Buying a boat

We decided late in 2011 that we were ready to add a dive boat to our dive school. If you are buying a new boat it’s relatively easy as you just give the boat builder a budget, a list of requirements – this should include the “must have” items as well as the “nice to have” ones. The boat builder will come up with a solution to your problem and within 6-8 weeks you can be on the water.

Buying a 2nd hand boat

Buying a used boat is a little different. Again a budget and list of requirements is needed and then the hunt begins. Initially there seems to be an abundance of suitable boats and the next step is the arduous task of driving out to each and every one and looking at it, testing it, and deciphering the language and terminology used in the sales pitch. Some things are a given – things seldom look as good as they did on the internet. The “hours” on the motors always seem to have an angle that makes you feel you can’t quite believe the numbers and then the biggest catch is the buoyancy certificate. Be careful that the authority that issued the buoyancy certificate has the right to do so.

Finally make sure the person you are buying from is the registered owner and that there is no money outstanding on the boat.

We looked at lots of boats during our search...
We looked at lots of boats during our search…


To operate a boat commercially a SAMSA seaworthy is required. The guidelines for the type of boat you have are found on their website and you can request a check list prior to presenting the boat for its inspection. This gives you the chance to ensure you meet all the requirements. It seems daunting at first but essentially it is a set of safety requirements that need to be met, and starting with a sound boat with valid documents is a good start.

... some more awesome than others
… some more awesome than others

The decision to operate a dive boat

Depending on where you are in the world and the coastline you frequent most, owning a dive boat is sometimes optional, and there are several factors to consider. If you were in KZN, shore diving is almost non existent due to the coastline and the unsheltered beaches. If you had a dive centre there without a boat it would be virtually impossible to offer much in the way of diving or training. Here in Cape Town there are quite a number of shore entries and these sites can fulfil most of the training requirements for a range of courses.

For any of the more advanced courses the depths close to shore don’t meet the criteria set by the certification agencies, and in order to reach the deeper sites a boat is required. For example the PADI Advanced course requires you aim for a maximum depth of 30 metres. The best wrecks for a Wreck Specialty require a boat ride. The most popular wreck for wreck penetration is the Aster which lies in the middle of Hout Bay and again is only accessible by boat. Whilst Cape Town boasts well over 100 dive sites the vast majority are boat dives, and in fact only a handful of the shore dives are relatively easy entries whilst most require a scramble down a bank and back up that bank at the end of a dive. Some also require a surface swim of over 100 meters. Whilst these sites are easy for the accomplished diver, a novice diver, already intimidated by all the new info being crammed into a dive course, doesn’t always find the rocky entries and exits a blast.

In Cape Town many dive operators don’t own boats and instead use the services of other centres or dive charters. This has certain benefits in that there are none of the associated costs and time consuming tasks related to boating and the dive is over once you kit is off loaded, whereas when operating a boat the dives are only over once the boat is home, washed, fuelled and ready for the next dive.

We found that using the services of other centres and boat charters had the disadvantage of seldom being able to choose the site or the launch times and this makes student dive planning a little more difficult. Co-ordinating the change of divers, equipment and dive planning becomes difficult if the first and second launches have students at different levels.

Seahorse in our driveway
Seahorse in our driveway

In addition to this, I have owned sailing vessels and boats for many years and love spending time on the water. In view of the usefulness to our dive school and the enjoyment we would get from boating, we decided that the right thing was for us to buy a boat when we were able to. The result was Seahorse, acquired at the end of March 2012. Since then we have enjoyed many boat dives off our own boat, and had many happy hours exploring False Bay.

Scuba advice and discussion

Unless you’re some kind of diving celebrity, you’re probably only friends with at most a few tens of other divers, and you probably feel comfortable seeking advice from a somewhat smaller number of those. The odds of any of them having tried out the new underwater camera you’ve got your eye on, or having taken a diving holiday to Croatia, let alone several (so that you can compare a range of experiences and dive operators) is slim. Luckily the interweb is vast, and there are a few places you can go to harness the collective wisdom (sometimes not so much) of the global scuba diving community.

