Whalesharks of Mafia Island

Whalesharks of Mafia Island

 

The average human (data culled from various signs in lifts) weighs 70 kilos and (empirical evidence) is less than 2m tall. Also, we’re terrestrial. So it’s quite something to be floating in 25m of warm blue water being approached by an animal which, as an adult, weighs an average of 9 tonnes (that’s 9 000 kilos in case there was any doubt) and is close to 10m in length. Plus, it’s leading with its cavernous 1.5m wide mouth. And the animal which owns the mouth is actively feeding. At 2m away and closing, there’s a certain sense of drama.

That’s a really big animal getting really close. And that’s presumably why they’re not called hamstersharks.

Luckily for me, the whaleshark, for that’s what it was, ignored my feeble attempts to evade it, effortlessly flicked its enormous tail and submerged. And circled back and repeated the feeding lunge, this time not quite so close to me. The plankton must have moved. Whalesharks, of course, are not interested in feeding on humans, though an unintended whack from a tail could certainly do some damage; worth considering when in the water and trying to photograph one.

This was offshore of Mafia Island, off the Tanzanian coast. We’d gone there specifically for just this experience. Here, from September to March, congregations of whalesharks move inshore to feed on the plankton blooms which are generated by river outflow.

As many as fifty whalesharks can be seen gaping their rectangular mouths open, sucking vast gulps of plankton into their maws and flaring their gills. It’s got to take a lot of tiny shrimps to keep 9 tonnes on the go. Whalesharks, indeed, will also eat small schooling fishes and sometimes small tuna or squid. This must make life exciting for the juvenile golden kingfishes we frequently saw swimming just in front of the whalesharks, mouths opening in time to the whaleshark’s.

They’re presumably there because the whaleshark is better at finding plankton blooms than they are. Or maybe they like living dangerously.

The whalesharks of Mafia are mostly sub-adults, so they’re usually only around 8m in total length (i.e. not that big, for a whaleshark), and mysteriously, are predominantly male. Getting to see them and snorkel with them as they feed is awe-inspiring. Waking in the morning, hastily eating breakfast and splashing through the jellyfish-dotted shallows to the dinghy is just the beginning. Then there’s the outward journey searching for the leviathans, in a hand-carved dhow, powered by a 9.9 horsepower engine, driven with dashing flair by the boat captain’s foot. It’s a bit like being back in the days when whalers stood in the bows of their tiny ships and shouted out, ‘Thar she blows!’, except here the sign is the enormous dorsal fin of the whaleshark and its smaller tail fin which breaks the surface in the distance.

Or it might be the surface wave that trails their great heads as they rise to the surface to feed. Or their enormous muscular backs glinting in the tropical light. The captain’s foot does its work and the snorkellers bail overboard searching for signs of the beast. A lot of the time it’s empty ocean but then suddenly and with a weird inevitability, there’s a spotty reef in the water, as though it’s always been there. Sometimes they don’t come near, but often the feeding urge is upon them and it’s close encounter with huge animal time.

Whalesharks have beautiful blue dorsal skin crisscrossed with a chequerboard of pale stripes and spots. They may look like this because they have evolved from bottom-dwelling sharks, though no-one is really sure. They have the aforementioned huge mouths which contain 300-350 tiny teeth: not used for feeding and probably also an evolutionary legacy. To feed they open their mouths, suck in a mouthful of prey and water, then close their mouths and open their gills. The slight delay between closing their mouths and opening their gills results in any particles bigger than 2 or 3mm being trapped either against the filter pads in their mouths or pushed directly back to their throats. This form of suction feeding is so efficient that only water is emitted from their gills. They are sometimes seen ‘coughing’, which is probably to rid their gills of any unwanted food buildup.

They are open ocean animals, known from the tropics and subtropics, which makes it interesting that the first whaleshark seen by Western scientists was found in Cape Town’s Table Bay back in 1829. It had probably come inshore following an unusual meander of an Agulhas gyre. They like warm surface water, but tagging data has shown that they dive to 700m and spend time down there in 10 degree water. No-one is really sure what they’re doing there.

And when it comes to mysteries, it’s astonishing just how many secrets swirl around those huge slow-moving animals. No-one has ever seen them mating, and it was only in 1995 that a pregnant female was caught with 300 embryos inside her. Today it is known that whalesharks are ovoviviparous, which is to say, the females carry eggs within their two uteri and the embryos grow inside the eggs inside the mother, finally being birthed at about 60cm long. It is thought that females carry many embryos at varying stages of development, probably mate only a few times and may store sperm, fertilising their eggs at different times.

But back to being in the water with whalesharks. They’re huge, a fact which can hardly be overstated, and though they look like they’re moving slowly, they far outpace even the fastest human swimmer. Best to aim ahead of their apparent feeding direction and hope for the open mouth shot.

