A look of disapproval

Disapproving Fudge is disapproving
Disapproving Fudge is disapproving

Looking at all the paraphernalia on the boat around him – wetsuits, BCDs, and other gear – I am guessing that the expression of opprobrium on Fudge’s face is related to the lack of direct attention he is receiving from the boat’s owner. Attention (and adulation) is like jet fuel to Fudge.

Our protocol for scuba diving with cowsharks

Curious cowshark
Curious cowshark

Shark Alley is a special and unusual dive site just south of Millers Point. It is an aggregation site for broadnose sevengill cowsharks, predators who feed on seals and a variety of other animals. They can grow to three metres in length. These sharks seem to use this site as a resting area (though we aren’t sure – research is ongoing) and their behaviour is typically docile and relaxed. For this reason it is a great place to dive, as the sharks come close enough to get a good look at them but do not behave in a threatening manner.

There has never been a serious incident involving a diver and a shark at this site, but there have been a few incidents. Clare has had her pillar valve gnawed on by a feisty young male shark while on a dive here a few years back, and early in May a diver was bitten on the arm by one of the sharks. That latter bite made the newspaper (the shark drew blood and the NSRI was summoned), but I am sure that there have been other more minor incidents here that didn’t get reported.

Young cowshark
Young cowshark

This got me thinking about a protocol for diving with these animals. Shark dives all over the world are governed by safety protocols and guidelines, usually put in place by dive operators themselves (examples here and here). We do have a set of standards that we adhere to when visiting this site and mention in dive briefings, but I’ve never written them down all together before. I am a firm believer in self regulation, whereby the industry regulates itself so that we don’t end up with a bureaucrat in an office telling us we can’t dive with cowsharks without (for example) a special permit, or (heaven forbid) ever again!

Cowshark passing a diver
Cowshark passing a diver

So here’s our protocol – how we choose to regulate ourselves when diving this site. It’s not a set of hard and fast rules that everyone has to follow, but it’s how we choose to approach dives at Shark Alley, a little bit like Underwater Africa’s diver code of conduct, but for cowshark diving. You are welcome to use these principles yourself, and I’d like to hear any suggestions you have to improve them or for points I may not have thought of.

  1. Do a positive entry (i.e. with your BCD fully inflated) if you are diving off the boat, so you do not risk landing on a shark in mid water. If there is a thermocline, the sharks typically swim above it, and may be shallower than you expect.
  2. Descend slowly in a controlled manner, looking below you at all times. Ensure that you are carrying sufficient weight (you should be able to kneel on the sand if necessary).
  3. Do not make any physical contact with the sharks. Do not try and stroke them as they swim by, and do not hang on their tails or dorsal fins.
  4. Do not feed the sharks. Don’t carry anything edible (sardines, for example) in your BCD, and do not chum from the boat. This includes washing the deck off at the dive site if you’ve just been fishing or on a baited shark dive. Chumming is both illegal (you need a permit) and unsafe, especially if there are divers in the water.
  5. If you have students in the water, perform skills away from the sharks (if possible, avoid conducting skills at this site).
  6. Some sharks will show a keen interest in your camera and flash or strobes. Do not antagonise them by putting a camera directly in their face. If a shark is showing undue interest in your photographic equipment, hold off taking pictures for a moment while it swims away.
  7. Move out of the sharks’ way if they swim towards you. (Here’s a video of Tami doing just that.) Cowsharks are confident and curious, and often won’t give way to divers. Respect their space and move far enough away that they won’t rub against you or bump you as they swim by.
  8. Be alert for any strange behaviour by an individual shark or the sharks around you. Be aware of your surroundings and don’t become absorbed with fiddling with your camera or gear. If a shark does become overly familiar (bumping or biting), gather the divers together in a close group and abort the dive in a controlled manner.
  9. Do not dive at this site at night or in low light. This is probably when cowsharks feed (though we aren’t sure), and as ambush predators their behaviour is likely to be quite different in dark water when they’re in hunting mode.
  10. Do not dive at this site alone. When diving in a group, stay with the group and close to your buddy.

I am not writing this protocol down to make people afraid of diving with cowsharks in Cape Town. But I do think it’s important to remember that this is a dive that needs to be taken seriously, with safety as a priority. Because we can visit this site whenever we want to, it’s tempting to become blasé about what an amazing experience it is, and also about the fact that these are sharks that need to be respected.

