|Diving with sharks at Bassas da India|
Posted by on July 02, 2005 at 10:33:42:|
By Fiona Mcintosh
Bassas da India - "Sharks!" came the cry. A distinctive triangular fin appeared in the water even before we dropped anchor. So it was true: this tiny atoll has a reputation for other pelagics - particularly Zambezi and hammerhead sharks - and was living up to it.
Diving with sharks was one of the reasons we were here, and we were not going to be disappointed.
We hit the water three at a time, like parachutists exiting a plane over the drop zone. Kingfish rushed up from the dark blue depths, eager to see the splashing above.
Then white-tip sharks, and within seconds half a dozen Zambezis were circling above. Keeping close to our buddies, we swam down and towards the reef, our hearts pumping.
There are some places in this world that have that extra special allure. Aldabra, Everest and Bassas da India were at the top of my list, so when a place on a yacht bound for Bassas came up I leapt at the chance, the promise of a 40-hour sail each way and seriously extreme diving both exhilarating me and filling me with trepidation. The sail here had passed uneventfully: now it was time for the serious business.
Bassas, as we were now affectionately calling this remote, shark-infested and treacherous outcrop, is a submerged volcanic atoll that lies 240 nautical miles due east of the Bazaruto Archipelago: a seamount which rises 3 000m from the Indian Ocean seabed in the middle of the Mozambique Channel.
It is claimed by the French government (which has a base at Europa 96km away but no other reason to expect recognition of fishing or any other rights to Bassas, save Gallic charm and persuasion, of course).
Bassas is visited almost exclusively by the occasional yacht. When the tide is high you can barely detect the atoll from the mooring: only the jagged pinnacle of the New Holland shipwreck in the far distance suggests the presence of danger - but when the tide is low a vast ring of coral is exposed, enclosing a turquoise lagoon.
The submerged reefs host unbelievable hard and soft corals, huge shoals of reef fish and many sharks. It's truly a diving and snorkeling paradise. Scuba dives here are mostly wall dives among schools of kingfish and parrotfish while on the reefs diminutive resident coral dwellers go about their daily routines.
Zambezis and white-tip sharks are seen on most dives, there are occasional turtle sightings and, once in a while, a couple of rarer sharks or other large predators will come past.
And the deep water surrounding the atoll teems with big game fish so fishermen are in heaven. You barely have to put the bait in the water and you have a bite; kingfish, marlin, barracuda, wahoo and tuna all seem to be fighting to get on the line.
We left Vilanculos Beach Lodge at 4pm, sailing out on the high tide. The first four hours were spent snaking our way through the sandbanks between the Bazaruto Archipelago and the mainland of Mozambique on a carefully plotted route that the autopilot was programmed to follow.
Finding the deep channels had not been easy in a boat with a draft of 3,5 metres. The sandbanks have shifted since the Portuguese navigators drew up the charts that are the only reference for this part of the world, so on the maiden voyage the skipper put a spotter with a radio up on the crow's nest and used his advice to weave his way through.
The sea was flat calm as we sailed north, the sunset was glorious and the drinks were soon poured into real glasses. Dinner - a medley of crab, prawn and squid - was accompanied by fine wine. And I had expected hardship. But a glance at the visitors' book, in its leather binding, revealed how lucky we were.
When the sea gets rough in this stretch of open ocean it gets really rough. As it was, half our group were feeling queasy by the end of day two: no wine that night and even prawns the size of crayfish couldn't tempt a couple of people from their bunks. But when we staggered up on deck in the morning to watch the sunrise our spirits leapt.
There in the distance was the unmistakable triangle of a shipwreck: there was life out in the middle of this silvery desert. We had seen one large ship late the previous afternoon, but other than that nothing.
Well, I lie, almost nothing: two birds since we had left the tip of Bazaruto and schools of very energetic flying fish that we initially mistook for birds.
And there at last was the bow of the New Holland - a beacon indicating that underneath the apparently benign sea lay a treacherous atoll which had claimed many ships which had ventured too close to its coral rim.
The cannon and anchor of the historical wreck The Santiago, a Portuguese flagship that ran aground here in 1585, can still be seen on dives in the southern part of the atoll.
