The Atlantic Ocean

The sea has always been special to me. I was brought up on the North Wales coast, in the town of Sunny Rhyl. The sound of sea gulls was always in the air and the beach was never far away. Despite its name Rhyl is not sunny, and yet walks and fun on the beach don’t require sunshine. The vast expanse of the Irish Sea, often grey and uninviting held huge wonder for me. Even when I was young I would start out at the sea wondering what lay beneath the waves, and where I might get to if I swam in a strait line on and on. My passion really grew one week when I was fourteen years old, and I had a work experience placement in my local Sealife centre. I was hooked and I have lived and worked around the sea and marine life for most of my life.

Moving to Saint Helena has been an even more wondrous experience. Living on an Island 10 miles wide, and situated as it is in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean the Sea pervades every part of life. You can see it from almost everywhere, smell it hear it. Everything on the Island has crossed the Atlantic to get here from food to furniture.

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Boat trips allow great opportunity to see and photograph the Island from a different perspective.

_mg_3426-pano-edit_mg_3398-panoRight from when we first arrived on the Island we have been intimately connected to it. Bev teaches Marine Biology, our leisure time is spent in it or on it, and now my work is to study it. Our boys learnt to swim in the sea, they have snorkeled ship wrecks and swam with whale sharks and had experiences that will last a lifetime.

Not long after arriving on St Helena Bev and I learnt to dive, passing our PADI open water qualification. This opened up a whole new world to me. I’ve wanted to dive all my life, but things have considered to prevent me from doing so until we arrived here. Now, I am a Dive Master having passed my open water, advanced, rescue diver and dive master qualifications over the past two years. Being in the water feels right, I feel at home there. I love the freedom of movement the sea provides, no longer confined to a 2D surface I can move up down and in all directions, its exhilarating, and when you add in the beauty and wonder of the thousands of animals that make St Helena their home its pretty special. Where else do you see wildlife in such abundance.

Not that you need to be able to dive to enjoy the amazing marine life here. One week I left my car at the garage to change the tyres. Instead of waiting at the coffee shop, or pub I went snorkeling off the Jamestown wharf, it was an amazing way to pass the time!

Not all the life that relies on the Ocean lives in it. St Helena has a wealth of bird life that nest on the cliffs and fly out to feeding grounds each day.

Some of our earliest experiences of the Marine Life here were the Humpback Whales that arrive here to calf in the Winter and Spring. These incredible animals can be seen mother and calf together in our waters. If you are lucky you’ll see them breaching as they hurtle their huge bodies out of the water and splash down again, seemingly just for the hell of it.

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One of my first Humpback images. A composite of a whale diving as its huge tail fin disappear below the waves.

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Breaching Humpback whale as we waiting on the RMS St Helena

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Of course where there are Whales there are Dolphins. St Helena is blessed with three species, Bottlenosed, Rough Toothed and the magical Pan Tropical. The Pan Tropical dolphin in particular is an acrobat, leaping out of the water in shear exhilaration as it twists and turns in the air. They are found in huge pods over 300 strong.

In recent weeks I have spent so much time at Sea as I have a new job assisting with various Marine Conservation Projects. I have traveled around the Island mapping fishing grounds, and we were lucky enough to be joined by a curious pod of dolphins. Their speed was incredible as they jumped and played on the wake of the boat even small Dolphin calves kept up with us without any bother at all..

For two and a half years I have been splashing, swimming diving and traveling on the seas of St Helena, but nothing could prepare me or beat the two weeks I have just had. Two of my best ever dives started with a night dive around James Bay was superb, and the first chance for me to test my strobes for my underwater camera. They worked a treat as I photographed Lobsters and Octopus, Stone fish and Eels.

This was followed on Saturday with a long awaited dive to Barn Ledge. A seamount that rises up from the sea floor to a height of around 12m. The dive circumnavigates the mount, dropping of the edge and down the huge underwater cliffs. I’ve never seen so many fish, parts of the dive require you to literally push through them as endemic Butterfly Fish and Bright Red Soldier fish shoal in their thousands.

But the diving was just the start, it is whale shark season again and they are here in big numbers. I have personally swam and photographed well over 50 sharks now as I have been lucky enough to become involved in a project to photograph these beautiful animals. The spots of a whale shark are like finger prints, unique to each and the work we are doing contribute to a world wide database of individual sharks to track where in the world they are spotted in an attempt to better understand their migration patterns. I am as in awe now as the first one I saw two years ago. The experience of swimming with these 10meter gentle giants will never ever leave me.

