Dolphins ‘Popping’ in Ponta do Ouro, Mozambique…

Dolphins ‘Popping’ in Ponta do Ouro, Mozambique…

One of the most fascinating things about my work with the wild #dolphinsofponta  is being able to create a safe space were humans are able to observe this special species in their own environment.

Over the past couple of years I have filmed numerous events of a vocalisation I called tok, toking….Popping, a term coined by Richard C. Connor and Rachel A. Smolker in their article entitled ‘Pop’ goes the Dolphin, is of of those vocalisations that normally stops me mid swim! It’s done by the big boys and is sometimes followed by aggressive behaviours such as mock charges and open jaws!

In the coastal shallows of Shark Bay W.Australia three adult males were observed between 1987-88 in the company of one single female at a time. Over the period the female was seen to turn in towards the males and the authors concluded that popping is a threat vocalisation telling the female to stay close.

The series of low frequency pulse sounds are very distinctive and always accompanied by a series of bubbles. Through our in-water recordings in the Ponta do Ouro Partial Marine Reserve in Mozambique we are able to associate the popping with the bubbles and the individuals – and guess what – they are all males too!

Since 2008 we have recorded some 30 events of popping. Interestingly enough though, most of our events included large nursery pods with adult male escorts. It seems that popping is also used on this side of the globe to keep the girls together.

On the 27th September I filmed an event with RemmyBoy and two other same age males together with a juvenile male who were in pursuit of Maria a young female.  It did look like the young boy was getting a lesson in popping and herding – with Maria being the consort this time! The adult males however this time slowed for a bit of circle swimming and conscious interaction with me before heading off in pursuit of Maria once more.

The #dolphinsofponta are part of a longterm monitoring project that was started in 1997 by DolphinCareAfrica; the research & conservation arm of the Dolphin Encountours Research Center in Ponta do Ouro, Mozambique.

 

Reference: Connor, Richard & Smolker, Rachel. (1996). ‘Pop’ Goes the Dolphin: a Vocalization Male Bottlenose Dolphins Produce During Consortships. Behaviour. 133. 643-662. 10.1163/156853996X00404. 

Funding research through Dolphin Eco-Tourism

Funding research through Dolphin Eco-Tourism

One of my first memories of dolphins was as a child, Conservation standing with my Granny on the veranda of her holiday home in Ramsgate, southern KwaZulu Natal. She had spotted dolphins frolicking in the waves and was jumping up and down in excitement shrieking with joy each time one of the sleek, silvery-grey, torpedo-like creatures cleared the waves.

Text and images by Angie Gullan – Founder Dolphin Encountours in support of DolphinCare.Org

This joy is often relived now with guests I take to meet the Dolphins of Ponta.

Later on in life I was to learn that dolphins were revered amongst ancient civilizations and to ‘swim with dolphins’ ranked top on bucket lists. I discovered that dolphins are highly intelligent and are, in essence, persons. I learned that they are befriend-able and if approached in the right way, with the right attitude, these sentient beings would never cease to amaze.

The coastal waters off the east African seaboard are home to populations of semi resident Indo-Pacific, inshore bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus). These gregarious dolphins are different from their larger and more robust oceanic counterparts Tursiops truncates, the common bottlenose dolphin, in that they freckle on their bellies and have a longer and more slender beak.

The Dolphins of Ponta are one such population. Some 250 individuals live within a complex cross border network which traverses the towering ‘duned’ coastline and surrounding reef structures that makes up the Ponta Partial Marine Reserve in Mozambique and bordering the World Heritage site of iSimangaliso in South Africa.

Ponta do Ouro is home to the country’s first dedicated dolphin interaction and research project that was developed in the mid 90’s under the auspices of Dolphin Encountours. With the guidance of both scientific and spiritual advisers the special inwater program was developed to fund ongoing research through taking like-minded tourists to encounter dolphins in their natural environment.

The eco-tourism project served the growing need of people seeking to swim with dolphins as well as the need to assess the populations of marine mammals that frequented the area.

