Bassas for Beginners by Pete Sherlock
Bassas da India | 21°26’25.90″S 39°39’40.40″E | 31 July 2019
I was fixated on the sonar, watching the depth creep all the time shoaling on us. It amazed me that we were more than 25 nm off the mainland, but the draught was diminishing from 50 metres to 40, then to 30 really quickly. We had 4 lines out and we were approaching a marked “Banc” or shoal with coral and we needed a fish!
Within seconds the depth showed less than 20 metres, 15, 10 and then settled at 7 metres. I looked out over my right shoulder and was astonished at the colour palette that lay alongside us. We were just skirting the Banc, the water was crystal clear and we could see the coral forest roughly 7 metres below us. It was a babble of colour, all soft strokes of perfect watercolour, standing out in stark contrast to the emerald blue of the surrounding water. Soft hues glimmering and dancing through the reflected light. Incredible to think that we were so far from land, yet here the water was so shallow we could see the coral almost tickling the surface.
We were on a reach in very light airs and as we glided above the forest I turned to look at the lines hoping to see one of them react to a hungry game fish. It was not to be and within what seemed like an instant the bottom literally started falling out from below us. We were right at the edge of the shelf and within a few more miles our depth gauge had given up, calibrated only to 200 metres, we had more than a kilometre and a half below us. We were finally in the channel. Bassas da India was our next stop and we adjusted course to the South to compensate for leeway as we were sure to hit the South Easterly trades soon enough.
I have read more than once that a cruiser should never, ever, point their sailboat in the direction of the intended destination. The reason for this is quite clear. The wind will confound you if it knows where you want to end up. For those of you that sail catamarans you will also know that they tend to pull the apparent wind angle forward, and you will also know that anywhere to wind can be very uncomfortable. I had done this passage before and had noted that the South Easterly was more like a Southerly.
For all of these reasons we had chosen to jump off Madagascar as far South as possible. I really wanted to reach the Barren Islands before turning and heading South West for Bassas. There was a catch though, there were several very shallow Bancs to the West of the Barren Islands, so we would need to head out into the channel during daylight hours from this position. I had placed a waypoint on the chart that demarcated our earliest point of departure for the channel. This point was also a mark that showed a safe passage in the dark. If we were beyond that point and night fell, we could not turn West.
The thing was, the wind knew this. So it cheated our plans and made sure that we had to turn West before the mark to ensure our arrival at Bassas during daylight. This meant that we were just short of our ideal bearing, which allowed us to at least be on a close reach, but hopefully a beam reach. When the trade wind finally kicked in it was just as I expected, a lot more South than it should be. So be it, it would be close hauled then, but our speed brought the apparent wind forward and eventually we settled for a motor sail at around 32° AWA. Ho hum, that’s cruising for you I guess.But it was all worth it when a little over a day and a half of uneventful motor sailing we arrived at Bassas. It is really hard to put into words how special this place is. We were around 2 miles out and the ocean was flat with a very shallow swell running at long intervals. The sun was unhindered by cloud and the ocean was the most incredible blue, a rich dark effervescent colour that shimmered with light and held the promised of magic. We were ghosting along at around 4 knots, the engines being put to bed some hours before. Bob and I both had binoculars and Chris was standing on the hard top, as we all strained out eyes to see the atoll. The first hint was a change in the ocean colour. The blue seemed to melt into a soft turquoise.
We were headed for a point on the chart where an old anchor stood long forgotten above the coral. Finally we saw the remnants start to appear out of the mirage that fudged the horizon. It looked like some distorted black monster, dancing in the haze and beckoning us to come closer. There is no wonder why sailors are a superstitious bunch! The turquoise water started changing hue into a soft green and then as Chris shouted from his position above us we all saw the splash of water as a wave broke onto the emerging atoll.
This is not a place to approach at night or when there is any swell running! As we dropped sails and turned on the motors we could only just make out the line where the water ended and the island started made worse by the high tide. We needed to find a safe place to anchor as we wanted to braai for lunch, perhaps have a quick swim and then be on our way again. It was to be a short stop.
