Marine-related MOOCs from Future Learn

Coursera is not the only provider of MOOCs. In fact, providers are legion. Future Learn is another provider, owned by the Open University, with an emphasis on European (mostly British) institutions as course providers. I have enjoyed a couple of their courses and can see a few more that interest me!

My favourite Future Learn MOOC is Shipwrecks and Submerged Worlds: Maritime Archaeology from the University of Southampton. I’d like to think that it covers similar ground to the NAS course, but obviously without the practical aspect.

Also from the University of SouthamptonExploring our Oceans deals with ocean exploration and the variety of ecosystems found beneath the waves.

Introduction to Ecosystems from The Open University deals with the web of life and how organisms interact with their environment.

There are several climate-related Future Learn MOOCs on offer, including Climate Change: Challenges and Solutions, Our Changing Climate: Past, Present and Future and Causes of Climate Change.

Courses related to sustainable solutions to the world’s problems include Elements of Renewable Energy and Water for Liveable and Resilient Cities.

Don’t use these courses as a cudgel to beat yourself with. If you sign up for one and circumstances intrude and prevent you from finishing it within the allotted time, don’t be alarmed. The learning is meant to be for your own enjoyment, and the material will either remain accessible to you as a past student, or you can re-enroll for a future iteration of the course.

Visible shipwrecks: MFV Harvest Capella

The rocky peninsula at the northern end of Maori Bay, on the opposite side of the bay to the MV BOS 400 crane barge wreck, is called Oude Schip. It can be reached by walking and bouldering from Llandudno, or, as we (predictably) prefer, on a boat ride out of Hout Bay. We are usually in the area with the aim of diving the wrecks of the Maori, the Oakburn or the BOS 400.

High and dry at Oude Schip
High and dry at Oude Schip

On the rocks at Oude Schip are the remains of a Sea Harvest fishing vessel called MFV Harvest Capella. This 44 metre long diesel trawler ran aground in early October 1987, apparently during a south easterly gale. There are some pictures of her aground here and here.

MFV Harvest Capella at Oude Schip
MFV Harvest Capella at Oude Schip

Over the years, part of her bow has been pushed right up onto the rocks by the force of the waves. At the same time it has been breaking up, and perhaps in a few years will be almost indiscernible. The wreckage is quite unstable, and not really suitable for clambering about in any more.

MFV Harvest Capella on the rocks behind our boat
MFV Harvest Capella on the rocks behind our boat

Next time you’re in the area, ask your boat skipper to take you towards the rocks on the Sandy Bay side of Oude Schip to see how the Harvest Capella is looking these days!

If you’re interested in visible shipwrecks, check out my ebook Cape Town’s Visible Shipwrecks: A Guide for Explorers!

Movie: Men of Honor

Men of Honor
Men of Honor

Men of Honor is a contender for the movie with the most stellar cast that you’ve never heard of. Robert de Niro, Cuba Gooding, Jr, and Charlize Theron star in this ficitonalised account of the life of Carl Brashear, the first US Navy African American master diver.

Brashear grew up in poverty and enlisted in the navy 1948, an era during which race relations in the United States were not that dissimilar to race relations in South Africa. He showed dogged persistence in surmounting obstacles far greater than those placed before his white classmates, and successfully qualified as a navy diver in 1954.

Navy divers performed challenging underwater work, retrieving lost nuclear warheads (this happened more often than you’d like to know, during the dawn of the nuclear era), salvage work, repairs to ships, demolitions, clearing harbours, and maintenance (all underwater, of course). In many respects it is much like commercial diving, but with a combat element to it. The underwater scenes are reasonably convincing (except for one shot with a submarine) – suspiciously clear water being my chief complaint, but realism doesn’t always make for good viewing!

