Paddle Out for Sharks 2016 – #takebackcontrol

Paddle Out for Sharks 2016 – #takebackcontrol

paddle out for sharks

By Claire Beyers of The Paddle Out for Sharks

It feels like every time we go onto any social media platform there is always some form of reminder that our oceans are warming up, being polluted with an array of horrific substances or that our marine life is dwindling.

It feels too easy to watch something then move onto the next post and before long it’s time to get back to our daily grind.

The Paddle Out For Sharks was started in 2012 to stop just that – the lack of action!  Divers, anglers and surfers came together to raise awareness of the damage bather protection gill nets do to shark populations along the south African coast line, to engage with authorities around reducing the impact of these nets and to work with the local community in finding solutions to the use of gill nets locally.  The first event focussed on tiger sharks and other marine life that had been caught in the bather protection gill nets at Scottburgh.  The response was overwhelming; with footage featuring on the SABC news and local wildlife show 50/50.

In 2013, another Paddle Out for Sharks was held to protest damaging shark fishing practices being conducted at Protea Banks – a shark diving hotspot in South Africa.

The underlying philosophy of the Paddle Out for Sharks is that local communities should take responsibility for practices taking place at their back door, so to speak

Since 2012, The Paddle Out for Sharks has drawn much support in highlighting the plight of Sharks.  This support comes from all over southern Africa and internationally too. Paddle Out events have been held in Australia, Mozambique, Germany, Reunion to name a few. .

The Paddle Out for Sharks has always had a grass-roots ethos. In keeping with this, the organisers of previous Paddle Out for Sharks events are calling on communities to organise their own Paddle Out for Sharks that is relevant and focussed on their community.

“It’s time to highlight the fact that the health and wellbeing of our oceans and sharks affects everyone – not just those who live at the ocean or those who fish, surf or dive.  The challenge is that everyone do something that will highlight and improve the plight of our Oceans and Sharks, no matter how small the effort.  No matter where you are based, it’s to take back control! Stop relying on proposed laws, hopes or empty promises that things are going to improve – it’s time to knuckle down and become an activist.  Organise a local clean up, post something on social media, get your neighbours involved, your school, your church or your local community – do ANYTHING but do something!!!!”

Here’s the organisers’ challenge to you.

“Send us your pictures and your videos with the #takebackcontrol featured in them and let’s take a stand this 4th of June 2016! #takebackcontrol”

For more on The Paddle Out for Sharks LIKE their Facebook Page

 

Inaugural Silence of the Sharks set to be South Africa’s biggest underwater protest

Inaugural Silence of the Sharks set to be South Africa’s biggest underwater protest
Image credit - Inyoni-Photography
Image credit – Inyoni-Photography

The fifth annual Paddle Out for Sharks conservation platform, connecting humans with the oceans, will this year be held in conjunction with the international Silence of the Sharks underwater protest being held at Scottburgh (Aliwal Shoal) and Shelly Beach (Protea Banks) on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast on Saturday, 4 June.

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Endorsed by UGU South Coast Tourism, the Silence of the Sharks and Paddle Out for Sharks initiatives will also celebrate World Oceans Day on 8 June, centred around the theme of ‘healthy oceans, healthy planet’.

Image credit - Alan Walker
Image credit – Alan Walker

Image credit - Alan Walker
Image credit – Alan Walker

“The ocean serves a number of vital purposes, regulating temperature, providing life-giving oxygen and a home to an incredible array of wildlife,” explained Justin  Mackrory, CEO: South Coast Tourism. “To ensure the health of all future generations, we need to ensure that our oceans are protected.”

Mackrory said residents on the South Coast are made aware, on a daily basis, of the beauty of the ocean and the need for its preservation.

“We have some of the best big animal diving in the world,” he explained. “Aliwal Shoal has been named one of the world’s top 10 dive sites and Protea Banks attracts thousands of international divers every year. These initiatives coincide with the proposed expansion of the Marine Protected Areas at these two dive sites on the KZN south coast and play an important part in keeping awareness about our oceans alive and encouraging people to become proactive in the protection of sharks and marine life.”

Paddle Out for Sharks, which was first held at Aliwal Shoal in 2011, is supported by the surfing community, conservationists, anglers, divers, paddle skiers, scientists and environmentally-concerned individuals. Following the surfing tradition of ‘paddling out’ in memory of a fallen surfer, the event echoes that spiritual element, highlighting the plight of sharks.

