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Read articles about St Helena (Older)

Older articles related to the Island of St Helena

Wear the old coat and buy the new book.
Austin Phelps

Read how St Helena has been reported in the world’s media.

 

This page is a continuation of Read articles about St Helena, containing older items. Even older St Helena stuff can be found on this blog: Much Older St Helena Stuff{1}. If you want to read about how St Helena has been mis-reported, see our Do they mean us? page.

The Library, 1961
The Library, 1961{a}

Below: Is world’s oldest tortoise GAY? • Napoleon, tourists, divers and flu: flight opens up remote St Helena • First commercial flight touches down at St Helena • Date set for final voyage of last Aberdeen-built ship • New Air Link and Luxury Hotel Will Transform Tourism on Tiny, Remote St Helena • Inches closer to commercial air service • Saint of Heart • Fisherman’s Wish Comes True • Sailing to Saint Helena - one of the world’s most remote communities • Hope for St Helena • Bones of St Helena • Most extraordinary place on Earth? • Antwerp aviation company organises first commercial flight to Saint Helena • RMS St Helena makes final call to the UK • On ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ • Where the Saints go diving after work • World’s Largest Fish and One Tiny Island: Studying Whale Sharks on St Helena Island • Healthy Diet Helps 183-Year-Old Tortoise Feel Young Again

St Helena books from Miles Apart:

Looking for St Helena books? Miles Apart - new and second-hand books on the South Atlantic Islands current list.{2}

Is world’s oldest tortoise GAY?

By Fiona Parker, Daily Mail, 19th October 2017{3}

Daily Mail 20171019

Long-term relationships often lead to slowly uncovered secrets about partners, but Jonathan, the world’s oldest tortoise, was in for a shock after 26 years of enjoying a physical relationship with what keepers thought was a female. Elderly Frederica who lives on St Helena with Jonathan is actually Frederic.

Many people who have been in long-term relationships will tell you they slowly uncovered secrets about their partner over the years. But none of them are likely to have been as surprised as Jonathan, the world’s oldest tortoise, when he discovered something ground-breaking about his lover of 26 years.

Jonathan 1990
Not a 1900 photo

At 186 years old, Jonathan is the most senior resident of St Helena, a British Overseas Territory 1,200 miles off the coast of southern Africa. He arrived on St Helena in his thirties, as a gift to the governor. He also famously once posed with prisoners held captive on the island during the Boer war.

But late into his eighties, Jonathan became irritable and began knocking over benches and interrupting cricket games between residents on the lawn in front of the governor’s Georgian mansion.

Vets decided he needed a girlfriend and in 1991 he was given a mate. Romance blossomed with Frederica and it wasn’t long before the couple began enjoying regular mating sessions every Sunday morning, The Times reported. But despite their amorous antics, the pair never had any young. Now, almost three decades after the romance began, the reason has been revealed. When vets went to repair a lesion on the tortoise’s shell it was discovered that Frederica was actually a Frederic, putting a whole new spin on the relationship.

The island’s vet Catherine Man said the pair were creatures of habit and ate and slept at set times, living off a healthy diet of vegetable titbits and vitamins. But Jonathan now suffers from cataracts and his sense of smell is gone.

A bill was introduced last year to allow same-sex marriage on the island, which has a population of 4,255, but it was withdrawn after local outrage. Consultations are being held across the island to canvass opinion on whether a bill should be presented to the council before a court case that is set to challenge the current law on discrimination grounds.

Our Comment: This piece is amusing but, typically, full of errors. Frederik[a] could hardly be described as ‘elderly’ Jonathan arrived aged at least 50; the photo was pre-1886 and not with Boer prisoners; and only a few noisy people objected to the Marriage Bill - most Saints treat minorities equally. Still at least they didn’t manage to make yet another dig at our most useless airport

See also: Jonathan the tortoise • Get Married Here

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Napoleon, tourists, divers and flu: flight opens up remote St Helena

By Ed Cropley, Reuters, 14th October 2017{3}

JAMESTOWN, St Helena (Reuters) - On St Helena, the remote volcanic outcrop in the South Atlantic where Napoleon breathed his last, big changes are afoot - well, big by St Helena standards.

Onlookers peer through windows shortly after the first ever commercial flight landed at St Helena airport near Jamestown, October 14, 2017
Onlookers peer through windows shortly after the first ever commercial flight landed at St Helena airport near Jamestown, October 14, 2017

In the heart of the capital, Jamestown (population 600), Constable Cowie is worried about the Christmas traffic; Craig, the dive-master, is checking his emails twice a day; and Lucille, the local taxi magnate, is introducing 24-hour shifts.

For the 4,500 residents of the island, separated from Africa by nearly 2,000 km (1,240 miles) of ocean, the arrival this past weekend of the first ever commercial flight was cause for celebration and marked another step closer to their inclusion in the 21st century.

Saints, as locals are known, only got mobile phones and the Internet 18 months ago, supplementing the five-day boat trip to Cape Town that represented their only connection with the outside world.

Now, there is a weekly flight from Johannesburg - via Namibia’s Windhoek - to the spectacular St Helena airport, perched precariously on the edge of a cliff. Locals are hoping for a steady trickle of aviation thrill-seekers, French history buffs and whale-watchers.

According to Craig Yon, owner of diving company Into the Blue, a group of Swedish divers who had been contemplating a trip to see Whale Sharks next year booked within minutes of reading online that the inaugural flight had landed safely.

Things are really picking up, he said. Before, I’d only check my emails once a day. Now I have to check them in the morning and the afternoon.

FLU IMPORTS?

There has been talk since the 1930s of an airport on St Helena, the involuntary abode of British colonial adversaries ranging from French emperor Napoleon to the Zulu King Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo and 6,000 Afrikaners taken prisoner in the Boer War.

The current site was selected a decade ago after the prime location on the notoriously craggy 16x8 km (10x5 mile) island was ruled out because it was home to an important colony of the endangered wire bird, a type of indigenous plover.

Even after its construction, a mammoth engineering feat involving 8 million cubic metres (yards) of rock and 285 million pounds ($378 million) of British taxpayer money, the airport nearly didn’t happen.

The first test flights were buffeted by vicious cross-winds, making it too dangerous for large aircraft to land and leading to an 18-month delay in its opening, during which time the British press dubbed it the world’s most useless airport.

Saturday’s landing, in a 100-seater Embraer, involved a pre-touch-down briefing about emergency go-around procedures but passed off smoothly, to the cheers and delight of those on board and hundreds of Saints crammed into the glass-fronted terminal.

I was quite happy to see the plane land safely because there have been a lot of problems around that, with the wind shear, said 22-year-old police officer Sophie Cowie, whose beat is managing the traffic on Main St., Jamestown’s one road.

While some in Britain may question the value for money of the airport - more than 60,000 pounds per Saint - for the islanders it has already proved its worth, enabling several emergency medical evacuations, including a newborn child.

However, one possible unintended consequence of more arrivals is the increased spread of disease to an island whose animal and human inhabitants have been protected from many of the world’s germs.

In the past week, the island’s schools have been almost empty due to a bout of flu. Said to have been brought in on the boat from Cape Town, it has laid low 80 percent of pupils.

Our Comment: Mobile ‘phones came 18 months ago; the Internet has been here for 20+ years; and there are two principal roads in Jamestown, not one!

See also: Fly here • Visitor Information

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First commercial flight touches down at St Helena

www.itv.com/news, 14th October 2017{3}

St Helena Airport was built with 285 million of funding from the Department for International Development
St Helena Airport was built with £285 million of funding from the Department for International Development

The long-awaited first scheduled airline service to the British overseas territory of St Helena has landed on the remote South Atlantic island.

True to the much-maligned airport’s chequered history, it was late.

The UK taxpayer-funded development saw 78 commercial airline passengers land just before 2pm on Saturday, approximately 45 minutes behind schedule, following their departure from South Africa.

St Helena Airport, built with £285 million of funding from the Department for International Development (DFID), was due to open last year but the launch of commercial flights was delayed because of dangerous wind conditions.

Further trials were carried out in August and the airport was given the go-ahead to begin operations by South African aviation authorities.

Airlink’s Embraer E190-100IGW aircraft was due to land at 1:15pm local time (2:15pm BST) on Saturday but ended up touching down at 1:58pm (2:58pm BST).

Our Comment: We’d just like to point out that, yes - the plane was 45 minutes late, but that was due to a delay in Namibia. Nothing to do with our ‘much-maligned’ Airport!

See also: Fly here • Visitor Information

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Date set for final voyage of last Aberdeen-built ship

BBC NE Scotland, Orkney & Shetland, 10th October 2017{3}

The RMS St Helena was built in 1989
The RMS St Helena was built in 1989

A date has been set for the final voyage of the last ship to be built in Aberdeen.

The RMS St Helena is being retired from service as it will not be needed due to the long-awaited opening of an airport on the remote South Atlantic island it was built to serve.

The final official voyage serving the island of St Helena will be next February.

The RMS St Helena is being offered for sale so could operate elsewhere.

The vessel - built at the Hall Russell yard in 1989 - can carry 3,000 tonnes of cargo and more than 150 passengers.

The passenger service to St Helena is being replaced by flights
The passenger service to St Helena is being replaced by flights

Situated in the middle of the South Atlantic, St Helena is 1,200 miles from the coast of West Africa.

It is just 10 miles (16km) long and six miles (10km) wide.

See also: RMS St Helena • Getting Here

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New Air Link and Luxury Hotel Will Transform Tourism on Tiny, Remote St Helena

skift.com, 7th October 2017{3}

While it will still be pretty hard to get to (unless you live in Namibia or South Africa), St Helena is likely to see a significant increase in the number of tourists, especially from those keen to go to a place that not many other people have visited.