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Just when you think it cant get any better it does, and St Helena gave me one of the most magical experiences of my life. As I swam with one giant of the sea, a pod of friendly Rough Toothed Dolphins decided to join us. At first I just heard clicks and squeaks but as they came closer I realised what the noise was. In an instant I knew that this was once in a life time,stuff, in fact, for many this was never in a life time as I was plunged onto the set of a David Attenborough special. They were curious but timid, coming close and taking a look at me, but never venturing closer than 6 or 7ft. One was particularly curious and followed me, keeping its distance all the while, back to the boat. We had to move on to find more Whale Sharks, but to my huge surprise the Dolphins followed us and joined us on the swim with the next Whale Shark. I’m told this is incredibly rare, although seen by divers and snorkelers it is normally in passing as the dolphins quickly swim away, to have them swim to us, watch us and spend time with us was special, really special and a day that will live long in my memory. My incredible two weeks at Sea were topped off today as Bev, the Boys and friends joined me for a swim in the bay. As fish geeks Bev and I have wanted to see a sun fish (mola mola) for many years, and today we did. Another giant of the sea these weird looking fish can reach 2m in diameter, but cruise slowly through the sea. This one was not at all bothered by our presence, even allowing us to swim right up to it to stroke it, seemingly enjoying something of a back scratch. Sadly, with an attitude of not being able to top the experiences just gone I did not have my camera with me, but as I high-fived my wife in celebration I knew once again that nothing, perhaps ever, will top the week I have had, thank you St Helena and thank you Atlantic Ocean.

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Weddings, who’d of though it

We left the UK on a new adventure just over two years and four months ago. Although Bev had work and would be teaching (albeit in very different circumstance), I was stepping into the complete unknown, no job, no plan, no clue. I knew I would have some time on the Island, and I had always wanted to take up photography as a hobby, so, equipped with an amazon kindle book, and a £500 second hand canon with kit lens I started learning what all the buttons did.

Some of my earliest shots before I left the UK

I had no idea that it would take me anywhere. Shortly after we arrived on the Island I secured my first job with the tourism office, taking photos of the local restaurants and B&Bs etc. I had to get a work permit and register my business, Paul Tyson Photography (creative eh!?!) .

Photos of mixed standards of tourism establishments required creative thinking when it came to angles and lighting. Now I know why those glossy hotel brochures always look better than the real thing!

My landscape work was already quite well known and established by then, it seems I arrived at a  good time when excellent professional photographer Darrin Henry was busy travelling the world, and there were no other commercial photographers on the Island. Realising there was a gap in the market I promoted my new business, I remember Bev telling me, that “Any money I made from photography, I could spend on photography, but “(quite understandably) I wasn’t to spend any of the money she was earning!

Early St Helena Landscapes

Fair enough, but this provided me all the motivation I needed, the more money I make, the more toys I can buy. Inspired, and slightly jealous of friend David Higgins and his big lens for photographing St Helena’s wildlife, I bought a 120 – 300mm f2.8 Sigma lens. It was one of those ones that people look at and think “he must be making up for something” or simply, “what a tosser”!

My new f2.8 300mm lens allowed me to take these shots.

But I loved it and I could afford it, largely because of a new contract, and one I was most proud of, a commission from French Consul to St Helena to take exclusive photographs for a new guide book to Napoleonic sites on St Helena.

Photos and book cover from “On the Tracks of Napoleon” my first published images.

Next came night skies, we finally started to see the odd clear night sky and it was breathtaking, I simply had to get the gear to capture it on camera, another lens beckoned.

Some of my first Milky Way shots over our house in Half Tree Hollow.

In the mean time I was getting enquiries for studio type photo shoots, so thought I should pursue this and get some more gear. Backdrops, flash stands, wireless triggers and shoot through umbrellas followed. I think by now Bev may of been starting to regret telling me  I could spend anything I earnt on photography!!

The studio work didn’t automatically follow though, the requests continued, but, having set what I considered to be very reasonable prices given the outlay I had made, bookings did not come my way. My first studio shoot eventually came at the end of November 2015, it went well, very well, largely because of the gorgeous little girl I was photographing, and once the photos hit facebook the bookings came in.

My first studio shoot with the most gorgeous, smiling, happy young baby ever!

I soon began to realise that studio photo shoots, and portraits was a whole new ball game, not only did I have to know how to work a camera, and lighting, I had to know how to work a person! When amateurs come to you expecting to look like a super model you need to learn how to position and pose them, how to make them feel comfortable and relaxed with you, as a male photographer I think this is particularly challenging! Once again I took to you tube, and added to my 120GB of photography tutorials!

