False Bay safety stop

Let the divers eat cake!
Let the divers eat cake!

We had beautiful conditions in False Bay early in September, and while some of the divers were safety stopping I filmed them from the boat. The visibility was that good! Here are Georgina and Arne doing their safety stop and ascent over the reef. Note their textbook use of an SMB to indicate their position to the boat.

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.

Skills: Deploying an SMB

Carrying an SMB (surface marker buoy) and knowing how to inflate it are vital skills for any diver, and particularly for divers who dive in demanding conditions that may include cold water, currents, and sites that are either far offshore or in areas where there may be a lot of boat traffic. Does that sound like Cape Town? Good, I mean it to.

We’ve posted before about how to inflate an SMB, and videos are ten a penny on youtube, but here’s one filmed in fairly common Cape Town conditions. It’s of Tony inflating an SMB that is so large he calls it his sea anchor, in murky green visibility in the Atlantic ocean. This particular SMB is also slightly negatively buoyant, which is slightly annoying as it droops downwards when you unroll it. It does the job, though, and when fully inflated can probably be seen from the moon.

Christmas gift guide 2013

Ok so this is a bit late, and if you haven’t done your Christmas, Hannukah and Festivus shopping yet, shame on you. Or just shame. Most of these ideas don’t entail going to a mall and having your personal space invaded by ten thousand hormonal adolescents. You can order online, or make a phone call or two. Get going!

Christmas at Sandy Cove
Christmas at Sandy Cove

Books

For the reader, you could check out our book reviews, arranged by topic:

I’m not going to suggest a magazine subscription – I’ve let most of ours lapse as we seem to have entered a long dark teatime of the soul when it comes to South African diving magazines. If the quality picks up, they’ll be back on the gift list at the end of 2014.

Dive gear

Check out What’s in My Dive Bag for some ideas… You can contact Andre for most of these:

Make sure you know the returns/exchanges policy of wherever you make your purchases. Some places can be difficult, and if the mask doesn’t fit it’s no good at all!

For lady divers

For the diving lady in your life (or your man friend with too much hair), what about some rich hair conditioner to apply before going in the water? Suggestions here. A pack of cheap, soft fabric elasticated hairbands is a good stocking filler.

Some high SPF, waterproof sunscreen, or a nice hooded towel for grown ups (available in one or two of the surf shops in Muizenberg) would also not go amiss.

Experiences

Don’t forget to add a memory card for the lucky recipient’s camera if you plan to gift any of these! Contact Tony for prices.

For the non diver, you could inspire a love for our oceans with one of these:

For those who need (or like) to relax

Memberships

Wall art

Clip Clop designs and prints beautiful tide charts for Cape Town and Durban and moon phase charts for the year. You can order online or usually find them at Exclusive Books.

My underwater alphabet is available for R200 in A1 size, fully laminated. Shout if you want a copy.

If you take your own photos, you could print and frame a couple, or experiment with stretched canvas prints if that’s your thing. A digital photo frame pre-loaded with underwater images is also a lovely gift for a diving friend.

Donations

For the person who has everything, or because you’re feeling grateful:

Great white shark at the Clan Stuart wreck – video

To close off Cape Town’s Shark Week, here’s the 11 second video footage that diver Vladislav Tomshinskiy (thank you Vlad!) took of the shark as it swam past the divers the second time. The bubbles at the end of the video belong to Craig (far left, with the buoy line) and Christo. Please enjoy this beautiful video of one of the ocean’s most brilliant predators, swimming curiously and gracefully past a group of awe-struck divers who are all amazed and grateful for having had the experience.

Local shark scientist Alison Kock of Shark Spotters says that from the video the shark looks to be a female (she said that if it was a male you’d expect to see claspers as it turned to swim away, which one can’t) and that she’s between 3 and 3.5 metres long. According to a recent study, most of the sharks seen at inshore locations by the Shark Spotters during the summer months are large females, who tend to be in False Bay year-round.

It’s not clear whether the shark was disturbed by the divers’ bubbles (as Christo speculates), and whether that was what caused it to swim away when it did. That flick of the tail says “I’m outta here!” and is something we’ve seen when observing these animals from the surface (on cage diving and research boats). The acceleration and turning abilities of white sharks is remarkable.

I’m interested by the bubbles because it’s an oft-repeated mantra by the shark cage diving operators (all over the country) that sharks are scared of scuba bubbles, and this is why you have to breath hold or snorkel in the cage. In July we did a cage diving trip in False Bay with African Shark Eco-Charters, who allow their clients to view sharks from the cage while on scuba, and they certainly don’t see fewer sharks than any other operator. Also, the sharks who swam past us in the cage were totally not bothered by our bubbles (of which there were many).

I therefore wouldn’t bet my reputation (or maybe I should, just to get rid of it…) on the “sharks don’t like bubbles” theory, but there may be far more nuance to it than we know. The shark in this video practically got a spa treatment on its tummy from Christo and Craig’s regulators… Perhaps to scare a shark away using air bubbles you need to get really close. But I don’t plan to test that theory unless I have to!

