Cape Catsharks – curiouser & curiouser

Cape Catsharks – curiouser & curiouser

A pyjama party: catsharks are social animals and sleep in piles under convenient overhangs (Jean Tresfon)

Mention Cape Town diving and the conversation turns inevitably to sharks. By ‘sharks’ people usually mean the big toothy brutes which are firmly, if irrationally, believed to spend their days cruising in search of a feast of tender human flesh.  These same people are also usually slightly incredulous to discover that though there are many sharks seen around the Cape Peninsula by scuba divers, the sight of them is extremely rarely traumatogenic.

Text by by Georgina Jones

This is because most of the sharks seen around Cape Town are small and more likely to inspire the ‘oh cute’ reflex than a mental replay of the soundtrack from ‘Jaws’. They are part of a big group known as catsharks, the Scyliorhinidae. About 100 species are found worldwide in tropical and temperate waters, although catsharks are usually found in very deep water. We are fortunate around South Africa not only to have 16 species in our area, 11 of them endemic to the region, but also, that several of them are inshore sharks so that, as divers, we have the pleasure of seeing them bustling about the reefs and wrecks on their business.  Around the Cape Peninsula, four species are commonly seen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A pair of pyjamas (Jean Tresfon)

The biggest of the four is the distinctive pyjama catshark (Poroderma africanum), growing up to a metre in total length. As one might guess from the name, the pyjama catshark is striped. Its close cousin is the leopard catshark (Poroderma pantherinum), and unsurprisingly, it has leopard-like rosettes and spots arranged in stripes on its body. Rather like its namesake, the leopard catshark is very much a creature of the night and is only rarely seen during the day, preferring to while away the daylight hours sleeping under overhangs or in caves before setting forth to hunt for its prey.

A pyjama catshark at ease (Jean Tresfon)

Their smaller cousins are the puffadder shyshark (Haploblepharus edwardsii), a lovely golden-brown creature marked with several white-spotted saddles; and the dark shyshark (Haploblepharus pictus), which is more often seen on the Atlantic side of the peninsula. This is a stockier animal, having dark saddles which may have yellowish spots.  These sharks are all oviparous, which is to say their young develop in egg cases, which the females lay in pairs. Mating is a vigorous affair, with the male biting the female on her pectoral fins to hold her in position so that he can insert his claspers. Though the females often show signs of skin damage post mating, they seem untroubled, swimming off afterwards without hesitation. It is the males who come off the worst, with older males showing signs of scarring and calcification on their claspers. Clearly male catsharks are made of stern stuff.

 

A puffadder shyshark going about its business on a Cape reef (Geoff Spiby)

In due course the female will lay a pair of eggs in cases known as mermaid’s purses. Females can sometimes be seen with tendrils trailing from their bodies. These are part of the egg cases and after while, they seem to irritate the female, which goes in search of an upright support such as a sea fan and begins to swim around it. This causes the strings to catch on the support and the circular swimming helps to gradually pull the egg case out. The yolks are easy to see through the surface of the egg case, and occasionally the embryonic shark can be seen wriggling inside as well. The egg cases are a potential feast for carnivorous snails, octopus and other sharks. The lucky occupants which avoid the attention of predators emerge after 3-6 months, biting their way out of the egg cases and setting off to seek their own prey. They are very small at this stage, all of them smaller than 15cm, and frequently become another predator’s dinner. If they manage to escape from the many hungry mouths on the reefs, they feed on small bony fishes, crustaceans and octopus and may live for over twenty years.

 

A puffadder shyshark peers out from a dense forest of feather stars (Geoff Spiby)

This group is also known as shysharks because of its members’ habit of curling up into a ball with their tail or pectoral fin over their eyes when threatened. It is possible that the purpose of this action is to produce a bigger shape which is more difficult for a predator to swallow. Given that the total diamater of the ball is often not much over 20cm, this probably doesn’t discourage
many predators other than the smaller ones. It does raise their cuteness factor though. So yes, Cape Town diving, sharks, lots of them. But scary sharks? No.

