Newsletter: Here’s a challenge

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Friday: Shore dives at Long Beach at 8am Saturday: Shore dives at Long Beach at 12pm I have students so I will shore dive both tomorrow morning and Saturday afternoon, after the marathon road closures. Sunday and Monday don’t look like good weather days.

Autumn on Fish Hoek beach
Autumn on Fish Hoek beach

City Nature Challenge

Besides a few days of challenging weather for the long weekend there is a different and way more interesting challenge heading your way: the iNaturalist City Nature Challenge 2019. This is a worldwide bioblitz event, happening this year from 26-29 April, during which you get a chance to get outdoors, spot species, and do some citizen science.

Cape Town is participating! If you like competition, we’re pitted against other cities around the world (last year San Francisco had the most observers, who saw the most species, and logged the most observations). Otherwise, it’s a fun opportunity to go diving (or hiking, or paddling, or however you like to get outside), and to share what you see with others.

With the iNaturalist app (for iOS or Android) or on the website, you can photograph (or upload photos you took with your camera) and record all kinds of wildlife and plants. You don’t even have to know what you’re seeing – experts will weigh in with identifications if you are unsure. These citizen science observations are invaluable for mapping species diversity and distribution and are used for all sorts of projects. You can use the iNaturalist app (or website) any time, not just during the City Nature Challenge, and it’s a great tool for recording flora and fauna that you come across, even in your own garden.

On Wednesday 24 April, Georgina Jones is giving a talk at False Bay Underwater Club about the challenge, and the sorts of species you could spot and record. More details on the facebook event page.

We’ll be diving next weekend, conditions permitting, and hope to have some observations to contribute to the City Nature Challenge. We’d love it if you joined us.

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

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Newsletter: The joy of kelp

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

No diving The forecasts vary wildly this weekend. Windy says howling south easter everywhere, whilst other sites say mild wind suitable for some Atlantic diving. The mountain will break some of the wind so I am sure Table Bay sites will be good, and Hout Bay much the same. I have students for the pool this weekend so there are no launches planned.

Kelp forest near Pyramid Rock
Kelp forest near Pyramid Rock

Kelp night

Learn all about kelp at the Two Oceans Aquarium next Thursday evening, 31 January. There will be talks on kelp science, kelp as a habitat, and kelp as a snack. Read more here, and book tickets at Quicket.

Camera housing

Clare is selling her Sony underwater housing that fits the Sony RX100 range of cameras. If you’re interested, drop me a mail and I’ll put you in touch with her.

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

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Responsible diving during a drought part 1: Your dive gear

It is no secret that Cape Town is a little low on water. The coastal dive industry, even though we spend a lot of time in the ocean, is actually quite a heavy user of fresh water. Everything thing you learn about taking care of your equipment revolves around the phrase “rinse well with clean water.” Clearly this is not an option in Cape Town at the moment

Dive gear in the driveway
Dive gear in the driveway

So how do you maintain your dive gear and keep it in safe condition during such circumstances? For a dive centre or training facility the volume of gear that needs cleaning can be overwhelming at the end of the day. Here are a few suggestions on how to manage.

No matter how well you de-kit after a shore dive, wet dive gear tends to collect sand. (You can minimise this by using something like the Wetsac, but this isn’t always an option with my students.) I take the gear back into the ocean and rinse it as well as I can in the shallows. This involves several trips as wet dive gear is heavy.

Wetsuits are rugged and don’t too much mind being left salty. They do end up being a little crispy after a while, but the most important, non-negotiable aspect is hygiene. I take a spray bottle with a mixture of Savlon or Dettol and spray the inside of the salty wet suit, then let it dry. Gloves, booties, hoodies and rash vests get the same treatment.

Regulators get a similar treatment, without the disinfectant. I give them an overall light spray with warm water in a spray bottle, with a good spray into the mouth piece. The inflator hose nipple also needs to be rinsed well as this does not handle salt build-up too well and could get stuck during a dive (at best, annoying… at worst, life-threatening).