Scubaboard is vast and varied, with sections for everything related to diving that you can imagine… Photography, gear, travel, accidents, health, and every flavour of technical and recreational diving under the sun. One can get lost trawling around in here, and it’s a great place to find information on something a little obscure or unusual.

Reddit is the so-called “front page of the internet”, a news and content aggregator whose user base occasionally makes headlines (example) for the wrong reasons. Use with caution. My suggestion would be to read but not to get involved with discussions (you don’t need an account to browse the site), but that’s because I’m conflict averse and scared of strange men on the internet. It’s very easy to get caught up in a manner of thinking and interacting that you wouldn’t use in a face to face situation or with people you know in real life, but if you’re confident and have a thick skin there are some very interesting areas of the site to explore. The scuba and diving subreddits are quite cool places to hang out – not as active as some of the other parts of the site, but they probably benefit from having a more select group of users who are focused on the sport. Go check it out for yourself – maybe you’ll love it.

DIR Explorers is for devotees of “doing it right” (DIR) – a style of diving that can be applied in both a recreational and technical context, but has some particular practices (all carefully thought out) that make it quite distinctive. You don’t need to be a DIR diver yourself to derive great benefit from the discussions on this site.

LinkedIn has a few groups you can join if you’re a member, and you can start and participate in discussions relevant to the aim of the group. I belong to the Divers Alert Network group, PADI Scuba Divers group and the PADI Pros group. (I haven’t checked out whether there is a NAUI or SSI representation but I’m sure there is!) Unfortunately you can’t browse the content of any of these unless you are a member of LinkedIn and a member of each group as well. If you do join some LinkedIn groups, check the number of members so you don’t end up in a tiny community. There also isn’t a bulletin board or forum structure with topics clearly delineated – discussions arise and fade away but aren’t organised in any way.

On the local front, a group I’ve quite enjoyed is the Underwater Cape Town facebook group. It has a high ratio of inactive members to active ones, but there’s often interesting content and it’s a good place to get the latest news pertaining to local diving and conservation issues, and to ask for advice on photography and identifying species in your photos. It’s not so much for questions on diving technique, though. There is relatively little sales activity and spam which is a bonus.

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.

The perlemoen poacher

I met an abalone poacher some time ago – just after I first came to Cape Town. He’d brought his regulator in for repairs to a dive shop that I happened to be visiting. When the technician opened it up, it was packed solid with particles of rust from his dive cylinders. Confronted with the information that it will cause him to drown one day if he doesn’t bring his cylinders for a visual inspection and hydrostatic cleaning, the poacher explained that his dive cylinders wouldn’t pass a visual, because they’re painted black (instead of South Africa’s regulation grey and canary yellow).

His cylinder isn’t the only thing that is painted black. ALL his dive gear – wetsuit, booties, hood, gloves, regulator, hoses, first stage, pillar valves, BCD, mask, fins, torches, dive computer – is black. There’s not a single reflective surface anywhere. According to the poacher, if he was standing by the side of the road in his dive gear at night, fully kitted up, and you drove past, you wouldn’t see him. At all.

What does he do with all this stealth gear? He dives, alone, at night, to fetch abalone (perlemoen) from the sea. His dives are often to 50 metres, on air, and he has no redundancy in his setup. No alternate air source on his cylinder (“For whom?” he asked), and no buddy. He sometimes does four such dives a night, and can make R40,000 for a single night’s work.

His view of what he does is that the abalone lives in the sea, and if he goes and fetches it, it’s his. “The ocean is free,” he said. Hardly anyone else is prepared to do four night dives in a row to depths of 50 metres with no support except for a boat on the surface (with no lights showing), and to look for abalone and pry them off the rocks with a crowbar. Why shouldn’t he reap the rewards? He told me that he’s not taking money from poor people – he’s only taking from the ocean, and it’s a big place.

