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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The Goose got fat, and was eaten…

Well its been our third Christmas on St Helena, and once again it was new faces but the same fun. We have gotten used to St Helena traditions, and although the warm weather and sunshine always prevents us from gaining that warm Christmas build up feeling, we never the less enjoy our time here. Christmas in St Helena is less complicated than in the UK, there is no shopping rush for example, in fact, if you haven’t ordered it by mid October, then it aint coming for Christmas. No mad rushing round town on Christmas eve for me. And whilst we always miss our families enormously this time of year, not having the pressure of which family will miss out on our company is a relief.

We do miss home more than any other time of year though but the constant trickle of Christmas themed events help to stave this off. The traditional Pilling Primary School Christmas service is a welcome treat. This year our boys had prominent roles, Oliver, a rowdy local berating the presence of Roman Forces, and Charlie, the Star of the show, well, yes, actually the star of the show.

 

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For me this year was extra special, with having no permanent job on St Helena, I have always struggled with those close relationships with the locals, I know lots, say hello to lots, but rarely am I thought of or included in local dinner invites, parties or other traditions. And as such it was lovely this year to be invited to the New Horizons Christmas dinner. I have been volunteering with New Horizons for as long as I have been on the Island, providing photographs of their regular youth sporting events, and coaching two junior footballs teams and refereeing games on Sundays through a very long season. It was lovely to feel that I have been accepted by this dedicated group of people. As is traditional at Christmas parties on St Helena a Secret Santa was in force, this time a naughty one, and my gifts of fluffy handcuffs compliment nicely the mistletoe adorned boxer shorts I received at my actual works do. Bev also had her own works Secret Santa to provide for and creatively came up with this shortbread portrait of the recipient.dsc01606

Oliver this year was chosen for the schools traditional Christmas carol singing service, held outside of the Canister (Tourist office) in town each year. Oliver it seems has begun to follow in his Dads footsteps in developing a love for performing in public, something about the crowds and applause seems to tick some boxes for the both of us. It was lovely to see and hear him enjoying himself with some of his close school friends.

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Events and parades are the number one thing in what St Helena refers to as festival season. The highlight of these for me and for many is the festival of lights. Primary schools on the Island are very competitive and all strive to provide the biggest and best shows on the Island, but I think with Festival of Lights Pilling Primary school takes the accolade as biggest and best, with hundreds of people, cars and vehicles dressed from metaphorical head to toe in Christmas lights, parade through town with music and fake snow aplenty. Its a sight to behold and the hundreds of spectators were treated once again to a wonderful Christmas sight.

I was thrilled this year to be invited by Governor Lisa Phillips to photograph her and Rusty, her lovely Labrador for the official Christmas Card, and, Rusty’s twelve tiny black puppies, what a joy. I had such fun although over 140 photographs were needed to create this one card, I had a lot of photos of bums and tails and precious few of puppies sat still facing the camera.

Colourful bokeh of Christmas lights with a bauble

The Governor provided a wonderful Christmas address this year, which, I was very pleased to hear thanked the partners of TC offices for their contribution to the Island. We are often berated by locals for “taking Saint jobs” and the like, but the truth us us forgotten partners contribute and awful lot to St Helena in the way of volunteering for projects and charities.

Christmas eve was very different to that in the UK as I took part in the annual Christmas dive with Sub-Tropic adventures, a dive in Christmas hats presenting its own challenges!

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The afternoon was spent with good company playing games in the Sun on Rosemary Plain. A tradition started by our friends the Days and Davids and which we have tried to carry on, hoping that others will take this up when we leave. It certainly makes for a different Christmas when tropical sun shine is the theme. That evening we enjoyed a more traditional time, as we settled down, just the family, to watch The BFG, a wonderful film, highly recommended. After reading “A Night Before Christmas” a tradition in my family since I was a small boy, the boys went to bed and, with the fear of Father Christmas going home if they were still awake, fell asleep very quickly. Bev and I then nervously wrapped and placed the presents in their stockings.

The next morning was Christmas like many others, presents, mess and pancakes for breakfast! The boys opened their presents, Oliver in a considered, taking his time manor, Charlie with a more youthful, rip it open and move to the next one approach. Santa brought them their requests for desks, not perhaps the most normal requests for 8 and 5 year old’s, but they loved them non the less. Grandparents from afar were well remembered with toys and gifts a plenty under the tree, all of which were gratefully received by the boys and ourselves. Thank you.

And so on to the afternoon, and this year, we were not hosting, but instead joining 18 others for a bring and share Christmas in the sun. Our contribution pushed my culinary skills, with Paxo stuffing and pigs in blankets! Although I also made some Whisky glazed roast carrots, Parsnips and spiced red cabbage, whilst Bev provided the traditional Yule Log. All arrived at the party on time and before long a feast fit for a king was unwrapped from its silver lining and we all dug in. Lots of food and drink fueled a party which lasted into the night and caused me to miss my boxing day dive the next morning. But boy was it worth it.

Boxing day was another get together, this time with the Bridgewaters for another full on Christmas dinner, followed by an early night! I was exhausted. And so that was our quiet St Helena Christmas for 2016. I still cant quite believe its our third on the Island, time has flown. When we arrived in September 2014 we would never of guessed what lay ahead. As Summer settles in we look forward to the New Year, and we await to see what the next three Christmas’s will bring

 

Indian Summer

So winter has set in on St Helena, the Winter Solstice arrived and was accompanied by wind and rain and cloudy skies, but other than that one day, the weather has been exceptionally wonderful. Day times have seen clear blue skies, warm sunshine and blue waters, whilst evening shave been pleasant and cool. We waited a long time for summer to arrive this year but it is without doubt hanging on in for us as we count down to the end of our second year on the Island.

