Heinrich learned to scuba dive recently, and on his final Open Water dive at Duiker Island in Hout Bay, he brought along his Go-Pro camera. He edited together some footage from that dive, and is generously allowing us to share it here.
Last weekend we took the boat down to Buffels Bay in the Cape Point Nature Reserve to join OMSAC for a day of snorkeling, diving and braai-ing.. The conditions were terrific and both the shore divers and those on the boat had great viz. We took the boat to Batsata Maze and to an unnamed site just on the outside of the exclusion zone around the reserve. We were very fortunate to have a whale cruising by during the safety stop, fascinated by the divers’ SMB, and then hanging around as the divers surfaced. It is a stunning setting for a day out and even the tidal pool was filled with interesting creatures.
There are some photos on facebook, and a nifty little time lapse video of us putting the boat onto the trailer at the slipway. I usually wind the winch much faster than in the video, though – I must have been having an off day on Saturday…
A southerly swell rolls into False Bay in time for the weekend. The Kalk Bay Shootout surf competition participants are all excited. When surfers are excited, divers are not. We share the ocean… Just not always at the same time. There is also the False Bay Yacht Club spring regatta taking place on Saturday and Sunday – more info here.
I doubt there will be anywhere pleasant to dive in False Bay. The south easter only starts blowing on Saturday so I doubt that the viz out of Hout Bay will improve enough for good diving. That leaves the Atlantic seaboard. Twenty four hours of strong south easter might clean the water close inshore enough for good diving.
I reckon the best options will be North and South Paw or Justin’s Caves and surroundings, so that’s the plan for Sunday. If the south easter makes it over the top of Table Mountain, and cleans the water sufficiently, we will launching from OPBC at 10.30 am and 1.00 pm. If you’re keen to dive let me know and I’ll contact you on Saturday afternoon to let you know if conditions are good enough.
In three weeks’ time the CTICC comes alive with the Cape Town International Boat Show. This year there will be a new addition in the form of a “dive village”. Collectively a bunch of local dive centres and operators have come together to make this happen with the goal of showcasing the incredible diversity of diving we have to offer in Cape Town. The village will have a pool in the centre and we will offer non-divers an opportunity to breathe underwater and hopefully come to enjoy the ocean as much as we all do.
The show is on from 10-12 October at the Convention Centre. Come down and visit the representatives of your local dive operator and bring a friend who needs convincing that diving is the best thing ever, and amongst everyone in the dive village we will do our best to get them in the water. SURG will also be there showcasing some of the best photos taken in and around Cape Town’s waters. There are also bound to be a bunch of interesting course options, gear sales, camera displays and the like. Plus the rest of the boat show, which is well worth a look!
I certainly hope that this isn’t the only time I’ll see an ocean sunfish (Mola mola) underwater, but if it is, I can live with that. During a dive in Maori Bay last weekend, exploring the BOS 400 and SS Oakburn shipwrecks, sharp-eyed Liam spotted a large sunfish swimming alongside us, but some distance away. We had advance warning that there were sunfish about (they’d been spotted from the air near Kommetjie, the previous day), so I was mentally and physically prepared with a strategy that I’ve repeatedly rehearsed in my mind to be ready for underwater encounters with marine megafauna.
I switched my camera to video, pointed it at the sunfish, and took off towards it like (I imagined) a bat out of hell. I figured that if I didn’t get close enough to take a proper photo, I would still have a murky video record of the encounter. (Lo and behold, that is all I do have. See below.)
I swam for what felt like a blistering pace for several kilometres (in reality, a sluggish burst of probably 20-30 metres), and then realised that I’d overbreathed my regulator, was taking in quite a bit of water through a tear in the mouthpiece, and that if I didn’t stop finning I’d pass out. During this time the sunfish gained considerable distance on me, got out of focus and out of frame in my video, and then disappeared.
So I stopped, panting, and watched the animal disappear effortlessly into the blue gloom, waving its fins calmly and slowly but – it was clear – moving at a terrific pace. (The overbreathed regulator situation corrected itself swiftly when I started demanding more reasonable amounts of air again.)
I was reminded of other occasions when I’ve tried to keep up with a fish, or a turtle, in order to take its photo or spend just a few more moments in its company. Perhaps there is no shame in being out swum by a fish weighing over a ton with fins to match, but I’ve been humiliated by 30 centimetre long Red Roman, rejecting my friendly advances and outpacing me with a decidedly less impressive fin-to-body size ratio! Next time I want to enjoy the company of an ocean resident for just a little bit longer I’ll try to remember that I’m not in my natural element, and the decision as to whether we get to be close to one another rests almost not at all with me.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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).
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.
If you have students in the water, perform skills away from the sharks (if possible, avoid conducting skills at this site).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here are some suggestions for things you can do at (or near) home that can have a positive impact on the environment.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.