St Helena

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By Fiona McIntosh

Diving St Helena, the World’s Most Remote Island.

ImageWhere on Earth is St Helena? Well that’s what I was wondering when I found myself spontaneously muzzled into running the world’s remotest marathon. But who cares when there’s a chance to don dive gear (in between the events of a running festival) and explore a scarcely mapped underworld.

Once on board the RMS St Helena (the Royal Mail ship and the only way to reach the island) I took time to discover that I was heading to 16 degrees south, 5 degrees west, in simple terms that’s some 2 293 kilometres off Walvis Bay on the Namibian coast. St Helena is in fact a small tropical island; 10km wide and 17km long. But it lies in the SE Trade Winds, plus is cooled by the Benguela current, so although in the tropics it enjoys a subtropical to temperate climate.

Surrounded by legends of lying in waters known on ancient maps as ‘here be dragons’ enhanced the magical thoughts of heading to dive off the coast of an extremely remote island. 

The return journey on the RMS St Helena takes three weeks and is very much a part of the island experience. Most passengers embark in Cape Town to start the first three-day leg up to Walvis Bay, occasionally stopping briefly in Luderitz. Once at Walvis Bay passengers disembark for a few hours, to enjoy activities like desert tours, sight seeing to Swakopmund, whilst the more adventurous zoom down dunes on sand boards or quad biking - all prearranged through the ship. If you’ve got serious time constraints boarding and disembarking in Walvis saves three days sailing each way. From Walvis to St Helena its just four days filled with fun and laughter, activities such as volley ball on deck, quizzes, movies, horse racing and of course – in the style of all great cruises - some fine dining. Always save space for delicious desserts such pineapple flan or a berry blaze topped with home made ice-cream.

The view of the small volcanic island emerging from the mist at dawn as the ship enters James Bay will be an image etched into the memory of all those lucky enough to visit. The ship remains moored in the bay for two nights before sailing on to Ascension Island and back a few days later effectively giving you a full week on the island. Or, if you’re really taken with the place, you can remain longer and catch the RMS on her next voyage a few weeks later.

Once docked in James Bay and through immigrations passengers get ferried across to the island in batches. But before they can venture into Jamestown, the hub of the island, all have to board a small blue customs bus for the 150metre trip through the working harbor to the customs office where baggage is cleared. The excitement of the friendly locals as they scan the crowds arriving is palatable, as are their tears when they say goodbye to friends and family shortly before the ship sails.

The crystal clear waters of the island will have you itching to get into your dive gear as soon as you sail into them. On your 150 meter ride through the harbor in the blue customs bus you pass a few quaint historical buildings tucked below the cliffs, one of those belongs to the St Helena Dive Club which the locals started about 20 years ago. At present the dive club has grown to 59 members, in fact if you dive with Sub-Tropic Scuba Adventures (the main dive operator on the island) it’s pretty much the members’ kit you’ll be using (until Anthony has sufficient funds to establish himself). The BC’s, regs and tanks are in good nick but I’d seriously advise divers to take their own wetsuits. We had a hilarious mix and match of colours and sizes all with varying gaping holes in the beam-ends. In summer and autumn water temperatures average +-26 degrees, whilst in winter and spring they drop to +-21 degrees so a 5mm suit should suffice. Not much of an issue for hardened Capetonians. As tourism is still way under developed on the island Anthony holds down a normal 8am to 4pm job for now so diving happens after hours or on weekends. Being a dead keen diver himself it wasn’t long before our group had persuaded him to put in for unpaid leave in exchange for paid dives so that we could squeeze in a few more wrecks. All had exceptional visibility, nothing less than 30 metres though Anthony tells me this can drop to 15 metres in winter when the colder green waster pushes in. Water conditions were as flat as a pancake and currents very mild but be warned, they occasionally get rollers between December and January, swells large enough to prevent passengers being able to disembark form the ship. I was however assured this is rare, but it’s something to consider if diving is your main reason to visit the island. Late summer into autumn is supposed to be ideal for water conditions. Most divers head for the wrecks – here are a few of the best.

