Dive sites (inland): Marico Oog

I am sure National Geographic wants this shot too
I am sure National Geographic wants this shot too

Marico Oog is a natural spring, the source of the Marico River. It is located on a farm in the North West Province of South Africa, and we visited it on our way home from Botswana in March. It’s possible to dive in the spring, which is mostly why we took a detour off the N4, the boot of our tiny rental car loaded with a couple of rented cylinders and our dive gear.

Heading off for a dive
Heading off for a dive

The water in the Oog is crystal clear, and water lilies grow around the sides in the shallow (1-3 metre deep) water. The bottom is covered by lush green vegetation that looks like salad, and the bottom in the deeper areas is silty and causes great clouds to obscure the visibility when it is disturbed. Entry is via a ladder, and the initial swim is through shallow water filled with lilies, their long stalks curling towards the surface, where lily pads provide landing spots for dragon flies.

Water lilies
Water lilies

A small pool (less than 10 metres wide) that drops down to about five metres’ depth appears on the right; the very bottom here is muddy, but lilies line the edges. A small ridge separates this pool from the main pool, which is perhaps 20 metres across and has three distinct zones of vegetation. The top area surrounding the pool has a flat bottom and is covered with water lily plants. From 3-6 metres there is green foliage, and from 6 metres to the bottom of the pool is mud.

A platform is suspended from drums at about 6 metres, and is used for skills training by the Johannesburg dive schools who sometimes bring their students here (not much sea in Gauteng). At the very bottom of the pool, a pipe descends under a rock, from which the spring water is collected for bottling. The rock apparently forms part of a swim through, which I was not about to try. Willie, the owner of the farm, told us that a trained cave diver had reeled out 100 metres of line (resonably taut, I hope) in a dive beneath the rock, so there’s enough space to travel quite far below the Oog towards the very source of the spring.

Crab
Crab

The fauna inhabiting the Oog is not prolific, but we saw several crabs in the mud, and a number of fish. I’ve struggled mightily to identify the fish, some of which seem to feed from the silt at the bottom of the pools, and others of which look like bass or tilapia and were seen with a huge cloud of fry. There are also eels, but we didn’t see any. We did spot a giant monitor lizard clambering about at the edge of the reeds while we were watching birds returning to roost in the reeds and feed at the Oog in the evenings.

It was interesting to dive in a freshwater environment – in contrast to the usual 7 kilograms of weight I use to sink me and my 8 millimetre Cape Town wetsuit for a shallow dive, I wore 3 kilograms, and not even on a weight belt. Two kilograms were in my BCD pockets, and the 3rd kilo, added as an afterthought, moved from by sternum to behind my knee during the course of the dive. The migration of a square block of lead through my wetsuit was something of a distraction, it must be said.

Marico Oog is a popular night diving destination, and when the moon is full it must be magnificent. It is recommended that not more than eight divers use the Oog at one time, and even this would be quite cramped for my taste. We were fortunate enough to have it all to ourselves, and for my second dive of the day I was all alone. Tony observed the most of my second dive from the pontoon attached to a cable that can be pulled out over the Oog – it was novel to dive in water so clear that we could see each other in the different mediums.

Reeds above the surface, water lily stems below
Reeds above the surface, water lily stems below

I’ve been wanting to go to Marico Oog since Tony told me about it when I met him, but thought I’d never get there because it’s so remote. Actually, it fitted in quite well with flying to and from Lanseria airport and driving to Gaborone – we took a lot of dirt roads to get there, but there’s a tarred road running straight past the farm from Zeerust. If you’re in the vicinity and fancy some total relaxation and beautiful diving, a visit to Marico Oog is highly recommended.

Dive date: 22 March 2012

Air temperature: 24 degrees

Water temperature: 20 degrees

Maximum depth: 12.4 metres

Visibility: 15 metres

Dive duration: 36 minutes

Clean water for miles
Clean water for miles

Series: Deadliest Catch, Season 6

Deadliest Catch Season 6
Deadliest Catch Season 6

Tony and I continue to feed our strange addiction to this Discovery Channel show. We found Season 5 to be dark and grim. Deadliest Catch Season 6 deals with even heavier subject matter, but somehow manages to uplift one at the same time. If you haven’t seen the series and plan to, and don’t know what happens, you probably shouldn’t read any further.