I started to feel the need to buy more gear. This time, it was a brand new camera, my first full frame, entry level professional camera. Wow what a difference, it allowed me to push the boundaries of what I could do, particularly in low light photography. Following on from basic studio work I was asked for more complex fashion type shoots, and my first real maternity shoot.

Some of my more accomplished studio work. Many were no where like this, over processed and overdone in many cases, but all part of the learning curve.

Again it was a new commission that helped pay for the new camera. I was commissioned to photograph all of the work that falls under St Helena Government’s Environment and Natural Resources directorate. This was a fantastic job, allowing me to see the workings of everything from the forestry team to the abattoir, from renewable energy to waste management. It was a mammoth job but again thoroughly enjoyable as I got to meet Saints from all walks of life.

From pigs in the butchery to people planting endemic seedlings, ENRD does it all.

In September 2015 the airport project started to hot up, as first flight after first flight landed in succession. First ever plane to land, first jet powered plane, first airliner. By now I had grown in confidence as a photographer and on the Island in general and I was pushy enough to speak to the important people and get myself runway access alongside the Islands media representatives. The results of this have been amazing, and my airport photographs can now been seen around the World as St Helena became the new hot tourism destination. My shots our the Islands wonderful landscapes started to appear in prestigious travel sites such as Conde Nast.  Of course we all know that the airport did not open, but in terms of World media, the wind sheer disaster was now an even bigger story and I had contacts from major newspapers and media outlets around the world. My photos of the airport and various planes landing can now been seen globally on sites ranging from the Times, the Independent and the BBC in the UK to USA today. Shots of the first commercial plane to land were quickly put on my facebook page and received over 100,000 views, astounding!

The first landing and first commercial jet liner to land on St Helena

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One of my images as it appeared in the Time Newspaper.

Not only were my photos appearing in media outlets, I was now to be featured in World famous London store Harrods, as I was commissioned to produce point of sale images for St Helena coffee!_mg_2620-edit

Fancy a coffee? I have to admit this is one of my favorite photos, taken on a log in my lounge! The steam isn’t even real!

Photo shoots became a mainstay but a new and interesting job came up with Enterprise St Helena to produce interpretation panels for tourist spots around the Island. This was a brilliant new challenge, combining photography with graphic design and writing, as well as proving a fascinating journey through St Helena historical archives and old photos. Learning more about the history of the Island and getting paid was great, but more importantly its wonderful to know that when I leave St Helena there will be something I produced, left behind for others to enjoy.

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One of 14 interpretation panels soon to be erected across St Helena.

As an aside I was also able to use my graphic skills when I was commissioned to produce the Governors official Christmas card. This was a test in itself, as the request was for a card featuring Lisa Phillips, her lovely black Labrador, dusty, and all twelve of Dusty’s new puppies!! Over 140 photos were taken to produce this card, mostly consisting of dogs bums and tails. But it was a huge pleasure, and the puppies were just lovely.

Colourful bokeh of Christmas lights with a bauble

Governor Lisa Phillips and her adorable Labrador pups. As a thank you for this job the boys were able to go and meet the puppies and spent over an hour cuddling and playing with them. They are fabulous.

Another “first” hit St Helena in October 2016 as an electrical storm shot lightening bolt after lightening bolt down upon us. thunder and lightening is a rare occurrence on St Helena, with some reports stating its over twenty years since the last one, making this storm the first ever to be photographed and shared around the World from St Helena.

These shots received over 20,000 views on facebook!

And so in December and January 2016/17 I find myself as a wedding photographer, with four bookings in as many weeks. Not my first I have done a few here and there, but as I have improved along with my gear these have been the first that I have charged sensibly for (relative to the amount of work) and that I feel accomplished in my work. I am enormously proud of the photos I have taken during wedding season. It is certainly a challenge, working fast, adjusting to rapidly changing light conditions, the photography is a challenge in itself, but its only now that I realise a wedding photographer is also the wedding director, and is looked upon to direct people from venue to venue, into groups, and to help ensure the day runs smoothly. It is daunting, hard work, but immensely rewarding.

If you’d of told me back in July 2014, as we packed our bags for the unknown that I would be a professional wedding photographer before I left St Helena Id of laughed at you, but as the New Year arrives and I look back on my time here I have come a long way. I am building both experience and a portfolio, and who knows where this may take me.

My readers can help me out here, have you recently got married in the UK, or been a close part of a wedding? How much did you pay the photographer, and please, how do my images compare to this. Id love to hear some open honest critique so I can better gauge exactly where I am.

