Documentary: Diving into the Unknown

Having recently dived into the 21st century (with a Netflix subscription), I looked up this Finnish documentary as soon as it became available. It covers events that took place early in 2014, when a group of Finnish cave diving friends started a traverse of a massive, deep cave system in Norway. Two did not surface from the dive.

Diving into the Unknown
Diving into the Unknown

The Norwegian police, advised by Rick Stanton, a well-regarded British cave diver, closed the cave and announced that it was too dangerous to attempt to retrieve the men’s bodies. Their dive buddies, who had pioneered exploration of the more than 100 metre deep system and felt they knew it like the back of their hands, disagreed. They also felt a duty toward their friends, and therefore planned a mission (illegally) to retrieve their bodies.

Their dives were filmed for this documentary, which features interviews with the surviving divers and another of their friends who trained some of them as cave divers, and accompanied them on their mission. Whether events mirrored those that took place at Boesmansgat in 2005, or whether the ending was quite different, I’ll leave you to find out.

Unless… you read this excellent article from the BBC, before watching the documentary. It will reveal the outcome of the body retrieval dives, but it may also enhance your enjoyment of the film. A chance to study a map of the cave system, which featured in the film but was introduced too late for it to be truly helpful, and a chance to familiarise oneself with the difficult Finnish names, may be of benefit.

This is hardcore diving, to incredible depths, on rebreathers, in overhead environments, and under ice (to start the dive, the men cut a hole in the ice covering a lake surrounded by snowy hills and bare trees). Most of us will never do anything like it. The scenes filmed inside the cave range from serene clarity to heart-stopping moments of claustrophobic intensity as the divers work through obstructions and labour to free their friends’ bodies. Even though this is likely not aspirational for many of us, the questions raised by the men’s mission, especially whether it was wise to go back into the cave at all, make for some interesting discussion.

See the documentary on Netflix, or get the DVD here (South Africa) or here. Here’s the official trailer:

Shrimp news from False Bay

The University of Cape Town has announced that a further three new species of shrimp, all spotted close to shore near Millers Point in False Bay, have been described and named. All three belong to the same genus (Heteromysis), and look similar, with pale bodies marked by red spots and stripes. One of these new (to science) species lives inside octopus dens, and another lives inside the shell of certain types of hermit crab. These three shrimps join the stargazer shrimp that was discovered by and named for Guido Zsilavecz, citizen scientist and author of several books on False Bay’s marine wildlife.

Two of the new species were discovered by local film maker Craig Foster, founder of the Sea-Change project about which we read last week. These types of discoveries are very exciting and should be a great inspiration and encouragement to divers and other water users. Time in the water is rewarded. If you can’t identify something, send an email with its photo to SURG. It is possible to make significant contributions to science while holding down an entirely non-scientific day job!

Read all about the new shrimps here.

Newsletter: Smoke on the water

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Sunday: Boat or shore dives, conditions dependent!

We have had terrific conditions all week and have been taking full advantage. False Bay is cleanish and warmish. Visibility has varied from site to site but the bay is full of life. On Tueday we spent our surface interval time photographing sea swallows at Batsata Maze. Wednesday’s surface interval was spent filming giant short tail sting rays at Millers Point, and today we were fortunate enough to have two orcas swim by close inshore whilst the divers were on the SAS Pietermaritzburg this morning. Who knows what we will see tomorrow!

Giant short tailed sting ray behind the boat at Millers Point
Giant short tailed sting ray behind the boat at Millers Point

Sadly the diving today was somewhat overshadowed by the raging fire that descended on Simon’s Town with the westerly wind, despite the best efforts of many firefighters. Watching from the water you could see the speed at which the fire traveled and I doubt anything other than a thundershower was going to slow it down. On the run back into Simon’s Town we went through really thick smoke.

Simon's Town fire
Simon’s Town fire

The weekend, however, does not look too rosy. At cowsharks this afternoon the swell was quite noticeable and although it stays at 3 metres for most of tomorrow, the forecast is for 5-6 metres on Saturday. It seldom reaches the height in the forecast but even at 4-5 metres diving becomes less than great. Surge and low viz are on the cards. I think there will be a better than good chance that Sunday will be semi-decent so I will provisionally schedule diving, either from the boat or perhaps a shore dive or two… Text me if you want to join and I’ll keep you posted.

