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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Dolphins, Dolphins, Dolphins………and Whales!

This weekend we embarked on our third trip out to see the Dolphins and Whales. Despite our fantastic time two weeks ago, subsequent trips from the Island have seen some truly breathtaking spectacles, and we wanted part of that action. It may seem that we go whale watching a lot, and we do, but not as often as some on the Island who seem to be present on every trip that departs the wharf.

Our weekend started back in the mud, on the monthly Saint Helena National Trust‘s community conservation engagement program we helped with four weeks ago. This time round we were at St Paul’s Primary school a lovely school set up in the hills and known as the Country School. Three hours of back breaking work saw us once again clearing invasive species, this time in the form of a fern with a root network reminiscent of the cables at the rear of my surround sound system, and so thick it required pick axes to dig out. Being interviewed for the local newspaper, I overheard the conservationist in charge, Jason, explaining that the work to remove the ferns was important to clear the way to re-plant another endemic plant species. It was at this point that I realised we had spent three hours, digging and clearing a 3m square area of fern only to see it replaced with, yes, another fern!

Jason explained that there are the right kind of ferns, and the wrong kind of ferns, to which the reply from our co-worker, Paul came, “like Fern Cotton and Fern Briton”!

The monthly community engagement program plays a greater role in raising awareness and instilling public participation and responsibility for the Islands rare plant life, than it does real conservation, which is carried out Monday to Sunday every other day of the month. Some of the rarest plants on earth are clinging to existence on St Helena, and it is vital that the locals appreciate and understand the importance of protecting these habitats if the program is to succeed long term.

The evening was spent back in the company of the Days family who came round for a movie and pizza. Get Carters, a local eatery provides the Island with take away pizza of fine quality. Amongst the usual selection I felt obligated to try a 9” Caribbean, the topping consisting of Jerk Chicken, Bacon and, Banana, no that is not a typo, Banana on a Pizza, and delicious it was too.

On Sunday morning Bev and I embarked on the first of our theory sessions to learn to dive. Given my background in Marine Biology and Public Aquaria it is highly unusual that I don’t already dive, but finally a life-long ambition is being realised on this tiny Island, and I will soon be diving amongst some of the most pristine marine environments in the World and sharing my time with Whale Sharks, Devil rays and a smorgasbord of endemic species seen nowhere else in the World.

And so we arrive at our Sunday afternoon boat trip and what a trip it was. This time we took to the Sea with Into the Blue, on a much smaller rib boat, an inflatable with two out board motors capable of travelling at great speed. The advantage of this, is the ability to move across the sea to where the animals are spotted in the distance, and get there before they disappear. Being low to the water also presents great views if the animals come close and of course it is huge fun bouncing and skipping across the waves.

Craig the operator and captain has been very successful in recent weeks and it seems has a sixth sense for finding the best views of these amazing animals with 13 sightings in 14 trips. So with great expectation we once again swung off the wharf and onto our latest adventure.

Moving at speed we were once again heading along the Northern coast towards egg Island, before we knew it we experienced the now familiar stop, turn and full throttle. Being experienced as we now are we knew or captain had spotted something.

Within minutes we were surrounded by a pod of around 300 Pan Tropical dolphins. Everywhere we turned dolphins were jumping, spinning, flipping and diving around us. The Deep Blue Circus Ring providing the perfect stage for these acrobats par excellence.  The excitement on the boat was palpable with expressions of “wow”, “amazing” “awesome” and a few expletives to boot. The sense that looking in one direction would cause one to miss out on the next leap clear of the water just behind you, caused us to flit from one side of the boat to another, jostling for position. Dolphins were jumping a clear 15ft from the waves, spinning and dancing in the air before coming down with a splash of a tail.

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Pan Tropical Dolphins, the acrobats and show off’s of this watery World, a pod of some three hundred all around us.

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This individual liked to show off by swimming vertically, pushing himself along in this upright position!

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The boat suddenly slowed to a halt as Craig made adjustments, with some sadness the Dolphins is seemed to then tire of us and the acrobatics ceased. A quick turn around and we were off again, soon back up to speed and along with us the dolphins began act 2 of their show. They suddenly sprung back into action with the sound of the motor and within a minute were once again putting on the display of a lifetime. Without doubt these animals were showing off, performing for their doting public and loving every minute of it. Oliver sat in amazement, completely breath taken at the sight, the experience he will keep with him for a long time. Charlie on the other hand was less interested, or at least too tied to be, seemingly nodding off to sleep with the warmth and comfort provided by his large padded life jacket.

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Spinning a full 360 degrees in mid air.

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Incredibly difficult to photograph. You never know where they are going to jump up, and inevitably you miss the focus, the timing, or both!