The usual ingredients are all there: foul-mouthed crab fishermen, rough seas, ice, snow, sleet, storms, and huge pots of beautiful, valuable Alaskan red king crabs and opilio crabs. The core group of captains still feature – Sig Hansen of the Northwestern, the Hillstrand brothers of the Time Bandit, and Phil Harris of the Cornelia Marie. The mercurial and superstitious Keith Colburn of the Wizard returns in this season, and newcomer Captain Bill Wichrowski of the Kodiak attempts to make a crab fishing comeback after years out of the game.

To a certain extent the personal dramas overshadow some of the fishing activity, which is mixed for all the captains. The father of one of the crew members of the Northwestern goes missing, and the emotional strain of trying to support his family and the feeling of helplessness at not being in Seattle to assist with the search plays out in the young man’s mind. His experience is mirrored by that of the Harris brothers, whose father Phil has a stroke during the offloading of opilio crab and is hospitalised in Anchorage, Alaska.

Eleven days later he succumbs to another stroke, and the Cornelia Marie loses her captain. One of the joys of this series has been watching Phil Harris and his sons together – as a fisherman he spent months on end away from home when they were children, and he clearly relished the time he spent with them working as deckhands on his boat. His send-off by the captains of the other vessels in the fleet were very special – ranging from fireworks on the Time Bandit, to Captain Keith – choked up with tears – dropping a full crab pot overboard, with no lines or buoys attached and a buoy inside with Phil Harris’s name on it – so that Phil would always have a full pot to come back to.

The final episode of the season is a tribute to Captain Phil Harris. He’s held up as someone who lived the American dream – making his way from hardscrabble beginnings, through labour with his hands, to a position of commercial success. It’s has fascinating parallels to the Hillstrand brothers’ life story, as told in their book Time Bandit. The back-breaking work on fishing boats was often followed by days of wild partying, and the large amounts of money that can be made by crab fishermen were not always spent wisely. The long periods of absence from home caused strain in relationships, and the primary regrets that fishing fathers seem to have is that they “weren’t there for their kids”. Edgar Hansen, deck boss of the Northwestern, has his own existential (and physical – he has chronic back pain from years of work on deck) crisis for the duration of this season, and attempts more than once to signal to his older brother Sig that his time as a fisherman is drawing to a close. Sig is not receptive to these signals.

While it’s hard not to get caught up in the personal struggles of the fishermen, Tony and I do love most of all the sea and the boats. Footage of Captain Bill fishing up near the ice floes is spectacular, and we were happy to see that the producers experimented a tiny bit more with the camera work this season. GoPro cameras were used strapped to crewmen’s heads, the picking hook, and (we suspect) to obtain some other brief underwater footage of pots being hauled over the rail. Occasional use of CGI illustrates concepts such as the buoy configuration for fishing in the ice, and the problems caused by frozen or leaky hydraulic lines, along with the interconnectedness of the systems on the vessel that rely on these lines.

You can get the DVD box set here if you are in South Africa, and here if you’re not.

Meet and greet

It’s been a while since I’ve anthropomorphised sea creatures in print… So here’s a collection of encounters to entertain you (and if you haven’t dived in the Cape, to show you who lives here)!

Urchin and gas flame nudibranch at Partridge Point
Urchin and gas flame nudibranch at Partridge Point

I realise that the urchin and the nudibranch (and indeed the two nudibranchs in the picture below) probably have nothing to say to one another. But something about nudibranchs – their apparent lack of a face, maybe? – makes it very easy to ascribe thoughts and emotions to them. They also are rarely seen moving – to me, even with their riotously bright colouring, they are a blank slate upon which I may imagine whatever feelings I wish.

The urchin, therefore, has offended the nudibranch. The black nudibranch is giving the silvertip some avuncular advice, since the silvertip is still wet behind the ears, so to speak.

Silvertip and black nudibranch at Partridge Point
Silvertip and black nudibranch at Partridge Point

Sponge crabs grip onto sea fans with their little claws, and are often so covered by their protective layer of sponge (much like vetkoek) that you have to look really carefully to see their claws, let alone any other physical features. These two, however, seem to be getting cosy.

