Alphonse Island

Alphonse Island

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Alphonse Group The Alphonse Group of islands are situated 7 degrees South of the Equator and 400 kilometers South-West of Mahe. This magnificent island threesome comprising of Alphonse, Bijoutier and St Francois, lie in the very heart of the Indian Ocean and form part of the Seychelles’ outer island group.

Getting There – Guests are required to fly into Mahe Island, Seychelles at least 4 hours before the weekly charter flight is scheduled to depart. A standard package includes the hour-long return charter flights between Mahe and Alphonse.

Flight Times – The flights leave Mahe at 11:00 from domestic departures on a Saturday and arrives on Alphonse at 12:00. It then departs Alphonse at 12:30 arriving back at the Mahe domestic terminal at 13:30.

Accommodation & Amenities – The rustic and comfortable accommodation is situated on the shoreline of the Eastern side of Alphonse Island. The main hotel complex consists of a reception area, beach bar, dining area, swimming pool, tennis court and main office. Guests stay in one of 15 privately spaced air conditioned bungalows or 4 one bedroom villas, offering every kind of comfort. The bar area, pool and lounge area provides the ideal venue to relax in the evening breeze after a day out in the sun and houses the restaurant serving freshly caught sea food of the highest quality.

Arrival Day On arrival you will be met by the Alphonse Island management team and transported to the hotel by golf cart. Indemnities will be signed followed by a comprehensive briefing on what to expect during your stay. Everyone will then be shown to his or her accommodation to settle in and unpack. Dinner is served at 19h30.

Normal Day – Breakfast is served from 6:00 – 9:00 am or on request. Lunch is served at 1pm.

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Diving – Alphonse Island Dive Centre and its team of professional international diving staff will make your experience at Alphonse resort a personal, safe and unforgettable one. The sheer drop offs, rich currents and abundant sea life that surrounds the Alphonse Group makes it one of the most exciting and diverse dive destinations in Seychelles. The pristine sites around both Alphonse and St Francois are famous for warm crystal clear waters, high coral cover, great visibility and a diverse range of fish species comprising of reef, pelagic and shark species. Daily encounters with Stingrays, Turtles, Moray Eels, Barracuda, Wahoo, Sharks, Tuna, Grouper, Snapper, Trevally make the dives extremely memorable. Alphonse’s range of dive sites are suitable for all categories of divers, which makes the area an exciting experience for both beginners and advanced who will enjoy our drift dives. Dive sites are easily accessible with typical boat travel taking ten to thirty minutes. The dive center also offers PADI Bubble Maker, Discover scuba, Open Water, Advanced and Specialty scuba courses.

Diving Rates

  • Per Dive USD 120
  • Double Tank USD 220 5
  • Dive Package USD 550 10
  • Dive Package USD 1000
  • Includes all diving equipment

Diving Course Rates

  • Bubble Maker USD 110
  • Discover Scuba Diving USD 210
  • Scuba Diver / Open Water Diver USD 900
  • Advanced Open Water Diver USD 750
  • Speciality Courses USD 290 (2 dives) or 490 (4 dives)
  • Alphonse Island Eco Diver Package USD 1400 (10 dives + certification in 5 Specialties)
  • Includes all diving equipment

Additional Activities – The snorkeling around the coral heads within the safety of the lagoon is simply out of this world. Snorkeling equipment is available for hire at the dive centre. The kayaking along the edge of the island on a high tide gives guests the opportunity to see the magnificent bounty of turtles, rays, fish, and various other sea creatures, which call Alphonse their home. The cycling tracks around the island pass through coconut groves and lead to the various private and secluded beaches. You may wish to join our local experts on a nature tour or for watching the multitude of seabirds that can be seen about the atolls. You may spot dolphins when out on the water but specific trips can be also arranged and, if you are lucky, you may see several of the different whale species that frequent these waters.

Snorkeling Equipment Rental Rates

  • USD 10 per day
  • USD 50 per week
  • Loss of gear will be charged per item

Alphonse Guided Snorkeling Trip Rates

  • USD 45 per person, children under 11 free (min 2 paying guests)
  • 1 hour 30 min, includes snorkeling equipment (Children under 11 years must be accompanied by 1 adult per child)

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St Francois Guided Snorkeling Trip Rates

  • USD 85 per person, children under 11 free (min 4 paying guests)
  • 1 hour 30 min, includes snorkeling equipment (Children under 11 years must be accompanied by 1 adult per child)
  • Loss/damages of gear will be charged per item

Park Fee – There is a compulsory St Francois fly fishing park fee of USD 175 per week (USD25 per day) for anglers and USD 70 per week (USD 10per day) for non-anglers and divers, which is payable in cash when on the island. All packages exclude this park fee and these funds are given to the Island Conservation Society for the preservation of nature in the Seychelles.

Spa – There is a small spa situated in close proximity to the main swimming pool that offers massages and various other treatments. All massages can be booked in the bar area the night before.

Head Lamp – Although the roads between the accommodation and hotel are lit, it’s wise to have a headlamp for when you are riding your bike at night.

Casual Wear – Everything is informal on the island and guests should dress casually at all times and feel free to attend dinner in casual clothing.

Weather – The Seychelles is typically hot and somewhat humid with the midday temperature hovering at 35 degrees Celsius. Evenings are also invariably warm with the exception of the first and last few weeks of the season, when there may be a strong, cooling breeze. Water temperature ranges from 27 – 29 degrees Celsius.

The Fishing and Diving Season at Alphonse – The main diving season runs from early October to the end of May.

Hours of Daylight – Due to its proximity to the equator, there is no real twilight in the Seychelles. The sun rises quickly at around 6:15 a.m. and sets with equal swiftness at about 6:30 p.m. This varies by only minutes throughout the year, giving nearly a full 12 hours of daylight for 365 days a year.

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From Scene of Accident Medevac Insurance – All guests are required to obtain “From Scene of Accident Medevac Insurance”. Details will be requested prior to arrival on the Island. Alphonse Island and agents cannot assume any financial responsibility for consequences incurred if this has not been obtained.

Travel Insurance – All guests are required to obtain travel insurance that will cover any costs incurred due to flight delays for any reason. Any guests planning to dive will be asked to provide their travel insurance details as proof of cover for diving activities. This is often included in general travel insurance policies but should you wish to dive deep, please check any depth restrictions.

Indemnity Form – All guests are required to sign an indemnity form once on location. Divers booked on courses must complete the Medical Statement prior to diving, this is provided prior to arrival in case you need to arrange medical clearance for diving from your physician.

