Perched on the southernmost tip of the African continent, the city of Cape Town is renowned for its breathtaking natural beauty. Most iconic of all are its mountains, which cascade dramatically down towards the great, cobalt-blue expanse of the ocean. It’s an image that’s been replicated billions of times over on postcards, fridge magnets and posters around the globe. But what the pictures don’t show is what lies beyond the point where the mountains meet the sea, beneath the ocean swell that stretches away to the south.
That’s where I find myself now: seven metres underwater, weaving my way through a gently swaying, technicolour wonderland of a dense kelp forest. Shoals of fish swim past in the opposite direction, like traffic on an oceanic motorway, above a seabed strewn with starfish in every colour of the rainbow. Spiny purple urchins cling to pink rocks. The scene is illuminated by shards of golden sunlight piercing through the kelp canopy above. A small shark rests peacefully on a patch of sand nearby.
The spectacle is so overwhelming that it takes a few moments to remember that I’m running out of oxygen. On this journey of underwater discovery, I am experiencing the wonders of the Atlantic Ocean as a freediver, with nothing but a wetsuit, a mask, a pair of fins and a lungful of crisp ocean air.
Bobbing away at the surface above me is John Daines, a 40-year-old Cape Town resident and my mentor for the two day freediving course that I’m on. He’s also one of the key figures at the forefront of the South African city’s burgeoning freediving culture.
Tall and athletically built, with an unflappable sense of calm, Daines comes from the world of competitive freediving. He has broken records in South Africa and can hold his breath underwater for close to seven minutes. In recent years, though, he has switched his focus to non-competitive, adventure freediving, using his skills to explore the natural world beneath the waves.
Around four years ago, Daines’ dive school, Cape Town Freediving, became the first in the country to offer classes specifically in recreational adventure freediving. Since then, he has seen a massive rise in interest in the sport. “People are trying to de-stress and be healthier,” Daines says, explaining why the sport’s popularity has taken off in recent years. “With freediving you can pull yourself out of your daily life. It’s all about mindfulness and slowness, and that appeals to people.”
Daines reflects on the turns his career has taken. “I had to learn to stop chasing numbers and records,” he tells me over a cup of coffee at his dive school in Muizenberg, a picturesque surfing destination on Cape Town’s southern edge that’s about a 30-minute drive from the city centre. “[Freediving is] about being in a different world, surrounded by nature. With scuba diving, you don’t really feel part of the ocean. You’re a human with a machine; an onlooker, not a participant. But with freediving, you’re just another species in the sea.”
“With freediving you can pull yourself out of your daily life. It’s all about mindfulness and slowness, and that appeals to people”
On the first day of the course, Daines takes me through the breathing techniques that every prospective freediver must know. He explains that the key factors in learning to freedive are perfecting your breathing, lowering your heart rate and using force of mind to fight the urge to breathe that kicks in after a minute or so. The natural reflex to breathe is not triggered by the lack of oxygen, but by a build-up of carbon dioxide. This means that long after your body tells you to breathe, you actually still have enough oxygen to function. By the end of the first day of the course, Daines’ magic somehow enables me to hold my breath for more than three and a half minutes.
The next morning, I turn up at a spot recommended by Daines on the Atlantic side of the Cape Peninsula, near Hout Bay. Looking out from the parking lot, set at a bend in the coastal road beneath a towering sand-coloured escarpment, Daines points to a spot half a mile off shore where two whales are frolicking, their gargantuan fins and tails breaching the surface of the water, sending up clouds of spray. Closer to the shore, Cape fur seals soak up the sun’s warmth on a pair of giant boulders weathered smooth by the tides.
Daines hands me a wetsuit so thick it feels like it could stop a bullet, designed to protect the body from the frigid temperature of the water. The idea of diving in such icy water can be somewhat daunting, but these same currents carry with them the nutrients that sustain one of the world’s richest and most fascinating aquatic ecosystems. Cape Town lacks the coral reefs that are the main draw for divers in other parts of the world. But what it does have, in considerable abundance, is kelp. Vast forests of it – resembling an underwater rainforest – providing sanctuary for a dizzying array of creatures.
For Hanli Prinsloo – something of a local freediving celebrity who, over the past two decades, has dived in some of the world’s most exotic locations – these kelp forests are a part of what makes Cape Town the best place in the world to go freediving.
“I often get asked where my favourite place is to dive in the world, and my surprising answer is always Cape Town,” she tells me. “What makes Cape Town so special is the really rich marine life, the variety of species and, more than anything, the absolute beauty of the kelp forest. It’s like stepping into another world, it’s like a fairy garden.”
In a day’s diving off Cape Town, you can see everything from the very large to the very small, from whales and sharks, to seals, octopuses and countless species of fish, to the alien-like nudibranchs and the kaleidoscope of colourful marine invertebrates at the bottom of the kelp forests. There is even a resident population of penguins, for good measure. What’s more, adds Prinsloo, all of these things (except perhaps the whales) can be found within easy swimming distance of the shore.
“You don’t need a boat or a lot of equipment,” she tells me. “There are shore entries to all of our favourite dive sites along the coast, and that is really special.”
In the placid waters off Hout Bay, Daines and I do a few more breathing exercises in a boulder-strewn cove of turquoise water before slowly swimming out towards the colony of lounging seals. Diving down, they whirl and cartwheel in the sea, giddy on the simple joys of life. As they dive, bubbles trail from their thick fur, floating up to the surface like miniature diamonds. One seal comes a little closer than the rest, casting a quizzical gaze my way.
Rising to the surface, Daines’ words about how freediving allows you to cross a line between mere onlooker and active participant really start to sink in. Unencumbered by bulky tanks and rubber cables, you can really feel, for an instant, like just another species beneath the waves. You can experience the ocean, as Prinsloo puts it, “on its own terms”.
In today’s modern world, in which humans are perhaps more detached than we have ever been from our natural environment, the chance to feel that rare and primal connection to Mother Earth is special.
For Daines, whose first ocean freediving experience was in the warm, crystal clear waters of Thailand, and who has since dived in tropical waters all over the world, the kelp forests of Cape Town remain the perfect place to dive. “You just can’t compare,” he says with a smile. “There’s nowhere quite like Cape Town.”
Top freediving spots around Cape Town
This dive spot is located in a protected area near Hout Bay, 30 minutes by car from the city on the western side of the Cape Peninsula. The main attractions are a resident population of Cape fur seals and thick kelp forests.
A 35-minute drive from the city centre, Castle Rock on the eastern side of the Cape Peninsula boasts a gorgeous underwater landscape and a huge variety of fish species. Be sure to keep an eye out for abalone and octopuses as well.
At Shark Alley, about 50 minutes away from the city centre by car, near Simon’s Town, you can find massive sevengill sharks. They grow up to 3m in length but aren’t aggressive towards humans.
This beautiful beach close to Simon’s Town offers an easy entry point to the ocean and is home to an array of marine life including African penguins. Windmill Beach is on the eastern side of the Cape Peninsula, where the water is warmer.
– PHOTOGRAPHY BY TOMMY TRENCHARD
Singapore Airlines flies to Cape Town daily. To book a flight, visit singaporeair.com
This article was originally published in the June 2018 issue of SilverKris magazine