Diarise

Don’t forget the Shark Spotters fundraiser on Sunday – should be fun!

regards

Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099
www.learntodivetoday.co.za
www.learntodivetoday.co.za/blog/

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Bookshelf: SEALAB

SEALAB – Ben Hellwarth

Sealab
Sealab

In the 1960s the US Navy developed three undersea habitats, in order to experiment with saturation diving and to explore the possibility of humans living on the ocean floor. Of necessity, any group of people engaged in this pursuit would be separated from life on the surface, in some cases by days or weeks of decompression obligations. SEALAB I, II and II were progressively deeper and more complex habitats. Developing them was a technical challenge that led to many advances that we benefit from today. The experiments also provided an opportunity to study the psychological and physiological effects of isolation, and of long periods of breathing mixed gases under pressure.

The SEALAB experiments took place during the same era as the efforts by NASA to put a person on the moon, and received far less attention. Jacques Cousteau was interested in the project, and himself experimented with underwater habitats called ConShelf I, II and II. These habitats were far better publicised than the US Navy’s efforts, even though their aims were more modest.

Author Ben Hellwarth does not confine his attention to the habitats, but also provides a fairly detailed history of decompression theory and diving history. Like Neutral BuoyancySEALAB might provide a relatively painless introduction to dive theory for Divemaster candidates. In fact, this book reads like a thriller at times! Some photographs from the SEALAB projects are available on the US Navy website, and in this slideshow. To our modern eyes, the clunky and primitive appearance of some of the gear is a reminder of how pioneering the now 60 year old work to allow humans to live and work in the sea was.

If you’re interested in the history of saturation diving, I recommend this article, which covers some of the ground that Hellwarth does in SEALAB. If you want to see it in action, check out Pioneer (fictional movie based on actual events) or the series Deep Sea SalvageYou should also check out this article by Hellwarth, entitled The Other Final Frontierand this podcast/radio show. If you are EXTREMELY interested in this subject but don’t want to read a book, try out this hour-long lecture video by Ben Hellwarth.

Experiments with underwater habitats are ongoing.

Get a copy of SEALAB here (South Africa) otherwise here or here.

Movie: Pioneer

Pioneer
Pioneer

In the late 1960s, massive oil and gas deposits were discovered in the North Sea, transforming Norway into one of Europe’s wealthiest nations. Pioneer depicts some of the early, feverish oil-related activity during the 1970s. The Norwegians needed to build a pipeline to bring the oil to land from depths of up to 500 metres. Lacking the technical expertise – particularly with respect to the underwater work that must be done by saturation divers – they bring in American assistance.

Norwegian divers (so-called “pioneer divers“) dived to depths that are now considered unsafe, even for saturation divers, and a group of them have sued the Norwegian government for compensation for damage incurred during their careers in the early days of the oil boom. Pioneer tells the story of Petter, a Norwegian diver who is present during a diving accident and embarks on a search for the cause, believing that human error was involved and that someone must take responsibility.

I enjoyed the film enormously, but most of the reviews I have read found it a bit turgid. The milieu is evoked with incredible attention to detail, including the awful 1970s moustaches and unfortunate hairstyles. The dialogue is in both Norwegian (subtitled) and English. It is beautifully filmed, with clever camera work mimicking the limited view that the divers have while working underwater and in the saturation chamber. The underwater scenes are excellent, reminiscent of those in For Your Eyes Only (I’m joking – they genuinely are extremely convincing and quite magnificent). Tension is maintained throughout, and the action takes places over a fairly short period of time.

You can get the DVD here (South Africa), here or here.

Suunto D6 in full panic mode (part II)

Yesterday I told you about a dive on Doodles, a reef in southern Mozambique, during our trip to Ponta do Ouro last month. Doodles has a maximum depth of about 14 metres. After forty five minutes’ dive time, my Suunto D6 began to register extreme depths (89 metres maximum), and to give various instructions about decompression ceilings and times, accompanied by strident warnings about exceeding my PPO2.

Suunto D6 after missed decompression
Suunto D6 after missed decompression

While annoying and potentially dangerous to lose the services of my dive computer mid-dive, it was also an excellent learning opportunity. Because I usually try quite hard to be safe and not to upset my computer, and dive within the conservative, recreational limits that I am trained for, I never get to see any of this behaviour from the instrument. (Fortunately the dive was shallow and I still had plenty of no-decompression time left so it was far from an emergency situation.)

