1. History - The Sad Story of Ascension's Green Turtles


Since its discovery in 1501 Ascension has been famous for the green turtles (Chelonia mydas) which nest upon its beaches. These turtles provided the fresh meat for passing ships. With the establishment of a marine garrison on Ascension in 1817, the turtles became an important part of the diet of residents. In order for turtle meat to be available all year round, a Turtle Pond was built shortly after 1815. In 1829 the Boat Harbour was converted to the second Turtle Pond to allow the storage of a greater number of turtles.

Anonymous writings (1901) describe the capture procedure: "Turning of turtles is not permitted until the animals have deposited their eggs during the egg-laying season, men keep watch for turtles..the animal, having deposited its eggs and carefully covered them, is seized and turned on its back..

Off to the the Lord Mayor's Banquet (1933)

Lifting a turtle ashore from the Tartar Steps, Georgetown (1933)
Lifting a turtle from the Turtle Ponds, 1933.
In the position described, it is helpless, and can do no more than wave its flippers in the air. Turtle after turtle is turned until the required number is attained..the next morning the launch proceeds to the various beaches to collect the booty. The launch tows a whaler, but neither can approach the beach on account of the breakers and the heavy backwash. Under the flippers of each turtle, the men ashore attach a rope, at the end of which is an empty air-tight petrol can to act as a float. One by one the turtles are directed seaward and rejoicing in their supposed liberty, they swim off as fast as they can but they cannot submerge the tell-tale float. The whaler soon comes up to them, the ropes being attached, tows the unwilling swimmers to the launch. From the sea they are hoisted by derrick to the decks; all safely aboard the launch returns to Georgetown, where two large turtle ponds await the guests.
The anchorage reached, they are again hoisted by derrick and dropped into the sea, but not until the rope has been attached and the turtles find themselves on the way to the Pierhead. Here a specially made slipway and trolley are utilised, whereby they are rapidly transferred to the ponds and there set free .These so-called ponds are large tanks built of stone, and the sea is admitted by means of sluices too narrow to admit of a captive escaping through them." Turtles were also taken back to the UK for the King and some for the Lords and Admiralty who found turtle soup a great delicacy. The turtles were kept alive onboard the ship for the journey home, given no food and only had the occasional bucket of water thrown over them. Sometimes few survived the journey but it seems that the majority did.
Weighing the turtle prior to shipping (1901)
On arrival at Waterloo, the turtles are laid out on the platform. (1901)
In a report to the Royal Geographical Society in 1835, Captain H R Brandreth noted that: "In quality the turtle of Ascension, when scientifically served up, is esteemed of high and undoubted merit; but it is in general too large to reach England. On my return from my first visit to the Island, the commandant freighted the transport with sixty of the finest flappers that the season had produced. They were destined for some of the most distinguished individuals in England; and the largest and finest was set apart for his late Majesty, with instructions, that if but one survived it should be considered as so appropriated - the commandant acting, as nearly as possible, upon the principle that the king never dies.
And the precaution was by no means unnecessary, as in fact only one did survive. To prevent intrigues in favour of particular patrons or friends, each turtle was marked on his fair white belly-shell with the name of the owner; and the sailor in charge of the party duly reported each morning their state and condition, as thus, - "Please your honour, the Duke of Wellington died last night;" or, "I don't like the looks of Lord Melville this morning, sir." Then followed certain interesting questions, - "How is the Lord Chancellor?" "Why he looks pretty lively, sir;" and so forth." In 1822 over 1500 turtles were harvested but by the 1860's the population had been affected and less than a few hundred were harvested each year. By the 1920's the trade in turtles had virtually stopped, and the ponds were no longer used for this purpose, although a few were still caught for Island residents. The last documented capture of a turtle on Ascension was in the 1950's. The turtles of Ascension Island are now protected under local and international law and it is illegal to disturb or harm them in any way. If you are on island and wish for more information on the turtles please attend a Turtle Tour (slide show and beach visit) details of which are available via The Administrators Office, Georgetown (Tel: 6311).

Mail Rob and Julia in Ascension Island!

Last revised on the 21st of April 2002 by Stephen Fowler.