Balancing Faraway Life on Tristan da Cunha
This story was originally published in our May/June 2023 issue as “Far & Away.” Click here to subscribe to read more stories like this one.
On July 19, 2021, 10 days after leaving Cape Town, South Africa, the MFV Edinburgh finally sighted land. The ship had sailed west toward Rio de Janeiro, though it was never headed there. Its destination was Tristan da Cunha, an island smaller than the city of Boston that lies roughly halfway between Africa and South America, in the middle of the South Atlantic.
Tristan is an unlikely place for human life: The island is 1,750 miles from the nearest continent, and the environment is harsh. A large active volcano dominates the landscape. Only a few hundred people live in “The Settlement” — a tiny, 200-year-old community officially named Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, though nobody on the island ever calls it that — which is squeezed onto a small plain between the volcano’s steep slopes and an unforgiving sea.
Four smaller, uninhabited islands dot Tristan da Cunha’s nearby waters, all part of an archipelago that is also named Tristan da Cunha. Though Tristan is technically part of a larger British overseas territory that includes the islands St. Helena and Ascension, these lie more than a thousand miles away. Without a vessel seaworthy enough to reach the mainland, Tristanians must depend on fishing vessels like the MFV Edinburgh to bring them goods and visitors from Cape Town when the timing suits their owner’s schedule — around eight times each year.
(Contact; Contact93761/Agami Photo Agency/Dreamstime.com)
In July 2021, the Edinburgh carried six passengers bound for Tristan, including a dentist who comes to the island once a year to clean and mend everyone’s teeth. The ship also carried the kinds of things that Tristanians would not be able to obtain otherwise: food staples like flour and sugar, along with fuel to heat their homes, power their stoves, and operate their cars and fishing boats.
But on this particular trip, the Edinburgh unknowingly carried something else: COVID-19. Two passengers and several crew members tested positive for the virus before disembarking.
Already a year and a half into the pandemic, Tristan remained closed to nonessential travel. It was also COVID free. This was fortunate, considering that emergency evacuations from the island happen over a timespan of days and weeks, not minutes or hours. There is no landing strip for rescue planes and there is no deep harbor. Visiting ships must anchor offshore, and people and supplies must be carried across the water by barge or helicopter when the weather allows, which is only about 1 in 5 days.
Despite Tristan’s population having an unusually high rate of asthma, the island did not even own a single ventilator. “Tristan is the most difficult-to-access location I’ve ever worked in,” says Anna Hicks, a British volcanologist who has visited the island five times to conduct research. Hicks has also worked with the community to develop disaster management plans for events like earthquakes. She helped the islanders run evacuation drills during a recent excursion.
Faced with the possibility of introducing COVID-19 to the community, Tristan’s Island Council deemed it too risky to unload the Edinburgh’s cargo, though the four passengers who tested negative were allowed to disembark. They were brought to shore by bargemen dressed in personal protection equipment and sent straight into isolation.
The rest of The Settlement went into lockdown, and the island’s only shop, pub and two churches were quickly shuttered. Steve Townsend, then the U.K.-appointed administrator for Tristan, posted a warning on the island’s official website: “We were not able to off-load any of our supplies from the Edinburgh, so we might face some shortages in the near future. We are working out rations at the moment.”
“It didn’t worry the islanders any, but the expats might have felt it,” says Chief Islander James Glass, referring to the nearly two dozen foreigners living on the island at the time. Preserving fuel was of the utmost importance. Without it, Tristanians wouldn’t be able to send the barge out to meet the next ship. In addition, flour, sugar, tea and margarine — even toilet paper — would have to be rationed. If anything, Glass says, the incident taught them they would need to be even more self-sufficient than they already were.
Creating a community
During the pandemic, we learned to live in isolation — a term that comes from the Latin word insulatus, meaning “made into an island.” To keep ourselves and others safe , we became islands.
But it’s a landlubber’s fallacy to think of islands as completely cut off from the rest of the world. Oceans, at least for a shipbuilding species like ours, are a means of transportation and connection. Even a place as remote as Tristan is connected with and vulnerable to what is happening in other parts of the world.
From the very beginning of human life on Tristan, the island’s location was regarded as strategic. Among the first people to establish themselves were British soldiers, who annexed the island in 1816 to prevent the French from using it to rescue Napoleon Bonaparte (then incarcerated on the island of St. Helena, more than a thousand miles away).
But the sea turned out to be the more formidable threat: Nearly five dozen men drowned the following year when a gale destroyed a naval ship anchored off the coast. When Britain withdrew its troops from the island a few months later, a Scottish corporal and several others chose to stay behind. These “founders,” as their descendants call them, dreamed of building a community based on equality. They shared stocks and profits equally, and no one was considered superior to anyone else, according to an agreement signed on Nov. 7, 1817.
