Does Mauritius have what it takes to capture a diver's imagination, or is it just for romantic holidays with a bit of diving on the side? Brendan O'Brien goes site-seeing, and finds that there are some sizzlers if you know where to look
Honeymooners gaze into each other's eyes across candlelit tables; couples walk hand in hand along sunset beaches while gentle waves caress golden sands. And then there are the weddings, lots of weddings. Days and nights in Mauritius are everything you would expect them to be: a few hours spent in this ideal of romantic cosiness reinforces all the stereotypes of an exotic island getaway. I hadn't planned to go there to get fat on sentiment. I had heard that Mauritius in the Indian Ocean offered some intense diving. However, prior to my trip I was having trouble establishing just where I would find it. The last thing I wanted was to end up diving from a second-rate centre on tired coral reefs. For destinations like this, how do you ensure that your diving holiday turns out the way you want it? You could start with a diving tour operator, but at the time of writing none of the UK operators feature Mauritius as a destination. Brochures for the island's resorts all mention that diving is available, but can you afford to believe the hype? The brochure for the Beachcomber chain of hotels boasts that the coast 'remains untouched by mass tourism'. There is 'an abundance of spectacular marine life' in 'crystal clear waters'. You have probably read the same rhetoric in holiday brochures more often than you care to remember. You could buy the book The Dive Sites of Mauritius but be disappointed when you discover that only 44 of the 136 pages of this 'comprehensive coverage of diving' have anything to do with the dive sites. I started my tour of the island on the east coast from the Coco Beach hotel at Belle Mare, home of Aquarius Diving. Most diving in Mauritius is carried out from centres attached to the hotels. Far from being 'untouched by mass tourism', the coastline here and to the north appeared to be infected by a serious rash of hotels. There are even plans to construct one within the island's only marine park! At the dive centre I met Jeni Ross, a British barrister who hung up her robes to become a PADI course director and co-owner of Aquarius Diving. All its five centres have a PADI five-star rating, making this the biggest recreational diving company on the island. The centre was in full swing running courses, but it couldn't get me past the reef line to dive because of the strong prevailing winds. So I headed north, to the Aquarius centre in Grand Baie. There I met a group from the Mauritius branch of the BSAC, otherwise known as the MUGs (Mauritius Underwater Group). Brad, one of its South African contingent, told me why they choose to dive with Aquarius: 'We never feel like we're paying guests. The staff are friendly and very professional. You have to be careful, as there are a lot of dodgy dive centres dotted around the island.' My buddy, John from Nottingham, was on the island to complete a PADI instructor development course. Why Mauritius? 'Just look around you!' As we left the picturesque surroundings of the bay, John gave us our briefing.
The wreck of the Silverstar isn't what it seems. In 1992 it ended life as a fishing vessel to become an artificial reef. John promised that I'd be impressed: 'It's in 40m, so it's too deep for most divers, and the corals and sponges are in great condition.' The ship was originally put there to attract more than the handful of divers who now visit it: 'They should have sunk it in shallower water, but it sprang a leak on the way out. It sank in a sand hole in deep water - bad news for most divers but great news for us!' From the surface, the ship's outline was clear. We started our tour at the stern. John soon took an interest in what was inside the rear cabin area. After a few seconds he backed off quickly as a monster moray eel weaved its way out of a hole in the side. It seemed more surprised than we were as it tried to escape our attention. Unlike many other artificial reefs, the masts were left intact, providing a climbing frame for soft corals, a haven for shoaling grunts and a perch for a rather colourful frogfish which we found by the crow's nest. While the Silverstar proved to be quite an impressive first dive, the Aquarium turned out to be a poor second act. As soon as I heard the site name, I feared the worst. My experience of any site with a name like this is of a diver-battered reef, home to fish addicted to a steady stream of hand-outs. The 'comprehensive guide' to diving in Mauritius states that there is sometimes a slight current with visibility of 20-50m - a description over-optimistic on both counts, as we experienced a raging torrent in less than 10m of visibility as we approached the main part of the site, a gully in 14m.
