St HELENA 2020
From the end of February to the middle of March, I spent three weeks on St Helena escorting three groups of divers and snorkellers to one of the remotest permanently inhabited islands in the world. Although my third visit, and my longest, in three years, the island continues to enchant with its mix of history, stunning and varied landscapes, endemic and iconic fish life, and friendly village atmosphere.
The first group contained a number of fish specialists, super keen to add to their list of unusual sightings. They weren't disappointed. After the first two dives Alain Diringer, author of several fish ID bThe first group contained a number of fish specialists, super keen to add to their list of unusual sightings. They weren't disappointed. After the first two dives Alain Diringer, author of several fish ID books, said "well that's about half of them in two dives!". St Helena is home to 50 identified indigenous species of marine life, with more in the process of being classified. Some of the more common endemics are visible on most dive sites, and the St Helena Butterflyfish, a.k.a. the Cunningfish (for its ability to nibble bait off a hook without taking the hook), is on every dive, in hundreds of thousands. On most sites there is a spot with vast clouds of them, mesmerising divers. It feels like floating in snowflakes as the fish wibble and wobble individually but swaying as a group. Their abundance at this time of year is due to their reproductive cycle; they spawn around the end of December to mid-January.
As well as hypnotising divers, they provide sustenance for many species. In the gallery there is shot of a grouper who has caught one the wrong way round (tail first), scorpionfish sit on the sand, sometimes next to each other, waiting for lunch to swim in front of their grumpy-looking mouth, trumpetfish are present in numbers I have never witnessed elsewhere, small schools of large Almaco jacks prey on them regularly, and soon after the spawning season, Chilean Devil Rays swim through the clouds of eggs and tiny juveniles, mouth open.
The Chilean devil rays here are impressive, the size of a small manta ray, the males reaching up to 3.7 metres disc-width. They were prone to turning up on the wrecks and off the tips of ledges all along the leeward coastline. Each week we had half-a-dozen encounters, occasionally with two individuals trying to mate, as it is the mating season for everyone here.
The stars of the show, the adult Whale sharks, come here to mate, and, according the world’s leading whale shark specialists from the Marine Megafauna Foundation and Georgia Aquarium, this is the only spot in the world where we think this happens. It must happen elsewhere too, but they have no idea where. Despite being the biggest fish in the oceans, we know very little about it, and St Helena has become one of the key areas for research. What we do know is that their arrival here coincides with the annual Skipjack tuna and Pompano spawnings, the results of which the Whale sharks love to gobble down. We also green turtles mating on the surface several times.
On each of our twice weekly Whale shark snorkels (and each of the four snorkels the non-divers did), we got to spend an hour swimming alongside these 9-metre-plus docile giants. Twice we found them in James Bay, by the yacht moorings, and they also put in an appearance on a few of the dives.
The snorkellers were treated to large schools of pantropical spotted dolphins, Bottlenose dolphins, and Rough-toothed dolphins, mating green turtles, and more Chilean devil rays. Ona trip to Egg Island they also encountered Madeiran storm petrels, Red-billed tropic birds, Brown and Masked boobies, Brown and Black noddies, and Sooty and Fairy terns.
St Helena also has its own endemic bird; the St Helena Plover, a.k.a. the Wirebird. We found it up on the open ground just past Longwood, Napoleon’s last residence, on the open plain that once held 6000 Boer War prisoners of war between 1900 and 1902. Our one day 4x4 island tour also took in the varied landscapes of the island, the Governor’s residence of Plantation House and the oldest living terrestrial mammal on the planet, Jonathan the tortoise (189 candles on his last cake), the now-defunct flax mills, the myserious Bell Stone, and numerous fortifications including Sandy Bay and the massive High Knoll Fort.
Overlooking Jamestown, the view from the top of the 699 steps of Jacob’s Ladder leading to the Ladder Fort on the west side of town, and Munden’s Battery to the east, were favourite short walks each week. For two groups, I also arranged private visits of Longwood House and Plantation House on spare afternoons, and others walked up to the highest point of the island, Diana’s Peak (822 metres ASL).
Dinners at the Mantis Hotel were as popular as ever, and I got the chef to concoct “Saintviche”, a local derivative of the South American fish dish, Ceviche. Getting coriander is almost impossible, there is little local agriculture, despite the island’s temperate climate with good rainfall, as the steep terrain makes mechanised farming impossible. Lime is also not commonly imported, so we used lemon, grapefruit, mint, parsley and some just-caught tuna. The result was universally popular, and hopefully it will be added to the menu on the next update. Fresh fish is abundant, yellowfin and skipjack tuna and wahoo are the most common, and we also sampled Soldierfish, Bullseyes, and Grouper at Annie’s. I also bought some fresh spiny and slipper lobsters from our excellent skipper, Duffy, and had them grilled at Annie’s. All in, the lobster dinner cost us £11 for two half lobsters, salads, and chips.
Next year’s trips are filling up already, so if you want to join, don’t dally. We have a budget week in self-catering accommodation five minutes from town, and a week in the Mantis Hotel in the heart of Jamestown, that can be found here. We also create bespoke itineraries tailored to your requirements any time of year.
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Photographer, conservationist, dive and field guide, teller of bad jokes.