Diving in the I&J Ocean Exhibit at the Two Oceans Aquarium

The I&J Ocean Exhibit is the largest tank at the Two Oceans Aquarium, and has been open since mid-2016. It features a full 10 metre long tunnel, and is home to Yoshi the turtle, two green turtles, bonito, musselcracker, a guitarfish, some rays, and several other species. Watching the animals being fed at 12pm on a Sunday is a highlight of my monthly shift at the aquarium.

Yoshi the loggerhead turtle
Yoshi the loggerhead turtle

I needed to dive in the tank, and Tony and I were lucky to be escorted by the wonderful Angie, who has been a Divemaster at the aquarium for several years. The dive is easy: the tank is shallow, warm, and the visibility is to all intents and purposes limitless. Angie pointed out that in an out of air situation, we’d just do a CESA to the surface. (This makes the aquarium perhaps the only location you’d use this skill in its pure form…) The animals aren’t dangerous, but they need to be respected, and the soft acrylic windows pose a particular challenge as a careless bump with some dive gear would scratch them from the inside.

Angie and Bob the green turtle
Angie and Bob the green turtle

The green turtles are special. Bob was found in poor shape on the beach at De Hoop when he was the size of a dinner plate, and after several months in intensive care, regurgitated a quantity of plastic, including ribbons and balloons. Now, he is friendly and very attached to humans – he especially loves to have his shell tickled, and wriggles from side to side in appreciation. As a result of the amount of time he spent in veterinary care, he will stay at the aquarium for his own safety.

Tony and Sandy the green turtle
Tony and Sandy the green turtle

Sandy was most likely struck by a boat propellor near Witsand at the mouth of the Breede river. The scars are visible on her carapace in the photo above. She was recently discovered to be definitely female (turtles are tricky). She’s not quite as interested in humans as Bob is, but she was mesmerised by her tiny reflection in Tony’s camera lens, and approached closer and closer to examine it.

The giant guitarfish
The giant guitarfish

In addition to the turtles, Tony enjoyed the fantastic giant guitarfish, and spent much of the dive looking for it. The rays are like puppies, full of youthful exuberance and energy. The schooling fish mostly keep out of the way of the divers, near the surface of the tank, but are a treat to be close to.

We last dived in the aquarium a couple of years ago. The kelp forest, which was an enormously enjoyable dive, is currently closed for renovations but will be re-opening soon. The new shark exhibit will also be open for dives soon (it is already open for looking at, with nine ragged tooth sharks in residence). Meanwhile, the Ocean Exhibit provides more than enough diversion on a day that doesn’t offer good enough weather for a sea dive.

Dive date: 29 April 2017

Air temperature: 30 degrees

Water temperature:  24.8 degrees

Maximum depth: 6.1  metres

Visibility: 15 metres

Dive duration: 36 minutes

Say yes to 22 new Marine Protected Areas for South Africa

Twenty two new marine protected areas have been proposed for South Africa. The benefits of MPAs are well known, so this is excellent news for the future of our marine environment. The public is invited to comment on the proposal, and as a responsible ocean loving individual, sending an email to comment would be one of the ways you can save the ocean. Read on to find out the details.

Proposed new MPAs for South Africa (existing ones in navy blue)
Proposed new MPAs for South Africa (existing ones in navy blue)

Included in the proposed new Marine Protected Areas are South Africa’s first offshore MPAs. The press release from the Department of Environmental Affairs states that:

Many of these new MPAs aim to protect offshore ecosystems and species, ranging from deep areas along the Namibian border to a more than tenfold expansion of iSimangaliso Wetland Park in the KwaZulu-Natal Province. They include charismatic features, such as, fossilised yellow wood forest at a depth of 120m off Port Nolloth, a deep cold-water coral reef standing 30m high off the seabed near Port Elizabeth and a world famous diving destination where seven shark species aggregate, at Protea Banks in KwaZulu-Natal. These MPAs also include undersea mountains, canyons, sandy plains, deep and shallow muds and diverse gravel habitats with unique fauna.

