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.

How you (you!) can make a difference for the environment

Here are some suggestions for things you can do at (or near) home that can have a positive impact on the environment.

Mounds of garbage
Mounds of garbage


The first suggestion is the most important!

Be a busybody

Keep tabs on what’s going on in your area. Are there new building projects or developments planned? Community newspapers are an excellent source of information. Attend meetings that give opportunities for public participation, register as an interested and affected party, make objections, write letters to the environmental consultants and your local council representatives. Also, tell your friends and buddies about opportunities to participate as concerned citizens.

Remember that a development doesn’t necessarily need to be in or on the ocean to affect the marine environment. For example, False Bay is where a large amount of the city’s effluent is pumped out. More people means more pressure on the ecosystem. Demand responsible solutions from municipalities and developers.

Keep tabs on proposed amendments to existing laws, and new laws and bylaws. Who is getting permission to do what? Are these decisions well thought out? Is it wise to allow whelk and octopus fisheries to operate in a bay that is visited by large numbers of whales and dolphins?

Hold the government (specifically DAFF and the Department of Environmental Affairs) to account. The environment belongs to all of us, and if it’s being mismanaged, it’s your heritage that’s being squandered.

An excellent example of the concrete results this kind of action by ordinary citizens can have is the recent flip-flop done by the authorities on the proposed diving ban in the Betty’s Bay MPA after many local divers, marshalled by Indigo Scuba and Underwater Africa, registered as interested and affected parties and submitted objections to the proposal.

Banning diving in the area would have essentially left it wide open for poaching. While the local law enforcement can’t and doesn’t do anything to stop illegal harvesting of perlemoen, eyes in the water in the form of recreational divers can at least keep tabs on what’s happening in the reserve.

You can follow the sequence of events by reading these four posts, in order: (1) proposed diving ban, (2) almost immediate initial results after responses from the diving community, (3) a revised proposal, and finally (4) a cautiously promising start to the consultation process (which is by no means finished).

Evangelise, but not like a crazy person

Wear your heart on your sleeve. Let your friends know that conservation issues and protecting the environment are important to you. Don’t be scary and wild-eyed, just be yourself. (If you’re naturally scary and wild-eyed, I can’t help you.)

When you get an opportunity to discuss an environmental issue with someone who doesn’t know or care as much as you do, stick to the facts. Point them to other sources where they can find information to back up what you’re saying, if they are interested. That way, if they want to relay your argument to someone else, they can do so. Raw outrage isn’t necessarily transmissible (and if you’re too hot under the collar, they may just think you’re a lunatic).

Don’t use jargon. Don’t use cliches (people are smarter than you think). Don’t assume that everyone knows as much as you do about your pet issue – check that you’re pitching your pitch appropriately. Don’t be boring. Show people how beautiful and wonderful and intricate the environment is.

Reef life at Roman Rock
Reef life at Roman Rock

Get your hands dirty

Participate in beach cleanups and underwater cleanups. If you see garbage on a dive (and nothing has taken it for a home), stuff it into your BCD for disposal on land. Get into the habit of picking up stuff that doesn’t belong. Keep an empty bag on the boat for collecting rubbish as you drive in and out of the harbour. Hout Bay is an excellent spot for this. Most harbours are actually filthy.

Consume less of everything

Reduce your carbon footprint. This encompasses all the obvious things: recycle, buy local, seasonal produce, eat less meat, and participate in more recreational activities that are carbon neutral. (Unfortunately diving isn’t technically one of those; even if you do a shore dive, you still need to get your cylinder filled using a compressor that consumes energy.)

Here’s a good carbon footprint calculator that’ll help you identify the areas of your lifestyle that are having the greatest negative impact on the environment. Mine is my commute to work, which produces a horrific amount of carbon dioxide each month. (If I ever needed a justification for running away to sea with Tony and the cats, this is it.)

If you eat seafood, make wise choices that are kind to the ocean. If you fish for fun, follow the regulations defining what and how much you’re allowed to catch.

Donate responsibly

If you have financial resources and want to make a donation to a conservation organisation, first do your research.

  • What will the money be spent on?
  • What is the track record of the organisation? What projects have they worked on already?
  • Do you agree with their aims, objectives and methods? (Would you be proud to have your name associated with their work?)
  • Will the money be spent on branding and advertising (some people mistake this for real action), or on observable projects that will have a direct impact on an environmental issue that’s important to you?

Remember that addressing an environmental problem may very well involve work with people. Sustainable Seas Trust (not an endorsement, just an example) addresses poverty and food security as a way to relieve pressure on the ocean’s scarce resources, thus caring for people and the sea at the same time. It’s great to take kids snorkeling, but after a while (and a lot of kids) I hope funders can demand a bit more originality and effort in that area.

Personally, I prefer to support organisations that follow scientific advice or include a research component in their activities, because I feel that conservation that isn’t based on scientific data is just marketing… But you may feel otherwise.

