blank [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]

Diving

For old wrecks . . . and anyone else.

blank [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]

From birth, man carries the weight of gravity on his shoulders. He is bolted to earth. But man has only to sink beneath the surface and he is free.
Jacques-Yves Cousteau

The clear and unpolluted waters around St Helena provide ample opportunities for divers of all abilities. And the island’s seafaring history contribues plenty to explore. Read on to find out more …

This page is in indexes: Island Activity, Island Detail

Divers in action in St Helena waters [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]

Go to: Wrecks to exploreDive factsA selection of dive sitesThe St Helena Dive ClubThe LawWant to learn diving?Read More

Before you don your tanks, please check out our section on the laws relating to undersea activities.

Global sea surface temp, July 2016 [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
Global sea surface temp, July 2016{a}

Top Twenty things to do [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]

Diving is one of our Top Twenty things to do during a visit to St Helena.

Top Twenty things to do [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]

Wrecks to explore

The SS Papanui (Photo courtesy of Bruce Salt) [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
The SS Papanui (Photo courtesy of Bruce Salt)

The image on the left shows the wreck of the SS Papanui, which burned out and sank in James Bay in 1911 on her way to Australia with immigrants and a full cargo. Its 364 passengers and crew were rescued and looked after on the island (You can read an account by one of the passengers.) She is now lying in fairly shallow water and it’s easy to snorkel over her on a calm sunny day. Showing above the surface is part of her steering gear and visible below is her counter stern. Visible amidships are her four boilers, three in a row and one for’ard.

There are many other wrecks to explore (some of which are listed below), including the Dutch vessel Witte Leeuw, which sunk in James Bay in 1613 after a brief but spectacular naval action with the Portuguese. Returning from Java, she was carrying peppercorns, nutmeg, cloves, diamonds and precious Chinese Ming porcelain. She was armed with 30 bronze cannons, one of which is now in the Museum of St Helena. Other artefacts recovered by divers in 1976 are in the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum. The map (below) indicates the accessible ones and our Lost Ships page describes them in more detail.

Map of the island’s main wrecks: Witte Leeuw • Bedgellett • Papanui • Spangereid • Darkdale • Frontier • Atlantic Rose • Portzic [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
Map of the island’s main wrecks: Witte LeeuwBedgellettPapanuiSpangereidDarkdaleFrontierAtlantic RosePortzic

Here is some of what you might see:

Lobster, in James Bay [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
Lobster, in James Bay

Fish swimming in a wreck [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
Fish swimming in a wreck

Free Diving [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
Free Diving{b}

More fish [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
More fish

Natural reef [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
Natural reef

whale shark [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
whale shark

Blunthead Puffer Fish sphoeroide spachygaster [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
Blunthead Puffer Fish sphoeroide spachygaster

Sea Slug [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
Sea Slug{b}

Cow Fish [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
Cow Fish

Parrotfish, Long Ledge [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
Parrotfish, Long Ledge

Hawkfish [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
Hawkfish

Moray [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
Moray

Sharpnose Pufferfish [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
Sharpnose Pufferfish

Squirrelfish [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
Squirrelfish

Wreck of the Bedgellett [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
Wreck of the Bedgellett{b}

Propellor of the Darkdale [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
Propellor of the Darkdale{b}

With a Devil Ray [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
With a Devil Ray{b}

Diving when the whale sharks (rhincodon typus) are visiting St Helena is particularly spectacular:

Diving with whale shark s [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]

If you’re not quite up to diving, swimming is an option…

Dive facts

Water temperature: 

19-26°C.

Underwater visibility: 

15-25 metres

Equipment available: 

yes, from the Dive Club or various dive tour operators

Equipment maintenance: 

Training available: 

You should also read the diving good practice leaflet published by the Government of St Helena.

A selection of dive sites

Wrecks

Crockery salvaged from the Witte Leeuw, on display at the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
Crockery salvaged from the Witte Leeuw, on display at the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum
Diver on the Frontier [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
Diver on the Frontier

You can also see more about these ship’s histories.

More good diving information and pictures at divesainthelena.com.

SS Papanui

Maximum depth: 13 metres. This is one of the most popular dives around St Helena and, being close to the shore and in little depth, is suitable even for novice divers. See our Lost Ships page for more on this wreck.