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After a time we moved on, I say a time as I have no idea how long we spent dancing with the dolphins, it may have been minutes it may have been an hour such was the depth of enthralment and captivation the dolphins held us in. Charlie at this point was soon brought back to life as some home baked chocolate brownie was passed round the passengers.

What then seemed like an age passed with no further sighting of dolphin or whale. Our captain approached some local fishermen, who, after pointing us in the right direction, held up their catch, a huge Moray Eel, highly prised eating in these parts.

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Cousins swim side by side

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Two adult Hump Back Whales with two Rough Toothed Dolphins which help to show the scale of these giant animals.

Following their directions we headed off and sure enough, in the distance we spotted the now familiar site of a hump, breaking the waves in the distance. As we approached it became apparent that two Adult Humpbacks were being accompanied by a smaller pod of dolphins moving slowly around them.

It became clear that these two whales were not just moving along slowly, diving periodically with a wave of their huge tail as we had seen before, but were also rolling and splashing, turning and spinning, their huge pectoral fins (the largest pectoral fins of all the Whales), crashing down as they rolled onto their backs, revealing their bright white throats, and ventral pleats. With each dive we waited with baited breath for a breach, the huge whale leaping from the water and crashing down with a tidal wave. But alas this never materialised as they resurfaced to continue their gentle play.

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With the largest pectoral fin of any animal in the World. A photograph cannon convey the size of this animal. The fin you are looking at is around 4.5m long!

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Splashing huge waves with a swipe of the caudal fin.

Rough Toothed Dolphins swam alongside and between them as we began to question this behaviour we observed. It seemed that maybe we were witnessing courting behaviour but further research with the Island’s Marine Team suggests the dolphin’s presence may have indicated that we were witnessing a calving mother and we may have been privy to some stage of a birth. Whatever the truth it was wonderful to watch and the Rough Toothed dolphins provided a greater sense of scale for these giants of the sea.

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Look at the fin at the far right of the image. That is the fin of a Rough Toothed Dolphin which can themselves reach 2.8m and is completely dwarfed by it’s gigantic cousin.

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Relative to their cousin the Pan Tropical Dolphin, Rough Tooths were very calm, cruising around alongside the Whales.

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Me, and my, shadow!

Returning back to shore we reflected on our weekend adventure. Many people spend their lives and never come close to seeing what we witnessed today, others embark on a once in a lifetime holiday to see such things. Yet here we are, with the privilege of a trip every fortnight, or more regularly if we choose, to spend our time amongst these mesmeric animals. How lucky we must be to live on St Helena.

I will leave you now to enjoy the photographs from our trip however one thing has now become clear to me, whilst my photography skills are improving and my enjoyment for the art is enormous, my budget, second hand equipment does not cut the mustard amongst the big boys. Following the success of my blog I hope to develop my writing and photography further and who knows maybe one say sell some photos in the future. Despite my wife’s protests and rightly pointing out we cannot afford it, I am now saving for a new photography shopping list, including a whacking big telephoto zoom lens, a boy can dream cant he!

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IMG_7695 This is the dorsal fin of the Humpback Whale. Situated towards the back third of the body length just before the tail.

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Wonderful Weekends

I didn’t and don’t expect the current pace of my updates to continue, but at the present time there is a continuation of new things to speak of and discoveries to be made such that I cannot help but feel obligated to continue writing with the same celerity.

We have just finished our second week on “Our Island” (as Charlie continues to call it), and we are already establishing that weekends and the activities thereof are the reason we have taken this move.

Our weekends start early on Fridays at Donny’s bar on the waterfront. A friendly bar frequented in early evening by families and ex pats. Our ship mates also take the opportunity to meet up and discuss their week’s, share stories’ and exchange information on discoveries of new shops, the availability of fresh fruit or vegetables and new parts of the Islands yet to be explored. Although I am yet to witness it myself the opportunity to observe a breaching Humpback Whales whilst enjoying a beer certainly adds to the attraction.

Food is served at the local takeaway where we are rapidly learning the Saints propensity for shortening time and that 15 minutes is usually more akin to 45, and subsequently that tomorrow or “soon” generally means at some point in the future.

Following that, weekends have been spent with a morning outing followed by a social nicety of one sort or another. Our first weekend introduced us to the huge diversity and fascinating world of St Helena flora. During a walk through the grounds of Plantation House, the Governors Island residence, we encountered endemic flowers, lush green carpets of moss thick enough to bounce on, Eucalyptus trees and stands of Bamboo 12 inches thick and 15m high. After a time of exploration and further research I shall no doubt dedicate several pages and numerous images to the Islands fascinating fauna and flora.

