Hydrographic charts

Cape Town has an amazing stretch of coastline. Knowledge of dive sites, beaches and where to dive is greatly enhanced by decent scale hydrographic charts. Besides their value to mariners and the general boating public whereby you have detailed information on what perils lurk below the surface waiting to wrench a piece out of the keel of your boat, they also offer great insight to where you may find interesting dive sites not listed on the “popular” dive site list. All you need to do is sign up for a few of the major dive centre newsletters to see that most of them go to the same places at the same time week after week.

Hydrographic charts covering False Bay and the Cape Peninsula
Hydrographic charts covering False Bay and the Cape Peninsula

The maps I have are:

  • SAN 1017, scale 1:10 000, this covers the coast from Kalk Bay Harbour to Fisherman’s Beach
  • SAN 1016, scale 1:50 000 which covers the entire False Bay area
  • SAN 1015, scale 1:15000 covering Kommetjie, Hout Bay up to Sandy Bay
  • SAN 1013, scale 1:36 000 covering the Table Bay area including Robben Island.

My favorite is SAN 1017 as this gives great detail on the areas I dive the most. The area it covers has many dive sites, some undived sites and many less popular sites. Any spot that seems interesting from the road, the dark patches you see from the beach could be kelp, rocky reef or some other manmade item from years gone by. Marine life gathers anywhere it  can find even the slightest protection from predators, so a small kelp forest, an old submerged bridge foundation, or a wreck all attract marine life, many species setting up residence.

These maps are published by the SA Navy Hydrographic Office, and can be purchased from Chart World (telephone 021 419 8814) and Charts International (telephone 021 419 7700), both located on the foreshore in Foregate Square at the entrance to the harbour. The full chart catalogue can be found here.

Diving at the Two Oceans Aquarium

For Tony’s birthday in June we spent a Sunday morning at the Two Oceans Aquarium at the Waterfront, diving in the I&J Predator Exhibit and in the Kelp Forest Exhibit. These were two of the best dives I’ve ever done. You need an Open Water or equivalent qualification for the predator tank, though I think you can do a (expensive?) DSD there too. For the kelp forest you need an Advanced qualification, as even though it’s only 6 metres deep, it’s very surgy.

On both these dives, you are on view to the public. It’s fun to wave at the kids through the windows of the displays. They are very excited to see real live SCUBA DIVERS in the water with all the fish. Needless to say, the scuba divers were very excited to be there!

Youtube videos for both dives can be found here.

Kelp Forest Exhibit

We started in the kelp forest – you wind your way up to the roof of the aquarium and drop into the water off a small wooden platform. This exhibit completely is open to the air, since it’s comprised of vegetation and sea creatures found in Cape waters, and because kelp loves sunlight. Kelp also likes water movement, so there are a variety of devices to keep the water moving – dump buckets, a plunger, and some pumps. This makes it quite choppy on the surface and quite surgy below. (Fascinating fact: since kelp cleans the waste products – such as ammonia – out of the seawater by filtering it, a lot of the aquarium’s water is passed through the kelp tank on its way to other exhibits.)

The exhibit has live kelp that is actually growing, which is quite an achievement, but you’re not supposed to hang onto it the way I sometimes do in the open ocean! The tank is packed to the brim with white steenbras (my absolute favourite), red stumpnose, galjoen, zebra, roman, shysharks, fransmadam, and even a gully shark if you can spot him. The fish are huge, many of them much larger than any I’ve seen in the ocean. I was extremely fortunate to be allowed to feed them – I was given a small bag of squid pieces and sardines, and the fish gathered around me as I knelt on the bottom. It was wonderful, so busy and colourful. They weren’t shy, bumping into my legs and BCD once they’d realised I had lunch with me. There’s a hilarious finger-biting episode at around 2:45 minutes in this video:

The water is cold, and the tank isn’t actually very big. There are nice swim throughs between the rocks (made of fibreglass) and the kelp. The visibility isn’t perfect as the water is so highly aerated, and there are little bubbles of air everywhere. But it’s a thrilling dive and a very rare opportunity to get so close to so many beautiful fish.

Dive date: 6 June 2010

Air temperature: 18 degrees

Water temperature: 14 degrees

Maximum depth: 5.7 metres

Visibility: 10 metres

Dive duration: 27 minutes

I&J Predator Exhibit

The second dive we did was in the predator tank, which is a lot warmer than the kelp forest. On this dive, the Divemaster was armed with a piece of broomstick to “guide” the sharks away if they were to bother us. There are five ragged toothed sharks in the exhibit, none more than two and a half metres long. I think they’re all female. They cruise round and round in circles, looking completely awesome. I spent a long time just sitting on the floor of the tank watching them.

The other magnificent inhabitants of this tank are the sting rays. There’s Olive, a giant (and I mean GIANT) short-tailed sting ray like we see at Long Beach and Miller’s Point in summer, and a whole host of small (the sort of size that makes you want to take them home as pets) devil rays. Tony spent a significant part of the dive (while I was sitting watching sharks) chasing tiny rays around with his camera set on video.

In the corner of the tank we met the loggerhead turtle. She was lying next to a water vent, with her head in the corner. I was allowed to touch her on her neck (it felt really soft, and I felt lucky). I wasn’t convinced that she was a happy girl – she looked kind of depressed. Our DM said she gets more active when the water temperature increases, and sure enough I saw her swimming happily past the glass in the predator tank two weeks ago, when I went for my Saturday morning training at the aquarium.

