BIG ANIMAL DIVER
Bony Would Have
Yes, had Napoleon Bonaparte been into diving, he would soon have realised that St Helena is not the worst place in the world to end your days in exile. SCOTT BENNETT was impressed
Isn’t there a volcano there?” queried a friend when I announced my impending trip to St Helena. Baffled, it took a moment to realise that he was thinking of Mt St Helens.
“No, the place where Napoleon was exiled,” I replied. Then, a glimmer of recognition, although I doubted whether he knew exactly where it was.
Sitting in the South Atlantic 1200 miles west of Southern Africa and 1800 miles east of South America, St Helena isn’t exactly on the mainstream tourist radar.
Only 10 miles long and six miles wide, the island was first discovered by the Portuguese in the 15th century but remained uninhabited until the British East India Company arrived in 1659.
It remains Britain’s second-oldest territory, after Bermuda.
For centuries, the only way there was by boat. In recent years, the RMS St Helena made the five-day journey from Cape Town every three weeks, and was the island’s sole connection to the outside world.
That all changed in November 2017, with the opening of the airport. Although finished in 2016, problems arose due to excessive wind shear. It was another year before the first commercial flight landed, and now the island is only six hours’ flight away from Johannesburg.
Despite this, St Helena remains appealingly off the beaten track. I had come on a tour with five other divers to find out what it was like.
However, the flight filled me with trepidation. I had read an article claiming that the landing at St Helena was the most terrifying the author had experienced.
Fortunately, conditions were perfect, and our landing had nary a bump. The bus-ride between the terminal and the plane at Johannesburg airport had been more nerve-wracking!
The island way of doing things quickly became apparent. We were the only flight for the next three days, with only 76 passengers, yet it took a full hour to clear immigration and retrieve our baggage.
At the carousel, a stern-looking woman approached with questions, specifically whether I was bringing in food. “I have a chocolate bar; is that OK?” I queried.
“That depends on whether I’m hungry,” she responded before breaking into a wide grin. “Welcome to St Helena!”
Appeared in DIVER July 2019
Luggage retrieved, we found our transport waiting, along with Matt Joshua, manager of the Mantis Hotel, and Anthony Thomas, owner of dive-centre Sub-Tropic Adventures.
The Mantis occupies an 18th-century row of former officers’ quarters. It’s the poshest place in town and also has free wi-fi, a welcome commodity there.
With a free afternoon, I explored. Wedged between sheer cliffs, Jamestown is steeped in history, with more than 100 listed buildings. Main Street is renowned for its pristine Georgian architecture, with many buildings constructed from the local volcanic rock.
Boasting an impressive façade, the century-old Consulate Hotel features a life-sized figure of Napoleon on the upper terrace. Dating from 1772, St James’ Church is the oldest Anglican church in the Southern Hemisphere.
However, Jamestown’s most iconic structure, built in 1829, is Jacob’s Ladder, a 699-step staircase linking Jamestown with Ladder Hill Fort.
No photos do justice to its sheer scale. Merely looking up the ascent was enough to induce vertigo. Maybe later.
The inhabitants call themselves Saints. They speak English but with curious usages that take some getting get used to. A friend referred to it as a cross between Cornwall and Australia, but I could detect Kiwi and Irish inflections. They tone it down for the tourists, but once the locals start conversing, a translator is required!
Past the old Customs House I found Sub-Tropic Adventures and, beyond that, the Steps, the embarkation spot for the next day’s diving. Swathes of netting encased the cliffs above to prevent rockfalls. Painted on the bare rock were the words “Welcome RMS St Helena”, with the newer “Farewell RMS St Helena 2017” alongside.
Everyone was gathered at 9am to assemble their gear. Two groups were going in two RIBs, downright chaotic by St Helena standards! Getting aboard proved tricky, stepping down onto the RIB as it pitched in the relentless surf.
Fortunately, numerous helping hands ensured that divers and gear boarded safely. With Anthony’s dad Larry at the helm, we set out for Lighter Rock, 20 minutes’ away east of James Bay.
Plunging into the water revealed dramatic seascapes echoing the craggy terrain above, with huge boulders and sheer rock-faces honeycombed with caves, archways and overhangs.
