For more than 500 years the only way to reach the remote South Atlantic island of Saint Helena has been by sea. The uninhabited island was discovered by the Portuguese in 1502 and was long used as a provisioning stop for ships traveling from the East Indies to Europe. In 1659, the British East India Company took possession of the island and began to fortify it. In the years that followed Captains Cook and Bligh, the astronomer Edmond Halley, Charles Darwin, and, of course, Napoleon all found their way to Saint Helena.
Before the Suez Canal opened, more than 1,000 ships a year called at Saint Helena. Gradually though the island became an isolated and forgotten outpost. Over the past 50 years, only the most intrepid travelers have voyaged to her shores. And only a few, such as Jacques Cousteau, whose crew dive the Darkdale—a tanker torpedoed by a German submarine in 1941 and Robert Stenuit, the marine archaeologist who discovered a 16th-century ship called the Witte Leeuw, whose treasure of Ming porcelain is now housed in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, came for the diving.
Diving History and why you should try diving in Saint Helena
Graham Sim, 79, is considered the father of both diving and conservation on Saint Helena. He says the first time he went underwater, wearing a hard-to-come-by mask and snorkel; he was amazed by the profusion of fish life. He and a few friends soon fashioned Hawaiian slings out of broom handles and bicycle inner tubes and began spearing so many fish, Sim says he briefly wondered if fish were blind, they were so effortless to catch.
Other divers soon followed his lead. ‘No one had ever interfered with the fish before,’ Sim told me as we looked out at the blue water over James Bay. ‘But then I noticed the easy-to-reach areas near the wharf were being destroyed.’ The fish were gone.
Sim’s realization was life-changing—and it transformed the future of Saint Helena. He formed the Skin Diving Club and then the St Helena Dive Club, which has just celebrated its 50th anniversary, gave up spearfishing and starting teaching young Saints (as the locals are called) to dive. He also trained as a fisheries officer and began putting the island’s first conservation measures in place.