A trip to Nightingale Island

Last Friday at 7:45 the phone rang, and I knew that it was Tristan’s tourism coordinator Dawn Repetto with news about that day’s outing. Renée answered the phone and took the message, but I came out of my room to see her in the kitchen before she could knock on my door. Renée asked if I could be down at the harbour by 8:30 for a trip to Nightingale Island.

Nightingale Island!

It is rare for visitors to Tristan to actually land on Tristan, and even rarer for them to stay more than a couple hours. If weather conditions allow, most of these visitors who come by on cruise ships have no more time than to visit the post office and souvenir shop. Only long-term visitors to Tristan get an opportunity like this. The wind direction, wind speed and sea conditions all come into play before a trip to Nightingale can even be considered. Today was the day for a trip within a trip of a lifetime.

I put on my raincoat and rain pants, and brought along my toque and gloves. I walked the few minutes to Calshot Harbour and met my fellow Agulhas II passengers who were all excited about the trip. I got a life jacket then waited around a bit until the three boats were lifted by crane into the water. The first to set off was Wave Dancer, an orange fishing patrol boat that seated six of the assembled group inside. The next two boats were RIB’s ( = rigid inflatable boats) named Svitzer and Arctic Tern. I got into the last RIB to leave, Arctic Tern. It had only five seats, which were long and quite narrow. They had a back rest and grips in front. Arctic Tern could seat more than five and while I got a seat in the back, others had to sit on the side gripping the rope handles. I sat beside Karen Lavarello-Schreier, coauthor of Tristan da Cunha: History, People, Language. I have gotten to know Karen (pronounced CAR-in) well since I first met her on the Agulhas. Karen’s brother Duncan was our captain and islanders Keith Green and Eugene Repetto also rode with us. We set off for Nightingale just before 9:30.

Some of the Arctic Tern passengers had their cameras out as we left Calshot Harbour. I didn’t because I felt it would be too wet and splashy to take pictures. But my fellow passengers were filming or taking photos as we exited the tiny harbour and I had second thoughts that maybe I should get my camera out too. Yet once we were on the open waters it was a splashy deluge. It couldn’t have been more than thirty seconds before everyone got sprayed, cameras included. I was glad I kept mine in my camera case inside my backpack.

I decided shortly after departing the harbour that it was more comfortable to stand than to sit. I had a better view too, since I was in the back of the RIB. The ride was like a roller coaster on water. It really was more intense than any roller coaster I had ever been on. The RIB shot over two-metre swells and lifted entirely out of the water, leaving only the outboard motor submerged. At wicked moments like this both Karen and I screamed out in roller-coaster glee. We weren’t bothered in the least about the up-and-down see-sawing of the boat as it battled its way 49 km southwards. When I ate breakfast I purposely decided to eat only a little, for one reason because I knew that I might not have an opportunity to use a bathroom on Nightingale. So I only had half a cup of coffee. I also had a small bowl of cereal because I didn’t want to risk heaving my entire guts out should I get seasick en route. I didn’t have to worry about that. Some of my fellow RIB passengers, in particular Alan Ashworth and Marilyn Crawford, looked pale as ghosts after we arrived at Nightingale.

As we passed the south coast of Tristan, I finally saw the complete island from a distance, with its volcanic peak and the halo of clouds that rings the island just below the peak. This is a view of Tristan most often seen in photos. One cannot see the summit from the settlement. As we streaked through the waves towards Nightingale, I could not resist looking back at the conical beauty of Tristan da Cunha.

Neither Nightingale nor Inaccessible Island was at first visible through the haze. Yet the closer we got, the pyramid peak of Nightingale came into view and then the dull hazy greys turned into lush greens. Two smaller islands in the Tristan group, Stoltenhoff and Middle (also known as Alex) Islands lie directly in front of Nightingale, and it was indeed a thrill to see these two tiny insular dots on the map up close. Stoltenhoff is a high cliffy rock island comprised of three parts, the middle part of which is a tall narrow sea stack. Middle Island has a rolling terrain and is low enough to attempt a landing on.

See a map of the Tristan group here.

and read about Nightingale Island here.

Nightingale Island is a protected wildlife refuge for twelve different bird species, including the yellow-nosed albatross, Tristan thrush, great shearwater, northern rockhopper penguin and Wilkins’ (grosbeak) bunting. In spite of the island’s name, there are no nightingales on the island. The island was named after British Captain Gamaliel Nightingale in 1760. Seals also enjoy the rocky pools that lie at the west landing. Although we were the third and final boat to depart for Nightingale, our RIB was the first to arrive. We sailed to the island’s northeast coast where the Tristanians have rebuilt their small cabins. Nightingale is used as a “vacation spot” for Tristan and the islanders have built cabins high above the waterline. They were severely damaged during a hurricane in 2001, and were rebuilt in various colours like the houses seen in St. John’s, Newfoundland or Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen.

