Handy hints: Choosing a rental car

Travelling with dive gear requires extreme patience, and great packing expertise. Fitting both clothing and dive gear into a single bag for airline check-in is a mission of note… Re-packing the wet dive gear at the end of a trip is even more challenging. Dive gear is bulky, and fairly heavy. BCDs and wetsuits are not very compressible, and you want to protect regulators and other expensive bits and pieces from being crushed on the conveyor belts.

Let’s assume you managed to pass unscathed through check-in at the airport, that your bag was neither too big nor too heavy, and that you’ve arrived to pick up your rental car. Let’s also assume that, like me, you are a budget traveller who prefers to splurge on things that will last after the trip – like an awesome experience, a special souvenir, or a nice camera to document things. That means you won’t have a big budget left over for the car.

As Fritz says:

“A rental car is a magic thing.”

But not all rental cars are equally magical…

Picking the cheapest car on offer may seem like a good idea at the time, especially given the other expenses associated with travel. We saw first hand on our Sodwana trip that cheapest means smallest, and that car manufacturers’ imaginations are limitless when it comes to space saving.

Gerard and his Kia Picanto
Gerard and his Kia Picanto, known as "The Golden Bomber"

Take the Kia Picanto, a spunky looking car – until you open the boot. It has just enough space for one piece of luggage… preferably HAND luggage… and then it’s full. I am not joking. We managed to squeeze a little handbag in on top of the togbag, but that was about it. On the way to Sodwana we packed it to the gills with four people, and as much luggage (very little) as would fit. Gerard managed a top speed of 144 kilometres per hour, downhill, with a tailwind. For the rest of the time, the car looked as if it was about to explode from effort as he coaxed maximum performance out of it.

The Golden Bomber, packed to the roof
The Golden Bomber, packed to the roof

The Hyundai Atos, which seems to be of similar size, actually has quite reasonable boot space and can accommodate a single large bag or two medium sized ones, with a bit of room to spare. We drove one in Johannesburg last month when we went up for the boat show. It has good headroom if you’re tall, but a high centre of gravity and ridiculous little Marie biscuit wheels.

The Hyundai Atos has reasonable boot space
The Hyundai Atos has reasonable boot space

We spent the Sodwana weekend driving a Hyundai i20, which has NO power on the open road and seems impossible to drive slowly and smoothly. Pulling away involved giving the car a massive boost of gas, and then easing off the clutch – waiting for the inevitable jerk as it took. Tony, who has driven almost every kind of car ever made, kept apologising for driving like a beginner.

The Hyundai i20 loaded with gear
The Hyundai i20 loaded with gear

The car is quite spacious inside, however. We fitted three people plus five people’s luggage into it (including bedding) on the way to Sodwana. It has lots of nifty gadgets (I was particularly taken with the Trip computer, and made extensive use of its statistical features when we came close to running out of fuel on the N2 heading back to Durban…) as well as aircon and a CD player.

In short, local dive travel requires a bit of thought on several fronts. Which bag will you take? How will you pack your gear? And which car will you try to fit it into? Not all rental cars are created equal!

New fins

ScubaPro Seawing Nova fins

I recently upgraded my little Mickey Mouse fins (child-sized) for a pair of black ScubaPro Seawing Nova fins. I’ve had my eye on the white ones for a while (they only come in two colours), but last time I was ill in bed with flu I read one of Tony’s books on the best pelagic dives… And most of the shark-related articles mentioned what a bad idea it was to dive with the sharks wearing light-coloured fins. Apparently they get confused, think it’s fish, and take a munch. Not a chance I am keen to take in Cape Town!

Anyway, these fins have a joint that separates the foot pocket from the blade, making them extremely powerful. When you kick hard, they lock rather than continuing to flex past the point of usefulness. There’s more technical stuff on the ScubaPro web page for the fins.

