Diving in the Lagoon Tank at uShaka Marine World

Lagoon tank at uShaka Marine World
One's first view of the inside of the Lagoon tank at uShaka Marine World

On the first of our two days in Durban after the Sodwana trip, Tony and I did one of our most favourite things: we went for a dive in the aquarium at uShaka Marine World. Tony used to work at Calypso Dive and Adventure Centre, based at uShaka, and it is in this idyllic location – known as the Avis Snorkel Lagoon – that all the confined water skills were taught. How awesome is that?

Longfin batfish in the foreground, hound shark in the background
Longfin batfish in the foreground, hound shark in the background

Tony and I wanted to go somewhere calm and pretty where we could lie on the bottom and play with different camera settings, and a sunny, shallow dive (3 metres maximum) in limitless visibility surrounded by 1,500 tropical fish and hound sharks (only five of those, fortunately) was just the ticket.

Hound shark
Hound shark passing in front of the aquarium window
Resting hound shark
Resting hound shark

It is a magnificent dive. Not challenging by any stretch of the imagination, but that is one of its charms. It’s an open air tank accessed by walking into Marine World with a Calypso Divemaster (you can’t do the dive without someone from Calypso accompanying you, even if you’re qualified). There’s an area to kit up, and then you stroll (or waddle, or slide) down some gently sloping rubber mats in shallow water to the drop-off into the tank proper.

Tony filming fish
Tony filming fish

The tank has windows looking onto the aquarium (or, the aquarium has windows looking onto it, if you prefer), and a large window looking into the Open Ocean tank, which contains sharks and rays. Most of the tank, however, is your own private paradise, as the windows only cover a fraction of the one side. On the day we went, there were no snorkelers in the water (it gets really busy on weekends and holidays – last time we dived there it was hilarious and somewhat unnerving to look up and see countless pairs of legs in board shorts hanging above us).

Tony in the undercover portion of the Lagoon tank
Tony in the undercover portion of the Lagoon tank

There is a section of the tank that’s covered over (including the window onto the shark tank), and in this area is a submerged jeep (with licence plates still attached) and some other bits of atmospheric debris such as ropes, crates and wooden packing pallets. It’s a bit dark in there, and I prefer the sunny bits, but it’s really lovely to lie in front of the window to the shark tank (where it IS sunny) and watch the big predators on the other side of the glass. Some of the fish seem to like it, too.

Clown triggerfish
A clown triggerfish emerging from the covered portion of the tank

There are half hour time slots that can be booked with Calypso – either as a Discover Scuba Diving experience if you haven’t dived before (and I think this will spoil you for diving anywhere else!) or for an accompanied dive if you’re qualified. We took the one at 1.45pm and the half hour immediately following it, so we had a blissful hour in the 24 degree water.

Tony and some fish playing with his camera
Tony and some fish playing with his camera

I took hundreds of photos, and Tony took some fantastic video footage (for another post). The thing that delighted me the most was that many of the fish interact with you – the old woman angelfish and the boxfish in particular are totally unafraid.

Old woman angelfish
An old woman angelfish comes to visit me

There was also a toothy fish who alternated between harrassing me and Tony, and appears in nearly every frame of Tony’s video as he kept passing by the camera to remind us of his toothy presence.  This fish and several of the others deserve their own posts, since they were such large personalities!

Boxy comes to investigate
Boxy comes to investigate

Many of the fish were fascinated by the video camera lens – perhaps they could see a reflection or movement in the glass – and came really close to inspect and even head butt it. You can get really close to them either by lying or kneeling on the floor of the tank and waiting for curious visitors, or by sneaking up very slowly and quietly while they’re eating.

Emperor angelfish
Emperor angelfish feeding
Lagoon tank at uShaka
Terracotta vases and fish in the lagoon tank

If you’re visiting Durban, this is a wonderful way to pass a couple of hours. If you don’t dive, it’s the most perfect setting in which to try it, and if you do – don’t scoff at how shallow it is and that it’s confined – just go and relax, marvel and enjoy the spectacle. It’s incredibly reasonably priced and afterwards you can do some water rides, chill out on the beach, enjoy an ice cream, or stroll around the retail space at uShaka.

Feeding time
Feeding time

Newsletter: Time to get in the water again…

Hi everyone

I have been enjoying a busy week with a British Zero to Hero candidate, who has just completed her Open Water course and is well into Advanced. Today we did a peak performance buoyancy dive, swimming through hula hoops positioned at different depths. At first Kate collected a lot of hoops on the back of her cylinder, but soon got the hang of it and swam through them like a pro. The weather has been very pleasant, and today at Long Beach we saw lots of puffer fish, box jellies, and a big octopus who was clinging to a piece of kelp and pretending that we couldn’t see him.