Finally, around lunch-time, the plankton swarm has dissipated (or been swallowed by the whalesharks) and the snorkellers return to the dhow. If the wind is right, it’s a creaking smooth sail homewards to Mafia to eat, process images and scheme for the next days’ possible encounters.

You’re Doing it Wrong: Diving Ponta do Ouro

You’re Doing it Wrong: Diving Ponta do Ouro

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I remember my first dive in Mozambique. The site was called Playground, off of Ponta Mamoli, and the dive lasted just over twenty minutes. The reef looked like a bunch of boulders strewn over sand and through my chattering teeth, I couldn’t grasp what the big deal was. This was supposed to be a great dive site.

Text and Images by Clare Keating-Daly

That was back in 2009. I was diving within the newly declared Ponta do Ouro Partial Marine Reserve (PPMR) that stretched from the border with South Africa north into Maputo Bay. My sorry 3mm excuse of a wetsuit didn’t stand a chance against the late winter water temperatures.

Before coming to Mozambique, I’d been teaching diving in Southeast Asia, Thailand and the Philippines, and travelling to dive in Indonesia and Malaysia. Before that, I’d done my dive master training in Honduras. Not counting the sites affected by dynamite fishing, the reefs in Southeast Asia were stunning – they looked like something out of a glossy travel magazine. The crystalline waters of the Caribbean were taken straight from a tropical daydream. Divers, myself included, thought they were wonderful because of this, because we’d been taught what reefs are supposed to look like.

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Five years ago, on my first dive in Mozambique, I wasn’t impressed because the reef didn’t look like my idea of a classic reef. Where were the colonies of branching coral? Where were the layers of plate coral, and domes of brain coral? And what was with the water temperature? Where was my stereotypical reef? But today, the reefs of Southern Mozambique are, in my mind, some of the best in the world.

So what changed? Anyone can dive a tropical coral reef – they’re basically fool proof and you’re bound to be impressed. But it takes a little more finesse to dive sub-tropical reefs. In short, I was doing it wrong. Once I changed the way I dived (and got a 5mm wetsuit), I never wanted my dives to end; I learned how to dive the reefs of Ponta. In doing so, I have had some of the most remarkable dives of my life.

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If you’ve dived anywhere in the PPMR, that is, in the bays of Ponta do Ouro, Ponta Malongane, Ponta Mamoli, Ponta Techobanine or north, you’ve dived some world class sites. But you probably already know that. If you disagree, or if you’ve never dived the PPMR, maybe you need a little insider knowledge before your next trip.

In this two part series, we’ll start with five open water dives (18m and shallower) this issue and five advanced dives (+20m) in the first issue next year. Yes, we’re going against the rules of diving and doing the shallower dives first. Of the shallower dives, four are in Ponta bay and one is in Malongane bay. While there are some spectacular dives further north (Playground off of Mamoli being one of them) we’re sticking to the reefs you can reasonably request most dive operators to take you to. Diving reefs further north often takes a bit more organising. So, without further ado, here we go.

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Crèche
Ponta do Ouro, 10-12 metres
The story here is that Crèche is known for its abundance and variety of juvenile fishes here, that is, many species of sub-adult fish. However, you’re just as likely to see juvenile fishes on one healthy reef as another, which means there must be something else drawing divers back to this shallow reef again and again. Crèche is a favourite spot for new divers; a patchy reef with plenty of sand means that student divers or divers that haven’t blown bubbles for a while can settle, adjust their buoyancy, relax and generally stay off the reef. When relaxed, you use less air and at this depth, using less air means you could be in for a very long dive – the no decompression limit at 12m is 147 minutes! And, juvenile fishes aside, there is plenty to see on this reef. For me, the best part of Crèche is the cryptic stonefish (Synanceia verrucosa) found on the reef. It takes a trained eye to spot these masters of disguise, even if they’re right out in the open. Not to be confused with false stonefish or scorpionfish, these guys are the real deal. They can reach up to 40cm but are more typically around 27cm. But don’t get too caught up looking only at the reef. Dolphins often swim along this shallow line of reef, cruising in to investigate divers. Crèche is also known for its schools of crescent-tail bigeye and as a treasure trove of masks and snorkels dropped by student divers.

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Dive it right: Don’t touch the reef! Although they’re not common, there are stonefish on this reef. Stonefish are the most venomous fish in the world, not the best thing to run into on a dive holiday.

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Blacks
Ponta do Ouro, 15-18m
Take a look at your hand. Spread your fingers out. See that? That’s what Black’s is like, only bigger, about 40 metres wide. The main reef, your palm, bulges up from the sand punctured with little overhangs and covered with corals, some sea grass and sponges. From that about five thin fingers trail off in a southerly direction. While its possible to craft some good wide angle shots on Blacks, it’s structure and primary residents are better suited for macro photography. Be ready to get up close and personal with this reef, scouring it for the small stuff: frogfish, sea moths, long nosed pipefish, Durban dancing shrimp, paperfish, feather star shrimp. But don’t forget to keep an eye out for the scattered shrimp cleaning stations and cheeky black cheek moray eels. Because this small reef is surrounded by sand, it generally isn’t at its peak in large swell and in heavy current you’re quickly swept off of it.