It’s dangerous work, too (and not just because of the way he dives). There are rival poaching groups on the south/east and west coasts, and a police crackdown on the west coast has brought “boatloads” of their poachers across to this side of the world. Shots have been fired, cylinders have been filled with water (hence at least some of the rust), and a simmering atmosphere of impending violent conflict has arisen.

This was the first time that I’d talked to a poacher, and it gave me a lot to think about. This is a world that we don’t necessarily have any insight into as recreational scuba divers, even though we know that what the poachers do is wrong.

Clare and I have seen poachers once or twice before, filling cylinders or buying gear (lots of it, expensive stuff) from dive shops all over. I’ve also seen more than one at Miller’s Point, early in the morning. One tried to sell me his dive gear for money to get home, because his friends had left him alone at the slipway wearing nothing but a wetsuit and his trenchcoat.

You may wonder why I am mentioning this. No one talks about it in the dive industry because it’s awkward and poachers have a lot of cash to spend on gear and air fills. But there is value in looking at hard issues. Tomorrow there is some more reading about abalone poaching, and it’s very thought provoking!

Recompression chambers in Cape Town

Exterior of the hyperbaric chamber
Exterior of the hyperbaric chamber

Some time ago National Hyperbarics closed their facility at Kingsbury Hospital in order to move to another location in the southern suburbs. The move seems to have taken longer than anticipated, and with that in mind I queried DAN SA on facebook as to what the alternative recompression chambers are in the Cape Town area. Here is their response:

We have remained in contact with the diving doctor associated with National Hyperbarics. We can confirm that the unit is currently closed and is in the process of being moved. However, there are a number of other options available in the Cape Town (and larger Western Cape area), which includes the Medical School of the University of Stellenbosch (next to Tygerberg Hospital) as well as some commercial diving schools, commercial diving companies and of course the Navy, which we have approached and we have a collaborative partnership in which we would provide the medical support (medical doctors to provide the treatment) and they would provide the technical support (chambers, etc.). It is also of note to mention that the Provincial Government of the Western Cape has made finances available to ensure availability of recompression facilities. As always, this requires some coordination, and it was decided at a multilateral meeting that DANSA would assume overall coordinating responsibility. Therefore, it is vital to phone the DANSA hotline in case of an emergency – and ensure that your membership admin is up to date! Happy diving!

That is all good news. There are alternative chambers in the greater Cape Town area, and DAN will co-ordinate your evacuation to the nearest one (i.e. you don’t have to try and remember where they are). Just ensure that you have current, up to date DAN cover.

Cape Town Dive Festival (day two)

Grey day at Miller's Point
Grey day at Miller’s Point

The second day of the dive festival dawned grey and cloudy, with a north westerly wind blowing. This flattens the sea in False Bay, but it was quite strong and made for some slightly choppy surface conditions.

The dives in the middle of the day were almost blown (and rained) out by a squall that swept down False Bay like a banshee. Several boatloads of intrepid divers ventured out, and were rewarded with good visibility and even some rays of sun breaking through the clouds. One of the divers who went down to Batsata Maze around 1130 told me he know knows how the seamen on Deadliest Catch feel! At the dive control desk, I was receiving the skippers’ lists of who had been on their boat. Some of them were returned pristine and dry, while others looked worthy of conservation in a museum.

Dive and Adventure setting off to launch
Dive and Adventure setting off to launch

By the third dive session, beginning around lunchtime, things had cleared up considerably.

The prize giving was held at 5pm, and was very well attended. An impressive array of prizes were offered, and there were some very happy divers after the event! The efforts of the photo competition have been published on the CTDF facebook page, as well as the names of the other prize winners. The sponsors donated very generously, making this aspect of the festival very rewarding to the participants. One or two lucky individuals won more than one prize… Lucky is probably not the right word – in order to win prizes, you have to make the effort of entering the competitions, and these folk certainly did that!

