Oh buoy

Our cats (of which we have many, many) find our cars irresistibly appealing, and at the first opportunity will climb inside for an investigation. Tony once got out the gate and into the road with a car full of cylinders for filling, and a very wide-eyed Mini cat, who had climbed into the back of the vehicle while Tony was loading the tins.

Blue inspects the buoy
Blue inspects the buoy

Here’s Blue, still a little kitten, checking out (something next to) the buoy that the Divemaster (on our boat and shore dives) takes along with him on a reel and line, floating on the surface to mark the divers’ presence to boaters. She’s in the back of the divemobile. Everything gets a bit salty, and this seems to fascinate the cats – perhaps it’s one step away from bringing an actual fish home for them.

Sodwana diving photos (April 2014) – part I

We’ve been back from our Sodwana trip for almost a month, and I’m starting to look forward to my next dive trip, which has not been planned yet. Alas. With this small problem in mind I had a rummage through the underwater photos I took while we were in Sodwana, to try and recreate the experience.

Under the boat
Under the boat

I haven’t done a lot of diving this year, and no underwater photography to speak of, so I viewed my camera as a strange, unfamiliar machine when we arrived in Sodwana, and spent most of the six dives figuring out how it all worked (again). Furthermore, my confidence in my buoyancy wasn’t great at the start of the trip, so I didn’t want to go too close to anything. I want to punch divers who crunch the coral, so I didn’t want to be that diver this time around!

Swimming across the sand gap at Stringer
Swimming across the sand gap at Stringer

As a result my underwater photos from the trip are mostly quite questionable. I include some here, more to show you how beautiful the reefs and clear water can be in Sodwana, rather than for you to marvel at my prowess in underwater photography. I took several videos, which I’ll share in the coming weeks – you can get an idea of how good the visibility is and how abundant the coral is from a bit of moving picture footage.

Angie photographing snappers
Angie photographing snappers

We struggled a little with the surge on one of our diving days in particular, but this is something that is a fact of life when diving on South Africa’s north coast. We mostly did shallow dives, and the reefs at Sodwana lie along a very exposed stretch of coast with few natural bays to protect divers from wind and swell. These factors combined to expose us to some near-washing machine conditions at times! Relaxing in the water and letting the surge move you about is the only way to deal with it, assuming you’ve got a handle on your buoyancy. Holding onto the reef or swimming against the surge are bad ideas.

You can see some photos from past Sodwana diving trips here.

Clownfish in their anemone
Clownfish in their anemone

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!

Handy Hints: Hitching a ride

Do you get tired during long dives? Would you like to know how to conserve energy, use less air, and annoy your buddies all at the same time? Fear not. The inimitable Kate is here to show you how it’s done.

Kate was back in town during August, September and October, along with her squire Brian. The two of them dived a lot while they were here. Kate was up to her usual tricks: here, she rides on the unwitting Brian’s cylinder during a dive at Shark Alley in September (no cowsharks to be found). Notice her perfect buoyancy, allowing her to let go as Brian turns around, and then grab hold of his gear again as he turns his back to her.

She did this to me once for almost an entire dive on the Clan Stuart. I felt as though my own buoyancy was up the pole, but couldn’t figure out why. Also, I used up my air really quickly and felt quite fatigued after the dive. Kate, of course, emerged from the dive with a nearly full cylinder, bursting with energy!

Handy hints: Getting the most out of your car

The boot of my car, packed to the brim
The boot of my car, packed to the brim

The good people who sold me my little German car probably never would have done so if they knew that I’d pack it with salty, wet, empty cylinders after a dive. In other news, the boot of a Mercedes Benz A class is the perfect width for transporting multiples of five 10 and 12 litre cylinders. Boom!

Sidemount diving

Cecil donning his kit on the boat
Cecil donning his kit on the boat

Sidemount diving involves a diver wearing his cylinders under his arms alongside his body, instead of on his back as with traditional recreational scuba configurations. It is popular with cave divers, because the arrangement makes it easier to fit through narrow spaces, and also lends itself to easy switching between gases. Two individual cylinders are also easier to handle for some than the extremely heavy twinsets that are used by some cave and technical divers.

