Words by Fiona McIntosh, Pic by Fiona Ayerst
Done the Sardine Run and fancy a ringside seat at another underwater feeding frenzy? Time to head down to South Africa’s Eastern Cape for the chokka spawning.
It’s the closest I’ve been to diving in pea soup. We’ve dropped down to the sandy seabed; no reef, no fish. Nothing. Just this vast, empty, green ocean and a big, dirty-brown, nondescript anemone that my buddy seems obsessed with photographing. Granted, I’ve never seen one like this before, but we’ve been promised sharks and other big predators. And at 25m, in temperatures of 14 degrees C, we don’t have time to mess around. But as the strobes briefly illuminate the subject I realise that I’ve missed the point. The ‘anemone’ is in fact a clump of orange, sausage-like ribbons swaying in the current: chokka eggs. We’ve found the ‘Holy Grail’ of South Africa’s Eastern Cape coast.
The chokka ‘run’ took off in 2004, thanks to incredible footage captured by the BBC’s Planet Earth team and South African legends Charles Maxwell and Peter Lamberti. Scientists have been studying the spawning of these cephalopods (the most abundant squid in southern African waters) for years. It was only in 2005 that those in the know convinced paying clients that it was something worth travelling down to the coast for.
Chokka - Loligo vulgaris reynaudi – is a type of squid found all along the southern Cape coast. During the breeding months in summer they become concentrated in bays between Cape Point and Port Elizabeth. During the spawning the eggs form big, orange-red conglomerations on the seabed – particularly on the top fishing spots like the shallow Chokka Bank of St Francis.
If you’ve ever been to St Francis, you’ll understand the importance of squid. The human-made harbour is literally chokka (excuse the pun) with chokka boats. The catch provides the mainstay of an arduous industry. Every evening the horizon is lined with fishing vessels, their lights flickering in the inky blackness as the fishermen throw out hand lines and haul in their valuable catch. Most of the chokka gets shipped out quickly. However, there are some excellent restaurants specialising in squid and other seafood dishes in this quaint seaside town.
Once a year – from late October to late November - the fishing stops. During this reprieve the translucent squid perform nuptial dances, lay their eggs and then try to defend their egg beds from the onslaught of predators. It is these predators - rays, fish, seals, sharks and dolphins that come to feast on the eggs - that divers dream of seeing and photographing.
Like all natural phenomena, there are no guarantees. Diving with chokka is a bit hit and miss, but at least it’s a relatively static event – once you find the eggs you can settle in and wait for the action to start. One thing we could be sure of was that it was going to be C-O-L-D. Apparently the ideal conditions for the chokka to copulate and lay eggs are cold and clean water. We’d come prepared to dive in 10-11 degrees C water: the car was full of neoprene and dry suits.
Our initial findings were not encouraging. The scientists had reported a late season – there were hardly any egg beds to be found. It was one of those rare, dead calm days, perfect for sailing. We headed out nonetheless, aboard Sharp Hooker, a fancy fishing yacht skippered by Tim Christy of St. Francis Sea Safaris. Now Tim is a fisherman of note: he let slip later in the day that he has national colours for fishing. He knows a thing or two about chokka fishing and it wasn’t long before we had picked up a shoal on the fish finder. He dropped a couple of lines just to check. Sure enough, the squid hit the lures almost before they’d dropped below the surface. We homed in on a dense patch of activity and kitted up. One diver dropped in to check whether it was worth us all diving, but as the scientists had warned, there were small clumps but no beds. Again we tried, found the chokka and dropped in. Still no beds. Then, as we were tiring, we struck lucky, diving down through a large shoal of chokka to the anemone-like ribbons which in my ignorance I initially glossed over. Further exploration revealed several significant egg patches, a foot or so in diameter.
The visibility was only about five metres and there was quite a bit of swell but we optimistically set up our cameras. Suddenly the most enormous ray I have ever seen almost elbowed me out of the way. Its mate followed and they circled around us, coming in close every time we planned to take a shot and almost begging to be photographed. This was more like it. Suddenly my buddy’s eyes fixed on me – huge saucers filled with alarm. I turned and there was a shark, right on my shoulder. Nothing more sinister than a ragged-tooth – but as I turned to capture it in glorious colour, it scarpered into the gloom. It wasn’t long before another appeared, and my very nervous buddy and I assumed a back-to-back vigil as we continued to scour the sandy bottom. Only the ubiquitous rays provided further entertainment and after 30 minutes the cold drove us back to the surface.
It was a great experience dropping into the middle of nowhere and coming face to face with the huge rays and sharks, but it certainly wasn’t the predator feeding frenzy that I’d been hoping for. Not that the day was wasted, we stayed aboard and spent a glorious afternoon deep sea fishing, admiring the stunning coastline and watching dolphins at play.
The next two days were blown out by strong winds, but later in the week we had colder, clearer conditions and better viewing as the egg beds grew in size. The vivid orange and red eggs contrasted brilliantly with the green murky water so the photographers had a field day. The squid themselves were very photogenic, with their long, slender, delicate bodies and distinctive diamond-shaped fins. Their prominent eyes, caught in the flash light, gave them a wide-eyed, inquisitive look.
The mating process was intriguing. As usual there was some power play with the macho males fighting to mate with females. The scientists had explained that you also get ‘sneaker males’ - smaller males that sneak in and mate with the female while the big guys are fighting. The male uses an ‘arm’ to deposit sperm into the female’s mantle and she then spits out eggs. As the fertilised eggs come into contact with the water and get hydrated they expand and the female moves down to the seabed to attach her eggs to the reef or sandy bottom. The squid then hang around guarding the eggs – which of course is when they get caught by ambush predators. We saw a black water stingray bury itself in the sand then spring up to catch the females as they were laying. Spotted striped pyjama sharks and ragged tooth sharks sneaked up by camouflaging themselves in the egg masses. It made for good viewing, and at times my heart was in my mouth in anticipation of the kill.
The chokka run was cold, fun and very, very different. We chatted with the scientists and learnt an enormous amount about squid that I won’t bore you with in these pages. And whilst it lacks the action and the adrenalin of the ‘hunt’ that you find on the Sardine Run, I’d definitely recommend the chokka spawning as a spectacle worth checking out.
Cape St Francis is a 90-minute drive from the airport at Port Elizabeth, which is linked to Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban by daily flights.
The low-down on the operators
You can dive the chokka from Port Elizabeth - one of the great advantages of this option is that you can fly straight there as soon as you get word of the action. Pro Dive is mobile and will launch from Port Elizabeth or St. Francis depending on the best visibility and diving conditions. It offers packages that include accommodation, transfers, and daily dives on the chokka beds and at local dive sites.
Should the weather, or the chokka, not play ball, then there are plenty of other activities in the area. These include diving in the oceanarium, hiking, surfing, sandboarding, and trips to the Tsitsikamma National Park, Addo Elephant Park and nearby game reserves.