Red Sea trip photos: diving from a liveaboard

Here are some photos to show you what it’s like to dive off a liveaboard. They were taken on our Red Sea trip in October. The centre of the diving activity was the dive deck at the lower level of the boat, at the back. There we hung our wetsuits, and we each had a cylinder and a box to keep our loose bits of gear in. We used the same cylinder throughout the entire trip, and the crew used the long hoses of the compressor to fill our tins right where they stood. We didn’t unbuckle our BCDs from our cylinders once.

A black (air) or green (Nitrox) tag around the neck of our cylinders indicated what gas we were diving with. We used Nitrox throughout. A numbered tag attached to the shoulder of our BCDs enabled the crew to keep track of who had returned from their dive. They also wrote down our dive times and maximum depths for each dive, and we signed those figures off each evening. This is in case of an accident – they know what your dive profile is for the week.

There were dives before breakfast, after breakfast, after lunch, and at night. On the first and last days we did three and two dives, respectively. I managed three dives a day. Christo did four! Most of us skipped a dive here and there, owing to fatigue, illness (don’t drink the tap or sea water, is all I can say), and general laziness! The briefings were detailed, with maps or slideshows to familiarise us with each dive site. We were told what creatures to look out for, and where they like to hide. For wrecks that could be penetrated, the dive guides explained the preferred route more than once.

After getting into our wetsuits we sat down in front of our kit, shrugged it on with the help of one of the crew, and walked down to the dive deck. There we either put our fins and mask on and giant strided into the water, or held our fins and climbed onto one of the Zodiacs to be driven a short distance to the dive site. This technique was used at busy sites where there were many other liveaboards already anchored, or locations where it wasn’t safe for the big boat to go.

To get out of the water we were either fetched by a Zodiac, or we returned to the back of the liveaboard and climbed up the dive ladders in our full kit. Helping hands were ready to assist us with our fins. We’d put our kit back, hang up our wetsuits, put cameras into the rinsing container on the dive deck, and then eat. Every dive was followed by food! And often, a nap.

At times strong currents had us hanging onto lines down to a wreck, and this also made getting back to the liveaboard a challenge at times. On one occasion the current was so strong that I wasn’t sure I’d make it from the line tied to the corner of the stern onto the ladder in the middle of the stern – a distance of two metres – without getting swept away. Some acrobatics and long arm stretches from Tony saved the day!

The process of diving off a liveaboard is far less strenuous than diving in Cape Town, which is why we could still walk after doing three or four dives a day. For one thing, the warm water means you get far less fatigued, and you use less air, too. The crew were extremely helpful on our trip, even zipping our wetsuits and providing soapy water when pulling on our thick cold water Trilastic suits seemed too much like hard work!

Great white shark at the Clan Stuart wreck – video

To close off Cape Town’s Shark Week, here’s the 11 second video footage that diver Vladislav Tomshinskiy (thank you Vlad!) took of the shark as it swam past the divers the second time. The bubbles at the end of the video belong to Craig (far left, with the buoy line) and Christo. Please enjoy this beautiful video of one of the ocean’s most brilliant predators, swimming curiously and gracefully past a group of awe-struck divers who are all amazed and grateful for having had the experience.

Local shark scientist Alison Kock of Shark Spotters says that from the video the shark looks to be a female (she said that if it was a male you’d expect to see claspers as it turned to swim away, which one can’t) and that she’s between 3 and 3.5 metres long. According to a recent study, most of the sharks seen at inshore locations by the Shark Spotters during the summer months are large females, who tend to be in False Bay year-round.

It’s not clear whether the shark was disturbed by the divers’ bubbles (as Christo speculates), and whether that was what caused it to swim away when it did. That flick of the tail says “I’m outta here!” and is something we’ve seen when observing these animals from the surface (on cage diving and research boats). The acceleration and turning abilities of white sharks is remarkable.

I’m interested by the bubbles because it’s an oft-repeated mantra by the shark cage diving operators (all over the country) that sharks are scared of scuba bubbles, and this is why you have to breath hold or snorkel in the cage. In July we did a cage diving trip in False Bay with African Shark Eco-Charters, who allow their clients to view sharks from the cage while on scuba, and they certainly don’t see fewer sharks than any other operator. Also, the sharks who swam past us in the cage were totally not bothered by our bubbles (of which there were many).

I therefore wouldn’t bet my reputation (or maybe I should, just to get rid of it…) on the “sharks don’t like bubbles” theory, but there may be far more nuance to it than we know. The shark in this video practically got a spa treatment on its tummy from Christo and Craig’s regulators… Perhaps to scare a shark away using air bubbles you need to get really close. But I don’t plan to test that theory unless I have to!

Dive briefings

Diving in Cape Town is often done without a Divemaster. Many of the dive sites are shore entries and quite often they are dived by casual divers and groups of friends.

Dive briefing on the beach at Sodwana
Dive briefing on the beach at Sodwana

Resort environments most often only conduct led dives, meaning there is a Divemaster that knows the site, the local conditions and the wildlife you will most likely encounter. These dives will invariably start with a dive briefing where the site will often be drawn on the sand or displayed in a book. The Divemaster will detail the site, the dive time, what percentage of you air will mean that you are “low on air” (often based on the depth, conditions and skills of the group), who leads, who follows and who buddies up with whom. Dive time and profile will also probably be based on the Divemaster’s computer. A good briefing will also cover lost buddy procedure, what to do in an emergency and the hand signals that will be used. Entry and exit techniques or special requirements will also feature. Some briefings will also include the signals for specific creatures.

In essence a dive briefing should cover as much as possible is a relatively short time (10 minute briefings will bore any diver to death) unless you are planning a very technical or potentially hazardous dive. The more you cover in a briefing the less chance of confusion underwater.

Diving, irrespective of the location is best conducted in a safe manner. (You get to do a lot more dives that way!) Understanding the weather, assessing the conditions and having some knowledge of the site goes a long way to ensure a good dive. Diving within your own ability also rates highly.

Cape Town offers the qualified diver a wide range of dives and the fact that there might not be a Divemaster with you does not mean you should not experience the dives. There are a few basics to consider, knowing the dive site is only possible after you have dived it a few times. Once you have decided to dive a site, read all the available information on the wikivoyage site for diving in Cape Town. This website will be your Divemaster. It will tell you how to get in and out, what skills and qualifications you need, depth, and the marine life to be expected. It will also tell you which weather conditions are best for the site. Pay close attention to the bearings if you want to see a specific feature, and know what the bearing is to get you back to shore.

Armed with all of this knowledge you and your buddy/buddies need only agree on a few issues before you set off. Plan your dive and dive your plan. If you agree it will be a 40 minute dive, stick to that. If you decide on who will lead then keep the order as such. Who your buddy will be and depth are important and it is important to agree on signals. As a qualified diver you are responsible for your own air so you need not have a Divemaster check it for you. If you are a group that dive together often then its best to base the dive time on the member with the worst air consumption, unless they are happy to return to shore alone. You will need a compass, and you will need to read the site details together to ensure you all have a good idea of the environment and likely conditions. You must have an SMB as this avoids the potential haircut you can receive from a passing boat.

It should not be required to cover this but I will ANYWAY, Make sure your equipment is proper, the correct size, and in serviceable condition. Don’t enter the water if you have an equipment malfunction or a leak or any other issue. Don’t think “we won’t be deep,” or “we won’t be far from the shore” and dive with faulty equipment. Should an emergency arise and you are swept out to sea, that small leak on you BCD will soon be a huge problem.

Diving is a very safe sport if you follow the rules, do the checks, and dive within your training. Do these things and you will have thousands of dives, each one often better that the last one.