Testing the waters: freedive in Cape Town’s colourful kelp forests

Posted on 26 May 2022 By Anita Froneman

If you have a hobby or sport you’re passionate about, you’ll know how it can leave you infatuated. Whether it’s rock climbing or pottery, or something more obscure like horseback archery or competitive tug-of-war, it’s inspiring to see someone in love with a sport.

When I met 32-year-old freediver Stephan Kirsten, I knew he fell into the “more-passionate-than-most” category which is a good thing, considering it’s his full-time job. Stephan has been a freediving instructor for more than six years, and I’d venture to say he’s a tad more aquatic than the average human. He’s in love with all things water, so he’s also an occasional scuba diver and a surfer.

If you’re thinking that learning to freedive starts in the water, think again. It’s all about breathing (well, not breathing, actually), so the first morning of the Adventure Freediver course I attended was spent on dry land learning how to hold your breath. There’s more to it than you might guess. There are different ways of inhaling and exhaling to help you relax and reduce your heart rate. When you’re underwater, you want to maximise your dive time to explore for as long as possible before having to ascend. Of course, that’s where the mental component comes in. Calmness, focus and endurance will help you hold that breath a little bit longer each time, and knowing when to let go and come up for air is just as important for safe diving.

My personal best breath-hold was one minute and 18 seconds, a far cry from Stephan’s impressive six minutes on the clock. But it’s not about numbers and records in recreational freediving. It’s about exploring, encountering and learning about marine life and having fun in the ocean. And so finally we set off to the water, to a little kelp hotspot in Glencairn, Cape Town.

Quite frankly, the hardest part of the day was getting in and out of our wetsuits but we weren’t about to take on the Atlantic with no barrier. The water was a mild 17°C, and Stephan explained that the water in Cape Town often feels a little warmer during winter than in summer thanks to the north-western wind that moves warmer water closer to the shore.

The brilliant sunshine made for popping colours underwater. A few puffadder and dark shysharks made their appearances, as well as a big pyjama shark. There were starfish aplenty, as well as tiny floating jellyfish-like creatures. Not many other countries have natural kelp beds along their coastlines and Cape Town’s kelp forests actually made it onto Bloomberg’s list of ‘new’ Seven World Wonders. The two most common types of kelp found on South African coasts are Ecklonia maxima (also known as the sea bamboo), and Laminaria pallida (also known as the split-fan kelp).

These forests play an immense role in reducing the effects of global warming because of their fast growth rate. Kelp can export portions of biomass through gas-filled bladders out into the deep sea, where the carbon is then isolated, effectively reducing the greenhouse effect.

There are also other dive sites to explore in the Western Cape that don’t centre around kelp forests, like shipwrecks or swimming with seals, penguins or dolphins if you’re lucky enough. Just remember the golden rule of any safari: look, don’t touch. On KwaZulu-Natal’s north coast at diving hotspots like Sodwana, there are magnificent coral reefs and you might even come across loggerhead sea turtles.

Cape Town Freediving offers both recreational and sports freediving courses, as well as snorkelling experiences, instructor training and surf apnea courses.

Address: 1 Albert Rd, Muizenberg, Cape Town

Rates: From R3,300 per person for the two-day Adventure Freediving course

Contact: Call +27 72 879 0772 or email [email protected]

Instagram: @capetownfreediving

Pictures: Supplied


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