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A well-known tropical island’s best kept secret

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Mauritius has never been punted as a diving destination. Honeymooners go there, families go there to enjoy the world class water sports, golfers go there to enjoy superbly manicured golf courses, but diving? Maybe with your partner on a lazy Sunday. For the Europeans and Scandinavians it’s inexpensive, well run, has fabulous resorts with superb all-inclusive entertainment packages, stunning enclosed lagoons, and white sandy beaches where the kids can safely play. Dive boat launches are among the easiest and most relaxed I have ever experienced anywhere in the world. Boats launch from the lagoon, which is flat calm, and you step onto the boat, either from the beach or off a jetty.

After a thorough briefing on the type of reef and safety procedures in the dive centre, you are good to go. Dive groups are small, and the dive masters and instructors are normally Mauritians, whose safety training and service levels are exceptional. The dive team loads the cylinders on board, and you saunter down to the boat in your wetsuit. You climb onto the boat and kit up your cylinder while the boat putters along to the dive site, normally 5 to 10 minutes away.

A backward roll and you are into amazing clarity and breath-taking fish life. In Mauritius, you don’t need to hunt for moray eels. I have countless videos of them hunting and killing on the reefs, and the extremely rare weedy scorpion fish is a superb example.

The visible re-growth of new corals and the re-establishment of coral reefs on this fabulous holiday island playground is undoubtedly world news.

Mauritius reefs are fairly deep on the global scale and to a certain extent they have been protected from the worst of the ravages of global over-heating of the sea.

Against the global trend, where worldwide reefs are suffering from damage caused by over-population, over-fishing and pollution, there are tiny acrapora corals breaking through the previously dead areas of reef. Ever cautious, the scientists still have to establish the rate of growth, and the Marine biologists at Reef Mauritius in Pereybere are planning to put down coral growth plates to establish the rate of growth.

It’s also probably the safest place in the world to live right now, with a benign climate, unobtrusive governmental controls and almost zero crime. If you leave your handbag on the seat in the Mahebourg airport public lounge and go back to look for it an hour later after trying to check in unsuccessfully without your passport, it’s still there. If you leave your flip flops on the beach they are still there when you go to fetch them a week later. I have done both.

How does a nation that for centuries depended for its livelihood on sugar farming and subsistence fishing ever change its economy, and encourage its marine-dependent population to protect their resources? Mauritius did, and against the world trend, the coral reefs are re-growing.

The Mauritian Government incentivised its population away from sugar cane towards tourism in the early part of the century, and passed protective legislation to limit damage to the undersea world from over-fishing, agricultural chemical run-off, and to clean up the disposal of sewerage and encourage aquaculture.

The legislation was clever, as it did not confront the sugar industry with dramatic change. Instead of passing draconian laws, Government introduced incentives that made the sugar companies happy to shift their focus. The IRS, or Integrated Resort Scheme was introduced to entice sugar farming companies to partner with property developers and build spectacular lifestyle resorts around the island. This not only limited sugar planting, with its chemical overspill into the sea, it also enriched the local population, weaning it away from subsistence level fishing.

The government passed legislation to enable the creation of protective tourism-based entities whose main entertainment offering was the marine world. High end five and six star tourist resorts sprang up on the most beautiful of the Island’s beaches, and of course it was in their commercial best interests to protect their primary attraction, and the resorts zealously guard their maritime resources. Most resorts have an affiliated dive operator, and all of them offer superb service to divers. Francois Besson of Diving World is typical of these, with a powerful conservation policy and a strong affiliation to one of the world’s leading resort chains.

With the construction of Cyber City at Ebene, and the introduction of high speed fibre, the Mauritian population had an alternative source of revenue in the form of IT based activities and above all of call centres. This is a godsend for both English and French speaking companies, as Mauritius has a 95 percent literacy rate, and a highly intelligent labour pool, so the Islanders became less dependent on fishing for their daily meal. Wealth lessens any population’s dependence on its natural resources. The Mauritius supermarkets are packed with shoppers every evening and over weekends. Much easier to buy your food from the local supermarket than to get up at 4am, wheel the engine down to the boat, paddle out in a tiny skiff to load it up, then travel for 2 hours to the local fishing ground.

Mauritius undoubtedly offers some of the world best diving. It is varied, and can be relaxed, dramatic, adventurous or simply fun. The spectacular volcanic structure of the island lends itself to deep diving, where the deco divers can enjoy some spectacular scenery in over 40 metre viz where massive shoals of pelagic fish congregate. Many Europeans spend the winter months in Mauritius, diving with Ocean Spirit, and exploring untouched reefs.

There are sensational dive sites on the East at Bel Mar and in the North in Pereybere where the current is so strong it’s like riding an undersea wave. There are mid-water cleaning stations where the giant tuna come in to be attended by minute cleaner wrasses and damsels, and increasing numbers of hunting barracuda and blue-fin kingfish. There are secret islands off-shore where there are washing machine circular holes filled with the oceanic white-tip sharks who come to spend the daylight hours sleeping, without fear of losing the water-flow over their gills that they need in order to stay alive.