Inoculations & Health – No inoculations are legally required for entry. However, you may want to check with your local immunization and inoculation clinic for their recommendations on health precautions for travel to the Seychelles. Some travelers elect to protect themselves against hepatitis A with an immunoglobulin injection (short- term protection) or the longer lasting vaccine. Other inoculations may be required if you are planning a trip extension to parts of Africa.

Water Consumption – There is a desalination plant on Alphonse, and water from the faucets is safe to drink. We do not stock mineral water to reduce plastic waste and will only supply it when specifically requested prior to arrival.

Luggage Restrictions – Check in luggage is strictly limited to 15 kg or 33 pounds per person, and 5kg or 12 pounds carry-on luggage. Remember, that all diving equipment is provided so you will only need to pack cameras for diving. It is not possible to load extra luggage, it will have to be repacked and left on Mahe until your return. Please adhere to the limits. It is suggested that lighter soft-shell luggage is used. Pack a separate bag with excess equipment to avoid having to repack at the airport. There is left luggage storage at the airport and you can arrange for your tour operator in Mahe to store excess luggage while you are on Alphonse Island.

Communication on Alphonse – Each chalet has a phone service, operated via satellite.

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Internet Connection – There is a wireless connection in the bar area and a network cable connection in the Internet room. There is no charge for their use.

Electricity Supply – The Island has 24-hour electrical current (240 volt, 50 cycles AC) with British plug points. A European electrical current adapter (3-point, square-pin) is necessary.

Contact telephone Number – Alphonse Island: +248-4-22-90-30 (GMT+04:00). When dialing internationally, precede with appropriate access code.

Gratuities – Tipping is never mandatory and if you wish to show appreciation to the staff and require a suggested amount based on an average which guests normally tip then please use the below amounts as an indication.
General hotel staff approximately USD 250 per person per week or USD 35 per day as a guideline. This is to be left at reception upon departure for equal distribution. The diving staff has a slightly varied amount, which can be suggested by the manager of that activity when on location. We suggest a USD 20 per dive guideline for the diving team, which is given to the respective manager at the end of the week and will be divided up by the dive team and skippers. Any gratuities will be much appreciated by the staff and we thank you for your generosity.

Currency – You do not need to change your € (Euros) or US$ (US Dollars) into the local currency. The hotel accepts US Dollars and all major credit cards except American Express. Credit cards carry an additional 5% bank fee, which will be added to the total bill.

Duty Free Allowance – 200 cigarettes or 50 cigars, 1 liter of spirits and 2 liters wine.

Cancellation Policy

  • A 10% fee shall be levied if cancellation is made more than 180 days prior to arrival.
  • A 10% fee shall be levied if the reservation is moved to an alternative date within the same season.
  • A fee of 50% shall be levied if cancellation is between 180 and 90 days prior to arrival. A fee of 100% shall be levied if cancellation is 90 days or less prior to arrival.
  • All cancellations & provisional bookings must be confirmed in writing.

We hope the above information helps to enhance your trip to Alphonse Island. Should there be any further assistance you require, please do not hesitate to contact us info@alphonse-island.com

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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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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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

Magical Maldives

Magical Maldives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diving Regions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Weather and Seasons

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

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

Accessibility

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

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

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Diving Eilat

Diving Eilat

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Squeezed between the Arabian Peninsula and the continent of Africa, the Red Sea pushes northwards and splits into two gulfs at its northernmost point. The Gulf of Suez connects the Red Sea with the Mediterranean Sea via the Suez Canal whilst the Gulf of Aqaba separates Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula from the Arabian Peninsula and comes to rest at the busy port and popular tourist resort, Eilat.

Text and Images Ilan Ben Tov 

Eilat is Israel’s southernmost city and home to some forty-six thousand people. It has an arid desert climate with low humidity moderated by its proximity to a warm sea with almost all-year- round excellent diving conditions.

Because Eilat is located at the northeastern tip of the Red Sea it offers great diving conditions. Whilst the busy port and intensive tourist industry has had an impact on the coral reefs and beaches the southern shore still provides excellent diving opportunities; from artificial reefs, such as Tamar reef, and sunken wrecks (the wreck of the Sufa) blooming with underwater life, to the northernmost coral reef in the world.

Most dive sites are accessed from the beach and don’t require a diving boat – simply walk in to the sea from the marked entrance on the beach and dive the site.

Tamar Reef

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This artificial reef is a macro photographer’s paradise. Originally created in an attempt to attract underwater life, the artificial reef has been a resounding success attracting divers and sea life in abundance.

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Located in front of Deep Siam Dive Club, at a depth of only 6 metres and on a sandy slope, Tamar Reef is full of life. It has become a permanent home to many small reef fish, juvenile barracuda and other predatory fish and a myriad shrimps and critters that hide in the crevices.

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Here, the macro underwater photographer will happily use up bottom time being lost photographing critters and fish in relative ease.
But for divers who prefer to explore there is a deeper area that slopes away from Tamar reef and there are nearby coral formations just waiting to be explored.

Coral reserve
Coral Beach Nature Reserve runs from the Yam Suf Hotel to the Underwater Observatory and is a splendid option for deep and shallow dives.

Entry to the water is possible from either of the two jetties inside the nature reserve or from the small beach at the reserve’s northern boundary next to Deep Siam dive club. There is an entry fee and a it is mandatory that you receive a briefing from a nature reserve ranger before diving.

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Coral bommies and pinnacles teeming with underwater life break the shallow sandy seafloor’s topography. The two largest pinnacles are known as Moses rock and Joshua Rock
and both slope to a depth of 30 metres from a shallow point of only 6 metres. Whilst the pinnacles are covered with large hard corals, a fringing reef runs the length of the reserve at a depth of 2 to 3 metres. This makes for an excellent long shallow dive or the perfect finish to a deep one.

A typical dive profile entails entering from the jetties and locating the spectacular Moses Rock and Joshua Rock at a depth of 6 metres. Once found it is pleasant descent over dense coral beds where the view is pure blue. The westward return trip offers lovely spots for safety stops and ultimately the reserve’s lovely home reef leads back to the easily recognizable jetties.

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The marine life is plentiful with varied clouds of fairy basslets decorating the coral formations where there are many cleaning stations where cleaner wrasse groom groupers, goatfish, morays and even the occasional barracuda.

Blue spotted stingrays can be found in the sandy areas around the rocks and anemones with attendant anemone fish can be found in every coral formation. Peep into the rock crevices
and you will find a rich selection of shrimps and crabs.

Wreck of the Sufa (Satil)
This is a wreck of the Sufa missile boat that served in the Israeli navy and was sunk in order to serve as artificial reef. The wreck lies on a sandy bottom at a depth of 24 metres and is one of Eilat’s most popular dive sites for both day and night dives.

