Will Harrison reports on the diving opportunities available off the shores of Mauritius, an island better known as a honeymoon destination.
Mauritius is famed for its beaches and luxury, but what’s the diving like? WILL HARRISON finds out
All things must come to an end. That, sadly, is one of life’s great truths. But it’s not always such a bad thing. As I packed my bags for my return flight from Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport to Heathrow, palm trees swaying in a gentle sea breeze just outside my hotel window, I was naturally disappointed that my time on the island of Mauritius had reached its conclusion. But as I threw my just-about-dry dive gear into my roller bag and diligently stowed by camera gear into my carry-on, I did so with a smile - what fun it had all been.
I had been on the island for two weeks, the first half spent working (diving, writing and winding down with a rum or two) and the second half on holiday (windsurfing, reading and winding down with a rum or two). In my six years at Sport Diver, this was the first time I’d tacked a holiday onto the end of a work trip - Mauritius seemed like a decent place to pop the work/play cherry. My girlfriend Jo was naturally delighted with the idea. And it worked out wonderfully. With gorgeous weather, decent diving and myriad activates to keep us busy when not breathing the compressed stuff, it’s a fantastic destination for divers and non-divers alike.
Our first week was spent with Orca Dive Club, based in the sweeping grounds of Merville Beach Hotel in Grand Baie. It’s a small dive centre - probably the smallest I’ve ever encountered - but in true, clichéd German fashion, the site runs like clockwork, the steady stream of divers handled with care and efficiency. Dive centre manager Bernhard Jackenkroll, who’s an old hand when it comes to dive centre management having owned his own centre in the Philippines for many years, ensures guests’ needs are met and the dive boats go out on time. The rest, ultimately, is up to Mother Nature…
Throughout the course of the week we dived a variety of sites in and around Grand Baie, rarely venturing further than a 25-minute boat ride out from the centre. With all the sites so close, and a schedule that included just two dives a day, the general experience was a relaxed one. Returning to the centre/hotel after the morning dive, most guests would reunite with their non-diving partners, recline on a sun lounger and while away the hours through lunch until it was time to suit-up again. Merville Beach allows divers to use its beach, facilities and bar/restaurant throughout the day, and it really is a great spot - Mauritius’s original holiday resort, in fact.
The sites of Grand Baie and her outer reefs include healthy corals, a decent amount of marine life and, most excitingly, a few wrecks. It’s generally well sheltered and not subject to unmanageable currents. With a seabed that bottoms-out within recreational depths whichever site you decide to dive at, it’s a perfect environment for beginners. During my week, buoyed by the perfect set-up, a fellow diver’s wife decided to take the plunge and complete her Open Water Diver. I’m pleased to say she loved it.
But what’s the diving like for more-experienced folk? It’s tranquil. For those who like the gentler side of diving - leisurely bimbling from bommie to bommie, searching for critters and admiring pretty reefscapes - then Mauritius will serve you well. For those who like the more-dramatic side of aquatic life - depth, currents and pelagics in the blue - you might be better served visiting one of Orca’s many other dive centres around the world. Fortunately, I like both and was more than happy spending a week exploring Mauritius’ underwater world in super-slow-mo. It was pretty Zen.
My personal highlights were the wrecks of the Silver Star, the Stella Maru and the Star Hope, all of which are easily accessible, both in terms of boat ride and descent once you’re in the water. While none of the wrecks are especially imposing or boast intriguing histories, they’ve all been on the seabed long enough to have been colonised by sponges and corals and plenty of fish call them home. They also take a decent photo.
The Silver Star was visited first. This 38-metre-long Japanese fishing boat has been on the seabed for more than 25 years, sits at a depth of about 40m and is perfectly upright. Positioned on a sandy seabed and surrounded by generally pretty clear water, it’s an ideal wreck for divers looking to complete their Deep Diver and Wreck Diver certifications.
The Stella Maru, another old fishing boat, has been on the seabed since 1987. At 44-metres and sitting in just 24m, she’s a cracking recreational dive. The mast and anchor winches are still in place and are both covered in life. The wreck generally is
“It is a beautiful place with plenty to see and do - as well as stunning beaches, it has a mountainous interior - and therefore makes a great destination for people looking for variety in their holiday”
well rusted and smothered in coral growth. She’s a beautifully shaped vessel, with a jagged and prominent bow and a smoother, rounded stern. Hanging off the side of the bow, about five metres from the ship, affords a lovely view, as does a swim underneath the stern, which is raised off the seabed.
The Star Hope was perhaps my favourite of the three wrecks visited. Though scuttled, it has the feel of a genuine shipwreck as a result of a cyclone splitting her in two. Lying on her starboard side atop a seabed of sand and rock (as well as a small debris field), she makes for an atmospheric dive. Sitting at about 30m, the wreck is ideal for newly-minted Advanced Open Water divers. As a consequence of her relatively shallow depth, high sun and the typically decent visibility, she can be safely penetrated without the use of a torch. While these penetration opportunities are limited and brief, they are nevertheless great fun.
But diving here isn’t just about the metal. The range of reefs within range of Orca Dive Club’s dive centre is sizeable and offers plentiful marine life encounters. Sites such as Grand Baie Aquarium and Merville Patches, shallow dives that bottom-out at about 12-14m, offer stingrays, turtles and a multitude of reef fishes. We visited both of these sites twice - they are Orca Dive Club’s go-to dives if that day’s boatload includes a novice or two.
Whether diving at the aforementioned sites, or the excellent Lionfish Reefs 1 and 2, or the suitably-named Coral Garden (there’s always one), there is one species you’re always guaranteed to see on dives in Grand Baie: moray eels. I have never seen so many. In the week I spent diving with Bernhard and his team it’s quite likely I saw more morays than all my other dives combined. Whether hiding in nooks and crannies on shallow reefs, under sand-encircled bommies or beneath tumbling soft corals, they were everywhere. Most of us will, at some point during our dive lives, have seen a pair of morays sharing a hole in the reef - intertwined until night falls and the hunt begins. On two occasions during my week with Orca I saw four morays grouped together in a prime bit of reef-estate. I can only put this down to the fact that, on account of the sheer number that inhabit the local reefs, many are forced to bunk together.
During our week with Orca, we stayed with Dodola Lodge, a simple but clean hotel just a few minutes’ drive away (Orca arrange collection and drop-off). The hotel is family-run and offers a friendly service, with the area of Pereybere in which it is based offering a tranquil and restaurant-filled environment. It’s an affordable option for those pricedout by Merville Beach. For those looking for a beach-front experience and all the add-ons (including the all-inclusive watersports such as windsurfing and kayaking), places such as Merville or Hotel Zilwa, where we stayed for our second week (from which Orca also offer transfers), are great options.
Mauritius is a famous honeymooning spot, with couples from all over the world flocking to the island to celebrate their unions. It is a beautiful place with plenty to see and do - as well as stunning beaches, it has a mountainous interior - and therefore makes a great destination for people looking for variety in their holiday. The diving is very good, but it’s not of the calibre of destinations such as the Red Sea, Indonesia or the Maldives. As such, this is a destination to visit when you’re happy for diving to form part of your trip, rather than be the focus of it.
I’ll certainly revisit one day, and diving, windsurfing and kayaking will all once again be on the agenda. Along with a rum or two, naturally.
“On two occasions during my week with Orca I saw four morays grouped together in a prime bit of reef-estate”
Buddies finning under the Stella Maru
Moray eels are a common sight in Grand Baie
Divers entering a wreck
The Orca Dive Club centre