CAPE TOWN’S UNDER WONDER
You don’t have to go deep into the ocean to discover amazing underwater worlds – the Cape Peninsula has several great places where you can go snorkelling within easy access of the shore.
The first time I see a spotted gully shark, I chase it. I take a shallow, hungry breath, do a messy duck dive and plunge into the kelp, finning furiously after the large grey shape. One quick flick of its tail and it’s gone. Back on the surface I’m yabbering and making squeaking noises. My more experienced dive buddies are silent and possibly grimacing.
A few weeks later, I come across a short-tail stingray in the same bay. I chase after that too, clutching a borrowed GoPro, trying to keep up with the ray, which flies like a war machine above the sand and disappears. I chase pyjama sharks, red romans, seals, octopus… I hunt with my camera, thrashing through the kelp, panting on the surface, my eyes too quick, my cold fingers growing numb.
I’m such a wally.
Now, four years later, things have thankfully slowed down. Like meditation, freediving is an evolving practice. It requires a strange and constant balancing – of being aware of your surroundings but equally lost in the moment; of holding your breath while not being a prisoner of your inhalation; of being still and quiet in sometimes wild and turbulent waters; of inhabiting your body and mind while releasing your thoughts. It’s best to not be a wally.
The light helps. On a perfect day in Cape Town’s seas, when the visibility is window-clear and the sun burns overhead, the kelp fronds are golden ribbons and crevices packed with anemones glitter and glow. In those moments it’s possible to lie on the seabed holding onto a kelp stalk and be still, and watch, and forget to remember, until there’s that knot in your throat, that longing in your chest, and you’re forced to reluctantly rise to the surface for air. Then, after floating for a few minutes, corralling the senses back into the body, you peer down and see the golden amphitheatres and the sunlight making sine waves on the sand, and you’re pulled back again. Just one more look. To sink and be silent, with just the cracking of shrimps and the surprisingly heavy whir of passing fish.
Compared to KwaZulu-Natal, with its warm water and coral reefs, Cape Town is not as well known as a dive destination. But that’s changing as growing numbers of wetsuited freedivers take to its frigid waters, and companies offering diving lessons and snorkelling trips flourish.
Yes, it’s cold. Face-freezing, finger-numbing, foot-paralysing, butt-clenching cold. The Atlantic Ocean on the Camps Bay side can plummet to 9° C, while the False Bay side averages about 15° C. But with the cold come surprisingly colourful reefs that are home to many endemic plants and animals.
And for the handful of us who prefer to go without a wetsuit, feeling the biting heft of the water while drifting through drowned canyons is part of the experience. As is warming up in the car afterwards, stuffing chocolate eclairs and coffee down our throats.
I might actually owe my ability to withstand the cold to the blubber-making abilities of those sweet treats…
Just under a thousand square kilometres of ocean falls within the Table Mountain National Park Marine Protected Area, which wraps around both sides of the peninsula from Mouille Point to Muizenberg. This means that Cape Town’s marine beauty is still pristine, and experiencing it doesn’t have to involve Jacques Cousteau-like abilities.
I have the breath-hold skills of an emphysemic newt, and after a run-in with an angry sea, a rock and my own stupidity, which left me bleeding and in need of rescue, I tend to play it safe. I don’t go in if I feel jangled by the ocean’s churn and power, and I have no desire to prove I can swim through caves and caverns. Although I have dived in the deep with blue sharks, done the tango with offshore seal pups, and drifted with a mako in open water, some of my most special encounters have been just a few metres from shore.
In those shallow waters, I’ve watched a leopard shark hunting a cuttlefish that eventually perched on top of a rock where its skin took on the camouflage of the seaweed. I’ve stood in a rock pool while a pair of cormorants fished around me, their bullet bodies leaving silver trails. Late one afternoon, while swimming back to shore, I came across a shorttail stingray lying like a battleship on the sand amid the kelp, just a few metres away from a pair of bathing tourists. Another evening, under a grey, weeping sky, in murky water caused by a strong southeaster, I floated in silence and watched a Cape clawless otter fishing, its thick tail like a float as it dipped and glided, finally retreating to the rocks to gnaw on its dinner.