Read articles about St Helena

Articles about 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

St Helena is one of the world’s most remote inhabited islands, but despite that it occasionally manages to feature in main-stream news. The following are news items featuring St Helena. Unless stated otherwise they are reproduced{1} in full and unedited, even where they contain errors. These are the most recent items; older items are here. If you want to read about how St Helena has been mis-reported, see our Do they mean us? page.

Our Library, next to Castle Gardens in Jamestown
Our Library, next to Castle Gardens in Jamestown

Inside our Library
Inside our Library{a}

Please note that this does not claim to be a comprehensive or exhaustive list of everything ever published about St Helena. That would be a massive task and would require a government grant to complete the work{2}. This selection represents items that a) came to our attention; and b) interested us enough for us to transcribe them. If you have published something about St Helena and it isn’t included here you might want to contact us and tell us about it.

SEE ALSO: Some poor articles on our Do they mean us? page.

The remote British island hoping to see more visitors

By Anne Cassidy, Business reporter, BBC News, 21st October 2021{1}

Alasdair and Gill Maclean say they felt a bit guilty having spent much of the past year happily living on a beautiful, tropical island, untouched by Covid-19.

The English couple had been sailing around the world prior to the start of the pandemic, when they arrived at the British Overseas Territory island of St Helena, in the middle of the south Atlantic.

We had been due to leave 10 days later, and we ended up spending just over eight months, says Mr Maclean.

He adds that he and his wife were conflicted about updating friends back in the UK about their good fortune. How do you tell them you’re having a lovely time, freely going to restaurants, and partying when they’re all in lockdown?

Located some 1,200 miles (2,000 km) west of the African nation of Angola, and 2,500 miles east of Brazil, St Helena has a population of around 4,500 people, and is 47 sq miles (121 sq km) in size. To put that into context, it has about the same landmass as Jersey in the Channel Islands.

St Helena’s claim to fame since March 2020, is that it remains one of only a handful of places on Planet Earth to have not reported a single case of coronavirus.

This meant that when the UK government introduced its Covid traffic light system back in May, for countries (and overseas territories) that people could visit, St Helena was always one of the few on the green list - meaning you wouldn’t have to quarantine upon your return.

The island hopes that this spotlight has encouraged more potential tourists to visit.

Matthew Joshua, the St Helena Government’s head of visitor information services, says this already appears to be the case. We’re getting an increase in inquiries. It has put St Helena on the map.

But how exactly do you get to St Helena? Prior to the opening of the island’s airport in 2016 the only way to reach the island was by sea.

Then for the first year of the airport’s operation it was unusable due to safety concerns about high winds over the approach to the runway. This led to the facility, which cost the UK government £285m, being dubbed the world’s most useless airport.

However, after a number of trial flights, the airport was eventually passed as safe to use, with the first commercial flights starting in October, 2017.

Mr Joshua says the issue got unfair press coverage. We don’t have tropical storms like you do in the Caribbean, but there is wind.

Before the pandemic, St Helena was served by weekly flights from Johannesburg and Cape Town, but these routes are still on hold due to coronavirus restrictions in South Africa.

Instead, St Helena is currently served by Titan Airways charter flights every three weeks to and from London Stansted Airport.

For many people, St Helena is best-known as the place where French military and political leader Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to, and where he died in 1821.

Visitors to the rocky, steep-sided island can see the house where he lived, which is now a museum. Other attractions include sea fishing, diving, hiking, the colonial era streets of the capital Jamestown, the warm weather, and exploring the fauna and flora - the island is home to more than 500 species of plants and animals not found anywhere else.

Back in 2019, St Helena had 5,135 overnight visitors, plus the odd day-visit by cruise ships. This number then fell to 2,071 in 2020, mostly before the end of March, and then down to 696 from January to July of this year.

Currently all visitors have to quarantine for 10 days.

The island has just two hotels, which remain closed. Sasha Ella, communications manager for the largest - Mantis St Helena Hotel - says that times have been tough, and they will only return to normal when the world puts coronavirus behind it.

It is our feeling that when access and frequency of the flights to the island, and relaxation to the quarantine restrictions, take place, only then will a positive effect be felt on the island, she says.

St Helena also has a number of private guest houses.

Another very remote, and Covid-19 free British island that was permanently on the UK government’s green list, is South Georgia. Located in the south Atlantic, some 800 miles south east of the Falkland Islands, it is 1,362 sq miles (3,528 sq km) in size.

Only accessible by sea, the island has no permanent human population. Instead there are two government officers, and two dozen or so staff from the British Antarctic Survey, the UK’s polar research institute.

Like St Helena, South Georgia is now waiting for tourists to return. Prior to the pandemic, it would be visited by cruise ships going to and from the coast of Antarctica.

In the summer of 2019/2020 (its summer is during winter in the UK) it had 12,568 visitors, but this fell to just two people in 2020/21.

In a normal year, tourism accounts for around 20% of our income, says Ross James, visitor management & bio-security officer for the Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands.

The island has no overnight accommodation available for visitors, who instead only stay for a few hours, and have to follow strict rules during their visit designed to safeguard the natural habitat.

Prior to their arrival people are also encouraged to watch a video guide to the region, narrated by David Attenborough.

All cruise firms that travel to South Georgia are members of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. Amanda Lynnes, the organisation’s director of environment & science coordination, has this advice for visitors: Use your experience to be an ambassador for South Georgia’s continued protection.

South Georgia has dramatic snow-topped mountains for visitors to see amid cold temperatures - even in its summer months it struggles to go above 6C.

By contrast, St Helena enjoys highs of 34C. Yet Mr Maclean says it is not just the pleasant weather that makes it special. St Helena is up there as one of the friendliest communities in the world, he says.

See also: Visitor Information ⋅ Yachting

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The island where isolation is part of everyday life

By Mike MacEacheran, 7th August 2020{1}

Geography has shaped the way of life and culture of far-flung St Helena for centuries. Now, cut-off from the world again because of Covid-19, how is the tiny British Overseas Territory surviving?

St Helena is the other side of British life, the one that very few travellers ever see.

It is a place of unimaginable extremes with sub-Saharan savannah, Jurassic rainforest and English country gardens. It exists in a bubble, a headache-inducing distance off the coast of southwest Africa in the middle of the South Atlantic. Go farther west and you are on a coconut-fringed bay in Brazil. Neighbours here aren’t easily won.

St Helena came to tourism only in 2018, when direct flights from South Africa made it easier to get to and from Europe. The resulting connections, via Johannesburg and Cape Town, saw visitor numbers sharply rise. Last year, more than 5,100 arrived for wildly-remote hiking, scuba diving and out-of-this-world stargazing.

Even so, COVID-19 has abruptly stopped all that. The island remains cut off - lock, stock and barrel - with international flights not expected to resume for some time from the new terminal at Bradley’s Camp. But that’s just the beginning of the problems for the island’s fledgling tourism industry. St Helena is already one of the most isolated islands on earth, but it’s also one of the last places with zero COVID-19 cases. Currently, ‘welcome’ is a dirty word.

Struggling to stay afloat

For Colin and Marlene Yon, who run The Town House guesthouse amid the historic swirl of island capital Jamestown, the local industry could take years to recover. As much as we want the virus kept away from the island, it’s a real drain for the business, says Colin. The last time we had a booking was back in March. No one is making any money here right now.

