Happy new year!

Detail of the Piazza Mosaic a the Donkin Reserve Detail of the Piazza Mosaic at the Donkin Reserve

Happy new year to all of you! May 2019 be less “interesting” than 2018 was. And in case it isn’t, let’s all continue to do what we can to make our corner of the world happier, safer, cleaner, and more sustainable.

Sodwana backward roll

Here’s a backward roll. We were at Pinnacles on Two Mile Reef in Sodwana Bay, diving with Coral Divers. This backward roll was well executed: everyone rolled on the skipper’s cue, all together.


Clare and Laurine are wearing buffs, pink and blue respectively. Clare says it helps to keep hair out of one’s face and mask, in the absence of a hoodie, and I say the bright colours make it very easy to account for them underwater!

Christmas gift guide 2017

I wondered when I’d need a picture of a glass of champagne next to some dive gear; this post feels like as good a time as any to use it. I feel obligated to explain that the champagne was being consumed on our pool deck during the course of a late afternoon fool around in and next to the pool with some of my friends. The dive gear was still lying there from a class Tony had led that morning. The juxtaposition was too much to resist.

Don't drink and dive
Don’t drink and dive

That said, it’s time to think about Christmas, Hanukkah, and time off with the family. Some may even celebrate Festivus. I salute you. Regardless, it’s a good time to give gifts to the people you care about. Some suggestions follow below.

First, here are the obligatory links to previous years’ editions of this guide: 20102011201220132014, 2015. Unfortunately, 2016 was an annus horribilis best left undiscussed. As usual, this year’s guide owes much to previous versions. There’s nothing new under the sun.


For the person who has everything, or because you’re feeling grateful, consider a donation on behalf of your friend or loved one:


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:

As usual our Wild Card was an absolute blessing this year. It has been used for multiple park visits and also gets us a discount on our toll fee on Chapmans Peak Drive‘s frequent user program. The full card is a bit pricey, but there’s a great alternative called My Green Card, that costs R145 and gives twelve entries to any of the paid sections of Table Mountain National Park (so, Cape Point, Boulders, Silvermine, Oudekraal, and a few braai areas). Read the fine print carefully though – if you use it up quickly, you have to wait for the 12 months to pass before you can purchase another one. But I think you can also share the 12 clips with friends, whereas a regular Wild Card is tied to your identity. You will have to go to the SANParks office in Tokai to get a My Green Card.

SanParks is introducing differential pricing for Table Mountain National Park, with significantly lower prices for locals, starting next November, so some mathematics will be required this time next year to determine whether a Wild Card is still worth the expense.

Something to read

Everything you need to know about finding a book related to the ocean can be discovered in our list of most recommended books, and our guide to finding the book you need (on this blog, at least!). There are a couple of children’s books there, too.

A magazine subscription is also a fairly reasonably-priced gift idea. I can’t tell you which of the dive magazines are worth reading these days – our current subscriptions are Maritime Review (which is free, so that’s perhaps cheating) and CAR magazine…

Something beautiful

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 or Noordhoek Farm Village (just browse the shops there, one of them has the tide charts right at the door).

You could also print and frame a photo, or create a photo book. Most camera stores can assist with a range of printing media.

Dive gear and water-related stuff

Some excellent water-related gifts I’ve received over the years include:


  • WetSac (seriously, check it out) – order online
  • A hooded towel – surf shops often stock them, try the strip at Surfers Corner in Muizenberg
  • A stand up paddle boarding lesson
  • A reel and/or a surface marker buoy – make sure it’s one of the ones that isn’t negatively buoyant

Otherwise, just think a little bit about what might be useful before or after a dive…

  • Sunscreen, conditioner, cleansing shampoo, detangling spray
  • A reusable metal water bottle (glass is a bad idea for the boat)
  • A mini dry bag to keep phones and keys safe
  • A beanie for cold days on the boat or a cap for the sun, or a buff for hair management or neck protection (the Aquarium sometimes sells turtle ones to fundraise for their turtle rehab)
Be safe, be kind, be lekker. Thank you for your friendship and for the dives!

