seabird species to completely leave the island for a period of two months a year, causing a period of starvation among the cats, thus controlling their numbers.

Ascension has no indigenous land birds. Those birds presently flying around, have been imported. In previous centuries there has been a tiny flightless rail, closely related to the Inaccessible flightless rail, only know from a traveller's description of 1656, and skeletons found this century.

Seabirds are still plentiful on isolated stacks off the island's coast, notably on Boatswain Bird Island, which has three species of booby, two species of tropic bird ('boatswain bird'), noddy terns, and the endemic Ascension frigate bird.

Ascension's beaches are visited by sea turtles during the greater part of the year, to lay their eggs.

Cape Verdes

The Cape Verde Islands lie some 500 km off the West African coast, almost due west of Cap Vert in Senegal. There are 10 inhabited large islands, and many uninhabited small ones, which still host significant seabird populations. The islands were Portuguese, but now form an independent African nation, and a very poor one indeed. The islands are a true extension of the Sahel Zone, and receive very litlle rain, and very irregularly. Catastrophic drought periods of many years may occur, as wel as torrential rainstorms, where all precipitation for several years may fall in just a few hours. The islands differ tremendously in appearance. Some are flat and Sahara like, others are mountainous and extremely rugged. The highest peak is on the island of Fogo, an active volcano rising to 2800 m, with the weirdest black landscapes one can imagine. In the caldera, at 2000 m altitude, people grow grapes, and even produce a local wine.

Seabirds include the endemic Cape Verde Shearwater, the Brown Booby, the Magnificent Frigate Bird, the Red-billed Tropicbird, and several species of smaller petrels. The endangered Fae's Petrel nests high up in the mountains. Unfortunately, local people believe that the fat of its chicks has medicinal properties.

Copyright Albert Beintema, February 1997, 1998