St Helena Online

Tag: South Atlantic

Whale sharks: St Helena’s biggest tourist attraction?

whale shark by lotus pilgrim on flickr
Encounter with a whale shark, by lotuspilgrim (flickr)

Whale sharks earn tourist dollars for the few places in the world where they make regular visits, and they could even do the same for St Helena.

Now rules are being drawn up to make sure the giant but friendly creatures are not harmed by thrill-seekers.

A few lucky tourists got to swim with visiting whale sharks in early 2013, according to the St Helena Wirebird tourism website.

Wikipedia says the creatures are a cornerstone of eco-tourism in tropical regions where they congregate in predictable, seasonal patterns.

“In Thailand, Belize, Utila, and the Yucatan Peninsula, numerous scuba diving and snorkelling tour operators depend on whale sharks for their livelihood,” says the site.

“Healthy populations of the giant fish draw tens of thousands of visitors, and these travellers contribute substantially to the local economies.”

Growing interest has prompted St Helena’s marine conservation unit to issue “basic interaction guidelines” for anyone given the opportunity to swim with them:

  • Touching or riding whale sharks is strictly prohibited
  • Underwater flash photography is prohibited
  • Swimmers must say at least ten feet away
  • Divers must not “chase after a whale shark in an aggressive manner”

A policy is being drawn up, and the public will be invited to comment.

The guidance note says: “St Helena has been a safe haven for whale sharks for generations and we would like to ensure that we keep it that way.”

For information, contact Elizabeth Clingham or Dr Judith Brown at the marine conservation unit, part of St Helena Government.

When whale sharks visited St Helena – St Helena Wirebird tourism website
Best destinations for diving with whale sharks –

Raymond and Cynthia achieve a uniform kind of fame

Click the pic of Raymond and Cynthia to find out how to order Jon Tonks's book, Empire
Click the pic of Raymond and Cynthia to find out how to order Jon Tonks’s book, Empire

Nearly a million people read The Observer newspaper. And in the final issue of 2013, they have been treated to a picture of Cynthia George and Raymond Hudson, posing in their scouting uniforms on Jamestown seafront.

The photographer, Jon Tonks, has a thing about uniforms.

The Observer says they illustrate the strangely British, but not-quite-British culture of the South Atlantic islands he features in his new book, Empire.

The picture of Raymond and Cynthia is one of the thousands Jon took for the book – 400 rolls of film in all.

During a five-year tour of the UK’s South Atlantic territories, he’s photographed firemen, police officers and the governor of the Falkland Islands in their official garb, and others besides.

Observer writer Sean O’Hagan says the book highlights “the often absurd traces of an older kind of Britishness that linger in these in-between, out-of-the-way territories”.

It also, we’re told, “evokes the everyday oddness of life” in these remnants of the British Empire.

Scouting, of course, is found all over the world, so there’s nothing odd about two Saints wearing their uniforms – Raymond as “an honorary member of the St Helena Scout Group”, and Cynthia as assistant beaver leader.

Jon, whose pictures of the territories previously appeared in the 50th anniversary issue of the iconic Sunday Times Magazine, travelled 50,000 miles in the course of his project, and spent 32 days at sea.

He visited the Falklands, St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, where he photographed two lifeboats that had been hurled up a cliff by storm seas.

The Observer’s verdict on his arduous mission: “It was worth it.”

Signed pre-launch copies of Empire can be ordered from Jon’s website, here

Click any of the thumbnails below to see larger images from Jon’s book:

SEE ALSO: ‘Nationettes’ star in Sunday Times Magazine

READ MORE: Empire, by Jon Tonks – Observer review

Afloat again: last survivor of St Helena’s whaling days

Stern of the Charles W Morgan, pictured before re-launch. Click the pic for original image
Stern of the Charles W Morgan, pictured before re-launch. Click the pic for original image

Well over a century has passed since John Knipe deserted from the crew of a whaling ship at Jamestown, and he is long dead; but far across the Atlantic, that same vessel is being prepared to take to sea once more.