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The Sunsets in June have been spectacular.

I wasn’t sure how to tone title this blog entry, and in some ways I feel things are becoming a bit repetitive as week by week and month by month we continue to have an incredible time here on our little Island. The past three weeks are no different, and it was only a conversation with a friend back home in the UK that made me think about how wonderful “normal” everyday life here is.

I was asked, “so are you enjoying it there, what do you get up to”? To which my response was, well the weather is normally great, we go diving once a week, walking through stunning landscapes, see friends for dinner or parties, drink beer watching fantastic sunsets, play football, swimming, snorkelling, swim with whale sharks, watch dolphins dance in the waves the list is endless. It sounds like the world’s best holiday, only it is our normal life here.

We took advantage of the continued summer by taking a walk to Sandy Bay Barn. A spectacular walk that takes you through green grass and conifer trees, out to a barren, mars like landscape with its fair share of climbing and hairy moments, and no shortage of breath-taking views looking along the coastline and back in towards the lush green interior of Diana Peak. I have to admit though I was reluctant to do the walk, having planned it a week before I had not accounted for twisting both my ankles playing football the day before.

 

It was my first start of the St Helena Football season as my team, The Bell Boys took on the Wolves. In a more competitive game than the final score suggests we ran out 4-0 winners as I put in a man of the match performance and scored my first goal for the team, a lovely 25 yard volley over the stranded goal keeper. Having a job that requires weekend work back in the UK, I haven’t had the opportunity for eleven a side football for many years before arriving here, and I thoroughly enjoy it. The enjoyment made all the more when you read your name and exploits on the back pages of the papers, and your name on the radio sports section.

Not that I am the only Tyson to be grabbing the headlines. Charlie has now started his first steps in competitive football, joining the beginner’s league on the Island with one of two teams I coach and manage, aptly named the mini BellBoys. Charlie and his friends thoroughly enjoyed their first game in a hard fought 2-2 finish. Meanwhile, Oliver’s team has taken the step up from the beginners league to the primary league, and are the youngest team of a very widely split age group. Jungle Rangers, made up of year 3 children will find themselves on the end of a big defeat most weeks as they take on children three years older than them. But in their first game, against Skull Fire they gave an incredible account of themselves. Oliver took on the role of the most experienced player on our team and stepped up to the plate in outstanding fashion scoring a goal, earning man of the match and driving his team on like a young Steve Gerrard. There was a time when I wasn’t sure if Oliver had it in him to be a descent football but as he stood out there facing children twice his size he showed skill, drive, determination and leadership and I was bursting with pride at the final whistle, genuinely holding back tears as I congratulated his and all the teams performance.

We leave for our midterm break in a few days, and Oliver is currently quite sad to be leaving and missing his football. Of course it will be wonderful to see our friends and family back home, but the timing is something of a blow as we are all set to miss eight weeks in the middle of the season.

As the weather holds up I continue to dive regularly, the most spectacular of recent dives being a warm sunny morning at Sugar Loaf Point. The dive itself follows an underwater valley packed full of life from fish to crayfish, from starfish to Devil Rays. As we look towards our next break we will travel to Ascension Island, a place not on the regular travel and tourists routes, thanks to some friends made on St Helena I hope I get chance to dive in new waters and see more and new unique endemic species.

 

And so we came to Oliver’s 8th Birthday, and by all accounts we had planned very little and had a fairly normal weekend in store. It is only when you then look back and recount that weekend that you realise how special our time here is. Oliver’s Birthday weekend started with Donkey Walking.  Those of you who have followed from the start will recall our regular donkey walks. We haven’t been for a while and it was lovely to get back out there and see the weekly event well supported with lots of new faces. The walking itself is a gentle walk along the central ridge of the Island, with spectacular views to Sandy Bay to the South and Thompson’s wood to the North. The Donkeys are a lovely added extra and provide good company as we amble along the road chatting and taking in the views, and the children love it.

For the afternoon it was a hastily arranged barbecue fun at Rupert’s Beach with two other birthday boys. Sun, sea, sand and food, what more could you want. I took a snorkel round the bay and enjoyed a prolonged swim with a curious Green Turtle, the boy’s dug a hole and everyone was happy!

 

On Sunday there was more football to be played, and an afternoon spent filling our bellies at St Helena first ever Rib Off. Four chefs, (three amateurs and one professional) battles to provide the 140 or so guests with the best, stickiest, tastiest ribs they could. At a pricey £20 a head, everyone was determined to get their fill of the food and drink, and with over £3200 raised for local charities it was a great day. Winner of course was Mike Harper, professional chef, closely followed by Colin Owen, Financial Secretary and Paul McGinnety, Assistant Chief Secretary. Sadly, coming in last place was the competitions only Saint representative, Councillor Eddy Duff with a somewhat embarrassing result as the only contestant with no votes on the day. But it was not about the competition it was about the day, and as the sun shone once more everyone went home with bellies full of food and a smile on their face after a thoroughly enjoyable in what is hoped to be the of what will becomes an annual event.