The field has never been truly level for St Helena and there is a definite sense that the future is fragile. To survive, the Yons have repositioned the hotel as a takeaway. We’re doing curries, fishcakes, tuna, wahoo - the market is flooded with fish right now because there’s more than islanders could ever eat, says Colin. But there are also real food shortages and shopkeepers are enforcing rationing. Potatoes and rice are like gold.

Considering how isolated St Helena is from the rest of the world, the global pandemic continues to have a knock-on effect on daily life. COVID-19 remains absent, but social distancing was in full effect until recently, with islanders - or Saints as they’re also known - acting as if the island was in the throes of an epidemic. Which is just as well: because with its elderly population, any outbreak would be devastating. Health resources on the island are finite.

Plenty of other tourism businesses are feeling the impact too. South African-born brothers Keith and Craig Yon, who run diving and deep-sea fishing operation Into the Blue, have also moved into the food business. Until March, however, their whale shark snorkelling tours were wowing wide-eyed visitors. Now? Nothing.

The story is the same right across the island, says Shelley Magellan Wade, St Helena Tourism supervisor. We remain open and we are accepting visitors, but any travel here is classified as non-essential. So it’s come to a complete halt. As a safety precaution, local government restrictions continue to enforce two weeks of quarantine, barring time spent at sea.

Unexpected guests

Two British sailors who did arrive, however, have since decided to stay longer than first planned. They anchored for a two-day stopover, but have been here for three months now, says Shelley. They planned to sail onwards to Brazil, but instead have integrated into island life, renting a house and helping out in the grocery store.

As for the future, St Helena Tourism is working on a new post-COVID 19 recovery strategy, including creating a virtual tour so the rest of the world doesn’t forget about the far-flung outpost.

What is also new is the attitude: islanders once resistant to change are now full-heartedly embracing an outward-looking approach, After two years of regular flights, we stopped feeling so isolated, says Shelley. We’ve become used to a constant supply of visitors and goods. All those little things that we took for granted are sorely missed now.

Oh, and there is another silver lining: the island has grown far closer as a community, with the buzz words being solidarity, connectivity and communal goodwill. The distilled essence of St Helena - the warmth and hospitality Saints are famous for - is a singular reminder that this remote outpost will survive, as it has done since the 16th century. For me, our isolation has been our saving grace, concludes Shelley. Now, there’s more appreciation for what we have and it’s made us realise how fortunate we are.

St Helena’s allure is to witness a different way of life and the island’s pipsqueak size helps pare down that relentless holiday urge to see everything. Here, you really can do it all.

Plus, fair dues to the Saints. To build a tourist industry at the end of the world takes guts. And it’s going to take far more than a global pandemic to stop them from doing that.

Our Comment: More about the island’s response to Covid-19 on our A Brief History page.

See also: Saints

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Whale sharks may live up to a century, Cold War bomb dating reveals

By Liz Langley, nationalgeographic.com, 6th April 2020{1}

National Geographic logo
Whale Shark Rhincodon typus








70 years


5.5m to 10m


20 Tonnes





Beautifully patterned with white spots and stripes, the 5.5m to 10m long whale shark is the largest - and one of the most striking - fish in the sea. Though it’s beloved by ecotourists and native to temperate oceans the world over, very little is known about these behemoths - including how long they live.

Recent investigations into other shark species have revealed astounding life-spans: The Greenland shark, for example, can live nearly 300 years, longer than any other vertebrate on Earth. (Many more sharks, such as the great white, near the 100-year mark.)

Those discoveries are largely because of advanced methods for determining a shark’s age, such as tracing carbon-14, a rare type of radioactive isotope that is a by-product of Cold War-era bomb detonations, in shark skeletons. Measuring amounts of this element can tell scientists a shark’s age more accurately than the previous approach, counting tree-like growth rings on whale shark vertebrae. That’s because how much time each ring represents has long been a subject of dispute.

Now, researchers using radiocarbon dating have identified the remains of a whale shark that lived 50 years, the most ever for that species, says study leader Mark Meekan, a fish biologist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

He adds that it seems possible that these really big sharks could live to be about a hundred years old.

Meekan says his study, published April 6th in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science, is crucial to the conservation of these endangered species.

That’s because the whale shark’s longevity makes the species as a whole more vulnerable to threats such as legal and illegal fishing, warming ocean temperatures, and ship strikes.

Bomb analysis

From 1955 to 1963, atomic bomb testing in the United States and other countries doubled the amount of carbon-14 naturally in Earth’s atmosphere. That excess was absorbed into the ocean and taken up by everything in the food web - including cartilaginous whale shark skeletons.

By comparing the amount of carbon-14 in the oceans during certain years with the amount of the isotope captured in successive vertebral growth bands, the researchers could discern a shark’s age.

Basically what we showed is we have a time stamp within the vertebrae. We count the bands from there, and they appear to be annual, Meekan says.

Meekan and colleagues took vertebral samples from two shark skeletons, one that had been caught legally in a Taiwanese fishery in 2005 that had 35 growth bands; and another from an animal that was stranded off Pakistan in 2012. That one had 50 growth bands.

Because the 50-year-old Pakistan shark was only 10m long, and the animals can grow to double that size, bigger whale sharks undoubtedly are older than the two tested, he says.

‘Real data from real animals’

This study is really important because it gets rid of some of those questions about the age and growth patterns of whale sharks, says Taylor Chapple, a research scientist specializing in sharks at Oregon State University.

Conservationists need to know the growth rate of a species, he says, because a slower-growing species is more susceptible to extinction than one that reproduces quickly. The whale shark’s global population has fallen by more than half over the past 75 years, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Having real data from real animals, he says, adds a really a critical piece of information to how we globally manage whale sharks, for example by trying to minimize whale sharks caught accidentally while fishing other animals, which is known as bycatch.

Beyond being a vital part of the ocean ecosystem, whale sharks also support the ecotourism industry, which in many places offers opportunities to see or snorkel at a safe distance from the animals. In some locations, however, such as in Oslob, Philippines, shark-watching is controversial because of the practice of feeding or getting close to the animals.

Ecotourism keeps a lot of people out of poverty in many developing countries around the world, in particular in Southeast Asia, Meekan says.

We have a responsibility not just to the sharks, but also to those communities to make sure they’ve got a future.

Liz Langley is the founding writer of National Geographic’s Weird Animal Question of the Week.

See also: Whale Sharks ⋅ Dolphin watching

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A dot in the Atlantic

By Will Appleyard, Oceanographic Magazine, 1st March 2020{1}

The landscape looks arid, mountainous and with a partially grey sky only occasionally revealing green peaks in the distance. The climate feels something like the Caribbean, warm and exceptionally humid although windy. The ocean is a richer blue than I have seen anywhere else in the world. I’ve just landed on St Helena Island, a dot in the south Atlantic and a place that I have fantasised about exploring for several years. It’s a place that I want to capture from every perspective; atop the waves, beneath them, from the air and chasing landscapes.

Local people have come to watch our plane land - it’s a popular pastime here, I later learn. The island’s airport has been in operation for three years and before its completion one would have needed to arrive and depart by sea, a fabulous sounding journey of at least a week. Only pilots trained for an unusual landing approach and unusual local weather conditions are qualified to land here.

Jamestown, which is in the north of the island and my base for a week looks out to the ocean from a deep laceration in the surrounding cliffs and feels to me the warmest part of the island. It can be baking hot here yet cool. Sometimes it rains on the south side but not enough rain to sustain decent agriculture - most of the island’s food is imported monthly.

Currently, Internet connection on the island is received by satellite only and is expensive to use, so with pleasure I leave my mobile phone in my hotel room for the most part.

