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)!

On the reef in Sodwana

We wrap up the videos from Sodwana with a couple of clips showing everyday life on the reef. Both these videos were filmed on a beautiful dive on Pinnacles, Two Mile Reef, which was strangely not marred by an absolute circus of an Open Water course that was being conducted in the vicinity. (Pinnacles is a popular training site.) Despite antics which included two people’s weight belts coming loose at the same time, we were able to stay away from that chaos and to enjoy some incredible reef life. (Perhaps I will share some footage of the weight belt fiasco when a suitable amount of time has passed.)

Clown triggerfish having a munch
Clown triggerfish having a munch

First up, a clown triggerfish (Balistoides conspiccillum) going about his business on the reef. These fish are fantastic looking, and if you ask Sophie nicely, she will show you the hand signal for them, which requires both hands to be free.

Here’s pair of barred filefish (Cantherhines dumerilii) at Pinnacles:

Finishing a boat dive in Sodwana

This isn’t the most exciting video, but I hope it reminds you of how blue and clear the water is off the coast of KwaZulu Natal, and what it’s like to dive in Sodwana on a good day. It was filmed at the end of a dive on Pinnacles on Two Mile Reef, as the divers approached the boat and waited to hand up their gear. Watch out for Laurine, Esther and Christo!

If you aren’t familiar with diving off a RIB (rubber duck), I hope this is a helpful bit of information about how things work at the end of a dive. I’ll share a backward roll video from our most recent Sodwana trip soon, but in the mean time, check out this one to see what it’s like at the start of a dive!

Bookshelf: Scuba Confidential

Scuba Confidential: An Insider’s Guide to Becoming a Better Diver – Simon Pridmore

The natural sequel to Scuba Fundamental (though it was written later), this book is aimed at qualified divers who may have reached a plateau with the sport, and want to improve their skills and explore more of what diving has to offer. Author Simon Pridmore does not shy away from subjects such as solo diving, deep diving and technical diving, and offers valuable perspectives from a lifetime in the dive industry.

Scuba Confidential
Scuba Confidential

Pridmore begins with a subject that isn’t discussed enough (because it would supposedly scare away potential new divers): safety. He talks about why divers die, survival strategies, and the essential mental preparation that should come before diving.

Many divers who have passed the first, awkward stage of their careers on scuba seek to improve their skills. Pridmore discusses buoyancy, navigation, and the touchy subject of deco. The following section addresses some of the specialty options available to divers who wish to extend their qualifications: night diving, wreck diving, drift diving, cave diving, ice diving, and technical diving. While you may decide that some of these types of diving are definitely not for you, there is still much to learn from the techniques and thought processes required to do these types of dives safely.

Pridmore also deals extensively with equipment issues, returning to the subject of deploying an SMB, care and use of dive cylinders, mastering your BCD, and dive computers. In many instances, these items of gear are a matter of life and death, and well worth talking about. Narcosis, nitrox, rebreathers and other gas-related subjects round up the sections of the book that pertain to dive safety.

The final chapters deal with dive travel, with a section on liveaboards and a recap of some etiquette, which becomes increasingly important when one is diving with people one doesn’t know.

This book will satisfy a growing diver’s thirst for knowledge, draw attention to areas that need improvement or reflection, and prompt further exploration of dive-related subjects. It’s an excellent gift for the curious diver in your life.

Get a copy of the book here (SA), here (US) or here (UK).

Newsletter: Where have all the weekends gone?

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Saturday: Night dive at Long Beach, 7.15 pm

Sunday: Boat dives from Simon’s Town jetty at 8.30 am to SAS Pietermaritzburg / 11.00 to Maidstone Rock

Weekend diving has become a scarce commodity of late and the best diving days have fallen in the week. This weekend looks a lot better than last weekend: there is very little swell and no howling winds to deal with. False Bay needs some westerly wind to clean it up, so I am going to choose Sunday as the better option for this weekend’s diving. It’s windier than Saturday but less likely to rain, plus False Bay will have had a bit more time to improve. The Atlantic was crystal clear yesterday but I have my doubts it is going to stay that way for the weekend with the hot day we have just had.

Diversnight

We are night diving on Saturday evening as part of the international Diversnight event, and will meet at Long Beach at around 7.15 pm. The idea is to be in the water at 15 minutes past 8.00 pm (2015). Text me if you are joining, make sure you bring your permit to dive in an MPA, and if you need to rent kit or a cylinder, I need to know by tomorrow (Friday) evening please.

Burrowing anemone on a night dive at Long Beach
Burrowing anemone on a night dive at Long Beach

Permits

Be sure your permit to dive in an MPA is up to date. It’s particularly important that you bring it on Saturday evening if you plan to dive, so don’t wait until lunchtime on Saturday to look for it!

Bits & bobs

Diarise the Shark Spotters fundraiser on Sunday 22 November – should be fun.

