From Shark Bait to Shark Warrior: Lesley Rochat Empowers the Youth

From Shark Bait to Shark Warrior: Lesley Rochat Empowers the Youth

It was the first day on the Wildlife Conservation Photojournalism internship with Lesley Rochat, which I was attending. Five other students joined me as we sat around a table in her beautifully hand-constructed house, perched high up on the side of a mountain, with windows circling us so that we could see the ocean roaring outside. It was some of the most spectacular views I had ever witnessed.

Lesley having fun with and empowering a group of young ladies – the future of our oceans!

Lesley positioned herself in front of us all as if she were going to give a presentation, but to our surprise, she began narrating a colorful and animated story of a little girl who ran off to the beach with her dog without permission. The story was about a little girl who thought she was fiercer and mightier than nature, who jumped into the ocean, and amidst all of this, reality struck, and she almost drowned. That little girl was her. Lesley went on with the story, telling us of how she conquered her fear of water but not before escaping yet another near-drowning experience, this time in a public swimming pool. She then began SCUBA diving only to discover yet another fear; the fear of sharks. “So extreme was my fear of sharks that my dive buddies nicknamed me ‘shark bait’,” she told us laughing.

The true inspiration of the story, however, started revealing itself when she explained that while real fear is a response to external threats to one’s life or wellbeing, the fear of sharks she was suffering from was nothing more than anxiety, emotions that arise from one’s own thoughts, not from external reality.

I anticipate, upon getting to know Lesley on a personal level, that this concept of fear and overcoming it has motivated a lot of her work and education initiatives, including her amazing shark conservation campaigns like ‘Rethink the Shark’, and her groundbreaking documentaries that cover the sad truth behind shark finning. Through defeating her fear, she went from being dubbed Shark Bait to Shark Warrior, defending those who cannot speak.

A group of children having fun while learning what lies beneath the surface of our oceans

Lesley’s passion to make a difference put her on the path of packing up her well-paying corporate career to found AfriOceans Conservation Alliance, a non-profit organization located in Cape Town, South Africa. AfriOceans has been involved in a number of exciting scientific research project, environmental awareness and educational initiatives that aim to empower the youth to become the voice of our oceans. Lesley’s inspiration to empower the next generation stems from her beliefs. She believes that handing over her skills in order to empower the next generation of Earth’s guardians is one of her main life’s purposes. She told me once, “The train of human destruction is steaming ahead, but if there are enough of us pulling in the opposite direction, we can, and we will slow it down.” She believes that what she is fighting for is much larger than herself, adding: “I want to help others become Shark Warriors by helping them develop the same skills, which have helped me to be successful in conservation. The more I can do that, the more chance we have at slowing down the deterioration of our environment.”

One education initiative that is particularly influential is her Swim like a Shark program. Most underprivileged children around South Africa do not know how to swim, despite them living within walking distance to the ocean. Additionally, a majority of these children are afraid of the ocean. When Lesley and I sat down to talk about this initiative and why she started it, I was reminded of that little girl who nearly drowned in the ocean that day. This program teaches basic swimming skills and helps saves lives while at the same time gives these young learners and opportunity to catch sight of the wonders that lie beneath the surface of the water. Lesley says, “The joy, excitement, and appreciation from these children speaks for itself. We’ve had children do the course who have wanted to come back again and again.” She laughs, adding, “We even had kids that were afraid of the kelp, thinking it would bite them, it was so cute. But after doing the course it was hard to get them out of the water!”

