Sardine run off the coast of South Africa is one of the largest marine migrations in the world. Between May and July billions of sardines move along the coast of South Africa towards Mozambique. Dolphins, sharks, and birds that eat sardines move along with them. At the same time whales also migrate in the same direction. We spent 6 days chasing sardines based out of Port St John in July of 2019.
Port St. John is a small town at the mouth of the river with cliffs on both sides making it look like some spectacular Lord of the Rings place. We did sardine run with Blue Ocean Dive who we also dove Aliwal Shoal from Umkomaas. Most operators actually offer a day or two of Aliwal Shoal diving as part of the sardine run package. We flew to Durban, dove one day on Aliwal Shoal in Unkomaas and then went to Port St John – about 4 hour drive.
Wild coast is spectacularly beautiful and spending a day on the boat watching whales, dolphins and birds was great fun. After watching all the amazing videos with huge bait balls where all kinds of sharks attack thousands of sardines in crystal clear blue water we kind of expected to dive on bait balls every day of our sardine run trip. Turns out it is not quite like that. The experience is more like going on a safari. While one hopes to see a kill one kind of knows it is not certain at all. Same thing with the bait ball. We saw lots of dolphins, “raining birds”, and tried to chase scattering “micro bait balls” of sardines but did not find a big stable bait ball. Perhaps sardines were late or maybe water was a bit too warm and they were further out. There seems to be a lot of variability from year to year and every sardine run season is different we hear.
There was lots of surface action though and in retrospect bringing the proper camera for surface photos would have been a good idea. The sea can be rough though so would definitely need a water proof bag for the camera to keep it dry. The dolphins, diving birds and all the breaching whales we saw would make for some fantastic pictures.
There are several short hikes around Port St John that one can do after the day of sardine chasing. We also went for sun downers on top of the hill where landing strip is to enjoy stunning view of the river, ocean and the cliffs.
After 6 days of chasing sardines we then went back to Unkomaas and did a couple more days of diving on Aliwal Shoal. There were lots of ragged tooth sharks on the shoal, we did a bated dive again and even here we saw whales breaching on the way to dive sites!
Nosy Be is an island off the north-west coast of Madagascar with incredible diving and a chance to see some of Madagascar’s unique wild life. We were there in the middle of September and got to snorkel with whale sharks, watch humpback whales, had fantastic dives in good visibility and reasonably warm water (26C). Topside is excellent as well and we saw lemurs and chameleons. Nosy Be is a volcanic island with several crater lakes – all of different color and reportedly full of crocodiles. There are white sand beaches, acceptable quality road, delicious food and friendly locals. We were there for a week and it felt too short.
Ambatoloaka is the main tourist beach with quite a few hotels and restaurants. It gets pretty busy but good to go for lunch or dinner on the beach. Andilana is a nice white sand beach in the northern part of the island – has fewer hotels and a couple of restaurants. Small islands around Nosy Be have beautiful white sand beaches and island hopping with snorkeling is one of the main tourist activities.
Nosy Tanikely is one of the small islands around Nosy Be – has a nice beach, excellent snorkeling and there is a view point at the top from where you can see Madagascar mainland and various surrounding islands.
We stayed along the shore north of Dzamandzar town. The long stretch of the beach seems to be named Ambaro. There are a few resorts along the shore but the atmosphere is more quiet and relaxed than on the two main beaches. This is also where several dive shops are. We dove with Love Bubble which was absolutely wonderful. And not only did we have superb diving but also got to snorkel with whale sharks and watch humpback whales.
Humpback whales come to the waters of Madagascar from Antarctica to breed and usually can be seen between July and November. When we visited in September 2019 they were just arriving – much later than usual. At the same time whale sharks arrived earlier then usual at the beginning of September. So we got really lucky to see both whale sharks and humpback whales. We saw about 6-7 whales blowing water and flipping tails but did not manage to get a nice shot of a breaching whale this time. You can only watch them from the boat, no snorkeling allowed.
In addition to diving, snorkeling and beach there is much to do inland on Nosy Be topside. Mont Passot is the highest point on the island and has an amazing view. You get to see the lakes, the surrounding islands and Madagascar mainland. The place is popular with locals for sunset especially on the weekend.
