Newsletter: Cage diving

Hello everyone

Cage diving has long been on my bucket list. Yesterday it moved from being something I want to do one day to something I must do again. There is huge debate as to whether or not it is an eco-friendly practice but the ethics of chumming and baiting sharks is an entire chapter on its own.

This practice is once again in the limelight as a diver was bitten by a dusky shark in Natal yesterday whilst on a baited dive. For those that don’t know what this is, it is basically a group of divers hanging in mid water around a washing machine drum filled with shark bait. The idea is this draws the sharks for viewing and photographing.

It would appear from the press release that the shark took a bite at the divers fins in a ”mistaken Identity” incident. The diver sustained bites but survived. A huge debate will now ensue. Irrespective of whether you are for or against the practice, it is true to say that seeing these majestic creatures underwater does give them more of a chance at survival as more and more people come to understand them as huge predators entitled to use the ocean and not as man-eating killing machines as they have for so long been portrayed.

But back to cage diving, Clare took me to Gaansbaai for my birthday and we did a trip with Marine Dynamics. We had booked with Apex in Simon’s Town but the weather in False Bay on Wednesday precluded the chance of getting in the cage so we felt it would be a waste.

The boat was solid, (built entirely from aluminium) and the trip out to Dyer Island took around 25 minutes.

Slashfin, the Marine Dynamics boat
Slashfin, the Marine Dynamics boat
A cage for shark viewing
A cage for shark viewing

Add some chum (chopped up fish bits) and a constant trickle of blood and fish oils…

Bucket of yummy chum
Bucket of yummy chum
Distributing the chum
Distributing the chum

Add a cage (seven people at a time)…

The Marine Dynamics cage in the water
The Marine Dynamics cage in the water

Add a decoy and a bait lump of fish heads and wait…

Shark with the decoy seal cut-out
Shark with the decoy seal cut-out

It was slow according to the operator and it took two hours before the first shark appeared. The shark did a drive by of the decoy and the bait block and then did a few passing lunges. The bait handler was quick and made sure the shark never ”got the food”.

The shark approaches the boat
The shark approaches the boat

However the chum slick of fish blood and oils is constantly trickled out of a drum on the boat and the sharks hang around whilst all the passengers have 20 minute stints in the cage. Clare and I had two rounds in the cage with a video and a still camera. We will put the video and photo’s up on the blog in a few days.

I whip my tail back and forth
I whip my tail back and forth

This weekend

The bay has been pummeled by big swells lately so diving has been limited. Saturday and Sunday look good providing we have an early start on Sunday as the wind picks up around midday. Saturday, Grant will launch the boat for a deep dive to Smits wrecks and then a shallow dive on the wreck of the Pietermaritzburg. Launching from Millers point.

best regards

Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099
www.learntodivetoday.co.za
www.learntodivetoday.co.za/blog
Diving is addictive!

Surf launching

The vast majority of the best diving in the world lies beneath the ocean. I know there are many wonderful and exciting cave and quarry sites as well as inland lakes, but in South Africa we dive mostly in the ocean. Some of the launches are from sheltered harbour jetties and some are from sheltered launch sites in a cove or a bay. Many are however straight off the beach through the surf (such as in Sodwana, where these pictures were taken). On a calm flat sea this is very easy and safe but in rough conditions with huge swells it has a few risks.

The tractor pushes the boat into the water
The tractor pushes the boat into the water

The best operators and boat skippers will know the local conditions well and will rarely if ever launch if there are huge swells. So if the skipper is confident you should be safe.

The ladies climb in after pushing the boat out a bit
The ladies climb in after pushing the boat out a bit

A semi-ridgid inflatable dive boat is an extremely robust piece of equipment. They are well put together and can withstand a huge amount of punishment from the skipper and the ocean. They are also most often raced up the beach at high speed after every dive so they need to be tough. Most if not all will float despite being swamped with water, and many will stay afloat with more than 50% loss of air in the pontoons. There is most often a stainless steel keel strip under the boat and this takes most of the load as the boat is beached and trailored.

Everyone climbs on board
Everyone climbs on board

The risks

A dive boat filled with divers and their gear is stable and sits low in the water. The skipper will move people around to get the boat balanced and level and if all the divers have their feet in the foot straps on the deck it is then safe to race through the waves. Wave after wave can be punched with a boat and with the correct and well timed throttle control each wave can be crested gently without too much bone jarring. An inflatable boat can become almost vertical without capsizing but what it cannot do, nor can any other vessel for that matter, is handle waves from the side. A wave must be approached at as close to 90 degrees as possible. A huge swell can be approached at any angle, but a breaking or foamy wave must not.

