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

Swim throughs at Photographer’s Reef

Yesterday I posted a very short video showing divers at Photographer’s Reef in early August. The visibility was lovely – at least 15 metres. Here are three equally short videos showing a couple of the swim throughs at the site, and one almost swim through. While the reef itself is suitable for Open Water divers doing their qualifying dives, overhead environments definitely are not. This is not cave diving by any stretch of the imagination, but one wants to be qualified and in good control of buoyancy before venturing into an overhead environment.

I’m using the word “swim through” loosely here, as two of these videos don’t actually feature overhead environments.

This one is, however, and it is fantastic. I started recording when I was already inside the entrance. It’s a beautiful L-shaped cave created by stacked boulders. On the way out I had to practically belly crawl so as not to hit the sea fan sticking out from the wall, which – as you can see – has already suffered a little during the course of its lifetime!

Here, Craig swims ahead of me through a passage in the rocks. When visibility is poor, these passages are all but invisible, and you wouldn’t want to venture down them unless you’re very familiar with the reef and sure that there’s a way out.

This passage looks like it should be possible for a diver to fit through it (or quite far down it), but I judged it too narrow and likely to cause damage to the reef and possibly to myself, were I to persist in following it. I am sure someone has been down there before!

Dive sites (Southern Mozambique): Steps

Powder blue surgeonfish and goldies
Powder blue surgeonfish and goldies

Steps is a long, narrow reef running for about 4 kilometres in a north-south direction, making it ideal for drift dives on days when the current is strong. It’s relatively narrow, and ranges from about 13 to 16 metres’ depth. The reef is made up of a series of overhangs and gullies, providing abundant habitat for fish and other marine life.

I was happy to see both a male and a female boxy – I love these fish, and their nonchalant ways. We didn’t see any large creatures on this dive except for turtles, but I enjoyed the opportunity to try some fish photography. They just won’t sit still! Yellow and blue banded snapper are the only ones who oblige the cameraman, as they seem to be remarkably placid and reluctant to break their tight formations over the reef.

Emperor angelfish having a snack
Emperor angelfish having a snack

Oddly, I got cold towards the end of this dive, and surfaced for that reason rather than being low on air or time. I think it was because we didn’t actually have to swim much, and I’m a lazy finner to begin with. I never believed I’d get cold in 25 degree water, but with a lowered core temperature from dives earlier in the day it can happen!

Dive date: 9 May 2012

Air temperature: 25 degrees

Water temperature: 25 degrees

Maximum depth: 15.2 metres

Visibility: 10 metres

Dive duration: 58 minutes

Blue banded snapper
Blue banded snapper

Dive sites: Photographer’s Reef

The top of the reef
The top of the reef

I’ve dived Photographer’s Reef twice now. The first time was at the ScubaPro Day, and conditions were marginal (read: pea soup with a howling current). I took photos then, but certainly not the kind that one would use to recommend a dive site to others. We dived this reef again recently, off the new(ish) Learn to Dive Today boat, Seahorse. The conditions were much better – calm on the surface, with about 6 metre visibility. When we turned the corner of the reef towards the seaward side, however, things got a bit greenish!

Photographer’s Reef (known as JJM Reef by old-school local divers) is located offshore from the Boulder’s Beach penguin colony, and one of the pleasures of diving here is seeing small groups of penguins passing by on the surface as they head out to forage for food. We didn’t see any underwater – that’s very unusual – but Tony, who stayed on the boat, said that one group that swam past kept sticking their heads underwater to check out our bubbles.

The reef is compact and shallow – the top is about 3-5 metres deep, and the sand is at perhaps 12 metres. This means you can have a very long dive here, and it’s the kind of place you want to spend time at. (We didn’t stay very long – it was the second dive of the day and the wind was freezing, so we were all coolish when we got in!) The indefatigable Peter Southwood suggests that this can be done as a shore dive, if you’re fit and have good navigation skills.

Sea fan in a swim through
Sea fan in a swim through

There are a number of swim throughs and caverns on this reef, which is made up of a jumble of giant boulders. We didn’t visit all of them, but they make for a very varied dive. There are gullies and overhangs to explore, and the site is aptly named as it is a photographer’s dream. (I’m sorry I didn’t do it justice!)

The site is inside a restricted area, and it was lovely to see numerous small roman defending their patches of reef. I saw a couple of abalone, but since reading Currents of Contrast by Thomas Peschak I’ve realised that we never, ever see abalone in the kind of abundance (and by that I mean wall-to-wall shells, so that their broadcast spawning technique can be effective) that nature intended and accommodated before most of these creatures were stolen from the ocean.

