Article: Jonny Steinberg on the illicit abalone trade in South Africa

South African writer and scholar Jonny Steinberg wrote one of my favourite books, The Number, which should be required reading for every Capetonian. He has written several other books and is a scrupulous and thorough researcher with a wonderfully readable writing style. He also does not shy away from complexity, refusing to settle for simple and expedient explanations.

Imagine my delight when I discovered – purely by accident – that he wrote a 2005 paper about the illicit abalone trade for the Institute of Security Studies, a policy think-tank focused on Africa, and concerned with all aspects of human security (more information here).

Steinberg identifies four factors which caused the tremendous growth in the abalone poaching industry in the early 1990’s, as South Africa became a democracy:

  • The rand-US dollar exchange rate weakened from R2.55 at the end of 1990, to R11.99 by the end of 2001. This made exports of US dollar-denominated commodities (with cost of production in rands) an extremely lucrative way to make money.
  • An efficient Chinese organised crime presence had already existed in South Africa for many years.
  • South Africa has notoriously poor border controls and porous borders.
  • The changing political situation had a significant impact on the coloured fishing communities along the coastline.

Steinberg identifes the fourth factor as the most important one. He says this:

The transition to democracy carried with it a universal expectation that access to the sea ought to open up quickly and dramatically. To make the politics of the moment more complicated, many members of coastal coloured communities were deeply suspicious of the recently unbanned ANC. Come South Africa’s first democratic election in April 1994, the coloured working class would vote overwhelmingly for the ruling party of the apartheid era, the National Party, in the hope that it would provide a bulwark against their fears of an African majority government.

It was a potent combination: on the one hand the expectation that democracy ought to be coupled with the speedy implementation of a just fishing regime; on the other, a deeply held suspicion that the new government would betray the coloured working class. This cocktail of expectations and fears could not have been more propitious for abalone poaching. The resource was lying there in the sea and growing more lucrative by the day. Given the politics of the moment, a great many people who had lived their lives on the coastline believed that they were entitled to it, and to a share of the benefits that accrued from harvesting it.

Compare the sentiments described above (“people who had lived their lives on the coastline believed that they were entitled to it, and to a share of the benefits that accrued from harvesting it”) to those expressed by the poacher whom Tony described meeting. It’s very hard to argue against this viewpoint.

Abalone on the slipway at Miller's Point
Abalone on the slipway at Miller’s Point

Last year 7 tons of South African abalone left our shores. One ton of it was legally produced (farmed, with about 150kg harvested from the sea), and the rest was poached. The technicalities of poaching are surprisingly straightforward, for various reasons. Here is one – the nature of abalone itself:

Abalone can be dried, preserved for months or years, and then rehydrated and returned to its natural state. This is crucial to the smuggling process for several reasons. First, live or frozen abalone has a pungent and distinctive smell and is thus difficult to transport or ship undetected. Dried abalone can also be disguised as another product, particularly when border and law enforcement officials have not been trained to recognise it. Second, dried abalone can be preserved indefinitely, which means that it can be gathered over long periods and shipped in bulk. Finally, dried abalone shrinks to about a tenth of its original mass, making it possible store and ship very large consignments.

Dried abalone looks nothing like fresh abalone, and in some cases DNA tests are required to establish what it is. Some of the exported abalone is bartered for drugs, or the ingredients to manufacture them (tik being an obvious example), from the east.

It is clear that this is a problem that does not have a simple solution. However, I don’t believe that the entire subject should be brushed under the carpet by the recreational dive industry because it’s hard to deal with and creates an uncomfortable conflict of interest between the desire to protect our marine environment and the desire to make money selling gear and filling cylinders for poachers. I don’t know – at all – how to address the problem, because refusing to serve someone at a dive shop because you suspect they’re engaged in illegal activity isn’t practical or, necessarily, moral. It could also be personally dangerous. Does anyone have any thoughts or suggestions?

Here is a link to the full text of the paper on the Institute of Security Studies website.