Jacob’s Ladder

One of the remotest islands in the world is about to enter the modern tourist age.

When the British exiled Napoleon to St Helena in 1815, it took the conquered emperor a full 10 weeks to reach the island. Two centuries later, it’s still a five-day trip by mail boat - assuming you happen to be starting from somewhere as close as Cape Town, South Africa.

But on Oct. 14, the tiny British overseas territory will get its first-ever scheduled flights. Two weeks later, St Helena’s first luxury hotel, a 30-room property in a trio of Georgian buildings, will open its doors.

Located about 1,200 miles off the western coast of Africa, St Helena is best known (for those who know it at all) as the place where Napoleon was banished after being defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. The house where he lived - complete with the original furnishings - is one of the island’s main tourist attractions.

But it’s not the only draw. The 47-square-mile tropical island offers mountain biking, sport fishing, and scuba diving in waters where visibility is up to 100 feet. St Helena is one of a handful of places in the world where humans can swim with massive (and passive) Whale Sharks. It’s home to a 185-year-old tortoise named Jonathan, the world’s longest straight staircase, and a double-hole golf course that players go around twice, trying not to hit any goats along the way.

Then there’s St Helena distillery, said to be the world’s most remote. Its specialty is Tungi (TOON-jee), a white spirit made from prickly pear and bottled in a bevelled glass flask shaped to evoke the island’s famous (-ish) staircase.

Because of the limited transportation options, only a couple of thousand tourists make it to the island each year. The second RMS St Helena, a combination cargo-passenger ship, makes the trip just a few times a month. And until now, the airport was able to accept only private flights.

The world’s most useless airport, as some have called it, cost 285 million British pounds [more than $400 million] and was meant to push St Helena toward economic self-sufficiency. A month before it opened in 2016, test flights revealed dangerous wind conditions, and commercial flights were put on hold. The airport has been taking only private and medical evacuation flights.

But now, South African airline Airlink will run weekly from Johannesburg to Windhoek, Namibia, and on to St Helena.

The Independent reported that Airlink won’t fill its Embraer jets to capacity. To keep the plane light enough to use less of the runway and avoid the spots with most dangerous winds, it will fill only 76 of the 99 seats. It’s hoping to bump that up to 87 in 2018.

Meanwhile, the new hotel by resort developer Mantis, which owns five-star safari lodges in Africa, Explora resorts in Chile, and other high-end properties, promises to be a game-changer. St Helena’s official tourism website lists just two B&Bs and a half-dozen hotels and guest houses, most of which have no websites.

As relatively speedy as the flights may be, this might actually be the perfect time to reserve a berth to St Helena. Not only is the island on its way to changes, but the mail ship will eventually be decommissioned. Book now, or permanently miss the boat.

Our Comment: This is a strange, un-focussed article - it announces the flights and then recommends coming by ship. It also has some notable errors: there already is a luxury hotel on the island (Farm Lodge); and goats are not loose on the golf course (though they may be tethered nearby). But on the Any publicity is good publicity theory…

The www.nzherald.co.nz on 9th October 2017 reported broadly the same article, but omitting the advice to come by ship.

See also: Fly here • Visitor Information

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St Helena inches closer to commercial air service

www.breakingtravelnews.com, 12th June 2017{3}

SA Airlink

The government of Saint Helena has announced that SA Airlink has been chosen as the preferred bidder for the provision of a scheduled commercial air service to St Helena.

SA Airlink is a privately owned airline registered in South Africa. It is a franchisee to South African Airways. SA Airlink is a member of the International Air Transport Association and as such is IATA Operational Safety Audit accredited. SA Airlink is a well-established airline operating on a scheduled network with domestic and regional passenger and cargo services.

The government will now enter into a period of contractual negotiations with SA Airlink. It is anticipated that a formal announcement will be made in the coming weeks on completion of negotiations and contract signing. It is at this point SHG will be able to confirm details such as the commencement date, frequency, aircraft type, the international hub and connecting airports, explained a statement from the local government. Details on the cost of fares and sales distribution will be released shortly after contract signing.

The news marks the end of a torturous period for aviation on the island, with a newly built airport forced to close shortly after construction last year after safety fears were raised over wind levels.

Our Comment: We’d like to contradict the statement that our airport was not forced to close shortly after construction last year. It has been open all the time and, as at 1st May 2017, had serviced around 50 flights.

See also: Fly here

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Saint of Heart

By Diane Selkirk, The Globe And Mail, 30th March 2017{3}

A view from St Helena looking toward the Atlantic Ocean
A view from St Helena looking toward the Atlantic Ocean
The island features impressive hiking viewpoints
The island features impressive hiking viewpoints
Jamestown, the capital of St Helena, offers scenic vistas
Jamestown, the capital of St Helena, offers scenic vistas
A 185-year-old giant tortoise called Jonathan, who likes his thighs tickled, is just one of the many wonders of the island
A 185-year-old giant tortoise called Jonathan, who likes his thighs tickled, is just one of the many wonders of the island
The charming island has a silent appeal, which will soon change
The charming island has a silent appeal, which will soon change
Visitors can wander around the island with rescue donkeys
Visitors can wander around the island with rescue donkeys

Saint Helena, an enchanted little island of 4,500 in the South Atlantic, has wondrous things: a giant, ancient tortoise; a bell boulder; a retirement home for donkeys. But its best quality is its sweetly bizarre nature

I don’t recall the instant I fell in love with St Helena. If I had to pin it down, I’d say it happened on a walk with Dominic the rescue donkey, somewhere on the road between Fairy Land and High Peak, where the views stretch over impossibly green pasture land past granite spires studded with cannons and out to the place where blue sky and blue sea merge.

My family and I had been on the island of 4,500 for a week. Each day we’d encountered a new wonder: a 185-year-old giant tortoise called Jonathan who likes his thighs tickled; a boulder that rings out like a bell when struck; a historic shipwreck in warm, clear water; and the rarest single-origin coffee in the world were just a few highlights. But when Dominic stopped for some juicy grass and I looked out over that singular landscape, St Helena struck me as enchanted.

It felt as if it was a moment from a fairy tale. Remote and uninhabited, the South Atlantic island first appeared to a Portuguese ship on May 23, 1502. St Helena then went on to become a major mid-ocean provisioning stop between South Africa and Brazil (or Europe) and was populated by British, Malay, Indian, African and Chinese settlers and slaves as well some of the greatest figures in seafaring history. Captains Cook, Dampier and Bligh as well as Napoleon, Darwin and Edmond Halley all left their marks here. But then the era of exploration ended and the island faded into obscurity.

Yet here I was, wandering around with a donkey in a place where the locals are called ‘saints.’ I was captivated.

For more than 500 years, the only way to reach the 120-square-kilometre British overseas territory has been by sea. Before the Suez Canal opened, some thousand ships a year called at the East India Co. pier in Jamestown. In the more recent past, the island’s visitors have come from Cape Town on the supply ship RMS St Helena, by cruise ship or on board a handful of intrepid yachts.

The end of St Helena’s isolation was meant to come in May, 2016, when the island’s first airport opened. But like all good fairy tales, the island’s curse (or charm) of isolation wasn’t so easily broken. Unexpected windshear delayed the airport’s launch. So the island set out on a quest to find an air-service provider that could make a steeper landing on a shortened runway - while still carrying a full load of passengers. But now the airline bids are in, and 515 years after its discovery, St Helena will end its isolated slumber.

Rising like a rugged castle from the middle of the sea, the island is a place of improbable beauty: both welcoming and imposing. The capital of Jamestown, with its candy-coloured buildings, defines picturesque.

With buildings that date back to 1700, it could be mistaken for a historic film set, complete with friendly saints who stop to chat about the weather, your day’s plans or the hard-to-find bananas and lettuce that are just now available in the Queen Anne{4} (Hurry!).

Meandering out from the town centre is a collection of single-lane roads best suited to donkeys (which is how they were used until not so long ago). Winding through forests and hills of overgrown flax, the roads pass sites which include Halley’s Observatory (where he catalogued the southern sky), Napoleon’s prison home and tomb as well as Plantation House, the Governor’s mansion, where giant tortoises roam the front yard.

Around the island’s perimeter, stone batteries cut into red-hued cliffs protected the bucolic interior from long-ago Dutch and French invaders. But now the defences just make impressive hiking viewpoints, overlooking the vibrant tropical sea.

History feels tangible on St Helena - as though the island is caught between an idealized past and a time that’s not quite today. And perhaps only here is it possible to have a favourite fortification.

Mine was a toss-up.

There was the magnificent High Knoll Fort built in 1790 as a redoubt to hold the island’s entire population, should it be invaded. The fort was restored using traditional techniques and reopened in 2015. Exploring the High Knoll put us in the dreamlike state that becomes so familiar on St Helena. Our daughter claimed there should be dragons flying overhead. And when we passed through a wall she waved her imaginary sword and yelled, For the love of Camelot! before running into the fort’s depths.

Lemon Valley’s fortifications edged ahead as my favourite during our second visit to the spot. It’s hard to deny the rugged beauty of Half Moon Battery on its perch above a sparkling blue-water bay, which comes complete with a tidy defensive wall and historic whitewashed quarantine building. But add a barbecue site at the mouth of a mysterious cave and excellent snorkelling and you have a popular picnic spot.

It was here we first sampled plo. If there’s a dish that represents the rich heritage of the saints, it’s this one-pot curried rice dish. Calling to mind a pillau or paella, fresh tuna, as well as whatever meats and vegetables are currently available, make up the dish.

