Five Months On

I sit, five months on from our arrival on St Helena and I still have to pinch myself that we are here. We have just enjoyed a family dinner, Tuna steak and fresh salad, on the veranda as we watch the sun go down over the great expanse of ocean before us. The sky becomes a beautiful gradient of colour from deep orange to purple and through to dark blue, a solitary star we know to be Venus shines down on us. It happens less often nowadays, but I still have regular moments of disbelief. For such a long time, both Bev and I had an itch, a need or longing to do something else, live somewhere different and experience new things. After applying for jobs in the US, and looking at options elsewhere in this world, it is here, on this tiny remote Island that we have found our adventure.

Returning inside, Oliver sits with Mum at the table completing the homework that is due in tomorrow, finishing at the last minute just like his Dad used to do! Charlie, wanting to be involved is sat with them, colouring. I look over and have another moment of disbelief, not only am I living in St Helena, but I’m a Dad, how on earth did that happen? I know the technicalities, but I never thought I would be, and yes Oliver is six, I’m not saying I have only just realised I have children, believe me they let me know minute by minute and have done since they arrived. But, like my moment of how did we arrive on St Helena, I still have the occasional, how did I arrive here in life, a Dad, with two boys whom I’m responsible for. I feel no different in myself to when I was at university and yet I have these two little people, complete and individual in every way, lives in my hands to guide and direct. I hope I do and can do them justice.

Moving on from the un-pleasantries of my last blog life continues as per normal on St Helena. When I say as per normal, life on St Helena is never normal. It of course involves passing your open water diving qualification, snorkelling in the bay and at Lemon Valley, photographing the brightest starriest sky I have thus far ever witnessed,  birthday parties,hunting for treasure, Sundowners at Donny’s and delivering my first photography course with customers including the acting Governor of the Island. All normal life on this tiny spec in the middle of the Ocean.Milky Way from High Knoll Fort St Helena

 

Bev has of course returned to teaching with the new school term in full flow. This new term however has at last seen Bev start her Marine Biology work. Not quite delivering, but planning and preparing, speaking to local fishermen and boat operators and planning for an adult learning taster session. Although her work load is still as high as ever, at least now Bev can start the job she was brought here to do thanks to the arrival of a new Chemistry teacher to further strengthen the science department.

Charlie has turned four, four years old! Like many things I can hardly believe it. His birthday, landing on a school day was a quiet affair, opening some presents before school was unavoidable as he headed off with number four badge on his shirt I think looking forward to his day in school awaiting the customary attention and singing from teachers and class mate. Saturday saw his main party. After much deliberation we, (we as in Bev, Charlie and I) decided that the best place for his first Island party would be at Belinda’s (his child minder) which gives me great opportunity to showcase the best child-minder venues in the World. Stunning views and fantastic play for little ones with outdoor space, toys, games and fun galore.  In normal style the party went play, eat, party games, eat, play, eat then home! One of the highlights of the afternoon was the cake, a magnificent Pirate cake fit for any young rapscallion and beautifully crafted by our talented friend Julie David (thank you Julie), the cake not only looked amazing but tasted brilliant as the ring of chocolate around my mouth as I type is testament!

The Friday evening prior had seen the real start of Charlie’s birthday, our normal evening at Donny’s was interrupted by screaming children and Charlie delightfully informing us that he had found a treasure map! Carefully planted by good friends Lucy and Andy and their boys, Charlie had found a treasure map inside a bottle that had “washed up” on the rocks at the wharf. With a full weekend the treasure hunting itself would have to wait until Sunday afternoon when we enlisted the help of local guides, Toby and Lawrence, fourteen and eleven to guide us around Plantation wood following the map until we eventually stumbled across “X marks the spot” and a an arrow leading to a tree house.  Following the arrow we came across a fortress in the trees heavily guarded and protected by a series of traps and pitfalls. Spotting the potentially dangerous trip wire, Lawrence released one of the traps and to our complete astonishment and surprise a heavy bucket fell to the ground, the treasure had been found. The inflatable boat and oddly for the period an inflatable dinosaur had survived well for over a hundred years in that tree house, and I’m sure the museum will be keen to hear the story of how Charlie battled through thick forest and booby traps to find his treasure.  Thank you to the Days for giving Charlie a really wonderful adventure it was fantastic fun.

x marks the spot, Charlie and his treasure map.

x marks the spot, Charlie and his treasure map.

I continue to be extremely busy, despite my retirement. New projects for the National Trust have allowed me to feel more at home and involved, and I have started to deliver my photography courses, which, so far have been well received. I have on going works for the Tourist office and finally have business cards printed! Life is undoubtedly very full on St Helena, and when not working we are generally enjoying the outdoors. And so it was that, having now passed my Open Water Diving qualification that I went on my first dive without having to take off my mask, prove my neutral buoyancy, or tow a tired diver! It was in fact a very strange feeling, just being permitted to swim and enjoy the sites, not having a pre-determined set of instructions and to just, swim around at leisure. Strange, but wonderful, back on the Papanui and with freedom to explore.