Footnote:

Steinberg mentions that at the time of his writing (2005), the South African government was considering listing abalone in the CITES agreement. CITES, which stands for “Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora”, is an international agreement that requires that certain species must be accompanied by special documentation when are moved across international borders. Rhino horn, some sharks, and seahorses are other examples of animals and animal products subject to CITES.

In 2007, the South African government did in fact go ahead with the CITES listing. There is more information on that decision and the extent of the poaching problem here.

The perlemoen poacher

I met an abalone poacher some time ago – just after I first came to Cape Town. He’d brought his regulator in for repairs to a dive shop that I happened to be visiting. When the technician opened it up, it was packed solid with particles of rust from his dive cylinders. Confronted with the information that it will cause him to drown one day if he doesn’t bring his cylinders for a visual inspection and hydrostatic cleaning, the poacher explained that his dive cylinders wouldn’t pass a visual, because they’re painted black (instead of South Africa’s regulation grey and canary yellow).

His cylinder isn’t the only thing that is painted black. ALL his dive gear – wetsuit, booties, hood, gloves, regulator, hoses, first stage, pillar valves, BCD, mask, fins, torches, dive computer – is black. There’s not a single reflective surface anywhere. According to the poacher, if he was standing by the side of the road in his dive gear at night, fully kitted up, and you drove past, you wouldn’t see him. At all.

What does he do with all this stealth gear? He dives, alone, at night, to fetch abalone (perlemoen) from the sea. His dives are often to 50 metres, on air, and he has no redundancy in his setup. No alternate air source on his cylinder (“For whom?” he asked), and no buddy. He sometimes does four such dives a night, and can make R40,000 for a single night’s work.

His view of what he does is that the abalone lives in the sea, and if he goes and fetches it, it’s his. “The ocean is free,” he said. Hardly anyone else is prepared to do four night dives in a row to depths of 50 metres with no support except for a boat on the surface (with no lights showing), and to look for abalone and pry them off the rocks with a crowbar. Why shouldn’t he reap the rewards? He told me that he’s not taking money from poor people – he’s only taking from the ocean, and it’s a big place.

It’s dangerous work, too (and not just because of the way he dives). There are rival poaching groups on the south/east and west coasts, and a police crackdown on the west coast has brought “boatloads” of their poachers across to this side of the world. Shots have been fired, cylinders have been filled with water (hence at least some of the rust), and a simmering atmosphere of impending violent conflict has arisen.

This was the first time that I’d talked to a poacher, and it gave me a lot to think about. This is a world that we don’t necessarily have any insight into as recreational scuba divers, even though we know that what the poachers do is wrong.

Clare and I have seen poachers once or twice before, filling cylinders or buying gear (lots of it, expensive stuff) from dive shops all over. I’ve also seen more than one at Miller’s Point, early in the morning. One tried to sell me his dive gear for money to get home, because his friends had left him alone at the slipway wearing nothing but a wetsuit and his trenchcoat.

You may wonder why I am mentioning this. No one talks about it in the dive industry because it’s awkward and poachers have a lot of cash to spend on gear and air fills. But there is value in looking at hard issues. Tomorrow there is some more reading about abalone poaching, and it’s very thought provoking!

Tips on shopping for dive gear

I’ve been diving for a while, owned a lot of dive gear. Here are some tips on shopping for gear, some learned through painful experience!

General rules for buying gear

  • Try it on before you buy it. Wetsuits, booties, hoodie, you name it.
  • Try on your BCD and weight belt OVER your wetsuit – two layers of 5 millimetre neoprene adds a LOT of waistline!
  • Make sure you understand the returns policy of the shop you’re using.
  • Get acquainted with the Consumer Protection Act (if you’re in South Africa).
  • Shop around! Don’t let sales people sweet talk you. They are more interested (generally) in making a sale than in making you a happy diver.
  • Don’t cut the strap of your dive computer shorter unless you’re VERY sure you’re never going to dive in cold water (wearing lots of wetsuit and gloves to make your wrist thicker).