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Dive it right: Take your time on this dive – it’s a small site but holds countless cryptic and camouflaged species. But be careful where you stick your nose, black cheek moray eels are notorious for biting divers on this reef. If you put a finger or two down to steady yourself, always look then look again!

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Doodles
Ponta do Ouro, 16-18m
Doodles may be the ‘house reef’ for Ponta do Ouro, it’s less than ten minutes from the boat launch, but it’s one of the greatest dives in the area. It acts as a sort of oasis in Ponta Bay with a diverse range of fish. Patrolled by resident potato bass, it runs about 200 metres long and on average it is about 20 metres wide. Close to the northern section of the reef is a cave system that is generally the hub of activity. This area is great for wide-angle photography. Don’t forget to check out the sand patches. Potato bass and at least four species of ray mosey around the sand near the cave area and easily photographed if approached cautiously. All of Doodles is well worth your bottom time. The usual algal reef suspects can all be found here, but Doodles often surprises with unexpected visitors like a weedy scorpionfish (Rhinopias frondosa), the odd thorny seahorse, thistle cowries, as well as numerous species of nudibranch – a macro photographer’s dream.

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Dive it right: Never pass up the opportunity to dive Doodles, even if you’ve feel like you’ve squeezed everything you can from it. You never know what you’re going to find on this reef, it can change day to day. Don’t get stuck looking down, manta rays, yellowfin tuna, bull sharks, whale sharks and other nomadic species are often spotted here.

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Drop Zone
Malongane Bay, 10-16m
There are some spectacular reefs in Malongane Bay and Drop Zone is one of them. This site, like some of the deeper sites in Malongane Bay that we’ll cover in the next issue, has some serious structure. Pitted with potholes and with gullies galore, the topography of this reef is stunning and a great option for those days when the current is cranking – the reef seems to never end. If you’re debating between macro and wide angle equipment for this dive, start with the wide angle. With schools of bluefin trevallies patrolling the ledges, potato bass lurking in backlit overhangs, and numerous cleaning stations with rubber lips queuing for service, there’s a lot of big picture kind of action on Drop Zone. But on that second dive, because you’ll have to come back, shoot macro. I’ve counted fourteen different species of nudibranch on this site – look close, it’s definitely possible to beat my record with all the Halgerda species slugging along. The leopard blenny are particularly friendly here as well.

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Dive it right: Something about Drop Zone makes it a hot spot for green turtles. They’re frequently sighted here, sleeping in a crevice, feeding on the algae and seaweed or dropping in for a shell deep clean from schools of butterfly fish fluttering for a snack. All sea turtles are endangered species, making the treat of seeing one that much more special.

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Steps
Ponta do Ouro Bay, 14-16m
Like the other reefs in Ponta Bay, Steps is patchy reef. The step-like ledges that give this reef its name hide reams of paperfish and their more cryptic cousins, frogfish. Camouflaged crocodile fish tend to hang out on the sandy inshore side of this reef, their mesmerising eyes certainly seeing you before you see them. For macro photography, scan the whip coral for tiny whip goby. Watch for busybody mantis shrimp clearing out their burrows and distressed damselfish defending their nests. Schools of larger reef fish congregate around the central cave area of this site and make great photography subjects. The topography around this area is also very rewarding for wide-angle enthusiasts. And be sure to check the sandy offshore areas of this reef. Giant guitar sharks are often, albeit briefly, spotted here. The length of Steps along with its north-south orientation makes it the place to dive when the current is cranking in either direction. On days like this, be sure to ask your divemaster if it’s possible to foray over to Steve’s Ledge, Steps’ southerly neighbour and another excellent dive site in the bay.

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Dive it right: Just because Steps is a long reef, doesn’t mean you need to try to cover it all in one dive. With all these reefs, you’ll get the most out of them if you take your time, but with all of Steps’ ledges and pockets, you’ll likely be rewarded for looking a little closer rather than trying to cover more ground.

The reefs in the PPMR don’t look like the reefs out of your average glossy travel magazine. On first glance, you may be disappointed. I was. But now that you have the insider information necessary to make your next Ponta dives your best Ponta dives, I bet you’ll start to see things a bit differently.

In the next issue, we’ll go deeper with five more PPMR dive sites. Check back here for insider knowledge on Pinnacles, Atlantis, Aquarium, Three Sisters and Kev’s Ledge all accompanied by plenty more on site pictures to whet your diving appetite.