Priority number one was to create a safe space for human-dolphin encounters to take place and through the specially developed Dolphincare code of conduct this was made possible. Standard operating procedures were developed which included comprehensive pre-encounter briefings, snorkelling instructions and the collection of baseline data by means of a database that was compiled in collaboration with various institutes, mainly the Natural History Museum of the University Eduardo Mondalane in Maputo. As time passed we learned from the dolphins and were better able to understand, anticipate and distinguish different behaviours and postures, which offered a form of communication between them and us.

This understanding has led to some profound encounters with the Dolphins of Ponta. Some of these encounters leave one in a state of absolute bliss, finding both human and dolphin engaging in what seems to be a time of just being together.

If the situation arises a bout of seaweed interaction may take place and some energetic circle swimming will be had with people the individual dolphins know. They have been observed chasing sharks away from human swimmers and individuals have shown us the art of hunting and eating red-fang trigger fish. Mums and calves are observed in private time together where specific behaviours are taught and if something unusual happens to be in the area, the inquisitive dolphins will venture off to inspect, often leading us to wonderful sightings hidden down below.

Sadly the encounters sometimes leave us with a heavy heart as we realize and see first hand the impact human beings have on our finned friends. Mozambique’s pot of gold lies not only in tourism but in gas and oil exploration and industrial coastal development which will have adverse long term effects on marine mammals. Coastal tourism in Mozambique is growing exponentially and as its famed underwater kingdoms and fishing hotspots become accessible, more and more encounters with humans and their vessels are inevitable.

During the early 2000’s I was out guiding a dolphin session when we located two dolphins, one known to me as Spin. Spin was a young dolphin that enjoyed engaging with us. She was always the first on the bow and the first to initiate a circle swim.

On this day though, things were amiss. As the boat approached her, distressed vocalizing was heard and as I slipped into the water I could see why; the little dolphin was wrapped up in fishing line! I slowly unwrapped her, but found no way to remove the very large hook, which was by now deeply embedded in her belly. This was the last time I saw little Spin.

The DolphinCare.Org’s database comprises thousands of images, observational records, sound recordings and video recordings of semiresident dolphins and other marine mammals that frequent the area. Individual dolphins have their own files where relevant events are recorded with some of the individuals first being observed in the area when the project was in its pilot stage. Dolphin Encountours, the German Dolphin Conservation Society and volunteers primarily fund the project.

For more information on encountering the Dolphins of Ponta or finding out about how you can get involved and help the project please visit:

www.dolphin-encountours.com in support of www.dolphincare.org

Réunion Island

Réunion Island

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

Text and Images By Gaby Barathieu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Réunion’s Most Popular Dive Sites

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

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

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

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

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

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About the Author

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

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Useful stuff:

Language:French; Creole is widely used

Currency:Euro

Time:GMT +4

Climate:Tropical

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

Diving season:Year round

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

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

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Paul Hunter

Paul Hunter

Besides being a solutions architect by day, Paul Hunter is co-founder of African Diver Magazine and a very enthusiastic underwater photographer. In fact, Paul’s love of underwater photography was his inspiration for co-founding African Diver Magazine – in his own words “the three African destinations that I really enjoy diving and photographing – Mozambique where Inhambane Province is great for awesome reefs and shooting mantas and whale sharks, the Red Sea because of the clean water and abundance of photographic material and lastly South Africa which, I believe offers everything from sharks, mantas, whales sharks, wrecks and abundance of reef and fish life”.

Paul began shooting underwater in 2001 with a Sony Cyber Shot. Since then he has worked with many camera systems and has now settled on a Nikon DSLR/Sea & Sea package. His passion for underwater photography has seen him take on various leadership positions, all aimed at building the community of southern African underwater photographers.

The two main leadership positions worth noting are, as chairman of GUPS (a community of underwater photographers based in Johannesburg) and as lead organiser of the annual Sodwana Shootout underwater photography competition.

Like most underwater photographers, Paul was drawn to the art by a need to share his underwater experiences with non-diving family and friends. And like most underwater photographers this developed into a deep passion for photographing the ever-changing underwater flora and fauna at his local (and favourite) dive spots.

