Tristan da Cunha, colloquially Tristan, is part of the British overseas territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. This includes Saint Helena and near-equatorial Ascension Island, some 2,318 miles (3,730 kilometers) to the north of Tristan. It is the most remote inhabited archipelago in the world, lying in the South Atlantic Ocean 1,200 miles (2,000 km) from the nearest inhabited land, Saint Helena, and 1,500 miles (2,400 km) from the nearest continental land, South Africa. It is 2,090 miles (3,360 km) from South America. As of January 2017, the main island has 262 permanent inhabitants. The other islands are uninhabited, except for the personnel of a weather station on Gough Island.
Tristan da Cunha is thought to have been formed by a long-lived center of upwelling mantle called the Tristan hotspot. The territory consists of the main island, named Tristan da Cunha at 37°6′44″S 12°16′56″W, which has a north–south length of 7 miles (11.27 km) and an area of 38 square miles (98 km²), along with the smaller, uninhabited Nightingale Islands with an area of 1.3 square miles (3.4 km²), the wildlife reserves of Inaccessible Island (5.4 square miles/14km²) and Gough Island (also known as Diego Alvarez, 35 square miles/91 km²). The Nightingale Islands include Nightingale Island (1.2 square miles/3.4 km²), Middle Island (24 acres/0.1 km²) and Stoltenhoff Island (25 acres/0.1 km²). Inaccessible Island and the Nightingale Islands are 22 miles (35 km) SW by W and SSW off the main island respectively, whereas Gough Island is 245 miles (395 km) SSE.
The main island is generally mountainous. The only flat area is on the north-west coast, which is the location of the only settlement, Edinburgh of the Seven Seas. The highest point is a volcano called Queen Mary’s Peak at 6,765 feet (2,062 meters), which is covered by snow in winter. The other islands of the group are uninhabited, except for a weather station with a staff of six on Gough Island. This has been operated by South Africa since 1956 (since 1963 at its present location at Transvaal Bay on the south-east coast).
The archipelago has a wet oceanic climate under the Köppen system with pleasant temperatures, but consistent moderate to heavy rainfall and very limited sunshine, due to the persistent westerly winds. Under the Trewartha classification, Tristan da Cunha is a humid subtropical climate due to the lack of cold temperatures. The number of rainy days is comparable to the Aleutian Islands at a much higher latitude in the northern hemisphere, while sunshine hours are comparable to Juneau, Alaska, 20° farther from the equator. Frost is unknown below elevations of 1,600 feet (500 meters) and summer temperatures are similarly mild, never reaching (77 °F (25 °C). Sandy Point on the east coast is reputed to be the warmest and driest place on the island, being in the lee of the prevailing winds.
Tristan is primarily known for its wildlife. The island has been identified as an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International because there are 13 known species of breeding seabirds on the island and two species of resident land birds. The seabirds include northern rockhopper penguins, Atlantic yellow-nosed albatrosses, sooty albatrosses, Atlantic petrels, great-winged petrels, soft-plumaged petrels, broad-billed prions, grey petrels, great shearwaters, sooty shearwaters, Tristan skuas, Antarctic terns and brown noddies. Tristan and Gough Islands are the only known breeding sites in the world for the Atlantic petrel (Pterodroma incerta). Inaccessible Island is also the only known breeding ground of the Spectacled Petrel (Procellaria conspicillata). The Tristan albatross is known to breed only on Gough and Inaccessible Islands.
The endemic Tristan thrush or starchy occurs on all of the northern islands and each has its own subspecies, with Tristan birds being slightly smaller and duller than those on Nightingale and Inaccessible. The endemic Inaccessible Island rail, the smallest extant flightless bird in the world, is found only on Inaccessible Island. In 1956, eight Gough moorhens were released at Sandy Point on Tristan, and have subsequently colonized the island.
Various species of whales and dolphins can be seen around Tristan from time to time with increasing sighting rate although recovery of baleen whales especially the southern right whale were severely hindered by illegal whaling by the Soviet Union. The subantarctic fur seal Arctocephalus tropicalis can also be found in the Tristan archipelago, mostly on Gough Island.
The uninhabited islands of Tristan da Cunha were first sighted in May 1506 during a voyage to India by the Portuguese admiral Tristão da Cunha, although rough seas prevented a landing. He named the main island after himself, Ilha de Tristão da Cunha, which was later anglicized to Tristan da Cunha Island. His discovery appeared on nautical maps from 1509 and on Mercator’s world map of 1541. Some sources state that the Portuguese made the first landing on Tristan in 1520, when the Lás Rafael captained by Ruy Vaz Pereira called for water.
