Lifestyle & Culture

St. Helena with Mike Eggers: Diving with whale sharks at the edge of the world

Now I have to confess there was one sea creature I’ve been wanting to see for years; one of my diving “bucket list” items.  The chance to see it here was one of the key reasons why I came to St. Helena Island – to see and swim with whale sharks. And we did, three different times!

I made the trip to St. Helena from Johannesburg with Raf and Cisca of The African and Oriental Travel Co. and fellow divers Özcan and Scott.

ST. HELENA FROM THE AIR (All photos by Mike Eggers)

If you’ve ever even heard of St. Helena, one of a tiny group of remote islands in the middle of the South Atlantic between Africa and South America, it’s because it was Napoleon Bonaparte’s final exile and where he died after an unsuccessful rescue attempt by his loyalists.

The reason the British sent him here is that it’s about as far from anywhere as you can get. And if Napoleon tried to swim back to France, well, there are those sharks.

Based out of the capital of Jamestown, we could choose between two whale shark-specific excursions each day (more on that later). The rule on St. Helena is only eight swimmers at a time can swim with them. You must stay at least three feet away, and you the only equipment you’re allowed to have are a mask, snorkel, fins and a camera. 

The first time our boat captain, Anthony (owner of the dive company we were using), took us out to where whale sharks usually show up in the afternoon. Soon he spotted a “teenager” more than 20 feet long, a little smaller than a school bus, and about six feet in diameter; adults can grow twice this size! 

We scrambled to get on our gear and slip into the water; we didn’t want to scare it away. Not to worry. We found out the “youngsters” are quite curious and inquisitive about the two-leg creatures who join them in their world.  For the next 30 minutes or more (I lost track of time) we swam with this majestic animal. Or rather it swam around us – and at times toward us. 

At one point, I had to backpedal quickly to get out of the way of our new friend as he (Anthony confirmed it) turned toward me and Scott with a wide-open mouth. Thankfully they only eat plankton and krill. Scott didn’t move quickly enough and ended up with a small scrap on his knee as their skin is quite rough. 

Their bodies start with a flatten wedge shape head and sweep back to a tall dorsal fin and large tail. White dots cover the top half of their body, with a white underside. Cisca told me that on Pemba Island, locals call whale sharks “shiny shillings” because when the sunlight reflects off the dots, they look like the shilling coins they use. 

The second opportunity to swim with the world’s largest fish came after we finished diving for the day. We were heading back to Jamestown when Larry, our boat captain, said there were whale sharks ahead. Now, we were supposed to head back so to unload the boat and let Larry get ready for the next group of passengers. 

But he made one little mistake; he slowed down and we started to “accidentally” fall overboard to visit with our new friends.

This time there were three whale sharks swimming near us! Once again we were trying to swim with them – they are better swimmers than we are and a lot faster – twisting and turning with our cameras to get shots of them.  After about 10 minutes the Whale Sharks got bored with us and swam away. 

When we finally got back to the dock, Anthony had a knowing smile on his face; he knew why we were late.  

I joined some of group for another whale shark swimming experience later that afternoon (we were the next group of passengers). It took a while but Anthony but he finally found a young adult and once again we entered the water to enjoy another whale shark experience. He didn’t disappoint us and actually caused us to keep moving because he kept turning to check us out. 

Every now and then I was reminded that I can’t breathe underwater. As I was taking a picture, water poured into my snorkel. It was worth swallowing some sea water to have this last swim with one of my dream fish.

The dive sites were pretty close to our base in Jamestown and we got some beautiful views of the island’s cliffs and numerous fortifications.  Occasionally large pods of bottlenose dolphins would show up and we’d make a short detour to sail along with them and enjoying their smooth swimming and acrobatics, popping out of the water and spinning before splashing back down. 

On land, St. Helena Island is an ancient volcano and there are amazing rock formations showing the lava flow on the cliffs and interesting cuts, walls and shapes beneath the waves. 

Underwater, the sea life is plentiful – devil rays, moray eels, cow fish and many others. But schools of thousands of juvenile butterfly fish were the most memorable … so many of them they blocked our view of the other sea life at times. 

If you’re a diver, St. Helena is paradise and you’ll want to stay forever. If you’re Napoleon, not so much ….

The details:

It’s difficult to fly to St. Helena directly from Europe. It’s better to fly to Johannesburg, South Africa, then on to the islands. Delta and KLM have flights from Amsterdam Schiphol.

There is only one airline that flies to St Helena from Joberg, Airlinks, so you fly out of Johannesburg and do a refueling stop at Windhoek, Namibia.  The total flying time is around six hours and the aircraft can make it on one full tank.

We stayed at the Mantis Hotel in Jamestown, a former East India Company series of office buildings and later turned into barracks for officers; it was built in 1774.

See more of Mike Eggers’ adventures in Africa and Asia here.

Lt. Col. Mike Eggers, left, and Dispatches co-founder Terry Boyd in Baghdad circa 2005.

About the author: Mike Eggers might be the best-traveled private citizen in the world. As a U.S. Army officer, Mike lived in Germany, Turkey, South Korea and several other countries.

Now, he’s basically a global citizen, hopping from exotic locale to exotic locale, going places the rest of us barely know exit.

To give you some sense of the scale of his peripatetic lifestyle, he visited United Arab Emirates, Oman, Tanzania, Turkey, Singapore, Malaysia and Uzbekistan. In one year.

When he’s not traveling, he splits his time between San Antonio, Texas and Carmel, Calif.

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