Turning of the Tide?

This past couple of weeks have seen a few changes in our lives (just this two weeks he says!), and hopefully things are taking a turn for the good. Despite our weekend adventures, the amazing opportunities we have had, the friends we have made and spectacular landscapes we have seen, we have all, for one reason or another had times of wow, and have struggled to adapt to our change of lives. I hope that my writings provide interest because they are open and honest, at times it proves difficult to write knowing family and friends will be reading, much of what I write below falls into that category.

Charlie has been exceptional, coping better with the change than the rest of his family. For a three year old his journey has been incredible, leaving home, flying for 11 hours, (his first time on a plane), a night in a hotel in a new country (his first night in a hotel and first night abroad), 5 nights aboard the RMS St Helena (his first time on a boat), a new place to live, a new house, a new routine with regular excitement at weekends punctuated with school. School, just four days after arriving on the Island at the end of our journey I left him crying in a classroom, alone with strangers for the first time in his life.

But Charlie is now very settled, taking the Bus to school and home, making new friends and receiving his first ever invite to a birthday party, that wasn’t from his brothers friend.  Reluctant to be put in a situation where he would have to try and play with new people again, he did not want to go, but once settled in he had a great time. We are learning that Saints like their food,

Pass the Parcel

Pass the Parcel

regular snacking throughout the day is the norm, and parties are never short of a good spread. Arriving at the party and seeing a table of cakes, a few sandwiches, crisps and the normal array of party food I exclaimed to Bev that I wondered if there would be enough to go round, and questioned what I might eat to calm my complaining stomach. I needn’t have worried, before long the first course of barbeque chicken, sausages and fries was unveiled. This was soon followed by beef curry and rice, before Ice cream was served. At that stage, we all started on the cakes, sandwiches, crisps and other goodies that had first presented themselves.  This was a party St Helena style,  and  I loved it!

Oliver has, this week, made huge progress. Struggling to break into well-established friendship circles his enjoyable lessons have been broken by difficult break and lunch times. Breaks have often been spent on his own, sometimes finding comfort by seeking out his younger brother for companionship, providing a heart breaking sight for his Dad to witness when driving past the school. But after a goliath effort on his part he has this week, established himself amongst some local boys, even having one round for tea and two more on the list waiting to come. Like his Dad, Oliver has always found it hard to approach people, to know how to join in with other groups, his success has made me incredibly proud, and I’ve no doubt it will make him a better, stronger person in this World, learning how to make friends with people from different cultures races and backgrounds. Break times have become times of fun and play, and collecting a smiling, happy boy from the bus has gleefully become a more regular sight.

Oliver has a friend round for tea.

Oliver has a friend round for tea.

Bev is, at present, teaching science and making steps to improve the department, tackling department meetings and organising practical changes to delivery, coursework and homework. Given her expectations of developing Marine Biology within the curriculum the lack of early opportunity to do so was initially disappointing. However, continuing in the vein of the title of this blog, this last week has seen reassurances given for the new year, Marine Biology courses have been identified, and a grant has been made available to buy resources to aid the new teaching when the time comes.  Although January seems a long way away, the odd meeting here and there, and the knowledge that she can at least start to pay some attention to the new qualifications she hopes to introduce, I hope will allow her to maintain positive thoughts until the real job begins.

As expected Bev is finding it hard spending less time with the children, having myself spent more time with them, I can’t think why, but none the less it’s a difficult change for her. My own thoughts are the quality of time spent with the children, watching whales, digging forests and the like more than makes up for the slight reduction in time spent with them, in their eyes at least. As the weather improves and weekends and evenings can be spent snorkelling, at barbeques, rock pooling, walking and other such fun I have no doubt our family time will continue to improve further still.

And so to me, despite the tales of whales, dolphins and wonderful weekends, I have found the past two or three weeks some of the hardest of my life. To the readers of this blog this may sound ridiculous given the general theme of stunning landscapes, extraordinary nature, Friday drinks and sport activities, but those good times have centred around the weekends, and I have found mid weeks to be very difficult, especially since the initial excitement and exploration of our new island has worn off. Shopping, that was at first a genuine novelty and provided the excitement of discovery, is now a chore and tedium.