Those communal values are still evident today. Each boat is shared among four families, and pairs of fishermen sail on alternate days. The Department of Agriculture runs cattle and sheep in a communal herd and each family farms their own potatoes at the Patches, a series of walled fields 2 miles west of The Settlement. “There’s no real rich people, and there’s no one in poverty,” Glass says.
Two fishermen keep an eye on the weather. In the early morning, when they ring the “dong” — an empty fuel canister — to signal that the weather is fair, it’s understood that two dozen men won’t turn up at their government jobs. “Plumbers, carpenters, electricians — they’ll go fishing for that one day,” Glass says. When the catch comes in, it’s the women’s turn to leave their jobs as nurses, teachers, and shop clerks and head to the factory to process the catch.
Fishing the waters
In the early days of The Settlement, prevailing winds regularly sent whalers and merchant ships past the island, allowing the founders to rely on bartering. With the rise of steamships in the second half of the 19th century, however, vessels no longer needed to stop at Tristan for supplies. Increasingly disconnected from the outside world, the island’s people became more self-reliant to survive: knitting their own clothes, skinning animals for moccasins, hunting and fishing and growing their own food.
It was only when the British Royal Navy returned to the island during World War II, reestablishing an outpost, that the island began to once again communicate and trade more regularly with outsiders.
Today, the world regards Tristan as strategic for other reasons. In 2020, the tiny island put itself at the center of one of the world’s largest Marine Protection Zones, declaring 91 percent of its waters off-limits to fishing and other extractive activities such as bottom trawling. The 265,000-square-mile MPZ is nearly three times the size of the U.K., making it the fourth largest such zone in the world. The declaration is a major step toward meeting United Nations and British conservation targets, which aim to protect 30 percent of the world’s land and sea by 2030. (At present, only 8.1 percent of the world’s oceans are considered protected.)
Glass sees the MPZ as an extension of Tristan’s larger commitment to protect its environment. Two islands in the archipelago have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and 50 percent of the land on Tristan’s archipelago is protected. The lobster fishery, which provides the island with the bulk of its income, is so carefully managed that “lobster abundance and biomass are comparable to or greater than many Marine Protected Areas in other parts of the world,” reads a 2018 PloS One paper. “This may be our biggest conservation move,” Glass said at an event in London to celebrate the MPZ, “but it’s by no means our first.”
Stephanie Martin, an American who works out of the U.K. as the island’s environment policy officer, says her colleagues often inundate her with questions about Tristan when she attends global policy meetings like COP26. Why? “They do a lot conservation-wise with not a lot of resources,” she explains. “My feeling is if they can do it, the rest of the world needs to start stepping up and doing the same.”
But the MPZ came at a cost for the islanders, who were already feeling the effects of a pandemic that obliterated the tourism industry, reduced demand for lobster, and inflated the costs of goods and services procured off-island. While banning bottom trawling benefits fish stocks and protects the ocean floor, it also means the loss of much-needed revenue from fishing license sales. And it eats away at the already tenuous link between The Settlement and the mainland, as Tristan has always relied on fishing vessels like the Edinburgh to carry islanders and expats to and from the island.
To mitigate some of the adverse effects of the MPZ, a consortium of non-governmental organizations has set up an endowment fund for the island, though the details of the arrangement have not been made public. “Every voyage is part subsidized by fishing activity,” Glass says, “so curbs on fishing mean curbs on our link with the outside world.”
Chief Islander James Glass shows off two rock lobsters, which are regularly sent to destinations as far-flung as Hawaii and Japan (Credit: James Glass).
Glass was born on the Falkland Islands in 1961, the same year that Tristan’s volcano erupted and poured lava over The Settlement, destroying a factory and both landing beaches. The entire population evacuated, first to the Patches, then to Nightingale Island, located 31 miles from The Settlement’s harbor, and finally to the U.K. The community spent more than a year in England, waiting for volcanic activity to finally subside.
Although authorities expected them to adapt and settle into their new suburban lives, the islanders had other ideas. When their petition to organize a return went unanswered by the British government, the community raised enough money to send a dozen men to Tristan and begin the arduous process of rebuilding. By 1963, more than 250 islanders had returned — though they knew life on Tristan would be filled with adversity. Only 11 chose to remain in the U.K. “Island communities,” observes Hicks and her colleagues in a 2014 case study of Tristan da Cunha that was published in Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences, “are often disproportionately vulnerable to the effects of natural hazards.”
In 2001, a storm tore three-quarters of the roofs off some of Tristan’s houses. There were no serious injuries, Glass said in a BBC radio interview at the time, “and just as well, since the medical building collapsed.” Ten years later, in 2011, a nearby grounded ship disgorged 1,500 tons of oil and 65,000 tons of soybeans onto the seafloor. The incident killed 3,000 rockhopper penguins and provided a vivid reminder of the dangers of a globalized food system.