Though far west of the Cape of Good Hope, the islands were on the preferred route from Europe to the Indian Ocean in the 17th century. Ships first crossed the Atlantic to Brazil on the Northeasterly Trades, followed the Brazil Current south to pass the Doldrums, and then picked up the Westerlies to cross the Atlantic again, where they could encounter Tristan da Cunha. The Dutch East India Company required their ships to follow this route, and on February 17, 1643, the crew of the Heemstede, captained by Claes Gerritszoon Bierenbroodspot, made the first confirmed landing. The Heemstede replenished their supplies with fresh water, fish, seals and penguins and left a wooden tablet with the inscription “Today, 17 February 1643, from the Dutch fluyt Heemstede, Claes Gerritsz Bierenbroodspot from Hoorn and Jan Coertsen van den Broec landed here.”
Thereafter, the Dutch East India Company returned to the area four more times to explore whether the islands could function as a supply base for their ships. The first stop was on September 5, 1646, on a voyage to Batavia, Dutch East Indies, and the second was an expedition by the galliot Nachtglas (Nightglass), which left from Cape Town on November 22, 1655. The crew of the Nachtglas noticed the tablet left by the Heemstede on January 10, 1656, near a watering place. They left a wooden tablet themselves as well, like they also did on Nachtglas Eijland (now Inaccessible Island). The Nachtglas, commanded by Jan Jacobszoon van Amsterdam, examined Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island and made rough charts for the Dutch East India Company. Dutch sailors also stayed on the island for four weeks in 1658, and made their last stop in April 1669, when their idea of utilizing the islands as a supply base was abandoned, probably due to the absence of a safe harbor.
In the 17th century ships were also sent from Saint Helena by the English East India Company to Tristan to report on a proposed settlement there, but that project also came to nothing.
The first survey of the archipelago was made by the French corvette Heure du Berger in 1767. Soundings were taken and a rough survey of the coastline was made. The presence of water at the large waterfall of Big Watron and in a lake on the north coast were noted, and the results of the survey were published by a Royal Navy hydrographer in 1781.
A British naval officer who visited the group in 1760 gave his name to Nightingale Island. John Patten, the master of an English merchant ship, and part of his crew lived on Tristan from August 1790 to April 1791, during which time they captured 3,600 seals.
The first scientific exploration was conducted by French naturalist Louis-Marie Aubert du Petit-Thouars, who stayed on the island for three days in January 1793, during a French mercantile expedition from Brest, France to Mauritius. Aubert made botanical collections and reported traces of human habitation, including fireplaces and overgrown gardens, probably left by Dutch explorers in the 17th century. He also made the first known attempt to climb Queen Mary’s Peak, but this was without success. He did collect and catalogue hundreds of plants during this expedition.
During this time American whalers frequented the neighboring waters, and in December 1810 an American named Jonathan Lambert “late of Salem, mariner and citizen thereof,” along with an Italian named Thomas Currie and another named Williams, made Tristan their home, establishing the first permanent settlement on the island. Lambert declared himself sovereign and sole possessor of the group (which he renamed Islands of Refreshment) “grounding my right and claim on the rational and sure ground of absolute occupancy”. Lambert’s sovereignty was short lived, as he and Williams were drowned while out fishing in May 1812. Currie was joined, however, by two other men and they began to cultivate vegetables, wheat and oats, and breed pigs.
War having broken out in 1812 between the United States and the United Kingdom, the islands were largely used as a base by American cruisers sent to prey on British merchant ships. This and other considerations urged by Lord Charles Somerset, then governor of Cape Colony, led the British government to authorize taking “possession” of the islands as dependencies of the Cape Colony in South Africa. The formal proclamation of annexation was made on August 14, 1816. The British wanted to ensure that the French, their repeated enemies, would not be able to use the islands as a base for a rescue operation to free Napoleon Bonaparte from his prison on Saint Helena. Attempts to colonize Inaccessible Island failed.
The islands were occupied by a garrison of British Marines, and a civilian population was gradually built up. The small garrison was maintained on Tristan until November 1817. Whalers also set up on the islands as a base for operations in the southern Atlantic.