The dive starts near Marina Divers Dive Club from the marked access point and is followed by a steep drop to around 7 metres, where a large coral formation lies. From the coral formation proceed to the east and the seafloor slopes gently to 18 metres. In this area the sea grass is dotted by little coral islands and at night it is a perfect place to view Cuttlefish hunting in the sea grass.

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The wreck that lies parallel to the beach at a depth of 22 to 24 metres. The wreck can be semi-penetrated at several locations at the bow (18 metres) and stern (21 metres).

The bridge of the wreck starts at a depth of 12 metres and is covered with red soft corals. It plays host to a large number of small fish with lionfish and glasys sweepers taking refuge
between the soft corals from time to time. During your ascent from the dive octopus, sea urchins and sea cucumbers are often found and observed by divers doing their safety stop.

The marine life on the way to the wreck and on the wreck itself is plentiful. Expect to meet yellowtail barracuda, angelfish, moray eels and the occasional octopus.

At night the bridge is often covered with basket stars.

Wreck of the Yatush

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This is a small patrol boat that lies at a depth of around 30 metres in the coral reef. It is best dived as the first dive of the day since visibility is better in the morning and currents are weaker.

The dive starts in the marked area in front of Aqua Sport Diving Club where you descend to a depth of 4 metres and follow the sandy slope gradually downwards in a direction of approximately 45 degrees from the starting point. When you reach the drop- off, at a depth of around 6 metres, you will notice that the area is populated with garden eels – an excellent place to do your safety stop when you return from the dive. From here you descend to
a depth of 27 metres and then keep north at a depth of 24 to 27 metres until you see a small ship wreck. The wreck’s bow faces east, and it lies on a sandy and grassy bottom with scattered coral clusters.

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A big group of glassy sweepers live inside the wreck and can be seen swimming in formation. Cleaner shrimp live in a cleaning station inside the small wreck and if you are lucky you will see them grooming a yellow-mouthed moray eel. Outside the wreck you can see patrolling lionfish and sometimes, big coral groupers swim by.

When ascending, from the stern, up the sloping seafloor you pass two striking coral formations (at 18 metres and 12 metres) that rise from the sandy floor. It is worth investigating these formations since they host plenty of life.

Princess (southern) Beach
The location is at the south beach in front of the Princess hotel. With a sandy slope and a depth of around 20 to 22 metres you pass striking coral formations at around 6 to 8 metres and there are several large table corals at around 20 to 25 metres.

Entry to the dive site is possible from either of the two jetties at the Princess Hotel beach or from marked areas on the beach itself.

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Diving usually starts by descending to a sandy slope that in some areas hosts colonies of garden eels, and then to a depth of around 10 to 15 metres to various coral formations.

Sea grass covers the slope at depths of 15 to 30 metres and you can find several large table corals at a depth of 20 to 25 metres. Look closely at the table corals and you will see that they are populated with yellow lemon gobies. Look too under the corals where sometimes you will find a big puffer fish hiding.

In the second half of the dive you will want to explore the coral formation in the shallows as these are filled with shrimps and small fish.

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Marine life of this site is abundant with corals both hard and soft, plenty of cleaning station with Cleaner Shrimp and Wrasses, the jetties are an excellent place to do your safety stop because they team with life.

Dive Clubs
There are many dive clubs in Eilat, most of which are located in the Almog beach area at the southern beach. All dive clubs have dive schools that offer dive courses, from basic to advanced levels. At all dive clubs you can rent scuba gear and join a guided dive to one of Eilat’s diving sites. The larger dive clubs usually have a dive shop.

Nitrox is available in all large dive clubs and Nitrox courses are avaiable at all dive schools.

Manta Diving Center
Located in Almog beach, Manta is Eilat’s biggest dive club. Situated in the Yam Suf hotel, the club provides top facilities – from a swimming pool that is used for dive courses (and a great warm place to hang between dives) to a sauna that has the same function in the winter months. The only disadvantage is that the club is located across the road from the beach and getting to the sea requires crossing the road with your gear.

Deep Siam
Located on the beach in the Almog beach area this excellent club has the best location in Eilat for the entrance to the Coral Reserve. It is in front of Tamar Reef and near the wreck of the Yatush. Its facilities are not of the same level as Manta’s but are decent and access to the sea is easier.

Aqua sport
Located on the beach in the Almog beach area, Awua Sport is walking distance from Deep Siam. This is Eilat’s first diving club and it is located in front of the wreck of the Yatush and in walking distance from Tamar Reef and the entrance to the Coral Reserve.

Sigala Diving School

This is a boutique diving club managed by Sigala, an experienced dive instructor. It is a great place to learn diving because of the personal approach and the small size of the dive groups. The club also has on-premises accommodation.

Getting there

By plane
Eilat Airport (ETH) is right in the middle of the city. Flights to Tel Aviv are frequent and take only 50 minutes. The cost of a one-way trip is around NIS 250. Charter flights via the Ovda International Airport (VDA) (65 km – 40 miles) and nearly a 50 min drive from town) are also an option.

By bus
Egged Express buses drive from Tel Aviv (390/394) and Jerusalem (444) to Eilat hourly. The trip takes around 5 hours and costs NIS 78 one way (60 for students) or NIS 133 for a return ticket. It is advised to buy tickets in advance because assigned seating is in use. All buses in Eilat leave from the Central Bus Station on HaTemarim Boulevard.

By car
There are a couple of ways to drive from Tel Aviv to Eilat. One is via Mitzpe Ramon. Another nice alternative is from Tel Aviv to the Dead Sea via Arad – stay a couple of days there or just make a short stop and
then continue to Eilat. It takes approximately 5 hours from Tel Aviv, and a similar duration from Jerusalem.

Red Sea Wrecks and Reefs

Red Sea Wrecks and Reefs
Chrisoula K Wreck
Chrisoula K Wreck

My eyes were as wide as saucers, but it was only partly due to the dim light inside the hold. The Thistlegorm was every bit as good as her reputation, and then some. To boot, my buddy and I were the only ones in her, despite hosting over 60,000 dives a year. We swam a circuit round the hold, going over British WW2 Enfield motorcycles, past a truck and a jeep, aircraft engine cowlings, and round the chassis of a car, its radiator remarkably whole. Something stirred in the gloom and my torch beam I picked out a large green turtle. As we came out of the hold, by the locomotive water tanker sitting on the port side of the deck, the rest of my shipmates were descending the anchor line amidships.

