Image: Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphin named Bo with one of her calves in the Ponta do Ouro Partial Marine Reserve.
Ponta do Ouro, Mozambique – The first official dedicated marine mammal operators meeting took place at the Ponta do Ouro Partial Marine Reserve (PPMR) offices on the 6th October 2017.
The meeting was requested and presented by Miguel Goncalves – the newly appointed warden of the Maputo Special Reserve and Ponta do Ouro Partial Marine Reserve. Vincent Matsimbe was present as second in command and will be operators go to man for issues arising within the marine mammal/megafauna tourism sector.
The meeting was attended by representatives of The White Pearl, Malongane Dive Camp, (Somente Aqua) Dolphin Centre and Dolphin Encountours Research Center – the four official permit holders between Ponta do Ouro and Mamoli.
Marine Mammal tourism has grown exponentially over the past two decades and as new research emerges we are discovering that activities designed to get tourists close to dolphins and whales do indeed have a large negative impact. A booming ocean safari trade, fishing charters and boats together with fishing jetskis (personal powered water craft) means its busy seas for the local bottlenose dolphins and marine mammals living in and frequenting the reserve’s waters.
Mozambican biologist Diana Rocha has been monitoring the local dolphins since 2010 and looked at data collected between 2006/12. She identified 46 females with offspring over 6 calving seasons. The 2009/10 season saw a 38.9% mortality rate with predation, natural causes and human impact being listed as probable culprits. Pods with newborns were found to be larger than those without and change of direction increased on approach of the boat, indicating disturbance.
A major concern is that during the summer months of December and January the local dolphins calve. This coincides with the busiest time of the year making dolphins frequenting the area vulnerable to disturbance by increased boat traffic, noise pollution and harassment. On a good weather day commercial dolphin swim operators and ocean safari tours start at sunrise and run throughout the day. If we take the two dedicated dolphin centers in Ponta do Ouro, as well as the water-sports and adventure centers in Mamoli and Malongane, we can safely say that the dolphins will be afforded little rest or quiet time during the busy times.
It is now clear that the amount of operators is too many and that the recommendations of one permit holder per 20km made by Dr Almeida Guissamulo from the Museu de Historia Natural, Maputo should have been considered when concerns were submitted to governmental departments before the reserve was proclaimed.
It is within the Reserves Mandate to protect the local dolphins who live in the coastal shallows of the Lubumbo Transfrontier Conservation Area and they have requested operators who have a vested interest in the well being of the local dolphins to urgently address the problems and come up with solutions.
The harsh truth lies in the consequence of operators not making a plan. With discussions from a complete ban, as is the case in South Africa to the concessioning out of one operator per permitted area, operators will have to look at reducing the amount of time spent with dolphins; the amount of in-water attempts; rest time in between visits; creating further sanctuary zone’s and implementing stricter controls for in-water encounters.
In July of this year the World Whale Conference & Whale Heritage Sites (WHS) Summit in Durban was represented by Mozambique with owner-operators Ilha Blue Island Safaris from Ilha de Moçambique and Dolphin Encountours Research Center from Ponta do Ouro. The 5 day conference/summit was arranged by the World Cetacean Alliance (WCA) and followed the theme of working towards sustainable tourism for cetaceans [dolphins and whales] and whale heritage site initiatives. In a survey undertaken by WCA, thirty three area’s of interest in twenty two countries were surveyed as possible whale heritage sites, most individual replies listed locations in South Africa, with Mozambique receiving the highest nomination. With both populations of wild dolphins and humpback whales that navigate these waters from June to December every year, the Ponta do Ouro Partial Marine Reserve is of great importance for the protection of these species.
A second meeting has been agreed upon by Marine Mammal Operators before presenting solutions to the reserve.
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As our nature demands, humans have always been curious creatures which love to explore and discover the world around us. This sense of adventure stays with us even if we decide to escape to an island paradise. And what could be better than exploring an underwater world while in a remote corner of the Seychelles?
Located in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, the Seychelles remains one of the most exquisite destinations and arguably one of the best scuba diving destinations in the world. Giving you access to this new and wondrous underwater world is Alphonse Island situated in the Outer Islands of the Seychelles.
A stay at Alphonse Island gives guests access to 30 sublime scuba diving sites scattered amongst the remote islands surrounding it. This includes the beautiful St. François and its glorious flats which are home to some of the most incredible pelagic species. These stunning creatures can be viewed by walking the sandy stretches or diving into the deep blue surrounds of the Atoll.
Reaching these remote sites means jumping onboard one of our dedicated diving vessels, the Amirante Cat or Zanbren. Purpose-built with 225hp, these vessels will get you to the dive sites in no time and they are equipped with all your diving gear as well as towels, snacks and drinks. So sit back and let our dedicated dive team take care of you as you explore the wonder-ful dive sites that surround St. François:
Trigger Hill Location: 20 minutes by boat, North-East St. François Depth: 8 – 18m Trigger Hill consists of a sharply slanting hill with three main coral rivers that run from the seagrass beds at 7m to the sandy slopes located at 18m and beyond. The coral bommies here act as a cleaning station and many resident schools of fish can often be seen here, including large Napoleon Wrasse, Blue and Yellow Fusilier, Humpback, Bluelined and Bohar Snapper as well as the shimmering Bluefin Trevally. Species like Camouflage and White-blotched Grouper live deep within the crevices of the coral, while smaller specimens rest casually at the base of the coral allowing for a closer look. Divers will often see Garden Eels peering out from their burrows in the sand galleys along with Seychelles Anemonefish, Moray Eels and Yellowmargin and Titan Triggerfish. Golden Trevally, Green Jobfish, Whip Rays and Nurse Sharks venturing from the sandy slope is also a common sight. Special Feature: This site is named after the Yellowmargin Triggerfish which build their nests and lay eggs here. They can often be seen undulating in the water column above as they fiercely protect their territory. Trigger Hill is a great site for general observation of fish behaviour.
