So this blog entry was going to be about Jamestown, part of a series of blog entries showing the various districts of St Helena. After all, I had nothing else to write about, after my last blog, I really wasn’t sure what was coming next, sure our day-to-day life was continuing, but the Whale Sharks have left the area, my diving is complete, and I had no pretty photos to show you. What was I to do to continue to write with any regularity? So I thought a series of articles would be a nice way of filling up the pages.
That was of course, until a little time had passed, and within a week of me thinking of the Jamestown plan, and having taken some photos in readiness, that article is on hold, as I tell you about the extraordinary time the extraordinary island continues to provide.
I have been helping out a local charity, the St Helena Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, designing a new logo and working on some new campaign ideas. In return I was granted access to the World’s oldest Land Vertebrate, Jonathan, the Giant Tortoise, the photos of which featured in my last blog and an invite to the SPCA annual fund-raising event, Last Night of the Proms at Plantation house!!
We had been promised an evening of live classical music from local musicians, a few drink in the interval (the appealing bit) followed by, yes that’s right, a sing along, to a video of the last night of the proms. In all honesty, I couldn’t think of anything worse, and neither could Bev. We deliberated as to the fruits of our attendance for some time and the merit of using up a valuable babysitter token. Eventually deciding that an invite from the Governor’s wife should not be ignored I in my suit and Bev in a stunning dress featuring the customary Red White and Blue colours headed to Plantation House.
Seeing many familiar faces lightened our mood and we took our seats as the music and acts began. Some classical pieces gave way to big band, and harmony vocals and even some Eric Clapton. The talent on show was impressive to say the least, and I still cannot get over the enjoyment I gleaned from listening to a local Bishop, reading aloud an extract from a story. Had I been told that the music would be interrupted for a Bishop to read a story to me Id of put the nail in the coffin myself and stayed at home, but such was his manner and skill as an orator that he had us all laughing out loud, as much, I think, at the situation as to the story itself. After some wonderful performances the group moved to the outside marquee for refreshments. The late start had evidently led to many people having not had dinner, as shown in the speed at which the food tables were cleared, there was no holding back.
Our mood by this point was considerably lighter than when we had arrived, helped by some good music, free beer and cocktail sausages, and I was now all up for a bit of a sing-song. This mood was, it seems matched, by the considerable crowd as we all took to a verse of Swing Low Sweet Chariot. Those of you who are aware of my propensity for a spot of Karaoke will probably also be aware that I am, at this point in the proceedings, in my element, and thoroughly enjoying every minute. Sadly, we had to leave early so missed the grand finale, but as the status on my Facebook page read, it was the “most weirdly British eccentric night at Plantation House (Governors Residents)…. an evening of…..music, singing and flag waving, very surreal, and utterly brilliant. I loved it!
In diving news no sooner as I pass my open water, I am now half way through my advanced course. Consisting of five specific dives, I must admit this necessary stepping stone is nothing more than a money spinner for PADI. However it has led to some wonderful experiences including my first deep dive down to 28m on another ship wreck, a specialist navigation dive and, last night, my first night dive. The night adventure is the first time I have felt some serious nerves before a dive, I guess in some respect that’s why people do it and it proved to be an incredible experience. With nothing but a light of a torch, the surrounding blackness is almost blinding, with your hearing muted and tunnel vision of your spot light, a sense of complete aloneness is broken only by the flashing of lights from the other divers. Strange life forms emerge at night. Synaptid Sea Cucumbers, meter long white worms like animals, like something from the 1990 film Tremors, hold their tentacles aloft, waving them in the current, wrapping around each other in a serpentine dance. Large conch shells crawl along the sand leaving trails of slime in the sand to follow their path. Billions of dancing fairies spin and twirl hypnotically, caught in the light of the torch these planktonic organisms forming the base of the food chain for everything else, emerging at night. Huge Moray eels defend their homes and huge hedgehog like urchins make a stray hand a potential injury. Two octopuses cover themselves with rocks, picking up the jagged pumice stone and carefully placing it all around to hide their outline, their presence given away only by the stray sucker on show, and the jet stream from their siphon.
It was a magical experience made all the more special by the night sky as we broke the surface on our accent. Just as leaving the cinema in the light of day confuses the senses for a period, so does emerging from the sea to a starry sky, even if it similarly dark below. The boat trip back to the wharf was a largely silent affair, the group of eleven divers with little to say to each other. I think we sat in quiet contemplation at the shared experience, plus we were all quite knackered!
Oliver and Charlie continue to surprise and impress me with their own watery skills. Oliver and I took some father, son time and swam out to snorkel on the Papanui, the ship wreck in James Bay. Lets put this in perspective. Five months ago, not long after we arrived, Oliver would not get in the sea, he wouldn’t even jump into the pool. Now, he is wading out into surf, diving head first into the oncoming waves, swimming a good 250m out to sea and then freely snorkelling on a ship wreck in 14 meters of water. He takes place in the inter schools swimming gala today, I am very proud.
Charlie too is coming on leaps and bounds and his own transformation is no less impressive. When the pool here opened up mid-November, Charlie would not let go of Bev or myself in the water, clinging on for dear life. He will now jump in the sea (albeit with armbands) and snorkel from the wharf, enjoying every moment and screaming the names of trumpet, butterfly and parrot fish as they swim by. I have no doubt that given the opportunity he too would take a trip to the Pappanui.