The last event for Oliver’s, now somewhat drawn out, Birthday was his highlight, and something he had been looking forward to for many weeks, a trial scuba dive in the pool with his school friends. Known as the Bubble Maker, this allows children to try out scuba gear and swim underwater in the pool. Oliver and his three friends were clearly nervous to start, the gear feeling heavy and cumbersome to them. But they all soon got the hang of things and before long were swimming underwater like fish in the sea doing laps around the pool and playing search and recovery games. We finished the evening with a fantastic Whale cake by one of our friends on Island, Tina Johnson. If you need any cakes making on St Helena she is your lady.

 

As we come to the end of our second year on Island it amazes me how fast time has flown. With just six days until we board the RMS once more it is unfathomable to think that we may have been heading back to the UK for good at this stage, how has two years go by so quickly?

The contents of this blog entry contains just three weeks’ worth of stuff. It does not include the walk and bike ride we had today, the other birthday barbecue at Rupert’s Beach,  nor the other two games of football we enjoyed. Nor does it include the regular cards nights I have every other Thursday, the drinks and food with friends watching the progression of England and Wales in the Euro’s; my photography work; Bevs full time teaching during the High Schools GCSE period; or the boys school trips to the fire station or forest school. It does not include anything of the stag do I went on touring round the Islands pubs by bus, nor the leaving party Bev went to, the two other dives I have done or the afternoon at the Island first pop up cinema. It does not speak of the Governor coming round for a few drinks with Bev and some of her friends, or the wonderful night I had listening to the big easy at the Mule Yard or the brilliant night out we had last night, as 150 people gathered for a joint 60th and 50th Birthday party bringing saints and ex-pats together for drinks and the big easy band.

So, why is it that time flies here on St Helena? Well that is why, the endless list of fun that we have here, packing so much in to such a short space of time, and best of all, it’s just a normal month in the middle of winter.

The end of two years on St Helena brings with it some sadness. People who travelled with us on the RMS to start our adventure together all those months ago are about to leave, and for some, unlike us, they will not be coming back. We are about to lose some truly wonderful friends from our lives that have been bedrocks of support friendship and laughter and who have shared every step of this incredible journey with us. Living on the Island they probably won’t read this, but if when you are home you take a nosey at my blog, then I say goodbye to Jon Lambdon, The Parkinsons, half of the Grahams, The Durkins, half the Hathways, and one more of the Hannahs. I will miss you all immensely and life here will really not be quite the same without you. Twelve months ago we closed the first chapter on our time here, as one set of friends departed, this week marks the close of the second chapter. But we are, in my view, the lucky ones. We get to open a new chapter, probably our last one on St Helena. We return to the UK looking forward to seeing friends and family, but with our first weekend back on St Helena already planned. I cant wait for it.

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!

 

 

 

On Sunday I Swam With Whale Sharks

On Sunday I swam with a whale shark, this is how an amazing week on St Helena started, as Bev the boys and myself embarked on my first whale shark watching trip of the season. By St Helena standards this season has been disappointing, poor sea conditions and the sharks basing themselves to the North East of the Island have meant difficult conditions for swimming and for travelling for those of a delicate stomach. Although in good numbers around the Island as a whole, the sharks have been in smaller groups than last year. Coupled with their new tendency to feed just below the surface as opposed to breaking the surface as they did last year, they have been difficult to spot. Our first trip out proved to be a disappointment, a strong swell, members of the group with sea sickness, and a confusion over the booking numbers meant that I was already disappointed before a shark was even found. Once the solitary male was found, three boats and one shark, meant that our time in the water was very limited, and a brief glance of a shark swimming away from me was all I had. But that is nature, it cannot be predicted or harnessed, and neither would you want it to be, and undeterred I booked for a second trip on Wednesday morning.

On Monday I started my PADI Rescue Diver Training, in the water role playing rescue scenarios, and pretending to give mouth to mouth whilst dragging my instructor through the water proving both amusing and damn hard work. It is just another privilege of being here that the value and shear accessibility of diving means that just over 12 months since passing my open water, I have embarked on my Rescue Diver course*

On Monday evening I was diving again, but this time in my favourite capacity, a night dive. With great excitement we travelled to a site North East of James bay and, my excitement grew as our dive leader explained the cave that we would first enter, before taking a drift dive down the coast line. This time with my won dive torch I looked forward to a bright light to unveil the night’s mysteries I descended with the last light of sunset still showing the way ahead. We swam towards the cave and, once given the all clear from the dive leader popped up inside the air pocket. As gentle swell compressed the air pocket we needed to keep equalising, a strange experience when sat with you head out of water with mask and regulator off. Another strange product of the swell was the intermittent fog, generated in the air as the pressure rose, and disappearing just as quickly as the swell dropped away. With each swell the fog reduced visibility in the air to near zero, before quickly revealing the depths of the cave just as quickly as it had disappeared.

We descended back into the water and headed off along the coast line, a visual theatre of glowing eyes, strange worms, crayfish and octopus. More at ease than my last night dive I took it upon myself to find a quite space and turn off my dive torch, to once again experience the kaleidoscope of glitter around me as bioluminescent bacteria in the water glow and twinkle like stars all around.

After more than an hour in sheer amazement we rose to the surface and back onto the boat. Diving is a strange experience in that the group all share the experience, but it is not until the experience is over that we can talk about it. Did you see the octopus, how big was that lobster and, much to my disappointment, “did anyone else see the turtle”? I didn’t, but as I drank soup and retreated into my own thoughts on the journey home I reminded myself once more of how lucky we are to of had the opportunity to live on this Island.

On Tuesday, I was back in the water, completing my rescue diver course, Im proud to say I am nowe a qualified rescue diver, and have subsequently started my Dive Masters course, having racked up over 40 dives since we arrived.