After the dive, I soaked the computer in warm fresh water, and it gradually came out of dive mode over a period of about ninety minutes. During the course of this simulated ascent, the required decompression times and depths calculated by the algorithm were not adhered to, so the computer entered an error mode, which, according to the manual, indicates that “the risk of DCI has greatly increased.” (In fact, from all the beeping and flashing, I suspect the computer thought I was dead or close to it.) This error mode does two things: it disables the dive planning capabilities of the computer, and it locks you out of dive mode for 48 hours.

The D6 in gauge mode
The D6 in gauge mode

I had never gotten the computer into this state before, so I was keen to see how it behaved when I took it on a dive in error mode. You can see in the photo above that I am wearing Tony’s Mares Nemo Wide (aka the flatscreen TV) to give me actual information about my no-decompression time, depth and dive time, but I took my D6 along for the ride. It is in gauge mode; this means it gives you only measurements, and is the setting a free diver might use.

The measurements available in gauge mode are: depth (18.4 metres in the photo above), the maximum depth you’ve been to on this dive (19.9 metres), an elapsed dive time (17 minutes), and water temperature (not shown) but it refuses to calculate a no-decompression limit for you. This would usually appear where the Er appears in the picture above.

Depth profile (with warnings)
Depth profile (with warnings)

For your enjoyment, here’s another screen shot of the dive profile from MacDive, with the warnings expanded. Click on the image to see it full size. It is clear that the first warning beeps I heard during the dive were because of elevated PPO2 levels. At 89 metres the device immediately put me in deco, and then as it “ascended” fairly rapidly, it gave a warning about oxygen toxicity (OLF or oxygen limit fraction as used in the Suunto algorithm) and an ascent rate warning. On the right, at about 10 metres, a warning is given that the depth is still below the required level to complete the decompression.

All the green circular icons appearing around the middle of my dive, where the computer thought I was at 35 metres, indicate that the computer registered that I surfaced, but not for long enough to show on the dive profile. Weird!

My D6 remained angry for 48 hours after the dive at Doodles; by this time, we had finished our diving for the week. I’m not sure whether the problem with the pressure sensor is a permanent one (requiring repairs, a service or a new dive computer), or whether it was just dirty or stuck and will have resolved itself next time I dive with the instrument. I’ll be wearing a spare dive computer when I do, just in case.

A Day on the Bay: Fishing for photos

Clouds over Muizenberg and surrounds
Clouds over Muizenberg and surrounds

Date: 20 December 2014

We have been following the work of two young photographers, Mac Stone and Joris van Alphen, who were recent recipients of the 2014 Marine Conservation Photography Grant from the Save Our Seas foundation. Both of them arrived in Cape Town early in November last year to commence work on their photojournalism stories: Mac’s is on sharks, and Joris is interested in the reef fishes of False Bay, in particular Red roman.

We felt quite sorry for them – November and December are historically months of appalling visibility and surface conditions in False Bay thanks to the south easterly winds that prevail, and November always seems to play host to at least one massive storm to top things off! Despite having to work with the worst of what False Bay has to offer, the two of them have produced some incredible images, and I’ve admired their persistence and creativity in dealing with murky visibility and adverse surface conditions. (You can follow them on facebook to get regular updates – Mac and Joris.)

Taking pictures at Batsata Maze
Taking pictures at Batsata Maze

Joris was on the boat just before Christmas, getting some of the final set of photographs that he needs for his reef fish story. On this particular trip he wanted to photograph fish on the hook: False Bay is the site of both commercial and recreational fisheries, land and sea-based. Our aim was to track down a Kalk Bay fishing boat that he’d worked with twice already, but they were nowhere to be found (despite being large and yellow, and despite us searching all the way down to Cape Point)! Hailing them on the radio was futile as they likely did not want to broadcast their position.

Working at Batsata Maze
Working at Batsata Maze

As a consolation prize, Joris and his personal shark spotter Brandon were able to spend time in the water with three recreational fishing boats. The first two were at Batsata Maze/Smits Reef at the southern end of Smitswinkel Bay. The crew of both boats were using handlines to catch roman and hottentot. The sea was quite choppy and working in close quarters to a pitching boat strewn with fishing lines was challenging. The fishermen were very kind and co-operative! Brandon’s presence was necessary because Joris was on the surface, absorbed in his work, next to boats that were hauling twitching fish onboard, and throwing back fish guts and bits of bait (basically chumming). All these things are very interesting to men in grey suits.

