WHEN TALKING ABOUT EAST AFRICA, there’s an elephant in the room. Actually if you are on safari in Kenya there could actually be an elephant in your room, but I speak metaphorically.
That elephant is the neighbour from hell to the north – Somalia. A pitbull-owning neighbour with car parts in the front garden, music blaring at all hours and a cannabis factory in the loft. You know the sort, they make programmes about them for Channel 5.
Replace the pitbull with a Kalashnikov AK-47, the car parts with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs to the video game generation), the music for kidnapping and cannabis factory for piracy. Somalians would probably shoot the elephant in the room and sell its ivory to Hong Kong drug-dealers.
It’s not a pretty picture to paint, as the UK Foreign Office tries to keep up with the piracy, kidnappings and running battles between El Shabaab and the Kenyan Army. The FO’s website should be a port of call for anyone looking to travel anywhere, and it accurately reflects where not to go in Kenya. But this is a massive country.
The hot spots are generally in the north close to the Somali border, and for now it’s advisable not to stay in the capital, Nairobi, though things change and the city should be safe soon enough.
Let me assure you that my mother would kill me if I travelled to a dangerous zone. I opted for the serenity of Mombasa in the south, a long way from any troubled area.

CLOSER TO THE TANZANIAN BORDER than it is even to Nairobi, Mombasa is
a port city and as such fairly prosperous, with a good smattering of large hotels and big houses up the coast.
My research told me it had a marine park (always good news for fish), offered the possibility of meeting migrating whale sharks and, most importantly, had a range of topography from shallow lagoon to fringing reef, pinnacles and even the only known cavern system
in east Africa.
Tour operator Sportif has Mombasa in its repertoire, and booked me into the Whitesands Resort, which has a Buccaneer Diving outlet in its grounds.
Much of Kenya’s seafront has a fringing coral reef that protects the sandy beach and often forms a shallow lagoon sheltered from the Indian Ocean’s force.
Spring and neap tides affect the times you can dive. Current isn’t the issue, but getting to and from the boat is. On a spring tide, the intertidal flat from the beach to water deep enough to float a boat is immense. It’s as though someone pulled the plug on the Indian Ocean.
Fortunately, I arrived on the cusp between springs and neaps, and as the tidal range started to reduce, so dive times were more flexible.
Even so, the boat captains can get their boats to the beach in seemingly impossible shallow water. It’s fun watching sting rays spooked by the approaching vessel flit around in the shallows.
There are places in the lagoon deep enough to dive. Five minutes down the coast by boat, outside a Buccaneer Diving centre at the Voyager Hotel, is a superb site called Angies. It’s a mix of coral bommies, reefballs and a little wooden wreck sitting on sand that all manner of critters call home.
If you don’t like the sound of commensal and cleaner shrimps, pipefish, seahorses and the like, skip the next bit.
Still with me Good. Angies is a spectacular place, even if it does look like a brownfield site in need of regeneration. The dive starts in 10m around small bommies that have grown out of the sand. Plankton makes the water greenish but still offers 5-6m visibility.
The bommies protect a plethora of juvenile fish and quite a few lionfish. At the top of the tallest bommie, a resident peppered moray is found. These small eels are snowy white with delicate black spots, and this one is used to divers and knows we’re not a threat.
In contrast, a nearby honeycomb moray quickly backed down into its lair.
I expected more sea-slugs, but it seems that flatworms and nudibranchs are less common inside the lagoon.
Anemones abound, however, and most come with a couple of symbiotic resident twobar anemonefish (often called clownfish) and sometimes pink anemonefish. Some also had accompanying anemone porcelain crabs.

WE ROSE UP A SEDIMENT SLOPE to a flattened bommie just inside a seagrass field. This housed a large stonefish and enough cleaner shrimps to start a biblical plague, plus harder-to-spot Periclimenes shrimps, a big family of clear-bodied crustaceans.
Each had different-coloured spots, fascinating to macro enthusiasts, but a nightmare to identify by species names – like trying to guess a teenager’s name from his acne.
The dive finishes around three concrete reefballs, put down as an experiment that seems to have worked. One has a family of striped catfish in residence, another a pair of rarely seen blue-striped pipefish.
To get close to the subjects I had to squeeze into the hole upside-down and try to aim straight without getting an urchin spine in my shoulder while dealing with a noseful of water and a poorly functioning regulator. It wasn’t the most comfortable position, even if it was in just 8m of water.
Out near the the channel mouth, close to the fringing reef, is a clearer-water macro site called Shelley Corner.
This is a good place for leaf-fish, nudibranchs and pipefish. I spotted a few diminutive black-breasted pipefish creeping over the coral heads, and also a pair of rare straightstick pipefish.
According to Fishbase, these are usually found on the continental shelf, although they do enter shallow lagoons and hang out on the open seabed like this pair. Perhaps it’s a mating thing
Shelley Corner also featured a sizeable shoal of snapper, several morays and apparently sea-moths, though these are hard to find and eluded me.

