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group of offshore dive sites in False Bay

The dive site Whittle Rock is an extensive offshore rocky reef on the central west side of False Bay, near Cape Town in the Western Cape province of South Africa.

UnderstandEdit

 
Map of all the surveyed dive sites of the Whittle Rock area
 
Map of the main reef at Whittle Rock
 
Map of the southern part of the reef at Whittle Rock - M&M Tower reef, Whittle Rock Cave Complex and the Labyrinth
 
Map of the western reefs at Whittle Rock

Whittle Rock and the surrounding reefs cover a large area, and are the most significant navigational hazard in False Bay, but as very little shipping of large displacement enters the bay, it is not at present that much of a problem. The Euphrates is reported to have been wrecked on the reef, but its position is not known. Several anchors have been found, some thought to be from the Euphrates, and some of them mapped. It is also a popular fishing area for reef fish, and a spectacular dive site. It would certainly be more popular if it was closer to the launch areas. Visibility is often better than at the inshore sites on the same day.

PositionsEdit

(North to south ordering)

  • S34°14.668' E18°33.646' 1 Kelly's Anchor
  • S34°14.735' E18°33.590' 2 Riaan and Sven's anchor
  • S34°14.756' E18°33.720' 3 JJ's anchor
  • S34°14.777' E18°33.734' 4 Billy's anchor
  • S34°14.762' E18°33.575' 5 September anchor
  • S34°14.765' E18°33.622' 6 Whittle Rock North-west Pinnacle
  • S34°14.776' E18°33.801' and S34°14.783' E18°33.795' 7 Euphrates anchors
  • S34°14.785' E18°33.666' 8 Little anchor
  • S34°14.844' E18°33.682' 9 Whittle Rock West Pinnacle
  • S34°14.846' E18°33.714' 10 Whittle Rock (Shallowest pinnacle): About 8 km offshore
  • S34°14.850' E18°33.508' 11 Whaleback Pinnacles
  • S34°14.856' E18°33.269' 12 Whittle Rock Western Reef Pinnacle (inside the MPA)
  • S34°14.856' E18°33.716' 13 Marc's anchor
  • S34°14.887' E18°33.775' 14 Whittle Rock South-east Pinnacle
  • S34°14.900' E18°33.635' 15 Whaleback Rock
  • S34°14.917' E18°33.753' 16 South east pinnacle chain (Neptune's bath plug)
  • S34°14.931' E18°33.718' 17 Flash pinnacle
  • S34°14.935' E18°33.784' 18 Georgina's anchor
  • S34°14.943' E18°33.549' 19 M&M Tower (the Spark plug)
  • S34°14.943' E18°33.616' 20 Cave Complex reef
  • S34°14.945' E18°33.573' 21 Bus Stop (the Gnarly wall)
  • S34°14.949' E18°33.707' 22 Wreckless Rock and the Little Labyrinth
  • S34°14.968' E18°33.668' 23 Table Top pinnacle
  • S34°15.004' E18°33.580' 24 Labyrinth

Three other anchors have been reported. Two are said to be near the two currently recorded Euphrates anchors, between 27 and 30 m deep, and are also thought to be from the Euphrates. The third, is reported as relatively small and lying in a hollow along the 24 m contour north of the eastern sand tongue on the southern slopes of the main reef, south of the high reef, and northwest of Neptune's bathplug

There is officially a navigation buoy slightly to the east of the reef, but there have been occasions when it was not there. The current buoy replaces the one which sank some years ago. Divers have reported that it lies on the bottom, still attached to its mooring system, and probably simply sank after years of neglect. As of 2019 the buoy appears to have been removed again.

This site is partly in a Marine Protected Area (2004) The eastern border of the Table Mountain National Park MPA passes through the west part of the reef area. Most of the reef is outside the MPA.

NameEdit

This area is marked on the SA Navy charts as a navigational hazard and named "Whittle Rock". So far no indication of what Whittle is referenced has been found. Names for the specific areas tend to be chosen by the divers who report them, or the person who maps them, and may be descriptive of the topography, or a special feature, or commemorative of the occasion or the people involved in finding the spot.

DepthEdit

Maximum depth on the sand around the reef varies from about 30 m to more than 35 m. The top of the shallowest pinnacle is at about 5 m, and the variation is large due to the size of the site. There is a large area above 18 m in the vicinity of the main pinnacle, which is suitable for entry level divers. Most of the rest of the reef is unsuitable as the parts above 18 m are small and disconnected from each other.

