St Helena | A World Apart
Mark 'Crowley' Russell on why divers need to add St Helena, isolated in the South Atlantic, to their bucket lists
Logbook entry: ‘St Helena, Day One, Dive One – pod of pan-tropical spotted dolphins, Chilean devil ray, flameback angelfish, whale shark.’
I joked at the time that I might as well call this article finished and relax for the rest of the week, because in those first few hours in the waters surrounding this most delightful of islands, I had seen more than enough to give divers a reason to visit.
The conditions on the day for my first dive at Egg Island were not at their best. A large swell had rolled in off the Atlantic to coincide almost exactly with my arrival, and the perfect visibility that I had been assured was the norm was more than slightly compromised. I got the distinct impression that the local divers were a bit worried that, on the first day the journalist goes diving, in accordance with Murphy’s infallible law, the worst conditions for several months should appear.
Conditions such as this, I reassured them, would have been classed as a great day out at some of the places where I used to dive during my career as an instructor. Swell happens – it’s the South Atlantic, after all – but ‘whale shark, devil ray and pod of dolphins within the space of an hour’ does not.
St Helena is often prefaced with the phrase ‘the remote island of…’ and it is, indeed, one of the most remote inhabited islands on the planet. Home to an indigenous population of a little more than 4,000, plus around 500 expats living and working on the island at any given time, St Helena’s isolated location is very much part of its charm.
Less than ten miles across at its widest point, and more than 1,200 miles distant from the African continent, St Helena is a British Overseas Territory which includes the neighbouring islands of Ascension to the north and the archipelago of Tristan da Cunha to the south – although ‘neighbouring’ is a fairly inaccurate description, given that the three islands are spread over 2,000 miles of the otherwise featureless South Atlantic Ocean.
History buffs will recognise St Helena as the home in exile of Napoleon Bonaparte, dispatched there by the British Government in 1815 after his defeat at Waterloo. Readers of more recent events published in the media may recall the disparaging reports of the British government’s investment in an airport that has been completed but has yet to officially open - at least to scheduled commercial flights - due to problems with wind shear.
But there is so much more to St Helena than these isolated stories. Discovered by the Portuguese in 1502 and settled by the British in 1659, St Helena became an important staging post for shipping between Asia, Africa and the UK, until trade almost ceased when the Suez Canal opened in 1869.
The current population is a reflection of the wide range of nationalities that came to live and work on the island, descendants of settlers, mariners, itinerant workers and slaves, an amalgamation of races and cultures from Britain and Europe, China, India, Africa and Madagascar.
The Saints – as they are known – are warm and welcoming, with the local greeting a smile and a wave, and they speak a language so alien it is utterly incomprehensible until you listen a little more closely and realise that it’s English. It’s just English that’s undergone a peculiar evolution all of its own.
Aside from the human narrative, the natural history of the island above the surface is a fascinating account of the struggle between native and invasive species. Imported livestock all but destroyed much of the endemic flora, and the New Zealand flax, once the mainstay of St Helena’s most profitable enterprise, now dominates the landscape.
Underwater, however, despite the non-stop maritime traffic of the past, the sea life has remained as intact and as vibrant as it must have been for millennia, undisturbed and unmolested by all but the lightest touch of human activity.
Volcanic by nature, St Helena was formed between 12 and 7.5 million years ago, an adjunct of the Mid Atlantic Ridge and rising more than 3,000m from the ocean floor. Effectively it is a seamount that breaches the surface, and the marine life here has evolved in quiet isolation from the rest of the world.
At least 50 of the 780 different species that have so far been identified in these waters are endemic. The island is home to at least 37 different species of coral and other cnidarians (including hydroids and jellies), 27 different types of sponge, 223 different types of mollusc, 44 species of starfish, sea urchin and other spiny creatures, and a wide variety of fish life, from the endemic flameback angelfish and the thousand-strong schools of St Helenian butterflyfish, to more globally recognised species of moray eels, octopus and nudibranch.
Travellers such as jacks, trevallies, tuna and wahoo are ever present, and each year the island is graced with the presence of its most spectacular pelagic visitors – whale sharks.
From December to March, St Helena becomes home to a congregation of adult whale sharks, a phenomenon that occurs in only a handful of locations worldwide. During the week prior to my visit, more than 30 individuals had been recorded, and a group of enthusiastic fellow tourists informed me with glee that they had been snorkelling with four fully-grown animals the day before my first dive.
