As Ascension is not an island that promotes tourism, the diving structures are quite limited here. Potential visitors should have an independent mind and should be able to organize this outdoor activity through their own means. Ascension is unique; there are lots of surprises in store for you!
It is quite a difficult task to practice diving at Ascension unless you already know someone on the island. There is no commercial clubs; the supervision and organization of dives are inexistent. It is imperative to become a member of the "Ascension Divers" club to be able to obtain cylinders, weights and air to 200 bars (3'000psi). Materials are not rented out; therefore it is necessary to take one’s own materials. This divers’ club, under the aegis of BSAC (British Sub-Aqua Club), which groups all those having a passion for diving, requires a moderate contribution of £15 Sterling per annum. We had never undertaken any diving of such high quality at such a slender price!
Although we are located below the tropics, diving in Ascension is worthy of being compared to the conditions prevailing in the Red Sea or The Caribbean. The temperature of the sea oscillates between 22°C and 28°C; the hottest period is from December to April. At times, cold currents coming from the abysses can loom up, but a 3-mm suit is sufficient to protect from the cold. Visibility is directly linked to the conditions at sea, it can varies from 10 to 30 m. the "swell season" (see "Climate" link) is a risky one for diving activities and it also reduces acute visibility. If diving is carried out from the shore, the huge waves brought about by the swell can be particularly dangerous. Keeping in mind our security, we must be aware that the nearest recompression chamber is approximately 2’000 km away! It is therefore deeply advised to dive only in the security zone (no deco-stop). In addition, there are no coastguards to rescue you in case of difficulties at sea.
A significant and richly coloured fauna surrounds the island. The fishes are nearly identical to those found in The Caribbean: trumpetfish, angelfish, soldierfish, groupers, moray eels, jacks and many more. However, corals and sponges are practically inexistent. In those places where lava flows have reached the sea, the ocean deeps are riddled with cavities and caves. The submarine landscapes are rather dull in colour and are exclusively of a volcanic nature. On the Western coast, towards Boatswain Bird Island, accessible solely by boat, we can usually observe reef sharks, manta rays, dolphins, barracudas, tunas and occasionally, some larger species of sharks and whales. From December to June, numerous green turtles are often seen laying their eggs on the beaches of the island.
Ascension is a "workers’ island"; chances of finding someone to take you on a boat are slim during normal working days. However, it is most probable to get hold of a boat during the weekend. If the conditions prevailing at sea are favourable, diving in the outskirts of the coasts can prove to be really interesting. Various sand beaches surround the island, and unfortunately, there are few places where diving is possible. Due to the strong currents and waves, setting off into the sea is rather risky and must not be attempted anywhere. Few beaches offer sufficient conditions for top security: Comfortless Cove, English Bay, North Point (location of the club) are usually readily accessible; other beaches can offer the same privileges following the days and the conditions at sea. We were lucky to have been able to dive from the large beach of Georgetown, Clarence Bay, on a day where the sea was particularly calm. This spot is of great interest due to the presence of numerous green turtles. We had dived off in this particular region only once as it was totally impossible to have access to the ocean during the remaining days spent on the island. We should always bear in mind that it is most probable to dive in calm waters only to come out of rough waters one hour later. The swell is unpredictable and can occur at any moment.
Ascension is an exceptional place for underwater trips; every immersion in its waters gave us the impression that we were the first ones to be exploring these spots.
Our first immersion in the clear waters of Ascension had taken place in the surroundings of the diving club, from a small beach at North-Point. We were quite surprised to come across such vast quantities of fishes: about 50 moray eels, triggerfishes "Blackfish" commonly nicknamed as the Atlantic piranhas due to their greedy appetite, shoals of blue surgeonfishes, jacks in group of tens, huge shrimps, lobsters
in short, a real feast for the eyes! This rich fauna is set in an "arid" décor comprising mainly of big volcanic rocks. Indeed, our first dive was a memorable one.