Cameras, dive computers, torches and compasses do need a little more care, but fortunately are relatively small and have lesser water requirements. I use a narrow, tall bucket and put the bucket in the shower. While showering you can easily catch enough water to cover these items…. Seldom more than a litre is required, and you can leave them to soak.

The biggest challenge is a BCD. Again, it is a tough and rugged piece of gear, but the inflator mechanism does not like salt build up. Using the same bucket of water used for the camera and dive computers, I soak the inflators overnight. I then connect an airline and inflate and deflate the BCD to help flush out the valves behind the inflate/deflate buttons.

Whilst such basic, minimalistic care for your dive gear is not as thorough as that recommended by the manufacturer, it is a method of extending the use of your gear when the availability of fresh water is close to zero. As a rule I prefer to only have two students per class and can effectively wash three sets of gear in less than three litres of water.

It goes without saying that as soon as it rains, you should be collecting that water to give your gear the long, luxurious soak it deserves (and probably needs by that stage)!

BirdLife South Africa Flock at Sea AGAIN! 2017 – part ii (the birds)

We were surprised by the intensity of the birding that took place on Flock At Sea AGAIN! 2017. In retrospect we shouldn’t have been, but being around 2,000 serious twitchers was, at turns, overwhelming and hilarious. Tony and I spent quite a lot of time on deck 4 of MSC Sinfonia, bothering our friend Ian. An enduring memory of this time was turning around from the rail to see a wall of K-Way clad birders charging towards us like buffalo, heading for the stern of the ship, where something special had just been spotted.

Annoying Ian
Annoying Ian

There was serious camera hardware on board. Tony’s modest 200-500mm Sigma lens sometimes gets admiring glances from the uninitiated, but on this cruise it left something to be desired (as you can see in comparison to Ian’s rig in the photo above).

The gun show
The gun show

It is known by anyone who’s been on a boat that taking photos on the ocean is difficult, especially of a fast moving, distant subject such as a bird. Tony had a go at some bird photos, with reasonable success. Trying to identify what we’d seen afterwards was fun. We were definitely not the people who were calling the name of the bird before photographing it! Once we came across a large aggregation of birds feeding on something on the surface, and once some dolphins, but there were fewer marine mammal sightings than we’d hoped.

An older wandering albatross
An older wandering albatross

I loved seeing the albatross, and because of their great size and confidence in approaching the ship, I found them easiest to identify. Both Peter Harrison’s talk  and Carl Safina’s brilliant Eye of the Albatross emphasised the extraordinary longevity and fidelity of these birds, and the loneliness of their lives in between visits to the breeding islands. In addition to the ones pictured above, we also saw Indian yellow-nosed albatross, which I’d previously seen sitting on the surface of the ocean above the wreck of the Fontao in Durban, waiting for snacks from the fishermen there.

There were plenty of places to watch the sea all around the ship. Deck four ran along both sides of the vessel close to the ocean, and the triangular viewing platforms that protrude at the stern were a popular sunset location. Around the central area on the top deck that contains the swimming areas, a raised wrap-around deck also provided good viewing opportunities, but it was too high up for proper bird watching.

The light varied a lot depending on the time of day (duh!) and the degree of cloud cover. It was windy almost all the time. I was surprised by the speed of the ship; when we were moving between birding locations we cruised at up to 25 knots. Only on one of the days was the sea rough enough to splash onto the lower decks.

Wind protection
Wind protection

We saw some things we’d never seen before, like an extravagant double rainbow just before sunset. It was wonderful to be completely surrounded by ocean, and to watch how the colour of the sea changed through the day. We were travelling over deep water, and the profound blue of the ocean when the bottom is hundreds of metres below is something special. Look at the wake in the rainbow picture for an example.

Double rainbow
Double rainbow

We saw a few other ships, but not as many as I’d expected. There was some tooth-gnashing among the twitchers when, on the last full day of the cruise as we headed back towards Cape Town, some fishing trawlers were seen in the distance. It was fascinating to watch the trawlers turn on a dime and mow back and forth, but the clouds of seabirds behind the ship remained just out of proper sight.