 

 

 

 

Life

So we are now exactly 17 months into our journey and we have most definitely passed into a place where St Helena feels like home, and this feels like normal life. This time last year we had just experienced six months of whale watching, exploring our new home, walking, swimming diving and snorkelling with whale Sharks, in what felt like a working holiday, one of those volunteer type placements that students do in their gap year! But this year things are distinctly different, but no less brilliant. Life is more “normal” this summer. In fact we are still waiting for summer to arrive, it has been a very long and slow burn with St Helena’s wet, misty mild winter clinging on well past Christmas and into the New Year. The odd day of glorious sunshine arrives, heralding the start of months of sun, only to be wiped out by the evening by the next wave of fog rolling in from the Atlantic.

This has had its effect on our leisure activities, the usual snorkelling and sea swimming has been reduced, and I didn’t start diving until well into December this year as sea temperatures have been slow to rise apparently a result of the large El Nino effect this year. This has also had an effect on the Whale Sharks this year as we await our first swim with them. They have been around St Helena for some time, but only recently have they moved to the North Western, leeward side of the Island where swimming is safe.

Despite the weather we did manage a walk to Cox’s Battery under the magnificent gaze of the Barn.

This has all led us to think and appreciate the other elements to our life here, the general day to day living, the friendly meet and greet in the street and work, which, as far as work can ever be, is pretty great.

Bev introduced a new Marine O’level qualification ten months ago, not only was this a first for St Helena, it’s such a new qualification that it’s only the second year it’s been available anywhere in the World. It is great testament to Bev, and the students therefore that the recently released results read 100% pass, with 1 A*, 1B and 4 C’s. Fantastic result and if teachers are to be blamed when things go bad, there should damn well be some credit when things go well. Im so very proud of the positive impact Bev has made and continues to make on the Island and at Prince Andrew School.

As for me, my working days continue to be varied and interesting. Take last Friday, my day started with two hours of preparation for an online Air Traffic Control exam, the first step in a long process of my next potential dream career. My current dream career of professional photographer was next on the list as I spent a very enjoyable few hours at Rosemary Plain Coffee Plantation where one of the World’s rarest, best and most expensive coffees are grown. I have a new job toSt Helena Coffee produce photos that will potentially be used for point of sale imagery in Harrods, London! I then came home and did further work on some tourist interpretive signage that will soon be erected around the Island. This has been a fantastic job incorporating my photography, my design and much of my text and research that will hopefully be enjoyed by tourists long after I have left St Helena.

Next up was domestic duties as I prepared home-made Carrot and Coriander soup for Bev, nothing better than home cooked dinner when you get home from work as I do my best to juggle my almost full time work with being domestic Dad. This was followed by building another den for the boys who were looking forward to having a friend for a sleep over that night. I feel generally quite proud with how I balance things, there is no doubt that since I have picked up more and more work, the house is less and less clean and tidy, and granted I still struggle with the children and finding enough time for them, but overall Im doing ok at it all.

 

We were very proud of Oliver last weekend as he embarked on his first camping trip with the Local Beavers and Scouts. And what a weekend it was, as we drove to the campsite across the Islands central ridge, the journey to the end of the World sprang to mind as we drive through fog so thick I could barely see the end of the car, never mind the road. As we descended from the ridge the fog thinned and visibility increased to a positively clear 20m or so. We arrived at the camp site, an area called Thompson wood, which, under different circumstances I imagine very beautiful, but today it reminded me of summer holidays in the Lake District. Wet, cold muddy and really not inviting. Oliver was undeterred and although nervous he ran off with his friends, leaving me and Charlie to try and get the car out of the quagmire! Oliver spent two nights on camp, sleeping in a sleeping bag on the floor, eating food they had made and cooked on a log fire, running around a muddy field and playing with friends. He came home in the same clothes I left him in, having not changed out of them even once, he smelt bad and his hair was disgusting, but he absolutely loved it! Considering we were over four thousand miles from the UK, this was camping UK style, in a way that only Brits can, or would even consider doing!

This last weekend has seen a return to the life we remembered from last summer on St Helena. On Saturday we celebrated Charlie’s 5th Birthday with a barbeque, swimming and water sports fun in Ruperts Valley. Charlie, having had his first taste on Jet Ski’s a few weeks ago at Lemon Valley was desperate for another go, so we agreed to hire one of the local providers, Oceano Extreme. Jet Ski’s, knee boarding, banana boat rides and speed boats were the order of the day and fun was had by all. Back in the UK I’ve no doubt that Charlies 5th birthday would have been a party at soft play, or maybe at home with a bouncy castle, the fact that we can have a barbeque by the sea, swim and enjoy jet skis is just one of the normalities, and huge bonuses of life here.