 

P is for Paradise – Paradisiacal Pomene.

P is for Paradise – Paradisiacal Pomene.

P is for Paradise – Paradisical (there is such a word now) Pomene. The feeling of paradise washes over me under the clear blue sky, as I glide past the flock of pink flamingos with their upside down heads gracing one of the sandbars in the gin clear water of the Pomene estuary. I’d been here before, many years ago when I was lucky enough to be a founding explorer on reefs only frequented by fisherman and spearos. In those days I wasn’t an underwater photographer and hadn’t been able to capture paradise on film, and so I find myself back in central Mozambique to see if paradise remained and was still as perfect as in my memories, in this day and age of cellphones , diary mania and credit crises.

Text and Images by Andrew Woodburn

Picture looking down off the boat into 50m of water and seeing the pinnacles you’re headed for, clearly on the bottom. We backwards roll and I turn , exhale and freefall into indigo blue picking up the pinnacles above which I identify the shapes of eagle rays and large bass moving in formation and so get jolted into the frenzy of preparing the camera so that by the time I reach them I can record their presence. This is 3 sisters (3 deep pinnacles off the northern end of deep Zambia shoal) which in my opinion has to be the premier pinnacle dive in Southern Africa. These are no gentle bumps like deep pinnacle off the Pontos (southern Mozambique’s well known dive destinations) but distinct structures rising from 48m at their base and topping off at 30m covered in black coral. The green coral trees release clouds of goldies, coachmen and reef fish which provide the attraction for hunting pelagic game fish and larger marine species such as manta arriving for cleaning.  I think I’ve been the first diver to slot the keyhole at 35m , a nearly closed hole in the reef between the first sister and the second which will be impossible if a strong current is running. The dive is over all too quickly since diving at 35m destroys my bottom time and forces me up so as to avoid decompression penalties. Ascending from 35m I can clearly see the boat on the surface, ripples diffracting the cloud patterns in the sky above and red fang trigger fish silhouetted in the midwater.  Since we are so far from the Pomene estuary (20km) it’s ideal for double tank dives and so we snorkel on shallow Zambia (6m deep in the middle of the ocean) where sailfish swims past the boat its sail distinctive above the surface. We select the Trojan dive site for a second shallower and more traditional reef dive which runs along the inside edge of Zambia shoal meeting sand at 24m and rising up to 15m giving wonderful amphitheatres of reef structure. I loved finding turtles, bass and shoaling fish which provided my immersion into their world on their reef. For the first time ever I found a large plate coral with a coral tree growing right out the centre of it graced by an obliging bass for a great photo. The reef itself is named after a piece of structure which when viewed side on resembles a horse’s head.  I was enthralled by my days diving and excitedly shared the experiences that evening while my wife, Clara and I washed the sun down with cold 2M beers on the stunning pool deck outside the bar. Little did I know, that wasn’t all Pomene had to provide.

Waking up after a comfortable night’s sleep in our tent I peeked out to see the ocean not a hundred meters away in the pleasant morning light with not a breath of wind on the water. We launched out the river mouth again and headed to sites off the old Pomene hotel which sits in ruins a top the “Barra falsa” point, not used since the 1970s and still a bone of contention between prospective investors for refurbishing, and the Mozambique government who are demanding a hefty fee in US dollars for the development rights (We visited the ruins one afternoon and saw the blowholes in action). As we arrived we circled the dive site and I was lucky enough to free dive the legendary Playstation reef to test for current and visibility. On my descent I was greeted by a mature gray reef shark of over 2m at 12m down. What an honour since on most well dived reefs these creatures are normally absent and on some days this particular set of reefs can be un-divable with ultra strong currents (think stronger than Aliwal shoal on a bad day) and bad visibility due to their sitting off a major point. Pomene Playstation is a 5star reef with fantastic features including a mini cave network, large reef structure with deep cracks, sandy fish filled arena, overhangs, swim thru’s and a manta cleaning station on the south side visited by reef fish and hunting game fish continuously. At 24m it’s a good intermediate dive site providing world class diving with enough bottom time to enjoy a 60min dive allowing us to cover most of the reef. After I surface from this dive I just can’t wait to do it again, it’s almost too much to absorb in one experience and if we are lucky we also get whale shark interaction which congregate off the Pomene point.  On this day due to clam conditions I get a second double tank treat and added “Steps” to the dive sightseeing tour.  Steps is fascinating since I’m sure it adds credibility to the theory that ancient civilizations cut rock from sites that are now subterranean in order to build great wonders of the world. Drifting along in the current I fly over multiple 90 degree cuts in rock layers just too geometrically perfect to be natural. I don’t know, go dive it for yourself to decide.  The fissures and blocks are now home to moray eels galore and on the deep areas impressive vertical walls stack up from 36m towards the surface.

