No place like home

Fish, starfishes, jellyfish, seaweed and other marine creatures live in the sea – that’s obvious. But WHERE in the sea? Here are some ingenious homes…

Tony swimming over a ray hole at Long Beach
Tony swimming over a ray hole at Long Beach

During the summer months we see giant short tailed stingrays at Long Beach and elsewhere in False Bay (including at the bottom of the Miller’s Point slipway). They excavate deep holes for themselves to lie in, often with sand sprinkled over their wings. The size of the hole in the picture above – with Tony swimming over it – gives you an idea of how large these creatures are. There are often shells and other debris from stingray lunches lying at the bottom of the holes.

Klipfish taking shelter in an abalone shell
Klipfish taking shelter in an abalone shell

Some homes are more sophisticated (perhaps) than giant holes in the sand. I found this tiny klipfish taking shelter in an abalone shell at Long Beach during the summer months. It’s such a refined home with the gorgeous mother of pearl panelling!

Feather star inside a shell
Feather star inside a shell

Feather stars are very opportunistic and will even stick to your wetsuit if you’re not careful (they generally come off worse than your wetsuit does in any such encounter).  We found this one happily ensconced inside an empty bivalve.

Dive sites: Maidstone Rock

Sinuous sea fan with brittlestars on board
Sinuous sea fan with brittlestars on board

Maidstone Rock is an infrequently-dived site in the offshore region of Seaforth and Boulders Beach. The boat rides from Miller’s Point or Long Beach are only a few minutes (shorter from Long Beach). Grant took us to an area of the reef that is newly discovered, so we got to explore some virgin territory.

Klipfish in disguise
Klipfish in disguise

The reef is characteristic of the others we have dived in the area, with low rocky outcrops heavily encrusted with invertebrates. We found a small anchor and rope, but they had obviously been in the water for a long time and were almost unrecognisable.

Brass valve handle in situ
Brass valve handle in situ

I found an old brass valve handle or similar (treasure!), which Tony is cleaning up with diluted pool acid, tartaric acid and lots of patience, and we also came across a large (perhaps one metre diameter) brass or other metal ring that looked a bit like a truck tyre without sidewalls. It is heavily overgrown with feather stars and other invertebrate life.

Mysterious metal ring
Mysterious metal ring

I also found several well-camouflaged klipfish. Unlike our confident friends at Long Beach, these klipfish were hiding in crevices in the rocks and generally trying not to be seen.

Strawberry sea anemones
Strawberry sea anemones

Dive date: 5 June 2011

Air temperature: 23 degrees

Water temperature: 15 degrees

Maximum depth: 25.1 metres

Visibility: 10 metres

Dive duration: 39 minutes

Tony at the safety stop with the valve handle on his reel
Tony at the safety stop with the valve handle on his reel
Diver ascending past an SMB
Diver ascending past an SMB

Life at Long Beach

Here’s a clip I made after a beautiful dive at Long Beach in Simon’s Town. I spent a lot of time with a curious octopus, and with a friendly super klipfish who wanted to play (his friends came to check me out too). Look out for the gorgeous pink anemone and barehead gobies under the barge wreck. There is a FIFA World Cup 2010 cap that is full of feather stars, some lovely starfish, and a bluefin gurnard right at the end.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jFocp_lB0uM&w=540]

Dive sites: Wonder Reef

Sea fan
Sea fan

I think Wonder Reef (or Wonderful Reef) used to be considered separate from the Castor Rock reef. Survey work by the indefatigable Peter Southwood has revealed that it is in fact connected to Castor Rock by a thin neck of rocks. If you look at this map of the area, Wonder Reef is to the south of the Castor Rock area, in the top left hand corner of the map.