The Charles W Morgan, once a familiar sight in James Bay, has been relaunched at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut after five years of restoration.

The vessel is the world’s last surviving wooden whaling ship: first launched at New Bedford in 1841.

Charles W Morgan before restoration. Picture by Steve and Sara Emry, via flickr
Charles W Morgan before restoration. Picture by Steve and Sara Emry, via flickr

When her $7 million dollar restoration is complete in 2014, she is due to embark on a commemorative voyage to the great whaling ports of New England, including New Bedford. There are no plans for her to make the dangerous voyage to her old hunting grounds around the islands of the South Atlantic.

Thousands turned out at Mystic Seaport, the vessel’s home since 1941, to see her floated once again on Sunday 21 July 2013.

The final stage of restoration will include fitting new masts.

A deck house built for the wife of one of the ship’s captains will remain on the quayside. Clara Tinkham left the ship at St Helena to find her own way home, unwilling to put up with life aboard a whaler.

The crowd saw Sarah Bullard, the great-great-great granddaughter of original owner Charles Waln Morgan, smash a bottle containing ocean water over the ship’s bow.

Documentary maker Ric Burns praised the preservation shipyard at Mystic Seaport and the organisations in more than 20 states that helped with the restoration of the ship – which had been declared a national historic monument.

First voyage of the Charles W Morgan, in 1841
First voyage of the Charles W Morgan, in 1841

He said: “Having taken in and cared for and lovingly provided a home for the Charles W Morgan, the last and only whale ship in the world since 1949, you’ve now done something even more extraordinary: you’ve given her back her wings, made it possible for her to sail again and given her back to the sea.”

While a large team of craftsman has been stripping the decks and steaming great hull planks – some from 200-year-old oaks that were felled by Hurricane Katrina – others have been working through the ship’s records.

Thus we know that a 38-year-old adventurer, listed as John [Knife] Knipe, joined voyage 10 of the Charles W Morgan at New Bedford in April 1875 and escaped ashore at St Helena on 15 November the following year.

His place of residence was listed in the record as Providence, another New England whaling port, and there was a brief description of him: height 5’8″, eyes dark, hair black, complexion dark.

He was one of 24 men who deserted at various ports during that three-year voyage, but there were plenty of others willing to take their place, including six who shipped at St Helena during various calls at the island.

Refitting masts and rigging is the last part of restoration. Picture: Steve and Sara Emry
Refitting masts and rigging is the last part of restoration. Picture: Steve and Sara Emry

Some of those joining the crew at Jamestown over the years would be whaling men looking for a ride home; others might have been islanders prepared to take on the hardships of a brutal trade to escape poverty.

The record for voyage ten lists Jose Cuemintel, a “greenhand”; Antone Vera, a boatsteerer; Adolphus Hayard and William Brown, seamen; Joseph Parry, 4th mate; and George Thomas, “boy”, who shipped at St Helena in November 1876 and was discharged at the island eight months later.

Others followed on later voyages: William J George on voyage 13, George T Samuel on voyage 22, and Thomas Stokes, “preventer boatsteerer” in 1899.

The ship’s voyage of 1856 to 1859 saw three men in their early 20s join the crew at Ascension Island: their names are listed as Joe Ascension, Tom Ascension and Friday Ascension.

The records also contain an account of the ship’s working days by a “grand sailerman” named John Levitt. He described how, by 1913, the ship was laid up, her whaling days apparently over, when she was bought and repaired by Captain Benjamin Cleveland, who hoped to go after sperm whale and sea elephant oil off Desolation Island in the Indian Ocean.

Model of the Charles W Morgan. Picture: Mary Harrsch
Model of the Charles W Morgan. Picture: Mary Harrsch

The cost of making her seaworthy was met partly by a film company for a picture set partly on a whaling ship.

The Charles W Moore eventually sailed in 1916, but she began leaking after a storm and eight men deserted at the Cape Verde islands, believing she would sink. Four men were lost when one of the ship’s boats capsized in heavy surf at Desolation.

