Diving the Cape Peninsula and False Bay/Coral Gardens (Oudekraal)
This article is a travel topic
The high biodiversity, stunning colour and spectacular topography make this one of the regions most rewarding dive sites.
S33°59.270' E018°20.782' (The pinnacles)
S34°59.247’ E018°20.921’ (Western cove entry point)
Off the M6 just south of the Twelve Apostles Hotel
This is in a Marine Protected Area (2004). A permit is required. The site is within the Karbonkelberg restricted zone.
The name "Coral Gardens" is derived from the large areas of Noble coral Allopora nobilis which can be found here.
Maximum depth is 19m, and you will have to look for this north of the pinnacle. Average for the popular areas of the site is about 10m. The maximum depth in the Coral Gardens bowl is probably about 17m on the sandy bottom patches.
Visibility is variable, but on a good day can be in excess of 10m. Water colour can be important, as when it is clearer it tends to be more blue. On those days the colour of the reef life will be most apparent. If the water is green, the visibility will generally be less and colours faded.
The landscape both above and below water is dominated by large to very large granite corestone boulders and outcrops. There are lots of overhangs, crevices and small caves, with occasional swim-throughs. There is an air bubble cave under the inner group of high rocks on the south west side, at S33°59.242' E018°21.817', about halfway along the south side of the group, at about 8m depth. The site is identified by a four-lobed rocky promontory and several groups of offshore rocks.
The main landmark is the southern point, which has a cylindrical white trigonometrical survey beacon on top, and which continues to seaward in a north westerly direction as an underwater ridge to beyond Groot Pannekoek, the huge flat rock several hundred metres to the west. This ridge includes the inshore group known as the high rocks, which is an important landmark, both for finding the pinnacles, and because it marks an area with deep gullies and an air cave. Water depth to the south west of the ridge drops fairly rapidly to about 17m, where there are a few sandy patches. To the north east of the ridge the depth is about 10m and there is a moderately dense kelp forest with a few sandy patches on otherwise fairly low profile granite reef. The kelp forest on the south western side of the ridge is more or less restricted to reef shallower than about 10m, and the 9m contour is therefore also the approximate extent of the kelp. The area to the west of Groot Pannekoek includes shallow reef and usually white water. The south western side of the ridge is generally very rugged profile and good diving.
This is a group of very tall boulders out to the south east of the point, with kelp on top reaching the surface at low tide. The base jumble of low boulders and outcrops round this reef covers a fairly large area, with 4 or 5 high pinnacles close together in a sort of "U" pattern, all of much the same height. The top of these pinnacles is at about 5m depth, the sides are mostly near vertical, with narrow gaps between them. There are several deep overhangs and caves at the base of the pinnacles and there are occasional sand patches on the bottom between the rocks at about 16m depth between the pinnacles and the shore to the south, and between the pinnacles and the ridge to the north east.
Big boulders with narrow gaps and overhangs and heavy kelp can be found in the area just west and south west of the gap between the point and the high rock group. The reef gets deeper over a short distance to about 12m where there is sand in small patches between moderate sized boulders and outcrops. Further west along the shoreline reef, there are some larger sand patches and some huge boulders. This area is not very well explored, and is generally more open than the bowl between the ridge and pinnacles.
Further offshore, beyond the pinnacles, are more rocks which reach the surface. These help protect the Coral Gardens bowl from some of the power of the waves, and this area is usually white water. Details are not yet recorded, as it is a long swim to get there, and divers tend to stay with the known area as it is good.
Terra incognita:- The offshore reefs
There are reports of a sheer sided pinnacle near the outer blinder, which extends to within about 5m of the surface, and down to about 30m. The position of this reef is not confirmed, but is thought to be at S33°59'7.27", E018°20'30.92" based on aerial photography from 2005 which shows a white water at this position. This is about 650m from the entry area and should not be attempted as a shore dive if there is a south easterly (offshore) wind forecast.
There is also a reef shown on the SA Navy charts at S33°59.044', E018°20.329, with a minimum depth given as 18.3m and very close to the 30m contour, that may be worth investigating.
Geology: Corestones of late Pre-Cambrian granite of the Peninsula pluton and white quartz sand.
Often at its best during or after south easterly winds (offshore). The swell should be low, and short period, though a bit of white water on the outer reefs is normal. The site is exposed to the south west swell, which will both ruin the visibility and make the access difficult, though to some degree this is dissipated by the reefs south of Groot Pannekoek. This is a site where good visibility is usually accompanied by cold water. There is usually some surge, and it can be quite strong in the narrow gaps.
The entry and exit area is very well protected, and access is safe when conditions at the bowl are way beyond what you would want to dive in. Limiting conditions at this site are visibility and surge in the areas you want to visit, and offshore winds which may make return to shore difficult, or boat access unpleasant.
Keep a lookout for times when the south west swell is low with a short period. This will usually be in summer, but in winter there may occasionally be a good day.
Limited off street parking with fairly good security, Clean, neat toilet facilities, Fresh water showers and taps, picnic sites (no fires permitted), shade, seating, garbage cans, a nice little beach and pleasant and protected snorkelling areas for beginners. This is probably the best site in the region for shore facilities, and Parks Board staff keep it tidy and in good condition.