The tank also contains musselcrackers, garrick, yellowtail, and (at the moment, but not when we dived in it) the remains of a sardine baitball.

The only moment when I got a bit of a fright was when we were surfacing against the rocks in the middle of the tank, and I omitted to look where I was going: straight into the path of a raggie. And sharks don’t generally get out of the way! Fortunately our DM had seen me behaving like a space cadet and “guided” the shark off to the side (since I wasn’t able to interrupt my ascent quickly enough).

Dive date: 6 June 2010

Air temperature: 16 degrees

Water temperature: 18 degrees

Maximum depth: 5 metres

Visibility: 25  metres

Dive duration: 35 minutes

Exploring: Fisherman’s Beach

We’ve driven past Fisherman’s Beach countless times on our way to stalk the baboons at Miller’s Point, and it’s been on the to do list to dive for a while. We’d heard that it was an easy dive akin to Long Beach, and a good training venue. Also, the little wave breaking on the bright white sand makes it look almost tropical – very inviting.

We ended up diving it the same day as we checked out Sunny Cove. It’s very pretty, with low rocky reefs on either side of the beach, and a wide strip of sand across the middle. There’s lots to explore, and it certainly isn’t as busy as Long Beach. It’s a short hop down the coast to A Frame, and the marine life is thus very similar. There’s a little bit of kelp, but it’s not dense and because of the layout of the site one tends to swim around rather than through it.

Tony’s camera misted up a bit in the warm car between dives, so he didn’t take many photos, but the invertebrate life poses very nicely and there is a lot of colour and light owing to the shallowness of the site.

Fisherman’s Beach is quite exposed, far more so than Long Beach, and we’ve seen that the wave on the beach can get angry in a big swell. Also, there’s a lot of fine sand in between the rocks, and I’d imagine this can get stirred up and decrease visibility quite a lot in inclement conditions. Even some of my careless fin kicks enveloped me in a cloud of particles – so this is perhaps a good place to take more advanced students (for dives three and four of an Open Water Course, for example).

There is parking across the road, and space to kit up on the pavement or on the grass above the beach. There is an easy staircase down to the sand, and although there is more wave activity than Long Beach most of the time, it’s not as intimidating as the Clan Stuart can be.

Fisherman's Beach
Fisherman’s Beach – walk down the beach and into the sea

Verdict: Potentially a good training site, well suited for macro photography, and an easy equipment testing location for when Long Beach is too busy or too familiar.

Dive date: 4 July 2010

Air temperature: 24 degrees

Water temperature: 13 degrees

Maximum depth: 8 metres

Visibility: 12 metres

Dive duration: 37 minutes

Exploring: Sunny Cove

Tony has been wanting to dive Sunny Cove practically since he first set foot in Cape Town, having read in an old book on South African dive spots (The Dive Sites of South Africa – Anton Koornhof) that seahorses had been found there in the sea grass. Tony loves seahorses.

I put my foot down, repeatedly, until it was the dead of winter and the Sharkspotters website told me that not a single great white had been seen patrolling the coast for a couple of months. Sunny Cove is at the end of Jagger Walk, the catwalk that runs along the western edge of Fish Hoek Bay. It’s the site of at least one fatal munching by a great white, and I didn’t want to take any chances.

Sunny Cove railway station
View from the bridge over the railway line towards the dive site

It’s a shore entry, and we parked on the road at the bottom of the steps over the railway line. It’s quite a strenuous walk over the bridge with all your kit on. We spent a while figuring out where to get in – you have to clamber over some rocks, and make your way through dense kelp before getting to a clear spot. Once we decided where to get in, we were glad to be wearing thick wetsuits, otherwise we would have been scraped and scratched quite liberally! There is a huge submerged concrete block just where we got in – at first I tried to swim over it, but realised it was in only a few centimetres of water, and made my way around it. (Fortunately there was no one on the shore with a camera!) Cape Town shore diving is hard on your kit.

Sunny Cove
Our entry point is on the far left, almost out of the photo, where the straight piece of rock sticks out.

The actual dive site is aptly named. The sun streams in through the kelp, and the sea floor looks a lot like Shark Alley near Pyramid Rock – lots and lots of urchins, with pink-encrusted rock formations. We saw a little bit of sea grass, and spent a lot of time examining it for signs of life, but didn’t even find a pipe fish, let alone seahorses! There’s a lot of invertebrate life on the rocks – feather stars, brittle stars, abalone – and we saw quite a few fish.

We did see the deep channel that the sharks probably use to get in and out of Fish Hoek Bay. We were hoping to spot the beacon that records movements by tagged sharks past Sunny Cove, but no luck there. We did not explore much to the south of our entry point – that’s on the to do list (along with more sea horse hunting) for another shark-free day.

Verdict: Shallow, easy dive but a fairly tricky entry and exit. Infrequently dived, so rather more lush and unspoiled than busier sites. Videos of our dive are here and here.

Dive date: 4 July 2010

Air temperature: 21 degrees

Water temperature: 13 degrees

Maximum depth: 10 metres

Visibility: 6 metres

Dive duration: 32 minutes