That afternoon I was diving again, my week moving from the ridiculous to the sublime. A lovely dive to one of my favourite sites at Robinson’s valley. This time with an relatively inexperienced group, or those who dive infrequently, and including 13 year old Harriot who has just passed her open water.

On Wednesday I had another opportunity to swim with the whale sharks, and this time, far from being disappointed I was left somewhat speechless at a wonderful experience. Once again the sea conditions were poor, and as a result, by the time we found a shark many of the party were feeling too ill to swim. This left me, and just three others keen to jump in the water.

We swam with a huge female shark, some 11-12meter in length. As she swam gently feeding near the surface she provided ample opportunity for me to swim all around taking photos, video and generally hanging in awe as one of the most stunningly beautiful animals in the animal kingdom did its best to enthral and entertain. I leave you not with words, but with the video that hopefully goes some way to showing just how incredible an experience this is.

On Sunday I swam with a whale shark, that was just the start of another extraordinary week, on this extraordinary Island.

The Best Yet

I pointed my torch upwards, my hand above my head as I watched the bubbles dance and flash in the beam of light. We broke the surface to the sound of gasps, a short silence was quickly broken by chattering’s of delight after what was, to all of us, an amazing experience. As I look at a solitary star breaking the cloud we head back to shore, the excited conversation fuelled by our shared experience and a degree of cold chattering.

Night diving is a unique experience, the lack of sound, tunnel vision and inability to communicate makes diving a very insular personal experience at the best of times. As you descend into complete darkness, the sound of your own breathing is all you can hear, the flash of torches around you all you can see, night diving is on a whole new level of alone in your own thoughts.

A group of eight descended together at Long Ledge, a slowly descending wall of rock running perpendicular from St Helena, and home to one of the most diverse dive sites on the Island. Only my second night dive I could feel my rapid breathing, as I keep a very close eye on my dive buddy, and for today, dive leader Ross. The advanced dive book tells me it is important to keep in close contact with your buddy on a night dive, but in reality, the light from a torch, in complete blackness can be seen from a long way away. Nevertheless I maintained eye contact as we descended slowly, the bottom of the ocean only revealed as my torch beam moved across the blackness like a search light looking into a night sky.

Once at the depth of our dive, the group re-convened before moving off. Following our pre-dive briefing and having dived the site before, I knew we were heading towards a cave. The experience is surreal; you concentrate on the small circle of light from your dive torch, black all around with the exception of the other search lights moving like a disco glitter ball all around you. Like a moth I am drawn to my own beam of light, drifting off into my own world I forget about the world around me, my breathing disappears into my sub conscious and all that exists in the world is the flash of colourful fish, or ghostly elongated worms that sway in the swell. My dream state is broken by the waving of light in front of my eyes, my buddy checking I am ok and still with the world I give the typical “ok” hand signal before we move on together into the mouth of the cave.

At the mouth of the cave the bright white light of my buddy’s torch lands upon a huge red octopus, startled by our appearance his colour and texture flash and change as he decides his next action, take off and jet propel away, or camouflage and slowly slink off into the gloom. Wracked with indecision he sits, motionless, waiting for his new and unexpected adversary to make its move.

As we move into the cave it is narrower than I remember, the spot light of my torch brings the walls and ceiling in around me. I’m very conscious of my breathing now, knowing that a deep inhale will result in my head crashing into the delicate and beautiful sun corals clinging to the roof of the cave, whilst a sudden exhale will result in my stirring up the silt and mud on the cave floor, reducing visibility to zero. Crayfish are now all around us, the bright orange back drop of coral broken only by armies of crayfish, moving backwards and sideways but always with a gaze fixed upon us.

My dive buddy has bright yellow fins, a good job as otherwise I am clueless as to which light in the dark I should be staying in contact with, but the experienced leader knows where I am, and gives reassuring checks whenever he can get my attention. We move out of the cave and along the wall of Long Ledge. I have been here before, many times, but today the wall is bigger, it grows upwards and disappears into the haze. Now at 19m my torch will not reach the top of the wall, it goes on forever into the gloom. Its crevices and cracks are populated with black feather stars, twisting turning and waving their spider like arms in the current catching particles of plankton drifting in shore. Fish, startled by our lights dash from hole to hole, the sleep disturbed by these inconsiderate light bearers.

As I look closely at the wall, I see two small lights shining right back at me. Tiny and insignificant I am drawn towards these lights, until the twinkling becomes the reflective eyes of bright red dancing shrimp. Slipper Lobster are now dashing across the sand bed at the base of the wall, and a giant crayfish feeds obliviously on a nearby rock. I approach cautiously, resting my arms on the sea bed just behind the distracted armoured soldier. His foot long antennae brushes my arm and the crayfish realises he is not alone. With a flick of his tail he shoots backwards and is gone.

Following Ross’s lead we turn back, retracing our fin strokes back along the wall, when suddenly our path is veering off, into the black, featureless sand beds nearby. I look around, and others are following, so I trust that we are going the right way and after what seems like forever, time having been lost along with the sunlight, we stop. With some confusion I find myself turning off my torch, clearly the instruction Ross is giving. As they arrive others do the same, albeit with a good degree of “what on earth” going through people’s minds. Then, with a large swish of his arm we understand in an instant what we are doing sat in the dark. As we all start to flail our limbs frantically we see bioluminescent bacteria all around us. The absolute black is broken only by the twinkling of glitter all around. I wave my arms like a small child, mesmerised and delighted with a feeling of shear exhilaration. I imagine myself in a snow globe, a black one. I know of nothing around me, I feel claustrophobic but giddy; I am in a dream world. I do not know where any of my dive group are, I do not know which way I am facing, and only the sand at my feet gives away my orientation. I know that at some point a bright blinding torch light will come on, and my snow globe will be shattered, but for now I am alone, all around me is indescribable flashes of glitter and light and time passes beyond meaning.

