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.
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.
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.
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.
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.