St Helena, or “The Saints” as they are locally known, is home to the only known seasonal aggregation of adult male and female whale sharks, from January to March. Previously isolated in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with no air links, an international airport opened in October 2018, with flights once a week from South Africa. One of the remotest inhabited islands on the world should soon become a hot spot for adventurous divers looking to see the biggest whale sharks in the world at a fraction of the cost of the Galapagos. According to Indigo Safaris, this is why….
What looks like a microscopic, insignificant dot on a map, is in fact 122 km-squared of fascinating history, endemic birds and fish, and the only place in the world where male and female adult whale sharks are seen in equal numbers during an annual aggregation between January and March. Coupled with regular sightings of pregnant-looking females, this has led to recent speculation that the island may be the specie’s hitherto unfound breeding ground. Other than the Galapagos, it is the only place where you can frequently encounter adult whale sharks on scuba.
In one week in February 2018, we saw a dozen on Scuba and more snorkelling. The biggest we saw a 14-metre mamma-to-be. Multiple encounters on a dive are not uncommon, and on snorkel trips seeing a dozen or more happens regularly in peak season.
The limestone cliffs on the leeward side of the island host some beautiful caverns, also packed with fish, many of which are endemic, and make for superb photo opportunities. Lava fingers running into the sea attract Chilean devil rays and pinnacle sites are home to schools of Rainbow runner and jacks.
Humpback whales cruise by in winter, and three species of dolphin (Bottlenose, Spotted pantropical, and Rough-toothed) are resident year-round. There are combined dolphin and bird-watching trips, where we get close to Black noddies, brown noddies, Red-billed tropicbirds, fairy and sooty terns, petrels, brown and masked boobies and the occasional Pomarine skua. Bird enthusiasts also get excited about the abundance of elsewhere-rare Java sparrows, and the island’s endemic St. Helena plover, known as the wirebird, and the island’s own moorhen.
St Helena’s scenery is spectacular. From the clear Atlantic waters past sheer cliffs and breath-taking rock formations, through arid red desert dotted with cacti, rolling green fields and flax-covered hillsides to a pinnacle of prehistoric cloud forest.
Probably best known as Napoleon’s last place of incarceration, albeit it in the luxuriously appointed Longwood House, and death, the island has a rich history as a key revitalling station in the middle of Atlantic. In the heyday of the East India Company and the British Empire, this fertile, volcanic island had a 3,000-strong garrison to defend it and serviced over 1000 ships a year. The island has two large forts, a castle, and a plethora of batteries and defensive positions to visit.
For the energetic, there are 22 “post box walks’ to the prominent viewpoints. At the summit of each, there is a stamp to prove you made the hike. There are also a dozen short walks that take around an hour each, from different points around the island. If that sounds too strenuous, we organise guided 4×4 tours around the island too. If all that isn’t enough, there is a quirky nine-hole golf course
Jamestown has a decent selection of restaurants and takeaways, and a couple of idiosyncratic, small bars, as well as the old Consulate to relax after a busy day. Jamestown is home to the castle, a very informative museum, the Castle Gardens full of chattering and singing Indian Myna birds, and “Jacob’s Ladder”; 699 steps rising 212 metres up to the Ladder Fort and Annie’s Restaurant.
Our favourite dive sites
To the northeast of Jamestown, this is an underwater hill straight off the coast by the ridge known as The Barn. The sea can be a little choppy out here, but this is one of the sites that attracts adult whale sharks in season. The nutrients coming up from the deep feed attract these ocean giants who like to ram feed here. Over 30 whale sharks have been documented here at one time. The site is also home to large schools of the endemic “cunningfish”, a.k.a the St Helena butterflyfish, cavallies and jacks. The top of the cap is less than 10 metres deep, the bottom is beyond recreational dive depths.
To the northwest of Jamestown, Torm Ledge is a long narrow ledge running from the shallows out to sea, the bottom quickly descends to 40m, whilst the top is around 8 metres deep. It is covered in clouds of St Helena butterflyfish, an improbable number of trumpetfish, cavelly, jacks, endemic parrotfish, and sergeant-majors. It is a popular spot for whale sharks to feed, and Chilean devil rays are often spotted here.
Long Ledge is a reef that stretches approximately 75 metres out to a maximum depth of 23 metres. The dive begins at 12 metres where you enter in through several archways that create a shelter for marine life of all species that are found around St Helena. This site is excellent for photography in the caverns are shafts of light play on the rocks and fish filling the caverns. As you swim along the reef, you become a part of the fish that surrounds you, and with a bit of luck, a devil ray or two will cruise by.
The Papanui was a coal-carrying steam vessel that visited St Helena for water and other food supplies. On its journey to India it caught fire and ran aground in James Bay in order to save all on board. 1911 was the year that the Papanui became a monument in James Bay, lying in approximately 13 metres of water, the tiller protrudes the surface occasionally as the tides moves in and out and marks one of the most popular dives sites around St Helena for both the novice and the experienced diver. Over the years the Papanui has attracted an abundance of marine life from Lobster, endemics, and many other species of fish that greets you as you explore their habitat.