Our arrival was the fish equivalent of 'come and get it!', as swarms of sergeant-majors, surgeonfish and angelfish bustled around us, hoping for a free lunch. The novelty soon wore off and the sergeant-majors, frustrated by our lack of generosity, resorted to nipping at any exposed skin. At least we were better off than the party of divers who sailed above us, oblivious of having overshot the site. We later saw them picked up a few hundred metres from where they should have been. They could not have experienced anything more than an open-water, sandy-bottomed drift dive. Brad reckoned they were with one of the dodgy operations he had mentioned. Jeni had promised to round off my northern diving experience on a secret site called Twin Peaks. I often hear sites described as 'secret' only to find that everyone in the area knows of them. This, however, was to be an exception, as no one I spoke to at the MUG had dived it. Why was this site so special to Jeni? 'The corals and sponges are so delicate that too many divers would ruin it. I take very few people there and when I do it's only after they've convinced me that they are proficient enough.' The site lived up to its name, with two peaks rising to 14m from about 35m. The gully that separated them was littered with large boulders, where we saw several large morays. Along the almost vertical walls and the small caves we found on them were some vast seafans and soft corals. As Jeni had said, they looked incredibly fragile. If you do make it to the north of the island, make sure to impress the staff with your skills. The alternative? There's always the Aquarium. It was time to take a break from Aquarius and spend time with a smaller operation. La Pirogue hotel at Flic en Flac on the west coast is the home of Sun Divers, owned by veteran Mauritian diver Thierry de Chazel. I joined him on my first morning for breakfast. He was keen to tell me a little about the reality of 'the spectacular marine life in crystal-clear waters'. 'Today you will dive on a site called the Serpent,' he told me. 'If it wasn't for a battle we had with the government four years ago, this site would only be a memory. It was all about money for the millions of tons of sand that was to be dredged for industry. It would have totally destroyed this site and all the others for miles around. It's only when we went to the newspapers and hotels that they stopped.' Thierry has been in the diving industry for 18 years. 'I grew up on the coast. I used to see hundreds of sharks and rays in the lagoons, now they're all gone. 'There are fewer fish from dynamiting and the spearfishermen and netters have cleaned out the lagoons. It's illegal but the coastguard just turn a blind eye. It's sad, especially as I know what it used to be like.'
'So many corals and sponges have been killed by pollution from the hotels. I've been on dives where tampons and condoms have sailed by me.' What is the solution? 'It's easy, the government is doing a good job protecting what's above water, now it needs to turn its attention to what's under water.' I later heard on the radio of a large haul of confiscated illegal nets and spearguns being burnt as a warning to transgressors. Thierry must have sensed my pensive mood. He smiled and boomed: 'But today you will see what we saved. I'll take you to a site you'll never forget!' I was first off the boat, expecting a lot, but wasn't ready for what I saw below - nothing more than a 100m-long, S-shaped pile of boulders strewn across a sandy seabed. I hung in mid-water, convinced that Thierry had got the wrong site, but he indicated for me to descend so I dropped grudgingly to the seabed at 28m. It was only then that I saw what was 'worth saving'. Before me was probably the largest collection of moray eels (I was later told that 32 species have been seen at this site), lionfish, stonefish and scorpionfish in the world.
The boulders were an oasis for baitfish, which in turn provided a constant stream of food for the lionfish which crowded around each boulder. The morays were often two or three to a hole and the stonefish were almost stacked on top of one another. On the way back to shore, I asked Vicky and Duncan from Northampton how they had heard about diving in Mauritius. 'We just took a chance as we knew there was a dive centre attached to the hotel,' said Duncan. Vicky added: 'The balance of diving and relaxation is just right. We dive in the morning and then for the rest of the day enjoy the island. It's not like a Red Sea diving holiday that leaves you needing a break by the end of it. 'It's not as good as the Red Sea for corals but at least we're not fighting for a dive site with other boats,' said Duncan. 'There are lots of sites and only a few divers.' Brad had invited me on one of MUG's Sunday dives, at Nab Reef, 15 miles north of Mauritius between two islands. We set off in seas more than 6m high. This wasn't going to be a cosseted PADI holiday experience, but BSAC open-ocean diving! Giant plumes of water from the waves hitting the reef and a heavy surface surge meant that we had to descend as soon as we hit the water. The site was a wall that dropped to more than 60m, but from the surface I could make out the seabed easily and was convinced I was in no more than 30m. At 35m it still looked far away.
I was experiencing the clearest sea water I had ever seen. Looking out into the open ocean, I saw shoaling fish that would ordinarily be outside my field of vision. The clarity of the sea allowed me to note the distinct lack of marine life on the wall, a smattering of seafans and a few anemones hosting inquisitive clownfish. But the attraction was the breath-taking enormity of it all. The crashing waves above looked like storm clouds rolling across the horizon, while the reef below stretched into the distance like a meandering hill-slope. The next day it was back to the reality of resort diving from Sun Divers, but a sense of adventure remained. Thierry wanted to show us a 43m site called the Park. In visibility of about 20m we dropped onto a mini-wall where shoals of remarkably tame grunts greeted us. Below the wall was a flat plain where we saw kingfish, a large moray eel and a shoal of tuna. Perhaps this was a glimpse of the Mauritius that Thierry had told me about. The other side of the plain sat the Kei Sei 113, a large fishing vessel that had been converted into a restaurant before becoming an artificial reef. There wasn't much coral growth, but plenty of fish. You can just manage both sites on one dive.