Second hand gear

  • When purchasing second hand cylinders: get them viz’d first (at the expense of the seller) before agreeing to purchase.
  • Try and get the seller to allow you to “test dive” expensive items such as dive computers before agreeing to purchase them.
  • It’s a good idea to check BCDs for leaks before purchasing, unless you plan to use the BCD only for shallow dives, and even then it’s iffy.

Gear to avoid

  • Don’t purchase based purely on colour (ladies, I know it can be very tempting).
  • Be realistic about what you will use the gear for. (Do you really plan to dive to 100 metres, under ice with that regulator?)
  • Don’t fall for wrap around face masks with 3 glass panels (here’s an example) without trying one first – they give rise to very confusing visual phenomena and distort things hugely as they pass across the join in the panes of glass!
  • Avoid BCDs with inflate/deflate handle handles (example here) – I have never yet seen a beginner diver (and even some divers who have done over 100 dives) using one who was in proper control of their buoyancy.
  • Neoprene covers on mask straps (example here) usually only work without a hoodie. They have a tendency to slip off your head during a backward roll off the boat when worn over a hoodie (although some people swear by them!).
  • Smaller volume masks are usually better for beginner divers than huge five litre models! They are much easier to clear.
  • Do you really need a three foot dive cutlass, as opposed to a small knife?

Repairs

  • Get a second opinion on extensive repairs.

Dive shops: Andre’s scuba shop

Andre's scuba shop
Andre's scuba shop

As you drive into Simon’s Town, the first row of shops on your right hand side is home to a small shop belonging to Andre Botha, a well-respected Cape Town diver and SDI diving instructor who now concentrates on more land-based activities… Including assisting divers of all levels of experience with their purchases of dive gear. His shop doesn’t have much signage outside, but it’s the very first shop in the row and you will probably realise it’s associated with diving from the banners and maps in the window!

Andre stocks or can order equipment from Seac Sub, ScubaPro, Mares, Tusa, and several other dive gear manufacturers. He is also the person you want to speak to if you want to do full face mask diving in Cape Town. He can take you on a full face mask “try dive” to convince you how cool it is, or sell you Ocean Reef full face masks and communication sets. He also sells shark shields for surfers and divers.

He has led an adventurous life and has travelled to some wild places (most recently to Marion Island), and seen and done some amazing things. If you stop by at his shop, he can give you advice and insight born from a wealth of experience over many years. What I also appreciate very much about dealing with Andre is his absolute integrity, and in this he is an example to the entire dive industry.

You can email Andre or call him on 082 324 3157.  His shop is in the Squires Building, Station Road (the Main road), Simon’s Town.

Suunto D6 dive computer

I’ve been using the Suunto D6 dive computer for about eight months now, having finally got my grubby paws on it just after returning from our last trip to Sodwana. I think it’s about time I write a little review of it, because Suunto have just released the D6i and before you know it my computer will be a museum relic.

Specifications and appearance

The D6 is near the upper end of the range of Suunto dive computers – the model I have will now set you back in the region of R10,000 and there are several cheaper but no less effective offerings. The USB interface cable that will enable your dive computer to talk to your computer will set you back up to a further R1,500 – although this item is frequently advertised on special by Suunto stockists and occasionally as a special bundled with the dive computer, so keep your eyes open. It’s far more usual, however, to have to buy this innocuous-looking cable separately, and gasp at the price.

You can choose an elastomer strap or a metal strap (for about R2,000 more). Although the metal strap looks really cool, it’s not really practical if you dive in varying water temperatures and change the amount of neoprene on your wrist frequently. The computer functions as a dress watch if you want to use it as one – it displays the time constantly when not in dive or memory mode – but it weighs more than a slab of chocolate (130g) and is far too large for the average lady’s wrist, so I don’t use it for this purpose except when travelling (to deny the baggage handlers at OR Tambo Airport the privilege of stealing it).

The computer has a four button interface that I find very intuitive, and I could figure it out to a large degree without reading the manual. That said, if you buy a dive computer, YOU MUST READ THE MANUAL! Don’t be a fool – you want to know EXACTLY why the thing is beeping at you, what it looks like when you go into deco, and be very sure (as one clown – who was buddied with us once because he didn’t know anyone on the boat – wasn’t) whether the “3” you see on the screen indicates a time in minutes, your current depth, or the number of brain cells you have. Read the manual!

