Members of the Foreign Office from Tristan da Cunha, Ascension Island, the Falkland Islands, South Africa, Austria and London, worked closely with the Royal Air Force to find them a route home – a 12-day sail to the isolated island, before boarding a RAF A400 transport aircraft several days later.
The group of 12 from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) arrived on Gough Island at the end of February 2020 to start work on a restoration programme, which aims to save endangered seabirds from giant invasive mice. The mice eat chicks alive and kill more than two million birds at the World Heritage Site every year.
But when the coronavirus outbreak escalated globally in the middle of March, the RSPB were left with few options but to postpone the project and find a way to return the group to the UK from the isolated spot. The island, part of the British Overseas Territory Tristan da Cunha, is about 1700 miles west of Cape Town.
With the closest countries’ borders closing rapidly, the charity worked around the clock with the Foreign Office to devise a plan to get the group off the island and safely back home.
South Africa was the most obvious destination for the team but rapidly developing travel restrictions in the country meant this option had to be ruled out.
The Falkland Islands were identified as the next-best option, but it was at least a 20-day sail away on the group’s expedition yacht, the E.S.V Evohe, against prevailing and deteriorating weather conditions.
Kate Lawrence, who was among the RSPB group and lives in New Zealand, said:
We knew the team back in the UK were working on a plan, and they communicated to us regularly, though the information and plan seemed to change almost on a daily basis due to the ever-changing border closures and travel restrictions around the world. Travelling via Cape Town, the Falkland Islands, St Helena and Ascension Island were all possibilities at some point.
When the plan was finally mapped out, the group boarded their yacht and began the voyage to Ascension Island, a journey of 1969 nautical miles through rough seas.
Sailing in that boat for 12 days, looking at the endless blue ocean around me, made the world feel quite big, in contrast to the previous ease of air travel and the rapid spread of Covid-19, which makes the world seem so small.
On arrival at Ascension, the Head of Administrator’s Office Xander Halliwell and RAF Base Commander Wing Commander John Kane quickly worked to get the group on the next RAF flight, due to arrive on the island five days later to deliver essential supplies, before returning to RAF Brize Norton. Ascension Island is home to just 800 people.
Tristan da Cunha Administrator Fiona Kilpatrick said:
It was a complex operation involving staff from three UK Overseas Territories, as well as our teams in South Africa, Vienna and London, to ensure this team, doing such important work in such an isolated location, could make it back to the UK safely.
Their challenging journey showed how carefully this needed to be planned and how much coordination and diplomacy was required to get them home. We hope to welcome them back soon.
Programme Executive of the RSPB Gough Project Andrew Callender said:
We received incredible support throughout the repatriation process from members of the FCO – the High Commissioner in South Africa and various Administrators and Representatives of the Overseas Territories, especially in the Falklands and the ultimate place of repatriation, Ascension.
The Gough Island Restoration Programme aims to save rare seabirds, such as the critically endangered Tristan Albatross, from the devastating depredation by giant mice.
The mice were inadvertently introduced to Gough by people, and pose a serious threat to the future of this World Heritage Site. Restoring the island will prevent the deaths of defenceless chicks, allowing populations to recover from unsustainable levels of decline.
The charity intends to return to the island in 2021, if conditions allow, and the necessary finance can be raised.
To date, the Foreign Office has helped more than 370 British nationals, on short term trips to the Overseas Territories, to return to the UK. The Foreign Office has also helped more than 360 British nationals return to their homes in UK Overseas Territories.