Bluelined Snapper and Bluefin Trevally
Three Sisters Location: 20 minutes by boat, North St. François Depth: 15 – 25m This site, as the name would suggest, holds 3 large coral patches which lie on the flat sandy bottom at 20 meters. A variety of Grouper and Snapper species densely populates these ‘sisters’ and as such the dive starts by discovering and appreciating the abundance and diversity of fish here. Divers will also get to see Garden Eels and Yellowmargin Triggerfish on the surrounding sand where they make their respective burrows and large nests. The dive here is ended at a raised reef in the East which sits at about 13 meters. Here there is a colourful aquarium-like cleaning station where Yellowfin Goatfish, Onespot Emperor, Bluelined Snapper and Napoleon Wrasse congregate. Alternatively, guests can choose to start the dive on the outer wall which is covered in purple Sea Fans and extends to a sandy shelf at 30 meters. When gazing off the wall, there is a big chance of seeing big fish out in the open blue. Special Feature: Three Sisters holds something for every kind of diver with its combination of calm patch reef, aquarium-like cleaning station and deep drop-off.
Rat Rays Location: 25 minutes by boat, South-West St. François Depth: 8 – 25m Rat Rays is the name given to the channel entrance of St. François Atoll. This site is situated within the main tidal flow in and out of the large lagoon which makes it a highway for various fish moving between the lagoon and the open water. Outside of this channel, Spur and Groove Coral formations give way to ravines of white sand that cascade over the edge of the drop-off which surrounds the island. St. François and its curving beaches are home to a plethora of birds and the surrounding shimmering waters are a hotspot for Green Turtles, pink Whip Rays and Greater Barracuda. Large Napoleon Wrasse and Milkfish can often be spotted hovering in the blue edge of the drop-off. Special Feature: A lot of action is created by an array of diverse species congregating around the mouth of the channel as the tides rise and fall.
Pink Whip Rays
Mantam North Location: 25 minutes by boat, West St. François Depth: 7 – 20m The coral assemblage at Mantam North with its flat gently sloping bottom resembles that of a patch reef. However, at 10 to 18 meters patches of sand are scarce due to incredibly high coral cover. Here the copious undulations of Hard Coral lead divers through a myriad of reef fish with occasional protrusions of large bommies which are thick with Bohar and Black Snapper as well as Fusilier. Divers will often spot Nurse Sharks here as they patrol the reef. Mantam North makes for a great training site with the depth limit at 18m where the coral finally meets the sand. The relaxed ambience at this site allows divers to get close to Giant Moray Eels and Lionfish that inhabit the deep crevices in the reef. Currents at Mantam North: Currents are generally mild which makes it ideal for underwater photographers who like to document even the smallest of fish. Special Feature: This is the best site for those who like to get up-close to the variety of reef fish for photography or behavioural observations due to lack of currents.
Giant Moray Eel
West End Location: 30 minutes by boat, West St. François Depth: 12 – 40m West End holds a sloping reef which extends from 12 to 40 meters with most activity seen at 16 meters. Dense schools of Bluelined Snapper, Bluefin Trevally and Humpback Snapper are found around the reef and during low tide countless large Green Sea Turtles can be seen as they move from adjacent flats. The wall of the reef extends to a second plateau which is deeper than diving limits; it is here that a number of sharks reside and from where they follow the wall up to visit divers at the site. Large Grey Reef and Nurse Sharks are the most common at the site with the latter even more so in the shallows. Spur and Groove Coral formations stretch out towards the south with large aggregations of fish such as Bohar Snapper and Chub. Depending on the season, Manta Rays are most seen at this particular site, if not on the dive then feeding with Milkfish at the surface. Special Feature: West End is close to the south of St. François where a number of Sharks and Rays are commonly seen. It also has the added benefit of beautiful coral and an abundance of fish to complement it.
Swiss Garden Location: 35 minutes by boat, South St. François Depth: 12 – 20m Swiss Garden is the farthest dive site at the southern reaches of St. François Atoll. The site is a well-known historic fishing ground for local individuals with many reports of thriving populations of big pelagics, yet this is a site rarely dived. This remote site is one for the explorers out there as you never know what you might see. The bottom is a flat, steadily sloping reef comprised of mainly Hard Coral. A flurry of marine life covers the coral ridges and bommies that are interspersed with the flat seabed. Dives here have offered up incredible sightings of Giant Trevally (GT), Dogtooth Tuna, Nurse and Bull Sharks, Whip and Manta Rays, huge Green Turtles and schooling Milkfish. Special Feature: The site is only visited per request by those who wish to explore waters which few others have dived before.
One of the most notable attractions of the Seychelles, besides its spectacular scenery and remote location, is undoubtedly its diversity. Made up of a collection of 115 islands and hosting an intricate ecosystem of abundant marine life, it really is like no place on Earth. And it is this beautiful mosaic of nature that has drawn nature-lovers and adventurers alike to explore the wonders that the Seychelles hold.
The soft sunsets and inviting islands scattered across the region are accompanied by hardy species which has stood the test of time. From fierce game fishing species to ancient Aldabra Tortoises to thriving coral reefs, the species here have adapted with the times and are an inspiration to view. Although experiencing all the sights from land or a boat might suffice, diving into this underwater realm and viewing these species in their natural habitat is something very special indeed.
When choosing to stay at Alphonse Island in the Outer Islands of the Seychelles, guests get to experience these aquatic treasure troves in a variety of remote destinations. One of these destinations is the little gem of Bijoutier Island.
Located a short boat ride away from the main Island, Bijoutier Island is surrounded by a number of excellent scuba diving sites to be explored. Let’s dive right into the Dive Sites of Bijoutier Island:
Napoleon Location: 15 minutes by boat, North-West Bijoutier Depth: 16 – 30 meters This site holds an open water raised reef with large formations and many deep crevices which often serve as hiding spots for Nurse Sharks and Octopuses. The reef is covered with beautiful sea fans and schools of Bluelined Snapper, Humpback Emperor and Yellowspot Emperor can often be found in the cuts created by the coral contours. Nudibranchs and Flatworms sit at the top of the coral heads where they feed in the prevailing currents. From here the reef slopes down to a field of Tubastrea Coral (also known as Sun Coral or Orange Cup Coral) and then drops suddenly to great depths. This drop-off is where you’ll be able to spot the likes of Hammerhead, Whitetip Reef and Silvertip Sharks as well as large Napoleon Wrasse, Giant Sweetlips, Batfish and even Bumphead Parrotfish. Currents at Napoleon: Currents can be quite strong which makes it best suited for experienced divers. A blue water drift and slow ascent is best to reach this spot. Special Feature: Schools of Fusilier often swarm overhead and you might even spot Dogtooth Tuna and Bluefin Trevally feeding. Also keep an eye out for the special kinds of Nudibranchs, Snails and a variety of Moray Eels.
