It was the 8th of May, and I was about to embark on my first double dive, two dive sites, one trip. The first was my second dive onto the Darkdale Wreck. The Darkdale, formally called the Empire Oil was a 1st Dale Class Freighting tanker that was torpedoed in James Bay with the loss of 41 lives. On the morning of 21 October 1941 a U-boat was sighted but it was not taken seriously nor reported to the Master of the Darkdale. On 22nd October RFA Darkdale was torpedoed by German submarine U68, it was the first ship to be sunk south of the equator in WWII
She now sits in two pieces in 45m of water, and presents St Helena’s deepest commonly visited dive site. As a war grave the dive carries with it a certain restraint, a respect for those who lost their lives and whose bodies are left in the ship. As a isolated feature on an otherwise barren area of sand she offers sanctuary to a great array and number of fish species.
We explored the wreck and I reached my personal depth record and open water dive limit of 40m. There is something different about deep diving, it feels the same, and carries with it the same tools and techniques, but descending to a depth where you cannot see what is below, or when at that depth, what is above is strange, slightly eerie and exciting. At this depth mistakes can be fatal, there is no rushing to the surface if you panic, or something goes wrong, and although only more experienced divers venture this deep, there is still a feeling of trepidation.
The dive itself was great the highlight being a shoal of Wahoo (Barracuda) that stalked us during our 5m safety stop. Looking into their eyes one could not help but feel they were deciding if we were dinner or not.
The dive was also an opportunity to test my camera case, rated as it is to 40m I was taking it too its limit. Although the case did not leak, the shutter button struggled to release under the pressure of 40m of water above, and the camera fired off useless shots rapidly. I resorted in the end to turning the camera off and on to take a photo. I wasn’t to realise the full consequence of this problem until later.
All back on board the dive boat we headed to our next site, Torm Ledge, another deep dive, a rock wall rising out of 35m of sand and ending in a pinnacle reaching all the way to the surface. Again the feature attracting fish of all shapes and sizes, and covered in encrusting algae, soft corals and feather stars. It has become something of a running joke that I have not yet seen a Devil Ray, despite their very regular sightings around St Helena, and having racked up 60 odd dives, they remained elusive to me. Having waited an hour before our second dive, we started to kit up when dive leader Anthony from Sub Tropic Adventures, already in the water shouted “No Devil Rays, but there is a Whale Shark here!!”. Abandoning all protocol and safety checks we rushed into the water, some people with fins in hand and not on feet.
Quickly descending to around 5m we watched as the huge 12m female shark decided not to stick around and fairly quickly disappeared into the waters away from us.
We continued our dive and much to my amazement a Devil Ray came into view. It may have only been fleeting, but it was a Devil Ray, I had seen one and was elated. Apart from anything I was no longer jinx. Now already pretty pleased with my morning, wrecks, Barracuda, Whale Sharks and Devil Rays, not too bad. But not a patch on what happened next. Had I not been wearing goggles I would of rubbed my eyes in disbelief as our Whale Shark return, with Devil Ray following on its tail just feet behind.
Devil Ray and Whale shark not just on the same dive, but in the same view, astonishing. Devil Rays are big, very big, over 6ft across the wing tips, but it looked tiny as it followed closely behind our Whale Shark.
At this point I return to my previous problems with the camera, firing off multiple shots. Catastrophically my battery had died, my camera would not turn on for love nor money. I was witnessing a once in a life time thing, that so few people in the World have seen and I couldn’t turn on my bloody camera!!
We then spent around 20 minutes at 15m of open water as Devil Ray and Whale shark swam around in circles, often coming within feet of us as we hung in mid water, astonished at what we were witnessing. Words, nor pictures can ever do this justice, it’s just not possible, but thankfully, I was not the only one with a camera and I have to thank Karl Thrower for these shots. Not that he can take all the credit, taken with a Go-Pro, which, despite common belief is very poor at taking photos underwater, they were rescued with some clever processing by myself and I think the black and white toning helps to capture the magical feeling that we felt as these incredible animals graced us with their time and presence.
After a time that was all too quick and as air ran low we returned to the surface to chatter excitedly about what we had seen. And returning to the boat we took of our dive equipment and prepared to head for James Bay. But the Whale Shark is seems had not had enough of us, rising to the surface waters to entice us in to spend a further 10 minutes snorkelling in its company before finally, losing interest and descending to the depths.
Was this the best dive ever? It was certainly mine, and maybe the best dive I will ever have. I will treasure the memories and the feelings of the day forever. St Helena continues to amaze and enthral me and I bloody love it here!