Air integration and the D6i

The D6 has actually been replaced by the D6i, which is functionally identical but has more internal memory, and is capable of air integration with an optional (heart-stoppingly expensive) dongle that you attach to your cylinder and reads remaining air. The computer will then give you an estimate of remaing dive time based on air consumption to date. I have no interest in this (at the time I bought the D6, air integration was the main distinguishing feature from the D9) – I’d use a pressure gauge regardless, and wouldn’t feel comfortable trusting what I see as an physical, analogue process (displaying the air remaining in my cylinder) to a potentially failure-prone piece of electronics.

I know I may sound like a luddite here, but an experience Tony had on the boat a few months ago confirmed my reservations. Another instructor’s student had an air integrated computer and no pressure gauge (why bother with redundancy?). The air integration with the computer wouldn’t work, but they only discovered this on the boat when they were parked over the dive site, and – after toying with the idea of cancelling the dive, and then swapping kit so the instructor, who should have an excellent feel for his air consumption, had the set up with no pressure gauge – did a very short dive. As a mathematician I can see that having snapshots of your remaining air at 20 second intervals to look at in the dive manager software might be appealing though…

Decompression algorithm

The D6 uses the Suunto Deep Stop RGBM (Reduced Gradient Bubble Model), and allows for continuous decompression as you ascend (instead of forcing you to do stops at particular depths). It also allows you to complete your safety stops at depth – something I haven’t experimented with much, but will be using next time we dive the Lusitania. The computer recommends a safety stop once you exceed 10 metres on a dive, and if you violate the recommended ascent rate it will advise a mandatory safety stop between 3 and 6 metres. I tried to photograph the D6 during a dive where I’d switched on deep stops, but there was a 20 metre layer of green plankton blocking out the light from above, and my flash kept reflecting off the screen protector. Hence the dubious results you see here. I have 28 minutes of no-decompression time remaining, dive time is 11 minutes, depth is 20.9 metres, and my first deep stop will be at 13 metres. Maximum depth (bottom left) so far has been 23.8 metres.

Suunto D6 during a dive - first deep stop is due at 13 metres
Suunto D6 during a dive – first deep stop is due at 13 metres

You’re most likely aware of this, but a dive computer does not measure anything that is going on in your body with respect to dissolved gases. Dive computers use mathematical models – based on the original dive tables, only more sophisticated – that approximate, for the average person, how much nitrogen has gone into solution in the body’s tissues, and how fast it is being released, based on your dive profile. They measure depth temperature, and time, that’s all. For this reason many dive computers, including the D6, have an option for you to set a more conservative calculation algorithm if you’re at higher risk of DCS – for reasons of increased age, high body fat percentage, or any of the other DCS-predisposing risk factors. You can also adjust the partial pressure settings up and down if you so desire, but anything higher than 1.4 bar (ata) strikes me as reckless.

Nitrox and no-fly time

It goes without saying that the D6 is Nitrox capable, and it’s very straightforward to set the Nitrox mix. After one dive on Nitrox, the option to do a repetitive air dive disappears, and you have to manually set the oxygen percentage of your mix back down to 21%. I think this is to force you to think about what gas is in your cylinder. The D6 also handles switching to a richer mix for decompression, and this optional second mix may be set through the same menu system as the primary nitrox mix.

The D6, again like most dive computers, gives a no-fly time after you’re done with diving for the day. This time is usually well under 18 hours, but you’d do well to follow DAN guidelines for flying after diving (usually 18 hours after your last dive) and not bank on the reading given by your computer. Do not be like Gerard, who shall remain nameless, and mistake the time display on your computer for the no-fly time. After a dive on the Aster that ended at about 3.30pm, he announced that his no-fly time was “fifteen hours and twenty nine minutes.” A few minutes later, to his puzzlement, it was “fifteen hours and thirty four minutes!”