Bedgellett and Atlantic Rose

Maximum depth: 16 meters. These two ships sit close together on the Artificial Reef.

The Bedgellett was a small ship used to salvage goods off the Papanui. She was intentionally sunk in 2001 between Long Ledge and Billy Mayes Revenge as part of the Artificial Reef. The Bedgellet has a deck depth of 12 meters. See our Deliberately Sunken Ships page for more on this wreck.

The Atlantic Rose was scuttled at the Artificial Reef in April 2006 after having slipped her moorings and been battered irrepairably on the West Rocks. See our Deliberately Sunken Ships page for more on this wreck.

White Lion

Maximum depth: 35 metres. In 1613, the Dutch East India Company ship The Witte Leeuw (White Lion) sank during a battle with a Portuguese ship. The wreck was discovered in 1976. The White Lion has broken down a lot over the years but the ribs of the ship are readily seen, as are the canons. Jaques Cousteau dived this wreck when he visited St Helena in the 1970s. See our Lost Ships page for more on this wreck.

Frontier

Maximum depth: 28 metres. The Frontier was a fishing vessel that came to St Helena 1997 and was siezed because it was found to be carrying illegal drugs. Over time the ship deteriorated and it was sunk in 1999. The ship lies on is starboard side. For the more advanced diver. See our Deliberately Sunken Ships page for more on this wreck.

RFA Darkdale

Maximum depth: 45 metres. The RFA Darkdale was a fuel tanker torpedoed in October 1941 in James Bay by German submarine U-68 (she was the first British ship sunk south of the Equator during World War 2). The Darkdale attracts a variety of marine life, especially Bullseye, Grouper, Cavalley and several endemics (Green Fish, Rock Fish), and during ascent and descent you may see Tuna and Barracuda and even whale sharks. See our Lost Ships page for more on this wreck.

Other

Buttermilk Point

Maximum depth: 18 metres. Starting near the Dockyard, the natural mild current that drifts around this point gently carries you 100 metres towards Banks Battery. Moray Eels are seen in great numbers (they can be aggressive during mating season).

Cavalley Point

Maximum depth: 18 metres. Cavalley Point is a spectacular dive that involves swimming through archways on various levels. Bullseye, Crayfish, Cunning Fish, Soldiers and Cavalley are seen in great numbers, especially around the entrance to the archways.

Dockyard

Maximum depth: 18 metres. Large numbers of Crayfish can be seen as you enter a cave that goes a few metres under the cliff. Only to be attempted in favourable sea conditions.

Red Island

Maximum depth: 18 metres. A very popular dive, providing the opportunity to explore the volcanic reef. Devil Rays are often seen on this site.

Thompson’s Valley Island

Maximum depth: 18 metres. Thompson’s Valley Island is situated neat South West Point. There are many reefs and small caves to explore.

Artificial Reef

Maximum depth: 30 metres. The artificial reef is made mostly of old cars{1}. It’s situated just to the west of James Bay and attracts a variety of the local marine life, including some endemics (Green fish and Rock fish). Devil rays are also frequent visitors.

You may want to read the Artificial Reef report.

Map illustrating the ocean shelf around St Helena [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
Map illustrating the ocean shelf around St Helena

The St Helena Dive Club

St Helena Dive Club logo [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]

This is a thriving group on the island. Many people are trained each year to dive through the club. With weekly dives to various locations, an annual sponsored swim and outings for all members it is a very active club.

More details on the St Helena National Trust website.

 

Underwater scenery [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]

The Law

While diving is a largely unregulated activity on St Helena, you should be aware of the following:

  • Spear fishing is prohibited off St Helena from 1st January to 31st March (inclusive).

  • The Protection of Wrecks and Marine Archaeological Heritage Ordinance 2014 which, in brief, makes it illegal to penetrate any protected wreck, tamper with, damage or remove any part of a protected wreck, or use sand pumping, spear fishing or groundfish fishing equipment within 100m of any protected wreck. The Protected Wrecks are: Papanui, Spangereid, Darkdale, Witte Leeuw, Bedgellett, Frontier, Portzic and Atlantic Rose.