If your donation is a significant one, ask for feedback on how it was spent.

Don’t fool yourself

Finally, remember that writing tweets and sharing pictures on facebook doesn’t achieve anything concrete (ok here’s an exception), even though your rate of hashtagging may make you feel like your efforts are putting Greenpeace to shame. Sorry kids. Even Shonda Rhimes says so.

Want to target your tweeting for good? I suggest subscribing to Upwell’s Tide Report.

How do you make a difference for the environment? Would love to hear your suggestions.

Newsletter: Winter wonderland

Hi divers

Weekend diving

Friday: Launch for cowsharks at 2.00pm

Saturday: Fully booked

Sunday: Boat dives if conditions permit, text or email if you want to be notified

Dive conditions report

We have been really busy with two groups of police divers from far inland. Most of their diving for work is in zero visibility and they have been experiencing some 15 metre viz dives for the second week in a row now. In between this I have also done a few shore dives at Long Beach and had 3 m viz on one day and 10 m viz the next day. There are huge patches of clean and dirty water around in the bay and on Wednesday we saw a few patches of red tide around.

Red tide near Simon's Town
Red tide near Simon’s Town

Dive plans

Winter diving is most definitely different. A huge swell rolled in today so we stayed off the water but will be back tomorrow and plan to do three launches. The third, to cowsharks still has a few spots open and we will leave the jetty in Simon’s Town at around 2.00 pm.

I am fully booked for a charter on Saturday. Conditions for Sunday are a little uncertain. The forecast says north easterly wind and that is seldom pleasant to dive in so we will make a call early Sunday as to whether or not we will launch.

Text or email me if you want to dive.

Huddle around the buoy
Huddle around the buoy

We attended a talk on Monday evening on orcas and dolphins and it is always so interesting to hear researchers and scientists talk so passionately about their subjects. There is also an exciting new research collaboration called Sea Search that is starting in False Bay towards the end of this year.


Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099

Diving is addictive!

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Practice makes perfect: inflating an SMB

When it comes to inflating an SMB, there isn’t a textbook way of doing it. Sure, people have strong feelings about what’s right and what’s not, but as long as you get the SMB inflated without risking (or having) an uncontrolled ascent, that’s fine.

The method Tony prefers is to exhale into the bottom of the tube. That way, if necessary, you can let go of the SMB and not be dragged with it to the surface (this is a risk that exists if you use your octo to inflate it, as it might get stuck). The only way to get the hang of this process, which involves multiple moving parts, is to practice. Here’s Alex practising at Photographer’s Reef.

Here are two more videos of successful SMB inflation. If you dive in Cape Town, it’s absolutely essential to be able to perform this skill. Furthermore, it’s now part of the PADI Open Water course!

Long term test of the Suunto D6

I’ve had my Suunto D6 dive computer for three years, and while wearing it I’ve done 150 dives for a total of 90 hours underwater.  I’ve also been a remarkably good girl, diving within my qualifications (PADI Deep Specialty) for a maximum depth of 38.6 metres.

Slightly aged Suunto D6
Slightly aged Suunto D6

I discovered that my Suunto D6 needed a new battery while waiting at the airport to board a flight to Durban, on the way to Sodwana for three days of warm water diving. Tony had suggested more than once that I check it prior to our departure, but NO, I was too busy and important to do THAT! Fortunately a spare dive computer was on hand, so I dived with one of Tony’s Suunto Zoops on the trip.

(As an aside, the D6 won’t download dives from the computer into the MacDive software when it has low battery. It goes into data transfer mode when you plug it in, but refuses to download – I got error code -7. Once the battery is changed, downloading is again possible.)

Changing the battery on a dive computer can be a fearsome experience – at least in South Africa. Unless you can change it yourself (like the Mares Nemo Wide), it often entails sending the computer to Johannesburg to the agent who imports that particular brand. Then, in a kind of awful lottery, you wait for one of three possible outcomes, all seemingly equally likely:

  • after the agent acknowledges the safe arrival of your dive computer, a few weeks pass and the agent swears blind he hasn’t seen one of that make for the last five years (this happened to Tony in January)
  • the battery is changed, the computer comes back, the first time you use it it floods, and you have no recourse to anyone
  • the battery is changed and the computer works just fine (phew!)

The odds are never in your favour.

Fortunately Duncan at Orca Industries in Claremont is able to change Suunto D6 (and other) batteries. I think he’s the only person in Cape Town who can do the Suunto D series. (It’s a ten minute process, but mine took five days because the computer ended up under a shelf somewhere for four and a half days before Duncan was told about it!)

Overall I am extremely pleased with my D6. I have minor quibbles. These are chiefly related to the intricacies of doing an air dive after a Nitrox dive, and the fact that it weighs as much as a fully grown labrador retriever, so isn’t suitable for most ladies to wear as a watch. I also don’t trust the compass very much, for no particular reason other than it’s digital. It’s great to dive with, though, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to others.