“Leaving Desolation Island on 12 May,” wrote Leavit, “the Morgan worked northward into the South Atlantic and on 8 August raised the island of St Helena, where she anchored next day.  There she lay for eight days while fresh water was taken aboard, some repairs were made, and the crew was given a chance to stretch their legs ashore, a watch at a time.”

When the Morgan embarks on her 38th voyage in May 2014, after final fitting out and crew training, her goals will include telling the story of different cultures that came together at sea, and of America’s changing attitudes to the natural world.

“The last is the most significant,” says the Mystic Seaport website. “Whales were hunted almost to extinction. Today, America celebrates the whale and works for its recovery. Where once the Charles W Morgan’s cargo was oil and bone, today her cargo is knowledge.”

Charles W Morgan in 2007. Picture by Ken Mist
Charles W Morgan in 2007. Picture by Ken Mist

St Helena historian Trevor Hearl wrote that St Helena could have much to add to that knowledge.

In a paper re-published in June 2013 in the book, St Helena Britannica, he pointed out that little was known about the island’s biggest source of income after flax-growing.

“Think what must be hidden in St Helena newspapers and archives,” he wrote. “Shipping lists alone would give details of every whaler at Jamestown from 1829 to 1883, perhaps longer.”

The records recall resentment on the impoverished colony at American whalers making fortunes in St Helena’s waters, while efforts to establish a local whaling company failed. In 1882, islanders even watched a visiting ship catch a whale within sight of Ladder Hill Fort.

The trade effectively ended with the coming of the First World War. The Charles W Morgan’s visit to St Helena in 1916 was one of the very last to be made by a whaling vessel, aside from a call by a massive Norwegian factory ship in 1960, bound for a last hunt in Antarctica.

Restoration of the Charles W Morgan
Mystic Seaport launched historic whaling ship Charles W Morgan (news report)
Charles W Morgan – a volunteer’s account of the restoration

AUDIO: new St Helena Britannica is a tribute to island historian

Writer declares Ascension ‘one of the world’s best’ dive sites

Diving among Ascension's famous "black fish". Picture: Paul Colley
Diving among Ascension’s famous “black fish”. Picture: Paul Colley

Ascension Island has been rated by a diving expert as one of the best places on the planet for underwater thrills.

In the first published guide to diving around the island, Paul Colley OBE has enthused about waters teeming with a rare abundance of marine life. The water is so clear it is like diving in gin, he says – and he might have added, just as intoxicating.

That is despite having to prepare and manhandle heavy air cylinders, and then risk indignity and injury loading boats in the wild Georgetown swell. “If people are not careful,” he writes in Sidetracked magazine, “boats can be thrown onto the jetty, air cylinders and dive equipment can be tossed into open ocean and divers can be pitched into the water.”

diving and snorkelling ascension 230And it gets worse: “It can be a bone-shattering ride when heading into stiff winds and big waves. The boats crest and fall with big thumps. But the moment you get into the lee of Boatswain Bird Island, spirits rise and nervous banter begins with the anticipation of diving at one of the most remote locations in the world.

“Boatswain Bird Island is a natural refuge, where thousands of exquisite sea birds wheel around vertical cliffs. Face muscles tense up suddenly as eddies of wind waft an acrid stench of guano towards unprepared nostrils.”

The only way to get away from the smell is to don facemask, and submerge. And then comes the reward.

“You will find few places on Earth with such huge aggregations of fish. Species normally plundered by man – large crayfish, groupers and eels – live here untouched and in large numbers.

“One species, the black durgeon triggerfish, is so abundant around this remote sea mount that it can turn the water from bright blue to black as the inquisitive creatures mill around neoprene-clad visitors. All black except for small white lines that underscore the bases of their caudal and dorsal fins, durgeons can change their diamond-shaped scales into a riot of electric blue, yellow and orange.

My favourite here is the juvenile horse eye jack, which huddles for safety into dense shimmering schools that hurry around in perfect nervous formation as though they are lost or late for something.”

The tens of thousands of creatures swimming by can include turtles, dolphins, manta rays and Galapagos sharks. 