Image credit - Dori Moreno
Image credit – Dori Moreno

“The Paddle Out for Sharks is proud to cooperate on our fifth annual paddle out in 2016, with Silence of the Sharks at the south coast venues. As a grassroots movement that aims to raise awareness of the plight of sharks, we see a synergy with Silence of the Sharks, who are also trying to provide a ‘voice for sharks’,” commented Amanda Barratt, Paddle Out for Sharks Organiser.

The same sentiment flows through the Silence of the Sharks protest which started with a Red Sea dive in December 2015 where about 100 divers went to a depth of 20 metres for half an hour in protest of the mass disappearance of sharks. The dive will be emulated at various locations across the globe, with South Africa’s single event taking place on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast, set to be the biggest underwater demonstration ever held in South Africa. The initiative will end on 23 October 2016 with a dive in Cyprus.

According to David Pilosof, underwater photographer and diver who has been leading the Silence of the Sharks initiative since 1972, the number of blacktip reef sharks has dwindled by 93 percent worldwide, the number of tiger sharks has decreased by 97% and bull sharks by 99%. Every year, 70 million sharks or more are hunted globally, particularly in the Far East, although the European Union and United States have not made shark fishing illegal.

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Sharks have roamed the oceans for 400 million years and are understood to be linked to the health of all our oceans. Despite this, the decimation of sharks for shark fin soup, with some sharks finned while alive and then thrown back into the ocean to drown, continues. Many sport fishermen also target large sharks, effectively removing slow reproducing animals, vital to all conservation, merely for trophies.

Internationally renowned marine videographer, Mark Addison, who hails from the South Coast and will be participating in the event, said: “The greatest threat to sharks on our coast is ourselves, in all of our destructive incantations. It is truly sad. I am of the opinion that the opportunity for debate and timeous intervention has truly passed but the time for action is always now and within each and every one of us.”

Addison’s daughter, Ella, herself an experienced scuba diver, will also be participating in the event along with a number of like-minded school friends.

The Silence of the Sharks protest forms part of South Coast Tourism’s Sardine Season campaign which includes a number of family-focused events. The annual Sardine Run along the KwaZulu-Natal coastline, dubbed ‘the greatest shoal on earth’ is one of the most significant natural migration phenomena globally.

The day’s events will start at 8am with the Paddle Out for Sharks participants gathering at back line off Scottburgh Beach where flowers will be laid. Thereafter, the Silence of the Sharks participants will be invited to jump off the boats and form a group in the water holding banners. Following a countdown, the divers will descend one to two metres with the banners. Scuba divers will then descend with the banners to a 10 meters depth.

For all ocean lovers and shark advocates wanting to get involved in this impactful campaign but not wanting to get wet, there will be land-based activities at both Scottburgh and Shelly Beach/St Mike’s (Protea Banks). The Harley Owners Group (HOGS) Durban Chapter will also be joining in the demonstration by riding from Durban to Scottburgh, gathering at the tidal pool on Scottburgh Main Beach which will provide the perfect viewing point to watch proceedings. Shark Scientist Jessica Escobar will be giving a talk to the crowds that gather, explaining the event and the plight of sharks. Everyone is welcome to attend and encouraged to bring deck chairs, binoculars and flowers.

Diving Eilat

Diving Eilat

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

Text and Images Ilan Ben Tov 

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

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

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

Tamar Reef

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At night the bridge is often covered with basket stars.

Wreck of the Yatush

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sigala Diving School

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

Getting there

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

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

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

Paddle Out for Sharks – 2013

Paddle Out	for Sharks – 2013
Image by Dori Moreno
Image by Dori Moreno

On the back of a successful Paddle Out for Sharks held in 2012, more than 130 shark conservationists, divers, anglers, and paddlers marked World Oceans Day 2013 by ‘paddling out’ to the shark nets at Scottburgh Beach, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa to highlight the plight of sharks in Southern Africa and demonstrate our collective concern for the way sharks are treated and perceived. We were joined on the beach by members of the public who share our vision.

 Text by Amanda Barratt

Image by Allen Walker
Image by Allen Walker

The Paddle Out for Sharks is founded on a crucial spiritual element of surfer culture – paddle outs are traditionally held in memory of a surfer who has died. Part of why I was drawn to the concept of the event was because paddle outs are a demonstration of the seamless connection between beach user and the  sea, a philosophy that I believe is essential to flipping dominant assumptions about sharks, and hopefully problematizing our relationship with the sea’s natural predators. I believe that common sense understandings of sharks and  a lack of respect for the natural world has put shark populations in danger, and that beach users, especially the participants of the paddle out, having had different experiences and understandings of sharks, must be mobilized to be proactive in attempting to challenge assumptions about these animals.