This is a highly simplified account of the life of a complex character, but Tony and I both enjoyed rooting for Brashear to overcome the odds and wipe the smirk off various antagonistic establishment characters’ faces. This always happened (no surprises there). Charlize Theron’s role is quite peripheral and, frankly, somewhat confusing. Robert de Niro is always wonderful.

You can get the DVD here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here. It wouldn’t be a total waste of an evening, specially if you had popcorn to hand…

Bookshelf: Dark Descent

Dark Descent – Kevin F. McMurray

Dark Descent
Dark Descent

Kevin McMurray is the author of Deep Descent, a riveting account of diving the wreck of the Andrea Doria. Here, he turns his attention to the largely forgotten wreck of the RMS Empress of Irelanda liner that sank in Canada’s St Lawrence River in 1914, after colliding with a Norwegian vessel in thick fog. Over 1,000 people lost their lives. The Empress lies in just over forty metres of water, but the current, cold water, low visibility and lack of ambient light make it an extremely challenging dive site on which several divers have lost their lives.

McMurray provides a detailed account of the collision, sinking, and subsequent enquiries into the accident. He also describes the history of diving endeavours on the vessel, which began in 1964, when diving equipment was considerably more rudimentary than it is today. As with the Andrea Doria, it is possible to penetrate the Empress of Ireland through the collision hole in her side. The wreck lies partially on her side, which makes the interior disorienting.

The author has dived the wreck several times himself, which enables him to speak authoritatively of the challenges of cold water, low visibility diving (much like what we sometimes do in Cape Town). The wreck lies some distance out in the river (the St Lawrence is wide and eminently navigable) which has its own associated challenges, too.

There has been a fair amount of political wrangling over the wreck, perpetrated by rival dive charters, self-appointed guardians of the wreck site, and others who hoped to benefit materially from the wreck, and McMurray details some of this.

I found McMurray’s account of diving the Andrea Doria to be more immediate (and to give me more nightmares) than Dark Descent, but it is nonetheless an extremely interesting book that itself serves as a monument to what is Canada’s worst peacetime disaster. Both McMurray’s books go some way to explaining the allure of challenging wreck dives that only few divers will ever have the chance to visit.

You can get a copy of the book here or here.

Dive sites (Red Sea): SS Thistlegorm

SS Thistlegorm was a British merchant navy ship. She was torpedoed and sank by a German bomber while at anchor in the Red Sea in October 1941, quite close to Ras Mohammed National Park. She was carrying an extremely varied cargo including boots, rifles, motorcycles, trucks and two steam locomotives, and much of it can be seen by divers who are qualified to penetrate the wreck.

Arriving on SS Thistlegorm
Arriving on SS Thistlegorm

The Thistlegorm has much mystique attached to her – much like SS Lusitania lying on Bellows Rock off Cape Point, I suppose – and it seems that no liveaboard trip to the northern Red Sea is complete without at least one dive on the wreck. Philistine that I am, I did not feel as compelled to dive the Thistlegorm as much as many of the other (British) divers on board our boat did. Perhaps it is the British connection that I am missing. As a war grave and a significant part of the British war effort, the Thistlegorm is well beloved there. She also stopped in Cape Town during her short time at sea!

Crocodilefish on deck
Crocodilefish on deck

The wreck is known for very strong currents that can arise without warning, change direction in minutes, and can make complete exploration of the outside of the wreck something of a challenge. We did two dives on the Thistlegorm, one after the other. On our first dive the current was strong but manageable, running from the bow (our entry point) to the stern – we just had to watch our gas carefully to ensure that we had enough to swim back to the bow against the current. By the time we did our second dive the current was absolutely insane, and as a result we spent most of that dive exploring the bow and the area close to it.

