Dive Atlas Of The World: An Illustrated Reference To The Best Sites - Jack Jackson (2016)
by Stefania Lamberti
LONG PROTECTED FROM OVER-EXPLOITATION by Mozambique’s civil war, the reefs along this 2500-km (1550-mile) sweep of southeast African coastline have been lying forgotten and untouched. Although the land was pillaged and the abandoned tourist resorts raided by refugees, the offshore reefs thrived and developed into magnificent underwater wonderlands. Situated between the equatorial tropical and the South African subtropical zone, the reefs have escaped the dangerous rise in temperature that has caused widespread coral bleaching. These pristine reefs are a showpiece of untouched marine environments.
PONTA DO OURO
This thriving border town, just a hop across the border from South Africa, was a popular holiday destination many years ago, before the war ravaged the country. It was reopened in 1994 and, although it is a growing commercial centre with a bank, a few restaurants, renovated hotels, bed-and-breakfast establishments and a large campsite, it is still a rustic, seaside village on the never-ending beach that frames the eastern shore of Africa. It has become one of Mozambique’s most accessible and most popular dive destinations. About 33 reefs line the coast, each different in topography, nature and character, each offering a unique underwater experience. All the sites are accessible by boat from the beach of Ponta do Ouro and the smaller one of Ponta Malongane. After the dive, during the boat ride back to shore, there is a chance of seeing a Whale Shark or the resident pod of dolphins.
1 BASS CITY
Five coral outcrops at a depth of 25m (80ft) form the domain of a stocky Potato Grouper (or bass) and his harem of healthy females. Although he fiercely protects his kingdom from strangers, Bert (as he has been affectionately called), welcomes divers. Curious and quite nosy he might single out a diver and try to bite shiny gadgets such as torches, watches and cameras. Bert has an entourage of juvenile Golden Trevally pilot fish who use his bulk for protection while darting out to catch crustaceans and molluscs buried in the sand.
The five outcrops are covered in sponges and algae that sway gently in the swell. Among them moray eels take shelter in the fissures, often accompanied by cleaner shrimps. Thousands of sweepers and small-fry hover in dense clouds for protection, but they become easy prey for the fast-moving groupers. Where the reef meets the sandy floor lionfish lie motionless, waiting for unsuspecting prey to venture too close. Beneath a thin layer of sand, stingrays and electric rays wait for their chance to pounce.
Pinnacles is 4km (2½ miles) offshore and 12km (7½ miles) from Ponta do Ouro. It is a dive suitable only for experienced divers as it reaches a depth of 40m (130ft). Although this reef is rich in corals, Gorgonian Sea Fans, colourful schools of snappers and shimmering shoals of game fish, they are not the reason for the popularity of this dive site. Divers come to pinnacles to see sharks: Bull, Silver-tip, Blacktip and the occasional Tiger.
The Tomato Grouper (Cephalopholis sonnerati) has a sturdy body and a large caudal fin which helps it lunge at prey from its hiding place.
The Variegated (Leopard or Zebra) Shark (Stegostoma fasciatum) is one of the more docile inhabitants of the reefs. The body and tail are adapted to a life on the seafloor. It feeds on molluscs and crustaceans which it can crush in its powerful jaws.
The depth only allows for a short dive and all too soon it is time to abandon the ocean floor, but the underwater pageant follows divers to the surface. Schools of game fish come and go in the blue, the sharks may follow the divers for a while and for the lucky few a marlin or Sailfish may make a fleeting, but breathtaking, appearance.
PONTA DA BARRA
The wild shores of central Mozambique have a magical aura. It looks as if time stopped here during the war, and never resumed ticking again, leaving the town of Inhambane and its surrounds in a strange juxtaposition of old Portuguese and local vernacular. This quiet enclave of expansive mangroves, low-lying islands and protected bays was only discovered in the late 1400s by Portuguese explorers. Today the only visitors are tourists, divers and backpackers looking for a quiet retreat where idyllic beaches are framed by swaying coconut palms and the azure sea holds pristine, wild reefs inhabited by an unbelievable number of marine creatures. This is Mozambique’s secret treasure.
