Underwater photography in the Garden Route

Nature’s Playground

The Garden Route has deservedly become one of the most popular destinations in South Africa with unrivaled mountain, forest, fynbos and coastal outdoor activity options, making it a treasure trove for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers.

Popular for swimming, fishing, surfing, and whale watching, the scalloped coastline of pristine sandy beaches punctuated by rocky peninsulas and weathered aeolianite hint at the intertidal marine life which lives beneath the oceanic swells.

Diverse Coastline

The geological processes that formed the regions folded mountains and coast have contributed to unique terrestrial and marine ecosystems. The southern slopes of the mountains are shrouded in a mix of Fynbos and Afromontane Forest renowned for their biodiversity. Yet, most visitors to this narrow coastal corridor which extends from Mossel Bay in the west to Storms River in the east only experience the terrestrial wildlife and miss out on the marine floral and faunal diversity. In the ocean, driven by a complex system of currents and gyres, the warm Agulhas Current delivers warm water with periodic cold upwelling to the Southern Cape to fuel the flourishing marine ecosystem nestled between the Kelp Forests to the west and the coral reefs along the eastern seaboard of South Africa.

Ocean Swells and Tidal Pools

The first impression when walking over a rocky intertidal shelf is that of a monotone, muted brown marine environment with a few sea anemones and sea urchins tucked away. Definitely not enough to inspire the pursuit of marine macro photography. Yet, diving beneath the waves reveals the colourful diversity of marine life that abounds. Shoals of silver fish feed off the reef, drifting in the undulating swell washing over them.

Under Cover

Crammed beneath ledges and within submerged recesses, a vivid palette of marine life bursts through. Red and orange hues of sponges and sea fans are punctuated by a spectrum of urchins and soft corals. Iridescent algae glint in the dappled light. The reef is not still, it shimmers and moves. Mauve fronds oscillate, patterned goby’s dart into burrows and tube worms disappear in the blink of an eye.

From a distance the reef is a tapestry of riotous colour, no more than vague patterns, only the shoals of fish above them discernable. Then, as you approach closer, individual shapes emerge into view. Far from being a static landscape, the reef pulsates with life. Ghostly transparent shrimp catapult between feeding stations at the flick of a tail. Through clusters of algae, the arms of a starfish stretch out as it slides across rocks in search of prey. Operculate Fan Worms disappear in the blink of an eye. 

Grasping Colour

A universal rock pool favorite are anemones, their plump tubular body sprouting a tiara of tentacles, they manifest on the reef in a palette of colour.

A juvenile Sand Anemone is remarkably mobile on it’s basal foot, gliding along a sponge in search of a suitable location.
The most vivid of the Sand Anemones spectrum, an indigo coloured anemone has retracted its tentacles while it digests a meal.
Highly mobile, this Candy Striped anemone has an interesting habit of ‘cartwheeling’ to move around the reef. Stretching out, it attaches to the reef with it’s tentacles, then, releasing it’s foot, flips over and reaches for a new attachment location.
Violet Spotted Anemone are often buried in the sand with just their tentacles protruding.
Anemones feed by catching prey and food particles on their tentacles. They then transfer the prey to their mouth for digestion.
Striped Anemones live in dense colonies and are variable in colour.
Colonies of Strawberry Anemones form a rose carpet on the reef and are more closely related to corals than anemones.

Masters of Camouflage

The Common Octopus (Octopus valgaris), living for approximately 2 years, is master of disguise that allows it to be a vital micro apex predator, essential in the maintenance of the trophic cascades on inshore reefs and tidal pools.

Close up, more creatures reveal themselves. The waving tentacles of an anemone wait for food to drift past. A patch of reef suddenly shapeshifts into a head and legs, and bolts off on a jet stream, tailing a cluster of arms. A master of disguise, the Common Octopus (Octopus valgaris) is capable of astounding colour change. In an instant a feature on the reef can manifest into an octopus. Or it can settle on an algal encrusted rock and simply disappear, taking on the texture and colour of its background. What makes this feat even more remarkable is that they lack cones in their retina and only see in monochrome, unable to perceive the very colours that they have copied.

Cephalopod Mimicry

Capable of transforming the texture of their skin, their shape and their colour, Tuberculate Cuttlefish (Sepia tuberculata) are exceptional at mimicking hermit crabs and whelks as a means to stalk or ambush prey.

Another cephalopod, the Tuberculate Cuttlefish (Sepia tuberculate) has perfected the art of stealth and mimicry. Smaller than 10cm, they transform the texture and colour of their skin in an instant. Mimicking a hermit crab or a whelk, they stalk to within striking distance of their prey, shooting out two arms to clasp it in the perfect ambush, then blending into the background to devour its meal.

A reef revealed

Gliding across the reef in search of prey, a Gilchrisy’s Flatworm (Planocera gilchristi) looks like an optical illusion, and for something so small, moves remarkably fast.

