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

Needlefish
Needlefish

Bluff Point is on the north eastern end of Big Gubal Island. We did a remarkable drift dive there while liveaboarding in the Red Sea last October, starting against the outer lagoon wall and drifting along in shallow water until we were thrown out over incredibly deep water by a rush of current that left me clutching Tony’s arm. The island is at the entrance of the Strait of Gubal, and its eastern side is buffeted by turbulent currents and winds. The current was strong and fast, and we didn’t really have to fin at all, except when we wanted to look at something particular off to the side.

Anemonefish
Anemonefish

This area is a popular overnight spot for liveaboards, and we did do a night dive here the evening prior, on the barge wreck that is found nearby. On this dive we did go across to it briefly too, but the current was pushing us along and we decided not to linger. The liveaboards tie up to stainless steel rings sunk into the reefs all over the Red Sea. The captains seem to unerringly know where these mooring rings are, and what type they are. Here’s one we found in about 10 metres of water on the outside of the lagoon wall.

Liveaboards tie up to these stainless steel rings in the reef
Liveaboards tie up to these stainless steel rings in the reef

Once the current pushed us out into deep water, we sent up an SMB and the crew of our liveaboard fetched us on a Zodiac.

The outer lagoon wall at Bluff Point
The outer lagoon wall at Bluff Point

Dive date: 22 October 2013

Air temperature: 27 degrees

Water temperature:  26 degrees

Maximum depth: 14 metres

Visibility:  40 metres

Dive duration: 46 minutes

Damselfish under the boat
Damselfish under the boat

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

Damselfish over some fire coral
Damselfish over some fire coral

Sha’ab Abu Nuhas is best known as the “ships’ graveyard”, a treacherous triangular reef in the Straits of Gubal on whose north side at least four wrecks lie within recreational diving range. In preparation to dive some of those wrecks, our liveaboard was anchored on the south side of the reef, and we did a dive there off the back of the boat while we waited for better conditions. The site is very beautiful, with rich corals and abundant fish.

Fusiliers and coral
Fusiliers and coral

We were shadowed by fusiliers for the duration of our dive, which was done in still water with almost no current. I found a couple of rays on the sand, and this site in particular felt very much like a dive in an aquarium, as we were surrounded by clouds of fish. The side of the reef where the wrecks are is very exposed, often with rough surface conditions and strong currents, but the opposite side of the reef is sheltered and suitable for even inexperienced divers.

After the excitement of a vigorous drift dive at Bluff Point, this was a very relaxing way to pass an hour!

Blue spotted ray
Blue spotted ray

Dive date: 22 October 2013

Air temperature: 25 degrees

Water temperature: 26 degrees

Maximum depth: 11.6 metres

Visibility: 30 metres

Dive duration: 54 minutes

Kate's middle finger
Kate’s middle finger

Dive sites (Red Sea): Dolphin House (Sha’ab El Erg)

Twinset divers approach the heart
Twinset divers approach the heart

Dolphin House is part of a larger, horse shoe shaped reef called Sha’ab El Erg. We did our check dive (the first dive of our liveaboard trip in October 2013) at a site on this reef called Poseidon’s Garden. Because of the shape of Sha’ab El Erg, it is possible to find a sheltered area almost regardless of the conditions. We retreated here towards the end of our trip, on quite a windy day. I should have listened more closely to the briefing, and paid more attention to the name of the reef. A pod of dolphins is reliably sighted here, and indeed, my companions (and everyone else on our liveaboard) did see them, and Tony took this National Geographic quality photo as they swam past:

Dolphins at Dolphin House, Sha'ab El Erg
Dolphins at Dolphin House, Sha’ab El Erg

I surfaced from the dive completely ignorant of any cetacean presence, and, upon going through my photographs afterwards and matching timestamps, I figured out that while the dolphins were swimming by, I was considering a tiny goby, well camouflaged on the sand. Veronica kindly mounted my cylinder, shook me bodily, and gestured enthusiastically, but I interpreted her signals to mean that I had a small leak on my first stage, and thought nothing more of it. Ah well.