Bookshelf: Scuba Fundamental

Scuba Fundamental: Start Diving the Right Way – Simon Pridmore

When I first learned how to dive, all I wanted was to find books about scuba diving that were relevant to my stage of knowledge and skill, so that I could learn more (my learning style is by reading). Unfortunately at that time the only books about scuba diving in South Africa that I could find were absolute rubbish (fortunately the situation has improved immeasurably – here’s a quality example). I wish I’d had this book to hand, but it was only published last year, so sorry for me.

Scuba Fundamental
Scuba Fundamental

I read it anyway, with my jaded old eyes. It isn’t specific to South Africa, but it’s written for people who are contemplating learning to dive, who are busy learning, or who are still early in their diving careers. Many of the topics that Simon Pridmore covers are ones that Tony and I tried to deal with in the early days of this blog. He is eminently sensible, and writes from a position of deep, international experience in the dive industry.

How does one choose a dive course? How does one choose a diving instructorWhen shouldn’t one dive? Which certification agency is best? Should a new diver buy their own equipment, and where does one even begin with that? Once qualified, what next? What about diving in cold water and cold weather? How can divers keep safe on the surface? Pridmore also discusses some important elements of dive etiquette such as peeing in your wetsuit, entry techniques (giant strides, backward rolls, and so on), seasickness, dive boat etiquette, behaviour around marine animals, and what to do if your dive buddy surfaces with a giant booger.

If you’re thinking of learning to dive, are busy with your course, have done fewer than 30 dives, or are just seeking some direction in the early stages of your love affair with scuba diving, consider this guide. If you have a friend or family member you’d like to start a conversation with about diving, or would like to buy a dive course for but can’t afford it, this book is an excellent starting point. I found myself agreeing out loud with the author’s observations more times than I can count.

Get it here (South Africa), here (US) or here (UK).

Article: Exploring False Bay’s kelp forests

Kelp forest in Sandy Cove
Kelp forest in Sandy Cove

Environmental journalist Pippa Ehrlich writes beautifully for Safarious of diving in the kelp forests of False Bay with Sea-Change founder Craig Foster. You might be familiar with Sea-Change from an exhibition at the Sea Point promenade a couple of years ago.

The idea of getting into this freezing world every day without a wetsuit was daunting. We did some stretching and breathing to warm up. The sky was grey and my feet had gone numb in the shallow water we’d had to walk through. I was not looking forward to being fully submersed in it.

Ehrlich and Foster (and others from the Sea-Change team) dive daily in False Bay, sans wetsuits. It is their mental (spiritual?) approach to the marine environment, however, that sets the project apart. It’s a mindset that may be unfamiliar to many divers, especially those of us who favour scuba, but it is worthy of serious consideration. The article reads like a story of love and healing.

The accompanying photos are beautiful, too. Read it.

A Day on the Bay: Freedom Swim 2016

Maryna and Table Mountain
Maryna and Table Mountain

A day early in April was the date for the annual Freedom Swim, a 7.5 kilometre open ocean cold water swim from Murray’s Bay harbour on Robben Island to Big Bay near Blouberg. As we have in several previous years, we provided boat support for a swimmer.

This entails providing a straight course for the swimmer so as to minimise the distance swum, and keeping an eye on them to ensure that they don’t get too cold or show any other symptoms of hypothermia or distress. It requires communication with race control by radio, and a bit of boat and swimmer dodging in the early stages of the race when the water is thick with activity.

There was a 3.5 metre swell on the day, which made the ride out to the island a bit bumpy. As soon as we were in the shelter of the island, however, the sea was flattened as the swell diverted around the island. The water remained calm until we got quite close to shore, at which point the swell picked up. The final stretch from the rocks at Big Bay to the beach must have been very hairy for the swimmers!