Blue gas flame nudibranch with feather stars
Blue gas flame nudibranch with feather stars
Blue gas flame nudibranch with cerata visible
Blue gas flame nudibranch with cerata visible

We dived this site with Kate and Andrew, who was doing a photography dive for his Advanced course. The water was very green – the colour of an Appletiser bottle and in some of the pictures I took it looks distinctly like a night dive – but I had fun getting some close-up pictures of the very lush and colourful reef life.

Getting the eye from an octopus
Getting the eye from an octopus

The rocks are covered with anemones, feather stars, sea cucumbers, and nudibranchs. I also found an huge octopus – I don’t often spot them anywhere other than Long Beach!

Elegant feather stars
Elegant feather stars

Kate was my buddy, and I kept thinking I’d lost her when in fact she was swimming just above me, looking over my shoulder at the things illuminated by my flash. On the way up, Tony and I were visited by a sea jelly. This picture shows you how dirty the surface layer is – it was taken at the safety stop.

Sea jelly in dirty water
Sea jelly in dirty water

Dive date: 2 May 2011

Air temperature: 21 degrees

Water temperature: 13 degrees

Maximum depth: 16.8 metres

Visibility: 5 metres

Dive duration: 38 minutes

False plum anemone
False plum anemone

Exploring: Ark Rock Boiler Wreck #3

Tony filming the boiler
Tony filming the boiler

We did two short exploration dives around Ark Rock on 21 March. The first was to a small wreck roughly east of the rock itself, and the second one was to check out a pair of boilers lying on the sand s short distance apart. There’s nothing else around except for some rocky reef, which Tony and I explored for a while after we were done with the boiler.

View over the boiler
View over the boiler

The boiler looks quite imposing – for the technicalities on fire boxes and things visit the Wikivoyage page for Ark Rock, but it’s solitary and impressive. There are no other bits of wreckage lying around. Most of the boiler is very overgrown, and we found a huge roman hiding in one of the holes in the boiler.

Front of the boiler with holes at the bottom
Front of the boiler with holes at the bottom

The rocky reef close to the boiler is covered with sea cucumbers, Stephens codium, brittle stars and feather stars.

Stephens codium and sea star
Stephens codium and sea star

Tony and I were fascinated with the sea pens sticking out of the sand, and I spent quite a while watching a warty pleurobranch trying to walk over a brittle star (who fought back).

Warty pleurobranch walking over a brittle star
Warty pleurobranch walking over a brittle star

We took a slow swim around the reef and back to the boiler and the shot line, which was on the sand nearby. The water was very green, but the visibility was fairly respectable!

Shot line on the sand
Shot line on the sand

Dive date: 21 March 2011

Air temperature: 25 degrees

Water temperature: degrees

Maximum depth: 16.4 metres

Visibility: 6 metres

Dive duration: 21 minutes

Back of the boiler
Back of the boiler

Exploring: Ark Rock Eastern Wreck

Ark Rock
Ark Rock

Ark Rock is a roughly rectangular flat topped rock (surprise!) off Seaforth beach.  On the navy charts it’s marked as Noah’s Ark – its distinctive shape gave rise to the name – and divers typically refer to it as Ark Rock. There is an assortment of small wrecks and other interesting underwater features surrounding it.

Perfectly placed shot line
Perfectly placed shot line

Tony and I were fortunate enough to join a small group of divers who planned to explore two undived features that had been spotted on the sidescan sonar attached to the dive boat. Two short dives were planned, so that we could explore more than one site in the area. It was the first weekend since summer started departing that allowed for good False Bay diving – until then, we’d been flailing around in pea soup.

Overgrown hull (and green water!)
Overgrown hull (and green water!)

The first site we were to visit is about 85 metres from Ark Rock, roughly to the east – hence the name “Eastern Wreck”. It’s a smallish iron or steel vessel that has been down there for some time. Its actual identity is not known. As we descended through a murky surface layer, we could see almost the entire ship before us.