  • Divers approaching whale sharks are requested to observe the whale shark rules.

Want to learn diving?

PADI logo [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]

PADI{2} courses are available from “Into The Blue”.

Not up for diving? Maybe stay on the surface with a dolphin watching trip instead.

See the Tourist Office brochure on Diving St Helena.

Read More

Go to: Article: “Where the Saints go diving after work”Article: “World’s Largest Fish and One Tiny Island: Studying Whale Sharks on St Helena Island”Article: “A report by the RAF diving team, working on the White Lion in 1998”

Article: “Where the Saints go diving after work

By Diane Selkirk, Dive Magazine, 16th May 2016{3}

St Helena parrotfish, Long Ledge [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
St Helena parrotfish, Long Ledge

It was the size of the ship that astonished me. From the rudder, the big boilers looked miles away. Beyond those, there were bundles of corrugated iron, an engine, anchor windless and somewhere in the distance, the bow. Swimming through a cloud of butterflyfish, I searched for the locker which an old wreck write-up said contained champagne bottles - I never found the champagne but I did come face to face with a crayfish.

Built by Denny W & Bros, Dumbarton for the New Zealand Shipping Company in 1899 the 131m SS Papanui, with 376 passengers and 108 crew, had just steamed past Saint Helena when a persistent fire in a coal bunker forced them back. She made for the harbour at Jamestown and unloaded her passengers and crew on 11th September 1911; a short while later a boiler exploded and fire spread from the bow to stern. The next day she sank in 13m.

There are many things that make diving the Papanui an incredible experience; it’s found in clear, warm water a short distance from shore, the ship’s history is well documented and some of the artefacts that aren’t still on the ship can be found around Jamestown. But the most remarkable aspect of the dive is that - for Saint Helena - it’s not unusual. The SS Papanui is just one of eight protected wreck sites accessible to island divers and her excellent condition is a great example of the island’s strict conservation ethos.

Diver on the Papanui; St Helena shrimp, Wharf Steps and the wreck of the Bedgellett [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
Diver on the Papanui; St Helena shrimp, Wharf Steps and the wreck of the Bedgellett

A Seafaring History

For more than 500 years the only way to reach the remote South Atlantic island of Saint Helena has been by the sea. The uninhabited island was discovered by the Portuguese in 1502, and was long used as a provisioning stop for ships travelling from the East Indies to Europe. In 1659, the British East India Company took possession of the island and began to fortify it. In the years that followed Captains Cook and Bligh, the astronomer Edmond Halley, Charles Darwin and, of course, Napoleon all found their way to Saint Helena.

Before the Suez Canal opened, more than 1,000 ships a year called at Saint Helena. Gradually though the island became an isolated and forgotten outpost. Over the past 50 years, only the most intrepid travellers have voyaged to her shores. And only a few, such as Jacques Cousteau, whose crew dived the Darkdale - a tanker torpedoed by a German submarine in 1941 - and Robert Stenuit, the marine archaeologist who discovered a 16th Century ship called the Witte Leeuw, whose treasure of Ming porcelain is now housed in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, came for the diving.

Dive Magazine [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]

Jamestown, St Helena [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
Jamestown, St Helena

St Helena has been one of the most isolated British territories and its 4,200 population’s only connection to the outside world has been a five-day trip by ship to Cape Town in South Africa. However, a £250 million airport has been built and weekly flights are promised. The opening of the airport has been delayed twice and the opening ceremony has been postponed after a test flight revealed dangerous wind changes close to the ground. Until that is resolved the only way to access the 122Km² of rock in the South Atlantic remains the regular mail ship.

Once there you will find hiking trails that cut through multi-hued volcanic hills; historic stone fortifications perched high over churning seas; Napoleon’s estate and tomb; huge whale sharks in gin-clear water; and, of course, that spectacular diving.

Speery Island [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
Speery Island

Conserving for the Future

Graham Sim, 79, is considered the father of both diving and conservation on Saint Helena. He says the first time he went underwater, wearing a hard-to-come-by mask and snorkel, he was amazed by the profusion of fish life. He and a few friends soon fashioned Hawaiian slings out of broom handles and bicycle inner tubes and began spearing so many fish, Sim says he briefly wondered if fish were blind, they were so effortless to catch.

