Ocean Magazine. At the midpoint of the second largest ocean on the planet

By Carlos González

Translators: J Brock (FINN) and Google Translate

Jul 11, 2020 – 17:57

Ocean ridges are mountain ranges submerged under the oceans. Often they rise enough to rise to the surface, giving rise to islands. The Atlantic Ridge, meanwhile, emerges at nine points, forming the islands Jan Mayen, Azores, Iceland, Santa Elena, Tristan da Cunha, Bouvet, Gough, San Pedro and San Pablo, and Ascension.

Today we are dealing with the latter, located in the heart of the Atlantic Ocean, just seven degrees south of Ecuador, and almost equidistant between the coasts of South America and Africa. It is practically the midpoint of the Atlantic Ocean. We are going to know a little about its history, its appearance, its climate, flora fauna and about the current human settlement and tourism.

Let’s start by saying that Ascension Island constitutes an isolated volcanic island, located in the very centre of the South Atlantic Ocean, as we mentioned at the beginning. It belongs to Great Britain and jurisdictionally it is part of the British Overseas Territory of Santa Elena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha or Tristan da Cunha.

Geographically Ascension Island is located 1,600 kilometres from the African coast and 2,250 kilometres from the northeast coast of Brazil. The political centre is the island of Santa Elena, located 1,300 kilometres to the southeast. For its part, the other component, Tristan da Cunha, is located 3,730 kilometres south, halfway to the Antarctic Circle.

The Island is named after the day of its discovery, Ascension Day. It was an important refuge station for sailors and commercial aircraft during World War II, also constituting itself as an important naval and air station, especially providing anti-submarine warfare bases in the Battle of the Atlantic.

A Royal Air Force station, a European Space Agency rocket tracking station, an Anglo-American signal intelligence facility, and the BBC World Service Atlantic broadcast station are established on the island.

Many will remember that it was used as a starting point by the British Army during the Falklands War. Ascension Island houses one of four terrestrial antennas that aid in the operation of the Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation system. NASA operates an Autonomous Meter Class Telescope (MCAT) on Ascension Island to track orbital debris, which they are potentially dangerous to operate spaceships and astronauts.

Let us go a little to its history. As we said at the beginning, the reason for its name lies in the day of its discovery. It was in 1501, when the Portuguese navigator João da Nova saw it for the first time on May 21, a date that in that year corresponded to the commemoration of the Ascension. Consequently, he called it Ilha da Ascensão. He immediately understood that the island had little appeal to passing ships, except to collect fresh meat, and was not claimed by the Portuguese Crown. Sailors could hunt the numerous seabirds and the huge female green turtles that laid their eggs on the sandy beaches. The Portuguese also introduced goats as a potential source of meat for future sailors.

In February 1701, the British ship HMS Roebuck, commanded by William Dampier, sank at the common anchor site at Clarence Bay, in the northwest of the island. Sixty men survived for two months until they were rescued. It is almost certain that, after a few days, they found the strong spring of water in the interior of the island, in what is now called Breakneck Valley.

It is also highly likely that the island was used as an open prison for criminal sailors, although there is only one documented case of such exile, an officer of a Dutch ship, Leendert Hasenbosch, who was landed in Clarence Bay as punishment for sodomy in May from 1725.

British sailors found the Dutchman’s shop, belongings, and diary in January 1726; the man’s remains were not found. His diary was published in translation in London later that year, under the title Sodomy Punish´d.

But the stable population of the island did not settle until 1815, when the British settled on it as a protection post for the neighbouring island of Santa Elena, where Napoleon was being held. It was on October 22 of that year that British ships claimed the island for King George III.

The island’s location made it a useful stopping point for ships and communications. The Royal Navy used the island as a supply station for ships, particularly those of the West African Squadron that work against the slave trade. A garrison of Royal Marines was based at Ascension in 1823 and Colonel Edward Nicolls became the first commander.

In 1836, Charles Darwin visited the island, on his journey to South America. He described it as a barren island without trees, with nothing near the shore. The sparse vegetation in the interior supported “about six hundred sheep, many goats, some cows and horses”, large numbers of Guinea fowls imported from the Cape Verde islands, rats, mice and land crabs; He agreed with the saying attributed to the people of Santa Elena that “we know that we live on a rock, but the poor people of Ascension live in an ash”. He noted the care taken to maintain “houses, gardens, and fields located near the summit of the central mountain” and roadside cisterns to provide clean water. The springs were carefully managed, “so that not a single drop of water is lost: in fact, the entire island can be compared to a huge ship maintained in a first-rate order.” Commenting on this, he noted René Primevère Lesson’s comment “that only Britain could have thought of making Ascension Island a productive place; any other people would have considered it a mere fortress in the ocean.”

