Brothers, Daedelus and Elphinstone – Out into the big blue

Brothers, Daedelus and Elphinstone  – Out into the big blue
Cracks, overhangs, and chmineys abound on the Brothers
Cracks, overhangs, and chimneys abound on the Brothers

Brothers, Daedelus, and Elphinstone – three of the most iconic Red Sea names on the wish list of many Red Sea divers.

With the Brothers islands and Daedelus reef being roughly a 12-hour cruise from shore, a liveaboard is the only way to get there. In June 2013 I chartered one for a week and went to check the sites out.

The typical route begins with a day at Abu Dabbab followed by an overnight cruise to the Brothers for two days diving, then overnight to Daedelus for two days diving, and an overnight ride to Elphinstone for two dives there on the final day. However, due to strong winds from the north, which we would have had to cruise around to get to the Brothers, we first sailed south to Daedelus after some gentle warm up dives off the coast of Marsa Alam. It was also an opportunity for people to practice inflating a surface marker buoy (aka safety sausage), a useful skill when diving out in the middle of the Red Sea on isolated reefs

Colourful Nudibranch
Colourful Nudibranch

I was giving a photography workshop to some of the divers and some shallow, gentle dives were ideal for re-familiarization with the cameras’ functions and settings on colourful reef fish and a few blue-spotted rays. The change of routing suited me too, as I spent a week diving just the Brothers in 2010, and knew what we would be getting. Whereas the Daedelus and Elphinstone legs of the trip were unknown entities, aside from our expectations of seeing some sharks.

Daedelus has a reputation for sharks, notably scalloped hammerheads, and that’s what we were aiming for after an uneventful night cruise. The briefing was simple. We’d drop on the east flank of the reef, illuminated by the rising sun, move off the reef into the blue, just keeping sight of it, and drift south with the current at around 25 metres for 20 minutes to see what turned up. Many of the divers had never seen a hammerhead before, and some had never seen a shark in person, so the anticipation levels were high.

We split into two groups, one of eight, one of nine, each with a local guide, and dropped 10 minutes apart. There was one other liveaboard there, and her divers were just stirring as our second group hit the water. The viz was the usual clear Red Sea blue, the wall covered in soft corals. “If we don’t get lucky with the hammers, the wall will be very pretty”, I thought to myself. It was a wasted thought. We’d barely had time to fin off the wall when a solitary hammer made a pass below us, slightly further out. It wasn’t close enough for a picture, not by some distance, but that only served to emphasise its size. As it turned to return from whence it had come, there was a distinct absence of scalloping on its funny head. We’d just encountered Sphyrna mokorran, the Great Hammerhead. What a start!

Diver on the wall at Daedelus
Diver on the wall at Daedelus

Ten minutes later, just as I was starting to get that funny cross-eyed feeling from peering into the blue, trying not to focus on the micro-particles floating by, along came another, or was it the same one back for another peek? It never came close enough for us to ask, but it was none too shabby a start. Back on the reef, the dendronepthyas swayed gently, like floppy oversized broccoli heads. Fairy basslets adorned the points and pinnacles.

Divers chilling on the walls
Divers chilling on the walls

Our dives over the next two days were essentially the same brief, only which shoulder to the reef changing, as we would dive the east in the morning and the west in the afternoon. Given the remote nature of the sites and the deep bottom, no night diving is allowed. We’d either be dropped by the small RIBs and return to the moored boat, or jump off the dive deck and be picked up by the RIB.

As we tended to dive at different paces, ranging from slow to super slow, most of the time we were diving in buddy pairs or fours and as a consequence different people had different encounters. Everyone saw at least one school of scalloped hammerheads, school size ranging depending on who was doing the counting. The same people always seemed to see more than others. Grey reef sharks were a common sighting on Daedelus, and half of us (not my half) saw a giant manta cruise by. Though the slight air of disappointment amongst my stick was short-lived, as the next dive our dive guide, Ahmed, was treated to his first tiger shark sighting on Daedelus in six years of diving.  She wasn’t a monster, but on a sub-three-metre sub-adult the markings were unmistakable despite being too far away for my 8mm fisheye lens.