Secret Reef Location: 15 minutes by boat, North-East Bijoutier Depth 15 – 25m+ Secret Reef is a long stretch of open water raised reef that runs along the North-East of Bijoutier. Towards the South the coral ridge breaks up into separate mountainous structures with sandy valleys in-between. The edges of these structures are covered in Tabulate Corals and this is also where you’ll find schools of Bohar Snapper and Napoleon Wrasse. Towards the North the ridge continues as a gentle slope covered with pink Sea Fans where you’ll often see schooling fish such as Snapper, Emperor, Jack and Barracuda. There is also a mini-wall with beautiful coral formations which develops towards the North and provides shelter to Giant and Blackcheek Moray Eels and Nudibranch. Currents at Secret Reef: As the site begins at 16 meters, it is strongly affected by currents. This site is also best for experienced divers. Special Feature: Some of the rarer Grouper species such as Smooth and Blacksaddle Coral Grouper can be sighted on the wall. Large schools of Batfish and a variety of Fusilier species tend to patrol the drop-off and will often encircle divers.
Theatre Location: 15 minutes by boat, South of Bijoutier Depth: 9 – 40m+ Theatre site holds a crescent-shaped raised reef with a prominent Anthia-covered ridge (at 9m) along the southern facing wall which drops vertically to depths deeper than 40m. The ridge acts as a guide to Amphitheatre and into the lagoon for passing species such as Manta Ray, Bumphead Parrotfish, Hammerhead Sharks and Milkfish. The wall itself is covered in purple Sea Fans with overhangs and undercuts that are waiting to be explored. It is also a popular spot for Golden, Bluefin and Giant Trevally as well as Black Jack that cruise along the wall. At the bottom of the wall in the deeper water, Bohar and Black Snapper, and Smooth Grouper coalesce into larger groups. Another great feature of the site is a deep water promontory covered in encrusting coral which extends and alluringly drops again to depth beyond the realms of recreational diving – a great spot to stop and wonder. Special Feature: The magical and mysterious scenery of the Theatre’s wall makes it a favourite amongst divers. The site also lies over a lagoon entry point allowing for unexpected sightings of large fish.
Arina Location: 20 minutes by boat, South Bijoutier Depth: 7 – 16m Arina is a flat sandy arena covered sporadically in coral bommies teeming with fish. The massive structures are some of the most singular outcrops of coral in the region and allow divers to fully appreciate how these creatures grow up and outward into mind-boggling creations. Schools of Fusilier and Bigeye Trevally swarm the water column and blankets of Bohar and Humpback Snapper engulf the tops of the coral bommies. A congregation of coral pinnacles, mini-caves and crevices house Giant Moray Eels and Octopuses. Bommie hopping is the game of this dive and the surrounding sand patches is home to many Whip Rays, large Camouflage Grouper as well as Gobies and Shrimp. On the right tide, the water can be incredibly clear and brightly reflects the white sand below. Special Feature: The lack of currents and flat-bottom at this sheltered lagoon site makes it perfect for independent discovery and exploration for buddy groups.
Drop-off 109 Location: 10 minutes by boat, West Bijoutier Depth: 12 – 40m The reef at Drop-off 109 reaches up to 12m above the surrounding sandy areas and extends out over the slope to create a remarkable drop-off. The area holds a wide variety of beautiful Sea Fans and Hard Coral accompanied by schooling Snapper which makes it an especially scenic dive. This site is also frequented by Giant Sweetlips, Indian Lionfish, juvenile Emperor Angelfish and various Pufferfish. Special Feature: If you can tear yourself away from the vibrant scenery of the beautiful reef, you may spot Dogtooth Tuna and Silvertip or Whitetip Reef Sharks cruising up the drop-off from the depths.
The average human (data culled from various signs in lifts) weighs 70 kilos and (empirical evidence) is less than 2m tall. Also, we’re terrestrial. So it’s quite something to be floating in 25m of warm blue water being approached by an animal which, as an adult, weighs an average of 9 tonnes (that’s 9 000 kilos in case there was any doubt) and is close to 10m in length. Plus, it’s leading with its cavernous 1.5m wide mouth. And the animal which owns the mouth is actively feeding. At 2m away and closing, there’s a certain sense of drama.
That’s a really big animal getting really close. And that’s presumably why they’re not called hamstersharks.
Luckily for me, the whaleshark, for that’s what it was, ignored my feeble attempts to evade it, effortlessly flicked its enormous tail and submerged. And circled back and repeated the feeding lunge, this time not quite so close to me. The plankton must have moved. Whalesharks, of course, are not interested in feeding on humans, though an unintended whack from a tail could certainly do some damage; worth considering when in the water and trying to photograph one.
This was offshore of Mafia Island, off the Tanzanian coast. We’d gone there specifically for just this experience. Here, from September to March, congregations of whalesharks move inshore to feed on the plankton blooms which are generated by river outflow.
As many as fifty whalesharks can be seen gaping their rectangular mouths open, sucking vast gulps of plankton into their maws and flaring their gills. It’s got to take a lot of tiny shrimps to keep 9 tonnes on the go. Whalesharks, indeed, will also eat small schooling fishes and sometimes small tuna or squid. This must make life exciting for the juvenile golden kingfishes we frequently saw swimming just in front of the whalesharks, mouths opening in time to the whaleshark’s.
They’re presumably there because the whaleshark is better at finding plankton blooms than they are. Or maybe they like living dangerously.
