It has been said about many places that, ‘the people are friendly’. I’ve heard it so much that the phrase has lost all meaning. But as I sit here under the swinging shade of the deck swabber and reflecting on my time on St Helena, it’s the strongest impression I have.
I didn’t have much planned for my free day- maybe a walk around the capital- Jamestown- and dinner at a local café. St Helena had other plans.
The morning started with Marretje, Terry, and Niels asking if I wanted to join for a dive. How could I resist? I have only dived in Ireland before, with water temperatures of 8°C and visibility of 3 meters if you’re lucky. Tropical waters were a whole new world for me. We got to the dive centre, filled in forms, got the kit prepared and did our safety checks. Hopping on the speedboat, I wondered what we would find under these new waters. Before I knew it, we were doing that thing you see in nature documentaries when people roll backwards over the side of the boat in full scuba gear. We gathered at the anchor line and then we were under.
A whole new world was unveiled.
The soft shifting of the swell moved my body effortlessly in time with the teeming fish that showed no sign of fear at our awkward and bulky forms. Endemic species- fish found nowhere else in the world buzzed about their daily business. Trumpetfish (aluostomus strigosus) picked at shrimp as they passed by, while shoals of St Helena butterfly fish (chaetodon sanctaehelenae) breezed past my left shoulder and over my head. The water was warm and clear, and the seabed was vibrant with life. I was enraptured. Our group entered a cavern filled with purple starfish (ophidiaster ophidianus) and island cowfish (acanthostracion notacanthus) and bearded fireworms (hermodice carunculata). The variety of shapes, colours, and pattern blew my mind. Before I knew it, 45 minutes was up and we were on the surface with just the right amount of air left in our tanks for a safe dive. I couldn’t look at the waters the same way again. A new awareness coloured my imagination of the busy metropolis below.
We headed back to the dive shop to unpack and get dressed when I realised that I was running late for a meeting with one of the oceanographers currently working on the island.
Rushing towards the town, I heard my name being called through the streets. Maria, a Brazilian oceanographer who has been studying plastics on the island for an NGO over the past year saw the recognition on my face and ran to embrace me.
‘I’m a hugger.’ She explained as we introduced ourselves.
‘It’s so nice to finally meet you.’ We both shared. ‘So, tell me a bit about yourself.’
Over a banana milkshake and cheese toastie, peppered with interruptions every time a Saint (person from St Helena) passed by for a chat, we discovered how much we had in common. Maria studied her masters in the same topic I am currently studying mine in. We shared stories of long hours in the library, hatred for code that never runs smoothly, and most importantly, a passion for the marine environment. She even insisted I take her personal identification guide to marine life on the island as the shop that sold it was closed on Saturdays.
Maria arranged for a taxi driver, Malcom, to take a few deckhands and I on a tour of the island before stopping by at her house for a cup of tea. That afternoon we were hosted warmly by a group of strangers who declared us family when they heard where each of us was from.
‘You can never tell someone is a Saint until you hear them open their mouth. We all look different, with different faces and skin colours. A group of people with ancestry from all over the world.’ Malcom explained on a steep hair-pin road with views of a waterfall that had carved a heart into the landscape.
I really felt like we were treated like family that day, from spinning on the playground roundabout with the taxi driver to squeezing onto the only free table at the community buffet. The island had a warmth to it despite the low-lying clouds.
All I can say in conclusion is this: the people of St Helena are extremely friendly.