With an outburst of joy and pride when breaking the surface Bev also passed her open water diving last week. At one stage, before setting foot in the water Bev was genuinely unsure as to whether she would indeed complete the course, but in true determined and stubborn style refused to be beaten by her anxiety and took each step as it came. I can’t wait now to share new experiences together and start to discover a new part of St Helena under the waves. It seemed even more fitting that Bev should pass her open water on her birthday and it was a fitting celebration of both her birthday and passing the course that with a large group of our new friends we enjoyed a meal at Tasty bites and a few celebratory drinks.

With the weather now pretty much consistently wonderful it seems the perfect time to have passed our open water diving. Where else in the world can you finish work at 4pm and be diving on a wreck by 5pm, and for less than £20. With the improved weather, water has become a very prominent place of leisure, with three or four trips to the swimming pool a week making our boys more and more competent in the water and another trip to Lemon valley providing more snorkelling and, on this occasion the chance for some fun in the waves as they crashed up on the beach to the delight of jumping children, and indeed adults alike.

And so another month has passed by, an ever present in the back of our minds is just how quick time is passing on St Helena. Our hectic and wonderfully full lives here have the consequence of ensuring days, weeks and months pass quickly by. With some new friends already having been and gone, and some very good friends shortly to leave too, one is always aware of the transient nature of our time here, we will continue to ensure we fill every second of it.

Angry and Saddened

I have been sat pondering the wisdom of my commenting tonight, I feel I should speak out given that I am angry and saddened by the portrayal of this lovely Island and its people, but on the other hand wonder if I should keep my council on what is after all a political issue, and one who’s history and complexity goes far beyond my experience on the Island. Given that I now have a large readership I feel though that I should try to right a few wrongs which I believe have been made.

Some of you will no doubt be thinking “what on earth is he talking about” and so I reluctantly refer you to the very recent article in the Daily Telegraph (both print and online) reporting on the sad story of child abuse on St Helena. I will not provide the link to said article as I don’t wish to be promoting its readership directly through my own blog, but I have no doubt it will be easy enough to find.

Before coming to the Island we have been made aware of a now infamous report on child abuse on St Helena and its systematic covering up by the government for a number of years. I do not wish to pass comment on this issue particularly, suffice to say that clearly terrible mistakes and choices were made, the depth of which I do not know. I for example do not have any knowledge with regards to St Helena government and its actions prior to August 2014. I can tell you that since our arrival Child Protection has clearly been at the top of the agenda for St Helena Government with numerous new jobs in the sector, a new government department and new buildings.

I cannot pass comment as to what happened in the past when the Lucy Faithful report was being written, and a quick search on line can fill you in as to what was contained within that report. What I can pass comment on is my opinion of wider systematic problems. Problems of a system of governance that means that none of the people implemented in that report, nor indeed any expatriate government worker in post at the time of said report its period of investigation and period of alleged abuse and cover up, is here now. The St Helena Government operate on short term contracts, which, is in my humble opinion a huge problem with the overall system and political distrust that exists on this Island, but that is a conversation for another day.

So instead of passing comment on the government, the political system or other things in this world that I have little knowledge of, I wish to comment on the article in question, the things I know enough about, and why I sit here now feeling sad for the many good people of St Helena. I do not wish to contest the “facts” within his story, the court cases and convictions quoted, the numbers of cases or of prisoners, I have no doubt they are correct, but the damaging and inflammatory style of writing is unnecessary and largely skewed, twisted and unrepresentative of the people here. Should author Tom Rowley actually lived here for any period he may of known this, or indeed had he spoken and referenced a wide range of people, but of course a balanced representation, like the truth, does not always sell papers. I wish also to make it clear that I am not trying to deny wrong doings, nor would I condemn any such criminality or cover up thereof if this were the case, simply that I do not know and would therefore concentrate on what I do know.

In essence my great sadness is the overall picture that has been painted of the Island and its people, one of sexual predation and of a dirty seedy place of the night, all of which could not be further from the truth. Now I am not trying to deny that wrongs were done in the past, and neither do I know whether wrongs continue now, but I do know that this article does not reflect St Helena and its people today, in 2015 at the start of a hopefully bright new era.

To quote from the article

They call themselves Saints…….. Of course, some deserve the tag more than others”.

Or alternatively that most are deserving of the tag in my opinion, and a small, very small few may not. Indeed, whilst the Telegraph chooses to concentrate on the proportion of abuse cases it neglects to tell you that St Helena also has one of the highest proportions of people honoured in the Queen’s birthday honours list for services to the community. I have no comment as to the rights or wrongs of such a list and have no doubt this fact is open to cries of corruption, but none the less a high number of Saints must be deserving of being on the list, and in far greater proportions than elsewhere in the British Empire (the suns still never sets on the Empire you know). “What has that got to do with child abuse” I hear you ask. Nothing I agree, but my issue on this article is the unbalanced way that the local people here, many of which Im pleased to say are now friends, have been portrayed and I hope to redress the balance.