VisibilityEdit

Visibility is often better than on the inshore reefs, but as with any False Bay reef, it is not very predictable, and there may be better visibility at the bottom below a dirty surface layer of plankton, which can follow a period of strong sunshine. When it is more than 10 m this site is particularly impressive, as the topography of pinnacles, gullies, walls, huge boulders and overhangs, with the occasional swimthroughs can be appreciated. Visibility can exceed 20 m on rare occasions.

TopographyEdit

Huge granite corestone outcrops and boulders. The topography varies considerably as it is such a large area of reef.

To the east and north of the shallows of the main reef there is fairly deep water within a short distance, and the topography is steep and craggy, while to the north-west it is relatively flat. The reef slopes down to the southwest, to a sand strip that slopes down to the southeast. Across the sand there is more reef - the southern reef area, which is generally deeper with areas of high profile pinnacle clusters. Some distance to the west there is another area of reef. A reasonable idea of the local topography can be deduced from the chart.

Main reefEdit

 
The small anchor at Whittle Rock reef ("Little anchor").
 
"Neptune's bathplug"
 
Pile of heavy chain connected to "Neptune's bathplug"

This is the region around the shallowest pinnacle, and was the first part of the reef to be systematically surveyed. The area above the 21 m contour is about 550 m from northwest to southeast on the long axis, and about 250 m from southwest to northeast on the short axis. This constitutes most of the area of reef shallower than 21 m and almost all of the reef above 15 m.

Main pinnacle area. The main reef area near the 5 m pinnacle is the shallowest part of the reef, with an extensive area above 15 m, and several areas above 12 m, separated by gaps and gullies of varying depth and width. The main pinnacle is a huge boulder standing on top of the main outcrop, with a gully to the east.A second pinnacle stands a few metres to the southwest, rising to 8 m on top, which is the third shallowest place on the reef. Slightly further to the east of the main pinnacle there is a long, deep and narrow gully running north and then east. To the immediate north and west is a plateau area between 10 and 15 m deep. There is a large anchor lying flat on top of the high reef area just south of the main pinnacle.

Western pinnacle area. About 50 m due west of the main pinnacle, and at 7 m, the second shallowest point of the reef. This area includes several deep and steep sided roughly parallel ridges and gullies, mostly running roughly north-south, and a large swimt-hrough at about 18 m depth, where an enormous boulder is wedged into a large gully. The top of this boulder is the western pinnacle. The other ridges and gullies are further west.

North-western pinnacle area. There is a small, fairly steep and very localised pinnacle on a generally lower profile area of massive bedrock.

North-eastern pinnacle area. To the north-east of the main pinnacle, there is a massive outcrop which rises to 15 m, with steep sides and flattish top. Just to the north of this are two of the large wrought-iron anchors thought to be from the English East-Indiaman Euphrates which struck the pinnacle and sank in 1810, in a wide, sandy bottomed gully running from south-west to north-east, at about 25 m depth at the west end and sloping downwards to the east. Two other similar anchors are said to be nearby, but the have not been surveyed yet.

South-eastern pinnacle area. The South-eastern pinnacle is a massive outcrop with its top at about 12 m, a steep wall on the north eastern side, and a flatter slope down to the south, where there is a sandy gully at about 30 m depth sloping down to the east, in which there is yet another large iron anchor (Georgina's anchor) on the boulder rubble on the north side of the gully. There is a large metal disc, somewhat less than a metre in diameter, at the end of a length of heavy chain on the sand on the north side of this gully, known as "Neptune's bathplug". Speculation suggests this may be the remains of a large navigation buoy. The gully has a few swim-throughs and small caves among the boulders at the bottom of the rock slope. The eastern side of this pinnacle slopes down quite steeply for a few metres to an area of moderate relief, which includes a few smaller gullies and swim-throughs, but then flattens out further to the east.

