Newsletter: Paws for thought

Hi divers

Weekend diving

Saturday: No diving planned – why not join the coastal cleanup at Hout Bay harbour?

Sunday: 10.30 am and 1.00 pm to North/South Paw and Justin’s Caves, from Oceana Powerboat Club (very much dependent on wind strength on Saturday)

Monday: Seal rock at Partridge PointShark Alley, double tank dive launching at 10.00 am from Simon’s Town jetty

Recent dives

Last weekend we took the boat down to Buffels Bay in the Cape Point Nature Reserve to join OMSAC for a day of snorkeling, diving and braai-ing.. The conditions were terrific and both the shore divers and those on the boat had great viz. We took the boat to Batsata Maze and to an unnamed site just on the outside of the exclusion zone around the reserve. We were very fortunate to have a whale cruising by during the safety stop, fascinated by the divers’ SMB, and then hanging around as the divers surfaced.  It is a stunning setting for a day out and even the tidal pool was filled with interesting creatures.

There are some photos on facebook, and a nifty little time lapse video of us putting the boat onto the trailer at the slipway. I usually wind the winch much faster than in the video, though – I must have been having an off day on Saturday…

Waiting to put the boat on the trailer at Buffels Bay
Waiting to put the boat on the trailer at Buffels Bay

On Monday we enjoyed fantastic visibility at Partridge Point, where we snorkeled with seals, and at Shark Alley. There are still a lot of cowsharks around – the time of year when they usually disappear is approaching, so we are watching with interest.

This weekend

A southerly swell rolls into False Bay in time for the weekend. The Kalk Bay Shootout surf competition participants are all excited. When surfers are excited, divers are not. We share the ocean… Just not always at the same time. There is also the False Bay Yacht Club spring regatta taking place on Saturday and Sunday – more info here.

I doubt there will be anywhere pleasant to dive in False Bay. The south easter only starts blowing on Saturday so I doubt that the viz out of Hout Bay will improve enough for good diving. That leaves the Atlantic seaboard. Twenty four hours of strong south easter might clean the water close inshore enough for good diving.

I reckon the best options will be North and South Paw or Justin’s Caves and surroundings, so that’s the plan for Sunday. If the south easter makes it over the top of Table Mountain, and cleans the water sufficiently, we will launching from OPBC at 10.30 am and 1.00 pm. If you’re keen to dive let me know and I’ll contact you on Saturday afternoon to let you know if conditions are good enough.

Early morning at Cape Point Nature Reserve
Early morning at Cape Point Nature Reserve

If you are at a loose end on Saturday, an excellent way to spend your time is at the coastal cleanup dive in Hout Bay harbour. We attended a few years ago, and it is great fun and good for the environment. Just wear a kilogram or two extra of weight if your weighting is usually marginal – the water is not very deep!

Cape Town International Boat Show

In three weeks’ time the CTICC comes alive with the Cape Town International Boat Show. This year there will be a new addition in the form of a “dive village”. Collectively a bunch of local dive centres and operators have come together to make this happen with the goal of showcasing the incredible diversity of diving we have to offer in Cape Town. The village will have a pool in the centre and we will offer non-divers an opportunity to breathe underwater and hopefully come to enjoy the ocean as much as we all do.

The show is on from 10-12 October at the Convention Centre. Come down and visit the representatives of your local dive operator and bring a friend who needs convincing that diving is the best thing ever, and amongst everyone in the dive village we will do our best to get them in the water. SURG will also be there showcasing some of the best photos taken in and around Cape Town’s waters. There are also bound to be a bunch of interesting course options, gear sales, camera displays and the like. Plus the rest of the boat show, which is well worth a look!


Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099

Diving is addictive!

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Bookshelf: The Rapture of the Deep

Rapture of the Deep: And Other Dive Stories You Probably Shouldn’t Know – Michael Zinsley

Rapture of the Deep
Rapture of the Deep

I shouldn’t have read this book after The Face of the Deep by Thomas Farber. The comparison is unfavourable. While Farber is lyrical and thoughtful, Zinsley describes alcohol-fueled romps through the South Pacific, Southeast Asia and the Caribbean while working as a diving industry professional.

While most of the observations about the cultures that the author encounters are quite prosaic, this is the first book I’ve read that frankly deals with the commercial side of recreational scuba diving. Perhaps it is necessary to be prosaic in order to discuss this; the reality is far from the romantic vision sold by some of the dive certification agencies. Zinsley describes greedy dive shop owners who send their staff out to dive in appalling conditions, and does not mince words about the paltry pay one can expect as a Divemaster. He observes that Instructors get paid slightly more, but that they tend to spend most of their time in swimming pools, and that a number of them end up as shopkeepers, hardly diving at all.