Top wrecks around the island

  1. "Papanui" - a coal carrying ship that ran aground in James Bay in 1911, caught fire and sank but with no mortality. It’s a fantastic dive as in shallow water ranging between 8 and13 metres. Plates and bottles of champagne can still be seen encrusted in the galley, a real highlight... The boilers are still intact plus parts of the huge steam engines are visible.
  2. "Dark Dale" - a torpedo from a German submarine struck the bow section of the fuel tanker during the 2nd World war. It caught fire and sunk to its grave at XXX metres. The Dark Dale has attracted an abundance of marine life, namely the Bullseye, grouper, as well as several endemics eg green fish and rock fish. Often schools of tuna and barracuda are sighted, and occasionally whale shark.
  3. "Frontier" - this fishing trawler was caught smuggling a large amount of drugs. During the subsequent court case and imprisonment of the captain and crew it was anchored in James Bay, then, in ?? he people of St Helena finally decided to sink it. It now lies in approximately 30 metres of water. Manta rays are frequent visitors as are small schools of rainbow runners. It’s a relatively new wreck and the marine life is not really established so if you have time constraints give it a miss.
  4. "White Lion" a 16th century sailing ship which sank to 35 metres. Jaques Questoe dived this wreck many times when he visited the Island in 1970’s. Over the years she has broken up considerably though it is possible to identify the ribs and locate the canons.
  5. "Bedgellett" lies at a depth of 18 metres, although a new wreck it has attracted a fair amount of colourful marine life, which moves between the wreck and the nearby reefs.


ImageI chose to dive on Long Ledge (18 metres) after Anthony intrigued me with descriptions of its cavities and overhangs. There are a few scattered hard and soft corals and bright yellow sea weed on the roof of the caves. Monster sized clams and the odd crayfish had my taste buds screaming but mostly it was exploring the overhangs that impressed me.

St Helena Island is surrounded by many tiny islands with intriguing names, Cat Island with a dive depth of 22m, Egg Island 20m, Red island 20m, Thompson Valley Island 16m. Unfortunately time constraints prevented me from exploring them, well, it gives me another reason to return one day.

Dive practicalities

ImageThe dive club has its own simplistic boat with two 90hp motors, not the fastest and certainly not the most modern but comfortable enough. Most diving is done on the West as water conditions and currents more favorable. Some of the closer reefs and wrecks are merely a few minutes away whilst dives in and around the South West Point takes roughly half an hour to reach. If diving the closer sites abot James Bay it’s a hop and a skip return to the club house for extra tanks, but if heading further South its feasible to take an extra tank on board. There are no nitrox facilities on the island and if planning night dives take your own torches as the club only has a limited few. Expect to pay R100 per day to hire gear and R150 per dive.The closest deco chamber is in Cape Town so dive well within the limits.


When not diving

ImageJamestown is a fascinating little Gorgian town later coloured by a Victorian embellishment. The main road splits in two, left is Napoleon Street which, as its name implies, heads out to Longwood, the area of his residence. The right fork is into Market Street and -you guessed it - the market is right there. Venture into the shops, some are a touch lost in time but others are quite with it selling the latest products. All imported of course.

Try the Jacob’s Challenge, the island’s famous run up the 699 stairs of Jacobs Ladder (actually they say there are 699 stairs but I counted 700 and believe me that one extra nearly broke the camel’s back). The record in the bi-annual Festival of Running is 5min43sec though there’s rumour that someone unofficially did it in 5min30seconds.

Snorkeling tours are available for those unqualified on scuba. A great one is out to Lemon Valley. Take a picnic basket; Anthony will see to it that you have mask and fins.

The dolphin- and seabird-watching trip is an absolute must. The island has some 300 tropical dolphins, which feed off the coast near Lemon Valley. Forget about trying to dive with them as they are still really skittish despite a hunting ban placed on them ten tears back. They skim along beside the boat and go ballistic in the air. A little further on is a large breeding colony of various birds such as the fairy tern and brown noddy.