In conclusion! Unlike great white sharks, cowsharks (and blue sharks, and mako sharks, and and and…) are not protected in South Africa, so it’s not illegal to fish for them in permitted fishing areas (i.e. outside no take zones, etc). One of the cage diving operators in Gansbaai even used to use cowshark livers in his chum… If you want to make a difference in the lives of cowsharks and ensure they’re still here for us to dive with in future decades, consider writing a letter to the relevant government minister (make sure it’s the current one, in the new cabinet) and also to the shadow minister from the opposition party, requesting protection for more shark species in South African waters.

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!

Sniffing the dive gear

Mini cat is the supervisor of all activities at home, and it’s only right that she continues our popular “cats on a boat” series with this shot of her inspecting damp dive gear after a successful morning’s dive with the seals in Hout Bay, at Duiker Island.

Mini cat checks the gear
Mini cat checks the gear

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.

Thousand yard stare

Even though Junior is a scant six months old, his face has a wisdom and maturity of a much older soul. Here he demonstrates his thousand yard stare while posing with a Mares BCD. This photo reminds me of a pretentious watch advertisement featuring a polar explorer or musician, to be honest. Though Junior is of course far better looking and a much better conversationalist.

Junior's best pose
Junior’s best pose

A Day on the Bay: Octopus fishing and herons

Date: 15 April 2013

Heron in the Simon's Town yacht basin
Heron in the Simon’s Town yacht basin

You see something new on the ocean every day. This handsome grey heron was standing around on the floating barrier in the Simon’s Town yacht basin when we left from FBYC to head out for a day of diving. We see herons quite often actually (there’s one that likes to hang out at A Frame, for example), but it’s not every day that you see a dive site marked with an inflated BCD instead of a nice big orange buoy. This photo was taken while some divers were down on the wreck of the SAS Pietermaritzburg.

An inflated BCD, used as a buoy marking a dive site
An inflated BCD, used as a buoy marking a dive site

We motored on past this peculiar (and slightly unsafe – a fast moving boat wouldn’t easily spot this marker on the surface) arrangement to Shark Alley, where we planned to spend some time with the broadnose sevengill cowsharks. Once there, the divers got themselves ready…

Ready to roll

… and executed a perfectly synchronised backward roll into the water! The surface conditions were beautiful and the boat hardly drifted for the duration of the dive. We did a double tank dive (you can just see the spare cylinders on the tank rack in the picture below), and went straight on to Photographer’s Reef afterwards for a second dive.

Over they go!
Over they go!

On our way back we passed by the experimental octopus fishing gear, comprising hundreds of traps strung on long (one kilometre) lines between Simon’s Town and Fish Hoek. This is an intitiative by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and is a cause of great concern to me (not least because DAFF is rife with ignorance, corruption and mismanagement). The risk of entanglement to marine creatures is, I think, significant. It is also not clear whether  an impact study has been done regarding the effects of removing hundreds of octopus from the bay every few months.

DAFF octopus fishing gear
DAFF octopus fishing gear

You can see that the fishing gear is marked with a small flashing strobe that is visible in the evenings from the Whale Lookout in Glencairn. It is also inscribed with various threats against anyone who disturbs it.

When we returned to the yacht club, there was a heron waiting at the bottom of the slipway in the shallow water. We gave him time to get out of the way!

Heron waiting on the slipway
Heron waiting on the slipway

 

Tips on shopping for dive gear

I’ve been diving for a while, owned a lot of dive gear. Here are some tips on shopping for gear, some learned through painful experience!

General rules for buying gear

  • Try it on before you buy it. Wetsuits, booties, hoodie, you name it.
  • Try on your BCD and weight belt OVER your wetsuit – two layers of 5 millimetre neoprene adds a LOT of waistline!
  • Make sure you understand the returns policy of the shop you’re using.
  • Get acquainted with the Consumer Protection Act (if you’re in South Africa).
  • Shop around! Don’t let sales people sweet talk you. They are more interested (generally) in making a sale than in making you a happy diver.
  • Don’t cut the strap of your dive computer shorter unless you’re VERY sure you’re never going to dive in cold water (wearing lots of wetsuit and gloves to make your wrist thicker).

Second hand gear

  • When purchasing second hand cylinders: get them viz’d first (at the expense of the seller) before agreeing to purchase.
  • Try and get the seller to allow you to “test dive” expensive items such as dive computers before agreeing to purchase them.
  • It’s a good idea to check BCDs for leaks before purchasing, unless you plan to use the BCD only for shallow dives, and even then it’s iffy.