Gerard almost ready for a backward roll
Gerard almost ready for a backward roll

The cylinders they use are aluminium (you can see they don’t have nets or boots like the usual steel cylinders used in Cape Town) which give a little extra buoyancy as they empty. You can also see Gerard’s special wing (BCD) inflated on his back. For this kind of diving you need a lot of lift.

Cecil & Gerard's aluminium cylinders
Cecil & Gerard’s aluminium cylinders

Cecil and Gerard have recently been diving with a sidemount configuration in Blue Rock Quarry. Cecil has moved in this direction because he has been extending his education as a cave diver! They came for a dive on board our boat Seahorse, to Outer Photographer’s Reef, and tested their setup on a sea dive. We enjoy catering to all kinds of divers and as usual found Gerard and Cecil’s company to be extremely entertaining!

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?


  • Get a second opinion on extensive repairs.

Entry techniques: Backward rolls

Clare took this little video on a recent boat dive. It was meant to be an example of a perfectly executed backward roll off a rubber duck dive boat, but it turned out to be something else entirely!

The way a backward roll off a boat works is that the skipper counts down (or up – he’ll tell you what he’s going to do). On 3 (or 1), all the divers roll backwards off the boat TOGETHER. It’s very important that if you’re not ready or miss the countdown, you don’t move or roll until the skipper tells you it’s safe to do so. Otherwise you could land on top of another diver with your cylinder, which could cause very serious injury.

In the video, the diver on the right is not ready, and rolls well after the other divers. Grant tries to stop him but it’s too late. Fortunately it was an extremely calm day and the boat hadn’t drifted much, so the diver didn’t land on anyone. But on a windy day or at a location with surface current, correct backward roll technique is essential for the safety of all the divers.

Series: Shark Week featuring Mythbusters – Jaws Special (Disc 2)

Shark Week
Shark Week

Shark Week features annually on the Discovery Channel. It’s been condemned for taking a sensationalist approach to sharks and shark attacks, but Tony and I loved the Air Jaws episodes produced by our own Chris Fallows of Cape Town. This two-DVD set is season 4 of Shark Week screened in 2005 (the 30th anniversary of the release of Jaws), and features a range of programs all about sharks.

I reviewed the first disc of this special in this post. Here are brief reviews of the features on Disc 2 of the DVD set.

Mythbusters: Jaws Special

I actually hadn’t watched Mythbusters until this particular show, so I was pleasantly surprised and amused. It’s basically two grown men (one with seriously foppish fashion sense) and sundry irritating hangers-on, blowing things up, building contraptions and using large machinery for inappropriate projects. The hosts are special effects designers so they have a huge workshop with every imaginable gadget at their disposal.

In this episode, they investigate some aspects of the movie Jaws, including the incidents concerning the strength of the shark (towing a boat backwards, submerging air-filled plastic barrels for hours on end, and blasting through a shark cage and then – later – through the side of a boat). They also investigate whether sharks are deterred by punches (slightly, as our own experience attests) and what happens to a scuba cylinder when you fire a gun at it.

If you don’t want to know the results of these experiments, stop reading now.

They found that while a shark could conceivably pull three plastic barrels underwater briefly, it couldn’t hold them there. It also could not tow the boat backwards fast enough to cause waves to break over the stern. It is possible, however, for a great white shark to break a shark cage, and also to make a (small) hole in the side of a (flimsy) wooden boat.

Sharks don’t like to be punched, particularly in the soft parts (gills and eyes), but, as the Mythbusters pointed out, if you’re being munched and your fists are your only weapon, then you’re going to want to use them regardless of how effective they’ll be.

Tony’s and my primary interest was in the exploding scuba cylinder (in the movie, this is how the shark is finally vanquished). After multiple layers of safety precautions, they fire a rifle point-blank into first an empty cylinder, to see whether the bullet can penetrate 2 inches of aluminium (it can), and then into a fully charged one. The entire experiment was done inside a shipping container, with the gun remotely operated.