“Beneath the treasure map names, daily life can be rather less charming. “People think it’s just some English village in the South Atlantic,” says one regular visitor. “Actually, it’s more like a suburban estate, with all the problems that come with that”.

No one has claimed there is a fairy tale here; its names have history attached to them. Should the quaint names of Dorset, England for example, mean that there is some fairy tale going on and that normal everyday problems of working life are somehow to be used against the people of a village because its name happens to be quaint. And if anyone believes that an Island, in the middle of the Atlantic, in the tropical southern hemisphere is “just some English village in the South Atlantic” they need to re-look at England!

“The island has always been a place of outcasts,”  

Surely a modern journalist should do better than this. Using Napoleons exile or that of Boer prisoners as a yard stick to measure its people by is just cheap. The Island was of course a place where the British empire sent its best men to conquer an defend, a place where the British spent uncountable sums of money to place people from all over the world here, to defend, work and manage the Island in its heyday,

“In HMP Jamestown, seven out of 11 prisoners are paedophiles”  

To me, this could just as easily read, the authorities are now doing their best to correct this situation, 7 out of 11 prisoners on the Island are being held for crimes of abuse. I do not know if the authorities are doing their best, but simply point out that this comment from Tom is not necessarily a negative as he suggests and can be construed either way.

 

“And nobody believes all the culprits have been caught. “I suspect there are still quite a few skeletons in the cupboard,” says Nick Thorpe, an entrepreneur and chairman of the heritage society. “There are a lot of people looking into it.”

One person does not represent everybody, nor nobody and therefore cannot be used to claim nobody believes all the culprits are caught, in fact neither Bev nor I were interviewed by Mr Rowley, so that’s at least two people that he cannot use in this statement. Although he may or may not be right, this is conjecture, not factual reporting. And if there are a lot of people looking into it again this would suggest that great efforts are being made to improve the situation.

 “I spent a fortnight on St Helena, speaking with 51 locals – more than one percent of the population of 4,500”

Despite his grand claims of 1% of the population, lets be frank 51 people is not a lot, its even less on this Island where one would normally chat with at least 20 or 30 people a day just passing in the street and certainly not enough to say that nobody believes in something. A fortnight is such little time on St Helena, but clearly not enough to cast a picture of a place and its people.

Again I do not know nor wish to comment on what if any abuse is commonplace or apparently accepted at the moment, quite simply I do not know but I’d like to question and put some of Mr Rowley’s selected quotes in context

“a middle-aged woman is talking about rape. People didn’t call it that when she was a child,”

“Lolly Young, 43, a former deputy head of the high school, recalls her school years”

 “Men thought they could have any girl, touch any girl and nothing was ever said about it,”

Each of these and all of the other direct quotes from victims, are talking about events that occurred at least 25 or more years ago and this should be put into context. Unlike the UK, 25 years ago St Helena had no internet, no TV channels, and even telephones had only just arrived, it was a British territory in name only. One has to look at attitudes towards women in many parts of the world that still blatantly, and wrongly of course, exist today to understand that St Helena must have been a very different place 25 years ago. To his credit Tom Rowley hints at this himself.

“Television only arrived on the island in 1995, and several Saints say they knew little of outside norms until then. “There was no reference point whatsoever,” says one. “It was never discussed, it was just something that was expected to happen.”

“With no mobile phones and little internet access, the island has grown seemingly more remote as the world has converged.”

This again presents a very skewed vision of the Island. St Helena has seen more change and development in the last twenty years than almost anywhere on earth. Just 20 years ago donkeys were still the main way of moving goods around the Island, telecommunications didn’t exist, now I sit talking to you through my blog, online, and skype my family thousands of miles away. People drive round in modern four by fours and at weekends can enjoy jet skiing.

At the risk of becoming repetitive I will move on to the part of the article which I believe is most inaccurate and in the context of encouraging tourism the most damaging for the Island. It also paints an untrue picture, and is in fact, the part I know most about.

“Friday night in Donny’s bar by the seafront. As I sip my beer, a group of women, some well into middle age, are playing a rather different version of musical chairs. The music is the same; the “chairs” are five men, thrusting their bottoms in the air.

When the music stops, each woman dashes to straddle the nearest man, whooping and slapping his bottom with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

“That’s the governor’s driver,” observes one drinker of the most eager participant.

It’s 6pm”

What Tom neglects to tell anyone is that the night in question was ladies night, a special one off where ladies were invited to let their hair down and be a little naughty, even the middle aged ones are allowed fun you know Tom. Show me a hen do, or ladies night in the UK that does not get a little saucy. It sounds as though the reality is that Mr Rowley would quite liked to of been more involved, or at least that it may of done him some good to be.  The governors driver referred to here is one of several drivers to my knowledge, and presumably must be a paedophile, in fact given that she was in a bar at night having fun, she should be arrested immediately!