There are some highly amusing but very politically incorrect descriptions of Zinsley’s former students and clients who dived with him at the various operations where he worked as Divemaster. It seems that a lot of the time, your Divemaster can tell within a few minutes whether you’re going to be trouble on a dive or not. (Try not to be trouble! It’ll keep you healthy – or alive – and make the dive a lot more enjoyable for everyone.) Zinsley describes his experiences with nitrogen narcosis and a scare with decompression sickness.

Zinsley has visited and dived in some of the world’s most exotic destinations, and it’s probably more accurate to classify Rapture of the Deep as a travelogue with diving. This is a light, riotous, unapologetically misogynistic read with no literary pretensions whatsoever. I’d specially recommend it for professionals in the dive industry, who will empathise with much of what Zinsley describes.

You can buy the book here if you are in South Africa, and here if you’re not. If you want to read it on your Kindle, go here.

Friday photo: Shark Alley, undiveable

Shark Alley with a big swell running
Shark Alley with a big swell running

You can’t believe the difference between Shark Alley when there’s a big swell, as above, and when there’s no swell at all. A shore entry would be impossible in these conditions; a boat dive would be awful, if you didn’t get too seasick on the way there to care. We’ve noticed that the cowsharks tend to leave the area for a several weeks late in winter (usually somtime in August and September), roughly corresponding with the period of time during which swells like this pound into False Bay. Tony reckons they leave to avoid the bad weather! Current research aims to determine where they go…

If you plan specially to dive with the cowsharks when you come to Cape Town, it’s worth checking whether they’re in town. All the dive operators know when they’re not around! Shark Alley is a lovely spot regardless of whether there are sharks to look at or not, but if there are no cowsharks and conditions are better elsewhere, it’d be more enjoyable to visit a different site.

Durban dive sites

Craig, Maurice, Tony and Christo safety stopping above the Fontao wreck
Craig, Maurice, Tony and Christo safety stopping above the Fontao wreck

Here’s a round up of the sites we dived on our trip to Durban in June 2013, and on prior trips up north:

Durban diving involves a surf launch from the beach near the harbour entrance, and a characteristically long boat ride, usually of at least 25 minutes. It’s essential to carry an SMB. We dived with Calypso and highly recommend them.

There are some nice Durban dive site summaries here, here and here.

Dive sites (Durban): Coopers light wreck

Exploring the bow
Exploring the bow

I’ve tried to dive the Coopers light wreck before. It didn’t end well. This time, I was determined to see the wreck, and see it I did, on the third and final day of diving that we did on our Durban trip. The visibility was at least 25 metres – in the range where it almost doesn’t matter what the number is, it’s so fantastic. The water was warm, even at the bottom, and the wreck is something special to see.

Maurice swimming the length of the Coopers light wreck
Maurice swimming the length of the Coopers light wreck

No one knows what the name of the ship that lies wrecked opposite the Cooper lighthouse on the Bluff (hence it being commonly referred to as the Coopers light wreck). There is speculation that it’s an old whaler because of a curious structure on the aft deck that looks like a harpoon gun. It is in fact part of the ship’s steering mechanism – whaling ships had guns on their bows, not at the back of the ship.

Craig explores the bow of the Coopers light wreck
Craig explores the bow of the Coopers light wreck

According to Patrick at Calypso, here is a possibility that this wreck is the Terrier IV, an old whaler chartered by Peter Gimbel and Ron and Valerie Taylor for the filming of their shark documentary Blue Water White DeathThe Terrier sailed from Durban to Sri Lanka to Australia, as recounted by Peter Matthiessen in his book about the trip, entitled Blue Meridian.

I digress. The wreck is about 76 metres long and a bit over 10 metres wide, with a single propellor. There are two huge boilers near the middle of the wreck, and the bow and stern are fairly intact. The wreck and its vicinity teem with harlequin goldies, lionfish, and baitfish. We saw a large ray swimming languidly past behind a curtain of piggies, and a large scorpionfish resting at the bow. The size of the wreck makes it quite suitable to explore in its entirety on a single dive, although it is the kind of place that will bear many repeat visits.

We dived the wreck on 32% Nitrox, which gave us decent bottom time, the wreck lying at a maximum depth of 30 metres on the sand. I was having mask (actually, probably hair) trouble again, however, and used up a fifth of my air just clearing my mask. So I didn’t have as long a dive as I’d have liked.

There’s a nice African Diver article about the wreck here, with some more photos.