Strait talking Bar Owner at Pub Paradise. A genuinely great venue for a children's party (so long as they cant read!)

Straight talking Bar Owner at Pub Paradise. A genuinely great venue for a children’s party (so long as they cant read!)

Collecting Charlie at midday, my days have been a limited routine of cleaning, shopping, washing clothes and drinking tea. My afternoons with Charlie spent largely not being the Dad I intended when we took this move, leaving him to his own creative devises whilst I play at being too busy cleaning to really spend time with him. Sunday evening would fill me with gloom at the prospect of another five days, stuck in the house with no time to do anything positive, and nothing to do but clean. I have most of all missed a sense of importance and responsibility, from managing people and budgets and being responsible for a myriad of delicate animals in my care I find myself responsible for nothing more than ensuring bread is available, at least that’s how I saw it.

My downward spiral accelerated last weekend, when back at home in Liverpool, my aquarium in World Museum Liverpool was hosting the UK’s largest aquarium conference. IMG_7464Friends and fellow professionals descending on Liverpool for three days, for a conference organised to a large degree by myself before I left the UK, ably continued by other colleagues in the industry since I departed. Meanwhile I was organising nothing more than the evening’s dinner, at least that’s how I saw it.

My depressed thoughts came to a head on Monday, when a bowl of spilt cereal left me sat on the floor with my head in my hands, crying at the thought of cleaning the kitchen for the second time that day. Any of you back home that know me well, will not identify with the person herby described.

By coincidence I had met a new ex-pat in her second year on the Island, and via the miracle of e-mail and facebook I found myself releasing a lot of pent up thoughts and feelings, finding an ease in speaking with someone who has experienced the change that the Island brings, and yet was not close to my own personal circumstance. Realising how low I felt has been the first step to me turning a corner.

It dawned on me that my fixation on collecting Charlie at 12pm each day had become a block to finding things to do, believing there was no time to do anything.  In reality I have three and a half hours each morning, if that is time enough for me to climb Snowdon back home, then it is certainly time enough for me to do something more with my time over here on St Helena. I also realised that my daily chores were not being approached with my usual sense of efficiency; the same sense that I approach my work life with. I need to take in every positive, enjoy the freedom provided by my temporary retirement, learn to understand the importance of my role here, and the responsibility I have to my family and to support my wife.

To make a positive start, I have set myself a timetable, limiting my cleaning and shopping and other household duties to shorter periods of work. I now shop two days per week, as opposed to six, allowing myself mornings free for walks, photography or whatever takes my fancy, including tagging seabirds with the Marine Conservation Team. Most importantly I have scheduled time to spend with Charlie, learning how to enjoy his company, and moving towards being the Dad I wish I could be. As I write I have just finished my first such day, I have still cleaned and shopped, but I have done so efficiently. I have achieved more cleaning in half an hour than half of yesterday, and I bought more in two hours of shopping, than two days previously.

Most importantly I played with Charlie. When your three year old tells you, “I know you don’t really like playing games with me, but I’d love to play zoo” then you realise something must change. Its day one of a new, positive thinking me, and having moved to St Helena nearly two months ago, its day one of starting to live here.

James Bay Long Exposure 2

I have also spent a morning taking photos, the first such time that I have managed to go out for the sole purpose of creating some nice images. Sticking with the theme, “Turning of the Tide” the cover image and this image are shots taken at Tidal Pools Near James Bay.

Dolphins, Dolphins, Dolphins………and Whales!

This weekend we embarked on our third trip out to see the Dolphins and Whales. Despite our fantastic time two weeks ago, subsequent trips from the Island have seen some truly breathtaking spectacles, and we wanted part of that action. It may seem that we go whale watching a lot, and we do, but not as often as some on the Island who seem to be present on every trip that departs the wharf.

Our weekend started back in the mud, on the monthly Saint Helena National Trust‘s community conservation engagement program we helped with four weeks ago. This time round we were at St Paul’s Primary school a lovely school set up in the hills and known as the Country School. Three hours of back breaking work saw us once again clearing invasive species, this time in the form of a fern with a root network reminiscent of the cables at the rear of my surround sound system, and so thick it required pick axes to dig out. Being interviewed for the local newspaper, I overheard the conservationist in charge, Jason, explaining that the work to remove the ferns was important to clear the way to re-plant another endemic plant species. It was at this point that I realised we had spent three hours, digging and clearing a 3m square area of fern only to see it replaced with, yes, another fern!

