National Geographic : 1950 Jan
New Life for the "Loneliest Isle" BY LEWIs LEWIS With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author B ECAUSE the world needs more food, a tiny, windswept speck of land in the middle of the South Atlantic has lost its status as the "Loneliest Isle" and become, instead, the busy scene of a unique industrial experiment. The island is Tristan, a volcanic fragment 24 miles in circumference crowned by an extinct crater rising to 6,760 feet. It is the largest and only regularly inhabited mem ber of the Tristan da Cunha group, lying midway between South Africa and South America (map, page 108).* Isolated Outpost Since 1816 Tristan has supported a small colony of the British Empire's isolated sub jects. For 134 years they have wrested a meager living from hostile sea and grudging soil. Periodic failure of their one crop, po tatoes, has brought them close to starvation. Despite such tribulations, they have resisted their government's efforts to evacuate them to friendlier lands. Now a new and more prosperous way of life is in the offing because of the crayfish, or spiny lobster, a clawless, brilliantly colored cousin of the North American lobster. These crustaceans, their large, fan-shaped tails packed with nourishing meat, breed in vast swarms among the rocks and kelp jungles off Tristan's forbidding shores. Ways have been found to land, process, and transport Tristan crayfish to world markets. Nearing completion on the main island are two freezing plants, built by South African fisheries concerns. As an initial target the plants aim at an annual production of 50,000 cases, each containing 20 pounds of frozen lobster tails. One prospective market is the Pacific Coast of the United States. Tristanites, experts in the handling of small boats, will be employed as fishermen. To the islanders it will mean a higher standard of living, and participation in world trade. Over the years, many have suggested com mercializing the Tristan da Cunha crayfish beds, but the idea was considered impracti cable because of the islands' weather. Com munication with the outside world is difficult because of dense fogs, fierce gales, and moun tainous seas. There is no harbor. Ships, on rare calls, must stand offshore and await calm before sending small boats through the surf to the cinder black beaches (pages 107 and 109). Another discouraging factor was the islands' remoteness. They lie 1,700 miles from Cape town and 2,100 from Rio de Janeiro. Of the other islands of the group only Inaccessible, 20 miles southwest of Tristan, has been in habited, and that for irregular periods. The rest-Stoltenhoff, Middle, and Night ingale Islands-are home only to seals, pen guins, and such birds as petrels, skuas, alba trosses, flightless rails, and greater shear waters. The nearest populated place is St. Helena, 1,500 miles away. In 1948, five Capetown firms joined forces with the Union of South Africa Government and the British Colonial Office in an expedition to investigate ways of overcoming obstacles so that Tristan's marine food resources might be put to work. Aboard the expedition's motorship Pequena were marine biologists, surveyors, engineers, an agriculturist, a physician, sociologist, and other experts in various fields. I went along as official cameraman. Leader of the Pequena party was the Rev. C. P. Lawrence, a Church of England minis ter, for whom the expedition represented a personal triumph. As chaplain of a Royal Navy meteorological unit he had spent more than two years on Tristan during World War II. A sailor before he became a clergyman, the Rev. Mr. Lawrence insisted that, despite Tristan's weather, the island's towering vol canic peak must provide a lee safe enough for fishing. He analyzed the meteorological records, and showed how this lee can be fol lowed no matter how sudden or violent the weather changes. I saw dramatic proof of the sailor-clergy man's theory on a terrible day when a 75 mile wind tossed Pequena about like a chip. Through staggering seas we fought our way under the lofty cliffs into a triangle of water that was calm enough for dinghy fishing. Parent Vessels to Collect Catches Tristan da Cunha's crayfish will be netted from 14-foot dinghies similar to those used by fishermen along the South African coast. * See "Tristan da Cunha, Isles of Contentment," by W. Robert Foran, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, November, 1938.