What makes it distinct is that while no version is the same, each one is declared the best. This good-natured debate occurs in the local, near-incomprehensible dialect - a linguistic mash-up that adds and subtracts syllables and letters, and speeds by at a dizzying rate.

The first time I actually followed this argument (realizing I grasped what was being said), I appreciated that St Helena had cast her spell so surely I became weepy at the thought of leaving.

With our deepening affection for the island, my family grew protective. We wondered how the saints would manage when their isolation ends. While we knew there are positives - new businesses have energized the island and brought the return of younger saints who had gone away for work - we were fearful that outsiders wouldn’t love the island the way we did. Or even worse, that they’d make fun of it.

For all its beauty, St Helena is, as my daughter put it, a sweetly bizarre place. A few weeks in, the oddities had begun to add up. The island is more British than Great Britain and each home sports at least one picture of a monarch. While Queen Elizabeth is a popular choice, King George VI or even Queen Victoria are viable options.

The island also has a retirement home for donkeys that have been replaced by cars, just got mobile phone service in the past couple of years and has a tiny bit of France (literally) in its fertile interior.

It was while visiting this lush bit of France that the tourism director congratulated us on graduating from typical tourist activities to the weirder stuff: a memorial service for Napoleon Bonaparte. Despite the fact Napoleon’s tomb is empty (his remains were returned to France in 1840), islanders hold an annual service for their most famous prisoner.

The Bug-eyed Tuners and Brass Monkeys provided music and sang the English and French anthems as the Girl Guides, Boy Scouts and English and French dignitaries looked on.

While we stood shoulder to shoulder with the saints in that shady grove, I couldn’t help but send up a silent appeal for the enchanted little island. My wish was that its remoteness, which made St Helena so wondrous, gives way gently to change. And I hoped that the magical castle in the middle of the sea never fully finds its way into the modern world.

IF YOU GO

The RMS St Helena will retire after the airport is fully operational, but for those wanting to go by sea, bookings are still being accepted through the end of the year: Rates from Cape Town are £860 ($1,425) return.

Passenger air service to the island from South Africa is expected to be confirmed April or May, 2017.

Several new lodging options are open or are opening on the island including the historic Bertrand’s Cottage and the Mantis St Helena Hotel.

Our Comment: For the record:

See also: Visitor Information • Donkeys • Fly here • RMS St Helena • Forts and Batteries

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A St Helena Fisherman’s Wish Comes True

www.bluemarinefoundation.com

Published by Blue Marine Foundation, 20th February 2017{3}

Family Photo of Trevor Thomas
Family Photo of Trevor Thomas

In 1990, a fisherman, Trevor Otto Thomas, dressed himself in St Helena’s flag and led a march down Main Street in Jamestown, the island’s capital, to protest against a decision by his government to sell licences to Japanese industrial vessels which he believed would plunder the island’s waters. His family still have the petition he handed in to the governor.

As skipper of the offshore fishing vessel, the Westerdam, in the 1980s he had made an arrest at sea of a poacher and brought the vessel back to James Bay to show that St Helena’s waters were regularly being invaded. Thomas, who was born in Hout Bay, Cape Town to a St Helenian father and a South African mother, was that remarkable thing, a fisherman conservationist. In a picture of him revered by his family, he stands in fisherman’s dress tending a sick bird. Sadly Thomas did not live to see his wish come true - but his vision survived and became reality. Last autumn the waters of St Helena were declared a marine protected area which will allow sustainable fishing only by local vessels, to protect both the island’s fish stocks and its rich marine diversity. Thomas’ son, Waylon, was in place as chairman of the fishermen’s association, and the decision has become his father’s legacy.

Anyone who loves the sea will find the story of Thomas father and son intensely moving, for it sums up the achievement of this remote island in the south Atlantic in taking a huge decision to restrict fishing to highly selective fishing methods used only by boats from the island.

In a world of declining tuna stocks, the idea resonates. It seems entirely reasonable to believe that it is possible to create a niche product for the island’s Yellowfin and Skipjack not unlike that which the island’s coffee already enjoys on the shelves of Harrods and Fortnum and Mason. But first a lot of work must be done because right now St Helena’s fishermen sometimes get less than a pound a kilo for their tuna.

I was there on a fact-finding trip to see if Blue and our allies in the GB Oceans coalition could do anything to help the island now it has announced its intention to create a meaningful marine protected area with sustainable fishing, thereby protecting St Helena’s extraordinary marine biodiversity. In theory, an MPA should enable St Helena’s fishermen to create a high-quality, low-volume tuna brand with appeal to markets in London and elsewhere where buyers are willing to pay top prices for tuna with a strong conservation story behind it.

On our trip I quizzed the governor, Lisa Phillips, about the airport, now due to open by June with smaller aircraft than the wide-bodied jets which were shown last year to suffer from wind-shear. The airport is only one of several changes coming to the island. A huge EU-funded £18m project to lay a fibre optical cable from Cape Town should improve the island’s currently expensive and unreliable satellite broadband by 2020 making it easier to conduct business.

There is talk of new tourist developments and some are being built.

An upmarket South African hotel chain is converting three town houses on Jamestown’s lovely Georgian Main Street into a hotel. There is a proposal for a massive golf development - on land where thousands of South African prisoners were encamped during the Boer War - which seems less in tune with what this unique island has to offer. Despite the £30 million a year that Britain spends on St Helena - the overseas territories are meant to have first call on the overseas aid budget - it seems there is little spent on the rich heritage of historic fortifications, some of which are actively falling down. If tourists are to be lured by a marine reserve, and the opportunity to dive with Whale Sharks just outside the harbour, they are going to want other attractions to be in good shape.

At present the only way to St Helena is via its own now unique Royal Mail Ship, which leaves Cape Town and five days later arrives at the island. It then sails on to Ascension, from where some passengers fly back to England while some return to the Cape. The RMS, as it is called, gives an insight into a former age of ocean liners, with a rigid programme of deck quoits and beef tea at 11, followed by lunch, then a film, a quiz or other entertainments and then a six-course dinner. It is easy to become institutionalised into this pattern of being looked after and enjoyable to spend hours talking to the band of influential locals travelling back to the island. It is also all too easy to put on weight if you do not spend time in the boat’s gym.

When we boarded the ship again for Ascension, it felt extraordinarily like home. At present the plan is for the RMS St Helena to be decommissioned next year after the airport opens and when a new cargo ship takes over the freight that it carries. There are few who will see it go without a pang of regret.

The island is full of surprises. Saint Helena’s cliffs seem vertiginous from the sea and the land looks impossibly arid. But after driving up hairpin bends there is a moment when you burst out into the valleys of the interior where everything is green and there are pairs of white fairy terns flying in perfect synchronization above the trees where they make their minimal equivalent of a nest by laying an egg on a bough. In a couple of hours’ tour with Kevin George, our expert guide, we were able to see several endemic and endangered plants - including he cabbage and she cabbage trees and ebony - and the island’s only endemic bird, the wire bird, a kind of plover named after its spindly legs. All will say of the island’s main tourist attractions, the sites associated with Napoleon who died on his final exile there, is that we noticed that these French possessions were pointedly flying the EU flag.

St Helena offers so much that is unique that it would be a shame to compromise it with the ordinary. Its new marine protected area is a way of celebrating that uniqueness and potentially an example to the world. It deserves our recognition and support.

Lush green valleys of St Helena
Lush green valleys of St Helena

The RMS St Helena arriving at Jamestown, St Helena
The RMS St Helena arriving at Jamestown, St Helena

Governor Lisa Phillips with Whale Sharks
Governor Lisa Phillips with Whale Sharks

The Emporium, Napoleon St, Jamestown
The Emporium, Napoleon St, Jamestown

The Market, Jamestown, St Helena
The Market, Jamestown, St Helena

RMS St Helena chefs preparing a barbecue
RMS St Helena chefs preparing a barbecue

The sun deck of the RMS St Helena, laid for the barbecue
The sun deck of the RMS St Helena, laid for the barbecue

The picturesque view from the hilltops of St Helena
The picturesque view from the hilltops of St Helena

The Wirebird, St Helena’s only endemic bird
The Wirebird, St Helena’s only endemic bird

 

See also: Fishing • Visitor Information

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Sailing to Saint Helena - one of the world’s most remote communities

By Diane Selkirk, Yachting World, 19th January 2017{3}

yachtingworld20170119_01
The rocky coast of Saint Helena appears off the bow
The rocky coast of Saint Helena appears off the bow
Gorgeous tropical seas surround the barren coast of Saint Helena, although the island’s interior is surprisingly lush
Gorgeous tropical seas surround the barren coast of Saint Helena, although the island’s interior is surprisingly lush
Saint Helena map
Saint Helena map
Saint Helena marked 30,000 miles of cruising on Ceilydh our Woods catamaran
Saint Helena marked 30,000 miles of cruising on Ceilydh our Woods catamaran
Hidden churches lie dotted around the island of Saint Helena
Hidden churches lie dotted around the island of Saint Helena
yachtingworld20170119_07
Jamestown is a British village improbably wedged in a volcanic cleft
Jamestown is a British village improbably wedged in a volcanic cleft
Jamestown, St Helena from Jacob’s Ladder
Jamestown, St Helena from Jacob’s Ladder
Jonathan the 186-year-old tortoise
Jonathan the 186-year-old tortoise
Hiking along coastal trails
Hiking along coastal trails

Diane Selkirk was utterly enchanted by the remote island outpost of Saint Helena

We crossed wakes with Captain Cook 350 miles out from the Namibian coast and 245 years after he set out from Cape Town for the South Atlantic island of Saint Helena. While spending six years sailing in the tropical latitudes, my husband Evan, 14-year-old daughter Maia and I found echoes of the early navigators in ports around the world; from the names of harbours and hills, to monuments and statues.