Duncan the RIB driver decided to head over to the west landing instead. Thick kelp surrounds Nightingale and at one time our outboard motor got caught in it. I got to experience the struggle through kelp that early visitors to Tristan da Cunha had written about. Duncan signalled to the other boats to head over to the west landing, and we took a small tour of Middle and Stoltenhoff in getting there.

Two Tristanians, sixteen-year-old Riaan Repetto and 21-year-old George Swain, who are helping the scientists based on Nightingale for three months, came in a small inflatable raft to help transfer passengers to the island. George was at the motor and Riaan helped me over the RIB into the small raft, which could hold four additional passengers. We entered a small inlet and I was helped ashore. “Shore” was really a large rock which was steep and slippery. I had to be very careful that I didn’t spend my first moments on Nightingale face down against rock.

The first moment of wondrous awe during this trip was stepping onto Tristan. I experienced my second such moment as I gazed up the steep cliffs of Nightingale Island. The west landing was ringed with inlets that let in gushing blasts of turquoise. Seals sat on the edges, popping into the natural pools or into the ocean near us. They were as tame as can be, and feared no one as we climbed up the cliffy coast. Antje Steinfurth and Rukaya Johaardien, the two scientists studying rockhopper breeding habits during their three-month stay on Nightingale, came slowly down to greet us. Antje and Rukaya travelled on the Agulhas to Tristan but did not leave the ship. They stayed on board and flew by helicopter to Nightingale the day after passengers were landed at Tristan. Bruce Dyer, an ornithologist who also travelled on the Agulhas, also came down to greet us. I was so happy to see Antje and Rukaya again. We probably are their only human contact during their entire stay on the island.

Nightingale is rarely visited except by a few Tristanians and the rare tourist or research scientist. It is a wildlife refuge and left as much in its natural state as can be. Thus there was no easy way off the rocks to the top of the cliffs. We had to climb up–with ropes. Talk about Tarzan! Forget about taking pictures; I needed both hands to get me up there. There was a rough path of mud and rock with ropes along one side. The ropes had been tied to nails which had been nailed into the rock. I had to get a foothold and pull myself up. Every step had to be calculated and I called down to others what to expect above. I have never climbed mountains but this must be what it was like. The tussock grass (Spartina arundinacea) on Nightingale grows over two metres high and it was growing out of the cliffsides, covering the ropes. I had to reach deep through the grass to find them.

Once we reached the top, we continued up an extremely steep grassy path flanked by towering tussock grass. The path was covered with Scirpus bicolor, or small bog grass, which resembled grassy footstools. Among the bog grass were masses of bird wings, skeletons and feathers. Subantarctic skuas are predators on Nightingale and this carnage was likely their doing. When we reached the Welcome to Nightingale Island sign we took turns taking pictures beside it then headed up and up to see the nesting albatrosses. Their nests resemble muddy cylindrical stools and as we ascended higher the number of nests multiplied. These large white birds with black-sided, yellow-striped and red-tipped beaks sat motionless atop their nests. We walked closely as we passed them yet they barely noticed our presence.

At the top of the climb, just below the peak, suddenly over a hundred albatross nests appeared. Ornithologist Bruce Dyer was based on Nightingale for the past two weeks and had counted the number of nests in this area. The ground sank beneath my footsteps and freezing cold water seeped into my shoes. I sure wish I had brought boots to Tristan. I was already bringing four pairs of footwear on this trip, and considered boots but decided against it. Blechnum palmiforme, or bog ferns, which looked like stout miniature palm trees grew in abundance in this area. We had our pack lunch and sat among the Scirpus bicolor, using the small bog grass as stools to sit on.

Our Tristan guide was James Glass, and after lunch he led us down the mountain to the tussock grasses where the rockhopper penguins were nesting. Rockhoppers do not nest on rocks but bury themselves deep within these grasses to set up their nests on the ground. Antje and Rukaya had marked areas outside the grasses where the penguins had assembled their nests. The area was extremely thick with pointy grass. The last thing I wanted was a tussock tip in my eye, or a swipe of a tip that knocked out a contact lens, so I squinted as I walked through. After walking through a maze of tussock I finally saw a small clearing and heard honking sounds. I crouched at first, then practically had to lie on my stomach in order to see the rockhoppers. Their yellow and black tassels shook as they waddled around.

