Dive South Africa

Bookshelf: Dive South Africa

Dive South Africa – Al J. Venter & John H. Visser

Dive South Africa
Dive South Africa

Veteran war correspondent (and veteran scuba diver) Al J. Venter has written over 35 books – chiefly about the various conflicts and wars he has covered, but also several about diving. Where to Dive, The Ultimate Handbook on Diving in Southern Africa, and The South African Handbook for Divers are long out of print, but his most recent volume, Dive South Africa, was published in 2009 and is available in many dive shops. I have a feeling I picked up my copy at Lightley’s Houseboats in Knysna. I read it just after I started diving, and I fear it gave me a rather skewed view of what scuba diving can be about. I reread it recently, with a little more knowledge and slightly higher expectations of the sport, and humans in general.

This book is basically about overgrown boys shooting stuff and looting things. An aggressive, macho diving culture is portrayed here, and many beautiful reefs are described in terms of what you can find there to kill with your speargun (and, presumably, feel terribly manly afterwards). FIST BUMP! Women are not mentioned without the qualifier “pretty” or “attractive” – no other attribute apparently matters. Sharks are uniformly referred to as “beasts”, “monsters” or “brutes”.

Venter covers dive locations such as Port Elizabeth, Durban, Plettenberg Bay, Knysna, Arniston, East London, Port Alfred, the Mossel Bay area and a number of other destinations with good diving. These destinations sometimes get poor exposure – local diving magazines are particularly guilty of this – at the expense of Sodwana and Aliwal Shoal (which also feature in some detail). A lot of the focus – in the coverage of all these locations – is on where to go to shoot big fish, but these are somewhat useful chapters for divers who want to go off the beaten track a little bit, and experience even more of the diving that South Africa has to offer. Use of this book as a reference – perhaps in conjunction with the Atlas of Dive Sites of Southern Africa and Mozambique is probably ideal for the explorer at heart. It is the chapters on particular destinations – some of them off the beaten track and even lacking dive centres within a hundred kilometres – that are the most useful part of this book. There is even a chapter on diving a wreck in Mozambican waters, with the attendant difficulties of operating in what was then a guerilla state.

A seasoned wreck diver, Venter devotes several chapters to important wrecks in South African waters. An entire chapter – with atmospheric photographs – is dedicated to the wreck of the Maori. Chapters are also devoted to the Colebrooke, the Klipfontein, and the City of Hankow in Saldanha. Much mention is made of the Birkenhead near Arniston. Venter has an interest both in the wrecks as they are now, and the stories behind their sinking and the rescue of their crew and passengers (if that took place). Some of the wrecks are not permitted to be dived any more, so the oral histories recorded here of what the condition of the wrecks are (and even their location) are important. The extensive looting of many of the shipwrecks Venter describes (many in False Bay and Table Bay), however, would make an archaeologist (a proper one) tear his hair out. SAHRA, the body meant to regulate these activities, doesn’t seem to care, and actually didn’t exist when a lot of the plunder and pilfering took place.

There are several chapters about sharks, including a lengthy one about Walter Bernardis of African Watersports, a veteran baited shark dive operator. Bernardis describes in detail the process for doing baited dives with large sharks such as tigers and bull (Zambezi) sharks, as well as an incident in 2006 when he himself was bitten. Strong respect and awe for the sharks is clearly present in both Venter and Bernardis, but the feeling I was left with after reading the chapter on baited tiger shark dives was that it’s a completely stupid idea, and extremely dangerous – both to the divers and to the sharks. Pictures such as the horrible one in this blog post, depicting sharks hurting themselves on the mechanisms used to chum – often involving steel cable and washing machine drums – show that this exploitation cannot be good for the sharks. It is purely a money-making racket and there is very little actual regard for the animals themselves.

Moreover, there are just too many caveats – dive briefings must take HOURS – and the sharks are not in a state that is conducive to calm interaction, which is not good for the divers’ peace of mind either. Venter’s endorsement of Bernardis’ practice of riding the sharks is disappointing, but shouldn’t surprise me I suppose! It has been extremely lucky, thus far, that no one has been badly injured by a shark in – understandably – a frustrated feeding frenzy. There have been incidents, and recently, but the practice continues and is extremely lucrative for the often completely unethical and fame-hungry operators that offer it.

Beautiful colour photographs by Peter Pinnock, Andrew Woodburn and others appear in plates in three sections of the book. Throughout the rest of the book, black and white images taken both above and below the water are featured. There is a brief chapter on underwater photography in which Venter interviews some of the more renowned practitioners of the art, and Thomas Peschak gets a mention.

The book has no index, which makes finding a piece of information after the fact – such as the chapter on diving in Knysna in preparation for our second visit there – completely impossible.

Venter has clearly led a rich, full life and enjoyed a variety of thrilling and hair-raising experiences underwater. His knowledge of our coastline is top notch. For the information on diving conditions and locations around our coast it’s a far more useful reference, however, than The Dive Spots of Southern Africa, for example, even if the information (depths, distances, etc) is slightly less comprehensive. It should NOT be the first book on South African diving that you read (purely from the perspective of the outdated “dive culture” that it presents), but it WILL expand your knowledge – of both facts and the origins of South African diving culture – if you do decide to add it to your library.

You can buy the book at your local dive shop.

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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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