The whalesharks of Mafia are mostly sub-adults, so they’re usually only around 8m in total length (i.e. not that big, for a whaleshark), and mysteriously, are predominantly male. Getting to see them and snorkel with them as they feed is awe-inspiring. Waking in the morning, hastily eating breakfast and splashing through the jellyfish-dotted shallows to the dinghy is just the beginning. Then there’s the outward journey searching for the leviathans, in a hand-carved dhow, powered by a 9.9 horsepower engine, driven with dashing flair by the boat captain’s foot. It’s a bit like being back in the days when whalers stood in the bows of their tiny ships and shouted out, ‘Thar she blows!’, except here the sign is the enormous dorsal fin of the whaleshark and its smaller tail fin which breaks the surface in the distance.
Or it might be the surface wave that trails their great heads as they rise to the surface to feed. Or their enormous muscular backs glinting in the tropical light. The captain’s foot does its work and the snorkellers bail overboard searching for signs of the beast. A lot of the time it’s empty ocean but then suddenly and with a weird inevitability, there’s a spotty reef in the water, as though it’s always been there. Sometimes they don’t come near, but often the feeding urge is upon them and it’s close encounter with huge animal time.
Whalesharks have beautiful blue dorsal skin crisscrossed with a chequerboard of pale stripes and spots. They may look like this because they have evolved from bottom-dwelling sharks, though no-one is really sure. They have the aforementioned huge mouths which contain 300-350 tiny teeth: not used for feeding and probably also an evolutionary legacy. To feed they open their mouths, suck in a mouthful of prey and water, then close their mouths and open their gills. The slight delay between closing their mouths and opening their gills results in any particles bigger than 2 or 3mm being trapped either against the filter pads in their mouths or pushed directly back to their throats. This form of suction feeding is so efficient that only water is emitted from their gills. They are sometimes seen ‘coughing’, which is probably to rid their gills of any unwanted food buildup.
They are open ocean animals, known from the tropics and subtropics, which makes it interesting that the first whaleshark seen by Western scientists was found in Cape Town’s Table Bay back in 1829. It had probably come inshore following an unusual meander of an Agulhas gyre. They like warm surface water, but tagging data has shown that they dive to 700m and spend time down there in 10 degree water. No-one is really sure what they’re doing there.
And when it comes to mysteries, it’s astonishing just how many secrets swirl around those huge slow-moving animals. No-one has ever seen them mating, and it was only in 1995 that a pregnant female was caught with 300 embryos inside her. Today it is known that whalesharks are ovoviviparous, which is to say, the females carry eggs within their two uteri and the embryos grow inside the eggs inside the mother, finally being birthed at about 60cm long. It is thought that females carry many embryos at varying stages of development, probably mate only a few times and may store sperm, fertilising their eggs at different times.
But back to being in the water with whalesharks. They’re huge, a fact which can hardly be overstated, and though they look like they’re moving slowly, they far outpace even the fastest human swimmer. Best to aim ahead of their apparent feeding direction and hope for the open mouth shot.
Finally, around lunch-time, the plankton swarm has dissipated (or been swallowed by the whalesharks) and the snorkellers return to the dhow. If the wind is right, it’s a creaking smooth sail homewards to Mafia to eat, process images and scheme for the next days’ possible encounters.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Read more abut the dive sites here.
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)
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.
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.
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: 00248 422 9700 (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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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!
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.
Language:French; Creole is widely used
Natural hazards:Cyclones (November to April); active volcanoes
Diving season:Year round
Water temperature:27C/80F (Jan-March), 23C/73F (July-Sept)
In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, almost half way between the United States and Europe, lie the most remote group of islands in the Atlantic ocean, The Azores. For the many species that migrate the Atlantic, the Azores is an oasis in a big blue desert. The Azores is at the epicenter of the cold and nutrient-rich currents of the North and the warm waters of the Gulf Stream from the South. These currents meet to create an upwelling resulting in an explosion of life every year.
Text and images by Nuno SÁ
The beginning of this cycle starts with the spring “bloom” as the water gets warmer and fills with microscopic algae, giving it a greenish hew. This attracts the biggest and smallest of the ocean’s animals. This microscopic algae, or phytoplankton, attract zooplankton, which in turn attract and serves as nourishment to giant travellers crossing the ocean. Blue, fin, bryde’s, sei and minke whales arrive, stopping in these nutrient rich waters, to gather strength and food in order to complete their migration north to the cold Arctic waters. During their visit to the islands, these large baleen whales meet the Azores’ resident giant of the seas, the pods of sperm whales that hunt for squid in the deep waters that surround the archipelago.
When the first days of summer arrive the water gets clearer by the day, yet the food chain continues with the microscopic plankton giving way to large bait balls of fish and the multitude of predators that follow. As the warm summer breezes arrive so do the more tropical species such as large pods of Atlantic spotted dolphins, pilot whales, loggerhead turtles, devil rays, blue and mako and whale sharks and finally, the large schools of fish.
The archipelago of the Azores comprises nine islands and lies over five hundred kilometres (approximately three hundred and ten miles). These nine islands are the most isolated in the North Atlantic, situated one thousand, three hundred kilometres (approximately eight hundred and seven miles) from the southwestern coast of mainland Portugal.
Diving is possible at all of the islands of the archipelago and encompasses shore dives, cave dives, wreck dives and the Azores highlight – diving on distant underwater mountains (seamounts) where dozens of manta rays and big schools of fish are a common sight.
The archipelago can be divided into three groups – eastern, central and western. Within each group, the islands are in close proximity to each other (just four miles from Pico to Faial in the central group), but each group can be up to over a hundred miles away from the next. Yet, each island is so different from the other that it is hard to describe them as group. What they do have in common is peace and quiet, breathtaking volcanic landscapes and cows everywhere … roads included.
Underwater, these islands are as diverse as they are on the surface, with blue sharks at one island and whale sharks at another. Or a World War II shipwreck on one island and 15th and 16th century wrecks on another. Coastal dives are however, rather similar throughout the archipelago. Because the islands are of volcanic origin the islands underwater rock formations are very impressive, with large arches that originate from ancient lava flows and deep caves that inter-connect to several chambers.
Typical sea life includes large dusky groupers, curious triggerfish, and several species of nudibranchs, morays and octopus amongst the rocks. Colorful red hogfish are normally more common at greater depths of twenty meters or more where the black coral (Antipathella wollastoni) branches are also quite common.