Charlie’s latest triumph came on Monday evening, as the boys and I joined Bev on one of her O’level, Marine Biology adult classes. This class was a practical exercise in water sampling as we and the students took to the sea on the Enchanted Isle. Technology being limited on the Island this was a rather crude affair. The only method we had for obtaining water samples at depth (to compare with surface conditions) was for yours truly to swim down as deep as he could whilst free diving, open up a bottle and fill it with water for testing at the surface. Whilst doing this I enjoyed the company of a Devil Ray, a 7ft ghost like animal, gracefully gliding by me with slow, purposeful wing beats. Shortly after we were in for another surprise.
Whilst concentrating on the depth of a sechi disc (a device for measuring turbidity) I looked up to see a whale shark not more than 3 meters away from us, its mouth out of the water and heading right for the boat. Still in my swimwear I had no hesitation in jumping right back in for my now fourth close encounter with these incredible animals. Before long, Bev and Oliver had joined me, along with some of the other students. Of course it was not long after that Charlie started asking if he could swim too. His last experience with them did not go well, lots of tears and cries of “Im blind” were my memory of that occasion. Knowing he has come a long way since then, and equipped with a new wet suit to keep the cold at bay Charlie was lowered into the water with me. It was not long before our four-year old was just yards from a 10 meter whale shark, and he clearly delighted in the occasion.
Out of nowhere came a huge shoal of 6 inch blue silver fish, scad of some sort, a thousand or more strong, heading out of the blue and towards the whale shark. Charlie and I watched as this ball of fish parted in unison around the whale shark, and closed ranks as they passed beyond its flanks, before parting once more around Charlie and I. A thousand fish swam by us, surrounded us, encased us, and as swiftly as they arrived, left us. If was a few seconds of pure joy and magic, and Charlie was right in the centre of it all.
More good news came this week with the announcement that Green Turtles have nested in the black sands at Sandy Bay. Once common on Saint Helena, these animals, like many other places around the world have been persecuted in the past for meat and their shells and in the modern ear have been seen only at sea in low numbers around St Helena. Occasional nesting attempts through the years have been hampered by shallow sands in which to dig, and the low-lying beach leading to water-logged nests on high tides. This year however there is greater confidence that they may survive. The sand sits some 7ft deeper today than in 2011 when the last nesting attempt occurred, and the beach and nest sits much higher, avoiding all but the roughest of waters. 60 days will tell us if they have been successful, I for one have my fingers firmly crossed.
This week was a big week for me personally, it was a week where I have finally realised my place and come to terms with what it is I wish to do here on St Helena. It has taken six months of a troubled mind, not wishing to make wrong decisions and conscious of doing the right thing by everyone. And it was with this in mind that I applied for a job, a fantastic job that appealed greatly. Even as I wrote my application however I was in turmoil as to whether both Bev and I working full time was the right thing to be doing, right for me maybe, but whether it was right for the boys or for Bev was less clear. My application was successful and I was invited to interview. It took till the morning of the interview, for me to finally realise that for everyone concerned, me, Bev, the boys and indeed for the employers concerned that right now, nine to five (or eight to four on St Helena) isn’t what I should be doing.
It seems that being faced with an actual choice, instead of hypothetical contemplation has forced my hand, and I feel all the better for it. I will push my photography and design business, I can enjoy the creativity and further develop my skills, and most importantly work flexibly around the family, be there to support Bev, and enjoy my time with the boys. No sooner as I had made this choice then I’m thrilled to announce that I have my next big photography job, creating images for inclusion in a new guide to the Napoleonic sites of St Helena. More than the pay, it is a wonderful feeling that my work has been admired, and that others too will enjoy it in years to come within the pages of book.
More sobering news came this week, when it emerged in the rumour mill that a young girl was taken seriously ill, with needs beyond the range of equipment and resources on St Helena. The RMS was more than four days travel away from St Helena, even with the RMS in port it could be three days to the nearest airport on Ascension, and a flight to a hospital beyond that. It is at such times that our remoteness hits home. Apparently thoughts were being drawn up to utilise a local fishing vessel to transport the girl to Ascension Island, although to me that did not seem a viable option (these were just rumours, I have no idea if this was given serious consideration), but it turns out, previously unknown to me, that nautically speaking St Helena is classed as a vessel at Sea, and as such, under UN convention passing ships within a set range are obliged to answer a distress call and attend if they are able. With this in mind an emergency pan-pan medico signal was made to passing ships within a range of 1600km. Without hesitation the MV Traveller, a Dutch container ship on its way from South Africa to the British Virgin Islands responded and proceeded to make the journey to St Helena. The owners of the ship BigLift, deserve huge praise, absorbing all the costs of their enormous detour to St Helena, and then onto Ascension Island. Thanks to the incredible work of so many incredible people on St Helena, at sea aboard the MV Traveller, at Ascension and the UK the patient arrived in Great Ormond Street Hospital just over 48 hours after the alarm was raised. She is thankfully now stable and receiving the best treatment in the World. I was not a part of this amazing story, but I am a part of St Helena an Island that takes you close to its heart and close to its people, it is truly humbling and inspiring to be here and see people come together for each other, for the sake of one little girl, who now holds the islands hopes with her.