Cresting a wave
Cresting a wave

Almost any boat will be rolled over by the motion of the wave. Unless you are on a keel boat (like a yacht), once over you are staying like that. A capsizing dive boat fills the air then the water with potentially lethal objects. Airborne weight belts, cylinders and cameras all have the potential for injury. Sandbanks are the most common cause of dive boats being rolled over as a sandbank stops the boat in its tracks allowing a wave to swing the boat on the anchored point (the motors) and the next wave will roll the boat over. The other cause of dive boat rollovers is a motor stalling in the middle of the launch. The sudden loss of power will render the boat poorly powered for wave hopping.

The skipper guides the boat through the breakers
The skipper guides the boat through the breakers

There are to my knowledge no practiced suggestions on how to stay safe. If the boat is going to go over the skipper will most likely shout “Jump!” and then do so quickly and try to get as far away from the boat as possible.

The most important rules:

  • Make sure you know that the skipper is experienced and aware of the local conditions.
  • Make sure the boat is in a well maintained state.
  • Make sure you are opposite your gear, it is secured correctly and add a little air to you BCD. This way it will float if tossed into the sea.

Don’t listen to the loud mouths on the boat that tell you to look at the land to avoid nausea. You won’t get sick while the boat is moving. WATCH the skipper, watch the sea and see what is coming at you. This way you can brace yourself for a wave, or any other unlikely event .

Despite the seemingly ease at which a boat rolls over I have done over a thousand dives from a rubber duck, launched through surf myself as a skipper and have never seen a dive boat go over. Many fishing boats, yes, but not dive boats. I think the industry and skippers in southern Africa and Mozambique are all well aware of the risks, loss of income and potential lawsuits so boats are generally well maintained and the skippers are experienced and capable. A skipper that gives divers scary launches does not last long in a dive resort. So sit back, hold on, feet in the straps and enjoy the ride.

Seasickness: The final word on ginger

I never thought I was the type to get seasick, but after taking up diving and spending a lot more time on boats than I did previously, I discovered that I can be pushed to a particular (unpleasant) limit. This next paragraph or two is going to sound as though I’m enumerating my chundering capabilities, but it provides context. Sorry in advance!

I am quite intolerant of surge, and have been ill on or after one or two particularly surgy dives such as a recent at Shark Alley. I’ve gotten sick once or twice on boat dives in Cape Town but had really bad experiences when I went to Sodwana for the first time.

Tony and Grant - these two clowns never get seasick
Tony and Grant – these two clowns never get seasick

The boat dives in Sodwana are surf launches, which I find scary but manageable. When the boat is moving and wind is in my face I feel perfectly fine. I did struggle with nausea and vomiting while putting on our kit on the boat before the dive, and quite a lot while underwater. The surge in Sodwana is often quite severe, and after a while my brain and body rebel against the back and forth motion – often at the safety stop. Fortunately I’m well practised at vomiting through a regulator – it can be done!

I wasn’t taking any preventative measures for sea- or motion sickness last time we visited Sodwana (in October 2010), but on this last trip (April 2011) I decided to conclude my trial of ginger as an anti-nausea medication. You may recall that I located some ginger capsules at my local pharmacy – two per day is the dosage, and while they smell like fresh gingerbread they seem to have a fairly irritant effect on my throat and stomach. I never took them with food because eating before a bumpy boat ride doesn’t appeal to me, but this might help!

The bad news is that, despite regular ginger dosings, I got sick on every single one of the six dives I did in Sodwana this time round. Only once or twice on the boat, but at every safety stop and on most of the repetitive dives after as little as ten minutes. The feeling of nausea persisted for an hour or two after the last dive, as well, which made me poor company until I’d had a nap! It’s physically draining and also a bit scary, even though I know I won’t drown if I keep my head and don’t panic.

So, ginger, thanks, it was fun, but I have to move on.

Future avenues of research include green apples (really?) and Stugeron – the hard stuff. I’m reluctant to go this route, but Tony and I are going shark cage diving at the end of June and there’s NO WAY I will be adding my own chum to the water instead of watching the whites breaching at Seal Island!

