Dive sites (Sodwana): Two Buoy

Two Buoy is fairly central on Two Mile Reef, and like the entire reef system is only a short boat ride from the beach. That said, it was our first dive in Sodwana and the sea was ROUGH. The boat ride was vigorous but refreshing (I find surf launches quite scary). When we stopped I got quite seasick however – the swells were two metres high and the boat was rocking violently.

Boats lined up on the beach at Sodwana
Boats lined up on the beach at Sodwana, ready to launch through the surf

Because of the surface conditions and the current, we didn’t want to mess around when we rolled into the water, so we descended fast. Beneath the surface it was somewhat calmer, but still very surgy. Most of us were feeling weird – Tami on her first ever boat ride (in pretty hairy conditions), Fritz without a hoodie couldn’t get used to the water in his hair, and I just felt as though everything was upside down. I was also diving without a hoodie, which made for a spectacular display for my fellow divers… I lost my hair band almost immediately, and did a mermaid impression for the rest of the dive – pretty but annoying! The surge also took a bit of getting used to, as we couldn’t really go anywhere of our own volition but were at the mercy of the water.

Tami on Two Buoy
Tami on Two Buoy

The contrast between Cape Town diving and the coral reefs beneath us, however, put all the irritations and discomforts out of my mind. The coral is incredible – huge plate corals that have taken decades to form, little soft ones, and spiky ones that look like Christmas trees or deer’s antlers. And in between the coral were the fish – in colours you can’t even imagine. Several times I had to remind myself that I wasn’t diving in the fishtank in the Chinese restaurant near Tony’s house… This was the open ocean.

Limespot butterflyfish and coral
The ubiquitous limespot butterfly fish passing in front of a HUGE coral formation

I was incredibly excited to see a giant clam – I immediately felt like a character in a Willard Price novel (for kids!) and took care not to get my foot stuck in it, as if that was a danger!

Two Buoy, with giant clam in right foreground
Coral on Two Buoy, with giant clam in right foreground

The other thing that stunned me was the clarity of the water. In False Bay, 10 metres visibility is a really good day… We could see at least 12-15 metres on this dive, and that was apparently “not so good”. It’s that feeling of being able to move in three dimensions that I love about diving, hanging in space and being able to see for ages.

Dive date: 8 October 2010

Air temperature: 23 degrees

Water temperature: 22 degrees

Maximum depth: 13.2 metres

Visibility: 12 metres

Dive duration: 47 minutes

Backward roll

On a boat dive off a rubber duck, all the divers roll backwards into the water at the same time. The skipper stops the boat, counts down, and everyone rolls backwards off the pontoon simultaneously. There are good reasons for the emphasis on doing it at the same time:

  • if there’s even a slight wind or current, the boat drifts
  • once divers hit the water, they start drifting too

Even a second’s hesitation can combine with one of the above to have you landing on top of another diver. It may not hurt you, but the diver already in the water is unlikely to be wearing a hard hat to protect them from your cylinder! If you miss the count down for whatever reason, WAIT on the boat. The skipper will bring you around and drop you again when it’s clear.

The alternative – rolling into the water on top of everyone else – will ensure that you don’t get invited back for more boat dives!

Ever wondered what it’s like to do a backward roll? Check out this video I took at the start of a dive on Bikini, Two Mile Reef, in Sodwana.


Dive sites (Sodwana): Deep Sponges

I think our dive on Deep Sponges was among my favourites of the five I did in Sodwana. It was to 30 metres, and Tami and Sophie were doing their deep skills for their Advanced course. I descended right on top of a pincushion starfish the size of a birthday cake!

Giant pincushion starfish at Deep Sponges
Giant pincushion starfish at Deep Sponges

There was quite a strong current when we reached the bottom, and the rest of us tried to hang around in one spot while the girls filled in their slates. Once they were done, we set off – swimming into the current! This was exhausting and the water at depth feels like honey… Very hard work. Tony had a word with Divemaster Dean, and we turned around and did a fantastic drift dive in the opposite direction.

Another enormous starfish at Deep Sponges
Another enormous starfish at Deep Sponges - this one had nice green tips on his legs

Deep Sponges is on Two Mile Reef, and characterised by (surprise!) many different sponge formations. Within minutes of starting our dive we spotted a whitetip reef shark swimming past about 20 metres away. This was my first shark sighting (apart from sevengill cowsharks, catsharks, nurse sharks, gully sharks and shysharks!) and I was thrilled. He didn’t seem to care about us at all, and I wanted to chase him so that we could spend more time together. Story of my life… hehe!

Sponge at Deep Sponges
Sponge at Deep Sponges

I also saw two hawksbill turtles (or the same one, passing by twice). They look so relaxed in the water, crusing along in perfect solitude. This dive site is amazing because it is both deep and a reef, so you have the gorgeous detailed reef life as well as a good chance of spotting pelagic species passing by on their journeys through the open ocean. The reef fish were far more curious and confident than those we saw on the shallower dives, possibly because they are bothered by fewer divers.