Each reef is different, and all of them have something to offer the recreational diver, and of course it’s a wide-angle photographer’s paradise. In summer the viz can go up to 80 metres, and the lowest I have dived in was 15m viz in mid-winter on a turning tide.

It is really exciting to see the once-dead brown corals sprouting new polyp-tips, and to see the burgeoning growth of the soft corals. With the growth of the soft corals come the coral crabs, banded pipe fish and bower shrimps, so Mauritius is rapidly becoming a paradise for macro photography. With the growth of the corals comes protection for the eggs of the shoaling fusiliers, big eyes, glow-fish, snappers and goat fish, and these are now showing up in massive hatchings that bring in the game fish.

Diving in Mauritius is exciting, and different from anywhere in the world.

It’s an Island with its reefs reborn through the clever intervention of an enlightened government.

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Sources: CORALS and Indo-Pacific Reef Guide by Harry Erhardt and Daniel Knop

Pics: Jill Holloway

Pics: Chrystelle Besson Diving World

© Ocean Spirit

www.osdiving.com

Jill Holloway lives in Mauritius and at Sodwana Bay Isimangaliso Wetland Park in South Africa. A PADI qualified Nitrox diver with over 1,500 dives, she is a passionate observer and preserver of the marine environment, and has a database of over 35,000 fish pics and hundreds of Gopro videos on fish behaviour, which she shares with her readers.

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Alonissos: The complete diving destination (Part 1)

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In June we were incredibly fortunate to be invited to dive in Alonissos, a small Greek Island in the Sporades island chain located in the North Aegean Sea.  While I have long been a big fan of the Greek Islands as a great holiday destination, I had not had the opportunity to do any diving on previous visits and Mike and I were extremely excited to see what Alonissos had to offer both above and below the surface!

The Sporades are easily accessible via the airport in Skiathos (the first island in the chain), which is served by Jet2 flights from all major UK airports from May through October.  Numerous ferries and charter boats make island hopping from Skiathos Town a breeze.  After an hour boat ride, the picturesque port of Patitiri was a wonderful introduction to Alonissos, where we were met by our gracious hosts Kostas of Albedo Travel and Dias of Alonissos Triton Dive Center.  Mike and I were delighted to be staying at the Paradise Hotel, aptly named for its stunning views over the sea and great location for walking to the waterfront.

Alonissos is beautifully situated in the National Marine Park of Alonissos and the Northern Sporades, the largest marine protected area in Europe.  The surrounding seas offer fabulous marine life, including incredibly rare species such as the Mediterranean monk seal.  They boast deep walls covered in gorgonians and sponges, stunning topography with caverns, swimthroughs and pinnacles, and the first accessible ancient shipwreck from 500BC!

In locations where historical sites have been reported, the waters are largely restricted, but with collaboration between government, underwater archeologists and dive centres, incredible underwater museums are being created for a truly unique diving experience.  Alonissos is home to the first of these, the Ancient Shipwreck of Peristera Accessible Underwater Archeological Site.  The chance to dive into history (along with reports of healthy reef life and amazing underwater topography) meant Mike and I were keen to get in the water.

Our introduction to the diving around Alonissos was at the Agios Georgios Pinnacles, in the channel between Alonissos and Skopelos.  This fantastic site was named “The Chimney,’ and proved to have a huge amount to see.  We got to a decent depth here (over 25m), and marvelled at a colourful reef wall with a wonderful swim through whose rocky walls were absolutely covered with life.  As well as brilliant topography there was no shortage of macro life here.  We saw numerous nudibranchs, five different species in total.  The second dive at Mourtias reef nearby was a shallower dive along a nice wall with lots of crevices. Several moray eels and grouper called this site home.  We enjoyed looking in the crevices for lobster and smaller benthic life, such as cup corals and tunicates.

Our itinerary allowed us two dives a day with afternoons left to explore the island with our hire car and evenings to enjoy the famous Greek hospitality.  This proved to be a lovely mix of in-water and land based diversions.  

The next days diving to the Gorgonian Gardens and Triton’s Cave was to be even better!  These two stunning sites are nothing short of fabulous.  The Gorgonian Gardens was a deep wall near to the Agios Georgios islands.  The ever-present currents in this deep channel meant that the sea life was amazing … the namesake Gorgonian sea fans dotted the wall at a depth of 30 to 50 meters, getting ever larger the deeper we went.  Above 30m was by no means less beautiful, with sponges, corals, scorpionfish, moray eels and some rare and colourful nudibranchs.

The second shallower dive of the day was to Triton’s Cave or the Cavern of Skopelos, on the east side of that island. The spectacular rock formations had wild striations both above and below the water making a truly epic topography.  The cavern entrance was at 14m, and big enough for a buddy pair, winding up to 6m and passing two beautiful windows out into the blue.  Emerging from the cavern, the light at the shallower depths and the incredible rock formations made for a fantastic gentle swimming safety stop and we all surfaced by the boat with massive grins. 

Check out our next blog :Alonissos: The complete diving destination (Part 2)” to hear about our amazing dive on the 2500 year old Peristera Wreck!