Man and cowshark

Sevengill cowsharks are not found in too many places worldwide. Well, certainly not in 12 metres of water less than 100 metres from the shoreline. The dive site known as Shark Alley, located in front of Pyramid Rock, close to Miller’s Point on the Cape Peninsula is home to many broadnosed sevengill cowsharks.

There are a few ways to dive this site, the easiest and most costly being from a boat. Fortunately it is also possible to do this dive as a shore entry and this is where it can be tricky. There are a few places you can enter the water, but most involve clambering over a few rocks and a steep grassy bank that must first be negotiated. Once in the water a short surface swim to clear the kelp and you are set to go.

Once you have descended into around 8 – 10 metres of water it is barely minutes before you see the first sharks. They are graceful and slow swimmers (when they are relaxed) and will swim slowly amongst the divers, sometimes passing by so close that your camera won’t focus. They seem to enjoy poor visibility more than we do and come a lot closer when the water is murky.

We did a dive at Shark Alley last weekend. The visibility wasn’t great, but we saw lots of sharks and I got some decent video footage. What struck us was how few of these sharks are in peak, glossy physical condition.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RD_78GjNop8&w=540]

These sharks do often display bite marks sustained during mating or routine fighting and feeding activities. We spotted this shark last year on an eventful dive at Shark Alley (also in pretty poor visibility). The top of its caudal (tail) fin has been bitten or cut off. It’s usually long and sweeping. You can see the same shark briefly in the video above, so it’s clearly not too much of an impediment to hunting and general survival because it has survived for at least five months like that. We’re not sure how it lost part of its tail – it could well have been during an interaction with another shark.

Cowshark with missing caudal fin
Cowshark with missing caudal fin

On our last dive there this past weekend, however, we saw two definite signs of man’s harm to these creatures.

Video still of the hooked cowshark
Video still of the hooked cowshark

One shark has been hooked by a huge stainless steel hook like the ones used to catch snoek. This shark lives with the hook in its mouth. Last year I saw this shark and there was a length of line attached to the hook. This line is now much shorter but has become encrusted and now is a huge drag on the swimming ability of the shark and will limit the swimming speed by pulling on its mouth and will also reduce the ability to hunt.

We see hooks in these sharks’ mouths fairly often. Because they’re stainless steel, they won’t rust through and drop off – unless someone removes the hook (unlikely), the shark has it for life.

Sevengill cowsharks are caught and their livers are sold to white shark cage diving operators to use as chum, which attracts the white sharks to the boats. Sevengill cowsharks (unlike great whites) are not protected which makes this practice – while completely deplorable – totally legal (for now). Here’s an article from Independent Online about the issue.

Propeller wounds (video still)
Propeller wounds (video still)

The second injured shark seems to have been hit by a boat propeller. There is a huge wound on the right flank but the curved cuts on the left flank look like they were made by a prop. The shark swam by slowly and then bumped into some kelp, clearly struggling with the pain which must be affecting the its ability to swim and feed. These photos show the injuries but the video above shows just how sluggish the shark has become.

Deep gouge on the shark with the propellor wound (video still)
Deep gouge on the shark with the propellor wound (video still)

When I compare the damaged condition of these beautiful creatures to the condition of the flawless batfish living in captivity in the aquarium in Durban, or to the fat, sleek ragged tooth sharks in the Two Oceans Aquarium, for example, I see how hard it must be to be a shark (or any creature) in the wild. Not only because of the harsh realities of the natural world, but also because of the harsh realities of man’s impact on that world.

Diving from a boat

There are divers around the world that will – and do – happily dive from all sorts of vessels. In some parts of the world diving takes place from reed rafts (Lake Malawi), from mokoros – similar to a hollowed out tree (some places in Mozambique), from canoes, jet skis, house boats (Lake Kariba), various hard boats and of course the most popular, rubber ducks. Their real name is semi rigid inflatables. People also use fold away inflatables with smaller motors in many places: these boats can be stored in your boot, inflated at the dive site, loose floor boards placed inside and a small outboard attached. All of this takes less than an hour and you are on your way to a dive site of your choice with a few buddies (only a few as they are small boats).

I will focus on the rubber ducks we use most often in South Africa, but most of these points apply to any type of vessel.

Much of the diving in South Africa and in many parts of Mozambique require a boat capable of taking 12 to 14 people and all their gear, and then being rugged enough to launch and return through rough surf, and then be able to withstand beaching. A dive boat with 10 divers, 10 sets of gear and all the safety gear can weigh around two tons. That’s a lot of weight when the boat is slammed onto the beach at a speed suitable to ensure it comes to a stop high enough out of the water so you can just step off.

