Sodwana 2014 trip report

Happy divers on the beach in Sodwana
Happy divers on the beach in Sodwana

Our third Sodwana trip (prior ones were in October 2010 and April 2011, with a Mozambique trip and a Durban trip in between) was from 26-30 April 2014. As usual we flew from Cape Town to Durban, rented vehicles (three cars between ten of us – two other reprobates drove ALL the way from Cape Town, although we suspect Shane hitched a lift on a car carrier for part of the way…) and drove the 350 kilometres from Durban to Sodwana. We stopped in Ballito for food, as we were planning to self cater.

Sodwana beach early in the morning
Sodwana beach early in the morning

Coral Divers was our destination. Most of us had already dived with them on prior trips (Angie even learned to dive there!), and their position inside the park and excellent facilities and staff led us to choose to dive with them again. They have a gazebo on the beach, regular transport between the camp and the beach, and dive planning and organisation runs like clockwork. Our only quibble this time around was that their school rental gear – which several of our divers made use of – was in quite poor condition. Matthijs tried four different masks before he found one that didn’t leak, and the well ventilated wetsuits left something to be desired. Fortunately the water was a comfortable 25 degrees!

On the tractor heading to the beach - picture by Otti
On the tractor heading to the beach – picture by Otti

We did six dives over three days, all on Two Mile reef. This is the cheapest option, and if conditions are dubious (as they were on our first day on the water), the best option. The further reefs (Five, Seven and Nine Mile) are magnificent, but require excellent buoyancy skills from visiting divers to protect the coral there, as well as favourable sea conditions for the longer boat ride.

The dives are for 50 minutes or until you reach 50 bar of air, whichever comes first. We visited mostly shallow sites (some of the Advanced divers did a deep dive on one of the days) so we were able to dive for a full 50 minutes most of the time. Because we were a group of twelve, we were generally split across two boats. We did manage some dives where we were all together at the same site, which was lots of fun! Some of the dives were lovely drift dives, which are fantastic because you use so little air. The surge (which has previously bedevilled me in Sodwana) was only severe on one of the days we dived.

After our two morning dives each day, we ate and then napped (me) or went exploring. In the evenings we braaied, cooked in the communal kitchen or ordered from the on site restaurant, and actually ended up going to bed fairly early. This was partly to escape Gerard when he got out of hand (on one notable occasion!), and partly because we were completely exhausted from our dives. We were also getting up very early to be ready to head down to the beach at 0645 each day.

Dinner time braai
Dinner time braai

It was a pleasure to spend time with such hilarious and interesting people, to do lovely long, warm, colourful dives, and to walk around in shorts and a t shirt while a warm 28 degree breeze blew. I hadn’t really scuba dived since last December, so it was great to get back into it again and remember how it’s done. Unfortunately I didn’t take many (or many nice…) photos underwater, as I was struggling with my (own, not rented) mask and I also initially didn’t feel confident enough to get close to anything. Once I settled my buoyancy – on the last day, alas! – I got going a bit more with my camera.

At the end of our trip, we said good bye to the other divers, and Tony and I stuck around in northern KwaZulu Natal to go to the bush for a couple of days. That’s another story…

Red Sea round up

You’re probably breathing a sigh of relief that we have come to the end of our celebration of scuba diving in the Red Sea. In case you missed anything, here’s the full suite of coverage that we provided for our October 2013 liveaboard trip.

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): 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

Video footage of Bluff Point (Big Gubal Island, Red Sea)

So apparently I took a lot of videos on our Bluff Point dive on our Red Sea trip. It was an exhilarating drift dive along the outside of the lagoon wall, and as we came around the corner under the lighthouse we were flung out over water hundreds of metres deep. Let’s start with my favourite video, about which I am expecting a call from National Geographic any day now. Here’s a moray eel swimming down the outer lagoon wall in the sunlight, finding a hole in the coral, and going inside.

Here are my fellow divers: Tony, Christo, Kate and Veronica.

This shows you how fast the current was moving. I didn’t fin at all while taking this video (or, indeed, for much of the dive).

Here is some of the coral that we saw. It’s very dense and colourful here.

Finally, here’s a little panorama taken while we were still against the outer lagoon wall.

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

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

We visited Shark Reef in the Ras Mohammed National Park as part of a drift dive that also took us past Yolanda Reef (more on that later). Here are two short videos I took during our dive. This one shows part of the coral garden on the plateau that separates Shark Reef from Yolanda Reef:

Here is a little panorama. The water was blue for ages!

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

Red Sea 2013 trip report

Me, Christo, Kate and Veronica on the sundeck
Me, Christo, Kate and Veronica on the sundeck

We returned from our Red Sea liveaboard trip on Sunday, and have been slowly returning to normal life (essentially doing things other than eating, sleeping, diving in warm water with magnificent visibility, and lounging around on deck like millionaires). It’s been tough.

