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May 2020    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 35, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Sub-Tropic Adventures, St. Helena, South Atlantic

Incredible diving in the middle of nowhere

from the May, 2020 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

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See some photos here: https://www.undercurrent.org/StHelena

Dear Fellow Diver,

When prompted by the dive operator, Anthony Thomas, I back-rolled off the crowded and well-worn 20-foot Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB) and was instantly met by cold disappointment. After catching my breath from the punch of 75°F water rushing through my 2.5mm shorty, my first thought was that the visibility would be great if not for all the damn fish. "That must be what it's like inside a snow-globe," my wife/buddy later stated.

Jamestown is set is a steep-sided valleyMy head soon cleared and my next thought (right after "explain to me again why I didn't buy a full wetsuit for this trip?") was that fish were the reason for my lengthy journey to St. Helena, a British Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic, the most remote inhabited island on earth. Not specifically for the innumerable quarter-sized, view-blocking juvenile St. Helena butterflyfish, one of 28 endemic fish species of the island, but rather for the whale sharks promised by the tour operator's advertisement emailed to our local dive club. My fleeting disappointment never did reappear during our week of diving St. Helena (Hell-een'-ah), because fish were everywhere. The cold, however, occasionally got to me (one dive, 72ºF, 86 feet max for 58 minutes at Billy May's), fully testing my shorty, my Lavacore vest, and my resolve.

Our trek began at JFK on Thursday morning and ended Saturday afternoon, Leap Day 2020, at the nearly 3-yearold St. Helena airport. Fifteen hours to Johannesburg, an overnight, then a Saturday morning SAA AirLink flight to St. Helena; in October 2017, this once-a-week, same-day in-and-out flight replaced the five-day Royal Mail Ship journey from Capetown for travelers. Built on a cliff, the airport has been dubbed by the British press as both the most dangerous and most useless airport on the planet while costing 250 million British pounds with the hope of bringing tourism to this island with less than 5,000 souls. After a British Airways subsidiary airline discovered the shear winds and challenging landings, it decided against establishing a permanent route, so a South Africa Airlines subsidiary (AirLink) uses an Embraer 190 to make the weekly journey from JoBerg, with a necessary stop in Namibia for refueling. You see, as St. Helena is 1200 miles from the African Coast, the flight needs to have enough fuel to perform six loops over the airport for visibility issues or attempt up to three landings before aborting and heading for an overnight to Ascension Island, 700 miles to the northwest, then making another attempt the next day. Thankfully, neither our arriving nor departing flights had any problems.

Our arrival flight had 47 passengers spread throughout the 99 seats; weight limits driven by the challenging airport winds preclude full flights. Most of the travelers were returning locals, known as "Saints", with some government workers mixed in. During my week, I counted 11 airarrival diving tourists, as well as some yachties passing through on their way sailing around the world.

The island's coastline is mostly high cliffs interrupted by steep weathered valleys that wash into the sea. We were met at the airport by the personable Anthony M. Thomas, the owner of Sub- Tropic Adventures, and our English tour leader, Christopher Bartlett, and driven to Jamestown. Our hotel, the Mantis, is a smartly renovated hotel occupying former officers' quarters, behind St. James Church (1774), the oldest Anglican church in the Southern Hemisphere. Down an open stairway, my room was spacious, modern, and well-appointed, with a safe, coffee and tea, and WiFi. There are additional rooms in the original garrison structure, upstairs from reception and bar/restaurant. The picturesque Castle Gardens was across the street, along with many centuries-old fortifications and historic buildings, making a scenic waterfront location like a British Colonial movie set. Of course, English is the language, however unusually accented....


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