Article: The Atlantic on motion sickness

Tony checking out the fishing boat
Tony checking out the fishing boat

Travelling – by boat, car, bus – is supposed to be fun. If you suffer from motion sickness (sea sickness while on a boat), it isn’t. This feels like punishment, and Julie Beck in The Atlantic puts it better than I could:

For so long as man has attempted to tame and traverse the sea, the sea has punished him for it. With barfing.

If you are susceptible, you may have attempted to manage your motion sickness by various means, not excluding ginger biscuits. You may have settled on a gentle medical solution, which works quite well if you remember to take it before setting off on a journey.

The science of motion sickness turns out to be fairly complex and our understanding of it is not yet settled. Beck’s article explains the physical mechanisms at work when we get motion sick and the theories that explain the phenomenon, some of which are supported by the results of new genetic studies done by 23andMe. Sufferers will receive small consolation to hear that their sea sickness can be partly explained by their gender  or age, but may glean some understanding of when they are most susceptible to an uncomfortable ride.

Read the full article here.

Friday photo: Shark Alley, undiveable

Shark Alley with a big swell running
Shark Alley with a big swell running

You can’t believe the difference between Shark Alley when there’s a big swell, as above, and when there’s no swell at all. A shore entry would be impossible in these conditions; a boat dive would be awful, if you didn’t get too seasick on the way there to care. We’ve noticed that the cowsharks tend to leave the area for a several weeks late in winter (usually somtime in August and September), roughly corresponding with the period of time during which swells like this pound into False Bay. Tony reckons they leave to avoid the bad weather! Current research aims to determine where they go…

If you plan specially to dive with the cowsharks when you come to Cape Town, it’s worth checking whether they’re in town. All the dive operators know when they’re not around! Shark Alley is a lovely spot regardless of whether there are sharks to look at or not, but if there are no cowsharks and conditions are better elsewhere, it’d be more enjoyable to visit a different site.

Stugeron for seasickness

I’ve been deeply reluctant to take any western medicines in my minor struggle with seasickness. Not because I am opposed to western medicine – indeed, I ingest a veritable cocktail of drugs of varying scheduling status every morning before getting out of bed – but because I didn’t want to add another chemical dependency to my life! Before our recent trip to Gansbaai for some shark cage diving (or “shark cave diving”, as my sister repeatedly refers to it), however, I decided that the length of the trip (four hours at sea in winter) and the cost (not insignificant) were compelling arguments in favour of some strong drugs.


Following the advice of the cage diving operator we originally booked with, I took one Stugeron tablet the night before our trip, and one again about an hour before we climbed on the boat. Stugeron is also known as Cinnarizine and is safe for scuba divers to use, and is available over the counter at the pharmacy.

The only side effect that was noticeable was intense grumpiness, apparently worse than my usual morning funk – according to Tony. I don’t remember feeling specially drowsy (aside from the normal sleepiness associated with it being 0530 – a full two hours before I usually wake up).

I didn’t have any problems with seasickness in Gansbaai at all. I was acutely aware that the circumstances were such that I’d usually have gotten sick – large swells, stationary boat with the engines running, and often no clear horizon to look at because of the number of people standing around looking for sharks- but I was fine. Even the deathly gurglings and litres of vomit produced (in neat little white paper bags) by the only other South African on board, a gentleman from Durban who was almost paralytic for the entire trip, did not set me off.

I took Stugeron again two weekends ago, in preparation for the long boat ride out to the SS Lusitania off Cape Point. It definitely enhanced my feelings of grumpiness, but this was resolved as soon as I got into the water. Clearly this is a side effect to bear in mind.

I’m quite pleased about this development in my attempts to appear a normal human being (and maybe one day a proper pirate) whilst on the water. I’ve been reluctant to try Stugeron and other drugs of its ilk, hoping that apples, crackers, ginger and positive thinking will make future trips to Sodwana less physically taxing, but now that I have tested it (twice) with success I’m willing to try it again.