Dive Manager software

The Suunto dive manager software, that allows you to examine the details of your dives on your computer screen at home, is not compatible with Apple Macs, so I had to find another solution. I’ll review the software I do use, MacDive, in a separate post. Apparently from “fall 2011”, whenever that rolls (rolled) around, the Suunto software – DM4 – will also be compatible with Apple computers. I’ll test it when I get a chance, and let you know what it’s like… As is apparently wildly popular these days, one can also share one’s sporting activities on the Suunto Movescount site via an automatic link-up from within the software interface. And, no doubt, publish them to facebook.

Electronic compass

Suunto D6 with elastomer strap (right) and titanium strap (left)
Suunto D6 with elastomer strap (right) and titanium strap (left)

One of the major appeals for me of the D6 – and I think the feature that bumps its price up so much higher than the D4 – was the integrated electronic compass, which can be accessed at (almost) any time by holding down the top left (Select) button. In the picture at right, the D6 with the elastomer strap is on the compass display (the one on the right is in the memory log display mode which can’t be accessed during a dive). If you’re not on a dive when you use the compass, obviously the depth and dive time won’t show.

The D6i has updated the compass to allow accurate readings when your wrist is tilted; the old D6 (the one I have) is not as tolerant and you’ll need to keep your arm level as with a standard dive compass. Unfortunately the D6 doesn’t record the compass heading along with the temperature, depth and other dive statistics during the dive – or, if it does, the download software I use doesn’t access it. I suspect the former is true, since I installed Suunto’s own dive manager software on Tony’s PC to check, and there was no sign of compass headings. Boo.

What’s in the box

In the box was the computer, a strap extender, the instruction manual, a disc with the Windows-compatible dive manager software on it, and two or three scratch guards which are trimmed to fit the D6’s screen. I’ve done close to 70 dives with my D6 so far, and the scratch guard is scratched and still doing its job well. Tony’s computer, the Mares Nemo Wide, is protected with some cheap cellphone screen protectors we got from Look ‘n Listen. You can buy a generic size, and then trim it down to fit your phone (or dive computer, as the case may be). We didn’t expect this makeshift scratch guard – which is NOT designed for regular immersion in salt water – to last beyond five or ten dives, but over 100 dives and it’s going strong. I think I paid R60 for the pack of screen protector stickers, and we’ll get nine Nemo Wide-sized ones out of the package.

Buying it

Continuing with the subject of good value, one more tip for the bargain hunters. I actually bought my D6 from Cape Union Mart. They stock Suunto sports watches, and were able to order me a D6 from Suunto in Finland. I had to wait six weeks for it to arrive, and it cost R8,700. What made the deal very sweet was that by buying it on my Discovery Card which gives me a 20% discount at Cape Union Mart (thanks to my years in the Vitality program and points status), the computer ended up costing just under R7,000. I paid a further R1,200 for the download cable (I got that at a dive centre). If you have a few weeks before you need the computer, or are prepared to wait in exchange for some savings, it’s worth getting a quote from Cape Union Mart as to what they’ll charge you. If you’ve got a Discovery Card it’s a no-brainer. Email them via the website for a quotation, and they’ll tell you to print that and take it to your nearest Cape Union Mart to place the order. I had to pay a 50% deposit.

Update (late 2012): Based on feedback from other divers who have shopped for Suunto computers lately, it seems that Cape Union Mart isn’t doing this any more, unfortunately – but it’s worth asking anyway!

Maintaining it

Finally – if you have a dive computer and live in Cape Town, take it to Orca in Claremont to get the battery changed when necessary, and ask for Chris the “worship manager” (that’s autocorrect gone wild on “workshop manager”) to do it for you. Tony’s students have had baaaaad experiences (a hair across the seal, anyone?!) at other locations. There’s usually not much you can do if the service centre doesn’t seal the computer properly and it floods – your only recourse will possibly be to your insurance company.

Christmas gift guide 2011

It’s that time of year again. I trust you are all feeling suitably festive. Here’s our annual (well, second so far) Christmas gift guide. Use it/don’t use it…

Books

For the reader, you could check out our book reviews, arranged by topic:

There are also a couple of children’s books to consider.