What good will these MPAs do? According to the press release:

The new MPAs will secure protection of marine habitats like reefs, mangroves and coastal wetlands which are required to help protect coastal communities from the results of storm surges, rising sea-levels and extreme weather. Offshore, these MPAs will protect vulnerable habitats and secure spawning grounds for various marine species, therefore helping to sustain fisheries and ensure long-term benefits important to food and job security.

The new MPAs will increase the protected portion of South Africa’s territorial waters from less than 0.5%, to 5%. The government has undertaken to get this figure to 10% by 2019.

What does this mean for you?

Scuba diving

If you’re a scuba diver, you probably know that diving in a Marine Protected Area – particularly in a no-take zone – is an extra special experience because of the abundant fish and other marine life. The prospect of richer, more diverse dive sites to explore is an exciting one, but there are more benefits to this proposal than just enhanced eco-tourism opportunities.

Scuba diving businesses will have to acquire permits from the Department of Environmental Affairs (for about R500 per year) to operate in the Marine Protected Areas. (This has been in force for some time, and ethical dive operators in Cape Town who take clients diving in any of the existing MPAs should be in possession of a permit already.) There are also the permits issued to individual scuba divers (for about R100 per year, obtainable at the post office) to dive in an MPA – you will see this mentioned in Tony’s newsletter now and then, as a reminder.

Environmental protection

Some of the new MPAs are in offshore regions that would otherwise be at risk from destructive trawl fishing and other exploitative activities such as mineral, oil and gas extraction from the seabed.

Many of these MPAs will, like the Tsitsikamma MPA, serve as nurseries for fish stocks. Recreational and commercial fisheries will benefit from allowing the fish to spawn unmolested in protected areas along the coast. Holding ourselves back from fishing everywhere, at every opportunity, shows long-term thinking, and will have short-term benefits as well as for future generations.

Undesirable activities

Not all of the MPAs will be closed to fishing – those of you familiar with the network of protected areas around the Cape Peninsula will be familiar with this idea. For example, a number of pelagic game- and baitfish species may be caught within the Controlled Pelagic Zones of the Amathole, iSimangaliso, Protea and Aliwal Shoal Marine Protected Areas. Commercial fishing permits may also be issued for use in the MPAs.

Existing discharges of effluent are permitted to continue – specifically into the Aliwal Shoal MPA.  This means that SAPPI may continue to pump wood-pulp effluent onto the dive sites there.

What to do?

If you would like to show your support for the proposal – and who doesn’t love a well-chosen MPA? – send an email to MPARegs@environment.gov.za. You have until 2 May 2016 to do so, and you can include any other relevant comments about the MPA proposal in your missive.

You can download the full document detailing the proposed new MPAs complete with maps, management regulations and co-ordinates (a 336 page pdf) here.

Tony and I are looking forward to passing over some of the new MPAs on the Agulhas Bank (maybe numbers 11 and 12 on the map above) next year – without getting wet. You can come too! (But you may have to impersonate a twitcher.)

Who to thank?

This project has been spearheaded by a team at SANBI (the South African National Biodiversity Institute) led by Dr Kerry Sink. Dr Sink has been awarded a prestigious Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation for 2016, and her fellowship work encompasses a range of projects aimed at strengthening and expanding South Africa’s network of Marine Protected Areas.

We are extraordinarily fortunate to have a scientist and conservationist of Dr Sink’s calibre as a champion for MPAs in South Africa. So you can thank her!

Dive sites: Vulcan Rock

Esther exploring
Esther exploring

Vulcan Rock is a dive site just outside Hout Bay. We dived it on a day when the south easter had been blowing for a while, so the visibility was quite good. The dive site is essentially a huge stack of granite boulders, with Vulcan Rock as the highest point. The rocks are covered with sea urchins, rock lobster, corals, sea cucumbers, brittle stars, and a bit of red seaweed.

