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Potato Bassas da India

Text and images by Fiona Ayerst

We all have a dream destination. Somewhere we would love to visit. Somewhere we think we will only get to in our wildest dreams! Equally, each diver has a list of dream dive spots. Bassas da India is at the top of many a South African diver’s list. It certainly had been at the top of Fiona Ayerst’s for a very long time, and now she reveals her Bassas encounter. A diver approaches one of the inquisitive bass.

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After many years of yearning to explore Bassas da India, I finally set

sail on a catamaran, the SV Pelagic in April 2008. I was lucky enough to be with five good friends who also happened to be confident and experienced divers. At a confession session it became clear that Bassas had been at the top of our dream list. We were an excited bunch. Leaving from the Mozambican town of Vilanculos, we had to be careful of tides. The tidal movement here is massive and the whole bay drains quickly, like a basin that had its plug suddenly and unexpectedly pulled. Boats caught unawares can easily find themselves stranded high-and-dry on the sand. We had to leave at high tide in the late afternoon to get across the bay to Benguerra Island, where we would spend the first night under the romantic island stars. We had a refreshing evening swim and a walk on the sand spit that grew and grew out of the island as the water subsided down the plug! After a good night’s sleep in the shelter of the bay, we left early for our long trip out to the atoll. It is generally at least a two-day drive or more to Vilanculos from wherever you may live in South Africa. Once there, it takes another two days and nights to steam or sail out to the atoll. Bassas sits 400km from Vilanculos to the northeast. It is in the middle of the Mozambique Channel approximately halfway to northern Madagascar. We were lucky to have a relatively easy and smooth crossing and only one of us (who shall remain nameless!) spent the entire trip in his room, coming up for air only once in a while, only to quickly scurry back into the hull once the wind hit his face. It is an exposed trip and I should imagine it would be pretty uncomfortable in high seas and winds. Around 48 hours later, when we arrived at the atoll at 8am, a surprise awaited us. There was another catamaran there. The Sea Star was perched high on the rocks of the atoll, not floating on the big blue as it should have been. As we played and dived around the atoll over the next four days, the Sea Star sat beached. This is only one of many reasons to come here with a seasoned skipper only. There was nothing we could do to help the stricken cat and so we continued our dives.

Our dives were generally comprised of languid sashays along sheer walls or gently sloping drop offs. Our dives were generally comprised of languid sashays along sheer walls or gently sloping drop offs. We were pleasantly rewarded for our patience over the long trip to the atoll, with sightings of many small sharks. On one dive we saw 19 at once. They were galapagos and white tip sharks. There were numerous garden eels poking their heads curiously out of the bright white sand and disappearing in chorus as we glided over them. I was delighted to see many large specimens of my favourite fish, the majestic napoleon wrasse, wandering above the reef. The wrasses’ signature bumped head poke out in front of them as they swim with chameleon eyes scanning every nook and cranny and watching the divers warily at the same time.

The Pelagic, our home during our Bassas exploration.

Each day, after a delicious breakfast and a touch of sun, we entered the water for our second dive of the day. This is a diver’s paradise and if you pushed, you could easily manage five dives a day. We were a little lazier and so we generally settled for four, one before breakfast and one after. One after lunch and then, for the energetic amongst us, a fourth just before sundowners on deck. During this trip, I was introduced to videography with the willing assistance of many models. Least of these were the hundreds of curious potato bass we encountered. They are inquisitive and often fearless creatures who love to preen and poked their noses into the camera dome ports, possibly wondering about their “weird reflections. These bass are perfect models for a budding videographer and I immediately fell in love – both with the art of videography and those bass.

A landscape dream. October/November 2008 • SUBMERGE 43


feature It is safe to say that almost every 50m of the atoll has around six potato bass living there. The circumference of Bassas is 23km, and by my reckoning, give or take a little, there are somewhere in the region of 4 000 potato bass living at Bassas. Many of them are very inquisitive and have no hassles approaching divers and staying with them for most of the dive. Each time we anchored we could see, from the deck (such is the clarity of the water), a host of around four bass lying on the bottom, presumably waiting for scraps from the boat, and of course, to play! Hence, I decided to rename the place in my logbook. To me it is no longer Bassas da India but rather Potato Bassas da India!

Bassas da India is definitely a world-class dive spot you should visit if you ever get the chance. I don’t want to regale each of the nine days of diving that we had. I would like to leave you with the thought that Bassas da India is definitely a world-class dive spot you should visit if you ever get the chance. This is not only due to its lovely coral gardens (especially on the side that is leeward and receives the movement of the waves and currents over its rocks), but also its topside beauty. The coral is filled with all the usual suspects, schools of batfish, thousands of sergeant majors, flocking fusiliers, and plump anemones filled with clownfish. The colours of the rainbow are represented here in all their glimmering magnificence. If you love drifting wall dives, then this is the place for you. Although I did not personally see huge schools of pelagic fish, one of my buddies did. He preferred to do dives a little further away from the wall and he reported barracuda and kingies in swirling masses. Finally, it is those warm endless drift dives along kilometres of healthy reef festooned with life that makes Bassas one of the best dive sites I have visited in Africa. I also loved the fact that we were the only boat there. In the two weeks I spent out on the massive Indian Ocean I only saw two other boats, one stranded and one a French warship. Six lucky divers on the Pelagic had the whole area to explore on their own. I find this hard to beat. The dive sites and opportunities for adventure at Bassas are endless – get there if you can!