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Pelagic Magic

Pelagic Magic

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Diving with the denizens of the deep Divers in Cape Town are truly blessed. Not only do we have the luxury of having two coastlines to choose from (ensuring almost year round dive-able conditions) but we also have the option of venturing offshore foriving with the denizens of the deep Divers in Cape Town are truly a mind-blowing blue water experience. This is an almost unknown part of the Cape Town dive experience, probably more due to the option not being well known, than anything else.

Text and images by Jean Tresfon

Unlike the frigid waters of the Atlantic, or even the temperate waters of False Bay, the pelagic waters offshore of Cape Point are usually warm and clean. And for the Cape Town locals I don’t mean 14ºC and 5m visibility!

We’re talking about 22ºC plus and 30m visibility. Most of the diving is done in the area known as the canyon (named after the sea floor geological structure) which is approximately 22 nautical miles south west of Cape Point and lies smack in the heart of the tuna fishing grounds. The sea floor here lies at 600m deep so bottom times are fairly limited! Most diving is done on snorkel, and in certain instances tanks can be used but all of the diving is done in no more than the top 10m of water. The trip out takes about 2 to 3 hours depending on the weather and the departure site. It is possible to leave from Simonstown, Miller’s Point or Hout Bay. The sea can get fairly rough out there so it’s best to make sure that motion sickness tablets are taken prior to departure. Target species are mainly the blue sharks and the mako sharks, but yellowfin tuna and longfin tuna sightings are fairly common and we’ve even seen sperm whales and killer whales out there! The blue sharks are the most widely distributed animal in the world and are found in deep waters from the surface to 350m down. They grow to a maximum length of just under 4m and a maximum weight of about 200kg, but most of the local sightings are of much smaller individuals. The mako sharks are obviously also found in deep waters from the surface down to 150m. They grow to a maximum length of 3.5m and 450kg, but once again most local sightings are of smaller individuals. The mako is one of the fastest fish in the sea and has been known to leap clear of the water. Both of these shark species are stunningly beautiful when seen in their natural environment.

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Diving with these animals is completely safe as long as certain protocols are followed and common sense prevails. Gloves are definitely recommended as bare hands closely resemble prey items. All shiny objects attract a nibble from the sharks and should be kept to a minimum. Gaps between wet suit pants and booties should be avoided or covered and flailing of arms and hands is definitely a no.  Hands should stay on the camera or arms should be folded if not taking pictures. Photographers should be aware that the sharks find the strobes very interesting, especially when the capacitor is recharging after a shot has been taken. It is a good idea to always keep an eye on what is happening around you. Photographers in particular should not keep their eyes glued to the viewfinder; rather they should take frequent looks behind, below and above. The sharks are masters at sneaking up unseen from behind and seem to always know which way you are looking. Divers should be cognisant of the fact that these are wild animals and you are a long way offshore and far from any medical facilities. The point is to have a fun and safe interaction. If at any stage you feel uncomfortable then by far the best idea is to leave the water, rather than allowing the situation to escalate.

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People viewing the photos often comment on how brave or crazy we are to swim with sharks. The reality is that if done properly there is very little danger. The animals are beautiful and it is a privilege to be able to share their space. Once a suitable area has been found, normal procedure is for the operator to lay a chum line of chopped sardines in the water. The sharks work their way up the line towards the source of the scent trail. It is not uncommon to have five or more blue sharks in the water at one time along with a mako or two. Opportunities abound for great interactions and this type of diving is a photographers dream. The sharks are fairly bold and swim right up to the divers allowing for stunning image making. Obviously there are no guarantees in nature and it is also possible to spend a whole day out with no sharks.

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My first trip out to the deep was with veteran operator Chris Fallows of Apex Shark Expeditions. Chris has been doing this for a long time and really knows his stuff. With many divers on board he prefers to use a cage, less for protection from shark bite and more for keeping the divers close to the boat in the current and being able to put the sharks right in front of the divers. On this occasion the tuna and sharks were plentiful and we all had about half an hour each in the cage. Although this is without a doubt the safest way to conduct these dives I found the cage to be quite limiting from a photographic perspective. You cannot move around to change the angle of the sun and arrange all elements of the composition to your satisfaction. I did however get some good results, and Chris and his assistant Poena have an incredible knowledge of their subject.

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My second trip out to the tuna grounds was with Steve Benjamin of Animal Ocean. Steve is a qualified ichthyologist, and probably the most enthusiastic guy you will ever meet. This was not my best ever trip, through no fault of Steve’s. I did not take any motion sickness tablets and the sea was particularly rough on the day. I spent several hours lying in the bottom of the boat wishing that I could just die quickly. Steve just never gives up, and ordered me into the water with all my excuses falling on deaf ears. There were five blue sharks and two makos under the boat and he would not let me go home without a photograph. Steve does not use a cage but always has a safety diver (usually himself) in the water to watch his clients’ backs and to get them out of the water if the sharks behaviour changes. Steve is a really experienced guide having worked the sardine run with Mark Addison of Blue Wilderness for many years, and it really shows.

