Tiny St. Helena is best known as the place of Napoleon’s exile. But the scuba diving in St. Helena is worth at least as much attention. Where is it, and what makes it so special?
Where is it?
St. Helena is arguably one of the world’s last remote dive locations. It’s part of a British Overseas Territory in the southern Atlantic Ocean, 1,000 miles off the southwest coast of Africa. The group includes two other islands, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. When it comes to the scuba diving in St. Helena, credit is due to many Royal Air Force divers who discovered the abundance of unique life under the waves. With topside landscapes that boast steep, multi-color ridges, bronze volcanic rock, golden beaches and lush vegetation, it’s not only the underwater walls and reefs that make this island such a hidden treasure.
How do you get there?
Although St. Helena’s airport has been completed since 2016, it’s still not hosting commercial flights due to various concerns. The most realistic way of arriving on St. Helena is via the last commercially operating Royal Mail Ship, the RMS St. Helena, which sails from Cape Town and takes five days to make the journey.
What type of dives does St. Helena offer? What will you see?
Because of the island’s remote location, the waters around St. Helena are not only full of life, but also feature pristine visibility due to a lack of pollution. The warm waters can range from 76 F (25 C) in the summer to 66 F (19 C) in the winter. When it comes to exposure protection, you’ll want anywhere from a 3mm to a 7mm wetsuit, depending on your comfort level. Visibility can reach 120 feet (40 m) between December and April.
At least 700 marine species have been spotted in the islands, and up to 14 percent of them are endemic. Fish species such as the bastard fivefinger, deepwater jack and St. Helena dragonet are all examples of the island’s unique marine ecosystem. Green and hawksbill turtles also frequent these waters and lay eggs on the island’s shores. Various dolphin species, such as pan-tropical spotted and rough-toothed, roam these waters as well. Humpback and sperm whales pass by the islands on their migratory routes between July and December, with boat charters from the capital of Jamestown available to go whale watching.
Between January and February, the warm waters create plankton blooms that draw whale sharks to the warm waters off the islands. Local marine operators offer a highly professional snorkeling encounter with these gentle giants.
St. Helena is also a haven for wreck enthusiasts, with shipwrecks littering the northwest of the island. The Papanui, a passenger ship that sank in 1911 is home to an abundant array of marine life. At a maximum depth of 40 feet (12 m), most divers can access the wreck.
Although the diving on St. Helena is world-class, don’t give short shrift to the topside attractions, especially if you’ve come all this way. Superb walking trails abound on the island, offering routes from the most challenging to ones that are suitable for children. Take a day to visit the island’s three Napoleonic sites, Longwood House, the Briars Pavilion and Napoleon’s Tomb, where the deposed former emperor of France lived out his last days and was buried. Plantation House is the home of not only the island’s governor, but also the world’s oldest living animal, Jonathan, a giant tortoise who’s around 180 years old. For more information on diving, topside activities and where to stay, check St. Helena’s website here.