Wreck specialty course… Part 1

Tami, Kate and I are busy with the PADI Wreck Specialty course. It involves four wreck dives, and a theory component. You don’t need to be an Advanced diver to do the course – though all three of us are – but an Adventure Diver qualification is sufficient.

(The Adventure Diver qualification is like Advanced-lite: instead of five adventure dives, you only do three. Also, you can credit each adventure dive towards the first dive of the corresponding specialty course.)

The theory component is simple: there’s a short (50 page) manual that covers safety aspects of wreck diving as well as some of the historical and (marine) biological considerations that should be borne in mind when exploring wrecks. I was particularly struck by the section pointing out that some wrecks are war graves or the final resting place (like Titanic) of many civilian souls, and should thus be treated with the same respect as you would a grave in a cemetery.

The manual is also very clear and forceful on the subject of wreck penetration, an activity that seems terrifying to me. You need the correct equipment, and (as Peter Southwood says repeatedly on his Wikivoyage pages) if you don’t know what that is, you’re not qualified to enter a wreck! Also, there are particular techniques required to handle that equipment: you need to know how to manage a reel, belaying it correctly, as well as how to handle yourself in case of entrapment, entanglement, or disorientation. Added to all this, many wrecks are unstable and all of them are in a state of decay… Locally, the SAS Transvaal, SAS Pietermaritzburg and BOS 400 come to mind (the latter collapsed during a storm this past winter, and is now in a radically different orientation).

Four wreck dives are required to complete the course. This past weekend we did two: a deep dive on the MV Rockeater, a fantastic former diamond driller in Smitswinkel Bay, and a dive on the SAS Pietermaritzburg.

Dive 1: MV Rockeater

The MV Rockeater is the oldest of the Smitswinkel Bay wrecks – it’s been down there since 1972. The ship has a lot of interesting bits and pieces sticking up off it, as well as a collapsed helicopter pad and a drilling derrick that is lying on the sand next to it. It’s 65 metres long and very, very lively. We saw a sleeping pyjama catshark in the wreck, as well as nudibranchs, lots of fish, and the most beautiful sea fans. Space cadet here didn’t lower her camera’s lens cover before putting it in the housing, and didn’t check that everything was in order with the camera while still on the boat… So at 20 metres when I switched it on, it told me to “lower the lens cover in order to shoot”… Opening the housing to do so was not an option! So I just had to look, no pictures.

Our project on this dive was to determine which way the current was flowing, and then swim from the shot line down the wreck into the current. We’d do this to 1/4 of our air, and then turn around and swim back with the current.

Dive 2: SAS Pietermaritzburg

Wreckage of the SAS Pietermaritzburg
Wreckage of the SAS Pietermaritzburg

The SAS Pietermaritzburg is a more recent scuttling (1994) but lies in a very exposed spot just off the Miller’s Point slipway. It has a fascinating history – before being purchased and renamed by the South African government, it took place as the lead minesweeper in the D Day invasion of Normandy. And now it’s lying 1 kilometre from Miller’s Point!

SAS Pietermaritzburg
SAS Pietermaritzburg

The visibility wasn’t great (apparently fairly standard for this site), but it’s a fantastic wreck. Maximum depth (on the sand) is about 22 metres, so you can have a nice long dive in relative comfort. The wreck has all sorts of cool places to look inside, a ladder up to the deck, and for the brave (or foolhardy), some swimthroughs under the hull.

Structure on the SAS Pietermaritzburg
Structure on the SAS Pietermaritzburg

It was nudibranch paradise… Instead of giving my full attention to the mapping project we’d been set (drawing the wreck including estimates of width and length, the compass direction in which it’s lying, and depths on the deck and sand), I was taking National Geographic quality photos of those gorgeous sea slugs.Fortunately Kate’s map was good enough for both of us!

SAS Pietermaritzburg
SAS Pietermaritzburg

Tony was doing dive 4 with Cindy, an Open Water student, so Gerard, Kate, Tami (once she found us!) and I cruised the wreck investigating all the awesome features. We will definitely be diving this wreck a lot more in the future.

Life on the SAS Pietermaritzburg
Life on the SAS Pietermaritzburg

Weather permitting, we’ll do the second and third dives for the Wreck specialty next weekend or the weekend after that.

Sea life: Nudibranchs

Gas Flame nudibranch on the SAS Pietermaritzburg
Gas Flame nudibranch on the SAS Pietermaritzburg

Nudibranchs are wildly colourful invertebrates that look like psychedelic underwater slugs. There are countless varieties but it takes a practiced eye to spot them. My excitement when I do find one is totally out of proportion, but I do love these little critters!