Thistlegorm - Enfield motorcycles in the hold
Thistlegorm – Enfield motorcycles in the hold

Text and images by Christopher Bartlett

Discovered during one of Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s first expeditions aboard the Calypso during the early months of 1956, the 375-foot SS Thistlegorm had been bombed and sunk by the Luftwaffe on the night of October 5th 1941. The ill-fated vessel’s amidships were blown open when bombs struck the ammunition hold exposing Bren gun carriers, rifles, and artillery shells. She sank with her cargo full of war supplies, taking the lives of nine sailors with her. Laying to the north west of Ras Mohamed, at a depth of 17 – 35metres, the SS Thistlegorm has become one of the most sought after wreck dives in the entire world.

Thistlegorm stern
Thistlegorm stern

After leaving the holds, we finned with the gentle current to take in the stern and the coral encrusted artillery and anti-aircraft guns mounted to the rear. She is a real beauty with many treasures to discover. I managed to dive her three more times in the following 16 hours. After a very eerie night dive into the hold punctuated by watching another group of divers put on a light show Jean-Michel Jarre would have been proud of, I hit my cabin early so as to hit the water at sunrise, a cunning plan to get her alone with my buddy again.

The light was incredible and the current slack, allowing us to move 25 yards off to port to check out one of the two locomotives blown off the deck in the explosion. With a locomotive laying on each side, when the current is pumping it’s hard to get to either of them. At sunrise the port side loco looks particularly cool, and must be one of a very few underwater train wrecks. When the current picks up with the tide, as it did on my last dive, the bows around the anchor winch buzz with schooling fish swarming back and forth.

Thistlegorm - port side locomotive on the seabed
Thistlegorm – port side locomotive on the seabed

Operated by the Red Sea Diving College, VIP One is a 16-berth, purpose built, luxury motor yacht which has been crafted and built by lovers of the Red Sea. Drawing on twenty years’ of Red Sea expertise, VIP One has been designed to offer the best in both comfort and safety for both open circuit and rebreather divers. On my trip there were four rebreather divers who were assigned their own CCR guide (all the guides are at least instructors).

Air conditioned and spacious throughout, the interior boasts large double cabins with private bathrooms, a generous saloon and dining room and a fully stocked bar area. Externally you will find sizeable sundecks on a number of levels perfect for sunbathing, reading or even an on-deck barbecue. And a top deck bar offers a perfect location for enjoying the Sinai’s spectacular sunsets.

VIP One moored up for the night near the straights of Tiran
VIP One moored up for the night near the straights of Tiran

Before embarking on the VIP One three days previously, I wasn’t much of a wreck-head. I did have a penchant for WW2 plane wrecks from Papua New Guinea, but I’d always rated corals and fish over metal hulks. Three days on and my horizons had been widened. We’d warmed up to the Thistlegorm by visiting a series of wrecks on the other side of the Straits of Gubal at Abu Nuhas reef, which has claimed at least four vessels. The first two days diving were spent diving the splendid wrecks of the Giannis D, the Carnatic, the Chrisoula K, the Kimon M, and the Kingston. Then we crossed back over the straits to arrive on the Thistlegorm just as everyone else had left their moorings to get in two afternoon dives and a night dive on one of the most interesting wrecks in the world.

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The wreck of Giannis D

But let’s go back to the start. The Giannis D, a 300-foot Greek cargo ship that sank in 1983, was a spectacular start. He stern is arguably one of the most photogenic anywhere. The viz wasn’t as good as ideally necessary for a noise-free image, but she was still a stunner with great soft corals and a bridge full of glassfish. The Chrisoula K is another Greek freighter from the early ‘80s with easy access to the bridge, another sexy stern and resident batfish.

The P&O steam sailer SS Carnatic sank in 1879 and has almost become a reef in itself, starting at just 12 feet depth at the bows. Access to the holds is easy and open, with more soft corals, glassfish, lionfish and anemones. After a great dive on this iconic site, my buddy and I were the last ones to surface with Hooch, our guide, and were zipping back to the boat in the RIB when its helmsman Mohammed simultaneously swung hard over to port and yelled “dolphins”.  “Snorkel gear on fellas” was the order from Hooch, and in we went. It was hard to resist freediving down to play with them, but luckily a few clumsy rolls and spins at two metres was enough to get them to play. There were close to a dozen, with two youngsters sticking close to their mums, and a playful adult who dived down to the reef and came up to Hooch balancing a stick of dead coral on its nose. Splendid.

Napolean Wrasse on Shark Reef
Napolean Wrasse on Shark Reef

The Kimon M is also nearby. Lying on her starboard side, she has an excellent swim-through down most of her length, and pink, white and orange soft corals decorate her superstructure, making her a treat for wide angle and fisheye lens. Small schools of batfish hang around her too.

The wreck of the Kimon M
The wreck of the Kimon M

Ras Mohamed and Tiran Straits

After such a wreck-fest, we cruised from the Thistlegorm back to Ras Mohammed, home to some world-renowned dives sites, such as Jackfish alley, Shark Reef, and the wreck of the Yolanda.

We arrived mid-afternoon, just as the last of the day boats from Sharm-el-Sheikh moved off, leaving us and one other liveaboard alone. Day boat operators from Naama Bay tend to depart from and return to the Naama Bay jetty at the same time, meaning that there can be a high number of day boats on the most popular sites in Ras Mohamed (Shark Reef, Yolanda, Anemone City, Shark Observatory, etc.) and Tiran (Jackson reef especially).  Liveaboards are allowed to overnight in Ras Mohamed Marine Park, meaning that you can dive the best sites before the daily boats arrive around 09:30 and after they leave at 16:00. It is not uncommon to be the only group on the best sites, even in July.

Reef scene from Gordon Reef
Reef scene from Gordon Reef

Between June and August large schools of snapper and barracuda hang around in the blue just off Shark Reef and have given it a reputation as being one of the best dive sites in the world. It did not disappoint, delivering a large school of both and a friendly Napoleon wrasse, two turtles, and a giant moray. There are fans and some swim-throughs, hard and soft corals. At sites like Temple and Fiesta, it is wise to keep an eye on the blue for mantas and whale sharks.

After another early morning extravaganza, we’d just finished breakfast and cast off when the flotilla from Sharm started to arrive. In an hour it would be diver soup. Not for us though, as we cruised to the straits of Tiran and Gordon reef for a post-lunch, late afternoon, and night dive. The Tiran Strait reefs of Gordon. Thomas, Woodhouse and Jackson have good hard and soft coral coverage, plenty of fish, and more fans. Jackson reef can be like swimming in fish soup on occasions, but its popularity also makes it a day boat magnet. An early morning blue dive off the back of Jackson yielded a distant glimpse of eight scalloped hammerheads, and a diver-free exploration of its gorgonian and fish-covered tip to end a fantastic week.