Other divers soon followed his lead. “No one had ever interfered with the fish before,” Sim told me as we looked out at the blue water over James Bay. “But then I noticed the easy-to-reach areas near the wharf were being destroyed. The fish were gone.

Sim’s realisation was life changing-and it transformed the future of Saint Helena. He formed the Skin Diving Club and then the St Helena Dive Club, which has just celebrated its 50th anniversary, gave up spear fishing and starting teaching young Saints (as the locals are called) to dive. He also trained as a fisheries officer and began putting the island’s first conservation measures in place.

Hawkfish, near Cat Island [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
Hawkfish, near Cat Island

The endemic silver eel, Munden’s Reef [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
The endemic silver eel, Munden’s Reef

We protected the areas around the wrecks and in James Bay, Rupert’s Bay and Lemon Valley,” he said. “At first, people were angry with me. But the thing we enjoyed, we were destroying.

Warm Clear Water

It’s easy to love diving in St Helena. Visibility runs to 30m and the water temperatures range from 19C-26°C. Within a fifteen-minute boat ride from the Jamestown landing there’s a choice of wrecks, reefs, arches, islands and caves. In fact, diving is so easy here that it’s a favourite post-work activity for locals; they head out for a dive and catch the sunset on the return voyage.

Anthony Thomas from Sub-Tropic Adventures, one of the island’s two dive companies, had five of us in his boat for one of his regular afternoon dives. As the newest visitors to the island, he asked us what we’d like to see. We settled on a dive that included a wreck, followed by an arch and cave system - a dive that contained such an assembly of life, diversity and clarity; that had we been anywhere else in the world, the dive would have had both a half dozen dive boats jostling for position and a name.

St Helena butterflyfish near Cat Island [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
St Helena butterflyfish near Cat Island

Five of us, including a dive master, descended to the Bedgellett - a salvage vessel that had been used on the Papanui, damaged in a storm and then sunk in 2001. Resting on her keel in 17m she boasted a profusion of fish life as well as colourful algae and sponges. Enchanted with the scene, I started a slow swim around the keel of the boat, trying to take in everything at once. We ascended to the deck level where I followed an endemic, and decidedly faded-looking, St Helena parrotfish sparisoma stringatum (known locally as a rockfish) toward an overhang where I became intrigued by a spooky looking bearded fireworm.

Saint Helena has several endemic species which include 16 fish species and about 40 invertebrates including Thomas’s favourite, the nudibranch. For me, the St Helena butterflyfish chaetodon sanctaehelenae was one of the most mesmerising. Congregating in vast shallow-water schools we swam through our first cloud of them on the Papanui and encountered our second flashy school while swimming from the wreck of the Bedgellett to the arch at Long Ledge.

Moray, Munden’s Point [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
Moray, Munden’s Point

The swim to Long Ledge was through a maze-like landscape of huge boulders and overhangs. Lighting the crevices and caves with a torch, we caught sight of a huge moray eel and a big triggerfish. Every so often we’d glance out to the blue - keeping an eye out for the devil rays that are known to swim in the area.

Most of the dive sites are located on the leeward side of the island - where they can experience a bit of surge from the ocean swells but don’t have much in the way of current to contend with. Thomas will take more adventurous divers to the windward side of the island, where the life can be bigger and even more varied when conditions are right. But almost every dive has something to offer both beginners and advanced divers and typically Thomas will split the groups and send each out with their own dive master.

Silver eel, Cavalley Rock [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
Silver eel, Cavalley Rock

Much More Than Just fish

As well as reef fish, divers report encounters with a varied assortment of charismatic sea life including, turtles, dolphins, Chilean devil rays and whales sharks. Peak whale shark season runs from December-March when as many as 50 of the enormous creatures are found in large groupings around the island. While intentionally scuba diving with them is prohibited (snorkelling with a guide is legal), Thomas explained divers will often be at a site when the whale sharks show up and then they’re welcome to enjoy the show.

We surfaced after swimming through a long arch and exploring a few big caves. Settling into the boat we watched as the sky turned golden, then red. Two of the divers were giddy with the thrill of a devil ray encounter. One of them, Sam, told me this was her 170th dive on the island, and of all the places she’s been, this is the place that never gets old. “I find something new to see every time.