In 1843, botanist and explorer Joseph Hooker also visited it. Four years later, Hooker, with much encouragement from Darwin, informed the Royal Navy that with the help of Kew Gardens, they should institute a long-term plan to send trees to Ascension. The planted trees would capture more rain and improve the soil, allowing the barren island to become a garden. Then, from 1850 and continuing year after year, the ships arrived with a variety of plants from botanical gardens from Argentina, Europe and South Africa. In the late 1870s, Norfolk’s pines, eucalyptus, bamboos, and bananas grew profusely at the island’s highest point, Green Mountain, creating a tropical cloud forest.

Beginning in July 1877, astronomer Sir David Gill and his wife spent six months on Ascension Island. This was to take advantage of the Mars approach that took place that year. Although originally based in Georgetown, the couple found that the afternoons were too cloudy to make observations of the night sky because Georgetown was upwind of a spelling cloud emanating from Green Mountain. The astronomer’s wife quickly struggled to find an area less affected by the afternoon cloud and walked several miles through the lava fields to find a new location. Having found an area in the southwest of the island that was apparently least affected, they had to determine how to move 20 tons of delicate observation equipment to the new location.

Fortunately, a small, clear beach is nearby, which was used to land the team by sea. Later it was called Mars Bay, a name that continues to this day and has since been designated a Nature Reserve.

The entire effort was ultimately a success, establishing a solar distance of 93.08 ± 0.16 million miles, not far from the modern measurement of 92.9558. As a result of his work on solar parallax, David Gill was appointed Royal Astronomer at the Cape of Good Hope.

In 1899, the Eastern Telegraph Company installed the island’s first submarine cable, connecting the United Kingdom with its colonies in South Africa. In 1922, the patent letters made Ascension a dependency of Santa Helena. The island was administered by the head of the Eastern Telegraph Company on the island until 1964, when the British government appointed an Administrator to represent the Governor of Saint Helena in Ascension.

During World War II, the island played a very important role. In order to supply and augment extensive amphibious anti-submarine patrol operations in progress since the early days of the war, the United States built an air base on Ascension Island, known as “Wide-awake.” The air base, which was being built by the 38th Army Engineer Corps Combat Engineer Battalion, it was unexpectedly visited by two British torpedo planes Fairey Swordfish on June 15, 1942. According to one of the pilots, Peter Jinks, the planes were attacked before be recognized as allies. The Swordfish had to descend on the unfinished airstrip, thus becoming the first aircraft to land on Ascension Island proper. The event was commemorated with a postage stamp on June 15, 1982, a day after the Malvinas war ended, where the island – as we will see later – also played a leading role.

But going back to the second war, the airfield was used extensively by the United States Army, as a stopping point for American planes crossing the Atlantic Ocean en route to theatres of operations in Europe and Africa. American Wide-awake-based bombers were involved in the Laconia incident. After the end of World War II and the departure of the Americans, the air base fell into disuse.

The only local military action during World War II occurred on December 9, 1941. Around noon, the German U-124 submarine approached Georgetown on the surface with the intention of sinking any anchored ship or bombarding the cable station. A double barrelled ground battery at Cross Hill above Georgetown fired at the submarine. The weapons did not hit him, but the submarine submerged and backed away. The battery remains largely intact to this day, along with its pistols, 5.5-inch BL Mark I naval weapons removed from the HMS Hood during a 1938 overhaul in Malta.

With the space race and the Cold War, the Americans returned in 1956. The air base expanded in the mid-1960s. The runway, with its strange hump, was extended, widened, and improved to allow use by large aircraft, and later to act as an emergency runway for the space shuttle, although the shuttle never had to use it. At the time, it was the longest airport runway in the world. The United States Air Force used the island as part of its Eastern Cordillera. NASA established a tracking station on the island in 1967, which operated for over 20 years before closing it in 1990. A joint government communications headquarters and a National Security Agency signal interception station were also established in Ascension during the Cold War. The island retains a role in space exploration: the European Space Agency now operates an Ariane monitoring facility. The BBC Atlantic Relay Station was installed in 1966 for shortwave broadcasts to Africa and South America.

In 1982, the British task force used Ascension Island as an assembly post during the Falklands War. The Royal Air Force deployed a fleet of Avro Vulcan bombers and Handley Page Victor tankers at the airfield. The Vulcans fired the first shots of the British offensive from Ascension in Operation Black Buck. The RAF also used the base. Due to the increase in air traffic during the war, Wide-awake, with up to 400 movements of all kinds every day, was one of the most active airfields in the world for a short period. The Royal Navy fleet stopped at Ascension to refuel on the way. After the war, the British retained a larger presence on the island, established RAF Ascension Island, and provided a refuelling stop for the regular air link between RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire and RAF Mount Pleasant in the Falkland Islands.