We eventually found a patch of sand amongst the coral. It took a while as the coral was just so prolific. The shoreline dropped off very quickly and we dropped anchor after attaching a retrieval line to the shank with a fender as a float in around 20 metres. We were no more than 30 metres off the atoll, but the water was so clear we could see exactly where our anchor lay below us and we pulled back slowly on the motors to set it. I was very careful that the chain was clear of any coral, I would not forgive myself if we so much as left a scratch on this pristine environment.
I lay down on Amarula’s trampoline and stretched over the crossbeam. My head was about a metre above the water and as I looked below I held my breath. The surface looked stretched, a clear border between my reality and that of the one below. It was as though I was looking down into a mythical city constructed of the most fantastically shaped buildings and populated by thousands of creatures of all manner and shape, all extremely busy. Whomever was in charge of the colour palette was both eclectic and enthusiastic and the pantomime unfolding beneath me appeared as fantasy.
It had been my habit to always check the anchor with a quick swim and a pair of goggles. Somehow, even though we planned to be here for lunch only, I decided that I should check the anchor, even though I could see it clearly from my position on the trampoline. Perhaps it was the siren song of this underwater world that had pushed aside my caution or perhaps it was just clear naivety, but either way I was determined to get in the water.
Bob and Chris saw me fetch my goggles. “Are you going in?” Bob questioned. “Yup, I need to check the anchor…” I retorted. Chris asked, “Did you see any big, grey fish when you were up front?”. “Nope.” I responded confidently. I mean, I knew there must be sharks there and everyone I had spoken to who had visited Bassas had seen sharks. In fact most had either seen lots of sharks or big sharks. But shark stories always have that element of a kakstorie* about them and I was confident that I could handle an unlikely encounter. As I stepped down onto the sugar scoop I noticed both Bob and Chris were following my lead. It made me feel a little less concerned – at least the odds were better!
I flopped the ladder over into the water and followed after it holding on, so I could make a quick getaway if required. As the bubbles dissipated around me I immediately came face to face with two enormous Barracuda. They seemed to track around me, always maintaining the same body position relative to me. They were definitely sizing me up and looked to be at least a meter and a half long. They did not even flinch as Chris and Bob landed next to me, just kept exactly the same distance away from us as they tracked and decided if we looked tasty.
I turned my face down to look below us. There was the unmistakable shape of small reef sharks darting in and out of the coral heads, well aware of us but keeping their distance. For some reason I had decided to forego my flippers and I instantly regretted it as I wanted to dive down and see what their world looked like from close up.
Instead as a group we swam forward under the bridge deck and towards the anchor chain. I would use it pull myself down I thought. Turning around to Bob and Chris we all agreed to stay close and buddy dive, someone at the surface keeping a good watch for anything untoward. As we got forward I filled my lungs and using the anchor chain, slowly pulled myself down and away from the world above.
As I sunk below the surface the first thing I noticed was the sound level. I had dived reefs before and they all make a crackle, a very audible background noise punctuated and consistent. This was different. The crackle was amplified and hit me in waves rather than a staccato. It was almost overwhelming as it sounded like it originated in my head, my cranial cavity acting as an amplifier. No sooner had I adjusted to the sound, than I was struck by the abundance of fish species. It was incredible, every shape and size you can imagine were carrying on with their daily routine around me as though I was invisible.
I was around halfway down the length of the chain when I let go and moved towards the reef, my buoyancy less positive and my curiosity completely piqued! Directly in front of me was the biggest Potato Bass I have ever seen. He was at least as large as me and looked like he weighed quite a bit more. He was eyeing me out for sure, sitting at the same depth as me but completely still, just his eyes tracking me. His fat lips were turned downward, rubbery and pronounced.
I needed to return for air. As I gently rose upwards I could see Chris sucking in a lungful of air and before I broke the surface he was already pointed downwards, his hands outstretched before him as he finned. I looked around for Bob, I could not see him at all.
