Blue-black waves slap choppily against the sides of the boat. Looking down, beyond my distorted reflection on the ocean’s surface, it’s over 100m to the seabed. A strange feeling creeps up my spine and tingles around my ears. My heart quickens. Gazing into the fathomless waters a mile from St Helena’s shore is both exhilarating and terrifying.
Then I see one of St Helena’s underwater giants. Or at least I think I do. Three metres or so from the boat, the water’s broken by frothing spume and I get my first glimpse of the world’s biggest fish – the whale shark. These magnificent spotted beasts gather in huge numbers around the coast of St Helena from December to March, providing lucky people like me with the unique opportunity to get up close and snorkel with them.
Whale sharks are the ocean’s gentle giants. Measuring up to 12m long, they use their enormous mouths to suck in plankton-rich water that they filter out through their gills. The species is protected, so there are very specific guidelines for swimming with them. Having been briefed by our instructors, I’m ready to take the plunge.
The initial splash takes my breath away and I tumble in the bubbles to get my bearings. It takes a moment for them to clear. But when they do, I’m met with the most incredible sight I’ve ever seen. I’d mentally prepared myself for something big, but the sheer size of the gigantic, speckled creature drifting just meters away makes me feel as though I’m swimming in a warm, prehistoric sea.
Its fuzzy spots seem to glow in the watery light, shimmering as it glides effortlessly through the deep. I’m totally transfixed. I’ve never been swimming this far out to sea before, but all fears are chased from my head by the overwhelming awe of the whale shark’s presence. Drifting beside it, taking care to give it space, I manage to snap a few pictures with my underwater camera before it slinks away into the inky darkness.
Whale sharks aren’t the only underwater attraction in St Helena. The island’s waters are home to a range of exciting sea life, including playful devil rays, green and hawksbill turtles, octopus, and dolphins. And a night-time dive offers a different way to experience St Helena’s ocean life. Just as above the waves, a whole world of nocturnal creatures make an appearance after dark, like crabs, shrimp, and the beautiful – but venomous – Melliss’s scorpionfish.
Another thing that makes exploring St Helena’s waters so unique is the variety of terrain and SCUBA sites. From submerged caves to shipwrecks, there’s something to challenge even the most experienced divers. There are eight accessible shipwrecks to discover offshore and along the coast. One of these is the Darkdale – a Royal Fleet Auxiliary Tanker sunk by a German U-boat in 1941.
As my time with the whale sharks comes to an end, I can’t help feeling transformed by the experience. The otherworldliness of being underwater alongside such a graceful, serene creature has left me with a sense of peace and fulfilment I’ve never had before.