Whip Coral Goby on Thomas Reef
Whip Coral Goby on Thomas Reef

Need to Know:

When to Go: VIP One operates year-round. The schooling snapper and barracuda come to breed in June and July, but the big stuff like mantas, whale sharks, and scalloped hammerheads can be found, with a bit of luck, anytime.

Dive Conditions: Water temp: ranging from 21C in January to 29C in August

Viz: Often 90 feet +

Book through www.indogosafaris.com

 

Protea Banks, South Africa’s extreme diving shark hot-spot

Protea Banks, South Africa’s extreme diving shark hot-spot
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Tiger shark often seen in these waters

December marks the beginning of summer in South Africa and also the start of the busiest local holiday season. Hot weather and more than 12 hours of sunshine a day make this period perfect for the annual holidays. Just like the Great Migration on the plains of the Serengeti many inland city dwellers leave their homes and head for one of the country’s beautiful coastlines to relax and get away from the hustle and bustle of the cities.

Text by Paul Hunter and Roland Mauz

As one of the migrants we packed our bags and headed for the KwaZulu Natal south coast, otherwise known as the Hibiscus Coast, which consists of about 75km of Indian Ocean coastline dotted with many popular holiday towns, blue flag beaches, nature reserves, hiking trails and fishing spots. It is also home to one of the top-rated shark dive sites in the world; Protea Banks.

Boat launch from Shelley Beach by African Dive Adventures
Boat launch from Shelley Beach by African Dive Adventures

Protea Banks lies 7.5km out to sea from the Shelley Beach launch site. The reef is about 6km long and 800m wide and lies at a depth of between 27m to 40m and is essentially a fossilized  sandbank.  These waters have been frequented by sharks and fisherman for generations because they are very rich tuna grounds.

However scuba diving on Protea only began in the early 1990s. The early pioneers did not know what to expect and would enter the water armed with bang sticks and spear guns. They were considered insane by the local community for diving in these shark-infested waters. Yet those that dared were treated to the dive of their lives with sharks from the moment they entered the water. This was the start of shark diving on Protea Banks and which is now enjoyed by divers from all over the world.

We decided to dive with African Dive Adventures as they have been diving Protea Banks since 1994. They have a slightly different approach with regard to a dive center and setup making use of an open-air-office in the Shelley Beach Small Craft harbor area. Upon arrival we were warmly greeted and given indemnity forms to complete. Once we had completed setting up our kit we were given a very thorough briefing. At this point I need to stress that this is an advanced diving site. It is recommended that you have at least 50 dives under the belt and are a competent diver.

The reasons for this is that the dives are deep, exposed to strong currents and the visibility is not always great. The other thing I really like is that they take a mature approach to diving. Everyone that dives here should be experienced and thus responsible for themselves.

Kit up area
Kit up area

Kit up area
Kit up area

Our first dive was to Southern pinnacle. We were rather fortunate that the launch was fairly easy and the sea flat, so got to the   dive site in no time at all. Upon rolling back into the water and descending quickly to 28m we became aware of the strong current running southwards. Unfortunately the water was cloudy and visibility down to about 12m. Initially the current was very strong but reduced towards the end of the dive. As we drifted we scanned in all directions for any sign of shark.

Aerial View of Ski Boat Base Shelly Beach
Aerial View of Ski Boat Base Shelly Beach

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Plenty of overhangs

It wasn’t long and we had seen a couple of hundred hammerheads. Had the visibility been better  this  would have been a most spectacular experience.  This  is a great dive site offering a very good chance of seeing hammerheads.Then it happened, we saw a few hammerheads in the distance, on the very edge of our visibility.

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Hundreds of Hammerheads, image by Tomas Kotouc

One of our next dives was a baited shark dive. Before this dive a full briefing was given on what to expect and code of conduct instructions to follow in order to provide the best experience with the sharks. A baited dive involves putting bait in the water to create a chum line which the sharks then pick up and follow to the source. The dive guide regularly checks the bait station which sits at about 12m to see if any sharks have arrived. This can take anything from 5 to 40 minutes. Once sharks are present we kit up and enter the water to observe these awesome creatures in action.

We were initially welcomed by 6 or 7 blacktip sharks and later joined by 2 Zambezi (bull) sharks. This was my first close encounter with Zambezi sharks and I was just blown away.

The interesting thing to me was the difference in behavior patterns of the two sharks. The  blacktips  were very energetic, moving in and out of view very quickly like excited dogs while the zambezi’s were more reserved in their approach. They sharks did not seem to mind us at all. They would come in and take a look and move on again never showing any signs of aggression  or agitation. We got to spend over an hour in the water with the sharks.

The Dive sites of Protea Banks

The three dive sites most often dived at Protea Banks are: Northern Pinnacle, Southern Pinnacle and Playground. Each dive site has its own particular characteristics and all three should be dived in order to gain a good appreciation of everything Protea Banks has to offer.

Northern Pinnacle

Northern Pinnacles
Northern Pinnacles

This area of Protea has magnificent topography and is mainly dived during the winter months. The reef is virtually untouched and there are two caves which are used by ragged-tooth sharks (also known as raggies) on their annual migration and aggregation route. During this exciting period divers can encounter over a hundred raggies at a time.

Image by Tomas Kotouc
Raggie image by Tomas Kotouc

The dive starts at First Cave, the larger of two caves visited by divers on this site. At First Cave divers look in from the top and observe the raggies interacting peacefully with each other. Often the caves are so full of sharks that one can hardly see the bottom. Divers then pass the Tunnel, the Canyon and get to the Second Cave. This cave is also open on top and has several chambers, each one with a wide opening at the top. When there are no Raggies in the caves, it is great fun exploring and collecting Raggie’s teeth, which are generally plentiful in and around this cave area. Divers are allowed to remove these teeth as a nice souvenir and proof of a close encounter with the Raggies.

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Raggie on Northern Pinnacles

During spring and summer large schools of hammerheads can often be seen on this side of the reef. The dive on the Northern Pinnacle is by no means over once divers leave the caves. On the slow ascent to midwater one often encounters Zambezies or blacktips. Best time to dive the Northern Pinnacle is between May and November.

Southern Pinnacle

Southern Pinnacles
Southern Pinnacles

 On the Southern Pinnacle there are many different areas to dive. The usual Southern Pinnacle dive starts at the Southern Cave, which hosts all kinds of game fish – at times so thick that it is difficult to see your buddy. After the cave, you reach Kingfish Gully, an overhanging rock which is home to large shoals of kingfish, yellowtail and potato bass, to name a few. Billy Bob Steinberg the resident potato bass loves to come in for a cuddle and a photo shoot opportunity!

