Life on the SAS Pietermaritzburg

Wreck specialty course… Part 1

Tami, Kate and I are busy with the PADI Wreck Specialty course. It involves four wreck dives, and a theory component. You don’t need to be an Advanced diver to do the course – though all three of us are – but an Adventure Diver qualification is sufficient.

(The Adventure Diver qualification is like Advanced-lite: instead of five adventure dives, you only do three. Also, you can credit each adventure dive towards the first dive of the corresponding specialty course.)

The theory component is simple: there’s a short (50 page) manual that covers safety aspects of wreck diving as well as some of the historical and (marine) biological considerations that should be borne in mind when exploring wrecks. I was particularly struck by the section pointing out that some wrecks are war graves or the final resting place (like Titanic) of many civilian souls, and should thus be treated with the same respect as you would a grave in a cemetery.

The manual is also very clear and forceful on the subject of wreck penetration, an activity that seems terrifying to me. You need the correct equipment, and (as Peter Southwood says repeatedly on his Wikivoyage pages) if you don’t know what that is, you’re not qualified to enter a wreck! Also, there are particular techniques required to handle that equipment: you need to know how to manage a reel, belaying it correctly, as well as how to handle yourself in case of entrapment, entanglement, or disorientation. Added to all this, many wrecks are unstable and all of them are in a state of decay… Locally, the SAS Transvaal, SAS Pietermaritzburg and BOS 400 come to mind (the latter collapsed during a storm this past winter, and is now in a radically different orientation).

Four wreck dives are required to complete the course. This past weekend we did two: a deep dive on the MV Rockeater, a fantastic former diamond driller in Smitswinkel Bay, and a dive on the SAS Pietermaritzburg.

Dive 1: MV Rockeater

The MV Rockeater is the oldest of the Smitswinkel Bay wrecks – it’s been down there since 1972. The ship has a lot of interesting bits and pieces sticking up off it, as well as a collapsed helicopter pad and a drilling derrick that is lying on the sand next to it. It’s 65 metres long and very, very lively. We saw a sleeping pyjama catshark in the wreck, as well as nudibranchs, lots of fish, and the most beautiful sea fans. Space cadet here didn’t lower her camera’s lens cover before putting it in the housing, and didn’t check that everything was in order with the camera while still on the boat… So at 20 metres when I switched it on, it told me to “lower the lens cover in order to shoot”… Opening the housing to do so was not an option! So I just had to look, no pictures.

Our project on this dive was to determine which way the current was flowing, and then swim from the shot line down the wreck into the current. We’d do this to 1/4 of our air, and then turn around and swim back with the current.

Dive 2: SAS Pietermaritzburg

Wreckage of the SAS Pietermaritzburg
Wreckage of the SAS Pietermaritzburg

The SAS Pietermaritzburg is a more recent scuttling (1994) but lies in a very exposed spot just off the Miller’s Point slipway. It has a fascinating history – before being purchased and renamed by the South African government, it took place as the lead minesweeper in the D Day invasion of Normandy. And now it’s lying 1 kilometre from Miller’s Point!

SAS Pietermaritzburg
SAS Pietermaritzburg

The visibility wasn’t great (apparently fairly standard for this site), but it’s a fantastic wreck. Maximum depth (on the sand) is about 22 metres, so you can have a nice long dive in relative comfort. The wreck has all sorts of cool places to look inside, a ladder up to the deck, and for the brave (or foolhardy), some swimthroughs under the hull.

Structure on the SAS Pietermaritzburg
Structure on the SAS Pietermaritzburg

It was nudibranch paradise… Instead of giving my full attention to the mapping project we’d been set (drawing the wreck including estimates of width and length, the compass direction in which it’s lying, and depths on the deck and sand), I was taking National Geographic quality photos of those gorgeous sea slugs.Fortunately Kate’s map was good enough for both of us!

SAS Pietermaritzburg
SAS Pietermaritzburg

Tony was doing dive 4 with Cindy, an Open Water student, so Gerard, Kate, Tami (once she found us!) and I cruised the wreck investigating all the awesome features. We will definitely be diving this wreck a lot more in the future.

Life on the SAS Pietermaritzburg
Life on the SAS Pietermaritzburg

Weather permitting, we’ll do the second and third dives for the Wreck specialty next weekend or the weekend after that.

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Clare

Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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