Last weekend Long Beach was very festive, with a paddle ski race on Sunday that drew hundreds of cars into the parking area and all the way down the beach. My Open Water students had lots of spectators watching their every move!

Long Beach in Simon's Town
Long Beach in Simon's Town is never this busy!

The weather for the weekend is not looking very good, but Long Beach or the Clan Stuart will be suitable for the training dives I need to do for my Open Water and Rescue students. If you would like to tag along as a casual diver on one of these dives (Saturday and/or Sunday) give me a shout and I will let you know times.

If anyone is keen for a night dive on Saturday, let me know – and we will definitely be doing a Halloween night dive next Saturday evening (perhaps even with a pumpkin to tempt the fish…)

Hope to see you in the water soon!

regards

Learn to Dive Today logoTony Lindeque
076 817 1099
www.learntodivetoday.co.za
www.learntodivetoday.co.za/blog
Diving is addictive!

Bookshelf: Mystery of the Ancient Seafarers

Mystery of the Ancient Seafarers: Ancient Maritime Civilzation – Robert Ballard

I read this book while miserably ill in bed this past weekend, envying Tony the nine dives he was doing over two days with students. It was a small consolation – Ballard combines history of the various maritime civilisations with descriptions of research and exploration expeditions mounted to search for and examine undersea remains of the vessels used.

Mystery of the Ancient Seafarers
Published by National Geographic

The photography, as is usual for National Geographic, is magnificent, and ancient mosaics and frescoes are interspersed with paintings of how the ships must have looked in full sail, photos taken by the submersibles and divers working on the archaeological sites, and pictures of the submersible and other marine technology used to perform the exploration. Ballard’s writing style is engaging but he really comes into his own when he’s describing the voyages of discovery he was a part of.

I was particularly interested in the research being done in the Black Sea, which has only a very narrow channel leading out of it into the Mediterranean Sea. The freshwater draining into the Black Sea from the surrounding rivers drains out, but a deep layer of anoxic water – a dead zone devoid of any kinds of life – exists in the depths of the Black Sea where the water is never stirred up or refreshed. This provides a perfect preservation environment to the many shipwrecks which must be lying there as a result of the Black Sea being part of such important trading routes. Ballard and his team found a vessel with wood looking as though it was hewn yesterday, when it had been underwater for over 1,000 years.

The book is a large format hardcover, and a lovely addition to the library of anyone who is interested in the sea and its history. You can purchase it here.

Dive sites (Sodwana): Two Buoy & Arches

Our last dive in Sodwana was at 0630 on the Sunday morning. It had to be early, and not too deep, to accommodate those who were flying home later in the day. By this stage of the weekend the sea had flattened out beautifully – we had had a couple of windless days and the swell had dropped. Duncan, our regular skipper, was not to be found on the beach (I think he overslept!) so we were taken through the waves by Joe to yet another site close to the launch site (what a pleasure for those of us who don’t particularly love long boat rides!). Joe dropped us at Two Buoy, and we drifted down Two Mile Reef ending up at Arches.

View of Two Buoy
View of Two Buoy on Two Mile Reef, Sodwana

Two Buoy is the location at which we did our first dive in Sodwana, and the conditions were in marked contrast to that dive. It was far less surgy – there was a bit of current and slight surge, but we were able to swim around with ease. The surface conditions were also a thousand times better, so we didn’t have as much discomfort with equalising. On our earlier dive, the size of the swell meant that the water pressure above us was changing dramatically with each passing swell, and Sophie in particular was struggling with the pressure changes on her ears.

A hawkfish hides in the coral
A hawkfish hides in the coral. If you look carefully, there are several other little stripy legs and shelled creatures in there too.

There was an astonishing proliferation of fish life as we moved away from Two Buoy, and I spent quite a lot of time at a cleaning station watching the cleaner wrasses darting in and out of the mouth of a barred rubberlips. That’s trust! There was so much activity that I didn’t know where to look.

Barred sweetlips
A barred rubberlips hangs about at a cleaning station on Two Mile Reef – aren’t those lips sweet and rubbery indeed!

We also saw a guinea fowl puffer fish and a male ember parrotfish sleeping (I guess… what do fish do?) under overhangs in the coral. The temptation to touch was almost overwhelming but I resisted! There were crowds of Moorish idols (Tony’s favourite fish), tobys, sea goldies and a multitude of parrot fish milling around, many taking shelter under the rock formations after which Arches is named.