But to sail the same actual route - matching latitude and longitude while comparing the sea conditions and the daily mileage of the HMS Endeavour with our Woods catamaran Ceilydh - was a first for us.

Cook’s log: Wednesday, April 24th 1771. Gentle breezes, and Clear weather. Wind South-East by South to West-South-West; course North 46 degrees West; distance 98 miles; latitude 26 degrees 19 minutes South, longitude 350 degrees 42 minutes West.

It’s always a delight when a passage that promises easy sailing lives up to expectation. After the challenge of the Indian Ocean, the mellow South Atlantic felt like a reward. But unlike the much heavier Endeavour, our 40ft catamaran averaged over 6 knots in winds that were 10-12 knots from astern. While he was making 100-mile days, we pulled ahead with 150-mile ones. It seemed the distraction of our cross-century race with Cook would be short lived.

Racing Cook across the South Atlantic

When you are surrounded on all sides by water, it’s easy to lose track of the hours. Have we been out three or four days? When we changed time zones did the clock go forward or back? Passages that last more than four days become timeless. Days are divided into meals, watches, naps, sunset, moonrise and dawn. The rest of the world recedes; small things punctuate the days. The colour of the water for instance: close to the coast it was a nutrient-rich murky green. And it was chilly. We slept under fluffy blankets and drank litres of hot tea. Exiting the cold, north flowing Benguela Current, the water warmed; increasing from 12°C to 18°C over the distance of 100 miles and then it turned a brilliant tropical blue. But the sea birds were gone; there were no more albatross, kites or terns. We didn’t look out to see seals floating head down with their flippers warming in the sun. Visits by dolphins also dropped off, making the ocean seem vast, empty and endless.

Friday, April 26th 1771. Fresh Gales, and a large Swell from the Southward. Wind South-South-West, South-East by South; course North 50 degrees West; distance 168 miles; latitude 21 degrees 40 minutes South, longitude 354 degrees 12 minutes West.

Almost on cue, our conditions changed to match Cook’s. The GRIBs showed a low in the Southern Ocean which was sending up a steep mixed swell. The wind soon followed. Now we were neck and neck in this odd competition; the Endeavour’s noon position almost matched our own. Two days before reaching Saint Helena, we both crossed the Prime Meridian. For Cook it meant he had, ‘Circumnavigated the Globe in a West direction.’ For us it marked 30,000 miles of voyaging and a return to the western hemisphere, but we were still a long way from Vancouver, our home in Canada.

About 20 miles out, I sighted the volcanic bulk of Saint Helena. Charles Darwin wrote: Saint Helena rises abruptly like a huge black castle from the ocean. Closer to the coast, we spotted stone fortifications built into the cliff faces, reinforcing the impression that we had fallen through the centuries and were approaching a mid-ocean fortress.

Wednesday, May 1st 1771. At 6 A.M. saw the Island of St Helena bearing West, distant 8 or 9 Leagues. At Noon Anchor’d in the Road, before James Fort, in 24 fathoms water. Found riding here His Majesty’s Ships Portland and Swallow Sloop, and 12 Sail of Indiaman. At our first seeing the Fleet in this Road we took it for granted that it was a War; but in this we were soon agreeably deceived.

Five centuries of seafaring

For over 500 years, the only way to reach the British Overseas Territory of Saint Helena has been by the sea. Before the Suez Canal opened, some 1,000 ships a year called. Travelling here, we followed not just in the wake of Captain Cook but those of Dampier, Bligh, Napoleon, Darwin, Edmond Halley and Joshua Slocum.

In the more recent past, the island’s visitors have come by the RMS St Helena, cruise ships and yachts. But now, thanks to the brand new airport (private and charter flights only for now), Saint Helena and all her wonders will be accessible to visitors who don’t have weeks, or months, to dedicate to a sea voyage. For the first time, new arrivals - be they governors or commoners - will be certain to avoid the possibility of an Atlantic baptism, no longer required to reach for the swinging ropes at the Jamestown landing and time their first step ashore.

When we took our mooring, in amongst yachts from seven different countries, I almost expected to catch sight of Cook’s square-rigged barque sailing past the base of the fortified cliffs. Saint Helena, more than any place I’ve ever been, feels unreal - caught in an enduring era of exploration and adventure.

The displacement continued with my first step onto the old East India Company pier. As I reached for the orange ropes, the strong arms of two Saints (as locals are called) pulled me safely ashore after our nine-day passage. Moments later we found ourselves looking through chinks in the doors of the pier’s old stone storehouses and making our way toward the harbour master’s office.

After a quick visit with Customs and the port captain, we were directed to the police and immigration. From there we were free to explore the laneways of Jamestown, a brightly painted English village wedged improbably into one of the tropical island’s volcanic clefts.

Isolation ends

Through the centuries Jamestown has been a popular provisioning stop for sailors. Fruit trees flourished in the valleys and goats roamed the hills - offering fresh supplies to passing ships. But the diminishment in shipping meant the market for fresh food dwindled. While it was once a vital and productive port, Saint Helena gradually became a forgotten outpost of the British Empire.

Eventually, entire generations of farmers and workers left the little island seeking employment and opportunity elsewhere. The pomegranate, mango, coconut, pawpaw and banana trees as well as the goats, cows and chickens that were once found in great numbers - and produced enough to meet the needs of both islanders and passing sailors - were supplemented by supplies brought in by the monthly mail ship.

Entering the shops and grocery stores, we discovered that the self-sufficiency that once marked the island was replaced by a reliance on the outside world. Fresh supplies including eggs, onions, potatoes and meat came from South Africa. Milk, cheese, frozen and canned foods were coming from the EU.

But the airport’s construction - which brought back young, highly-skilled Saints as well as an international collection of expats - is transforming the island. Local produce, which was limited to a couple of crops and has been in chronic short supply, is being grown by a new generation of farmers. Thursday, the day the local produce is brought into the shops, results in a good-natured scrum. The island’s extreme dedication to mannerly conduct is overlooked and pushing past an elderly lady is completely acceptable when there’s a gorgeous leafy lettuce at stake.

Falling in love with quirky Saint Helena

Ships and yachts have typically only remained in the Jamestown harbour for as long as it takes to provision. We expected our visit to be similarly short - but we fell in love with the quirky little island and our one week visit stretched to six.

While the island’s exterior appears ruggedly volcanic the interior is as lush and pastoral as the English countryside. The cows that graze the vibrant green fields are cared for by compassionate farmers who let them reach a venerable old-age before dispatching them to the table as nearly inedible stewing beef. There is a retirement home for donkeys that have been replaced by cars and a 186-year-old tortoise called Jonathan, who, along with the much younger David, Emma, Myrtle and Frederika, lives on the lawn of Plantation House, the Governor’s mansion.

Eighty-year-old tour-guide and self-trained historian Robert Peters took us to see the island’s most popular tourist stops. We visited Napoleon’s residence Longwood House and his tomb, checked out the imposing High Knoll Fort, viewed the exterior of Plantation House and saw the island’s highest point, Diana’s Peak. The peak is one of the island’s most popular hikes and is flanked by two hills topped with Norfolk Pines that were planted there deliberately, it is said, as navigation markers by none other than Captain Cook himself.

With the well-known spots covered it was Aaron Legg - farmer and 4x4 tour-guide - who convinced us Saint Helena was worth getting to know better. He took us to isolated valleys to see picturesque churches and pointed out cannons, which are found around the island in remote defensive locations as well as on the walls and fortifications which are built in every valley. And he showed us the Bell Stone, which was a popular curiosity during Saint Helena’s original tourism boom (back during Cook’s era). This is simply a normal-looking boulder that makes a remarkably melodious sound when struck with a rock. It made me want to whack every rock I could find, just in case others sound like bells, and no-one but a Saint had ever thought to check.

We could hit more rocks instead of continuing the tour, Aaron graciously offered. It takes a while to adjust to the easy-going nature of islanders. There’s an old-world virtuousness that we delighted in. The most publicised crime during our visit was theft of a traffic mirror from a hairpin turn. And we learned it’s the height of rudeness to fail to wave at a passing car - a reflex that took two countries to shake.

I decided to forgo searching for more bell stones in favour of further exploration. One of my favourite spots was Lemon Valley. Accessible by hiking trail or a one-mile dinghy ride from the moorings, it was here that some of the 30,000 freed African slaves were processed and quarantined after being rescued from slavers in the mid 19th Century (they were later moved to Ruperts Valley when their numbers overwhelmed Lemon Valley). Now an inviting spot for picnicking, snorkelling, or hiking up to the old fortifications, the valley gracefully mixes beauty, history and modern use in a way that is quintessentially Saint Helena.

Leaving celebrations

Saint Helena still strikes me as an enchanted place and we knew it would be tough to leave. I was afraid that if we left we’d never find our way back. So we delayed.

I met the new Governor, Lisa Phillips while walking retired donkeys at the Saint Helena donkey home. Our hour-long chat led to an invitation to Plantation House. The house was off-limits during the last Governor’s tenure, but Phillips has opened it back up to tours. We saw the chandelier that once hung in Napoleon’s Longwood Estate, and noted the portrait of Napoleon hanging directly across from a portrait of his jailor, the governor of the time, Sir Hudson Lowe - humorously positioned so they could scowl at each other through eternity.

Saint Helena is a reminder about all that is wonderful about voyaging. Remote and unknown, it’s hard won. It’s most certainly not a place that is full of attractions and ‘things to do’. To enjoy such happy days on the island we had to be our best selves, reaching out and meeting local people and learning the rhythms of the island.

