Dive Atlas Of The World: An Illustrated Reference To The Best Sites - Jack Jackson (2016)
by Mark and Charlotte Durham
VAST AREAS OF FRINGING CORAL REEF HUG the East African coastline and the shores of the nearby islands. Stretching south from the equator these impressive formations provide shelter and food to over 3000 species of marine plants and animals.
Like many of the coral corners of the world, a combination of the 1997/8 El Niño/Southern Oscillation Phenomenon and the over-harvesting of marine life has taken its toll. Turtles in Kenya are still under threat from local traditions and encroaching tourism, and blast-fishing continues to decimate the fish population in parts of Tanzania. Fortunately, through natural rehabilitation, local conservation efforts and national marine park protection, recovery is under way.
Two out of three ‘spice islands’ lying off the Tanzanian coast merit the ‘good diving’ label. Pemba, in the north, offers dramatic vertical coral cliffs bustling with life, strong ocean currents, big pelagic species, and can have 30m (100ft) visibility. Mafia Island Marine Park in the south boasts great species abundance and diversity, good visibility and exciting tidal challenges. Between them lies the popular tourist spot, Zanzibar Island, offering excellent diving around Mnemba Atoll in the north. However, for diving it does not rival the splendour or diversity of the Pemba or Mafia reefs.
Pemba, the lush emerald isle off East Africa, is separated from the mainland by the seemingly bottomless blue Pemba Channel. When Cousteau visited this area with the Calypso in 1967, he recorded that the divers discovered a treasure trove of marine life. Still occasionally true today, this channel is characterized by superb visibility, sometimes more than 50m (165ft), and big fish, such as sharks, barracuda, tuna, Manta Rays and Whale Sharks. Live corals in Pemba have been recorded to depths of 64m (210ft), covering between 21 and 60 per cent of the island’s coastline.
Guidebooks claim that the best diving is on the west coast of Pemba. Names such as Njao Gap 1, Manta Point 2, Fundu 3 and Uvinje 4 reefs and Mesali Island 5 roll off the tongues of seasoned Pemban divers - and for good reason. Here you can drift along dramatic cliff walls that stretch down to the blue depths. These walls are alive with huge Gorgonian Sea Fans and colourful corals. Reminiscent of the Red Sea, the reefs dance with an array of tropical marine life, some species being exclusive to these shores. Yellow-edged Chromis (Chromis pembae), a small rare chromis damselfish, is named after the island.
Banded Pipefish (Syngnathidae) share the sea horse’s unusual habit of the male carrying the fertilized eggs until they hatch.
Night diving provides an opportunity to watch the mesmerising spectacle of a Spanish Dancer (Hexabranchus sanguineus) as it undulates bright red and white through the black water.
Pemba’s wilder east coast has recently started to attract the thrill-seekers. Less protected from the elements, the east coast offers adrenaline-filled diving and a good chance to see the big stuff. Live-aboards can anchor in the Mtangani Channel 6 where still waters reflect the mangrove roots and coconut palms lining peaceful shores. For the experienced only, dives here are rapid, deep, blue-water drifts involving free descents without reference. Concentration is key, firstly on maintaining a constant depth while being swept up, down, and sideways by unpredictable currents and secondly on the surrounding blue. Drop in either a few hundred metres north or south of the channel, depending on which way the tide is flowing, and simply drift back past the channel entrance, zigzagging towards and away from the reef. You are searching for hammerheads (Sphyrnidae), marlin, Sailfish, Wahoo (Acanthocybium solandri), barracuda, tuna and kingfish (jacks and trevallies). As always, it is the chance of what you might see that is so exciting, rather than what you can expect to see. Keep constant vigil on depth and time, as the currents become dangerously strong, especially up and downward currents near the channel entrance. Take your time to observe the bizarre forms of the plankton drifting in the surface currents. The rewards are great, but diving on the east coast is not for the faint-hearted, and should only be done with an experienced guide and realistic dive plan.