Myself and the group of ladies that attended the Wildlife Conservation Photojournalism internship with Lesley Rochat in December 2016

The program has managed to teach a handful of children but unfortunately, like with any non-profit, the challenge is always funding. Lesley mentions, “They [environmental education and awareness] are still quite low down on the list of priorities, in particular in Africa where they believe there are more important issues, such as AIDS and unemployment. So, the environment comes last, and looking for funding for it has become more challenging.” Faced with this challenge, Lesley recently kicked off a sustainable self-funding initiative called Shark Warrior Adventures, a responsible tourism initiative that offers watersports such as snorkeling safaris, sea-kayaking and stand up paddling guided tours. The aim is that Shark Warrior Adventures generates the funding needed to continue the Swim like a Shark program, which holds tremendous potential. It not only teaches the youth how to swim, but it empowers an admiration for the ocean, and opens up opportunities for children interested in ocean related careers.

Practicing photography skills that Lesley Rochat passes along to aspiring conservationists!

Over and above the watersports division of Shark Warrior Adventures is the photographic diving expeditions which Lesley leads to numerous destinations worldwide, as well as the internship courses she runs such as the one I attended. She has already extended her educational internships to the East Coast of the United States, empowering me and five other young ladies, all of whom are students at Coastal Carolina University. By working closely with Lesley on the Wildlife Conservation Photojournalism internship, she is helping us become leaders in enriching the public in understanding environmental issues. The course is truly unique in that we are learning from a leading conservationist and globally respected, award-winning photographer and filmmaker. Some of her awards include Africa’s Most Influential Women in Business and Government Awards, Global Oceans Society, Women Divers Hall of Fame, International League of Conservation Photographers, and she was also 1 of 16 women chosen internationally for ‘Women of Authentic Power’ in Oprah Magazine.

Lesley is handing her knowledge and skills that she has gained over twenty years of being a conservationist over to us, and that is candidly something that you cannot receive anywhere else. She sees long-term goals for the courses, saying, “My aim for these courses is to grow my own army of warriors, and students like yourselves are going to be the next generation to make a difference. You are already on your paths to your careers, and if I can guide you and help you gain broader skills, then that is an accomplishment.” Through multiple articles, blogs, and posts on social media platforms, I have already seen my work having an impact. The Wildlife Conservation Photojournalism course has encouraged me to do more, and keep working as an environmental photojournalist. Lesley has equipped me with the necessary skills to join her army of warriors, and I stand tall, fighting beside her, for those who cannot speak.

To learn more about supporting Lesley Rochat, Swim like a Shark, the Wildlife Conservation Photojournalism course, and other courses coming up soon, visit http://sharkwarrior.com/, http://www.aoca.org.za/ and http://www.lesleyrochat.com/ .

Dive Sites of St. François

Dive Sites of St. François

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.

Napoleon Wrasse

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.

Nurse Shark

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.

Bull Shark

Wouldn’t you like to dive into a world of wonder with the Alphonse Diving Team? Book your scuba diving experience today!

 

Dive Sites of Bijoutier Island

Dive Sites of Bijoutier Island

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.

Who would’ve thought that this tiny gem of the Indian Ocean could hold such wonders? Book your scuba diving experiences at Alphonse Island today and get to explore these wonders for yourself.

Whalesharks of Mafia Island

Whalesharks of Mafia Island

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ivan van Heerden

Ivan van Heerden

I have always been drawn to the sea. A year in Australia in 1988 opened the underwater world to me and I have never looked back. I graduated from the University of Natal with an Honours degree in Aquatic Entomology in 1993. Thereafter I restored a classic wooden yacht and sailed her over to the Caribbean in 1995. For the next 15 years I was fortunate enough to dive and photograph the Virgin Islands, the Bahamas as well as places like Fiji, Hawaii and Guadalupe Island in Mexico. My family and I returned to South Africa in 2009 and I rediscovered Aliwal Shoal.

My photography really started in early 2001 when I bought a Sony 3.2 megapixel point and shoot camera with an underwater housing. While I sometimes wanted to yell, in frustration, due to the shutter lag it taught me invaluable lessons in composition, patience and how to approach the subject. Eventually I reached the limitations of the camera and made the move to a housed DSLR, a Nikon D100 subsequently replaced by a D200.