Enthusiastic about the whole experience, we decided to undertake another dive in the same zone two hours later. Our first discovery was a wreck where a rich fauna has sought shelter. A brief visit was awarded to the dull shipwreck and then, we proceeded beyond that point to finally come to a slope pulling us into a vertiginous drop along a wall formed by huge rocks. Fifteen metres down, a green sea turtle hastily swam in front of us without lingering back. Farther on, we came across three lobsters whose size would bring water to any gastronome’s mouth and a myriad of soldier fishes nestled in a crevice of the rock. We began to swim upstream so as to visit another wreckage which was seemingly more damaged than the first. A huge anchor was the sole remnant still in good shape. Being constantly in 8 metres-deep water, the wreckage has surely undergone the devastating effect of the swell that was rocking us to and from rather unpleasantly. This strange disturbance gave us the impression of constantly swimming against the current, and this persisted in whatever direction we chose. The swell had finally come! During our stay on the island, we undertook several dives at North-Point. The chosen site was really interesting and conveniently situated, as the diving club was only 100 metres far from the beach. Day after day, we noticed that the sea was getting rougher. Things got serious and more complicated when we tried to get access to the sea or when we had to come out of the waters at the end of a dive. Finally, we were obliged to drop the idea of diving in this particular spot due to the ever significant and violent waves disturbing the waters.
One morning, the sea surrounding the beach of Clarence Bay at Georgetown was unusually calm. A dive was thus rapidly organized. This spot is devoid of any slope or rocky décor; it is only a vast sandy ocean bed seemingly without any great interest. Our main aim was to observe the green turtles. At nightfall, the beach receives a significant number of green turtles that come to lay their eggs. Therefore, it was highly probable to catch sight of them in the waters of Clarence Bay. Underwater, visibility is bad and the sandy bed, slightly stirred up, considerably diminished our field of vision to only 7 or 8 metres. Shortly after our immersion, one, then two turtles appeared, swirled around us and swam away. We decided to swim further into the open sea so as to reach a less sandy ocean bed; our visibility should definitely improve once in deeper waters. We came across two turtles busy mating; shortly afterwards, the female let go of its partner. She is really huge; easily reaching the 1,50 metres in length for a size that borders on the 250 kilos! Majestic, she seems to be "flying" effortlessly in the liquid element. We tried to get closer but we soon realized that water is not our natural element: with two powerful strokes of her flippers, she disappears almost instantaneously while leaving behind the disturbed waters as sole evidence of her presence. Farther on, we met three turtles in deep water; it was a magnificent view! Slightly anxious to feel the sea getting worse again, we decided to get back to the beach. On the way back, some green turtles were patrolling the shore; they were surely awaiting nightfall to lay their eggs on the beach. In some places, some broken turtle eggs are swaying at the mercy of waves. We did not know the precise reason of their presence in the waters: disturbed on the beach, a turtle had lain in the sea? A nest made on the beach but too close to the attacks of the waves?
Clarence Bay is the ideal spot for observing green turtles; however, it is highly advised not to dive in the sea if it is disturbed by violent waves. This place is renowned for being dangerous; moreover, swimming is prohibited in this area. Besides the season of the green turtles and the swell phenomenon, any dive in this area is rather dull: some stray fishes and a huge anchor.
Following the advice an experienced diver, we went to dive at Catherine Point where manta rays can be seen. Some scattered rocks on a sandy ocean bed and a mediocre visibility yielded quite an unattractive underwater landscape. Fortunately, the waters abounded in fishes: shoals of blue surgeonfishes, groupers, small trunkfishes, solefishes, scorpionfishes but no manta rays! Once more, getting back to the beach proved to be an athletic activity; the swell was showing itself. It would be a wise choice to find out a boat for diving as the security conditions become too risky from the coasts.
Still, we dived off from the beach of North-Point occurring to us that we could swim to English Bay; approximately 1,4 km to cover when bypassing the north-west spit of the island. We were now swimming in depths of 15 metres but without much lagging behind, which was quite a pity. In mid-way, the landscape was downright spectacular; numerous caves, cracks and tunnels embellished our underwater trip. An extremely intense pleasure surged into our beings while exploring the lava flows that were full of crevices and which, in turn, provided shelters to the marine fauna. We were observing a particularly impressive jackfish at the opening of a cave, when suddenly, we found ourselves being pushed violently inside by a swell stroke. Fortunately enough, it did not last long because at the far end of the cave, a small gap gave rise to a funnel-like effect; it would be quite unpleasant if you happen to get sucked up and thrown out through this particular exit. We swam out hastily, impressed by the sudden and unexpected strength of this "wave". However, we were unable to explore all these inhabited hidings full of soldierfishes due to the short amount of time left. Having each a cylinder with a maximum capacity of 12 litres, we had no choice if we wanted to reach English Bay safely. This journey was really beautiful and full of fishes, lots of moray eels in deep waters, shoals of jacks, magnificent filefishes
and our friends, the green turtles.