And finally, its 6pm, yes I have no doubt it was, because on St Helena the bar closes at midnight, there is no 24hour drinking, no fights at the taxi rank at 3am, much to my disappointment it is not even possible to buy a late night doner kebab!! People enjoy a drink at Donny’s for Sundowners, i.e at sunset, an open air, waterfront bar with stunning views of the sun which sets at, funnily enough 6.30pm.

On any other Friday night, had Mr Rowley bothered to check, he would of found me, and my family sat at Donny’s at 6pm, with a quiet pop style music in the background, where families of Ex-pats and Saints alike enjoy an early evening drink. He would of found a true family holiday type atmosphere, one of the only places in the World I have been to where Bev and I feel comfortable to have a quiet drink with friends whilst the children play with others outside of the bar area in the open spaces nearby.

During the week, work stops at 4pm”

 yes, and starts at 8am!

“On Fridays and Saturdays, the town is transformed. Young women in sailor outfits dart from pub to pub and music spills across the street”

I have only seen sailor outfits on this one night, ladies wear short skirts like any other weekend night in the UK, has Tom ever been out in Newcastle I ask myself. Darting from pub to pub is not a game that would last very long, given that there is only five drinking holes in Jamestown, one of which is a hotel, and only two of which are pubs. Music indeed spills, but only out of the open air bars of Donny’s and the Mule Yard,(it used to be a stable) the latter of which features live bands and both of which sit on the waterfront, in a non-residential part of town where the lively music, fun, welcoming and friendly atmosphere make for a great night out.

“Saints make fun of a very British “no loitering” sign, but still they loiter: men sitting inside unlit cars or huddled on doorsteps for hour after hour, apparently waiting for something to happen. Everything has an edge”

The very same no loitering sign that this “Brit”, not Saint made fun of in his blog a few week earlier, that everyone on the Island has had a giggle at due to its placement obscurely in a park of all places, the exact location where one might be expected to be able to loiter. As for men sitting in cars this is pure fabrication, a man may of sat in a car, but I guess that’s enough. Most of all, nothing has an edge, other than this report. Jamestown at the weekend is one of the most relaxed, enjoyable friendly nights out I have had, and as my Mum will testify I have had a few.

I could continue, much of the remaining article is simply hearsay and further conjecture, but I wish now to turn attention to the articles comparisons between England and Wales and St Helena. This latest article claims England and Wales uses very specific figures. My first objection is the comparison of the UK as a whole to St Helena, perhaps a look at a small impoverished fishing town, or deprived estate of 4000 people would be more comparable. However, even taking England and Wales as a whole, is the use of these figures in this comparison fair, or even accurate, The Telegraphs own article from 2000 would suggest otherwise claiming that 1 in 200 men in England and Wales are paedophiles, a higher proportion than it is claimed are on St Helena. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1379946/UK-has-250000-paedophiles-says-police-study.html This article also suggest that at that time, only 5% of offenders in the UK were caught and convicted, I suggest that rate makes St Helena look very favourable given the numbers that have been convicted here.

It is also worthy of note that St Helena has the highest proportion of Swedish people outside of Sweden. How many of them are there you would ask, twelve,  that I know of, including children, which just goes to show that on an island with such a small population, a few people can make for interesting statistics without actually containing any useful information, Lies, damn lies and statistics as they say.

I do not contest the facts within this article, the cases that have been brought, the apparent cover ups, the whistle blowing stories and subsequent job losses make for very difficult reading. It is clear that things are changing and that perhaps it was only a short time ago that abuse was more accepted than it should be. But let’s be clear, St Helena is one of the safest places I have ever visited. Its people are lovely and friendly, my children can play outdoors without fear of cars, kidnapping or indeed abuse. As I watched the hard-working Saints leaving Bev’s school today, every one of which is nothing short of wonderful giving their time and energy to ensure a better future for St Helena, earning a relative pittance compared to the UK (a person can earn more making bread than teaching here) I felt saddened that they would return home to find their good names blackened with stories like this. Tom Rowley, please report the facts, not stories, bring cover ups to light and ensure bad people get punished, but don’t drag down a society of good people with them.

Does it get any better than this?

Tuesday the 6th and Wednesday the 7th of January 2015 will forever be one of the most incredible 24 hours of my life, till the day I die I will not forget the experiences we had.

Tuesday started like most others, and has passed into such relative insignificance that I cannot even remember what occurred, but that evening saw me fulfil a lifelong ambition. My Mum will tell you, since I was a very small child I spoke of becoming a deep sea diver, now 12 meters is not deep sea by anyone’s standards, but my first open water dive, in the Atlantic Ocean, was, to the small child inside of me, the deep sea exploration I have spent my life dreaming about and longing for.

By trade an aquarium curator, it is very unusual in my profession that I am not already an experienced diver, but despite working with marine life since 14 years of age, time and money have always failed to meet at a mutually convenient place for me to learn to dive, until of course we arrived on St Helena, the place where things just happen and opportunities just arise.