Invasive species are another ever-present threat: New Zealand flax, a large and spiky plant introduced as a windbreaker, has established itself and is backbreaking to remove. Silver porgy, a South American fish that arrived in 2006 when a capsized oil rig led it and at least 60 other invasive species to the island, is now firmly established in the waters around Tristan. If the algae-eating species outcompetes native sea urchins, a staple food for lobster, it could threaten Tristan’s fishery.
In the longer term, climate change has the potential to wreak havoc on both terrestrial and marine ecosystems. The islanders have logged sea temperatures for five years, but it will take at least another three before researchers have enough data to look for patterns. Kelp is already living at its upper temperature limit; its destruction could spell disaster for the many species that rely on kelp forests as their nurseries, including lobsters.
On land, Hicks and Neil Golding, a marine and geospatial scientist, are surveying the cause of worsening landslides. Several family plots in the Patches have already been lost, now buried under several feet of earth. Valuable pasture is also disappearing.
Many islanders attribute the landslides to intense rain events brought by warmer air temperatures. Overgrazing, which has been intensified by the arrival of the nonnative Kikuyu grass that has limited pastureland, may be another contributor. Tristan has already reduced each family’s livestock allotment to alleviate grazing pressure, but this also erodes the community’s ability to be self-sufficient: Families will have to rely more on imported frozen foods.
The MPZ will, in part, help to protect local animal populations including northern rockhopper penguins and 11 different species of whales and dolphins (Credit: Contact93761/Agami Photo Agency/Dreamstime).
But if island communities are more vulnerable to natural hazards, they can also be more resilient. “They can,” suggest Hicks and her colleagues, “develop strong and successful coping mechanisms.” One of these is what researchers call social capital.
“We look after each other,” says Janine Lavarello, the island’s first Marine Protection Zone officer. “Everyone pulls together to look after the young and old.” When a ship comes in, for example, the entire community mobilizes to quickly unload its cargo before the weather takes a turn for the worse. Lavarello, who is 24, currently lives with her parents but plans to build her own house soon. She and her partner will do it the traditional way, she says, calling on family and friends for help in return for refreshments and a cooked meal.
This sense of reciprocity and kinship is what allows people to rapidly self-organize when disaster hits, observes Hicks, who conceived of the 2014 paper as an interdisciplinary Ph.D. project that would combine her training in the social sciences with her expertise in volcanology. Everyone has a role, and everyone knows what that role is without having to be told.
Experiencing these adversities has had another consequence, too: The islanders cannot help but remember how limited their resources are. There is only one habitable island in their tiny archipelago and only one spot on that island flat enough to build upon. There is only one fishery that can support them. In such a high-risk environment, the connection between conservation and survival is more obvious.
The 2011 oil spill, for example, galvanized the community to rescue thousands of seabirds, including hundreds of endangered rockhopper penguins. Some of the islanders collected and washed them; others went out in boats to fish for their food. (Officials closed the fishery for the season, out of an abundance of caution.) The spill also encouraged the community to begin exploring other measures to protect its waters, ultimately leading to the creation of the MPZ.
To deter shipping traffic from shore habitats and thereby reduce the risk of more invasive species arriving, Tristan has instituted a 25-nautical mile boundary around its shores. Additionally, the island recently developed a biosecurity protocol to reduce the chance of further invasions, though not before the first mosquitoes arrived in packing materials.
Despite its vulnerability — or maybe because of it — Tristan turned out to be more equipped to manage the pandemic than many other communities. Though turning away the MVF Edinburgh meant waiting twice as long to receive the cargo it carried (nearly five months in total), the islanders were accustomed to rationing. They did not run out of fuel. And as of October 2022, when the island finally reopened to non-essential travel, The Settlement remained totally free of COVID-19.
Yet the experience has prompted Tristan to look for new ways to secure its future: “We’re looking at renewables,” Glass says, “because that’s one thing that showed up during COVID. We need them [in order] to be more resilient.”
To that end, the Council recently commissioned a Japanese company to assess the possibilities for renewable energy technologies. While there are a few small solar panels on the island, cloud coverage is a problem in winter. An earlier attempt to bring renewables to the island was stymied when a wind turbine installed in the 1980s blew away during its first storm.
Glass is also planning a research center that will bring more scientists — and more income — to the island to study projects relevant to the interests of its inhabitants, both human and non-human. He dreams of Tristan one day securing its own seafaring vessel, which could be used for ecotourism and to support future scientists in their research. “We can’t afford it,” he says, “but we’re looking towards the British government.” He points out that the U.K. would never have met its MPZ commitments without Tristan’s help.
In the meantime, however, the islanders must manage their limited resources as they always have.