After getting in touch with some people, we finally met the Major who manages the American base in Cat Hill. Phil is our "savior"; he owns a dinghy and kindly lends it to us. It was highly time to find a boat that would enable us to move further from the coastline and thus reduce the devastating effect of the swell. For our first outing in the open sea, Phil accompanied us in his dinghy. He suggested that we undertook a dive under the hull of Maersk Gannet, a huge oil tanker permanently anchored off the bay of Georgetown and responsible for supplying Ascension in fuel. It is in turn refueled by other oil tankers passing through the island. It was quite a weird idea to dive off under the hull of a gigantic mass of iron. However, we were really amazed to see such a high density of fishes once in the water. A few metres below the hull, hundreds (thousands?) of jacks were moving about in shoals and swirled about the divers. A huge chain at the tanker’s prow held the ship in a fixed position. It was stretched so tautly that we had the impression of it breaking apart at any moment. We went down to the ocean’s bed at a depth of 50 metres. According to Phil, sharks can sometimes be seen in the area, but today, only some dolphins (= Coryphaena hippuris. Not to be confused with the mammal, this is a common tropical fish to 6ft. long with blunt forehead and forked tailfin) that are well appreciated by the fishermen are into view. We swam up to the enormous shoals of jacks and tried nearing the huge propeller of the tanker. Before definitely surfacing out, we had a good time playing with the air bubbles sliding on the ship’s hull. This dive was out of the standard norms, a gigantism décor was well and truly here; no superlative words were good enough to describe our emotions.
On the following days, we explored various sites in the dinghy, such as Pyramid Point and Pyramid Cove. The dives undertaken here were more or less similar to the others: we met again with the invariable volcanic landscape, still dreary but offset by an abundant fauna. Small surprises always complemented our trip such as this particularly curious filefish that had followed us at great length, revolving around us and even allowing us to touch it. Or the shoal of "Blackfish" triggerfishes that have engulfed half a kilo of bread in less than 15 seconds. We were not into the usual habit of feeding the fishes but in this special case, we wanted to confirm the veracity (and the voracity!) of the nickname attributed to their species: piranhas of South-Atlantic! You can take it from us that it has not been usurped; in the general frenzy accompanying the distribution of the bread to the "piranhas", my buddy got bitten in a finger. Fortunately, only a slight wound came out of this memorable experience.
We decided to end our diving experiences on the famous site of Boatswain Bird Island. Invited by Phil on the boat of the US Air Force, we were going towards this huge rock, along with other American residents, that acted as a shelter and reproduction site to the numerous species of sea birds. This spot is highly inaccessible from inland as steep cliffs overhang the entire southeastern coast. Here, diving is carried out in clear waters; some curious, yet not the least bit aggressive, reef sharks hovered around us. An old cannon occupied the opening of a cave; it was said to have formerly belonged to a pirate renowned in this region. We had hoped to see more impressive-looking sharks in the trip between the coast and Boatswain Island but in vain. The rest of the exploration took place among shoals of fishes in a familiar landscape.
At Ascension, the diving sessions are truly unique and the underwater sites are like no other places on earth. It’s a blend of volcanic landscapes, rich fauna, virgin regions, and the impression of being the first visitors of the sites brings an adventurous flavor to the whole expedition. There is neither any growing tourism sector nor any big fishing catches and the pollution level is at its lowest. Such places are rare in today’s modern world; this is why Ascension is one of the best diving spots we’ve ever discovered till date. However, the dives are quite difficult and you run the risk of not being able to dive. In this case, it would be ideal to avoid the occurrence of the swell phenomenon but at the expense of the green turtles that are of great interest. After all, it’s your choice!
Text and photos: © Fabrice Bettex / Mysterra