We left on Saint Helena day. Our plan was to enjoy the day, see the parade and leave at dusk. When fireworks lit up a small but very special portion of the sky we were ten miles out. The sail was a gentle one: soft tropical breezes from astern, easy seas and a moon each night.

Again, we sailed with Cook: Sunday, May 5th 1771. Gentle breezes and Clear weather. Weigh’d, and stood out of the Road in company. North 50 degrees 30 minutes West; distance 71 miles; latitude 15 degrees 5 minutes South, longitude 6 degrees 46 minutes West.

Arrivals and departures

There are currently no commercial flights to and from the airport, only private jets and charter flights. Early indications are that even this limited service is benefitting the locals.

The RMS St Helena is slated for decommissioning and, thanks to the new breakwater and pier in nearby Ruperts Valley, freighter operations, cruise ship landings and fish processing will all be moved off the historic Jamestown Wharf, which will be reconfigured as a public space. The Saint Helena Yacht Club is looking forward to an increased presence on the wharf, providing a warmer welcome to cruisers. There’s also a plan for a short-term haul-out facility on either the Jamestown Wharf or Ruperts Pier.

Costs: Well maintained moorings are £2 or £3 (GBP) per night. Ferry service runs £2 per round trip. Port fees are £40 and visas are £17 per person.

See also: Yachting • Visitor Information

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Hope for St Helena

By Lord Ashcroft, published on www.conservativehome.com, 17th January 2017{3}{b}

It had been more than 68 years since I last set foot on St Helena, famously the fortress home to Napoleon Bonaparte after his exile, yet I quickly learnt that some things do not change.

Its 4,500 residents are as friendly, fun-loving and relaxed as ever: strangers say a cheery hello in the street, drivers wave to you from the open windows of their cars, houses remain unlocked at night because the crime rate is so low and ignition keys get left for days in unlocked, parked vehicles.

St Helena, a volcanic island that first erupted out of the South Atlantic some 15 million years ago, may be one of the remotest places on earth but it is also one of the most welcoming. ‘Saints’, as residents are affectionately known regardless of their diverse ethnic origins, religions or creed, rarely fail to live up to their name.

Before landing at the island’s troubled and underused new airport last week, I filled in an entry form that asked for the purpose of my visit. Curiosity was my one-word reply.

Aged two, I had travelled to St Helena by ship with my parents in 1948, when my beloved, late father, Eric, was on the way to his first Colonial Office posting in Africa. As I grew up, my parents’ fond recollections of St Helena gave me an affinity for the island and I have long intended to return.

This time last year the entire island was riding a giant wave of expectation with the airport unveiling scheduled for the next month: February 2016. And then, with economic prosperity seemingly just around the corner, it all went horribly wrong…

As I revealed in my first blog on St Helena in June last year, the official opening of the airport was twice postponed amid major concerns over ‘wind shear’ - dangerous and unpredictable cross-winds caused by the island’s unique topography.

Even when the airport did quietly open for business, it was considered unsafe for use by the two commercial airlines, Comair and Atlantic Star Airlines, which had planned to operate from South Africa and the UK respectively. British national newspapers revelled in highlighting the woes of a hugely expensive airport, paid for from £285 million of taxpayers’ money, where large aircraft could not land.

As I first disclosed eight months ago, the airport, though a remarkable feat of engineering, was in danger of becoming an expensive ‘white elephant’ and a deep embarrassment to the British Government.

Jacob’s Ladder
‘Le pond’!
‘Le pond’!

St Helena is 47 square miles in size, about a third the size of the Isle of Wight. A British Overseas Territory, it lies some 1,200 miles from the African mainland and 1,800 miles from Brazil. It was discovered by the Portuguese in 1502, but later run by the British East India Company which, in turn, eventually handed it over to the Crown.

St Helena has near full employment with the local Government the main employer and others working in agriculture, fishing and various small businesses. However, the average wage is only around £7,000 a year despite high costs for food and other essentials that are a result of the island’s isolation.

In modern times, the island’s lifeline to the rest of the world has been the RMS St Helena, which takes five days to sail between Cape Town and St Helena, and operates on a fortnightly cycle. The RMS, as it is known locally, had been due to be decommissioned last year after reaching the end of its natural life but, while the airport’s future use remains uncertain, it is still in operation.

I am in the fortunate position of having use of a private jet. Eight months ago, I had hoped to become one of the very first non-test flights to land on St Helena but widespread safety concerns scuppered that plan.

However, last week I finally flew from the Namibian capital of Windhoek to St Helena, a journey of some three hours and 17 minutes. With weather conditions favourable, my two pilots elected to approach the island from the south, landing on what is known as ‘Runway 02’: this has the advantage of encountering less wind shear problems but the disadvantage of approaching with a tail wind. Pilots, for safety and performance reasons, always prefer to land and take-off into the wind: however, the tail wind of eight knots was within the plane’s safety limit of ten knots.

The dramatic approach to the airport provides an awesome sight: I found it exhilarating and my only fear was that a sudden deterioration in the weather might prevent us landing. However, we landed on the 1,000 foot-high runway to the south-east of the island on our initial approach and without incident.

One of my first ports of call that afternoon was Jacob’s Ladder (pictured, right) where, in 1948, my father, then recently out of the Army and blessed with both fitness and determination, carried me up its 699 steps, cut into the steep cliffside in 1829.

The next day I also visited Longwood House, where Napoleon lived in exile from 1815 until his death in 1821 (unlike me, the deposed French Emperor was never a fan of the island, once saying its only redeeming feature was its coffee).

In 1948, I had carelessly fallen into Longwood House’s fishpond only to be rapidly scooped out by my parents. Last week, I was delighted to find that, nearly seven decades on, the pond remains in place and this time I managed to negotiate my way around it rather than plunge into its waters for a second time.

My other numerous stop-offs last week included Plantation House, a 35-room Georgian mansion set in 280 acres where I was given a warm welcome, first by Lisa Phillips, the island’s first woman Governor, and then by St Helena’s most famous resident: the giant tortoise Jonathan. He is believed to have been born in around 1832 and stakes a claim to be the world’s oldest living animal. In St Helena, giant tortoises celebrate their birthday on January 1 and so Jonathan is now deemed to be 185 years old.

St Helena has any number of attractions for foreign visitors: while some are enchanted by its unique wildlife, flora and fauna, others marvel at how the vegetation can be green and lush at one moment and then semi-desert a mere two miles down the road. Yet more visitors are captivated by its numerous historical landmarks, everything from ancient churches and an impressive museum to Napoleon’s Tomb and High Knoll Fort, constructed in 1798 as the island’s first major fortification. However, without large, accessible beaches and devoid of a busy nightlife, St Helena is always likely to remain a niche tourist destination for the more adventurous and thoughtful traveller.

One of the primary purposes for my visit was simply to meet as many islanders as possible. I wanted to discover whether, after the airport fiasco, they despair at a missed opportunity or whether they remain hopeful that the island’s best times still lie ahead. In truth, I encountered many islanders with both views: resentment and optimism were equally apparent.

On my first full day on the island, I took an early morning stroll. Within minutes, I had met three new acquaintances, all happy to share their thoughts with me despite the fact that it was little after 7am. My chance meeting with Brian Davies, an island carpenter, was swiftly followed by introductions to Colin Yon, a builder, and Dave Marr, a plumber. All shared a common passion for their island home.

For my stay on the island, I booked into the 18th-century, 18-room Consulate Hotel, which lies in the centre of Jamestown, the island’s coastal capital and its heartbeat.

The hotel is owned and run by Hazel Wilmot, aged 60, who is believed to be the biggest individual inward investor on St Helena, having come alone to the island from Botswana in 2008. Since then, she has spent more than £2 million buying and renovating her hotel, as well as investing in a 17-acre farm to provide meat, eggs and other food for her hotel guests.

Ms Wilmot says her money was only spent with the prospect of a new airport and new prosperity for the island - but now her hotel is largely empty and last year her electricity was (temporarily) cut off because she could not afford to pay an outstanding bill. She says she and others on St Helena are on the verge of bankruptcy with homes, boats and other possessions in danger of being repossessed.

I have been left high and dry by matters beyond my control and I feel angry and frustrated, Ms Wilmot told me. I am broke, with some £175,000 worth of debts.

Today Ms Wilmot is a constant thorn in the side of both the Department for International Development (DFID) and the St Helena Government. She insists she and other islanders should receive financial compensation because their financial woes are largely the result of the airport’s failings.

At Jamestown’s dockyard, Johnny Herne, 43, born and bred on the island, is equally unhappy with DFID and the island’s Government. He says that he has borrowed £150,000 to buy a new boat, Emerald Isle, to provide trips for tourists to see the dolphins and whale sharks, and for private fishing trips.

With monthly interest repayments of £2,500, on top of monthly insurance and fuel bills each of £1,000, he says he has a daily battle to avoid bankruptcy now that visitor numbers remain so low. Official predictions were that tourist numbers would leap from around a 1,000 a year at present to 29,000 a year by 2042.

I know I took a risk but I feel very let down. We were promised a busy airport and yet it hasn’t happened, said Mr Herne, who added that he now has three different jobs and works up to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, to keep his head above water.

However, others investors are much more optimistic and appear confident that the airport’s problems will be solved. A January 27th deadline has been set for airlines to put in tenders to run an air service to and from the island.

Lucille Johnson, 43, and her business partner, Patrick Henry, 51, spent £15,000 on two new taxis last year with the intention of launching an airport shuttle on the island. When the passengers failed to arrive, however, they adapted their business, V2 Taxi Partners, to specialise in a 24-hour service for islanders and visitors alike. Within months, they had bought two more taxis at a further cost of £15,000 and are employing two part-time staff.