Sponge crabs at Partridge Point
Sponge crabs at Partridge Point

Granted, sea stars are not shy to interact (or compete) when a tasty snack is at stake. In fact, we often see great piles of them – particularly in the presence (or vicinity of) mussels. They seem to have no sense of personal space whatsoever. This, to me, makes the following image very charming. There’s an element of shyness and reserve (what, you don’t see it?) in the awkward approach of these two spiny sea stars that is so often lacking in starfish interactions.

Sea stars on a collision course at Long Beach
Sea stars on a collision course at Long Beach

With that bit of nonsense over, I encourage you to go out and meet and greet someone today, even a stranger. Just not a creepy stranger, or that person at work whom you suspect is secretly stalking you and ascribes far too much significance to meaningless interactions.

Friday poem: I’ve fished a place

This poem was read over the closing credits of the final episode of Deadliest Catch Season 5, by its author – Larry Ryser, the deckboss of the crab boat Incentive. I recommend you listen to Larry reading it himself – he has a wonderful voice and inflection.

I’ve Fished a Place – Larry Ryser

I’ve fished a place like no other place
You’ll ever find on Earth.
A place where the hard work and danger
Can, and should, reflect a man’s worth.

I’ve finished a place where the hours are long;
Sleep, rare, if at all.
A place where even the strong
Sometimes stumble and fall.

I’ve fished a place where you spend countless hours
Pulling countless pots.
A place where the memory of her back home
Is thought with countless thoughts.

I’ve fished a place where the weather can turn
Bad in the blink of an eye.
A place where there are those who’ll get hurt,
And some will even die.

I love this place
And the pride it’s given me. You see,
Very few people on the face of this earth can say,
“I’ve fished the Bering Sea.”

Series: Deadliest Catch, Season 5

Deadliest Catch Season 5
Deadliest Catch Season 5

Whenever I’m feeling a bit glum about my desk job, watching some episodes of Deadliest Catch puts things in perspective. Tony and I have worked our way through seasons one, two, three and four, and since season 5 is only 15 episodes (which felt short to me but actually condenses several months’ frenzied fishing activity in wild conditions) we got through it relatively quickly.

Most of the familiar captains from previous seasons return to the Bering Sea (and the Discovery Channel television screens) to fish for Alaskan red king crab and opilio crab during the winter of 2008-2009. Many of them looked somewhat haggard, and as though the lifestyle of sleep deprivation, caffeine and pack after pack of cigarettes was catching up with them. Captain Keith Colburn starts the season waiting for biopsy results, Captain Phil Harris returns to active duty after a serious health scare in the previous year’s king crab season, and it seems that there is an increased awareness of mortality and the brevity of life that pervades the crews of the fleet.

Some of the captains and crew (the Colburn brothers in particular) have serious anger management issues and seem to fly off the handle at the slightest provocation, but all of them are entertaining characters. We loved how Sig Hansen moved the clock back to trick his crew into thinking they’d slept for longer than they had, and seeing the relationship between Captain Phil Harris and his sons (Josh in particular – Jake whined a LOT this season).

The format of the show has not changed since we started watching it, and it works well. The footage is documentary-styled, with a camera man following the crew around on deck while they work, and a camera or two in the wheel house to spy on the captain. There’s very little underwater footage, which (as you’d expect) Tony and I would love to see. There are two or three brief instances when the cameraman suspends the camera into the water next to the pot as it came over the rail, showing the clarity of the water and the rolling of the ship as the pot is pulled onboard. There’s also a hair-raising sequence when Captain Keith dons a drysuit and goes underneath his ship to investigate the sacrificial zinc anode below the waterline that is snagging the rope as his crew pull pots onboard. He pulls himself along beneath the ship on a line strung under the hull, but the rolling of the vessel above him makes for terrifying viewing, and in fact he is clonked on the head quite hard, by the entire ship.

There is quite a lot of US Coastguard footage in this season, with the search for survivors of the Katmai, which capsized during the king crab season, and the Icy Mist, which ran aground during the opilio season during an arctic hurricane. This footage – mostly filmed in and from coastguard helicopters – is gripping, like a real-life version of The Guardian. The addition of the coastguard footage distracts a little from the flow of the crab fishing activity, but vividly presents the dangers inherent in Bering Sea fishing.