I’m not really a textbook kicker and my finning technique isn’t great (too much knee, too little hip), but I found myself easily able to keep up with Tony on the surface (he says I overtook him) and underwater I didn’t get stressed about getting left behind photographing things because I knew I could keep up. I don’t really do frog kicks, and some of the reviews I have read say these fins aren’t great for that. But for traditional up-down finning, they’re marvellous.

ScubaPro Seawing Nova fins
My new ScubaPro Seawing Nova fins at a safety stop in Sodwana

I haven’t dived with lots of fins – just my small ones and a hideously buoyant pair belonging to Tony that had me hanging head down for most of the dive (involuntarily – I do like to do this for fun, but only when I feel like it)! Even though these fins are not much longer than my old pair, they are efficiently designed so that a greater amount of my finning effort is translated into forward motion.

These fins are fitted with a bungee-style foot strap – no clips. There’s just a monstrously strong spring/elastic combination that means you pull on the back of the fin, slide your foot in and let go. It hugs your foot snugly, but is really quick to remove and replace, which is super on the boat. For surf entries, this is also very convenient if you don’t want to mess around in the waves. There’s also a far smaller chance of equipment failure because of the absence of clips and flimsy straps.

The only downside is that these fins are becoming so popular that on a given boat dive there can be three or four pairs floating around. I wrote my name on the bottom of my pair with white marker, which also helps my buddy Tami to find me when we get separated!

Bookshelf: More Reef Fishes & Nudibranchs

More Reef Fishes & Nudibranchs – Dennis King & Valda Fraser

This is the sequel to Dennis King’s first book on East and South Coast sea life, Reef Fishes and Corals. It has a similar layout and is of similar length and dimensions. It’s a useful size for travelling around with, like its predecessor.

More Reef Fishes & Nudibranchs
More Reef Fishes & Nudibranchs – Dennis King & Valda Fraser

Several more reef fish are shown and described here, filling in many of the gaps of the previous volume.

This volume doesn’t cover coral at all, but includes a section on nudibranchs. I’m afraid the SURG team have spoiled me for nudibranch identification, and the nudibranch section of this book frustrated me for several reasons.

It doesn’t provide common names for the nudibranchs – so I had to tell people I’d seen a Chromodoris hamiltoni (Tony called it a Colgate nudibranch because it looked like a squeeze of toothpaste). Also, there’s only one picture of each variety, which I suppose is to be expected in a book that attempts to cover a wide variety of fish and other marine species… But given the degree of variation within one type of nudibranch, it can be tricky to make a positive identification with only one photograph to go on.

Buy it here.

Bookshelf: Reef Fishes & Corals

Reef Fishes and Corals: East Coast of Southern Africa – Dennis King

We used this book and its sequel (More Reef Fishes and Nudibranchs) extensively while we were in Sodwana. The Advanced students sat with it after their Fish ID dive, and tried to match up the drawings on their slates with the photos in the book.

Reef Fishes & Corals
Reef Fishes & Corals – Dennis King

It was my first time diving in warm, tropical waters, and I didn’t know the name of a single fish! It’s a slim volume with pictures and a small amount of information – habitat, behaviour – about each fish. It’s great for travelling as it’s not very thick or heavy.

The book also contains names and information about various types of coral, which is helpful because Sodwana is bursting at the seams with gorgeous coral formations, all of which were unfamiliar to me as a Cape Town diver.

Frustrations: owing to poor editing, the index doesn’t tie up with the pagination, so things aren’t always where they’re meant to be. It’s also really just selected highlights, so you won’t find all the fish you see on dives in this book. Having the sequel on hand helps, but I still need to sit at Tony’s place with a more comprehensive book and my photos, to identify some of the more mysterious specimens.

You can purchase a copy of the book here.

Newsletter: Sodwana in pictures, diving this week

Hi everyone

Sodwana weekend has come and gone. We stayed at Coral Divers, a large dive camp quite close to the beach. The accommodation was in safari tents and wooden cabins, and the camp site was filled with monkeys who watched our every move – especially during meals! Dives in Sodwana are done via surf launches, so we had to help push the boat into the water, and then jump on before the skipper took us through the waves.