Southern reefEdit

 
Fish-finder display showing the mark at Flash Pinnacle at Whittle Rock (17M)

Flash Pinnacle: A tall tapering granite pinnacle with a triangular section and small flattish top at about 16 m. One flattish side, probably to the south. Very steep sided, almost vertical in places. Lower down it splits into several spiky looking shards at the east and south sides, and there are another two large parallel slabs to the north, with overhangs to the west, and a nice swim-through under a boulder to the south of the main pinnacle, just below 27 m. There is sand bottom at about 30 m to the east and possibly to the north, with more relatively low reef to the south and west, continuous through to the Wreckless Rock area. Named Flash Pinnacle for Grant’s dog Flash.

Whaleback Rock: This is a compact, blunt topped pinnacle rising to about 14.5 m from local reef bottom at between 19 and 22 m. It is northeast of the Cave Complex, across a sandy patch, and north west of the Table Top area. The reef to the north west is a moderate relief broken ridge, with boulders and rubble on the northeast slope.

 
Swimming through the spark-plug gap at M and M Tower
 
Looking up at the bus-stop overhang at the Gnarly Wall

M&M Tower reefs: The tower is also known as the Spark plug for the curved overhang at the top with a boulder just under it. It is a narrow ridge-pinnacle rising from about 24 m to about 11 m on top. It is about 50 m west of the Caves Complex reef area, a group of huge boulders on a bedrock base at about 21 m south-west of the main reef ridge. The M&M Tower is named for the two divers who found it by accident while diving from the Cave Complex reef area on a day of poor visibility. They ended up ascending at the tower and its position was recorded. This area has been quite extensively surveyed down to 24 m, and it looks like the local maximum depth is about 27 m on sand on the northeast side, sloping down to the southeast to 30 m. It has become quite popular as it is fairly compact and has a lot of variation of topography. The high reef is about 100 m long from southeast to northwest, and about 30 m wide, with the tower roughly in the middle. The eastern section is a massive outcrop with a flattish top and a gnarled cliff face – the Gnarly Wall – on the northeast side, with a bus-stop overhang to the northwest at 18 m and indentations along the face of the wall formed by subsurface weathering of the granite, now exposed and covered by sea. The south side slopes down relatively smoothly to about 27 m, then low reef extends to sand at about 30 m, which can be considered the boundary of this reef section. The top of this outcrop is flattish and a bit above 15 m deep, with the shallowest point at about 13 m directly over the overhang. To the northwest it ends at a steep-sided gully running northeast-southwest with a narrow parallel ridge to the northwest, then another parallel gully of similar depth, and the tower ridge and boulder. Further west there are a few large peaked outcrops separated by gullies of varied depth, in a cluster of similar size to the eastern part of the reef, but with a very different character. This can be seen fairly clearly from the map.

 
Inside the swimthrough at Whittle Caves Complex

The Caves Complex reefs: This is an area of high profile reef with a couple of ridges extending slightly above 15 m north-east of M&M Tower reef across a flattish area about 27 m deep, roughly northeast of the Gnarly Wall and southwest of the Main Pinnacle area. This section of reef is somewhat chaotic in structure, and has several deep overhangs, and at least one fairly large but tight swimthrough. The southern extent of this section is demarcated by a sandy strip running roughly northwest-southeast at about 25 to 30 m depth. To the northeast there is another small sandy patch at about 25 m depth, and a narrow strip of sand in the bottom of a gully to the southeast extending as far as the south side of Table Top pinnacle. The eastern part of this area is flatter, with a low ridge extending towards the Table Top pinnacle. The northeastern entrance to the big swimthrough is near the end of a hogsback ridge running notheast-southwest, at about 22 m depth. Gully sharks have been seen in the swimthrough on several occasions.

Wreckless Rock and Little Labyrinth: East of the Caves Complex, Southwest of Neptune's Bathplug, across the big eastern sand tongue. Wreckless Rock is a huge boulder perched on the bedrock of a long flattish northwest-southeast ridge parallel to the main reef outcrop. The highest points are at about 15 m depth on the ridge-line of the boulder. The northern end of Wreckless Rock has a large overhang almost reaching a lower ridge to the north. The Little Labyrinth is a tight cluster of pinnacles and narrow ridges and gullies at the southeastern end of the long, flattish reef, a few metres from Wreckless Rock, but in sight of it in reasonable visibility. Further east the reef drops rapidly to below 24 m and the sand bottom at about 30 m is within 20 m to the south, east and north of the pinnacles. A single pinnacle rising to 17 m lies a short distance north of this area. This is Flash pinnacle, described above.