Getting back from the dives I had pretty much thought that diving here couldn’t really get much better till that evening talking with Joe and Natalie the managers and Dave and Jill the Barra Resort owners I learned a little secret. I was informed that Neville Ayliff the Sodwana legend , fish life guru and diver extraordinaire was becoming part of the team at Pomene later in the year and would bring with him his wealth of experience, fishy facts and diving leadership that was a crucial part of developing Sodwana into the diving destination it has become. I’m sure Neville will have years of work ahead of him to do more exploration in this region. In addition the resort has built an artificial reef in the estuary just off the dive centre where seahorses abound and macro critters dominate in the sea grass. Not to be outdone by my experiences so far Joe also showed me photos from 2006 of dugong in the estuary mouth which had me scanning the water on every exit and entrance from the river from then on.

Pomene lodge occupies a unique spit of beach separating natural mangrove forests and a freshwater estuary which feeds around the spit into the Indian Ocean through a tidal estuary. In fact the spit probably doesn’t get more than 2m above high tide at any place and during the devastating cyclones in past years, has lead to knee deep waves washing through the reception door and out past the pool into the estuary. At any one time while walking on the spit I am able to see the aquamarine ocean out one eye across the squeaky white sand beach and out the other eye the reflections off the estuary in different stages of tidal flux. This place presents a sensory overload to me, with visuals representing travel brochure images of coconut palms, blue sea and white sand, warm tropical breezes cooling the sun’s rays on my skin, the waves from the ocean crashing in my ears and the smell of untainted air.

This paradiscal environment delivers feelings of peace, space and makes me feel like the only person on the planet. Pomene has traditionally been known as a secret fishing destination and over the last few years more and more diving has been done exploring and identifying awesome reefs. Not only does Pomene has two of Southern Africa’s best reef dives but will soon be home to one of Southern Africa’s best known dive personalities and a- fishianardos…Neville Ayliff, I’m not sure it gets better than this.

This ideal location is unique in that it provides a delicate mix of the olden day’s sodwana camping atmosphere, but even better since you get to camp with the beach as your front door step. Each campsite comes with a fresh water tap, braai facilities and electrical point. Most sites have thatched barracas which can accommodate fridges and all your camping tables/ food and are fitted with lights for the evening.  This destination offers basic to beyond expectation -camping, self catering group chalets and top end water chalets, all backed up by a professional dive operation.  The self catering chalets offer 6 and 8 sleeper options in large rustic thatch lodges which although basic still bring the sea straight to your door step. Each self cater chalet is serviced with bedding, cutlery, crockery a freezer and mosquito nets. The chalets range from ocean view to sunset and the den a grouping of four double rooms en-suite. I even met some fisherman who had driven from Port Elizabeth to Pomene towing a boat, that’s about 4 days of dedication each way.

But that’s not all, the pride and glory of the resort are the Water chalets, and our room became affectionately referred to by my wife as the “water palace”.  Double rooms en-suite , built Mozambique style on stilts with reed roofs serviced by raised walkways are an architectural feature facing out west over the lagoon. Our room had an almighty double bed within a billowing mosquito net covered with fresh sheets and an airy duvet. Power points for charging the camera gear and a balcony with the most brilliant sunset vista over the estuary and private stairs down to the squeaky white sand covered by tidal waves running up between the stilts at high tide.