These days the responsibility of fatherhood restricts Paul’s underwater shooting expeditions yet he manages to make at least one diving trip per year count and he’s hoping that as his children get older his diving trips will increase in frequency.

Paul’s worked through all the genres of underwater photography; macro, super-macro and wide-angle. But his favourite genre is wide-angle underwater photography, mainly because it’s the most challenging.

While southern Africa and the Red Sea inspire Paul’s underwater photography he lists Wakatobi, Indonesia and Sipadan, Malaysia as his favourite non-African destinations. And he’d really like to go to the Galapagos islands, Papua New Guinea, the Azores and Micronesia sometime in the future.  On his bucket-list though is to photograph humpback whales in Tonga and sperm whales in the Azores.

Paul’s images reflect his passion for Megafauna but also for wide-angle reef scenes and marine animal behaviour and can be seen from this selection.

You can see more of Paul’s images on www.paulhunterphotography.com

Stunning Sodwana Bay

Stunning Sodwana Bay
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Launch for a dive in Sodwana

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

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Cresent-tail Bigeye create great contrast with the blue background

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Lionfish flaring for a great image

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Thousands of Glass fish surround divers

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.

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Leopard shark on the sand

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.

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Plenty of Whale sharks can be spotted in Sodwana during the correct season

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Anyone for Sardines?

Anyone for Sardines?
The cliff faced wild coast

Jean Marx took himself off to experience the sardine run this year. This is what he learned.  In a world of countless stories of been there done that, people often go to extremes to find that something special or new. I have been diving for a long time and have been all around the globe in search of that new, special place – from the Galapagos to the Coral Sea, and most places in between. Yet I had often heard about the sardine run, but never got round to experiencing it. As with most things in life – this X file syndrome that it’s out there – we often overlook what is right on our doorstep

Text and images by Jean Marx

Earlier this year, I went on a Tiger Shark weekend to Umkomaas, organized by Prestige Dive School. The operator that we used was Blue Rush. They specialize in shark encounters and the sardine run. The owners, Dietmar and Raffaella, are a very interesting couple. Dietmar is Austrian and able to speak 7 languages while Raffaella (Raffa) is an Italian lady that knows her way around sharks. We had an awesome experience gaining good footage of Tiger and Blacktip sharks. On one dive we saw dolphin and humpback whales and suddenly the conversation started veering towards the sardine run. Raffa said that she would bring some photos to dinner that evening. That night, we were in high spirits after a very exciting day when the photo album came out -images of breaching whales, dolphin surfing waves and frantic bird action. I decided that this year I was going, come hell or high water.

Humpback whale breaching

Unfortunately high water came. Massive torrential floods hit the South Coast. Visibility was down to zero and with 4 meter swells there was no chance of getting out to sea. I was very disappointed but kept on watching the forecasts.

I saw a forecast that showed a potential break in the weather and phoned Dietmar in Port St Johns, where Blue Rush was based for the 2008 run. The Sea was calming down and most importantly the visibility was improving. I was on the plane the next day on my way to the Wild Coast where Dietmar and Raffa were hosting a group of Italians for the week.

Ideally I should have taken 2 cameras. I prepped a Nikon D200 with 10.5mm fisheye for underwater. On the trip I met a famous photographer Carlo Mari who was testing the D3 for Nikon. He kindly lent me his D300 for boat-based shooting. The best lens for this being something in the 70mm-200mm range.

Gannets diving for sardines

Black tip shark

The sardine run happens every year between May and July. There are many theories why the sardines “migrate”, but no scientific proof. One of the accepted theories is that changes in the frontal system, move cold water from the Agulhas Bank northwards and the sardines see this occurrence as an extension of their habitat. The run begins in deep water off the East Coast, or Wild Coast, of South Africa and then moves on to the Kwazulu Natal coastline. The continental shelf defines the sardine run experience to be had. Along the East Coast the continental shelf is very close to shore and it gets deep very quickly. This is where you will find the classic “bait ball” where predators surround a group of sardines. On the Kwazulu Natal coast, where it is very shallow, you will find a lot of shark activity resulting in the “doughnut” formation. This is where a shark is surrounded by sardines and it looks like a doughnut from the air. This is also where the sardines will get pushed up to shore on occasion. This activity is not really dived but promises some opportunity with big schools of game fish also joining the hunt.