In January 1817 the first successful climb was made to the peak of Queen Mary’s Peak.
When the garrison departed in November 1817, William Glass, a corporal in the Royal Artillery, was left behind with his wife and two children, and two masons. This was the beginning of the present settlement. From time to time, additional settlers arrived or shipwrecked mariners decided to remain. In 1827, five colored women (these were of mixed race: African, Asian and European) from Saint Helena were persuaded to migrate to Tristan to become the wives of the five desperate bachelors then on the island. Later, African women from Cape Colony married residents in the island. Other male settlers were of Dutch and Italian origin. As a consequence of this history, the inhabitants are of mixed race. DNA studies have shown that the founding men were primarily of European ancestry.
Glass ruled over the little community from 1817 to 1853 in patriarchal fashion. Besides raising crops, the settlers possessed numbers of cattle, sheep and pigs. Their most lucrative occupation was seal-fishing. The island was still frequented by American whalers. In 1856, 25 people emigrated to the United States, out of a total island population of about 100. The next year, 45 of the inhabitants removed to Cape Colony. Since then, other younger or more restless members of the community have emigrated there; some took to a seafaring life.
The inhabitants settled on the plain on the north-west of Tristan, as it was the only level land. A number of substantial stone cottages and a church were built.
After the death of Glass in 1853, the head of the community for some time was a man named Cotton, who had served on a man of war ship, and for three years had been guard over Napoleon at Saint Helena. Cotton was succeeded by Peter William Green (anglicized from Pieter Willemszoon Groen), a native of Katwijk aan Zee, who had settled in the island in 1836. During Green’s “reign,” the economic condition of Tristan suffered by the loss of ship traffic of the whalers. This was largely due to the outbreak of the American Civil War diverting resources. In addition, the Confederate cruisers CSS Alabama and CSS Shenandoah, captured and burned many Union whaling ships. As a result, the number of ships calling at Tristan considerably diminished and trade languished.
With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, together with the gradual transition from sailing ships to coal-fired steam ships, the isolation of the islands increased. They were no longer needed as a stopping port for sailing journeys from Europe to the Far East. Most ships went through the canal for a shorter route.
On October 15, 1873, the Royal Navy scientific survey vessel HMS Challenger docked at Tristan to conduct geographic and zoological surveys on Tristan, Inaccessible Island and the Nightingale Islands. In his log, Captain George Nares recorded a total of 15 families and 86 individuals living on the island. Nares recorded that upon the ship’s arrival, the men of Tristan came forward offering potatoes, albatross eggs, and other provisions to his crew. This expedition also aided two German brothers named Stoltenhoff, in moving to the mainland at Cape Town. They had been living on Inaccessible Island since November 1871. They were the only ones to have attempted colonization of any island except the main one.
In 1880, the population appears to have attained its maximum. In 1885, the islanders encountered disaster. A poor winter had left them short of food, and a boat sent to barter with a ship offshore was lost with all hands — fifteen men. Only four adult males were left on the island. At the same time, a plague of rats — survivors of a shipwrecked vessel — wrought much havoc among the crops. The British government offered to evacuate all the inhabitants to the Cape, but the majority preferred to remain. Those remaining on Tristan held a meeting and decided to refuse, thus deepening the island’s isolation. Stores and provisions were sent out to them by the British government.
The ravages of the rats rendered the growing of wheat impossible; the wealth of the islanders now consisted of their cattle, sheep, potatoes, and apple and peach trees, and the only form of currency was the potato. The population in 1897 was only 64; in 1901 it was 74, and in 1909, 95.
Tristan da Cunha’s residents managed their own affairs without any written laws. The inhabitants have been described as moral, religious, hospitable to strangers, well-mannered and industrious, healthy and long-lived. They lack intoxicating liquors and were said to commit no crimes. As of 2003, there have been no divorces. They were daring sailors, and in small canvas boats of their own building voyage to Nightingale and Inaccessible islands. They knit garments from the wool of their sheep, are good carpenters, and make serviceable carts.
The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel recruited the first missionary to the island, Rev. William F. Taylor, who served from 1851 to 1856. After his departure, the Bishop of St. Helena attempted to establish an Anglican mission on the island from 1866 onward, and this post was finally filled by Lewis Carroll’s youngest brother, the Reverend Edwin Heron Dodgson, who arrived on the island February 25, 1881. Shortly after his arrival, he recorded 16 families and 107 individuals living on the island. Reverend Dodgson returned to England in February 1885 and attempted to arrange for the evacuation of the Tristan, meeting with Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, citing dangerous isolation, but the evacuation was deemed impracticable. Dodgson returned to Tristan in 1886 and remained until December 1889.