I was fortunate to be taught by Mauricio Handler, principle assistant to David Doubilet for many years as well as a Nat Geo photographer in his own right. Mauricio’s time and patience were invaluable and I learnt more each time we travelled together: from shooting Great Whites in the crystal clear but cold waters of Guadalupe to the tropical splendour of Fiji. Mauricio likes to push the limits with light, shutter speed and storytelling and I learned a great deal from him.

With Aliwal shoal in my backyard I am now focussing on bringing all that this amazing reef system has to offer to my picture taking. The shoal rightly deserves its place in the top dive sites of the world despite its reputation for current, bad viz and rough launches. Very few places on the planet have the mix of cold and warm water and the resulting unique ecosystem. Every time you dive the Shoal there is something new and exciting to see.

In telling Aliwal’s story through the camera lens, my hope is to try to bring the importance of conserving this unique ecosystem to the fore. Despite being part of one of the first MPA’s in South Africa it is under daily threat from pollution from Sappi Saicor and the fact that KZN Sharks Board has indiscriminate gill nets and drum lines within the MPA is equally worrying. Educating the public is easiest done through a visual medium.

The next chapter in my photography journey is to become bubble-less. Re-breathers, in my opinion, are going to open up a whole new range of sites and photographic opportunities in South Africa. I can’t wait to do my first 3 hour dive on Umzimayi Wall!

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

Tofo, the place of tranquility

Tofo, the place of tranquility

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.

Cape Catsharks – curiouser & curiouser

Cape Catsharks – curiouser & curiouser

A pyjama party: catsharks are social animals and sleep in piles under convenient overhangs (Jean Tresfon)

Mention Cape Town diving and the conversation turns inevitably to sharks. By ‘sharks’ people usually mean the big toothy brutes which are firmly, if irrationally, believed to spend their days cruising in search of a feast of tender human flesh.  These same people are also usually slightly incredulous to discover that though there are many sharks seen around the Cape Peninsula by scuba divers, the sight of them is extremely rarely traumatogenic.

Text by by Georgina Jones

This is because most of the sharks seen around Cape Town are small and more likely to inspire the ‘oh cute’ reflex than a mental replay of the soundtrack from ‘Jaws’. They are part of a big group known as catsharks, the Scyliorhinidae. About 100 species are found worldwide in tropical and temperate waters, although catsharks are usually found in very deep water. We are fortunate around South Africa not only to have 16 species in our area, 11 of them endemic to the region, but also, that several of them are inshore sharks so that, as divers, we have the pleasure of seeing them bustling about the reefs and wrecks on their business.  Around the Cape Peninsula, four species are commonly seen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A pair of pyjamas (Jean Tresfon)

The biggest of the four is the distinctive pyjama catshark (Poroderma africanum), growing up to a metre in total length. As one might guess from the name, the pyjama catshark is striped. Its close cousin is the leopard catshark (Poroderma pantherinum), and unsurprisingly, it has leopard-like rosettes and spots arranged in stripes on its body. Rather like its namesake, the leopard catshark is very much a creature of the night and is only rarely seen during the day, preferring to while away the daylight hours sleeping under overhangs or in caves before setting forth to hunt for its prey.

A pyjama catshark at ease (Jean Tresfon)

Their smaller cousins are the puffadder shyshark (Haploblepharus edwardsii), a lovely golden-brown creature marked with several white-spotted saddles; and the dark shyshark (Haploblepharus pictus), which is more often seen on the Atlantic side of the peninsula. This is a stockier animal, having dark saddles which may have yellowish spots.  These sharks are all oviparous, which is to say their young develop in egg cases, which the females lay in pairs. Mating is a vigorous affair, with the male biting the female on her pectoral fins to hold her in position so that he can insert his claspers. Though the females often show signs of skin damage post mating, they seem untroubled, swimming off afterwards without hesitation. It is the males who come off the worst, with older males showing signs of scarring and calcification on their claspers. Clearly male catsharks are made of stern stuff.

