St Helena Online

Tristan da Cunha

Islands are key to ice riches, says academic

Britain’s islands in the South Atlantic are frontier posts in a race for economic riches in the Antarctic, according to an academic in Argentina.

In past centuries, St Helena was a vital refuelling station for the commercial supply lines of the British Empire. Now, says Juan Recce, her sister islands have become key strategic assets, as jumping-off points for the ice continent and its underwater wealth.

‘The islands of Ascension, Tristan da Cunha, South Georgia and South Sandwich give logistical control of the path to Antarctica,’ says Recce, executive director of the Argentine Centre for International Studies.

He suggests Antarctica could yield great economic riches – not only oil, but also other natural resources that can be harnessed for the medical drugs industry.

‘Before, there was talk of krill as food for the future,’ says Recce on ‘Today, it is the race for patenting of biodiversity for pharmaceutical purposes, for control of mineral resources on the continental shelf that is submerged and control of hydrocarbon resources that may exist in the subsurface.’

Recce, who is executive director of the Argentine Centre for International Studies, is clearly writing for his country.

He says if Buenos Aires gave up its claim to Las Malvinas (the Falklands), it would be ‘giving up our genome heritage, biodiversity, mineral wealth and, perhaps, oil.’

It’s not about ‘the Kelpers’, he says, using his country’s not-affectionate nickname for Falkland islanders – it’s about climate change, money from pharmaceuticals, and big changes in the way the world’s nations get their energy.

‘We are now facing a high-level game of chess. The Malvinas and Antarctica are, for the United Kingdom, part of a strategic power agenda.

‘The country’s margins expand with its overseas territories in the central South Atlantic.’

On the same website, another article says Britain is becoming unpopular with Argentina’s neighbours over oil exploration in the Falklands. Writer Matt Ince says pledges of support could leave Britain unable to bring in people and supplies through South America.

But he says sympathy and support for Buenos Aires are unlikely to lead to armed conflict.

Ince, of the Royal United Services Institute think-tank in the UK, suggests Argentina’s president is using the Falklands to divert attention from spending cuts and restraints on media freedom. says it aims to be an ‘online knowledge hub for those wanting the inside track on European politics’ and the business world.

Tristan penguin rescuers triumph – maybe

MS Oliva goes aground. Click the pic for more images, courtesy of

Efforts by the people of Tristan da Cunha to rescue birds in last year’s oil spill disaster appear to have been a great success, against enormous odds.

A count appears to show little impact on breeding among the island’s endangered rockhopper penguin colonies after the MS Oliva broke up on rocks.

But oil and cargo released into the South Atlantic from the ship have severely damaged the lobster fishery that provides islanders’ main source of income.

Tristanians rescue crew from MS Oliva. Click the pic for more images. Courtesy of

Tristanians had to rescue crew members of the MS Oliva when it hit rocks off neighbouring Nightinghale Island on March 16.

They then set up their own clean-up operation for wildlife while they waited more than a week for help to arrive from Cape Town, 1,700 miles away by sea.

The ship broke up in rough weather, discharging 1,500 tonnes of bunker fuel into the sea. The resulting slick reached Tristan and Inaccessible Island, a World Heritage Site.

Now a report by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds says the breeding population of rockhopper penguins in the area has not suffered as much as anticipated.

But Dr Juliet Vickery, head of international research, says the figures should be treated with caution.

Venessa Strauss and Dereck Rogers washing oiled penguins. Picture courtesy of

Well over half of the world’s population of Northern Rockhopper penguins breed on the Tristan group of islands.

Approximately 154,000 of them bred on the islands in 2011, but estimates in the 1950s suggest there were ‘millions’ of birds, with two million pairs on Gough alone.

‘It’s a big relief that the initial results of the counts are better than we had anticipated,’ says Dr Vickery. ‘We should not, however, relax our watch. There is much we don’t know about this species.’

She says it is not known how well population trends can be worked out from counts in breeding colonies. There may be longer-term ‘sub-lethal’ effects on breeding.

‘It is vital that we continue to monitor the birds closely for several more years to establish the true impact of the oil spill.’

Makeshift penguin pens. Picture courtesy of

The oil spill has also caused concern for the important Rock Lobster fishery around Tristan – the mainstay of the island’s economy. The latest evidence shows that catches are way below normal and rotting soya has been spotted on the traps.

