Where the Saints go diving after work
It was the size of the ship that astonished me. From the rudder, the big boilers looked miles away. Beyond those, there were bundles of corrugated iron, an engine, anchor windless and somewhere in the distance, the bow. Swimming through a cloud of butterflyfish, I searched for the locker which an old wreck write-up said contained champagne bottles—I never found the champagne but I did come face to face with a crayfish.
Built by Denny W & Bros, Dumbarton for the New Zealand Shipping Company in 1899 the 131m SS Papa Nui, with 376 passengers and 108 crew, had just steamed past Saint Helena when a persistent fire in a coal bunker forced them back. She made for the harbour at Jamestown and unloaded her passengers and crew on 11 September 1911, a short while later a boiler exploded and fire spread from the bow to stern. The next day she sank in 13m.
There are many things that make diving the Papa Nui an incredible experience; it’s found in clear, warm water a short distance from shore, the ship’s history is well documented and some of the artefacts that aren’t still on the ship can be found around Jamestown. But the most remarkable aspect of the dive is that—for Saint Helena—it’s not unusual. The SS Papa Nui is just one of eight protected wreck sites accessible to island divers and her excellent condition is a great example of the island’s strict conservation ethos.
A Seafaring History
For more than 500 years the only way to reach the remote South Atlantic island of Saint Helena has been by the sea. The uninhabited island was discovered by the Portuguese in 1502, and was long used as a provisioning stop for ships travelling from the East Indies to Europe. In 1659, the British East India Company took possession of the island and began to fortify it. In the years that followed Captains Cook and Bligh, the astronomer Edmond Halley, Charles Darwin and, of course, Napoleon all found their way to Saint Helena.
Before the Suez Canal opened, more than 1,000 ships a year called at Saint Helena. Gradually though the island became an isolated and forgotten outpost. Over the past 50 years, only the most intrepid travellers have voyaged to her shores. And only a few, such as Jacques Cousteau, whose crew dive the Darkdale—a tanker torpedoed by a German submarine in 1941 and Robert Stenuit, the marine archaeologist who discovered a 16th-century ship called the Witte Leeuw, whose treasure of Ming porcelain is now housed in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, came for the diving.
St Helena has been one of the most isolated British territories and its 4,200 population's only connection to the outside world has been a five-day trip by ship to Cape Town in South Africa. However, a £250 million airport has been built and weekly flights are promised. The opening of the airport has been delayed twice and the opening ceremony has been postponed after a test flight revealed dangerous wind changes close to the ground. Until that is resolved the only way to access the 48 square mile of rock in the South Atlantic remains the regular mail ship.
Once there you will find hiking trails that cut through multi-hued volcanic hills; historic stone fortifications perched high over churning seas; Napoleon’s estate and tomb; huge whale sharks in gin-clear water; and, of course, that spectacular diving.
Conserving for the Future
Graham Sim, 79, is considered the father of both diving and conservation on Saint Helena. He says the first time he went underwater, wearing a hard-to-come-by mask and snorkel, he was amazed by the profusion of fish life. He and a few friends soon fashioned Hawaiian slings out of broom handles and bicycle inner tubes and began spearing so many fish, Sim says he briefly wondered if fish were blind, they were so effortless to catch.
Other divers soon followed his lead. ‘No one had ever interfered with the fish before,’ Sim told me as we looked out at the blue water over James Bay. ‘But then I noticed the easy-to-reach areas near the wharf were being destroyed.’ The fish were gone.
Sim’s realisation was life changing—and it transformed the future of Saint Helena. He formed the Skin Diving Club and then the St Helena Dive Club, which has just celebrated its 50th anniversary, gave up spear fishing and starting teaching young Saints (as the locals are called) to dive. He also trained as a fisheries officer and began putting the island’s first conservation measures in place.
‘We protected the areas around the wrecks and in James Bay, Rupert’s Bay and Lemon Valley,’ he said. ‘At first, people were angry with me. But the thing we enjoyed, we were destroying.’
