Scuba Diving...Out of Africa
A travel report of diving and underwater photography in Kenya
Text and Photography by Kevin Lee
Just hours ago, our B777-300 tires touched down, producing small puffs of smoke, as they hit the LAX runway, after my single longest flight on record, at 16 hours, on Emirates Airlines from Dubai. To avoid leg cramps and fend off buttock seizures, I took advantage of ample space in the galley and did stretching calisthenics every few hours.
Poolside at the Aquarius Beach Resort in Watamu, Kenya
A Return to Africa
Years ago, I trekked to the top of Mt. Kenya, the second highest summit on the African continent, at 17,000 feet and enjoyed the adventure more than climbing, days later, to the higher summit of Kilimanjaro. Little did I imagine, then, that Africa would beckon me back and I would return to experience the wonders of the ocean, underwater photography & scuba diving off Kenya’s scenic eastern coast.
Beautiful white sand beaches of Watamu
Getting to Watamu
Kenya is not known as a major dive destination but certainly deserves to be high on any diver’s “to-do” list. Getting there from California involved, a 15-hour flight, over the North Pole, to Dubai, one of the seven emirates that comprise the UAE. After a series of connecting flights to Nairobi and Mombassa, then a 2-hour drive through lush countryside, I finally arrived in Watamu, just south of the equator, which is base for Kenya’s best dive sites. Long barrier reefs run parallel to the coast and are a fair distance out, forming waves and navigation hazards to uninformed boaters. One evening, after finishing a night dive and heading back to shore, an unexpected wave hit our boat, producing a healthy scream from Christiane, my dive buddy, and nearly flipping over our craft! Fortunately, our tanks were strapped in and we survived an unpleasant dunking, or worse. At extreme low tide, people can be seen strolling nearly a mile off shore in ankle shallow water, giving the strange impression that they are walking, Christ-like, on water.
Blue Fin Dive boat, "Sansuri", meaning "Barracuda" in Swahili. The tide rises to the base of the rounded "mushroom".
The Dive Op
Diving was arranged by Blue Fin Diving, which is owned and operated by two fine Italian chaps, Lorenzo de Ponti and Angelo de Faveri (both gents are major contributors to nudipixel.com). Angelo’s wife, Camilla, runs customized safari trips. Something to do the next round! Blue Fin is the most experienced, knowledgeable, competent and reasonably priced dive service in all of Kenya and I recommend them highly. Lorenzo also booked us, just five minutes away at the superb seaside Aquarius Resort, a great value, all inclusive of a/c room and board (3 full, delicious buffets daily and beer on tap, gratis, in the evenings, for those who wish to imbibe).
Leaf Scorpionfish are difficult to photograph as they sway to-and-fro in the slightest surge. Nikon D300; 60mm lens, with Kenko 1.4x teleconverter; Sea & Sea housing and dual YS-110a strobes. Read about using a teleconverter underwater.
Kenya has healthy corals, though they are not as large as others in the Indo-Pacific. Here a Hawkfish rests on the branched of this hard coral.
Sunny Days and Long Dives
In two weeks, I logged 40 dives, for a total of 52 hours 31 minutes (15L steel tanks were great). As nitrox was not available, I rarely went below 80fsw and intentionally avoided deco. Two night dives produced surprisingly little action, so we opted to concentrate on sunshine diving. Topside the weather was a balmy 85-95 degrees and mostly sunny, with only one day of rain which did not dampen our dive plans. The average water temp was a warm 82 degrees. The lowest was 79, but that 3-degree variance felt like a major California thermocline and sent shivers down my spine. Good thing I brought my hooded vest to stay warm for multiple dives (and protection against stinging “thing’ums” which were sometimes plentiful at the surface). Visibility generally ranged from 25 to 75 feet, a welcome treat compared to low-viz California diving. Only one dive had strong currents to contend with, and few others had mild surge, which made photography a bit challenging.
Imperial shrimp enjoys a ride on the mantle of a Hexabranchus sanguineus, Spanish Dancer.
This large lobster is much more colorful than its SoCal cousins!
Beautiful Reefs and Rare Nudi's
Corals, soft and hard, are plentiful and varied, though they are relatively small and do not grow to the massive sizes found in other Indo-Pacific regions like Indonesia and the Philippines. Yet, the waters teem with many fish species, some of which were new to me. Scorpion and Stonefish, the size of basketballs, came by the dozen. They are so well camouflaged, I nearly set my hand on a nasty looking one. Afterward, I made sure to maintain a healthy distance, by donning a glove and employing my reef stick. Schools of jacks, barracuda, frogfish, angels, groupers, and ever pesky wrasses vied for our attention. Of course, the main object of our photographic desires was opisthobranchs and we found plenty of them. Lorenzo and Angelo are major sluggers themselves, as is Christiane Waldrich (co-owner of Villa Markisa Dive Resort in Bali) who joined, all the way from Indonesia, to participate in our treasure hunt. Our dive guide, James, also has a sharp eye for slugs and together our group found some rare nudies that are some of the most strikingly stupendous, I’ve seen anywhere.
The elegant Cyerce nigracans is on every "branker's" top-ten list.
This Chelidonura sp. 2 well represents the earthy coloration that is well known in Kenya.
Kenya is home to many colorful flatworms.
This frilly flatworm mimics a Chromodoris nudibranch.
A Spectacular Finish!
As with most thoroughly enjoyable activities, our time passed all too quickly and, before we knew it, we found ourselves doing our final dive. Poseidon commemorated our Kenyan dive experience with an exclamation point and blessed us with an unbelievable underwater encounter. My face was buried in rocks, scrutinizing them for signs of tiny nudibranchs. Suddenly I felt a firm tug on my right fin. I quickly spun around and saw Christiane, wide-eyed, frantically pointing to a nearby pod of eight dolphins! They appeared to be grooming their noses on rocks. One large dolphin approached us inverted, nose down, and we exchanged long, meaningful glances into each other’s eyes, mammal to mammal. Wow, what a tremendous way to end our joyous days in the beautiful waters of Kenya.
Asante sana (thanks), Lorenzo, Angelo and Blue Fin Diving!
Close up showing the intricate rhinophores and oral processes of a Marionia sea slug.
Siphopteron michaeli is named after Michael, brother of slug expert Terry Gosliner.
Thecacera pacifica, one of the many stunning and beautiful sea slugs of Kenya.
Slug Club. "Brankers" (from top left): Lorenzo de Ponti, Christiane Waldrich, Kevin Lee and Angelo de Faveri
Kenya Resorts and Dive Operators
About the author
Kevin Lee is a well traveled scuba diver, an award winning underwater photographer and an avid "brancher". More of his beautiful images can be viewed on his website, http://www.diverkevin.com