Following the current leads you to a large sandy patch called Sand Shark Gully, also known as the Arena. It lies at exactly 40m and is home to the

giant guitar shark. At times 50 to 60 of these magnificent creatures are seen lined up like planes on an airport. There are also other areas …Lord of the Rings and the Village. But limited bottom time does not allow for spending time at all of them on one dive. When there is no current it is common to spend all of a diver’s bottom time at any of the various Southern Pinnacle sites. The best time to dive the Southern Pinnacle is in the summer months from October to April.

Playground

Playground is a fantastic reef added to the assortment of Protea Banks Dive Sites since 2010. A local fisherman, Wayne De La Hunt, provided African Dive Adventures with the coordinates for a check-out dive on this site. After the first dive they were hooked on Playground and a few dives later a dive route had been worked out.

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This place  is  unbelievably  beautiful.  It  has  the  most bizarre rock formations such as a rock which resembles a whale’s fluke, another one a whale’s tail which seemingly sticks out of the ocean floor. There is a clown’s head, a corkscrew and a swim-through cave.

The dive usually begins at the Canyon, passes the Whale Rocks, Clown’s Head, Corkscrew and ends with a descent into the Cave from where divers emerge at the bottom again. This usually takes care of most of the bottom time. After the Cave divers ascend slowly into midwater and make their way up.

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Some regular divers of this spot believe firmly that the Playground is THE best dive site on Protea Banks. One can see everything or nothing at the Playground. This April divers had countless tiger sharks and Zambezi sharks. On one occasion a great white was spotted in the distance.

The zambezi shark is synonymous with Protea Banks, and is a frequent visitor on the Southern Pinnacle. Tiger sharks, blacktips, duskies, bronze whalers and large schools of scalloped hammerheads can also be found in this area.
The zambezi shark is synonymous with Protea Banks, and is a frequent visitor on the Southern Pinnacle. Tiger sharks, blacktips, duskies, bronze whalers and large schools of scalloped hammerheads can also be found in this area.
Tiger Shark season - March to June is the best time to see these magnificent animals on the Northern Pinnacle. For unknown reasons they seem to like the north part of Protea Banks better than the south. Therefore, baited tiger dive always start at the Caves.
Tiger Shark season – March to June is the best time to see these magnificent animals on the Northern Pinnacle. For unknown reasons they seem to like the north part of Protea Banks better than the south. Therefore, baited tiger dive always start at the Caves.

Diving Lake Malawi

Diving Lake Malawi

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My grandfather had a fish tank stocked with Malawi Cichlids and I have always wanted to dive Lake Malawi to see these pretty fish in their natural environment. This year, my dream trip to dive Lake Malawi became a reality.

Text by Penny Shadow
Images by Penny Shadow and Dana Allen

We landed in Lilongwe and after a 3 and a half-hour drive on good roads, we turned off to venture through the hills of the Lake Malawi National park for our destination, Cape Maclear, where our hosts at Danforth Yachting, Lodge and Yacht Charters, operate from. Receiving a warm welcome from the owners and managers, we were given welcome drinks and shown to our superb, luxurious rooms with fabulous views over the lake. Danforth is right on the beach with a dive deck to the left, emerald-green lush lawn and sparkling swimming pool in front and a large thatched gazbo dining area to the right. Islands surround the lodge, forming a natural bay, where the lodge boats are safely moored. After a quick freshen up we headed to the deck for a chat with the dive instructors over sundowners. With fish eagles overhead, an African pied kingfisher perched on the mast of the hobie cat, the sparkling waters and lush green island in front of us I couldn’t have been happier. The sun gave its final goodbye for the day in spectacular, blazing African style.

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Lake Malawi covers one-third of the country of Malawi. The lake is  600 kilometres long and 80 kilometres wide at its widest point, and forms part of the African Rift Valley. Malawi is a country of varied topography with lowest altitude being 35 metres and its highest peak, Mount Mulanje at 3002 metres above sea level. Rolling hills, high lying plateaus, cool misty mountains and flat plains make up the terrain. The crowning glory though is the magnificent Lake Malawi, also known as the “Lake of Stars” because its shimmering water reflects the bright sunshine.  This is the third largest lake in Africa and the ninth largest   in the world. The lake plummets to a maximum depth of a staggering 752 metres.

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Our first dive was to a dive site known as Aquarium, directly opposite Danforth yachting and just a short boat trip across the lightly rippling lake waters. No tides, no currents, no salt, no huge surf to launch through, this couldn’t be easier. We kitted up on board the little wooden dive boat, Rafiki, did our backwards roll into the water and descended into the crystal clear, fresh sweet water. An abundance of colourful tropical fish, small, bright, varied and beautiful swam around us. These fish are known as Cichlids (pronounced ‘sicklets’) and are endemic to the region. I felt like I was swimming in Grandpa’s fish tank. Bright luminous blue stripes offset by matt black, yellow and black horizontal stripes, plain blue rimmed with darker blue, mottled orange and black, clear blue with yellow spots, the vivid colours and abundance was breathtaking.

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Breeding season brings the dance of courtship and for those privileged enough to see it, fish are no different to other species. Many Malawi cichlids are mouth brooders. During mating season the plainer more drab females are attracted to the bright colours of the males. The male jiggles his body until the yellow spots on his anal fins virtually glow. The female confuses these spots with her eggs, tries to grab the spots with her mouth, thus fertilization takes place in the females mouth. The babies grow within the mother’s mouth. She spits them out in a safe nursery area and swims around guarding them. If the mother senses danger for her young, she will try and fend off the intruder, but for total safety, she scoops the babies back into her mouth.

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Our Divemaster pointed out a mother fish frantically swimming around her group of tiny little babies. As we watched closely, the babies grouped into a tight bundle and quick as a flash entered the mother’s mouth. A few stragglers didn’t make it in, so she swam around a second time, they regrouped and in they went. With cheeks bulging the mother swam around. When she senses the danger is past, she releases the young.

These smart little fish have evolved over the years to ensure survival of the species. All have fancy Latin names, for example; Cyathochromis obliquidens, Nimbochromis fuscotaeniatus, but for ease of use, our dive instructors have given them identifiable common names. The ‘around the corner fish’ is a smart little guy. He hovers, well camouflaged on the side of a rock, then darts over the rock at lightning speed and captures his prey unawares. So too ‘top deck’ named after the delicious chocolate slab, brown on the underside and pale on the top, he is also a stealth operator. Just before he strikes he subtly changes shades, the top goes dark and his underside pales, confusing his prey as to which direction he    is facing and he strikes with ease. The ‘play dead’ fish is fascinating to watch. He swims at full speed then suddenly all movement stops and he collapses as if in cardiac arrest. As he lies limp and useless, smaller fish move in closer, curious and unaware of the danger at which point, the life flows back into our very un-dead fish and he strikes out at his next meal.

