Newsletter: All the good stuff

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Sunday: Launching from Simon’s Town to dive the pillars just off Ark Rock at 9.00 and Tivoli Pinnacles at 12.00

SMBs at Roman Rockac
SMBs at Roman Rock

Conditions report

We are having a great run of exceptional diving. The daytime temperatures are still above 20 degrees, the visibility is in the double digits and so is the water temperature. The viz has improved all week and is currently 15- 20 metres depending on who is looking. One of the divers on the boat today shot some video on the SAS Transvaal where you can see a huge amount of the wreck in the clean water. The second dive was to Roman Rock and it was even cleaner.

On Sunday we will launch from Simon’s Town at 9.00 and 12.00 and dive the pillars just off Ark Rock and then Tivoli Pinnacles. Text or email me if you want to dive.

Permits, permits, permits!

Don’t forget to bring your permit to dive in a marine protected area on the boat. If you don’t have one, you need to take your ID document and about R150 to the post office and ask for a “scuba diving permit”.

Mozambique trip

There are a couple of places left on our trip, which leaves on 28 June and returns 4 July. Consider joining us for some warm water coral reef diving – let me know if you want more information. Booking closes mid May, so think quick!


Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099

Diving is addictive!

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Video (TED): Richard Pyle on exploring the reef’s twilight zone

In this TED talk, self proclaimed “fish nerd” Pyle speaks about his work studying coral reef fish that live in the 100-200 metre depth range. This depth is too deep for scuba, and too shallow for submersibles, so Pyle pioneered the use of rebreathers (he was an early adopter, in 1994) to access this part of the ocean. This is a high risk pursuit, but the diversity and numbers of new species to be discovered here is stunning.

I first heard about Richard Pyle through Monty, who encouraged the readers of his Scuba Culture newsletter to check out an article Pyle wrote about an incident of decompression sickness when he was nineteen. The article is called Confessions of a Mortal Diver: Learning the Hard Way, and Monty is right – you should read it. Pyle actually mentions this incident right at the start of his talk. Watch below:

[ted id=471]


Bookshelf: Listening to Whales

Listening to Whales: What the Orcas have Taught Us – Alexandra Morton

Listening to Whales
Listening to Whales

Listening to Whales is marine biologist Alexandra Hubbard’s memoir of the thirty-odd years she spent studying wild killer whales, as well as other cetacean species. Morton was born in the United States, the daughter of a famous artist, but discovered her passion for cetaceans while working for eccentric dolphin researcher John C. Lilly. Her orca research took her into Canada’s remote Broughton Archipelago, where she and her husband (who passed away during the research in a solo rebreather diving accident) lived a romantic, itinerant, lonely, and very challenging life following pods of wild orca around and studying their communication.

Morton also spent time in oceanariums and theme parks, observing and working with captive orcas and dolphins. Her insights into the trauma that these unnatural environments inflict on the animals held there are illuminating, and dovetail with the observations made in articles such as The Killer in the Pool and Blood in the Waterand Death at Seaworld.

When the orcas disappeared from British Colombia’s remote waters, Morton wanted to find out why. She soon discovered the reason for their absence: there was a growing number of salmon farms, which started proliferating in earnest in the late 1980s, in the archipelago. The salmon farms used Acoustic Harassment Devices (AHDs) to chase away seals that preyed on the captive salmon. Since sound is of vital importance to orcas for hunting, echo location, and communication, the whales found the noisy environment unliveable and intolerable, and left the area. Morton’s persistence (she wrote over 10,000 letters) led to the withdrawal of the AHDs starting in the early 2000s.

The salmon farms have affected the area in ways other than noise pollution. They generate massive amounts of physical pollutants (from excess food pellets, waste products, and antibiotics used to treat the farmed fish), reducing the water quality. The salmon are also prone to infestation by parasites. Because the farmed fish are kept in such close quarters, there is unchecked spread of diseases and this can spill over to wild populations. There are also potentially serious consequences if farmed salmon escape and breed with wild salmon populations. The fish farming industry is growing rapidly in both size and vogue, and there is massive financial incentive for companies (and government bodies) to cover up the shortcomings and failures of mariculture. Morton’s work uncovering the abuses occurring in Canadian (and other) salmon farming continues to this day. She is a hero.