Grey reef shark
Grey reef shark

After two days, it was time to cruise overnight to Elphinstone. The wind was still coming from the north, giving us a bumpy ride, and I preferred sleeping on the back deck in the open air to getting banged around in my cabin in the bows.  Elphinstone is a cigar-shaped reef, around 400 metres long, rising to a couple of metres below the surface. On a good day it can be reached from Marsa Alam in a RIB. Today wasn’t such a day. We awoke to some surface chop and one other liveaboard. We moored on the southwest end of the reef, the white caps on the northeast tip were prominent and small waves were starting to break over the top

Underwater she was sweet. Big blue walls. The idea was to start close to the southern plateau, look over the west-facing edge to see what was hanging out in the current and then go along part of the eastern side, protected by the massive wall, before returning to the boat. As we moved onto the plateau, the current started to pick up; the more I finned into it, the faster it pumped. The effort was worth it though. Fusiliers and snapper darted around, looking for breakfast whilst avoiding becoming brekkie for dogtooth tuna and grey reef sharks that patrolled just off in the blue. We hung out, literally, with a finger grip on some substrate before letting go and drifting back to our entry point and exploring a bit of the current-free wall to the north.

As we ascended the conditions became a little more challenging with down currents in a couple of chimneys, where the waves were breaking on our side of the reef now, pushing divers close to the wall onto it. We were close to the boat and decided to end the dive; we’d had 40 good minutes anyway. 10 metres away from the reef the water was calmer, but on the safety stop we could see the boat’s dive deck slapping up and down menacingly. Climbing the ladders with kit on was not going to be fun. We were the first group now, and as such, guinea pigs. After a bit of a struggle for a couple of divers, we launched the RIBs for the second group. dekitted them on the RIB and  then they jumped back in to go up the ladders. Transferring from the RIB to the back deck was not an option.

Diver in natural window
Diver in natural window

Given the inclement conditions, we decided to move inshore for the next two dives, Elphinstone was not going to see anymore divers that day. Her iconic oceanic white tips had eluded us, but it could’ve been worse. Abu Dabbab has six reefs, so we checked out a couple and although low on adrenaline-producing dives, it did produce some pleasant wide-angle and macro images, and two 80-minute dives in flat seas.

Heading to the Brothers that night was a different story. The wind still hadn’t abated, but the skipper and owner decided we could make it. Sleep was fitful, even on the back deck exactly midships, with the odd wave breaking over the back deck until the sun rose. The Nitrox blender had come loose during the night and would be out of order for the rest of the trip. As we approached, we could make out the 32-metre high Victorian stone lighthouse on Big Brother, and as the golden orb of the sun appeared out of the Red Sea, the wind died down. By the time we were moored up and invigorated with coffee, the sea was, by Elphinstone standards, flat.

Bigeye Soldierfish on Big Brother
Bigeye Soldierfish on Big Brother

It helps that Big and Little Brother are actual islands, their near shear sides providing decent protection on the leeward side. Currents here are generally north to south too, making the Numidia wreck on the north of Big Brother an excellent starting point. She was a 130-metre long cargo ship carrying railway sleepers and bogies to India on the voyage that turned out to be her last. Now the top of the wreck sits at around 13 metres, dropping down into the depths way beyond the limits of recreational diving. At 30 metres her hold is open and decorated with an abundance of soft corals and anthias.

After 15 minutes on her we took the west wall south, drifting over the second wreck here, the Aida, once a transport ship supplying the small garrison on the island (now only a dozen) that somehow also managed to hit the reef. Her bows sit 26 metres down, pointing upwards at an angle. We moved along the wall, exploring the nooks and crannies, cracks and crevices, finding giant morays, scorpion fish, a truly massive pink stonefish, more grey reef sharks, and a silvertip. We drifted for three-quarters of the length of the island until we found our mooring lines and followed them back. In the past I have seen oceanic whitetips hanging around the boat, looking for scraps, but not this trip.