Visibility was exceptional, at times approaching nearly 50m, doubtless due to the lack of run-off sediment. Water temperature was a comfortable 25°C, my 5mm suit providing ample warmth.
Reef-building corals were absent but an abundance of tunicates, algae and sponges shrouded the rock-faces.
Endemic orange cup corals added a splash of colour, along with harpoon weed (a red algae), tiny anemones and various species of hydroid.
What astonished was the volume of fish life. Isolated islands such as St Helena are magnets for undersea life. The Benguela Current meets the cool waters of the South Atlantic Gyre there, resulting in a fusion of western and eastern Atlantic and circumtropical species. The island’s isolation has resulted in a variety of endemic species.
Astonishingly prolific were St Helena butterflyfish, in shoals that could engulf divers. Reviewing my photos later, what appeared to be strobe backscatter was actually near-infinite numbers of fish!
Fluffy bearded fireworms scuttled across rock-faces while large spotted scorpionfish were imperceptible, as I discovered when I nearly put my hand on one! Squirrelfish and blackbar soldierfish mingled under ledges and overhangs, as spotted morays peered, mouths agape.
What appeared to be two species of parrotfish was actually one. The strigate parrotfish goes through two colour phases; the smaller yellow versions are believed to be females and the larger dull purple-grey individuals males.
More elusive were hedgehog butterfly fish, distinctively patterned with a chocolate-brown head and lower half, and white above. Green and hawksbill turtles are both present, though there have been no records of successful nesting on the island.
A short boat-ride away is the Bedgellet, one of eight diveable wrecks. Brought from the UK to salvage another wreck, the Papa Nui, it broke loose from its moorings during a storm, damaging itself as well as other boats. In 2001 the government sank it as an artificial reef near Long Ledge on the south coast.
Resting upright at 18m, the vessel is another magnet for fish life. Schools of butterflyfish swarmed upper decks encrusted with growth.
Below, glasseye snappers and island hogfish flashed crimson as they flitted between the numerous openings. During the safety stop, sergeant-majors and ocean surgeonfish foraged together among the rocks in a billowing mass. It was hard to believe we were the only divers there!
The rest of the week was spent exploring sites mostly along the island’s north-west coast. Conditions roughened, so we missed out on some shallower sites and wrecks, but there was still plenty to discover. Striking was Long Ledge, a steep series of natural formations like the steps of a colossal undersea temple.
Another favourite was the Frontier Wreck, a trawler used for cannabis smuggling before being confiscated by the government. Sunk as an artificial reef in 1994, it rests in 27m, partly toppled on its side, with the corroding frame resembling the ribs of a long-dead whale.
Along with the butterflyfish, St Helena white seabream swarmed in abundance along with St Helena sharpnose puffers, island cowfish and St Helena wrasse. I was too engrossed in the big picture to look for the nudibranchs and lobsters.
Another day, we dived a pair of west-coast sites near the airport. Sugar Loaf and Barn Cap had visibility in excess of 40m. The almaco jack were especially curious, often approaching divers, while large ocean triggerfish proved more wary.
Smaller cousins of the manta, Chilean devil rays, cruised the open water and we saw seven over the two dives. Other sites such as Egg Rock, Billy Mayes Revenge and Torm Ledge all revealed amazing fish life and superb visibility.
I took an afternoon off for a short tour to High Knoll Fort, biggest of the island’s military installations. From its 584m heights, the island views were spectacular.
Far below nestled Plantation House, dating from 1792 and home to the island’s most famous resident, Jonathan. At 188 years old, this tortoise is believed to be the planet’s oldest living land creature, and still pretty spry to boot!
But the trip was planned to coincide with the arrival of some very big visitors. Between November to March, whale sharks congregate around the island in numbers. They can be observed while diving, but excursions are intended for snorkellers, with encounters with individuals limited to 45 minutes.
Participants must remain 3m from the sharks, with no touching allowed. If only the sharks were aware of the rules!
Setting out from James Bay, it didn’t take long for Anthony to find one.
I plunged in with this 8m individual some 15m away at the surface.
