We arrived at Saint Helena to the most wind we had seen in a week, which was not saying much. The trip took 12 days, 2 more than planned. Saint Helena loomed large, black and barren. It clearly had volcanic origins, and the many forts etched into the cliffs hinted at its imperialistic history. This island looked truly unique, and we could not wait to explore. Unfortunately, we arrived at sunset, so it would have to wait another night.
The next morning, we took the water taxi into shore at 9am. We walked past a dive shop, and the proprietor, Craig, asked us if we wanted to swim with whale sharks later that day. We told him we would love to, but we didn’t have any money yet. He said that it was fine and he would accept an IOU from anyone except the French, because they have a tendency to run off on their bills. That’s not the first time this trip we have heard that, but all the French people I have met were lovely (and repaid their debts). We booked the trip and continued to Customs.
The H. M. Customs building was white with a clock tower on top, and had fortifications of four large cannons facing the harbor. It would have been picturesque if not for the many shipping containers stacked next to it. We met Steve, the Harbor Master and he seemed like he also hadn’t spoke to anyone in two weeks, and he talked my dad’s ear off while I completed forms. The paperwork was minimal, and the officials were gregarious, a pleasant contrast from Richards Bay, South Africa. After the Harbor Master and Customs, we walked through town to Immigration.
The town is beautiful, with old, colorful Georgian style buildings, and many shops lining the streets. I would expect to see horses rather than cars parked outside, but technology has made its way to this remote outpost, with licenses plate numbers now in the 5,000s.
We arrived at immigration after walking up a long hill, only to be told that they do not work on Sunday. Thanks for the heads up, Steve. We trekked back down and stopped at Ann’s Place, a small restaurant that has WiFi for sale, at the bargain price of £3.30 per half hour. We connected and sorted through a flood of emails until our whale excursion. We also had a quick lunch, that was slightly unsatisfying. What they lacked in quality culinary talent, they made up for with hospitality and accepted an IOU as payment since the island does not take credit cards.
After responding to emails and reassuring our friends back home that we still were alive, we went to the wharf to join the tour operator. About 12 of us jumped into a red sportfisher and we set out to see the whale sharks. The boat was a little past its prime with worn varnish from hundreds of tourists holding on for dear life, but it had good bones and a rugged beauty. Craig runs the operation with his brother, whose name escapes me, and his brother was our captain. He gave us a safety briefing and we motored 45 minutes to the whale shark “hot spot”. My dad’s and I passed the time by chatting to a doctor from Sweden, who also was the reigning Swedish saber national champion. He came to Saint Helena originally to practice medicine full time, but now just visits and offers free clinics. Eventually, we arrived and there were three whale sharks cruising the area.
My dad and I back rolled over the side and swam a short distance to one of the creatures. It was 30 feet long, brown with white spots, and had fins like a shark. Remoras streamed off the back of the tail, which, like the dorsal fin, broke the surface like a scene from Jaws. The only thing that made it look docile was its wide mouth, devoid of sharp teeth, made for eating plankton. They truly were gentle giants, slowly swimming, basically ignoring all of the snorkelers with GoPros. They were, however, attracted to my dad’s white fins, and one got so close that Dad nearly kicked its head.
We swam with the beasts for forty minutes, before getting too cold and returning to the boat to air dry. It was my first time swimming with a whale, and I would love to do it again with humpbacks. Swimming next to these massive creatures shows you how small you really are. Our first day on Saint Helena was a success, and we were excited for the rest of our stay, with hiking, scuba, and a land tour planned.