Two of the blue o two liveaboards at the jetty
Two of the blue o two liveaboards at the jetty

The itinerary we followed was the Northern Wrecks and Reefs one offered by blue o two. Our vessel was M/Y blue Melody, on the right in the photo above. We dived wrecks like the ThistlegormGiannis D, and Chrisoula K, and a number of reefs. We did a couple of spectacular drift dives, and on most of the wrecks there was the opportunity to go inside for the suitably qualified. It was compulsory to dive with an SMB. The most memorable reef dives were done inside the Ras Mohammed National Park.

Captain Mohammed and Tony on the fly deck
Captain Mohammed and Tony on the fly deck

Life on board the boat had a simple rhythm: dive, eat, sleep, repeat. During surface intervals the crew moved to new sites, and we either dived directly from the liveaboard or were transported short distances (in full kit) on Zodiacs – rubber ducks like the ones we use in Cape Town. During the time we were away, we had the opportunity to do 21 dives of which four were night dives. The diving was spread over six days. We skipped a couple of dives for various reasons including tiredness and illness, but overall managed to do a lot of diving in a short space of time. The warm water and helpfulness of the crew meant that it wasn’t nearly as physically taxing as you’d imagine. We used Nitrox throughout, not so much because we were doing particularly deep dives and needed the extra time (though it certainly helped), but for overall health reasons and to minimise fatigue.

Bluff Point
Bluff Point

Most of the time we were within sight of land. The landscape is mainly desert, with spectacular sunrises and sunsets. The reefs rise to within a few feet of the surface, and are clearly visible from the boat when it isn’t moving. Navigation in the Red Sea must be very tricky for the inexperienced, however. The number of spectacular wrecks is testament to this!

Sunset over the Red Sea
Sunset over the Red Sea

The day we arrived in Egypt and the day of our departure were mostly spent at the Marriott Hotel in Hurghada, waiting to board our vessel (the first day) and the plane (the last day). We lounged by the pool and checked out the private beach there, and felt very relaxed.

Prior to the trip we had some (understandable) concerns regarding the safety of travelling through Egypt to get to the liveaboard, but we kept tabs on the travel advice provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the UK. Since we would merely be in transit through Cairo airport, and would not actually be sleeping a single night on land, we were happy to go ahead with the trip. The Red Sea coastal area has been extremely calm throughout the recent unrest, and, as it derives 95% of its revenue from tourism, the locals have been keen to keep it that way.

The beach at the Marriott Hotel in Hurghada
The beach at the Marriott Hotel in Hurghada

We took a lot of photo and video on the trip, and will be sorting through it and sharing it over the next couple of months. Watch this space!

Dive sites (Durban): Blood Reef (Doug’s Cave to Birthday Ledges)

Descending near Doug's Cave
Descending near Doug’s Cave

For our last dive we enjoyed lovely drift dive in the fashion of Sodwana. We were aiming to drop in at Doug’s Cave, which is apparently a proper cave in which ragged toothed sharks occasionally lie in repose. Because of the current we missed the cave, and instead of fighting current to get back to it, we continued along the reef at a leisurely pace.

Boxy
Boxy

I was very excited to find a sort of overhang that seemed to be a meeting place for trumpetfish. There were two or three underneath the rock, and another one hanging about on a patch of sand in front of the little cave. The dive was incredibly colourful (especially when I got my strobe to fire correctly), and Maurice and Craig helpfully found several nudibranchs, and showed them to me.

Branching soft corals
Branching soft corals

Towards the end of the dive, as we arrived at Birthday Ledges, we once again found the large piece of yellow and red fabric wrapped around part of the reef that we’d seen on our Birthday Ledges dive the previous day. Patrick, our Divemaster (and owner of Calypso) persisted, and managed to unwrap it. Tony confiscated it immediately, and put on quite a show at the safety stop. We’d had a long dive on the Coopers light wreck a couple of hours prior, so we were out of time before we knew it.

Raggy scorpionfish in repose
Raggy scorpionfish in repose

I thought the Blood Reef complex was amazing, with a lot to see. It’s suitable for drift dives in either direction, depending where the current is going (north-south or south-north), and if there’s no current, that’s also fine. It’s a fairly long boat ride by Cape Town or Sodwana standards (if you’re diving Two Mile), but you’re close to shore.

Dive date: 20 June 2013

Air temperature: 23 degrees

Water temperature: 22 degrees

Maximum depth: 20.1 metres

Visibility: 20 metres

Dive duration: 48 minutes

Draping the sarong
Draping the sarong