I cannot state strongly enough how intense the weather conditions are that these boats (and men) operate in. A particularly bad storm towards the end of the opilio season depicted in this season of the show gave rise to a rash of Mayday and pan-pan calls, but for most ships the struggle to avoid going side-on to the waves was enough to keep their skippers fully occupied – let alone assisting other seamen in distress.

The Arctic ice is also a serious role player in this season, with several vessels getting their gear caught up in the ice. The harbour at St Paul’s Island, where much of the offloading of crab takes place, becomes heavily iced up, forcing the captains to choose between risking losing their crab catch (left too long in the tanks on their boats, the crab dies and becomes worthless) or their boats, by forcing their way through the ice into the harbour. Ice also covers the ships, as when it’s cold enough the spray freezes on the deck, railings and – worst of all – the crab pots stacked on deck. The extra weight makes the ships prone to roll, but it’s a difficult, time consuming, and energy intensive problem to solve. Captain Keith attempted to get his crew to cover the stack of crab pots with a tarpaulin during some of the worst weather of the season, and ended up having to transport three of them to hospital – one with broken ribs, one with a shattered cheekbone, and one with a large hematoma on his eye (and suspected concussion) – after the operation was halted by a rogue wave to the bow.

My favourite parts of this show are the wild sea and weather, the pack ice, seeing the crew knock frozen spray ice off the ship, and the footage of the magnificent Alaskan coastline and Dutch Harbour. I also love listening to the blessing of the fleet, which is performed by a local cleric just before the king crab season starts, and broadcast on the radio so the captains and crews can listen while onboard their ships in the harbour. The fishermen are generally quite spiritual and have a host of superstitions that can seem totally outlandish… Keith Colburn has a walrus obsession (and flipped his lid because no one woke him when a group of walrus swam past the boat), the Hansen brothers bite the head off a herring to start the season, and other captains and crew have other quirky practices to keep them feeling in control of the apparently random act of casting gear into the sea and hoping to catch crab.

The DVD box set is available here if you’re in South Africa, and here if you’re not.

Series: Deadliest Catch, Season 4

Deadliest Catch Season 4
Deadliest Catch Season 4

The fourth season of Deadliest Catch (we’ve watched Seasons 1, 2 and 3) was quite harrowing – far more serious and, for want of a better word, consequential, than the first three. For one thing, the weather that the fishermen had to deal with was insane… Week after week of pounding waves, ice on the boats, and sub zero temperatures. I still can’t get my head around the physical demands that this job places on the men who do it.

There seemed to be more accidents and near misses (or at least, accidents and near misses caught on camera) – unsecured pots flying off the launcher, Johnathan Hillstrand of the Time Bandit hitting himself in the face with the picking hook, greenhorns falling all over the place, and the incredibly bad tempered Keith Colburn of the Wizard falling every single time he ventured out on deck.

There also seemed to be a lot more humour. Edgar Hansen of the Northwestern spends four hours preparing a prank on his brother Captain Sig, which fails to trick him but caused us much mirth. There are also a couple of montages of tomfoolery – one inspired by the lack of sleep that the fishermen endure.

The opilio crab season was a bit emotional and draining to watch, as Captain Phil Harris of the Cornelia Marie became ill – it later turned out, with a pulmonary embolism – and was forced to leave his boat and go to hospital, where he remained for the rest of the season. Tony and I are quite fond of Captain Phil, and have enjoyed seeing his two sons, Jake and Josh, interact with their father and develop as crab fishermen on board his boat. By the final episode Phil is out of hospital but not out of the woods.

There are only one or two items on our wishlist for the show (and I know that us having one is kind of silly, as the rest of the world is already on Season 7)… But chief among them are some underwater shots – what does the sea floor look like? How do the crabs move about? What does it look like as they climb into a pot?

And, at the end of the season, when the boats motor down to offload their crab, what have they done with the pots? They all have empty decks. Then, right at the end of the season, all the pots are back on board. Is this just aggressive editing? We have seen some of that – miraculous growth and re-growth of a beard in between bouts of clean shaven-ness, apparently during a single conversation, for example!

The DVD box set is available here if you’re in South Africa, and here if you’re not.