 

A puffadder shyshark going about its business on a Cape reef (Geoff Spiby)

In due course the female will lay a pair of eggs in cases known as mermaid’s purses. Females can sometimes be seen with tendrils trailing from their bodies. These are part of the egg cases and after while, they seem to irritate the female, which goes in search of an upright support such as a sea fan and begins to swim around it. This causes the strings to catch on the support and the circular swimming helps to gradually pull the egg case out. The yolks are easy to see through the surface of the egg case, and occasionally the embryonic shark can be seen wriggling inside as well. The egg cases are a potential feast for carnivorous snails, octopus and other sharks. The lucky occupants which avoid the attention of predators emerge after 3-6 months, biting their way out of the egg cases and setting off to seek their own prey. They are very small at this stage, all of them smaller than 15cm, and frequently become another predator’s dinner. If they manage to escape from the many hungry mouths on the reefs, they feed on small bony fishes, crustaceans and octopus and may live for over twenty years.

 

A puffadder shyshark peers out from a dense forest of feather stars (Geoff Spiby)

This group is also known as shysharks because of its members’ habit of curling up into a ball with their tail or pectoral fin over their eyes when threatened. It is possible that the purpose of this action is to produce a bigger shape which is more difficult for a predator to swallow. Given that the total diamater of the ball is often not much over 20cm, this probably doesn’t discourage
many predators other than the smaller ones. It does raise their cuteness factor though. So yes, Cape Town diving, sharks, lots of them. But scary sharks? No.

 

P is for Paradise – Paradisiacal Pomene.

P is for Paradise – Paradisiacal Pomene.

P is for Paradise – Paradisical (there is such a word now) Pomene. The feeling of paradise washes over me under the clear blue sky, as I glide past the flock of pink flamingos with their upside down heads gracing one of the sandbars in the gin clear water of the Pomene estuary. I’d been here before, many years ago when I was lucky enough to be a founding explorer on reefs only frequented by fisherman and spearos. In those days I wasn’t an underwater photographer and hadn’t been able to capture paradise on film, and so I find myself back in central Mozambique to see if paradise remained and was still as perfect as in my memories, in this day and age of cellphones , diary mania and credit crises.

Text and Images by Andrew Woodburn

Picture looking down off the boat into 50m of water and seeing the pinnacles you’re headed for, clearly on the bottom. We backwards roll and I turn , exhale and freefall into indigo blue picking up the pinnacles above which I identify the shapes of eagle rays and large bass moving in formation and so get jolted into the frenzy of preparing the camera so that by the time I reach them I can record their presence. This is 3 sisters (3 deep pinnacles off the northern end of deep Zambia shoal) which in my opinion has to be the premier pinnacle dive in Southern Africa. These are no gentle bumps like deep pinnacle off the Pontos (southern Mozambique’s well known dive destinations) but distinct structures rising from 48m at their base and topping off at 30m covered in black coral. The green coral trees release clouds of goldies, coachmen and reef fish which provide the attraction for hunting pelagic game fish and larger marine species such as manta arriving for cleaning.  I think I’ve been the first diver to slot the keyhole at 35m , a nearly closed hole in the reef between the first sister and the second which will be impossible if a strong current is running. The dive is over all too quickly since diving at 35m destroys my bottom time and forces me up so as to avoid decompression penalties. Ascending from 35m I can clearly see the boat on the surface, ripples diffracting the cloud patterns in the sky above and red fang trigger fish silhouetted in the midwater.  Since we are so far from the Pomene estuary (20km) it’s ideal for double tank dives and so we snorkel on shallow Zambia (6m deep in the middle of the ocean) where sailfish swims past the boat its sail distinctive above the surface. We select the Trojan dive site for a second shallower and more traditional reef dive which runs along the inside edge of Zambia shoal meeting sand at 24m and rising up to 15m giving wonderful amphitheatres of reef structure. I loved finding turtles, bass and shoaling fish which provided my immersion into their world on their reef. For the first time ever I found a large plate coral with a coral tree growing right out the centre of it graced by an obliging bass for a great photo. The reef itself is named after a piece of structure which when viewed side on resembles a horse’s head.  I was enthralled by my days diving and excitedly shared the experiences that evening while my wife, Clara and I washed the sun down with cold 2M beers on the stunning pool deck outside the bar. Little did I know, that wasn’t all Pomene had to provide.