Giant clam mantle
I love love love the giant clams!

The visibility on this dive was the best we’d seen on the Sodwana trip, and, for many of us Cape divers, the best we’ve EVER seen anywhere. While I hung at the safety stop, I could see the reef spread out below me, and the bright strobe on Tony’s video camera as he explored further, determined to suck his cylinder dry before finishing his last dive here.

Dive on Two Mile Reef in Sodwana
Tami, the Silver Fox and Borrels in a row on the sand at Two Mile Reef… Look at that visibility!

Dive date: 10 October 2010

Air temperature: 24 degrees

Water temperature: 22 degrees

Maximum depth: 15.9 metres

Visibility: 20 metres

Dive duration: 47 minutes

Bookshelf: Dive Atlas of the World

Dive Atlas of the World: An Illustrated Reference to the Best Sites – Jack Jackson (editor)

Dive Atlas of the World
Dive Atlas of the World - edited by Jack Jackson

Tony gave me this gorgeous coffee table book that will have you desperate to get on a plane and fly over to the Bahamas or Truk Lagoon in Micronesia. It features articles on the best diving around the world, including one by our own Chris Fallowsabout shark diving in Cape Town.

Even though it covers some of the most popular and well-known diving destinations, it did reveal some others to me. I had only read about Scapa Flow in the history books, but apparently there is amazing (and terrifying, and freezing cold) diving in amongst the wrecks there. Malta sounds gorgeous, and some of the nicest dives there are shore entries which scores big points in my book.

There are also articles on diving the East coast of South Africa – Sodwana, Aliwal Shoal and Protea Banks. Ponta do Ouro also features – a spot very familiar to Tony, who worked there for six months last year. It’s exciting that these local (and nearly local) destinations are ranked among the best diving in the world.

This book isn’t useful as such – in fact, it was the opposite of useful to me, because it’s just made me desperate to pack my bag for twenty exotic diving destinations! That said, it’s gorgeously put together, and excellent for some armchair dive travel if the budget doesn’t permit a trip straight away!

It’s available here if you’re South African, otherwise click here.

Dive sites (Sodwana): Two Buoy

Two Buoy is fairly central on Two Mile Reef, and like the entire reef system is only a short boat ride from the beach. That said, it was our first dive in Sodwana and the sea was ROUGH. The boat ride was vigorous but refreshing (I find surf launches quite scary). When we stopped I got quite seasick however – the swells were two metres high and the boat was rocking violently.

Boats lined up on the beach at Sodwana
Boats lined up on the beach at Sodwana, ready to launch through the surf

Because of the surface conditions and the current, we didn’t want to mess around when we rolled into the water, so we descended fast. Beneath the surface it was somewhat calmer, but still very surgy. Most of us were feeling weird – Tami on her first ever boat ride (in pretty hairy conditions), Fritz without a hoodie couldn’t get used to the water in his hair, and I just felt as though everything was upside down. I was also diving without a hoodie, which made for a spectacular display for my fellow divers… I lost my hair band almost immediately, and did a mermaid impression for the rest of the dive – pretty but annoying! The surge also took a bit of getting used to, as we couldn’t really go anywhere of our own volition but were at the mercy of the water.

Tami on Two Buoy
Tami on Two Buoy

The contrast between Cape Town diving and the coral reefs beneath us, however, put all the irritations and discomforts out of my mind. The coral is incredible – huge plate corals that have taken decades to form, little soft ones, and spiky ones that look like Christmas trees or deer’s antlers. And in between the coral were the fish – in colours you can’t even imagine. Several times I had to remind myself that I wasn’t diving in the fishtank in the Chinese restaurant near Tony’s house… This was the open ocean.

Limespot butterflyfish and coral
The ubiquitous limespot butterfly fish passing in front of a HUGE coral formation

I was incredibly excited to see a giant clam – I immediately felt like a character in a Willard Price novel (for kids!) and took care not to get my foot stuck in it, as if that was a danger!

Two Buoy, with giant clam in right foreground
Coral on Two Buoy, with giant clam in right foreground

The other thing that stunned me was the clarity of the water. In False Bay, 10 metres visibility is a really good day… We could see at least 12-15 metres on this dive, and that was apparently “not so good”. It’s that feeling of being able to move in three dimensions that I love about diving, hanging in space and being able to see for ages.