A group of four of us met our instructor Anthony from Sub-Tropic Adventures, along with two experienced divers Ross and John who had been with us during our pool training to offer re-assurance, a calming presence and the hints and tips of many accumulated dives. After a briefing we set up our gear “with minimal or no help or instruction” and donned our wetsuits. Now 5mm wetsuits are great under the water, but on land, under a tropical sun they become mobile ovens, making me feel restricted, and breathtakingly hot. Before going any further I dived into the cooling waters at the wharf to make my journey on board our diving boat that bit more comfortable.

And so we performed the now customary dance with the surging waves to board our vessel and start our first dive trip. For the most part I felt relaxed, but full of excitement. Bev, despite having had a bad experience in the past, and having felt very nervous before we started our diving journeys appeared to me calm and collected, although a few anxieties undoubtedly hid just beneath the surface, metaphorically and literally. For one of our group the nerves were quite obvious but with re-assuring words from our instructor we were soon all taking a giant stride plunge into the ocean, and with inflated BCDs (Buoyancy control device don’t you know!!) we bobbed around on the surface of the waves like buoys waiting our instruction to start our descent.

Before I knew it I was deflating my BCD and descending in a surprisingly calm manor into the blue. My first ever dive was to be on a ship wreck, the SS Papanui, which sank in 1911. As we descended twisted metal was beneath us, with flashes of blue butterfly fish, locally know as Cunning Fish (Cheatodon sanctaehelenae, yes of course an endemic species seen no-where else on earth) and olive green surgeonfish (Acanthurus bahianus) passing between the shards of iron as the artificial reef provided all the nooks and crannies that any premium marine real estate would. Watching as the others descended I felt freedom, the space provided by the ocean led me to feel unrestricted, and more aware of my buoyancy, place in the water and the results of my movements and breathing patterns than I had done in the pool. I felt at ease and comfortable and yet totally exhilarated to finally find myself in the world that has fascinated me since longer than I can remember.

Conscious of her prior nerves I kept a close eye on Bev as she joined me near the ocean floor, and with the rest of the group alongside us we followed Anthony to explore the wreck. Passing by the enormous boilers I was distracted from Bev and the others by a Moray Eel, (Gymnothroax moringa) sat, mouth aghast and teeth barring, to ward me from getting closer to his hole. We swam slowly on and all the while maintaining a vigilance on Bev I was still able to take in the wonders around me, large shoals of Chromis (Cavalley piolet) fed on falling detritus, Rockfish (Sparisoma stirgatum) rasped at the encrusting algae with their parrot like beaks and shy Soldier fish, (Holocentrus adscensions and Myripristis jacobus) hid in small groups in caves or overhanging metal. The visibility was, even to these inexperienced eyes extraordinary. I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was, as there was nowhere that it seems I couldn’t see, there was no gloom, no disappearing into the haze just clear blue water and the towering bow of the SS Papanui ahead of us. As we approached the bow, Ross got my attention and in turn I grabbed Bev and we posed for a underwater snap shot.

Bev and I on the bow of the SS Papanui

Bev and I on the bow of the SS Papanui. Photo Credit Ross Towers, thank you

Bev and I at the bow of the SS Papanui

Bev and I at the bow of the SS Papanui. Photo Credit Ross Towers, thank you

Passing by a myriad of other fish the highlight came nearing the end of our circumnavigation around the giant wreck as a flash of green caught my eye inside a hole. As I approached the huge Green moray eel, 5ft long and as wide as my thigh staring solidly back at me, I pondered what he thought of me, presuming he had seen more black suited men in goggles than I had seen Moray Eels in their natural habitat. Was I a threat, dinner, or simply another underwater passenger passing by.

Returning to our start point we gathered together and started our ascent, a 5m safety stop for 3 minutes seemed like an age but I was pleased with the control I had of my buoyancy, hovering with just gentle fin kicks to maintain my position. We eventually rose to the surface and broke through the waves to several gasps, a couple of cheers and no shortage of pride and joy. We had done it, taken our first real steps to opening a door of wonder and exploration. My whole life I have waited for this moment, and 35 minutes out of my 34 years had just passed by in a blink, but a blink that will live in my memory for a lifetime.

Returning to shore that evening my mind was filled with thoughts of what had just passed, but had already become over ridden by thoughts of tomorrow and our next seaward adventure. Setting out early the next morning from the wharf, Anthony and sub-tropic adventures, having already fulfilled one of my life long ambitions were about to top even that. We had been invited out for a birthday boat trip with Sammi and Paul a couple we met when we arrived but are pleased to say have become closer to with passing time, and it was a pleasant surprise and honour to be invited out for what would soon become clear was a once in a lifetime experience.