Dive gear

Check out What’s in My Dive Bag for some ideas… You can contact Andre for most of these:

Probably not a good idea to get a mask unless the place you buy it will let the person exchange it if it doesn’t fit!

Donations

For the person who has everything, or just because you’re feeling grateful:

Experiences

Don’t forget to add a memory card for the lucky recipient’s camera if you plan to gift any of these!

For those who need (or like) to relax

Magazine subscriptions

Wall art

Clip Clop designs and prints beautiful tide charts for Cape Town and Durban and moon phase charts for the year. You can order online or find them at Exclusive Books.

Dive Deals column: Dive course pricing

Here’s the final installment of my three-part series on the cost of learning to dive, originally published on the DiveDeals.co.za website. Part one can be found here, and part two is here.

Dive course pricing

For the past two weeks we’ve been looking at the topic of how much it costs to learn to dive. We’ve seen that there are multiple “invisible” costs that even the largest, most established dive centre must bear in order to deliver an Open Water course. But how does everything tie in with what you’ll actually get charged for an entry-level dive course?

Let’s say Dive Centre #1 wants to charge you R5,000. The equipment is top class, they have every size of gear you require, and a nice environment for training with a great pool. Everything is just perfect, the class is small – perhaps two of you – your instructor is going to earn R1,000 for his three or four days’ work at R250 a day and let’s assume he/she is happy with that.

At the end of the course, in the shop, you will most likely be shown all the types of gear you were using during the course and in a no pressure environment you will choose and buy the gear they suggest. You go home qualified as a diver, have your own gear and hopefully at least 5-6 hours of bottom time to your name.  Everyone is happy.

But then there is the other option… You saw that “special offer” at Dive Centre #2 for the same dive course, but for  R1,000.

How can they do it for this price, you may ask? More likely, you will ask yourself, why not take this offer instead of paying R5,000?

Before jumping in head first, you should ask yourself these questions.

  • Will I get a training manual of my own, or just a copied one? You may not know this, but many dive certification agencies require in their standards that each student has their own, original copy of the training material.
  • Will the gear be good? How will you know what good or bad is before you have ever tried it? (Why is my wetsuit torn and ragged? The boots are a bit tight, the fins don’t match, the air tastes funny, my mask leaks a lot, the BCD leaks but my instructor says it’s normal…) How would you know if you’ve never dived before? You struggle with mediocre gear of dubious origins and your instructor will say that’s why it’s good to have your own gear.
  • There are probably eight or more students in your class and the Instructor spends very little time with each student. How long will you have to wait to start the course? Can you start immediately, or do you have to wait for seven other people to sign up first?
  • At that price it’s doubtful the Instructor is being paid more than R50 a day for working with you. How much of your current day’s work would you do if you were being paid R50? You will be lucky if any of your dives are longer than 20 minutes.
  • You can bet that the businesses goal of making a profit will be realised by selling you as much equipment as possible as quickly as possible for the highest price possible. You can be sure that if your pool sessions are a disaster because your mask leaks like a sieve, selling you a brand new one will be easy. If you struggle with buoyancy all through the sea dives, selling you ‘’this fantastic top of the range BCD’’ does not take much effort.

There is no such thing as a bad dive course. The formula for a course is cast in stone by the certifying agency.  There are bad instructors, and bad dive operations. A bad instructor working for a ‘’budget ‘’ dive school will take you diving in mediocre gear and less than perfect conditions. A good instructor won’t be comfortable with either of those things.

The ‘’dive hyperstore’’ you visit can not guarantee you any better deal than the tiny corner dive resort without a committed and structured program, the right equipment and the right staff. None of these things come cheap, as we’ve seen, so if your dive course is suspiciously inexpensive there are either a few shortcuts in the program or the money will be made up on gear sales or hidden costs (you may have to pay extra for the sea dives, or to rent gear, or to be certified, or all of the above).