Great tidal movements change the sheltered area of the Bay of Inhambane from a marshy swamp to an intricate maze of quiet channels lined by mangrove trees. Many species of reef fish spend the early part of their lives here, hiding among the roots of the trees. Brittle stars, segmented worms and cowrie shells find shelter from the pounding ocean. Plants and animals here have adapted to cope with this alternating dry and wet world. The best time to dive here is at the end of the high tide when the flood tide brings clear water and the water flow slows before turning to rush out to sea again. Extremely rare Dugongs have been seen swimming along the channels.
4 THE OFFICE
About 15km (9½ miles) offshore, where the ocean floor reaches a depth of 25m (80ft), the reef forms an intricate ledge covered in a tapestry of corals, algae and sponges. Pelagics such as jacks regularly use this as a feeding site. Mantas hover in platoons waiting to be cleaned and graceful devilrays swarm in the blue above. This is the haunt of harems of Potato Groupers and lonely Leopard Sharks.
The sands of Africa’s east coast rise and fall beneath the shallows of the Indian Ocean, forming undulating turquoise channels interspersed with sinuous islands. For early mariners these islands held the promise of slaves, pearls and spices, but today, for the dive adventurer, the reefs hold a natural treasure rich in marine life.
The Bazaruto Archipelago lies halfway between Mozambique’s two main cities: Maputo (the capital) in the south and Beira in the north. The five islands that make up this group - Santa Carolina (or Paradise Island), Bazaruto, Benguerra, Magaruque and the tiny Bangué, were orphaned from the mainland some 30,000 years ago when the rising sea level filled the shallows between the African mainland and the sand dunes that lined the shore. Beyond these shifting dunes, submerged sandbanks solidified into sandstone and over time the tidal waters of the Indian Ocean carved an intricate maze of caves and gullies, which formed the substructure of the archipelago’s tropical reefs. These reefs lie parallel to the line of islands and stretch from 20km (12½ miles) north of Santa Carolina to Cabo San Sebastian, a promontory south of the islands. Unfortunately, shark finning fishermen have found their way here.
Crown of Thorns Starfish (Acanthaster planci) is a reef predator that feed on stony coral polyps. They can destroy patches of reef.
The Honeycomb Moray Eel (Gymnothorax favagineus) can grow to 1½cm (5ft) long. It emerges at night to hunt octopuses.
Gorgonian Dwarf or Whip Coral Goby (Bryaninops yongei). Only 3cm (1 in) long, it lives on sea whips at 15-40m (50-130ft).
5 TWO-MILE REEF
Between the islands of Bazaruto and Benguerra, the top of the reef lies exposed during low tide to the waves of the ocean. Tidal movements between the open ocean and the shallows between the islands and the mainland can cause surge and varied visibility. The flood tide brings clear water and a procession of enormous schools of game fish like barracuda and trevallies.
The caves and gullies of the reef hide a variety of inhabitants: the juveniles hide from predators, the nocturnal fish such as the bigeyes, rest up till nightfall and several sharks take a rest. Whitetip Reef Sharks and Tawny Nurse Sharks have developed the skill of actively pumping water over their gills while at rest and breathing in their sleep.
6 CABO SAN SEBASTIAN
The most stunning of the Archipelago’s dive sites is Cabo San Sebastian - a reef that can be located only with GPS receivers. Earlier, only sport fishermen, who told larger-than-life stories about shoals of fish so huge that the waters boiled, frequented this spot. When divers first ventured to Cabo they found the fishermen’s tales to be true. Huge schools of gamefish crowd the waters from the surface down to the reef, 30m (100ft) below. Potato Groupers of more than a metre (a yard) in length protect their harems, Grey Reef Sharks patrol the edges of the reef and huge turtles rest in the caves while mantas hover over the reef waiting to be cleaned.
The red colour and large eyes of the Bigeyes (family Priacanthidae) show their nocturnal lifestyle. By day they hide in caves.
This aerial view of the Jesser Point area clearly shows the launch site, as well as the estuary and beach.
Sport divers gather for a pre-dive briefing before an exciting boat trip and spectacular dive on the Aliwal Shoal off Umkomaas, KwaZulu-Natal.