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My latest pelagic trip was on the inaugural charter to the deep run by Grant Whitford of Blueflash Charters. This was probably also my best trip in terms of shark interactions, but it is possible to have too much of a good thing and some valuable lessons were learnt that day. We ended up with just two divers in the water with seven blue sharks and a mako, and took some stunning shots. Both the mako and two of the blues seen on this trip had fish hooks stuck in the corner of their mouths and were trailing strands of fishing line. Just another stark reminder of the over-fishing of our oceans, were another reminder needed.

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For those wanting some tips from a photographic perspective:

1. Use a high shutter speed to freeze movement.
2. Use a wide angle lens and get close. 3.If possible use a strobe(s) to light up the sharks from below.
3. Try using a motor drive and take bursts of several shots as the animals approach.
4. Use other divers to lend scale to the photos.

One thing is for certain… you will come back with a changed perspective on what the media continually labels as mindless man-eaters.
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Réunion Island

Réunion Island

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Situated some 805 kilometres (530 miles) east of Madagascar and around 200 kilometres (130 miles) south-west of Mauritius lies La Réunion in the Indian Ocean. Reunion is a French island that stands out from all the others. It’s an island where you can dive prestige reefs, walk in valleys full of waterfalls and visit an active volcano all in the space of one day. It is a mountainous island and is known worldwide for its hiking trails, mountain bike trails and paragliding.

Text and Images By Gaby Barathieu

Reunion-Map
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Volcanic in origin with one volcano, “Piton de la Fournaise”, still active this island rises 3 069m straight out of the ocean and has thousands of valleys surrounding its active volcano. The entire island is covered in mountains and the waters provide some of the best dive sites the Indian Ocean has to offer.

The volcano, “Piton de la Fournaise”, is a major tourist attraction and is located within the Réunion National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It sits 2 632m above sea-level and is active with regular eruptions. These volcanic activities provide spectacular viewing and what makes it even more amazing is that you can safely approach the lava flows from previous eruptions.

Geologically, Reunion Island is relatively young and consequently its lagoons are small and not very deep. The island however, rises from deep water and is a magnet for whales, whale sharks and other pelagic animals. Fed by deep ocean currents, it boasts healthy reefs that teem with colourful fish. The coral forms a discontinuous reef of about 15km to the west and south of the island.The Island is 39km long and 45km wide, covering a total area of 2 512km. Réunion is considered an “overseas extension” of France and is therefore included in the European Union. This means the currency used on the island is the Euro. The principal towns are Saint-Denis, the administrative centre; Saint-Paul, the first “capital” and Saint-Pierre the most southerly town.

The water temperature varies from 23C degrees in winter to 30C degrees in summer. The locals are laid-back and welcoming. Getting to Réunion is easy with daily flights from Paris, which take about 11 hours.

There are more than150 species of coral and 500 species of fish to be found which makes for relaxed and enjoyable diving. The eastern and southern sides of the island are known as the wilder sides of the island.

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Most of the dive operators are situated on the northwestern side of Reunion, where there are three main areas for launching boats. These dive centres are situated in the harbours, where boats are ready and waiting to take you out on the warm, quiet waters of the western side of the island.

La Réunion is an all-year destination. But if you want to see humpback whales, the austral winter (June to October) is the best time. Every year, they come to breed and give birth near our shores with the best action being from mid-August to mid-September.

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Dive conditions are generally better during the summer months with the best visibility and warmest water. However, this is also the rainy season so the weather can “close in”.

Dolphins are to be found around the island throughout the year and visibility is very good for mostly 80% of the year.

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Because diving Réunion is relatively unknown (and because of the distance to get there) La Réunion is a great dive destination if “frontier diving” is your bent. There’s nothing like diving places where few get to go.

Réunion offers a wide variety of dive sites. Just beyond the reef there are large flat reefs, beautiful steep walls and shipwrecks. Photographers tend to shoot wide-angle in the morning because conditions are calmer. In the afternoon, the shallower dive sites will delight you with their wealth of corals, sponges, reef fish and critters. This is a great opportunity to work on ambient light and macro underwater photography.

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The greatest coral and marine life biodiversity is found on the west coast. There are also lava flows on the south side of the island, which are visited by some dive centers. These sites are exposed to strong currents, however, and for experienced divers only.

We also have some wreck diving at Réunion. The most famous is the Hai Siang at 55m deep (181ft). When the ship sunk it landed on its side, but then was righted by a cyclone. It’s a fun dive with a descent straight through the blue water column. Photographers can set up wide-angle or possibly ultra wide-angle (14mm).

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Other popular deep wrecks include The Navarra at 50m (164ft), The Sea Venture at 45m (148ft) and Antonio Lorenzo at 38m (125ft). These are deep dives that require special training, however the photo potential is incredible. There are also some great wrecks in shallower water covered with abundant marine growth, fish and other exciting critters.