Divers found the wreck had broken up considerably over the Southern Hemisphere winter. The Nightingale fishery has closed on expert advice and the quota for the fishery at Inaccessible Island was reduced from 92 to 53 tonnes for 2011/12 season.

An RSPB emergency appeal raised almost £70,000, which will be used to support penguin monitoring, strengthen the islands’ biosecurity, and help Tristan control rats – which could spread to Nightinghale and kill chicks.

Katrine Herian. who works for the RSPB on Tristan, praised islanders for their work: ‘Something really needs to be said about the huge Tristanian efforts in response to this disaster.

‘Without them, this could have been a very different story. While the true impact of the spill won’t be known for some time yet, we can at least know that everything that could be done was done.’

Doctor at sea: life for Tristan’s only medic

Update on this story: the job of doctor on Tristan da Cunha has just been re-advertised. The advert seeks a medic with wide clinical experience from May 2012. 

Dr Gerard Bulger runs the world’s most extreme single-handed medical practice, according to a magazine for general practitioners in the UK.

The internet has transformed medical practice on Tristan da Cunha, says Dr Bulger in a self-penned article for GP magazine. It’s made it possible for the island’s doctor to be a general practitioner, rather than a surgeon – meaning someone who is skilled in keeping people healthy rather than cutting them open.

‘Now that the internet is getting a little better here, and Skype works, doctors could now be supported by specialists back in Cape Town or in the UK when an emergency arises.’

But like St Helena, the island struggles with a bandwidth that would be considered feeble in Britain.

‘It’s 512kbs for the whole island, so if I had a crisis, everyone else would have to shut down their computers.’

Dr Bulger must also be one of the few medics in the world whose job includes checking the island’s water supply, partly to help the fish factory gain a European Union certificate.

‘I used to be irritated when my old practice in Bovingdon, Hertfordshire, was called single-handed. I said there was no such thing; the smallest practice had a practice nurse, an assistant and worked in a team. But Tristan is single-handed practice in the extreme, perhaps the last one in the world. There are no nurses, only care assistants.’

There is no airport, and supply ships are infrequent. ‘Keeping the pharmacy and consumables in stock is a nightmare, and too much goes out-of-date.’

As on St Helena, diabetes is a big problem. Dr Bulger is investigating its cause. ‘Despite all this,’ he writes, ‘the community is fit. There is true community care here.

‘To my delight, consultants in the UK are very willing to advise me by email and reassure me.

‘My favourite questions to ask consultants are medical Desert Island Discs. What eight bits of equipment or drugs would you choose, and what would be your luxury item of medical kit to have?’

For those interested in medical insights, the full article is here.

‘Nationettes’ star in Sunday Times Magazine

The iconic Sunday Times Magazines has chosen to celebrate its 50th anniversary issue with a superb picture spread from the UK’s South Atlantic territories. Well, naturally.

Jon Tonks has spent four years capturing the character of St Helena, Ascension, Tristan da Cunha, the Falklands and Gibraltar – ‘little rocky relics of empire’ that ‘cling to the motherland’s apron,’ as the magazine puts it.

Sadly, Jon’s picture of Tony Leo’s caravan didn’t make the magazine, but it can be found on his website.

Islanders may not appreciate the accompanying text by the celebrated writer AA Gill, which dwells much on the death of the British Empire but tells us virtually nothing about Gibraltar and the South Atlantic islands as they are today.

‘Now we’re left with these specks and corners of empire,’ he writes, ‘the tiny shards, little nationettes too small, too far and too slight to make it on their own.’ He’s got a point, though.

Gill does recall, interestingly, that his father made a television documentary about Tristan da Cunha in 1962, without actually going there. Since the Tristanians were all in the UK at the time, this is understandable.

He also rather wittily describes the loss of a succession of British colonies as ‘the end of stamp-collecting as we knew it.’

But The Sunday Times Magazine is renowned for its photo-journalism, and it’s the documentary pictures of Mr Tonks that carry the feature.

He doesn’t take the usual shots. The main picture on the opening double-page spread shows a couple of lifeboats that have come to rest amid rocks and lush greenery on Tristan, well up from the shore. Apparently they’re from the oil rig that bumped into the island in 2006.