Bookshelf: Time Bandit

Time Bandit: Two Brothers, the Bering Sea, and One of the World’s Deadliest Jobs – Andy & Johnathan Hillstrand with Malcolm MacPherson

Time Bandit
Time Bandit

I read this book on the plane home from Europe, on my Kindle. Time Bandit is the name of the Hillstrand brothers’ crab fishing vessel, made famous by the Discovery Channel series Deadliest Catch (to which, incidentally, Tony and I are somewhat addicted).

The Hillstrands describe their upbringing in the small coastal town of Homer, Alaska, and their early relationship with the sea. Their father seems to have been a hard man, who started getting drunk with his sons when they were barely in their teens, but instilled a strong sense of survival and independence in his five sons and – despite his failings – shaped the men they became.

Intermingled with the biographical details are descriptions of the crab fishing that the brothers do every winter on the Bering Sea. For viewers of the television show, much of this routine will be familiar, but descriptions of what it costs to run a crab boat, an inside view of the dangers of the job, and revelations of some of the more… salty!… conversation topics that are tossed about on board (unsuitable for a family television show!) are entertaining and interesting for die hard fans. There are also snippets of information about the crabs themselves, their migration patterns, and where the brothers go to search for their catch, that were new to me.

Johnathan Hillstrand is just as wild and funny as he appears on the television show – a modern day pirate, with a wicked sense of humour. His brother Andy seems more introspective and in his downtime from crab fishing runs a horse ranch in Indiana in the United States. Their bond as brothers is extremely strong, and they appear to complement each other well. Johnathan captains the Time Bandit during red king crab season, and Andy takes over for opilios.

Surprisingly, because I’ve developed a bit of a crush on the US Coastguard as a whole, the Hillstrands are not entirely positive about the service they offer. According to Johnathan, far from being obligingly on call and ready to assist in any situation, one has to be practically dead before the coastguard will venture out with assistance. They also complain a bit about the administrative burdens placed on them by the coastguard, and the annoyance (totally understandable) of having a twenty year old who has never been to sea come on board your crab boat and tell you how to run things before you leave port.

The Hillstrands also discuss the old derby fishing system (under which the crab fishing season was open until the fleet had caught a certain amount of crab, and then closed), and their feelings on the newer quota system which pre-allocates a certain tonnage to each vessel and allows them as much time as they require to catch it. While the newer system has undoubtedly made crab fishing on the Bering Sea much safer, to the Hillstrands it has removed an element of excitement, competition and challenge from their work, and they miss this.

The specific crab fishing events described in the book are from Season 3 of Deadliest Catch, and it was interesting to correlate the descriptions of the crew with what was portrayed on television. Life on a crab boat is hard, and the men who work on these vessels – far from being the cuddly teddy bears that Discovery Channel sometimes portrays them as – are also hard, wild, and sometimes dangerous. The Hillstrands keep an AK47 on board their boat, and are ready to assert their authority and enforce discipline with whatever it takes (fists included). The conditions under which the men work are so dangerous that a crew that is not working as a team is looking for an accident.

Above all this book is a hymn to the ocean and the perilous but rewarding life of a fisherman. If you haven’t seen Deadliest Catch it’s unlikely you’ll enjoy it or understand what the fuss is about, but if you have, this is a quick, entertaining read.

You can purchase the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise go here. If you want to read it on your Kindle, go here.

Sea life: Root-mouthed sea jelly

We had a huge number of sea jellies in False Bay at the start of the summer – the usual compass and box jellies, and then some other very large visitors whom I hadn’t met before. Root mouthed sea jellies (Rhizostoma pulmo, formerly known as R. octopus, and called barrel sea jellies, sea mushroom jellies, or dustbin lid jellies elsewhere in the world) are the largest known sea jellies, can grow to up to 1.5 metres in diameter and can weigh tens of kilograms. They are usually white, yellowish, or blue, and we’ve seen specimens of various hues this summer.

A root-mouthed sea jelly
A root-mouthed sea jelly

Root mouthed jellies have eight robust tentacles with frilly edges that emerge from the centre of the bell; they do not have long trailing tentacles, and are harmless to most humans. They may cause a mild rash if you have sensitive skin, but you shouldn’t touch them anyway.

Surface of the root mouthed jelly's bell
Surface of the root mouthed jelly's bell

The frilled arms each equipped with a mouth are used to filter plankton out of the water, which is then channeled directly into the gut. Their appearance in False Bay corresponded with a massive plankton bloom that was visible both above and below the water – I haven’t figured out if they came in (involuntarily) with the water bearing the plankton, or followed it into the bay!