A cuttlefish hides in a crack in the rocks
A cuttlefish hides in a crack in the rocks

Christo found a cuttlefish inside one of the cracks in the side of the reef, and there were many nudibranchs to choose from. There’s an abundance of invertebrate life here.

Dive date: 26 May 2012

Air temperature: 19 degrees

Water temperature: 15 degrees

Maximum depth: 10.9 metres

Visibility: 3-6 metres

Dive duration: 39 minutes

Newsletter: Stormy

Hi divers

Redfingers at Atlantis
Redfingers at Atlantis

Weather, always a difficult topic and sometimes difficult to understand. Last weekend we took the boat out on Saturday unsure of the conditions, and had quite respectable diving at Atlantis and Outer Castle with mist, a bit of rain and about 6 metre visibility. Sunday we were expecting a fair amount of wind and instead had really good conditions at Long Beach. We were out on the boat again on Monday and had heavy mist to start but it cleared and we had good diving in sunny conditions.

Octopus on the wall at Atlantis
Octopus on the wall at Atlantis

This weekend seems set to be a stay at home weekend for Open Water students as there is a 5 metre swell coming into the bay tomorrow and the direction is southerly which means Cape Point won’t diffuse it for us. It rolls straight into the bay and will most likely trash the inshore sites. The shallower sites close to shore will be very surgy and this doesn’t bode well for good diving.

Atlantis sea fans
Atlantis sea fans

For the more experienced divers the offshore sites could yield good conditions as greater depths reduce the surge and the swell does start to drop off on Saturday, but a southerly wind will make the surface conditions a little choppy. I think Saturday will be touch and go but Sunday may be good as the swell is down to 2 metres and there is little or no wind.

Basket star at Atlantis
Basket star at Atlantis

The plan is therefore two launches on Sunday, sites to be decided closer to the time based on Saturday’s conditions. Unfortunately we won’t be getting in the water on Saturday. If you want to be on the list for Sunday, text me and I’ll keep you informed.

Misty morning at Miller's Point
Misty morning at Miller's Point

Lastly, don’t forget about the Cape Town Dive Festival. The dives for the Saturday are now 70% full, with Friday not far behind. You can find out what’s available and how to book by going to the CTDF website. Íf you want to know what dives we’ll be doing, you can find that list here.

Simon, Christo, Lauren, Shaheen & Mark almost ready to roll backwards
Simon, Christo, Lauren, Shaheen & Mark almost ready to roll backwards

regards

Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099
www.learntodivetoday.co.za
www.learntodivetoday.co.za/blog/

Newsletter: Winds of change

Hi divers

Sea fan in a swim through at Photographer's Reef
Sea fan in a swim through at Photographer

The wind required for cleaning the bay is just not really happening yet. From the data below (from MagicSeaweed) you can see that we should have had a lot more wind from a northerly direction yet we have had way more southeasterly days this month than the norm.

Wind direction breakdown for May 2011
Wind direction breakdown for May 2011

The result, well False Bay is not very clean and the visibility has been around 5 metres all week. With the southeaster tomorrow as well as both days of the weekend I am not expecting very good conditions for training dives. The sites further off shore may be better but I will take the boat out tomorrow and then make the call for the weekend.

Overhang at Atlantis
Overhang at Atlantis

Last weekend’s conditions were pretty much the same although Saturday was wind-free in the morning, and we dived Atlantis and Photographer’s Reef. The visibility was around 6 metres on the inshore side of the reefs but once you rounded the seaward side it dropped to around 3 metres.

Blue gas flame nudibranch at Atlantis
Blue gas flame nudibranch at Atlantis

On Sunday we went to take a look but called off the planned dives as the wind and surface conditions were unpleasant. Instead we went to the cement wreck just off the yellow buoy that can be seen from Long Beach, and explored there a little bit.

Piet and Tami at the cement wreck, Long Beach
Piet and Tami at the cement wreck, Long Beach

I have Open Water, Advanced, and Divemaster courses on the go at the moment. Those of you who need to do training dives will get a message from me as soon as conditions are suitable. If you’d like to be informed of weekend plans once they’re clearer, let me know.

Please don’t forget your dive festival bookings. The boats are filling up fast.

regards

Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099
www.learntodivetoday.co.za
www.learntodivetoday.co.za/blog/

Diving is addictive!