Gear to avoid

  • Don’t purchase based purely on colour (ladies, I know it can be very tempting).
  • Be realistic about what you will use the gear for. (Do you really plan to dive to 100 metres, under ice with that regulator?)
  • Don’t fall for wrap around face masks with 3 glass panels (here’s an example) without trying one first – they give rise to very confusing visual phenomena and distort things hugely as they pass across the join in the panes of glass!
  • Avoid BCDs with inflate/deflate handle handles (example here) – I have never yet seen a beginner diver (and even some divers who have done over 100 dives) using one who was in proper control of their buoyancy.
  • Neoprene covers on mask straps (example here) usually only work without a hoodie. They have a tendency to slip off your head during a backward roll off the boat when worn over a hoodie (although some people swear by them!).
  • Smaller volume masks are usually better for beginner divers than huge five litre models! They are much easier to clear.
  • Do you really need a three foot dive cutlass, as opposed to a small knife?

Repairs

  • Get a second opinion on extensive repairs.

Entry techniques: Giant strides

For me it’s a toss up between backward rolling and giant strides as my favourite entry technique for scuba diving. Living in Cape Town, opportunities for giant strides are limited to occasional harbour dives (boat dives are generally done off a RIB). In Malta, however, we were in giant stride paradise, and had a number of opportunities to basically bomb drop ourselves into the sea off piers, boats, and rocky ledges.

These two (slightly dodgy but very short) videos were filmed at Wied iz Zurrieq, where the Um El Faroud wreck lies, and the Blue Grotto can be found. The first shows Tony in action, and the second shows our impossibly tall divemaster, Sergey. That one was filmed while I was already in the water, so it’s rather unsteady!

Usually one does this with a fully inflated BCD, so you pop to the surface right away. Of course, regulator is in your mouth and mask on your face, with one hand resting lightly over them for security. To get out of the water at this particular dive site, one uses a metal ladder on the side of the pier. On a boat there’d be a ladder or a dive platform on the back.

ScubaPro Day 2011 (Cape Town)

ScubaPro Day 2011 at False Bay Yacht Club
ScubaPro Day 2011 at False Bay Yacht Club

On 1 October ScubaPro held a dive day at False Bay Yacht Club in Simon’s Town. This is an extremely congenial venue to dive from – most of the local boat charters were in attendance, mooring at the floating jetty in the marina. The grass was set up with a fenced off area for each boat charter, a stand for the wonderful Dive Site magazine, and an extensive area showcasing ScubaPro gear, manned by experienced salesmen. There’s a very reasonable little restaurant, a bar upstairs, hot showers, grass, tables and benches to relax on between dives, and lots to look at. We were expecting parking to be a nightmare, but it seemed to be fine.

The venue for the day (all the divers were inside at prizegiving)
The venue for the day (all the divers were inside at prizegiving)

The idea of the day was for ScubaPro to sell lots of gear, and I think the local ScubaPro suppliers will have had a good week after the divers tried out the SeaWing Nova fins, various kinds of BCDs, and regulators! Unfortunately since Tami and I bought our SeaWing Novas, the material from which they are made has been changed – from a really solid, just flexible enough, smooth-edged substance to a cheap and nasty, brittle plastic that is almost transparent and feels as though it’ll snap under stress. The price, unsurprisingly, has stayed the same (so perhaps look for a pair of these fins on gumtree before you rush out and buy some new ones). They are fantastic fins, and it’s a real pity to see nasty knock-off versions being sold at the same price as the original high quality ones were.

Cindy, Maurice and Corne in their trial pairs of Seawing Nova fins (and me in my own pair) on Grant's boat
Cindy, Maurice and Corne in their trial pairs of Seawing Nova fins (and me in my own pair) on Grant’s boat

Several of the Learn to Dive Today divers tested BCDs (and regulators – Sophie was forced to after the inflator hose on her old regulator wouldn’t fit the new BCD). For those whose kit fitted properly reviews were very positive indeed, but unfortunately the salesmen weren’t good at sizing the lady divers and didn’t even have a full range of sizes available, despite Tony emailing in advance to check this very fact… So not everyone who wanted to was able to try out gear, and there were some tense moments on the boat trying to get cummerbunds to close over thick wetsuits!