Preparing to launch the boat
Pushing the boat into the water at Ponta do Ouro

There is a lot to a dive boat, irrespective of whether it is a hard boat, a huge live aboard or a rubber duck. They require maintenance, and this can easily be managed if divers just have a little respect for them. Sure, the owner/operator must be held responsible, but with a little attention to the small details they offer us as divers years of good service.

It goes without saying that you expect a boat to have all the necessary safety gear, life jackets, flares, first aid kit, emergency oxygen, tool kit etc. I believe you will find most operators following the law here. Just as motor cars need to pass a roadworthy test, so boats need a seaworthy inspection and to pass this there is a list of requirements to be met. Having met this, passed the inspection, mostoperators will usually comply, as a rule.

Be gentle

Almost all boats have a wooden or fibreglass deck. Tossing your gear around and dumping weight belts on the boat, all contribute to the damage sustained by operators, but often it is your foot, your regulator or pressure gauge or perhaps your expensive air integrated dive computer that gets damaged when someone tosses their weight belt on board. Always hand things up to the people on the boat, never toss them up.

Pontoons are tough and designed to withstand much abuse. However, the wire ring you used to fix your zip, the sharp edged cable ties on you gear, the rough edges of your cylinder boot, and your dive knife, all pose danger for the pontoon. Think about the pontoon when you drag your gear on and off the boat, and think about the grooves created by dragging kit over the pontoon time and time again.

The console up front usually houses all the electrical connections and switches for the boat’s electrical system, and just shoving all your belongings in there is not the way to go. Ask the skipper where you should put things as he/she will have a place for everything.

All skippers have a specific place for everything on their boats. Respect this as it makes it easier for the skipper to produce things for you on demand when you want them. Another important consideration is that it may be the place the first aid kit is kept and in an emergency it is annoying to a skipper to find their first aid kit has been replaced with a camera, cell phone and towel.

Loading the boat

When your gear is being loaded:

  • make sure you know where on the boat it is placed;
  • make sure you place your fins close by;
  • make sure your mask is there, either around your neck or in your fin (not on your head!);
  • make sure your weight belt is loaded and that you can recognise it;
  • and make sure you are kitted up and dressed ready to go when the boat leaves
Launching the boat at Ponta do Ouro
Divers climb aboard after pushing the boat into the sea at Ponta do Ouro, Mozambique

Launch times

Respect the launch times! You may be doing one dive and have all day, but there are others doing the next dive that are going to run late if you hold the boat up.

When the boat leaves the beach or the jetty, stay seated, feet in the foot straps and hold on tight. This is not the time to be walking around the boat passing the skipper your keys, glasses and cameras. This unbalances the boat and makes it harder to negotiate the surf or other boat traffic. This is also the time when you would fall off and blame the skipper.

Before the dive

At the dive site, follow the basic rule: be opposite your gear, and don’t expect heavy dive gear to be passed around on the boat. When the skipper comes round to put your gear on your back, make sure you are ready with the straps extended, the clips done or undone as you require, your air turned on, and that you have your weight belt on, right hand release. Don’t expect the skipper to do everything for you as it’s unfair on all the other divers who kit themselves up and are ready to roll two minutes after the boat stops, only to have to wait 10 minutes for you because you are on the wrong side of the boat, can’t find your mask, forgot what colour your fins are, etc. Finally, when you are all ready, the skipper will count you down. Go on the word “go” (or whatever word the skipper tells you to roll over on) – if you hesitate stay on the boat, or you may land on the person next to you and injure them.

On the surface
Divers preparing to descend after rolling off the boat

On the surface

At the end of the dive, signal you are OK once on the surface, then watch the boat as it approaches you. Don’t stick your face in the water and expect the boat not to run you over. Hand up your weight belt, camera, torch etc when the boat is alongside, but make sure the skipper has a firm grip on it before you release it. Just shoving it in his or her direction is no guarantee that the item won’t end up on the bottom.

When you hand your BCD and cylinder up, make sure your BCD has some air, but is not totally inflated. Make sure you give it a shove from the bottom and most of all, if possible give the skipper a chance to tie it down before you demand a hand-up. Once on the boat take care of your own kit, roll up your SMB, tuck your regulators away, and place your fins and mask out of harm’s way, preferably inside or close to your BCD. Make space for others to get into the boat, or better still, give them a hand. Don’t scatter your gear around, as a deck littered with fins, masks and cameras becomes a difficult place for a skipper to work and things will get broken… Your things!