On the map I can see plenty of wrecks to visit around the island. I’m looking for the Chilean devil ray, whale sharks and anything else passing by that falls into the megafauna category. St Helena is a mere mark on the navigational chart I’m studying over coffee; the nearest continent is around 1600 miles away to the east, and to the west? Eventually one would find South America. This is one of the most remote populated island destinations in the world.

Apart from us few visitors from the air, several sailors stop here to resupply. A sailor I meet at the hotel tells me of her recent rough Atlantic crossing from South Africa, and how she’s here to gain internet access before making for Brazil; every visitor I meet has an interesting story to tell. I spend an afternoon sailing around the island with a resident French seafarer who gives me a different perspective of the island from further out to sea, amplifying its remote location.

The weather changes frequently over the island - I feel like I experience three warm seasons in the space of a day. On morning two, as I walk down to catch a boat, the weather shifts from light rain, black cloud then breaking away to bring sun. I am heading out to sea to free-dive with whale sharks. These giants patrol a specific spot east of the St Helena’s wharf and it’s thought that they come here to breed. This theory is based on the island’s marine biologists collecting records of an almost equal number of both males and females. It’s believed that this is an aggregation seen seldom anywhere else in the world, if at all to date. Tagging and monitoring programs are in progress here, and the whale shark is one of the islands key species, according to Rhys Hobbs, the local marine conservation officer with whom I spend some time with while on St Helena. His team started the whale shark research alongside Georgia Aquarium around six years ago.

This is one of the most remote populated island destinations in the world

Sea conditions are rough and windy as we pass the lea of the island and eventually we spot an animal close to the surface; a long and wide grey shadow eventually shows a dorsal fin, breaking the surface like a submarine’s periscope. The skipper puts the engine into neutral and I roll off the boat with my camera. This individual, approximately seven metres long swims toward me for a closer look, which surprises me at first. They have small eyes in comparison to their body mass and I need to continue swimming in order to keep out of its way. Eventually the boat becomes more of an interesting subject for the creature and we part company. The encounter lasts just minutes, but now it is ingrained in my mind.

As well as the shortage of potatoes I hear spoken about quite frequently around the town, there’s also much talk of the fishing issue. Rhys fills me in.

The fish population is generally very healthy. The fisheries are an artisanal small fleet and only fished using one-by-one methods (rod or hand line, no long-lining) with a landing average of tuna of around 300-350 tonne a year, he explains.

The main issue around the fishery is the ability to process the fish once it is landed. The current fish processing plant has been run by the UK government for a long period of time but due to its age and overheads it has failed to break even or return a profit for a number of years.

He adds: Given that St Helena relies heavily on UK aid, the UK and St Helena Governments have decided that it is no longer the best use of public funds to maintain the processing plant and have attempted to invite investment into the industry. Apparently, discussions are still going on.

Underwater, I explore caves that hold most of the smaller marine species. Big eyed soldier fish peek out of the dark from an overhanging shelf yet the brave or fool hardy buttery fish in shoals of perhaps thousands go about their business in the open. My dive guide believes that Chilean devil rays have been seen feeding on the buttery fish here from time to time and Rhys tells me later that the rays are seen here all year round. The geology underwater here is spectacular; stair-like rock formations that look man-made stop abruptly where furrowed black and white sand begins. Grey trigger fish swim back and forth along sheer rock faces. The water clarity is insane.

A couple of days into this island adventure and I’m descending on the wreck of the Bedgellett. The boat was a British salvage vessel in its working life, but now sits 16 metres below the surface, upright on the seabed and repurposed as an artificial reef. From the blue, two grey green shapes grow larger as they approach - I am halfway along the dive boat’s anchor rope when the ballet begins. I learn from local divers that Chilean devil rays seen in groups of three or more tend not to hang around for divers, only briefly gliding past, but at this moment I count two and they begin a perfectly dance, supported by their remora fish companions. Opportunistic trevally fish join the stage during the final moments of this matinee performance before they turn for a final revolution and fly past in formation over the shipwreck and away into the blue.

Stair-like rock formations that looks manmade stop abruptly where furrowed black and white sand begins

Between diving and sailing, I walk the island’s trails. Trails that either finish on high vibrant green peaks covered with endemic and invasive plant species or stop abruptly at cliff edges and pinnacles overlooking the ocean. I take a challenging drive down to Sandy Bay, one of the island’s few beaches, wending my way down skinny, wet and steep roads.

At the beach, black volcanic sand meets with an tumultuous Atlantic ocean, red crumbling cliffs and steep, deep valleys, the wind too stiff to fly the drone. Walking close to the shoreline, I assume the crunching beneath my feet is the result of broken shells on the sand, but I later I discover that they are all pieces of plastic. There is hardly any discarded litter on the island and so I take a guess that this waste has probably arrived from elsewhere in the world, broken down over time by the and deposited ashore. It’s a sad scene, especially in a place where such pristine wilderness meets great biodiversity both in the ocean and on land. Once again, for me this confirms our failure to be able to reduce, reuse and recycle this product responsibly and this scene now greets me at every destination I visit - globally.

The wreck of the Darkdale is broken in two resulting from a German torpedo strike by U-68 in 1941. Until divers drained the ship’s oil tanks to prevent environmental disaster, she continued to slowly leak oil until 2015. It’s said that she still does to a degree. The wreck’s location demonstrates how quickly the seabed drops off into the deep around St Helena. We are only 30 seconds ride away from the wharf by boat and already we’re floating over the wreck that sits on its side in approximately 45 metres of water. We meet the hull at 33 metres down and my guide disappears into the centre of a huge tornado of circling trevally. The shoal races laps around him for several rotations before dispersing to reconvene in the deep.

I leave St Helena on schedule; the plane lands on the island in good weather to take us back to ‘the outside world’ as the islanders call it. Although I have been on the island for just a week, I feel like I need easing back in to the fast pace of society as I know it.

St Helena is special and unlike any other place I’ve visited, although I visualise the pace of life for the island perhaps changing in the near future should they receive the broadband cable so often discussed by its residents. This kind of connection does of course have its benefits, but at the time of writing, I see people sitting and talking to one another in cafés, bars, restaurants and even out on the street. Rarely do I see a person gawping at a mobile phone. There is something deeply magnetic about this tiny piece of south Atlantic rock and I’ve still more of it to explore, both on land and at sea.

There is something deeply magnetic about this tiny piece of South Atlantic rock

See also: Visitor Information

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St Helena: An island apart

By Dominic Medley, www.thearticle.com, 5th February 2020{1}

St Helena is being billed as The Secret of the South Atlantic. The 200th anniversary of the death - on the island in May 1821 - of the exiled French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte should bring a much-needed increase in tourists. Tourism is also supposed to boost efforts towards the island becoming more self-sufficient and less isolated. If this can drag the island out of an economic slump, then so much the better.

Since discovery in 1502, until the start of commercial flights in October 2017, the sea route had been the only way to reach St Helena. At its peak more than 1,000 ships a year visited on the way to and from India and the Far East via the Cape of Good Hope. That declined after 1869 with the opening of the Suez Canal.

In February 2018 the famous Royal Mail Ship RMS St Helena, that also carried passengers on a five-day voyage to the island, ceased operations after 28 years. The replacement MV Helena calls every month but with limited passenger berths. Visitors to the island now use the weekly Johannesburg flight (and from December 2019 to the end of February 2020 a Cape Town weekly flight was added).