I think that if I’d had more access to women who were working as scientists when I was a child, my career might have panned out a little differently from the way it has. This is why I am very enthusiastic to discover memoirs by women who are respected in their chosen field, particularly when pursuing that particular field of study would seem to preclude some of the things that some people want, such as a stable family life. Whale scientist Elin Kelsey’s book Watching Giants also falls into this category. Morton’s life story is one of a wandering, resourceful, curious person who has managed to combine significant scientific output with a fulfilling life that has included raising two children, one of whom now works at NASA. Part of her son’s childhood was spent curled up in the bow of the Zodiac his parents were using to track pods of orca!

I’d strongly recommend this book to girls considering a career in the natural sciences, and to anyone else who is interested in the ocean, killer whales, fish farming, or just in interesting lives well lived. You can get a copy here or here.

Article: Esquire on diving the Andrea Doria

The wreck of the Andrea Doria, a luxury Italian cruise ship that sank in the north Atlantic ocean in 1956, is to some divers a sort of Mount Everest. It lies in about 70 metres of seawater, 160 kilometres from land. It has claimed ten lives to date and been the subject of several books and essays. Deep Descent deals specifically with this wreck. Shadow Divers and The Last Dive describe dives on the wreck, as well as featuring several of the regular charter captains and divers who pioneered diving on the Doria.

An Esquire article from 2000, written by Bucky McMahon (author of this article on Reunion’s shark problem), describes diving on the wreck, and attempts (as do they all) to pin down the allure of this particular piece of ocean debris. The article was written after a thirteen month period (late 1998- late 1999) during which five divers from the same charter boat (the Seeker) died on the wreck. It is written in a masculine, aggressive style that may be characteristic of McMahon’s writing, but is certainly characteristic of the sort of behaviour that seems to play (or have played) out on the Andrea Doria since people started diving her.

But how does it feel? What’s it like to know you are in a story that you will either retell a hundred times or never tell? You decide to drop down into the black hole. No, you don’t decide; you just do it. Why? You just do. A little ways, to explore the wreck and your courage, what you came down here to do. What is it like? Nothing under your fins now for eighty feet but the mass and complexity of the machine on all sides–what was once luminous and magical changed to dreary chaos. Drifting down past the cables that killed John Ornsby, rusty steel lianas where a wall has collapsed. Dropping too fast now, you pump air into your b.c., kick up and bash your tanks into a pipe, swing one arm and hit a cable, rust particles raining down. You’ve never felt your attention so assaulted: It is everything at once, from all directions, and from inside, too. You grab the cable and hang, catching your breath–bubble and hiss, bubble and hiss. Your light, a beam of dancing motes, plays down a battered passageway, where metal steps on the left-hand wall lead to a vertical landing, then disappear behind a low, sponge-encrusted wall that was once a ceiling. That’s the way inside the Doria.

Read the complete article here.

Article: Outside on Dave Shaw’s dive at Boesmansgat

Here’s a sobering, long read for the early days of the new year. Tim Zimmermann wrote a detailed piece for Outside magazine in 2005, recounting the remarkable events that took place in October 2004 at a deep freshwater cave called Boesmansgat. A team of crack technical divers executed a mission to raise the body of a young man who had died while diving the cave ten years before. Things did not go according to plan, and I can’t explain to you how remarkable and tragic the outcome of the dive was.

The events described in the article were the subject of the book Diving into Darkness/Raising the Dead by Philip Finch and are also mentioned in Verna van Schaik’s book, Fatally Flawed.

Read the full article here. If you’re not familiar with the incident, or if you are but enjoy gripping long form journalism, it’s well worth a read.

Documentary: A Cave Diver Story

A Cave Diver Story
A Cave Diver Story

Steve Bougaerts is the owner of Mexico-based Aztec Diving. British by birth, he is a renowned cave explorer and cave diving instructor, and A Cave Diver Story tracks (sort of) a day in his life.

Cecil lent us the DVD, and Tony and I enjoyed this glimpse of an underwater world replete with both beauty and danger. The Yucatan peninsula in Mexico, where the documentary was filmed, is riddled with cenotes (like the blue holes of the Bahamas shown in this documentary) connected to a giant aquifer. Bougaerts and his colleagues seek to map the connections between the cenotes, and spend hours both underwater and on land extending their maps. They use old fashioned mapping techniques underwater, and computer software on land to develop the maps.

The diving technique of the cave divers impressed me. They frog-kick (instead of finning up and down), and the smallest movement seems to propel them forward. All the diving they do seems to be sidemount diving, with an intimidating number of cylinders. Access to the cenotes is often down steep slopes or even vertical walls, requiring a lot of perspiration just to get yourself and your kit to the water.

These divers are determined, and tolerance for errors is nil. There are no flustered, disorganised cave divers (not ones that survive, anyway). I am in awe. It’s beautiful and pristine, but I don’t think it’s for me!