Many small and colourful species such as peacock wrasse, parrotfish, Azores chromis (Chromis limbata) and Mediterranean rainbow wrasse can also be seen. Large shoals of pelagic fish such as guelly jack, almaco jack, yellow mouth barracuda, Atlantic bonito or, for the luckier, a majestic devil ray, a turtle or an ocean sunfish are occasionally sighted on coastal dives. But the offshore underwater seamounts are definitely the place to visit for big pelagics and are what makes the Azores a unique diving destination.
Azores Highlights Some of the most well known diving experiences in these Islands are the Princesa Alice offshore seamount, and diving with blue sharks in high seas. Both these dive experiences are to be found in the central group of islands and are done from Pico or Faial Islands. Diving offshore seamounts is among the best diving these islands have to offer and the Princesa Alice dive is definitely second to none. Located about forty-five miles from Faial Island (three hour trip) this seamount erupts from a depth of in excess of five hundred metres to around thirty-five meters below the surface.
Offshore dives in high seas are completely unpredictable, but big groups of curious devil rays and big shoals of thousands of large pelagic fish, such as yellow mouth barracudas, jacks, and especially Atlantic bonitos, are among the main attractions. Several species of shark, ocean sunfish or manta rays are also among the most sighted species. Of course, with the Azores being home to over twenty different species of whales and dolphins, the trip to Princes Alice always includes some ocean travellers such dolphins, sperm whales or loggerhead turtles.
The Azores is also one of the few places in the world where you can dive with one of the sea’s most beautiful predators – the blue shark, and Pico and Faial are the birthplace of this new activity. Diving with blue sharks is done “in the blue”, either snorkeling or scuba diving, and is definitely an unforgettable experience. Just minutes after a container with bait hits the pristine water subtle shadows can be seen shooting from hundreds of meters deep straight to the surface.
Cautious and elusive at first but settled as their confidence grows, these predators of the deep are extremely curious. They approach and inspect every diver, sometimes even lightly brushing divers with a tactile test along the shark’s sensitive lateral line. On a typical dive divers are surrounded by eight to fifteen of these beautiful predators of the high seas, with the occasional elusive mako shark showing up for a quick visit.
Santa Maria Island situated in the eastern group, is probably the Azores best kept secret. It is a small island with white sandy beaches and is completely off the beaten track boasting whale sharks and groups of devil rays just thirty minutes from the harbour. Although big groups of devil rays are typically seen on offshore seamounts, Santa Maria is the only island of the Azores where you can see dozens of these majestic animals slowly gliding around divers on a daily basis just three miles from the coast. This happens in a place called Ambrósio, and you can literally see up to fifty devil rays on a single dive, as well as large shoals of pelagic fish … topping it off with the occasional whale shark.
Up to three years ago whale sharks were a very rare sight and mostly described by tuna fisherman after encounters in high seas. However since 2008 the biggest fish of the sea has chosen the island of Santa Maria to spend the summer. Nonetheless spotting this colossus is not for the faint of heart, as they usually appear about six miles from the coast, which involves setting aside a day to search for them and being prepared for many hours out at sea. But when you do get lucky the experience is priceless; pristine blue water several hundred meters deep, shades of sunlight descending beneath you and a massive whale shark followed by hundreds or thousands of tuna hitching a ride through the Atlantic.
Around twenty-five miles south from Santa Maria (or about forty-five miles north from São Miguel) are two of the Azores most well known offshore dives – Formigas and Dollabarat. Formigas is a series of small rocky islets in the middle of the ocean where a small and uninhabited lighthouse was constructed to prevent ship collisions (unfortunately there were many before it was built).
Dollabarat is an underwater seamount just three miles from Formigas, so making the trip usually involves diving at both sites. What both dives have in common is amazing visibility (up to forty metres and more) and the chance to see big shoals of oceanic pelagic fish such as wahoo, yellow mouth barracudas, jacks, and Atlantic bonitos, as well as devil rays, hammerhead sharks and the occasional manta ray or whale shark. Between dozens of devil rays at Ambrósio, going out for the whale sharks, taking a trip to Formigas and Dollabarat (including a few species of whales, dolphins and sea turtles on the way there), and a few sunsets at Praia Formosa beach, it is no surprise that the divers who are lucky enough to have these experiences like to keep this island a secret.
Aside from the abovementioned highlights, each of the nine islands of the Azores has excellent and different dives. The western group (Flores and Corvo) being the most remote of the islands is known to have breathtaking landscapes, the most pristine waters and is the best place to see large groupers. Terceira Island in the central group is the top place to see 15th – 16th century wrecks, and São Miguel Island on the eastern group is home to the Azores’ most famous wreck dive – the World War II Liberty Ship – DORI.
Visiting the Azores: The Azores’ nine islands offer world-class diving, amazing landscapes, fewer tourists and a lot of peace and quiet. With reasonable coastal dives and the chance of unique experiences on offshore dives, the Azores offers dives for every taste and level of experience. However thinking you can visit all of the Azores “highlights” in just one trip is simply an illusion.
The distance between islands means you should plan some of the more isolated ones as a destination on its own. Yet it is possible to dive in two or three islands in a one to two week trip and still have time for whale watching and sight seeing.
When to go: July to September are the months with the warmest water, best weather, best visibility and best chances to sight pelagic species. Water can get as cold as 16 – 17cº in the winter, and is a pleasing 25cº in the summer. Air temperature, not surprisingly, approximates the water temperature since the islands are very small and hugely influenced by the surrounding mass of water.
Getting there and around: There are airports and daily connections between all the islands, as well as regular boat connections in the summer. TAP (www.tap.pt) and SATA (www.sata.pt) have direct flights to the Azores from Lisbon and several other European capitals as well as Boston, Oakland, Montreal and Toronto. There are 2 official boat operators in the Azores as well as plenty of private taxi services. Transmaçor (www.transmacor.pt) only operates in the central group, while Atlanticoline (www.atlanticoline.pt) connects all the islands. Boat connections work very well in the Western Group (Flores and Corvo) and also between the “Triangle Islands” in the central group (Faial, Pico and São Jorge) with several daily connections. However moving between any other Islands can sometimes be very time consuming and it’s well worth taking a flight. However if you don’t mind taking a day off for the trip it can be very nice (and cheaper) to take a boat trip along the Islands.
