11 Apr 2018

11 Apr 18 - Atlantic Odyssey - Day Fourteen: Arrival At Tristan Da Cunha

Today was another day of expectation as we were arriving at Tristan da Cunha. This was another island group I was really looking at visiting. Several years ago, I went to a talk given by Brad Robson, who is the brother of one of my local Birding mates. Brad & his family had the lucky opportunity to visit & stay on Tristan da Cunha for several months as part of his job with the RSPB working with the team responsible for the British Overseas Territories. The talk was a mixture of Birds, but also life on the small island. The population of Tristan da Cunha in Jan 17 was only 262 permanent residents. It was a fascinating talk. It helped to reinforce the plan in my mind that started in the 90s, that I would join one of the Atlantic Odyssey cruises from Ushuaia via South Georgia, Tristan da Cunha, St Helena & Ascension. Finally, after all these years of considering the trip, I was two weeks into it & we were due to arrive at Tristan da Cunha. By late morning we could finally see Tristan da Cunha in the distance. Over the next hour the island became bigger.
The initial view of Tristan da Cunha: The island is approximately round with a diameter of 7 miles & a size of about 38 square miles
Tristan da Cunha: Panoramic shot showing how well the volcano dominates the island. The highest point of the volcano is 2062 metres
Tristan de Cunha: There was a reasonable coverage of bushes & trees on the steep slopes
The volcano dominates the island: Leaving only a narrow low elevation plain
Edinburgh of the Seven Seas: We arrived from the the South & sailed anti-clockwise around the island until we reached the settlement of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, on the NW corner of the island
Edinburgh of the Seven Seas: The harbour lies at the right hand end of the settlement
Unfortunately, there was a 4 metre swell & a 30 knot NW wind blowing into the harbour & the harbour master had declared the harbour was closed. To be honest, I wasn't surprised. Fishing is one of the main incomes for the islanders. One of the films of life on Tristan da Cunha that we were shown while we were at sea said the islanders were only able to go to sea for around 80 days a year. I think the harbour may have been improved since that film, as it wasn't recent. However, it does indicate the impact the weather & sea have on the harbour. There had been another tourist ship waiting to land for three days & which had left that morning, without having been able to put their passengers ashore.
Yellow-nosed Albatross: There was a regular movement of Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatrosses flying to photograph when we weren't looking at the island
Yellow-nosed Albatross: Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross
Yellow-nosed Albatross: Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross
As we were circumnavigating the island, it was steady enough on the top decks & a few telescopes appeared with people scanning the hillsides. A few Albatross nests were seen on the steep hillsides & then a surprise call came from one of the European Birders: I can see a Gough Moorhen. This is one of the endemics we were keen to see, having missed it on Gough Island. Gough Moorhens used to breed on Tristan da Cunha, but are believed to have died out following the arrival of people. However, another subspecies survived on Gough Island & some of these individuals were moved to Tristan da Cunha in 1956. As always with these scenarios some authorities believe that the now extinct Tristan Moorhens & Gough Moorhens were separate species, rather than subspecies. Either way the Gough Moorhen re-introduction was successful. So the next thing was trying to see the Gough Moorhen. The Plancius was probably 3/4 mile offshore & it was a few hundred metres up the hillside, so a good stable telescope was necessary. I had to wait until one of the telescopes became free, as my lightweight travelling scope would have struggled (especially without a tripod). I could see the area that the people were looking, but it had walked back into the trees, before I finally got to look through a telescope.
The Gough Moorhen site: Underneath the right hand side of the bushes & trees was a fenced enclosure (see next photo)
The Gough Moorhen site: This individual was feeding around the top right hand corner of the enclosure every now & then, before walking back into the bushes
After some discussion between the Plancius & the harbour master, we were given permission to cruise around the island & look for a place where we might be able to attempt a zodiac cruise in the afternoon. The first planned position was on the South East of the island, but that was too rough at the gangway to allow the zodiacs to be loaded. However, it did allow another area of hillside to be checked & a second Gough Moorhen was found, which I got to see. A handful of Birders did see Tristan Thrushes in flight from the Plancius. They are even smaller in size, but are the only Passerine on the island.
The second Gough Moorhen site: This individual was feeding on the open ground in this deep gully every now & then before going back into the bushes for periods. Fortunately, I got to see this one moving around though a decent telescope at even further range. Good job is there are no confusion species on the island
As we were unable to get the zodiacs into the water, the Plancius continued to look for a sheltered position & we went past the first Gough Moorhen site again. The Gough Moorhen searching started again & this time I got to a telescope in time.
Gough Moorhen: An extreme crop with it right in the centre. I'm amazed at how good the Canon 7D Mark II & 100-400 mm Mark II lens are as a camera setup to get this record shot at over 3/4 mile away. Through the scope, it had just been possible to see the bill colouration & overall shape to ensure we hadn't misidentified a Chicken
Fortunately, the Plancius found a more sheltered location, to the East of the original Gough Moorhen site & we were called to the zodiac deck. There was still a fair bit of swell on the zodiac deck & I decided not to risk the cameras, especially as it didn't look like there would be much to photograph. All we found was a lone moulting Tristan Penguin on the beach & a single Subantarctic Fur Seal. However, it was good to be able to get close to the beach on Tristan da Cunha as we didn't know if we would get the chance to land on the island. After the zodiac cruise, we returned to the Plancius & continued to slow cruise along the shoreline. As the light started to fall, good numbers of Great-winged Petrels were milling around offshore, wailing for the darkness so they could go ashore.
Great-winged Petrel: Great-winged Petrels breed on Gough & the Tristan da Cunha Islands, as well as, Marion, Crozet & Kerguelen Islands in the Indian Ocean
Great-winged Petrel: They have a rounded tail
Great-winged Petrel: They are a large long winged Petrel, with a slightly paler face & a steep forehead, which gives the impression to my eyes that they have a droopy bill
Great-winged Petrel: Good numbers of Great-winged Petrels gathered offshore of Tristan da Cunha at dusk
Eventually, we anchored up off the settlement. We were not encouraged to go onto the decks after dark when we were at sea, in case somebody accidentally fell overboard. However, given we were anchored in the shelter of the island, a few people went to the lower rear deck. It turned out to be a real spectacle. As well as the stunning clear night sky, there was a second light show in the water from the phosphorescence of hundreds of Squid as they drifted by on the current. Squid tend to descend during the day to avoid predators & come to the surface in the relative safety of darkness. The phosphorescence is caused by bioluminescent bacteria. It was a great natural light show, but one that my cameras failed to capture.