Frilly tentacles (these ones have some sand on them)
Frilly tentacles (these ones have some sand on them)

Predators of jellyfish include sunfish, turtles (particularly leatherback sea turtles), some birds, whale sharks, some crabs, and certain kinds of whale (such as the humpbacks). We also witnessed some extremely happy sea anemones eating dead compass sea jellies that had gotten caught on the reef or died and fallen to the sand during the invasion described above. Suffice it to say, looking at the conservation status of most of the jellyfish predators listed here, we’re all going to be having a lot more sea jellies in our future unless something changes, fast.

Tentacles of the root mouthed sea jelly
Tentacles of the root mouthed sea jelly

Here’s a short video, with Tony for scale.

Dive sites: Caravan Reef

Caravan Reef is an infrequently-dived, simply enormous granite reef that lies very close to the slipway at Miller’s Point. Its northern reaches are close to the SAS Pietermaritzburg, but as can be seen from the map on its wikivoyage page the reef extends far south and has five distinct regions.

Peter Southwood swimming a shallow contour at Caravan Reef (south)
Peter Southwood swimming a shallow contour at Caravan Reef (south)

The one we dived (and the only one I’ve visited so far) is Caravan South, which is visible on the right of the map. The top of the reef is shallow, 4-5 metres, and after descending onto the pinnacle we dropped off the southern side. The southern side of the pinnacle, which runs almost west to east, is characterised by a vertical wall that drops down to about 20 metres on the sand. I love vertical reef structures – much easier to take pictures of something next to you rather than below you, but it does require some co-ordination and consideration among the divers to avoid getting in each other’s way.

A gully leading back up to the top of the pinnacle
A gully leading back up to the top of the pinnacle

Goot and I (after a false start) swam east along the wall at about 15 metres depth, with the current, which was (to put it mildly) howling. At the corner of the reef is a mass of jumbled boulders with small overhangs. Some of these rocks have quite sharp edges, like ancient tree roots or massive parmesan shavings, so there is a lot of surface area for life to grow on relative to the volume of the rock.

Compass sea jellies and fish in the current at Caravan Reef
Compass sea jellies and fish in the current at Caravan Reef

As we rounded the corner we encountered even more current – it was running roughly north to south, and coming around the reef, hence our difficulty with it whichever way we turned! Large numbers of compass sea jellies were being blown along by the current. We also saw an enormous root-mouthed sea jelly, with a small compass jelly caught in its tentacles (by accident – these creatures eat plankton). The false plum anemones living on the side of the reef were enjoying an unexpected bounty of jellyfish as some of the compass sea jellies had gotten caught on the side of the reef and were being devoured by opportunistic anemones.

False plum anemone slurps in a compass sea jelly
False plum anemone slurps in a compass sea jelly

The eastern edge of the reef has several cracks in it, mostly quite small, but we did see a few large roman taking advantage of the shelter. A small school of hottentot was surfing current on the eastern edge too, enjoying the snacks that it brought directly into their path. We swam into the current a short distance, became distracted by the root-mouthed jelly, and followed it back along the reef for a while. We then ascended to about 10 metres and drifted back down the reef with the current to the corner. By that stage we were getting low on air, so it was time to ascend to the top of the pinnacle. The surface current washed us off the pinnacle in short order, so we inflated an SMB and waited for the boat!

Looking down the wall to the sand
Looking down the wall to the sand

My favourite feature of the southern part of the reef is the vertical wall to the south, which extends along the eastern side as well to some degree. I’d like to explore the northern and western areas of this part of Caravan Reef, but the current prevented us from making much progress into those areas. Peter Southwood is busy mapping this reef, so contours should be added to the existing map on Wikitravel. I think that the current on the day we dived the reef had a lot to do with the extremely strong northwesterly wind that had been blowing for a day or two and dropped slightly on the day of our dive, but I’m not complaining – the visibility was stellar, almost top to bottom!