In the February 2016 census, 806 people were registered as the population of Ascension Island, 556 from Santa Helena (called the “Saints”) and 250 people of other nationalities. For its part, the RAF Ascension Island is made up of 17 employees. There has never been a native population on the island.

Currently there are five settlements:

  • Georgetown (the main civil settlement and capital of the island)
  • Two boats (a civil town, with its school)
  • Cat Hill (the main United States Space Force base on the island)
  • Traveller’s Hill (Royal Air Force base)
  • Wide-awake Airfield (with the Royal Air Force station).

In addition, there are a few cabins on Green Mountain, occasionally occupied by visitors, and the Residence, the official residence of the Administrator.

To enter Ascension Island, people need the written permission of the Administrator. There are no permanent residents. An employment contract is a basic requirement to stay on the island, although short-term visits by tourists are possible with prior approval.

The British government has confirmed that there is no “right of residence” on Ascension Island. As the local newspaper The Islander reported at the time, it was raised by some former Council members and 4 expatriate employees that while it was agreed that there was no right of residence, the authorities had previously indicated that they would consider changing the law allowing residency rights. And buying property, but decided not to.

The main economic activity on the island is centred on the military bases at Wide-awake Airfield and the Atlantic Relay station of the BBC World Service. The Ministry of Defence assets and facilities are managed by the infrastructure support provider Interserve Defence. Serco manages the airport services and Sodexo offers catering and domestic services. An earlier feature of Ascension was a 70,000 ton tanker permanently moored offshore that was operated by Maersk as a bulk fuel facility. In December 2002, this was replaced by an onshore oil supply depot under military management, with the fuel still being delivered by a chartered oil tanker, Maersk Rapier, operating on a MOD refuelling contract for Ascension and the Falkland Islands every two months. Fuel for the island is transferred through a floating hose, which is connected to the shore tank on the island’s dock head and to the anchored ship.

The main export items are Ascension Island postage stamps, first issued in 1922 and, since 2010, commemorative coins (which are legal tender but not circulating) and commercial fishing licenses for longline tuna vessels operating with ICCAT fees.

A secondary export is the international internet domain code .ac, which UK small educational universities and science museums are favouring because of its similarity to .ac.uk, the domain code reserved for UK educational institutions. Well established. In December 2013, The Pirate Bay (one of the world’s best-known file piracy websites) moved to .ac following the seizure of its .sx website.

Until 2002, tourism was virtually non-existent due to the island’s inaccessibility for transportation, the absence of guest accommodation and the need for a sponsor. However, the RAF has made limited air travel available to the public in recent years, and the Georgetown Obsidian Hotel and several guest houses have been opened. All visitors must obtain an entry permit before traveling. Sport fishing is the main attraction for many of the visitors. The island also boasts what is sometimes called the worst golf course in the world.

In 2003, the British and American governments signed the Wide-awake agreement designed to allow a limited number of unscheduled civil aircraft to land on Ascension Island, under the responsibility of the British government.

Poor runway conditions on RAF Ascension Island led to the cancellation of flights twice a week from there to the United Kingdom and the Falkland Islands (RAF Mount Pleasant) in April 2017. An Airbus A330 aircraft operated by Air-Tanker Services on behalf of the Ministry of Defence (UK) made those flights, called the South Atlantic Air Bridge, although a limited number of commercial passenger tickets were available. Those flights now travel through Cape Verde. AW Ship Management arranged for civilians to board RAF flights to and from RAF Ascension Island and RAF Brize Norton. AW Ship Management previously had a global agreement where passengers could travel in one direction on RAF flights and the other in RMS St Helena, which travelled between Ascension, Saint Helena and Cape Town, South Africa, up to the opening of St Helena airport to passenger flights.

While the A330s cannot land at the airport at this time, the United States Army uses international air transportation that flies 757 “combi” planes to maintain a twice-monthly flight between the Island and Air Force Base.  Patrick Airforce Base in Florida is used for rotating his staff, while the supply vessel (MV Ascension) regularly services facilities in the United States.

A mix of A400 and C17 aircraft lands in Ascension every three weeks to supply its own operations and deliver mail.

There is no taxi service on the island and most visitors who require transportation rent a car. There are around 40 kilometres of roads on the island, all of hard surface, along with many unpaved roads and trails. Part of the road surface used was surplus asphalt from a previous runway construction operation. Traffic drives to the left.

Currently the cargo ship M / V Helena, under AW Shipping Management, carries a limited number of passengers between Cape Town and Saint Helena and Ascension on its voyages.