Inevitably a light is turned on, and the group follows, I take comfort that I hadn’t just been left alone in the darkness and we set off back towards Long Ledge. I have no idea which way to go, but I follow the light and yellow fins of my buddy, trusting he knows more than me. As we journey back to our start I see more octopus, twirling ghostly worms, slipper lobster and armies of crayfish. Checking my air I start to think we must be reaching our ascent point. I suddenly see the light of Ross’s torch frantically waving in my eye line. As I turn round a huge white ghost appears out of the distant gloom. Slowly, and purposefully the ghost becomes reality as I realise that a huge green turtle is swimming purposefully, determinedly, toward me. My heart stops as he swims close by, his colours lost as he appears white in our torch lights. By now the group is all around, lights all fixed on the turtle as is slowly twists and turns around us. As it passes by my, I could touch, but I don’t. I remind myself of what I learnt in my theory course. You do not touch the marine life, I think about what the rest of the group will think should I stretch out my arm, just to see, just to touch.

After several minutes he swims upwards and away, a few of us swim alongside for a while. His scale now becomes apparent as a grown man swims alongside and looks small, insignificant compared to our ghostly companion. I have seen Green Turtles before, but this was huge. The largest Green Turtle recorded was 5ft long, but I’m convinced this was longer, its huge shell carried upon his back.  As he swims we lose touch, unable to keep up, but like a petulant child attempting to make us play by his rules, he instantly misses the companionship and turns heal right back toward the group.

Before deciding to take a rest on one of the dive group’s knees, the turtle swims toward me once more. This time I have no choice, he swims right into me, his huge fin pushing down against my side as if to play with me. As I reach out my arm and stroke the length of his smooth shell I think about what the others might think, and then I think, “I just touched a Sea Turtle” who cares!!!

As quickly as he arrived our new friend has gone. Looking at our now depleted air we start our ascent. After a safety stop I point my torch upwards, my hand above my head as I watched the bubbles dance and flash in the beam of light. We broke the surface to the sound of gasps, a short silence was quickly broken by chattering’s of delight after what was to all of us an amazing experience. As I look at a solitary star breaking the cloud we head back to shore, the excited conversation fuelled by our shared experience and a degree of cold chattering.

We sip soup as we return to James Bay, grateful to be warming up. But my heart is already warm. They say that happiness is based on collecting experiences, not material goods. This was an experience, this will live with me forever, this, makes me very happy indeed.

Nothing to Write About

So this blog entry was going to be about Jamestown, part of a series of blog entries showing the various districts of St Helena. After all, I had nothing else to write about, after my last blog, I really wasn’t sure what was coming next, sure our day-to-day life was continuing, but the Whale Sharks have left the area, my diving is complete, and I had no pretty photos to show you. What was I to do to continue to write with any regularity? So I thought a series of articles would be a nice way of filling up the pages.

That was of course, until a little time had passed, and within a week of me thinking of the Jamestown plan, and having taken some photos in readiness, that article is on hold, as I tell you about the extraordinary time the extraordinary island continues to provide.

I have been helping out a local charity, the St Helena Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, designing a new logo and working on some new campaign ideas. In return I was granted access to the World’s oldest Land Vertebrate, Jonathan, the Giant Tortoise, the photos of which featured in my last blog and an invite to the SPCA annual fund-raising event, Last Night of the Proms at Plantation house!!

We had been promised an evening of live classical music from local musicians, a few drink in the interval (the appealing bit) followed by, yes that’s right, a sing along, to a video of the last night of the proms. In all honesty, I couldn’t think of anything worse, and neither could Bev. We deliberated as to the fruits of our attendance for some time and the merit of using up a valuable babysitter token. Eventually deciding that an invite from the Governor’s wife should not be ignored I in my suit and Bev in a stunning dress featuring the customary Red White and Blue colours headed to Plantation House.

Seeing many familiar faces lightened our mood and we took our seats as the music and acts began. Some classical pieces gave way to big band, and harmony vocals and even some Eric Clapton. The talent on show was impressive to say the least, and I still cannot get over the enjoyment I gleaned from listening to a local Bishop, reading aloud an extract from a story. Had I been told that the music would be interrupted for a Bishop to read a story to me Id of put the nail in the coffin myself and stayed at home, but such was his manner and skill as an orator that he had us all laughing out loud, as much, I think, at the situation as to the story itself. After some wonderful performances the group moved to the outside marquee for refreshments. The late start had evidently led to many people having not had dinner, as shown in the speed at which the food tables were cleared, there was no holding back.

Our mood by this point was considerably lighter than when we had arrived, helped by some good music, free beer and cocktail sausages, and I was now all up for a bit of a sing-song. This mood was, it seems matched, by the considerable crowd as we all took to a verse of Swing Low Sweet Chariot. Those of you who are aware of my propensity for a spot of Karaoke will probably also be aware that I am, at this point in the proceedings, in my element, and thoroughly enjoying every minute. Sadly, we had to leave early so missed the grand finale, but as the status on my Facebook page read, it was the “most weirdly British eccentric night at Plantation House (Governors Residents)…. an evening of…..music, singing and flag waving, very surreal, and utterly brilliant. I loved it!