This unusual annual gathering of mature whale sharks could prove to be a major draw for tourists, and from the start, the islanders want to get this right. The St Helenian Environmental Management Division, under the capable hands of Elizabeth Clingham, has already taken steps to regulate how tourists can interact with the whale sharks. They are eager to avoid the mistakes made in other destinations around the world, where in some cases profit has been put before conservation when exploiting megafauna. The islanders are also partners in a major research project into the little understood or studied whale shark with Georgia Aquarium in the USA.
Although the number of tourists to St Helena is currently very limited due the island’s inaccessibility, it will undoubtedly grow once commercial flights begin, hopefully later this year, and accreditation schemes for tour operators – such as limiting whale shark experience tours to a maximum of four vessels in any given location – along with strict rules and regulations regarding marine life interactions, are already in place.
Scuba diving with the whale sharks is not allowed – or, more specifically, jumping into the water wearing scuba in an area where the sharks are congregating is prohibited – but they are regularly seen by divers during the season. The best encounters are at the surface when the whale sharks are feeding or simply basking in the sun, when snorkelling is altogether more appropriate than diving.
Later in the week, although high seas and a strong current had temporarily driven the whale sharks from the ocean surface, conditions gradually slackened off until we spotted a solitary silhouette in the water just off a rock formation known as the Turk’s Cap. For thirty of the most amazing minutes of my life, I had the chance to swim alongside a placid, curious creature which was apparently in no hurry to escape the splashing of our fins or the waving of our cameras as we intruded into its space.
Local regulations insist that snorkellers remain at least 3m away from the sharks, but – as always – this is rather difficult to communicate to the animal itself. By turns, the shark would circle around for closer inspection, swimming directly below us at times, before ambling (insofar as an 8m-long fish can be thought of as ‘ambling’) along with a lazy waft of its massive tail fin.
I had seen whale sharks before, but not many, and in each case they were simply passing by. To be in the presence of such a magnificent creature for so long, and in such close proximity, was the most awesome experience of my diving life.
Protection of the local marine environment does not end at whale shark interactions, however. In 2016, a 200-nautical-mile zone around the island was officially designated as a Marine Protected Area (MPA). An annual marine awareness month in March sees conservation groups and divers involve island residents and school children in projects designed to raise understanding of the island’s precious surroundings. Fishing, as one might imagine for an isolated island, is important to the local economy, but fishing boats also have to be accredited and fish may only be caught using a pole and line – nets and trawling are forbidden.
In addition to the whale sharks, green and hawksbill turtles are regularly spotted throughout the year. Ascension Island, some 700 miles away, is a nesting ground for both species, and although there is no nesting on St Helena, the turtles must almost inevitably pass by.
A resident population of pan-tropical spotted dolphins is regularly encountered as they come to play and ride the bow waves of passing boats, in pods that can number in the hundreds. Bottlenose dolphins are also commonly found around the island, and rough-toothed dolphins are also seen, although less frequently.
Between June and December each year, humpback whales visit the waters of St Helena. The local marine life guidebook notes that they arrive as individuals, but mothers with their single calves are sighted from July onwards, very strongly suggesting that these massive cetaceans travel to the region to give birth, further highlighting the importance of St Helena’s marine environment and the necessity for its protection.
The fascinating (and very friendly) Chilean devil ray makes regular visits to the island’s rocky reefs and although it is a pelagic species, it would appear that some individuals may have moved in more permanently, and seem to take an active interest in interacting with divers. Certainly, the creature we encountered during my dive at Egg Island, and subsequently at Lighter Rock, had no significant reason to spend 20 minutes repeatedly passing through the dive team other than simple, friendly, curiosity.
Away from the bigger critters, there is plenty to be found among the rugged, rocky shores. The island lacks the classic coral reef structures that we find in the Asia-Pacific and Caribbean regions, and the distribution of species is more akin to the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas with which European divers will be more familiar. The brightly coloured orange cup-coral is one of a few species of cnidaria endemic to the island, as are the St Helena tree coral, snowflake coral and trumpet anemone.
Small crabs, shrimp and other small crustaceans provide excellent opportunities for macro photographers, especially on night dives. Octopus are also regularly spotted and the most enormous slipper lobsters are found lurking among the nooks and crannies and inside the small caves around the island, as well as on St Helena’s wrecks.
As one might imagine for a remote island with a long-standing maritime history, there have been some notable shipwrecks in the area, with eight remaining intact and of interest to divers. One of the most famous of these is the Papanui, a 130m-long passenger vessel en route to Australia from the UK, which caught fire in September 1911 before limping into Jamestown Harbour, where she was eventually scuttled after all the passengers and crew had been evacuated.
