Documentary: No Limits

Freediving is an intriguing sport to outsiders (like me). There’s not a lot to read about it – James Nestor’s Deep is an overview of the sport (to a certain degree), but the rest of the literature is scarce and specialised. Two books – that need to be read in tandem – which you should read if you’re interested in the sport, are The Last Attempt and The Dive. They concern the love affair of Pipin Ferreras and Audrey Mestre, which directly led to the death of Mestre during a “no limits” record attempt.

No limits freediving is a hard to fathom branch of the sport in which the diver descends – rapidly – on a weighted sled, to a specified depth. To ascend, a pressurised cannister of gas inflates a lift bag, bringing the diver back to the surface. Because of the assisted descent and ascent, the divers are able to go far deeper than the other freediving disciplines. Herbert Nitsch holds the men’s record, to 214 metres.

An ESPN documentary about Audrey Mestre, “No Limits”, is now available on Vimeo. It’s 50 minutes long – a considerable time commitment for an online viewing – but fascinating and well structured, and contains ample footage of no limits dive to satisfy your curiosity. Mestre’s record attempt was prompted in part by  a dive by Tanya Streeter, who had broken both the men’s and women’s no limits record with a dive to 160 metres in 2002. The contrast between Streeter’s safety preparations and Mestre’s – arranged by their respective husbands is telling. The end of this documentary, covering Mestre’s final dive, is profoundly disturbing – watch with caution. I’ve embedded the video below.

“No Limits” – The Audrey Mestre Documentary from on Vimeo.

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.

Dive briefings

Diving in Cape Town is often done without a Divemaster. Many of the dive sites are shore entries and quite often they are dived by casual divers and groups of friends.

Dive briefing on the beach at Sodwana
Dive briefing on the beach at Sodwana

Resort environments most often only conduct led dives, meaning there is a Divemaster that knows the site, the local conditions and the wildlife you will most likely encounter. These dives will invariably start with a dive briefing where the site will often be drawn on the sand or displayed in a book. The Divemaster will detail the site, the dive time, what percentage of you air will mean that you are “low on air” (often based on the depth, conditions and skills of the group), who leads, who follows and who buddies up with whom. Dive time and profile will also probably be based on the Divemaster’s computer. A good briefing will also cover lost buddy procedure, what to do in an emergency and the hand signals that will be used. Entry and exit techniques or special requirements will also feature. Some briefings will also include the signals for specific creatures.

In essence a dive briefing should cover as much as possible is a relatively short time (10 minute briefings will bore any diver to death) unless you are planning a very technical or potentially hazardous dive. The more you cover in a briefing the less chance of confusion underwater.

Diving, irrespective of the location is best conducted in a safe manner. (You get to do a lot more dives that way!) Understanding the weather, assessing the conditions and having some knowledge of the site goes a long way to ensure a good dive. Diving within your own ability also rates highly.

Cape Town offers the qualified diver a wide range of dives and the fact that there might not be a Divemaster with you does not mean you should not experience the dives. There are a few basics to consider, knowing the dive site is only possible after you have dived it a few times. Once you have decided to dive a site, read all the available information on the wikivoyage site for diving in Cape Town. This website will be your Divemaster. It will tell you how to get in and out, what skills and qualifications you need, depth, and the marine life to be expected. It will also tell you which weather conditions are best for the site. Pay close attention to the bearings if you want to see a specific feature, and know what the bearing is to get you back to shore.

Armed with all of this knowledge you and your buddy/buddies need only agree on a few issues before you set off. Plan your dive and dive your plan. If you agree it will be a 40 minute dive, stick to that. If you decide on who will lead then keep the order as such. Who your buddy will be and depth are important and it is important to agree on signals. As a qualified diver you are responsible for your own air so you need not have a Divemaster check it for you. If you are a group that dive together often then its best to base the dive time on the member with the worst air consumption, unless they are happy to return to shore alone. You will need a compass, and you will need to read the site details together to ensure you all have a good idea of the environment and likely conditions. You must have an SMB as this avoids the potential haircut you can receive from a passing boat.