Boats queuing to load up with divers and gear
Boats queuing to load up with divers and gear

After prizegiving, Bellville Underwater Club served chicken potjie, and many divers lingered over the hot meal. I went home and slept like the dead.

Shooting the breeze on the grass
Shooting the breeze on the grass

Now that this event has passed, I am enjoying having free time to spend as I wish, sleeping a lot, and trying to rid my body of the excess of cortisol that has built up steadily since March. Also, unpacking the boxes at home (we moved house a week before the festival). The festival will be a bi-annual event, with the next one in 2014. I hope to do a dive or two at the next one, and enter some competitions!

Cape Town Dive Festival (day one)

Cape Town Dive Festival
Cape Town Dive Festival

The Cape Town Dive Festival was held on the weekend of 8 and 9 September, at the Cape Boat and Ski Boat Club at Miller’s Point. My role was mostly to take bookings, which in most cases was a pleasant experience. By the time the festival rolled around I felt as though I had a whole bunch of new diving acquaintances, and it was a pleasure to meet them at registration where they collected a t shirt and lanyard with a lucky draw number on it.

Loading the BlueFlash boat onto its trailer after a dive
Loading the BlueFlash boat onto its trailer after a dive

The format of the festival was similar to the Port Elizabeth dive festival. Eight dive boats, two hundred and something divers, 45 boat launches and four shore dives to Shark Alley in total over the two days… The festival sponsors donated a range of fabulous prizes, and with a variety of competitions and lucky draws everyone stood a chance to win something. The participating dive operators, clubs and sponsors all had gazebos on the lawn around the clubhouse, and a festive atmosphere was ensured by Matt and Monty, who handled the music and announcements throughout the day. OMSAC provided catering from the club kitchen, keeping us all well fed on boerewors rolls and other treats.

Dive briefing
Dive briefing

The weather on the Saturday was picture-perfect, and visibility was excellent (but, strangely, not at the deeper sites). After the boats returned from their third launch, a cannon race was held just off the slipway, which provided much entertainment. The race, arranged by False Bay Underwater Club, required teams of five participants (two on scuba) to lift a concrete “cannon” using a lift bag, and swim it around a buoy and back to its starting position. An element of gruesomeness was added to proceedings by some snoek fishermen who washed their boat on the slipway, sending clouds of fish guts and blood into the water.

Sponsor and participant gazebos
Sponsor and participant gazebos

Throughout the day SURG ran a species identification competition, in which participants had to photograph as wide a range of marine animals as possible. Peter Southwood and Georgina Jones headed up a small but diligent team of fish-ID experts who combed through the photographs and reference books to judge the entries.

Here are some more of the photos I took on the day…

Ship’s cat

Mini shows her best figurehead pose
Mini shows her best figurehead pose

Mini came to live with us to be a friend to Fudge. She is immensely curious, performs routine inspections of the entire house on a daily basis, and likes nothing better than to explore the back of my car and inside the boat. Here she demonstrates that she’d make a fine figurehead, posed on the bow of our rubber duck, Seahorse.

Mini has a change of heart
Mini has a change of heart

Later she realises that the life of a ship’s (boat’s?) cat is not as easy as it may seem when the boat is trailered in the driveway…

Cape Town Dive Festival – first look

Here’s a bit of aerial footage taken on the first day (Saturday 8 September) of the Cape Town Dive Festival. Footage is by Active Ice Studio.

You can see the sponsor and participant gazebos behind the clubhouse, some divers emerging from a shore dive at Shark Alley, and the boats lined up around the clubhouse, ready to receive divers and gear. If you look carefully you can see divers rinsing their kit, and hanging it up to dry behind the clubhouse. You can also appreciate what a magnificent weather day it was, and the beauty of the False Bay coastline.

The guy filleting snoek was not part of the festival! The look on his face when the camera flies up to him is priceless!