ITS THE CLOSEST IVE COME to diving in pea soup. We have dropped down to the sandy seabed; no reef, no fish, nothing. Just this big, empty, green ocean and a big, dirty-brown, nondescript anemone, which my buddy seems obsessed about photographing.
Granted, I have never seen one like this before, but we have been promised sharks and other big predators. And at 25m, in temperatures of 14C, we dont have time to mess around.
But as the strobes briefly illuminate the subject, I realise that I have missed the point. The anemone is in fact a clump of orange, sausage-like ribbons swaying in the current. Chokka eggs. Weve found the Holy Grail of South Africas Eastern Cape Coast.
The chokka run took off in 2004, thanks to incredible footage captured by the BBCs 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, but it was only in 2005 that those in the know convinced paying clients that it was something worth schlepping (as we say in South Africa) down to the coast for.
It is still uncommon to find even local divers who have heard of diving on the chokka beds, never mind foreigners, so if you like to stay ahead of the pack, start researching now.
Once the word gets out, I suspect well see another explosion of interest such as that generated by the Sardine Run.
Chokka - Loligo vulgaris reynaudi - is a type of squid found all along the southern Cape Coast. During the summer months, when breeding occurs, it becomes concentrated in bays between Cape Point and Port Elizabeth.
During the spawning the eggs form big, orangey-red conglomerations on the seabed, particularly on the top fishing spots such as the shallow chokka bank of St Francis.
If you have ever visited St Francis, youll understand the importance of squid. The man-made harbour is chock-a-block with chokka boats, and 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 handlines and haul in their valuable catch.
Most of the chokka gets shipped out quickly but, not surprisingly, there are some excellent restaurants specialising in squid and other seafood dishes in the quaint seaside town.
Then 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 the resulting egg-beds from the onslaught of predators.
And it is those predators, the rays, fish, seals, sharks and dolphins that come to chow on the eggs, that divers dream of seeing, and photographing.
As with all natural phenomena, there are no guarantees. Diving with chokka is a bit hit and miss, but at least its a relatively static event, so 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 chilly. Apparently the ideal conditions in which the chokka like to copulate and lay eggs are cold, clean water.
We had come prepared to dive in 10-11C water, and the car was full of drysuits.
Our initial findings were not encouraging. The fishing season had been closed for a week but Antoon Bakker, my dive guide from Two Oceans Diving, had bad news. The scientists had reported a late season, and there were hardly any egg-beds to be found.
It was all I could do to keep my furious mutterings muted. I think he might have told us that before we arrived, I mumbled as we sat in a quayside café, making a plan.
It was one of those rare, dead calm days perfect for sailing, so we headed out aboard Sharp Hooker, a fancy fishing yacht skippered by Tim Christy of St Francis Sea Safaris. Tim, a fisherman of national note, knows a thing or two about chokka fishing, so it wasnt long before we had picked up a shoal on the fish-finder.
He dropped a couple of lines to check and, sure enough, the squid hit the lures almost before they had dropped below the surface.
We homed in on a dense patch of activity and kitted up. Bakker 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. Zilch.
Then, as we were tiring, we struck lucky, diving down through a large shoal of chokka to the anemone-like ribbons that, in my ignorance, I had initially glossed over.
Further exploration revealed several significant egg patches, a foot or so in diameter. The viz was only about 5m 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 us, coming in close every time.
We planned to take a shot and almost begging to be photographed.
This was more like it. Then my buddys eyes, huge saucers filled with alarm, fixed on me. I turned and there was a shark, right on my shoulder.
In the dim, green light I convinced myself that it was nothing more sinister than a raggietooth, but as I turned to capture it in colour, it scarpered into the gloom.
It wasnt long before another appeared, and by now my very nervous buddy and I had assumed a back-to-back vigil as we continued to scour the sandy bottom. Only the ubiquitous rays provided further entertainment, so after 30 minutes the cold drove us back to the surface.
It was a very cool experience dropping into the middle of nowhere and coming face to face with huge rays and sharks, but it wasnt the predator feeding-frenzy for which I had hoped.
Not that the day was wasted. We stayed aboard and spent a glorious afternoon admiring the stunning coastline and watching dolphins 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, and the photographers had a field day.
The squid, with their slender, delicate bodies and distinctive diamond-shaped fins, were very photogenic. Their prominent eyes, caught in the flash light, gave them an innocent, inquisitive look and their two very long retractable tentacles convinced me that they were from outer space or a James Bond movie. Or was I narked
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 females 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. Ambush predators lie in wait. We saw a blackwater sting ray bury itself in the sand, then spring up to catch the females as they were laying, and observed striped pyjama sharks and raggedtooth sharks sneaking 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.
My verdict on the Chokka Run It was cold, fun and very, very different. We chatted with the scientists and learnt a lot about squid. And while this event lacks the adrenalin action of the Sardine Run, I would recommend the chokka spawning as a spectacle worth checking out.