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This General information facility is created to talk and tell things about this town that are not directly tourist facilities as such. Things like the history, climate and calender of regular events, etc.
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by Lucille Byrnes of Dolphin Guesthouse
St Helena Bay – also known as “Die Agterbaai” – is one of the world’s prime fishing centres. Fed by the nutrient-rich Benguella current, the waters teem with marine life and provide the livelihood for its coastal inhabitants.
The main harbour at Sandy Point bustles with activity and shipbuilders and fishermen rub shoulders as they go about their daily work. The fisherfolk haul in the “trek” nets to harvest the day’s catch. Their cultural heritage is unique and the quaint tongue of the locals will bring a smile to the face of those who stop to savour their vernacular.
During the 15th century navigators seeking the route to the East explored the shoreline and a monument marking the landing of Vasco da Gama can be seen next to the beach at Stompneusbaai. The Britannia lies buried beneath the waters of the so-named bay and the wrecks of many other old sailing ships offer up a challenge to the underwater diver.
In more recent times the hillside caves of Britannica Heights hid escaping British soldiers during the Anglo-Boer War. And did you know that our own Madiba was escorted on a secret outing to the West Coast while still in prison?
This sleepy little fishing village is awakening to the needs of its community. Today all manner of industries abound – from pottery making and art classes, to state-of-the-art commercial ventures such as abalone and oyster farming.
Prospective homeowners can invest in some of the finest property the Cape has to offer. Whether it is on the hillside above Hannasbaai or in the luxurious Shelley Point complex, quality of life is there for all to enjoy. When in this development, do visit the Da Gama Museum with its well-laid out replicas of that explorer’s travels.
It’s a wild and lovely environment – home to the African Black Oystercatcher (Haemotopus moquini). The presence of this striking bird, with its black body and red beak and legs, is threatened by predation of its natural home – the pristine beaches where it lays its eggs.
A group of caring and committed honorary nature conservators have taken it upon themselves to fight the battle of vehicles on the beaches. This band of volunteers works closely with Nature Conservation and Marine and Coastal Management to educate people vis-à-vis the law. Local drivers are well aware of the rules that only permit-holders and officers in the line of their duties may drive on the beaches, but visitors need to be educated in the rules. Remember, it’s not only wildlife that can suffer: vehicles driven on beaches pose a threat to children who innocently play on the sands.
Then there’s the threat of a jetski hurtling over bathers’ heads - not to mention the damage to marine life. These were recently banned from the waters of Britannia Bay (and Paternoster too) by the local municipality in deference to the cetaceans that abound here. When participating in water sports due caution should be taken to avoid bathers as well as children playing on the sands when hurtling shoreward.
Other rules that apply include the need for a permit to collect white and black mussels (limited to 50 and 25 respectively per person per day). You are permitted to collect and take home shells, but please not a bucketful! Crayfish can only be caught from 22 November to just before Easter and only four per person per day is permitted. Size too is important (minimum size 8mm) and a female with eggs is verboten. Licenses can be purchased from the Post Office agencies at Stompneusbaai or St Helena Bay.
May it not be necessary, but if anyone experiences a mishap at sea, call the St Helena Bay Police Station 022-7361026. But its best to be forewarned by remembering drinking and diving don’t go!
The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa decrees that everyone has the right, inter alia, to clean water. With this in mind, local concerned citizens formed the St Helena Bay Water Quality Trust last year whose role it is to monitor the quality of the waters from Dwarskersbos to Cape St Martin. Their aim is not one of policing, but rather of co-operation with all parties that have an impact on the sea and our shoreline and we hope in the near future to be able to say that our bay is clean and safe. When it is deemed unsafe to swim or collect shellfish, the local municipality erects warning boards and visitors are asked to heed these signs in the interests of their health.
We also care about our antelope and visitors should drive with caution – especially after dark, which is a vulnerable time for owls and other nocturnal birdlife - and we ask you please to watch out for wildlife along the roadside
Given that birding is the world’s fastest growing pastime, we are sitting on a gold mine in terms of eco-tourism. It has the potential to be a great money-spinner and birders will pay big bucks just to tick off another “lifer” on their list – and here on the St Helena Bay peninsula there are numerous species to be found. Prof Phil Hockey says, “The Vredenburg peninsula drive is a good one (Vredenburg-Paternoster-St Helena Bay-Velddrif)”. A happy band of twitchers reside here and with a united purpose in mind – to count avifauna – they formed the West Coast Bird Club. Membership averages 50 per year (families pay R75,00, single members R50,00 and bona fide scholars are free). About seven issues of the Club’s newsletter, The Familiar Chat, are published per year and are mailed to other bird clubs, the Avian Demography Unit at UCT (with whom they interact), Sir Percy Fitzpatrick Institute, the media and any interested parties. If you want to learn more about the birdlife that abounds here, call 022-7421944. Given sufficient warning - and for a small donation - they will happily take visitors around. Injured birds can be taken to Meryl Cochrane at “La Hoya” 022-7421682.
Then there are the cetaceans – and we don’t have to tell you how these leviathans of the sea attract visitors. Dr Peter Best of the SA Museum writes, “Historically important as an early 19th century whaling ground for the Southern Right Whales (Balaena glacialis), current trends indicate that it may once again become one of the more important centres for Right Whale distribution on the coast”. It is also one of only two areas in the world where Heaviside’s Dolphins (Cephalorhynchus heavisidii) – also the only endemic cetacean in Southern African waters - are found and formed the basis of a study by members of Earthwatch recently. Says Nan Rice, “Populations on the west coast, where this endemic species frequent, appears healthy and these little dolphins are resident in many places along the coast and can be seen in larger schools offshore.” In the February 2002 newsletter Nan Rice writes, “Many (Southern Right) whales continue to be observed in the Britannia Bay area and were sighted up until the last day of February. It appears that numbers of whales travel to the West Coast and then aggregate in various places before going to the Atlantic feeding grounds. Years ago the “Pigeon Ground” (+- 30°-40° south) in the mid- Atlantic was where the whales migrated to feed – from Southern African to southern South America. It is hoped that Dr Best’s new recordings can quantify this theory”.
There are many fascinating activities going on in St Helena Bay and we’d be happy to tell you more about them. Get talking to the local folk, ask questions at the tourist information points – we want to make your stay really special.
Rich in floral splendour, the rewards to those who visit are glorious sunrises, still and safe waters and a culturally rich and entertaining folk.
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