Other than that just relax, and get into its easygoing ambiance. After your first visit I am sure you will feel you have discovered a small paradise in the Atlantic.
Five hundred kilometers north of the Mozambique capital, Maputo and just over 20 kilometers from Inhambane lies the quant beach village of Tofo. It consists of about 40 houses and a small market, which is surrounded by coconut plantations and the most amazing turquoise ocean. It has a stunning beach stretching for 8 kilometers, which is great for swimming and long soul soothing walks. Most of the bars and restaurants are along this stretch of beach making everything very accessible. There is also Tofinho beach (or little Tofo) just around the point which is more secluded and great for surfing and fly fishing. Tofo beach is wonderful with white sands and clean blue water that is warm making it fantastic for swimming and attracting an abundance of marine life. Breathtaking sunrises over the Indian Ocean are something well worth getting up early for as it is a sight to be admired. At night all the restaurants and bars turn on their lights which bring this little town to life. Nothing is too far, so it’s an easy walk on the beach to most places. It is perfectly safe to walk on the beach day or night. Be cautious of the jellyfish when they are around as they can administer a nasty sting. They do however provide great photographic opportunities. Tofo has some of the best diving in the world and is truly spectacular. It offers divers everything from graceful Mantas to an abundance of macro reef life and pelagic sea life. The biodiversity of the area is amazing! It’s one of the only places in the world where you can see the world’s largest sting ray- the Small Eyed Sting Ray. It’s also home to about 20% of the world’s whale shark population. The combination of all the above makes for great diving.
Text and Images by Paul Hunter
The two main diving operators in Tofo are Diversity Scuba and Tofo Scuba. I decided to dive through the latter. I found Tofo Scuba to be a well run operation with friendly and polite staff that try and cater to everybody’s needs. The facilities were clean and practical with ample space to kit up. The wash up area has four different washbasins for different equipment, which is always good for photographers. The venue also has a restaurant on the beach that is perfect for that breakfast or lunch after your dive. The thing that impressed me the most was the level of detail to each dive briefing. This really helps so that there is no confusion before or during the dive, everybody is on the same page. The reefs are in good condition; however it has been growing in popularity for many years, resulting in more and more divers visiting these reefs. The dive centre is strict on their no touching policy, also the code of conduct for swimming with a variety of animals. With a cylinder full of Nitrox and my housed camera I was ready for my first dive to the famous Manta reef. The boat ride took us about 45 minutes as the ocean was very choppy. I was hoping luck would be on our side as no manta had been spotted in the area for the last month. But it wasn’t to be and we unfortunately didn’t see the elusive manta. The visibility wasn’t great either, but we did however get to see plenty of snappers, large moray eels, crescent tailed big eyes and hundreds of blue red-fang trigger fish. The topography of the reef was awesome with numerous pinnacles, canyons and gullies. It was only after the dive that I realized that this reef has so much more to offer than just Mantas. This is a reef that one could dive many times and never get bored. This is definitely an advanced dive as the depth varies between 21m and 26m and should be treated as such.
The following day the conditions had improved and it was decided to try another reef called Hogwarts. This was another fantastic reef with unbelievable topography and fish life. Every gully and pothole seems to be filled to the brim with glassfish and Lionfish. Large schools of snapper and triggerfish hover just off the reef. Two giant frogfish the size of a small dog we spotted towards the end of the dive. What amazed me was that even though large in size they were so well camouflaged that we would have not seen them if it had not been for the dive guide. On our accent to the safety stop a squadron of sixteen Devil rays flying in formation past us twice. This was also to be a memorable dive.
I woke on the Thursday morning to perfect conditions and the most amazing sunrise. I had this feeling we would see Manta today and we did. We returned to Manta Reef only for me to miss the initial sighting of the Manta, I was devastated! To make up for this we got to see a Dragon eel, which was a first for me. It had the most astonishing colours I had ever seen on an eel. Towards the end of the dive a few of us got to spend 15 minutes with a Manta. We were instructed to hang in mid water below the cleaning station as not to frighten it while it circled above us over and over. It was truly an allinspiring experience to spend time with such a majestically creature. Unfortunately we had run out of time and had to return to the surface only to be accompanied by another two Giant Mantas. It was disappointing to leave them, as they seemed to be doing what I call the “Manta dance” where they do loops with each other. We returned to Manta reef two days later to once again have another Manta sighting. I was the only one to see the Manta as it appeared out of the blue. It was gliding effortlessly in the current and I was struck again by the incredible grace and beauty. I managed to maneuver myself into position to take my best Manta image to date. It gave me one fly by and disappeared into the distance just as it has appeared not to be seen again. Manta Reef had lived up to its name and definitely rates as on the best reefs I have dived on.
Returning to shore after the dive there was a lot of hype about a whale shark that had been spotted by another dive boat. We quickly signed for the ocean safari in the hope of getting a chance of swimming with it. We spent 90 minutes fruitlessly searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack. On the way home our guide miraculously spotted the whale shark to our delight. We all quietly entered the water and managed to get a quick glimpse as it swam by, it was an enthralling experience for all especially for the first timers. Overall the diving in Tofo is fantastic. The conditions were great and the sightings plentiful from schooling jacks, devil rays, turtle and leopard shark, a lot of moral eel and this is just to name a few. The combination make for a wonderful diving holiday and well worth the trip.
Accommodation Tofo has a wide range of accommodation from rustic beach chalets to luxury three bedroom houses all along the bay. We had selected Casa Barry lodge to be our home for the duration of our stay. The lodge is situated on the southern end of the bay directing on the beach. Our accommodation was in the form of a casita (reed hut) which consists of a single room and a basic bathroom with shower, toilet and basin. It was rustic but clean and spacious. The only complaint that we had was that they were built close to each other. The staff was very friendly and helpful. Fulltime security guards patrol the lodge and the beach giving you the peace of mind knowing that you can swim without worrying about your belongings on the beach or your valuables in your casita. The lodge offers a full restaurant and bar facility that overlooks the whole bay which is great for sun-downers. They offer simple meals from hamburgers and pasta to more extravagant seafood platters. All the seafood is purchased fresh from the local fisherman. The lodge is also a sponsor of the Manta Ray and Whale Shark Trust as well as the home to the Manta Ray and Whale Shark Research Centre. Tofo is one of the best places to dive with Giant Manta rays and swim with Whale Sharks all year round. Both Dr Simon Pierce (whale shark biologist) and Dr Andrea Marshall (specialist in manta rays) are resident to the Casa Barry and give regular presentations at the lodge. These we found to be very informative, interesting and is well worth attending. Dr Andrea Marshall has recently had her documentary aired as part of the BBC Natural World series.