Waking up after a comfortable night’s sleep in our tent I peeked out to see the ocean not a hundred meters away in the pleasant morning light with not a breath of wind on the water. We launched out the river mouth again and headed to sites off the old Pomene hotel which sits in ruins a top the “Barra falsa” point, not used since the 1970s and still a bone of contention between prospective investors for refurbishing, and the Mozambique government who are demanding a hefty fee in US dollars for the development rights (We visited the ruins one afternoon and saw the blowholes in action). As we arrived we circled the dive site and I was lucky enough to free dive the legendary Playstation reef to test for current and visibility. On my descent I was greeted by a mature gray reef shark of over 2m at 12m down. What an honour since on most well dived reefs these creatures are normally absent and on some days this particular set of reefs can be un-divable with ultra strong currents (think stronger than Aliwal shoal on a bad day) and bad visibility due to their sitting off a major point. Pomene Playstation is a 5star reef with fantastic features including a mini cave network, large reef structure with deep cracks, sandy fish filled arena, overhangs, swim thru’s and a manta cleaning station on the south side visited by reef fish and hunting game fish continuously. At 24m it’s a good intermediate dive site providing world class diving with enough bottom time to enjoy a 60min dive allowing us to cover most of the reef. After I surface from this dive I just can’t wait to do it again, it’s almost too much to absorb in one experience and if we are lucky we also get whale shark interaction which congregate off the Pomene point.  On this day due to clam conditions I get a second double tank treat and added “Steps” to the dive sightseeing tour.  Steps is fascinating since I’m sure it adds credibility to the theory that ancient civilizations cut rock from sites that are now subterranean in order to build great wonders of the world. Drifting along in the current I fly over multiple 90 degree cuts in rock layers just too geometrically perfect to be natural. I don’t know, go dive it for yourself to decide.  The fissures and blocks are now home to moray eels galore and on the deep areas impressive vertical walls stack up from 36m towards the surface.

Getting back from the dives I had pretty much thought that diving here couldn’t really get much better till that evening talking with Joe and Natalie the managers and Dave and Jill the Barra Resort owners I learned a little secret. I was informed that Neville Ayliff the Sodwana legend , fish life guru and diver extraordinaire was becoming part of the team at Pomene later in the year and would bring with him his wealth of experience, fishy facts and diving leadership that was a crucial part of developing Sodwana into the diving destination it has become. I’m sure Neville will have years of work ahead of him to do more exploration in this region. In addition the resort has built an artificial reef in the estuary just off the dive centre where seahorses abound and macro critters dominate in the sea grass. Not to be outdone by my experiences so far Joe also showed me photos from 2006 of dugong in the estuary mouth which had me scanning the water on every exit and entrance from the river from then on.

Pomene lodge occupies a unique spit of beach separating natural mangrove forests and a freshwater estuary which feeds around the spit into the Indian Ocean through a tidal estuary. In fact the spit probably doesn’t get more than 2m above high tide at any place and during the devastating cyclones in past years, has lead to knee deep waves washing through the reception door and out past the pool into the estuary. At any one time while walking on the spit I am able to see the aquamarine ocean out one eye across the squeaky white sand beach and out the other eye the reflections off the estuary in different stages of tidal flux. This place presents a sensory overload to me, with visuals representing travel brochure images of coconut palms, blue sea and white sand, warm tropical breezes cooling the sun’s rays on my skin, the waves from the ocean crashing in my ears and the smell of untainted air.