FAQ: Don’t you feel claustrophobic underwater?

Many people seem to think that they’ll experience claustrophobia when they put their faces in the water, with their breathing restricted to their regulator, wearing a wetsuit, and having all that water around them.

Here are some facts…

Breathing from a regulator

A regulator or demand valve is a brilliantly designed piece of equipment that attaches to a hose linked to a cylinder of compressed air. It’s constructed so that it’s easy to breathe from – no more effort is required than breathing without one, it gives you as much air as you need, and you can even cough or (I know this from sad experience) vomit with it in your mouth and you won’t have ANY trouble at all with the consequences… If you get my drift. In the unlikely event that it fails, it won’t fail in the “off” position and stop your air supply; it will free flow (deliver a continuous stream of air). One of the skills you do in your Open Water course is breathing off a free-flowing regulator, so you are fully equipped to handle this situation.

Your regulator delivers more than enough air, NOT less than you get breathing on land. If you do at some point feel as though you’re not getting enough, it’s because you’re breathing too shallowly. When you dive, your breathing must be deep and slow. Extracting the full goodness out of each breath maximises your enjoyment: your air will last longer, and you’ll feel more relaxed.

Bubbles rising in the Atlantic
Bubbles rising in the Atlantic

Having to breathe out of your regulator – as opposed to being able to go take one breath in each corner of the room, or open your mouth as wide as it can go – is not restrictive at all. If you think about it, when you breathe on land, you’re drawing in the air that is in front of your face. There’s no hardship in not being able to take in the air from down the passageway – that’s not where you are.

What’s more, having the regulator in your mouth only feels funny for the first few minutes. It’s made with soft rubbery flanges that fit in your mouth (mouthpieces come in different sizes, too) and once it’s seated properly you won’t even know it’s there. If you’ve snorkeled, you know what it feels like to have a mouthpiece between your teeth. Breathing from a regulator is easier than breathing from a snorkel, and what’s more you don’t have to worry about rogue waves splashing water into your breathing apparatus! So if you can snorkel, you can definitely scuba dive.

All that equipment

Some people worry about wearing a mask, and think they might feel closed in with one covering their eyes and nose. Firstly, it’s important to note that it’s essential for the mask to cover your nose so that you can equalise your ears . If you wore swimmers’ goggles, they would get compressed onto your face at depth (which would hurt, and might look funny). This way, you can exhale through your nose into the mask to equalise (one of many techniques).

To be honest, a mask is no more claustrophobic to wear than a pair of wrap around sunglasses, and it’s probably going to be a lot more comfortable once you’ve found the one that suits your face shape.

Oscar enjoying all that space
Oscar enjoying all that space

Others worry about wearing a wetsuit, that they won’t feel free to move. They’re right about that: wearing a wetsuit on land is one of the least comfortable things you can do. They’re hot, restrictive, and tight. In the water, however, you won’t even notice it’s there. Wetsuits keep you warm (important in the Cape) and protect you from marine creatures that might sting or scratch you as you pass through their domain. Deciding you won’t like or try diving because wetsuits make you feel cramped is like deciding you aren’t going to eat Haagen-Dazs ice cream because you don’t like the font they write their product labels in.

All that water

Finally, some people worry that they’ll feel trapped under the weight of all the water above them, and that it’s impossibly far to get to the surface. There are a few answers to this:

Firstly, you’ll learn a skill called a CESA, or Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent, on your Open Water course. This enables you to swim for the surface in a controlled, non-panicky manner if you need to. This is not something you’ll just do if you’re feeling uncomfortable one day – it’s for when you run out of air and have no buddy nearby to borrow an octo from.

Second, when you learn to dive you’re not suddenly going to start spending all your time at 30 metres. The PADI Open Water course qualifies you to dive to 18 metres, and you have to do an Advanced course to get to 30 metres, and a Deep specialty to get to 40 metres. So these things come with time. Some divers have no interest in deep diving, and there’s nothing wrong with that – Tony and I spend most of our time in less than 10 metres of water because the best and easiest photographic opportunities are there, and we can stay down a looooong time because our air lasts forever! Your first diving experiences will be in relatively shallow water, and only as you get used to being underwater will your instructor gradually increase the depth you go to.