Urchins, brittle stars, corals at Vulcan Rock
Urchins, brittle stars, corals at Vulcan Rock

Esther and I stayed within the range of Open Water divers, not going deeper than 18 metres, but it is possible to go as deep as 30 metres at this site if you go for a bit of a swim. This is definitely a site to visit when the surface conditions are good and the swell is low (not that Hout Bay diving is ever great – or particularly safe – in a big swell).

Granite and kelp
Granite and kelp

I had the little Sony camera with me and took some happy snaps. Underneath all the granite is an enormous cave, with several entrances. Peet, who joined us on this dive, made a video of the cave that I will share with you later this week.

Mark bringing the boat
Mark bringing the boat

Dive date: 19 April 2015

Air temperature: 23 degrees

Water temperature:  10 degrees

Maximum depth: 15.6  metres

Visibility: 12 metres

Dive duration: 39 minutes

Dive sites (Southern Mozambique): Checkers

There are a lot of reefs around Ponta do Ouro and Ponta Malongane, and it was great to dive two new ones (Checkers and Steve’s Ledge) on our visit there in June-July. I did this dive with Christo and Laurine. Esther and Tony were feeling a bit under the weather with mild colds, so they sat out the first dive of the day on the Thursday of our trip. Checkers is a short boat ride from the launch site at Ponta.

Giant cushion star
Giant cushion star

The first thing I noticed at Checkers was the abundance of plate coral, which is beautiful but requires divers’ buoyancy to be impeccable to avoid crunching it. (It is surprisingly strong, though – on two separate Sodwana trips, owing to poor buoyancy control and body awareness, I have witnessed divers reclining on huge plate corals like overdressed burlesque dancers in giant martini glasses, and the plate corals survived without breaking. The divers almost didn’t, though! Grr!) There are plate (or table) corals of all sizes, some of them growing across gaps in the reef. This provides excellent habitat for marine life.

Soldiers hiding under plate coral
Soldiers hiding under plate coral

The reef has more interesting topography than a place like Doodles, even though it is relatively close to Doodles with no other reef in between. It slopes quite dramatically in some places. Christo suggested swimming back and forth across it in both directions so as to be able to have maximum opportunity to see into all the crevices and under the overhangs. The reef is relatively small and round rather than long, meaning that it’s probably not ideal to dive in a strong current, because doubling back will be tricky.

A porcupinefish on the move
A porcupinefish on the move

There are sand channels running through the reef in places, and as we swam over one of these we were passed by a beautiful porcupinefish with sad eyes, making his way somewhere. He swam right between us without batting an eyelid. I spent quite a lot of time trying to photograph this juvenile batfish, but he was far too busy demarcating his personal space among clouds of other fish under an overhang to turn sideways to the camera.

A juvenile batfish under an overhang
A juvenile batfish under an overhang

This is a great dive site for spotting hidden, interesting animals. There is enough life in the form of schooling fish over the reef to keep divers who don’t like sticking their heads under overhangs busy too! Photographic opportunities abound (despite the evidence I have presented here), but it isn’t possible to get to everything in an ethical manner (i.e. without lying on the reef like a plonker) because of the delicate structure of the coral.

Dive date: 2 July 2015

Air temperature: 21 degrees

Water temperature:  23 degrees

Maximum depth:  16.8 metres

Visibility: 12-15 metres

Dive duration: 57 minutes

Northern Red Sea dive sites

We dived a variety of wrecks and reefs on our Red Sea trip, which followed the Northern Wrecks and Reefs itinerary offered by blue o two. Here’s a round up of the sites we visited:

Here’s an amazing map showing a large number of the dive sites in the Red Sea and shared on Google maps by someone very kind and awesome. Click on the link at the bottom of the map (or here) to see it full size.


View Red Sea, Egypt in a larger map

Here’s a zoomed in version of the map, showing just the area we explored:


View Red Sea, Egypt in a larger map

Dive sites (Red Sea): El Miniya

Swimming back towards the stern

The wreck of the Russian-built minesweeper El Miniya is only a few minutes from the entrance to the harbour at Hurghada, and we dived her on our very last day on the liveaboard. The minesweeper was delivered to the Egyptians in 1956, and she was sunk during the Six Day War in February 1970. There are some detailed technical specification of the vessel here. She was struck on her side by Israeli aircraft fire, turned turtle, and was hit on her underside as well before sinking.