Further down the coast is the Paradis Hotel. Beneath the spectacular backdrop of the mountain called Le Morne, it sits on its own private peninsula. Here Jeni has another Aquarius dive centre, though the customers expect that extra-special touch. All your kit is put together for you by staff who reflect the high standards of the hotel. The Cathedral is the number one dive site for Paradis guests. I joined Chris, the centre's manager, and Steve, a property developer from London who had dived it several times over the course of 18 holidays spent at the Paradis. 'I love this dive,' he said. 'Every time, I see something new. I'm not just here for the diving, though. The real attraction is the variety of sports available and the excellent service.' The Cathedral is entered via a crack in a large, rocky outcrop and, as the name suggests, leads into a vast cavern about 12m high from a seabed at 28m. I was first through the gap and first to disturb the rather skittish porcupinefish hovering around the chamber's ceiling. Light cascaded through the entrance but the fine silt steadily reduced visibility. Chris took me to a small cave where a shoal of upside-down soldierfish patrolled the entrance, and pointed out all the small crustaceans inside. After a few minutes we left and spent the rest of the dive on a small wall that was the boring side of tedious, just a few fish pecking at those sections of the reef uninfected by an outbreak of fire coral. My advice is to stay in the Cathedral.
It was time to leave Mauritius for the lesser-known island of Rodrigues. Driving over the brow of the hill that takes you down to the Mourouk Ebony Hotel, the enormity of the island's southern lagoon hits you. In the distance is the winding blue passage known as the Serpent that leads out into the open ocean. Benoit was the first person to open a dive centre on this side of the island, the Bouba, and he tells me of unexplored reefs outside the lagoon to which he runs two-tank dive expeditions, and of sites he has explored but which still need naming. Before that, however, he wanted to show me what diving in the lagoon was like, at a site called Couzoupa. The boat took us out to the last kink in the Serpent's tail before it hit the open ocean. Depth was to be about 14m and viz Benoit predicted as being only 10m or less, due to the plankton and algae that thrive in the lagoon. As soon as we descended, a vast shoal of bigeye kingfish started to circle us, apparently confused by our bubbles. Below us, marine pandemonium reigned, with a mess of reef fish in a feeding frenzy. There were shoals of blue-spine unicornfish, frogfish, lionfish, the buzzing bigeyes and the biggest pufferfish I had ever seen, content to lie on the coral rubble on the seabed. It was only when I approached them that I came across the very weird-looking Indian walkman, a multicoloured fish that uses its pectoral fins to clamber across the rubble. As I watched it, I noticed an octopus, and so the dive continued, with almost too much to see. I imagined this was what Mauritius' reefs had been like decades ago.
Unfortunately, I never made it to the outer reefs - shortly after my first dive on Rodrigues I was struck down by ciguatera, a form of fish poisoning. I had eaten some reef fish in the hotel restaurant that carried the toxin but this is no reflection on the hotel - ciguatera is unpredictable and cannot be detected. What impressed me was how the staff treated me, immediately taking me to the hospital, staying with me until I arrived at the ward, calling in twice the next morning and providing for all my needs once back at the hotel. A few weeks later, I received an e-mail from Brad, my buddy from MUG. A group of them had gone out to Rodrigues for a diving weekend: 'I'd never seen so much hard coral in such good condition and so many resident fish. I couldn't believe the difference in the condition of the coral compared to Mauritius. I just hope the locals realise what they have and don't abuse it.' So how does Mauritius measure up? The brochures are a little over-enthusiastic but there are some excellent dive sites if you know where they are and how to get to them. The best dives are the first of the day, the rest at most of the centres tending to revolve around beginners at shallow, uninteresting sites. Mauritius is best suited to those who want an exotic getaway with some diving thrown in. And if you can manage to get out to Rodrigues, do so.
GETTING THERE: Fly direct from London and Manchester with Air Mauritius. Flights to Rodrigues are with Air Mauritius only. Flights are booked on the same itinerary but you might not have the same baggage allowance for the flight to Rodrigues. Stand your ground at the check-in - the staff didn't seem certain about their own rules and were keen to avoid a dispute. Air Mauritius has said it will provide an extra allowance for diving gear, but confirm before travelling. DIVING: A one-tank dive with equipment costs about £20. Discounts are available for packages and Aquarius will honour a multi-dive package at any of its centres. Contact Aquarius on 230 253 4997, e-mail email@example.com; Sun Divers 230 4538441, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org WHEN TO GO: Advertised as a year-round destination, you might want to give February and March (cyclones) and September and October (high winds) a miss. Water temperature varies from 20°C in winter to 28°C in summer (the island is south of the equator). Winds tend to be from the east so diving from hotels on this side of the island are more likely to be blown out. ACCOMMODATION : Hotels are on the expensive side. Brochures for Beachcomber (the Paradis) and Sun International (La Pirogue and Coco Beach) are available through most travel agents. The Mourouk Ebony can be contacted on 230 831 3350, e-mail email@example.com GETTING AROUND: Even when you agree a price, taxis are expensive. Car hire is available from most hotels. Brendan O'Brien managed to get more than 25 per cent knocked off the price even by the big names (Hertz, Avis) at hotels, so it's worth haggling. FURTHER INFORMATION: Mauritius Underwater Group, 230 696 5368. Visiting divers are welcome to join temporarily for a nominal fee and go on any club dives. Start a Forum discussion on this topic