Then there’s another of one of the beaches on Ascension.

Others show the governer of the Falkland Islands, posing in full uniform (which says something for the persuasive powers of Mr Tonks), fisherman Noddy with a freshly-caught tuna off Ascension, and a flight of steps on Gibraltar painted with a ‘defiantly British’ Union flag.

There’s also a picture of a past mayor of Gibraltar, slouching in a low chair in front of a placard that reads, ‘I was born British and I want to die British’.

There is only one picture of St Helena, looking down on Jamestown – a familiar view, but slightly different in a way that’s hard to pin down. The road up Ladder Hill can be seen snaking away to one side, so it has not been taken from the usual position at the top of Jacob’s Ladder.

However, there are 27 more St Helena pictures to be found on Jon’s website, including one of Governor Gurr at Plantation, and another of trainee mechanics Jamie and Dylan, working on an old truck at Prince Andrew School. We’re not told the names of the two girls snapped in their school uniforms.

In other pictures, Tara Thomas and musician Tom relax on the verandah at The Briars; Ivor Bowers, Fabian Peters and Cedrick Henry lean against a truck at Sandy Bay; Kerisha Stevens sits on a doorstep, toes turned inwards; Steve Biggs poses in an un-Saint-like cravat; ‘the only Frenchman on the island’, Michel Dancoisne-Martineau, stands in the garden at Longwood House; and Jimmy Thomas of Half Tree Hollow leans against a blue wall in a blue shirt, not looking blue at all.

There are landscapes too, and also quite a few pictures of cars. Jon had a gift of a subject in the 1930s Austin Ambassador that was used to drive King George VI and his family around the island in 1947. If Prince William ever turns up on the island, he won’t by riding in that.

Jon had an excellent guide to the island in Ed Thorpe, also a gifted photographer.

Climate change puts UK territories in danger, warns minister

Climate change is jeopardising the future of some of Britain’s overseas territories and could leave islands ‘completely cut off,’ a UK government report has warned.

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman says in the report: ‘The environmental challenges which our overseas territories face are… threatening the future security and safety of our territories, and in particular the people and the biodiversity that they support.’

Research says small island territories are ‘virtually certain to experience the most severe ecological impacts’ of climate change, including heat waves, heavy rain and storm surges.

The report adds: ‘Some islands could be completely cut off from communication with the outside world owing to their remoteness, potential impacts of sea-level rise and more intense storms, including damage to infrastructure such as ports, harbours, airport structures and facilities.

‘There could also be significant health impacts arising from both sea-level rise and extreme weather events.’

Threats identified by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs  (DEFRA)  include:

  • Invasive alien species, which harmed St Helena’s last bastard gumwood tree
  • Loss of habitats
  • Problems coping with waste, including on Tristan da Cunha
  • Damage to nature from tourism
  • Economic damage from alien species, on land and in the sea.

‘Tourism is important to the local economy of the UKOTs,’ says the report, ‘but can also deplete and damage local natural resources.

‘It is also intrinsically linked with development to serve the needs of tourists, and development pressures can result in negative changes in land use.’

The report has been published ahead of a White Paper – due early in 2012 – bringing together the policies of the three government departments responsible for overseas territories.

It sets out the support given by DEFRA to protect the environment in the territories, including the 340 species that are found nowhere else in the world – many of them endangered lists.

‘The risks of not considering the value of the natural environment in decision-making may lead to unsustainable economies,’ says the report.

‘Not considering environmental issues such as climate change could lead to security and safety issues.’

Research is taking place on the threat of non-native plants in the Falkland Islands. ‘There are now more introduced plants than native plants in the Falkland Islands. Thistles and ragwort species are examples of competitive invaders that have been introduced deliberately or accidentally through trade, tourism and travel.’

Horses can die from eating ragwort.

Projects on St Helena included efforts to capture seeds from the last surviving bastard gumwood tree. Mass planting may save it from extinction.

Alien marine species – a serious threat to fisheries – are to be investigated in waters around South Georgia, the Falklands and Tristan da Cunha.

The report also says money is to be spent attacking ‘high priority invasive alien species’ – including rats – in the Falklands, Ascension and St Helena.

Read the full report, with details of projects in all the overseas territories, here.