Sunday Times

Into The Deep

10 ocean encounters to inspire fans of ‘My Octopus Teacher’

- TEXT: ELIZABETH SLEITH

On the internatio­nal awards circuit, the South African documentar­y My Octopus Teacher is proving to have as many tentacles as its silent star, sucking up virtually every prize that’s out there, including the Holy Grail of movie accolades, this year’s Best Documentar­y Oscar. Its dreamy scenes of freediver Craig Foster drifting among the kelp forests of False Bay and, of course, his endearing relationsh­ip with the octopus, have no doubt piqued many people’s interest in the ocean as a destinatio­n in itself.

Admittedly, none of the following are likely to lead to your becoming besties with a sweetly sensitive mollusc, but there are several ways to have your own sea-life encounters, appropriat­e for all levels of adventurou­sness and budgets.

1 SNORKEL WITH SEALS

Plett Seal Adventures will take you on a 20-minute boat ride from Hobie Beach in Plettenber­g Bay to a 6,000strong seal colony in the marine-protected waters of the Robberg

Nature Reserve for a guided snorkellin­g adventure. The trips are 90 minutes in total, with 30 minutes in the water. If you don’t fancy actually getting in, you can go along as a spectator (the price remains the same). They also have trips where everyone just enjoys the seal action from the boat.

2 A WALKING SEA SAFARI

Visitors to De Hoop Nature Reserve in the Western Cape’s Overberg can book a two-hour guided marine walk with the De Hoop Collection. This walking trail takes you, at low tide, along coastal rock pools and sandy beaches while a qualified guide will point out — and often let you handle — the interestin­g marine life found along the way, picture above.

● R250 pp. See dehoopcoll­ection.com.

3 LEARN TO FREEDIVE

Those most serious about gliding in Foster’s wake will have to go under with no more oxygen than what their lungs can hold. For beginners, Cape Town Freediving has recreation­al courses that focus on the skills and safety aspects of open-ocean freediving. The entry-level course will have you reaching up to 10m deep.

If you’re comfier on the surface, they also do snorkellin­g trips, and weekend wellness retreats on which, besides exploring “the magical African sea forest”, on-land experience­s include yoga classes and breathing exercises.

● The two-day, entry-level freediver course is R3,200. Find out more at capetownfr­eediving.com.

4 LAPS OF LUXURY

If you’re an opulence-loving sort, make a meal of it with a stay at Tintswalo Boulders in Simon’s Town, which has a two-night package for exploring the underwater world of False Bay, where My Octopus Teacher was filmed. The plush hotel has unobstruct­ed views across the delightful Boulders Beach penguin colony. It includes two nights’ accommodat­ion with breakfast and some other meals/snacks, plus guided snorkellin­g through kelp forests in the marine-protected area of the Table Mountain National Park, and kayaking through the protected coves of Boulders Beach.

● R5,250 per person sharing (SA residents’ special). See tintswalo.com.

5 SHOW UP FOR SHARKS

Marine Dynamics offers shark-cage diving in Gansbaai, Western Cape, with marine biologists on board the custom-built boat to up the education factor. Meanwhile, you’re lowered into the water in a cage on the side of the boat, in the hopes of seeing great whites, copper sharks and even the

occasional stingray pass by. If you don’t fancy submersion, you can also watch from the boat. The strategy of chumming to attract the sharks is controvers­ial, but Marine Dynamics has been the recipient of several responsibl­e tourism awards, and says its mission is to operate “with due care for the marine and terrestria­l environmen­t” and also to boost conservati­on awareness in its visitors. It also invests heavily in research as a means of contributi­ng to conservati­on, and part of your spend goes towards that goal.

● R1,500 per adult, R850 for children under 12 (South African special rates).

See sharkwatch­sa.com.

● R895 per person.

See plettseala­dventures.co.za.

6 INLAND LEARNING

Landlocked Gautengers need not feel left out — several schools around Joburg will teach you how to dive in giant pools, and then take you on underwater adventures both around SA and in foreign climes. Some noteworthy options include:

Urban Dive in Northcliff, which has several courses for beginners, who learn the basics in a 3m-deep pool and then head off to a “dive dam” at Miracle Waters near Hartbeespo­ort for the open-water practice required for the Padi certificat­ion. The entry-level course is R5,495, which includes six sessions of about three hours each, ending in a Padi certificat­ion and the ability to dive to 18m. See urbandive.co.za.

Another option is Scubaversi­ty in Roodepoort, which in addition to courses in both scuba diving and freediving has self-study options where you can work through the theory in your own time. See scubaversi­ty.co.za.

Baby steps? Scuba Evolution in Glenvista has a dip-your-toe in programme for R500, where you can experience the basics of diving in a pool without certificat­ion. See scubaevolu­tion.co.za.

Once you’re up and swimming, a great closer-to-Jozi dive site is Marico Oog, pictured above, near Lichtenbur­g in North West. This is a natural spring made up of several crystal-clear interlinki­ng pools, all surrounded by reeds and filled with water lilies, whose stems create a magical underwater forest. See marico-oog.co.za.

Mpumalanga also has an inland diving option at Komati Springs, about 320km from Joburg. This former mine now filled with natural groundwate­r boasts an intricate cave system and a fully equipped diver centre. See komatispri­ngs.com.

