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: 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/

Diving is addictive!

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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…

Cracking an egg underwater

Brian and his raw egg
Brian and his raw egg

Have you tried this? It’s an art, but if you do it gently you can remove the entire shell of a raw egg without the white and yolk coming apart. The water pressure holds the contents of the egg intact.

South African eggs have really hard, thick shells – I learned this from watching British cooking shows on television – so it’s a delicate procedure to strike the egg hard enough to crack the shell, but not so hard that you splatter the contents everywhere. Having witnessed it, I can also add that smashing the egg on your buddy’s head will not have the desired effect.

Here are Brian and Esti playing with eggs during their Advanced course at Outer Photographer’s Reef.

Whether you manage to crack your egg perfectly or not, a passing fish will be very grateful for the meal. Does this count as chumming?

Sea life: Red sponge nudibranch

Two red sponge nudibranchs at Spaniard Rock
Two red sponge nudibranchs at Spaniard Rock

Last year I did a dive at Spaniard Rock in False Bay. Tami was my buddy, and Georgina Jones of SURG was with us. Georgina is the author of the invaluable Field Guide to the Marine Animals of the Cape Peninsula, and it was during an interlude when Tami had gotten lost that she found and showed me a red sponge nudibranch (Rostanga elandsia). These animals are remarkably well camouflaged – they feed on reddish orange sponges, and get their colouration from the sponge.

I went off hunting after that, and found and photographed another red sponge nudibranch (above) that upon closer examination turned out to be two: there is one just above the top shell near the middle of the photo, and another on the right hand side pointing downwards. You can just see that there are small, darker spots on their bodies.

Next time I spot one I’m interested to see whether they leave marks in the sponge where they’ve been feeding. They are very hard to spot, though!

Thank you and happy new year

Hey dive buddies! Thank you for a year of amazing dives and good friendships. Please find yourself in this selection of happy diver photos taken in 2013. I’m sorry we don’t have one from every single dive we did. We look forward to many more good dives together in 2014!

Handy Hints: Hitching a ride

Do you get tired during long dives? Would you like to know how to conserve energy, use less air, and annoy your buddies all at the same time? Fear not. The inimitable Kate is here to show you how it’s done.

Kate was back in town during August, September and October, along with her squire Brian. The two of them dived a lot while they were here. Kate was up to her usual tricks: here, she rides on the unwitting Brian’s cylinder during a dive at Shark Alley in September (no cowsharks to be found). Notice her perfect buoyancy, allowing her to let go as Brian turns around, and then grab hold of his gear again as he turns his back to her.

She did this to me once for almost an entire dive on the Clan Stuart. I felt as though my own buoyancy was up the pole, but couldn’t figure out why. Also, I used up my air really quickly and felt quite fatigued after the dive. Kate, of course, emerged from the dive with a nearly full cylinder, bursting with energy!

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!

Guest post: Christo on encountering a great white shark

Yesterday we had Craig’s point of view… Here’s Christo van Schalkwyk’s account of the Clan Stuart dive on which he and his fellow divers encountered a white shark. Christo has been diving since March 2012, and in the time since then has logged over two hundred dives, most of them here in Cape Town.

About 30 seconds into the dive, just as I got to the bottom, a little to the north of the engine block, I saw the shark approach from the south. It swam past us towards the north. It turned and swam back down the wreck in a southerly direction, on the inshore side. For a while it was out of sight. We kept looking out for it, while motioning to the other divers to bunch together and stay low on the wreck. A few seconds later we saw it approaching from the south again. I could see both eyes as it swam straight at me. When it was about three metres away it veered off slightly to swim past us, parallel to the wreck. At this point it was only about two metres away from Craig and me. I remember choosing the spot where I was going to hit it if turned back towards us.

Fortunately it kept gliding past and as the pectoral fins came past, something seemed to disturb it. It flicked its tail once and shot away to the north. (Seeing the video taken by Vlad later, it seemed as if one of us exhaling was what disturbed the shark, but this is only speculation.) After a second or two, it was out of sight and we didn’t see it again.

We crouched down low on the wreck, looking around, and repeated the instructions to the other divers to keep close and low down. At this time we saw Sergey coming towards us from a rocky outcrop (or piece of wreckage) about 3-4 metres away from the main wreck, towards the deep side. We beckoned (with some urgency) to him to come closer. He swam quite slowly towards us, but when he got close enough, we pulled him down onto the wreck with us. As he was positioning himself, his weightbelt caught on a piece of the wreck and came off. I had to help him put it back on from underneath.

We stayed where we were (just north of the engine block of the wreck) for about another minute or so. I remember looking at my dive computer which read 2 minutes at that point. It didn’t seem a viable option to surface, even though I knew Tony would be close with the boat. I didn’t fancy the notion of hanging around on the surface, trying to get all 6 divers on the boat, all the while not knowing where the shark was. After another half a minute or so, Craig and I had a hand signal discussion on what to do next. He suggested heading south down the centre of the wreck, in the opposite direction to the shark’s last known heading. I thought we should go for the beach, to the north west. We agreed on the beach and started off in that direction, staying very low.

Just before leaving the wreck, Craig’s weight belt came loose as well. I took the reel from him and held on to his BCD with one hand and the wreck and reel with the other, while he tried to put the weight belt back on. This seemed to take forever – I remember seeing Vlad sliding in under a raised sheet of steel and hiding there (and feeling a bit jealous of his nice cover…). Eventually I gave the reel back to Craig and got him to hold on to the wreck and got in underneath him to try and see what the problem with the belt was. Once the belt was back on, we dropped down onto the sand on the shore side of the wreck.

Then we had to swim over the sand, without cover, towards the beach. It took a while to gather the group together to do this. We stayed very low, flat on the bottom. As we swam the group seemed to fan out, so we stopped once or twice to reassemble. Craig kept watch to the north, while I scanned the southern arc. Once we got into shallower water the surge took us along quite quickly and the group spread out even more, but it wasn’t possible to do anything about that any more. We got tumbled a bit in the breakers on the beach, but in the end managed to help each other to the beach unscathed with only the loss of one mask.

Total dive time: 13 minutes
Boat entry, shore exit.

Christo’s diagram of the dive site, with indications of what happened where, is below. Click on the image to enlarge it!

Christo's drawing of the scene
Christo’s drawing of the scene (click to enlarge)