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Day 14 Friday, June 28th, 2007 10:05pm
It was a very busy day for me, running around filming, meeting new people and organizing the next few days of work here in St Helena. What a place! The people are very friendly, by the far the friendliest people I have ever met anywhere in the world. From the moment we stepped onto the dock we were greeted by the local fishermen, working on their boat. That welcome carried on all day, all over town and seemed natural and not forced in any way. The people are a curious mixture of European, African, Malaysian, and Mauritian (from Mauritius not Mars). Isabel Peters at the Government Environmental Office was very helpful, and she did a fantastic interview. She helped arrange lots of interviews with NGO and Government workers for the next few days, including a trip to see the Wirebird, endemic to St Helena and with only 340 specimens, one of the most critically endangered birds in the world. She also organized a trip over the weekend to see the airport project site with Sharon Wainwright, the manager of the project, and I went down to the docks in the afternoon to work with Emma Bennett, who is studying the ear bones of groupers trying to discover their distribution and affects of fishing. It was a bit yucky watching here take the bones out by sawing their heads open, but very very interesting listening to her explain how the fish grow and how their ages are recording like tree rings on the ear bones. She gave us a big grouper for supper, which I just had with the guys cooked with rice on our swinging gas stove on the boat. Very tasty fish! I have a date with the governor for Sunday morning, which Mike Olsson organized. We are already in his debt for all the help with the Internet and contacts.
Day 15, Saturday, June 29th 8:45pm
St Helena is truly one of the friendliest places I have ever been. Today we woke up with a shock. The Tender, our little boat on the back of the yacht, custom made at great expense by Andre, was gone. As could be expected we were shocked, and Andre lost it of course. This is a very serious blow to the project since in most places, like St Helena, we have no other ride to shore. It was our photo platform, our adventure platform and a way to track sea turtles with marine biologists and also a back up in case we sink. Andre tied it last night behind the boat very well after coming back from town around 9:30pm, but obviously not well enough. Its pretty rough here and the constant rocking must have untied his knot. There is very little chance it was stolen here, since there is almost no crime and no other similar boat or engine on the whole island. There is only one harbor, and one boat landing, so anyone who may want to take something like that has literally no where else to put it. Andre and Deon went looking out in the open sea, where the wind must have blown it, but alas. It was not found. The reaction of the St Helena people has been amazing. Mike Olsson put it out on the radio, the police and search and rescue went looking, even the water taxi service guys used their boat for a few hours to assist. Mike and I then called all over Cape Town to try and get another one, and an all vessel bulletin went out to all fishing vessels in the area. Everyone on the island seemed to know and commiserate. This sort of thing is common. Two weeks ago the harbor master’s boat drifted off the same way. It was also never seen again. We are rolling with the punch. We could not find another suitable boat in Cape Town on such short notice (the ship that would bring it up is leaving tomorrow). So we will depart tomorrow evening or Monday morning for Ascension first thing, without our little Tin-tannic. It had an aluminum bottom and inflatable sides… Perhaps that was not the best name for the thing. On a much more positive note, things went very well today for the project. I met up with Dr. Rebecca Cairnswicks, who is working with the community trying to raise awareness of ecology and conservation. She has been getting schoolchildren and many other people to plant a very special endemic hardwood tree (it occurs nowhere else) called St Helena Gum-wood. This tree used to cover about 35% of the island and now its reduced to just a few hectares. Its called the Millennium Forest, and I got to plant my very own tree, so I can now say that I have roots on St Helena! So can people who log onto their site: www.nationaltrust.org.sh and go to the projects page can also make a small donation and have a tree planted here in their name. Every Gum-wood tree planted on the Island has either been planted by the donor or done in someone’s name. Support the regeneration of the island with this very special tree, which is a relic left over from vast forests in Africa, when Africa was much wetter. There are none left in Africa, just this tiny population. Rebecca is on contract to the Environmental impact assessment team and has been supporting the ecological baseline data survey work and EIA and we went out there to see how the creation of the airport affects the fragile ecosystem of that area. It was beautiful, with high mountains surrounding a central basin high above the ocean, lit with rainbows from passing squalls (really). Although they might not appeal to everyone, there is a significant group of hunting spiders, also endemic, which are relatives of the wolf spider. These little night hunters live in carefully constructed holes in the ground, and live only in these few hectares, and nowhere else on earth. The airport runway stops just short of their habitat, and its unclear yet what sort of impact the project will have on them. The most striking thing about the airport is that the safety strip at the end of the runway must be extended out over a gorge about 600 meters deep. This will be done by filling the gorge, which in my opinion is a sad fact to face. It will mar the beauty of one of the worlds most visually striking places in order to bring access into a special community that has grown unique through its isolation. At the same time I understand that the people here would like the airport and voted in favor of it, and it’s their place to do with as they wish. It could be argued that they might not know what they have got until its gone, but I am not so selfish or self centered to think that I know better than them what is good for their future and their island. But I have seen many places with a particular special-something be ruined by all the people flocking to see it. Certainly the legendary hospitality of the people here will not survive the arrival of thousands of tourists. I have yet to put my finger on what special something St Helena has, but there is got a lot of it!