Hiking on the island is superb. Coastal hikes tend to be steep, and often on narrow loose gravel paths but they offer stunning views of the rugged volcanic coastline. The three most popular hikes are to Lot’s Wife’s Ponds, Diana’s Peak and Flagstaff. The hike to the Lot’s Wife’s Ponds starts at Sandy Bay and it takes about an hour to reach the pools, where a dip in the crispy clear water is awesome. Diana’s Peak is the highest point on the island (823 metres) offering panoramic views of the whole island on a clear day. It takes little more than an hour to reach the summit, which is usually nestled in the mist. Large tree ferns line the banks of the path. Botanists should seriously consider doing Benjamins botanical and scenic tour. He’s quite a character and thoroughly enjoys pointing out the cabbage tree and many endemics and hidden gems on the island. The best chance to get a glimpse of the rare endemic wirebird is found on the walk to Flagstaff Hill. It crosses Deadwood Plain, the site of the Boer War Prisoner camp. Count yourself lucky if you spot one as there are roughly 500 left in the world.
There are three historical tours, the Napoleonic Tour will take you through the history of Napoleon and onto three sites, Longwood house where he lived, the Brair’s Pavilion and his tomb. His remains are no longer there though as they were exhumed and returned to France. The historical tour takes guests to High Knoll’s Fort, and on to Plantation House, which is now the governor’s residence. Jonathan the tortoise (the island’s oldest resident at 170years) lives in the grounds. The walking tour of lower Jamestown in fascinating and if you want to mix with the locals; eat out or to do the Charabanc booze cruise. The authentic 1929 Charabanc bumbles around the island slowly stopping at eight different pubs on route.

Of course a trip to the Island is incomplete without a drive along the narrow roads and around the hectic hairpin bends, gentle hoots warn of oncoming traffic and the general rule is give way to the vehicle coming uphill. Accidents seldom happen; perhaps it has something to do with a speed limit of 20miles an hour in Jamestown (a touch faster out of town). Fourth gear is considered a novelty and the locals don’t wear seat belts. Given that it’s all hills, it’s generally considered safer to be able to leap out your car if you head off-road!


Eating and drinking

The local grocery stores sell almost everything we can get back home so self-catering is easy. Those passengers with Scottish tendencies who dragged food stuff on board regretted the extra effort as prices are only marginally more expensive. Expect to pay R60 for an average meal. Alcohol on the other hand is heavily taxed so double what you’d expect to pay at home. There are a few local spots to grab a tasty morsel, but be warned that everything is shut on a Sunday and you may well starve if not organized in advance. In fact Sunday is probably the best day to arrange a local visit to taste some home cooking; the tourism office has a list of the locals who cater for visitors. Donny’s Place, down on the seafront offers things like fish and chips but is more of a fun drinking hole, certainly popular on a Friday evening. You can truly flow back half a century on Saturday evenings as they throw discos backed by musical audio-visuals and, of course, country and western. Ann’s Place serves their famous fishcakes or stuffed tuna - in fact that’s almost it on their menu but it’s certainly yum. For a gastronomic spoil head to the Farm Lodge Country house out in Rosemary plane. The owner Stephen Biggs was once the Purser of the St Helena ship/liner whilst Maureen also worked on board so be prepared for an evening of fun. I tucked into a four course meal starting with salmon and kiwi followed by asparagus crepes, through the roasted lamb and mint jelly sauce surrounded by crispy roasted potatoes to end with a bread and butter pudding. That had me carbo-loaded for my marathon. Wellington House in the main street offers meals but by appointment only. And coffee lovers, don’t miss the local brew. Coffee is a very small but lucrative industry, at R650 a kilogram, St Helena beans are the most expensive in the world but worth every slurp.


St Helena has accommodation for every budget, from self-catering to Bed and Breakfast plus up-market country hotels. Many of the units are in town but a few are out in the country so be specific when booking. The Consulate is popular but can be a little noisy. Andrew Weir shipping can make your bookings for you when you book the RMS St Helena ticket or if you prefer the St Helena Tourism can assist.

  • South Africans do not require visas for St Helena.
  • The currency is the St Helena pound, equivalent to British pound.
  • Medical insurance is compulsory for visits to St Helena, you will not be allowed to step on land without it. DAN is accepted.
  • There is no cell phone reception on the island but there are call boxes and (expensive) email facilities.
  • Car hire is simple, just make sure your vehicle has a hooter.
  • Ascension has an airport, so it’s possible to sail there then fly out to the UK.
  • It can rain almost anytime of the year though it’s generally warmer and drier from November to March.

Contact details


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St Helena Tourism contact details

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Andrew Weir Shipping

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Author: Fiona McIntosh