Free Diving in the Kelp Forests of South Africa

South Africa is endowed with a rich bouquet of natural attractions to pamper to every outdoor enthusiast’s needs and even boasts one of the six floral kingdoms, the Fynbos Floral Kingdom, which is the smallest and one of the most diverse with thousands of endemic species.

In terms of floral habitats, South Africa is an over acheiver. Succulent Karoo, Afro-montane Forest, Nama Karoo grassland, coastal thicket, Albany thicket, mangroves, coastal grassland, Mopane, wetlands and many more all contribute to the incredible biodiversity and endemic list of fauna.

The Western Cape, with it’s mountains, winelands and countless scenic routes has poached tourists from the former primary South African drawcard of the Kruger National Park. Lured by the liberty of exploring the natural bounty draws hikers, trail runners and mountain bikers to the region, with a day out doors rounded off with an artisanal coffee, a craft gin or a superb glass of wine.

The ocean too, draws holiday makers to the shoreline to soak up some vitamin D, kite board and surf, or to marvel at pods of Southern Right and Humpback Whales during the winter months. There is even the chance to encounter the ageless evolutionary pinnacle of marine predation on a shark cage dive.

Hiking on the Cape Peninsula and surrounding mountain ranges is a popular pastime in the Western and Southern Cape.

And yet, while most visitors to the Cape will linger on a mountain top or saunter through the Fynbos, very few take the time to glide through the Kelp Forest and it’s incredible diversity. Extending 1000km along the coastline and a mere 100m wide, it is a forest that contains floral and faunal biodiversity that rivals the Amazon Forest. Fed by nutrient rich cold waters and being battered by the renowned Cape Storms, it is admittedly not the first choice for many.

Free diving in the kelp forest is something to savor one breath at a time.

Yet, on a calm sunny morning, diving beneath the surface and drifting below the kelp canopy is something that you will never forget. The South African Kelp Forest is dominated by two species of kelp, Ecklonia maxima and Laminaria pallida. Both are large brown seaweeds with a hollow air filled stipe which allows them to tower meters above the seabed, often up to 8m, with E. maxima capable of reaching heights of 17m.

Gazing out to sea from the shore, the forest looks like a jumble of wide brown strips undulating in the ocean swell. Swimming out through the shallow waters can be disorienting as the kelp fronds wrap around you and visibility is reduced to an arm length, an experience akin to pushing through a thick coastal thicket.

Diving below the canopy

Then, as you fill your lungs and dive beneath the canopy, a magical forest opens up, and unlike any terrestrial forest, you have the liberty of moving through it in three dimensions, as free as a bird.

Enjoy nature one breath at a time

Below the canopy, a three dimensional realm opens up around you.

Initially the darting silver fish, Hottentots, Carpenters and Blacktail draw your attention, but then as your senses adjust to your surroundings, the territorial Red Roman, camouflaged Klipfish and Two Tone Fingerfish become apparent, all the while to the accompanying background clicking of myriads of molluscs.

Drifting through the kelp fronds, Hottentot (Pachymetopan blochii) aggregate in a spawning frenzy.

The tall kelp require a firm substrate for their holdfast to secure them against the battering Cape Storms, and on these boulders and rocks, the colourful marine life is found. Walls of sea anemones, fields of sea urchins and a tapestry of sponges and sea fans shroud every inch of rock surface between the mosaic of encrusting coralline algae.

Covering the the rocky substrate in the understory, urchins, anemones and sponges add a splash of colour to the dappled light streaming through the kelp canopy.
An anemone attached to a kelp frond looks like a submerged sunflower swaying in the gentle sea surge.

Dipping beneath the Intertidal Zone

At Llundundo, on the grey Quartzsite boulders looming from the ocean, from the intertidal zone down to the sandy seabed, are covered in Sand Anemones.

On the Llundudno boulders, the mid intertidal zone is densely packed with mussels which then transforms into a wall of sea anemones.
Even between the densely packed Sand Anemones (Aulactinia reynaudi), crustaceans and molluscs thrive.
A colony of Strawberry Anemones (Carynoctis annulata) crowd together to oust other marine life on a vertical wall of rock.
Redbait (Pyura stolonifera) cloak a vertical rock wall at Boulders.

Focus on the small detail.

Each diver has their favorite group of fauna that they seek out on every dive. Having a focus on a reef or in the kelp forest is a benefit, because, just like birding in the on land, a specialized search reveals so much more. Nudibranchs, a family of marine slugs which have vivid colours and external gills, are my personal favorites.

A black nudibranch (Tamja capensis) forages between algae, feather stars and hydroids.
A Crowned Nudibranch (Polycera capensis) grips delicately onto the reef as it counters the strong surge in a narrow gully.
The elaborate structures on the backs of many nudibranchs are gill like cerata through which a pair of sensitive rhinophores protrude from their head.
A pair of Coral Nudibranchs (Phyllodesmium horridum) head off in search of their preferred meal of soft tissue of sea fans.

Encountering marine predators.

Most visitors to the Cape know about the Great White Sharks and Cape Fur Seals, and while many will participate on a specialized tour to come in close proximity of both species, the prospect of sharks does deter many people from diving. With over 100 species of sharks found in South African coastal waters, the chances of a shark encounter are good, though many of them are smaller than 1.2m, and lots smaller than 1m.

Puffadder Shysharks (Haploblepharus edwardsii) are incredible well camouflaged and their skin tone will reflect the surrounding habitat.

Catsharks and Shy Sharks are just as rewarding to swim with as a brief encounter of a Great White swimming past a protective cage. The advantage with swimming with smaller sharks is that you get to observe them as they venture out in pursuit of a meal of molluscs, crustaceans and small bony fish. And if you get too close to them, they will either roll up into a circle or disappear in to a narrow crevice in the rocks.

A darker version of a Puffadder Shyshark swimming to a protective crevasse beneath the kelp canopy.
Cape Fur Seals (Arctcephalus pusillus pusillus) are incredible swimmers and extremely agile in the water. Though they are inquisitive and will approach divers, id is well to remember that they are wild animals

Observe the fauna

Whether on a safari or hiking through nature in Africa, with any animal sighting, people stop and watch the behavior of birds and wildlife. When free diving, either on a coral reef or in the kelp forest, it is worthwhile to pause and simply watch the fish and our marine fauna as the go about their daily activities.

Red Roman ( Chrysoblephus laticeps) are territorial sequential hermaphrodites species of sea bream, starting life as a female and transitioning to a male when they reach a specific size (30cm). Males have a small home range and will defend it from any competitive males, and like the Klipfish, may even challenge their reflection from a dive mask.
I was being inspected by this male, most probaly his reflection in my dive mask, as i approached his territory in a swim through.
A pair of dominant male Klipfish (family Cinidae) have a stand off defending their territories. While they were staring each other down, smaller males were actively sneak mating with females close.
Once the orange male has submitted and moved off, the victor turned his attention to his reflection on my dive mask. He must have felt a huge sense of accomplishment when I needed to surface for a breath and his challenging reflective ‘swam away’.
There are 40 species of Klipfish in southern Africa, and they are all endemic species.
Cape Rock Crabs (Plagusla cobrus) are wonderful to watch as they pick over the reef for a meal, eating both seaweed and small fauna. They are incredibly observant and will dash for shelter when the see or sense the approach of a predator.

Immerse your self

A forest with no paths

Unlike so many other nature experiences with fixed entrances, defined paths and best routes, free diving in the kelp forest offers the freedom to come and go as you wish.

Pointing the way to another special sighting.

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