The macro diving is world-class at Réunion Island, with a wide range of biodiversity. The dive sites are usually found on the outer slopes of the barrier coral reefs, but you can also find some extraordinary encounters in the lagoons. Harlequin shrimp are often observed by free divers in the lagoons, so it’s certain that scuba divers can find them. There are also many colorful nudibranchs waiting to be found and photographed.

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With great visibility and warm tropical waters, what more could a diver ask for?

With 40% of its approximately 2500 km2 territory classified as World Heritage Site by UNESCO, Reunion Island offers an amazing mix of authentic cultures and wild nature. As soon as you arrive on the island, you will feel and see the extraordinary variety of cultures that coexist in perfect harmony. From Asian cuisine to creole markets, from Buddhist traditions to Tamil, Islamic or Christian rituals, Reunion is a melting pot of cultures.

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Réunion’s Most Popular Dive Sites

The Caves of Maharani: An original site in about 15m (49ft), which includes a series of cracks and caves adorned with skylights. On this dive, wide-angle is preferable in the morning when the position of the sun is best. Divers regularly see kingfish over one meter in length, making close passes while hunting. Lionfish are under the overhangs waiting for unsuspecting prey.

Passe de l’Ermitage: A cleaning station and meeting point for turtles and eagle rays. The turtles visit the cleaning station daily while also using the lagoon for shelter at night. The extensive seagrass beds provide an abundant food source.

Grand Tombant de la Point au Sel: This is one of the best dives at the island, but reserved for experienced divers since the current can be violent and unpredictable. There are great wide-angle opportunities with regular sightings of huge schools of jacks and pelagic fish (swordfish, marlin, tuna). Less frequently, divers will encounter a whale shark, hammerhead sharks or manta rays.

Cap la Houssaye: THE site for macro photography. On a regular dive you will see nudibranchs, mantis shrimp and ghost pipefish as well as turtles, barracuda and more. There is a huge meadow with sea slugs of all kinds, but beware of scorpion fish camouflaged on the bottom as they await passing prey. Visibility is average but this is not a problem for macro.

Réunion offers a wide variety of diving mixed with stunning topside landscapes. This small French island should be on every underwater photographer’s destination list!

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About the Author

Gaby Barathieu is a passionate underwater photographer based on Reunion Island. He and photographer Yann Oulia run the Reunion Underwater Photography website and Facebook page, sharing the incredible diving and wildlife encounters in the waters near their home. View their photography at www.RUP.re or on their Facebook Page.

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Useful stuff:

Language:French; Creole is widely used

Currency:Euro

Time:GMT +4

Climate:Tropical

Natural hazards:Cyclones (November to April); active volcanoes

Diving season:Year round

Water temperature:27C/80F (Jan-March), 23C/73F (July-Sept)

Air temperature:22C (Winter), 27C (Summer)

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Christophe Mason-Parker

Christophe Mason-Parker

As with SCUBA diving, underwater photography came to Chris late in life. In fact it was not until 2008 that he bought his first camera and underwater housing. The 8MP Canon Powershot A720 was a revelation. The Powershot had a full manual mode, and Chris spent hours playing around with the settings, learning how minor adjustments to the ISO or the shutter speed would affect each shot. At the time he was working on a coral reef monitoring programme in Philippines, and underwater photography became a means to photograph and catalogue the amazing diversity of marine life he encountered on the reefs.

When his contract finished in the Philippines Chris moved to Bali and then Mexico, before eventually ending up in Seychelles in 2010. The Powershot accompanied him every step of the way until Canon stopped making the housing and he was forced to switch to a newer model.

In 2013 Chris bought a Canon 7D and soon after purchased an Ikelite housing, hoping to take his photography to the next level. Still living in Seychelles, Chris currently works for Global Vision International (GVI), where he oversees the organisation’s marine and terrestrial conservation expeditions. The projects include coral reef monitoring, turtle nesting surveys and shark-tagging research amongst other programmes. He is also co-founder of the Seychelles Sea Turtle Festival, an annual event aimed at promoting marine turtle conservation within the archipelago.

A passionate advocate of marine conservation with a keen interest in environmental issues, it is no surprise that conservation is a theme that appears regularly in his photography.  Chris firmly believes that photographers have an important role to play in making conservation issues more accessible to the public, and that photographs have the ability to cross language, cultural and social boundaries.

Seychelles provides the perfect environment for underwater photography, with its dramatic granite formations and abundant marine life. Still getting to know his DSLR setup, Chris tries to get out diving or snorkelling as often as possible. “Finding time to get out there and shoot is not always easy but it is important to force yourself to take a break every now and again”.

These days, aside from his role with GVI, Chris regularly writes articles for dive magazines and is currently working on an Underwater Guide to Seychelles, due to be published next year.