Sodwana reef formation
Sodwana reef formation

The reef we spent most of the time on, Two Mile, is a short boat ride out, and has the most incredible coral formations and colourful tropical reef fish. We were lucky to see a white tip reef shark on the deep dive. A few of us managed to squeeze a third dive in on Saturday and were lucky to see two huge turtles. We also had about 50 odd devil rays swimming in formation overhead on the last dive on Sunday.

Coral in Sodwana
The reef life is incredibly diverse and colourful

To everyone that made the trip I would like to say thank you. The diving was great, the drive and flights entertaining thanks to our resident clowns and jokers and we all had fun. Congratulations to Gerard, Tami, Sophie and Justin, who are now all pretty much done with the Advanced course and qualified to dive to 30 metres.

Justin and Giraffe set off on their navigation swim
Justin and Giraffe set off on their navigation swim

Several awards due here.

Strangest behavior award: Fritz for struggling to adjust to the water in his hair (never dived without a hoodie before)

Musical award: Gerard AKA Giraffe…  for singing “how to throw up” songs for the seasick passengers

Where is my weight belt award: Sophie, for forgetting her weight belt every day

Picasso award: Tami, for changing my fin colour to pink seconds before the dive

SMB perfection award: Justin Gootman for sitting at the safety stop with a perfectly inflated and stable SMB on the first attempt.

Best hair band award: Mariaan… for having a hair band wider then her head.

Gaudy wetsuit award: Justin J for the brightest wetsuit on the beach.

First lady of chum award: Clare, however this was closely contested by Tami, Mariaan and Justin G

Group photo on the beach
Group photo with Dean the Divemaster right back, on the left - me the only well behaved one - with Justin, Gerard - no sorry Giraffe - Fritz without a hoodie, Justin in purple being supported by Sophie, Clare, Mariaan and Tami in front.

We will definitely be organising more trips like this in the future, possibly the first week in December so keep an eye on the newsletter for more details.

Diving this weekend

I have an Open Water course running this week with an Australian pair, and a new course starting on Saturday for a Swede, plus three students doing their qualifying dives this weekend. Saturday morning we will slot in a Discover Scuba diving group of three so there is one spot left. Saturday night I will do a night dive if the weather permits.

We will also continue the Rescue course this weekend so if you see me flailing around in the water looking like a panicked diver… It’s practice… Don’t rush in and rescue me unless you have coffee and doughnuts!

Thursday we have a Zero to Hero course starting for a British student. This is a diver doing all the courses from Open water all the way to Divemaster, including sixty dives in 60 days. So you can be sure of finding us diving almost every day to achieve this.

regards

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

Bookshelf: Robert Ballard’s Titanic

Robert Ballard’s Titanic: Exploring the Greatest of All Lost Ships – Robert D. Ballard

Robert Ballard's Titanic
Robert Ballard’s Titanic

The Titanic sank in the early hours 15 April 1912, just four days into her maiden voyage. She was a state of the art vessel for her time, of colossal dimensions, outfitted in the utmost luxury (for the first class passengers, at least), and carrying over 2,200 passengers and crew. Over 1,500 people died when she sank – mainly men, as the lifeboats (which were only sufficient to save about 1,200 people, and many of which departed half empty) were filled with women and children first.

There’s something totally fascinating about shipwrecks. There is a thrill to exploring something as massive as a ship, rendered immobile on the sea floor. The Titanic lay undisturbed until 1985, when she was located after a joint search by the French IFREMER and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in the USA. Others had searched, and even claimed to have found the ship, but the Woods Hole expedition was the first one to bring back photographic evidence.

The expedition was jointly led by Robert Ballard of WHOI, and Jean-Louis Michel of IFREMER. They used what was then up to the minute submersible technology, both manned and unmanned. Part of the fascination of reading Ballard’s account is to realise to what degree imaging systems have improved in the last quarter century, and what an achievement it was to document the ship given the available technology and the inhospitable environment (pitch dark, 4 kilometres under the ocean in a howling current) it lies in. He speaks of the floor of the submersible being “littered with spent video cassettes” after a successful dive. Video cassettes? I haven’t seen one of those for years!