Fish feeding on the side of the reef
Fish feeding on the side of the reef

Dive date: 23 October 2011

Air temperature: 24 degrees

Water temperature: 12 degrees

Maximum depth: 18.0 metres

Visibility: 15 metres

Dive duration: 33 minutes

Dive sites: Atlantis Reef

One of the pinnacles of Atlantis Reef rises to near the surface
One of the pinnacles of Atlantis Reef rises to near the surface

Atlantis Reef was discovered in September 2011 by Steven Benjamin of Animal Ocean. The site was named for the lost city which is (according to legend) submerged now, but was also known as the Pillars of Hercules prior to its rediscovery by Animal Ocean. Atlantis comprises two massive pinnacles that rise to within 4-5 metres of the surface, along with a jumbled collection of enormous boulders strewn about their base. We dived the site in mid-October, in conditions of almost top to bottom visibility. The topography of the site is breathtaking – huge, vertical walls and enormous rocks distinguish it from the lower rocky reef characteristics of the Roman Rock area. The sand lies at about 30 metres on the seaward (eastern) side of the reef, but the average depth is about 20 metres. With a large cylinder full of a nice Nitrox mix, you could dive here for days (water temperature permitting).

We dropped right on top of the pinnacle closest to shore, and the boat skipper hadn’t used a shot line for fear of damaging the pristine and hardly dived reef. Tony and Justin went down to the sand in order to do a compass swim for Justin’s Deep Specialty course, and I hovered next to one of the pinnacles. The pinnacles are about 3 metres across on their tips, but widen out to a large, roughly rectangular base on the sand. Between the pinnacles is a large overhang, and large cracks in which we saw congregations of janbruin. We spotted some very large (more than 30 centimetre long) zebra and Roman between the pinnacles, as well as some white seacatfish also enjoying one of the cracks in the rock. I discovered some fascinating facts about Roman this week, but they can wait…

Massive school of hottentot, fransmadam and other fish
Massive school of hottentot, fransmadam and other fish
Goot inspects the school of fish
Goot inspects the school of fish

To me, the most spectacular feature of the marine life on the reef is the large schools of fish that assemble around the pinnacles. The reef lies within the Castle Rocks Protected Area and no fishing is allowed there, and it obviously hasn’t been discovered by the fishermen – both commercial and amateur – who don’t care about protected areas and enjoy the fact that they aren’t policed at all. Hottentot, fransmadam, and zebra mill around in their hundreds – I have never seen a school of fish like this in the Cape. The strepies at Long Beach last summer were – until now – the most prolific fish I’ve seen here. The fish are quite relaxed and just reshaped their school around the divers.

Divers pass between the pinnacles
Divers pass between the pinnacles

There are also the usual sea fans (plus what looked like a nursery for baby sea fans), massive nudibranchs of several varieties, sea cucumbers, anemones, and a lot of other invertebrate life. The top parts of the pinnacles are covered with huge redbait, interspersed with Cape urchins and several varieties of sea anemone. Lower down on the pinnacles we found orange wall sponges and other sponge species, as well as large klipfish trying to camouflage themselves against the wall.

Blue gas flame nudibranch
Blue gas flame nudibranch

There was some interesting discussion about whether it is right to have an “exclusive” dive site that only you know the co-ordinates to. An argument was put forward that when one finds a pristine spot like this, it’s natural to want to protect it from careless, ignorant or inexperienced divers. Hopefully the boat charters – all of whom now know where this reef is – will put aside financial considerations when taking divers to this reef, and only allow divers who they know can manage their buoyancy and don’t engage in behaviours that are detrimental to the marine life of the locations they dive. Whether this happens will remain to be seen. (I, for one, am not optimistic… Enjoy it now, while it lasts.)

I want to go back to this site tomorrow, or yesterday if that’s possible. I’ve been (irritatingly) ranting about it to whoever will listen since we dived it. It’s wonderful to me that we are still finding new places to dive in our local bay of plenty, and so close to shore, too! Also, seeing how healthy and abundant the fish that call this reef home are, I’m thrilled that (it seems) the Marine Protected Areas are working, despite hopelessly inadequate support from the authorities. It made me so, so happy to see this reef. Can’t wait to go back!

Tony swims past the top of one of the pinnacles
Tony swims past the top of one of the pinnacles

Dive date: 15 October 2011

Air temperature: 19 degrees

Water temperature: 13 degrees

Maximum depth: 21.5 metres

Visibility: 15 metres

Dive duration: 40 minutes