In 1906, the islanders passed through a period of distress owing to great mortality among the cattle and the almost total failure of the potato crop. The majority again refused, however, to desert the island, though offered allotments of land in Cape Colony. Similar proposals were made and declined several times since the question was first mooted in 1886.
It was reported that no ships visited Tristan da Cunha from 1909 until 1919, when HMS Yarmouth finally stopped to inform the islanders of the outcome of World War I.
The Shackleton–Rowett Expedition stopped in Tristan for 5 days in May 1922, collecting geological and botanical samples before returning to Cape Town. Of the few ships that visited in the coming years were the RMS Asturias, a Royal Mail Steam Packet Company passenger liner, in 1927, and the ocean liners RMS Empress of France in 1928, RMS Duchess of Atholl in 1929, and RMS Empress of Australia in 1935.
In 1936, The Daily Telegraph of London reported the population of the island was 167 individuals, with 185 cattle and 42 horses.
From December 1937 to March 1938, a Norwegian party made a dedicated Scientific Expedition to Tristan da Cunha, and sociologist Peter A. Munch extensively documented island culture (he would later revisit the island in 1964-1965). The island was also visited in 1938 by W. Robert Foran, reporting for the National Geographic Society, whose account Tristan da Cunha, Isles of Contentment was published in November 1938.
On January 12, 1938, by Letters Patent, Britain declared the islands a dependency of Saint Helena, creating the British Overseas Territory of Saint Helena and Dependencies, which also included Ascension Island. Prior to this, passing ships stopped irregularly at the island for a period of mere hours.
During World War II, the islands were used as a top secret Royal Navy weather and radio station codenamed HMS Atlantic Isle, to monitor U boats (which needed to surface to maintain radio contact) and German shipping movements in the South Atlantic Ocean. The only currency in use on the island at this time was the potato, and islanders laboring to construct the station were paid in kind with naval supplies for their own use, such as wood, paint and tea. Money was introduced the following year, as was the island’s first newspaper, The Tristan Times. The first Administrator, Surgeon Lieutenant Commander E.J.S. Woolley, was appointed by the British government during this time.
The second Duke of Edinburgh, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II, visited the islands in 1957 as part of a world tour on board the royal yacht HMY Britannia.
In 1958, as part of an experiment called Operation Argus, the United States Navy detonated an atomic bomb 100 miles (160 km) high in the upper atmosphere about 109 miles (175 km) southeast of the main island.
On October 10, 1961, the eruption of Queen Mary’s Peak forced the evacuation of the entire population of 264 individuals. Evacuees took to the water in open boats and sailed to uninhabited Nightingale Island, where they were picked up by a Dutch passenger ship that took them via Cape Town to Britain. The islanders arrived in the UK to a big press reception, and were settled in wooden huts in the disused Pendell Army Camp in Merstham, Surrey, before moving to a more permanent site at a former Royal Air Force station in Calshot near Southampton, living mainly in a road called Tristan Close. In 1962, a Royal Society expedition went to the islands to assess the damage, and reported that the settlement Edinburgh of the Seven Seas had been only marginally affected. Most families returned in 1963 led by Willie Repetto (head of the ten-person island council) and Allan Crawford (the former island welfare officer). The eruption destroyed the Tristan da Cunha canned crawfish factory, which was rebuilt a short time later.
On May 23, 2001, the islands experienced an extratropical cyclone that generated winds up to 120 miles per hour (193 km/h). A number of structures were severely damaged and a large number of cattle were killed, prompting emergency aid from the British government.
In 2005, the islands were given a United Kingdom post code (TDCU 1ZZ) to make it easier for the residents to order goods online.
On December 4, 2007, an outbreak of an acute virus-induced flu was reported. This outbreak was compounded by Tristan’s lack of suitable and sufficient medical supplies. The British coastguard in Falmouth coordinated international efforts to get appropriate medicines to Tristan to treat the virus. Tristan’s elderly population and the very young were most at risk; however, only four elderly people were hospitalized. Royal Fleet Auxiliary Vessel RFA Gold Rover upon reaching the island with the required medical supplies found no emergency and the islanders in good general health.