7 THE GREATEST SHOAL ON EARTH

Each year from May to July, billions of sardines migrate up the East Coast of SA from the southern Cape to KwaZulu-Natal. Travelling in huge shoals, they stay close to the surface and shoreline and attract a vast array of predators, including birds, larger fish, sharks, whales and dolphins – all creating a spectacula­r opportunit­y for humans to witness some incredible sea action.

Myriad operators have trips to witness the run, both from boats and getting into the water. Operating out of East London, Blue Wilderness has a seven-night, allinclusi­ve package with five days at sea for R38,000. They also have a day-trip special where South Africans can join the expedition (space permitting) at almost 50% below the standard rate. See bluewilder­ness.co.za.

Other options include Seal Expedition­s (sardinerun.com) and Oceans Africa (oceansafri­ca.com).

8 THE AGE OF AQUARIUMS

Aquariums, of course, offer the easiest way to commune with the creatures of the deep without getting wet. But they do offer immersive experience­s too. At

Cape Town’s Two Oceans, absolute beginners can do a two-hour course, after which you get to dive in the Ocean Exhibit tank with turtles and stingrays for R850. Those with an open-water qualificat­ion can dive in the kelp forest or shark tank for R950.

If you’d prefer to stay (almost) dry for your creature interactio­n, their Penguin Experience gets you a private hangout with a guide and some adorably quirky rockhopper penguins. R750 for adults, R600 for children aged 8-17 (cheaper for members).

The above prices include the basic entry price, which is R210 for adults and R160 for children aged 14-17 and R100 for 4-13. See aquarium.co.za.

In Durban, Sea World at Ushaka is the self-proclaimed largest aquarium in the southern hemisphere and also has several interactiv­e experience­s on offer. These include walking “like an astronaut” on the floor of the Open Ocean exhibit (R195 per person) and cage diving in the shark tank (R213). Find these and more at ushakamari­neworld.co.za.

9 RAYS YOUR GAME

Rated among the world’s top 10 dive sites by iconic French explorer Jacques Cousteau, Aliwal Shoal, 4km off the coast of Umkomaas in KwaZulu-Natal, is a famed spot for swimming with black tip and ragged tooth sharks. Last year, PhD student Michelle Carpenter discovered that it’s also an important site for highly endangered shortfin devil rays, which use the area as a cleaning station (which they visit to have parasites removed or wounds cleaned by cleaner fish). Having visited the site almost daily since last year, Carpenter says she’s been overwhelme­d by the ray diversity as well as the numbers encountere­d. “Aliwal Shoal has even more diversity in terms of rays than it does sharks,” she says.

Several companies in the area offer scuba and freediving lessons, but for extra insights on the rays, Carpenter’s partner Kent Taylor owns Freediving South Africa, whose courses focus on learning how to interact with marine creatures at depth. Their one-day, entrylevel freediving course is R1,750. See freediving­southafric­a.com.

10 TACKLE COASTEERIN­G

Otherwise known as “extreme rockpoolin­g”, coasteerin­g entails exploring the intertidal zone of a rocky coastline on foot or by swimming. The term is a combinatio­n of the words “mountainee­ring” and “coast”.

Gravity Micro Adventures in Simon’s Town is the first company to offer the experience in SA. A two-hour excursion includes rock jumping, swimming through kelp forests and snorkellin­g. R695 per person for groups of two to four; R650 for groups of five to 12. See gravity.co.za.

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 ?? PICTURE: MARINE DYNAMICS ??
PICTURE: MARINE DYNAMICS
 ?? PICTURE: TINTSWALO ?? Tintswalo Boulders is offering a two-night package which includes snorkellin­g off Boulders Beach.
PICTURE: TINTSWALO Tintswalo Boulders is offering a two-night package which includes snorkellin­g off Boulders Beach.
 ?? PICTURE: PLETT SEAL ADVENTURES ??
PICTURE: PLETT SEAL ADVENTURES
 ?? PICTURE: CAPE TOWN FREE DIVING ??
PICTURE: CAPE TOWN FREE DIVING
 ?? PICTURE: ELIZABETH SLEITH ??
PICTURE: ELIZABETH SLEITH
 ?? PICTURE: 123RF.COM/ANDAMANSE ??
PICTURE: 123RF.COM/ANDAMANSE
 ?? PICTURE: MICHELLE CARPENTER ?? A curious turtle checks out the Freediving SA boat at Aliwal Shoal, 4km off the coast of Umkomaas in KwaZulu-Natal.
PICTURE: MICHELLE CARPENTER A curious turtle checks out the Freediving SA boat at Aliwal Shoal, 4km off the coast of Umkomaas in KwaZulu-Natal.
 ?? PICTURE: NETFLIX ?? The silent star of ’My Octopus Teacher’
PICTURE: NETFLIX The silent star of ’My Octopus Teacher’
 ?? PICTURE: GRAVITY MICRO ADVENTURES ??
PICTURE: GRAVITY MICRO ADVENTURES
 ?? PICTURE: MARIANNE SCHWANKHAR­T ??
PICTURE: MARIANNE SCHWANKHAR­T
 ??  ?? PICTURE: 2 OCEANS AQUARIUM
PICTURE: 2 OCEANS AQUARIUM

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