Jason explained that there are the right kind of ferns, and the wrong kind of ferns, to which the reply from our co-worker, Paul came, “like Fern Cotton and Fern Briton”!

The monthly community engagement program plays a greater role in raising awareness and instilling public participation and responsibility for the Islands rare plant life, than it does real conservation, which is carried out Monday to Sunday every other day of the month. Some of the rarest plants on earth are clinging to existence on St Helena, and it is vital that the locals appreciate and understand the importance of protecting these habitats if the program is to succeed long term.

The evening was spent back in the company of the Days family who came round for a movie and pizza. Get Carters, a local eatery provides the Island with take away pizza of fine quality. Amongst the usual selection I felt obligated to try a 9” Caribbean, the topping consisting of Jerk Chicken, Bacon and, Banana, no that is not a typo, Banana on a Pizza, and delicious it was too.

On Sunday morning Bev and I embarked on the first of our theory sessions to learn to dive. Given my background in Marine Biology and Public Aquaria it is highly unusual that I don’t already dive, but finally a life-long ambition is being realised on this tiny Island, and I will soon be diving amongst some of the most pristine marine environments in the World and sharing my time with Whale Sharks, Devil rays and a smorgasbord of endemic species seen nowhere else in the World.

And so we arrive at our Sunday afternoon boat trip and what a trip it was. This time we took to the Sea with Into the Blue, on a much smaller rib boat, an inflatable with two out board motors capable of travelling at great speed. The advantage of this, is the ability to move across the sea to where the animals are spotted in the distance, and get there before they disappear. Being low to the water also presents great views if the animals come close and of course it is huge fun bouncing and skipping across the waves.

Craig the operator and captain has been very successful in recent weeks and it seems has a sixth sense for finding the best views of these amazing animals with 13 sightings in 14 trips. So with great expectation we once again swung off the wharf and onto our latest adventure.

Moving at speed we were once again heading along the Northern coast towards egg Island, before we knew it we experienced the now familiar stop, turn and full throttle. Being experienced as we now are we knew or captain had spotted something.

Within minutes we were surrounded by a pod of around 300 Pan Tropical dolphins. Everywhere we turned dolphins were jumping, spinning, flipping and diving around us. The Deep Blue Circus Ring providing the perfect stage for these acrobats par excellence.  The excitement on the boat was palpable with expressions of “wow”, “amazing” “awesome” and a few expletives to boot. The sense that looking in one direction would cause one to miss out on the next leap clear of the water just behind you, caused us to flit from one side of the boat to another, jostling for position. Dolphins were jumping a clear 15ft from the waves, spinning and dancing in the air before coming down with a splash of a tail.

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Pan Tropical Dolphins, the acrobats and show off’s of this watery World, a pod of some three hundred all around us.

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This individual liked to show off by swimming vertically, pushing himself along in this upright position!

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The boat suddenly slowed to a halt as Craig made adjustments, with some sadness the Dolphins is seemed to then tire of us and the acrobatics ceased. A quick turn around and we were off again, soon back up to speed and along with us the dolphins began act 2 of their show. They suddenly sprung back into action with the sound of the motor and within a minute were once again putting on the display of a lifetime. Without doubt these animals were showing off, performing for their doting public and loving every minute of it. Oliver sat in amazement, completely breath taken at the sight, the experience he will keep with him for a long time. Charlie on the other hand was less interested, or at least too tied to be, seemingly nodding off to sleep with the warmth and comfort provided by his large padded life jacket.

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Spinning a full 360 degrees in mid air.

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Incredibly difficult to photograph. You never know where they are going to jump up, and inevitably you miss the focus, the timing, or both!

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After a time we moved on, I say a time as I have no idea how long we spent dancing with the dolphins, it may have been minutes it may have been an hour such was the depth of enthralment and captivation the dolphins held us in. Charlie at this point was soon brought back to life as some home baked chocolate brownie was passed round the passengers.