During patient observation, the reef reveals another layer of diversity. Small creatures glide out of crevices. Advancing in a mesmerizing fluid movement, flatworms challenge your visual concentration as they ease across and under algal fronds, occasionally rearing up when they encounter a predator or a chemical deterrent secreted by another inhabitant of the reef. Zooming in further, the frond shapes of hydroids and outstretched tentacles of zoanthids come into view. Like an endless fractal, the challenge is deciding what to center your attention on.

The colours and textures of the Carpet Flatworm (Thysanozoon sp) makes it a photographic highlight on any dive.

The Allure of Nudibranchs

Despite their bright white body, Cape Dorid’s (Hypselodaris capensis) are remarkably cryptic on the reef and can easily be missed. In November and December they aggregate in mating clusters of between 10 and 20 individuals.

Ask any marine photographer what their quest subject matter is, and the vast majority will answer Nudibranchs. Soft bodied marine gastropods without a shell, they are vividly coloured, and are specialist feeders with some species targeting a single genus as a food source. Photographing nudibranchs is both challenging and rewarding, comprising an entire category in photographic competitions. They can move surprisingly fast and their agility at moving into small spaces and through clumps of encrusting organisms add to the challenge of photographing them while maintaining buoyancy and stability in the perpetual surge. Fortunately, as adults, Nudibranchs do appear to exhibit a degree of site fidelity for up to three weeks, allowing follow up dives to reshoot them.

The Four Tone Nudibranch (Godiva quadricolor) exhibits varied colour saturation
A Blue-speckled Dorid (Dendrodoris caesia) glides past a Goby and a Pincushion Sea Star in a shallow tidal pool.
The rosette of gills protruding from the rear of the Cape Dorid can be retracted when it feels threatened. Often, when approached too quickly, they will retract the rosette and you have to wait a few minutes for them to be displayed again.

Crowned Nudibranchs (Polycera capensis), like the Cape Dorid, exhibit variability in colour saturation, both of their body and black and yellow stripes.
Closely related to Nudibranchs, a juvenile Sea hare heads on a foraging foray across the reef. When disturbed they secrete a mauve ink.

Under Watchful Eyes

Ever alert, Cape Rock Crabs (Plagusia chabrus) are constantly alert to the approach of any predator while they are out foraging and will rapidly retreat to a safe crevice when you approach too quickly.

While the objective of snorkeling is to see as much marine life as possible, it is prudent to remember that you are entering a ecosystem that has existed for eons, with every species of marine fauna adept at finding prey all the while while trying not to be eaten. Most marine creatures rely on vision, and while some species don’t have eyes that register an object, they do have sensors which distinguish between light and dark.

The colour and texture of a Common Octopus’ eyes can vary according to the background habitat that they are in. Lacking only cones in their retina, their vision is as sophisticated as our despite not seeing in colour. Their eyes are the largest non compressible parts of their body and they are able to squeeze through and aperture marginally wider than their eye.

Approach with Stealth

Armed with an array of light sensors on their tentacles, Operculate Fan Worms can ‘see’ your approach, and in the blink of an eye, will retract into their tube when approached too quickly.
Feather-duster worms are also have and array of light sensors and will also retract briskly when approached too quickly.

Despite their delicate appearance, Operculate Fan Worms can be found in the inter tidal zone and are exposed to strong currents.

Lured by Curiosity

Sand Shrimp (Palaemon peringuey) are another species that requires stealth when approaching them. Inquisitive by nature, they will interrupt their foraging to investigate you with gentle nibbles, but will dart away with a flick of their tails at the slightest movement.
Blenny’s will approach a diver with a mix of curiosity and territorial imperative. When you keep perfectly still, territorial males will begin attacking your mask, a defense against their refection on the glass lens.
Also territorial, Klip Fish will approach a stationary diver, though not as closely as Blenny’s do.
Klip Fish and Blenny’s, due to their curiosity and territorial nature, can photo bomb your image.

Dive Sites

Ocean conditions in the Southern Cape are often rough, but there are plenty of gullies and tidal pools which are safe to explore for new photographic opportunities.

In the Garden Route, accessible sites for open sea macro photography can be found at Fransmanshoek Peninsula, Mossel Bay, Gericke’s Point, Buffalo Bay, Brenton on Sea, Knysna Estuary, Kranshoek and Robberg Nature Reserve.

The tidal pools at Gericke’s Point are a safe dive location at spring low tides.

When conditions are rough, and for divers less confident in the open ocean, Gericke’s Point, Buffalo Bay, Brenton on Sea, Kranshoek and Robberg also have some excellent tidal pools best visited during the spring low tides.

Shore Entry

With only two SCUBA diving operators between Mossel Bay and Plettenberg Bay, my preferred diving style is free diving. It allows plenty of flexibility and the ease of exploring the coastline for new dive sites and then simply getting in when you find a suitable gully or rock shelf. It also reduces the amount of dive gear that is required.

Renowned for some of the strongest currents in South Africa, it is crucial to evaluate the safety of diving at both established and new dive sites and to be aware of the tidal phases.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s