The ship is broken up and much of it was salvaged in the 1980s. The wreck lies in a maximum of 12m and can be as easily snorkelled as it can be dived. The massive boilers remain intact and, on a clear day, the remains of the ship can be seen from the top of nearby Ladder Hill. (It is so named for the 699 steps of Jacob’s Ladder that stretch down the hillside into Jamestown, a must-do for all visitors, although it turns your legs to jelly.)
The Papanui was the training ground for veteran diver Graham Sim, one of the pioneers of St Helenian diving back in 1962 and, at the age of 79, still going strong, as evidenced by his excellent guiding of our dive on the Darkdale, a Second World War tanker sunk by a German U-boat in October 1941.
Forty-one souls were lost that day, commemorated by a monument on Jamestown’s seafront, and the ship is dived today with great respect as a war grave. Broken in two and mostly inverted, with the top of the hull at 33m and the sandy bottom at 48m, only a small part of the Darkdale’s superstructure remains visible to the recreational diver. It was an all-too-brief – but memorable – encounter with a vessel of such tragic historical importance.
We also enjoyed a splendid dive on the wreck of the Frontier, a fishing vessel that had been used for drug-smuggling and which was seized by St Helenian Customs in 1991. It was sunk as an artificial reef in 1994 and is completely intact and easily accessible in only around 28m of water. Resting on its starboard side, the small ship makes for some excellent and atmospheric photo opportunities, and the nearby reef is a good place to find smaller critters. Like all wrecks, the Frontier is home to a large number of schooling fish, especially the endemic St Helena butterflyfish, with larger jacks and wahoo looking for prey.
Dives such as the Frontier and the Darkdale wrecks are limited by decompression time, and, as yet, nitrox is not available on St Helena. Seasoned divers will appreciate that the logistics and expense involved in nitrox manufacture on an island that is – quite literally – in the middle of nowhere, are substantial.
Divers should also be aware that dive tourism on the island is very much in its infancy, and need to appreciate that they may find their experience a little rough around the edges. I often jest – and not necessarily incorrectly – that there are two types of people that enjoy spending their time underwater. There are those who enjoy diving on holiday, and then there are divers, people – like me – who are more comfortable under the water than on the surface of the land, who will travel to the ends of the Earth in search of new experiences, and for whom a little inconvenience is part and parcel of the adventure. Divers will love St Helena.
The operators are nothing less than professional, experienced instructors but there are only two of them. And, there is currently no physical dive centre on the island. Operating from their trucks, both Anthony Thomas of Sub-Tropic Adventures and Craig Yon of Into the Blue are well equipped and extremely competent PADI instructors, but they are embarking on an adventure into the relative unknown as dive tourism starts to come to the island.
Trevor Botting, chief of police on the island for almost four years until he finished his tenure in May 2017, and his wife Sarah, a Customs and Excise officer, both learned to dive on St Helena. Trevor summed it up quite succinctly: ‘The dive operators will need to make a transition between, effectively, diving with friends to diving with an influx of tourists.’ Sarah added that the operators ‘were already doing a fantastic job of promoting responsible tourism on the island, but it will require that the transition is carefully managed.’
Progress is somewhat hampered by the current lack of flights to the island. Although the airport was scheduled to open in 2016, problems with wind shear have meant that the larger aircraft that were supposed to fly to the island have been prevented from doing so. A tender process is currently underway to operators of smaller aircraft, which are not as greatly affected.
[Note: This article was first published in June 2017, before the successful tender process and subsequent commencement of commercial air services to St Helena began. See below for further details]
Travel to the island is currently only possible with a five-day voyage from Cape Town aboard the RMS St Helena, one of only two remaining working Royal Mail Ships. This means that a week-long vacation on the island involves two weeks’ of travelling, including flights and an overnight stop in Cape Town. Extending the time on the island means waiting for the RMS St Helena to complete her three-week round trip between Cape Town, St Helena and Ascension, and therefore staying on the island for an entire month.
If you have the time and money, the journey on the 128-passenger RMS St Helena is more than worth it – a quintessentially British experience, intimate, hugely entertaining, and a world away from the floating palaces that modern cruise ships have become. The ship is in effect part of the island, and a wonderful introduction to its quirky hospitality.
As soon as the flights start, it is hoped before the end of this year, that will all change. A journey from Europe to St Helena will become no more lengthy than visiting somewhere such as Bali.
