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What Should I Know About Ascension Island?

The clear waters that surround Ascension Island are popular with scuba divers.
The airstrip on Ascension Island could have acted as a landing site for the Space Shuttle in the event of an emergency.
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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 20 November 2014
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Ascension Island is a tiny island in the southern Atlantic. It covers 35 square miles (91 sq. km), making it the twelfth-smallest territory or country in the world, with a population of just over 1000 people. The island is very remote, with the nearest land being the small island territory of Saint Helena nearly 800 miles (1300 km) away, and the nearest major landmass being Africa, nearly 1000 miles (1600 km) away.

Ascension Island was first discovered by the Portuguese in 1501, and then later rediscovered in 1503, on Ascension Day. For the next few hundred years the island was rarely visited, and never settled. Saint Helena was a preferable stopping point due to its larger size and excellent harbors, so there was little incentive to develop Ascension Island. Some sailors did use the island for its meager supply of game and eggs, and goats were introduced to the island to supply future ships with more meat.

In the early-19th century Ascension Island suddenly became strategically important with the defeat of Napoleon. He was exiled to Saint Helena, and although the island was 800 miles (1300 km) away, the British worried that the French might attempt to use Ascension Island or Tristan da Cunha to stage a rescue attempt. As a result a garrison was established, and a permanent settlement formed.

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With a garrison established, the island began to be visited more regularly, even after Napoleon’s death. Ascension Island played a role as a staging ground for ships that the British used to help capture and turn back illegal slaving ships coming from the coast of Africa to the Americas. A telegraph line was laid at the end of the 19th century to connect South Africa with Britain, and the East Telegraph Company took responsibility for the island, continuing to administer it until the 1960's.

In the 1940's the United States constructed an airbase on the island. The airbase was used during the war as a layover for planes on their way to and from Africa and Europe. When the war ended the base was no longer used, and the island became relatively forgotten until the 1950's, when the United States again focused on the island, refitting the airbase to act as a runway for the Space Shuttle in the case of an emergency landing.

During the 1980's, the British government used Ascension Island to launch their initiative on the Falkland Islands, and for a short time the quiet little ocean in the south Atlantic was the busiest airfield in the entire world. Since the Falklands War the British have kept up a steady presence on Ascension Island, and a relatively large population is there year-round now.

For some time the island was closed to general traffic, but in recent years has become open to tourists. Although no one happens lightly upon Ascension Island, with some work you can get there. There isn’t a lot to do on Ascension Island, but there is some amazing flora and fauna, including feral donkeys and green turtles, and a number of bird species, such as the mynah and Ascension frigate birds. The island does have some amenities, as well, including a golf course, a number of clubs, and plenty of snorkeling, diving, and fishing.

Getting to Ascension Island takes some planning, but flights do arrive occasionally, usually from British military bases. Ships also visit the island regularly from Saint Helena, and yachts do occasionally make port.

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anon84502
Post 1

Pretty good description.Also there are many things to do there as well. The fishing is great, exploring, looking for buried treasure, surfing and diving are great. I lived there for many years in the 80s and 90s and never ran out of things to do. The place is utopia!

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