It should not be required to cover this but I will ANYWAY, Make sure your equipment is proper, the correct size, and in serviceable condition. Don’t enter the water if you have an equipment malfunction or a leak or any other issue. Don’t think “we won’t be deep,” or “we won’t be far from the shore” and dive with faulty equipment. Should an emergency arise and you are swept out to sea, that small leak on you BCD will soon be a huge problem.

Diving is a very safe sport if you follow the rules, do the checks, and dive within your training. Do these things and you will have thousands of dives, each one often better that the last one.

Dive gear maintenance: Regulators

People often say this is the most important part of your dive gear. It’s not – they are all equally important: take any one item out of the equation and see how lousy your dive is.

One of my regulators
One of my regulators

It is however a sensitive part of dive gear and needs more meticulous care.


If possible rinse and purge your second stages in water whilst connected to a cylinder. If you don’t have a cylinder handy, purge the regulators thoroughly before turning your air off. This helps to blow out sand and water. Remember to dry and fit the dust cap the minute you remove the regulator from the cylinder.

Do not submerge the first stage in water, hold it just above the bath and splash water on it to rinse off any salt or sand. Do not depress the purge buttons on your regulators while you are washing it, as this will allow water to enter the system.

I like to soak the regulators in warm water and rinse the inside of the mouth piece thoroughly whilst connected to a cylinder. Try and rub the inside of your mouth piece with your little finger and feel if its slimy: if it is it needs to be stripped and cleaned.

Water in the system

If for some reason your first stage is submerged without the dust cap, or if you run out of air at depth and water gets into it, it should go for a service as soon as possible as it will be possible for a service technician to strip, clean and re-assemble it. If you leave it for a while it will need a service kit and occasionally some parts will require replacement if they have become corroded.

Many people believe that a quick fix for a submerged first stage is to connect it to a cylinder, turn on the air and depress both purge buttons for several minutes. This is utter rubbish: while it may remove some of the moisture, the high volume of air will drop the temperature inside the pillar valve and first stage resulting in more moisture content than you started with. The big issue is that the second you open the cylinder the system is charged with the high pressure port then opened and all the water will go directly to your pressure gauge capillary tube and this will be the beginning of the end for your pressure gauge.

Bookshelf: Diver Down

Diver Down: Real-World Scuba Accidents and How to Avoid Them – Michael R. Ange

Diver Down
Diver Down

This book should be compulsory reading for all careless, lazy, poorly-trained, slapdash or happy-go-lucky divers out there. In fact, for all divers.

This book is short with lots of sidebars (I don’t like these in books – they make it hard to read smoothly). Each chapter starts with an account of a diving accident (not all of them fatal). An analysis of what went wrong follows, as well as a short checklist of what you can do to avoid a similar fate.

I was at first reluctant to read this book because I thought it might scare me, but Tony devoured it and suggested I read it. It was disturbing, but didn’t give me nightmares. Michael Ange doesn’t write in a prurient or senstational manner – he just presents the facts. He has ample experience reviewing diving accidents.

Most of the time it was really simple things that caught people out, or a cascade of trivial compounding errors or problems. Often it was ego or over-confidence that led to the problems. Controlling partners or well-meaning parents who pressured their loved ones into doing things they shouldn’t also feature strongly.

The emphasis is on training, experience and common sense – every single thing you learn in your dive courses is vital. PADI and friends want to make diving fun and accessible, and they’ve pared down the manuals to be as concise and un-intimidating as possible… So EVERY SINGLE WORD counts. This is both a good thing (no scary huge textbooks) and a bad thing (you NEED to pay attention when you read and watch the DVDs and spend time with your instructor).

Dive briefings are also important. Your local Divemaster isn’t trying to dampen the mood by warning you not to surface without an SMB – he’s ensuring that you don’t end up out at sea without a signalling device, or with an unwanted Yamaha haircut. When the skipper and Divemaster speak they’re doing it out of a wealth of local (and that’s important) experience. Pay heed.

You can get a copy of the book here if you’re in South Africa, and here otherwise. If you want to read it on your Kindle, go here. If you dive, you should read it. And you should do a Rescue Diver course.

