Ever since the discovery of Ascension Island at 07º 55’ South, 014º 25’ West in 1501, the green turtles (Chelonia mydas) that seasonally nest upon its beaches, have been under attack. They became an important part of the diet for the occupants of the island and provided fresh meat, as barter, for passing ships.
Pirate-explorer William Dampier and his crew stranded on Ascension in February 1701 after their ship, the Roebuck, foundered at anchor. They lived on turtles until May. Starting in the early 1800s, the island served as the sanatorium for the African Squadron whose main task was the suppression of the Atlantic slave trade.
As a barren, volcanic island, Ascension had little else to offer than its strategic position, just south of the equator in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean between Africa and South America. “The most desolate, barren (and like a lan thatt God had cursed) thatt ever my eies beeheld …”, in the words of Peter Mundy in 1656. His shipmates captured five females during their 24-hour stay
Humans throughout history, continuing to this day, after the invasion of hostile environments – be it the arctic, mountains, (semi-)deserts or inhospitable islands – have used their neediness to justify the killing of the original, better adapted, non-human inhabitants.
Ascension – only 88 square kilometers – houses no large land mammals for colonizing humans to kill. Fresh meat was rare as on most small islands and so, as anywhere else, the wild things that were available had to suffer: nesting seabirds, sea mammals or turtles, it didn’t matter, man shall have its meat!
Green turtles migrate from the waters off Brazil – 2000 kilometer away – to mate in the waters and lay their eggs on the beaches of the island where they were born. Scientists Carr & Coleman explained this long migration by combining the theory of plate tectonics and the long evolutionary history of turtles: 80 Million years ago, ancestral turtles started nesting on volcanic islands that had formed between the recently separated continents of (West) Africa and South America. Nesting and feeding areas would have been much closer together then, but with the drifting apart of the continents the migration distance got longer and longer; it still does, 2 cm every year. More recent DNA tests show that the Ascension Island turtles are not different enough from other Atlantic populations to suggest 80 million years of separate evolution.
Green turtles start arriving at Ascension Island in November each year and mate in near-shore waters for the next three to four months.
Females usually lay their first clutch of eggs a month after mating. They lay several clutches per season in intervals of ten to sixteen days. Nesting largely takes place between December and July with a peak in March. Dampier and his crew were lucky that their shipwrecking coincided with the turtle nesting season, the turtles not so much.
Hatching occurs from February until August with eggs generally taking 45 to 70 days to incubate. At the completion of the breeding season adult turtles migrate back to foraging grounds in Brazil, while surviving young are eventually swept there by the prevailing currents. There is no parental care.
With the occupation of Ascension by British Marines in 1815 and the establishment of a marine garrison on Ascension in 1817, a farm was established on Green Mountain producing some fruits and vegetables, while at the same time the persecution of the turtles reached an almost industrial scale. The sporadic ‘gathering’ of turtles of the three centuries before was replaced by a systematic, intensive ‘harvesting’.
In order for turtle meat to be available all year round, a turtle pond was built shortly after 1815. In 1829 the small boat harbour was converted into a second turtle pond to allow the storage of an even greater number of turtles and was then enlarged in 1845. That the members of the garrison received half a crown for every turtle caught testifies to the economic importance of the ‘harvest’.
These ponds are large tanks built of volcanic rock to which the sea is admitted freely under tidal action by means of sluices too narrow to allow a captive turtle to escape through.
The smaller pond had a sandy bank at one end, allowing females to lay eggs.
‘Hunters’ would seize female turtles when they were laying eggs at night and turned the animals on their backs. In this position they were helpless, their flippers only reaching air. The stress and fear of being forced in this unnatural position, without knowledge of their fate, must have been overpowering.
This ‘hunt’ takes no skills, no weapons, nets or traps, just some patience and a little luck.
The next morning the animals would be picked up from the beaches by launch. The turtles were generally loaded into a whaler (open boat) towed by the launch.
If the boats couldn’t approach the beach because of the swell – which is often on this island surrounded by open ocean – a rope was tied to the flippers, with an empty petrol can or another makeshift buoy attached. The turtles were pulled towards the sloops, while unable to dive because of the float; a brief hope of regained freedom quickly smashed.
From the sea they could be hoisted by derrick onto the deck of the launch and brought to the Georgetown anchorage. From nearby beaches turtles were probably towed all the way.
At the anchorage they were again hoisted up and dropped into the water, sill constrained by rope and float, to be towed to the turtle ponds.
To supply ships, the turtles were transported from the ponds to the Pierhead by a specially made slipway with rail and trolley.