Winch on board the Thistlegorm
Winch on board the Thistlegorm

The bow area is very striking, with huge winches and chains that house many interesting creatures in their bends and folds. The strong current was making the fish very happy, and the wreck was swarming with glassfish and other piscine life, all feeding in the current. The dive briefing for a wreck like this is extremely thorough, and as a result we were able to identify each of  the features as we swam over them. Close to the bow are two huge water tanks, both crushed by the water pressure. Lying next to the wreck on the sand is one of the locomotives that was on board as deck cargo. The blast area where the torpedo hit (the ammunition hold, number four) is very obvious, as is the fact that there was additional explosive power provided by the ammunition in that hold.

Tony over the wreck
Tony over the wreck

I’m not particularly keen on going inside shipwrecks, particularly with a group of twenty people I don’t know from Adam, so I didn’t take up the opportunity to explore the cargo holds of the Thistlegorm. I know that for many on board our boat, however, this was the highlight of their trip. An advantage of going inside the wreck was that they escaped the force of the current, but it did necessitate careful planning to emerge far enough forward on the wreck to be able to exit at the right place.

On the day we dived the Thistlegorm I counted twelve liveaboards tied up to her. Efforts to preserve the wreck from the damage that can be done by a carelessly placed anchor or a mooring line tied to a sensitive location have met with mixed success. There was a brief ban on liveaboards tying up to the wreck a few years ago, but that isn’t in place any more. In any case, it requires care and smarts to note and remember which anchor line is yours for the ascent. All divers look pretty much the same – I reckon you’d be on the dive deck of the wrong boat before anyone realised you didn’t belong!

Dive date: 21 October 2013

Air temperature: 27 degrees

Water temperature:  26 degrees

Maximum depth: 21.2 metres

Visibility: 40 metres

Dive duration: 38 minutes

Kate next to a toppled mast
Kate next to a toppled mast

Red Sea trip photos: diving from a liveaboard

Here are some photos to show you what it’s like to dive off a liveaboard. They were taken on our Red Sea trip in October. The centre of the diving activity was the dive deck at the lower level of the boat, at the back. There we hung our wetsuits, and we each had a cylinder and a box to keep our loose bits of gear in. We used the same cylinder throughout the entire trip, and the crew used the long hoses of the compressor to fill our tins right where they stood. We didn’t unbuckle our BCDs from our cylinders once.

A black (air) or green (Nitrox) tag around the neck of our cylinders indicated what gas we were diving with. We used Nitrox throughout. A numbered tag attached to the shoulder of our BCDs enabled the crew to keep track of who had returned from their dive. They also wrote down our dive times and maximum depths for each dive, and we signed those figures off each evening. This is in case of an accident – they know what your dive profile is for the week.

There were dives before breakfast, after breakfast, after lunch, and at night. On the first and last days we did three and two dives, respectively. I managed three dives a day. Christo did four! Most of us skipped a dive here and there, owing to fatigue, illness (don’t drink the tap or sea water, is all I can say), and general laziness! The briefings were detailed, with maps or slideshows to familiarise us with each dive site. We were told what creatures to look out for, and where they like to hide. For wrecks that could be penetrated, the dive guides explained the preferred route more than once.

After getting into our wetsuits we sat down in front of our kit, shrugged it on with the help of one of the crew, and walked down to the dive deck. There we either put our fins and mask on and giant strided into the water, or held our fins and climbed onto one of the Zodiacs to be driven a short distance to the dive site. This technique was used at busy sites where there were many other liveaboards already anchored, or locations where it wasn’t safe for the big boat to go.

To get out of the water we were either fetched by a Zodiac, or we returned to the back of the liveaboard and climbed up the dive ladders in our full kit. Helping hands were ready to assist us with our fins. We’d put our kit back, hang up our wetsuits, put cameras into the rinsing container on the dive deck, and then eat. Every dive was followed by food! And often, a nap.

At times strong currents had us hanging onto lines down to a wreck, and this also made getting back to the liveaboard a challenge at times. On one occasion the current was so strong that I wasn’t sure I’d make it from the line tied to the corner of the stern onto the ladder in the middle of the stern – a distance of two metres – without getting swept away. Some acrobatics and long arm stretches from Tony saved the day!

