Splendid Isolation?

The past two weeks I have started the process of coming to terms with my imminent (maybe) departure from this wonderful Island. Were we to stay longer we would be delaying the inevitable, many of our friends would of left, and both mine and Bevs work skills would be in decline, now is the right time to go, and Im at ease with it.

That’s not to say I wont miss the place nor that leaving wont be traumatic and upsetting. Last night we had dinner at a friends house, the Gonsavles’s, who, through a strange twist of events which I shall discuss later are leaving tomorrow, rather unexpectedly. This meant a great night of food and booze, ended by tears all round as we said good bye to two of our greatest friends, not just on St Helena but anywhere, they will be back, we will not.

The past two weeks have not been helped with a degree of uncertainty over the functioning of the RMS St Helena, our lifeline to the outside world, which had been in dry dock for two weeks with essential repairs to the starboard (I think) propeller. Following the cancellation of voyage 255 it was with some relief that I welcomed the news that the repairs had been successful and that the ship was on its way to Cape Town to collect passengers and cargo bound for St Helena, my 15th May start date at the National Marine Aquarium was looking good. Good that is until the ship promptly broke again with rumor of seals not sealed and an official announcement stating that one of the engines was stuck in full forward and had to be shut down.

The RMS is currently in Cape Town, whilst passengers shore side are hurriedly moved into hotels, unsure of how they will get to St Helena, and those of us Island side unsure of how we will get off. To make matters worse, Ascension Island government announced that the RAF runway was closed due to the unsafe condition of the Tarmac. As I speak there are around 800 people stranded on Ascension Island, 140 or so in Cape Town, a good number in the Falklands and of course those of us on St Helena who have no idea how or when we might be travelling.

So what’s the significance of Ascension. Well St Helena has an airport that could, in theory, be used by small planes to bridge the gap until the RMS is fixed. However, any plane travelling anywhere must be able to reach the nearest other available airport in case of emergency. Up until three days ago, for St Helena, this was Ascension, now its not, and the nearest functioning airport is somewhere on the West coast of Africa, 1800 miles away!

The significance for me is that I won’t make my 15th May start date, nor, when I do get to the UK will I have my planned time with family that I haven’t seen for almost a year, I will have to start work immediately. Things have been made worse by this all landing on the Easter Bank Holiday Weekend making it difficult, however we have been assured that Saint Helena Government and others are doing everything they can to assess the problems with the ship and asses other options for transporting people and goods on and off the Island, be in on small aircraft or by another vessel, somehow, I’m sure I will get home, and hopefully not too delayed.

It is the first time I have felt Isolated on St Helena. We are reminded all the time through tourism and social media, and when looking out of the window that we are indeed a very small dot in a very vast ocean, but it has never concerned me. The RMS turns up reliably and we have never had any concerns. Only now, as I ready myself to leave the Island, and find that maybe I cant does it hit home just how reliant we are on the one ageing Royal Mail ship and as I look out of my window the Atlantic Ocean ahead of me feels just that bit bigger.

In the mean time we make the most of our last few weeks on the Island. Having already had  my leaving jolly boys outing, my last (or not) card game, the Tyson’s “Bring and Bye” and goodbye dinner with the Bridgewater’s, I am racking up the leaving do’s and still have some planned. I have also missed a few weeks of diving but have managed to plan a few and on Saturday spent over an hour with the marvelous animal you can see below. Punctuate that with a stag do and my first game of golf on the Island and as per usual I have been pretty busy.

The highlight of our “lasts” has been our last walk to Lots Wife ponds, this time with a bunch of nobbers in tow. The scenery of Sandy Bay, trekking through the gates of chaos and along the coastline across narrow paths with shear drops is both staggeringly beautiful and a little nerve wracking. Like no where else on the Island you are immersed in Grand Canyon like orange escarpments, sharp ridges and deep, steep valleys. As the sun beats down heat waves rise from the ground, causing more than a little exhaustion for some of the group.

 

The reward at the end of the trek, once the vertical rope lined drop is navigated, are the ponds, beautiful turquoise crystal clear pools, cut off from the raging Atlantic beyond by a steep volcanic rock wall. The water in the pools is warm, and very salty and the experience feels very tropical as five finger fish dart around and bright red and yellow crabs cling to the rock walls of the ponds.

After a few hours, some swimming, photos, sandwiches and a beer the trek back beckoned and before I knew it my last walk to Lots Wife Ponds was done. Its hard to know what or how to feel right now. One moment I am all set for a 27th April departure, now I don’t know when Im going.

This morning my first port of call was the Solomon’s shipping office to see if when and how I can leave St Helena and make my way to the UK, I am provisionally booked on the 17th May voyage to Cape Town, but there is no news as to whether this voyage will go ahead, or if indeed an alternative will be found before then. Whilst this probably sounds like a criticism of the powers at be, it is not. It’s a right mess they have found themselves in, two broken airports and a crocked old ship, but I have no doubt that people have been working round the clock to find potential solutions over the bank holiday weekend, and I’ve been impressed, on this occasion, at the regularity of communication. Having spent several hours this morning wandering round town, in a useless daze waiting from bread to appear in the local store, the current rumor is that the Queen Elizabeth Cruise ship may be made available for passengers to get to St Helena and for some to leave. If I leave the Island on a luxury cruise ship I wont be at all disappointed, if on the other hand I leave on the wonderful RMS I will be equally happy. Right now I’m still here, and until the point comes that I get on board something and wave good bye I shall just have to continue to enjoy this land of splendid Isolation.

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My quote featured in the Times this week!

Black and White Sharks

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.

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Wahoo (barracuda) watching closely.

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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!