The failure of the airport has been a disappointment but Saints feel it will be fixed. There will be uproar if it is not sorted, said Ms Johnson, who like Mr Henry was born and brought up on the island.

One proposed solution to the wind shear issue is to blast away hundreds of tons of volcanic rock, known as King and Queen Rocks, that lie above the airport runway. However, conservative estimates say the work would cost more than £75 million and, inevitably, if the work is authorised but it fails to solve the problem, DFID will come in for further public ridicule.

With airport behind

A decision on which company will operate the airlines to and from St Helena is expected in May and regular services should be in operation before the end of the year. Airlines, including the British-based Atlantic Star, are convinced that the wind shear problems can be overcome using the right aircraft and routes.

One suggestion from Atlantic Star is to expand the capacity for civilians to share military flights from RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, to Ascension Island - nearly 800 miles north west of St Helena. Atlantic Star Airlines would then use an Avro jet, with a maximum capacity of 60 passengers, to fly to and from St Helena and Ascension twice a week. Atlantic Star Airlines expects competition from a handful of South African and Namibian airlines for the tender.

For all the hard work and positive public comments of Niall O’Keeffe, the Chief Executive for Economic Development, and Christopher Pickard, the Director of Tourism, I have no doubt that an announcement on regular flights is needed before they can achieve their respective aims of bringing significant investment and large number of tourists to St Helena. A permanent solution, rather than a ‘cut and paste’ one, is what islanders crave and deserve.

Basil George, aged 80, used to teach on St Helena before becoming its Director of Education. An astute observer of island life, Mr George speaks for many Saints when he tells me: We are at a crisis at the moment which is a good time to rethink how this island can progress.

I was flattered that on arriving on the island I was already looked upon as a ‘friend of St Helena’ because, despite my long absence, I have vigorously championed the island’s cause.

During my visit, I gave an interview to Tammy Williams, of Saint FM Community Radio and the St Helena Independent newspaper, that resulted in both two lengthy radio broadcasts and also front-page news. Mike Olsson, a Swede who has lived on the island more than 20 years, owns the newspaper and is a board member of the radio station. In fact, I gave a live radio interview to Mr Olsson, now a councillor, in 2009 when I ‘buzzed’ the island in my plane as a show of support.

I have already posed tough questions relating to DFID and the St Helena Government in terms of what went wrong last year and what the future holds for islanders. They are questions that remain largely unanswered.

I am an unashamed critic of the UK’s policy that results in so much of our annual £12.4 billion foreign aid budget being squandered by corrupt and incompetent regimes.

However, while we still have a commitment to spend 0.7 percent of our Gross Domestic Product on foreign aid, I would much rather see such funds allocated to our Overseas Territories, including deserving causes such as St Helena.

During my visit, I observed a hard-working, enthusiastic, resilient community but one that needs help in improving its infrastructure and its skills if it is to welcome tourists on the ambitious scale that is planned.

Today water and fresh food are scarce, credit card payments are not accepted, the internet service is both slow and expensive and up-market hotel rooms are in short supply (even the new 32-room hotel in Main Street, due to open later this year, is not without controversy since: because it was bought and is being refurbished with £1.5 million of local government funding, private hoteliers resent the subsidised competition).

Although significant improvements have already been made in the past decade, tens of millions of pounds are needed to improve St Helena roads, health service and schools. Even its prison, currently home to 13 miscreants, needs to be brought into the 21st Century. Yet the challenge facing Saints is to modernise the island while still preserving its distinctive charm.

St Helena is run by a DFID-appointed Governor together with a 12-strong elected council and senior civil servants (together they provide the members for both the Executive and Legislative Councils).

Yet, according to senior sources, relations between DFID and the council are at ‘rock bottom’. Councillors feel they have been kept in the dark over major plans for St Helena and that too often local wishes are ignored.

DFID does not listen to the people of this island yet we are the ones who know best what can, and cannot, be achieved, said one senior source. DFID imposes more and more, and listens less and less, said a second source, adding: We need to see more openness, transparency and accountability if we are to work successfully with DFID in future.

The list of grievances from islanders and its council is long but near the top is what they see as dishonesty and incompetence over their airport: first insufficient weather surveys and test flights took place before the island’s runway was chosen and then, once safety concerns were identified two years ago by the Met Office, the relevant parties, including prospective airlines and investors, were not at once made aware of them.

The council and islanders also say that DFID then dithered for too long before making a commitment to continue running the RMS St Helena boat for a least a year ahead while there was no air service. With most hotel reservations made a year in advance, potential visitors had been unwilling to make a holiday booking when they could not guarantee they could get to and from the island when the time came.

At present, St Helena receives nearly £30 million a year in Government subsidies from DFID but the hope remains that, with a vibrant economy based on tourism, the island will eventually be self-sufficient within quarter of a century.

No one will be happier than me if that is achieved but I suspect the reality will be that it may take far longer for St Helena to survive without some kind of subsidy from Britain which, given the island’s remoteness and isolation, is perhaps unsurprising.

As my plane lifted off from south-facing ‘Runway 02’, under blue skies and into a 12-knot headwind at 3:40pm on Wednesday of last week, I took some pride from the fact that I was about to create a small piece of history on the first flight from St Helena to mainland Europe.

After a take-off that was as equally as smooth as my landing two days earlier, I glanced back at the island with nothing but fond memories of my short stay: St Helena and its warm-hearted Saints had lived up to all my expectations and more.

If ever a small community deserve a change of fortune, it is the residents of St Helena, and I will continue to play a small part in making life uncomfortable for those who let them down. One thing is certain: this time it will be closer to seven months, rather than seven decades, before I return to visit my new friends once again.

See also: Fly here • Fly Yourself Here

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The Bones of St Helena

By Diane Selkirk, PS Magazine, 10th January 2017{3}

Two cinematographers are capturing the secret history of a South Atlantic island full of the bones of Liberated Africans.

Mount Pleasant and the cloud forest
Mount Pleasant and the cloud forest

The bones aren’t in pizza boxes, despite what the rumours said - though it was this very rumour that drew filmmakers Joseph Curran and Dominic de Vere of the British film company PT Film to a macabre mystery on the island of St Helena. The bones are actually in archival boxes, in an old storeroom attached to the prison, Curran says. But the rest of the story - forgotten corpses excavated from mass graves to make way for an airport, after which the bones languished - is all true.

Best known as the island where Napoleon was exiled and died, St Helena was in the news last year because of the awkward opening of its first-ever airport. (News reports said it was too windy for a lot of planes to land.) What most people still don’t know is that this island, located in the middle of the Atlantic between southern Africa and Brazil, is a physical link to the Middle Passage, the notorious route slavers used to reach the New World with their human cargo.

Between 1840 and 1874, an estimated 30,000 Liberated Africans were released into refugee camps on St Helena. When they died, an estimated 8,000 were buried in three vast graveyards in the shallow volcanic earth in Ruperts Valley and at the quarantine station in Lemon Valley.

Curran, de Vere, and soundman Oliver Sanders say that, while locals knew about the bones, few knew who they belonged to. These bodies didn’t represent ‘Saints,’ as locals are called - they weren’t seen as part of the island. One resident named Colin Benjamin told the film crew about using a skull and leg bone to play baseball: I’m sorry about that, but being kids that’s the way we grew up.

Bones sometimes just appear here, Curran says. We’re walking through an industrial area in Ruperts Valley, on the northwest of the island. Continuing up the valley, we reach a freshly paved road and the second designated graveyard, which was put into official use after the first burial ground was filled. It’s a scramble down from the road, through dry prickly bush, into the unmarked burial ground. I catch sight of a bone-white fragment and cautiously brush away the earth. It’s a piece of old china. The entire area, which stretches up a dry gully to where it meets graveyard number three, is scattered with rocks and debris.

Curran explains the road was built to bring fuel and supplies to the airport. It was during a geotechnical survey that workers discovered signs of the burials, and, in 2008, archaeologists led by Andrew Pearson, an independent archaeological consultant, excavated the bones of some 325 Liberated Africans.

Dominic de Vere in Butcher’s GraveButcher’s Grave detail
Left: Dominic de Vere in Butcher’s Grave, Right: Butcher’s Grave detail

Costal view

The archaeologists unearthed a combination of individual, multiple, and mass graves. Most contained children between eight and 12 years old; some were wearing ribbons or beads; in one case, a tiny copper bracelet.

Annina van Neel, chief environmental commitment officer of the airport construction company Basil Read, oversaw later finds. She told us about finding remains, and the sleepless nights it would cause her, Curran says. I cried for the first time when I watched van Neel cry. The humanity of it all just hit me.

Curran says that filming the documentary was like assembling a puzzle; every person they interviewed had a different relationship to the bones and was just a small piece of the story. As their interviews continued and the story took shape, de Vere and Curran began to realize how timely it was: There were times when the numbers of African refugees almost numbered residents, he says. The islanders would send word to England to say they needed help - that they were struggling to manage and care for the new arrivals - and then another ship would show up, and they had to cope. With an ongoing refugee crisis in Europe and beyond, the bones of St Helena today tell an urgent story.

Slavery and St Helena have been linked almost since the island was discovered, uninhabited, by Portuguese sailors 500 years ago. Five of the island’s earliest inhabitants were escaped enslaved people. By 1723 over half of the island’s 1,100 residents were enslaved. Slavery began its decline in St Helena in 1792, when local laws made it illegal to import new enslaved people. In 1832, slavery was abolished when the East India Company purchased the 614 remaining slaves from their owners for a sum of around £28,067 - and, soon after, the role of many Saints shifted from owner to ally.