To see more of Chris’ work visit www.archipelagoimages.net

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

Diving into conservation in the Seychelles

Diving into conservation in the Seychelles
Coco de Mer trees on Curieuse Island
Coco de Mer trees on Curieuse Island

When you arrive at the Seychelles International airport on Mahe you can spot a GVI volunteer from a mile off. In amongst the Louis Vuitton matching suitcases, and the Ralph Lauren polo shirts, a backpack stuffed to bursting point, often with a pair of diving fins strapped to the outside, causes them to stand out from the usual Seychelles crowd. Best known as a destination for honeymooning couples including members of the British Royal Family, the Seychelles is not your typical volunteer destination.

Text and images by Christophe Mason-Parker

The Seychelles is an archipelago made up of 115 islands scattered like jewels across the western Indian Ocean. The inner granitic islands are covered in lush vegetation and sit on top of the Mahe Plateau; home to the majority of the population of 90,000 people. The warm, shallow waters of the plateau are perfect for coral growth and numerous coral reefs, home to an impressive diversity of marine life, surround the tiny islands that rise up from the seabed.

A future marine conservationist trying out the Scuba equipment
A future marine conservationist trying out the Scuba equipment

The main industries in the Seychelles are fishing and tourism, with both relying heavily on the support of a healthy marine environment. In 1998, unusually high sea temperatures caused by an El Niño Southern Oscillation event led to widespread coral bleaching. Reefs were decimated throughout the tropics and the Seychelles was no exception. Within the inner islands, coral mortality in certain areas reached as high as 90%.

Following the bleaching event the Shoals of Capricorn Marine Programme, with funding by the Royal Geographic Society, began monitoring reef regeneration as part of a three-year programme. This was then taken over by Reefcare International as part of the Seychelles Marine Ecosystem Management Program (SEYMEMP).

In 2004 Global Vision International (GVI), under the invitation of the Seychelles National Parks Authority, began monitoring the coral reefs of northwest Mahe and almost ten years later they continue to collect critical data on reef health.

GVI dive instructor Joe explains how to set up your dive equipment with SNPA staff
GVI dive instructor Joe explains how to set up your dive equipment with SNPA staff

Volunteers unload the dive boat after a successful day of surveys
Volunteers unload the dive boat after a successful day of surveys

GVI is a social enterprise that runs conservation and community development programmes in numerous locations around the world. Whether it is Healthcare Projects in Nepal, Wildlife Research in South Africa or Community Development in Costa Rica, GVI has been making a real difference by sending volunteers into the field since 1998.

Aside from the backpacks and an obvious interest in conservation, stereotyping a GVI volunteer is not so easy. From gap year students and university graduates, to professionals and pensioners, volunteers come from all walks of life and from every conceivable part of the globe. Each has a different reason for joining, but all leave having given a little of their time and having made a significant contribution towards protecting the organisms that inhabit these fragile shores.

The expeditions are broken down into four-week blocks, with volunteers arriving for either four, eight or twelve weeks at a time. The main focus of the programme is coral reef monitoring and volunteers are allocated either fish or coral to study prior to arrival in the field. The species lists are extensive and have been developed in conjunction with the Seychelles National Parks Authority to cover those organisms that are frequently observed on the reefs, are commercially valuable or act as indicators of reef health.

Located on the northwest coast of Mahe Island and sandwiched between Cap Matoopa and the Morne Seychellois National Park is the Cap Ternay marine expedition base.  Situated adjacent to the Baie Ternay Marine Park it is the ideal location for training in survey techniques and provides quick and easy access to the coral reefs of northwest Mahe.

Quadrats are used to measure the rate of coral recovery
Quadrats are used to measure the rate of coral recovery

Upon arriving in the field, GVI volunteers immediately undergo an intensive science training programme, specifically designed to teach species identification and monitoring methodologies.  On completion of computer and in-water tests and after a suitable amount of practice they are then able to commence monitoring the coral reefs. Accuracy is paramount and only volunteers who have successfully passed these tests are allowed to collect data.

In 2004 Global Vision International, under the invitation of the Seychelles National Parks Authority, began monitoring the coral reefs of northwest Mahe and almost ten years later they continue to collect critical data on reef health.

In 2010 GVI opened its second expedition base in the Seychelles. Curieuse is the fifth largest of the inner islands and along with its surrounding waters was designated as a national park back in 1979. Initially the GVI expedition was to replicate the marine monitoring being undertaken on Mahe. However, since 2011 attention has shifted towards monitoring the terrestrial flora and fauna that inhabits the island.

The GVI Curieuse Island Research Base is located at Anse Jose overlooking Praslin Island. The ruins of a former leper colony have been developed over the years by GVI staff and volunteers and today provide an excellent example of a working research base. Photovoltaic panels provide the expedition’s energy needs, while a comprehensive rainwater harvesting system assists with the collection of water.