Soft coral at Deep Sponges
Soft coral at Deep Sponges

My photos from this dive aren’t very good – I think because the current was quite strong, and because I don’t have strobes to illuminate the depths. They just don’t do the experience justice. Because the visibility was so good – almost top to bottom – there was a tremendous sense of space, but also all this magnificent life begging for some macro shots. I haven’t done enough deep dives with the camera (two!) to figure out what works. But I am quite proud of the picture of the soft coral above.

Safety stop at Deep Sponges
Tony (on the right) and the Silver Fox (on the left) help Giraffe and Mariaan, who had descended unexpectedly while arranging some alternate air source breathing

I hardly finned during the dive because we were drifting with the current, which was great, and in all the dive was very relaxing. I had plenty of air – surfaced with the Divemaster and Tony, which was awesome! Felt very proud of myself and got a handshake from Tony at the safety stop. We did a nice long safety stop punctuated by one or two dramatic incidents which were nicely handled by Dean, Tony and the Silver Fox (who is also a Divemaster). Almost everyone seemed to breathe off someone’s octo at one time or another.

Breathing off octos
Tami taking Dean's octo, and Tony telling Justin, who was finishing breathing from (I think) the Silver Fox's octo behind Tami, to continue his ascent

Dive date: 9 October 2010

Air temperature: 23 degrees

Water temperature: 22 degrees

Maximum depth: 31 metres

Visibility: 20 metres

Dive duration: 37 minutes

Bookshelf: Robert Ballard’s Titanic

Robert Ballard’s Titanic: Exploring the Greatest of All Lost Ships – Robert D. Ballard

Robert Ballard's Titanic
Robert Ballard’s Titanic

The Titanic sank in the early hours 15 April 1912, just four days into her maiden voyage. She was a state of the art vessel for her time, of colossal dimensions, outfitted in the utmost luxury (for the first class passengers, at least), and carrying over 2,200 passengers and crew. Over 1,500 people died when she sank – mainly men, as the lifeboats (which were only sufficient to save about 1,200 people, and many of which departed half empty) were filled with women and children first.

There’s something totally fascinating about shipwrecks. There is a thrill to exploring something as massive as a ship, rendered immobile on the sea floor. The Titanic lay undisturbed until 1985, when she was located after a joint search by the French IFREMER and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in the USA. Others had searched, and even claimed to have found the ship, but the Woods Hole expedition was the first one to bring back photographic evidence.

The expedition was jointly led by Robert Ballard of WHOI, and Jean-Louis Michel of IFREMER. They used what was then up to the minute submersible technology, both manned and unmanned. Part of the fascination of reading Ballard’s account is to realise to what degree imaging systems have improved in the last quarter century, and what an achievement it was to document the ship given the available technology and the inhospitable environment (pitch dark, 4 kilometres under the ocean in a howling current) it lies in. He speaks of the floor of the submersible being “littered with spent video cassettes” after a successful dive. Video cassettes? I haven’t seen one of those for years!

The book is illustrated with many photos taken during the search and exploration of the wreck, as well as gorgeous artist’s renderings of the entire superstructure (it’s broken into two pieces) with corresponding plans of what goes where. It’s a fascinating read, and also quite eery. Ballard approaches the wreck with great respect and strong awareness that it is the grave of over a thousand souls, and the darkness and quiet of the undersea world that it rests in adds an air of solemnity to the images and descriptions.

The detail about what has decayed (all the wood except for hard woods like teak, and all human remains except for leather shoes, for example) and what has remained and in what condition, is fascinating. Iron-eating bacteria have polished and thinned parts of the hull, which is covered in rusticles comprising oxidised iron intermingled with colonies of these bacteria.

Thousands of artefacts have been retrieved from the wreck site over the years by subsequent visitors, including a 17 ton section of the hull. Ballard states that in his view, however, the wreck has no archaeological value. Unlike a 2,000 year old Phoenician shipwreck in the Mediterranean, we know exactly who and what was on RMS Titanic. We have the blueprints of the ship, and photographs taken of her and on her. What’s more, relatives of those who perished on board are still alive, and we are within a generation of actual memories of the survivors and casualties.

Woods Hole is currently participating in another expedition to document and explore the wreck site – there is a really cool website for Expedition Titanic.

The book is available here. It’s a fairly large-format paperback with several fold-out pages of diagrams and paintings.

Looking for seahorses in Knysna

Tony is obsessed – and I mean obsessed – with seahorses, and by all accounts has been hunting for them everywhere he’s ever dived. For this reason he was very keen to dive in Knysna, home of the Knysna seahorse, and to see if we could find some.