Filming the rudders
Filming the rudders

Because of her proximity to civilisation (and a refuelling depot) and the absence of a nearby reef, the wreck isn’t particularly rich in marine life. The visibility is also less than it is elsewhere in the Red Sea (in Ras Mohammed, for example) but I found it quite adequate by Cape Town standards! She reminded me of the MV Katsu Maru in Hout Bay, Cape Town, because of the way she’s lying, resting on her port side.

Coral on El Miniya
Coral on El Miniya

SS Thistlegorm’s sinking was also an act of war, but it took place in 1941. It was interesting to dive a far more recent wreck, and one that is less exposed to swell and current than is the Thistlegorm. The starboard anchor is in place on the outside of the hull. The port anchor was deployed at the time of her sinking. You can also see what I think is a sonar device embedded in the hull of the vessel.

Sonar device embedded in the hull of El Miniya
Sonar device embedded in the hull of El Miniya

There are also torpedo-like objects visible where the superstructure lies on the seabed. These were towed behind the minesweeper to look for mines. You can see one in the image below, and a large winch which would have been used to manage the cable.

Superstructure of El Miniya
Superstructure of El Miniya

This is a deep wreck – I didn’t go down to the sand, but you can get at least 30 metres’ depth if you want it. This was the deepest dive I did on our Red Sea trip, and a nice way to round things off. Ascending and getting out of the water turned out to be quite adventurous…

Dive date: 24 October 2013

Air temperature: 27 degrees

Water temperature:  27 degrees

Maximum depth: 25.9 metres

Visibility: 25 metres

Dive duration:  35 minutes

Ascending up the anchor line
Ascending up the anchor line

Dive sites (Red Sea): Giannis D (Sha’ab Abu Nuhas)

In the gap
In the gap

I think it was a photograph of the wreck of the Giannis D – possibly this one taken by Andrew Taylor and published in The Dive Site magazine, that made me want to go to the Red Sea, and dive this wreck. The Giannis D was a Greek freighter carrying a cargo of sawn softwood, and ran aground on Sha’ab Abu Nuhas reef in the Strait of Gubal in 1983. She was travelling at full speed, and this along with the fact that her crew’s extremely smooth disembarkation, have led some to suspect a case of barratry.

Tony and a coral encrusted mast
Tony and a coral encrusted mast

The wreck is broken into distinct pieces. We started amidships, having dropped in near the A frame that tilts crazily at the shallowest part of the wreck (no more than about four metres’ depth), and swam towards the bow. This part of the wreck is extremely crumpled and jumbled, with the bow section lying completely on its side with the mast parallel to the seabed. It is clear from the damage to the front of the ship that she was doing a considerable speed when she struck the reef.

Christo swims up a toppled mast
Christo swims up a toppled mast

Between the bow and the stern is a wide area of sheet metal, masts and booms, and other jumbled pieces. The structure in the photo below, which is the same one as in Andrew Taylor’s photo, is what remains of a cargo hold – completely burst open and exposed to the ocean. When I swam through that part of the wreck ahead of Tony, Kate and Christo, I felt a bit choked up – it was this particular part of this particular wreck that I’d wanted to see with my own eyes, and there I was. Maybe I’d left my big girl panties back on the liveaboard.

Tony, Kate and Christo swimming through a broken up cargo hold
Tony, Kate and Christo swimming through a broken up cargo hold

I got over myself and we swam towards the stern, which is an iconic structure that you might recognise if you look at a better photograph of it than my one. You can just make out the propeller on the far right of the photo below, about two thirds of the way from the top. It’s quite close to the ladder that still hangs down the side of the ship.