As we passed out of James Bay, Paul instructed us to get our snorkelling gear on, and divided us into groups of five, and I don’t mind admitted that I was desperate and over the moon to be included in the first party. Before long the shout came, “a fin, that way” as a very triangular shape broke through the water. “Now” came the next call, “get in now”. Mask and fins in place I quickly jumped into the sea. Unlike yesterday’s dive, this was a complete unknown, my head spun and my heart pounded. Would I see it, would I keep up with it, will I know what to do and how will I make sure I stay within reach of the boat. With shouts of “that way” I pushed my head through the waves and swam furiously until out of the distant blue it came into site, a huge, (or small by their standards) 8 meter long Whale Shark was swimming toward me. I literally screamed with excitement my muffled sounds no doubt making little difference to this giant of the sea. Within a few short seconds as this enormous creature swam directly at me it became apparent that it was me, and not the shark that was required to move, and, realising that the speed of this animal was masked by its gentle movements and fin strokes I quickly gave way and moved to the side as the full length of this beautiful animal passed right on by less than two meters from me.

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Photo credit David Higgins, thank you Dave.

Within a moment he was out of my sight, despite wearing a snorkel, as I lifted my head from the surface I gasped for air, realising I had not taken a breath for some time as I had been transfixed. Taking a moment to re-orientate myself, I had lost site of the other swimmers and the whale. I shouted to the boat “where is he” and was soon directed around the stern of the boat and back to the other swimmers where I caught up with the gentle giant and once again looked on in amazement at what was before me. This time swimming alongside until I was exhausted I could study every detail, those tiny black eye peering into a distant space, and the white spots, like paints splashed onto its flanks like a child with a paint brush.

Our short time was up and we were called to return to the boat to allow the next small group to have their adventure. Bev was next to go and I sat aboard the boat watching already jealous that I wasn’t back in the water. Oliver was by now, having seen one or two other children venture in, bursting to have his turn. We were unsure how Oliver would react once we were out there. A shoreline swim in 5 or 6 meters of clear water, the bottom clearly visible, it a very different feeling to the dwarfism that is created when you find yourself a couple of miles off shore, in 80 meters of water. When snorkelling out at sea there is no bottom, no top, nothing to fix your sight upon, there is just blue. It is both disorientating and disconcerting and the sudden appearance of a whale shark is at best a shock even when you are expecting it to be there. But Oliver was by now determined that he would be fine, so, as Bev’s group returned to the boat I put on my wetsuit (to give me extra buoyancy) and adjusted Oliver’s mask and snorkel.

With everyone aboard the boat the shark disappeared and the engine started up as we set off in the hope we would find another. Soon enough an even larger shark, maybe 10 meters in length was spotted. We slowed the engine and our skilled skipper predicted the shark’s movements to position us with the shark facing right onto us. Oliver was by now literally bursting with excitement, and as he proclaimed his desperate need for a wee I gave a final check and jumped in. Oliver cautiously followed, clinging tight onto my neck with one had whilst he proceeded to try to pull down his shorts with the other. I explained quickly that in the sea, he need not remove his shorts for a wee, and told him to hurry the hell up! The necessaries over I swam as hard as I could, Oliver acting as a rather un-streamlined dead weight on my side, we caught up with the shark and the rest of the group. For what could have been a life time we swam alongside the shark, this stunningly beautiful, serene glider of the sea, mouth wide open feeding on plankton, just accepted us into his world. His tiny eyes appeared to watch us carefully, his sideways stare giving character to his glare, as if watching us suspiciously wondering who or what we were, or whether, like the ever present ramora’s (cling fish which hitch a ride on shark fins) we were soon to be latching on for a free ride.

The tiny eye of the whales shark has a penetrating stare. Photo credit Dave Higgins

The tiny eye of the whales shark has a penetrating stare. Photo credit Dave Higgins

Before long the next group were itching to get in and we climbed back aboard the boat. But a final adventure awaited as Charlie was now greatly upset that he wasn’t getting to have a go. It had not been our intention for Charlie to get in, we presumed he would be petrified of the experience and did not wish to put him off a magical experience that he may be able to enjoy next year. But seeing his tears I agreed to take him in. Now snorkelling was not an option for Charlie, he has tried, but cannot figure out the requirement for breathing with a snorkel and ends up either holding his breath, or worse, breathing in water through a gap in the side. And so Charlie put on a pair of goggles and was passed down to my waiting arms in the water.

Sammi and Paul with Whale Shark

Sammi and Paul with Whale Shark Photo credit Ceri Sansom.

I moved a few meters away from the boat and started to explain to Charlie, “So when I say, take a deep breath, hold it in, and put you head in the water, like this….” In demonstration I peered down into the water, and literally screamed once more as a huge blue shaped passed me just an inch below my feet I could not believe my eyes as I became a matter on centimetres away from stepping on the forehead of a whale shark. Lifting myself up I shouted, “Now Charlie, put your head in now!” in a panic he delved his head into the water, catching I presume the tail end of the shark as it passed beneath us. “Did you see it, did you see it” I asked excitedly as Charlie again took a breath and plunged his face into the waves. “I cant see anything, my eyes don’t work” he said with a wobble in his voice. Charlie could not understand the blue nothing, nothing to set his focus on, no lines, no features, no fish, no rocks or sand, just blue, as if his eye lids had been replaced with a blue cloth. He assumed he couldn’t see anything and his eyes had stopped working at all. As a wave splashed his face, and the chilly water began to make him shiver the tears started to flow. Within a second or two he was screaming and Bev who was now in the water with us, and myself, started waving and shouting for the boat to collect us.