The book is illustrated with many photos taken during the search and exploration of the wreck, as well as gorgeous artist’s renderings of the entire superstructure (it’s broken into two pieces) with corresponding plans of what goes where. It’s a fascinating read, and also quite eery. Ballard approaches the wreck with great respect and strong awareness that it is the grave of over a thousand souls, and the darkness and quiet of the undersea world that it rests in adds an air of solemnity to the images and descriptions.

The detail about what has decayed (all the wood except for hard woods like teak, and all human remains except for leather shoes, for example) and what has remained and in what condition, is fascinating. Iron-eating bacteria have polished and thinned parts of the hull, which is covered in rusticles comprising oxidised iron intermingled with colonies of these bacteria.

Thousands of artefacts have been retrieved from the wreck site over the years by subsequent visitors, including a 17 ton section of the hull. Ballard states that in his view, however, the wreck has no archaeological value. Unlike a 2,000 year old Phoenician shipwreck in the Mediterranean, we know exactly who and what was on RMS Titanic. We have the blueprints of the ship, and photographs taken of her and on her. What’s more, relatives of those who perished on board are still alive, and we are within a generation of actual memories of the survivors and casualties.

Woods Hole is currently participating in another expedition to document and explore the wreck site – there is a really cool website for Expedition Titanic.

The book is available here. It’s a fairly large-format paperback with several fold-out pages of diagrams and paintings.

Underwater camera review: Sony DSC-TX5

Sony Cybershot DSC-TX5 and MPK-THJ marine housing

I am a devoted Sony fan for compact digital cameras – my first (and only to date) digital compact camera was a Sony, and it’s given excellent service and taken brilliant photos over the last five years.  Underwater digital photography equipment is very expensive – often in the case of DSLRs the underwater housing costs multiples of what the camera inside costs, and it can be very bulky. I can’t get a marine housing for my existing digital compact camera, and I have had no interest in taking my DSLR underwater – it’s just too big, and I can’t bring myself to spend three times the value of the camera (a Nikon D3000) on a housing.

Sony has been making marine housings for years, and they are small, light and – in the case of the newer models – incredibly easy to operate. Tony has one of the original ones, and I’ve done a few dives with it. On the digital photography dive for my Advanced course at A Frame, I actually gave up in frustration (and had to repeat the dive – first time in my life I’ve had to repeat a class!). We were diving in quite strong surge, and I felt as though I was trying to take pictures out of the window of a moving car. The original Sony housings also have a different button configuration to the newer ones – much stiffer, closer together, and harder to distinguish from one another. I kept turning the camera off instead of pressing the shutter release button.

Fiddling with Tony's old Sony at A Frame
"How the heck do you work this thing?!" Me trying to figure out the buttons on Tony's old Sony housing at A Frame

After a year of dithering, and wondering whether underwater photography is for me (land-based definitely is), I finally caved and bought a Sony Cybershot DSC-TX5 compact digital still camera with the corresponding MPK-THJ marine housing. I chose the DSC-TX5 partly because the camera itself, minus the housing, is waterproof to 3 metres – so you could theoretically take it snorkelling or in the swimming pool. This gives me a lot of comfort, because if the housing floods (generally not as dramatic an event as it sounds – it’s usually just a few drops of water that leak in, not the whole ocean), I know the electronics won’t necessarily be fried.

The camera also has a respectable optical zoom (4x – I switch off digital zoom because it just degrades picture quality), and a 10-odd megapixel sensor. The LCD is a touch screen, and absolutely massive – very easy to see what you’re focusing on underwater.