Activities There is plenty to do in and around Tofo besides diving. We managed to squeeze in a sunset horseback ride along the beach, through the coconut plantations and small villages. The guide was very knowledgably providing insight on the area. While on the relaxed horse ride we passed Mango Beach where we later returned for cocktails; this is the perfect end to any day. They have a lovely bar that looks out over the ocean and the sun setting over the Mozambique mainland. A trip to Inhambane is also a great way to experience a little bit of the Mozambique history. It is one of the oldest cities in Mozambique that still has colonial styled building, cathedral, museum, and beautiful old mosque. Also pay a visit to the central market which sells fresh fruit, vegetables and fish. If you have the energy and time you can learn to surf and kite board as lessons are available.
There are plenty of bars and restaurants in the area. Too many to mention all here are the few we visited: • Dinos Bar is located right on the beach near Tofo Scuba. It has a good food, good music and a vibrant party atmosphere at night. The menu is varied and includes lots of different dishes from pizzas and schwarmas to grilled fish and prawns or a beef kebab. They also have great cocktails. • Casa de Comer is just off the beach near the market, the atmosphere is French bistro/Mozambican café. We found it to be cheaply priced, great menu in a lovely setting. Sitting almost on the street, yet with the ambiance of the restaurant you get to watch the locals passing & dine on superb cuisine. • This small bar and restaurant is located 5km out of Tofo at the junction of the roads to Inhambane and Barra Beach. Bar Babalaza offer good food including their famous crab curries and delicious prawns. Although not on the beach, it’s a great place to sit and chat in the shady front garden while you wait for their fresh bread to bake.
The summer of 2001 was my first dive trip to Sodwana bay. For my first dive, we launched just after 7am and already the African sun was high in the sky. Our dive boat skipped over the calm ocean en route to our dive location – a reef called 7-Mile. After a 30-minute boat ride the skipper brought the boat to a stop and immediately organised chaos broke out as everybody grabbed for fins and masks. One by one, the skipper helped everyone kit-up before maneuvering the boat to the exact location above the reef using landmarks. At first I was not convinced that anybody could locate a reef using landmarks and triangulation but to this day I have never been dropped incorrectly. The skipper then counted down 3-2- 1 and we all rolled backwards off the boat in unison. We were greeted by a kaleidoscope of colour and large schools of goatfish and blue banded snapper which hung in mid-water above the reef.
Text and Images by Paul Hunter
There were so many fish I felt like I was in an aquarium. From that initial moment I knew Sodwana was a special place and have since never been disappointed. That dive went on to be one of those spectacular dives with large moray eels, turtle, nudibranches and much more. To this day, 7-Mile reef is still one of my favorites with its many swim throughs, over- hangs and mushroom rock.
Over the past 6 years I have spent diving holidays in Indonesia (Bali, Wakatobi, Bunaken, Lembeh), the Red Sea (North and South) and Malaysia (Sipadan), and after every trip I realise what Sodwana and South African diving has to offer. I believe diversity is the word I’m looking for. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy diving internationally and will continue to as long as it offers something different. However, for me, these international destinations seem to be lacking something. I call it the “wild factor” which I believe diving in South Africa offers. On any given dive in Sodwana you have a good chance of seeing manta, turtles, whale shark, numerous other shark species and dolphin plus an abundance of macro subjects. And that’s just underwater. The entire bay is surrounded by a massive sand dune covered in a dense coastal forest which offers plenty other animal life.
I believe diving in Sodwana can compare with any top dive destination in the world due to its variety of coral reefs, phenomenal sea life and all year round good visibility. The reefs of Sodwana are regarded as the southern most coral reefs in the world and the only tropical dive site in South Africa. Divers are exposed to more than 1200 species of fish on the many reefs. The point I’m trying to make is reinforced every year at the Sodwana Shootout. Each year, while viewing the images of all the contestants I’m blown away at what is available right here on my doorstep. I ask myself the same question every year: “why do I do international trips when I have all this diversity right here in the country I live in”.
My favorite Sodwana dive spots
• 9 Mile Reef is the furthest and takes about 40 minutes, depending on the conditions. The great thing about this trip is that there is a good chance of seeing and possibly swimming with dolphin and whale shark, and in season humpback and southern right whales. The dive site comprises some small walls, caves, overhangs and pinnacles. This reef is best known for the “Green Tree”; a coral tree that stands tall, surrounded by goldies and other fish. The maximum depth is 22 meters on the sand and average depth about 18 meters. Due to its distance from the launch site, the reef is not dived often so is in pristine condition. The marine life is diverse and includes most of the tropical fauna typical of the region as well as big schools of passing game fish. • 7 Mile Reef, just 25 minutes from the beach, to me, the most scenic reef in Sodwana. The maximum depth is 24 metres and the average around 18 metres. This reef is in immaculate condition and is populated by every type of fish imaginable. There are large schools of snapper and goatfish that hang in mid-water. Their yellow bodies contrast against the blue water making for unbelievable visuals. The reef is well known for the amphitheatre and mushroom rock. Also have a look out for turtles, rays, kingfish and much, much more. This is definitely not a dive spot to be missed. • About 20 minutes from the beach lies 5 Mile reef. This reef is well known for ‘pothole’ which is an amazing spot for macro photography opportunities and it never disappoints. Also have a look around the top of pothole and on the sand around it. I have come upon numerous surprises here. 5 Mile is a flattish reef with spectacular plate and stag horn corals. Just inshore from 5 Mile at a depth of approx 20 metres is Ribbon reef. This a also a great reef for macro sea life and is named after the ribbon eels that reside here. • 2 Mile Reef is only about 5 minutes by boat from the beach. It is a very large reef with numerous places to dive. The reef ’s depth ranges from 8–10 metres to 16–18 metres with an average of 12 metres. Some of the spots you can dive are: Chain, Pinnacles, Caves and Overhangs, Coral gardens, Four Bouy and my favorite, Antons. This reef has many gullies, ledges, pinnacles and outcrops. I have seen everything from turtles, schooling jacks, reef shark and many more. The thing I like about 2 Mile is the diversity of the coral and fish life. • Quarter Mile Reef is basically just behind the breakers and about 12 metres deep. In the summer months this reef is home to ragged tooth sharks that come here to gestate. This dive can only be done when the conditions are right. So if the conditions and season are right I would highly recommend it.