Rounding the stern of the Giannis D
Rounding the stern of the Giannis D

The photograph I took of the stern of the Giannis D also brings up some complicated feelings that I had while diving the wreck. I’d imagined exploring it many times, but – as I realised while jostling for space with (I estimate) seventy other divers – in my imagination I was always alone. My feeling of disappointment and a little confusion at the large number of other divers who were at the site fought against feelings of excitement and fulfillment that I was finally here. I took a little video clip of some of the traffic on the wreck; I’ll share that tomorrow.

Tony on the tilted top of the wreck
Tony on the tilted top of the wreck

The stern superstructure tilts at a crazy angle that made me feel quite disoriented as we swam around it. After exploring it we did our safety stop near the A frame, and surfaced to hop onto our Zodiac. There were so many other divers and liveaboards in the area that about six Zodiacs were daisy chained to one another on top of the wreck. About ten of us climbed into one of our liveaboard’s two Zodiacs – the other was dropping divers off back at the liveaboard.

A group of Swedish divers from our liveaboard couldn’t fit onto the Zodiac, so they just went to the next one in the queue (which was not connected to blue o two or our liveaboard in any way whatsoever), threw their gear on board and tried to climb in. The crewmember on board shouted frantically at them to go away, because they were not his divers! It took some persuading to make them put their gear back on and wait in the water for the other Zodiac to return.

Dive date: 23 October 2013

Air temperature:  25 degrees

Water temperature:  27 degrees

Maximum depth: 18.3 metres

Visibility:  30 metres

Dive duration:  46 minutes

Divers safety stopping at the A frame
Divers safety stopping at the A frame

Dive sites (Red Sea): Chrisoula K (Sha’ab Abu Nuhas)

Christo arrives on the wreck
Christo arrives on the wreck

The Chrisoula K was a German-built vessel that was wrecked at Sha’ab Abu Nuhas in 1981 while under Greek ownership. She had a cargo of Italian floor tiles on board. (We are sure that if we combined the cargoes of the Jolanda and the Chrisoula K we could do a complete bathroom makeover.) There is some controversy about whether the wreck we dived is actually the Chrisoula K (some contend that it is another tile-carrying vessel called the Markos – which Ned Middleton contends is actually the nearby Giannis D – or even that it is actually the Kimon M, while the real Chrisoula K is in very deep water), but our dive guides brushed this off as a storm in a teacup, and seemed pretty certain that the wreck we dived, which lies in about 25 metres of water, is the Chrisoula K.

Some of the cargo of tiles
Some of the cargo of tiles

We dropped in on the starboard side of the wreck, which is mostly standing upright on the sand with her bow embedded in the reef slope. There are booms and masts sticking out over the side of the wreck, and just underneath one of them we found a small school of longfin batfish, who eyed us balefully as we swam by but made little effort to avoid us. On the sand beneath were the traces of a large number of garden eels, whose presence was evidenced by the small sand piles they left as they vanished with the approach of the first group of divers from our boat.

Longfin batfish
Longfin batfish

The stern of the wreck is twisted ninety degrees from the horizontal, which looks confusing. Apparently it started leaning to starboard, and has gradually completed a full twist. The propellor is intact and present. The port side of the ship lies quite close to the reef, and one can swim down the passage between it and the reef, or explore the top of the wreck. Some of the cargo of tiles is visible in a hold, and we found a lovely porcupinefish hiding near some tiles, too.

Booms and masts overhanging the seabed
Booms and masts overhanging the seabed

It is possible to penetrate the wreck, apparently, but I’m not into that stuff so I gave it a skip. We finished off the dive with a safety stop and then ascended to where our Zodiac was moored on top of the superstructure. When there were enough divers to fill the boat, and then a few more, we set off back to our liveaboard.

Moray eel under the Chrisoula K
Moray eel under the Chrisoula K

There’s some nice detail about the wreck from Red Sea wreck diving expert Ned Middleton, here.