St Helena sharpnose pufferfish, Billy Mays Revenge Dive [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
St Helena sharpnose pufferfish, Billy Mays Revenge Dive

Graham Sim told me the same thing. For 50 years he’s dived at least once a week. When he started it was with the most basic gear; no wetsuit, no gauges, no buoyancy control, no boat. The island was the most abundant place he’d seen and he was determined to keep her that way. St Helena was lucky, in so many places in the world people don’t even know what a healthy ocean looks like anymore, he explained: “We got to learn from other’s mistakes before the damage was done. It’s still amazing here.

whale shark [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
whale shark

Squirrelfish [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
Squirrelfish

NEED TO KNOW

Currently, there are only two dive companies and two dive boats on the island - which means there’s never more than one boat at a site and even the most popular sites are only visited a couple of times a week. As tourism increases, and more boats are added, conservation guidelines will reflect the same high standards.

Into the Blue www.divesainthelena.com Email: Craig Yon Craigiyon@helanta.co.sh

Sub-Tropic Adventures www.stsa.co.sh Email: Anthony Thomas Sub-Tropic.Scuba@helanta.co.sh

St Helena flounder, Wharf Steps, James Bay [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
St Helena flounder, Wharf Steps, James Bay

Slipper Lobster, Papanui wreck [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
Slipper Lobster, Papanui wreck

More stories [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]

More stories on our page Read articles about St Helena.

Article: “World’s Largest Fish and One Tiny Island: Studying Whale Sharks on St Helena Island

On voices.nationalgeographic.com, posted by Georgia Aquarium, 11th April 2016{3}

Dr. Alistair Dove, director of research and conservation at Georgia Aquarium recounts his recent expedition to St Helena Island studying the world’s largest fish - whale sharks.

A whale shark swims in the waters off St Helena Island (Photo Credit: Georgia Aquarium) [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
A whale shark swims in the waters off St Helena Island (Photo Credit: Georgia Aquarium)

Approximately 2,500 miles east of Rio de Janeiro and just over 1,900Km west of the African country of Angola, lies St Helena Island: one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world. This stark volcanic peak juts up from the vast abyssal plain of the South Atlantic Ocean and covers just 122Km² of rugged rocky terrain, but is home to a multitude of diverse animal, plant, and marine life. It has even been called the Galapagos of the South Atlantic.

This tiny island is over 6,000 miles away from Atlanta, Georgia, where I and a team of researchers from Georgia Aquarium started our journey to study the world’s biggest fish: the enigmatic whale shark. This species lives throughout the tropical and subtropical waters of the world, but encounters are rare and those places where whale sharks gather reliably have become figurative goldmines of scientific discoveries about this extraordinary filter feeding shark.

Just getting to St Helena is a huge challenge; we first flew to Cape Town, South Africa and then boarded the RMS St Helena, which is the only form of regular transportation to the island and one of the last Royal Mail Ships in operation. We were aboard the St Helena for five days as she steadfastly steamed to our destination across a seemingly endless plain of seabirds and flying fish. Talk about remote! St Helena is so remote, in fact, that the island was chosen by the English as the location for Napoleon Bonaparte’s exile in 1815. He died there in 1821 and you can still visit his grave today.

Despite 500 years of this sort of exceptional maritime history, St Helena has only recently come to scientific attention, not only as an important habitat for whale sharks, but as part of the United Kingdom Overseas Territories, a group of islands that is home to more than 90% of the UK’s biodiversity assets. With the help of the Darwin Initiative, Georgia Aquarium’s partners in the St Helena Government, Mote Marine Laboratory, and the Marine Megafauna Foundation, we are so excited and proud to help study our flagship species in this beautiful and breathtaking location.

Georgia Aquarium is the only aquarium in the western hemisphere to display these elusive creatures and having them in this setting is an incredible research opportunity to complement our field research with studies of their growth, behavior, health, and genetics. This helps us improve our interpretation of their behavior seen in the natural setting, but there are still many tantalizing questions about whale sharks that we hope to answer.