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Not all of the Malawi cichlids are predatory. The algae eating fish ‘fat lips’ suck the algae off the rocks like a Kreepy- Krawly. During our 40 minute dive around the aquarium dive site we also saw blue tipped crabs, shoals of nearly transparent tiny sardine like Usipa and the slightly larger one-and-two dotted Utaka fish. The crater-like nests in the sand on the bottom are made by the male blue Chambo or Liani fish. These craters, exactly circular and carefully crafted are worked diligently by the males to attract a mate. Of course, the guy with the biggest, fanciest house gets the girl and competition in the fish world is fierce.

At a deeper depth of 25 metres dwell the creepy catfish. These long whiskered, sleek bodied, slimy looking fish grow to great lengths. Kampango and Vundu are the two main types of catfish lurking in the deeper waters.

Danforth is a prime location for a diving holiday. Cape Maclear is a World Heritage site and a fresh water marine reserve. Within a radius of 2.5 kilometres there are around 22 different dive sites, each unique in topography.

Rocks, boulders and swim-through’s make for some amazing dive experiences. The dive site known as “bakers oven” is a rocky outcrop with fabulous swim-through’s at a maximum of 15 metres.

Rays of light from above penetrate the many holes in the rocks with stage lighting effect. The tunnels are wide enough for diver plus kit, enticing even those divers normally cautious of caves.

Night dives are excellent. We set off just before sunset at 17h45 and were in the water at twilight. With our flashlight beams we spotted the nocturnal fish known as dolphin fish or Cornish Jack. Due to their very poor eyesight they have developed a magnetic field around them which helps them to determine their surroundings, sense danger and not bump into rocks. The Cichlids, in contrast to their daytime frantic swimming activity, were noticeably slower and sleepier at night.

For the more experienced divers, Zimbawe Rock offers a challenging, fascinating deep dive.  This site was rated  as ‘the best fresh water diving in the world’, by Full Circle magazine a few years ago.

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“Zimbawe Rock” is actually an underwater mountain, rising out of the lake. The mountain is tunneled with numerous channels to enter and exit, amazing swim-through’s, tunnels and boulders and abundant fish – brilliant diving in clear fresh water. This site can only be dived on calm days as there is no anchorage for the dive boat.

Danforth has a fleet of boats, all named after characters of the Lion King. The mighty Mufasa, the 38 foot, ten berth catamaran is the glory boat.  Immaculately cared  for and maintained, she is much loved by owner and Captain, Howard Massey-Hicks, Mufasa can be chartered for lake cruises to the far ends of Lake Malawi. Shenzi is a wonderful dive boat – a cedar wood, inboard engine, user friendly vessel with camping style facilities on board. The sturdy roof top is a great viewing platform, sun-tanning deck or launch pad for plunging off into the depths of cool, fresh waters.

Rafiki is a smaller wooden dive boat, easily maneuverable into nearby dive sites. Bench seats and no rails make Rafiki suitable for rear entry dive rolls in full dive kit. A removable step ladder is hooked onto the side of the boat at the end of the dive.

In addition to diving, Danforth is geared up for other great watersports. Kayaking, dingy sailing on Lasers, Hobie-cat Sailing, waterskiing, wakeboarding, tube rides, mountain biking, hikes, nature walks. There is truly something for everyone. Sun-loungers and shady  hammocks  around  the swimming pool offer a tempting rest between all the activities.

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So why dive Lake Malawi?

Easy access to dive sites, no tides, no major currents, no salt water. Warm, fresh clear water. Abundant fish, fascinating species, interesting rock formations, a variety of different dive sites, suitable for beginners through to advanced divers.

Coolest water temperatures:23C
Average water temperatures:27C
Warmest water temperatures:33C
Average visibility:15 metres
Good visibility:25 metres
When to visit:All year round
Best time to dive:Best months Sept-Dec

Danforth Lodge and Yacht charters. Cape Maclear.

Lake Malawi.

Tel. +(265) 99 9960077or 99 9960770

info@danforthyachting.com www.danforthyachting.com

While my lifetime dream to dive Lake Malawi has been fulfilled this has only whetted my appetite for more.  Farewell for now.  I shall return.

Chinhoyi Caves Expedition

Chinhoyi Caves Expedition
Photo by Carola Bieniek
Photo by Carola Bieniek

The dream to dive Chinhoyi Caves began almost 8 years ago when I was fortunate enough to be shown pictures taken by a group of divers of the Caves. Ever since then I just knew that I had to dive Chinhoyi caves in Zimbabwe one day.

Text by Quintin Heymans

I am forever looking for new challenges and dive sites because of my passion for Technical Diving; for example  the search for the elusive Sodwana Coelacanths at depths in excess of 100 meters. Back in November of 2011 the possibility of diving Chinhoyi arose as a group of us Technical Divers began to toss the idea around.

Technical diving considerations aside, Zimbabwe itself added a significant logistical  and  financial  complication  to the expedition, which needed careful consideration to successfully negotiate. To experience the full wonders of Chinhoyi we knew we had to go deep. And, to go deep we needed specific gasses, like helium, for our Trimix dives. Zimbabwe is in the grips of a recession and food, for example, is a scarce commodity, let alone supplies of helium. Having worked with the South African company Afrox, on previous expeditions we were able to secure delivery of all our gas requirements to the little town of Chinhoyi. With that important hurdle out of the way, we gave the expedition the go-ahead. We had to be self-sufficient for 10 days, meaning we had to supply our own food, accommodation, electricity, compressor and gasses, and transport logistics to get everything up there, and back.

Photo by Quintin Heymans
Photo by Quintin Heymans

Getting permission to dive and explore the caves was no easy task. But eventually we got permission from the head of Zimbabwe’s National Parks. Word of our exploits spread quickly especially given the magnitude of our expedition. Three different newspapers recorded and published the event and one news channel too. Even Robert Mugabe’s private guards and police force came to interview us one day and the Minister of Tourism also travelled from Harare (about 130 kilometres from Chinhoyi) to meet with us.

Photo by Carola Bieniek
Photo by Carola Bieniek

Photo by Carola Bieniek
Photo by Carola Bieniek

Photo by Carola Bieniek
Photo by Carola Bieniek

After 5 months of hard work, 5 weekends of build-up dives, a lot of planning, a long road travelled, our first dive with expedition leader Johan Boshoff, made up for all the effort. Johan Boshoff was the only one in our group with prior experience of diving Chinhoyi.We researched the Chinhoyi Cave system and came to the conclusion that there is no conclusive evidence to inform as to how deep Chinhoyi really is. Most of the information we obtained led us   to believe that it is around 80m deep. Hence the expeditionary nature of this trip – we wanted to go and find out for ourselves.