Mucous cocoons from parrotfish
Mucous cocoons from parrotfish

In addition to gobys and dolphins, we saw several of the mucous cocoons pictured above. Some species of parrotfish, and other reef fish, extrude mucous from their mouths at night, forming a protective layer around them while they sleep. These cocoons may hide the scent of the fish from predators, or provide an early warning system when the cocoon is breached or disturbed. In the morning the fish simply breaks out of the cocoon and swims away.

The dive site comprised two pieces of reef separated by a wide sand patch with a coral garden on it. We found the current on the sand and the furthest piece of reef to be quite strong, so we stayed mostly quite close to the boat, exploring the section of reef to which we had tied up. Even without the dolphins, this was a lovely dive. Kate spent most of it in a meditative pose…

Dive date: 24 October 2013

Air temperature: 26 degrees

Water temperature:  26 degrees

Maximum depth: 12.3 metres

Visibility: 30 metres

Dive duration:  60 minutes

Tony exploring
Tony exploring

Dive sites (Red Sea): The Alternatives

Coral and fans at the Alternatives
Coral and fans at the Alternatives

Despite their unromantic name, the Alternatives are an extremely appealing dive site. So-called because they offer a sheltered alternative to diving SS Thistlegorm when conditions are poor, the Alternatives are a series of about fifteen coral pinnacles just around the corner from the Ras Mohammed National Park. We dived the furthest one along (closest to the Park), doing both a day and a night dive there.

Giant sea fan
Giant sea fan

After giant striding off the back of the boat, we headed towards a series of small pinnacles and coral heads surrounding a large pinnacle that split in two from about half way up. I was amazed by the sea fans – we saw one enormous one completely filling the space between two pinnacles. I took a photo of it, but it was backlit by the sun, so it’s not very good. We made our way around the large pinnacle, and headed slowly back to the boat.

Clearfin lionfish
Clearfin lionfish

The night dive we did here I enjoyed more than any other night dive I’ve ever done. It was warm, still, and clear, and there was so much to see! I found it helpful that we’d done a dive at the same site hours earlier – without that, I might have found the many small pinnacles confusing and disorienting. There were flashing strobes tied to a weighted line and flag under our boat, for navigation purposes, but some people did need fetching when they surfaced away from the liveaboard. That’s what Zodiacs are for!

Dive date: 19 October 2013

Air temperature: 26 degrees

Water temperature: 27 degrees

Maximum depth: 12.1 metres

Visibility: 25 metres

Dive duration: 57 minutes

Moray eel at the Alternatives
Moray eel at the Alternatives

Dive sites (Red Sea): SS Thistlegorm

SS Thistlegorm was a British merchant navy ship. She was torpedoed and sank by a German bomber while at anchor in the Red Sea in October 1941, quite close to Ras Mohammed National Park. She was carrying an extremely varied cargo including boots, rifles, motorcycles, trucks and two steam locomotives, and much of it can be seen by divers who are qualified to penetrate the wreck.

Arriving on SS Thistlegorm
Arriving on SS Thistlegorm

The Thistlegorm has much mystique attached to her – much like SS Lusitania lying on Bellows Rock off Cape Point, I suppose – and it seems that no liveaboard trip to the northern Red Sea is complete without at least one dive on the wreck. Philistine that I am, I did not feel as compelled to dive the Thistlegorm as much as many of the other (British) divers on board our boat did. Perhaps it is the British connection that I am missing. As a war grave and a significant part of the British war effort, the Thistlegorm is well beloved there. She also stopped in Cape Town during her short time at sea!

Crocodilefish on deck
Crocodilefish on deck

The wreck is known for very strong currents that can arise without warning, change direction in minutes, and can make complete exploration of the outside of the wreck something of a challenge. We did two dives on the Thistlegorm, one after the other. On our first dive the current was strong but manageable, running from the bow (our entry point) to the stern – we just had to watch our gas carefully to ensure that we had enough to swim back to the bow against the current. By the time we did our second dive the current was absolutely insane, and as a result we spent most of that dive exploring the bow and the area close to it.