Guest post: Christo on encountering a great white shark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skipper’s notes on a great white shark encounter

I would never consider myself an expert on wild animals, but I have been diving for a while and no matter how long you spend underwater or on the water, every day can bring something new to look at. We had a very interesting experience on Saturday 14 September at one of our local dive sites. The Clan Stuart, an inshore wreck in 10 metres of water about 100 metres offshore, can be dived as a shore entry as well as a boat dive. Our group were all very experienced and mostly in their forties and fifties. Diving the wreck from the beach requires a challenging climb over the train tracks as well as a rock embankment plus a trip through the shore break. It is not for everyone, so we offer this site as a boat dive.

I took this photo of the Clan Stuart engine block while the divers were kitting up on the boat
I took this photo of the Clan Stuart engine block while the divers were kitting up on the boat

The conditions were good. The water temperature was 15 degrees, visibility 6-8 metres and there was a manageable 2-3 metre swell (it wouldn’t have been manageable if we’d done it as a shore entry). The divers rolled into the water and head over the stern of the wreck. From our boat you dive with a buoy and a reel or you stay at home. There is far too much boat traffic in Cape Town to dive any other way. I always stay very close to the the divers in the first few minutes to ensure I can attend to problems quickly.

Five to seven minutes into the dive the buoy turned sharply and headed for shore at quite a pace. I moved in a little closer and a white shark surfaced perhaps 10 metres in front of the boat and about 10 metres behind the divers. It then disappeared briefly and came back heading for the divers. I started to head towards the shark to get between it and the divers, but it swam straight for them and simply swam through the group.

It then turned and came towards the boat and surfaced again, and I tossed a weight at it, not really knowing if it would help. The shark went below the boat and I never saw it again. By this time the group had reached the shallows and two of the group, Christo and Craig, were busy getting the others out of the water. I then went back to the jetty, left the boat there and drove to pick them up assisted by Clare as we were not getting six divers with kit into either of our cars.

As with any such interesting experience there are always a lot of helpful and insightful questions, comments and observations.

The first question posed to me was from the Divemaster, Craig. Did they do the right thing? Most definitely. I think he and Christo made an excellent decision in a very stressful situation. In our briefings I always touch lightly on the recommended course of action if you see a shark or any other large wild animal, and between Christo and Craig, both regular divers on our boat, they followed that plan to the letter. I tell the divers to get into a small group, stay close together, and – if possible – stay on the sea floor. They must wait until the shark has moved away before attempting to swim off in a calm manner. On no account should they surface while the shark is still in the area.

Interestingly, everyone agreed that the shark’s size was between 3-4 metres, and that it was very inquisitive but not overly aggressive. The shark had a fair amount of time to display any aggression as the swim from the wreck to the beach can take several minutes and in fact took a fair while as Christo and Craig kept the group tightly together despite the inclination from one diver to wander off. I asked if anyone had noticed if it was a male or female as I know our resident scientist and shark expert would like that info, and got this response from Christo: “It swam straight at me, I could see both its eyes, and when it was less than two metres away it turned so suddenly that I felt the wash from its tail.”

This comment from Christo impressed me the most. “I have had no interest in seeing a white shark underwater but having seen one I can understand why people find them to be beautiful and graceful.”

Eezycut emergency cutting tools

The thing about an emergency cutting tool is that one hopes not to have to use it. It’s a good thing to have, however, particularly if you are using reels and lines while diving. That applies to many Cape Town boat divers, all of whom should be in possession of an SMB and possibly a reel to deploy it while at depth. One might also encounter other, non-emergency situations, which would make one glad of a handy blade.

The Eezycut tool in its packaging
The Eezycut tool in its packaging

Monty of Scuba Culture supplied us with these fantastic Eezycut emergency blades around Christmas time. It’s nearly (but not completely) impossible to cut yourself by accident, and the blade comes in a pouch that mounts easily on webbing or on your wrist. I went for the webbing option, and mounted it on one of the vertical straps of my BCD where it’s out the way but easy to grasp if needed.

Christo had an incident with some line the other day while diving with Tony, and the Eezycut sorted the problem out “as easily as tearing wet paper”.

There are some videos on the Eezycut website showing the ways of using the blade, including how to hold it. It can also be used by climbers, paddlers, fishermen, and paragliders – in short, by anyone who encounters potential entanglement or rope problems. I think it’s an excellent investment in your safety.

Dive sites: Steenbras Deep

On Sunday 11 March, since the Cape Argus Pick n Pay Cycle Tour was going to prohibit access to basically the entire peninsula, we decided to take an expedition out to the eastern side of False Bay to do a boat dive with Indigo Scuba, run by Kate and Deon Jonker. We’ve been meaning to do this for ages and ages, so we were very glad to finally get ourselves over there! The southeaster (which had blown strongly in the few days prior to the 11th) actually cleans up the eastern side of False Bay while it messes up the western side, or at least has some positive effect on visibility. So while we are diving in the Atlantic during the summer, Indigo launches out of Gordon’s Bay and explores local dive sites such as Pinnacles, Cow and Calf, and the Steenbras River Mouth.