This paradiscal environment delivers feelings of peace, space and makes me feel like the only person on the planet. Pomene has traditionally been known as a secret fishing destination and over the last few years more and more diving has been done exploring and identifying awesome reefs. Not only does Pomene has two of Southern Africa’s best reef dives but will soon be home to one of Southern Africa’s best known dive personalities and a- fishianardos…Neville Ayliff, I’m not sure it gets better than this.

This ideal location is unique in that it provides a delicate mix of the olden day’s sodwana camping atmosphere, but even better since you get to camp with the beach as your front door step. Each campsite comes with a fresh water tap, braai facilities and electrical point. Most sites have thatched barracas which can accommodate fridges and all your camping tables/ food and are fitted with lights for the evening.  This destination offers basic to beyond expectation -camping, self catering group chalets and top end water chalets, all backed up by a professional dive operation.  The self catering chalets offer 6 and 8 sleeper options in large rustic thatch lodges which although basic still bring the sea straight to your door step. Each self cater chalet is serviced with bedding, cutlery, crockery a freezer and mosquito nets. The chalets range from ocean view to sunset and the den a grouping of four double rooms en-suite. I even met some fisherman who had driven from Port Elizabeth to Pomene towing a boat, that’s about 4 days of dedication each way.

But that’s not all, the pride and glory of the resort are the Water chalets, and our room became affectionately referred to by my wife as the “water palace”.  Double rooms en-suite , built Mozambique style on stilts with reed roofs serviced by raised walkways are an architectural feature facing out west over the lagoon. Our room had an almighty double bed within a billowing mosquito net covered with fresh sheets and an airy duvet. Power points for charging the camera gear and a balcony with the most brilliant sunset vista over the estuary and private stairs down to the squeaky white sand covered by tidal waves running up between the stilts at high tide.

Pomene also provides family activities including Horse riding, quad bike adventures, sunset cruises, fly-fishing, shore fishing and offshore fishing on the famous Zambia banks. We met friendly travelers and divers in this off beat corner of Mozambique and enjoyed the finest fish caught that day and prawns from the restaurant at reasonable prices after enjoying cold 2M on the deck. This was a great adventure providing a delicate mix of paradise supported by some of the more necessary amenities such as power (generator driven from 8-12 and 4-10pm) hot water showers, a small shop and even a satellite tv for those important rugby matches or soap operas but far enough away not to be intrusive. The central lodge area also provides a pool table, bar area and rim flow fresh water swimming pool. So I’d recommend saddling up the 4*4 (yep you need a 4 wheel drive to get through the last 2 hours of beach sand track) turn north at Maputo and keep on going till Masinga (approximately 700km) before falling off tarmac, or fly in directly from Jhb South Africa via Inhambane . Pomene Lodge is part of the Barra Resorts group supported by the same infrastructure that services the Barra lodge and Flamingo Bay Hotels in Inhambane. 

So since the trip was planned to experience the diving at this far flung piece of paradise let’s cut to the chase. I think that Pomene is blessed with two of the best dives in the Southern Africa. Three sisters the leading pinnacle dive and Pomene Playstation a spectacular site competing with the best I’ve seen worldwide. In short this piece of paradise will definitely be on my must visit list again and I’ll be salivating at the thought of what Neville will find and add to the already abundant selection of world class diving.

 

Mombasa es su casa: A Kenyan Underwater Escape

Mombasa es su casa: A Kenyan Underwater Escape

Diving in Mombasa is arguably the best diving in Kenya. Mombasa Marine Park has been up and running for 26 years now, and is Kenya Wildlife Services’ (KWS) flagship Marine Park. The sea life is abundant, with over 400 species of fish having colonised the thriving coral reef; ensuring a great experience for everyone.

