Since the announcement of the return of Level 3 Covid-19 regulations, ocean access has been severely restricted apart from a few exceptions. Fishing and tourism operations have been lucky enough to be allowed to continue operating, which is why this week’s oceanic adventure takes place in Hout Bay.
Last week, before curfew was pushed back an hour earlier, I hit the road at 6am from Gansbaai, making my way towards the west. My destination was Hout Bay Harbour, the meeting point for some boat-based scuba diving which is still allowed under the current regulations, with strict hygiene protocols! Gear in my dive box and armed with a GoPro, I was elated to be getting into the Atlantic again. I arrived around half an hour before the meet and watched as the fog enveloped the mountains before burning off to reveal a beautiful summer’s day.
At 9am, my dive school arrived and we began suiting up and setting up our gear for the day ahead. If you ever learn to scuba dive, it’s of utmost importance that you learn to do this yourself; after all, you’re the one relying on the system once you’re under the water. After finishing our set ups and having everything checked by our trusty instructors, we loaded the boat and set out into the bay.
Much like the Cape Whale Coast, Hout Bay is an incredibly scenic place to go to sea, with the mountains and sharp peaks providing a breathtaking backdrop. Despite only being 2 – 3 hours from the Overstrand, the ocean is vastly different here. These cooler waters attract a variety of life not often found in Walker Bay, such as the acrobatic Dusky Dolphin and the endemic Heaviside Dolphin. This is also the area in which Humpback Whales form super aggregations of hundreds of animals who come together to feed off our coast, a phenomenon only recently discovered.
Hout Bay is also home to Duiker Island, a large colony of Cape Fur Seals and the second dive site of that day. The Cape Fur Seal is endemic to South Africa and Namibia and can be found on islands, outcrops and land colonies in places not often frequented by people. Despite their reputation as pests, these pinnipeds are exceptionally intelligent and have lots of character, much like that of a Labrador puppy!
Our first dive of the day took place on the Maori Wreck in 9-degree water, much to the discontent of my fingers and GoPro casing. My GoPro made its dissatisfaction clear by seizing up at the very beginning of the dive, making it impossible to take any photos, which is why I would now recommend any diver to switch their GoPro on before getting into the water to avoid finding their buttons jammed and unusable. The dive yielded a few large lobsters, a gigantic octopus and a Cuttle Fish, but it was nothing compared to the excitement that followed on our second dive.
This took place at Duiker Island, where hundreds of Cape Fur Seals and occasionally an Elephant Seal called Buffel like to hang out in the water. On land, Cape Fur Seals are quite shy and when approached by humans, will often jump into the water as their first defense. In the water however, they seem to know that us humans are not nearly as capable, and reward our clumsy ways by giving us the show of a lifetime and playing with us under the water!
Last Sunday’s dive number two saw us spending 30 blissful minutes being totally bombarded by playful Cape Fur Seals. When you’re under the water with them, they will swim at you with their larger-than-life eyes with enlarged pupils and stare into your soul before darting away in a dash. These pinnipeds will tug at your fins and give you a love nip or two on the head. They formed little gangs in front of us and would take turns chasing each other before swooping in and checking out the humans once again. The little ones are particularly naughty, gaping at GoPros and showing off the not so pearly whites of an apex ocean predator. Typically, blowing lots of bubbles can increase the social distance between you and a seal if you need it to, but this was one of the best experiences of my life so I let them show me who’s boss in their underwater world.
Despite their adorable appearance, these pinnipeds are fierce and are able to make quick work of octopus, rays and even small sharks. They can stay under the water for up to 8 minutes at a time and have the ability to collapse their lungs to aid their diving, taking them down a few hundred metres at most, though they don’t always dive to such depths. On this day, we were with them on scuba at a depth of around 10 metres, although the sightings are just as incredible at the surface. Hout Bay is home to two seal snorkeling operators, which gives everyone the opportunity to enjoy this most wondrous experience.
Scuba dives and snorkeling experiences in the area typically last 30 – 40 minutes, and I would highly recommend trying one or both at least once in your life. To be eye to eye with these curious creatures in their home environment will give you a perspective that you’re unlikely to ever gain from peering at them off the edge of the boat.
That’s all for this week’s ocean story. We’ll be returning to the Seychelles next week for some turtle talk.