Winch on board the Thistlegorm
Winch on board the Thistlegorm

The bow area is very striking, with huge winches and chains that house many interesting creatures in their bends and folds. The strong current was making the fish very happy, and the wreck was swarming with glassfish and other piscine life, all feeding in the current. The dive briefing for a wreck like this is extremely thorough, and as a result we were able to identify each of  the features as we swam over them. Close to the bow are two huge water tanks, both crushed by the water pressure. Lying next to the wreck on the sand is one of the locomotives that was on board as deck cargo. The blast area where the torpedo hit (the ammunition hold, number four) is very obvious, as is the fact that there was additional explosive power provided by the ammunition in that hold.

Tony over the wreck
Tony over the wreck

I’m not particularly keen on going inside shipwrecks, particularly with a group of twenty people I don’t know from Adam, so I didn’t take up the opportunity to explore the cargo holds of the Thistlegorm. I know that for many on board our boat, however, this was the highlight of their trip. An advantage of going inside the wreck was that they escaped the force of the current, but it did necessitate careful planning to emerge far enough forward on the wreck to be able to exit at the right place.

On the day we dived the Thistlegorm I counted twelve liveaboards tied up to her. Efforts to preserve the wreck from the damage that can be done by a carelessly placed anchor or a mooring line tied to a sensitive location have met with mixed success. There was a brief ban on liveaboards tying up to the wreck a few years ago, but that isn’t in place any more. In any case, it requires care and smarts to note and remember which anchor line is yours for the ascent. All divers look pretty much the same – I reckon you’d be on the dive deck of the wrong boat before anyone realised you didn’t belong!

Dive date: 21 October 2013

Air temperature: 27 degrees

Water temperature:  26 degrees

Maximum depth: 21.2 metres

Visibility: 40 metres

Dive duration: 38 minutes

Kate next to a toppled mast
Kate next to a toppled mast

Dive sites (Red Sea): Jackfish Alley (Ras Mohammed National Park)

Swimming towards the reef
Swimming towards the reef

Jackfish Alley (also called Fisherman’s Bank) is inside the Ras Mohammed National Park, which covers part of and borders the Sinai Peninsula. We also dived Shark Reef and Yolanda Reef inside the park. Jackfish Alley was probably our favourite dive. Neither my words nor the photos or videos we have can explain how spectacular it was. The visibility was endless – I don’t actually know how to estimate anything much over 15-20 metres, so suffice it to say that it was a large number!

The other divers traverse a sand spit
The other divers traverse a sand spit

The captain reversed our boat towards a cliff face, and we leaped off into the water, which was approximately 800 metres deep. I searched briefly for the bottom, and then remembered the briefing and realised that I probably wouldn’t find it. Staying at about six metres we swam directly towards the reef wall, into a small swim through. The water inside the little cave, which formed a sort of a dog’s leg shape, was 24 degrees, which felt bracing compared to the 27 degrees outside. (As an aside, there is apparently quite a large, deep cave system here!)

Batman approaching the swim through
Batman approaching the swim through

The remainder of the dive entailed a lovely drift dive next to a wall that opened out onto a sandy alley from which the site gets its name. The sensation was like being in an amphitheatre. I don’t think I’ve seen such spectacular underwater topography before. The site is known for the large pelagic species that can be seen there, owing at least in part to the very deep water that is close by, and the currents experienced at the site. We didn’t see anything enormous – I saw some groupers and a ray – but to be honest I wasn’t really looking out to sea. The site itself is enough to keep your eyes busy.

Dive date: 20 October 2013

Air temperature: 27 degrees

Water temperature:  24 degrees

Maximum depth: 17.8 metres

Visibility: 40 metres

Dive duration: 54 minutes

Squaretail grouper
Squaretail grouper

Video footage of Yolanda Reef (Ras Mohammed National Park, Red Sea)

Here are two little panoramas I took while diving Yolanda Reef, which is in the Ras Mohammed National Park. Yolanda Reef is fetchingly adorned with toilets, bathtubs, and other cargo from a ship called the Jolanda that ran aground there in 1980. It’s an amazing dive site! The visibility was remarkable when we visited.