Text and images by Bruno Kinross

Around August and September, humpback whales pass by on their annual migration. The wondrous whale sharks quickly follow them between November and March; accompanied by the elusive manta ray on occasion. If pelagic diving enthusiasts are still not satisfied, then there are plenty of white tip reef sharks to been seen, as well as a variety of dolphin species. There has recently been the second ever-recorded sighting of humpback dolphins; allowing for a truly special encounter with their cetacean cousins: the spinner and bottlenose, often seen in the surrounding waters. There used to be tiger sharks, hammer-heads, guitar sharks and bull sharks, but due to global exploitation populations have been decimated, making frequent encounters a thing of the past.

With all the larger species around it is easy to forget the smaller things in life and this is an area where Mombasa can really deliver a true feast. There is a fringing reef that runs most of the length of the coast and in Mombasa this provides a nice protected lagoon where macro species can thrive. Sea-horses, nudis, Frogfish, dragon seamoths, pipefish, lionfish and puffers are just a few of the things you might find.

There are a few dive operators in the area, but Buccaneer Diving is the only 5 Star IDC centre in East Africa, with Course Director Bruce Philips at the helm. Their main base is at the Voyager Hotel in Nyali, but they also have bases at White-Sands Hotel in Bamburi, the Mnarani Club in Kilifi and also Page in Zanzibar.

Being the only IDC centre in East Africa means they are the only centre that can offer all levels of training from the Discover Scuba Diver for those who are just taking their first tentative steps into the sea, all the way up to Instructor level for those who would like to look to diving for a career. They also offer a wide range of specialties, as well as being able to provide Nitrox for those who just can’t stand to get out of the water and want those extended bottom times. It is an extra 5 euros per double dive if you want some of the superior mix.

They operate within the Mombasa Marine Park, with dive sites on either side of the fringing reef. The house reef, Angies, is just a few hundred meters away, which also makes it the choice dive site for night dives. Venturing to the outer side of the reef is where the diving is at its best. In September to December the visibility can reach up to 30 meters, with the sea temperature at around 29 degrees. However, in the wet months this decreases greatly to as low as 3-4 metres but averages around 6-10m and a temperature of between 24-26 degrees.

For those with a taste for wrecks, in 2002, Buccaneer, in association with Project AWARE, sank the 74m ex cattle carrier MV Dania. The Dania is undoubtedly the best wreck dive available in Kenya with depths ranging from 18 to 30 metres. Shallower diveable structures include the bridge, the hull and the massive upper deck, which are ideal for less qualified divers. Dania is well colonised and is home to large groupers, batfish, barracuda, moray eels and a colourful array of other fish and large schools of Jacks. The Dania is not the only wreck in the area, as there is also the MV Globe Star and MV Kota Menang (ships which hit the reefs in the 1970s), though they can only be dived at the right tides. You can find diving information regarding Buccaneer on their website at www.buccaneerdiving.com.

Buccaneer also runs all of the watersports activities for the hotel and there are a range of sailing boats available from funboats and picos to catamarans and windsurfs. Aside from the sailing there is kayaking and for those who still want to see underwater without actually getting wet there is the glass bottom boat option that also gives you the choice to snorkel if you should want to.

The upside to operating in a Marine Park is of course the better marine life to be seen, but the downside is that you must pay a marine park fee every day you choose to go in to the sea. It is $15 per day, so not cheap considering the size of the park. This does, of course, add up so if you plan to dive everyday for a week or two, make sure you remember to add this cost in your budget if you are planning to head that way.