Sunday started as a beautiful sunny day, and despite all being tired and feeling rather lazy we decided to clear off the hangover with a swim and snorkel in James Bay. As the waters have now warmed up a bit we plunged in and enjoyed the site of hundreds of butterfly fish, curious puffers and the ever present five fingers!

 

Despite all the positives, life on St Helena was brought into stark reality last week, as a baby, born prematurely needed to be medevacked off the Island. An incredible joint effort and community driven machine suddenly rolled into action. The RMS, on its way back from Ascension Island was hurried to arrive in port some 12 hours early. Containers were unloaded and loaded through the night, and travellers, due to depart on the 17th January were contacted and rushed to prepare for departure a full 24 hours early.  Tourists cut short their holidays, crew cut short their shore leave and volunteers and staff at the hospital worked tirelessly through the night and early morning to ensure that the young child was on board with all the necessary life support equipment for the journey.

It is with huge sadness that I tell you the poor boy did not make the journey and passed away on route to Walvis Bay, Namibia. I cannot begin to imagine the suffering of the poor parents, one of whom travelled whilst the other waited anxiously at home. There are many sides to the airport story on St Helena and whether it will bring improvements, and prosperity to the Island, or destroy a way of life and community, but I feel the community on St Helena is more than strong enough to survive a few more tourists and when events occur as they did last week it highlights the desperate need to be able to get patients to medical care quicker than is currently possible. The hospital here is undergoing a multi-million pound upgrade, the staff are nothing short of incredible, but it is a stark reality that a population of four thousand people can never have all of the specialist care and experience that a medical team in a major city hospital will have, and there will always be a need to get people to that care as quickly as possible. We wait with bated breath to hear when indeed that airport will be open and quicker passage is possible.

I leave today’s blog with the words of Lisa Rhodes, Hospital Senior Nursing Officer, all round incredible woman, and Im proud to say good friend. I recall a message from Lisa before she arrived here, the strictly London City girl incredibly nervous about how she would cope on such a small Island and close community, everyone knowing each other’s business. Lisa travelled with the patient to Walvis bay and was integral in the effort to get him there, she wrote to the local paper whilst on route to Walvis bay and here is what she had to say. For all the ups and downs on St Helena, the problems people face and the wonderful experiences we have had, this is what St Helena is all about, and anyone who has had the privilege of living and working here, experiencing life here will know this all too well.

“ I am sitting on the RMS at a bit of a loss for words with the events of the last week. Everyone involved in this situation is truly devastated and our hearts are breaking for two wonderful parents and their beautiful brave little boy.

In the midst of all this I feel I have a need to say thank you.

Thank you to all of the staff in the hospital, who, when faced with an emergency ensured that everything kept running smoothly. It is a testament to your knowledge and skill. This allowed those who were needed to be able to focus on the job in hand. I am so very proud of the amazing team we have become; Cleaners, Nursing Assistants, Nurses, Doctors, Kitchen staff, Admin staff, Pharmacy, Laboratory,…..the list goes on. We were faced with a situation that no one wanted to be in, but together we dealt with it. In a time of negativity and bad press towards the services, it needed to be highlighted that an outstanding job was done by all.

I need to thank all of those who stayed late and came in early to help organise the medivac effort. We could not have done this without the hard work and support of our Director and Assistant Director. A huge number of hours were put in across SHG to try and get a solution. To the guys who were at the hospital at 5am to help us move the huge amount of equipment needed for our journey, thank you for your patience and care with our equipment and our very precious cargo.

To the RMS and shipping for their help in getting into St Helena early, and allowing us to leave earlier than scheduled. The Captain and crew have been no less than outstanding throughout. To all the passengers who had to leave a day early, thank you. Thank you for accepting this change of plan with such grace and compassion and for being so supportive towards us all on this trip. To the staff on the wharf loading and unloading passengers at unusual hours so we could get away early….thank you.

It is once again a testament to the Island that in times of crisis and need, everyone steps up and stands together regardless of whether they are Saint, British, South African or from elsewhere on the globe. The team work that I witnessed throughout could not be matched anywhere in the World and I am so privileged to be part of this team and this Island.

No number of thank you’s will ever be enough to convey my gratitude”.

Lisa Rhodes. Hospital Nursing Officer.

Studio Photoshoot

Ok, so I realise my last and this blog have little to do with St Helena, but they are part of my life here and as this is my life in pictures it constitutes part of my life on St Helena.

I have done a few studio shoots now, but this was my first that involved a model, just one person, a very beautiful young model, and as it happen baby sitter to Oliver and Charlie, who asked me to do a studio shoot with her.

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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!