Fishing trawler at work
Fishing trawler at work

There’s an album of photos (including some of the ones I’ve included here) on facebook, if you’re interested! And if you’re interested in seabirds, I can’t think of a better place to start than Carl Safina’s Eye of the Albatross.

Sea life: Sea swallows

Sea swallow (Glaucus atlanticus)
Sea swallow (Glaucus atlanticus)

The sea swallow, Glaucus atlanticus, is a type of pelagic nudibranch. Pelagic means it lives in the open ocean, and being a nudibranch makes it a member of the phylum Mollusca. They are also called blue dragons, blue sea slugs, and a few other similar names. Because of where they live, these striking creatures are not frequently seen, so we were lucky to encounter a few of them after a dive at Batsata Maze in the south western part of False Bay, just south of Smitswinkel Bay.

Sea swallow
Sea swallow

The blue patterned side of this nudibranch that is visible when viewed from above is actually its underside. The top surface of the animal, which points down, is counter-shaded (like a great white shark). It is a greyish silver colour to blend in with the surface of the sea when viewed from underwater.

Photographing a sea swallow
Photographing a sea swallow

Sea swallows suck air into a gas-filled sack inside their bodies, for buoyancy. They prey on blue bottles (also called Portuguese man o’war) and retain and concentrate the blue bottles’ venom in their bodies for use against their own enemies. This makes them extremely venomous with the potential to sting badly.

Luckily the intrepid Carel leaped into the water to scoop one into a cup and we could all take a closer look (don’t touch!) on the boat and get some photographs. Afterwards, our visitor was returned safely to the ocean.

They are widely distributed through many of the world’s oceans, and sometimes wash up on the beaches in False Bay. They are unusual, but not earth-shatteringly rare. If we were more social media savvy we would have managed to use this sighting to manufacture the kind of hysteria generated by that facebook page whose title expresses an intense and profane love for “science“, or a few other media channels. But we’re not, so you get this blog post!

If you are looking for a marine life reference, first prize for Capetonians is A Field Guide to the Marine Animals of the Cape Peninsula, otherwise the Two Oceans guide.

Snappers at Creche, Ponta do Ouro (southern Mozambique)

Above the coral reef at Creche, a dive site in southern Mozambique, hang huge and colourful schools of fish. A quiet, calm diver may approach them quite closely. Here’s Tony filming some yellow snapper:

I love this close up of snappers:

And here’s another school of snappers making shapes in the water:

I find them quite hypnotic!

Guest contribution: Heinrich’s seal diving video

Heinrich learned to scuba dive recently, and on his final Open Water dive at Duiker Island in Hout Bay, he brought along his Go-Pro camera. He edited together some footage from that dive, and is generously allowing us to share it here.

Seal Dive at Duiker Island, South Africa from Heinrich Meyer on Vimeo.

The last training dive for my OWD. Amazing dive site with Seals everywhere you look. They are very playful and like to interact with divers. And by interact I mean biting… 😀

Our protocol for scuba diving with cowsharks

Curious cowshark
Curious cowshark

Shark Alley is a special and unusual dive site just south of Millers Point. It is an aggregation site for broadnose sevengill cowsharks, predators who feed on seals and a variety of other animals. They can grow to three metres in length. These sharks seem to use this site as a resting area (though we aren’t sure – research is ongoing) and their behaviour is typically docile and relaxed. For this reason it is a great place to dive, as the sharks come close enough to get a good look at them but do not behave in a threatening manner.

There has never been a serious incident involving a diver and a shark at this site, but there have been a few incidents. Clare has had her pillar valve gnawed on by a feisty young male shark while on a dive here a few years back, and early in May a diver was bitten on the arm by one of the sharks. That latter bite made the newspaper (the shark drew blood and the NSRI was summoned), but I am sure that there have been other more minor incidents here that didn’t get reported.