The third boat we found fishing with rod and reel on Caravan Reef, the large, shallow reef that lies close by to the south and east of the wreck of the SAS Pietermaritzburg. We were now a bit further north in the bay, and the large swell that we’d experienced at Cape Point and Smitswinkel Bay had been modified and reduced on its path towards Muizenberg. It was calmer in the water, though the visibility was still only 2-3 metres. Joris was looking for split shots, with fish half in and half out of the water, and it seemed to be getting easier.

I had a great day tagging along on the boat, but my interest in the scale and nature of the fisheries in False Bay was piqued, and if I manage to find out anything of interest I’ll share it here. Did you know that both commercial and recreational fishermen visit the reefs that we dive on, and remove the fish that we like to look at? Those in the no-take zones are obviously exempt (apart from the occasional chancer or ignoramus), but we found commercial fishing boats inside Buffels Bay in the Cape Point nature reserve, close to shore. There was a fisheries patrol boat close by, but they were not prevented from fishing there. I found this puzzling and troubling, because when we visited the Cape Point reserve as recreational divers, we had to jump through a variety of bureaucratic hoops just to be allowed to drive a boat through the reserve with dive gear on board! Never mind taking fish out of the water! More to follow on this subject – and perhaps Joris’s story will also help us to understand this issue better.

Tying up at the end of the day
Tying up at the end of the day

Newsletter: Measuring up

Hi divers

Weekend plans

Saturday: Student dives at Long Beach, starting early (casual divers welcome)

Sunday: Boat dives from Simon’s Town jetty to Atlantis at 9.30am / Maidstone Rock at 12.00

Dive report

Last weekend we chose to dive Hout Bay, partly because I expected Simon’s Town to be a little too busy given it was nearing the end of the Lipton Cup, a sailing regatta hosted by False Bay Yacht Club. The sea was flat, with light winds and sunny weather and good visibility. We did three dives but by the third one were a bit chilly! It was sad to see all the poaching boats, and the damage that’s been done to the wreck of the Maori lately.

Diving at Vulcan Rock on Sunday
Diving at Vulcan Rock on Sunday

This weekend I think False Bay will be the place to be. We had really good conditions yesterday and the wind direction has been good for False Bay viz. There is going to be some swell so I think we will shore dive at Long Beach with students on Saturday (I’ll be focusing on my students, but casual divers are most welcome to tag along). We will hit the high seas for boat diving on Sunday. We will launch from Simon’s Town jetty to dive Atlantis at 9.30am and the beautiful Maidstone Rock at 12.00. Text or email me if you feel like a dive.

Physiology at the extremes

I attended a conference today focusing on how the human body responds to extreme conditions, with a focus on cold water immersion (but also including exposure to alcohol, drugs, and hyperthermia). It was fascinating, and one of the important things I took away from it is how important it is to take seriously our dives in Cape Town’s water. Our physiological responses and capabilities change after an extended period of time in cold water, and while you may feel that you’re still mentally sharp and fully in control, the opposite may be true, and this is when accidents happen. I’m looking forward to incorporating some of the things I’ve learned into our day to day diving activities at Learn to Dive Today.

Measuring wind speed on the boat
Measuring wind speed on the boat

Dive travel

Pencil in a trip to Ponta do Ouro in late April/sometime in May next year. We’ll start planning it early next year, but we’ll aim for five days of diving with a day of travel on each side. Start saving now! We have had amazing experiences there – some of our favourite dives were done at reefs called Doodles and Texas.

Faraway friends

We are thinking of our diving friends in far off lands – Bernita and Tamsyn, sending all good thoughts your way!

regards

Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099
www.learntodivetoday.co.za
www.learntodivetoday.co.za/blog/

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Newsletter: Diving in a glass of water

Hi divers

Weekend diving

Sunday: Possible boat or shore dives, if the weather forecast  moderates. Text me to be notified.

Liam and Christo near the Brunswick
Liam and Christo near the Brunswick

Conditions report and forecast

We had exceptional conditions in False Bay last weekend, with 20 metre visibility and a comfortable 18 degrees on the surface. It’s been a long time since False Bay has been so clean. There are some photos on facebook that will show you just how stunning the conditions were. We dived Photographer’s Reef and the wreck of the Brunswick.

The viz has dropped somewhat this week but it is still pretty good. Sadly we are unlikely to have good conditions this weekend: just as well, because on Saturday is the all day long DAN day that you should attend if at all possible, with very informative talks about diving safety and a tour of a great facility in Cape Town. If you want me to forward the details then send me an email, but be quick as you need to book in advance (i.e. tomorrow) if there’s still space.