Dive sites: Steenbras Deep

On Sunday 11 March, since the Cape Argus Pick n Pay Cycle Tour was going to prohibit access to basically the entire peninsula, we decided to take an expedition out to the eastern side of False Bay to do a boat dive with Indigo Scuba, run by Kate and Deon Jonker. We’ve been meaning to do this for ages and ages, so we were very glad to finally get ourselves over there! The southeaster (which had blown strongly in the few days prior to the 11th) actually cleans up the eastern side of False Bay while it messes up the western side, or at least has some positive effect on visibility. So while we are diving in the Atlantic during the summer, Indigo launches out of Gordon’s Bay and explores local dive sites such as Pinnacles, Cow and Calf, and the Steenbras River Mouth.

Deon Jonker skippering the Indigo Scuba dive boat
Deon Jonker skippering the Indigo Scuba dive boat

We met at Indigo Scuba in the morning, loaded up the boat, and then drove the 5 minutes to Harbour Island in Gordon’s Bay, from where we launched. It’s an extremely civilised launch site and overall experience… The foul-mouthed snoek slinging fishermen crowding Miller’s Point seemed like a bad dream!

West coast rock lobster buddy pair
West coast rock lobster buddy pair

It’s about 11 kilometres from Harbour Island to Steenbras Deep, and one has the feeling of being quite far out to sea – although we could see the mountains surrounding False Bay on both sides of us. The wind was stronger than the weather man had predicted, giving rise to some quite serious wind chop and a bumpy and wet boat ride. When we arrived at the reef we could see that there was more wave action on top of the pinnacles than in the deeper water surrounding them. Deon dropped a shot on one of the two pinnacles that comprise the reef (the top of the pinnacle we dropped onto is at about 18 metres, with the sand at about 30 metres). A murky descent (standard for False Bay in summer!) down the shot line led us to the top of the pinnacle, where visibility was only about 2 metres and it was very green.

Bull klipfish
Bull klipfish

As we ventured slightly deeper we encountered some invigorating (ahem!) thermoclines (one of them was actually visible as a haze in the water) and improved visibility. There was quite a strong current in places, and lots of surge.

There are many similarities between the reefs we dive on the western side of False Bay, but the overall pattern of the sea life was subtly different. The fish seemed far less skittish than their compatriots to the west, and happily swam within a few tens of centimetres from my mask. Nudibranchs abound, and close inspection of the corals covering the rocks is well rewarded. There seemed to be fewer sea cucumbers, and feather stars were not quite as dominant as they are in some of the other parts of False Bay. The corals, sponges and sea fans are beautiful and very numerous.

The sand around the reef is very coarse and full of shells, and the reef itself abounds with cracks, gullies, small pointy pinnacles, and walls that can be traversed at a variety of depths. The gullies appear to be much beloved by west coast rock lobster, and shysharks were quite common too.

This reef is not in a marine protected area (MPA) – none of the eastern False Bay dive sites are. Kate, who regularly dives both sides of the bay, says she can see a distinct difference in the number of fish that they see on “their” side of the bay compared to the western side. So even if I am quite cynical about the competence of the administration and will to police the MPAs, clearly they are having some effect!

Dive date: 11 March 2012

Air temperature: 29 degrees

Water temperature: 12 degrees

Maximum depth: 24.8 metres

Visibility: 2-10 metres

Dive duration: 38 minutes

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

Sea life: Walking anemones

Walking anemone illuminated by Tony's strobe
Walking anemone illuminated by Tony's strobe

The walking anemone (or sock anemone, or hedgehog anemone – Preactis millardae) is endemic to Cape waters and I’ve only seen it on the Smitswinkel Bay wrecks so far. It has been seen as far east as Port Elizabeth.

Walking anemone on the SAS Good Hope
Walking anemone on the SAS Good Hope

It likes deeper water, 10-30 metres. Instead of being attached to a rock or the sand (sessile), these creatures walk about with a movement like a slinky or caterpillar.  Their favourite food is multicoloured sea fans, so instead of waiting for a snack to drift by (like most anemones do), walking anemones actually have to move about to find their next meal. If you look carefully you can see how the anemone in the picture above has eaten the red sea fan to its left down to the skeletal supports (like little twigs). They also like soft corals.

Multicoloured sea fans
Multicoloured sea fans

Their bodies can stretch out to resemble a sock, but in these pictures they are scrunched up. The mouth has red lines radiating outward from it. The first time I saw one of these I thought it was a grubby orange gas flame nudibranch, because I couldn’t see the mouth stripes. Revisiting that picture (below) in light of the new specimens I’ve seen since has confirmed that it was a walking anemone and not a nudibranch!

Walking anemone on the MV Rockeater
Walking anemone on the MV Rockeater

SURG has some information about walking anemones here and here.