Gap in the hull
Gap in the hull

It’s probably about 15 metres long, only a hull, with some gaps and holes large enough to admit a diver. Even though there were only six of us in the group, it felt pretty crowded on the wreck at times because it’s so small. It might be a fishing boat or similar vessel.

Tony swimming through a hole in the stern of the vessel
Tony swimming through a hole in the stern of the vessel

The wreck is lying on the sand and is heavily grown over with lovely sea life. There’s no interior structure and no deck or other bits and pieces lying around. I found it really pretty and of an appealingly manageable size to explore in one dive. We only spent 20 minutes on the wreck, which was long enough to survey the structure, but I could have stayed longer and checked out more of the life encrusting the metal remains!

All that remains of the interior structure of the wreck
All that remains of the interior structure of the wreck

My photos from this dive aren’t great. I was a bit enamoured of the shape of the wreck – so easily identifiable as a ship – and the good (comparatively!) visibility, so I took too few macro shots and too many green water pictures of indistinct shapes!

The bow of the wreck, viewed from above
The bow of the wreck, viewed from above
Tony behind some holes in the hull
Tony behind some holes in the hull

Dive date: 21 March 2011

Air temperature: 25 degrees

Water temperature: 8 degrees

Maximum depth: 10.1 metres

Visibility: 6 metres

Dive duration: 21 minutes

Shot line on the side of the wreck
Shot line on the side of the wreck
Encrusting marine life
Encrusting marine life

Dive sites: Castor Rock

Pyjama catshark over the reef
Pyjama catshark over the reef

Tony had three students who needed to finish their course, so we took them to Castor Rock. This is a large granite reef, a short distance from Long Beach in Simon’s Town where we were fetched by the boat. It’s just on the other side of the spectacular Roman Rock lighthouse.

Rocky crevices at Castor Rock
Rocky crevices at Castor Rock

Like Partridge Point, the Castor Rock area is a large maze of scattered boulders and pinnacles. Different marine life can be seen depending on the depth. This makes for an interesting dive from start to finish, because you can do your safety stop next to a shallow portion of the reef.

Sea cucumbers, urchins, anemones, sea squirts and feather stars
Sea cucumbers, urchins, anemones, sea squirts and feather stars

There are the usual sea cucumbers, urchins, feather stars and sea stars, but this site seems to be a particular haven for handsome striped pyjama sharks and catsharks. We saw six or eight pyjama sharks, some sleeping in crevices and others swimming around. A night light sea jelly greeted us as we started the dive, and bright orange sea fans are abundant.

Silvertip nudibranch
Silvertip nudibranch

The place is also nudibranch paradise – I found silvertip nudibranchs the size of hotdogs, and there were also gas flame nudibranchs in abundance.

Silvertip and gas flame nudibranchs at Castor Rock
Silvertip and gas flame nudibranchs at Castor Rock

The visibility was good, but the water in False Bay is still very green. We’re looking forward to winter diving!

Dean and Marinus at Castor Rock
Dean and Marinus at Castor Rock

Dive date: 2 April 2011

Air temperature: 24 degrees

Water temperature: 14 degrees

Maximum depth: 21.1 metres

Visibility: 10 metres

Dive duration: 30 minutes

Profusion of life at Castor Rock
Profusion of life at Castor Rock

Update on the artificial reef: 4 months

The artificial reef, covered in sea lettuce
The artificial reef, covered in sea lettuce

Tony and I installed a small artificial reef on the sand at Long Beach on 20 November last year. We checked on it after 10 days, and again after nearly 4 weeks, and then did not visit it for an extended period of three months during which the visibility was very bad. Summer diving in False Bay is an exercise in patience!

This used to be a cream Woolworths plant pot
This used to be a cream Woolworths plant pot

We visited it again recently, but my camera battery had given out after too much diving and photography for one little camera for one day. We returned to the artificial reef on Saturday 19 March, after it had spent 119 days in the water (4 months).