Dive date: 23 October 2013

Air temperature: 25 degrees

Water temperature:  27 degrees

Maximum depth: 20.2 metres

Visibility: 30 metres

Dive duration:  43 minutes

Safety stopping divers on the Chrisoula K
Safety stopping divers on the Chrisoula K

Dive sites: Roman Rock

I’m not sure why I haven’t written about Roman Rock before. I’ve actually done four dives on the main reef, the first in 2010. The pictures in this post are from more than one of the dives – I’ll group them together, and you’ll be able to see by the water colour which dive is which.

Reef life at Roman Rock
Reef life at Roman Rock

Roman Rock reef is a very large collection of boulders separated by sand patches, centred on the Roman Rock lighthouse. Nearby reefs include Castor RockLivingstone ReefRoman’s RestWonder Reef, and Tivoli Pinnacles. The reef is comprised of granite boulders, heavily encrusted with typical Cape Town reef life – feather stars, brittle stars, nudibranchs, sea stars, urchins, sea cucumbers and ascidians – varying with the depth. If the current is strong you will find a lot of fish here, mostly roman and hottentot, enjoying the tasty bounty brought by the tide.

Part of the dive is along high walls that are reminiscent of Atlantis Reef, further south. There are deep dead-end passages in between the rocks, wide enough to swim through (or drive a car through), and the rippled sand looks like a white carpet or a runway. In the middle of nowhere you will come across a ladder; it’s been there since the first time I dived Roman Rock in 2010. Your guess is as good as mine.

Ladder in the middle of nowhere
Ladder in the middle of nowhere
Redbait at Roman Rock
Redbait at Roman Rock

The site is suitable for Open Water divers, as the maximum depth one can attain while staying adjacent to the reef is about 18 metres. There are several pinnacles and shallower plateaus that are suitable for deeper safety stops. It goes without saying that each diver must have a surface marker buoy – the site is a relatively short boat ride from False Bay Yacht Club, but offshore nonetheless and there may be boat traffic, depending on where the current takes you.

Dive date: 3 August 2013

Air temperature: 22 degrees

Water temperature: 14 degrees

Maximum depth: 16.5 metres

Visibility: 10 metres

Dive duration: 38 minutes

Dive sites (Red Sea): Barge wreck (Bluff Point, Big Gubal Island)

The barge wreck by day
The barge wreck by day

There is a barge wreck at Bluff Point on Big Gubal Island in the Red sea, where we did an amazing, fast drift dive along the side of the lagoon. During that dive we did stop in briefly at the barge wreck (its origin and identity is unknown), but it was on a night dive the previous evening that we actually spent a significant amount of time exploring the barge.

Divers exploring the barge at night
Divers exploring the barge at night

It’s supposed to be one of the best night dive sites in the Red Sea, and we were amazed by the amount of life on and around the wreckage. We saw multiple large moray eels, huge basket stars, enormous urchins, and a crazy variety of other life. We jumped off the back of our liveaboard, swam under a neighbouring liveaboard, and found the barge wreck just off its starboard side. It was teeming with divers from our boat and the other liveaboard, but there was so much to see over such a spread out area that it didn’t matter too much.

Giant basket star
Giant basket star

My favourite thing was the basket stars, of which there were many. We saw some huge ones, with diameter nearly as big as my arm span, and some small, palm-sized ones. They are not the lovely blue-grey colour of the ones we see in Cape Town, but the intricate design of their many arms is the same.

We also saw a number of moray eels. Our dive guide told us that two big ones live on the barge wreck, named George and Georgina. The ones I saw and photographed were extremely large. As with the night dive we did at the Alternatives, the water was very still and very clear, so torch light actually shone an appreciable distance. This kind of night diving is so easy and wonderful that I think it might have spoiled me for night diving in Cape Town!

Moray eels under the barge wreck
Moray eels under the barge wreck

Dive date: 21 October 2013

Air temperature: 24 degrees

Water temperature:  26 degrees

Maximum depth: 11.2 metres

Visibility:  30 metres

Dive duration: 50 minutes

Freckled hawkfish on some coral
Freckled hawkfish on some coral