What then seemed like an age passed with no further sighting of dolphin or whale. Our captain approached some local fishermen, who, after pointing us in the right direction, held up their catch, a huge Moray Eel, highly prised eating in these parts.

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Cousins swim side by side

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Two adult Hump Back Whales with two Rough Toothed Dolphins which help to show the scale of these giant animals.

Following their directions we headed off and sure enough, in the distance we spotted the now familiar site of a hump, breaking the waves in the distance. As we approached it became apparent that two Adult Humpbacks were being accompanied by a smaller pod of dolphins moving slowly around them.

It became clear that these two whales were not just moving along slowly, diving periodically with a wave of their huge tail as we had seen before, but were also rolling and splashing, turning and spinning, their huge pectoral fins (the largest pectoral fins of all the Whales), crashing down as they rolled onto their backs, revealing their bright white throats, and ventral pleats. With each dive we waited with baited breath for a breach, the huge whale leaping from the water and crashing down with a tidal wave. But alas this never materialised as they resurfaced to continue their gentle play.

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With the largest pectoral fin of any animal in the World. A photograph cannon convey the size of this animal. The fin you are looking at is around 4.5m long!

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Splashing huge waves with a swipe of the caudal fin.

Rough Toothed Dolphins swam alongside and between them as we began to question this behaviour we observed. It seemed that maybe we were witnessing courting behaviour but further research with the Island’s Marine Team suggests the dolphin’s presence may have indicated that we were witnessing a calving mother and we may have been privy to some stage of a birth. Whatever the truth it was wonderful to watch and the Rough Toothed dolphins provided a greater sense of scale for these giants of the sea.

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Look at the fin at the far right of the image. That is the fin of a Rough Toothed Dolphin which can themselves reach 2.8m and is completely dwarfed by it’s gigantic cousin.

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Relative to their cousin the Pan Tropical Dolphin, Rough Tooths were very calm, cruising around alongside the Whales.

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Me, and my, shadow!

Returning back to shore we reflected on our weekend adventure. Many people spend their lives and never come close to seeing what we witnessed today, others embark on a once in a lifetime holiday to see such things. Yet here we are, with the privilege of a trip every fortnight, or more regularly if we choose, to spend our time amongst these mesmeric animals. How lucky we must be to live on St Helena.

I will leave you now to enjoy the photographs from our trip however one thing has now become clear to me, whilst my photography skills are improving and my enjoyment for the art is enormous, my budget, second hand equipment does not cut the mustard amongst the big boys. Following the success of my blog I hope to develop my writing and photography further and who knows maybe one say sell some photos in the future. Despite my wife’s protests and rightly pointing out we cannot afford it, I am now saving for a new photography shopping list, including a whacking big telephoto zoom lens, a boy can dream cant he!

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IMG_7695 This is the dorsal fin of the Humpback Whale. Situated towards the back third of the body length just before the tail.

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Our House, in the Middle of…

……the Atlantic Ocean.

The influence and presence of the Atlantic ocean is inescapable on the Island and in particular our house. The Northward facing bungalow provides extraordinary views of the ocean. Its colours change from deep blue to grey and a host of hues and tones in between, its texture from sand paper torn with white waves, to smooth glass reflecting perfectly the orange rays of a setting sun. Changing minute by minute and day by day I will never tire of looking out at the endless expanse. Walk in a straight line from our house, and eventually (aside from drowning) you would cross 5234 miles of ocean before eventually hitting the South Eastern Coast of Newfoundland in Canada!!

our house

The ocean dictates the weather on the St Helena, whilst having a quite extraordinary variety of weather and climate across this tiny island. Wind, rain and weather is driven South to North from the Cape of Good Hope, crossing nearly 2000 miles of water on the way before reaching this tiny blip in its path. The weather since our arrival has been changeable at best, and downright awful at worst. We are assured however that we have just come out of scruffy season (the wettest month) and will pass through Windy October and summer will arrive soon, itself brought on by warming climates in South Africa and the influence of the Benguela current.  At present,  wind rushes down the slopes of Half Tree Hollow, picking up dust and pulling the rains and mists down from the central summits and out to sea. A strange sensation, looking out across the ocean, with the weather crashing in from behind rather than running up from the sea below.

