Rolling in the deep: What it’s like to dive with octopi in the Great African Sea Forest

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There’s no place on Earth like the Great African Sea Forest – a 1,000km ocean habitat that stretches from the southwest coast of South Africa up to Namibia. In fact, it’s the only ecosystem of its kind in Africa

We’re lucky in Cape Town that we have this rare meeting point of cold and warm water streams as the Indian and Atlantic oceans overlap here. It creates this intense biodiversity and a wonderland that’s teeming with sea urchins, stingrays, seals and octopi.

At first, if you look at it from the surface level, it appears quite dark. But snorkel or freedive beneath it and you’ll discover bursts of rainbow colours and rays of sunlight, revealing schools of fish and curious sea life. It’s phenomenal.

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My love affair with water began early

As a freedive record holder, my love affair with water began early. I was that child whose parents had to pull me out of the pool at the end of the day. The sea felt like home to me. For a long time, I convinced myself that I was adopted and one day I would find my mermaid mother in the sea.

I met my husband, John, a freedive record holder, 10 years ago, on the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar. After 10 days of freediving together, we decided to get married.

I moved my life to Cape Town to be with him. From there, we set up a company, and started to share our love of freediving and snorkelling with a tribe of like-minded travellers from Flash Pack.

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We wanted to share our love of of the ocean

Scientifically, freediving involves holding your breath and diving underwater. But as you spend more and more time doing it, it takes on a different meaning. It’s really about self-exploration, as well as creating space for the deepest form of meditation there is. 

When you dive into a new world, you explore something entirely new and different to your daily life. It gets you out of your own head and connects you to this profoundly silent, majestic setting. 

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We always say that freediving is 20% skill, 80% your mind

We always say that freediving is 20% skill, 80% your mind. If you can meet your own inner voice when you’re underwater – and transform your anxieties into calm – you have the power to change how you talk to yourself in life more generally. It’s a very powerful tool.

Snorkelling in the Great African Sea Forest has a similar effect. You can walk into the ocean anywhere in Cape Town and you’ll be in the kelp forest within a metre or so. It’s very accessible. But we tend to take people to our favourite spots and sheltered bays in marine-protected areas, which act as animal sanctuaries. 

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The minute you glide into the water, it takes your breath away

Some people are a little worried about swimming in kelp before they’ve experienced it. Yet, the minute you glide into the water, it takes your breath away. On a clear day, you can look down and see seven or eight metres of gently swaying sea bamboos and kelp algae, with abalone, nudibranchs, jellyfish or brittlestars swimming between them. You might also see seals, penguins or even sea otters pop by.

It’s so rewarding for our team because we become the gatekeepers to this magical universe. And it has a profound impact on the Flashpackers who are lucky enough to explore it. The simplest things can astound people: they’ll spot a shark egg – sometimes cast-off in capsules, known as a “mermaid’s purse” – or we’ll show them how a starfish eats. 

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The experience anchors people in the present moment

In many ways, it’s an experience that I liken to the Japanese ritual of shinrin-yoku (forest bathing). When you’re immersed in this unique ocean environment – with zero phones, talking or emails – it sparks a natural respect and reverence. You forget about what’s going on back on land and you stay anchored in the present moment, observing this beautiful kelp forest, lit up by shafts of sunlight.

Cold-water environments are very powerful. The colder the water, the more heat you feel in your core. It’s like a fire burning inside you and it makes you feel alive. It also appears as if you’re entering this frozen underwater universe and you’re the first human to set eyes on it. 

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Since ‘My Octopus Teacher’, we’ve had more interest in the kelp forest

On any snorkelling trip, we always highlight our gratitude to the fragile ocean environment. Since the release of the award-winning hit Netflix film My Octopus Teacher – set in the Great African Sea Forest – we’ve had more visitors to the area. But it’s our responsibility as guides to make Flashpackers aware of the challenges facing this rare and precious ecosystem.

Snorkelling or freediving in the kelp forest is so much more than the activity alone. People wake up to the simple beauty of ocean wildlife and their connection to it. Often they develop a newfound sense of purpose around being kinder to themselves – and, more generally, to nature. 

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People develop a newfound desire to be kind to nature

We have so many Flash Pack travellers who, months after their trips, contact us to say the experience changed their life, and they’ve since set up an NGO or organised a beach clean in their local area. It’s amazing to see.

I’ve been freediving and snorkelling off the shores of Cape Town now for over 10 years and every day still feels special. I always discover something new. 

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Spending time in nature is so transformative

If I had one message to tell the world about my journey, it would be this: spending even just a little time in nature is so transformative. It’ll reconnect you to yourself and the beauty of the planet, filling you with joy. Experiences like this make life more exhilarating. 

Daniela Daines is a freedive record holder who leads Flash Pack’s “snorkelling with octopi” experience on South Africa.

This year, Flash Pack’s “Don’t be a Tourist. Be a Flashpacker” campaign aims to encourage travellers in their 30s and 40s to stray away from the expected path – seeking out the road less travelled.

Images for this story were shot on location in South Africa by Flash Pack photographer Rachel Sarah.

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