Bassas info Trips to Bassas mostly take place from mid-April to end-November, as this is prime season. You don’t want to be stuck out in a tropical storm 400km from the closest land mass. There is a small island called Europa about 80km to the south, but there is nothing on it except three Frenchmen, a cook, a meteorologist and a gendarme (that is a French policeman!). There is no doubt that in good weather, Bassas is “paradise found”, but there are issues to be aware of and I recommend that you visit this place with someone with a lot of experience, preferably in the area.

Checking your skipper’s credentials is vital. He should, at least, be able to produce a certificate of competence. Try to find out what voyages he has undertaken and where he has traveled and taken yachts or boats in the world.

Safety issues I would not be comfortable excluding the issue of safety. I believe this to be of paramount importance on this trip because if you get lost the chances of your being found are small. Note that this is just my list of additional considerations that should be added to all normal safety considerations you would take in account. This list is also by no means finite. Please consider the following: • You must have O2 on board. Some boats don’t have, so bring your own if need be. • There should be a comprehensive medical kit on board. I would recommend also that one of your group members has an up-to-date medical care provider or first aid certificate. • You must take your own good quality Surface Marker Buoys (SMBs). You must also take a tow-along buoy and your own dive master if you go with the Pelagic. • Your boat must have at least one active tender. If you can afford it, it may be worth investing in a personal safety system that emits an electronic signal of some sort and ensuring your boat can detect it. • Before you book, make sure that your skipper has a tender that he will put in the water and use fastidiously. As stated previously, Bassas has some incredibly strong currents that even experienced divers cannot manage. It is non-negotiable that your skipper has the tender(s) manned and in the water following your buoy line as you dive a la Red Sea diving. • It is possible to be picked up directly by the mother ship in some instances – mostly when the sea is flat and calm. If your skipper is reluctant to use the tenders you may find yourself being picked up directly onto the cat even in rough wavy water. This is not for the faint-hearted. Divers that are not strong and experienced may find it difficult to hang on to a flailing metal ladder in full scuba. • I recommend at least one of the group members has flares. • It is imperative that the group dives together and follows the instructions of an experienced dive guide. I would also recommend that only very experienced divers consider this trip. Many of the dives are deep and filled with currents including vertical currents as water rushes out of the atoll at change of tide. • Ensure you have a skipper that has marks for all the great dive spots and that he can put you onto these with an understanding of the effects of currents on a descending diver. • There are many wonderful places to dive around Bassas and you can virtually drop anywhere and have a great dive. However, as you only have a limited time there and it may be a once in a lifetime trip, I recommend that it is best to go either with a dedicated dive boat that has done many dive trips there and has a dive master to lead you or (as there are not many of these around as yet) you ensure your skipper has dived the area and has the correct marks for the best reefs and wrecks. You may be thinking that this is obvious. I am restating it because in my experience boats that will promise dive trips to Bassas are in fact fishing charter boats and their skippers many not have knowledge of the intricacies of the reefs there. This is a long and expensive trip to make with someone who does not understand divers nor knows where the best reefs are.

Bassas: Then and now

Coral gardens.

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European merchant ships discovered Bassas when it was being used as a shelter place for and from pirates in the area. Both Europa and Bassas are French protectorates and were registered as marine reserves in 1975. The French controls access to the atoll and during our trip they came to visit us in an imposing boat impressively lined with guns. They didn’t give us too much of a hard time though, and


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Man and sharks.

seemed happy when they heard we were just divers on holiday. We didn’t have a permit and although many people have told me one is necessary, it seems it is not. In the past, Bassas had a lot of wealth and the reason why it was so strictly controlled was the amount of treasure on the various ships strewn across the atoll. There are approximately 130 shipwrecks on and in the close vicinity of the atoll and treasure-seekers have stripped many of them. On the request of the French, the Ernest Klaar Salvage Company recently removed most of the wealth from the wrecks and so the area’s worth has decreased, and the only thing of any value are the fish. There is supposedly a 12 nautical mile band that longliners are not allowed into. These places are in the TFA – Territory of the French Antarctic Lands, lands that are uncontrollable and inhospitable. Bassas is only reef and not really land. By removing the treasure, the French have ensured that there is not really any wealth left. This is not going to stop yachters coming in, and it is bound to happen with improved GPS capabilities.

Is Bassas protected? Many believe that access to the atolls is strictly limited in order to preserve them. I am not sure of the veracity of this statement. It seems to me that the limitation naturally occurs due to the very remote location of Bassas and Europa. I have also read that the privileged status of the islands means that they have escaped the intensive fishing efforts in the Indian Ocean. I am also not convinced of this. I was disappointed by the fact that we only saw small sharks. In the 10 days spent there, we only saw two galapagos sharks over 2m. Although there were many, most of the sharks were around one to 2m in size. We saw no species other than galapagos and silver tips. This surprised and saddened me. Have the other species of shark succumbed to the same pressures as those millions that are slaughtered each year? This place is so remote it is impossible to know. I also did not see any massive schools of big open water fish. I guess I was expecting at least king fish and barracuda in huge bubbling shoals. There were, however, definitely some massive pelagic fish occurring singly and those were always good to spot. I am sure that the intense fishing pressure of many dedicated fishing trips to this area must have had an affect on the fish life there. This situation can only get worse as the French allow private boats here without permits and without taking any notice of their catch. S To experience Bassas da India on the SV Pelagic or for more information, contact Island Adventure Charters. Website: www.islandcharters.co.za Email: info@islandcharters.co.za Tel: 082 672 5253 All you have to do is meet Island Adventure Charters at Vilanculos, either by flying or driving, and they will take care of the rest! Phone Island Adventure Charters to book a trip of a lifetime. October/November 2008 • SUBMERGE 45


Bassas da India