Oliver Sanders recording at Dianas Peak

One way that the denizens of St Helena helped fight slavery was by sea: De Vere explains that ships like the British HMS Waterwitch formed a blockade off the African coast. When they caught a slave ship, crews boarded it and brought it to St Helena, where the human cargo was released and the ship was broken up. During her years of service, Waterwitch captured around 40 slave ships, liberating thousands of Africans.

In April 1843 Waterwitch captured the Brazilian-flagged ship Conceição de Maria. Some 390 people had been loaded aboard the small boat in Benguela, Angola. After 22 days at sea, 349 captives, 60 percent of whom were children, were liberated in St Helena; 41 had died during the voyage. Many were buried in St Helena’s mass graves.

Beyond the sheer tragedy of the finds on this island, archaeologists say the importance of these lives can’t be underestimated. This is the only known assembly of large numbers of first-generation enslaved Africans in the world. They are thought to be the last trace of the estimated 1.8 million people who perished on the Middle Passage, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.

Research opportunities have been limited by local politics, but bone fragments from the graves were part of DNA sequencing and radiogenic isotope analysis in the eurotast project. The project’s goal is to identify the origins of the people who were stolen during the slave trade. Simply put, knowing who is buried in St Helena may answer elusive questions about the people who arrived in the Americas.

St Helena is a magical place. Granite spires rise out of rolling green farmland on one part of the island, while, in other places, multi-hued volcanic cliffs drop abruptly into the sea. These days, the population of 4,000 relies on supplies brought by ship. But in 1850, the island’s farms, fishery, and water supply had to provide for a population nearing 7,000, the hundreds of ships that called each year, and the influx of African refugees.

One sunny afternoon, the island appears more pastoral than imposing. Curran suggests we sail the inviting waters toward the Liberated Africans Depot, the camp set up to house refugees, in Ruperts Valley. From aboard a 40-foot catamaran, he wants to film the sea route the captured slave ships would have taken before visiting the graveyards by land. Sitting on deck, listening to gentle waves, we’re entertained by swooping black noddies, and soon catch a glimpse of a huge whale shark as we approach the rugged red cliffs.

A section of the road that connects Ruperts Bay to the airportRuperts Bay
Left: A section of the road that connects Ruperts Bay to the airport, Right: Ruperts Bay

Butcher’s Grave on the grounds of Plantation HouseThe airport check the runway as part of their daily routineThe island’s interior
Left: Butcher’s Grave on the grounds of Plantation House; Middle: The airport check the runway as part of their daily routine; Right: The island’s interior

Even beauty can’t obscure the truth: Experts argue about the true human cost of slavery, but estimates from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database say some 12.5 million people were loaded aboard ships by European slave traders for the journey to the New World, and between 10 and 20 percent died during transport. Records tell us that people were packed into the dank hulls of ships, separated by sex, and kept naked and chained. When the slave ships arrived in St Helena, the captives were often near death thanks to dehydration, dysentery, smallpox, scurvy, and violence.

In the Jamestown library, I come across one account of a ship’s arrival. The paragraph, written by the surveyor and engineer John Melliss in 1861, describes how horrified Melliss was at the brutalities endured by the Africans: The whole deck … was thickly strewn with the dead, dying and starved bodies of what seemed to me a species of ape which I had never seen before. One’s sensations of horror were certainly lessened by the impossibility of realizing that the miserable, helpless objects being picked up from the deck and handed over the ship’s side, one by one, living, dying and dead alike, were really human beings.

Despite grave odds, for the three decades the Liberated Africans Depot was open, locals nursed thousands of the newly freed back to health. Over the years they offered English lessons, schooling, and church services to survivors. Hundreds of refugees opted to stay on the island. The remainder, speaking multiple languages and originating from far-flung parts of Africa, often couldn’t communicate where they were from, making it impossible to return them. Instead they were sent as indentured servants to places including British Guiana, Jamaica, and Trinidad. Walking through the dusty heat of graveyard number two, I can’t help but compare this dreary place with Sane Valley, the lush grove in the island’s interior where Napoleon was interred. Napoleon, whose body was returned to France in 1840, gets an annual remembrance ceremony. The nameless 8,000 Liberated Africans buried on St Helena don’t have a single memorial plaque or grave marker between them.

Curran explains that a memorial for the Liberated Africans will come - but because the bones are claimed by no one, islanders have argued over how best to commemorate them, and even who should be given a role in the decision. People have offered various ideas: immediate interment; plantings to beautify the area; an art installation; a tomb; or even sending the bones back to Africa. Until a decision is made, the excavated bones sit off-limits in a dilapidated storeroom, and the rugged graveyards remain unmarked, untended, and largely unknown.

I think it might not matter how the bones are memorialized, but simply that they are.

I recall that passage I read - Saints picking up the dying Africans one by one as they carried them to freedom - and about how the island’s small population did all it could to care for and bury the refugees, who just kept coming. I think about how deeply the archaeologists were moved during the excavations; and how the descendants of enslaved Africans may find answers to questions about their history within the DNA. I reflect on how the film crew is so committed to telling this story they simply can’t let it go.

And I wonder if maybe this story can serve to remind us of the value of human kindness and compassion in this new era of mass displacement, with so many souls in peril on the sea.

See also: Slaves and slavery • Ruperts

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The most extraordinary place on Earth?

John Apps published on, Practical Boat Owner, 28th December 2016{3}

PBO reader John Apps sails to St Helena, an island so full of superlatives he has to pinch himself to ensure he didn’t dream his visit

Anchorage and Foreshore from Ladder Hill

St Helena, in the middle of the tropical South Atlantic Ocean (16°S 5°W{8}), styles itself as the most extraordinary place on Earth. And for the visiting yachtsperson, it is indeed anything but ordinary.

Technically, it is not the most remote place in the world in distance, being beaten by Easter Island which is 400 miles more distant than its nearest inhabited neighbour (1,100 miles to Pitcairn Island). There are 700 miles between St Helena and its nearest neighbour, Ascension Island, but unlike Easter Island St Helena has no airport.

The RMS St Helena, serving the British territories in the South Atlantic, takes two days to get from St Helena to Ascension with its airport links to the UK and the United States.

If you want to phone someone from your boat as you arrive, or send a text, you’ll find there is no mobile phone signal. So unless you have a satellite phone you’ll need to go ashore to contact loved ones on your arrival at the coin-in-the-slot payphone near the landing dock.

This remoteness and lack of mobile communications or ATMs seems to have created the friendliest people on Earth. It is quite extraordinary the number of times you’re greeted as you walk the streets of Jamestown.

I spent a week on St Helena, and felt that I had a whole community of new friends by the time I left. In some ways it is unfortunate that St Helena is so identified with being Napoleon’s island prison, which takes away from its importance as a great crossroads in the ocean.

Before the opening of the Suez Canal it was a stopping place for almost every ship rounding the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn. The list of visitors is really a who’s who of famous sailors and explorers: my personal favourites are James Cook, Joshua Slocum and Thomas Cochrane.

St Helena is very easy to get to when going north in the South Atlantic with either the South East Trades as a following wind or on a broad reach, depending which of the capes you have rounded.

James Bay is the main anchorage and is found on the north-west side of the island directly adjacent to the main town, Jamestown.

Unless you have entered the anchorage previously, a night approach may be difficult. There is one major shipwreck close inshore which is exposed at low tide, and a large number of unlit boats in the main anchorage.

I was fortunate to arrive about two hours before sunset so I found pilotage quite simple. The port authority has provided a large number of oversize moorings which are free for the first night then £2 per night thereafter.

A ferry service is operated between 06:30 and 18:30 each day and costs just £1 each way, which you pay at the end of your stay.

The ferry operator, like everyone on St Helena, is very accommodating. I was invited for drinks at Donny’s Bar after work one day and the ferry operator offered a late pick-up for me to take me back to my boat so that I didn’t have to rush.

Of course you can use your own dinghy to get ashore, but quite a swell runs into the bay: it is much easier to leap from a stable ferry platform than to do so from an inflatable while trying to hang onto a painter.

A place of superlatives

St. James, oldest Anglican Church in the Southern Hemishpere

St Helena is said to be Britain’s second-oldest colony, and St. James’ Church lays claim to being the oldest Anglican church in the southern hemisphere. Similarly, the prison is reputedly the oldest working prison south of the equator.

Jonathan, a land tortoise, is thought to be the world’s oldest living land animal (aged 183!), while the wire bird, a species of plover, is claimed to be the rarest of the world’s endangered species.

Wonderful weather

Best of all is the climate. I was there in December, which is summer in the southern tropics, and found the temperature almost perfect. Being the South Atlantic, tropical revolving storms such as hurricanes, cyclones or typhoons are almost unknown.

The only time I found the heat a little warm was mid-afternoon on board my boat, when I would go ashore and use the free tepid shower at the landing place and spend an hour or so in the cool of the castle gardens.

I did climb Jacob’s Ladder early one morning which raised a sweat, as it’s 699 steps up to Ladder Hill Fort.

St Helena is one of those places that makes me have to pinch myself to believe that I have actually been there in my own boat. While I would classify it in my ‘once in a lifetime experiences’, I have a great desire to go back.

Wonderful people, great weather, safe anchorage - what more do you want when you are moored?

Our Comment: Although published in December 2016, this article seems to relate to a visit that took place in December 2015, so a few things have changed: There now is a Mobile Phone service; the Wirebird is no longer ‘Endangered’, though it is still ‘Vulnerable’; and St. James’ Church now has a spire! Apart from that it’s all still correct.

