Diving the Cape Peninsula and False Bay/Coral Gardens (Oudekraal)
The dive site Coral Gardens (Oudekraal) is possibly the most colourful shore access site on the Atlantic coast of the Cape Peninsula area, near Cape Town in the Western Cape province of South Africa. Information is provided which may assist in planning Recreational and Research Scuba diving at this site, and links to photographs of marine organisms that have been found there.
The high biodiversity, stunning colour and spectacular topography make this one of the regions most rewarding dive sites.
Name "Coral Gardens"
There are large areas of Noble coral which gives the site its name.
S33°59.264’ E018°20.810’ approximately
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 (2009)
Shore dive: Use the Parks Board parking lot off the coast road if there is space. You pay for the parking 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.
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 pinnacles provide an adequate reference point.
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.
Usually at it's best during or after south easterly winds (offshore). The swell should be low, 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
Keep a lookout for times when the south west swell is low and short period. This will usually be in summer, but in winter there may occasionally be a good day.
Maximum depth is 19m, average about 10m.
Late Pre-Cambrian granite of the Peninsula pluton
Large to very large granite corestone boulders and outcrops , 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. There is a group of very tall boulders (the pinnacles) further out to the south east, with kelp on top breaking surface at low tide. The base jumble round this reef covers a large area, with 4 or 5 high pinnacles close together in a sort of L pattern, all of much the same height. The top of these pinnacles is at about 5m depth, the sides are mostly near vertical, with some narrow gaps, there are several deep overhangs and caves at the base of the pinnacles and there is occasional sand bottom between the rocks at about 16m depth.
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, opening up and getting deeper to about 12m on the sand in small patches between moderate sized boulders and outcrops
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.
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.
This is a site where choice of 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.
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. A compass is useful for 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.
Very rich in noble corals, 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. A kelp forest in the entry cove extends out several metres beyond the high rock cluster. There is more sea bamboo kelp on top of the high rocks of the outer groups. 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.
Entry at rocks at the western cove, swim to the gap between the shore rocks and high rock group. There is quite heavy kelp, you may have to work your way around some clumps, especially if the tide is low.
Views of the site from the shore.
The entry and exit area at Coral Gardens is shown here in the foreground. The flat rock (Groot Pannekoek) referred to in the text 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.
The entry point for Coral Gardens and Groot Pannekoek on a good day
View of the Coral Gardens and Groot Pannekoek from the road, showing the route to the start of a dive at Coral Gardens.
View of the Coral Gardens and groot Pannekoek from the road.