Clare wrote a small travel guide with information on the visible shipwrecks around Cape Town. Check it out here.

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

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A look of disapproval

Disapproving Fudge is disapproving
Disapproving Fudge is disapproving

Looking at all the paraphernalia on the boat around him – wetsuits, BCDs, and other gear – I am guessing that the expression of opprobrium on Fudge’s face is related to the lack of direct attention he is receiving from the boat’s owner. Attention (and adulation) is like jet fuel to Fudge.

Oh buoy

Our cats (of which we have many, many) find our cars irresistibly appealing, and at the first opportunity will climb inside for an investigation. Tony once got out the gate and into the road with a car full of cylinders for filling, and a very wide-eyed Mini cat, who had climbed into the back of the vehicle while Tony was loading the tins.

Blue inspects the buoy
Blue inspects the buoy

Here’s Blue, still a little kitten, checking out (something next to) the buoy that the Divemaster (on our boat and shore dives) takes along with him on a reel and line, floating on the surface to mark the divers’ presence to boaters. She’s in the back of the divemobile. Everything gets a bit salty, and this seems to fascinate the cats – perhaps it’s one step away from bringing an actual fish home for them.

Chasing sunfish

I certainly hope that this isn’t the only time I’ll see an ocean sunfish (Mola mola) underwater, but if it is, I can live with that. During a dive in Maori Bay last weekend, exploring the BOS 400 and SS Oakburn shipwrecks, sharp-eyed Liam spotted a large sunfish swimming alongside us, but some distance away. We had advance warning that there were sunfish about (they’d been spotted from the air near Kommetjie, the previous day), so I was mentally and physically prepared with a strategy that I’ve repeatedly rehearsed in my mind to be ready for underwater encounters with marine megafauna.

I switched my camera to video, pointed it at the sunfish, and took off towards it like (I imagined) a bat out of hell. I figured that if I didn’t get close enough to take a proper photo, I would still have a murky video record of the encounter. (Lo and behold, that is all I do have. See below.)

I swam for what felt like a blistering pace for several kilometres (in reality, a sluggish burst of probably 20-30 metres), and then realised that I’d overbreathed my regulator, was taking in quite a bit of water through a tear in the mouthpiece, and that if I didn’t stop finning I’d pass out. During this time the sunfish gained considerable distance on me, got out of focus and out of frame in my video, and then disappeared.

So I stopped, panting, and watched the animal disappear effortlessly into the blue gloom, waving its fins calmly and slowly but – it was clear – moving at a terrific pace. (The overbreathed regulator situation corrected itself swiftly when I started demanding more reasonable amounts of air again.)

I was reminded of other occasions when I’ve tried to keep up with a fish, or a turtle, in order to take its photo or spend just a few more moments in its company. Perhaps there is no shame in being out swum by a fish weighing over a ton with fins to match, but I’ve been humiliated by 30 centimetre long Red Roman, rejecting my friendly advances and outpacing me with a decidedly less impressive fin-to-body size ratio! Next time I want to enjoy the company of an ocean resident for just a little bit longer I’ll try to remember that I’m not in my natural element, and the decision as to whether we get to be close to one another rests almost not at all with me.

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.

Sodwana diving photos (April 2014) – part I

We’ve been back from our Sodwana trip for almost a month, and I’m starting to look forward to my next dive trip, which has not been planned yet. Alas. With this small problem in mind I had a rummage through the underwater photos I took while we were in Sodwana, to try and recreate the experience.

Under the boat
Under the boat

I haven’t done a lot of diving this year, and no underwater photography to speak of, so I viewed my camera as a strange, unfamiliar machine when we arrived in Sodwana, and spent most of the six dives figuring out how it all worked (again). Furthermore, my confidence in my buoyancy wasn’t great at the start of the trip, so I didn’t want to go too close to anything. I want to punch divers who crunch the coral, so I didn’t want to be that diver this time around!

Swimming across the sand gap at Stringer
Swimming across the sand gap at Stringer

As a result my underwater photos from the trip are mostly quite questionable. I include some here, more to show you how beautiful the reefs and clear water can be in Sodwana, rather than for you to marvel at my prowess in underwater photography. I took several videos, which I’ll share in the coming weeks – you can get an idea of how good the visibility is and how abundant the coral is from a bit of moving picture footage.

Angie photographing snappers
Angie photographing snappers

We struggled a little with the surge on one of our diving days in particular, but this is something that is a fact of life when diving on South Africa’s north coast. We mostly did shallow dives, and the reefs at Sodwana lie along a very exposed stretch of coast with few natural bays to protect divers from wind and swell. These factors combined to expose us to some near-washing machine conditions at times! Relaxing in the water and letting the surge move you about is the only way to deal with it, assuming you’ve got a handle on your buoyancy. Holding onto the reef or swimming against the surge are bad ideas.

You can see some photos from past Sodwana diving trips here.

Clownfish in their anemone
Clownfish in their anemone