Pomene also provides family activities including Horse riding, quad bike adventures, sunset cruises, fly-fishing, shore fishing and offshore fishing on the famous Zambia banks. We met friendly travelers and divers in this off beat corner of Mozambique and enjoyed the finest fish caught that day and prawns from the restaurant at reasonable prices after enjoying cold 2M on the deck. This was a great adventure providing a delicate mix of paradise supported by some of the more necessary amenities such as power (generator driven from 8-12 and 4-10pm) hot water showers, a small shop and even a satellite tv for those important rugby matches or soap operas but far enough away not to be intrusive. The central lodge area also provides a pool table, bar area and rim flow fresh water swimming pool. So I’d recommend saddling up the 4*4 (yep you need a 4 wheel drive to get through the last 2 hours of beach sand track) turn north at Maputo and keep on going till Masinga (approximately 700km) before falling off tarmac, or fly in directly from Jhb South Africa via Inhambane . Pomene Lodge is part of the Barra Resorts group supported by the same infrastructure that services the Barra lodge and Flamingo Bay Hotels in Inhambane. 

So since the trip was planned to experience the diving at this far flung piece of paradise let’s cut to the chase. I think that Pomene is blessed with two of the best dives in the Southern Africa. Three sisters the leading pinnacle dive and Pomene Playstation a spectacular site competing with the best I’ve seen worldwide. In short this piece of paradise will definitely be on my must visit list again and I’ll be salivating at the thought of what Neville will find and add to the already abundant selection of world class diving.

 

Head over heels – snorkling with seals

Head over heels – snorkling with seals

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With their sleek streamlined bodies, sinuously flexible spines and frenetic flipper action, Cape Fur Seals (Arctocephalus pusillus pusillus) are one of nature’s most gifted swimmers. Like playful puppies they frolic in the Cape’s kelp beds and around the abundant reefs but hunt in deeper water. Curious, even mischievous, by nature they investigate everything that floats or swims in the Cape’s waters.

Text and images by STEVE BENJAMIN of ANIMAL OCEAN

Duiker Island is a protected island in the Atlantic Ocean, off Hout Bay near Cape Town. It is roughly 77 by 95 metres in size, covering an area of about 0.4 hectare and is home to a variety of sea birds and up to 15 000 Cape Fur Seals. It is also the perfect spot for photographers, divers and people interested in getting close to marine life to interact with these eccentric and fun-loving seals.

Duiker Island as seen from the air
Duiker Island as seen from the air

Animal Ocean, owned by zoologist, marine guide, skipper and scientific commercial diver, Steve Benjamin has been leading focused seal snorkeling trips to Duiker Island for the past 4 years. His is the only company to focus solely on this activity. This means that on any given summer day you can find the Animal Ocean team heading off to the island. It also means that Steve and his team know it better than anyone else.

Snorkeling with the seals is unlike any other activity you can do in South Africa. This is a chance to interact and get nose-to-mask with a large marine mammal that WANTS to play with you. Steve often thinks that this activity is more for the seal’s entertainment than the guests.

The regular and non-interactive way to see the seals
The regular and non-interactive way to see the seals

There’s no training requirement and (unlike shark diving) no baiting. It is a completely natural interactive wildlife experience in which the wildlife comes to play with you, because it wants to.

Seal snorkeling trips run from October to the end of April. The rest of the year it is too rough and too cold — the seals are civilized and don’t like to swim unless its a nice warm day, unfortunately, for them warm water is 14C! During the months of November and December, when the males are mating and the females giving birth, is when the most seals are found at Duiker Island.