We go houseboating in Knysna every year (so far), and we’re able to dock the houseboat on Thesen Island at the jetty there. The first time we went, Tony’s friend Cameron showed us where to dive, and accompanied us in the water while his girlfriend Claire paddled her kayak around on the surface.

The magnificent Knysna Lagoon opens to the sea through a very narrow opening called the Heads. Because it’s so narrow, the tidal pull into and out of the lagoon is incredibly strong, and it’s not wise to dive while the tide is going in or out. The dive sites inside the Heads (and there are several, including a wreck called the Paquita which I’m dying to visit) should only be dived around the turn of the tide, from half an hour before to half an hour after, unless you have a hectic drift dive in mind (and some people do!).

The first time we dived the Sanparks Quay on Thesen Island was in August 2009, and we dived at high tide one afternoon. It’s a bit of a walk from the houseboats jetty to the Sanparks Quay, especially wearing full kit, but at high tide the entrance is reasonably easy. You just stride down some steps next to the quay and into the water. It’s a so-called junkyard dive, with lots of tyres, bottles and other bits of rubbish, but also very beautiful to see how the sea life has colonised the junk. At high tide the water is deep, clean, and still. The fishermen on the quay were profoundly amused by our antics, and one has to watch out for their lines and hooks while diving this site.


Junkyard dive
Beauty in the junkyard

The seahorses are really hard to spot – many of them are brown (we did find a bright yellow one), smallish, and well-camoflaged among the debris. They wrap their little tails around things and sway in the current. We saw three or four, and Tony was so excited when we spotted the first one that I could hear him shouting through his regulator.


Knysna seahorse in hiding
Knysna seahorse in hiding

Dive date: 18 August 2009

Air temperature: 22 degrees

Water temperature: 15 degrees

Maximum depth: 5 metres

Visibility: 15 metres

Dive duration: 19 minutes

The second time Tony and I dived the Sanparks Quay was at low tide (high tides were at night while we were there) in June this year. We were alone, and it wasn’t as easy as the previous time. The bottom of the steps ended before the waterline, so we had to leap off instead of just walk into the water. The visibility was less than a metre – like swimming in ProNutro – so I held onto Tony’s arm for dear life for most of the dive because if he moved too far I lost him.  The tide going out stirs up a lot of silt and brings dirty water from higher in the lagoon, which makes it very hard to see anything.

Despite the conditions, we did spot one tiny little sea horse, which made it worthwhile. There was also a crowned and an orange-clubbed nudibranch nudibranch, but we didn’t stay long because the conditions were so poor. We swam under the pier a little, which we didn’t do the first time. We learned why it’s a good idea to dive at HIGH tide next time!

Dive date: 16 June 2010

Air temperature: 20 degrees

Water temperature: 12 degrees

Maximum depth: 4.9 metres

Visibility: 0.5 metres

Dive duration: 35 minutes

If you don’t spot any seahorses, or don’t fancy a dive, you can visit the Sanparks office at the far end of the quay (closest to the Heads). They have a beautiful tank FULL of seahorses, who are extremely obliging photographic subjects.


Knysna seahorse
Knysna seahorse in the Sanparks Building


Why it’s a good idea to carry an SMB

When I met Tony he was living in Mozambique, and when his visa ended he moved to Durban. Around that time we had decided we quite enjoyed each other’s company, so I flew up every second weekend to visit him. He was working at Calypso Dive and Adventure Centre at uShaka Marine World as an Instructor and Divemaster, so I tagged along on dives on the Saturday mornings I was in town. I was a fairly new diver at the time (it was September 2009).

It was the first time I’d come up to Durban to see him, and he had a student who had to do a deep dive on the Saturday morning. The boat was heading out to the Coopers Lighthouse wreck, a mysterious ship lying in 24-32 metres of water whose identity is not certain. Some people think it’s an old whaler, but there are several theories as to its origin. The wreck is thought to be about 100 years old and situated in line with the Cooper Lighthouse on the Bluff.

The rubber duck left the beach at 0700. The sea was looking quite bumpy, and the boat ride wasn’t great. I am not the best sailor, but as long as the boat is moving I’m fine. It’s about a 25 minute ride through shipping lanes, south of Durban harbour.

There was a howling current when we arrived at the site, and while we kitted up on the boat we drifted some way from the shot line hooked to the wreck. The sea was horrible – I alternated vomiting over the side (so embarrassing) with doing up clips on my BCD! Once we were ready, the skipper circled round and dropped us close to the shot line, but on the wrong side – so the current was taking us away from the line rather than towards it. I was with Tony, and his student – who was on the other side of the boat – had managed to get to the shot line and was holding on for dear life. In the current, his body was horizontal, like a flag in a strong wind.

