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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.