It saddens me that Charlie did not see, or realise he had seen a Whale Shark. What three year old in the World has swam within feet of the largest fish in the oceans? If Charlie was unlucky, Oliver must be the luckiest six year old in the World. A once in a life time experience, that he will most likely have the privilege of enjoying another five or six times before we leave this extraordinary place. As we returned to shore I thanked our guide, and friend Anthony. Telling him that he had not only helped me to fulfil my lifelong ambition, but less than 24 hours later had given me a magical, unbelievable quite gobsmacking experience that I will take with me to my grave. He was simply pleased he could be a part of it such is the humility of the man. No matter what else occurs in our time on this Island, or indeed the rest of my life it will be truly hard to beat the 6th and 7th of January 2015, no one can ever take this away from me.

Sadly I do not yet posses an underwater camera and therefore the above images are all credited to friends. All but the above six images were taken when I or Bev were in the water alongside these amazing animals and show the actual sharks we swam with. The above pictures are the best of the bunch. Taken on another very recent trip by visiting scientist Dr Rafael de la Parra. Rafael, visiting from Mexico and his colleague, Dr Alastair Dove from Georgia aquarium are in St Helena working with the Marine team to find out more about the migrations and movements of whale sharks. Find out more about their visit here.

Free Hot Water!

As Christmas passed to New Year the weather has taken a considerable turn for the better. An apparently long lasting mild winter gave way to a prolonged spring, wet with intermittent sunshine, and now, at last summer is here. Mornings, generally accompanied by early cloud give way to bright sunshine and high temperatures by midday, with afternoons in Half Tree Hollow becoming increasingly consistent at around 27-30°C. A cool breeze, dry heat, shade, and the ability to reach cooler parts of the Island if necessary make for a fantastic climate right now, not at all over bearing and great for our sun tans! Almost all properties on St Helena are serviced with electric hot water, supplemented by the use of solar panels. It is now the norm that our hot water is free, the solar panels heating water to scolding temperatures such that one has to be careful turning the tap on. Tributary water pipes run over ground to houses, a product of the barren, rock substrate that we live upon making underground pipes difficult to install. Such is the power of the sun on the Tropic of Capricorn that, whilst hot water is plentiful, cold water is harder to come by, turning the cold tap on any time after midday results in hot, then warm water for a good few minutes before anything resembling cool comes through.

Just before New Year I was pleased to be able to help out with St Helena’s new, monthly open air cinema. Like most of the amazing things here, this came about from an idea that a hard working individual wished to develop, not for personal gain but to provide something fun, new and unique to the Island. Andy Day, one of the most giving people I know was said hardworking individual. Six large white billboards had been erected side by side across the frontage of Pilling Primary School. Using PA equipment hooked to my blue-ray player over 100 people were able to enjoy Disney’s Maleficent sat in cars or seats in the open air. This turned out to be a quite magical experience, a trip to the cinema under the moon and stars, in short sleeves at the end of December.

The 29th of December, as some of you will know, was our anniversary, five years of Happy Marriage. We were lucky enough to celebrate this occasion, jointly with friend, Lucy Day’s Birthday. A evening “adults only” boat cruise aboard the Enchanted Isle was simply wonderful. Heading out around the Island we reached the Southwest point, and area of staggering cliffs and the even more staggering Sea Stacks of Speary Point. The main rock pinnacle rises vertically some 100m from the waves, towering above our boat as we passed by its base. Thousands of sea birds from boobies to Storm petrols, noddies to terns returning home from a days fishing fly circuits around the rock about our heads, chattering and screeching to each other.

Speary Point St Helena

Speary Point 2

Speary Point St Helena

Fascinating conversation was enjoyed with Graham Sim, whom we had met previously during our Booby Adventures. Graham pointed out some of the old sheep herding routes and fishermen paths across the seemingly vertical cliff faces that were used well within his lifetime, a stark reminder of how quickly this Island has changed in the past two decades. Further conversation with the boat owner and our captain Jonny Hern was, in hindsight dangerous as I learnt that in his younger days he and his friends would venture, somehow, to the summit of Speary point, using bamboo rods as makeshift scaffolding before cliff jumping into the deep some 100 meters below. So why would this be dangerous, well let’s just say a seed has been planted!

As we moved away from Speary point and headed back East we were treated to one of the most stunning sunsets I have ever witnessed. Dolphins cruised and splashed on the bow waves of the boat, with the sun dropping in the sky, purples and oranges rose across the canvas with the brightest stars punctuating the watercolours like bright diamonds. It was a truly magical experience and an anniversary we will remember for a long long time.