A diver looking through the Paraportiani wreck at a stingray feeling through the sand for a meal.
Diver inspecting a coral outcrop (Montipora efflorescens) on the upper reef slopes of Pemba Channel.
The Regal Angelfish (Pygoplites diacanthus) is one of the most colourful of the angelfish family. Usually solitary or in pairs, they can be found swimming in and out of protective crevices.
A typical macro subject for muck divers, the Emperor shrimp (Periclimenes imperator) lives commensally on several hosts such as Spanish Dancer nudibranch or, as here, on a sea cucumber.
Mafia Island has been described as ‘a shallow Pemba with more fish.’ Certainly, the diving depth rarely exceeds 30m (100ft) and the profusion and diversity of the fish and plant life is extensive with over 400 species of fish and 50 different types of coral now recorded. The widespread and varied reefs in the southeastern region around Chole Bay 7 were declared Tanzania’s first national marine park in 1995 and remain in good condition today despite the marine threats of recent years. Although the coral bleaching seriously affected Mafia’s staghorn (Acropora)-dominated reefs, the remaining reefs were left surprisingly unharmed. Continuing on this positive note, the Green and Hawksbill Turtles still breed here successfully and blast-fishing has hardly touched Mafia’s shores.
The beautiful coral gardens, walls, pinnacles and caverns around Chole Bay provide a rich feasting ground for clouds of damselfish, fusiliers, anthias (Fairy Basslets), butterfly and angelfish and every other imaginable Indian Ocean reef fish. An exceptional variety of nudibranchs and flatworms add to the carnival of tropical colour on these reefs. The constant ebb and flow of the tides carry the larger shoals of groupers, turtles and pelagic fish in and out of the bay and provides some exciting diving through a natural opening in the reef known locally as Kinasi Pass.
Kinasi Pass 8 can be treacherous on an ebb tide, but during slack/flood tides it is southern Mafia’s premier site. The caverns, small walls and overhangs house a multitude of juvenile barracuda (Sphyraenida) and a variety of jacks and trevallies (Carangidae), larger game fish and Potato Grouper (Cod) (Epinephelus tukula) plus an expanse of dense, unspoiled sponges and corals. The dive starts at the ancient Porites spire The Pinnacle, where huge moray eels (Muraenidae) and giant batfish (Ephippidae) reside. The dive drifts westwards to the wall between 18m and 26m (60ft and 85ft), where fish feed on the flood tide. Fringing reefs lie north and south of The Pass, boasting pristine stands of blue-tipped Staghorn (Acropora) and large table corals. Lyretail (Lunartail) Groupers (Variola louti) and parrotfish (Scaridae) are often seen among the turtles and rays.
Mafia Island offers shallow yet spectacular diving and is home to a profusion of diverse plant and fish life. Over 400 species of fish and 50 different types of coral have been recorded.
Dindini Wall 9 is one of the many spectacular dives in the archipelago outside Chole Bay. Sponges and corals adorn the upper section of the wall with Gorgonian Sea Fans and Whip Corals (Gorgonacea) on the lower section. The caves, caverns and overhangs harbour Humphead (Napoleon) Wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus) and groupers. This reef is close to a big drop-off so look into the blue for Sailfish, very large tuna and dolphins.
In recent years, the reefs further away from the southeast of Mafia Island have been explored and documented and are now visited by dive centres and passing live-aboard boats. New and less accessible sites are always a thrilling temptation for adventure seekers. Lying offshore from Ras Mkumbi in the north, The Lighthouse 10 consists of a variety of small walls, coral gardens and overhangs. A naturalist’s heaven, they are frequented by large turtles and less common species such as Longnose Butterflyfish (Forcipiger flavissimus). Sailfish and Giant Trevally visit the more exposed reefs.
The general profile of the main Seychelles Islands is of granite boulders which usually continue underwater where low encrusting corals and sponges are found.
The marina at Victoria, capital of the Seychelles. The crystal clear waters are a natural breeding ground for many species of fish.