Young cowshark
Young cowshark

This got me thinking about a protocol for diving with these animals. Shark dives all over the world are governed by safety protocols and guidelines, usually put in place by dive operators themselves (examples here and here). We do have a set of standards that we adhere to when visiting this site and mention in dive briefings, but I’ve never written them down all together before. I am a firm believer in self regulation, whereby the industry regulates itself so that we don’t end up with a bureaucrat in an office telling us we can’t dive with cowsharks without (for example) a special permit, or (heaven forbid) ever again!

Cowshark passing a diver
Cowshark passing a diver

So here’s our protocol – how we choose to regulate ourselves when diving this site. It’s not a set of hard and fast rules that everyone has to follow, but it’s how we choose to approach dives at Shark Alley, a little bit like Underwater Africa’s diver code of conduct, but for cowshark diving. You are welcome to use these principles yourself, and I’d like to hear any suggestions you have to improve them or for points I may not have thought of.

  1. Do a positive entry (i.e. with your BCD fully inflated) if you are diving off the boat, so you do not risk landing on a shark in mid water. If there is a thermocline, the sharks typically swim above it, and may be shallower than you expect.
  2. Descend slowly in a controlled manner, looking below you at all times. Ensure that you are carrying sufficient weight (you should be able to kneel on the sand if necessary).
  3. Do not make any physical contact with the sharks. Do not try and stroke them as they swim by, and do not hang on their tails or dorsal fins.
  4. Do not feed the sharks. Don’t carry anything edible (sardines, for example) in your BCD, and do not chum from the boat. This includes washing the deck off at the dive site if you’ve just been fishing or on a baited shark dive. Chumming is both illegal (you need a permit) and unsafe, especially if there are divers in the water.
  5. If you have students in the water, perform skills away from the sharks (if possible, avoid conducting skills at this site).
  6. Some sharks will show a keen interest in your camera and flash or strobes. Do not antagonise them by putting a camera directly in their face. If a shark is showing undue interest in your photographic equipment, hold off taking pictures for a moment while it swims away.
  7. Move out of the sharks’ way if they swim towards you. (Here’s a video of Tami doing just that.) Cowsharks are confident and curious, and often won’t give way to divers. Respect their space and move far enough away that they won’t rub against you or bump you as they swim by.
  8. Be alert for any strange behaviour by an individual shark or the sharks around you. Be aware of your surroundings and don’t become absorbed with fiddling with your camera or gear. If a shark does become overly familiar (bumping or biting), gather the divers together in a close group and abort the dive in a controlled manner.
  9. Do not dive at this site at night or in low light. This is probably when cowsharks feed (though we aren’t sure), and as ambush predators their behaviour is likely to be quite different in dark water when they’re in hunting mode.
  10. Do not dive at this site alone. When diving in a group, stay with the group and close to your buddy.

I am not writing this protocol down to make people afraid of diving with cowsharks in Cape Town. But I do think it’s important to remember that this is a dive that needs to be taken seriously, with safety as a priority. Because we can visit this site whenever we want to, it’s tempting to become blasé about what an amazing experience it is, and also about the fact that these are sharks that need to be respected.

In conclusion! Unlike great white sharks, cowsharks (and blue sharks, and mako sharks, and and and…) are not protected in South Africa, so it’s not illegal to fish for them in permitted fishing areas (i.e. outside no take zones, etc). One of the cage diving operators in Gansbaai even used to use cowshark livers in his chum… If you want to make a difference in the lives of cowsharks and ensure they’re still here for us to dive with in future decades, consider writing a letter to the relevant government minister (make sure it’s the current one, in the new cabinet) and also to the shadow minister from the opposition party, requesting protection for more shark species in South African waters.

We’re on Instagram!

Fooling around with cameras (and phones) is our second calling. We joined Instagram recently and are enjoying sharing pictures of our adventures, and viewing beautiful images from around the world. You can find us here! Please let us know if you’re an instagrammer – we’d love to follow you.