Looking up in the clear Atlantic
Looking up in the clear Atlantic

I will admit that when visibility is poor, one loses the feeling of having three beautiful dimensions around one to play in. But this is infrequent, and if you’re diving for fun, then you hopefully won’t have to get in the water when conditions aren’t great (unless you’re desperate to get wet, in which case you won’t care!). But the feeling of space when one drops into the gin-clear water of the Atlantic on a summer’s day is so extreme as to make one almost dizzy. Being underwater is the closest I get to flying, and I love it.

In conclusion, diving involves a fair amount of unfamiliar equipment, and is quite different to our day-to-day experiences as human beings on planet earth. You may not like it; but you probably will. If you’re not sure, sign up for a Discover Scuba Diving experience (DSD). Tony even sometimes does these in people’s swimming pools – just to give you a taste of the freedom that comes with breathing underwater. You can make an educated decision about diving after that.

Arresting the vomit comet

Ginger Root
Ginger Root

Today I picked up a bottle of ginger capsules manufactured by Flora Force at Wellness Warehouse. It’s a single-ingredient supplement and is supposed to help with cramps and nausea caused by motion sickness, digestive issues, chemotherapy, morning sickness and the like.

I’m hoping this will prevent any chundering on the boat dives – of which I trust there will be many – in my future. It’s the next remedy I am trying after ditching the ProBalance band.

Dosage is two capsules per day, and I only anticipate taking them on days I’m diving. Like tomorrow…

Watch this space.

More on the bogus bracelet

As a follow up to my post on ditching the ProBalance Band, here are two considered articles from a commentator whose views I highly respect – Ross Tucker of The Science of Sport. He detailed the apology that Power Balance had to issue, and then went into more detail the following week, including a good explanation of the placebo effect.

I hoped that my ProBalance Band (a similar product) would assist with my seasickness on rough boat dives, even if it was due to the placebo effect. Unfortunately, owing to all this thoughtful publicity I don’t think my brain will be fooled any more. I have thus retreated back to the firm ground of mainstream science, and will be eating ginger nuts instead.

Ginger Nuts
Ginger Nuts

Balance bracelet for seasickness… Not!

It’s embarrassing, being married to a skipper-type person like Tony, that I get seasick. Sometimes violently so… Our time in Sodwana was marked by some totally spectacular amateur dramatics on my part, culminating in me curled in the foetal position on the deck at the back of the boat, whimpering pathetically because my by then empty stomach wouldn’t stop trying to eject itself inside-out through my oesophagus.

Boat rides are fine, but the combination of a rocking boat and the smells of fuel fumes and neoprene can turn my stomach in an instant. This leads to some very antisocial behaviour on the boat, and (I am sure) it makes Tony want to hide his face in shame. I sometimes even get sick while I am diving, if it’s a particularly surgy day or site.

Our divemaster in Sodwana, a super-relaxed young fellow called Dean, recommended one of those new-age balance bracelets, saying it had really helped with his seasickness. I need to admit that I am a skeptic of NOTE when it comes to any whiff of bogus science or non-western medicine. I am  not convinced that our bodies even have a magnetic field, let alone that it needs “balancing”. But the alternatives – staying off the boat or using anti-epilepsy medication as a seasickness prophylactic – were not palatable.

Ginger, a widely-touted natural remedy, never seems to be on hand when I get on the boat. (A packet of ginger-snaps the night before a dive, however, seems like a solution I’d enjoy trying, as long as I can distract Tony from trying to help me out!)

Proformance Band
Proformance Band

Enter the Proformance Band, available (I’m a girl – this is important) in clear or black versions. It has two little holograms at opposite sides, and you’re meant to position them over the middle of your wrist. It’s available in several sizes – mine is a small, but it’s a bit too big. There are several other brands on the market, all making the same vague claims. Power Balance is another big one.