Bev and friends Mandy and Caroline both in full flow. What a night! Photo courtesy of SAMS Media services.  https://www.facebook.com/320819601295027/photos/a.362713837105603.85060.320819601295027/866941620016153/?type=1&fref=nf

Bev and friends Mandy and Caroline both in full flow. What a night!
Photo courtesy of SAMS Media services.
SAMS Facebook 

In diving news no sooner as I pass my open water, I am now half way through my advanced course. Consisting of five specific dives, I must admit this necessary stepping stone is nothing more than a money spinner for PADI. However it has led to some wonderful experiences including my first deep dive down to 28m on another ship wreck, a specialist navigation dive and, last night, my first night dive. The night adventure is the first time I have felt some serious nerves before a dive, I guess in some respect that’s why people do it and it proved to be an incredible experience. With nothing but a light of a torch, the surrounding blackness is almost blinding, with your hearing muted and tunnel vision of your spot light, a sense of complete aloneness is broken only by the flashing of lights from the other divers. Strange life forms emerge at night. Synaptid Sea Cucumbers, meter long white worms like animals, like something from the 1990 film Tremors, hold their tentacles aloft, waving them in the current, wrapping around each other in a serpentine dance. Large conch shells crawl along the sand leaving trails of slime in the sand to follow their path. Billions of dancing fairies spin and twirl hypnotically, caught in the light of the torch these planktonic organisms forming the base of the food chain for everything else, emerging at night. Huge Moray eels defend their homes and huge hedgehog like urchins make a stray hand a potential injury. Two octopuses cover themselves with rocks, picking up the jagged pumice stone and carefully placing it all around to hide their outline, their presence given away only by the stray sucker on show, and the jet stream from their siphon.

It was a magical experience made all the more special by the night sky as we broke the surface on our accent. Just as leaving the cinema in the light of day confuses the senses for a period, so does emerging from the sea to a starry sky, even if it similarly dark below. The boat trip back to the wharf was a largely silent affair, the group of eleven divers with little to say to each other. I think we sat in quiet contemplation at the shared experience, plus we were all quite knackered!

Oliver and Charlie continue to surprise and impress me with their own watery skills. Oliver and I took some father, son time and swam out to snorkel on the Papanui, the ship wreck in James Bay. Lets put this in perspective. Five months ago, not long after we arrived, Oliver would not get in the sea, he wouldn’t even jump into the pool. Now, he is wading out into surf, diving head first into the oncoming waves, swimming a good 250m out to sea and then freely snorkelling on a ship wreck in 14 meters of water. He takes place in the inter schools swimming gala today, I am very proud.

Charlie too is coming on leaps and bounds and his own transformation is no less impressive. When the pool here opened up mid-November, Charlie would not let go of Bev or myself in the water, clinging on for dear life. He will now jump in the sea (albeit with armbands) and snorkel from the wharf, enjoying every moment and screaming the names of trumpet, butterfly and parrot fish as they swim by. I have no doubt that given the opportunity he too would take a trip to the Pappanui.

Charlie’s latest triumph came on Monday evening, as the boys and I joined Bev on one of her O’level, Marine Biology adult classes. This class was a practical exercise in water sampling as we and the students took to the sea on the Enchanted Isle. Technology being limited on the Island this was a rather crude affair. The only method we had for obtaining water samples at depth (to compare with surface conditions) was for yours truly to swim down as deep as he could whilst free diving, open up a bottle and fill it with water for testing at the surface. Whilst doing this I enjoyed the company of a Devil Ray, a 7ft ghost like animal, gracefully gliding by me with slow, purposeful wing beats. Shortly after we were in for another surprise.

Whilst concentrating on the depth of a sechi disc (a device for measuring turbidity) I looked up to see a whale shark not more than 3 meters away from us, its mouth out of the water and heading right for the boat. Still in my swimwear I had no hesitation in jumping right back in for my now fourth close encounter with these incredible animals.  Before long, Bev and Oliver had joined me, along with some of the other students. Of course it was not long after that Charlie started asking if he could swim too. His last experience with them did not go well, lots of tears and cries of “Im blind” were my memory of that occasion. Knowing he has come a long way since then, and equipped with a new wet suit to keep the cold at bay Charlie was lowered into the water with me. It was not long before our four-year old was just yards from a 10 meter whale shark, and he clearly delighted in the occasion.

Out of nowhere came a huge shoal of 6 inch blue silver fish, scad of some sort, a thousand or more strong, heading out of the blue and towards the whale shark. Charlie and I watched as this ball of fish parted in unison around the whale shark, and closed ranks as they passed beyond its flanks, before parting once more around Charlie and I. A thousand fish swam by us, surrounded us, encased us, and as swiftly as they arrived, left us. If was a few seconds of pure joy and magic, and Charlie was right in the centre of it all.

More good news came this week with the announcement that Green Turtles have nested in the black sands at Sandy Bay. Once common on Saint Helena, these animals, like many other places around the world have been persecuted in the past for meat and their shells and in the modern ear have been seen only at sea in low numbers around St Helena. Occasional nesting attempts through the years have been hampered by shallow sands in which to dig, and the low-lying beach leading to water-logged nests on high tides. This year however there is greater confidence that they may survive. The sand sits some 7ft deeper today than in 2011 when the last nesting attempt occurred, and the beach and nest sits much higher, avoiding all but the roughest of waters. 60 days will tell us if they have been successful, I for one have my fingers firmly crossed.