Soft corals on the wreck
Soft corals on the wreck

Dive date: 20 June 2013

Air temperature: 24 degrees

Water temperature:  23 degrees

Maximum depth: 29.6 metres

Visibility: 25 metres

Dive duration: 37  minutes

Christo approaching on the wreck
Christo approaching on the wreck

Dive sites (Durban): Bikini

A raggy scorpionfish
A raggy scorpionfish

Unfortunately my dive on Bikini – the second one I did in Durban – was really horrible, as my mask kept flooding (I think I had hair caught under the skirt). After a while fighting off the feeling of imminent drowning became too exhausting, and I surfaced early. I didn’t take many photographs, but what I remember of the creatures on view is that they were many and varied – geometric moray eels, lionfish, scorpionfish, nudibranchs, a frogfish and the other usual suspects found on South Africa’s east coast. I took so few photos that I’ve borrowed a lovely one that Maurice took of said eel. Here it is:

Geometric moray eel saying hello
Geometric moray eel saying hello

The reef structure was much like we see at Sodwana, made of sandstone with potholes and little overhangs. I saw mostly soft corals – none of the big plate corals that are common in southern Mozambique and beyond. This reef is part of the Blood Reef system that stretches along parallel to the Bluff. The reef system got its name because the old whaling station used to pump out blood and offal from slaughtered whales into the ocean, causing the reef to thrive and supporting an impressive population of oceanic white tip sharks. We didn’t see any sharks – I’m sure they were all too busy being killed in the gill nets off the Durban beaches to come and visit divers.

Blackspotted (I think) blaasop
Blackspotted (I think) blaasop

Bikini Reef is small, and covers the good bits (this is allegedly the origin of its name). It’s a regular haunt of pineapplefish, but the current was going in the wrong direction for us to comfortably visit the overhang that many of these fish frequent. We had a pleasant drift dive (mask issues aside) and an easy introduction to the Blood Reef complex.

I should mention that my Durban photos are mostly questionably lit and poorly executed because I am using a new camera, and prior to the Durban trip had only done two dives with it! Hopefully matters will improve so I don’t have to revert back to my trusty Sony DSC-TX5. I’m still using the Ikelite AF-35 strobe, though (not that it’s much in evidence here).

Dive date: 19 June 2013

Air temperature: 23 degrees

Water temperature: 22 degrees

Maximum depth: 23.5 metres

Visibility: 20 metres

Dive duration: 28 minutes

Dive sites (Durban): Fontao

The bow of the Fontao
The bow of the Fontao

The Fontao is an old Mozambican prawn trawler, scuttled off Umhlanga in Durban by the Oceanographic Research Institute in 1991. The intention was to study the rate at which wrecks and artificial reefs are colonised by marine organisms. The wreck is small: just under 35 metres long, with a beam of 8 metres. She lies upright on the sand at about 27 metres’ depth, and is largely intact. Tony did an eventful wreck penetration dive here during some of his training at Calypso… Ask him about it!

While waiting for the skipper and Divemaster to hook the anchor to the wreck (common practice in Durban), we were able to socialise with a couple of Indian yellow nosed albatross. These rare birds have incredibly impressive wingspans, and also came to visit us on several subsequent dives hoping we’d brought snacks.

Descending onto the wreck we were greeted with dense clouds of piggies, silvery baitfish that hang around above the wreck and parted gently to allow us to swim through. The wreck is covered with lead sinkers and fishing line, and is a popular fishing destination. Just inside part of the superstructure is a memorial plaque dedicated to a diver (now deceased) who specially enjoyed this dive site.

There is a mosaic floor – apparently prawn trawlers were festive places – and the bow is very beautiful, but because of all the fish it was hard to get a good look at the wreck as a whole (not complaining)! When we dived the Fontao there was a strong current across the wreck, which made me reluctant to stray too far from it lest I got swept off onto the sand.

We dived on air and had a decent-length dive because we spent most of our time on the top of the wreck, which is at about 18 metres. For exploring the bottom and sides of the hull further, Nitrox/enriched air would be a help.

Swimming through piggies on the wreck of the Fontao
Swimming through piggies on the wreck of the Fontao

Dive date: 18 June 2013

Air temperature: 23 degrees

Water temperature:  22 degrees

Maximum depth:  27.2 metres

Visibility: 15 metres

Dive duration: 40 minutes

A few days in Knysna

Beaching the ferry in shallow water
Beaching the ferry in shallow water

We were very upset to hear that Lightley’s Houseboats, operating on the Knysna lagoon, went into liquidation last year. Fortunately the boats and licence to operate have been acquired by a lovely Dutch couple who are now operating under the name Knysna Houseboats. We took a short break in late April and spent four nights on a houseboat on the lagoon. The boats have been refurbished, standards have been raised, and the company has moved from the jetty at Belvidere to one in the Thesen Island harbour.