Dive date: 8 October 2010

Air temperature: 23 degrees

Water temperature: 22 degrees

Maximum depth: 13.2 metres

Visibility: 12 metres

Dive duration: 47 minutes

Hydrographic charts

Cape Town has an amazing stretch of coastline. Knowledge of dive sites, beaches and where to dive is greatly enhanced by decent scale hydrographic charts. Besides their value to mariners and the general boating public whereby you have detailed information on what perils lurk below the surface waiting to wrench a piece out of the keel of your boat, they also offer great insight to where you may find interesting dive sites not listed on the “popular” dive site list. All you need to do is sign up for a few of the major dive centre newsletters to see that most of them go to the same places at the same time week after week.

Hydrographic charts covering False Bay and the Cape Peninsula
Hydrographic charts covering False Bay and the Cape Peninsula

The maps I have are:

  • SAN 1017, scale 1:10 000, this covers the coast from Kalk Bay Harbour to Fisherman’s Beach
  • SAN 1016, scale 1:50 000 which covers the entire False Bay area
  • SAN 1015, scale 1:15000 covering Kommetjie, Hout Bay up to Sandy Bay
  • SAN 1013, scale 1:36 000 covering the Table Bay area including Robben Island.

My favorite is SAN 1017 as this gives great detail on the areas I dive the most. The area it covers has many dive sites, some undived sites and many less popular sites. Any spot that seems interesting from the road, the dark patches you see from the beach could be kelp, rocky reef or some other manmade item from years gone by. Marine life gathers anywhere it  can find even the slightest protection from predators, so a small kelp forest, an old submerged bridge foundation, or a wreck all attract marine life, many species setting up residence.

These maps are published by the SA Navy Hydrographic Office, and can be purchased from Chart World (telephone 021 419 8814) and Charts International (telephone 021 419 7700), both located on the foreshore in Foregate Square at the entrance to the harbour. The full chart catalogue can be found here.

Refresh yourself!

No matter what your qualification level, if you have not dived for a while, or have had a bad dive and not been in the water since, it’s often a very good idea to have a refresher dive with an instructor.

You may not remember how all the kit fits together – which is quite important, as you are relying on your gear to be correctly configured when you’re underwater! The instructor will revise this with you, and help you fine-tune your buoyancy again. You’ll also cover basic skills like mask clearing and removal, regulator recovery and equalising your ears.

Most likely you’ll do the refresher in a decidedly non-threatening environment like Long Beach in Simon’s Town, surrounded by other eager scuba diving students. Then you’ll go for a dive, and remind yourself why the underwater world is so appealing…

This is why we love diving
This is why we love diving

Backward roll

On a boat dive off a rubber duck, all the divers roll backwards into the water at the same time. The skipper stops the boat, counts down, and everyone rolls backwards off the pontoon simultaneously. There are good reasons for the emphasis on doing it at the same time:

  • if there’s even a slight wind or current, the boat drifts
  • once divers hit the water, they start drifting too

Even a second’s hesitation can combine with one of the above to have you landing on top of another diver. It may not hurt you, but the diver already in the water is unlikely to be wearing a hard hat to protect them from your cylinder! If you miss the count down for whatever reason, WAIT on the boat. The skipper will bring you around and drop you again when it’s clear.

The alternative – rolling into the water on top of everyone else – will ensure that you don’t get invited back for more boat dives!

Ever wondered what it’s like to do a backward roll? Check out this video I took at the start of a dive on Bikini, Two Mile Reef, in Sodwana.

Hydrographic and oceanographic data

There are thousands of buoys and satellites monitoring the ocean and its weather patterns. Here’s a smattering of the data collected from these sources:

United Nations Atlas of the Oceans – designed for use by policy makers who need to become familar with issues confronting the seas.

NASA Winds project – measuring ocean winds from space.

SeamountsOnline – an information system on seamount biology.

NOAA’s Vents Program – conducting research on the thermal vents located on the sea floor, and suboceanic volcanic activity. There are creatures living far, far under the ocean in conditions previously thought to be completely out of the question for life to exist.

Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory – development of ocean and atmospheric observation systems such as buoys.

National Science Foundation Office of Polar Programs (OPP) runs McMurdo Station, the largest Antarctic research station.

International Arctic Buoy Program maintains a network of drifting buoys in the Arctic Ocean, providing information for climate research amongst other things.

IFREMER, the French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea does research and monitoring of coastal waters as well as making recommendations for management of ocean resources.

Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping Joint Hydrographic Center is a hotbed of expertise on hydrographic and ocean mapping services

There’s a ton of information on the Artic Passages of Franklin and Amundsen here at the PBS NOVA site. This is a fascinating and inspiring slice of history.

The Beaufort Gyre Exploration Project is all about oceanography on top of the world!

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is the world’s largest nonprofit ocean research, engineering and education institution. They have great podcasts on iTunes too.