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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