Submersing beneath the water on that first dive it felt like we could see forever.  The water was a pleasant 23 C. Taking a bearing from the light entering the cave as I descended I looked back to see the silhouettes of ten other divers against the azure backlight. It is a vision I will treasure for the rest of my life. It appeared as if each of the divers had eight to fifteen ghosts above them and their exhaled air bubbles were visible all the way to the surface. We could see the top of the rim of the caves from 50 meters down with small detail like the trees even being visible from that depth

Our first dive was in the pool named the silent pool. And before the dive  we  were  exactly  that, silent. However, on breaking the surface after the dive the silence was shattered by an endless explosion of words from each of our mouths. “Wow”, “awesome”, “unbelievable”, “azure”, “endless visibility”, “scary”, “dark”, the superlatives were never-ending.

Photo by Quintin Heymans
Photo by Quintin Heymans

Photo by Quintin Heymans
Photo by Quintin Heymans

Photo by Quintin Heymans
Photo by Quintin Heymans

Photot by Quintin Heymans
Photo by Quintin Heymans

Once at the cave system, the effort required to get to the dive site is immense. There are exactly 288 steps to get down to the Sleeping Pool (the main dive site) but remember, being technical divers we each had twin 15l cylinders, 2 x 80cu and 2 x 40cu cylinders with regulators attached to each cylinder, our dive bags, spares, toolboxes and camera bags and enough food and drink to see us through the day. As far as possible we tried to make only one trip down to the sleeping pool and one trip back out again each day. The expedition comprised four different teams according to their experience and target depth. A successful expedition is dependent on teamwork and our daily task list consisted of waking up, making coffee and breakfast, gas analyzing, working out dive plans according to mixes, assembling gear, loading the vehicles to take gear down to the cave entry point, preparing lunch, getting all the gear down to the pool, charging 2 way radios for the different teams, getting all the gear and divers out safely, making supper, heading to town for daily necessities, mixing gasses for the next day’s dives, compressor maintenance and fuelling the generator.

We started with 40 metre dives then 60, 85, 100 and 105 meters. Each dive to a new depth added to our knowledge. When I dive caves I experience a phenomenon I call “the calling of the cave”. It is as if some force lures you deeper and further into the caves. This is also the case with Chinhoyi. We reached our maximum dive time of 14 minutes at 104 metres, but yet we only scratched the bottom. There is still so much to explore.

Nearing the bottom of the main pool for the first time felt really eerie. Adding to this feeling was the sensation that the bottom was beginning to glow. We looked at each other thinking we were on the wrong gas mixture. However, as we got closer to the bottom we saw that the floor was covered with broken glass, porcelain and coins. Then we saw what looked like a white ghost not too far away and immediately started our ascent without even signaling to each other – the conversation with the park ranger the previous night who told us of 4 Scuba divers who have never surfaced from their dives, added to the sensation.

It was later explained to us that when a Sangoma dies, the first person at the scene takes all of his or her belongings and wraps it up in a cloak and throws it into the sleeping pool. This was what we saw resembling a ghost, the floating white cloak.

Photo by Quintin Heymans
Photo by Quintin Heymans

Diving Chinhoyi is no easy task made more difficult by the effort required on every single dive. During our expedition we explored a lot of the cave system and gathered much information all of which we gave to the local authorities for future use. Unfortunately no words adequately describe the beauty of this place. I hope the images give you a taste of its beauty.

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History (Courtesy of Parks and Wildlife Management authority)

It  was  believed  that  the  Caves  were  being  used  as       a stronghold by an outlaw called Nyamakwere who murdered many victims by throwing  them  into  the “Silent Pool”, now referred to as the “Sleeping Pool”. The notorious Nyamakwere was eventually defeated and killed by a herdsman called Chinhoyi who became a Mashona Chief, hence the name Chinhoyi Town. Chinhoyi and his followers used the Caves as a refuge from raiding tribes such as the Matebele. Until a few years ago the remains  of Chief Chinhoyi’s grain bins could be seen in some of the underground passages.

The Traditional name for the Cave is “Chirorodziva” which means “Pool of the Fallen”. The name was derived from an incident, which took place in the 1830’s when the Angoni Tribe, who were moving northwards, surprised people living near the Caves, and flung them down into the pool.

The Caves consists of a system of tunnels and caverns. This System is a dying one, in that they are slowly collapsing. The Wonder Hole, which is the main feature of the Caves, is in fact a “Swallow Hole” or a large cavern with a collapsed roof.

The walls or sides of the Wonder Hole” drop vertically down for 50 meters to the Sleeping Pool. The Sleeping Pool has a known depth of 120 meters. The Pool is unbelievably blue and crystal clear which reflects great depth and the non- flowing water.

Several underwater passages have been found leading from the Sleeping Pool, but all those that have been explored lead back to the main Pool again. Near the end of the Dark Cave is a small annex to the sleeping pool known as the cave of the bats.

This Cave has three outlets – one, known as the Blind Cave leads to a small cavern and is accessible only to a SCUBA DIVER, a second one connects with the Sleeping Pool 58 meters below the surface and the third has not yet been explored.

The Caves are composed mainly of the sunlit “Sleeping Pool” and the artificial lit Dark Cave. The Sleeping Pool is accessible in two ways.

Excavations in and near the Caves have revealed that people have stayed in and near the Caves from earlier times. Pottery and human remains were unearthed from the area which were Radiocarbon dated as far back as A.D 650 . The pottery from the area excavation is called the Chinhoyi Tradition of the early Iron Age and is found from Chinhoyi to Kariba.

The dominant rock in which the Caves are formed is Limestone, Millions of years ago the action of underground water weakened the cohesive forces that held the rock particles together forming underground caverns and tunnels. Some of these caverns eventually collapsed to form sink holes, the largest and most spectacular of which forms what is known today as the “ Wonder Hole” and “ Sleeping Pool “, rated as the country’s most dramatic natural tourist attraction. The clarity of the water in the “Sleeping Pool” is such that the fish and rock formations can be seen many meters beneath the surface and the shoreline.

” The Caves” don’t have much in the sense of fish life but it’s the visual of the underwater rock formations, stalactites and stalagmites, caves and crannies that bring divers back each time and having a breathtaking experience. On a technical point, the conditions in “the Caves” offer the most ideal deep dives and offer exciting opportunities.

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