 
Sunfish at Table Top Reef

Table Top pinnacle: East and a bit south from the Caves Complex. The pinnacle is a massive outcrop with a fairly flat top about 20 m in diameter at about 14,5 to 15 m depth. The sides are quite steep all the way round, and there is a deep crack towards the east side that extends to the base of the pinnacle on the north side. The crevice only goes about a third of the way through the pinnacle from the north, but there is a smaller crevice at the south end of the crack. There is a cluster of smaller boulder pinnacles to the north, and beyond those, a sand patch at 25 m depth. To the east there is a fairly wide gully with a large slab leaning against the main pinnacle forming a swimthrough at about 24 m depth. Further east there is a lower profile large outcrop that reaches above 21 m. To the south west is the eastern end of a sand strip extending to the south of the Caves Complex area, to the south is a sand patch at about 28 m and off the west side, a narrow and remarkably straight sand bottomed gully extends to the northwest.

 
Large gully at the Labyrinth reef

Labyrinth: A compact cluster of ridge pinnacles of similar height rising from about 28 m on sand to the northeast, to about 15 m at the shallowest points, separated by deep and fairly narrow gullies, weathered from jointing fractures almost all the way down to the base depth in a crossing pattern. There are a few scattered boulders in the gullies, mostly quite small, and a bit of sand in places. The Labyrinth is bordered by a large patch of sand at the northeastern edge, but with more relatively deep, moderately high-profile reef a short distance to the southeast, southwest and northwest. Spectacular in good visibility. Notable for large numbers of fragile scrolled bryozoan colonies. This patch of reef is about 70 m south from the east end of the M&M Tower reefs and is separated from it by a large sand patch at about 30 m depth around the east end of the Gnarly Wall area, probably continuous with the sand patch at the northeast of Labyrinth reef.

An as yet unsurveyed 20 m pinnacle has been recorded a short distance to the east of the Labyrinth, and a 17 m pinnacle about 200 m to the west.

Western reefEdit

Western Reefs: An area of moderate profile reef to the west of the previously surveyed areas, marked by a shallower area at 19 m depth on top, and local bottom at a bit below 27 m. It is not yet known if this area of reef is contiguous with the other areas. Partly surveyed, the top of the reef is split by several fairly narrow cracks, and the reef steps down to below 24 m quite rapidly. It is a pretty area, with large numbers of basket stars, and when visited, there were shoals of hottentot, strepies and panga, several large roman and janbruin, and assorted catsharks. The invertebrate cover is moderately varied. It seems to be a pleasant dive site, deep enough to be relatively unaffected by swell, but lacks any exceptional topography.

Unexplored areas of interest: There are a few places where local pinnacles or high spots have been identified by sonar, or marked by divers, that are on the list of places to be mapped.

Watch this space.

Geology: Huge granite corestone outcrop with big weathered boulders of the late Pre-Cambrian Peninsula pluton, surrounded by a sand bottom, and with sandy patches at the bottom of the larger gullies. Jointed in complex patters, with considerable variation in profile, from flat domes, to long ridges, to clusters of steep pinnacles separated by deep narrow gullies, to slopes covered by boulders and rubble.

ConditionsEdit

The site is exposed to wind and waves from all directions, however it is mostly quite deep, so short period waves will not affect conditions on the bottom greatly. Low short swell and light wind is best. The prevailing long period swell is from the southwest. Other waves are generally short period wind waves and chop. Surface currents have been measured at up to about 1.5 kilometers per hour, caused by recent wind, and in a similar direction, offset in an anticlockwise Ekman spiral by the Coriolis effect (the current is offset more at greater depth, but proportionately weaker). The skipper should drop divers off a bit up-current of the shotline, which may not be quite the same as upwind of it.

Water temperature may vary with depth. There is usually a thermocline in summer, and the visibility may change significantly below the thermocline. The surface can be 18 or 19°C with 10 or 11°C at the bottom, but the difference is more likely to be 5°C or less. Conditions at depth are not easily predictable, and may be better or worse than near the surface. There can be a plankton bloom in the surface layers and a sudden improvement in visibility from 3 m or less to over 10 m in the cold bottom water. The depth of the thermocline is also not very predictable, but has been known to be between 12 and 20 m in late summer.