Here’s the trailer:


And here’s an extract from the film:


You can buy the DVD here.

Bookshelf: The Darkness Below

The Darkness Below – Rod Macdonald

The Darkness Below
The Darkness Below

The Darkness Below is a follow up to Rod Macdonald’s diving memoir Into the Abyss. It takes up more or less where the first volume left off, providing a brief synopsis of Macdonald’s diving credentials for the reader who is unfamiliar with his work. Macdonald is a Scottish diving legend, and has devoted much of his diving career to finding and identifying hitherto undived wrecks off the Scottish coast. He dives in the often dark, cold waters of the North Sea, with a group of diving friends, off his own rubber duck, and the impression I got from both his books is that he and his buddies are meticulous, cautious, and not motivated by ego. This is an essential quality to become an old diver, I think.

Macdonald and his friends search for wrecks using several methods. He maintains good relationships with local fishermen (he lives in a small village called Stonehaven in Scotland), and has on occasion got tips from them of locations where their nets have snagged. These are often undiscovered shipwrecks. He also scans hydrographic charts, looking for wrecks. These marked wrecks are often indicated on the charts to be some distance away from their actual location, so surveying of the sea floor is required in order to locate their exact position. I learned several useful tips for reading hydrographic charts from Macdonald’s descriptions of how he works.

Running through the book as a separate theme is the evolution of Macdonald’s diving practices, as he progresses from open circuit scuba on air to trimix to a closed circuit rebreather. A case of the bends after a series of repetitive deep dives which his friends on rebreathers completed without incident forces him to reconsider his earlier resistance to becoming a rebreather diver. The flexibility of the device for decompression dives owing to fine-tuned gas mixes and precise, on the fly calculations, leads to shorter, but more effective decompression time.

Once a wreck has been located, Macdonald and his buddies plan and execute a dive (or several dives) on it. Most of the wrecks close to shore in (relatively) shallow water have been dived and identified, leaving virgin wrecks further offshore in water up to 80 metres deep. Macdonald’s knowledge of ships of the modern era seems to be encyclopaedic, and he and his buddies are able to pick out features, patterns of damage and construction materials on the wrecks they dive that provide essential clues to identifying the wrecks. Observation and measurements combined with a lot of archival and book research leads to positive identifications, but this process is sometimes fraught with uncertainty.

As I was when I watched the BBC documentary Wreck Detectives, I was touched by the reactions of survivors and relatives of those who perished on some of the wrecks that Macdonald discovers and charts. Even though many of the wrecks he dives are of World War II vintage, the emotions and recollections of survivors and descendants are still surprisingly intense. This human element adds great meaning and significance to the work of identifying the wrecks. Many of the wrecks are war graves, or at graves of the fishermen who went down with the ship, and the divers treat them with respect and care. Not once do they contemplate looting the wreck for artifacts (compare, if you will, the divers who visit the Andrea Doria), and the motivation for doing these dives is unrelated to treasure hunting.

This is one of the best diving books I’ve ever read. If divers like Rod Macdonald are shaping the future of the sport, and establishing the ethos and ethics of wreck exploration and discovery, I’m very happy to be involved.

You can buy a copy of the book here if you’re in South Africa, and here or here if you’re not.

Bookshelf: The Last Dive

The Last Dive – Bernie Chowdhury

The Last Dive
The Last Dive

The Last Dive is a number of things: a history of how cave diving techniques came to be applied to advanced wreck diving (use of lines for wreck penetration, for example), the story of the early days of mixed gas diving in the United States, the chronicle of the close-knit bands of divers who risked their lives to explore the cold, deep waters off the north Atlantic seaboard of the USA and retrieve trinkets from the many vessels wrecked there, and a biography of Chris and son Chrissy Rouse, who were involved in all of the aforementioned threads of the tale. The central subject of the book is the Rouses’ death while (or just after) diving on the German U-boat discovered by a local dive boat skipper.

I first encountered the Rouses in Robert Kurson’s book Shadow Divers, a gripping read about the efforts to identify the same mysterious German U-boat that the Rouses perished on, off the coast of the US, and Deep Descent, which describes diving on the wreck of the Andrea Doria and features many of the same divers and dive charter operators. Their relationship is (perhaps too) sympathetically portrayed by author Bernie Chowdhury, a friend of the family.

