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)!

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).

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.

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.

Red Sea trip photos: diving from a liveaboard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sniffing the dive gear

Mini cat is the supervisor of all activities at home, and it’s only right that she continues our popular “cats on a boat” series with this shot of her inspecting damp dive gear after a successful morning’s dive with the seals in Hout Bay, at Duiker Island.

Mini cat checks the gear
Mini cat checks the gear

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.

Thousand yard stare

Even though Junior is a scant six months old, his face has a wisdom and maturity of a much older soul. Here he demonstrates his thousand yard stare while posing with a Mares BCD. This photo reminds me of a pretentious watch advertisement featuring a polar explorer or musician, to be honest. Though Junior is of course far better looking and a much better conversationalist.

Junior's best pose
Junior’s best pose

A Day on the Bay: Octopus fishing and herons

Date: 15 April 2013

Heron in the Simon's Town yacht basin
Heron in the Simon’s Town yacht basin

You see something new on the ocean every day. This handsome grey heron was standing around on the floating barrier in the Simon’s Town yacht basin when we left from FBYC to head out for a day of diving. We see herons quite often actually (there’s one that likes to hang out at A Frame, for example), but it’s not every day that you see a dive site marked with an inflated BCD instead of a nice big orange buoy. This photo was taken while some divers were down on the wreck of the SAS Pietermaritzburg.

An inflated BCD, used as a buoy marking a dive site
An inflated BCD, used as a buoy marking a dive site

We motored on past this peculiar (and slightly unsafe – a fast moving boat wouldn’t easily spot this marker on the surface) arrangement to Shark Alley, where we planned to spend some time with the broadnose sevengill cowsharks. Once there, the divers got themselves ready…

Ready to roll

… and executed a perfectly synchronised backward roll into the water! The surface conditions were beautiful and the boat hardly drifted for the duration of the dive. We did a double tank dive (you can just see the spare cylinders on the tank rack in the picture below), and went straight on to Photographer’s Reef afterwards for a second dive.

Over they go!
Over they go!

On our way back we passed by the experimental octopus fishing gear, comprising hundreds of traps strung on long (one kilometre) lines between Simon’s Town and Fish Hoek. This is an intitiative by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and is a cause of great concern to me (not least because DAFF is rife with ignorance, corruption and mismanagement). The risk of entanglement to marine creatures is, I think, significant. It is also not clear whether  an impact study has been done regarding the effects of removing hundreds of octopus from the bay every few months.

DAFF octopus fishing gear
DAFF octopus fishing gear

You can see that the fishing gear is marked with a small flashing strobe that is visible in the evenings from the Whale Lookout in Glencairn. It is also inscribed with various threats against anyone who disturbs it.

When we returned to the yacht club, there was a heron waiting at the bottom of the slipway in the shallow water. We gave him time to get out of the way!

Heron waiting on the slipway
Heron waiting on the slipway