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.