The floating jetty where the dive boats moored
The floating jetty where the dive boats moored

In order to try gear, one had to hand in an existing set of gear as security. Those divers who didn’t have their own kit had to rent gear first, and then hand it in, before they could test equipment. Expensive, but no doubt very happy-making for the nearby dive centres. Perhaps as a more fair system next year (unless the aim really is just to enrich the local ScubaPro supplier, in which case fair enough) dive cards or ID books could be held as security for those divers who don’t yet own their own gear. The diving community is small enough that divers who run away with kit can be easly tracked down, and named and shamed if necessary! No proof of ID or dive card was requested when exchanging old kit for new, so the reasoning was flawed anyway – I could have said my name was Priscilla, handed in a dodgy old BCD, and skipped home with a new one if that was really what was motivating me.

Walking to load gear on the dive boats
Walking to load gear on the dive boats

The launches went off mostly very smoothly, and it was extremely pleasant to have gear carriers available to tote our kit to and from the boats. We tied up our hoses to avoid them getting banged on the ground. The diving conditions were mixed – visibility from 2-8 metres depending on the site, and truly awful surface conditions thanks to a nasty little southeaster that was blowing. A photographic competion yielded some surprisingly good entries given the conditions – underwater it looked as though snow was falling, and backscatter was the order of the day. Fortunately the requirements were not technical brilliance, but more to capture the “spirit of diving” – how awesome it is, and something that would encourage a non-diver to take up the sport. I had a private chuckle looking at the jellyfish photos – there were lots of compass sea jellies in False Bay – and thinking of a student of Tony’s who has a jellyfish phobia second to none and would run a mile if she saw a picture of a diver anywhere near a jellyfish!

Sophie and I discussing whether to get a hot chocolate now, or later
Sophie and I discussing whether to get a hot chocolate now, or later

In order to enter the photo competition divers had to set the date on their cameras to 25 December 2011, a slightly insulting proviso intended (I assume) to ensure that nobody cheated by entering a photo taken the day before. This, combined with the issue of having to hand in kit in order to try some, left one feeling that the organisers didn’t trust divers at all. I can’t speak for those who have a financial interest in selling gear, but ordinary Joe Soap scuba divers are decent, helpful people in general, and as a rule don’t steal or cheat.

The ScubaPro display stands
The ScubaPro display stands

We did two boat dives, the first (at 0800) and the last (at 1400) launches, to Photographer’s Reef and Roman Rock. We had about eight metres of visibility on the first dive, dropping off as we rounded the seaward side of the reef. Fortunately we had a monster current to distract us! The second dive yielded up about four metres of visibility, and in both cases we had beautiful jellies and small breaking waves to greet us on the surface. The sites we visited are beautiful and I’m looking forward to going there again on a day with better water conditions.

There were some seasick divers, and an emergency situation in which a diver experienced an uncontrolled ascent from 20 metres. He had tingling extremities – indicating possible DCS – and lay on the grass for over an hour breathing oxygen (fortunately several of the boats had emergency oxygen on board) while the organisers tried to find the phone number for National Hyperbarics, who operate a chamber at Kingsbury Hospital. When we realised this was what was going on (it was kept rather low-key and the diver was hidden behind some bushes) Tony went over and provided the number, which he keeps on a card in his wallet. The diver in question was not a member of DAN (I am guessing he now is!) which meant that instead of DAN handing all emergency evacuation procedures, arranging an ambulance and alerting the chamber operator, the recompression chamber operator had to be contacted directly. Unlike the OMSAC events we have attended, where there has been an impressively strong emergency and medical presence, there were no provisions made at this event except for those by the individual boat charters, and the incident was poorly handled. Hopefully some lessons have been learned here!

Gathered in the bar for prizegiving
Gathered in the bar for prizegiving

Despite sub-optimal water conditions, the day was extremely enjoyable. We were very grateful to the dive charters who launched for only R100 per dive – that price makes for razor-thin profit margins and in order to come out even slightly ahead their boats had to be full for every dive. Most of them were, and I really hope that it didn’t end up costing anyone money to participate in this event, considering that it probably enriched ScubaPro quite a bit. Seeing so many divers together, making the most of Cape Town oceans, was very encouraging. I hope some divers – encouraged by the cheap boat dives – got back into the water after a long break, and that the end result will be more happy divers in the Cape.