See also: Yachting • Visitor Information

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Antwerp aviation company organises first commercial flight to Saint Helena

By André Orban, www.luchtzak.be, 19th July 2016{3}

The Aviation Factory brings the first three tourists by plane to the ‘island of Napoleon

Bombardier Challenger 300
Bombardier Challenger 300

First airborne tourists
Our first airborne tourists{6}

Saint Helena is a small island located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, about four hours away from the African continent. Until recently, the island where Napoleon died was only accessible by sea, because there was no airport. The British government decided in 2011 to build an airport on the island. However, few aircraft have the range and the ability to fly to Saint Helena and to land and take off. On July 13th, 2016 the first flight took place bringing three tourists to Saint Helena. This première was awarded to the Antwerp aviation company The Aviation Factory.

Saint Helena is best known as the place where Napoleon spent the last years of his life (after his defeat at Waterloo in 1815). He died there in exile on 5th May 1821. His residence, Longwood House, is now on display as a museum. The commissioning of Saint Helena Airport will boost the tourism and the economy on the island.

The construction of Saint Helena Airport began in 2013 with 2,000 tonnes of sand imported from Namibia. On May 20th, 2016 the first plane landed, but it was not until July 13th before the first passenger flight arrived there. A Bombardier Challenger 300 from ExecuJet brought the first three tourists to the small island. The aircraft with registration ZS-ACT took off at 8:30am in Lome, capital of Togo, and landed four hours later at Saint Helena Airport. The aircraft then departed the next day to Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso. Benoit Duvivier, one of the driving forces behind The Aviation Factory, was responsible for organizing the first ever commercial flight.

Saint Helena was discovered in 1502 by Portuguese explorer João da Nova. From 1645 to 1659 the island was claimed by the Dutch Republic. In 1658 the British East India Company founded Jamestown and shortly thereafter took possession of the whole island. In 1673 the Dutch recaptured Saint Helena, but two months later they were again expelled by the British. The island then always remained in English hands. By the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Saint Helena, however, lost its strategic value.

See also: Fly here • Fly Yourself Here

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RMS St Helena makes final call to the UK

By Rebecca Moore, Passenger Ship Technology, 9th June 2016{3}

RMS St Helena passes through Tower Bridge on its last UK call
RMS St Helena passes through Tower Bridge on its last UK call

The RMS St Helena has made its final call to the UK, amid news that entities in countries as diverse as Norway, Australia and Guernsey have expressed interest in taking on the vessel once it is decommissioned from its current service.

PST was lucky enough to be invited on board to mark its last UK call and to celebrate the vessel’s 26 years of service to St Helena Island in the South Atlantic Ocean.

The last working Royal Mail ship is retiring from service due to an airport opening on St Helena Island later this year.

PST understands that both Alderney’s Chamber of Commerce and shipping lines in countries including Norway, Sweden and Australia have expressed interest in buying the vessel.

St Helena Line Ltd chairman Matthew Young said to the gathering on board: It is truly the last working RM ship that actually transports mail and has served the island well for the last 26 years, it has been remarkable in maintaining its schedule over the last 26 years and has performed the service remarkably well… it is very much a living entity as far as the island is concerned and is described as a lifeline, which it really is as without it, the island would have a significant problem.

Looking ahead, he said: We don’t know what the future holds for it yet but clearly that will be determined in the not too distant future. But I am sure there will be life after the service to the island and it will continue for many years to come to serve some other province.

The 6,767gt ship has capacity for 156 passengers and 56 crew as well as cargo.

The last ship to be built in Aberdeen, it last underwent a major refit seven years ago, when passenger capacity was upgraded from 128 to 156 by adding extra cabins; it also underwent a technical overhaul as it was refitted with new, more fuel economical engines, the ship’s captain Andrew Greentree who started his career on RMS St Helena as a cadet told PST. The refit took place in Cape Town. The ship operates on low sulphur fuel.

Our Comment: There were many articles about the RMS’s visit to the UK; we chose one from a more unusual source.

See also: RMS St Helena • Fly here

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St Helena on ‘From Our Own Correspondent’

‘From Our Own Correspondent’

On 14th May 2016 BBC Radio 4’s programme ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ featured an item recorded by BBC journalist Sarah Wheeler, talking about the delay to the opening of St Helena Airport.

‘From Our Own Correspondent’

Click here to hear this audio file

Click To listen

See also: Building St Helena Airport • Fly here • Fly Yourself Here

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Where the Saints go diving after work

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

St Helena parrotfish, Long Ledge
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 SS 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 SS Papanui; St Helena shrimp, Wharf Steps and the wreck of the MV Bedgellett
Diver on the SS Papanui; St Helena shrimp, Wharf Steps and the wreck of the MV 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 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

Jamestown, St Helena
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
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
Hawkfish, near Cat Island

The endemic silver eel, Mundens Reef
The endemic silver eel, Mundens Reef

We protected the areas around the wrecks and in James Bay, Ruperts 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 19-26°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
St Helena Butterflyfish near Cat Island

Five of us, including a dive master, descended to the MV Bedgellett - a salvage vessel that had been used on the SS 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’ 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 SS Papanui and encountered our second flashy school while swimming from the wreck of the MV Bedgellett to the arch at Long Ledge.

Moray, Mundens Point
Moray, Mundens 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
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 season for Whale Sharks 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
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
Whale Shark

Squirrelfish
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 Email: Craig Yon Craigiyon@helanta.co.sh

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

St Helena flounder, Wharf Steps, James Bay
St Helena flounder, Wharf Steps, James Bay

Slipper Lobster, SS Papanui wreck
Slipper Lobster, SS Papanui wreck

See also: Diving • Lost Ships

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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
A whale shark swims in the waters off St Helena Island{c}

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, behaviour, health, and genetics. This helps us improve our interpretation of their behaviour seen in the natural setting, but there are still many tantalizing questions about whale sharks that we hope to answer.

We travelled 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 behaviours 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 behaviour. So how do we do all that?

We used a variety of techniques including computer-aided photographic identification, laser callipers 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
Up close with a whale shark in St Helena{c}

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 behaviours, 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.

See also: Diving • Dolphin watching

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Healthy Diet Helps 183-Year-Old Tortoise Feel Young Again

By Jason Bittel, National Geographic, 8th January 2016{3}

Jonathan, the world’s oldest known animal, is regaining his health after eating more nutritious foods.

Jonathans species, the Aldabra giant tortoise, nearly went extinct in the 18th and 19th centuries as people hunted them for food
Jonathan’s species, the Aldabra giant tortoise, nearly went extinct in the 18th and 19th centuries as people hunted them for food

What a drag it is getting old, the Rolling Stones famously sang. And nobody knows that more than Jonathan, the 183-year-old Aldabra giant tortoise that’s thought to be the oldest known living animal on Earth.

Old age has caught up with Jonathan, robbing him of his senses of sight and smell and, until a few years ago, relegating him to an unhealthy diet of twigs on the British island territory of St Helena, off Africa’s western coast.

But in 2014, local veterinarian Joe Hollins noticed Jonathan’s plight and started giving the reptile a more nutritious menu, which includes apples, carrots, cucumbers, bananas, and guava.

A year later, Jonathan is back in the news, and seemingly healthier, according to Hollins’ latest update on a St Helena information website{7}.

The feeding has improved him surprisingly, Hollins wrote on December 7th.

His once blunt and crumbly beak has become sharp and lethal, so he was probably suffering from micro-deficiencies of vitamins, minerals and trace elements.

Colonial Food

Also known as the Seychelles giant tortoise, the Aldabra giant tortoise can grow up to 550 pounds and is native to several islands in the Indian Ocean.

Most island populations of the species went extinct in the 18th and 19th centuries as people hunted them for food. Today, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists the tortoises as vulnerable to extinction.

While most of the world’s remaining population of wild Aldabra giant tortoises lives on the Aldabra Atoll, an outer island of the Seychelles near Madagascar, Jonathan has been living on Saint Helena since 1882.

According to the Seychelles News Agency, he was likely a gift to the British governor at the time, and still lives on the grounds of the governor’s Plantation House.

There is a chance that he’ll either drop dead tomorrow or live until he’s 250 and see us all off, Hollins wrote.

A Tortoise of a Different Color

Many people have never heard of the Aldabra giant tortoise, and might even mistake the species for its cousins found half a world away on the Galápagos Islands. But these tortoises are quite different.

Aldabra giant tortoises are much more interesting and sociable than most people would expect, says Justin Gerlach, the scientific coordinator for the Nature Protection Trust of Seychelles. In the wild, they form groups or herds that like to congregate in open grasslands. And in captivity, if kept well, they will seek out human company, says Gerlach. Some of the tortoises even like to be stroked, he says.

See also: Jonathan the tortoise

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More recent items are here. Even older St Helena stuff can be found on this blog: Much Older St Helena Stuff. You could also check out the various sources listed on our Related Sites page.

St Helena books from Miles Apart:

Looking for St Helena books? Miles Apart - new and second-hand books on the South Atlantic Islands current list.{2}

Laugh at funny Read articles about St Helena (Older) humour - LOL

Credits:
{a} Copyright © 1962 Film Unit, used with permission{3}.{b} Pictures: Lord Ashcroft{c} Georgia Aquarium.

Footnotes:
{1} See more blogs.{2} NB: This is not an advertisement.{3} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.{4} Queen Mary, actually, in Napoleon Street.{5} Location of Jamestown according to latest GPS data.{6} In all the coverage this event inevitably received we cannot find the names of these ground-breaking people!{7} This one, actually!{8} Actually at 15°55’24.3”S; 5°43’3.5”W{5}.

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