Upon leaving the grounds of Plantation house we met a local Saint, who, with the customary combination of friendliness and intrigue took the time to say hello and engage us is conversation. To our own amusement the lady enquired if we knew of the gentleman from the UK her daughter had married, given that his surname was Wright it was expected that we may know him. We didn’t have the heart to tell her that on a somewhat larger Island of 60 or so million people its unlikely that we knew him just from his surname.

Evening was spent enjoying a home cooked dinner of Tuna steak and Barrracuda, or Wahoo as it is known locally, with enough fish to feed four of us for less than £3. Some things are undoubtedly more expensive, others are considerably cheaper!

This weekend has been even more enjoyable. Saturday morning was spent at an altitude of 750m in a cloud forest at High Peak, volunteering with a community conservation scheme. The children relishing the opportunity to become caked in mud whilst pulling up the invasive Ginger Root, planting native trees and shrubs and building paths. This also gave me the opportunity to speak with a resident expert on Island flora and start to add names to the amazing array of plant species we have encountered.

Huge areas of what should be native forests have been overrun with Giner root. Clearing this is hard work with huge roots to dig out of steep hillsides.

Huge areas of what should be native forests have been overrun with Giner root. Clearing this is hard work with huge roots to dig out of steep hillsides.

Restoration work is r-establishing the native forests. This area was planted two years ago. Some of the rarest plants of earth are here, with some species down to less than ten individual plants and one endemic tree down to one remaining specimen on earth before this work started.

Restoration work is re-establishing the native forests. This area was planted two years ago. Some of the rarest plants of earth are here, with some species down to less than ten individual plants and one endemic tree down to one remaining specimen on earth before this work started.

Oliver in an area of cleared Ginger Root

Oliver in an area of cleared Ginger Root

 

Even Charlie was able to get involved and do his bot for conservation, although he was more interested in just digging in mud!

Even Charlie was able to get involved and do his bit for conservation, although he was more interested in just digging in mud!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After a hard working three hours we were rewarded with our first sample of local cuisine, a Paella type dish known locally as Pillau, and bloody lovely it was too! Lunch provided the experience of conversing with bug man Dave. Dave is a true geek in the best possible sense, and a fountain of knowledge when it comes to local fauna. During his time on Island he has discovered several new species of endemic insects, declared two extinct and is now in the process of listing 200 further species of insects on the IUCN Redlist.

Wonderful to do something positive for the environment, for tourism and that we could all get involved with together.

Wonderful to do something positive for the environment, for tourism and that we could all get involved with together.

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The rest of the day was spent enjoying an afternoon Tea at Patsy’s house. This was enjoyable for so many reasons; firstly we visited Harlyn, a house of 186 years and the reference point of our own address, Near Harlyn! Of greater importance was the delightful time spent with one of the Islands most loved people. On Saint Helena it seems some people are held in great Esteem and respect. As a former head teacher, landlady of one of the Islands oldest houses, mother to the Captain of the RMS St Helena, charity fundraiser, coffee morning host and much more besides Patsy falls within that category. A wonderful lunch of home-made breads and cakes was followed with a tour of her fascinating house and long conversation about her family’s history on the Island and the encyclopaedic knowledge of the Island’s people and of bygone times.

Today (Sunday as I write) we spent the morning aboard a whale/dolphin watching trip. Alas, and against all expectations and prior enunciations we saw nothing, not a whale, dolphin or even Masked Booby! But the trip was still thoroughly enjoyable and afforded further opportunity to meet various people and, in true Saint tradition, find out what they do and how they may be useful to our stay on the Island.

The Tysons on their Whale Watching trip. Distinct absence of Whales, Dolphins or anything else for that matter

The Tysons on their Whale Watching trip. Distinct absence of Whales, Dolphins or anything else for that matter

Our afternoon was spent with the aforementioned Days family, Andy, Lucy and their two children Toby and Lawrence. A constant source of help and support aboard the RMS and during our feet finding first days on the Island, this afternoon was about developing friendship. We could not of had a more enjoyable afternoon with roast Chicken, walking, and construction of essential additions to a jungle tree house. When adding in superb roast potatoes to top off enjoyable conversation in lovely company, the day left both Bev and I feeling warm and fuzzy about making new friends and the good time to be had ahead of us.

It seems that beyond the spectacular landscape, the fascinating flora and fauna, the challenges to overcome and opportunities to be had, this trip is about people. It may yet turn me into a gregarious human being instead of the socially awkward and positively miserable git that I currently am.

Finally, if the weekend could not get any better our scooter has arrived having passed its MOT, Oliver, following in his fathers footsteps with his new found love of photography saw fit to take some photos of my first, somewhat wobbly, steps on our new Island toy. I must add by the end of the weekend I was heading off at close to 40mph (downhill of course)

Valentino Rossi eat your heart out!

Valentino Rossi eat your heart out!

Oh, and we may also be buying a boat!