In winter the water may be the same temperature from top to bottom, and as there is less sunlight to power the phytoplankton blooms, the visibility and natural illumination can be better even though there is less light. There is no specific time of year for diving this site, you just have to wait for low swell and light winds, and take your chances with visibility.

A long period swell may produce significant surge at depth, depending on the local topography. In places the gullies will focus the surge, and in other places the high reefs and steep walls may provide relatively sheltered areas. The reef is far enough to the west of False Bay that the diffraction of south westerly waves around Cape Point and refraction over Rocky Bank can dissipate a fair amount of the wave energy that would otherwise cross the reef, but the amount is not easily predictable.

Get inEdit

Dive sites at Whittle Rock in False Bay

The sites are only accessible by boat. It is about 8.5 km from the slipway at Miller's Point, but boats may also leave from Simon's Town jetty. On a good day it is a bit less than a half hour run from Simon's Town Jetty, a distance of about 14.5 km.

SeeEdit

 
Decorator crab on a sea fan
 
Horsefish
 
Janbruin
 
Violet spotted anemone

Marine lifeEdit

Much depends on which part of the reef you dive. There are a wide variety of invertebrates and quite a variety of fish seen in the vicinity, including occasional shoals of pelagic Yellowtail. This is a popular fishing area and unfortunately there has been noticeable damage to the reef by anchors in the shallower parts.

The shallowest parts are dominated by large red-bait pods on the upper surfaces. Deeper areas have more sea fans and scrolled false corals, and below 20 m there are more sponges. Near-vertical walls may be covered by huge numbers of elegant feather stars, and basket stars are relatively common. Some days there are shoals of fish, which may follow divers around, while on other days hardly any can be seen, and those that are seen are skittish and keep well away. This may be a function of water temperature and visibility. Spotted gully sharks have often been seen in the swimthroughs at the Cave Complex, and large short-tailed stingrays have been seen cruising the gullies. As is usual, there tends to be more diversity in areas of high rugosity and high profile, and on steeper slopes and under overhangs. Seals may be seen, but are not usually present in large numbers. Large schools of common dolphin have occasionally been recorded.

FeaturesEdit

 
Anchor thought to be from the wreck of the Euphrates
 
Iron or steel anchor (Georgina's Anchor)

The main features of the Whittle Rock area are the varied and often spectacular granite formations. but there are a few artifacts worth a look if you pass them: There are several large anchors. The approximate positions are known for ten of them, and shown on the map. The position of some is knoxn with more precision. An asterisk indicates positions with unknown accuracey.

  • Two large iron anchors with iron stocks, thought to be from the English East-Indiaman Euphrates which struck the pinnacle and sank in 1810, at 25 m depth, in a sandy bottomed gully at S34°14.783', E18°33.795' and S34°14.776', E18°33.801'. Two more anchors are reported from near this point. All are between 24 m and 28 m deep.
  • A large anchor with iron stock at 17 m depth, at approximately S34°14.781', E18°33.721'. (JJ's anchor*)
  • A large anchor "much like the Euphtrates' anchors" at approximately S34°14.777', E18°33.734', 19 m depth. (Billy's anchor*). This is quite close to JJ's anchor, so it is possible they are the same anchor, but far enough for doubt. More accurate survey and photos is needed.
  • An anchor at 18 m depth, at approximately S34°14.736', E18°33.592' (Riaan and Sven's anchor*)
  • An iron anchor at 18 m depth, at approximately S34°14.785', E18°33.666' (Little anchor)
  • A large iron anchor at 15 m depth, at approximately S34°14.767', E18°33.575'. (September anchor)
  • A large iron anchor at the base of the south slopes of the south-eastern pinnacle, of unknown provenance, at a depth of 29 m. (Georgina's anchor)
  • A large iron anchor without a stock lying flat at 14.5 m depth on the flat rock of the reef at about S34°14.856', E18°33.716'. (Marc's anchor*) near the 5 m pinnacle, and well camouflaged by encrusting growth. It probably does not have an iron or steel stock, or it would not lie flat, and so may be a relatively old anchor which had a wooden stock.
  • A small anchor at the base of the Table Top pinnacle on the southwest side, near the sandy strip, at approximately 26 m. S34°14.971', E18°33.653' (Table Top anchor)
  • An anchor at about 32 m depth, north of the main reef at S34°14.668' E18°33.646'. (Kelly's anchor*)

There is also a large, slightly dished, metal disc, somewhat less than a metre in diameter, with a central lug shackled to the end of a length of heavy chain on the sand on the north side of this gully, known as Neptune's Bathplug. Much of the chain is in a pile near the disc, which suggests that the disc sank at that point when the chain was already leading to the bottom and near vertical. The disc is too small and the wrong shape to have been intended as an anchor, but could have been a reinforcing plate under a large navigation marker buoy.