The process of diving off a liveaboard is far less strenuous than diving in Cape Town, which is why we could still walk after doing three or four dives a day. For one thing, the warm water means you get far less fatigued, and you use less air, too. The crew were extremely helpful on our trip, even zipping our wetsuits and providing soapy water when pulling on our thick cold water Trilastic suits seemed too much like hard work!

Red Sea 2013 trip report

Me, Christo, Kate and Veronica on the sundeck
Me, Christo, Kate and Veronica on the sundeck

We returned from our Red Sea liveaboard trip on Sunday, and have been slowly returning to normal life (essentially doing things other than eating, sleeping, diving in warm water with magnificent visibility, and lounging around on deck like millionaires). It’s been tough.

Two of the blue o two liveaboards at the jetty
Two of the blue o two liveaboards at the jetty

The itinerary we followed was the Northern Wrecks and Reefs one offered by blue o two. Our vessel was M/Y blue Melody, on the right in the photo above. We dived wrecks like the ThistlegormGiannis D, and Chrisoula K, and a number of reefs. We did a couple of spectacular drift dives, and on most of the wrecks there was the opportunity to go inside for the suitably qualified. It was compulsory to dive with an SMB. The most memorable reef dives were done inside the Ras Mohammed National Park.

Captain Mohammed and Tony on the fly deck
Captain Mohammed and Tony on the fly deck

Life on board the boat had a simple rhythm: dive, eat, sleep, repeat. During surface intervals the crew moved to new sites, and we either dived directly from the liveaboard or were transported short distances (in full kit) on Zodiacs – rubber ducks like the ones we use in Cape Town. During the time we were away, we had the opportunity to do 21 dives of which four were night dives. The diving was spread over six days. We skipped a couple of dives for various reasons including tiredness and illness, but overall managed to do a lot of diving in a short space of time. The warm water and helpfulness of the crew meant that it wasn’t nearly as physically taxing as you’d imagine. We used Nitrox throughout, not so much because we were doing particularly deep dives and needed the extra time (though it certainly helped), but for overall health reasons and to minimise fatigue.

Bluff Point
Bluff Point

Most of the time we were within sight of land. The landscape is mainly desert, with spectacular sunrises and sunsets. The reefs rise to within a few feet of the surface, and are clearly visible from the boat when it isn’t moving. Navigation in the Red Sea must be very tricky for the inexperienced, however. The number of spectacular wrecks is testament to this!

Sunset over the Red Sea
Sunset over the Red Sea

The day we arrived in Egypt and the day of our departure were mostly spent at the Marriott Hotel in Hurghada, waiting to board our vessel (the first day) and the plane (the last day). We lounged by the pool and checked out the private beach there, and felt very relaxed.

Prior to the trip we had some (understandable) concerns regarding the safety of travelling through Egypt to get to the liveaboard, but we kept tabs on the travel advice provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the UK. Since we would merely be in transit through Cairo airport, and would not actually be sleeping a single night on land, we were happy to go ahead with the trip. The Red Sea coastal area has been extremely calm throughout the recent unrest, and, as it derives 95% of its revenue from tourism, the locals have been keen to keep it that way.

The beach at the Marriott Hotel in Hurghada
The beach at the Marriott Hotel in Hurghada

We took a lot of photo and video on the trip, and will be sorting through it and sharing it over the next couple of months. Watch this space!

Article: Esquire on diving the Andrea Doria

The wreck of the Andrea Doria, a luxury Italian cruise ship that sank in the north Atlantic ocean in 1956, is to some divers a sort of Mount Everest. It lies in about 70 metres of seawater, 160 kilometres from land. It has claimed ten lives to date and been the subject of several books and essays. Deep Descent deals specifically with this wreck. Shadow Divers and The Last Dive describe dives on the wreck, as well as featuring several of the regular charter captains and divers who pioneered diving on the Doria.