Photography student on Little Brother
Photography student on Little Brother

The southern end of Big Brother has large patches of gorgonian fans, black coral, and a plateau that is popular with thresher sharks. Unlike the oceanic white tips, they were around and another entry for the life list of almost everyone on board. Their short snout and long tail see them called “fox sharks” in French and German, though they get their English name from the characteristic shape of their caudal fin, used to stun schooling prey.

Of the two Brothers, on my previous visit Little Brother was my favourite and turned out to be still the cuter of the two, and overall my favourite offshore reef in the Red Sea. What it lacks for in size, it makes up for in quality and quantity. There are more colours, more variety, and more fish here, and few boats – all in all, a winning combination.

Anthias on Big Brother
Anthias on Big Brother

For more information on Christopher’s UW photo workshops please visit http://www.bartlettimages.com/trips—voyages.html.

For more information about Indigo Safaris and their dive trips see www.indigosafaris.com and navigate to the destination of your choice.

Goby and partner shrimp at Abu Dabab
Goby and partner shrimp at Abu Dabab

The wreck of Rio Sainas

The wreck of Rio Sainas

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In the early hours of 11 March 2013 the, 35 meter, 300 ton fishing vessel “Rio Sainas” made her final journey to the bottom of the sea. She was under tow after spending nearly 3 weeks on the shore at Zavora, Mozambique; the result of losing power and drifting in a high wind before running aground on the sandy beach. Fortunately for her crew and for the environment, she ran aground on sand, right between two rock reefs. Had she hit the reef the crew would have been in real trouble considering the state of the sea and her fuel and oil may well have leaked out of a damaged hull, posing a considerable pollution risk for the area.

Text by Jon Wright

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Initial attempts to re-float her by her owners proved futile and she was declared a total loss by their insurance company.The salvage company Subtech were called in and they began the arduous task of cleaning her up so she would not pose any threat to the environment. Over the course of 10 days more than 35 tons of fuel and oils were pumped off and several tons of debris was removed before she was deemed fit to be towed out to sea. It took several attempts to free her, each pull from the large tugboat resulting in small gains, with the salvers having to wait patiently until the next high tide to try again. Working day and night in foul weather they finally won the battle on the afternoon of 10 March, freeing the stricken vessel in 20 knot winds and 3 meter swells.

As she had run aground bow first, she was being pulled from the stern with the plan being to relocate the massive hawser to the bow for towing away from Zavora. However sea conditions had deteriorated so much, it was not possible to launch the small boat needed to carry out this operation and the tug and tow had to sit it out at anchor in the bay. The next morning, we awoke to a much calmer sea, but with only one boat floating on it. We can only assume the tired old ship was taking a lot of water over her stern in the heavy sea and her not very watertight hatches were unable to cope. At some stage during the pitch black, stormy night, she slipped beneath the waves.

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In the short time she has been on the bottom she has already become an aggregation point for many species of fish, including several sightings of a 2 meter brindle bass which we are hoping will be a long term resident. Juvenile fish of various species are finding a home here and we often see trevally, cuda and other game fish hunting around her. A vessel which, during 40 years of operational service, killed so many marine organisms is now sheltering and nurturing these same animals providing a new habitat for life in Zavora.Their loss became our advantage; now the Rio Sainas is Mozambique’s newest wreck and at only 9km from our launch, it’s on our doorstep. Lying in 33 meters of water, with a 35 degree list to starboard and coming up to 19 meters she is a perfect dive site for recreational divers. The scour by the propeller goes down to 35 meters and there is plenty of scope for penetration for the more experienced diver. It is possible to enter the aft deck hatch, proceed through the pristine (but not so spacious) engine room and exit by the galley one deck up. From there, you can enter the crew accommodation, proceed up one deck and into the wheelhouse.

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Rio Sainas was engaged in deep sea lobster potting at the time of her grounding but had previously been involved with long lining – divers’ most detested fishing practice (the crew told us they had been shark finning at one time). She was under a Mozambican flag, crewed mainly by Filipino’s and owned and operated by Pescamar, which itself is owned by a Spanish fishing conglomerate. She had 3 FADM (Mozambique armed forces) personnel on board and was armed with 3 AK47’s and a PKM machine gun, the mount of which is still clearly visible, (to the rear of the superstructure on the starboard side) to act as protection from possible pirate attack.