We traveled to St Helena once before, in December of 2014, and we ventured back again in December of 2015. We started these expeditions because we think St Helena may play a vital role as a mating ground for whale sharks. The whale sharks of St Helena are an even split of adult males and females, which is different from the other places where whale sharks gather in numbers, where juvenile males dominate. This 50/50 mix of adults is incredibly important, because mating behaviors have never been documented in this species. Our main goal of the 2015-2016 expedition was to characterize these gentle giants in St Helena, how they use the island habitats, and where they go when they leave, and of course to stay ever vigilant for signs of mating behavior. So how do we do all that?

We used a variety of techniques including computer-aided photographic identification, laser calipers to measure their size (and they can get big, over 35ft long), and several different types of tracking tags to help us figure out where they come from and where they go. We also worked with local ‘saints’ to install an acoustic array, which is a network of underwater hydrophones around the island that listens for tags we put on whale sharks and other species. Over the weeks we spent in St Helena we tagged over 30 whale sharks and photographed dozens more - all these are collected to assist in our understanding of where they go, how they grow, how they reproduce, and how St Helena fits into a global population picture for this species, which the International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists as ‘Vulnerable’.

Another incredibly satisfying aspect of the expedition to St Helena was working alongside some of our fantastic research partners. We work with members of the Marine Section of the St Helena Government, and Mexican NGO Ch’ooj Ajail AC, in addition to Georgia Aquarium team members and other partners from the Marine Megafauna Foundation and Mote Marine Laboratory who couldn’t join us but materially supported our efforts. It was a demanding scientific agenda, but working with this talented crew made for a great trip. If you can measure the success of an expedition in the amount of data you generate, then we were certainly successful.

Up close with a whale shark in St Helena. (Photo Credit: Georgia Aquarium) [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]
Up close with a whale shark in St Helena. (Photo Credit: Georgia Aquarium)

We’ve since returned from St Helena and unpacked our gear and washed the salt out of everything, including our ears. What lies ahead is a daunting task of compiling all the data we’ve collected, including terabytes of video and photo data and thousands of laser measurements, so we can begin looking for the answers to the questions we’ve been asking. We still have not documented mating behaviors, but we continue to learn more about their migratory patterns through the tagging studies and to identify new whale sharks through the Wildbook global database of whale shark sightings. With whale sharks, though, the more answers you try to find, the more questions you end up raising! It’s an incredibly exciting time to be studying this extraordinary species, especially in such a special location, and you can join in the excitement. Some of the animals we tagged automatically tweet out their locations in real time, and you can follow along on Twitter™ @Wheres_Domino, and at whalesharkwatch.org. We continue to learn and discover things about this magnificent species and I know there will be even more things to uncover. Anyone who says there isn’t amazing stuff still to discover in nature hasn’t put their head underwater lately, especially in places like St Helena.

More stories [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]

More stories on our page Read articles about St Helena.

Article: “A report by the RAF diving team, working on the White Lion in 1998

By Paul Hutchins, published in the St Helena Independent 16th June 2006{3}

Discovering a magnificent 400-year old bronze cannon in the waters off St Helena was just the start of the adventure - the expedition team of RAF divers then set about recovering their remarkable find. Paul Hutchins reports…

When was the last time you found a bronze cannon, more than 3m long and weighing nearly two tonnes? For myself and 11 colleagues, it was in April of this year on the far-flung British dependency of St Helena, in the South Atlantic, 1,500 miles off the coast of Africa. One of the aims of our expedition to this tiny island was to dive on the site of the wreck of the Witte Leeuw (White Lion), a Dutch East Indiaman that sank in James Bay in 1613. Picture the scene: three inflatable boats are moored over the approximate site of the wreck, and the first three pairs of divers enter the water. After 20 minutes, they all return to report that they have indeed dived on the remains of a wooden ship protruding from the fine sand at a depth of 35m, and on top of the sand are three ferrous cannons - in short, a site that offered some promise.