On February 13, 2008, fire destroyed the fishing factory and the four generators that supplied power to the island. Backup generators were used to power the hospital and give power for part of the day to the rest of the island. Power was on during the day and early evening and candlelight was used the rest of the time. On March 14, 2008, new generators were installed and uninterrupted power was restored. This fire was devastating to the island because fishing is a mainstay of the economy. Royal Engineers from the British Army worked on the harbor to help maintain it, as everything comes and goes by sea. This was supported by a LSDA vessel Lyme Bay from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. While a new factory was being planned and built, M/V Kelso came to the island and acted as a factory ship, with island fishermen based on board for stints normally of one week. The new facility was ready in July 2009, for the start of the 2009–10 fishing season. The concrete topping put in place has subsequently been badly damaged and on-going repairs will be required to keep the harbor from breaking apart in winter storms.
The St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha Constitution Order 2009 was made by Her Majesty the Queen and the Privy Council on July 8, 2009 and came into operation on September 1. The new Constitution replaced the 1988 version and among other changes limited the Governor’s powers, included a Bill of Rights, established independence of the judiciary and the public service and formally designated the Governor of St Helena as, concurrently, the Governor for Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. It also ended the “dependency” status of Ascension and Tristan da Cunha on St Helena.
On March 16, 2011, the Maltese-registered freighter MS Oliva ran aground on Nightingale Island, spilling tons of heavy fuel oil into the ocean. The crew were rescued, but the ship broke up, leaving an oil slick that surrounded the island, threatening its population of rockhopper penguins. Nightingale Island has no fresh water, so the penguins were transported to Tristan da Cunha for cleaning. The Greek captain and his 21 Filipino crew stayed in Edinburgh of the Seven Seas and assisted the islanders in their work.
In November 2011, the Volvo Ocean Race boat Puma’s Mar Mostro headed to the island after the mast came down to meet a supporting vessel in the first leg between Alicante (Spain) and Cape Town (South Africa). This event put the archipelago in the world press that were reporting the race, making it known to a larger public.
A total solar eclipse will pass over the island on December 5, 2048. The island is calculated to be on the center line of the umbra’s path for nearly three and a half minutes of totality.
The island’s unique social and economic organisation has evolved over the years, but is based on the principles set out by William Glass in 1817, when he established a settlement based on equality. All Tristan families are farmers, owning their own stock and/or fishing. All land is communally owned. All households have plots of land at The Patches on which they grow potatoes. Livestock numbers are strictly controlled to conserve pasture and to prevent better-off families from accumulating wealth. Unless the community votes for a change in its law, no outsiders are allowed to buy land or settle on Tristan; theoretically the whole island would have to be put up for sale. All people — including children and pensioners — are involved in farming, while adults additionally have salaried jobs working either for the Government, or, a small number in domestic service. Many of the men are involved in the fishing industry, going to sea in good weather. The nominal fishing season lasts 90 days; however, during the 2013 fishing season — July 1 to September 30 — there were only 10 days suitable for fishing.
The crawfish catchers and processors work for the South African company Ovenstone, which has an exclusive contract to sell crawfish to the United States and Japan. Although Tristan da Cunha is a UK overseas territory, it is not permitted direct access to European Union markets.
Valuable foreign earnings come from the royalties from the commercial crawfish or Tristan rock lobster (Jasus) industry. Other revenues are derived from the sale of postage stamps and coins, especially to collectors worldwide. Limited revenue from tourism includes providing accommodation, guides and sales of handicrafts and souvenirs to visitors and by mail order. The income from foreign revenue earners enables Tristan to run Government services, especially health and education.
Although Tristan da Cunha is part of the same overseas territory as Saint Helena, it does not use the local Saint Helena pound. Instead, the island uses the United Kingdom issue of the pound sterling. The Bank of Saint Helena was established on Saint Helena and Ascension Island in 2004. This bank does not have a physical presence on Tristan da Cunha, but residents of Tristan are entitled to its services. There are occasionally commemorative coins minted for the island.