There is nothing wrong with gear sales: all divers should own their own kit, but how qualified are you to choose from the huge range available when you have hardly even been in the water? And how can a salesperson really be sure what they are trying to sell you is right for you when they have known you for less than five minutes? Even discount dive courses have invisible costs… in the form of hastily-purchased, unsuitable dive gear that you end up being pressured into purchasing at the end of your training. Don’t be fooled – if it seems too cheap, you’re missing something!

 

Dive Deals column: The invisble cost of learning to dive

This is the second column in a three part series I wrote for the DiveDeals.co.za website, as part of my regular weekly contribution. Part the first can be found here.

The “invisible” costs of learning to dive

Last week we broke down some of the non-negotiable costs that are included in a course fee for an entry level scuba diving course. Some of them may seem far-fetched. This week I’ll explain why they aren’t.

You may think it costs a dive centre nothing to fill a cylinder. You may be close, but purchasing a compressor and maintaining it costs money. The compressor operator has to be qualified to fill cylinders, by doing a Department of Manpower-approved compressor course. This also costs money. A dive operator who doesn’t own a compressor will need to find a dive centre who does, and pay between R25 and R50 to fill cylinders. None of these are optional costs to a dive instructor.

You may also say, once you have a cylinder it costs nothing to use it. Wrong again: a cylinder needs an annual inspection that costs up to R100, pillar valves need regular services, tank nets wear out, and handles break. These costs aren’t optional.

You may think a dive centre gets equipment really cheap. Some do, but how good is it? And if they get it so cheap why do they want so much money for it when you buy it from them? Dive centres and schools need their gear to be rugged, robust and trouble free so not all choose budget equipment. A half decent dive school will have all the sizes, from XXS to XXL and a few of each of these sizes, this includes booties, wetsuits and fins. A decent wetsuit can cost you R2,000 – R3,000. What do you think it costs for 20 or 30 decent wetsuits?

Nothing you subject to human bodily fluids, regular immersion in salt water, and exposure to sun and sand lasts forever and dive gear is no exception. There is costly maintenance on all dive gear regardless of its quality, so this also is not a variable in course pricing.

A vehicle is required to transport the instructor and the gear to the beach, as is some form of building to house the classroom and training aids, store the gear and park the car.

Lest we forget, you expect to have the undivided (or at least, not too divided!) attention of an Instructor for at least three to four days. For anyone to stand in front of you as a qualified and paid-up in teaching status instructor, he/she has most likely spent around  R70,000 and used at least 6 -12 months getting the required training and qualifications. You may not be surprised to learn that they would like to recoup that money.

This is all without a boat. Let’s leave the boats out of this, as it is possible to qualify as a competent diver by doing shore entries.

So we’ve established that learning to dive costs money, and we’ve identified some of the areas where expenses can build up. Next week we’ll try and tie it all together, looking at what it actually costs to dive – what will a dive centre or scuba instructor charge you for a course, and what that implies.

Dive Deals column: The cost of learning to dive

Here’s the third article I wrote for the Dive Deals website. The first two are here and here.

The cost of learning to dive

Anyone starting out on the rewarding and life-changing path of becoming a regular diver will at some point ask ‘’what does it cost?’’.

Like any sport that is equipment-intense, there will be expenses related to getting started. These expenses can be managed and spread out depending on your own situation and the sales skills of your local dive centre.

As a starting point I want to focus on what many will say is the most popular of dive courses and that is Open Water diver.

Most dive training agencies stipulate the required standards and set the basic guidelines as to how their course must be structured and what the requirements for course content, learning materials and minimum standards are. This is not a variable part of the program.

There are variables, however: what brand and configuration of gear, time schedules and training periods are all variables provided they meet the minimum standard. These factors can all be interpreted quite widely – you could end up diving without a hoodie or gloves in a 3mm wetsuit in less than 20 degree water or perhaps you will have a 7mm wetsuit, with a shortie over it, a hoodie, 5mm gloves and so on.

Where no scope for interpretation exists, naturally will follow more expense.

Let’s break it down even more.