Two other reefs that I have to mention are Stringer and Bikini as they are both awesome dives. Stringer lies between quarter and 2-mile reef. It consists of 2 reefs – small stringer and big stringer. Small Stringer is a round piece of coral which attracts a lot of juvenile fish. Big Stringer is more of an elongated reef. It is normally dived on the shore side and when conditions are calm. The other reef I want to tell you about is Bikini. It runs parallel to 2 Mile and is mainly flat . My favorite location on this reef is the Ledge, which is a fair-sized cleaning station. The macro photography opportunities here are world-class. It’s a deep dive and therefore more suited to an advanced diver.
Let me tell you a little about Sodwana now. Sodwana Bay or, “little one on its own” in Zulu, lies in the heart of Maputaland. It is also situated within the Greater St Lucia Wetland park, South Africa’s first World Heritage Site. Both Maputoland and the St Lucia Marine Reserve are linked to form a continuous protected area stretching 150 kilometres on land and 3 nautical miles out to sea. Sodwana is easily accessible by a 4 hour dive from Durban and 7 hours from Johannesburg.
Conditions are generally good throughout the year with the best diving from April to September. Visibility can be up to 30 metres on a good day and the average is around 14 metres. The weather is typically subtropical with water temperature above 20°C reaching as high as 29°C in summer.
All the dive sites of Sodwana Bay are named according to the distance from the launch site. The majority of the dive sites are shallow, with an average of around 18 metres. There are however several deeper sites available for those qualified.
It is not only diving that makes Sodwana an exquisite destination. There is also snorkeling, bird watching, hiking, turtle viewing and much more. With its scenic beauty and close proximity to some world-renowned game reserves, Sodwana Bay is the perfect destination for divers who would like to experience the wilder side of life.
Sodwana is more than just diving, it can be an adventure. A must do is turtle viewing at Sodwana Bay. Five known species of turtle regularly visit Sodwana. Two of which, the Loggerhead and Leatherback, visit every year during the summer months (November to March) at night to lay their eggs. To experience these creatures coming ashore to nest is an incredible sight. Even more incredible is when you get to experience the hatchlings struggling to survive the furry of predators. This event only takes place in a few places in the world. Maputoland boasts the longest running protected program for turtles in the world. Night turtle tours are provided during December and January. Departure times vary with the tide.
Muzi Pans Just a short 35 minute drive from Sodwana is Muzi Pans which is an little oasis away from the crowds and easily accessible via a tar road. The pans are situated on the Mkhuze river floodplain between Mkhuze Game Reserve and Lake St Lucia. The pan is home to Nile crocodile, hippos and an abundance of bird species. On a good day up to 100 different species can be seen here. The area does have Zululand Birding Route trained local bird guides who can assist you with birding in the area and a guided canoe trip can also be taken on the pan with trained canoe guides. It is well worth the effort to visit Muzi Pans.
Lake Sibaya – Mabibi Another great location to visit is Lake Sibaya, with its 100 kilometres of untouched shoreline. It is South Africa’s largest freshwater lake measuring 70 square kilometres. The lake lies within the Isimangaliso Wetland Park and is now a World Heritage Site. It provides a habitat for birds, mammals and marine life. This lake has the second largest population of hippos and crocodile in KwaZulu-Natal and is also an important habitat for many bird species. In dry spells, Lake Sibaya is the only source of water for birds and mammals in the area. The entire wetland also supports many of the rural people who in many cases are totally dependent on the water resources. If you are into bird watching then Lake Sibaya is the place for you with 279 species recorded at the lake alone. This wetland is very important for breeding, roosting and feeding. Some of the species you can expect to see are red and white breasted cormorants; pied, giant and malachite kingfishers; fish eagles and a variety of herons, darters and egrets. Waders include white-fronted sand plover, black-winged stilt, avocent, greenshank and spoonbills. Also recorded at the lake are the much sought-after pel’s fishing owl, pygmy goose, palmnut vulture, flamingo, woodward’s batis and rufousbellied heron.
Game viewing or safaris for our international readers Another reason I have always thought Sodwana to be an international destination is that it offers visitors the chance to do some world class diving and then also experience some of our country’s best game parks. Just think, you can dive in the morning and in the afternoon be on a game drive viewing the Big 5. It does not get better than that. There are numerous game parks close to Sodwana.
Below are some of the better-known ones: • Hluhluwe Game Reserve is one of the oldest reserves in Africa . It is also well known for its role in rhino conservation. The park stretches over 96 000 hectares and is home to the Big Five as well as more elusive animals, such wild dog, giraffe, cheetah and Nyala. The northern section of the park is known for the diverse range of both animal and bird life. Guided walks are also available and best to do early morning or late afternoon. Numerous types of accommodation are available. Hluhluwe is located in a low risk malaria area so visitors should consult their doctors before visiting. • Thanda Game Reserve is a private reserve and lodge that offers ultimate luxury and world-class service. They offer 9 luxurious villas in the main lodge and 4 large luxurious tents in the tented camp. Thanda offers the Big Five and much more. The game restoration project has been successfully launched and the reserve is witnessing its 4th breeding season since the land was purchased in 2002. • Phinda Private Game Reserve is located in the lush Maputaland region in northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Phinda comprises of 23 000 hectares (57 000 acres) of prime conservation land. They offer an abundance of wildlife including Africa’s Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, black and white rhino, buffalo) and over 380 bird species. Guests can look forward to exciting game-drives in open 4×4 safari vehicles led by experienced rangers and Zulu trackers Phinda has seven safari lodges which all offer sophistication and style in the African bush.