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Diving and delving into island history

CLIMBING a mountain, brushing up on history – Royal Navy diving expeditions deliver more than you might

expect. That was certainly the case for the team that flew out from the UK to explore the waters around one of the remotest outposts in the Atlantic Ocean – Ascension Island – at the tail-end of last year. A dozen members of the

Naval Air Command Sub Aqua Club (NACSAC) branch at HMS Heron, led by WO2 Gary Bonds, the Deputy Engineering Training Officer at RN Air Station Yeovilton, headed south with a list of objectives which collectively made up Exercise Ocean Surprise. Top of the list was the obvious one – to dive the wrecks and reefs around the volcanic outcrop, some 1,000 miles west of Angola in Africa.

But spinning off from that

were numerous other benefits – providing an update to the UK Hydrographic Office, developing individual qualities of self- discipline, teamwork, leadership, initiative and resourcefulness, and gaining further individual diving qualifications. Because of

the remoteness

of Ascension, diving is limited to 30 metres maximum depth and decompression stops are not permitted, as the nearest recompression chamber is more than 1,200 miles away. That did not prevent the sailors from notching up 189 dives, equating to 8,019 minutes (or over 133 hours) underwater. And pretty comfortable minutes they were, too – the sea temperature was around 24°C

of quarantine. Originally renamed Comfort this

Cove, was a relatively

sheltered spot where ships could limp in to allow their crew to rest and recover. Food and fresh water were left near the cove by members of the garrison, who retreated to a safe distance before the signal was given allowing sailors to pick up the stores and provisions to take back to their ship. Medical help would

also be

l Expedition members at Bonetta Cemetery on Ascension Island: from left, WO2 Gary Bonds, POAET George ‘Ed’ Edwards, CPO John ‘Rudders’ Wilson-Rudd, CPO Mark ‘Brad’ Bradbury, LAET Karrina ‘Berti’ Bertinshaw, LAET Graham ‘Del’ Delleur, POAET Jim Kite, CPO Graham Lockett, AET Wayne Coogan, Capt Geoff Bowker, AET Amy Taylor

Picture: Sqn Ldr Andy Wilson (RAF) necessary

(the island lies just south of the Equator), and visibility in the unpolluted sea was in excess of 20 metres, allowing the divers a terrific view of the teeming, diverse wildlife that lives off the coast. Time off from diving was every few days


reduce the build-up of nitrogen in the body, and members of the expedition used this time constructively by planning future dives, conducting diving theory training and undertaking maintenance. The sailors also scaled the 859-metre-high Green Mountain, where the contrast between the bone-dry volcanic rocks at sea level and lush bamboo at the mountain top was most marked. Another visit on the agenda was

to Bonetta Cemetery, a mournful reminder of the lot of Royal Navy sailors in the 19th Century. During the 1830s Ascension Island became an important sanctuary for the ships of the West Africa Squadron that had been given the task of eradicating the slave trade.

But a visit by HMS Bann in 1823 caused mayhem – she arrived with fever on board, and the illness spread to claim the lives of 50 sailors and members of the garrison ashore. Ships patrolling inshore along the coast were


prone to illness, much borne by mosquitoes, so a designated post was set up at Sydney Cove in Clarence Bay on the north-west coast of Ascension, where fever- stricken ships could sit in a state

provided, but no direct contact was permitted until the ship was declared free from fever. The place soon became known as Comfortless Cove – a name it retains to this day – and one of the few reminders of around 30 years of use is Bonetta Cemetery, just behind the beach in a secluded hollow.

Named after HMS Bonetta, which visited in January 1838 while in the grip of yellow fever, the graveyard contains the mortal remains of sailors from numerous ships in addition to four from Bonetta – though it does not represent the whole picture. There are two other cemeteries in the area (one of which curiously contains no graves), but there are also a number of unmarked graves near a car park on a lonely valley, and a single anonymous grave at the northern end of the bay. Many other naval

victims route of

sickness were buried at sea, either en

to Ascension or just

offshore. WO Bonds said: “This was a good opportunity for the RN expedition divers to visit such

l Marine life spotted by expedition members in the waters around Ascension – from top, a moray eel, a brown spiny lobster (or crayfish or longlegs), and a porcupinefish, also known as a balloonfish

an historic site to learn about the challenges of the RN in past generations such as dealing with fever on board ships and the need to put stricken sailors ashore to protect the remainder of the ship’s company. “We were honoured to be able

to pay our respects to the RN sailors interred there.” Once designated a ‘sloop of war’

in the 19th Century, Ascension Island still has a vital military role – the RAF base at Wideawake Airfield is a refuelling stop for the airbridge between the UK and the Falklands.

It also houses a European Space

Agency rocket tracking station, the BBC World Service Atlantic relay station, and is a vital element in the GPS navigation system.

l (Above) One of the RN divers examines an anchor while surrounded by a shoal of black durgon

l Exploring the coast of Ascension Island FEBRUARY 2013 : 19

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