An Esquire article from 2000, written by Bucky McMahon (author of this article on Reunion’s shark problem), describes diving on the wreck, and attempts (as do they all) to pin down the allure of this particular piece of ocean debris. The article was written after a thirteen month period (late 1998- late 1999) during which five divers from the same charter boat (the Seeker) died on the wreck. It is written in a masculine, aggressive style that may be characteristic of McMahon’s writing, but is certainly characteristic of the sort of behaviour that seems to play (or have played) out on the Andrea Doria since people started diving her.

But how does it feel? What’s it like to know you are in a story that you will either retell a hundred times or never tell? You decide to drop down into the black hole. No, you don’t decide; you just do it. Why? You just do. A little ways, to explore the wreck and your courage, what you came down here to do. What is it like? Nothing under your fins now for eighty feet but the mass and complexity of the machine on all sides–what was once luminous and magical changed to dreary chaos. Drifting down past the cables that killed John Ornsby, rusty steel lianas where a wall has collapsed. Dropping too fast now, you pump air into your b.c., kick up and bash your tanks into a pipe, swing one arm and hit a cable, rust particles raining down. You’ve never felt your attention so assaulted: It is everything at once, from all directions, and from inside, too. You grab the cable and hang, catching your breath–bubble and hiss, bubble and hiss. Your light, a beam of dancing motes, plays down a battered passageway, where metal steps on the left-hand wall lead to a vertical landing, then disappear behind a low, sponge-encrusted wall that was once a ceiling. That’s the way inside the Doria.

Read the complete article here.

Bookshelf: Submerged

Submerged – Daniel Lenihan

Submerged - Daniel Lenihan
Submerged – Daniel Lenihan

Until his retirement, Daniel Lenihan had a dream job, combining diving and archaeology, at the US National Park Service’s Submerged Resources Unit (formerly the Submerged Cultural Resources Unit or SCRU, and renamed in 1999 to include natural resources). He cut his teeth diving during the heydays of the sport, and became a skilled cave diver working with Sheck Exley in Florida in the 1960s and 70s, and deployed many of the principles of that sport when penetrating historical shipwrecks in the United States and around the world.

Submerged, a memoir of Lenihan’s time in the National Parks Service, is a cracker of a book – Clive Cussler wishes he could write like this, and it isn’t even fiction. A competing volume (if you will), Adventures of a Sea Hunter, by James Delgado – a sometime colleague of Lenihan – covers some of the same ground, but with far less impact and immediacy. Lenihan is clearly a doer, and has the requisite ego and charisma to make things happen, even in a bureaucratic setting.

The SCRU team dives and maps wrecks all over the world, from freezing, rough conditions in the Great Lakes in the United States, to a war grave in Pearl Harbour, Micronesia, the Aleutian Islands, and Bikini Atoll, where the US conducted multiple nuclear weapons tests. The chapter that made the greatest impression on me, however, was Lenihan’s account of a body retrieval that he and a buddy did of a diver who had gotten lost and drowned inside an old building that is now submerged in a dam. His account of diving in visibility measured in centimetres, trying to figure out where the diver could have gone in that confined, dark space, is riveting and terrifying. I was also very interested by the tests his team did on submerged motor vehicles, to determine how quickly a car fills up when it is driven into water. Lenihan himself drove a car into a dam, with scuba gear on the seat beside him, and his team attempted a rescue. Because of the air pockets in the vehicle, it was far less stable and much harder to access while submerged than the team initially expected.

The toughness, rigour, safety awareness and innovation that the SCRU team brought to their work is marvellous to me, particularly as they were technically part of an arm of the US government. None of the arms of government are particularly effective in South Africa! This is a fascinating, wide-ranging read that will interest divers and those fascinated by history, particularly its relics that lie underwater.

If you’re in South Africa you can get the book here, otherwise try here or here. For a kindle copy, go here.