It made an abrupt turn and headed in my direction, and my first sighting of a whale shark front-on was spellbinding.
Photographing happily, I was unaware of just how close it was. Looking up, I was alarmed to see it to be an arm’s length away and manoeuvred frantically to avoid it. “It wasn’t my fault; I wasn’t even moving,” I protested to Anthony, who had been watching the episode from the boat. “Don’t worry about it,” he chuckled.
We spent the next 40 minutes with the remarkably tolerant shark. During encounters in other countries they would vanish when I entered the water, but not in St Helena. When they did swim away pursuit wasn’t necessary, because they inevitably returned for another look.
They aren’t harassed by fleets of boats, so I suspect that snorkellers are a curiosity rather than an annoyance.
We did it again two days later, when a massive 10m individual proved even more curious. I got out of its way well in advance, and it was hands-down the best encounter I have experienced.
On our last day we took an island tour with Aaron Legg of Aaron’s Adventure Tours. Despite its compact size, the island boasts an extraordinary range of topography, from grassy plains and semi-desert to lush forest-clad peaks. Four-wheel drive proved essential over the bone-rattling roads.
Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to St Helena by the British in 1815, and died there six years later. Our first stop was Napoleon’s Tomb, in a beautiful setting in the Sane Valley. All that was missing was Napoleon, as his body had been exhumed and sent back to Paris in 1840.
We moved on to his residence at Longwood House to hear about the conspiracy theories surrounding his death. The official cause was stomach cancer, but many claim the British poisoned him. Our guide believed he succumbed to long-term exposure to toxins in the wallpaper.
A detour to the coast revealed dramatic cliffs with spectacular views of Turk’s Cap and the Barn, formations seen on our diving excursions.
We also spotted some wirebirds, the island’s national bird and sole indigenous bird species.
At the island’s south end, forests of eucalyptus dominate the landscape, interspersed with extensive stands of flax, banana and coffee plantations.
Higher still, tree ferns shroud Diana’s Peak, the highest point at 818m. Dramatic formations include twin pillars of rock called Lot and Lot’s Wife, while Sandy Bay revealed a black-sand beach, testament to the island’s volcanic origins. Even after seven hours we hadn’t seen everything.
Travelling to St Helena presents a few challenges. From the UK, it takes 17 hours of flying plus an overnight stop in Jo’burg. SA Airlink runs two flights a week. Baggage is limited to 20kg, but fortunately an extra 15kg is allowed for diving equipment. Inform Airlink on booking and it adds it to your ticket.
It’s best to arrange a package with an experienced tour company that knows the island and how it works. I used African & Oriental Travel Company, which brought in the very first dive-group by air.
It’s crucial to book a package with diving included. Island culture has its own pace and priorities, which can be at odds with modern tourist sensibilities, so showing up and trying to arrange diving could result in disappointment.
There are only two dive operators, and trips aren’t guaranteed daily.
Also ensure that your international ticket can be changed, in case the Airlink flight to Jo’burg is cancelled. And bring a copy of your medical insurance policy, as immigration officials will ask for it.
St Helena is a remarkable destination, like a 1970s time warp or a parallel universe. In our madcap era of hyper-connectivity, it offers a wonderful breath of fresh air. With so many dive locations worldwide being loved to death, this is one journey worth taking.
GETTING THERE> Many airlines fly into Johannesburg. SA Airlink flies to St Helena twice-weekly, on Saturdays and Tuesdays.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION> Sub-Tropic Adventures, stadventures.com. Mantis St Helena, mantissthelena.com
WHEN TO GO> Year-round, but the calmest seas and best vis is from November to early March.
HEALTH> Visitors must provide a copy of medical insurance on arrival. Nearest hyperbaric chambers are in South Africa.
MONEY> St Helena pound is on par with sterling, which is accepted everywhere. No ATMs and credit cards are not widely used.
PRICES> African & Oriental Travel Company can arrange seven-night packages staying B&B at the Mantis, 10 dives and three whale-shark snorkels with Sub-Tropic, all flights and transfers, a night in Jo’burg and a day’s island tour from £2626pp (two sharing), orientafricatravel.com
VISITOR Information> sthelenatourism.com