There is a good paved road to the top of the Mont Passot. Importantly – google maps shows that there are two roads up to Mont Passot which is not exactly accurate. The good paved road starts not too far from Andilana and we took that one on the way to Mont Passot on our scooter. We then thought to take the road that goest to Dzamandzar on the way back. At the top it starts as a paved road but then progressively turns into a dirt track and then I am not even sure if one can call it a trail even (picture below). At some point we thought we would be lost as sun was setting but we made it back with the last rays of light.
To see lemurs and chameleons we went to Lemuria Land. It is a plantation and distillery for ylang-ylang and other essential oils and a nature park. It borders Lokobe reserve. We were planning to go to Lokobe reserve but it was not possible to do it within an afternoon and with all the superb diving, whales and whale sharks we left Lokobe for the next time.
In Lemuria Land they have several species of lemurs. The park feeds lemurs and you can feed them too. It is not exactly full wilderness experience, but on another hand lemurs live around the island and even in our resort one morning a lemur came over expecting to get a banana treat.
They also have a collection of panther chameleons at Lemuria Land.
All in all Nosy Be was a surprise. For some reason we totally did not expect diving to be so amazing. Corals look more like you would see in Red Sea than Kenya, Zanzibar or Mozambique. On some level it also looks a little like Philippines with its mountainous volcanic islands and outrigger boats. Nosy Be is about as far south of equator as Anilao is north of the equator at about 13″ latitude so maybe that has something to do with it too. Or maybe that it is still quiet and not overrun by industrial scale diving as in Thailand or Indonesia.
We are told August through November is the best time, December through March is cyclones, after that water is warm and fish life is excellent, but visibility not good. Go!
Praslin is the second biggest island in Seychelles and the home of coco de mer. It is a smaller and much quieter island than Mahe with beautiful beaches and lots of good dive sites nearby.
We were diving in April. Visibility was excellent with 20 plus meters on most sites and water warm at 28-29C. We dove with a very professionally run Octopus diving center. We went to most of the dive sites around Praslin and nearby islands. There are really cool rock formations, lots of reef fish and turtles, lots of eagle rays and ribbon tail rays, and a few sharks.
Seychelles corrals suffered a major damage during bleaching event in 1998 when an estimated 90% of coral died. There was also bleaching in 2016. We found that on many sites coral has been recovering well from 1998 events. It seems corals are doing better on the sites where current pushes cooler water through. Interestingly inside of the bay corals did not suffer as much bleaching. Coral garden site actually does have some reasonably healthy coral and fantastic fish life.
It is clear that coral is suffering with repeated bleaching events hitting it. In the picture below you can see the coral destroyed by 1998 bleaching, then some new coral growth (the brown on the left) and also new coral bleached in more recent time (the white one on the right)
The diving is still spectacular especially due to the topography of the islands with huge boulders and all sorts of rocks covered in sponges and in many places recovering coral growth. Macro is very good and the night dive was excellent.
We flew to Mahe and then took a ferry boat Cat Cocos over to Praslin island which takes about an hour. On the way back we took the plane which takes about 10 minutes. Both are good ways to connect though if time is limited plane is definitely worth it. We stayed on the quieter western side of the island to enjoy the sunset and also because this is when the seaweed was supposed to be on the east side.
We had a rented car and it only took about 10 minutes to drive to the Cote D’Or beach side of the island which has more tourist accommodation and where the dive centers are. There are a few restaurants on the island but we mostly bought fresh fish from fishermen and cooked it at our self catering cottage. It was a great trip and a chance to see more of Seychelles archipelago following our exploration of Mahe earlier.
Diving around Diani beach in Kenya we saw lots of octopi, turtles, sting rays, schools of reef fish, dolphins and coral in good condition.
Diani Beach is about 30km south of Mombasa on the Indian ocean coast of Kenya. It takes about 2 hours to get from Mombasa airport to Diani including the ferry (you stay in the car when it goes on ferry). The place you stay at can help arrange pick up from the airport. Accommodation is a mix of large hotels and lots of smaller bed&breakfast and self catering options.
The main white sand beach stretches for miles. Along the beach there are several huge abandoned hotels as it seems that unrest in Kenya a few years back scared off tourists. But things are definitely picking up especially during the good weather season that goes from November through March. April through October has rains and sea can be rough.
There is a couple of dive shops on the beach. We dove with Diani Marine which runs a solid professional operation. The boat goes out for two dives and comes back around lunch time. We were in a self-catering accommodation nearby but one can also stay at Diani Marine. Generally the area around Baharini shopping center is quite convenient as there are several nice restaurants and supermarket all within a walking distance. There are quite a few tricycle taxis to get around or one can hire a motorbike.