Our swimmer, Maryna, swam in a wetsuit. She was part of the Lighthouse Swim relay team we supported last year. The water was relatively warm (13-16 degrees) clear at the island, and we could see kelp and quite far down into the sea. Great red streaks of water, probably an algae bloom, were filled with sea jellies (which stung Maryna, but she continued strongly). These were replaced by murky green water close to the shore, where the swell had lifted the sand particles into the water column.

It was a good day out, and always a pleasure to see Table Mountain in its majesty from the water.

Bookshelf: Rescue Warriors

Rescue Warriors: The US Coastguard, America’s Forgotten Heroes – David Helvarg

Rescue Warriors
Rescue Warriors

Much of this book reads like one of the Reader’s Digest “drama in real life” stories that I used to devour from the magazines that my granny brought us when she came to visit. (She’d also bring a packet of Sparkles or Cadbury Eclairs.)

Journalist, activist and former war correspondent David Helvarg (who also wrote Saved by the Sea and 50 Ways to Save the Ocean) spent two years embedded with various branches of the US Coastguard in order to experience their work.

I had naively thought that the US Coastguard, despite being funded by the government, and despite their website having a .mil for military domain name, was just a slightly larger, more financially flush version of South Africa’s National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI).

I was wrong. The mandate of the US Coastguard is to enforce maritime law (this is its primary difference from the NSRI) as well as to perform search and rescue operations. Viewers of the Deadliest Catch series will be familiar with the rescue work of the Coastguard in extremely challenging conditions. As a result of its law-enforcement mission, the Coastguard uses weapons and provides a lot more military-style training than you’d expect from a pure rescue operation. The Coastguard falls under the department of homeland security and operates cutters (with guns), icebreakers, small boats, helicopters, and other aircraft.

Helvarg’s conservationist tendencies shine through in several parts of Rescue Warriors, and he does not shy away from confronting the aspects of the Coastguard that he finds problematic. His contention is that the Coastguard receives far less publicity than it deserves. This book goes some way towards bringing attention to the individuals who have saved tens of thousands of people during Hurricane Katrina, via water evacuation during the September 11 attacks, and in countless other less well-known emergency situations.

This is a gripping read which I thoroughly enjoyed. I was amazed by the amount of funding and equipment that the Coastguard has at its disposal compared to the NSRI, even though the organisation is actually badly underfunded, especially when considered relative to the rest of the United States war machine. I was also impressed by the egalitarian approach that draws many women to join the Coastguard and enables them to rise in its ranks. The Coastguard made all its jobs available to women in 1977, something which other branches of the military have not yet done.

You can get a copy of the book here (South Africa), here or here.

The Phyllisia circuit at Cape Point

Some time ago I promised to describe the route we took in the Cape Point Nature Reserve to locate the wreck of the Phyllisia, a small fishing trawler wrecked in 1968 and one of the visible shipwrecks around the Cape Peninsula. Here’s that post!

The view from the start of the trail at Gifkommetjie
The view from the start of the trail at Gifkommetjie

Tami, Maria and I set out on a slightly drizzly, grey morning from the Gifkommetjie parking area inside the reserve. The first part of the walk was a steep descent down to the beach at Gifkommetjie, where we admired some fishing debris. From there, the trail meanders north, parallel to the coast. Most of the path is sandy, but other parts are rocky and hard-packed.

There are natural tunnels formed by the overgrowing milkwood trees, requiring a bit of ducking and crouching to go through. The feeling of being in a forest and yet right by the ocean is lovely. After about 2.5 kilometres – the path gradually bends inland – one reaches a T-junction, with an unambiguous sign saying SHIPWRECK, pointing left. If you want to see the Phyllisia, or just get closer to the coast, take that path!