Gas Flame nudibranch on the SAS Pietermaritzburg
Gas Flame nudibranch on the SAS Pietermaritzburg

Nudibranch means “exposed (nudi) gills (branch)”, and on almost all varieties you can see little protrusions that are those very gills – looking like fronds. The visual extravagance of these creatures cannot be over-stressed… Their beauty is totally unncessary, and all the more delightful for that.

Gas Flame nudibranch on the SAS Pietermaritzburg
Gas Flame nudibranch on the SAS Pietermaritzburg

Their bright colours tend to warn predators that they aren’t tasty, and nudibranchs have some very ingenious defence mechanisms (thanks to the Two Oceans Aquarium for teaching me this!). They eat things that are unpalatable or indigestible to most other sea creatures, including sponges and hydroids with stinging cells. Some nudibranch species then retain the stinging cells in their bodies, piggybacking off their lunchtime snack’s defence tactics.

Crowned nudibranch
Crowned nudibranch on the wreck near the yellow buoy at Long Beach

We do see nudibranchs at Long Beach – I’ve seen three or four species there, most often the orange-clubbed nudibranch. These tend to be spotted feeding on kelp fronds. Other species can be seen on the rocky reef to the right of the pipeline, and in lesser-dived areas such as the wreck near the yellow buoy. A Frame is another good spot for finding them, particularly in the swim-through. Careful inspection will be rewarded. There are also several varieties unique to the Smitswinkel Bay wrecks – the mechanism of this differentiation astounds and fascinates me – but I haven’t as yet managed to spot any except for a gas flame nudibranch this past weekend on the MV Rockeater.

Gas Flame nudibranch on the SAS Pietermaritzburg
Gas Flame nudibranch on the SAS Pietermaritzburg

Another frequent sighting at Long Beach is the warty pleurobranch, a devastatingly cute and cuddly little slug. They seem to have such personality, with their little eye stalks and bulldozer front ends. They’re not colourful, but lots of fun to watch. We often swim over them in the beds of sea grass, and sometimes on the sand.

Warty pleurobranch
Warty pleurobranch at Long Beach

As a reference for identification you can go to Dennis King’s book – focused on the east and south coasts of Southern Africa, Georgina Jones’s book, or – the mother lode – Guido Zsilavecz’s book. Both of the latter two are concerned with the Cape Peninsula and False Bay. If you’re serious about these gorgeous creatures, I’d go for Guido’s book: Nudibranchs of the Cape Peninsula and False Bay.

Gas Flame nudibranch on the SAS Pietermaritzburg
Gas Flame nudibranch on the SAS Pietermaritzburg


Dive at Long Beach (2010.09.12)

Here’s a rough edit of a lovely dive we did at Long Beach last year (Clare twisted my arm to put this up – I’m not happy with the state of polish of the final version), in 14 degree water with 7 metre visibility. The surface conditions were choppy, as you can see at the end of the video, but under the surface it was lovely.


There’s lots to see. Early on, look out for the common sandprawn (the large, white shrimpy thing). We see lots of their discarded carapaces at Long Beach but this is the only one we’ve seen with a sandprawn inside to date.

There’s also a huge cloud of fry – not sure which fish species, but clearly the imminent onset of spring was encouraging breeding! There’s a very brief shot of a chubby clingfish – the small orange chap clinging onto some sea lettuce, of which there is plenty. Watch out for the Cape topshell on the kelp, and a nudibranch egg ribbon on some green seaweed.

There’s an octopus, a super klipfish, a surprisingly tame puffadder shyshark and his relative the dark shyshark, and a fat longsnout pipefish. We saw a box sea jelly and a night light sea jelly, a peacock fanworm, and my favourite warty pleurobranch. And, of course, there are barehead gobies…

The video concludes with a shot of the inside of the barge wreck at Long Beach.

Dive sites (Sodwana): Caves & Overhangs

We were feeling a little beaten up after our first dive in Sodwana, what with the rough surface conditions that had had more than one of us (no names mentioned) leaning over the side of the boat feeding the fish before AND after the dive! The focus was on getting into the water as soon as possible, because once we were below the surface everything else melted away.

Caves & Overhangs on Two Mile Reef, Sodwana
Caves & Overhangs on Two Mile Reef, Sodwana

The second dive we did was to Caves & Overhangs on Two Mile Reef. The beauty of diving Two Mile Reef is that the longest boat ride you will have to endure is about 10 minutes, and we often spent more time kitting up on the boat than actually locating the dive site!