The remote location of the islands makes transport to the outside world difficult. Lacking an airport, the islands can be reached only by sea. Fishing boats from South Africa service the islands eight or nine times a year. The RMS Saint Helena used to connect the main island to St. Helena and South Africa once each year during its January voyage, but has done so only twice in the last few years, in 2006 and 2011. The wider territory normally has access to air travel, with Ascension served by RAF Ascension Island, though flights for civilians were indefinitely suspended in April 2017. The Saint Helena Airport was constructed and expected to open in May 2016 but has been delayed due to shear wind. There is no direct, regular service to Tristan da Cunha itself from either location. The harbor at Edinburgh of the Seven Seas is called Calshot Harbour, named after the place in Hampshire where the islanders temporarily stayed during the volcanic eruption.
Although Tristan da Cunha shares the +290 code with St Helena, residents have access to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Telecommunications Network, provided by Global Crossing. This uses a London 020 numbering range, meaning that numbers are accessed via the UK telephone numbering plan. From 1998 to 2006, internet was available in Tristan da Cunha but its high cost made it almost unaffordable for the local population, who primarily used it only to send email. The connection was also extremely unreliable, connecting through a 64 kbit/s satellite phone connection provided by Inmarsat. From 2006, a very-small-aperture terminal provided 3072 kbit/s of publicly accessible bandwidth via an internet cafe.
There is no mobile phone coverage on the islands. Local television began in 1984 using taped programming on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday evenings. Live television did not arrive on the island until 2001, with the introduction of the British Forces Broadcasting Service, which now provides BBC1, BBC2, ITV and BFBS Extra, relayed to islanders via local analogue transmitters. BFBS Radio 2 is the locally available radio station.
A comprehensive website www.tristandc.com is provided by the island government and the Tristan da Cunha Association which maintains it from the UK. A weekly local printed newsletter, Village Voice, is produced on the island.
Although first settled in 1817, no surviving mail is known from Tristan da Cunha until two whaler’s letters written in 1836 and 1843, these being carried home in other whaling ships. Mail from Tristan da Cunha was sent without stamps starting from 1881 by casual ship through a variety of posts of call and charged after arrival. Only seven covers are known until 1908 when the first of the island cachet handstamps came into use. These were used mostly by the clergymen who volunteered to serve as the community’s ministers and were supplied by various people interested in the island. The Stanley Gibbons Commonwealth & British Empire Stamps 1840-1952 catalogue gives a good overview with illustrations of these cachets.
Starting in 1918, the stamps of Ascension, Great Britain, Saint Helena, and South Africa were used if and when available. Occasionally, a marking was applied to the envelopes stating No Stamps Available.
The first stamps issued for Tristan da Cunha were a set of 12 St. Helena stamps of the 1938 pictorial series overprinted TRISTAN/DA CUNHA released on January 1, 1952 (Scott #1-12). These were followed by its entry in the omnibus for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on June 2, 1953 (Scott #13).
I’ve had a long-held affinity with Tristan da Cunha and obtained my first stamps from the islands directly through the philatelic bureau in 1979. I was very interested at the time in ocean liners and once I learnt of the visit of the RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 and that Tristan would issue stamps for the occasion, I knew I just had to obtain them (I was about 14 years old). The first day covers and presentation pack were each signed by members of each of the families living on Tristan da Cunha and the souvenir sheet in this issue included what was then the “longest” (widest) stamp issued (a claim Thailand made this past April in releasing a new stamp honoring the late King Bhumipol Adulyadej). Thus, it was difficult for me to choose a stamp to illustrate this article as my Tristan collection remains one of my favorites.
In the end, I chose Scott #16 from the 1954-1958 pictorial series. The 1½ penny stamp, printed in deep plum and black and perforated 12½ features a northern rockhopper penguin (Eudyptes moseleyi), of which recent studies show it as being distinct from the southern rockhopper penguins common in other locations such as the Falkland Islands. Also known as Moseley’s penguin, a study published in 2009 showed that the population of the northern rockhopper had declined by 90% since the 1950s. For this reason, the northern rockhopper penguin is classified as endangered.
Rockhopper penguins are one of the smallest species of penguin in the world. They range from 2.3-2.7 kilograms where males are larger than females. After reaching full growth, they are about 20 inches in height. Males and females cannot be distinguished just by looks, so a DNA test is conducted by taking a feather from the bird to determine its sex. Like many penguins, rockhopper penguins have a white belly and the rest of their body is black. Some characteristics that differentiate them from the other penguins are their red eyes, orange beak, pink webbed feet, and the yellow and black spiky feathers they have on their head. Although their yellow and black spiky feathers differentiate them from other penguins, rockhopper penguin chicks do not have them; these feathers develop with age. Their orange beak is initially black, but as the penguins get older, their beaks turn orange. Due to the harsh rocky environment, they cannot slide on their bellies like most penguins, so they hop to get from one place to another.