Other than beach and diving, there is a kiteboarding scene including an annual competition and kiteboarding school. There is also a very cool colobus conservation center. The Center rehabilitates and returns to the wild former pet monkeys and those that get injured in traffic accidents. You get to see at the center but also all around colobus, Sykes, velvet monkeys and yellow baboons.
Diani beach is a quieter less crowded option than Zanzibar with fewer tourists, nice beach, good food options and very good diving. It is also easy to combine Diani stay with a safari in one of Kenya parks but for some reason this does not seem to be happening on the scale that Tanzania have managed to organize. We have gone to Amboseli with stunning views of Kilimanjaro and Tsavo East and West are also good options.
Diving Aliwal Shoal in South Africa we saw lots of oceanic black tip sharks and ragged tooth sharks, also known as sand tiger shark or grey nurse shark (depending which part of the world you are in), and many huge stingrays.
Aliwal shoal is a reef about 5km offshore and has really cool rock formations with coral growth and all sorts of critters, nudibranchs and fish life if you care to look – hard task given the distraction of the big stuff – sharks, rays and turtles.
We were there at the end of December when conditions were supposed to be nice with warm(er) water and good visibility. We got some rough sea, visibility deteriorated from very nice 15-20m on the first day to about 2m on the last day and water temps at about 20C. Despite imperfect conditions diving was superb and we saw sharks and rays on every dive and very close.
We were diving Aliwal Shoal from a small town of Umkomaas about 50km south of Durban in KwaZulu Natal in South Africa. We stayed and dove and mostly ate at Blue Ocean Dive. They run a very professional operation, efficient yet easy going and friendly. It is nice to have the resort, the dive operation and a good restaurant all in one place. Diving is on rubber duckies which are launched from the river mouth – which is nice since you do not have to push the boat into the ocean and try to hop into it as we did in Mozambique. Dive sites were mostly 15-20 minutes by boat and would be less if we did not have as much wave action. They do two dives out but also have one of the boats going back after one dive – which gives flexibility. We dove on air as most sites were about 20m or less. Water temps were 22C at the warmest and 19C lowest. We had 5mm wetsuits which was ok for 22C but not quite enough for 19C.
From Umkomaas we headed further down the coast – as part of our long trip from Durban to Cape Town – to dive at Protea banks. Bad weather followed us with wind, big waves, rain, and poor viz. We persevered and still did two dives and saw some ragged tooth sharks and rays. Bottom line is there is some amazing diving at Aliwal shoal and Protea banks – we just have to get better weather next time. And, there is the sardine run to aspire to!
Diving around northern tip of Zanzibar island in Tanzania we saw excellent macro including rare weedy scorpion fish, variety of leaf scorpion fish, lots on nudibranches and all sorts of reef fish. In October visibility was not spectacular at about 10 up to 15 meters – somewhat better at Mnemba – and water temperature 24C. We did not see any sharks or other big stuff but hear dolphins are sited frequently.
We stayed in Nungwi which is about 2 hour drive north of Stonetown on a reasonably good road. Nungwi has a range of hotels from all inclusive big resorts to smaller but very nice hotels on the beach. There are quite a few restaurants and bars overlooking the ocean and several basic grill places with tables right on the sand offering fresh seafood.
We dove with Spanish Dancer located right on the main beach in Nungwi, professionally run with large traditional boats and offering daily trips to Mnemba Atoll. Fishing in the area is very active and you see literally hundreds of fishing boats – sail powered traditional dhows- going out to see around sunset time.
Nungwi area definitely got lots of new development in the past 10 years and the entire coast on western and northern side is dotted with resorts. The beach is very wide on low tide but nearly disappears at high tide – useful to keep in mind if you decide to go for a beach walk to make sure you do not end up swimming or attempting spiderman maneuvers on rocky cliffs to get back. Despite all the developments the atmosphere is still very laid back. On Saturday as sun starts to go down all the locals come out to play football on the beach and enjoy the sunset. It is a nice place to relax and good to combine with safari to Serengeti, Ngorongoro, Lake Manyara or Tarangire.
Diving Red Sea South departing from Port Ghalib going to St. John reef and Daedalus reef on a liveaboard trip over a week. Incredible corals, lots of reef fish, huge napoleon wrasse, manta ray and dolphins. Superb visibility of 30 meters plus every day and nice warm water 28-30C in August.