Justin identifying fish
Justin identifying fish - our underwater naturalist

Justin, Gerard and Tami were doing their Fish Identification dive for their Advanced course, which was a darn good thing because I couldn’t name a single thing I’d seen so far and planned to piggyback off their knowledge! The three of them swanned about with their slates, drawing the things they were seeing. The end results were somewhat hilarious… Compare Justin and Gerard’s slates below (with apologies to both the budding artists for revealing their work in such early stages, and for the water drops – the pictures were taken before I’d removed my camera from its housing):

Justin's fish ID slate
Justin's fish ID slate
Gerard's fish ID slate
Gerard's fish ID slate

I was beside myself with excitement – yelled into my regulator – when I spotted a gorgeous moray eel, with his head sticking out of his cave, opening and closing his mouth to breathe. He was a medium-sized guy, and I tried to stick around for as long as possible watching him, before the surge took me away.

Guinea fowl moray eel on Caves & Overhangs
Guinea fowl moray eel on Caves & Overhangs

My photos from this dive are uniformly terrible – I took several of my eel, and only the one above was vaguely clear. The one shining light however was this picture of what Tony calls the Colgate nudibranch – Chromodoris hamiltoni – who was an obligingly stationary photographic subject. As I recall, I also managed to find something inanimate to hold onto while I took the picture.

Chromodoris hamiltoni
Chromodoris hamiltoni posing on a rock

This dive was far easier and more relaxed for me than the first one. I was wearing a dorky little swimcap (thanks Tami!) which made the rest of the group want to disown me, but which controlled the free flowing hair that had made the first dive tricky, and I was more willing to let the surge move me around.

I hadn’t quite got the knack of pressing the camera shutter button in between surges, but even if I didn’t manage to get pretty pictures of everything, I saw some wonderful parrotfish, unicorn fish, goldies, more than one nudibranch, colourful little wrasses, and an anemone fish rubbing himself all over the largest anemone I have EVER seen. I also saw a host of different kinds of butterflyfish and angelfish, a nice little yellow puffer fish, Moorish idols (wow!), and a tiny little domino who I stalked until he emerged for a photo.

Brain coral
I love love love brain coral!

Dive date: 8 October 2010

Air temperature: 23 degrees

Water temperature: 22 degrees

Maximum depth: 15.3 metres

Visibility: 12 metres

Dive duration: 58 minutes

Bookshelf: More Reef Fishes & Nudibranchs

More Reef Fishes & Nudibranchs – Dennis King & Valda Fraser

This is the sequel to Dennis King’s first book on East and South Coast sea life, Reef Fishes and Corals. It has a similar layout and is of similar length and dimensions. It’s a useful size for travelling around with, like its predecessor.

More Reef Fishes & Nudibranchs
More Reef Fishes & Nudibranchs – Dennis King & Valda Fraser

Several more reef fish are shown and described here, filling in many of the gaps of the previous volume.

This volume doesn’t cover coral at all, but includes a section on nudibranchs. I’m afraid the SURG team have spoiled me for nudibranch identification, and the nudibranch section of this book frustrated me for several reasons.

It doesn’t provide common names for the nudibranchs – so I had to tell people I’d seen a Chromodoris hamiltoni (Tony called it a Colgate nudibranch because it looked like a squeeze of toothpaste). Also, there’s only one picture of each variety, which I suppose is to be expected in a book that attempts to cover a wide variety of fish and other marine species… But given the degree of variation within one type of nudibranch, it can be tricky to make a positive identification with only one photograph to go on.

Buy it here.

Bookshelf: Nudibranchs of the Cape Peninsula and False Bay

Nudibranchs of the Cape Peninsula and False Bay – Guido Zsilavecz

Published by the Southern Underwater Research Group (SURG)

This is the second book by Guido Zsilavecz and the third Southern Underwater Research Group (SURG) publication. It’s all about nudibranchs, the little invertebrates of which we have a huge variety here in the Cape. They’re brilliantly coloured, but can be hard to spot. With practice I am learning where to look for them!

Each type of nudibranch is illustrated with four photographs, which is useful as there is some variation even among multiple nudibranchs of the same type. The photographs are labelled with the name of the dive site at which they were taken, which is very useful as it gives one an idea of where to look for the little critters.

Sometimes they are photographed with their egg ribbons – I often see coils of eggs at Long Beach, but have never been lucky enough to spot the smug nudibranch next to her handiwork.

Tony has an enormous book that covers nudibranchs the world over, but I prefer this volume because it’s focused on the geographical region in which I do most of my diving. It’s also of very manageable dimensions in terms of how many different nudibranchs are covered. New species are being discovered all the time, so if you spot and photograph one that looks unfamiliar, the good folks at SURG will be very happy to examine your photo and try to identify (or, even cooler, name) it for you.

You can purchase this book from SURG – there are order details on their website and they will post it to you directly. Otherwise it’s available in good dive shops in Cape Town.