The new £285 million airport, that took five years to build, had an infamous start and test flights. It was dubbed as the world’s most useless airport due to high winds and difficult landings. (My flight, the first of 2020 direct from Cape Town, unfortunately turned back due to a cracked windshield. It made the front page of one of the two newspapers on St Helena).

With a population of around 4,300 - and up to 18,000 linked abroad - St Helenians, or Saints as they are often known, wave and say hello to visitors. As I listened in a supermarket to SaintFM, one of the two radio stations on island (as they say), I heard Sir Simon McDonald, the head of the UK’s diplomatic service visiting the island for three nights, say at a press conference (all 15 minutes broadcast in full on 13 January 2020): You can fall in love with St Helena in less than 24 hours.

St Helena is a volcanic outcrop and its varying nature from semi-arid desert to jungle, to rolling green hills, is beautiful. The wildlife is unique: you can swim with docile whale sharks, watch the endemic Wire Bird and visit Jonathan, the 187-year-old tortoise, the world’s oldest-recorded living land animal, who since the new year has had his own Twitter account (@Jonathan_onStH).

The fascinating history of St Helena stretches from Portuguese discovery, to East India Company ownership, to the celebrated exile and death of Napoleon on the island.

The Napoleon connection was my main reason for visiting. After his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815, Napoleon was exiled to St Helena and arrived in October 1815. He died and was buried there in 1821. In 1840, his body was exhumed and returned to France.

Undoubtedly for history buffs, walking in the footsteps of Napoleon is a must. The honorary French consul who’s lived on the island since 1985 maintains all the three key sites. A German tourist from a visiting cruise liner wrote on 9th January 2020 in the visitors’ book for Longwood House where Napoleon spent his exile: The best prison of the world/nice place.

I also walked into the archives at the government offices in Jamestown and asked to see the burial register for May 9th, 1821, when Napoleon was buried. An archivist had the book in a cupboard by her desk and after donning white gloves was able to show me the entry beginning: Napoleon Buonaparte, late Emperor of France…

There are high hopes now with the airport operational and fibre optic cable due in 2022. McDonald said the island is at an inflection moment and these two events would shape the economy for the foreseeable future. He said there were also a lot of very promising leads in high-end green tourism.

Governor Dr Philip Rushbrook, who arrived in May 2019, backs that up. The task now for St Helena is to make the most of the airport. This has to be by attracting more people to come to the island, be they expatriate Saints, adventurous tourists and innovative investors. In time, more flights will come, too. Access through the airport is a key driver to increase economic growth, tourism and foreign investment.

He adds: The challenge is to get international tour operators to learn about and promote the variety of our tourism opportunities and to encourage a sustained number of tourists to come to the island.

The aspirations could still be very tough. At the moment, a weekly flight can bring in a maximum of 98 passengers. There are grand plans online, open for public consultation, for Trade Winds, an 18-hole golf resort and hotel plus 140 to 150 luxury villas with tropical oceans views. But the developer is insisting only a direct flight from Europe will make the concept viable.

In 2019, St Helena also experienced its lowest rainfall since records began in 1977 - 286.2mm recorded for the year. On January 22nd, this year, the island’s government reported that water stocks were dangerously low at 40,000 cubic metres or 35 per cent, and that the island had become reliant on water extracted from bore holes.

Tour guide Aaron Legg also pointed to the historical problem of people leaving. Of his GSCE year in 2000 only 28 out of 128 were still on the island. Average wage from full-time employment fell by 4.8 per cent to £8,410 in 2018/19. Many on St Helena go overseas for work (especially to the Falklands, Ascension Island, and the UK) and often return to renovate or build properties and retire.

Be careful for what you wish for, Legg said, warning that the island may not be ready for the much-needed tourism boost. The three main hotels have just 56 rooms between them.

On the flight to St Helena I met the honorary French consul, a man from Glasgow in to fix the Jamestown swimming pool (successfully done with press release published in the local papers), two French engineers in for a six-month project to install preventative rock fall netting, South African tourists, an American woman (who also has Somaliland and Russia to tick off this year for her more than 200 places visited so far), a woman working for the St Helena National Trust, a London couple in for a three-month stay to help relatives set up high-end campsite, and returning Saints.

One Saint was back for a visit for the first time in 45 years. His first walk up the main street had taken two hours with all the greetings and questions. He found it easier to sit outside his guesthouse so he could catch up with the well-wishing passers-by. Governor Rushbrook said: I always say to prospective visitors, ‘come to St Helena now before others discover us’.

See also: Visitor Information

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I Sailed Twenty Thousand Miles to Swim With Whale Sharks

By Matt Ray, published on medium.com, 30th January 2020{1}

The first time I thought about swimming with whale sharks was in Roatan, Honduras, in 2016. I had been there for a week but had just left my job as a computer consultant and had an extra week to blow in Honduras. I booked a boat to Utila, an island about 30 miles from Roatan, where I heard there was at least one whale shark. I could hardly wait to get there! There was a whale shark diving organization going there the same day so I was in good company.

I booked a week of diving (2 boat dives per day) at one of the local dive schools and found a place to stay nearby. Utila is a cool little island with lots of dive shops and some very interesting things to see. I rented an enduro motorcycle all week and explored the island from one end to the other.

It was hot in Utila and after two attempts I found the right accommodations with an adequate fan. Every morning I showed up at the dive shop and they promised if we saw whale sharks, they would immediately stop and let us swim with them. You aren’t allowed to swim with whale sharks using scuba gear; only fins, snorkel and mask. I went every day for three days and then on Thursday morning, I woke up with some serious sinus congestion and had to cancel my dives for that day. You can’t really clear your ears and dive effectively with sinus issues.

Guess which day they saw the whale shark? Thursday afternoon I checked in with the dive shop and they saw a shark that morning and everybody got to swim with it. I was so discouraged, not only because I was sick in a place where I had come to dive, but because I had missed the whale shark! I didn’t recover enough to dive again until I was leaving the island and returning to the US.

Search for Whale Sharks Begins

I went home and within a month I decided to take a break from my computer consulting business and instead pursue a dream of mine to sail around the world. A month later I was heading to Spain to get my Yacht Master Certificate and then start sailing around the world, by Global Hitch-Hiking or crewing. I sailed with one boat from Virginia to Aruba, then took a plane to Bonaire, where I earned my Dive Master Certificate. Two months later I flew to Panama and joined a boat sailing to Tahiti. From Tahiti, on yet another boat I sailed through Bora Bora, Niue, and Tonga. In Tonga, I joined my last boat for the year and we sailed to Malaysia.

On the boat to Malaysia, my skipper was a diver and he knew a great place to see whale sharks in Indonesia. I was out of my mind with excitement! We sailed outside of our planned itinerary to go down to the whale shark location, a large bay with 20-30 fishing platforms. The whale sharks love to hang out underneath fishing platforms because the nets hang down into the water and often smaller fish and sea life swarm underneath them. Whale sharks eat plankton, krill, and fish eggs, among other things, and these fishing platforms tend to attract these items in abundance.

Unfortunately, we struck out. We had sailed into the far end of the inlet the night before and woke up early the next morning, motoring from fishing platform to fishing platform, asking if they had seen any whale sharks that day. None of them had. After a few hours of trying, we finally gave up and went back to our normal itinerary, heading to Kuala Lumpur. That was August of 2017.