The Rouses were extremely technically proficient divers, but their downfall seems to have been their fraught and fractious relationship that was characterised by vicious bickering and name-calling that stopped only when they put regulators in their mouths to descend into a cave or onto a wreck. Chowdhury shows how their difficult (but ultimately loving) relationship led them to doing a dive (their final one) onto the U-boat when the conditions were decidely sub par. Their choice to dive to over 80 metres on air, when they were proficient in mixed gas use, as well as what seemed to be the firm conviction of Chrissy (the younger) Rouse that he was immortal, also appears to have contributed greatly to their deaths.

Both Chris and Chrissy Rouse died of DCS – Chris died in the water within minutes of surfacing, and his son Chrissy hours later in a recompression chamber. They had both ascended rapidly without any decompression stops, from a longer than planned dive to over 80 metres, having lost their stage cylinders in their disorientation after emerging from a disastrous penetration of the submarine during which Chrissy became trapped under a fallen book shelf and a self-inflating life raft.

Earlier in the book, Chowdhury describes his own experience of very serious decompression sickness, which gives great insight into how debilitating (if not fatal) the experience of being bent can be. His enumeration at the end of The Last Dive of the serious physical conditions now prevalent among divers of his generation who have persistently pushed the envelope and, in many instances, been bent and recovered, serves as a cautionary tale to those who believe that no-decompression limits are for wussies.

As I expressed in my review of Deep Descent, I strongly disapprove of the macho cowboy attitude that seems to be (have been?) disturbingly prevalent among the divers and charters of this generation (and not limited to the United States). But Chowdhury’s book is more than an ode to the glory days of artifact retrieval and experimentation with trimix. As a history of cave diving, mixed gas diving and advanced wreck diving it’s invaluable. As a diver himself, conversant with all these disciplines, Chowdhury is able to explain in simple terms concepts that would slow down someone who hasn’t done a dive course. The book is very readable despite the technical subjects covered.

Chowdhury does not conclude that the risks taken to achieve what this particular group of divers did were unreasonable, and does not overtly criticise the Rouses for the attitudes and behaviour that – I think most sensible people would agree – contributed to their deaths instead of just a scare that might have forced an adjustment to the dive plan. While he admits to having experienced times of ambivalence about diving, particularly when he describes the strain it placed on his relationship with his wife and son and the long road to rehabilitation that followed his episode of the bends, his equilibrium surprisingly undisturbed by the loss of several friends and acquaintances to the sport he loves, and his own health difficulties.

For some more perspectives on this book and the perceived accuracy of the descriptions of the events it covers, you can read this review and this discussion.

You can purchase the book here if you’re in South Africa, and here if you’re not. The Kindle edition is available here and here.

Oh, and go sign up for some DAN insurance, please?

Dive centres: Subway Scuba (Malta)

Subway Scuba
Subway Scuba

Subway Dive Centre is a PADI 5* Instructor Development Centre, National Geographic Dive Centre and Project AWARE Official Partner located in the town of Bugibba on the island of Malta. I wish I could remember the details of how I selected to dive with them rather than one of the approximately 40 other dive centres on the Maltese islands… I seem to recall it had to do with their dive packages, which were comprehensive, included dives on both Malta and Gozo, and were at a reasonable rate. I also checked for reviews and tips. Being a 5 star IDC didn’t hurt either, though one can’t tell anything about the character and integrity of a dive centre’s staff just from a rating.

Subway Scuba, Bugibba, Malta
Subway Scuba, Bugibba, Malta

Subway Scuba is aptly named, being located almost entirely underground! The centre contains probably the best compressor in Malta (we saw a number of other dive centre staff visiting to mix gas – including Trimix – for their clients), an indoor pool, a shop, classroom, a gear washing area (with a grid roof open to the elements, for quick drying) and lots of space to store your rental gear (in a box labelled with your name) for the duration of your stay. I really liked that for the five days we dived with them, we used the same kit every day. My wetsuit made me look like a cross between the Michelin Man and a cowboy, but it was incredibly comfortable and had a lot of features that one doesn’t expect on a basic rental wetsuit, such as pockets, a compass, and a dive computer strap holder.

Lina Fabri handled the flurry of emails I sent in order to make our booking (I also used one of Subway’s recommendations for accommodation in Malta, Falcon Court, which was just around the corner from the dive centre), as well as some queries I sent her after we went home regarding particular fish we’d seen that I couldn’t identify. While we were in Malta, Lana Markov assisted us from day to day, and her husband Sergey was our extremely marvellous Divemaster. We also spent one day (Sergey had to rest, poor man!) diving with Publio Attard, who we loved meeting because he is Maltese and gave us his perspective on life in Malta. Olga, the owner of Subway, as well as Lana and Sergey, are all Russian, and all the other divers we dived with during our stay were very impressive Russian divers. Sergey obligingly did two dive briefings at each site, one in English and one in Russian.