Any business irrespective of what it does, exists with the goal of making a profit. Huge turnover don’t always equate with huge profits and many smaller, efficiently run businesses make a tidy profit. So let’s imagine a dive centre with one employee, its main focus being on diver training.

Let’s take the non-variable items first.

You walk in the door and want to become a qualified diver. You don’t want to be conned into doing a seemingly cheap course that will only qualify you to dive to 12 metres while accompanied by an instructor – you want to be able to dive independently, to a reasonable depth. The PADI Open Water course and the NAUI Open Water 1 course, for example, fit the bill nicely. So this is what you will cost the dive operator:

  • A training pack with at least the minimum required manual, logbook and dive planner: R450
  •  Two sets of gear for three days, capitalised and depreciated over a year: R300
  • 10 air fills (1 student and 1 Instructor, pool and four dives): R400
  • Getting to and from the dive sites: R400
  • Wages for the owner/instructor: R850
  • Odds and ends such as electricity, pens and pencils, rent, telephone calls, lunch maybe? : R100

(These figures aren’t meant to be prescriptive or even highly accurate, but just give an idea of where expenses occur in running a dive course.)

So it’s not implausible that R2,500 of your course fee is eaten up before you even hit the water. You may look at some of the costs I’ve listed above and say to yourself, “He’s smoking socks – it doesn’t cost a dive centre anything to fill a cylinder! And what’s this about the gear costing R300 over the course days? Dive centres hardly pay anything for gear, and then they have it to use as they please!”

We’ll see next week how some of the “invisible” costs of learning to dive add up.

Dive Deals column: Don’t become a lost diver

Here’s the second in my series of articles for the DiveDeals.co.za website.

Don’t become a lost diver

Last week we looked at some of the situations and reasons that could cause a freshly qualified scuba diver to give up on the sport. This week I’d like to examine some of the simple things that can be done by the qualifying diver – before, during and after doing one’s first dive course – to reduce the attrition rate of new divers and avoid becoming a statistic.

Learning to dive

Firstly, learn to dive in a place you feel comfortable, with an instructor you feel good about. Choose an instructor whom you trust, and find approachable. Ask a lot of questions before you sign up. During the course, never hesitate to tell your instructor you are not sure of something you have just learnt. Don’t be afraid to speak your mind. If you’re not comfortable performing a skill, ask if you can do it again. That skill might one day make the difference between a disastrous dive and a dive that ended well for all concerned.

Buying gear

Don’t buy the first piece of gear you are shown based on the sales pitch. There is very little junk available in the dive industry, but it just might not be what suits your budget, your body shape or diving needs. You WILL ultimately be better off buying your own equipment, but don’t rush into it without some research. Try on different styles of wetsuits, dive with different style BCDs, various volume masks, and so on. Then you will be qualified to make a good decision about what kit to buy for yourself.

On the boat

Do not hesitate to tell the skipper you are nervous, and never hesitate to tell the divemaster it’s your first dive and you are apprehensive. Don’t be shy to tell the group on the beach during the briefing you have never dived in the sea, or never been deeper than 12 metres, or whatever the case.

The divemaster faced with 10 new faces every dive cannot be expected to read everyone’s state of mind. Equally, a skipper that takes 30-40 different people out on his boat each day can’t be expected to know everyone’s gear, mental state, or qualification.

As a divemaster, skipper, and instructor, I can assure you the vast majority of people in the dive industry are helpful, keen to see you dive with them again and again and will go to great lengths to assist you whilst you find your feet. All you have to do is tell them that you’re just starting out. Don’t be afraid to ask the diver nearby for help as they will most likely be happy to share their knowledge. If they aren’t, don’t take it personally – unfortunately you will meet ungracious people in all areas of life – and just ask someone else.

Bad experiences

In the unlikely event you have a bad experience on a dive or with a dive operator, don’t give up move on as there are many, many, options and the vast majority of dive operators are good at what they do, keeping you a happy diver. After all, a dive centre filled with enthusiastic divers is a fun place to be and to these individuals diving will soon become a way of life. Diving has more to offer than any other sport in the world. (My opinion, yes, but shared by millions.)