Two More Oceans, Still No Sharks

To finish out 2017, I stayed in Kuala Lumpur and travelled around South East Asia, but didn’t do any diving, other than some free-diving in the Gili Islands. In May of 2018, I boarded a 40-foot boat in Darwin, Australia, and sailed it with the owner across the Indian Ocean, arriving in Cape Town, South Africa in December 2018. We made many stops along the way, saw plenty of whales and dolphins, but didn’t see any whale sharks.

In February of 2019, we left Namibia, sailed for two weeks, and arrived in Jamestown, St Helena. Jamestown is a quaint island, a British protectorate, and is famous for being where Napoleon was sentenced to spend the rest of his life after he was captured by the British{3}. A truly lovely place to visit, and one of many places I travelled to that I had never heard of before sailing there.

While we were there, we were told about several shivers of whale sharks that swam in the waters of the island, sometimes up to 25 in number. There was actually a whale shark symposium going on while we were there, so we got quite a lot of information about them.

We scheduled a tour for the following day, but that morning it was cancelled because the swells were too big. Murphy’s Law was really playing with my head at this point. 20,000 miles of sailing, hoping to swim with whale sharks and once again, I’m being thwarted! Please don’t let this be yet another near miss. We rescheduled for the next morning. We checked in with the tour group and they said that they couldn’t do it that morning for some reason but rescheduled again for 2pm that same day. Of course, in my mind, I kept thinking it was going to be cancelled or rescheduled again, as is my luck with whale sharks.

Yes! Finally, Whale Sharks!

At 2pm we boarded the powerboat that took us to the other side of the island. All along the way, we looked for dorsal fins and green/blue splotches in the water. We passed an area where they were known to congregate without seeing a single one. We continued on. I enjoyed the boat ride as it was quite swelly and bumpy and felt like I was riding a bronco as I held on for dear life. I’ve always enjoyed those kinds of boat rides, more like a rollercoaster than a boat ride. Maybe that’s part of the reason I enjoy sailing so much.

Finally, despite the constant concern in the back of my mind that we were not going to find any, we were told by the boat captain that indeed, there were whale sharks ahead and he asked us to put on our snorkel and fins and standby. I scrambled to get mine on and as soon as he said go, I was in the water with my GoPro in hand. I was so excited! The video is the footage from that entrance [go to medium.com/the-ascent/i-sailed-twenty-thousand-miles-to-swim-with-whale-sharks-a58acea7175e to view the video]. Forgive the shakiness and movement of the camera, I am not a professional videographer.

When I got in the water I didn’t see any sharks, but the water was beautiful and I could see large rock formations 20 meters below. I stuck my head out of the water and the captain pointed in a direction and I started swimming that way. As I swam, I could slowly start to make out something in the distance and it started to take shape. Finally, a magnificent creature started to come into view and it was heading in my direction. Then out of nowhere, another appeared to the right. In my first whale shark experience, I get 2 whale sharks in the same video clip. They came together so suddenly that Brian, my sailboat skipper, got stuck between the two of them as they passed, which you can see in this video.

I spent the next 30 minutes, recording whale shark after whale shark, and even had up to 3 whale sharks at one time. I was in whale shark heaven and I didn’t want to get out of the water. A couple we met in Cocos Keeling in 2018 was also with us and they said they had been circumnavigating for 17 years and this was also their first time seeing whale sharks. They were quite excited as well.

This is one of the most treasured experiences of my 3-year journey around the globe. I still get emotional thinking about it. Their majesty and grace as they slowly swim through the water, almost oblivious to us swimming around them, still blows my mind. According to the tour captain, they seem to enjoy it when people are swimming with them. We did have strict instructions to not touch them and avoid any contact. There was more than one time I had to swim back to avoid getting run over by one of them as it swam towards me. I can’t wait to do it again someday. Hopefully, it won’t take me 20,000 miles of sailing for my next adventure with them.

Our Comment: Should have come here first, Matt! Glad we were able to make your dream come true.

See also: Whale Sharks ⋅ Dolphin watching

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Genomes trace origins of enslaved people who died on remote island

By Ewen Callaway, published on Nature, 5th November 2019{1}

Former slaves left on St Helena were probably taken from west-central Africa, finds genome study.

Genomes from enslaved Africans who were freed and died on a remote Atlantic island in the mid-nineteenth century are offering clues about their origins in Africa. The findings come from the largest study of genome data obtained from remains of enslaved people and offer insights into the transatlantic slave trade, in which an estimated 12 million Africans were kidnapped and enslaved in North and South America and the Caribbean.

Researchers analysed the DNA of 20 people from the British island territory of St Helena, who the British Navy had liberated and brought there. The research, posted on the BioRxiv preprint server last month, suggests that the people might have been captured in parts of west-central Africa, including present-day Angola and Gabon.

What DNA reveals about St Helena’s freed slaves

Pinpointing the precise origins of people trafficked in the transatlantic slave trade is not yet possible, largely because of gaps in genome databases of people living in Africa today. But researchers say that genetic studies such as this can offer insights into the history of people who were previously known mainly through shipping logs and other commercial records.

No island paradise

Genomes trace diagram

St Helena, which lies in the Atlantic Ocean nearly 2,000 kilometres west of Angola, occupies a unique chapter in the history of the transatlantic trade in people. After Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807, its navy intercepted slave ships and sent an estimated 24,000 people to St Helena (see ‘The route to Rupert’s Valley’). They had been aboard ships heading largely to Brazil and Cuba between 1840 and the late 1860s.

Many of the people freed arrived in poor health and were housed in squalid conditions in an isolated coastal valley, and as many as 10,000 died on the island. In 2006, construction work for St Helena’s first airport uncovered mass burials. Archaeologists unearthed the remains of 325 people - more than half under 18 and many younger than 12.

Unlike cemeteries in the Americas, which tend to hold multiple generations of people who had once been enslaved, nearly all of the people who died on St Helena were likely to have been born in Africa.

Shipping records - the primary historical source on the African origins of people taken into captivity - tend to record only the ports where slave ships embarked, but other records suggest that many of the people were captured further inland.

To attempt to better trace the Africans who were left on St Helena, a team led by palaeogenomicist Marcela Sandoval-Velasco and ancient-DNA researcher Hannes Schroeder, both at the University of Copenhagen, tested remains from 63 of the people who had lived on St Helena for intact DNA. They managed to sequence partial genomes from 20.

Seventeen were male - backing up records indicating that, in its final decades, the transatlantic slave trade captured far more men than women. Analysis of the genome data found that none of the people were closely related, nor did they belong to a single African population.

Comparisons with genome data from thousands of modern Africans from dozens of populations suggest that the people from St Helena are most closely related to people living today in central Gabon and northern Angola. But the researchers caution that gaps in present-day genome data from potential homelands, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, make it difficult to say for certain where the people buried in St Helena were taken from.

Although it’s very hard to exactly pinpoint their origins, I think what we see in our results is that they are not coming from a single population, says Sandoval-Velasco.

This insight suggests that the liberated Africans taken to St Helena lived in a challenging multicultural setting where they might not have understood the language and customs of others left on the island. We hope that by illustrating the history and the condition of a few, we are at the same time illustrating the condition of the many, but it shouldn’t stop there, Sandoval-Velasco says.

Individual stories

Ancient-genome analysis is a powerful tool for shining a light on people exploited in one of history’s darkest chapters, says Rosa Fregel, a population geneticist at the University of La Laguna in the Canary Islands, who was not involved in the St Helena study. Usually it’s just about numbers - how many people from each country. Here, we are talking about particular people and their origin, says Fregel, who is applying ancient genomics to illuminate the histories of people captured in the Indian Ocean slave trade. Ancient DNA has the potential to tell their story.

