It’s fair to say that the start of my exciting new chapter on St Helena did not go as smoothly as it could have, primarily due to suffering a severe allergic reaction (ironically to seafood) the night before I flew from the UK which proceeded to last a further three days. Luckily, Charles Clover then decided to fall off the side of a mountain, gaining enough injuries to not only take attention away from my green complexion, but to warrant the hour-long airport interrogation about whether we had health insurance.
Upon arrival on St Helena, we were greeted with warm hugs and huge cameras. The hugs came from Jeremy Harris, Director of the St Helena National Trust (SHNT) and the cameras came from Joe, Dom and Oliver of PT Film who are making a feature film about St Helena, the Liberated Africans and the burial grounds discovered in Rupert’s Valley, in addition to a film about BLUE’s new marine project with SHNT and one which aims to capture valuable local ocean knowledge through intimate interviews with fishermen.
My first week on St Helena flew by. Our days were filled with presentations at the island’s first environmental conference, newspaper interviews, meetings with the Governor, her office and Elected Council members, visits to the fish processing plant, talking to fishermen and introducing the fantastic new member of our marine team – part time consultant, Leigh Morris who brings with him a wealth of education and outreach experience and enthusiasm. He also brings another touch of Yorkshire to the office – flag included!)
The conference itself was incredibly well attended, attracting over 60 international scientists and more than 200 local participants, with topics ranging from changes in the terrestrial environment after the catastrophic introduction of the goat by Portuguese settlers to the importance of encouraging more people back into environmental studies. Our presentation focused on what the Blue Belt Charter is, how an MPA can positively affect St Helena’s future and how BLUE hopes to build marine capacity on island through a well-established local NGO – the St Helena National Trust.
We were keenly aware to make sure that BLUE’s message was clear: we know about the good work being conducted by the St Helena Government’s (SHG) Environmental Management Division (EMD) and we are not here to reinvent the wheel. Our aim is to support SHG during the establishment of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Category VI Marine Protected Area in St Helena’s waters, ensuring it makes genuine conservation gains.
This sustainable use IUCN category places St Helena in a unique position, allowing it to conserve its stunning marine environment while allowing traditional one-by-one pole and line fishing and ecotourism to continue within its waters. A large part of our work so far has been with local fishermen, International pole and Line Foundation and the St Helena Fisheries Corporation, ensuring that the socio-economic needs of the community are balanced with the conservation requirements of the IUCN Category VI MPA.
Our presentation seemed to be well received and was followed by a highly interesting Q & A session with curious members of both the public and the scientific community – and a feature in the local newspaper! After the disappointment of having to miss a whale shark research trip with Georgia Aquarium and the Ocean Conservancy I was over the moon to find out that Charles and Jeremy had secretly organised a special (and highly successful) whale shark boat excursion to celebrate my 30th birthday – followed by a BBQ, cake, presents and champagne – what more could a girl ask for?
To end the week, we joined in the farewell celebrations for the iconic and much-loved cargo and passenger ship – RMS St Helena – which served the Island for nearly 30 years. It was incredible to witness the emotion among Saints as they said goodbye to such a huge part of their island lives – and it was a reminder of just how remote this little gem in the middle of the South Atlantic, really is.
In March, Marine Awareness Week was the perfect chance for our newly formed Marine Team to promote our goals and help the EMD deliver a range of community outreach activities.
Top on our to-do list were the creation of an eye-catching foyer display for the SHNT, which featured facts on St Helena’s marine life alongside information on BLUE, the partnership with SHNT and the #backthebluebelt campaign and contributing to the EMD Marine Educational booklet for students of various ages, which was designed to engage them in the theoretical side of our practical outreach sessions.
We also showcased a fantastic marine plastics display, created by Year 11 Marine Science students from Prince Andrew School, using litter they collected from a beach clean at Sandy Bay.
Mid-week, we also featured in the local newspaper, The Sentinel and on Saint FM radio to promote BLUE and SHNT involvement in Marine Awareness Week, and remind people about the Marine Quiz, co-created by the one and only Quiz Master himself, Leigh.
Friday was dedicated to a beach clean at the only easily accessible and safe beach for families – Rupert’s Bay. Attendance was great and in less than one hour we collected nearly 100 kg of rubbish, which was catalogued for inclusion in global data sets on marine debris.
After baitfish dissections and dive surveys with the EMD, Leigh and I got suited and booted and headed out to dive with one of the local dive operators ‘Into the Blue’ and members of the EMD team to clean up around James’s Bay, collecting a total of eight full bin bags of rubbish and two huge tyres. All the activities that Leigh and I contributed to and led during Marine Awareness Week were tasters of the next year to come and we are extremely excited to develop each activity into long-term community programmes.
Leigh and I are now in the exciting phase of recruiting for a local team member to assist with our community marine education and outreach programme in collaboration with St Helena’s Head of Education and to act as the local point of contact for our upcoming marine debris and recycling initiatives.
My first two months have felt genuinely fantastic. I am so fortunate to be joining the Island community at such a dynamic and pivotal time and I look forward to continuing my work with local pole and line fishermen during the development of the MPA, and with the EMD on their upcoming research voyage around the island’s seamounts on the British Antarctic Survey research vessel James Clark Ross in April.
Next on the agenda for the Marine Team? Putting St Helena firmly on the map as a centre for scientific excellence, through the development of a brand new Marine Centre which will combine an immersive space for active community learning, with a research lab for visiting scientists – watch this space!