The alleged mechanics of the band I will not explain – I’ll just get embarrassed and want to crawl under a desk – but it’s supposed to help with balance, power, and flexibility. (It’ll also bring you a cup of coffee and a rusk in bed every morning.) It’s also supposed to help with seasickness. The claims on the box are vague, characterised by qualifiers such as “may help to…” and “is believed to…”

I did some googling on the subject of these bracelets – there are various brands – and was unable to find ANY hard science backing them up. There are countless enthusiastic testimonials, however, from every man and (I kid you not) his dog, and on the strength of these and my HOPE that it’s stop the barfing, I bought one for the rather princely sum of R300.

I wore it constantly for over a month, and unfortunately (or fortunately) all the boat dives I did during that time have been on calm seas. I haven’t felt ill at all. I thought I might carry on wearing the bracelet until I could make up my mind either way whether it’s doing anything – and I am perfectly OK with the notion that it might do something just because I think it should or might – but my bro in law Andrew brought some information to my attention on Christmas day which prompted me to put an end to the experiment.

A double blind test was conducted in Australia – finally – and found that users may as well wear a rubber band around their wrists. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission ruled that Power Balance must cease their misleading advertising and refund consumers who feel they’ve been deceived. There’s an embarrassing statement on their website in which they admit to the hoax:

In our advertising we stated that Power Balance wristbands improved your strength, balance and flexibility. We admit that there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims…

This is enough for me. I felt very self-conscious wearing the bracelet – I feel like it was advertising that I believe, along with Thabo Mbeki, that HIV was delivered to earth by spacemen – and I’m going to move on to ginger as a proposed seasickness palliative. I expect this to be enjoyable. I will report back when I have enough data to draw a conclusion.

Dos and don’ts for boat dives

Don’t talk about soup sandwiches, cheesy garlic rolls and other such topics on the boat while someone is throwing up… Be nice!

Don’t walk around the boat once you have your weight belt on. If you fall in the water we all laugh first and then try to rescue you, and by then you may be on the bottom… Not nice!

Don’t rinse your mask, fully kitted up or while the boat is moving… You will lose it (or fall overboard) and we will all laugh again… You then get to sit on the boat while we dive… Not nice!

Don’t shout “yee haa!” when the skipper gets the boat airborne on a huge wave… Its embarrassing enough with just you lot watching him fluff things, so when you shout everyone on the beach looks as well… Not nice!

Don’t all rush to one side of the boat when someone shouts “dolphins!” The boat becomes unbalanced and the skipper (or a diver) sometimes falls off… Not nice.

Don’t call your mask  goggles, your fins flippers, your weights sinkers and your cylinder a tin of oxygen… Your Instructor gets embarrassed and gets a beer fine.

Tim and Grace on the boat in Ponta do Ouro
Tim and Grace on the boat in Ponta do Ouro

Do check that your buddy is on the boat after a dive as most skippers and some DM’s went to night school and can’t count during the day. Plus it’s a waste of fuel to drive all the way back to the dive site to fetch him if you forget.

Do make sure your air is on before you fall into the water… Look at your gauge, take a few deep breaths, and if the needle fluctuates you air is not on. If you can’t breathe at all, it is also not on…

Do remember to shout “man overboard!” if your male buddy falls in the water, but please shout “girl overboard!” if your buddy is not male… Girls are sensitive about these things… Besides if a girl falls overboard all the guys do too… to help… This makes the boat fast and the skipper falls off…

Why it’s a good idea to carry an SMB

When I met Tony he was living in Mozambique, and when his visa ended he moved to Durban. Around that time we had decided we quite enjoyed each other’s company, so I flew up every second weekend to visit him. He was working at Calypso Dive and Adventure Centre at uShaka Marine World as an Instructor and Divemaster, so I tagged along on dives on the Saturday mornings I was in town. I was a fairly new diver at the time (it was September 2009).