Ideal sardine conditions comes with good visibility and calm seas. But the chances to see the sardines improves with colder water and a SW wind that helps blow the sardines closer to shore. Expect a long day at sea, a lot of swimming and getting in and out of the boat numerous times in order to keep up with the ever-moving sardines.

The best indication of sardine action is Cape Gannets circling in the air and then and diving into the water. Just before they reach the water they pull their wings back like a fighter jet. It is quite strange to hear a loud crack and then be suddenly looking at a bird with a sardine in its mouth 10 meters under the water. The truth is, once you get into the water, you don’t know what to expect. There can be absolutely nothing or only sardines that are being targeted by the Gannets. Hopefully there are big predators too, like dolphin or shark. We saw only common dolphin but bottlenose are seen. The sharks that you can encounter are mostly dusky ,copper and blacktip with the occasional Zambezi thrown in for good measure. The dolphin hunt by blowing bubbles and using their sonar to keep the sardines together. They then hit the ball at great speed. Sharks are normally present but will patrol the fringes and bottom of the ball for a snack. The real jackpot is when Bryde’s or Minke Whales start feeding. Penguins and cape fur seals can also make an appearance. There were sightings of sailfish and even false killer whales joining the hunt this year, but these sightings are rare.

So basically your day is spent looking for sardine action. But the activity that you can see from the boat is an action movie in its own right. Humpback Whales breaching, super pods of between 500-1000 dolphin, birds such as cape gannets, cormorants and gulls are abundant with the odd albatross patrolling the skies. If all this activity fails, the scenery of the Wild Coast is wild to say the least. Massive cliffs mark the ragged shoreline where the continuous pounding of the waves has created caves and eerie shapes in the rock. Waterfall Bluff is one of only 4 waterfalls in the world that fall directly into the sea.

I think all divers will agree that diving is like a lucky dip and we gladly take what gift Neptune will show us. The only difference is with the Sardine run, Santa joins the party with a big sleigh of goodies.

The Southern Red Sea

The Southern Red Sea
Playful Dolphins at Dolphin reef

The “Deep South”, as it is sometimes referred to, must be one of the best kept secrets in the Red Sea. Yes it may be further to travel, but that is little to sacrifice for world-renowned encounters with friendly dolphins, wall diving (which must be some of the best in the world), forests of soft coral covering every inch of reef, perfect conditions and visibility that stretches on forever. It is further to travel but, to me, the ultimate benefit of being further away was the fact that 4 days went by before we saw another boat on the same reef as us.

Text and Images by Paul Hunter

After a disappointing trip to the Northern Red sea I was hesitant to return. I had placed the Red Sea on a pedestal. Yes the conditions were perfect and the visibility awesome but there was nothing to see from a fish life perspective. I have to admit though that the two wrecks we did, the Thistlegorn and the Dunraven, were unbelievable and an experience of a life-time.

One of the few times we saw other dive boats on the reefs we were diving

After much persuasion, I was convinced to return. But this time hundreds of kilometres south; the Deep South. I was told that the reefs were what the north was like 15 years ago. I joined a group of about 20 people most of whom are underwater photographers and good friends. This definitely added to the experience of the trip.

Let’s face it travelling to Egypt and the Red Sea is an adventure unlike anywhere else in the world. There is something mystical about the place, I think it has something to do with a history dating back thousands of years. A time of Pharaohs and Gods and a civilization ahead of it’s time. It was time to return to Egypt and the Red Sea.

Driving through Marsa Alam en-route to the harbour I soon realised that this once small fishing village on the western coast of the Red Sea is blooming into a Riviera. It is destined to become another Sharm El Sheik as a top diving destination. Marsa Alam is located some 250km south of Hurghada. Since the opening of its international airport in 2001 this small village has become more popular and accessible. In some way, i wanted to be selfish and stop progress so this place and the unspoilt reefs can remain just as they are.