I broke the surface and took several short sharp breaths. This would ensure I still had CO2 in my lungs and would kill the blackout reflex. As I slowly relaxed my breathing, keeping movement to a minimum and my heart rate down I looked around for Bob. My pulse spiked immediately!
Bob loved fish in all its forms and we had basically let him out into the candy store and given him a wad of cash. In his enthralment he had totally forgotten about our commitment to remain close and had swum off about 20 or 30 metres away as he followed his interest below the water.
I knew that we were now very exposed. I had no way of helping Bob if he got into trouble (we were all experienced free divers) and even worse if a nosy shark were to approach him, he was on his own. I shouted out to him, but he could not hear me. I would have grabbed a flipper and used it to beat on the surface – a sound which carries far above and below the water. But I had not put them on.
“Bob” I hollered. “Bob you piece shit! We were supposed to stay together”. Nope he was still head down. I popped my head back under the water to check on Chris. He was busy ascending, but I could tell something was wrong. I looked beyond him towards the coral wall. It was completely devoid of life. In an instant the entire population of fish had disappeared. Even my Potato Bass had moved, and the only signs of life were one or two small fish darting under the rocks.
Chris surfaced and immediately exclaimed “Did you see that? All the fish just suddenly disappeared. They just vanished on cue.” My brain was still waking up from the self-induced hypoxia, but I did not need all my senses to realise they were gone because something bigger was coming. I turned to shout at Bob again. “Bob you bastard, BOB!” He was catching his breath and finally heard me through his enthusiasm for the underwater kaleidoscope below him.
“What?’ he said smiling, totally taken by this place. “The fish have all fucked off we think there’s a reason for it” I responded. “What…” his voice trailed off as what I had said sunk in. We all started swimming slowly back towards Amarula. Chris and I were back to back and scanned the horizon then underwater as we moved back under Amarula. Bob had drawn a line for the nearest sugar scoop and was swimming as cleanly as possibly, avoiding making a noise or a wake.
We all arrived at the stern at the same time. I buried my head underwater one final time as Chris climbed up the swim ladder. There was nothing, but the blue ocean broken by dancing light and the coral. As I climbed onto the sugar scoop Bob and Chris were debating the disappearance. Chris was using the fresh water shower on the top step of the sugar scoop and Bob was standing on the transom. I was listening to them, as they were both avid fishermen and knew a lot more about marine life than me.
Bob was mid-sentence, when he just stopped and his mouth dropped. He was looking just beyond me and Chris turned to look too. They both stood transfixed. I was the last to turn around and look. As my neck craned to see behind me, I looked straight into the eyeball of a shark at least 3 metres long. He was gently and silently cruising just beyond the sugar scoop, the back half of his snout clear of the water revealing a black pebble like eye completely matt in finish and without any spark of light. It was the most dead thing I have ever seen, yet I knew it was completely alive. His mouth formed a grimace that would make any orthodontist clap his hands in congratulations, as hundreds of perfectly white but fiercely sharp teeth were revealed by a wry smile.
I was immediately shaken by the sheer size of the creature. A measure of length does not do any justice to the presence the shape occupies. His smoothly contoured physical construct was slightly copper in colour and it seemed to take several seconds to glide past us. His comportment demanded respect and his countenance was one of the best poker faces I have ever seen. He was so close I could have bent down and hardly reached out to feel him, as he slipped by. I didn’t for obvious reasons. Instead I watched as he gracefully slid under the water, leaving only his dorsal fin as a reminder.
“Oh wow!” Bob said and pointed. A second shark swam just off our stern, not quite as big, but very close in size to the first one. This shark had passed under Amarula and broke the surface just behind the tender, following in a similar direction. My knees were buckling as a wave of nausea washed over me. I sat down and looked out over the stern, contemplating our remote position and all the probabilities that the slowing spinning wheel of fortune could have clicked to a stop on.
Postscript: In a blurry cell phone photo we took of the sharks once we had all woken up from our stupor (we think they were bronze whalers) we realised there were actually three of them. This my dear friends, is NOT a kakstorie*
Kakstorie – Afrikaans for a bullshit story (slang).