The Coco de Mer is highly sought after
The Coco de Mer is highly sought after

Curieuse along with neighbouring Praslin Island is home to the endemic Coco de Mer palm (Lodoicea maldivica). Its Latin name derives from when Maldivians used to find the nuts washed up on their shores and believed they came from submarine trees. A slow growing palm, the Coco de Mer has the largest seed in the plant kingdom.

The nuts are an iconic symbol within the Seychelles appearing on everything from postcards and t-shirts to company logos. Their resemblance to the female private part has in the past led to its use as an aphrodisiac and today they are highly sought after.

The nuts are traded under license and are valued between $200-$300 each. Their high value means poaching is a real issue and due to their slow growth rate and limited distribution could have severe implications for the future of the species. GVI volunteers alongside the SNPA are in the process of conducting the first complete census of the Coco de Mer trees on Curieuse Island.

GVI staff & SNPA rangers insert a tag into a giant tortoise
GVI staff & SNPA rangers insert a tag into a giant tortoise

The Giant Aldabra Tortoise (Aldabrachelys gigantea) was once found throughout the Seychelles islands. Today the last remaining wild population exists on Aldabra, where 100,000 of these giants roam upon the coral atoll.  Between 1978 and 1982 almost 300 Giant Tortoises were translocated from Aldabra to Curieuse Island as part of a conservation programme designed to safeguard the future of the species. Thirty years later and GVI is assisting the Seychelles National Parks Authority to conduct a census of the Curieuse Island population. Passive Integrated Transmitters are injected into the tortoises near the base of the tail. These tags act as barcodes and when scanned provide unique information about the tortoise.

GVI staff & SNPA rangers check a giant tortoise for a p.i.t. tag
GVI staff & SNPA rangers check a giant tortoise for a p.i.t. tag
A GVI staff member administers a P.I.T. Tag
A GVI staff member administers a P.I.T. Tag

From September through to April much of the research on Curieuse Island focuses on nesting turtles. Hawksbill and Green turtles nest within the Seychelles, though Hawksbill turtles tend to favour the inner islands. They are currently listed on the IUCN Red List as ‘Crtitically Endangered’ with global populations having crashed by over 80% in recent years.

Hawksbill Turtles nest during daylight hours
Hawksbill Turtles nest during daylight hours

In the Seychelles prior to 1994 huge numbers of nesting females were taken from most islands each season. Though the trade in tortoise shell is now illegal, and on the decrease, the species continues to face many threats to its existence. Entanglements in fishing nets, destruction of nesting grounds, and predation of eggs by feral animals, have all contributed toward a continuing decline in population numbers. Today the Seychelles is home to the largest remaining Hawksbill nesting population in the Western Indian Ocean.

During nesting season GVI staff and volunteers, alongside national park rangers walk up and down the beaches of Curieuse Island, searching for turtle tracks. Assisted by the Hawksbill’s tendency to nest during daylight hours in this part of the world, when the teams encounter a turtle they wait for her to start laying before approaching to record vital information.

A green turtle swims slowly thought the shallows
A green turtle swims slowly thought the shallows

Aside from the scientific monitoring programmes, a large part of the work GVI Seychelles undertakes focuses on community involvement and capacity building. The National Scholarship Programme is free to all Seychellois over the age of 18 with an interest in conservation. Applicants can take part in either the marine or terrestrial expeditions and gain valuable practical field experience. To date GVI has trained several park rangers and university students in species identification and scientific monitoring techniques.

The idea of spending two months living in remote conditions with a group of people you barely know is not to everyone’s liking. The days are long and hard, the accommodation is often basic and access to the trappings of modern day life is extremely limited. Yet volunteering offers something that you won’t get from your traditional vacation. There is the opportunity to make lifelong friendships with like-minded people, to get up close to nature in a way that you would never have thought possible, and the ability to make a real difference towards protecting the natural environment and improving the lives of those people who depend upon it for their livelihoods.

Playing games at a GVI open day

Kid’s at Port Launay primary school try out the GVI dive equipment

For many, volunteering is a life-changing experience, providing them with a new direction in life or an alternative insight into how they view the world. As our lives become ever busier, driven by mobile technology and our 24-hour lifestyles, many of us have forgotten what it is like to connect with nature. Our planet is facing increasing threats from climate change, overpopulation, pollution and dwindling resources, so it is good to know that there are people out there who still care enough to want to make a difference.

The Seychelles has an enviable record of looking after its environment with much of the land and surrounding waters designated as national parks. Small-scale conservation projects such as the one run by GVI in conjunction with the Seychelles National Parks Authority can go a long way towards protecting biodiversity, educating communities and conserving the environment for future generations.

For more information on GVI’s projects in the Seychelles and around the globe, visit: http://www.gvi.co.uk/

GVI staff and volunteers join the local community for a beach clean
GVI staff and volunteers join the local community for a beach clean

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.

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