Finally, here are some soft corals at Yolanda Reef, snapping open and closed in the current. We saw these everywhere, and I was hypnotised by their movements. They look like a sentient vase of flowers!

Dive sites (Red Sea): Yolanda Reef (Ras Mohammed National Park)

Yolanda Reef from the surface
Yolanda Reef from the surface

Yolanda Reef is inside the Ras Mohammed National Park, and is a beautiful site that is strangely adorned with bathroom fittings – toilets, baths, basins – from a ship called the Jolanda (the reef’s name is a mis-spelling of Jolanda) that ran aground here in 1980. The ship eventually sank and dropped off the edge of the reef into very deep (approximately 200 metres…) water, but the containers that fell off her decks remain at the site, broken up with their contents exposed. A number of porcelain toilet bowls, of the Ideal Standard brand have been arranged in a row by a few decades of visiting divers. Multiple plastic bathtubs are stacked one inside the other, and encrusted with corals. Pieces of broken open shipping containers are interspersed among the bathroom supplies.

Divers over some of the Jolanda's cargo
Divers over some of the Jolanda’s cargo

We actually dived this site twice – the first time along with Shark Reef, as a drift dive, and the second time specifically to explore the Jolanda cargo a bit more. The dives were a couple of hours apart, and both times there was a current roaring down from the top of the reef into the depths. This somewhat restricted which areas of the site we could fully explore. Despite that restriction I loved this dive. Swimming over a huge pile of toilets, encrusted with pastel corals and bright nudibranchs, and swarming with tiny fish, was surreal and beautiful.

Dive date: 20 October 2013

Air temperature: 27 degrees

Water temperature:  27 degrees

Maximum depth: 19.3 metres

Visibility: 40 metres

Dive duration: 41 minutes

Don't ask - it's Kate!
Don’t ask – it’s Kate!

Dive sites (Red Sea): Shark Reef (Ras Mohammed National Park)

Divers below us on the wall at Shark Reef
Divers below us on the wall at Shark Reef

Shark Reef is inside the Ras Mohammed National Park, an area which provided (I thought) the most spectacular dives of our Red Sea liveaboard trip. It is a magnificent advertisement for marine protected areas. The visibility was so good as to be impossible to estimate – I’ve said it was 40 metres in my dive summary below, but really, who can say? I could see as far as I wanted to see.

Coral garden at Shark Reef
Coral garden at Shark Reef

Shark Reef is part of the top of a pinnacle that drops to about 800 metres’ depth. As it approaches the surface, it splits into two smaller pinnacles which are called Shark Reef and Yolanda Reef, which we actually ended up visiting on the same dive (but I’ll write about Yolanda Reef separately). The water here is blue, like ink, and we enjoyed a nice little current that pushed us along from one pinnacle to the next with the reef on our right hand side. On the seaward side we first had deep blue water, and then a coral garden (shown in the photo above) on the plateau between Shark Reef and Yolanda Reef  that sloped gently upwards.

Divers using twinsets in the distance
Divers using twinsets in the distance

We didn’t see a lot of large fish, but I admit to being so awed by the topography and visibility that with all the head swivelling I was doing, I probably wouldn’t have noticed a whale unless it had swum right into my BCD. Because the reef drops off into such deep water, and there are such powerful currents in the region, there is always a good possibility of seeing some large pelagic creatures.

Cardinal fish around a coral head
Cardinal fish around a coral head

We did see huge, swirling schools of smaller fish – cardinal fish, fusiliers, damselfish, and others whose names I didn’t know. At the end of the dive we arrived at Yolanda Reef, where a ship carrying bathroom supplies ran aground in 1980. There was an incredibly powerful current rushing down this part of the reef from the shallows towards the deeper water, and this ended our dive!

We liked Yolanda Reef and its scattered bathroom fittings so much that we returned to dive it again a couple of hours later. The wreck of the ship is actually 200 metres below Yolanda Reef, but it made a big mess as it went down! We surfaced close to the reef in order to avoid a haircut from one of the many large dive boats tooling around the area. Kate and Veronica almost got run down by one of them, and had to ditch their SMB and descend at speed to avoid an accident. Not cool!