Regular tourists visiting the seals from the various vessels that provide non-interactive viewing
Regular tourists visiting the seals from the various vessels that provide non-interactive viewing

Cape Fur seals are different from true seals in that they have small ears and propel themselves with their front flippers — we don’t have true seals in South Africa. Cape Fur Seals eat fish; mainly pilchards and anchovies but they will opportunistically eat octopus, crayfish, reef fish and even small sharks. They are adaptable and intelligent. Fortunately they won’t eat snorkelers, but they may playfully nibble your fins.

The seal pups leave the safety of the island and enter the water during March and April, after being born in December. The pups are incredible to snorkel with and often interact with and play with snorkelers. It is an underwater photographer’s dream assignment.

The trip to Duiker Island from Hout bay harbour is 3 km’s and takes about 5 minutes by boat. Duiker Island is named after the cormorants that used to cover the island before the seals took over about 30 years ago. It is a low-lying island that can get waves washing over it during winter. The areas where the snorkeling takes place is shallow (maximum depth of 5m) and surrounded by a kelp forest. The island offers great protection from the prevailing strong summer wind (the southeast) but is susceptible to swell brought in from the open ocean. Trips are sometimes cancelled because of the swell and resulting wave action on the island.

A curious seal spy-hops to observe
A curious seal spy-hops to observe

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Seals crowd the island shore

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Seals in their kelp environment

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A seal leaps clean out the water

Duiker Island is not known for shark activity and the Animal Ocean team have never seen any around the island. The main reason that the Atlantic coastline is low in shark numbers is because it is so cold. While sharks can handle cool waters they prefer the warmer temperatures of South Africa’s east coast (the Indian Ocean).

If you’re an underwater photographer then this is the ultimate close-encounter-low-gear marine experience. If you’re a naturalist in love with marine life then you will love being in the water with these amazing creatures.

Animal Ocean provides all the equipment you will need to get in the water. They provide 5mm wetsuits with hoods, gloves, booties, fins and masks. The Atlantic Ocean water is cold at 10C – 15C, so be ready for a shock when you hit the water. However, your amazement at seeing the seals will quickly take over and you’ll forget about the cold water. Rest assured though, when you return to the boat you’ll be given hot chocolate and warm water down your wetsuit.

Animal Ocean respect the seal’s space and do not go close to the island, which is protected, and tell guests not to touch the seals (although they will choose to come close to you). Each trip is managed with two guides in the water with you and the location to snorkel is marked by a big red buoy. The seal snorkeling normally takes about 40 minutes, when the cold water forces a return to the boat. The whole trip takes about 2,5 hours including initial meeting, getting equipment, the boat ride, getting in the water and returning.

Animal Ocean is a Trip Advisor award winning operation and guests have written some wonderful comments.

Brian Hope, South African – I’m born and bred in Cape Town and this was honestly one of the best experiences I have ever had in the Mother City

Natasha Ruscheinski, Holland – This was one of the most awesome snorkeling experiences I’ve had.

Monique S, Belgium – What a great experience! The crew was very nice and relaxed, although safety first … so everything was explained very well, before we plunged into the water.

Booking can be done through the online booking form on the website www.sealsnorkeling.com where further information is also available.

Pure Apnea

Pure Apnea

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Pure Apnea is a dynamic international freediving organisation founded in 2012 on the idea that freediving is both a sport and a recreational activity which demands the highest levels of physical performance and excellent teaching ability from its instructors. The organisation currently has 7 branches active in Europe, Africa and Asia and has freediving professionals from 13 countries in its ranks. Pure Apnea Instructor Qualification Courses (IQC) have been held in a number of countries including the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Croatia, the Philippines, Indonesia and South Africa, with more scheduled in the near future.

Text by Daniela Daines

With the growing number of diving organisations offering freediving certification courses the question sceptics ask is, “Why another freediving organisation?”

Pure Apnea’s co-founder John Daines answers, “Standards and development!”

“Daniela Daines in her element” - image by John Daines
“Daniela Daines in her element” – image by John Daines

John explains that the recent commercialisation of freediving has resulted in a downward shift in standards; especially at the instructor and instructor trainer levels. Traditional scuba organisations have realised the monetary potential in offering freediving courses alongside scuba courses and are quickly growing their freediving instructor numbers. They are achieving this by setting very low instructor qualification standards.