Alex at Photographer's Reef
Alex at Photographer’s Reef

On Sunday I don’t think the conditions will be all that great. There is a 2-3 metre swell, which is not too bad, but the wind is forecast to blow more easterly than south easterly and this tends to cause a larger than is pleasant wind chop that makes for unpleasant surface conditions. I am hoping the forecast changes as we get closer to Sunday and the wind drops off, and that way we can get some diving done. I will make that call late Saturday afternoon. Text me if you want to be on the list to dive if we do go out.

Surfacing in False Bay
Surfacing in False Bay

Training and permits

Winter is a good time to further your dive training – the water is cleaner in False Bay, and we have some really beautiful conditions to work with. If you’ve been thinking about a Specialty course, Advanced, or Rescue (for example), let me know and I can tell you a bit more about what’s involved. You’ll build up your confidence in the water and be a better buddy!

Please make sure you have an up to date MPA permit when you come diving… For visitors, I have a temporary (one month validity) permit book, but if you live here it’s definitely better to get a one year permit from the post office.

regards

Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099
www.learntodivetoday.co.za
www.learntodivetoday.co.za/blog/

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Sodwana 2014 trip report

Happy divers on the beach in Sodwana
Happy divers on the beach in Sodwana

Our third Sodwana trip (prior ones were in October 2010 and April 2011, with a Mozambique trip and a Durban trip in between) was from 26-30 April 2014. As usual we flew from Cape Town to Durban, rented vehicles (three cars between ten of us – two other reprobates drove ALL the way from Cape Town, although we suspect Shane hitched a lift on a car carrier for part of the way…) and drove the 350 kilometres from Durban to Sodwana. We stopped in Ballito for food, as we were planning to self cater.

Sodwana beach early in the morning
Sodwana beach early in the morning

Coral Divers was our destination. Most of us had already dived with them on prior trips (Angie even learned to dive there!), and their position inside the park and excellent facilities and staff led us to choose to dive with them again. They have a gazebo on the beach, regular transport between the camp and the beach, and dive planning and organisation runs like clockwork. Our only quibble this time around was that their school rental gear – which several of our divers made use of – was in quite poor condition. Matthijs tried four different masks before he found one that didn’t leak, and the well ventilated wetsuits left something to be desired. Fortunately the water was a comfortable 25 degrees!

On the tractor heading to the beach - picture by Otti
On the tractor heading to the beach – picture by Otti

We did six dives over three days, all on Two Mile reef. This is the cheapest option, and if conditions are dubious (as they were on our first day on the water), the best option. The further reefs (Five, Seven and Nine Mile) are magnificent, but require excellent buoyancy skills from visiting divers to protect the coral there, as well as favourable sea conditions for the longer boat ride.

The dives are for 50 minutes or until you reach 50 bar of air, whichever comes first. We visited mostly shallow sites (some of the Advanced divers did a deep dive on one of the days) so we were able to dive for a full 50 minutes most of the time. Because we were a group of twelve, we were generally split across two boats. We did manage some dives where we were all together at the same site, which was lots of fun! Some of the dives were lovely drift dives, which are fantastic because you use so little air. The surge (which has previously bedevilled me in Sodwana) was only severe on one of the days we dived.

After our two morning dives each day, we ate and then napped (me) or went exploring. In the evenings we braaied, cooked in the communal kitchen or ordered from the on site restaurant, and actually ended up going to bed fairly early. This was partly to escape Gerard when he got out of hand (on one notable occasion!), and partly because we were completely exhausted from our dives. We were also getting up very early to be ready to head down to the beach at 0645 each day.

Dinner time braai
Dinner time braai

It was a pleasure to spend time with such hilarious and interesting people, to do lovely long, warm, colourful dives, and to walk around in shorts and a t shirt while a warm 28 degree breeze blew. I hadn’t really scuba dived since last December, so it was great to get back into it again and remember how it’s done. Unfortunately I didn’t take many (or many nice…) photos underwater, as I was struggling with my (own, not rented) mask and I also initially didn’t feel confident enough to get close to anything. Once I settled my buoyancy – on the last day, alas! – I got going a bit more with my camera.

At the end of our trip, we said good bye to the other divers, and Tony and I stuck around in northern KwaZulu Natal to go to the bush for a couple of days. That’s another story…