Deon Jonker skippering the Indigo Scuba dive boat
Deon Jonker skippering the Indigo Scuba dive boat

We met at Indigo Scuba in the morning, loaded up the boat, and then drove the 5 minutes to Harbour Island in Gordon’s Bay, from where we launched. It’s an extremely civilised launch site and overall experience… The foul-mouthed snoek slinging fishermen crowding Miller’s Point seemed like a bad dream!

West coast rock lobster buddy pair
West coast rock lobster buddy pair

It’s about 11 kilometres from Harbour Island to Steenbras Deep, and one has the feeling of being quite far out to sea – although we could see the mountains surrounding False Bay on both sides of us. The wind was stronger than the weather man had predicted, giving rise to some quite serious wind chop and a bumpy and wet boat ride. When we arrived at the reef we could see that there was more wave action on top of the pinnacles than in the deeper water surrounding them. Deon dropped a shot on one of the two pinnacles that comprise the reef (the top of the pinnacle we dropped onto is at about 18 metres, with the sand at about 30 metres). A murky descent (standard for False Bay in summer!) down the shot line led us to the top of the pinnacle, where visibility was only about 2 metres and it was very green.

Bull klipfish
Bull klipfish

As we ventured slightly deeper we encountered some invigorating (ahem!) thermoclines (one of them was actually visible as a haze in the water) and improved visibility. There was quite a strong current in places, and lots of surge.

There are many similarities between the reefs we dive on the western side of False Bay, but the overall pattern of the sea life was subtly different. The fish seemed far less skittish than their compatriots to the west, and happily swam within a few tens of centimetres from my mask. Nudibranchs abound, and close inspection of the corals covering the rocks is well rewarded. There seemed to be fewer sea cucumbers, and feather stars were not quite as dominant as they are in some of the other parts of False Bay. The corals, sponges and sea fans are beautiful and very numerous.

The sand around the reef is very coarse and full of shells, and the reef itself abounds with cracks, gullies, small pointy pinnacles, and walls that can be traversed at a variety of depths. The gullies appear to be much beloved by west coast rock lobster, and shysharks were quite common too.

This reef is not in a marine protected area (MPA) – none of the eastern False Bay dive sites are. Kate, who regularly dives both sides of the bay, says she can see a distinct difference in the number of fish that they see on “their” side of the bay compared to the western side. So even if I am quite cynical about the competence of the administration and will to police the MPAs, clearly they are having some effect!

Dive date: 11 March 2012

Air temperature: 29 degrees

Water temperature: 12 degrees

Maximum depth: 24.8 metres

Visibility: 2-10 metres

Dive duration: 38 minutes

Diving with an alpha flag

The vast majority of new divers in Cape Town know where Long Beach in Simon’s Town is. Irrespective of the dive school you choose for Open Water training it is in most cases quite likely you will do at least one dive at Long Beach. There is a very good reason for this: it is diveable in most conditions as is usually the last place on the coastline to be blown out. It is a safe environment and a perfect place for training as it is by far one of the easiest shore entries around.

Divers enter the water as a rubberduck speeds past
Divers enter the water as a rubberduck speeds past

Although it is known to all dive trainers as a training site, very few visitors know this and not all water users (boaters, kayakers and paddle-skiers) are aware of your presence in the water. The average boater does not know the tell-tale signs of bubbles divers make, and why should he? But being struck by a paddle-ski, a propeller, or the keel of a sailboat is going to hurt you and it could easily kill you.

It is not too often that boats buzz by the beach, but on occasion the Navy boats as well as paddlers, and fishermen drive by as well as visitors to the coast with their recreational boats. Even the NSRI uses this beach for training of their boat crews on occasion. Part of a skipper’s training is to be aware of things floating on the surface: buoys could indicate nets, for example, that would snag the propeller, and thus boaters are trained to avoid or approach carefully any such flotation device.

There is no evidence of a surface marker buoy
There is no evidence of a surface marker buoy

So why do most divers dive without any form of warning to a boat that they are there, and why would they do so when part of what they are teaching new divers involves ascending in random spots all over the area? “We seldom ascend during a dive” is most often the answer as to why yet there are several surface skills, training ascents and the constant risk of an unplanned ascent by a new diver coming to terms with buoyancy (or in some cases having a mild panic attack and dashing to the surface).

The simple answer is that it is not required by law in South Africa to tow a buoy or alpha flag… But then it’s not law that as an Open Water diver you can’t go to 50 metres during a dive. You are taught not to exceed your training level, your logic will also most likely tell you it’s a risky plan, but if you are foolish enough to try who would stop you?

More divers entering the water without a buoy or flag
More divers entering the water without a buoy or flag

It is fortunate that the dive industry is largely self-regulated and as divers we are free to explore the ocean at will. Scuba diving is a very safe sport and provided you stay within the guidelines of you training agency you will have thousands of safe and enjoyable dives. When doing a boat dive, the skipper will typically erect an Alpha flag to indicate to other boats that he has divers in the water (if your skipper doesn’t do this, it’s time to switch dive charters to one that’s more safety conscious).

You could dive without a pressure gauge – but that would be foolish – you could dive without a mask, but then you would see very little, and you could also dive without an alpha flag, but none of the surface water users would see you or know you were there. Would that not be foolish?