PONTA DO OURO is only 30 minutes over the border but it is a world away from South Africa. The language, food and Rasta vibe ensure you immediately feel the holiday mood. The deep sand roads from the border are sufficiently adventurous to make you feel off the beaten track but short enough that you will get to your destination without too much grief. It is known for its diving excellence.
It has been over 10 years since we moved out of our comfort zone in Sodwana. We packed our gear and trundled up the N2 for a taste of Mozambique, or Portugal!
The language, architecture and swaying palm trees certainly conjure up the Portuguese influence.
Part of the motivation for this trip was the desire to dive with a small dive outfit called BACK TO BASICS ADVENTURES. B2B is run by a husband and wife team who combine a passion for all things marine with impressive photographic talent. Jenny has become something of a nudibranch guru and is an enthusiastic and well respected citizen scientist. We have been following them in national and international photographic competitions for a couple of years and we were excited to have a chance to see them in action.
They did not disappoint. Their welcome was warm, the dive centre well organised, eclectically decorated and equipped with a coffee machine, bonus! We settled right in.
The diving at Ponta, while only a few kilometres up the coast from Sodwana, is significantly different. Less coral and more sandy and rocky reefs. There is a series of bays flanked by a ridge of deep reefs where shark and large mammal encounters are not uncommon. Within each bay there are a series of shallower inshore reefs and dive sites.
Of all the Ponta dive sites PINNACLES is probably the most well known. This is essentially a big blue dive. The bottom is over 40 meters and most divers will dive here to hang in mid ocean and look for the sharks coming in. For some reason, presumably a factor of currents and fish life, Pinnacles acts as a spaghetti junction for sharks. There are always a group of resident Bull sharks and Silver tip, Black tip, Spinner sharks, Grey reef sharks and Tigers are often seen. Schooling Hammerheads may also put in an appearance as do Mantas and Eagle rays.
On our second dive here a Leopard (Zebra) shark was sheltering under an overhang at the bottom.
Remoras are always circling the deco stops, eager hitchhikers.
We started our Ponta dive sequence with a group of French guests whose one and only aim was to see sharks. They wanted to dive Pinnacles all day and everyday, back to back. They certainly clocked up an impressive list of shark species seen.
We joined them on a few outings and shared the awe of the circling bull sharks. We dived with Jenny to the bottom for a precious 15 minutes to search for the little critters before using the leisurely ascent time to decompress and check out the sharks. It is a dive that never disappoints but I was frustrated by the short bottom time.
Remoras, or suckerfish, have modified first dorsal fins which take the form of an oval sucker organ with slat like structures which open and close to create suction. This allows them to take a firm hold on the skin of larger animals like sharks.
By sliding backwards the remora increases the suction and by swimming forward it releases.
They are mutualistic, removing parasites and dead skin but their main food source is the faeces of host animals. Eating shark poo, the bottom of the food chain indeed!
In some cultures, including parts of Mozambique, Remoras have been used to catch turtles. A rope is attached to the Remoras tail. When a turtle is sighted the remora is released. It usually heads for, and attaches to, the turtle and then both the remora and turtle are pulled in. It illustrates the strength of that little suction disc rather impressively.
Reports of this type of fishing are found in some of the accounts of Christopher Columbus. Unexpected underwater history to contemplate while hanging at the 10 meter stop.
In Ponta Bay the dive sites are rocky and sandy but with a plentitude of small critters. DOODLES is a well known and well loved reef to all who have dived Ponta. Inshore it allows for a short boat ride and so it is often chosen when the sea conditions make long boat rides unpleasant.
It is a long rocky reef surrounded by sand and home to Lion fish, Potato bass and rays, many eels and a particularly beautiful red frog fish.
Next to Doodles is a slightly deeper reef called BLACKS. A small reef of rocks and weed it quickly became one of my favourite sites with juvenile False Stonefish, Pipe fish and Ghost pipe fish. On our first dive here a dolphin and her calf swam through our group taking time to check us all out! No I did not get a picture, I am on macro you know!!
This is a male Ghost pipefish because of the small pelvic fin. We tried some new shooting techniques. This was shot onto a slave flash to give a bright white background and high contrast, a high key image. Still a technique in progress.
In the neighbouring Malongane Bay are a group of other shallower reefs and we spent a couple of dives there. One off these was to PARADISE. This Bay has slightly more coral although, to be fair, it is not up to Sodwana standards. Still the sea life is prolific, lots of Lion fish again, rays and eels as well as numerous nudibranchs and a Spanish dancer. These reefs are not my favourite but I think by then I was spoiled and seduced by the incredible diversity of the deeper reefs.
I mentioned Jenny is a committed citizen scientist. Well she is busy with several projects documenting the nudibranchs of the area and she was keen to visit the rock pools at the point at night to see what came out in the dark. We were game and as tide and full moon were well aligned we set out at 10.30pm to stroll down the moonlit beach with our masks, torches and cameras. It was truly beautiful with the moon glinting off the water, peaceful and deserted.
I am not sure what the security issues were but we met no one and felt no sense of threat. I suspect this would not be said of a similar outing in our home territory. A sad reflection.
The rock pools were beautiful and we spent a happy couple of hours paddling around. Jenny found a new nudibranch and a bubble shell. I was fascinated by the mollusks out and about and the sleeping fish. There was even a tiny squid flitting in and out of the sand. What a treat.
ATLANTIS is on the deep reef ridge just south of Ponta Bay. It is, I think, one of my favourite reefs. I remember still the first time we dived here 25 years ago and it is one of the most clear recollections I have of what it was to be narced. It is a deep dive 36-42 m, and there is often a current, so you may find yourself flying over the reef in a state of surreal euphoria.