After the dive

At the end of the dive make sure you collect all your gear as soon as possible. The boat may need to be loaded for the next launch and if you first get undressed, have a snack and then stroll over to the boat, it is likely your gear will be mixed up with the next load of divers’ gear.

Imagine this…

The boat arrives at the dive site, a few people are sitting at opposite ends of the boat to their kit, gear is passed around and a mask is crushed, someone starts bellowing, someone else drops his mask in the water as they are trying to rinse it while fully kitted up (rinse your mask first), they start whining, someone else who does not service their gear has a faulty regulator, they swear blind it was okay on the beach but you can see clearly the hose has been torn for months and is badly cracked, someone says “oops, I forgot my fins in the car”, so the skipper hauls out all the spares he has, gets everyone sorted out and you all roll back into the water.

Someone hesitates, and lands on another diver, gashing their head open with a cylinder, so the diver is hauled out of the water. The gash in their head requires bandaging, yet at the same time five hands appear next to the boat all demanding cameras. The skipper usees all his psychic skill to ensure everyone gets their own camera, then observes that a few divers are struggling to descend. The skipper hauls out the extra weights, sorts them out and down the divers go, all but one –  ”I forgot to put my weight belt on!” So they get sorted out and descend.

Twenty minutes into the dive someone pops out of the water like a cork, and gets hauled out of the water. As a safety measure the skipper administers oxygen. Their buddy surfaces a few minutes later, swims up to the boat and tosses their weight belt on board, landing on their buddies head.

These thing happen, fortunately very very seldom, but every diver wants to have a good time, a good dive and a pleasant boat trip, and if we all follow the instructions of the skipper, the Divemaster or Instructor and basic dive safely protocol, these things will not happen. Plan your dive and dive your plan.

On a typical day a skipper can easily see between 20 and 40 different people. It is not possible for the skipper to remember what your weight belt looks like, what colour your fins were and what gear you are using, so make it easier by being responsible for your gear. If you have rental gear it will often be numbered: remember the numbers, remember the colour of your fins and mask, so keeping all your kit together in one spot on the boat will make this easier.

Driving a boat is easy?

Boats look really easy to drive: a steering wheel, a control box that puts the boat in gear and accelerates all at the same time, no clutch, no hand brake, no turn signals, wide open expanse of ocean to drive in – it stands to reason it must be really easy. And it is: on a nice calm day with flat seas, no wind, and no swell, it is real easy to place a boat precisely in the spot you want it, run it up next to the jetty and come to a stop millimeters from the side.

Surf launch in Mozambique
Launching through the surf at Ponta do Ouro in Mozambique

But on a day when the wind is humping, there is a big swell and lots of other boat traffic it becomes a little more challenging. If you are asked by the skipper to sit down, keep your feet in the foot straps and hold on, then do so, as he/she probably knows better. A skipper doing surf launches needs to concentrate only on the boat while launching and beaching. Don’t walk around, shout at them or hand them things as they are reading the water, the swell, and the gap that is forming out at the back line and making a decision to go or not to go. Your safety is their primary concern. Once committed to the break in the swells it is not easy to change your mind.

Beaching the boat after a dive in Ponta do Ouro
Beaching the boat after a dive in Ponta do Ouro

In a nutshell…

Pay attention to the boat briefing as the skipper has the responsibility for your safety. Make it easy for him to keep you safe. In an emergency you will expect the skipper to produce a first aid kit in a flash, produce pure oxygen in an instant and radio for help in an extreme emergency. This will happen, and your emergency will be dealt with expertly, if the skipper finds his first aid kit accessible, his oxygen set at hand and his radio functioning. But if you shoved your bag in the console and ripped wires out of the radio, dumped your personal bag of clothing on the first aid kit, moved the oxygen somewhere else on the boat to make space for your camer – when these things happen all they do is delay the reaction time of the help that you the diver need.

Pay attention to the dive briefing. Chances are the dive master has been there many times before and is speaking from experience. If you are unsure of something, ask – there are no stupid questions, and the only stupid mistake is not asking if you are unsure.

Many divers have done hundreds and in some cases thousands of dives, all incident free, all enjoyable and all conducted safely and this is largely due to their own exceptional skills, and exceptional skills held by skippers and divemaster coupled to a level of boat etiquette we all have or should have. This is just one more reason to dive, to enjoy the wonders the ocean never fails to deliver.