The data lay a solid foundation for studies that could pinpoint the specific regions that the liberated people were from, says Fatimah Jackson, a biological anthropologist at Howard University in Washington DC. The key to identifying the origins of enslaved people, she says, will be expanding data sets of modern Africans, as well as sequencing more remains. She and her colleagues have skeletal material from all 325 people that were recovered from the St Helena burial and hope to generate genome data soon.

David Eltis, a historian at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia who co-founded a database that collects information on 36,000 slaving voyages between 1514 and 1866, notes that most people captured in the transatlantic slave trade originated from south of the equator - where a paucity of genome data from modern inhabitants makes it difficult to trace the origins of enslaved individuals with any accuracy.

Reburial plan

Although working with human remains can be ethically fraught, particularly when there are no known direct descendants to consult, the work can have value when carried out with sensitivity, says Jada Benn Torres, an anthropologist at Vanderbilt University in Memphis, Tennessee. (Several hundred of the liberated Africans later integrated into St Helena’s population, but it is not clear if they left any descendants.) Studies like this add another layer to the historical record, bringing to life the moving personal stories behind the slave trade, she says.

You don’t often hear about those who didn’t make it - usually the story ends with their death, says Benn Torres. This provides a perspective on those who weren’t able to make it home. This is important for the world to learn from.

Remains of the 325 liberated Africans that were excavated are in storage on St Helena. In 2018, the territory’s government endorsed plans to rebury them in the valley where they were first uncovered and to create a memorial at the site.

Additional reporting by Heidi Ledford

See also: Could you live here? ⋅ Saints

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A geographic absurdity

By Mike MacEacheran, published in the Otago Daily Times Online News, 3rd September 2019{1}

Big fish, cloud forests and spectacular food make the wildly remote St Helena worth the journey, writes Mike MacEacheran.

Something is circling our boat in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean. We are off the coast of Flagstaff Bay, sailing in slow motion on glassy-calm water, and a frenzy of dorsals and dual-lobbed fins have appeared as if in pursuit.

It’s quite something to see a whale shark the size of a school bus in the water and quite another to see a dozen of them, then put on a snorkel and plunge straight in as if you are bait.

Don’t forget to breathe, says Keith Yon, our boat captain for the day. They’re so much bigger and scarier when you’re in the water. In a nice way, of course.

Admittedly, shark-infested waters are not for everyone. But the comings and goings off St Helena’s shores make it a Shangri-La for nature lovers. This season, Keith has chalked up a few hundred sightings, including an intense encounter with 27 whoppers. Indeed, when it comes to raw spectacle, the far-flung British territory soundly beats the Galapagos and the Maldives, plus you won’t find the vulgar chaos of tourist boats crowding the water here. The dark blue sea is so empty - so vast and infinite - you sense it is cloaked in something almost magical.

Unsurprisingly, visitor numbers are on the rise in St Helena, and the island is on the cusp of becoming more popular. New connecting flights to the island from Cape Town launch in December (in addition to those from Johannesburg) making it increasingly accessible for travellers. The island’s nearest neighbours are 2400km away to the south in Tristan da Cunha, and beyond that is the Antarctic. Living this far from anywhere makes the inhabitants - or Saints - friendly and familiar.

If one place sums up the geographic absurdity of St Helena, it’s Jamestown, the island’s economic and social nexus. The town is caught in a tight embrace at the bottom of a steep-sided valley, surrounded by layers of volcanic ash and a rugged fringe of sun-seared coastline. There are pastel-toned houses, towering palm trees and colonial relics - stark reminders of imperialist ideals and slavery. All are echoes of the East India Company, which settled the island in 1659.

Go into any of the island’s satellite towns and there’s plenty more history to discover: from time-stopped 19th-century Longwood House, where Napoleon was exiled after Waterloo, to Plantation House, the residence of the governor and home to Jonathan, the 187-year-old giant tortoise who tootles about on the front lawn. You can also appreciate Edmund Halley, who built an observatory among the wispy flax grass of Diana’s Peak, St Helena’s sugar loaf mountain, and applaud Charles Darwin, who came to catalogue endemic birds and insects.

I’m staying at the Consulate Hotel, in a scruffily chic room.

The hotel is ideally placed for exploring the island’s easily accessible nooks and crannies. At its southwest tip, there is the black sand curve of Sandy Bay, while a bumpy Land Rover hunt for the endemic wire bird at Cox’s Battery reveals a mix of cloud forests and farmland that wouldn’t look out of place in Norfolk. Every so often, there is a sense of the familiar, but also fleeting volcanic panoramas that could make it the Congo. If you need any indication of how St Helena is changing, then you can visit Welsh expat Paul Hickling for a £5 ($NZ9.60) tasting at the world’s remotest distillery, discreetly tacked on to the back of his house. After a quick nose around, I’m game to try his White Lion rum, nicknamed gunpowder in a glass, followed by a shot of prickly pear Tungi spirit, a teeth-scraping moonshine.

Elsewhere, the food is just as intensely memorable. Inside the former stables of Anne’s Place in Jamestown - all shipwreck chic and masthead flags - the specials are wedges of wahoo and tuna, battered golden or grilled, for £8 ($15.50). On a nearby hilltop house, after a cooking lesson with Derek and Linda Richards at their homestay, I gorge on a lifetime’s-best platter of fishcakes made with squidgy tuna belly and thick cuts of red chilli.

The food is a triumphant if curious blend of British, Creole and African, and what accompanies it is a sweet black pudding, stuffed with rice rather than grain, followed by exquisite home-grown coffee made with green-tipped Bourbon Arabica. As if to emphasise this wildly remote island of extremes, I take a final boat trip on my last morning and within five minutes the ocean swarms with hundreds of pan-tropical dolphins. They bask in our wake, then begin popping out one by one like corks.

Along with its stunning wildlife, the allure of St Helena is its scale - you can see all the sights on this island very easily, and still have time to kick back, relax and experience life at a different pace on this wildly remote gem at the end of the world.

See also: Visitor Information ⋅ Where is St Helena? ⋅ Whale Sharks ⋅ Fishcakes, and other food ⋅ Jamestown

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Introducing Jonathan, the world’s oldest animal on land at 187 years old

By Adam Millward, Guinness World Records, 27th February 2019{1}

Born circa 1832 - five years prior to the coronation of Queen Victoria - Jonathan the tortoise is due to turn 187 years old in 2019. That makes him the oldest-known land animal alive today.

This puts him just one year away from the title of oldest chelonian ever, currently held by Tu’i Malila, a radiated tortoise that reached at least 188 years old. She was owned by the royal family of Tonga between c. 1777 and 1965, and had been presented to them by British explorer Captain James Cook during his third - and final - Pacific voyage (1776-80).

In his lifetime, Jonathan has lived through two world wars, the French Revolution, seven monarchs on the British throne and 39 US presidents.

His estimated year of birth also predates the release of the Penny Black, the first postage stamp (1840), the building of the first skyscraper (1885) and the completion of the Eiffel Tower (1887) - the tallest iron structure.

Other human milestones to have taken place in his long life include the first photograph of a person (1838), the first incandescent light bulb (1878) and the first powered flight (1903).

Now the oldest animal in the world - among terrestrial animals - Jonathan has outlived the oldest person ever by around 65 years. The greatest authenticated age for a human is a ‘mere’ 122 years 144 days, achieved by Jeanne Calment (1875-1997) from France.

Although originating from the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, Jonathan has resided on the remote island of St Helena in the South Atlantic since 1882.