Entrance to the Knysna lagoon from the sea
Entrance to the Knysna lagoon from the sea

Houseboating is the most relaxing kind of holiday you can have; no unexpected visitors, no television (well, we don’t have one of those at home either), no computers (Tony forgot his and didn’t miss it at all), and nowhere particular to go. A skipper’s licence isn’t required to pilot the boats, but you have to go through a half hour course and write a short test before being issued with a temporary licence. The boats have a single 40 hp motor, and ours reached a roaring top speed of 10km/h heading downcurrent.

The last two occasions we’ve visited Knysna we dived in search of seahorses, beneath the Sanparks jetty on Thesen Island. The time to do this is half an hour before high tide, for a couple of reasons. One is that the tidal currents in the lagoon are something fierce; unless you want to do a drift dive out through the Heads, you have to dive near slack water. The other is that the rising tide brings clean seawater into the lagoon, increasing visibility. At low tide (we discovered last time we dived there) the visibility is so bad you can’t see a hand in front of your face. We found seahorses both times we dived in Knysna, but the second time (at low tide) more luck than skill was involved.

This time, high tide fell very early in the morning and in the evening. Because it’s close to winter, days are short, and we’d have had to have dived just before sunrise or just before sunset to coincide with the tide. This seemed like hard (and cold) work. We were on holiday, and lazy, so we left the dive gear at home this time. Hopefully next time we go to Knysna the tides will be in our favour, because I did miss seeing those little critters!

One thing we did do that caused us raucous enjoyment was to sit on the edge of our boat one evening as the tide was going out, with a torch and a plastic salad bowl. The most amazing creatures swam past on the outgoing tide, and with some judicious co-ordination of torch and bowl we were able to catch one or two of them, take their picture, ooh and aah, and then release them back into the lagoon. We saw flatworms, lots of baby sole, shrimps with incredible glowing eyes and almost transparent bodies, and even a small blue fish shaped like a needle that we weren’t quick enough to catch.

Seal beating an octopus

During the day we looked at birds, motored around the lagoon a little bit, read, napped (embarrassingly much), and enjoyed the view. On one occasion we beached the boat and Tony wandered up and down a sandbank, where we could hear the sounds of mudprawns and a host of other creatures living just under the mud exposed by the retreating tide.

Heron on a moored boat
Heron on a moored boat
Geese in formation
Geese in formation

There is currently no dive operator or shop in Knysna, but they seem to open and close frequently. There is an angling and diving club in Knysna, and they can probably refer you to a local diver who can guide you if you want to dive the wreck of the Paquita near the Heads, or one of the other reefs in the area outside the Heads.

Rowing boat on shore
Rowing boat on shore

Durban 2013 trip report

It turns out that June is a really good time to go and dive in Durban, especially if you’re from Cape Town and feeling cold and damp. We spent 17-21 June in Durban, dived three days and enjoyed the warm weather (shorts and t shirts are suitable), warm sea (22-24 degrees) and excellent conditions.

On the boat - Patrick of Calypso, Maurice, Craig, Tony, Clare, Christo
On the boat – Patrick of Calypso, Maurice, Craig, Tony, Clare, Christo

We stayed at Ansteys Beach Backpackers, in their self catering units. It’s a 15-20 minute drive from the Bluff to the dive centre at uShaka Marine world, but we enjoyed the proximity to Ansteys Beach and the convenience of the facilities and nearby shops. They have a one toilet roll policy (after which you have to buy your own), which caused some ill feeling for certain members of our group!

We dived with Calypso Diving and Adventure Centre, where Tony has worked as an instructor and done some of his training. The dive centre is busy, with six instructors on the staff. Their shop is a short distance from the wet room where the compressor is situated, right on the beach front. Patrick at Calypso has recently discovered some fantastic deep (suitable for technical divers) wrecks around Durban, most notably the HMS Otus submarine (videos here and here) lying at 105 metres. He runs an extremely professional organisation and we felt safe and relaxed diving with Calypso.

Calypso dive shop at uShaka Marine World
Calypso dive shop at uShaka Marine World

Over the three days that we weren’t in transit, we did six dives. Tony and I skipped the dive in the Lagoon Tank, but it’s a very special one indeed. We dived the wreck of the Fontao and the Coopers light wreck, as well as three dives on the Blood Reef complex opposite the old whaling station on the Bluff. The reefs of Durban are populated by the same colourful tropical fish we see in Sodwana, but there’s a bit less coral and more rocky superstructure.