Sharks have roamed our oceans for 400 million years, but have been decimated by up to 90% in some parts of the world. They are a clade of animals that has been demonstrated to be related to the health of our oceans, and the killing of sharks is often given little attention, as the public so poorly perceives them. Millions of sharks fall victim to the long net of industrialised fishing, as they are killed for their fins, to feed the demand for shark fin soup, with many fisheries practising the undoubtedly inhumane practice of finning of live sharks that are then thrown back into the ocean to drown. The demand for fins has also resulted in many small-scale and artisanal fishermen feeding the market, in order to make a living as industrial fishing has destroyed many of their local fisheries.

Image by Dori Moreno
Image by Dori Moreno

Large sharks are also popular targets for sport fishermen who see sharks as fair game. While many fishermen engage in safe and responsible practices, many predatory sharks are fished purely as trophies, in effect removing slow reproducing animals that are vital to the conservation of lower trophic levels.

Another problematic practice is the implementation of gill nets that are installed with the purpose of protecting beach users. Their operation misunderstood, the nets, which run the length of popular beaches in KwaZulu-Natal as one example, systematically reduce shark numbers in the netted areas, while impacting on the marine life in the netted areas and beyond.

Image by Dori Moreno
Image by Dori Moreno

The above examples of the fundamental human relationship with sharks reflects the mark we leave on our planet and our oceans, and it is the Paddle Out’s philosophy, that our behaviour should be challenged.

Editor of African Diver Magazine, Cormac McCreesh, summed it up perfectly, when he stated,

we have it within ourselves to rise above everything, to be human and humane. Our oceans and seas are the last remaining wildernesses.  It’s never too late to start to look after what we have and the way we think of, and treat, sharks tells us something about how we treat our oceans.

Paddle Out For Sharks is reaching far, and looks to gain support for its philosophy, from like-minded people, and the public. The momentum that Paddle out envisages riding on, is an energy where we take back our custodial duties of our planet, and engage and interact with the public, challenging assumptions and demonstrating our collective passion for sharks and our marine environment.

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Image by Allen Walker

Paddle Out for Sharks focus is to challenge malignant discourses about sharks, encourage discussion that enables sustainable fishing, and we are firm that pressure for legislative changes need to come from the public, who must be proactive about the conservation of our planet.

Thus Paddle Out For Sharks is working to afford more value to the life of a shark, than a dead shark, by engaging the public and beach users, to educate them about the many different values of sharks, which we see as economic, cultural and effective, in the hope that we may challenge assumptions about sharks, and ultimately lobby authorities and law makers for the preservation of sharks in South Africa.

Images by Allen Walker and Dori Moreno
Images by Allen Walker and Dori Moreno

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

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

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

Text by Paul Hunter and Roland Mauz

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kit up area
Kit up area

Kit up area
Kit up area

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

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

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Plenty of overhangs

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

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Hundreds of Hammerheads, image by Tomas Kotouc

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

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

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

The Dive sites of Protea Banks

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

Northern Pinnacle

Northern Pinnacles
Northern Pinnacles

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

Image by Tomas Kotouc
Raggie image by Tomas Kotouc

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

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Raggie on Northern Pinnacles

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

Southern Pinnacle

Southern Pinnacles
Southern Pinnacles

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

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

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

Playground

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

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

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

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

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

Pelagic Magic

Pelagic Magic

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Diving with the denizens of the deep Divers in Cape Town are truly blessed. Not only do we have the luxury of having two coastlines to choose from (ensuring almost year round dive-able conditions) but we also have the option of venturing offshore foriving with the denizens of the deep Divers in Cape Town are truly a mind-blowing blue water experience. This is an almost unknown part of the Cape Town dive experience, probably more due to the option not being well known, than anything else.

Text and images by Jean Tresfon

Unlike the frigid waters of the Atlantic, or even the temperate waters of False Bay, the pelagic waters offshore of Cape Point are usually warm and clean. And for the Cape Town locals I don’t mean 14ºC and 5m visibility!

We’re talking about 22ºC plus and 30m visibility. Most of the diving is done in the area known as the canyon (named after the sea floor geological structure) which is approximately 22 nautical miles south west of Cape Point and lies smack in the heart of the tuna fishing grounds. The sea floor here lies at 600m deep so bottom times are fairly limited! Most diving is done on snorkel, and in certain instances tanks can be used but all of the diving is done in no more than the top 10m of water. The trip out takes about 2 to 3 hours depending on the weather and the departure site. It is possible to leave from Simonstown, Miller’s Point or Hout Bay. The sea can get fairly rough out there so it’s best to make sure that motion sickness tablets are taken prior to departure. Target species are mainly the blue sharks and the mako sharks, but yellowfin tuna and longfin tuna sightings are fairly common and we’ve even seen sperm whales and killer whales out there! The blue sharks are the most widely distributed animal in the world and are found in deep waters from the surface to 350m down. They grow to a maximum length of just under 4m and a maximum weight of about 200kg, but most of the local sightings are of much smaller individuals. The mako sharks are obviously also found in deep waters from the surface down to 150m. They grow to a maximum length of 3.5m and 450kg, but once again most local sightings are of smaller individuals. The mako is one of the fastest fish in the sea and has been known to leap clear of the water. Both of these shark species are stunningly beautiful when seen in their natural environment.