After seeing the rockhoppers we had to return to Tristan. I took many pictures of the triangular island of Tristan da Cunha in the distance with Middle and Stoltenhoff Islands in the foreground. The climb down the cliff to the rocky shore was easier than the climb up, as I could sit on the rocks and guide myself with the ropes. While I was watching people get into the small raft to transfer to the boats, Bruce pointed out the rarest of all Nightingale birds, the Wilkins’ (grosbeak) bunting which was hopping on the rock beside us. Only fifty pairs breed on the island, but it flew away before I could take its picture. The swells in the small inlet were higher and rougher than when we had arrived and the waves engulfed the rocky landing, well past where we were standing. Riaan and George battled through to bring passengers to the Wave Dancer first. I wanted to ride back to Tristan in the same RIB that I had taken to Nightingale, Arctic Tern. I would be very glad that I made that decision.

Karen got into the raft first, and as I stood on the rocky edge waiting for the small raft to return to pick me up, a swell suddenly came over and washed over my knees. I was held back to prevent me from being washed away. I scrambled into the raft then climbed aboard the Arctic Tern, where a seat was still available. We had more passengers than we had when we came down because we were transferring some to the Wave Dancer. Matthew Green, who had been on Nightingale when we arrived, rode back with us. We did not take off until the other two boats were ready, and while we waited we sailed slowly around Middle and Stoltenhoff Islands. Finally at 2:15 we set off, against a strong wind and rougher waves than those from this morning.

Fifteen minutes later the captain got a message on his walkie-talkie that the other RIB, Svitzer, had broken down. We returned to Nightingale where the Wave Dancer had already tied a rope to the idle craft. All of the passenger tourists had been transferred to the larger ship, which was rocking and rolling something frightful. How did they step from the RIB to the ship in these waves? Only the RIB’s three crew remained on board, and the Wave Dancer proceeded slowly towing them behind. It was going to be a long, bumpy trip back for this boat and its passengers.

At 2:45 we set off again for Tristan. The island was 49 km away but distances at sea are very deceiving. Many times I told myself that we should be pulling into Calshot Harbour in about ten minutes. That was wishful thinking. The ride back was so rocky and so wet as I was splashed in the face and tasted salt for two solid hours. I tightened my raincoat hood as much as I could, and held it even closer together, but still could not avoid the splashes. I thought my contact lenses would wash away, but the constant salt water did not sting my eyes.

The trip back to Tristan took exactly twice as long as the trip to Nightingale. The onslaught of rough waves and splashes made my legs and hands numb. I was tired of standing so I sat down for the second hour of the trip, yet felt sleepy and might have even nodded off. Fellow RIB passenger, visiting dental technician from Scotland Stan Riley asked me after we had arrived at the harbour “Were you sleeping?”. He couldn’t believe that people were struggling to keep their lunches in their stomachs on the way back, and here I was sleeping through it all. I don’t think I was asleep for very long.

Tristan da Cunha slowly grew in size and I could see familiar places up close that up to then had only been names on a map. Hillpiece from the sea looked unbelievably beautiful with colour. From this perspective it looked as though a giant had mistaken the island for a cake and greedily thrust his enormous hand into the ground to grab a piece of it.

I had dreamt one day of sailing into Calshot Harbour. Agulhas passengers take a helicopter to the island, but one day I wanted to arrive by boat. I was beaming as we rounded the west wall and puttered forth the few metres to the concrete staircase at the end of the small harbour. My rain pants had amazingly kept my jeans dry, even when I was knee-high in water at the west landing on Nightingale. Only my shoes, socks and jean cuffs were wet. Water constantly rushed into the back of the RIB drenching my shoes, but once they had been submerged when I boarded the small raft at Nightingale I didn’t care about my shoes getting wet again anymore.

Some Tristanian women were waiting for us at the harbour and passed beers around. My hands were so cold and numb, I couldn’t grip the cap to twist it off. I gave it to Stan who opened it for me. I also struggled with untying my raincoat hood and Gillian Repetto, whom I have gotten to know very well, offered to untie it for me. Gillian is short and I had to lean over far for her. At that moment Tina Glass took our photograph, which didn’t please Gillian at all. She feared it would find its way to the official Tristan da Cunha website.

Tina had received word on her walkie-talkie that the Wave Dancer, towing the RIB Svitzer, wouldn’t be arriving till after 6 p.m. Stan and I had left our backpacks on the Wave Dancer since it would have been a drier ride. We didn’t want to stand around the harbour for over an hour in wet shoes when we could be back at our respective homes where we could 1) use the bathroom for the first time since we left; 2) get out of our wet clothes and 3) get a hot coffee down us, so we left at 6 p.m. Gillian told us that the crew of the Wave Dancer would deliver our backpacks to us so we wouldn’t have to come back to the harbour at 6 o’clock. As it turned out, the Wave Dancer took twice as long as our trip, meaning they were rocking through the rough waves for four hours. When I spoke to those who travelled aboard her, many were seasick. In spite of how calm my stomach was during my own trip to and from Nightingale Island, I am wondering if I would have had the fortitude to keep it all in on a ship full of seasick passengers.

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