…….Half Tree Hollow

As I sit at lunch, or over an evening cup of tea, looking out across the Atlantic during welcome sunny breaks in the weather, I feel unaware of our isolation. The community that is Half Tree Hollow feels strangely normal and the ease at which we have settled into our little home is comforting. Whilst the Island and our new lives continue to present challenges and settling into school, work and our new lives will take a while longer, our house has become a home, and one which provides an Island on an Island, of comfort and security. Like most of the homes in Half Tree Hollow and the Island in general our bungalow of three bedrooms, is a breezeblock construction, with a pastel coloured lime wash exterior, providing a Mediterranean feel.

With views this good even putting the washing out to dry is a pleasure.

With views this good even putting the washing out to dry is a pleasure.

Houses are detached, with significant land and space around them. Lack of flat land has caused houses across the Island to spring up in clusters wherever access can be achieved. The picture of small colourful boxes hanging on hill sides, or buried within a sub-tropical jungles adds to the charm of the place, leaving us with wonder and awe at the those who navigate their way down tracks and across cliffs to reach their home, never mind those who built them.

With a supermarket, fuel station, bank outlet and numerous small shops ran from people’s houses, Half Tree Hollow provides for much of our needs. A friendly community we begin to recognise familiar faces, sat waiting for buses, or walking to collect the days bread as we pass by on our way to the next drop off.

Charlie showing us the boys lovely bedroom.

Captain Charlie Sparrow (yes that is a tea towel on his head) showing us the boys lovely bedroom.

…..Our Lives.

Large windows and open plan interior provide us with plenty of light, an airy feel and space for the boys. Reminders of home, photos, mementos and good luck messages from family help to break up the floral décor, and provide a necessary sense of familiarity.  Oliver in particular continues to struggle to adjust to his new school and finding friends remains challenging, but the home provides a sanctuary for him, a welcome sense of familiarity and a place of comfort, cuddles, fun and exploration.  Despite the sociality of our new lives, with regular meals out, weekend excursions and our regular spot on a Friday night at Donny’s bar, our home has become more important for all of us than it has in the past, and more important perhaps  than we give due thought to. When embarking on an adventure such as this,

Spacious and comfortable lounge

Spacious and comfortable lounge. Sorry the curtains aren’t straight Mum!! x

you consider work, food, people, sites, sounds and hope that your house will be comfortable and sufficient, but give less thought to your house as a home, what it will be like and how it will feel. Yet, our home is perhaps the most important aspect of our embryonic lives on St Helena. A place for work, for play, for home cooked meals; a place of laughter and few tears, for reading and learning, a place to be a family. If the home is where the heart is then we have found ours.

….Cacti

I think back to our first steps on the Island, cautiously driving up the nerve wrangling Ladder Hill, (which now seems like a walk in the park) and turning up a steep track to find our new house, isolated amongst a field of dense cacti, stunning and exciting as it spread for hundreds of yards all around us.

Surrounded by a dense field of cacti our house provides adventure a plenty for the boys.

Surrounded by a dense field of cacti our house provides adventure a plenty for the boys.

These fields of green, breaking up the larva fields and dust bowl, provide home for birds and insects galore, as well as a home for two excited children who could spend an eternity uncovering rocks, searching through sharp spikes and joyously exclaiming at each and every millipede found.

Mornings and evenings are awash with flashes of brilliant yellow and red as stunning Canaries, Waxbills and Cardinals flit and fly from one seed pod and grass stork to the next. The beautifully and aptly named peaceful dove sits motionless in the dust, hoping to remain unspotted until the final second when a flurry of feathers accompanies its erratic escape flight. Mynah birds provide a constant symphony of click, whistles, and song, accompanied ably by the chirrup of finches and canaries perched on Cacti tops.  Closer to the ground, bold Java Sparrows land in large flocks feeding on fallen grass seed before flying of in unison to the next feeding ground, the comfort of shelter provided by dense cacti giving the local wildlife security.

Wax Bills in the sunset

Wax Bills in the sunset

The national bird, a plover found in small areas on the Island, the only place in the World this bird can be found and an occasional visitor to our house.