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New camera & underwater housing: Sony RX100

My Sony DSC-TX5 has served me remarkably well, but after three years I was starting to itch for something with a bit more scope for manual control. The TX5 has an underwater mode: you switch it on, turn on the flash, and you’re good to go. It also has a rugged Sony-built housing that is almost neutrally buoyant with the camera inside, can be held and operated with one hand, and supports the addition of an external strobe (which I did). All these things make it incredibly user friendly and eminently suitable for a busy diver who might be doing other things (like grabbing onto other divers who are being wayward, or being a good buddy) and need both hands now and then.

I did a lot of reading and asking, and ended up settling on another Sony camera (my third, and the fourth for our family), the Sony DSC-RX100. It’s a tiny, pocket-sized camera that has many manual control options (aperture and shutter priority modes, manual and program mode, and some built in automatic modes) but isn’t a DSLR. It has received the most effusive reviews that I’ve ever read for an electronic device. Here’s Wired, and here’s the New York Times. Digital Photography Review also said nice things. It has a giant 20.2 megapixel sensor and a  fast Carl Zeiss lens capable of a magnificent 3.6x zoom. You can read up about those things elsewhere. It takes HD video, and you can shoot stills at the same time. What sold me on the camera was its reported excellent performance in low light environments (a feature of several of the Sony models I’ve owned), which I figured would make it excellent for Cape Town diving.

The Ikelite housing for the Sony RX100
The Ikelite housing for the Sony RX100

There are a couple of options for an underwater housing for the DSC-RX100, but unfortunately nothing made by Sony. I settled on the Ikelite housing because there’s a local Ikelite presence, and because it wasn’t insanely expensive. The housing unfortunately has the hydrodynamics of a house brick and mine needed its clips replaced after less than thirty dives, but the camera is nice enough that I was willing to put up with having a perspex sea-anchor attached to myself in order to get it into the water. Toting the housing around has also thrown my buoyancy for a loop, so I’m having to consciously adjust some things to get my air consumption back where it was in the good old days. (I’ve decided that my next camera will probably have a manufacturer-built housing, or I won’t buy it.)

Anyway. After much debate I also splurged on the Ikelite W-30 wide angle lens, which cost more than the housing and which has been my only recent Ikelite purchase that has worked flawlessly and hasn’t needed replacement or repair, probably because it has no electronic or mechanical parts. It’s magnificent. It screws onto the outside of the housing, and is a wet lens, which means that upon getting into the water you have to make sure that all the air gets out and water fills the space between the lens and the housing, otherwise you get a line across the middle of your photos. Same goes for when you get out of the water – the lens has to drain before you can use it on land.

My most sustained use of the camera so far has been on our Red Sea trip last October – you can see all the underwater photos on flickr in my wreck dives set, reef dives set, and night dives set. I am still using it mostly on the automatic and very simple manual settings, but I expect that playing with the camera on land (which I haven’t had time to do much of) will make me more confident with it underwater. The buttons on the housing are very hard to use with gloves on or cold fingers, and they are extremely close together, which means you have to learn what each one does (or carry a cheat sheet on dives) in order to change settings underwater. Despite these complaints, you can access all the camera’s controls via the housing, which is more than can be said for other housings.

Your photographer
Your photographer

The camera flash is immensely powerful. The housing comes with a diffuser (for photography without an external strobe) and a shield to completely block the flash from the front when the strobe is on. I use the latter when I attach my AF-35 Autoflash, which works like a charm. I have tried using the flash on the camera while underwater, but you have to be quite far away from your subject to avoid blowing out the image.

Apart from the clip issue on the housing, I’ve been very happy with the camera so far and am looking forward to doing some more underwater macro photography, since the DSC-RX100 focuses much closer than the DSC-TX5 (and indeed any other camera we own). I’m also enjoying its very easy to use video function, as you may have noticed from the proliferation of videos on the blog since April 2013! I’ve added a video light that has come in handy for photography on night dives, but that’s another story…