Day 5 – Letterbox Legend and Boatswain Boobies
by Cordelia Hao -- March 4th, 2014
In the 17th century, letterboxes were placed around the Island so that outward-bound ships could carry out letters written by inhabitants of Ascension Island. Since then, hiking out to letterboxes has become a recreational adventure. In fact, today, there are 42 letterboxes scattered throughout the island, each with its own treasure-hunt-like trail to reach it. In the end, the intrepid hiker is rewarded with a letterbox in which is stored a guest book to sign and a stamp to record the voyage. The number of letterboxes throughout the Island increases every year, so that even many of the locals have not found them all. Today, we ventured off to find the fabled original Letterbox.
As we bounced around in the back of the Land Rovers, we were thankful for our skillful drivers Nicola and Kenickie. The vehicles clung to the crumbly rocks on the side of the mountain as birds flew overhead. Soon, we came to a point at which vehicles could no longer pass, and we finished the trek out on foot. Small white birds, called fairy terns, hovered over us as we hiked. It’s said that these birds fly overhead to relay messages from ancestors long-passed. It’s an eerie but beautiful thought.
The hike was not easy, but at least the 10 AM sun had not reached its full strength. Anyhow, we were lucky the Land Rovers did so much of the work. Before the road was constructed (and it will forever remain a mystery how it was done), those who wanted to come out here needed to embark on a three-hour long hike (one way). By the end of our half-hour hike, beads of sweat were already rolling down everybody’s sunbaked cheeks.
We had reached the overlook to Boatswain Bird Island, home of Ascension Island’s masked boobies. To give a sense of how many birds were around, the entire plateau was white with guano (bird poop!), and is distinctly visible on Google Earth. The honks and whistles of the masked boobies surrounded us. Though morphologically identical, masked boobies can be distinguished by the sounds they make. The females make a honk similar to a duck’s quack, while males produce a sharp whistle. There were also a good number of chicks around, waddling around like fluffy white clouds with beaks. We were lucky enough to see all three species of booby: masked boobies, brown boobies, and the elusively rare red-footed booby.
The sheer number of birds on the plateau was unimaginable. This is conservation ecology at work. In just the early 2000s, feral cats were rampant on the island and detrimental to the colonies of boobies, terns, and endemic frigate birds. But almost immediately after 2006, when the island was officially declared free of feral cats, the bird colony sizes recovered and soared.
After reaching Letterbox and happily stamping our journals and passports, we headed out for a relaxing afternoon at English Bay, one of the few swimmable beaches on the Island. Even though it was a relatively calm day, the currents and tides were still strong enough to sweep us off our feet! We shared a couple masks and snorkels to see the black triggerfish darting between our legs and through the rugged reef on the bottom. On shore, Matthew dug through the sand to find a mole crab, a critter we had seen briefly a few days ago as they popped out of the sand to snack on land crab larvae. This is the island life most people only dream about.
Later that night, after dinner, we went out again to watch the green turtles nesting. This time with a new purpose! Earlier we had discussed what sort of data we needed for our class projects, so that night we collected information from each nesting female, like carapace length and width, which direction she was facing relative to the water, and how far from the water she was. Crawling around in the dark to watch the turtles up close is always a terrifying and an incredible reminder of how gracefully enormous they are. We passed the hours staring at the constellations as we waited for the turtles to nest.
Treasure hunts, snorkeling, and stargazing – what other surprises does this island have in store?