A French ship was supplied with 300 turtles in exchange for “55 Wether sheep […], 25 Chauldron of most excellent Coals, , sixty Casks of Beef, ten of Tongues, One Dozen of Hams, twelve Barrels of Pitch and Tars, , three Barrels of Flower, eight Tons of Oat Straw with the grain in, One Cask of Wine, Fifty Bushels of Oats and Barley, Two Casks of Bread, five Bolts of Canvas, five Coil of Rope, One Hundred Deals, Nails, Paints, Oil, etc, etc.”
The turtles were even shipped to Europe, to the UK for the King, the Lords and Admiralty to whom turtle soup was a fashionable delicacy. The turtles were kept more or less alive onboard the ships for the journey to the motherland, stowed on their backs in the hold with each turtle marked on her light-colored plastron (belly-shell) with the name of the projected recipient, without food and only the occasional bucket of seawater thrown over them.
Sea turtles and large land tortoises – such as those of the Galapagos Islands – were popular as fresh food on board ships as they would stay alive such a long time, undoubtedly suffering the entire stretch.
In a report to the Royal Geographical Society in 1835, Captain H.R. Brandreth noted that on a transport of 60 turtles to England only one survived.
As only females leave the water to lay eggs, the destruction of the population went fast.
In 1845 over 1500 turtles were still ‘harvested’, but by the 1860s, the population had declined and less than a few hundred could be stolen from the wild each year: 160 in 1867, 122 in 1886.
In the early 1900s some attempts were made to conserve the precious bounty: the turning of turtles was only allowed after they deposited their eggs.
By the 1920s the trade in turtles had virtually stopped and the ponds were no longer used, although a few turtles were still caught for island residents, the Navy and the Eastern Telegraph Company staff, the latter of which were granted a ‘turtle concession’ for five years in 1929 by the Governor of St Helena. Records are incomplete, but in 1930 the Company sold 106 turtles out of 141 caught. The concession was not renewed in 1935 as the enterprise was barely economic.
In the 1930s fewer than 50 females were caught per season, but during World War Two turtle burgers still supplemented the menu of the stationed US forces. In 1942 large numbers of soldiers arrived and the Government of St Helena granted licenses to ‘collect’ up to fifty turtles; roughly one turtle was allowed per hundred men. The meat was not popular and the scheme ended in 1943.
The last documented capture of a turtle on Ascension was in the 1950s, but in 1969, Mariculture Ltd, registered in the Cayman Islands, was given permission to collect and export turtle eggs. Between 1969 and 1975, in all but one year, 25,000 eggs were taken; 20,000 were exported and the remaining 5000 hatched on Ascension, the hatchlings fed in ponds and released after weeks with the idea that their perceived increased chances of survival would compensate for the stolen eggs.
Harvest records, started by the Marines, from 1822 to 1936 indicate that before 1822 more than 19,000 females must have nested on Ascension for the population to have been able to survive into the 1930s. On the neighbouring island of St Helena the green turtles were not so lucky. The nesting population was wiped out like they were on Bermuda and the Cayman Islands.
The turtles of Ascension Island are now protected under local and international law – at their foraging grounds off Brazil where fishing is a threat – and it is illegal to disturb or harm them in any way.
Not until the 1970s comprehensive scientific surveys were undertaken to establish the number of turtles on Ascension Island. 7910 to 10,764 and 5257 to 7154 nests were estimated in the 1976/7 and 1977/8 seasons, respectively.
12,000 turtles are currently nesting on Ascension, but new threats like entanglement in fishing nets, getting hooked by long-lines, choking on plastic waste, boat strikes and unpredictable climate change have replaced direct human kills. In other locations than Ascension, sea turtles are still slaughtered for their eggs, meat, skin and shells.
All seven sea turtle species are now considered either threatened or endangered.
When I visited Ascension, I sat quietly at night on Long Beach, not far from the remains of the turtle ponds, next to a female digging a bottle shaped nest hole; I watched how she deposited her ping-pong ball sized and colored eggs, then covered the hole and masked the exact nesting spot before dragging herself back over the beach to the ocean.
Watching a turtle nest, is a privileged experience.
The next day, in daylight, I was admiring the ‘tank’ tracks crisscrossing the beach, produced by the females leaving and re-entering the ocean and camouflaging their nest location, when I noticed a tiny hatchling that in the daylight had lost his or her sense of direction. Maybe he was a straggler from last night, maybe an early riser; in any case I decided to help the little guy/gall to cross the hot sands to the water in my hands and shield him/her from the ever-watchful frigate birds.
I was cheating nature and its functional, but often cruel, mechanism of survival of the fittest to perform a small act of compassion, at the same time realizing that we can never make up for the massive wrongs we, humanity, have bestowed on this species and its relatives.
MTRG/Ascension Management Plan 2002
‘Sea Turtles on Ascension Island’ leaflet
‘Recovery at Ascension’ SWOT Report
History – The Sad Story of Ascension’s Green Turtles
St Helena and Ascension Island: a natural history – Philip and Myrtle Ashmole