Dive date: 20 October 2013

Air temperature: 26 degrees

Water temperature:  27 degrees

Maximum depth: 20.9 metres

Visibility: 40 metres

Dive duration:  41 minutes

The surface is visible against the top of the reef
The surface is visible against the top of the reef

Exploring: The shark exclusion net at Fish Hoek beach

The net, with a hand for scale
The net, with a hand for scale

One Tuesday in early December, Tony escorted some members of the media – Murray Williams of the Cape Argus, and Bruce Hong of Cape Talk radio, on a dive along the inside of the shark exclusion net at Fish Hoek beach. It was just before the start of the school holidays, and since the net has been trialled multiple times by now and is working well, it’s a good time to raise awareness of the additional beach safety and – importantly – peace of mind that the net offers. I tagged along as photographer.

Over-under view of the exclusion net at Fish Hoek
Over-under view of the exclusion net at Fish Hoek

The net at Fish Hoek beach is a world first. It has a fine mesh that is highly visible underwater, and is designed not to catch anything – unlike the shark gill nets in KwaZulu Natal. The net is put out in the morning and retrieved at the end of the day, but only when sea conditions allow it. The south easterly wind can bring huge quantities of kelp into Fish Hoek bay which would foul the net, so when there is a strong south easter the net cannot be deployed.

If you’re a water person, please educate yourself on how the net works, and its intention, and share it with your friends. Even now, nine months after the trial started, I hear uninformed comments from people who have not bothered to do any reading about the net, and assume it’s the same kind of net as the ones in Durban. It’s not. The whole idea is that nothing – no sharks, no humans, no klipfish – gets hurt. Shark Spotters and the City of Cape Town have been very clear on this from the start. I had a bit of a rant about this late last year.

Murray dives down to check out the exclusion net
Murray dives down to check out the exclusion net

I digress. We went to the beach, got suited up, and went to check out the net. It was spring low tide, so at its southernmost end we were in about 2 metres of water. The net is high enough that when the tide comes in and the yellow floats rise with the water level, it simply unfurls further downwards, making an unbroken curtain. The lower portion of the net rests on the sand, with two parallel weighted lines to ensure that it lies flat. You can see that in the photo above Murray is gripping one of these leaded lines, and that there is a fairly large amount of net waiting on the sand for higher tides.

Murray and Monwa discuss the net
Murray and Monwa discuss the net

We stuck close to the net, and didn’t see much marine life on the sandy bottom. I spotted a large sand shark (when I say I “spotted” him, I mean that I almost landed on top of him). We were mutually surprised, and he zipped away into the bay, sliding neatly under the bottom of the net. I also saw a box jelly cruising along the net. Given my recent history with box jellies, I kept clear! The sea floor in the area where the net is deployed is level, sandy and free from rocks. There’s more life on the catwalk side, where beautiful rock pools wait to be snorkelled.

We were accompanied by Monwabisi Sikweyiya, who is the Field Manager of Shark Spotters. He is a hero and I always feel a bit star-struck when I see him (although he has no idea why – he probably just thinks there’s something wrong with me). He swims along the net regularly – someone does each time it is deployed, actually – to make sure that it’s released properly and hanging straight down.

After the dive
After the dive

Swimming inside the net is completely voluntary. When a shark is seen in Fish Hoek bay the Shark Spotter still sounds the siren and the flag is raised to clear the water. The Shark Spotters team are still waiting to see how a shark will respond to the net when it swims close enough to be aware of it. So far none of the local sharks have come close to the net, as the summer season when sharks move inshore has only just started. Tony was half hoping that we’d be swimming along inside the net, look out through the mesh – and blammo!  – see a great white shark. But we had no such luck, if that is the right word.

You can read the article that Murray Williams from the Argus wrote after the dive, here.

Dive date: 3 December 2013

Air temperature: 22 degrees

Water temperature:  17 degrees

Maximum depth: 2.3 metres

Visibility: 4 metres

Dive duration:  25 minutes