Diving and discovering the hidden shores of St Helena.
Matt Joshua, GM of Mantis St Helena, chats to St Helenian PADI instructor Anthony Thomas of Sub Tropic Adventures, Raf Jah of The Africa and Oriental Travel Company and Christopher Bartlett of Indigo Safaris.
St Helenian Anthony Thomas heads up a passionate and friendly team with a wealth of local knowledge and experience offering a range of PADI diving courses, tailor-made dive excursions, and tours. Click here for more
Anthony, how long have you been diving?
I spent most of my spare time as a youngster in or on the ocean and developed a passion for it. I began my diving career at the age of 14 years, via a local certification at the time, and then completed my international certification at the age of 16 years, from which my dream of becoming a diving instructor began. In early 2000 I travelled to Cape Town to attend an Instructor Development Course and completed my PADI Open Water Instructor Course. I returned to St Helena and started my company Sub-Tropic Adventures.
You must know St Helena’s waters like the back of your hand. What are your top five dive sites?
If I were to showcase St Helena’s waters to anyone contemplating diving on St Helena, I would include the following:
Barn Ledge sea mount is east of James Bay and rises from about 55m to 12m. Here you see an abundance of marine life surrounding the mount including large Almaco Jacks, Black Jacks, Rainbow Runners, Yellow Fin Tuna, Wahoo, Devil Rays and Whale Sharks.
A very popular dive and an excellent introductory dive is Long Ledge which offers a spectacular cave environment at 10m and an array of marine life. The ledge itself runs out away from the coast for approximately 100m to a depth of 18m and presents a wall dive with amazing natural features. Frequent encounters with Devil Rays and Green Turtles occur during our peak diving season between the months of January and June each year.
There are many wrecks around the island, including The Frontier, a fishing vessel that was seized by St Helena Harbour Control as it was found to be carrying illegal drugs on board. The vessel was scuttled in 1999 and lies at a depth of 24m attracting an abundance of marine life, and some species which are rarely seen around St Helena.
Torm Ledge is another seamount, this time to the West of James Bay, that rises from 45m to 10m and again has a tremendous amount of marine life, including Devil Rays and Whale Sharks, along with the beautiful endemic Flame Back Angel Fish.
Speery Island is a small Island that lies about 500m off St Helena’s coast, with an average depth of 14m. Due to its location on the windward side of the Island, rich nutrients continuously pass through the small passage of a shallow reef which creates a colourful habitat of sponges and soft corals, also the endemic Nudibranchs Tamaja and Bornella can be seen here with a huge variety of marine species.
Your name has become synonymous with all things marine on St Helena, and eighteen years on it’s clear your passion for diving is as strong as ever.
Having logged almost 5000 dives and dived the length and breadth of St Helena’s coastline, my aim is to provide a safe and enjoyable experience to all who wish to embark on St Helena’s marine adventures. It is truly rewarding to see how others react when they experience the incredible marine life that I see and interact with regularly.
Raf Jah is Director of The African and Oriental Travel Company. Raf visited St Helena earlier this year trying to cram in as many dives as possible during a week’s stay. Raf leads a St Helena dive tour each year – the next one coming up in February 2019. For more info click here or email email@example.com.
How was your week on St Helena and how would you rate the diving?
There are so many reasons to visit St Helena, but without a doubt, the greatest allure has to be the underwater world. When you imagine a subtropical volcanic island rising 800 metres out of the South Atlantic Ocean, you would be spot on to think it would be swirling with fish. St Helena catches the currents and is rich in its underwater pelagic life. As a subtropical island, the reefs are made of a rock base, but they are packed with life. Nudibranches, colourful reef fish and pelagics swarm all over the rocky outcrops. There are wrecks at all depths from 5-45 meters, and there are many walls and “fingers of rock” that attract schools of large Amber Jacks and tuna which are all visible in gin-clear 40m visibility.
While it may not be on the maps of the big companies, nor on the spice routes of the more exotic dive destinations, St Helena is a world class dive destination. This small British Outpost is a haven of friendliness, barren beauty, lush forests and marine biodiversity. The time to dive St Helena is now.
What were the highlights of your visit?
To crown the entire experience, St Helena is also home to schooling Whale Sharks for up to five months of the year. The whale sharks are both male and female and this is extremely interesting to scientists. The fact that they cruise by a dive and hang around divers in a docile manner is much more interesting to scuba divers. St Helena is so different to other dive sites, in that the Whale Sharks come and investigate the dives, and then lazily hang around the dive site, circling the dive boat.
No St Helena dive trip would be complete without mentioning the Devil Rays that are found in the harbour just in front of Jamestown and on some of the other dive sites. It is not unknown for a Ray or two to play with scuba divers, cruising over their bubbles and circling back again to say hello. The Devil Rays of St Helena are friendly and graceful.
Christopher Bartlett is Director of Indigo Safaris. He also visited the island for a week earlier this year, timed perfectly for the peak aggregation of Whale Sharks between January and March. Christopher leads dive tours to St Helena in February 2019 and 2020, see Indigo Safari’s escorted tour options here
St Helena is the only place in the world where male and female adult whale sharks are seen in equal numbers. Coupled with regular sightings of pregnant females, this has led to recent speculation that the island may be the species’ hitherto unfound breeding ground. Other than the Galapagos, it is the only place to our knowledge where you can frequently encounter adult whale sharks on a scuba dive. The biggest we have seen so far was a 13-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.
One of the big bonuses of diving on St Helena is that the huge range of habitats and locations are all within a short boat ride from Jamestown’s harbour, some directly accessible from the jetty, just a few minutes’ walk from Mantis St Helena.
Right in James Bay, there’s the wreck of the 100-metre-long SS Papanui, which sunk after she caught fire in 1911 on her way to Peru, and is excellent for diving and snorkelling. Slightly further out, the 142-metre long RFA Darkdale, 47 metres deep, lost to a U-boat in 1941, is great for technical diving.
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.
While Whale Sharks and wrecks are undoubtedly a big drawcard for visiting divers, there are other perennial and seasonal attractions.
Humpback whales cruise by in winter, and three species of dolphin (Bottlenose, Spotted Pantropical, and Rough-toothed) are resident year-round in huge numbers. Indigo Safaris organises 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.