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Diving with these animals is completely safe as long as certain protocols are followed and common sense prevails. Gloves are definitely recommended as bare hands closely resemble prey items. All shiny objects attract a nibble from the sharks and should be kept to a minimum. Gaps between wet suit pants and booties should be avoided or covered and flailing of arms and hands is definitely a no.  Hands should stay on the camera or arms should be folded if not taking pictures. Photographers should be aware that the sharks find the strobes very interesting, especially when the capacitor is recharging after a shot has been taken. It is a good idea to always keep an eye on what is happening around you. Photographers in particular should not keep their eyes glued to the viewfinder; rather they should take frequent looks behind, below and above. The sharks are masters at sneaking up unseen from behind and seem to always know which way you are looking. Divers should be cognisant of the fact that these are wild animals and you are a long way offshore and far from any medical facilities. The point is to have a fun and safe interaction. If at any stage you feel uncomfortable then by far the best idea is to leave the water, rather than allowing the situation to escalate.

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People viewing the photos often comment on how brave or crazy we are to swim with sharks. The reality is that if done properly there is very little danger. The animals are beautiful and it is a privilege to be able to share their space. Once a suitable area has been found, normal procedure is for the operator to lay a chum line of chopped sardines in the water. The sharks work their way up the line towards the source of the scent trail. It is not uncommon to have five or more blue sharks in the water at one time along with a mako or two. Opportunities abound for great interactions and this type of diving is a photographers dream. The sharks are fairly bold and swim right up to the divers allowing for stunning image making. Obviously there are no guarantees in nature and it is also possible to spend a whole day out with no sharks.

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My first trip out to the deep was with veteran operator Chris Fallows of Apex Shark Expeditions. Chris has been doing this for a long time and really knows his stuff. With many divers on board he prefers to use a cage, less for protection from shark bite and more for keeping the divers close to the boat in the current and being able to put the sharks right in front of the divers. On this occasion the tuna and sharks were plentiful and we all had about half an hour each in the cage. Although this is without a doubt the safest way to conduct these dives I found the cage to be quite limiting from a photographic perspective. You cannot move around to change the angle of the sun and arrange all elements of the composition to your satisfaction. I did however get some good results, and Chris and his assistant Poena have an incredible knowledge of their subject.

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My second trip out to the tuna grounds was with Steve Benjamin of Animal Ocean. Steve is a qualified ichthyologist, and probably the most enthusiastic guy you will ever meet. This was not my best ever trip, through no fault of Steve’s. I did not take any motion sickness tablets and the sea was particularly rough on the day. I spent several hours lying in the bottom of the boat wishing that I could just die quickly. Steve just never gives up, and ordered me into the water with all my excuses falling on deaf ears. There were five blue sharks and two makos under the boat and he would not let me go home without a photograph. Steve does not use a cage but always has a safety diver (usually himself) in the water to watch his clients’ backs and to get them out of the water if the sharks behaviour changes. Steve is a really experienced guide having worked the sardine run with Mark Addison of Blue Wilderness for many years, and it really shows.

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My latest pelagic trip was on the inaugural charter to the deep run by Grant Whitford of Blueflash Charters. This was probably also my best trip in terms of shark interactions, but it is possible to have too much of a good thing and some valuable lessons were learnt that day. We ended up with just two divers in the water with seven blue sharks and a mako, and took some stunning shots. Both the mako and two of the blues seen on this trip had fish hooks stuck in the corner of their mouths and were trailing strands of fishing line. Just another stark reminder of the over-fishing of our oceans, were another reminder needed.

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For those wanting some tips from a photographic perspective:

1. Use a high shutter speed to freeze movement.
2. Use a wide angle lens and get close. 3.If possible use a strobe(s) to light up the sharks from below.
3. Try using a motor drive and take bursts of several shots as the animals approach.
4. Use other divers to lend scale to the photos.

One thing is for certain… you will come back with a changed perspective on what the media continually labels as mindless man-eaters.
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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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Here 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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