St. Helene Island
ST. HELENE (Santa Helena) is adjacent to Roatan, on its eastern tip. The easternmost point of Roatan Island is comprised of large mangrove forest which bridges Roatan to Santa Helena Island. From the air, Santa Helena and Roatan appear to be one contiguous island. But, in fact, these are two separate islands. There are several canals through the mangrove forest but one connects the northern and southern shores of Roatan and Santa Helena. Some of the most interesting mangrove tunnels are located between the island of Roatan and the island of Santa Helena. Spending time in Santa Elena is like spending time in the Caribbean as it was 100 years ago. It’s incredibly unique and an experience of a lifetime.
St. Helene's History
- Approx. Length: 2 miles
- Approx. Width: 1 mile
- Highest Point: 194 ft
ADJACENT TO ROATAN
ST. HELENE is better known as "Helene" to its inhabitants, is roughly 2 miles long by one mile wide. The small island of St. Helene is separated from Roatan by a natural canal which runs for an estimated 2 miles and is approximately 20 feet wide. The highest point summit at 194 ft above sea level. The island is populated on both its northern and southern shores by English speaking creole islanders. Still today, Helene has some of the most unspoiled island countryside located in a rich and rapidly changing archipelago. Travelers can still find and discover the "old Caribbean" culture and charm.
UNLIKE CENTRAL AMERICA: In many ways, St. Helene is unlike Central America and more like the West Indies. For instance, it is not at all uncommon for signs to read "no Spanish spoken," and some of its local places go by names like Rocky Point, Bently Bay, Bob Bay, and let's not forget Co-Co Plum Cay.
PRO TIP: English is strongly preferred on St. Helene.
St. Helene Caves
- Cave Systems
- Ancient Artifacts
- Fauna & Flora
- Map of Helene
CAVE SYSTEMS: Helene is dotted with a variety of cave formations. In 1989, a large cave was discovered which follows a 100 ft deep tunnel which drops below sea level. At the end of the cave is a cavern with a freshwater pool. Like most caves, the cave has vents which carry on for at least 100 ft. The freshwater pools have been briefly explored and remain from wild hogs and deer have been found by scuba explores in times past.
CLAY ARTIFACTS: When the cave was first discovered, explorers came across a large clay vase which contained ceremonial beads made of jade and amber. Another cave in the area was the site of the skeletal remains of "Casique," a Paya Indian found surrounded by clay jars full of jade beads. Clay pipes believed to be used by British mariners are still being discovered today.
FAUNA & FLORA: Freshwater is readily available, as are mangos, mame apples (sapote), bobwood, muginicap (monkey cap), soursop (guanabana) and other types of fruits. There was a time when wild hogs roamed freely as do the watusas (island rabbits) today. The waters around St. Helene (Santa Helena) are teeming with lobster, conch, and marine life. The forest of the island abounds with natural hardwoods. In particular, Lignin Vitae, which at some point was used for boat stems. Helene and Barbareta are the only two places where this type of wood can be found across the entire Bay Islands.
MAP OF ST. HELENE
PRO TIP: The caves and enjoying the "Old Caribbean" lifestyle are two of the top attractions.
- Known as Ross Cay
- Clay Pipes Found
- Island Groups
HELENE CAY (Ross Cay)
There is also Helene Cay, also known as Ross Cay, where clay pipes are found regularly. Theories as to why this is very, but a theory is that Ross Cay was used by pirates to careen--the practice of running ships on shore during high tide in order to scrub its underside.
Helene Cay is one of 53 Cays in and around the Bay Islands. There are eight islands that form the Bay Islands, and included among them isSt. Helene. These Cays and Island have been administered as the Bay Islands since 1872. The main islands are Utila, Guanaja, and Roatan Island. followed by smaller islands like St. Helena ("Helene"), Barbareta, Morat, and two "Hog Islands" known as "Los Cayos Cochinos."
- Main Settlements
Unfortunately, there is little evidence for who inhabited the island of Helene prior to 1851. Mitchell Hedges asserts that Indians lived on and off St. Helene for some 100 years between the 1480's and on through 1582.
BUCCANEERS & BRITISH woodcutters used Helene intermittently for a number of reasons until 1782. In that year, several battles took place in nearby Port Royal. The battles were between the English Royal Navy the Spanish Armada and Pirates like Lowe, Teach, Avery, and Captain Morgan. A successful British settlement came between 1650 and 1742. It is possible that Helene got its name after the wife of an owner of one of the vessels who settled in this area to cut wood.
PAYA INDIANS: In due time, the island of Helene remained largely uninhabited. Paya Indian settlements and burials sites became overgrown. The woodcutter camps which had been established were destroyed. Thirteen years after Columbus passed through Guanaja, in 1516 many of the islanders left for the mainland or for Spain in efforts to avoid beatings by the white men and falling prey to slavery. By 1564, the British were on the island and they finished making life miserable for the remaining Paya Indians.