This week was a big week for me personally, it was a week where I have finally realised my place and come to terms with what it is I wish to do here on St Helena. It has taken six months of a troubled mind, not wishing to make wrong decisions and conscious of doing the right thing by everyone. And it was with this in mind that I applied for a job, a fantastic job that appealed greatly. Even as I wrote my application however I was in turmoil as to whether both Bev and I working full time was the right thing to be doing, right for me maybe, but whether it was right for the boys or for Bev was less clear. My application was successful and I was invited to interview. It took till the morning of the interview, for me to finally realise that for everyone concerned, me, Bev, the boys and indeed for the employers concernedPaul Tyson Photography that right now, nine to five (or eight to four on St Helena) isn’t what I should be doing.

It seems that being faced with an actual choice, instead of hypothetical contemplation has forced my hand, and I feel all the better for it. I will push my photography and design business, I can enjoy the creativity and further develop my skills, and most importantly work flexibly around the family, be there to support Bev, and enjoy my time with the boys. No sooner as I had made this choice then I’m thrilled to announce that I have my next big photography job, creating images for inclusion in a new guide to the Napoleonic sites of St Helena. More than the pay, it is a wonderful feeling that my work has been admired, and that others too will enjoy it in years to come within the pages of book.

More sobering news came this week, when it emerged in the rumour mill that a young girl was taken seriously ill, with needs beyond the range of equipment and resources on St Helena. The RMS was more than four days travel away from St Helena, even with the RMS in port it could be three days to the nearest airport on Ascension, and a flight to a hospital beyond that. It is at such times that our remoteness hits home. Apparently thoughts were being drawn up to utilise a local fishing vessel to transport the girl to Ascension Island, although to me that did not seem a viable option (these were just rumours, I have no idea if this was given serious consideration), but it turns out, previously unknown to me, that nautically speaking St Helena is classed as a vessel at Sea, and as such, under UN convention passing ships within a set range are obliged to answer a distress call and attend if they are able. With this in mind an emergency pan-pan medico signal was made to passing ships within a range of 1600km. Without hesitation the MV Traveller, a Dutch container ship on its way from South Africa to the British Virgin Islands responded and proceeded to make the journey to St Helena. The owners of the ship BigLift, deserve huge praise, absorbing all the costs of their enormous detour to St Helena, and then onto Ascension Island. Thanks to the incredible work of so many incredible people on St Helena, at sea aboard the MV Traveller, at Ascension and the UK the patient arrived in Great Ormond Street Hospital just over 48 hours after the alarm was raised. She is thankfully now stable and receiving the best treatment in the World. I was not a part of this amazing story, but I am a part of St Helena an Island that takes you close to its heart and close to its people, it is truly humbling and inspiring to be here and see people come together for each other, for the sake of one little girl, who now holds the islands hopes with her.

Contented

It has taken longer than I expected, but I find myself contented in my new life. My retirement has turned out to be the busiest retirement one could imagine, an evening in with no work to complete has become something of a rarity as I juggle my photography work including projects for local schools, a maternity shoot, photography course and the work for the tourist office, with exciting projects for the National Trust, what I believe is my improved and balanced life with the children and of course diving and the odd encounter with forty foot fish, things really are hectic. But I finally feel as though I have a place on the Island and have found the right balance. Ive always needed to be busy, to be juggling many balls and I am certainly doing that now.

A sit down heart to heart with my ever incredible wife a few weeks ago, has helped to put my feelings of myself as a father into perspective, and coupled with the arrival of other meaningful work on the Island I feel my outlook of the boys and relationship with them has improved greatly, I am almost beginning to believe that they quite enjoy spending time with me!

Sadly, as I become more content, Oliver has become unsettled in school, friendships are presenting challenges and have the  status “its complicated”. He is clearly upset at times and this has impacted his behaviour at home. The old me would of dealt with his behaviour with a stern telling off, but I am trying to offer support and understanding and we have come up with plans to help him re-settle, namely to invite his friends round to play as often as possible to help re-cement their relationships. It has taken me aback that Oliver has fell into problems at school, although I suspect it wont last long, and neither will it be the last period of turmoil with our Oliver.

_MG_0103Despite this blip in school I have no doubt that the boys are happy here. As Bev and I have learnt to dive, so have the boys learnt to snorkel, and even Charlie, at four years old has his set of fins,  mask and snorkel. We spend many afternoons at the swimming pool, enjoying the open air and sunshine. Charlie, now swims round to his hearts content, jumping frpm the diving board with unreserved joy. Oliver is becoming more and more competent, and is now able to swim a full 30m length of the pool, making his parents very proud. The transformation in both of them in a few short weeks is incredible.

The Tyson’s have been dominating the local media here on St Helena, myself taking part in a twenty minute interview on photography and the courses I have been running, and Bev, in readiness for Marine awareness week has been talking about her new adult classes  O’level in Marine Biology. Marine awareness week is an annual event held in St Helana to raise awareness for the Islanders of the fantastic and important world that surrounds and dominates the pulse of life on St Helena. For my part I am back within my comfort zone having set up an aquarium, now stocked with numerous endemic species, and next week delivering education sessions to local school children. The challenges of finding new roles in St Helena has been great, but I must admit it is lovely to be in and around an aquarium again and back in my world, covered in water and playing with pipework. For any of my aquarium friends out there, if you ever out together an aquarium on a volcanic Island, bare in mind the sand is magnetic and will find its way onto all your pump impellers!