The artificial reef consist of old car structures and frame works that local owners has no further use for and has kindly gave their property to be a part of the artificial reef. The artificial reef is situated just to the west of James Bay. It’s has a maximum depth of 30 metres and has attracted all species of marine life that can be seen around the Island, including the Islands endemics namely Greenfish, Rockfish and many others. Chilean devil rays are also frequent visitors, however they are not seen on every dive.
The Bedgellat was brought to the Island as a salvage ship and was sunk to the bottom in 1999; it sits on the bottom upright as if it was floating on the surface. The depth of the Bedgellat is approximately 16 metres and has become a new habitat to various species of fish. As you have a gentle swim towards the in land you approach a beautiful reef that is inhabited by many fish and other marine life and it creates a spectacle to remember.
Cavalley Point is a spectacular dive that involves swimming through archways that take you down and up to various levels as you swim through them. Its maximum depth is 18 meters where Bullseye can be seen in huge numbers, Crayfish, Cunningfish, Soldiers and Cavalley. The Cavalley are seen swimming around the entrance of the archways in great numbers.
RFA Darkdale Wreck
This Royal Fleet Auxuilary fuel tanker was torpedoed in 1941 by a German submarine on a cool dark night. The Darkdale has attracted an abundance of marine life, namely Bullseye, grouper, Cavalley, as well as several endemics to St Helena such as the. Green Fish, Cunningfish, and Rockfish. Another highlight is the descent and ascent where on many occasions tuna and barracuda are encountered and the gentle giant the whale shark in season. An early morning dive would be the best time to visit the Darkdale.
The Frontier was a fishing vessel that came to the Island 1997 and was held in port for possession of illegal drugs. As several years passed the ship deteriorated on the surface and was sunk in 1999. 22m metres to the top of the ship as she lies on her starboard side and 28 meters to the bottom, it has now become a popular wreck dive for the advanced diver.
Where to Stay
The 4-star Mantis Hotel is a combination of restored historic buildings dating from 1774 and a new contemporary building situated in the heart of Jamestown, a few minutes’ walk from the sea front, swimming pool, museum, Jacob’s Ladder, public library, archives, shops, and bars. The buildings originally served as an officer’s barracks for the East India Company, who administered the island at the time. They served as military accommodation up until the last garrison left the island in the 1900’s. The original buildings were constructed from stone, bonded together with mud and mortar, pointed and rendered with lime which also formed the whitewash, with teak and iroko joinery and flooring. This 30-room boutique hotel has a large restaurant, the best on the island, bar and guest lounge and two outdoor terraces. All rooms have air-conditioning. Contemporary rooms start at $140 pp per night with breakfast based on 2 sharing, Heritage Rooms $150 pppn and Heritage Suites $160 pppn with breakfast based on 2 sharing.
HALF-TREE HOLLOW BUNGALOWS
Five two-bedroom units with a splendid sea and sunset view, built in 2014, located above Jamestown with a magnificent view of the coast and the ocean. Each cottage has a small lounge, kitchen and a bathroom. Each bedroom has one double bed. There is a small supermarket in Half-tree Hollow and other food shops in Jamestown. Fresh fish can be purchased in Jamestown, a five-minute drive away. We provide a rental vehicle (Ford Fiesta or similar too). From $100 per night per bungalow with vehicle. There is also a three-bedroom unit for $115 per night.
The furniture in the bungalows was made locally by the owner himself. Some have kitchen units made from local timber, or some will have at least some piece of furniture made from local timber and deck chairs on the deck allow you to watch the sun go down and treat yourself to your own sundowner drinks.
THE CONSULATE HOTEL
The Consulate Hotel is almost like a museum, with numerous reading rooms and lounges and the dining and breakfast rooms full of period pieces brought across the Atlantic from Africa. The bedrooms are cooled by moveable fans and natural ventilation. On the weekends, the street-facing rooms can be a bit noisy as two pubs are close by. Double and Twin rooms are $910 per week per person sharing, with breakfasts.
There are two dive operators on the island. Having been out to the islands, we chose to use Subtropic Adventures, who have been diving the islands since 2000. Owner-operator Anthony is a local with unsurpassed knowledge and experience, and his ex-pat Divemaster Paul is an experienced diver leader with many hundreds of local dives logged.
Dive boats and equipment
Diving is conducted from RIBs (Zodiacs), that can take up to 12 clients. Cylinders are steel 12-litres, with valves that can take either DIN or A-clamp regulators. The boats have an oxygen and first-aid kit in boards. Rental equipment is mainly Scubapro, wetsuits are 5mm.
Dives cost $45 per dive, with cylinder, weights and weight belt.
Diving and adventure travel specialists Indigo Safaris have set up two escorted weeks in both 2019 and 2020. One week each year is in the self-catering bungalows at Half-Tree Hollow and other at the Mantis Hotel.
You can find the dates and rates by clicking here.