Thanks to:

Alonissos Triton Dive Center https://bestdivingingreece.com/

Albedo Travel https://alonissosholidays.com/activities/

Paradise Hotel https://paradise-hotel.gr/

Alonissos Municipality https://alonissos.gr/en/

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Mamma Mia! Diving Skopelos (Part 2)

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Our second days dive itinerary was to the famous Christoforos wreck! This is arguably the best dive in Skopelos and though only open to divers with deep diving experience, this 83m long wreck is well worth the visit.  

The Christoforos sits in 43 meters of water with the deck at 32 to 35 meters.  A 30m dive can give an impressive view of the wreck, though such a large wreck needs a few dives to truly do it justice.  Given its ideal location just a 2 minute boat ride from the dive centre dock it is an excellent first dive of the day.  The sheltered site is also diveable in all but the absolute worst weather so although deep, the water is usually clear with little to no current making it a very pleasant dive.  The site is superb for technical diving and a great training site for the Tec 40 and 45 programs, offered by Skopelos Dive Center.  

The Christoforos wreck was originally a collier ship built in 1950 at Grangemouth shipyard under the name “Thomas Hardie”.  In 1976 she joined the Greek merchant fleet as “Christoforos”.  On the 2nd of October 1983 the Christoforos was carrying 2600 tonnes of cement from Volos to Piraeus Port. During the voyage the weather turned, resulting in the ship developing a 7 degree list, whereby she changed course for safe anchorage at Panormos, Skopelos.  The ship reached Panormos at 16:00 with a list of 17 degrees and water ingress to No. 1 hull.  Though attempts were made to right the vessel, the crew were ordered to abandon ship at 22:00.  The captain, lieutenant and the quartermaster remained to try and save the ship, but had to abandon the attempt themselves and the Christoforos finally sank at 05:30 on 3rd October 1983.  She now sits upright in 43 meters of water less than 200m from shore in Panormos.

Diving has only been allowed here since 2018, so the wreck is very well preserved and a real treat to dive.  Permission to dive here was granted by the authorities after lots of incredibly hard work by the Skopelos Dive Center staff.  Having a fantastic wreck in such an amazing location and in excellent condition is a real privilege.

Of all the sites in Skopelos this was the site Mike and I were most keen to experience.  Having kitted up and zipped across the bay to the mooring, we left the surface and followed the descent line until the wreck emerged spectacularly from the blue at 15m.  She is a big and beautiful wreck, sitting as though calmly continuing her journey along the seabed.  With most of her original features still intact there were points of interest everywhere, including the anchors, winches, ships telegraphs, the wheel and RDF antenna.  

We found that aquatic life had colonised the ship, with schools of fish, electric blue nudibranchs, a large moray eel and the resident scorpionfish lurking inside the bridge.  The Christoforos was truly a stunning wreck and despite maximising our time at depth we eventually had to say our goodbyes and begin the slow and steady return to the surface. 

After a superb morning dive we had the afternoon to do a little sightseeing of the island, with a trip to the church of Agios Ioannis Kastri made famous by the blockbuster movie “Mamma Mia!”. Mike and I spent a happy afternoon pootling around in our little hire car before meeting up with Lina from Skopelos Dive Center.  An underwater archeologist as well as a dive professional, Lina had offered to show us a rather special attraction, the Christoforos shipwreck Digital Spot public information and awareness centre.

A fantastic initiative made possible from the collaboration of the government and hard work of the staff at Skopelos Dive Center is the “Digital Spot” in Agnontas port.  This information center has a number of displays on the history of the Christoforos wreck, the process by which the wreck was allowed to be opened to the public for diving tourism, other sites of historical interest in the area, a video of the wreck and the best bit, a virtual reality dry dive experience!  The beauty of the VR system is that non diving members of the family can see what you have seen on the wreck, or you can see areas that you may not have explored during the dive due to time or depth limitations.  It was a truly immersive experience and a great addition to the dive itself.

After a wonderful day we celebrated our last evening on the island with an exquisite meal in Skopelos Town with fabulous views over the town and bay, washed down with the excellent local wine.  The lamb with lemon and potatoes was a meal which I could happily eat every day for the rest of my life! 

Skopelos is an island that truly has it all.  The diving is excellent, the landscape is beautiful with plenty of non diving activities, the locals friendly and the food and drink superb.  Given how accessible it is as a holiday destination it has avoided becoming overcrowded and even in peak season offers a fun yet relaxing atmosphere.  We highly recommend giving Skopelos a visit.  We will certainly be back again!

Thanks to:

Municipality of Skopelos (https://skopelos.com/

Skopelos Dive Center  (https://sporadesdiving.gr/)

Ionia Hotel (https://www.ioniahotel.gr/en)

Dolphin of Skopelos (https://dolphinofskopelos.com/)

Ta Kymata restaurant (@takymata)

The Muses restaurant (https://www.facebook.com/TheMussesMousses/)

Aktaiov resturant (https://skopelos.com/listings/aktaion-taverna/)

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