St Helena is perhaps best known for being the final resting place of Napoleon Bonaparte - who was exiled here after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The banished emperor and Jonathan would never have met, though, as the former died more than six decades prior to the arrival of this record-breaking reptile.

When Jonathan was brought to St Helena, he was already fully grown. Based on known data for this species, that would indicate he was about 50 years of age at the time (hence his estimated birth year of 1832 to make him the longest-lived animal on land). Jonathan was gifted to the then-governor of the Overseas British territory, William Grey-Wilson (in office 1890-97), and he has lived at the governor’s residence ever since.

Jonathan's home is the manicured lawns of ‘Plantation’, a Georgian mansion built by the East India Company in 1791-92. Today, he shares the grounds with three other giant tortoises: David, Emma and Fred.

For a long time, Jonathan was identified as an Aldabran tortoise from the Aldabra Atoll, which forms part of the Seychelles archipelago. (All the other tortoises he lives with are Aldabrans.) However, a closer examination of his shell by the Seychelles Nature Trust (and several other zoological professionals) has raised the distinct possibility that he could be a much-rarer Seychelles giant tortoise.

This particular species (some argue ‘subspecies’ or ‘morphotype’ is more accurate) was once believed to be extinct, but there now may be around 80 globally, according to the IUCN’s Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group.

Considering his great age - he is already well beyond his kind’s 150-year average lifespan - Jonathan is in surprisingly good health. He hasn’t escaped completely unscathed, though.

The world's oldest tortoise is virtually blind due to cataracts and seems to have lost all sense of smell, but retains excellent hearing and a healthy appetite. According to his vet (see interview below), he still has a good libido too, which is an indicator of sound internal health.

We talked to St Helena vet Joe Hollins - one of Jonathan’s primary carers - to find out more about this extraordinary ancient animal.

GWR: What’s it like treating such an old patient?

Joe Hollins: Although aware of the responsibility and that, of course, he will die one day, I believe we have greatly enhanced his life expectancy. Like any celebrity we have made advance plans for his demise, but hope not to put them into action yet. At an estimated 187 years of age, he has already far exceeded his life expectancy of 150 years.

GWR: How does it feel to have such a close relationship with a record-breaking animal?

Joe Hollins: For a veterinary surgeon, to have the oldest-known living land animal under his care is a great privilege, and something I could never have envisaged happening. I have bonded with him and am very fond of the crusty old reptile!

GWR: Can you describe Jonathan’s temperament?

Joe Hollins: As befits his age, Jonathan is gentle and enjoys the company of people. Although mostly blind due to cataracts, he has very good hearing and responds especially to his name at feeding time. He also has a fascination with the sounds of tennis when the paddock court is in use.

GWR: Does Jonathan have a mate?

Joe Hollins: In spite of his age, Jonathan still has good libido and is seen frequently to mate with Emma and sometimes Fred - animals are often not particularly gender-sensitive!

GWR: What is Jonathan’s favourite food? Have his tastes changed as he ages?

Joe Hollins: Some 10 years ago, improvements were made to Jonathan’s habitat and it was noticed that he [was having problems feeding]. His beak was blunt so that he struggled to scythe the grass (other tortoises have finely grooved beaks resulting in a serrated edge that cuts grass), and he would often try to graze on areas of leaf mould or dirt. His sense of smell seems to be non-existent. We introduced once-weekly feeding of good calorific food and this has transformed him, demonstrating probable micro-deficiencies of vitamins, minerals and trace elements. He loves banana, but it tends to gum up his mouth. Lettuce hearts, though not very nutritious, are a favourite. He also greatly enjoys cabbage, cucumber, apple, other seasonal fruits, carrots - a good source of dietary fibre that he loves - and any other offerings from Plantation, which provides feed from the kitchens. Nothing is fed to excess but in moderation and in a balanced mixture. Since doing this, his beak has regained an edge and he is able to graze once more.

GWR: What does a typical day involve for Jonathan?

Joe Hollins: Very relaxed. He enjoys the sun but on very hot days takes to the shade. On mild days, he will sunbathe - his long neck and legs stretched fully out of his shell to absorb heat and transfer it to his core. It’s an odd posture and before now we have had panicked phone calls to say he appeared to have died! On cold winter days, he will dig himself into leaf mould or grass clippings and remain there all day.

GWR: What do the residents of St Helena think of Jonathan?

Joe Hollins: He is a local icon, symbolic of persistence in the face of change, and much loved by the islanders, who see him very much as their Jonathan.

GWR: Are visitors able to come and see Jonathan?

Joe Hollins: Although we have applied some restrictions (unfortunately due to mobbing and inappropriate behaviour by cruise-ship tours), Jonathan and his friends can still be seen by visitors to the island.

Our Comment: We are pleased that Guinness World Records is satisfied with the evidence provided of Jonathan’s age.

See also: Jonathan the tortoise ⋅ National Symbols ⋅ Plantation House

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Sustainable Tourism and a Remote Island

By James Bainbridge, Round Trip Foundation, 17th February 2019{1}

Following the opening of St Helena Airport, the remote island is looking for ways to boost its economy through sustainable tourism.

The great primeval bulk of the Barn, part of the rocky coastline of this island formed by volcanic eruptions, towers above the crashing waves as the 100-seat aircraft shakily approaches St Helena Airport. It’s quite an entrance to one of the world’s remotest islands, located about a third of the way across the South Atlantic from Southern Africa to Brazil and accessible, since 2017, by weekly Airlink flights from Johannesburg. St Helena is so remote that the flight here takes six hours, as opposed to four hours on the way back, because the plane has to refuel in Windhoek before it crosses Namibia’s Skeleton Coast and the open sea: if the small Embraer aircraft is unable to land at the island’s wind-shear-prone airport, it needs enough reserve fuel to make it back to mainland Africa.

Sustainable Tourism and a Remote Island

The sheer remoteness of this British Overseas Territory once inspired the Brits to banish Napoleon Bonaparte to the island’s green hinterland, where he died after five years in exile. Around 6000 Boers and a party of troublesome Zulus would also spend several years here, in a history that saw 1000 ships dock annually during the island’s heyday as an English East India Company outpost, before its fortunes declined when trade routes shifted north with the opening of the Suez Canal. Today, tourism is a key plank in the island’s economic development plan for the next decade, but transforming the sector into a healthy and sustainable industry faces challenges.

Firstly, there is the inevitable issue of access. The announcement of weekly flights, following the controversial airport’s construction, was welcomed by Saints, as the 4500 islanders are known. There are also extra flights around Christmas, partly catering to the many Saints, who work in Ascension Island, the Falklands, the UK and beyond; a great leap forward from the five-night ocean crossing from Cape Town, even if Saints wax nostalgic about the RMS St Helena.

That said, the Embraer’s limited capacity is restrictive and, more significantly, so is the cost of flights, coming in at around £800 return from Johannesburg. Considering the wonderful Southern African destinations that can be reached for less from Johannesburg, including well-established tourism destinations from Cape Town to the Okavango Delta, it is unsurprising that planes to St Helena are rarely full. There is also the risk of not being able to land at the island’s windy airport, which could lead to a long wait in the Johannesburg Holiday Inn. A good illustration of these factors was the Fox family whom I met on the plane, six brothers and sisters who had emigrated to South Africa as children and were finally returning, 60 years later. They could no more afford to fly than they could face the sea crossing, and were finally visiting their birthplace thanks to a special on flights.