Shore dive: Use the Table Mountain National Park Oudekraal parking lot off the coast road if there is space. You pay for the parking (R15) but the facilities are good, including clean toilets, picnic areas, shade trees, and showers. Security is better than most places. Alternative parking is available at the side of the M6, but the walk is longer.
Go down the stairs at the west end of parking lot and straight across the grassy area to the rocks at the westerly cove. There is a bit of a rough clamber over the rocks from the bottom of the path to the entry area which is usually quite a placid spot as it is well sheltered by reefs a few metres out, and heavy kelp, which is easier to negotiate if the tide is high. The long climb down the stairs and the clamber over the rocks require a reasonable level of fitness, but there is fresh water on tap at the top of the stairs and a few litres on your head and suit before the descent will keep you cooler.
The photo shows the entry area at low tide, and the kelp which can be seen to the right of the photo may require some effort to swim through in these conditions. It is easier at high tide when the kelp is about a metre under water.
Boat dive: It is a long boat trip to get to Coral Gardens; about 14km from either Hout Bay Harbour or Oceana Power Boat Club, but for those who have difficulty with the shore access, this can be done as a boat dive. This is not a good anchorage, as the anchor is likely to foul amongst the rocks and damage the corals, so a live-boat dive is essential. A shot-line is not recommended, for similar reasons, and the high rock group and beacon on top of the point provide adequate reference points. At high tide the kelp on the pinnacles may not be recognisable from a boat, so use a GPS or compass bearings as described in "Routes" to find the spot.
Very rich in noble corals (Allopora nobilis), small sea fans, sponges of a wide variety of shapes and colours, soft corals, bryozoans and colonial ascidians on walls and overhangs. Also of interest are walking anemones (Preactis millardae), Box jellyfish (Carybdea alata), and various nudibranchs. Mandela’s nudibranch (Mandelia mirocornata)  is relatively common here, and seldom seen anywhere else. The Cowled nudibranch (Melibe rosea) is also seen here more frequently than most dive sites in the area.
There is a significant difference in the encrusting organisms found on the rocks which is dependant on both depth and slope of the surface. Upper surfaces in shallower areas tend to be covered by algae and large ascidians, mussels or limpets, while the near vertical surfaces from about 5m depth tend to host sponges, corals and colonial ascidians, and these are also common under overhangs. The upper surfaces in deeper areas seem to have largely ball sponges and coralline algae, while the flatter reef out towards Groot Pannekoek has large areas dominated by the Cape sea urchin Parechinus angulosus, and some dense cover of sea cucumbers in patches. A kelp forest in the entry cove extends out several metres to the south west of the high rock cluster, and to seawards as far as the Groot Pannekoek rocks, approximately following the 9m contour. To the north east the kelp is more sparse, and there are sandy patches scattered among the boulders at a depth of obout 10m. There is more sea bamboo kelp on top of the higher rocks of the outer groups, down to about 9m, and split fan kelp on deeper rocks, along with a range of other smaller algae. The rocks near the surf zone have a dense layer of corallines and limpets, and lots of small brown algae. At times shoals of Hottentot (Pachmetopon blochii) numbering several hundred fish can be seen amongst the kelp stipes.
The site is excellent for invertebrate photography. Many of the organisms are small, and macro facilities will be useful. On the other hand, wide angle close-ups can be stunning, and when the visibility is good, good scenic views can be taken.
The flat rock (Groot Pannekoek) is shown to the upper right of the photograph, and the high rocks are the group to the upper left. The cave is under the left-most rock of the high rock group. The group of rocks in the middle distance is exposed at low tide, but may be completely submerged when the tide rises. To get to the Coral Gardens, enter here and swim out to the left of the central group as far as the near side of the high rocks. Dive in the area to the left of this.
There is quite heavy kelp, you may have to work your way around some clumps, especially if the tide is low.
Cold water, Strong surge in gulleys and swim-throughs. Sea urchins. Strong offshore winds may develop over a short time. Access to entry/exit point over large boulders may require some scrambling, particularly for those with short legs.
The site requires fitness and good buoyancy control. There are lots of delicate invertebrates which should not be subjected to a battering by the fins and flapping arms of a diver who can not deal with a bit of surge. There is no particular minimum qualification recommended, but this is a site for the reasonably experienced and skilled diver.
The three small coves are very sheltered and quite shallow, and are suitable for beginners to snorkel, if a bit chilly. They are not recommended as scuba training areas.
This is a site where choice of exposure suit is important. The water is cold, the dive is moderately deep and requires a fairly long swim, but there is an energetic walk required before you get in. Do not skimp on insulation. If you are fit enough the extra weight needed for a dry suit will be compensated by the warmer dive you will enjoy, specially if the conditions are very calm. Make use of the water available at the parking lot to wet your suit before or just after putting it on.
For a boat dive, a dry suit is definitely an advantage.
A light is recommended for looking into the many cracks and overhangs, where the invertebrates are particularly colourful when full spectrum light is used to illuminate them. If you have the choice, a wider beam angle is better. A compass is useful for finding the pinnacles, and swimming back under water, and Nitrox may be advantageous depending on how long and deep you dive. A DSMB may be used if diving from a boat, but is not essential as this is not an area where you can easily get lost, and there is always the option of swimming to shore in an emergency. An SMB is not advised, as it is a hassle in the kelp.