The results were interesting: the pressurised cylinder did not explode, but took off like a rocket as the air was released through the small hole. It whizzed about inside the shipping container, denting the walls, until the air pressure inside the cylinder was equal to the air pressure outside. We could see how a cylinder having its pillar valve knocked off while in transit could turn it into a lethal weapon. The compressed air has considerable explosive power.

Shark After Dark

One has incredibly mixed feelings watching these Shark Week specials. The narration and music are all testosterone-filled, fear-inducing and press the same buttons that Jaws the movie pushes. The resources – time, camera equipment, and so on – that gets thrown at the subject, however, is awe-inspiring and one can only hope that some of the footage obtained is of value to science.

The first half of Sharks After Dark features our homeboy Chris Fallows, of Apex Predators and Air Jaws fame. He guides a film crew as they spend time on a boat off Seal Island at night, hoping to determine how active white sharks are at night. I spent the first few minutes rolling my eyes vigorously – lots of loud and vacuous American speculation in sweeping terms with no reference to the available scientific knowledge on shark sensory organs – but the eye rolling ceased when the team actually obtained footage (and Chris Fallows some incredible still photos) of white sharks breaching after seals while it was still dark. My curiosity about the water around Seal Island was also satisfied when Fallows and a cameraman got into the shallow water (about 1.5 metres deep) around the island where the seals congregate, and dived with them for a while. Let’s just say that the water clarity confirmed one’s suspicions that all that seal poop has to go somewhere!

The second section of the program dealt with bluntnose sixgill sharks – which strongly resemble “our” broadnose sevengill cowsharks here in the Cape (and are in fact also found along the Kwazulu-Natal and West Coast of South Africa, but not in Cape waters), in Puget Sound south of Seattle in the USA. These sharks live at great depths (more than 100 metres), but come into shallower water (20 metres or less) at night, in order to feed. They are dark coloured like basking sharks or the Greenland shark, and the divers and cameraman descended into a cage at 20 metres, above a fairly featureless sandy bottom. The sharks are quite sluggish, like their sevengill cousins, but can put on a burst of speed when it is required.

The final section of the program deals with sand tiger sharks (grey nurse sharks) at the North Carolina Aquarium. These sharks resemble the ragged tooth sharks on display at the Two Ocean Aquarium in Cape Town, and this may be no coincidence. Raggies were chosen for the aquarium here because of their placid natures and “sharky” appearance, which challenges one’s preconceptions of sharks when viewing them swimming calmly around their tank. The aquarists feed the sand tigers at night, in order to see whether they will eat at night (they will), and then the camera crew climb into the tank with lights on, and then with the lights off. The sharks’ behaviour was the same.

A sunken coastguard cutter serves as home to sand tiger sharks in the open ocean off North Carolina (what beautiful visibility!) and the team visits the wreck, which lies at about 30 metres’ depth, to see the sharks in the wild. Noticeably more twitchy than the sharks in the aquarium setting, the sharks come close (and closer at night) but turn on a dime and swim away very fast when they’ve come close enough. It is during a night dive on the wreck that the divers observe the sand tigers feeding.

During the preceding few sections the narrator goes a bit quiet and one can forget the stupid Shark Week tabloid tone that pervades so many of these shows. The final section of the program, unfortunately, brings back the sleaze with a vengeance, taking the crew to dive with FIFTY (can you IMAGINE! OMG!) lemon sharks, and attempting to hand feed these “bad tempered predators” that have been implicated in many “attacks on humans”. The eye rolling resumed when one of the dewy-eyed camera-toting token chicks whimpered “I didn’t know if they were going to tear me apart!” That evening, with the “water churning with teeth and fins”, the team attempts to hand feed the lemon sharks (and a tiger shark) once again.

The show concludes (mercifully) with the presenter commenting that it doesn’t seem that humans are on the menu, and that sharks are pretty good at reading the menu whether it’s day or night time.