“Some international scuba diving organisations are certifying freediving instructors who are barely able to free dive to 20m deep. This is the depth that our Level 1 beginners are reaching on a 2-day course!”

He goes on to say that, in an attempt to compete, some older, well-established freediving organisations have lowered, and in some cases abandoned, their instructor and instructor trainer requirements.

“Scuba diving has the World Recreational Scuba Training Council (WRSTC) which ensures international consistency in minimum course training standards amongst its member organisations.”

Freediving however has no equivalent body, which means organisations offering freediving certification courses can lower their standards as much as they want. It also means that establishing accurate course equivalencies between various freediving organisations is extremely difficult, due to the vast differences in student and instructor standards,” John explains.

Pure Apnea Education Ladder
Pure Apnea Education Ladder

One of the primary reasons that Pure Apnea was established was to offer a high quality alternative in defiance to this downward trend. Pure Apnea firmly believe that ensuring students receive the best and safest instruction starts by demanding the highest levels of freediving ability from its instructors. Pure Apnea proudly states that it now sets the standard in freediving education and backs this up with the toughest instructor qualification requirements of all the freediving organisations.

Pure Apnea’s education system is designed to guide students through all the phases of learning from complete beginner to master free diver. Their teaching materials are well designed, but more importantly up-to-date with the latest sports and science developments the world of freediving has to offer. Students wanting to become freediving professionals can enroll in an Instructor and Master Instructor Qualification Course. The latter requires a 60 meter free dive for qualification. This ensures that Pure Apnea master students are guaranteed instructors who can do what they teach.

Dynamic without fins - image by Mark van Coller
Dynamic without fins – image by Mark van Coller

Besides high educational standards, the development of freediving as a sport was the other key reason for Pure Apnea’s establishment. While two other freediving organisations currently ratify competitive freediving records and provide rules and regulations for these events, Pure Apnea believes that the high costs and overly bureaucratic systems of these organisations make running freediving competitions very difficult particularly small events that do not have world record status. Pure Apnea requires that all instructors complete a judge course and gives judges the authority to train assistant judges. They believe that this has decreased the costs and barriers of running local club and national freediving competitions.

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John gives his own country South Africa as an example. Prior to Pure Apnea starting freediving competitions there in 2012, only 1 freediving competition had been held locally since 2006. In the past 2 years, 7 new national records have been set in various Pure Apnea competitions and a successful national championship was held in 2013.

While developing freediving as a sport at grass roots level is of vital importance to Pure Apnea, it also has its sights firmly set on future world record status events. “Although Pure Apnea is already over 2 years old, we have intentionally held back on ratifying world records up until now,” John says. The reasons for this were the necessity to first develop experience amongst the Pure Apnea judges and also to refine the competition rules. Pure Apnea believes that it is now ready for world records and is running its first world record status competition. The Pure Apnea Dynamic Bi-fin World Championship 2014 will take place on November 8th and will feature 2 competitions held on the same day, one in the Northern Hemisphere and the other in the Southern Hemisphere. At the conclusion of the event, the overall Men’s and Ladies’ winners will be awarded the title of World Champion in the Dynamic with Bi-fins discipline.

When asked about future developments in Pure Apnea, John replied, “We are developing new and exciting certification courses for 2015, the most important being our Recreational Free diver and Surf Apnea courses.”

In conclusion Pure Apnea’s co-founder says, “While the growth of our organisation is important to us, our goals remain to provide high quality freediving education and to facilitate, organise and support freediving competitions without succumbing to the temptation of lowering our standards.”

Free immersion Beth Neale - image by John Daines
Free immersion Beth Neale – image by John Daines
Nic Heyes safety diving for Annelize Muller - image by John Daines
Nic Heyes safety diving for Annelize Muller – image by John Daines
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