So, one down, so many to go! While we can be happy that there is one less fishing boat in the channel, we must also do our part. Knowing that the food we eat comes from sustainable resources, and does not involve the exploitation of less fortunate people is the least we can do ethically. For our own health, we must also take a stand against current industrial food production practices such as the over-use of pesticides, hormones and the increasing dominance of genetically modified ‘Frankenfoods’. Eventually, we consumers call the shots. If we stop buying fish from the red list, it will not be economically viable to catch it. What is needed is a common consensus, we only have power in numbers. The future of the sea and indeed, the land, is in our hands.

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One less fishing boat plying its trade in the channel means the oceans get a break, albeit until the next one comes along. And as the aging fishing fleet sinks and becomes home to ocean life it means fishing companies are forced to reconsider their options and economics. For divers, it’s a bonanza – something to explore, something to attract fish life and something to be marveled at.

Zavora is home to two marvelous diving wrecks – the Klipfontein and now, Rio Sainas. A fortunate intersection of shipping misfortune meets ocean life to create a diver’s dream dive.

Magical Maldives

Magical Maldives

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The Maldives is synonymous with images of azure waters, picture-perfect beaches and luxurious resorts. However, the twenty-six atolls and nearly twelve hundred islands that comprise the Maldives are a perfect recipe for great diving, and predictably the Maldives has established itself as one of the premier dive destinations in the world. Because the Maldives straddle the equator in the Indian Ocean diving in the Maldives features an abundance of marine life.

Text: Nishan Perera. Images: Mohamed Shafraz Naeem (‘Shaff’)

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While the reefs themselves abound with both hard and soft coral the fish life in the Maldives sets it apart from many other dive destinations. Schools of snappers, fusiliers, sweetlips and parrotfish are seen on many sites along with large napoleon wrasse, barracuda, trevally and turtles. There is no shortage of pelagics either with sharks, tuna, eagle and manta rays being seen in large numbers. Strong currents flowing through the narrow atoll channels transport nutrients and drive the food chain that accounts for the vast numbers of fish.

In 1998 and 2010 the Maldives suffered extensive coral bleaching that affected many of its shallow reefs. However, deeper sections of the reefs were unaffected and many reefs are showing good signs of recovery. Importantly, the fish life has not dwindled and pelagic sightings remain as consistent as before.

Channel dives, referred to locally as ‘Kandus’ offer exhilarating drift dives where divers can drift past overhangs and caves while watching larger fish such as sharks and giant trevally pick off schooling fish in the current. Inside the atolls are numerous islands and submerged reefs. Most islands have fringing reefs that slope down to the atoll plate at around 40m. These reefs are generally prone to milder currents and offer easy diving as well as excellent snorkeling.

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Submerged reefs are referred to by many names depending on their size, structure and location. The most commonly dived are ‘Thilas’, which are pinnacles rising from the atoll floor and ‘Giris’, which are similar to thilas but smaller and often shallower at their highest point. Hard corals and gardens of anemones with clownfish can be seen covering the top of many thilas while the sides of the reef slope away steeply and are punctuated by overhangs, arches and caves. Soft coral and large sponges can be found in areas prone to currents while large sea fans proliferate in deeper areas. Grey reef sharks patrol the edges of the reef while there is always a chance to spot a passing manta ray or squadron of eagle rays gracefully swimming past.

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Another highlight of diving in the Maldives is the many cleaning stations where larger fish arrive to be “serviced” by cleaner wrasses and shrimps. Many of these cleaning stations attract large manta rays and provide excellent opportunities to observe these magnificent animals at close range.

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Wreck divers will also not be disappointed with several excellent wrecks. The most famous are the ‘Maldives Victory’ close to Male’ and the WWII ‘British Loyalty’ wreck in Addu Atoll.