“Ascension does not compete with the easier access and lower cost of diving in the Red Sea, the far East or the Caribbean. And it will never have the abundance of eye-catching soft corals that adorn so many popular dive sites elsewhere. But Ascension surpasses many for its sheer abundance of marine life and I rate it as one of the best places in the world to dive.”

Paul Colley’s book, Diving and Snorkelling Ascension Island – Guide to a Marine Life Paradise – has been chosen by the British Sub Aqua Club as its title of the month.  Joss Woolf, chairman of the British Society of Underwater Photographers, says: “For the adventurous diver who likes to get off the beaten track, this is an absolute must.”

It is available through the Amazon website.

Click on a thumbnail to see full-size images by Paul Colley: 

Underwater Ascension – picture gallery
Why Dr Judith can only just see the seashells on the sea shore

Dive Ascension Island (Facebook)
Sidetrack magazine: Paul’s Colley’s Ascension article

Diving and Snorkelling Ascension Island (book)

Paul Colley Underwater Photography

Tristanians build an old-style cottage – with a flax roof

Pensioners on Tristan da Cunha have completed a project to build a stone cottage in the style that was used in the earliest days of the island’s settlement.

Earlier this month, 40 men gathered to give the cottage a roof of thatched flax – the same kind that grows over much of St Helena.

The project took nearly four years to complete, because the builders could only do the work in good weather.

In May 2012, a storm blew down one of the completed gables, but the island website reports that the veteran builders were un-deterred, and simply rebuilt it.

The site says: “This house will become a live museum for visitors but also a monument for the younger generation to see how their ancestors lived so many years ago.”

Could flax roofs be the next green idea for St Helena? Read more in The Column

The Tristan Thatched House Project – in pictures (official Tristan da Cunha website)


Scientists probe Ascension Island’s underwater mysteries

An octopus peers out from its hiding place off Ascension. Picture: Shallow Marine Surveys Group

A diving expedition has yielded hundreds of pictures of Ascension Island as few people ever see it – as well as species not found there before.

They show an underwater spectacle that contrasts sharply with the island’s harsh volcanic shores. Some of the most striking pictures can be found in the Galleries section of St Helena Online (see link below).

fish swim over pink coral
The Great Wetropolis: Ascension’s teeming sea life city

The island’s waters were explored in August and September 2012 by the Shallow Marine Surveys Group, set up by Falklands-based scientists to research island waters in the South Atlantic and Southern Ocean.

They were helped by Stedson Stroud and his staff at Ascension Island Conservation, and island divers Drew Avery and Caz Yon.

Similar research on St Helena is expected. The island has a number of fish about which little is known, including its endangered wrasse and dragonet species. 

Expedition members set up a laboratory in the conservation offices – then scoured the island for containers in which to carry sea water to top up tanks each day. They even hunted through rubbish tips.

A leading academic journal for marine biologists is to devote an entire edition to the Ascension expedition.

Earlier in 2012 the group carried out a similar survey around the ice-covered British island of South Georgia – the most extensive in 87 years.

FEATURE: Ascension’s underwater wonders revealed
GALLERY: Underwater Ascension
Wirebird remains on global danger list, thanks to airport

Expedition blog

Dauntless sails for South Atlantic islands ‘within weeks’

HMS Dauntless (right) and HMS Dragon at Portsmouth, UK. Picture: Colin Smith /

HMS Dauntless is expected to embark on the Royal Navy’s regular patrol of South Atlantic islands “within weeks”, reports The News in Portsmouth. The vessel is currently in Cape Town and is the first Type 45 destroyer to deploy to the region.

The paper quotes “a source familiar with the ship’s programme”, saying that a visit to the Falkland Islands is on the cards shortly.

No mention is made of the other South Atlantic islands, but the reporter on the story has told St Helena Online that Dauntless will be undertaking the same duties as HMS Montrose, which visited St Helena, Ascension, Tristan da Cunha, South Georgia and the South Sandwich islands in 2011 and 2012.

A planned run ashore on Tristan had to be abandoned because poor sea conditions ruled out a landing. Islanders had prepared a welcome tea, but had to eat it themselves.

