St Helena: explore the wild landscapes of this remote volcanic speck
Discover one of the world’s most isolated islands, a diverse subtropical jewel adrift in the South Atlantic.
Despite its diminutive size, St Helena encompasses a range of habitats hosting more than 500 endemic species. That’s not to mention the world’s most venerable living land animal – Jonathan, the Seychelles giant tortoise, who is estimated to be 190 years old.
There are more wild wonders to encounter beneath the waves, too. Scuba-divers and snorkellers finning through balmy waters encounter historic wrecks, ocean giants and colourful reef species.
Where is St Helena?
A long way from anywhere! The nearest island is Ascension, 703 miles to the north-west. And the closest mainland is Angola on the south-west coast of Africa, about 1200 miles to the east. It’s even farther to South America, 1800 miles to the west. St Helena is a British Overseas Territory.
What is St Helena like?
The 4,400 or so ’Saints’, as the islanders are known, live on a volcanic outcrop a little over 10 miles long and spanning 47 square miles – about one-third the size of the Isle of Wight. Its habitats are surprisingly diverse for such a small island. They range from craggy volcanic cliffs and rocky, stark semi-desert to a lush interior featuring scrub, woodland and a central cloud forest.
Though St Helena lies within the tropics, trade winds keep the weather mild, albeit changeable. The island doesn’t really experience seasons, though December–March tend to be the hottest months.
How do I get to St Helena?
St Helena Airport is served by weekly six-hour flights from OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa. Public transport is limited to a few local bus services, but hire cars and taxis are readily available.
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What are the top wildlife experiences in St Helena?
The best way to discover the island’s endemic wildlife is to walk its tempting trails. There are 21 Post Box Walks, each ending at a box containing a notebook and souvenir stamp. You might scale High Peak, for example, among rich endemic plant life. Guided tours help showcase St Helena’s wildlife.
Whale sharks visit the seas around St Helena between December and March, while humpback whales cruise past from June to December. Snorkellers and scuba-divers might swim with manta ray and turtles in the surrounding Marine Protected Area, as well as many reef fish and invertebrates. Various wrecks host diverse marine species, too.
What wildlife can I see in St Helena?
The only remaining endemic land bird is the St Helena plover, known as the ‘wirebird’ for its long, thin legs. Numbers of this vulnerable bird have been increasing thanks to conservation efforts including monitoring and predator control. You might be lucky enough to spot one at Prosperous Bay Plain, Deadwood Plain or Broad Bottom.
Native invertebrates include some extraordinary species, many of which are, sadly, at risk of extinction. The Critically Endangered spiky yellow woodlouse, which glows under ultraviolet light, is one such creature. Only a couple of dozen may survive today, most commonly spotted in the Peaks National Park (sometimes known as Diana’s Peak NP) in the central highlands.
The tiny blushing snail is faring a little better, and might also be seen in the same national park. You could also spot one of the 22 endemic spider species; perhaps the most curious is the golden sail spider, which builds fascinating three-dimensional scaffold webs.
How are wild habitats being protected on St Helena?
Various conservation efforts are addressing the problems of habitat loss and the impacts of introduced non-native species that have afflicted the island’s ecosystems.
The St Helena Cloud Forest Project, a collaboration involving RSPB and other partners, is a major venture to protect the remaining 16 hectares of that precious habitat, which has shrunk from perhaps 600ha since humans arrived on the island. The five-year project, which launched in 2021, also aims to expand the cloud forest by 25%, nurture biodiversity, remove invasive species and boost important supplies of fresh water.
The Saint Helena National Trust works to conserve and restore the island’s habitats and wildlife. For example, the Millennium Forest, launched in 2000, has been planted with more than 10,000 trees, notably the Critically Endangered endemic gumwood.
Local currency is the St Helena Pound, pegged to the UK pound sterling, which is also accepted on the island. There is no ATM, and few businesses take credit cards; cash is available from the Bank of St Helena in the main settlement, Jamestown, and a kiosk at the airport.
English is the official language, albeit with a distinctive local dialect. Food is, unsurprisingly, dominated by fish – tuna fishcakes are a speciality – and reflects influences from the many regions from which the population is derived, including Portuguese, Chinese, British, South-east Asian, Malagasy and various African cuisines. The coffee’s great, too, with all plants on St Helena descended from one Arabica type imported in the 18th century.
Since the island was discovered in 1502, famous visitors have included Charles Darwin and Napoleon Bonaparte. The French military leader was exiled on the island in 1815 following defeat at the battle of Waterloo, and died here six years later.
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