What to see
This was a one week trip on Red Sea Aggressor I liveaboard that we did back to back with the one before to Red Sea North. Red Sea South trip departs from Port Ghalib which is a nice new marina near Marsa Alam. We took a land transfer (taxi) from Hurgada – which was the base for the North Red Sea trip – to Port Ghalib which took us about 3 hours. There are several nice restaurants in Port Ghalib to have lunch while waiting to get on the boat. The diving trip itinerary is here.
We were diving in August when water is nicely warm reaching 30C. The reefs on this trip are out of this world and coral is in superb condition with no signs of bleaching. We did not see sharks even at Daedalus – which is a reef in the middle of the sea – but heard it was more likely to see them at Brothers. We were lucky to see a manta ray very close on one dive and saw napoleon wrasses on several dives.
St. John has caves which are more of a swim through passageways with very cool light coming through (you always have light) and awesome coral formations. There is lots of reef fish and it is fascinating gliding over and around funky coral outcrops some of which are 10m or more tall . Doing the two liveaboards back to back combining South with North reefs and wrecks was a really great way to appreciate the diversity Red Sea diving has to offer.
Diving Red Sea North, Ras Mohamed and Straits of Tiran on a liveaboard trip with a mix of reefs and wrecks, including the famous Thistlegorm wreck. Superb visibility, huge corals in excellent condition, variety of reef fish, dolphins and the largest moray eels we have ever seen. We were diving in the middle of August and water temperature was mostly 29C.
What to see
We were on a one week trip on the excellent Red Sea Aggressor II liveaboard. The trip departs from Hurgada and the map of the itinerary is here. Aggressor schedule allows for 5 dives a day including night dive. Hurgada is a major point of departure for liveaboards and has a big new marina with quite a few restaurants. We arrived on a morning flight from Cairo, and had a nice lunch in one of the marina restaurants before getting onto the boat.
Red sea is one of the busiest liveaboard places we have seen. At times there would be 5 or 6 liveaboards diving a given site. It is particularly busy around the sites near to Sharm El-Sheikh with many land-based day boats bringing divers and snorkelers. Aggressor’s 5 dives schedule was working out well so that we would not be diving at the same time as other boats. As an example, when we went to Carnatic we had it to ourselves and only as we were going up, two other liveaboard groups dropped in resulting in a bit of a bubble bath around the wreck.
Reefs are in excellent condition and we have not seen any signs of bleaching, which is quite amazing considering the very warm water temperatures – reaching 30C on some sites. Visibility is superb and even on busy wrecks there is no silt as Red sea gets very little rain and there are no rivers going into it. We have not really seen any sharks or other big stuff. There are fewer of them reportedly due to overfishing.
There are many dolphins around and we snorkeled with them and saw them on a dive. They are very inquisitive and seem to enjoy swimming with humans. Near Hurgada though it gets quite crowded and we saw huge groups of snorkelers coming on day boats as we were heading back to marina at the end of the trip. We also saw many huge moray eels – the biggest ones we ever saw anywhere.
The topography of the Red sea with all the reefs combined with the busy traffic produces a large number of wrecks within recreational diving limits. Thistlegorm is the most famous and apparently the most dived wreck in the world with its cargo of motorbikes, trucks, tanks, and all sorts of other military supplies. We did six other wrecks all of them sizable commercial boats from mid 19th century to late 20th. It was a nice mix of sites to dive with all the reefs, wrecks and night dives. We then proceeded for Red Sea South in search of the big stuff.
Mahe is the largest island of the Seychelles archipelago. We stayed and dove near Beau Vallon beach in early April. We saw many big schools of fish, eagle rays, turtles, a few sharks and very cool rock formations. Due to bleaching coral cover suffered quite a bit but some sites especially around L’ilot island had healthy coral and good macro including moray eels, frog fish and octopi. Top side is stunningly beautiful with perfect sand beaches, spectacular rocks and easy going vibe.
What to see
Mahe is the largest island and home to Seychelles capital Victoria and the international airport. There are many high end resorts around the island as well as self catering accommodation. We stayed in a condo near Beau Vallon beach primarily because this is where dive shops are. Car rental is easy and as we were driving around the island it seemed at least half of the cars were rentals.