Today, odd cannonballs that did not rot away and clay pipes are all that remain. The island remained in this state until 1855 when the ancestors of today's residents inhabited the area after arriving via British ships during the short period when the Bay Islands were owned by the British.
- Cayman Overpopulation
- Problem & Solution
- Coxen Hole
OVERPOPULATION IN CAYMAN ISLAND
THE PROBLEM: After the emancipation of slavery, the British were faced with the question of what to do with the newly freemen and ex-slave bosses of the Cayman Island & Jamaica. Islands like Jamaica were large enough to absorb the new population allowing them to grow and cultivate nearby lands. But the Cayman Islands are flat and at the time, they were overpopulated.
THE SOLUTION: The solution came by way of a relocation of freemen from Cayman Island to Roatan. The move gave freemen Roatan and Helene as homes while also alleviating the overpopulation concern in the Caymans. Furthermore, now that the Bay Islands were more populated, the British believed that this would hold back efforts from the mainland of Honduras to claim ownership of the Bay Island territory.
COXEN HOLE: Most of Roatan's new inhabitants settled in what we know today as Coxen Hole. Few settlers ventured further east in search of freshwater, wildlife, and hardwood. We understand that the first setters on St. Helene were the Warren and the Bonner families from Jamaica. The Alvanzer (Alphonso), Kelly, Bowman, Ross, Rich, and Forbes families came from the Cayman Islands.
- Lobster Fishing
- Helenian Lifestyle
HARVEST: Early settlers lived off of agriculture and also kept cattle and hogs. Most of the crops harvested centered around plantains, cassava, yams, arrowroot, and sesame seed (Wongla). During this era and up to the 1950's banana boats were a common port of call in Roatan. These boats would make a pit stop in Roatan to trade bananas for coconuts and luxuries such as denim shirts.
PALMETTO TOURCH: Lobsters were caught very easily at night with a "torch" which usually involved a dried palmetto leaf on fire. Large groupers and snappers could be caught with a lance right from the shore's edge. In time many Helenians dropped farming and dedicated their time to fishing as crew members on shrimpers and trap boats.
FREEDIVING: In the 1970's the price of lobsters rose and lobsters became more scarce. Helenians developed the ability to free-dive for lobsters. They became well adapted to freediving fishing as they could breath-hold to impressive depths. The practice extended to conchs. It was not at all uncommon for Helenians to free-dive to 90 ft regularly over the course of six hours.
COMMERCIAL FISHING: Commercial fishing boats were also known for taking Helenians out from Guanaja and Oakridge to the continental shelf we know today as the "fishing Banks." In some occasions, fishing extended to fishing banks further out, which we know today as Serranilla and Quita Suana. Native Helenians are great seafarers and boat handlers.
IGUANA FARMS: In addition to pigs and cattle, Helenians also farm Iguanas. This is especially true around the Easter holiday when female iguanas lay their eggs. These eggs are considered a spongy delicacy. Even today, iguanas are sold in pairs to include a male and a female and the pair sells at a premium when eggs are included.
LIFESTYLE: Helenians live joyful lives, despite not having a large employment selection and not having basic comforts in their homes. In the absence of modern technologies, Helenians entertainment includes dominoes, cards games, drinking rum, story-telling, clapping games, and bible readings.
Q & A with the Locals
What are some of the most popular activities on St. Helene?
Exploring the more than 100 caves is the most popular activity. Enjoying the ‘Old Caribbean’ lifestyle and culture is also a great experience. You must know that there is no commercial electricity or running water available at present, but this is all changing. Also, there is only walking roads, no vehicles except for motor scooters and one moto-taxi open for tours.
What is the best way to get to St. Helene?
Unfortunately, that is a problem right now. Roatan’s East End / St.Helene Passenger Ferry Tours have temporarily suspended services until a smaller more economical boat can be acquired. Other than that, private charters from Oakridge are the only way for the time being unless you plan on overnighting in St. Helene, then you can take the afternoon ferry and return on another morning run.
How much time does it take to get to St. Helene?
Depending on the boat and sea conditions, it will take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour. The distance between Oak Ridge and Helene is approx. 12 miles.
What are the largest Communities or villages in St. Helene?
Just one small island with several small communities stretched along the southern shoreline to the Northside.
Are there Resorts or Hotels on St. Helene?
There are no resorts at present in Helene. There is one small hotel that is not operational at this time. However, there are a few very comfortable gringo homes available for short or long term rentals.
Are there Dive Operators on St. Helene?
No dive operations at this present time.
Are there Sandy Beaches on St. Helene?
Secluded deserted beaches surround Helene. Helene has some of the most beautiful beaches in all the Bay Islands, and most likely you will never see a footprint in the sand.
Is it better to visit the northern or southern coastline of St. Helene?
The southern shore is the most populated with the best restaurants/bars.
Who offers the best Mangrove Tour in St. Helene?
Virtually most everyone has a boat since we are a remotely secluded island. You can negotiate any type of boat/water tour that tickles your fancy.
- Q&A: B.T. Blackwell
- CONTENT: Matthew Harper
- EDITS: Emilio F. Castillo