Shark Bite Summer

This bit of fluff describes the “summer of the shark” in 2001, along the west coast of the USA. Replete with staged attack footage, seas awash with blood, and prurient narration, this is shark attack porn of the worst kind. I confess I couldn’t finish watching it, but suffice it to say that a large quantity of red corn syrup went into the making of this program. It is this kind of trash that unfortunately undoes any good that comes of showing sharks in their natural habitat. Alas.

You can get the DVD set here if you are in South Africa, and here if you are not.

Scuba diving and fitness

A recent article from Shape magazine that has been breathlessly circulating in some of the scuba news circles I follow claims that scuba diving is the “new celebrity fitness trend” that “burns tons of calories while tightening and toning your body”. The rest of the article is a thinly-disguised marketing advertorial for PADI, but we’ll overlook that in favour of its ostensible main point: scuba diving will make you fit (and as hot as a Hollywood star).

I’m not a fitness expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I dive quite a lot (a few dives every weekend, weather permitting) and Tony dives even more (a few dives every day, weather permitting). I’d like to make the following observations:

  • One of the things I love about diving is that it can be done by people of almost any body shape and level of physical ability, provided you’re able to help yourself, put together and carry your kit to the water, and display a certain level of watermanship and stamina. As long as this base level of strength and fitness is there and you have none of the medical conditions that are incompatible with diving, nothing precludes you from being a scuba diver. The very regular scuba divers I know – those of whom it could be said that diving is their primary form of exercise – are by no means a uniformly lean and toned group of individuals. Clearly I’m missing something.
  • Diving – the underwater part, at least – is actually mostly about expending as little energy as possible. If you’re using your arms or kicking frantically, YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG! The whole idea is not to get out of breath or to elevate your heart rate (leading to panic). This doesn’t sound like fat-burning exercise to me.
  • Your body does expend energy keeping you warm on a dive – specially in the Atlantic in a wetsuit! The toasted sandwich, chocolate bar, bag of nuts or hot chocolate you consume after the dive, however, replaces all the calories you just burned, plus some. If being cold assisted with weight loss and made you fit, there’d be fewer treadmills and more industrial-sized refrigerators at your local Virgin Active.

Tony and I both had almost a month off diving in January, because he’d had surgery. He returned to work at the end of January, doing three shore dives that weekend. Afterwards, we were both quite stiff and more tired than we usually are after diving, because clearly regular diving does involve some level of conditioning. But what sort of exercise had we experienced? Could two and a half hours underwater really make our muscles feel this way?

The key, however, was that our muscles were stiff. One of the dives was at Sandy Cove, involving a bit of mountaineering. The other two were at Long Beach, and all three were with students. In each case, twelve cylinders and six boxes of dive gear had to be unpacked out of Tony’s divemobile, and at the end of the day packed away again (Tony insists on doing this – he has a “system” and I get in the way!). We had to lift our kit onto our backs, walk to the water, and – in my case – wrestle with a fellow diver’s new BCD and ill-fitting weight belt for 20 minutes while standing in thigh deep water in full kit. After the dive we had to return the way we came. All the exertion took place before and after the dives – the time underwater was extremely slow and relaxing.

If you’re going to get any conditioning from your scuba diving, I think it’ll primarily be in toting 20-30 kilograms of gear around on your back and around your waist, before and after you get in the water. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that diving will fulfill all your exercise requirements unless you’re actually working (e.g. as a commercial diver, a very active archaeologist or a fast-swimming map maker) underwater.

If, like me, you’re a weekend diver, rather than relying on diving to get you fit, it’s your responsibility to make sure that you are fit to dive. Keeping yourself fit to dive would involve doing other forms of exercise during the week to improve your strength and cardiovascular fitness. I’m not saying you won’t get some physical benefit from scuba diving, but it won’t make you look like Jessica Alba or Matthew McConaughey unless it’s your full time job (and even then, perhaps not!).