Ascension – A Diver’s Paradise
Daniel Sadd, Fisheries Officer and PADI Instructor
With its blend of volcanic landscapes, rich fauna from both tropic and temperate regions, combined with the impression that you are the first to discover its many dive sites, diving in Ascension is like nowhere else. While it may not compete with the Red Sea and the lush tropical reefs of the south Pacific and the Caribbean, it more than makes up for it with the sheer abundance of life that it showcases. There are few places left in the world that are so free of human pressures and diving here offers the increasingly rare opportunity to dive in a pristine environment.
Amongst other things, the island offers regular sightings of a resident pod of bottlenose dolphins that follow boats on trips around the island and can often be seen on dives along the north-west coast. Between December and July thousands of migrating green turtles from Brazil arrive to mate in the shallows; a sight to behold for any avid diver. Female green turtles can also be seen laying eggs on the beaches before returning to the ocean, allowing for the slim chance to dive with baby turtles around two weeks later once the eggs have hatched.
From July to November humpbacks can be spotted breaching off of the north-east, north-west and south-west coasts. Manta rays (pictured here at comfortless cove) and devil rays move inshore to feed in nutrient rich surface waters and various species of shark such as hammerhead, Galapagos, and silky sharks have been spotted in our coastal waters. As well as charismatic mega fauna, Ascension Island plays host to a plethora of reef animals. These range from; spiny lobster, trumpetfish, flounder, peacock flounder, barracuda, grouper, goliath grouper, squirrelfish and jacks to five different species of moray eel (Banded, Chain, Fangtooth, Goldentail and Spotted).
The first species that divers and indeed island goers notice however, is always the black trigger fish Melichthys Niger. Seen around the island in unprecedented numbers, these voracious scavengers accompany you in their hundreds on whichever dive site you choose.
No matter the reason you decided to start your diving adventures, Ascension has something for everybody. See you underwater, and happy bubbles!!
The accessibility of dives right from the shore is one of the best things about diving on Ascension. Although these are numerous some of the more popular ones include:
Aptly named due to its use as a quarantine area for yellow-fevered sailors that arrived in 1838 aboard the HMS Bonetta, Comfortless Cove is a popular spot for snorkelers and divers in search of a lazy afternoon in the water. With a maximum depth of 10-15m along the coastline it is a perfect dive site for beginners that still offers profuse marine life; including the usual suspects like black trigger fish, grouper, squirrelfish and morays, along with the occasional oceanic trigger fish, black or Almaco jack and scorpionfish. If you choose to dive here at night, you will be treated to (almost certain) encounters with active and foraging spiny lobster.
English Bay/Wigan Pier
This dive is also simple and shallow, yet no less interesting than any other site. On entry divers can either follow the reef round to the right towards the power station or head turn left. Locals often jump in from Wigan Pier and follow the reef around down to approximately 14m and double back, following the line of four buoys back to the beach. This site offers sightings of large and numerous grouper, morays, squirrel fish and spiny lobster at night. If you time your visit to the island correctly and arrive in May you may be lucky enough to witness the mass squirrelfish spawning event. Squirrelfish fry congregate in their thousands along the coast, and diving with them here leaves you almost feeling claustrophobic!
One Hook/Two Hook
One hook and the adjacent Two Hook are popular fishing spots. This combined with the fact that the site quickly drops off to 25-30m, means that encounters with large Yellowfin Tuna are possible. By following the wall down and around to the right, you will reach the sandy bottom and eventually some stand-alone reefs home to blackbar soldiers, Ascension Wrasse, flounder and the occasional oceanic triggerfish.
If you are visiting Ascension via yacht and have planned ahead by bringing your own dive gear, this opens up another world of possibilities. While most dive sites here are reasonably accessible via the shore, having access to a boat means that certain inaccessible sites and wrecks are open to you. Even if you arrive via the air, fret not as many local and extremely knowledgeable fishermen are happy to rent out their boats for dive trips around the island.
Boat dives worth a special mention include:
- Boatswain Bird Island
- Triangles – fairly high chance to see bottle-nosed dolphins and large pelagic species.
- Eddie’s Gullies – famous for its swim-throughs and tunnels.
- Red Rock – lots of caves and blow-holes frequented by huge schools of squirrelfish.
- White Rock – Big and Bold scenery, natural overhangs and interlocking U-shaped channels.
- Clarence Bay Arch – famous for the large archway and several large anchors with red sponges growing on them, making for excellent photo opportunities.
There are also many wrecks off Ascension Island’s coastal waters. These add a new dimension to already popular dive sites and act as fish aggregators; providing shelter for juvenile fish, red-lipped blennies, damselfish and cleaner shrimp as well as dark crevices preferred by squirrelfish, blackbar soldiers and bullseye.
This is many people’s favourite wreck on the island due to the fact that it is still (mostly) intact. The derby sits in 6m of water and can be accessed via English bay or the adjacent ‘powerhouse’ beach. A small coastal freighter that sank in January 1929 due to heavy seas, this wreck offers sightings of bullseye, friendly filefish, blennies and the very cute St Helena sharpnose pufferfish. If you continue on past the wreck you will be treated to interesting geographical features as well as small arches that are big enough to swim through, following the reef around to the right will lead to more excellent caves and swim-throughs.
Other wrecks worth noting are:
- SV Normandie – A 2000 ton 80m French sailing ship that sank in May 1990 after taking on water and sits in 5-15m of water
- HMS Maeander – A Royal Navy Seringapatam-class frigate of the West Africa Squadron that wrecked in an 1870 gale that left her lying at a depth of 14m off Comfortless Cove. Still visible are brass pins and sheathing from the hull, remnants of the tiller and the supports for the gun deck.
- The Soudan & HMS Tortoise – The combination of shallow water and wave action has flattened these two wrecks into one mass. The Soudan was operated by the Eastern Shipping Company and was wrecked off North Point in February 1892. The HMS Tortoise was built in 1805 and from 1848 was used as a stores ship at Ascension until the order came in October 1859 to break her up. Look out for peacock flounder, and the hypnotising fireworms that pack a nasty sting.
- The China – Steeped in mystery, divers have found iron girders, steel plates, steam winches and anchors but also some Chinese porcelain plates, which potentially made up some of her cargo. This large wreck is in ~20m of water, meaning it can be split up into several dives. A huge school of goatfish live on the wreck and cause an optical illusion that make the wreck look like it’s moving in the swell!
Not to be missed
Every location boasts a ‘must-do’ dive, whether it’s Sipadan Island in Malaysia, or the Great Blue Hole in Belize. On Ascension Island it is Boatswain Bird Island (BBI). Believed to be a nursery ground for juvenile Galapagos sharks, diving here is incomparable. BBI is a nature reserve labelled as an important nesting site for birds found nowhere else in the world by Birdlife International.
The island sits about 300m off the exposed eastern side of the main island and is an unspoiled gem both above and below the water. Highlights include large inquisitive black and almaco jacks, juvenile Galapagos sharks, large trumpetfish and grouper.
As well as marine life, sunlight casts dark shadows over big rock formations giving the site an eerie atmosphere. If the sea conditions are favourable you can swim through the archway at the thin southern tip of the island. Due to conditions on this coast, having a Surface Marker Buoy deployed for the entire dive is highly recommended.