The impact split the ship in two, hurling those aboard out of their bunks and drowning those on the lower decks. Space on the longboats was severely limited and by morning scores more had drowned and the reef was full of survivors who had failed to make it to a craft.
As the tide came in they, too, lost their footing and perished.
According to reports, those who had made it to the safety of the boat defended their position with desperate brutality, fighting off and indeed hacking off the arms and hands of everyone, including women, who tried to come aboard.
But I digress. As we anchored and the dive boats were lowered into the water, a school of dolphins cruised by as if to welcome us to this special place. But the sight of the more menacing triangular fin put paid to thoughts of a refreshing dip off the back of the boat.
Mieke is a 36m Grand Bank classic schooner converted two years ago from a commercial fishing vessel into a luxury yacht. Willie Hennop, the skipper and co-owner, is a character who readily admits to wanderlust.
Mieke is his means of exploring the seas and finding paradise islands - remote, exotic places that few will ever see. We were among the only ones privileged enough to share in part of his adventure.
And you won't find a more comfortable yacht sailing southern African waters. The spacious cabins have bathrooms the size of those in an average flat, with a proper ceramic flush toilet and an ensuite tiled shower room (the freshwater shower is big-headed and instantly hot).
Full-size double beds are decked in white linen and there is aircon, a DVD player and cupboard space.
Meals are served on the spacious afterdeck, the skipper braaiing on the back terrace or the gillie dragging freshly caught fish up the gangway for the kitchen to prepare as sashimi.
Down below is an airy salon with a large-screen TV and DVD player; padded leather sofas; a library of books and DVDs; even a cappuccino maker and cabinets of elegant wineglasses. It may not be quite a luxury cruiser, but it's not far off.
Our Bassas group was a mixed bunch of divers and fishermen - and women - and the combination worked well. The fisherfolk worked hard; the divers appreciated their efforts.
But, judging by the ear-to-ear smile of one of our number who returned on the first day with a 40kg yellowfin tuna and 30kg wahoo, they weren't complaining about doing the work while we played.
Once we had seen, and photographed, sharks on our first adrenaline-pumping excursion beneath the waves, we settled into a calmer routine of three dives a day.
None of the sites have names, it's all exploratory stuff; you either see where the skipper or dive master feels like diving, or just put your head in the water somewhere near the reef and, if the visibility is good, drop in.
We dived the wreck of the New Holland on our second day. The stern and bow stood sentinel as we descended to 30 metres past cannon and remnants of the midsection.
A huge brindle bass immediately approached, almost begging to be stroked. Reef sharks circled curiously and a big potato bass joined in the fun.
Ascending, we swam next to the shallow reef admiring the orange, violet and red corals and checking out the nooks and crevices. We moved as quietly and breathed as slowly as we could, trying to save on air. You just never want these dives to end.
Also wrecked in the area is the English East India Company's ship the Sussex, dating from 1738 and, at low tide, the atoll and surrounding reef are littered with anchors, cannon and bits of broken vessel.
It makes for incredible diving and exploration of the coral rim at low tide: you can still find bits of shot, pottery and even the odd coin.
One of my favourite sites is 40 metres from the boat on a wall that plummets into the dark blue yonder. Huge red and purple sea fans adorn the wall; massive moray eels hiss at us from their lairs; a big, spotted potato bass skulks just out of camera range; and colourful reef fish scuttle round obliviously.
It is incredible, pristine and outsize, like nothing I ever dived before. Suddenly you can sense the presence of something more sinister. An oceanic white-tip shark checks us out, and then a Zambezi cruises past as if to mark his territory.
The atoll has a reputation among divers for being seriously extreme, and of course it is very remote, but the diving is surprisingly easy and relaxed.
It's spring tide as we make ready to leave so I climb to the crow's nest to get a final glimpse of the extraordinary lagoon before heading down for a last walk on the atoll.
Two huge anchors lie exposed on the oyster beds, white sandbanks snake into the distance and huge shoals of parrotfish can be seen in the little canyons. A turtle grazes in the shallows, eyeing us inquisitively as we snorkel in the deeper pools and we rue the fact that we are leaving so soon.
Twenty-four hours later we spot the Bazaruto Archipelago and I can hardly believe that the adventure to Bassas ever happened. We were 200 nautical miles from land and a million miles from reality.
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