Diving Regions

The Central Atolls comprising North Male’, South Male’ and Ari Atolls form the bulk of Maldivian dive itineraries. In addition to being easily accessible the Central Atolls provide a variety of sites and good chances of spotting everything the Maldives is famous for. North and South Male’ Atolls were the first areas to open up to tourism and are home to well-known dive sites such as Nassimo Thila, Banana Reef, Embudhoo Express and Cocoa Thila where you can expect breathtaking topography with steep drop-offs, caves and precipitous overhangs with prolific marine life including sharks, manta rays, giant trevally, black snappers, Napoleon wrasse and schooling bannerfish.

Ari Atoll is probably the most popular destination for liveaboards as it offers some of the most reliable encounters with pelagics and big schools of fish. The best diving in Ari Atoll is also centered on thilas making it more suitable for less experienced divers. Popular sites such as Fish Head, Maaya Thila, Hafsa Thila, Kudarah Thila and Broken Rock epitomize the Maldives’ benchmark of excellent fish life. Aggregations of blue-lined snappers and oriental sweetlips congregate around current-swept pinnacles while stingrays and turtles are regularly seen along with dogtooth tuna and occasional eagle rays. Grey reef, blacktip and white tip reef sharks frequent most dive sites. Whale sharks and manta rays frequent the southern area around Maamigili.

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Deep channels, strong currents and good pelagic encounters are the feature of diving in Vaavu Atoll. Sites such as Miyaru Kandu, Devana Kandu and Fotteyo Kandu are well known for shark sightings including the occasional hammerhead shark. Many dive sites are characterized by steep walls with coral encrusted swim-throughs, caves and overhangs as well as teeming marine life. Night diving at Alimatha has become extremely popular due to the presence of large numbers of nurse sharks, giant trevally and stingrays that have become accustomed to and come very close to divers.

The last decade has also seen an expansion of tourism and diving into the more northern and southern atolls. With lower diver numbers these atolls provide a chance to get off the beaten path and explore diving in the Maldives as it was before mass tourism took off. Rarely visited by divers the extreme northern atolls of Haa Alifu and Haa Dhaalu provide diving that is different from the rest of the Maldives. Here the diving tends to be shallower around submerged boulders. Reef sharks including large packs of grey reef sharks can be seen on a regular basis, while species that are uncommon further south such as leopard sharks and guitar sharks are also seen with more regularity here. Schools of barracuda and sweetlips as well as mantas are features of diving in this area. Divers with a keen eye can also find good macro opportunities here with nudibranchs, ghost pipefish and frogfish. Other northern atolls such as Baa, Noonu and Lhaviyani have also built reputations for excellent diving. Hanifaru Bay in Baa Atoll is famous for its feeding aggregations of more than a hundred mantas and numerous whale sharks that come to feed here during the south-west monsoon.

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Meemu and Laamu Atolls in the south provide excellent diving in current-swept channels and colorful thilas. Like elsewhere, pelagics such as reef sharks, eagle rays and dogtooth tuna abound. The hard coral is also in good condition and has more diversity than the northern and central atolls. Huvadhoo and Addu in the extreme south provide the other frontier for diving in the Maldives.

Huvadhoo in particular is famous for its deep channels and shark sightings and large numbers of grey reef sharks can be seen on incoming tides. The coral is also more prolific in the south with vibrant coral gardens crowning the tops of most reefs. Huvadhoo provides an opportunity to see some of the bigger sharks as well. Whale sharks are regular visitors to this area and divers may also catch a glimpse of tiger, bull and silvertip sharks. Just north of Huvadhoo is the tiny Foamulah Atoll, the smallest atoll in the Maldives. In the short time that it has been dived by liveaboards, Foamulah has built a reputation as a Mecca for pelagics with sightings of thresher, tiger, silvertip sharks and even the occasional oceanic white tip. Diving this region requires calm seas due to its exposed location and long ocean crossings so is ideally done from January to March when the conditions are best.

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Weather and Seasons

Although diving is possible year-round the north-east monsoon season from November to May is probably the best time to visit the Maldives due to calm seas and mostly dry weather. During this time the currents flow through the atoll channels from east to west and bring clear ocean water to the eastern side of lagoons with slightly lower visibility on the western side. June to October is the south-west monsoon and the opposite of the north-east monsoon. This period tends to have much higher rainfall and strong winds may prevail at times, especially around July and August. Water temperature is fairly constant throughout the year at around 29°C, although it may drop as low as 24°C in the extreme south during the north-east monsoon. Visibility averages around 20-25m but is better on flood tides with highs of up 40m+ while it may drop to less than 10m during plankton blooms.