We had a fantastic time in Durban, and are happy to add it to our list of “not too distant” warm water dive destinations along with Sodwana and Ponta do Ouro.

Article: Jonny Steinberg on the illicit abalone trade in South Africa

South African writer and scholar Jonny Steinberg wrote one of my favourite books, The Number, which should be required reading for every Capetonian. He has written several other books and is a scrupulous and thorough researcher with a wonderfully readable writing style. He also does not shy away from complexity, refusing to settle for simple and expedient explanations.

Imagine my delight when I discovered – purely by accident – that he wrote a 2005 paper about the illicit abalone trade for the Institute of Security Studies, a policy think-tank focused on Africa, and concerned with all aspects of human security (more information here).

Steinberg identifies four factors which caused the tremendous growth in the abalone poaching industry in the early 1990’s, as South Africa became a democracy:

  • The rand-US dollar exchange rate weakened from R2.55 at the end of 1990, to R11.99 by the end of 2001. This made exports of US dollar-denominated commodities (with cost of production in rands) an extremely lucrative way to make money.
  • An efficient Chinese organised crime presence had already existed in South Africa for many years.
  • South Africa has notoriously poor border controls and porous borders.
  • The changing political situation had a significant impact on the coloured fishing communities along the coastline.

Steinberg identifes the fourth factor as the most important one. He says this:

The transition to democracy carried with it a universal expectation that access to the sea ought to open up quickly and dramatically. To make the politics of the moment more complicated, many members of coastal coloured communities were deeply suspicious of the recently unbanned ANC. Come South Africa’s first democratic election in April 1994, the coloured working class would vote overwhelmingly for the ruling party of the apartheid era, the National Party, in the hope that it would provide a bulwark against their fears of an African majority government.

It was a potent combination: on the one hand the expectation that democracy ought to be coupled with the speedy implementation of a just fishing regime; on the other, a deeply held suspicion that the new government would betray the coloured working class. This cocktail of expectations and fears could not have been more propitious for abalone poaching. The resource was lying there in the sea and growing more lucrative by the day. Given the politics of the moment, a great many people who had lived their lives on the coastline believed that they were entitled to it, and to a share of the benefits that accrued from harvesting it.

Compare the sentiments described above (“people who had lived their lives on the coastline believed that they were entitled to it, and to a share of the benefits that accrued from harvesting it”) to those expressed by the poacher whom Tony described meeting. It’s very hard to argue against this viewpoint.

Abalone on the slipway at Miller's Point
Abalone on the slipway at Miller’s Point

Last year 7 tons of South African abalone left our shores. One ton of it was legally produced (farmed, with about 150kg harvested from the sea), and the rest was poached. The technicalities of poaching are surprisingly straightforward, for various reasons. Here is one – the nature of abalone itself:

Abalone can be dried, preserved for months or years, and then rehydrated and returned to its natural state. This is crucial to the smuggling process for several reasons. First, live or frozen abalone has a pungent and distinctive smell and is thus difficult to transport or ship undetected. Dried abalone can also be disguised as another product, particularly when border and law enforcement officials have not been trained to recognise it. Second, dried abalone can be preserved indefinitely, which means that it can be gathered over long periods and shipped in bulk. Finally, dried abalone shrinks to about a tenth of its original mass, making it possible store and ship very large consignments.

Dried abalone looks nothing like fresh abalone, and in some cases DNA tests are required to establish what it is. Some of the exported abalone is bartered for drugs, or the ingredients to manufacture them (tik being an obvious example), from the east.

It is clear that this is a problem that does not have a simple solution. However, I don’t believe that the entire subject should be brushed under the carpet by the recreational dive industry because it’s hard to deal with and creates an uncomfortable conflict of interest between the desire to protect our marine environment and the desire to make money selling gear and filling cylinders for poachers. I don’t know – at all – how to address the problem, because refusing to serve someone at a dive shop because you suspect they’re engaged in illegal activity isn’t practical or, necessarily, moral. It could also be personally dangerous. Does anyone have any thoughts or suggestions?

Here is a link to the full text of the paper on the Institute of Security Studies website.


Steinberg mentions that at the time of his writing (2005), the South African government was considering listing abalone in the CITES agreement. CITES, which stands for “Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora”, is an international agreement that requires that certain species must be accompanied by special documentation when are moved across international borders. Rhino horn, some sharks, and seahorses are other examples of animals and animal products subject to CITES.

In 2007, the South African government did in fact go ahead with the CITES listing. There is more information on that decision and the extent of the poaching problem here.