It was the first time I’d come up to Durban to see him, and he had a student who had to do a deep dive on the Saturday morning. The boat was heading out to the Coopers Lighthouse wreck, a mysterious ship lying in 24-32 metres of water whose identity is not certain. Some people think it’s an old whaler, but there are several theories as to its origin. The wreck is thought to be about 100 years old and situated in line with the Cooper Lighthouse on the Bluff.

The rubber duck left the beach at 0700. The sea was looking quite bumpy, and the boat ride wasn’t great. I am not the best sailor, but as long as the boat is moving I’m fine. It’s about a 25 minute ride through shipping lanes, south of Durban harbour.

There was a howling current when we arrived at the site, and while we kitted up on the boat we drifted some way from the shot line hooked to the wreck. The sea was horrible – I alternated vomiting over the side (so embarrassing) with doing up clips on my BCD! Once we were ready, the skipper circled round and dropped us close to the shot line, but on the wrong side – so the current was taking us away from the line rather than towards it. I was with Tony, and his student – who was on the other side of the boat – had managed to get to the shot line and was holding on for dear life. In the current, his body was horizontal, like a flag in a strong wind.

Tony and I swam and swam, for what felt like an hour. We were swimming into the current at about 10 metres depth, but I think we were either standing still or moving backwards (it must have looked quite funny, if you were in that sort of mood). We could see Tony’s student, and we could see the shot line ahead of us, and then it just seemed to vanish. By that time the student had joined us, and the current had taken us out of sight of the line.

I wasn’t quite sure what we would do at that point, but Tony had a plan, which he explained to me later, on dry land. We descended to about 20 metres, and stayed there for about 20 minutes. The three of us were hanging in the blue ocean – no sign of the bottom – surrounded by shoals of fish. We could have surfaced immediately when we lost the shot line, but then we’d have had to spend the duration of the dive sitting on the boat, which was being tossed about like a cork. (I’d already demonstrated low tolerance for this kind of activity by chumming the local fish life while kitting up.) That’s if the boat had even found us – the skipper wouldn’t be expecting divers to surface after only ten minutes, and the conditions were not conducive to him spotting us as soon as we surfaced.

After about 20 minutes we began our ascent, doing a safety stop at 5 metres with an SMB deployed. When we reached the surface, the sea was mountainous. There was no sign of the boat, and even if it had been five metres away from us we’d have struggled to see it because of the size of the waves. Tony clipped our BCDs together so that we would drift more slowly (larger surface area to offer resistance to the current), and told me to keep my regulator in my mouth becuase the waves were so big. (It was on this dive that I discovered that you can vomit through a regulator… useful fact to keep in mind…)

Then we waited. The bright orange SMB stuck up between us, and in between gags I scanned the horizon (which was not very large, thanks to the waves) for the boat. The three of us floated there for 55 minutes before the boat found us. After being hauled aboard like a drowned rat I heaved over the side for good measure and then concentrated on my lollipop.

The skipper told Tony he’d been driving around looking for us, cursing Tony for not having an SMB deployed. We did – but the waves were so big that the boat was practically on top of us before it could be seen. If we hadn’t had an SMB, I very much doubt they would have found us without the aid of the NSRI.

Reels and surface marker buoy (SMB)
Different sized reels and surface marker buoys (SMB)

For the uninitiated, SMB stands for Surface Marker Buoy. They’re generally tubes of orange, red or yellow plastic, that you inflate by inserting your octo or regulator at the bottom, and purging it. It’s generally considered good practice to deploy an SMB at the safety stop when you’re on a boat dive – it warns other boats of your presence, signals that you’re ok, and gives your skipper an indication of where to come and fetch you.

If you get lost on the surface, a SMB is essential. You’re not very visible dressed from head to toe in black, and that orange tube might be the only difference between a very long time drifting on the surface, and a quick rescue. They fold up really small, and with a little practice are very straightforward to deploy. If you’re diving off a boat, or in an unfamiliar location, make sure you pack your SMB.