PhotographyEdit

This is a good site for photography. Macro is a safe bet, as there will always be subjects for close up work. If the visibility is good, and it can be better than 20 m occasionally, wide angle scenic shots are an option. Good visibility and good natural lighting together are relatively uncommon, so wider angle is better as you can get closer to large features.

RoutesEdit

A swim around the 15 m contour is a good option for a fairly long dive with lots of scenic views if the visibility is good, and some excursions to the pinnacles. Most of the sites are a bit deep for entry level divers, though the area above 18 m on the main reef is large enough for several visits.

A route starting at the swimthrough at the Cave Complex then across the sand strip to the Bus Stop, along the Gnarly Wall to the first gully to the south west side, then around the ridge end to the Spark Plug gap at M&M Tower is a pleasant and scenic swim in good conditions.

  • Bruce's Route: Drop in at the mark for the caves complex. Swim around to the eastern cave entrance and swim through the caves. Look out for gully sharks. They will be less likely to startle and swim away if you avoid shining strong lights at them. Take a right turn inside the cave to the north exit, then swim magnetic west to the sandy strip, and cross it to the Gnarly Wall. Turn right and follow the wall to the Bus Stop overhang, then continue northwest along the wall, past the first two gullies and ridges to the third gully which is wider, and has the Spark Plug pinnacle at the top of the third ridge. If you still have time and gas to spare, explore the reef to the northwest of this area before surfacing.

If there is a lot of surge in the shallows, which is common in a long period swell even when the swell is quite low, the deeper areas will be more comfortable and possibly safer. The reef life also varies with depth and topography, and to get a good idea of what all can be found it is necessary to explore a reasonably large range of depths. Visibility and water temperature are somewhat unpredictable, and can differ from the inshore dive sites. There may be a thermocline, and visibilty at the bottom can differ quite a bit from nearer the surface. Even at 3 to 4 m visibility it can be a good dive.

You could return to Whittle Rock every weekend for a year and not see it all. It is big, with a huge variety of topography and large depth range, and is highly rated by local divers who have actually dived there often enough to develop a reliable opinion.

Stay safeEdit

HazardsEdit

Cold water is possible. Strong winds may develop over a short time, particularly in summer. Great white sharks have been seen in this area. Poor surface visibilty can occur occasionally, and if there is a surface current, a diver could drift quite a long way during ascent, making it difficult for the boat to find them. The ride out is quite long and may be bumpy and wet. In winter the ride back seems even longer, particularly in a north-westerly wind, and wind chill can be a problem for a cold diver in a wet suit.

SkillsEdit

Much of the reef is fairly deep and beyond the range of novice divers, but there are also extensive shallower areas. The ability to deploy a DSMB is recommended, as this will help the boat crew to see you after the dive, and will warn fishing boats of your presence while surfacing. On some occasions there may be large numbers of small craft fishing in this area, and some of the skippers do not pay much attention to where they are going.

EquipmentEdit

A light is helpful both in deep areas to compensate for the loss of colour, and wherever there are deep cracks, overhangs and other dark areas. If there is an algal bloom near the surface, the deeper water will be quite dark even on a bright sunny day. A compass is mostly useful for heading towards a planned point, as when heading towards a shallower area at the end of a dive. An SMB is strongly recommended to help the boat keep track of your position, or to find you when you ascend. Nitrox is generally useful to extend no-stop dive times as most dives at Whittle are fairly deep. The water temperature may be low, so good thermal insulation is also recommended. Divers using wetsuits in winter are advised to take some sort of windbreaker jacket. Even an unused plastic garbage bag with a head hole can make a big difference to comfort on a wet and windy day.

NearbyEdit

Whittle Rock and other offshore dive sites of False Bay

Other offshore dive sites of False Bay:

Back to Diving the Cape Peninsula and False Bay#Reefs

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