Bookshelf: Shadow Divers

Shadow Divers – Robert Kurson

Shadow Divers
Shadow Divers

This book is gripping – I loved it. It describes the discovery and diving on a German U-boat in the northern Atlantic Ocean. It took over six years before the vessel was conclusively identified, and Kurson describes the process followed – including multiple dead ends – by John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, the two divers who persisted with the mystery long after others had lost interest.

It’s a mixture of terrifying deep wreck diving and penetration, WWII history, and personal drama that I found quite irresistible. Three divers died on the submarine before it was identified, and every imaginable diving accident – from entanglement to DCS to panic to nitrogen narcosis (a big feature, since the sub lies at about 70 metres and initially the diving on her was on air), and the constant risk of being lost at sea if you didn’t surface on the line – occurs. I still don’t think this kind of diving is for me – the dangers are too great.

I admired the determination of Chatterton and Kohler to put a name to the submarine, thus providing closure to the families of the German officers who perished on board. Their rectitude and determination not to desecrate a war grave and the resting place of nearly sixty men was admirable. It’s possible that, had they agreed to rummage among the human remains all over the submarine, they’d have located an item of someone’s personal effects that would have speeded the identification process, but they refused to disturb the bones.

The culture of American deep wreck diving sounds as though it is quite macho and cowboy-like (one group of divers wore matching denim jackets with a skull and crossbones on it), and for Chatterton and Kohler to buck that trend was a big thing.

I learned one useful thing that has stayed in my mind since I finished the book – maybe I knew it all along, but it was articulated here in a clear manner: when you run into difficulties in the water, solve the first problem completely before you try to solve a second or third one. You need to answer each problem fully when it occurs, because accidents happen when a small thing is ignored, which then combines with another problem to cause a life-threatening situation.

In the acknowledgements, Kurson mentions Deep Descent by Kevin McMurray, which describes diving on the wreck of the Andrea Doria in the same dangerous, cold, rough piece of ocean. Many of the protagonists in MacMurray’s book appear in Shadow Divers, as do the same pair of dive boats – the Seeker and the Wahoo. He also cites Neutral Buoyancy by Tim Ecott, another of our favourite diving books, as an inspiration and source for some of the decompression theory.

Unfortunately the aggressive, fiercely competitive ethos that has been allowed to fester among this particular group of divers has led to the publication of a rival account by Gary Gentile (who appeared extensively in Deep Descent). It’s called Shadow Divers Exposed and apparently refutes much of what is described by Kurson. Gentile is clearly a bitter and angry man, with several axes to grind. It does however seem possible that in focusing the book so squarely on Kohler and Chatterton, Kurson allowed it to seem as though the two of them are due more credit for identifying the U-boat than they really are, so this book should be read with a small measure of caution. I would still strongly recommend it, however – the overarching truths and events described did take place, even if a few small-minded participants and observers would quarrel over specific details.

The book is available here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here. If you want to read it on your Kindle, go here.

Be my buddy…

Many experienced divers have very low tolerance levels for new divers, especially on a boat. It is sad that they have quickly forgotten that they were once a greenhorn, new to the world of diving and slow in getting ready once the boat had reached the dive site. These are usually the divers that will do stupid things thinking they are “exceptional divers” and in fact they are the ones that should know better. Experience comes with time, time underwater exposes you to many different situations and we all learn from these sometimes silly mistakes and sometimes dangerous errors of judgment.

An Open Water course, irrespective of the certifying agency, is essentially an introduction to the basics, and all the skills you acquire during your course will not be of a huge benefit in a dire situation unless you hone them from time to time. Many a diver will not have removed their mask underwater since they did their first dive course and I know of many such divers who have never performed any of the skills since the training days of their course.

You will seldom see an experienced diver doing a buddy check, but you will often be asked to turn their air on for them after they have kitted up and are ready to roll into the water. You will seldom see them checking their buddy’s training level, but will often see them alone at the bottom without a clue as to their buddy’s whereabouts. You will seldom hear anyone on the boat voicing any concerns about the dive site or the dive conditions, yet you will hear all of these thoughts after the dive. Imaging swimming around underwater blissfully unaware of the near-panic state half the group are in. What will you do if you are suddenly faced with a group of panicked divers?

