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.
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.
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.
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.
Masters of Camouflage
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.
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
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 Allure of Nudibranchs
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.
Under Watchful Eyes
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.
Approach with Stealth
Lured by Curiosity
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.
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.
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.