Most of the restaurants are in large hotels and are pricey. We mostly cooked ourselves buying fresh fish from fishermen straight off the boat. There are many small shops in Beau Vallon where you can get basic food supplies. The large supermarket is in Victoria and one can stock up on the way from the airport before heading over to the other side of the island in Beau Vallon. It is still a small island though and the drive from Beau Vallon to Victoria is only about 15 minutes.
We dove with Ocean Dream Divers and were very happy with their well run operation. We did two dives a day. Usually the boat would come back to the shop after the first dive as some of the divers would only do one dive. All dive sites we went to were within 10-20 minute boat ride except for the Shark bank which is further out off shore. In early April visibility was reasonable at about 15 meters and water was nice and warm at 28C.
In the afternoon we drove around the island stopping at various beaches for a beverage, swim or snorkel. The sea and the islands are stunningly beautiful. Water color is a perfect blue which is hard to describe and at sunset the sky turns unreal shades of pink and purple. We heard from some of the regulars that the island is getting busy with so many more flights now flying to Mahe compared to what it was even 5 years ago. Undoubtedly it will be getting more tourists and there is a fair bit of building going on what looks like more accommodation. For now though it is still on a quiet side as far as prime ocean tourism locations go. Besides just an hour by boat and 10min by plane is a smaller and quieter Praslin island.
Ponta do Ouro is a small town in the South of Mozambique only 10km north of South African border. It has a nice white sand beach, great diving, surfing and fishing. Given proximity to the border Ponta is very popular with South Africans especially around holiday season. We did some really good diving, saw lots of rays, moray eels, large cods, turtles and excellent macro.
What to see
Most tourists arrive to Ponta do Ouro from South Africa, driving across the border. As of writing in early 2018, the new road connecting Maputo to the border is nearly finished but there is still a stretch requiring 4×4 to get to Ponta off the main road. We travelled to Ponta from Maputo. From the airport this meant a taxi to the ferry, ferry ride and a drive along the new almost finished road which took us about 4 hours door to door.
There is a large ferry that takes cars across the river, but it is slow and reportedly not fully reliable in term of schedule. We used a small passenger ferry of which there are several and they run every 15 minutes or so. Ferry crossing is an experience in itself as this is a regular public ferry used by all the residents on both sides of the river going to and from work, shopping and outing.
Figuring out how to get a ticket and where to line up for the right boat is not exactly straightforward and if we were not accompanied by our local guide it would take us awhile. Once you are on the boat the crossing takes only about 10 minutes. Soon though it should be possible to skip this hectic albeit very authentic experience of ferry crossing. There is a bridge under construction connecting to the new road to Ponta and then to South Africa. This will cut the journey time in half and undoubtedly will make the entire coast south of Maputo much busier than it is now. The word is that the bridge should be done within a year’s time or so.
Ponta do Ouro is a small town with a market and a few restaurants. There are several hotels on the beach and plenty of self-catering accommodation ranging from villas for rent to camp sites. We stayed at Ponta Beach Camps which has a number of rooms and a large camping area. There is a restaurant in the Camp and some around town. One can also cook own food at the public kitchen at the Camp. We bought some fresh seafood and had a braai – South African for barbeque. We visited around Christmas time and the place was filling up with tourists. Reportedly the beach gets absolutely packed for the new year.
We dove with the dive shop at Ponta Beach Camps which runs a well organized operation. Closer to the shore there are many dive sites with depth of less than 20 meters. We saw all kinds of large rays including round ribbon tail, honeycomb, blue spotted and eagle rays, variety of reef fish, and good macro. Further out there are 35-45m depth sites where reportedly one can see all kinds of sharks, tunas and other big stuff.
We saw a couple of devil rays on a safety stop on one of the deep sites but otherwise did not see much fish on the 3 deep dives we did. Reefs on deep sites look very impressive and visibility was excellent. The fish is definitely there too as we saw some jumping out and chased by birds – but did not see any under water on our deep but short dives. Given the depth bottom time is only about 10 minutes with long safety stops on the blue.
All in all Ponta diving was great and gave us a good sense of diversity of marine environment in Mozambique in combination with our diving in Tofo. In addition to diving, there is also surfing and kite boarding as well as fishing. Not too far from Ponta in the direction of Maputo is Maputo Elephants Reserve with elephants, giraffes, zebras and other animals. Humpback whales migrate between July and November. There is surely much more to explore.