Meanwhile, the anchor on one of the boats has dragged and then snagged on an obstacle. The divers from that boat descend, intending to free the anchor, then find their way to the wrecksite. But by the time they reach the anchor it has freed itself and they are mid-water, with the bottom visible below but too deep. They free swim, following the slope up to shallower water. Once they are at 35m, they profile along the sand in the hope of finding the site. But after 12 minutes they still haven’t found it, although at the edge of their vision something appears to be sticking out of the sand. Knives are unsheathed and a quick scrape of the protuberance reveals it to be made of bronze.

Did we believe them when they surfaced? Not likely, and as it had been the second deep dive of the day, we would have to wait until the following day to confirm the find.

Such was the accuracy of our transits that the first pair of divers into the water the next morning confirmed the find within two minutes of leaving the surface, after which another five pairs of divers photographed or cleared away some of the sand around the cannon. Due to the lack of recompression facilities and no prospect of evacuation - because the island has no airfield - we restricted ourselves to a 40m maximum and no decompression diving, save for precautionary stops.

We reported the find to the Governor of the island{4} and after some discussion it was decided that we could recover the cannon - an exciting but daunting prospect for us. After all, while we had all carried out lifting exercises before, no one had done one on something so valuable, or under so much scrutiny.

While preparations were made, some of us investigated the possible source of our find. The White Lion was in a party of four ships on her way home to the Netherlands from the Far East with a cargo of spices, porcelain and diamonds. On arriving at St Helena to take on supplies, they came across two Portuguese carracks at anchor in the harbour - the Portuguese and Dutch were not the best of friends. The Portuguese put up a better fight, sinking the White Lion and severely damaging another. The other two Dutch ships quickly fled, bruised but in one piece.

That was the last of the White Lion until Belgian salvor Robert Stenuit managed to find the wreck in 1976 while following up on his research. He recovered much of its porcelain and some of the bronze cannons. After his successful salvage operation, which was reported in National Geographic in November 1978, the site was left alone, save for the occasional dive by islanders. So our find was a complete surprise, not only to ourselves but to the island as well.

Recovering the cannon [Saint Helena Island Info:Diving]

It took three days to recover the cannon, which had to be dug out of the sand. Progress was hampered by a gentle current that filled in our excavation work between dives. Even with three one-tonne bags fully inflated, the sea was reluctant to give up its treasure. Only after some vigorous rocking by a couple of the divers did the cannon commence its ballistic rise to the surface.

The three large orange lifting bags breaking the surface was a spectacular sight. Immediately, one of the boats moved in to secure a line to our precious load. Then we started the slow drive back to the quayside which, remarkably, was only 500m away - such a treasure so close to landfall. Elation is an understatement of what we felt at that time, and the true beauty of our find wasn’t realised until we had rested the cannon by the quayside ready to be lifted by crane a couple of days later.

We dived the now shallow site to take a closer look and marvel at the cannon’s condition. There was little encrustation, the lifting eyes were in the shape of leaping dolphins, and we could make out writing which appeared to be Dutch. Even the date of manufacture wasthere: 1604.

The last phase of the recovery was on to the quayside so that we could present it to the Governor and the island. With the exception of the crane having to ‘bounce’ the cannon closer to the harbour wall so that the crane’s reach could manage the load, everything went smoothly. After about 20 minutes, a beautiful bronze cannon was mounted on to a gun carriage for all to marvel at.

The cannon is currently being kept in a freshwater tank on the quayside and regularly flushed out. The intention is to put it on permanent display in the public gardens once restoration work is complete.

Despite an extensive maritime history, the island being a favoured stop-over point for ships of all sizes and origins prior to the opening of the Suez Canal, St Helena sadly lacks evidence of its maritime heritage. This cannon, we hope, will go some way to rectifying that. The project recently achieved a prestigious runner-up award in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Prize, which recognises the best underwater scientific projects carried out by BSAC members.

Would we go again? Too right. There may be other cannons, porcelain - even those diamonds. There are also the other wrecks we briefly explored, and there is a story about 23 ships that went down in Jamestown Harbour one stormy night during the last century!

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Credits:

{a} NASA Earth Observatory.

{b} “Into The Blue”, used with permission{3}.



Footnotes:

{1} There are (currently) no facilities for recycling these on St Helena.

{2} www.padi.com or en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Professional_Association_of_Diving_Instructors.

{3} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged

{4} Governor David Leslie Smallman (1995-1999).



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