Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Christmas onTristan

The Island Sky at Night
The islanders put on a great program of events for visiting cruise ships. We had two over Christmas – the Island Sky and the Hanseatic.  The highlight is always a visit to Nightingale – a small island 30km to the south-west - where there are Rockhopper Penguins, Fur Seals with pups, Yellow-nosed Albatrosses, Tristan Thrushes and Nightingale Buntings that are all happy to pose for the camera!   I travelled across on the Island Sky, with its 85 passengers and some island men who guide.  Seldom will islanders (or me) have travelled in such style.  It takes a couple hours to make the crossing.  Which gives plenty time to sample the luxuries on offer. Like a delicious a-la carte lunch with wine, or (on the return journey) beer in the lounge or afternoon tea with exotic cakes on the deck.  Even simple (but rare) pleasures like real coffee, newspapers and a fruit bowl with nectarines.   A great experience – a little luxury in an austere lifestyle! 

Fur Seal Pup
Ashore, the focus of attention is the penguins (Pinnamins, in the local dialect).  They must be the most attractive and comical of all penguin species, with their flashy golden-yellow head plumes.  Humans share the same landing spot as penguins, and from time to time a great surge of penguins leap from the crest of a breaking wave onto the rock beside us. They hop up a rocky path (hence the name) to their breeding grounds amongst the dense and high (2.5 metres) Tussock Grass (Spartina arundinacea) which dominates the island.   We follow the penguins up past noisy Fur Seals.  Occasionally sleeping seals lie hidden in the Tussock Grass and when disturbed bolt seawards across the path, snarling and barking aggressively, sending penguins hopping in all directions. They are big and can give a bad bite and so our guides go ahead to ensure safe passage.

Remains of dead Broad-billed Prions (Nightbirds) litter the path and soon the culprit swoops low and menacingly over our heads.  I should have guessed - a Skua.  Actually a Tristan Skua, the local subspecies of the Sub-Antarctic Skua, but quite similar to our Bonxie.  The Nightbirds nest in burrows under the Tussock Grass and can only safely emerge under the cover of dark. But the days are long in summer and many are caught taking a chance.  Tristan Thrushes (Starchies) feed opportunistically on the carnage.

Further on we encounter Yellow-nosed Albatrosses (Mollys) sitting on huge white fluffy chicks.  A major photo-opportunity.    But I’ve seen breeding Mollys before on Tristan and am more interested in Nightingale Buntings (Canaries) feeding enthusiastically amongst the Tussock grass.  Superficially like greeny-grey warblers but with an unmistakable finch-shaped bill.  As the name suggests they are only found on Nightingale.  There are two endemic buntings on Nightngale.  But we don’t see the other one; the Wilkin’s Bunting, as it is critically endangered with a population of just 40 pairs.

Though the main interest is obviously the birds and seals, I answer a lot of questions from visitors about the flora.  They are interested to see the endemic species Nertera homboei (Fowl Berry), and Cotula moseleyi (Nightingale Brass Buttons) neither of which I’d seen before myself as they don’t occur on Tristan.  I am puzzled to see so many populations of the fern, Hypolepis rugolusa, along the path side.  In my experience this species is rare on Tristan.  After Tussock Grass, sadly the next most abundant plant species is Holcus lanatus (Yorkshire Fog). It thrives in bird-enriched soils.  We return along the muddy path and over slippy rocks.  I stand still to catch breath for a moment.  Within a few minutes a large crowd of muddy Pinnamins appear from the dark recesses of Tussock Grass and begin to hop past, gingerly at first but then faster as confidence builds.   

Edwin & Brian with longboats
The visit to Nightingale is just one of many events and activities organised for visitors.  Many of whom stay ashore with island families for Christmas. They are joined by day visitors from the ships and there is a tremendous buzz around the village.   The programme includes a carol concert, a film show, guided walks at the Potato Patches and volcano and demonstrations of sheep-shearing, carding and spinning.  There is a craft show in the village hall where knitted penguins can be bought – along with many other handcrafts.  The Albatross Bar, Island Store, cafe, Post and Tourism offices are all specially opened.  A great opportunity to do a little last-minute shopping for emergency presents, home-made mince pies and things I’d forgotten to buy adequate supplies of (beer, mainly).  And, of course, the Christmas Eve and Christmas morning church services are very popular.

 But the highlight is local kids singing Christmas carols.  A great moment.  Afterwards Santa is to arrive by donkey (reindeer are in short supply on Tristan) to hand out Christmas presents to the children.  However due to a donkey malfunction, Santa has to walk and five strong men restrain donkey at Santa’s side.  The tourists’ reward is many photographs to remember a happy visit.  The children are rewarded with ice-cream, a rare luxury, which they enjoy in the warm summer sunshine.

PS Knitted Rockhopper Penguins and Edwin and Brian's model longboats are available on the Tristan da Cunha website -  Order now for next Christmas!


  1. Good to hear that you are getting some warm sunshine at last! (Angus)

  2. Yes there has been a quite few nice days recently - interspersed by grey days with low cloud and occasional drizzle. I think summer may at last be here!

  3. Is the Tussock the same species as on the Falklands?