Sightings of mantas, whale sharks, turtles and reef sharks are possible all year round. Sharks tend to congregate on the exposed side of the atolls with clear water and strong currents. In contrast the sheltered side of the atoll attracts mantas as plankton flows out of the channels. Manta sightings are particularly good during the south-west monsoon due to plankton blooms.

Accessibility

The best way to truly experience the Maldives is on a liveaboard and there are now a vast variety of boats to suit all budget ranges. Most boats cover the central atolls with a focus on Ari Atoll. However an increasing number of boats offer scheduled trips to the northern and southern atolls.

The Maldives provides diving for all levels of experience. However, some of the channel dives, especially in the south are more suited for experienced divers due to steep walls and strong currents. Snorkelers will also enjoy shallow coral gardens with good fish life.

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Geo Cloete

Geo Cloete

DSC_4372For some of us walking the planet, the allure of the ocean is so intense that it plays a pivotal role in our lives because we long passionately to spend as much time possible on, or in, it.

We soul-search as to why this undying love for the ocean burns so fiercely in me, took me down numerous paths. Many varied conclusions were reached, but none which singularly captured the essence. For now, I am content to accept that it’s the sum of all those, and more, as to why the ocean forms an inseparable part of my life.

Subconsciously it started years before I even saw the ocean for the first time, but became a reality the day when a friendly surfer spurred me on for an incoming set wave. e thrill and emotions I felt on that day as I sped down the unbroken face of a wave for the first time, is etched into my mind. I knew from that moment on, the ocean had opened its doors to a new child; for a life inside it rather than next to it.

Only much later in my life did I add scuba diving to my repertoire of ocean lifestyle. I went through the mill of completing numerous dive courses, but from the start the desire was there to be able to capture the beautiful world below the surface in an artistic manner. It’s easy to forget when practicing a sport/ hobby/activity which is exclusive to a relatively small number of people on the planet just how fortunate you are. I therefore, consider myself privileged, not only for being able to explore the last “Great Frontier” in person, but also for being able to capture part of its beauty and to share it with a wider audience.

It brought me great joy the other day when somebody commented on a series of photos of mine, saying that they made him feel that he was there when the photos were taken.

It took a few years of saving and building up to my current rig, but it has been worth every bit of effort that went into it. With little over three and a half years shooting my DSLr setup, I am still new on the scene. However, I would like to think that what I lack in years I am making up for with passion, a hunger to learn and the sheer number of hours I spend in the water. Further I am thankful for my design/creative background as I do feel its aiding me in steering towards my goals.

I love shooting macro and wide angle equally and am very glad it turned out like that. Each discipline has such unique challenges and exposes me to such varied facets of ocean life. I can’t imagine shooting only the one or the other. As an added bonus, there is always the possibility of discovering new creatures in the Cape’s waters and shooting both disciplines, I believe, in- creases that possibility.

As a proud Capetonian I try to promote the city as a viable dive destination. Other than spreading the word, I have also created the Facebook group, Cape Town ~Just beyond the Shoreline ~. Its aim being to showcase the rich and beautiful marine life people can get to see by simply swimming out a few meters from our shoreline. There are some further ideas around this concept which I would like to bring to light,

but am still searching to reach that “right” person at Cape Town Tourism.

Travelling and exploring is in my blood. Although I have travelled abroad to some wonderfully exotic destinations, it was done prior to owning my current rig. So the time is ripe to introduce my beloved camera to some foreign far-o destinations. is year I was very fortunate to enjoy a few wonderful dives along Kwazulu Natal’s South Coast and the Wild Coast. Not only was it a pleasure to experiment in those warm, azure blue waters, but great new friends were made along the way. I am looking forward to exploring more of the wonders along that part of our magnificent coastline in the future.

To view more of my work, please visit:

http://www.thebigpicturelibrary.com/FrozenPixels

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