So how does St Helena build its brand and compete with the stiff tourism competition? Already, many Saints are frustrated that the airport has not provided the hoped-for boost to the island’s economy, which remains reliant on the UK, and tourism businesses receive low footfall. The island does, however, have strong appeal, both to adventurous seekers of a bucket-list, once-in-a-lifetime experience of this remote British outpost and to niche markets. The Napoleon connection is a marketer’s dream, with sights including the French-owned Longwood House, where the Emperor spent his days drinking sweet wine and dictating his memoirs, his tomb (now empty) and his first residence on the island, Briars Pavilion. I met several French tour operators on a recce and one already specialising in St Helena, while St Helena Distillery, the world’s remotest distillery, is making a brandy to mark the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s death, which is set to attract French pilgrim-tourists in 2021. Producing spiced rum, coffee liqueur, gin from the local juniper and schnapps-like Tungi from the island’s prickly pears, the distillery opened in advance of the airport and benefits from both souvenir hunters and local consumption. (In the bars of maritime Jamestown, the Shipwreck, a mixture of spiced rum and Coke, has long been a Saint favourite, while beer drinkers generally choose between South African and Namibian lagers.)

Sustainable Tourism and a Remote Island

In terms of niche tourism, the rich marine life and shipwrecks attract locally run boat, snorkel and dive excursions; St Helena is one of the best places to swim with magnificent whale sharks, the world’s biggest shark. There is also an 18-hole golf course and resort in the pipeline, but its slated development in the island’s pristine heartland has angered some locals and, as a bleak report on St Helena by British mogul Lord Ashcroft notes, the developer recently changed hands. For me, there was major appeal in the fascinating history of this 120-sq-km island, the quirks of life here and the friendly Saints themselves. In the era of Trump, BREXIT and terrorism, when the number of Brits and Americans emigrating to sleepy New Zealand has doubled, St Helena offers a safe and old-fashioned village atmosphere, where everyone knows each other (literally) and motorists unfailingly wave at passing cars. The mixed-race Saints trace their roots back to the settlers, soldiers and slaves who arrived across the ocean, including British sailors, African slaves, Chinese and Indian workers and Boer prisoners; not unlike South Africa’s ‘coloured’ population, whose mixed genealogy includes the slaves and Islamic dissidents brought from the East Indies by the Dutch East India Company.

Unlike South Africa, St Helena’s is an uncommonly non-racial and colour-blind society, but the comparison between the two carries through to language. Like Afrikaans, a creolisation of Dutch by the ancestors of today’s coloured people, the thickly accented, rapid-fire, slang-peppered English spoken by Saints is the unique legacy of the diverse people brought by the Trade Winds. Somehow managing to simultaneously echo Cornish, Irish, American and Australian lingo, the best description I heard of the Saints dialect was ‘like a cross between Yoda and a pirate’.

With this sociological interest in mind, the historical Magma Way tours run by Basil and Kevin George were fascinating, not just to see the sights but to hear their anecdotes of island life. Showing us Jamestown’s vertiginous 699-step Jacob’s Ladder, built in 1829 to haul up manure and send goods down, 82-year-old Basil demonstrated the technique he developed for sliding down the railings on his way home from school. The many historical sights range from capital-in-a-canyon Jamestown and the imposing 19th-century High Knoll Fort to the Boer Cemetery and the white stones in Ruperts Valley, a memorial to the slaves once buried in unmarked graves.

Sustainable Tourism and a Remote Island

Culturally, tourism can help Saints to preserve their traditions - a concern for some with young people leaving in search of work while the airport, not to mention the forces of globalisation, brings in outsiders. Given the island’s small population, an influx of even just a few hundred people could have a profound impact; South Africa comes to mind with its high rates of crime and emigration, and one family on my flight was a case in point. Answering this issue was the hands-on cooking experience at Richards Travel Lodge, where Linda Richards taught us how to make island specialities including spicy fishcakes and Plo, a kind of curried paella.

Similarly, conservation of the island’s endemic flora and fauna, which most famously includes the plover, known locally as the Wirebird, has to contend with centuries of alien species. Notable incomers include African succulents, the termites that reduced Jamestown to dust in the 19th century and, most recently, the elusive simian-feline ‘Monk-Cat’, thought to be a civet that hopped off a boat from Namibia. There is now the 32-acre Millennium Forest Project to re-establish rare endemic gumwoods, while my walks with St Helena National Trust guides to Blue Point and Diana’s Peak (823m), the island’s highest point, were scenic highlights. The walks are two of the 21 Post Box Walks that explore this tropical island’s striking mix of barren, semi-desert coastline and pastoral interior, with its lanes winding between emerald hills and along windblown ridges like a chunk of Cornwall that went to sea. With more affordable air access - perhaps provided by competition on the route from Johannesburg and the option of flying straight from Windhoek - and continued marketing of St Helena’s considerable appeal, tourism can build on its positive contribution to St Helena’s economy, culture and conservation.

Based in Cape Town, James Bainbridge is the senior author of the Lonely Planet, Rough Guides and Berlitz guides to South Africa and Cape Town. Magazine and TV assignments have taken him across Africa from the beaches of the Cape Peninsula to the heights of Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, with plenty of stops in parks and reserves along the way. James runs travel writing day courses around South Africa, and works as a journalist, copywriter and copyeditor when he’s not on the road. Visit his website to find out more, and follow him on Instagram @james_bains and Twitter @jamesbains.

See also: Visitor Information ⋅ Getting Here

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World Book Day

UN World Book Day on 23rd March is sporadically celebrated on St Helena with events organised by and at the library in Jamestown. The UK ‘World Book Day’ is on the and where different this date is also sometimes used.

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Article: Historical Fiction Novel Inspired by Boer POW Artefact, Based on St Helena

By Andrew Turner, published in the St Helena Sentinel 25th October 2018{b}

First-time author Michelle Pretorius visited St Helena last week to conduct research for her upcoming novel that is set on the island.

The book, ‘The Box from St Helena’, follows the story of a man who moves from England to teach on the island. He falls in love with a Saint and the couple have a daughter.

Boer POW Artefact
Michelle Pretorius and the box, crafted out of Gumwood by a Boer Prisoner of War on St Helena, that inspired the upcoming novel

As the daughter grows up and also becomes a teacher, she meets and falls for a Boer Prisoner of War; their romance takes place across well-known locations on the island.

A third of the book is very much about St Helena, Michelle told SAMS Radio 1 last week.

Michelle was born in South Africa but now resides in the UK. She first became fascinated by St Helena and the Boer connection when, as a child, a neighbour gave her a box that was handmade out of the local Gumwood by one of the Boer prisoners on St Helena.

Last week, after spending 116 years overseas, the box returned home to St Helena.

In the last two years I retired and I had this box sitting on my desk and I thought ‘I owe someone a story about this,’ Michelle said as she sat in the SAMS studio with the artefact.

Over the last two years Michelle has been thoroughly researching for the book, reading all about the island online before finally making it to the island herself.

It felt like I had been here all my life, she said. I knew all the street names, I knew where to go; I just needed to walk the walk and feel the atmosphere of the place.

The book is yet to be published, but Michelle is hoping to have the book published later this year, either through a publisher or through the Kindle store.

Early copies will be donated to the Public Library.


{a} Government of St Helena{b} Copyright © South Atlantic Media Services Ltd (SAMS), used with permission{1}.

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{1} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.{2} If anyone from SHG (or anywhere else, for that matter) wants to offer us such a grant please contact us.{3} For the record, actually Napoleon surrendered to the British, but…

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