Dolphin on Dolphin reef
Dolphin on Dolphin reef

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Clown fish in anemone

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Spectacular soft corals

Dolphin Reef, as its name describes, is home to a very large pod of friendly Dolphin. It’s a shallow horse-shoe shaped reef structure, basically in the middle of nowhere. I would highly recommend this experience to anybody who is in the near vicinity of this magical place. To spend time with these highly intelligent mammals and in such an awesome environment is a once-in-a-life-time must. From the time I hit the water it was almost a sensory overload swimming with them; from their high pitched clicking sounds bouncing off my body to being surrounded by no less than 10 dolphins at a time. The more we wanted to interact with them the more they seemed to want to interact with us. I was unsure if they were used to interaction with people or were just unafraid of us as they came right up to me, swimming continually around me in circles or from straight up from below. The interaction was surreal and I’m still unsure who was having more fun; them or us. We must have spent 90 minutes in the water with them before we had to call for the boats to pick us up as we were all exhausted.

The Red Sea and ship wrecks are synonymous so this trip would not be complete without at least one wreck dive. The Abu Galawa Wreck is not a big wreck. In fact it’s only a sailboat, and it lies at the base of the reef on its starboard side in 18m of water. The wreck is very picturesque and great for photographers and the opportunity should not be missed. The boat is mostly intact, except for decking and the upper structure. The inside is filled with a massive shoal of glassfish. I have tried to find out more about this wreck but to no avail. The only information I have is from the guides who told us that’s it’s an American sailboat that sank in 2002.

Small yacht that had collided with reef now an awesome wreck

Diversity, diversity and more diversity is something this trip had from the start and St John’s Cave was no different. From the surface it looks like somebody went to work on the reef with a pizza cutter. I could make out the myriad of tunnels which form an underwater maze through the reef. With our boat moored on the southern side of the reef we were informed that there were two openings to the north which would lead us into the tunnel system. At this stage I must point out that we were extremely lucky as our captain and dive guides gave us a lot of freedom. The captain was very flexible in terms of the different dive locations and the dive guides let us do our own thing. This helped with the bunch of photographers onboard and went a long way in keeping the peace. The dive on this reef was another highlight for me. What we found while diving here was unbelievable. There were deep cracks in the coral plate which provided us with tunnels to navigate and explore. These same cracks allowed shafts of light to penetrate right down to the seabed. It was mesmerising and cathedral-like to witness. What a pleasure to photograph these scenes. Although some of these cracks were narrow to swim through I never felt unsafe or lost as the cracks always opened up to bigger caverns or to the sea again.

Cathedral light at St Johns Caves

Wall diving
Endless visibility and wall dives

Thousands of Goldies surround the reefs

Wonderful Wall diving. With famous names like St Johns and Elphinestone on the agenda, to mention a few, I knew the wall diving was going to be good. To be honest, the wall diving exceeded my expectations. The walls were covered from top to bottom with pristine hard and soft corals. In some places there were forests of soft coral on the wall. This made for awesome underwater photographic opportunities. We were very fortunate that we never really had strong currents on our dives. This meant we could do the dives at our own pace and really get to enjoy some of the wonders on these reefs. Elphinestone lived up to its name as a magical dive site with unbelievable corals and a large variety of fish life. Another good reason to visit this location is the possibility of seeing Oceanic Whitetip shark. Unfortunately we did not get to see any this time, but that is nature and what will keep me coming back.

The phrases: unspoilt, secluded, diverse and some of the best diving I have ever done, sum up my experience. This is really a special place to visit and dive – one which I will highly recommend. If you are looking for an adventure with unspoilt reefs and secluded dive sites this is the place for you. It’s far away from the hustle and bustle of the north. I would also recommend doing this trip on a liveaboard as many of the locations are too far for day trips. With calm surface conditions, visibility that stretches forever and pristine reefs this trip is well worth it.

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