Dirk, Tony and Cecil on the surface at North Paw
Dirk, Tony and Cecil on the surface at North Paw

A  few simple tips

Imagine this… You are qualified and ready to explore the world. You book a dive and are allocated a buddy on the boat on the way to the dive site. “Hi my name is Bob!” and a few minutes later you backward roll into the water. Descending slowly you look at your buddy Bob, who is descending like a rocket as he is wearing twice the required weight and wonder, “Can he dive? How long will he stay down? What will I do if he sucks his cylinder dry in 10 minutes and refuses to surface alone?”

Diving is a very safe sport. Follow the rules and things just don’t go wrong, but deviate, modify and ignore them and a good dive can turn bad very quickly.

  • Know your buddy. Prior knowledge that your buddy has problems equalising will prevent you sitting on the bottom waiting for 20 minutes for them to descend.
  • Know how his equipment works, know his dive style and know his level of experience
  • Have a plan that includes the depth you will go to, the route you will follow, who will lead and what your planned low on air pressure will be, will he ascend alone, do you both have an SMB, a knife, a snorkel and a whistle?
  • Know what feature of his attire you will use to recognise him as divers all kitted out in black look very similar in 3 metre visibility.
  • Know your own equipment well, know your limits and voice your apprehension if it is there before the dive Knowing your buddy is terrified of jellyfish makes it easier to understand their need to swim at high speed in the opposite direction when confronted by one.
  • Do a thorough buddy check: it takes but a minute, remember that there is a 100% chance that a problem experienced underwater by either you or your buddy is going to be your problem, so plan your dive and dive your plan.

FAQ: Don’t you feel claustrophobic underwater?

Many people seem to think that they’ll experience claustrophobia when they put their faces in the water, with their breathing restricted to their regulator, wearing a wetsuit, and having all that water around them.

Here are some facts…

Breathing from a regulator

A regulator or demand valve is a brilliantly designed piece of equipment that attaches to a hose linked to a cylinder of compressed air. It’s constructed so that it’s easy to breathe from – no more effort is required than breathing without one, it gives you as much air as you need, and you can even cough or (I know this from sad experience) vomit with it in your mouth and you won’t have ANY trouble at all with the consequences… If you get my drift. In the unlikely event that it fails, it won’t fail in the “off” position and stop your air supply; it will free flow (deliver a continuous stream of air). One of the skills you do in your Open Water course is breathing off a free-flowing regulator, so you are fully equipped to handle this situation.

Your regulator delivers more than enough air, NOT less than you get breathing on land. If you do at some point feel as though you’re not getting enough, it’s because you’re breathing too shallowly. When you dive, your breathing must be deep and slow. Extracting the full goodness out of each breath maximises your enjoyment: your air will last longer, and you’ll feel more relaxed.

Bubbles rising in the Atlantic
Bubbles rising in the Atlantic

Having to breathe out of your regulator – as opposed to being able to go take one breath in each corner of the room, or open your mouth as wide as it can go – is not restrictive at all. If you think about it, when you breathe on land, you’re drawing in the air that is in front of your face. There’s no hardship in not being able to take in the air from down the passageway – that’s not where you are.

What’s more, having the regulator in your mouth only feels funny for the first few minutes. It’s made with soft rubbery flanges that fit in your mouth (mouthpieces come in different sizes, too) and once it’s seated properly you won’t even know it’s there. If you’ve snorkeled, you know what it feels like to have a mouthpiece between your teeth. Breathing from a regulator is easier than breathing from a snorkel, and what’s more you don’t have to worry about rogue waves splashing water into your breathing apparatus! So if you can snorkel, you can definitely scuba dive.

All that equipment

Some people worry about wearing a mask, and think they might feel closed in with one covering their eyes and nose. Firstly, it’s important to note that it’s essential for the mask to cover your nose so that you can equalise your ears . If you wore swimmers’ goggles, they would get compressed onto your face at depth (which would hurt, and might look funny). This way, you can exhale through your nose into the mask to equalise (one of many techniques).

To be honest, a mask is no more claustrophobic to wear than a pair of wrap around sunglasses, and it’s probably going to be a lot more comfortable once you’ve found the one that suits your face shape.