The housing is small enough to fit into a tiny Woolworths cooler bag before and after dives (to prevent it from fogging up in the temperature change), and weighs just enough to feel substantial but not too much to feel bulky. It’s quite comfortable hanging from my wrist or a clip on my BCD if my hands are otherwise occupied. I can hold and operate the camera with one hand, which is super if you need to hang onto a rock or piece of kelp for stability with the other!

Me and my new Sony DSC-TX5 in its marine housing
A still taken from one of Tony's videos, of me and my new Sony DSC-TX5 in its marine housing - note the lever shutter release under my index finger

I’ve used the camera on three sea dives (the first one to 30 metres – a baptism of fire!) and once in a swimming pool so far. It’s a dream. The buttons are responsive and easy to use, even when I am wearing my thick gloves. The shutter release button isn’t actually a button, but a lever that makes it very simple to depress. There can be no confusion with the power on/off button which is great! There are dedicated underwater still and video modes which boost the red, and several white balance settings depending on the water colour – blue, green, etc.

It focuses quickly, and works very well in low light. I am still figuring out macro mode – the camera doesn’t like to be zoomed (4x optical!) and then asked to focus – it prefers to acquire a target, and for the zoom to be activated subsequent to that.

On the deep dive, the flash did cause a fair amount of backscatter – visibility wasn’t great to begin with, and there’s not much light at that depth. But it’s a powerful little flash with a diffuser built into the housing, and the camera battery lasted for approximately 250 photos over two successive dives (in cold water) with the flash firing for every single one, plus about another 50 I took of whales from the boat. The recharge time for the flash is very quick.

Sea anemone at A Frame
Sea anemone on a very sandy dive at Fisherman's Beach - not National Geographic quality yet, but passable!

The only annoyance I have had so far is that I can’t figure out how to switch off the automatic preview after I’ve taken a picture. I generally want to fire off a few shots in succession, not wait around while the camera shows me what I’ve just taken – particulary in the underwater environment, if you miss the shot then it’s gone. The preview also chows battery! It’s not clear whether you can deactivate this feature without going into burst mode, which would deactivate the flash.

I’m looking forward to taking a zillion photos in Sodwana!

Simon’s Town railway repairs

You may be wondering what the railroad repairs have to do with diving. Well, the ocean is an amazing place in that whenever something new is dropped into it permanently, a diverse array of creatures quickly colonise it and make homes.

I followed the sinking of two barges of the coast of the Cape Vidal area a few years back and the wrecks were visited monthly by divers for the purpose of establishing what would find its way there. Several kilometres away from the nearest reef, month by month new species zoned in on these barges and have now made them home.

The repairs to the railroad near Simon’s Town will offer the same opportunity for many creatures. Long sections of narrow sandy beach are being covered with trucked in rocks to protect the rail lines from the sea and there are now several hundred meters of  “new” reef area for the ocean’s creatures to find homes.

Railway line between Glencairn and Simon's Town
This section of railway line between Glencairn and Simon's Town is under repair

Once work has been completed I want to dive specific sections monthly and film the changes.

Sid spills the beans

Sediqa of Verbal Diarrhoea, who won the Discover Scuba course for herself and a friend on Chris’s blog at iMod.co.za, has spilt the beans about the experience on her blog.

Personally, I almost broke a rib at her revelation that she wanted to punch Tony at one point, and at the thought of her and Fahiema clad head to foot in latex (as opposed to neoprene)… Fetishists the world over are racing down to their nearest PADI Dive Centre to sign up!

Hope to see you guys in the water soon!

Podcasts for sea lovers

Even scuba divers need to get in the car sometimes… It’s a four and a half hour drive from Durban to Sodwana! Having an ipod packed with interesting stuff can help make it less painful. Here’s a small selection of podcasts you can find on iTunes for download. Not all of them are still being updated.

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

The Scripps Institution of Oceanography is Woods Hole’s main competitor, and has a podcast on ocean-related research.

It’s a very short series, but Science and the Sea has some interesting material.

The NOAA has a series on the US National Marine Sanctuaries. They also have a series on the Southwest Fisheries Science Centre.