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

A Day on the Bay: Sealing the deal

Date: 24 November 2013

A seal does some crayfishing in Hout Bay
A seal does some crayfishing in Hout Bay

On a beautiful day in Hout Bay towards the end of last year, we were entertained by a seal that had caught a west coast rock lobster. The seal spent a lot of time parading around near the boat with his lobster, and we were suitably entertained. We dived the SS Maori and Die Josie and enjoyed the very mellow surface conditions and warm sun.

Shane, Christo, Odette, Gary, Matthys and Otti on board
Shane, Christo, Odette, Gary, Matthys and Otti on board

I was diving with Open Water students, so Gary skippered for us. On our way back into the harbour we came across the local NSRI station personnel doing towing exercises with their two vessels.

NSRI training exercises in Hout Bay harbour
NSRI training exercises in Hout Bay harbour



Yesterday’s post perhaps left us all feeling a bit deflated. So let’s get to the good stuff.

How is a boat re-pontooned?

First, the glued attachment strips are heated and removed and the pontoons, still intact, are also removed. You can see just how little boat there is once they are off.

Step two is to open each section of the tube, separate the compartments and use them as templates to cut out the new ones. A huge cutting table is used as well as a whole range of markers, steel rulers and heat guns.

Pontooning in progress
Pontooning in progress

The company we used, Ark Inflatables, don’t glue the seams – they weld them instead. So the tubes are all welded together individually and assembled section by section, and then on they go. The pontoons are held to the hull by a series of attaching strips and are also glued to the hull where they meet. Once they are on and secured, they are ready for the third step: accessories.

The various options of what accessories to add require some special consideration. Ark are extremely flexible and helpful when it come to weird and wonderful customer requests. Depending on the use of the boat there are a wide range of options.

We use the jetties in Simon’s Town, Hout Bay and occasionally at Miller’s Point or Oceana Power Boat Club near the Waterfront. Some of these jetties are poorly configured for smaller boats, so pontoon damage and abrasions can be a huge problem. They are also primarily black rubber tyres or bollards to tie up against, and these mark the pontoons. To solve that problem we added four rows of rubbing trim.

We anchor at some of our dive sites and in order to set and retrieve an anchor without damaging the bow we added a really wide rubber buffer and rope channel.

Front channel for anchor ropes
Front channel for anchor ropes

Getting back into a dive boat can be challenging for some, so to ease that issue we added three lines to each pontoon section: a grab line to hold once you have surfaced and reached the boat, a top taut line to yank yourself up on, and a third line, to grab as you exit the water, on the inner wall of the pontoon. This line also serves as a secure place to place fins whilst the boat is underway.

Having spent most of my life around boats I know that anything you have onboard, if it’s not attached it’s going to the bottom, so there are around 25 D-rings on the boat for clipping off anything that you want to keep. An old issue with the boat before was the attachment of the bow rail: it would pop out if a diver was hanging on it, this now has a double set of attachments.

The top of the pontoons take a beating from the sun, people stepping on and off, and of course weight belts and cylinder boots. To solve this we added a second skin down the entire length of the pontoon and these will now be ”wear strips” that can be replaced if the are damaged.

Protective pontoon cover and ropes in progress
Protective pontoon cover and ropes in progress

Lastly, to maintain the correct pressure when the day time temperatures  exceeed 30 degrees and the night time temperatures plummet, this coupled with a sudden cooling once you hit the water, we had them install an over pressure valve on each section, meaning it can never be pumped too hard and if left in the baking sun the excess pressure will bleed off.

Overall, I think it was a job really well done and would recommend Ark to any rubber duck owner wanting to repair their boat. The boat looks a little more ‘”industrial” than it did before, but the reality is it has a task to perform and must be able to do so faultlessly. Asthetics are secondary, but we feel the boat looks rugged, tough and ready to work. Oh, and did I mention… cool!


Patched nose
Patched nose

The boat we run is a 6.2 metre long Gemini, commonly referred to as a rubber duck. Our boat has five compartments inside its pontoons, each separated by a barrier called a baffle. The reason for this is really a safety issue, as without the pontoons there is not much to the boat that could stay afloat. The baffles ensure that should you puncture one or more compartment, the others will remain fully inflated and keep the vessel from visiting the seafloor. Each section is essentially like a huge tube, and they are all stuck together in some way or another – glued, welded etc.

Deflated pontoon on the port side
Deflated pontoon on the port side

Our boat had glued seams and on three occasions the glue let go. Two of those occasions were on very warm days (34 degrees C). This was dealt with promptly and the seams were re-glued and extra layers added to prevent a recurrence. Sadly, during one of these ”leaky moments” we discovered that two of the baffles were leaking, and from a safety point of view  this made it extremely dangerous to risk an offshore trip.

Seahorse looking a bit flat
Seahorse looking a bit flat

Given the cost of opening each section and repairing the baffle, together with the age of the material, made the best option to re-pontoon the boat. More on how that is done tomorrow…