All the dives off the outer side of the reef are drift dives and dive masters all carry permanent surface marker buoys so there is no need to worry about getting lost, and for those who just like to be lazy it is the perfect choice. The majority of the diving takes place along one main stretch of reef, with dive sites like ‘Shark Point’; named after the white tip reef sharks often seen there, and ‘Kasa’ which means ‘turtle’ in Kiswahili. There is a healthy amount of green and hawksbill turtles and you will see them more often than not. As you drift along you move past schools of Bluestripe and Bigeye snappers, fusiliers rush past you in both directions, being chased by Bluefin trevally while large brown-marbled groupers sit to be cleaned. There are areas where you get swarms of glassfish and baby barracuda. The list goes on…

There is a great contrast between diving inside the Marine Park and outside of it. Beyond the Park’s perimeter various forms of fishing have almost entirely destroyed the corals, although dynamiting has not been as prevalent in Kenya as it has been in neighboring Tanzania. As a result there are few fish to be seen outside of the reserve. Mombasa Marine Park is far from an exemplary reserve, mostly because the Government Fisheries Department issue licenses to people to be allowed to use nets in the reserve area, completely defeating the objective of a marine park.

It was a great shame when the government made drag netting legal again at the end of last year under the auspices of trying to alleviate local poverty. The reality of this is that it does not make locals one shilling better off as the people manning these nets are now largely from Pemba, Zanzibar and Tanzania. After destroying their own coast-line, these foreign nationals are employed by the owners of the nets (often ex members of parliament) so that they can pay them a far lower wage than their Kenyan counterparts.

There are also many areas where the use of such large destructive nets is viewed very badly by local fishermen and so workers are brought in to man them. The end result is that none of the increased revenue from the larger catches gets back to the local community but instead whisked away to line the pockets of someone much higher up the food chain. KWS has recently introduced regular beach clean ups, which is already making a difference and with continued pressure from the public, there is hope. KWS is starting to see the importance of the reefs and the potential income they can generate from tourism, but much expansion of the reserves is needed.

There are many hotels around Mombasa, but Voyager is perfectly apt as a mid range all-inclusive resort. Despite all the other development happening around Mombasa, the existing hotels have remained relatively untouched, leaving many which are most definitely in need of a re-vamp; made all the more backward by the absence of more exclusive boutique hotels. The costs for hotels range from around $90-$300 per night depending on season but for those on a tighter budget there is also cheaper accommodation at places like ‘The Mombasa Backpackers’, where it is $12 for a dorm bed for the night.

Outside of diving there are places where kite surfing is available and a full range of courses to be had. One of the best is Pepea Kitesurf based at Mombasa Beach Hotel. It is hard not to be infected by the obvious passion and love for the sport that the owner and instructor John Koyiet has. It is also well worth a trip to the south coast to visit Diani where you can find the ’40 Thieves Bar’ that has been ranked in the top ten bars of the world. Here there is a range of accommodation and smaller boutique style places start to appear. Linzi Kennaway who grew up on this Kenya South coast paradise created Kenyaways Diani Beach, Galu side, in July 2008. If you are heading down that way it is somewhere well worth checking out. It sits with the garden leading on to the beach and has beautiful views straight out to the sea. Linzi, not only a great hostess, is also an experienced kitesurfing instructor and there are few places more perfect to learn at. HO Extreme; Kenya’s leading kite school takes care of this side of things and they are also based at Kenyaways.

Mombasa is Kenya’s second biggest city, and with a population of around 1 million it is growing at a phenomenal rate. The development over the last few years has been massive; large numbers of apartment and office buildings have been going up and even the development of the new city mall is rapidly modernising the look of the area, while, however, the infrastructure still lags behind. The people are incredibly warm and friendly and are always ready to welcome you. Just a few hours drive away are some great safaris; Shimba hills is under two hours away, Tsavo east and west maybe 4-5 hours. About 8% of the Kenya’s land mass is protected area for wildlife conservation. The protected areas comprise of 23 terrestrial National Parks, 28 terrestrial National Reserves, 4 marine National Parks, 6 marine National Reserves and 4 national sanctuaries.1

Mombasa is served by Moi International Airport and is just under an hour flight from Nairobi, making it easy to get to from all parts of the world. Direct flights to Johannesburg are also now operating straight to Moi.

error: Content is protected !!