The rockhopper penguin was split into three distinct subspecies in 1992; the southern, (E. c. chrysocome), eastern (E. c. filholi) and northern rockhopper penguin (E. c. moseleyi). The three subspecies are distinguished by differences in the length of the tassels of the crests, the size and color of the fleshy margin of the gape, color pattern on the underside of the flipper and differences in the size of the supercilliary stripe in front of the eye. Additionally, the northern rockhopper penguin is larger than the other two subspecies. Research published in 2006 demonstrated morphological, vocal, and genetic differences between the populations. Molecular datings suggest that the genetic divergence with the southern rockhopper penguin may have been caused by a vicariant event caused by a shift in the position of the Subtropical Front during the mid-Pleistocene climate transition. Analysis of a part of a mitochondrial control region from a northern rockhopper penguin found on the Kerguelen Islands showed that it may have come from Gough Island, 6,000 km away, and that the southern and northern rockhoppers are genetically separate, though some individuals may disperse from their breeding colonies. Many taxonomists have yet to recognize the split, although some are beginning to do so.
Northern rockhopper penguins breed in cool temperate climates including on the islands of Gough and Tristan de Cunha in the South Atlantic Ocean and St. Paul and Manchester in the Indian Ocean. More than 99% of northern rockhoppers breed on Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island. The southern rockhopper breeds on the Falkland Islands, Argentina and Chile, with breeding colonies around Cape Horn in South America, and Prince Edward, Marion, Crozet, Kerguelen, Heard, Macquarie, Campbell, Auckland and Antipodes Islands in the southern Indian Ocean. Eastern rockhopper penguins are mostly found breeding on Campbell Island in New Zealand, but their numbers have declined immensely. Rockhopper penguins usually find their habitat in rocky shorelines. They make nests and burrows in tall grasses called tussocks.
The northern rockhopper penguin feeds on krill and other sea life such as crustaceans, squid, octopus and fish. It breeds in colonies in a range of locations from sea level or on cliff sides, to inland. The Northern form, found in Amsterdam and Gough island, is reproductively isolated from the Crozet and Kerguelen islands. They are monophyletic; meaning they have a split in the mitochondria DNA trees which forms two subspecies: the northern and southern rockhopper penguin. Another interesting difference between the two subspecies is their mating ritual. They both use different songs and head ornaments in their mating signals. The reproductive isolation has led to not only physical difference but also behavioral. The adults feed their chicks lower trophic level prey than they themselves consume. During breeding season the adults eat zooplankton and then transition to fish, showing they favor future reproduction.
The current population is estimated to be between 100,000–499,999 breeding pairs at Gough Island, 18,000 to 27,000 pairs at Inaccessible Island, and 3,200 to 4,500 at Tristan da Cunha. In the Indian Ocean, the population was 25,500 pairs on Amsterdam Island, and 9,000 pairs on St Paul Island in 1993; there has been no information available on population trends there since the 1990s. Declines at the Atlantic Ocean sites show a decline of 2.7% per year; the drop in the population at Gough Island has been described as equivalent to the loss of 100 birds every day since the 1950s.
A study published in 2009 showed that the world population of the northern rockhopper had declined by 90% since the 1950s, possibly because of climate change, changes in marine ecosystems and overfishing for squid and octopus by humans. Other possible factors in the decline include disturbance and pollution from ecotourism and fishing, egg-harvesting, and predation and competition from subantarctic fur seals (Arctocephalus tropicalis). Surveys show that the birds are at risk of infection by goose barnacles. house mice (Mus musculus) have been introduced into their environment by human sea expeditions. The mice have proven to be invasive, and consume northern rockhopper eggs, as well as hunt their young. In order to preserve the birds, a culling of the mice is being considered.
On March 16, 2011, the Maltese-registered freighter MS Oliva ran aground on Nightingale Island, spilling tons of heavy crude into the ocean. The crew was rescued, but the ship broke up, leaving an oil slick that surrounded the island, threatening its population of rockhopper penguins. Nightingale Island has no fresh water, so the penguins were transported to Tristan da Cunha for cleaning.
Northern rockhopper penguins have been featured in animated features including the films Surf’s Up and Happy Feet, and the television series The Penguins of Madagascar.