Turn-off for the Phyllisia
Turn-off for the Phyllisia

It’s another few hundred metres across unclear paths over the dunes to Hoek van Bobbejaan, a promontory with a beach to the north of it (pictured below) that really shows the wildness of this stretch of coast, and how exposed it is to the open ocean. The Phyllisia is right on the outermost point of Hoek van Bobbejaan, and is the same colour as the rocks it’s lying on, so you might need to look carefully!

The beach at Hoek van Bobbejaan
The beach at Hoek van Bobbejaan

Just above the wreck is one of the (I think) large okoume logs that fell off a ship in Table Bay in 2008 – more on that in this post about the Shipwreck Trail. It’s a great spot to take stock of your surroundings, and a vantage point for photos, as Maria demonstrates below!

Tami and Maria on the log at Hoek van Bobbejaan
Tami and Maria on the log at Hoek van Bobbejaan

To return, follow the path back towards the T junction and keep going straight. The path forks again – the left fork will take you towards Brightwater, and is part of the overnight Cape Point trail. Take the right fork – you should start climbing the rocky ridge that you’ve been walking alongside, towards the level of the parking area.

The return route is along the top of the ridge, along paths that we sometimes struggled to find because the vegetation had been burned away. Upright sticks with red and yellow paint on the end provided some guidance at intervals. The views down over the path you’ve just walked, and back towards Hoek van Bobbejaan, are spectacular.

You can of course, also return the way you came, and do a short, sharp climb at the end back to the parking area, or do the entire walk back and forth along the ridge, skipping the milkwood tunnels, and descend to the shipwreck half way through the route.

We saw bontebok, ostrich, baboons, an angulate tortoise, and wonderful spring flowers in the dunes and on the mountain. The walk took us about three hours at a slow pace, with a regular photo stops. As always, if you go hiking, go in a group (four really is ideal), wear appropriate shoes and a hat, apply sunscreen take waterproof or windproof clothing even if the weather looks nice, bring water to drink, stay on the path, and tell someone where you’re going and when to expect you back.

If you’re interested in visible shipwrecks, check out my ebook Cape Town’s Visible Shipwrecks: A Guide for Explorers!

The Cape Point Shipwreck Trail

Burned landscape near Olifantsbos
Burned landscape near Olifantsbos

Lovers of shipwrecks and wilderness will enjoy the Shipwreck Trail (also called the Thomas T Tucker Trail, which has a nice alliterative ring to it) in the Cape Point Nature Reserve. Tami, Maria and I did it on one cloudy Saturday, close to low tide. (You can do the walk at high tide, but you won’t be able to get as close to the wrecks and some parts of the wreckage will be underwater.) The trail starts from the Olifantsbos parking area inside the reserve. There is a large sign saying THOMAS T TUCKER, which will send you on your way. A waist-high pyramid-shaped cairn of stones indicates where you must climb over the dunes onto the beach – the actual path is hard to discern at this point owing to fire damage.

Rockpools abound near Olifantsbos
Rockpools abound near Olifantsbos

The path follows the coast past the Olifantsbos Cottage to the next beach, where the remains of the Thomas T Tucker are strewn around. Don’t rush past the beach outside Olifantsbos Cottage, though – there is a huge wooden log, bored by teredo worms, with rust marks at its base showing where it was attached to the deck of a ship or where fittings for lifting by crane were located.

It is possible that this is one of several hundred okoume logs that came off a cargo vessel called Lola in Table Bay in 2008. The ship was apparently in very bad repair. Similar logs can be found at Hoek van Bobbejaan, Sandy Bay, and other locations along the Atlantic coast. (Incidentally, those logs were predicted to cause havoc in the 2008 storm that uncovered the wreck of the Commodore II.)

The mast on Olifantsbos beach
The mast on Olifantsbos beach

On the beach near the Thomas T Tucker you will also see some whale bones, which are becoming more and more damaged with each passing selfie, but are still impressive in scale. I suspect that more of that skeleton is on display at the Buffelsfontein Visitors Centre near Buffels Bay in the park.