Me in my dorky (but awesome) rental wetsuit
Me in my dorky (but awesome) rental wetsuit

The dives Tony and I did were all in the recreational range, up to 40 metres, but technical diving is definitely possible in Malta with submarines and many other sites available to those who want to go deeper. Subway offers an Inspiration rebreather course as well as advanced wreck, Trimix, cavern and cave courses. With its many overhead environments and purposely scuttled wrecks, as well as lovely warm water, I can’t think of a better place to get one of these qualifications. It seems however that for guided dives, the focus is on recreational diving.

Fish of Malta
Fish of Malta

Tony and I felt very welcome at Subway, and, very importantly, comfortable that safety was an absolute priority. Our gear was in good order, the cylinders were in date, and every time we used Nitrox we had the opportunity (which we took, otherwise we’d have been instructed to!) to check the mix, the maximum depth it permitted, and to sign our understanding of those facts. Our experience at Subway Scuba was very positive overall.

Documentary: Blue Holes – Diving the Labyrinth

Blue Holes
Blue Holes

Cecil, cave diver to be (he probably is one by now thanks to Buks Potgieter of IANTD) lent us this National Geographic production. It’s just under an hour long, and recounts an expedition to seven of the blue holes in the Bahamas. A blue hole is a kind of vertical cave, roughly circular. They often contain freshwater (light) on top of saltwater (heavy). The reaction between the two layers of water where they meet (called the halocline) eats away horizontal passages off the main shaft of the sinkhole over time. Sometimes there is a layer of hydrogen sulphide, created by bacteria and decaying organic matter, beneath which is an anoxic (devoid of oxygen) layer of water which preserves organic remains (bones, not flesh) with remarkable fidelity. For this reason blue holes are sometimes referred to as time capsules. The deep water is usually very, very clear.

Here’s a picture of the Blue Hole on Gozo in Malta, where Tony and I dived earlier this year. It doesn’t have a freshwater layer – it’s sea water all the way, but the top view you can see here illustrates what a blue hole looks like. Beautiful!

The Blue Hole on Gozo
The Blue Hole on Gozo

The multidisciplinary research team shown in this special aimed to uncover the ancient history of the Bahamas, which no longer have any large predators (such as crocodiles) occuring naturally there. Aside from the diving (more on that just now) there’s a bit of palaentology, anthropology and archaeology to keep history buffs happy. Blue holes are currently the subject of much reasearch, and as the narration in this special points out, rising sea levels threaten to flood the holes and destroy the anoxic conditions that make them such excellent preservers of the past – so there is a sense of urgency to the studies being conducted.

The diving, though, is mainly what interested us (and Cecil, I suspect). The footage inside the blue holes shows how beautiful they can be, with stalagmites and stalagtites in the side passages carved out by the halocline as the sea level changed. It also shows how treacherous cave diving can be – fine silt covers most of the surfaces, and even the pressure wave created by a diver swimming forward above the bottom of the cave can stir it up… Never mind a careless fin stroke or bumping the bottom!

Some of the diving was done on air and other gas mixes, using open circuit scuba with side mount arrangements to make the divers’ profiles wider but flatter. Other dives, to greater depths (both vertical and horizontal), were done on rebreathers. One of the advantages of a rebreather, apart from ridiculously long bottom time, is no bubbles, which is great for photography and for cave diving where bubbles can disturb sediment and even bring down bits of rock from the ceiling. One of the divers claims that 10% of all rebreathers sold have killed their owners (this is an exaggeration – according to DAN, only about 5% of diving fatalities are on rebreathers but one must adjust for the fact that open circuit is far more prevalent)… And that while she’s putting her kit together she thinks about all her dead friends who perished using these devices. If that was my state of mind before going in the water, I wouldn’t dive – the depression would kill me first! The divers go through a 40 point written checklist before they get in the water for a dive and are very, very careful about maintaining their rebreathers.

This is a beautiful look at the treasures hidden in places that many of us will never visit. The photography is wonderful, even if the narration is a little bit over the top dramatic (but we’ve been spoiled by the refined dignity of the BBC, I think!). It’s a little bit sobering from a diving perspective, but one can only admire people whose determination to break new ground and advance science leads them to the very edge of what technology can currently assist with.

There are some still photos from the special here (go and look – very lovely). An article on blue holes in the Bahamas appears here.

You can get a copy of the DVD here.