The ship was expected to sail for the Falklands within a fortnight, after maintenance at the Cape.

The BBC has had a television crew on board Dauntless – one of the Royal Navy’s most powerful warships.

Defence correspondent Jonathan Beale reported that visits to South American ports might be ruled out because Argentina’s neighbouring nations had banned UK vessels, in solidarity over the Falklands sovereignty dispute.

He said Captain Will Warrender was not prepared to be drawn on where the ship may or may not go.

Beale described Dauntless as the navy’s first stealth warship, showing up on radar as though it were a fishing vessel.

Its own radar can track an object the size of a cricket ball, travelling at more than Mach 2 – twice the speed of sound.

The ship carries 48 Sea Viper missiles, which reach up to Mach 5 and can carry out flight manoeuvres three times more severe than a fighter pilot can withstand. “But at £1m each, Dauntless has only ever test-fired one.”

Several of the personnel on board are veterans of the 1982 Falklands conflict, including weapons engineer Steve Collins, who was a teenager on HMS Antelope when it was sunk in San Carlos Sound.

“That was his very first deployment,” wrote Beale. “And this will be his last. He says he is looking forward to seeing the islands once again and visiting the memorials.”

HMS Montrose visits Tristan da Cunha… almost
HMS Montrose continues islands tour

HMS Dauntless due to visit Falklands in a ‘few weeks’ – The News
Life on Falklands-bound HMS Dauntless – BBC News
HMS Dauntless – Royal Navy website

How photo-blogger told America about island oil disaster

MS Oliva goes aground. Click the pic for more images, courtesy of

Photographer Andrew Evans arrived on the world’s most remote inhabited island just days after the bulk carrier MS Oliva was shipwrecked, creating an environmental disaster.

The ship releasing an oil slick that was to kill hundreds of endangered rockhopper penguins – and for a few days, it went unreported in the world’s media.

Evans had travelled to Tristan da Cunha in his role as National Geographic’s ‘digital nomad’, intending to capture the islanders’ way of life. Instead, he found himself witnesses the islanders’ response to a calamity.

Now National Geographic has released a video of him talking about how he broke the story of the MS Oliva.

“It was devasting,” he says. “Nobody in the world knew about this. This was an island that was completely disconnected. It’s off the grid.

“The first thing I did was take as many pictures as I could. I created a YouTube video and published it immediately from the ship. I put it out on Twitter [an internet messaging website] and it got picked up by the blogosphere.

“National Geographic got it out there in the real press, and it went to the New York Times.”

The lesson, says Evans, is that anyone with a camera and a web connection has the power to share news with the world.

In fact, Tristan is not as disconnected as he suggests. The story was also being relayed beyond the island on Tristan’s own website, which is published from the UK.

And unlike Evans, a Belgian witness had video footage of the crew actually being rescued by personnel from a passing cruise ship. However, Kanaal van KristineHannon’s shots did not appear on YouTube for another 11 days.

And efforts were being made to get the story in the UK media – but the oil spill happened in the same week as the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. The BBC was told about the story several times, but took days to get round to covering it.

The Today programme ran a live interview on the crisis on 22 March 2011 – the day Evans arrived on Tristan (and released a video in which he made no mention of the disaster).

Tristan penguin rescuers triumph – maybe

National Geographic Live: Andrew Evans on reporting the Tristan oil spill
BBC Today programme report – 22 March 2011
Andrew Evans arrives on Tristan da Cunha – 22 March 2012
Nightingale Oil Spill – Andrew Evans’s original video,  24 March 2012
YouTube: MS Oliva runs aground – Kristine Hannon crew rescue footage, 27 March 2012

Tristan storm ‘worst since 2001 hurricane’

Winds of up to 50 knots have lashed Tristan da Cunha, reports Sarah Glass on the island website. The gales – said to be the worst since the 2001 hurricane that hit the island – wrecked a Wendy house in the children’s playground and caused severe damage to a thatched cottage that was being restored by pensioners as a heritage project.

See Sarah’s report, with pictures, on the Tristan website’s storms page.