Whale skull near the Thomas T Tucker
Whale skull near the Thomas T Tucker

Continuing past the main wreckage of the Thomas T Tucker you will come across another small piece of rusty metal, which belongs to the same wreck even though it is so far away from the rest of the debris. Shortly you will spy the wreck of the Nolloth on the beach before you. Don’t overlook the rockpools on the way.

Moody skies over Misty Cliffs
Moody skies over Misty Cliffs

The route back can either be a retracement of your steps along the coast, or via the inland path marked by a sign on the edge of the beach just past the Nolloth. We struggled a bit to find the path as the plant life in the area has not recovered since the March fires, and in retrospect we’d probably have gotten on much better (and returned home much cleaner) if we’d just walked back along the beach!

Baboon footprints on Olifantsbos beach
Baboon footprints on Olifantsbos beach

You shouldn’t do any walking in the reserve without a proper map; my favourite is the Slingsby Map series. I got mine from the curio shop at Kirstenbosch, and they are available at most major bookstores (with a bias towards those in the south peninsula – I have seen them at both Wordsworth and at the Write Shoppe in Long Beach Mall). Be aware of and grateful for the baboons, don’t advertise your snacks, don’t go alone, and always take something warm with you even if it’s a sunny day when you set out.

Three adventurers at the Nolloth - me, Tami, Maria
Three adventurers at the Nolloth – me, Tami, Maria

In case you missed the links in the text, check out the separate posts on the two wrecks you’ll see along this trail: the Thomas T Tucker and the Nolloth.

If you’re interested in visible shipwrecks, check out my ebook Cape Town’s Visible Shipwrecks: A Guide for Explorers!

Documentary: Shark (BBC)

BBC Shark
BBC Shark

There is not much to say about this BBC Earth production, other than that it is excellent, contains shark and ray footage unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, and you must watch it. The DVD is now available in South Africa (and of course in the rest of the known world), so you have no excuse.

It was filmed over two years, and from the thousands of hours of footage, three episodes were distilled. The focus is on elasmobranchs, which is slightly broader than the title suggests (but Shark is more catchy). There is a fourth episode devoted entirely to how the series was filmed, including interviews with the camera operators, which was fascinating. I enjoyed seeing the gear they used – as a scuba diver – as much as I did getting an insight into how they framed their shots and told the stories of the different species. A repeated realisation I had watching this episode was how close one has to get to the animals to obtain the kind of footage required for a broadcast-quality production!

I admit that I was frustrated by the brevity of the series – just when I got into it, it seemed to end – but I understand the desire to show only the very best material, to hold viewers’ attention, and to stay focused on the message (which is essentially that sharks are misunderstood and more important, complex and interesting than you may have thought). The series has a strong scientific bent, explaining how scientists’ work assists with conservation and management measures, and how it illuminates the lives of sharks beyond them simply being a potential threat to beach goers. Individual scientists are interviewed in the field, and are shown taking samples, tagging and observing the animals they study. Not all of those scientists were men, ensuring that the program will inspire a new generation of shark scientists of both genders. Thank you, BBC.

The series does a good job of showing sharks other than (in addition to, really) the large, charismatic ones that we’re familiar with as South Africans. Sarah Fowler, co-author of Sharks of the World, said in a talk we attended some years ago that the “average shark” is not a five metre long behemoth with a multitude of sharp teeth. The vast majority of shark species are smaller – say half a metre long – and very unassuming. The catsharks, pyjama sharks and shysharks are the everyday, many times more numerous sharks who get far less press, good or bad, than their larger compadres.

The BBC’s Shark was apparently a welcome addition to Discovery’s Shark Week 2015 – a complete departure from the made-up, mendacious fluff that has been served up on that channel in previous years. Long may it last!

Get the DVD here (South Africa) otherwise here or here.