There is plenty to do outside of the diving, with guided tours of the island’s historical buildings such as Longwood House (Napoleon’s ‘prison’), or High Knoll Fort and its panoramic views of the island. Everybody needs to visit Plantation House, home of the Governor and – perhaps more importantly – Jonathan, a giant tortoise thought to be more than 180 years old, possibly a contemporary of Napoleon’s, and therefore one of the oldest living land animals in the world.
Trekking through the forest to Diana’s Peak, at 818m the highest point of the island is fairly easy thanks to the work of the National Trust, and is one of the ‘post box’ walks (you get a stamp and can leave messages when you reach certain points) that have proved popular on the island, although some of them are definitely for more experienced hikers and climbers.
Off-road tours to the Deadwood Plain, home of the wirebird (also known as the St Helena plover, an endemic avian and one of the national emblems of St Helena), through the forests of the most inappropriately named Levelwood (it’s not level), or to the Millennium Forest, will give visitors the opportunity to see the brilliantly contrasting landscape of the island. A journey from one side of St Helena to the other will pass through an eerily lunar-like landscape of black volcanic rock, dense subtropical jungle, and grassy valleys reminiscent of North Wales, all within a few miles.
Both above and below the water St Helena is, quite frankly, one of the natural wonders of the world. There are other isolated islands on the planet, but more and more they are becoming overrun by tourism. St Helena is working carefully to ensure that what it currently has is not lost. ‘We don’t want an influx of tourists coming in and spoiling what they’ve come here for in the first place,’ said Graham Sim. And that’s exactly how it should be: responsible, well managed and environmentally friendly. I joked with him that if I returned in ten years and saw a bunch of big-name fast-food restaurants along the wharf, then I would immediately start rowing back home.
By the time I jumped in at Long Ledge for the last dive of my visit, the RMS St Helena had arrived in James Bay, ready to pick up passengers for the return voyage, and her presence was much less welcome than the day she brought me to the island. I didn't want to leave. But the sea was calm, and I had been told to expect the crystal clarity of what I had been assured were ‘normal’ conditions.
My dive that day was glorious. Swimming through small caves filled with beady-eyed squirrelfish, passing by an octopus doing nothing more than going about its own business and failing quite spectacularly to blend into the rock face as it observed our passage, then emerging into the most splendidly blue waters I have seen since I left the Red Sea, I was just happy to be there. There were no whale sharks on that last day, and the devil ray was busy elsewhere, but these are not the only reasons we go diving.
Just to be there, more than a thousand miles from the nearest city, free from the noise and haste of cluttered, over-populated dive sites, in an environment that – both above and below the water – is at the same time sedate of pace and yet so very vibrant, was reason in itself to dive there. It was, indeed, glorious.
St Helena left an indelible imprint on my memory, and my short stay on the island transcended diving and journalism and turned into a rather profound experience. Many of us who like to travel feel as though we are permanently searching for the perfect island.
I think I found mine.
DIVE's GUIDE TO ST HELENA
For more information on travel and why diving on this remote island should be on everybody's bucket list, take a look at our in-depth guide to diving St Helena
HOW TO GET THERE
Commercial flights to St Helena are available through South Africa's Airlink, from Cape Town and Johannesburg via Windhoek in Namibia, currently every week, departing on Saturdays.
Need to know
There is currently no hyperbaric chamber on St Helena, although there is a plan to bring one over, but medevac services are available back to Cape Town. The dive operators take all reasonable precautions to minimise the risk of DCS, but you should check with your insurance provider with regards to cover.
The two dive operators offer dive packages tailored to your stay, including transfer to your accommodation from the airport, daily diving with a packed lunch, and snorkelling trips to see the whale sharks when possible. A range of PADI courses is also available. Check with the operators for current prices and accommodation arrangements. Flights to and from St Helena are not included
Sub-Tropic Adventures (Anthony Thomas):
Into the Blue (Craig Yon):
There are four hotels on the island, including the recommended Blue Lantern and Mantis hotel in Jamestown. Guest house B&B accommodation is also available.
Other things to do
Dining: From inexpensive local street vendors to haute cuisine, there are plenty of places to eat. Recommendations from our visit include: Orange Tree Oriental Restaurant ■ Richard’s Travel Lodge ■ Bertrand’s Cottage ■ and the most delightful open-air hangout of Ann’s Place.
Tours: Operators who looked after us during our visit included Johnny Herne’s Enchanted Isle whale shark and marine life excursions ■ Millenium Forest and wirebird tours with the National Trust ■ Aaron Legg’s 4x4 Adventure Tours ■ and Basil and Kevin George’s land-and marine-based Magma Way Tours.