Warm Clear Water
It’s easy to love diving in St Helena. Visibility runs to 30m and the water temperatures range from 19C-26C. Within a fifteen-minute boat ride from the Jamestown landing there’s a choice of wrecks, reefs, arches, islands and caves. In fact, diving is so easy here that it’s a favourite post-work activity for locals; they head out for a dive and catch the sunset on the return voyage.
Anthony Thomas from Sub-Tropic Adventures, one of the island’s two dive companies, had five of us in his boat for one of his regular afternoon dives. As the newest visitors to the island, he asked us what we'd like to see. We settled on a dive that included a wreck, followed by an arch and cave system—a dive that contained such an assembly of life, diversity and clarity; that had we been anywhere else in the world, the dive would have had both a half dozen dive boats jostling for position and a name.
Five of us, including a dive master, descended to the Bedgellet—a salvage vessel that had been used on the Papanui, damaged in a storm and then sunk in 2001. Resting on her keel in 17m she boasted a profusion of fish life as well as colourful algae and sponges. Enchanted with the scene, I started a slow swim around the keel of the boat, trying to take in everything at once. We ascended to the deck level where I followed an endemic, and decidedly faded-looking, St Helena parrotfish Sparisoma stringatum (known locally as a rockfish) toward an overhang where I became intrigued by a spooky looking bearded fireworm.
Saint Helena has several endemic species which include 16 fish species and about 40 invertebrates including Thomas’s favourite, the nudibranch. For me, the St Helena butterflyfish Chaetodon sanctaehelenae was one of the most mesmerising. Congregating in vast shallow-water schools we swam through our first cloud of them on the Papanui and encountered our second flashy school while swimming from the wreck of the Bedgellet to the arch at Long Ledge.
The swim to Long Ledge was through a maze-like landscape of huge boulders and overhangs. Lighting the crevices and caves with a torch, we caught sight of a huge moray eel and a big triggerfish. Every so often we’d glance out to the blue—keeping an eye out for the devil rays that are known to swim in the area.
Most of the dive sites are located on the leeward side of the island—where they can experience a bit of surge from the ocean swells but don’t have much in the way of current to contend with. Thomas will take more adventurous divers to the windward side of the island, where the life can be bigger and even more varied when conditions are right. But almost every dive has something to offer both beginners and advanced divers and typically Thomas will split the groups and send each out with their own dive master.
Much More Than Just fish
As well as reef fish, divers report encounters with a varied assortment of charismatic sea life including, turtles, dolphins, Chilean devil rays and whales sharks. Peak whale shark season runs from December-March when as many as 50 of the enormous creatures are found in large groupings around the island. While intentionally scuba diving with them is prohibited (snorkelling with a guide is legal), Thomas explained divers will often be at a site when the whale sharks show up and then they’re welcome to enjoy the show.
We surfaced after swimming through a long arch and exploring a few big caves. Settling into the boat we watched as the sky turned golden, then red. Two of the divers were giddy with the thrill of a devil ray encounter. One of them, Sam, told me this was her 170th dive on the island, and of all the places she’s been, this is the place that never gets old. ‘I find something new to see every time.’
Graham Sim told me the same thing. For 50 years he’s dived at least once a week. When he started it was with the most basic gear; no wetsuit, no gauges, no buoyancy control, no boat. The island was the most abundant place he’d seen and he was determined to keep her that way. St Helena was lucky, in so many places in the world people don’t even know what a healthy ocean looks like anymore, he explained: ‘We got to learn from other’s mistakes before the damage was done. It’s still amazing here.’
NEED TO KNOW
Currently, there are only two dive companies and two dive boats on the island—which means there’s never more than one boat at a site and even the most popular sites are only visited a couple of times a week. As tourism increases, and more boats are added, conservation guidelines will reflect the same high standards.