Sunset at Sea on St Helena Island

Sunset at Sea on St Helena Island 3

New Year in St Helena is a quieter affair than the UK, such monumental effort is put into Christmas and its associated parades that New Year’s takes something of a back seat. Not that it is forgotten by any means, partying in town and the waterfront for those considerably younger, or older, or more childless than myself went on into the late hours of New Years Day morning and pubs and social clubs across the Island held their own social gatherings. For the Tyson’s, an evening hosted by two of our RMS friends, Debbie and Andy Parkinson was enjoyed, in the company of other friends from the Island. With a family theme, games and a competitive quiz were the order of the day. For Charlie it was all too much, and by 10pm he fell asleep in the middle of the room!

The next morning saw Oliver’s organised walk. For some weeks, following the experience of various group walks organised by others on the Island Oliver has wished to organise his own. With some help from Mum he mustered a group of friends for a walk to the Heart Shaped Waterfall, and this time was pleased to find water in the waterfall. Sadly for Dad, the groin injury is restricting walking adventures at the moment and I was left behind spending my time cleaning, cooking and writing content for my photography course.

The course has proved very popular and I have 22 people signed up all wanting to learn more about photography and to take their expensive SLR camera’s out of automatic and release its full potential. I just hope I do them justice and meet their expectations.

As the St Helena “summer” Christmas holidays continue, time has been spent swimming in the pool, now warm under the midday sun and providing rest bite for parents as children splash and play in the safe water. Practicing swimming, jumping from the diving board and snorkelling the full length of the pool, Oliver’s confidence has grown wonderfully. As indeed has Charlie’s confidence, from clinging to Mum or Dad for dear life, to swimming independently and jumping in and out of the pool in just three short weeks.

Oliver’s new found confidence has led to growing desires to have another go at snorkelling in the sea. His first attempt, a few weeks ago was not the greatest success, cold and scared, having not really swam for months, a quick glance at the fish was all that was achieved before tears ensued. And so it was, with renewed enthusiasm and bravery that we made another attempt. Walking out from James Bay along a narrow stretch of black volcanic sands, the relatively calm waves still caused significant breakers. Oliver holding tightly onto my neck as we pushed through until out of our depth and started swimming, my wetsuit providing the buoyancy I needed to hold up a child tightly latched onto me. We adjusted our masks and snorkels and with a quick instruction put our heads down to peer through the waves and the wonderful life in James Bay.  After a half minute or so I pulled Oliver up to the surface to check he was ok and he nodded with great enthusiasm. A twenty minute swim round the bay saw Oliver off on his own, swimming and watching in wonder at fish of all colours and sizes, the highlight being the deadly stonefish, holding tightly onto an octopus, its tentacles still moving as they hung out of the giant mouth of its venomous captor. A very proud Dad and overjoyed son returned to tell Mum and Charlie all about our mini Ocean Odyssey.

This maritime breakthrough could not be better timed as on the 2nd of January another trip to Lemon Valley was booked. The children, enthused by their first experience and swimming confidence were both incredibly excited. A large group of us arrived at Lemon Valley at around 11am. An interesting contrast between Ex-pats and Saints once again presented itself as we arrived to the greeting of around 30 or so Saints, already in position in the Bay. For many Saints, a trip to Lemon Valley and its associated underwater fun is not the novelty that it is to us, therefore their day takes different priorities, normally centred around the social barbeque, in a large cave sat within the volcanic rock. Saints will leave the wharf early, often before 7am, to ensure the prime cooking and gathering spot is secured. For our, mainly ex-pat group, the priority during the holiday is a lie in, and whilst cooking is lower on the list swimming in crystal clear waters and rubbing shoulders with unique marine life takes priority and within minutes of arriving children and adults alike were splashing in the waves.

Charlie and Oliver both spent a good amount of time swimming and even Charlie took the chance to don a mask and snorkel and have a quick peep at the fish below. The snorkel proved less successful though, as despite being in his mouth, he failed to recognise that he could breathe, and held his breath when his face was in the water despite his father’s attempts to teach him otherwise. He still shouted with great excitement that he had seen some fish and another little milestone was met.

An interesting addition to this trip to the Valley was the accompaniment of Sea Kayaks, and despite my groin injury preventing my own participation everyone enjoyed a good paddle in the bay, jumping off here and there to try new snorkelling locations. Bev of course, not content at pottering around the bay, opted to canoe back to James Bay, and with friend and fellow teacher Jon Lambdon in tandem they headed off, ultimately beating us back to the Wharf, no mean feat against a steady wind and choppy waves.

With much self-congratulation, this week saw Bev and I complete our closed water dives, swimming underwater without a mask, removing and re-donning weights and gear underwater and hovering using buoyancy control,  just some of the essential skills required before we can head out to sea.  At the time of writing our first open water dive has actually also been completed, (next blog due shortly) and we are well on our way to passing our PADI Open Water diving course.

So, Christmas holidays are nearly at a close, it has been a truly wonderful, action packed, social partying basically incredible “summer” Christmas holidays, but little did we know that what we have experienced so far was to be simply dwarfed by the experiences we were about to accumulate over the 24 hours……….

Bike Riding St Helena Style!