A Wirebird.  The national bird, a plover found in small areas on the Island, the only place in the World this bird can be found and an occasional visitor to our house.

A sodden Peaceful Dove waits for the rain to stop to dry out.

A sodden Peaceful Dove waits for the rain to stop to dry out.

One of my favourites. This lovely small dove sits motionless in the middle of roads hoping the mechanical predators will not stop them Im forever having to stop the car to save running them over!

Peaceful Dove. One of my favourites. This lovely small dove sits motionless in the middle of roads hoping the mechanical predators will not see them. I’m forever having to stop the car to save running them over!

Java Sparrows form flocks of around 40 flitting from one feeding post tot he next.

Java Sparrows form flocks of around 40 flitting from one feeding post tot he next.

Difficult to photograph as they never linger more than a second the stunning Cardinal flashes red around our house.

Difficult to photograph as they never linger more than a second the stunning Cardinal flashes red around our house.

Beautiful Yellow Canary. This is the female, the males are even brighter.

Beautiful Yellow Canary. This is the female, the males are even brighter.

Oliver runs inside, “Dad I need a tub” he exclaims, as the next insect is found and collected. Millipedes, known locally as button worms, are collected in their hundreds, as are weevils, roaches and caterpillars. The porous larvae rock scattered all around provide little defence against the keen eyes of Oliver and Charlie, a two-man excavation team. Yet more exciting, if a little worrying has been the discovery of giant (and biting) centipedes, and scorpions, but the boys are well aware of the risks of being bitten or stung and their thankful parents feel happy enough that the boys know not to attempt to collect these particular Island Insects.

Moth Caterpilla

Moth Caterpilla (sp unknown)

These little millipedes are evrywhere, they exist in their millions in half tree hollow.

These little millipedes are everywhere, they exist in their millions in half tree hollow.

 (Menemerus bivittatus) one of many jumping spiders on the island and in our house keeping the fly numbers in check.

Grey Wall Jumper, (Menemerus bivittatus) one of many jumping spiders on the island and in our house keeping the fly numbers in check.

Tiny Brown Scorpion, sting is equivalent to a bee sting.

Tiny Brown Scorpion, sting is equivalent to a bee sting.

The Wildlife on this Island is incredible, and at every turn is another species clinging to existence as an endemic on this tiny and ancient land. Having had millions of years, isolated from the rest of planet earth and, until recently, free from human destruction, St Helena has more unique, rare and endemic species of plant and animal than the whole of the Galapagos, and around ten times as many in its one hundred and sixty to square miles than the whole of the UK. Yet these rare creatures do not need a degree in botany or entomology to discover, they lurk around every corner and under every stone, a truly unique opportunity of discovery for our young naturalists.

…..a building site.

With confusion and sadness I returned home last week to find JCB’s tearing out a large section of cacti, piling it high amidst a plume of dust blowing across our home and garden. Within days our cacti fields have been cleared, dust covering our house and car. The boys wilderness has been wiped out along with the thousands of insects and hundreds of birds that brought such pleasure to our daily lives.

A JCB starts to clear cacti from the land surrounding our home.

A JCB starts to clear cacti from the land surrounding our home.

It seems our home now sits in the middle of the largest housing development the Island has ever seen, and within 6 months, 18 new homes will rise up from the dust around us. Our Island of tranquillity will never be the same again, the boys and their parents, genuinely upset at the loss of our beautiful cacti jungle. Housing is in hugely short supply on St Helena, development is needed, and areas to build on are as scarce as the endemic plants and insects. Cacti is an environment of value only to the Tyson’s, it does not contain the rare ferns and trees of the cloud forests, and the endemic insects are common across many sites on the Island. Sadly we sit alone in our wonder and appreciation of this rugged, spiky moat surrounding our castle and there is nothing we are able to do to halt the inevitable development.

Where once stood acres of wildlife now stand mud and dust.

Where once stood acres of wildlife now stand mud and dust.

Our heart is still in our home, and patches of cacti, rock, insect and finch remain plentiful enough on our eastern side to entertain the boys in the medium term, but it now seems inevitable that we will have to move in the new year as building progresses further. They say home is where the heart is, I only hope that our hearts can find a new home, elsewhere on this enchanting Island.