Oscar enjoying all that space
Oscar enjoying all that space

Others worry about wearing a wetsuit, that they won’t feel free to move. They’re right about that: wearing a wetsuit on land is one of the least comfortable things you can do. They’re hot, restrictive, and tight. In the water, however, you won’t even notice it’s there. Wetsuits keep you warm (important in the Cape) and protect you from marine creatures that might sting or scratch you as you pass through their domain. Deciding you won’t like or try diving because wetsuits make you feel cramped is like deciding you aren’t going to eat Haagen-Dazs ice cream because you don’t like the font they write their product labels in.

All that water

Finally, some people worry that they’ll feel trapped under the weight of all the water above them, and that it’s impossibly far to get to the surface. There are a few answers to this:

Firstly, you’ll learn a skill called a CESA, or Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent, on your Open Water course. This enables you to swim for the surface in a controlled, non-panicky manner if you need to. This is not something you’ll just do if you’re feeling uncomfortable one day – it’s for when you run out of air and have no buddy nearby to borrow an octo from.

Second, when you learn to dive you’re not suddenly going to start spending all your time at 30 metres. The PADI Open Water course qualifies you to dive to 18 metres, and you have to do an Advanced course to get to 30 metres, and a Deep specialty to get to 40 metres. So these things come with time. Some divers have no interest in deep diving, and there’s nothing wrong with that – Tony and I spend most of our time in less than 10 metres of water because the best and easiest photographic opportunities are there, and we can stay down a looooong time because our air lasts forever! Your first diving experiences will be in relatively shallow water, and only as you get used to being underwater will your instructor gradually increase the depth you go to.

Looking up in the clear Atlantic
Looking up in the clear Atlantic

I will admit that when visibility is poor, one loses the feeling of having three beautiful dimensions around one to play in. But this is infrequent, and if you’re diving for fun, then you hopefully won’t have to get in the water when conditions aren’t great (unless you’re desperate to get wet, in which case you won’t care!). But the feeling of space when one drops into the gin-clear water of the Atlantic on a summer’s day is so extreme as to make one almost dizzy. Being underwater is the closest I get to flying, and I love it.

In conclusion, diving involves a fair amount of unfamiliar equipment, and is quite different to our day-to-day experiences as human beings on planet earth. You may not like it; but you probably will. If you’re not sure, sign up for a Discover Scuba Diving experience (DSD). Tony even sometimes does these in people’s swimming pools – just to give you a taste of the freedom that comes with breathing underwater. You can make an educated decision about diving after that.

Diving with a buddy

During your Open Water course you are conditioned to dive with a buddy, and a part of the training is doing a buddy check. There are many benefits to a buddy check, but a quick once over of your buddy who does the same to you is not enough. A decent buddy check covering all of the elements of BWARF ensures you and your buddy are ready, have air, have no dangly bits and have all the required items (a mask is not part of a check but try and dive without one and see how little you see).

You both have octos. It’s important to test yours, but equally important is that you test your buddy’s – after all there is a good chance it’s you that will need it in an emergency. Equally important is that you know where everything is on your buddy’s gear. It is unlikely that everyone knows just how to ditch their buddy’s weights if they have an integrated weight system.

Often you will be allocated a buddy on the boat, on the way to the dive site, and you have no idea what kind of gear they are using or even what it looks like. Try and make sure you buddy is next to you on the boat. Once in the water find them on the surface first, and descend together; looking for a total stranger at depth can be a little difficult.

Agree beforehand what the plan is when the first one of you reach the stipulated low on air pressure. Decide who is going to lead, discuss who will navigate, what your dive time will be, your dive profile and so on.

Few people realise just how enjoyable diving is when you have the same buddy dive after dive. Clare and I have done close to 100 dives together and we are so set in our ways that we know exactly what the other is thinking , planning and how each of us will react in a given set of circumstances. For example, when we found a horsefish at Long Beach, I displayed an animated action of a horse being ridden. Clare understood what I was doing but the other six divers in our group thought I was a lunatic.

Know your buddy, plan your dive and dive your plan.