Algae-encrusted PVC pipe disappearing into the sand
Algae-encrusted PVC pipe disappearing into the sand

The reef itself is now so covered with sea lettuce that we almost swam right past it. The PVC pipes are almost completely buried in the sand, and algae encrusts almost every surface except for the cable ties. Feather stars seem to have taken a particular liking to the sponges, which have retained their shape (if not their colour) remarkably well.

Sign (left) and sponges (right) covered with feather stars, ascidians and hermit crabs
Sign (left) and sponges (right) covered with feather stars, ascidians and hermit crabs

The reef is populated by lots of (shy) klipfish, many of whom take cover in the sea lettuce. One, however, was very friendly and I almost got left behind playing with him on the sand.

Friendly klipfish
Friendly klipfish
Klipfish and warty pleurobranch
Klipfish and warty pleurobranch

We found a very fat pipefish, and a whole bed of hermit crabs going about their business. At least one warty pleurobranch was in residence, sitting on the wooden box.

Fat pipefish on the reef
Fat pipefish on the reef
Mask box covered with algae
Mask box covered with algae

The sign requesting divers not to mess with the reef is completely encrusted with sea squirts of various sizes and descriptions – larger ones as well as the smaller colonical ascidians. It’s not legible any more!

Sign overgrown with ascidians
Sign overgrown with ascidians

We were amazed by how thoroughly the sea has taken over the various items we laid down four months ago. What was originally quite an ugly collection of pipes and other random objects has become a thriving little oasis on the sand. We purposely placed the artificial reef away from other rocky outcrops or detritus that housed copious marine life – out on the sand, we’d be able to see who passed by, and know that the reef was seeded from scratch and not from an adjacent underwater feature.

For a before and after comparison, I’d recommend you go and check out what the reef looked like in these prior posts:

Sea life: Brittle stars

Serpent skinned brittle star at Long Beach
Serpent skinned brittle star at Long Beach

Brittle stars are echinoderms, which makes them relatives of starfish, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, feather stars and basket stars. I was never particularly enamoured of them until I started seeing striped brittle stars on some of the deeper dive sites (more on that later).

Serpent skinned brittlestars at Sunny Cove
Serpent skinned brittlestars at Sunny Cove

Brittle stars are mainly found in deep water, but in Cape Town we do find serpent-skinned brittle stars in the shallows (well, at over eight metres’ depth, usually), often clustered in large groups.

A brittle star curling his toes up (Tony was swimming over him)
A brittle star curling his toes up (Tony was swimming over him)

All of a brittle star’s organs are located in its central disc. They have five legs, much like whips, and are extremely agile and quite fast movers. Unlike starfish, which use tube feet for moving around, brittle stars acutally use their arms, moving each one independently.

You can see in the picture below (out of focus because he was moving so fast!) how dexterous the brittle star is at turning himself right-side up. He’s balancing on three or four of his legs as he gives himself a powerful flip.

The underside of a brittle star
The underside of a brittle star

Their mouth (same opening also serves as an anus) is located on the underside of the central disc, like starfish. They have five toothy jaw plates inside their mouths. They are scavengers, but will also eat small worms or crustaceans. In the deep ocean, they capture nutritious snacks in the form of passing organisms from the prevailing currents.

Some species (including those found in the Cape) actually give birth to live young – they brood their larvae in sacks called bursae, located between their arms.

Brittle stars on a coraline algae-covered rock on the Cape Matapan
Brittle stars on a coraline algae-covered rock on the Cape Matapan

Striped brittle stars are mainly found in deeper water, and we saw a lot of them at Partridge Point and on the SS Cape Matapan. They are extremely well camouflaged against the sand, should they choose to lie on it!

Brittle stars at Partridge Point
Brittle stars at Partridge Point

Like starfish, brittle stars can also grow missing limbs back, unless they lose all their limbs at once. Here’s one at Long Beach, with his growing leg tucked in coyly.

Brittle star growing a leg back
Brittle star growing a leg back