This week I did my first _MG_0215photoshoot, with a person, an actual person, and not just a person but a pregnant person, my first ever photo shoot was a maternity one. Id like to say Im not sure who was more nervous, but Im fairly sure the answer was me. With sweat beading on my brow I was very aware of myself! But the client and I settled into things and despite a less than ideal setting and lighting I am on my way to producing some good quality images.

Saturday was one of yet another, most incredible days of my life. It started with my second dive since qualifying, a trip out with established divers to a natural rock formation known as Billy Maze. I found myself nervous for the first time whilst diving, not as a result of the dive, but as a result of the company, perfectly lovely people, but experienced, very competent divers. How would I compare, would I run out of air and ruin everyone’s dive, will I be welcomed into this little group. As it was I needn’t of worried, it was a fantastic experience with fantastic people, all of whom could vividly remember being in my position, and all of whom were encouraging and supportive. The dive took me a full ten meters deeper than I had been before as I followed our guide through a twist of rock channels with stunning fish a plenty and even a swim with a Hawksbill Turtle.

That afternoon we went on our next Whale Shark trip. A group organised by Bev, of colleagues from Prince Andrew School ,it was a lovely opportunity to get to know, not just Bevs work mates, but some Saint families and spend time in their company. Setting off from the wharf under grey skies and a sizeable swell it did not look good for Shark spotting. The conditions and dark looking seas had put Oliver off, and Charlie was already falling asleep. It was a relief therefore when I spotted the tell tale shadow of a Whale Shark under the waves and, after shouting our captain to make an about turn the first group were soon in the water. Bev jumped in along with other parents and their children and it was with great disappointment to myself that they soon returned to the boat having watched the shark disappear into the depths. As I sat brooding like child on his brothers birthday, I was bitterly disappointed and jealous that I missed out.

With everyone back on board, we continued on, in constant communication with other boats on the water in the hope of finding another shark. With the weather deteriorating, and, by this point many people, including Oliver feeling seasick, I looked around the boat at children laid out upon their parents laps, tired and unwell and felt sure the best course of action would be to cut our losses and head home. However, as is normal for the boat operators here, their determination to deliver a great experience meant that we continued our quest to find another animal. After what felt like an age we received a call from another boat and quickly headed off in the direction of another Whale Shark. Anthony, skipper, dive tutor and general water man told me to get kitted up, it was a big one. I felt a surge of excitement and anticipation and sure enough, before long we were just feet away from a truly huge animal. Almost before the boat had even stopped I was in the water, and swimming as hard as  I could alongside a stunning, 12m long (40ft) male shark, cruising at speed with giant sweeps of its tail. With go-pro in one hand I swam as hard as I could but ultimately I am no match for a 12 foot fish and eventually he disappeared ahead of me, his huge dorsal fin still visible through the waves. Turning around I found myself not only a long way from the other swimmers, but a long way from the boat. I sat steady and waited for the inevitable pick up, knowing it is quicker for them to come to me.

A Huge, 12m male whales shark that I swam with!

A Huge, 12m male Whale Shark that I swam with!

Back aboard it was not long until we had caught up with the whale shark, and soon enough the next group were in the water. With Charlie still asleep, and Oliver still unwell, I stayed aboard as Bev jumped in for her second swim. The whale shark by now had become curious about us, and instead of swimming off in the distance was turning and swimming around the boat, the swimmers were so close to this magnificent animal and it was with great pleasure that one of our good friend Jon, came leaping back onto the boat barely able to catch a breath shouting, “it bumped into me, it bumped into me!!!!” like an excited and nervous school child. I was equally pleased as Jons departure from the water gave me the opportunity to get back in, as the whale shark approached the back of the boat I lowered myself into the water just feet from the 5ft mouth of this goliath. Swimming within feet of me I could not contain my joy. I spent a further 20 minutes swimming with this animal, 40ft of magnificent, stunning animal, peacefully and gracefully swimming though the waves, a true privilege to spend time in its presence.  Another in what is becoming a long list of unforgettable moments on St Helena.

Good friend Andy Day provides some perspective on this enormous animal!

Good friend Andy Day provides some perspective on this enormous animal!

Monday evening saw another dive, and Bevs first since qualifying. Another trip to the SS Papanui saw unfathomable numbers of fish. So many Butterfly fish that it is, without exaggeration, difficult to estimate how many hundreds of thousands, or perhaps millions of fish that we saw that day. Another Hawksbill Turtle just topped off a magical 40 minutes under the sea.

On Tuesday I had the great pleasure and honour to be invited for lunch with at the home of Michel Dancoisne-Martineau, French consul on the Island and in charge of the Napoleonic sites on St Helena. Michel’s home has been built based on original plans for a home that was never built for Napoleon himself, and I have to say it was simply exquisite. Splendour and elegance coupled with style and intrigue and no shortage of incredible art work by Michel himself.  Our lunch was the finest food I have eaten in months, with rare roast beef, smoked salmon, fine cheese and fine wine it was a true indulgence. With great company and the chance to meet Pascal Sean Laparliere, a great promoter of my photography in Paris I had a wonderful afternoon. Perhaps the greatest pleasure for me was the invite itself. An invite because someone wanted my company, not as a plus one, or because of a work function, nor because my camera was wanted, but because I was.

I am finding my place on this little Island, I am finding my relationship with Oliver and Charlie, I am finding friends and I am finding a role (well many actually), I am finding contentment, and it feels wonderful.

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.

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.