It is easily recognised by the almost geometric placement of large square rocks. The outline looks like the hull of a shipwreck.
The rocks are coated in black coral trees. Indeed it is one of the few places where black coral is found here. The trees are yellow and white and many are huge, feathery and bushy. There are gorgonian fans and rich red and purple soft coral with beautiful amphipods.
The whip corals are abundant and long, waving in the current. You just know there must be many critters living in there but time is short and the brain is scrambled so finding them can be a bit of a challenge.
This is also a site where there are many Spanish dancers, Every time we dived here we saw 2 or 3, Red or orange or speckled.
On our second dive we had the added bonus of a swim by by a small whale shark. It’s the advantage of deep reefs with current that big marine life may just cruise past.
At the southern end of the reef is a large green coral tree and at the base sits a weedy scorpion fish.
All too soon time is up and it is a leisurely trip to the surface and a return to reason. Until the next time !
DEEP ANEMONE is another of the deep edging reefs. It again carries a penalty of time and narcosis. We headed down in anticipation. Jenny said she had seen the Tiger shrimp here on the Tiger anemones and sure enough her eagle eye spotted it immediately. She tells you that this is the only site she has seen it despite many other sites where the Tiger anemone is quite prolific. Another of nature’s mysteries.
We hit a current about halfway into the descent and so reaching the anemone was a hard haul for me. I later found out one fin had snapped so it was not just my poor swimming skills. I pitched up there narced and breathless. Dudley is pointing and gesticulating wildly My fuzzy vision sees nothing but I focused and shot the anemone to keep him happy.
Only on the surface did I discover I was supposed to be shooting the shrimp. I was despondent, I missed such an opportunity only to find that my random shots had him dead centre. I can only say he sure is well camouflaged. I would have liked to see what I was shooting and do some framing (and better focus!) but it was better than a slap in the face!
The Tiger anemone (aka Leopard or Zebra anemone depending on patterning I suspect) is a colonial anemone, wrapping themselves on gorgonians, sea fans and whip corals. For this reason they are also known as the gorgonian wrapper. They may host shrimps and crabs although they are rare and difficult to see. I rest my case.
STABLES dive site was one of the main motivations for this visit. It is a site where reef is conspicuously absent. Instead It is a dive to the sand in the Loggerhead Valley which sits between the deep reef systems and shallow reef systems off Ponta Bay. It is at 32m and while it appears initially featureless the sea bottom is in fact alive with seapens, thick and thin, white and red and pink and purple, short and tall. In this forest there are a cornucopia of sea creatures, from tiny shrimps to octopus, eels, juvenile fish, sea horses and pipe fish.
To anyone familiar with the muck diving of Indonesia this is the African version. Many of those same small creatures can be found but in a clean and sandy environment. It is macro heaven and I am sure there is more still to find.
Jenny and Rupert are busy documenting the critters and behaviours but with a dive time of just 30 minutes followed by decompression the time there is over all too soon. On one memorable and mesmerising dive Dudley had to pull me off the bottom by my hair to avoid a very long deco time indeed. I will not lie, it is hard to leave indeed.
If the French group wanted to dive back to back Pinnacles then this was my Pinnacles and back to back Stables my idea of a perfect day. We did 4 dives there in total, each one different. It seems the conditions dictate what is out and about. In a current more of the pens come out and there is more action and bustle. In no current it is much more quiet but of course easier to shoot! In the sandy environment a careless fin kick will leave you squinting through a sand blizzard so calm and careful is the key.
Hanging in the BIG BLUE is one of the inevitable consequences of deep dives, slow ascent times and decompression stops. In Ponta it is not infrequently a significant part of your dive. It gives time for some quiet reflection, nonchalantly practicing buoyancy, while surreptitiously checking out the skill set in the rest of the group! There is however another hidden benefit of this "down time". Who knows what you may see cruising past. Tales of amazing encounters abound. Whale shark, Mantas and Tiger sharks, anything is possible. Not surprisingly these are rare and unusual. What you do see more often is the little things floating in the ocean and at some times of the year, and phases of the moon, these can be prolific.
We dived over full moon and the water became filled with fine strands of coral eggs, clearly a mass coral spawning had taken place. It made the water dirty which causes scatter and blur in the photos and yet it was a beautiful experience to see the coral life cycle in action. There was added anticipation. Surely something must want to come and eat this? The egg blizzard was punctuated with little jellies and larvae, often so small you only saw the detail after the image was captured and enlarged. Forget about framing, its pot luck. Anyway after a few minutes bobbing around chasing little see through things it is time to head for the surface before sea sickness really takes over!
Part of the attraction of Ponta is the quaint little beach town. It has grown substantially since we were last here and not all the development is in good taste. It retains the air of cheerful decay. There is a bustling market where the haggling is cut throat. Don’t expect to take home any bargains.
The numerous restaurants specialize in Portuguese themed food, not my favourite. Road kill chicken and Prego rolls are prominent and the prawns expensive. Indeed Ponta is expensive. They mostly get their supply’s from South Africa with the result that most things seem about double the cost. The tarred road from Maputo is still under construction.
Most think it will be a mixed blessing, improved access and business but perhaps also increased crime.
Anyway that sounds like a bad tempered rant and it is not true. There are plenty of places where you can enjoy a cold glass of wine overlooking the sea with sand between your toes. What more do you need? Our time flew by too quickly but one thing we were sure of as we bumped back over the sandy roads. We will be back and soon. Thank you Jenny and Rupert. Anyone who wants a recommendation for a professional, friendly and inspirational dive charter in Ponta look no further.