IF YOU SKIPPED THE MACRO SECTION, welcome back. If you stuck with it, I’ll move to the other side of the reef.
Mombasa’s Marine National Park is overseen by the Kenya Park Service and requires you to buy a US $15 permit each day. They don’t accept one-dollar bills, so don’t bother taking them.
The marine park covers 10sq km of a 200sq km reserve. It has existed since 1986 and is well populated.
The UK Government is fannying around with the idea of marine parks and how effective they are – one visit to Mombasa will show it. The life inside the park is far superior to what’s outside.
There are plenty of turtles (green and hawksbill), whitetip reef sharks, shoals of snapper and grunts, and the coral is in fine condition.
The vis I experienced was not the best in the tropical world. I was there during the whale shark migration in December, and these sharks inhabit water rich in plankton, so it may just have been the time of year. It didn’t really impair the diving.
Some of the numerous dives in the park are just sections of reef that run into one another, but certain sites such as Bamburi, Shark Point and Brain are stand-alone. Bamburi is the place to spot turtles under water and Shark Point, unlike many of its namesakes around the world, does actually host sharks – whitetip reef sharks, which come here during the day to lie on the sand flat at the base of the reef in 18m.
Brain is named after a humongous coral. It’s not a brain coral, but why let facts spoil a great name It’s bigger than most cars, but smaller than a bungalow, and it looks like the sea’s brain.
How about getting wrecked I’m thinking not of overdoing it on the local Tusker beer, but of Mombasa’s metallic offerings. No marine park is complete without at least one artificial reef, especially one in a tourist destination.
I’m no great fan of artificial reefs, but they serve a purpose and the mv Dania is a good sized lump of colonised metal, sunk 10 years ago. This is a deeper dive, with its hull resting in 32m, though it reaches to within 12m of the surface.
You need a couple of dives, one at the stern and the other at the bow, because trying to see it all in one go will leave you well into a deco stop.
I found the bridge area the most interesting. You start on the bottom around the prop, which was left on, giving the wreck a realistic feel.
The bridge is commanded by grey sweetlips, which stand sentry like a pack of pacifist club doorman. As I neared, they shrank back into the ship’s interior.
They are joined by several batfish, which flit around like those drunken blokes you see on the periphery on cop shows, shouting abuse and running off before they get arrested.
The crowd scene is completed by the ubiquitous yellow-striped grunts (a type of small snapper).

THE WRECK IS WELL-COLONISED by coral clusters. The “high-energy environment” (fancy talk for current) washes through the wreck and can create some odd water movement, so Dania is best suited to experienced divers.
Outside the marine park there are fewer fish, but the topography is more interesting. To the north lie several pinnacles, too deep for novices, but home to some of East Africa’s best-loved flatworm and nudibranch species.
Add in a large shoal of barracuda, the chance to see potato cod and other pelagics such as eagle rays, and you can see why the local guides grab the opportunity to dive there.
Even further north – some 25 miles – are the caverns of Vuma, in whale shark territory. It’s obvious from the absence of pictures that we didn’t encounter the world’s biggest fish in the water, though we saw a couple from the boat. Trouble was, they didn’t want company.
The caverns more than make up for any lack of leviathan action. The result of wave action on the limestone cliffs, some are enclosed and others are like open gullies, but there are a lot of these caverns on the sheer wall.
The only place along the East African coast I know like it is off the north of Mafia island in Tanzania, and those holes don’t compare in size or number.
They have formed because without a fringing reef to protect the shoreline the ocean has eaten away at what is essentially the soft rock of an ancient coral reef. The wall is an extension of the cliff above the surface and drops sheer to about 18m.
There are few fish on the wall, though some of the smaller caves hosted glassy sweepers, and at the base of one I saw a shoal of yellow-striped snapper and a crocodilefish. The main event is getting in and out of the caverns and gullies.
My favourite was a deep, shallow gully that stretched way back into the shore. The gentle swell was magnified inside, and we were washed around with the grunts and snapper.
Helpless to fight the elements, I just went with the sway of the water.

EVERY SO OFTEN THE MINIATURE WORLD pulled at my fins, in the form of a brightly coloured flatworm or a nudibranch enjoying being force-fed by the oxygen-rich water. Virtually all the seawhips that grew in profusion around the cavern mouths held at least one goby or shrimp, though I didn’t have my macro lens on – I was focusing on the grandeur of the vista.
A convenient 6m-deep ledge provided the chance to perform a safety stop without risk of boredom. Three minutes goes quickly when you can watch napoleon wrasse, a plethora of reef fish and the odd turtle.
I could have visited this superb site repeatedly, but sadly didn’t have time.
For general holiday divers, the Mombasa marine park will provide everything they desire, but for me the unusual cavern system, the deepwater pinnacles and the dingy critter sites are the reason to go.
My thanks to Whitesand Buccaneer Diving’s manager Claudio Trento, and to Danii Keates, a local instructor who acted as my model.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: You can reach Mombasa on a charter flight but Gavin recommends flying to Nairobi, as he did with Kenya Airways, and connecting to an internal flight. Connecting between the separate international and domestic terminals can be a bit frustrating, but the 46kg of baggage is worth it for divers, he says. A tourist visa costs US $50.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Buccaneer Diving is one of Mombasa’s most experienced diver centres. It has several bases, but the one at Whitesands Beach Resort & Spa is small, friendly and relaxed, says Gavin – the rental gear is good-quality, dive guides excellent and the other staff can’t do enough for you. Whitesands is on the beach and provides other watersports, a good pool, plenty of bar and restaurant options and, again, friendly staff. The rooms he describes as excellent and air-conditioned.
WHEN TO GO: Year-round, though July-March are reckoned to be the best months generally in Kenya.
LANGUAGE: Swahili, but English widely spoken.
MONEY: Kenyan shilling and US dollar.
PRICES: Sportif Dive offers seven nights’ half-board at Whitesands Beach including flights and transfers from £899 per person in a twin room. A 10-boat-dive package with Buccaneer costs £259. An optional two-day Tsavo safari on full board costs from £149 per head.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.magicalkenya.com