Tony and I swam and swam, for what felt like an hour. We were swimming into the current at about 10 metres depth, but I think we were either standing still or moving backwards (it must have looked quite funny, if you were in that sort of mood). We could see Tony’s student, and we could see the shot line ahead of us, and then it just seemed to vanish. By that time the student had joined us, and the current had taken us out of sight of the line.

I wasn’t quite sure what we would do at that point, but Tony had a plan, which he explained to me later, on dry land. We descended to about 20 metres, and stayed there for about 20 minutes. The three of us were hanging in the blue ocean – no sign of the bottom – surrounded by shoals of fish. We could have surfaced immediately when we lost the shot line, but then we’d have had to spend the duration of the dive sitting on the boat, which was being tossed about like a cork. (I’d already demonstrated low tolerance for this kind of activity by chumming the local fish life while kitting up.) That’s if the boat had even found us – the skipper wouldn’t be expecting divers to surface after only ten minutes, and the conditions were not conducive to him spotting us as soon as we surfaced.

After about 20 minutes we began our ascent, doing a safety stop at 5 metres with an SMB deployed. When we reached the surface, the sea was mountainous. There was no sign of the boat, and even if it had been five metres away from us we’d have struggled to see it because of the size of the waves. Tony clipped our BCDs together so that we would drift more slowly (larger surface area to offer resistance to the current), and told me to keep my regulator in my mouth becuase the waves were so big. (It was on this dive that I discovered that you can vomit through a regulator… useful fact to keep in mind…)

Then we waited. The bright orange SMB stuck up between us, and in between gags I scanned the horizon (which was not very large, thanks to the waves) for the boat. The three of us floated there for 55 minutes before the boat found us. After being hauled aboard like a drowned rat I heaved over the side for good measure and then concentrated on my lollipop.

The skipper told Tony he’d been driving around looking for us, cursing Tony for not having an SMB deployed. We did – but the waves were so big that the boat was practically on top of us before it could be seen. If we hadn’t had an SMB, I very much doubt they would have found us without the aid of the NSRI.

Reels and surface marker buoy (SMB)
Different sized reels and surface marker buoys (SMB)

For the uninitiated, SMB stands for Surface Marker Buoy. They’re generally tubes of orange, red or yellow plastic, that you inflate by inserting your octo or regulator at the bottom, and purging it. It’s generally considered good practice to deploy an SMB at the safety stop when you’re on a boat dive – it warns other boats of your presence, signals that you’re ok, and gives your skipper an indication of where to come and fetch you.

If you get lost on the surface, a SMB is essential. You’re not very visible dressed from head to toe in black, and that orange tube might be the only difference between a very long time drifting on the surface, and a quick rescue. They fold up really small, and with a little practice are very straightforward to deploy. If you’re diving off a boat, or in an unfamiliar location, make sure you pack your SMB.

Bookshelf: Ocean: An Illustrated Atlas

Ocean: An Illustrated Atlas – Sylvia Earle & Linda Glover

Ocean: An Illustrated Atlas
Ocean: An Illustrated Atlas

I eyed this book for weeks and weeks before finally succumbing and placing an order online (get it here). It’s a National Geographic publication, and – as one would expect – absolutely magnificent. It’s mainly about the detailed ocean maps, but there are articles on each ocean, and on topics such as the impact of climate change, conservation and deep sea exploration.

Sylvia Earle is incredibly impressive – a living legend (according to both the US Library of Congress, and yours truly).  She has a long history of work in and on behalf of the world’s oceans, holds several diving records (she’s hardcore) and is a world-renowned scientist and explorer. She’s an expert on the subject of oil spills, and is – I think – soon set to release a book on the latest BP-led fiasco in the Gulf of Mexico.  She also holds the designation of Explorer-in-Residence at National Geographic, which sounds both like a contradiction in terms and like the coolest job in the world.

I spent most of my time in this book poring over the maps, and picking up nuggets of (potentially) useful information about where the sea is deep, where it’s shallow, and what the bottom profile of a whole host of international dive sites is like. There are water temperature maps (myriad rainbow shades showing the spectrum from freezing cold water in indigo, to lovely warm water in red). There are fascinating charts showing the position of the various (and multitudinous) information collecting devices (buoys and others) all over the world’s oceans. I also learned, thanks to one of the detailed double-page maps, that the ocean’s currents are far more complex than primary school geography led me to believe… The update on the state of oceanography and deep sea exploration was also fascinating. I was awed to discover that the average – that’s AVERAGE – depth of the world’s oceans is about 4 kilometres. As recreational open-circuit scuba divers, we can go to 40 metres with the appropriate qualification. That’s hardly scratching the surface.

This is a magnificent coffee table book, but not just one that you’ll leave lying about and not return to over and over. The impression it left me with was twofold: one, how vast and varied our oceans are. The second impression was of how little we know about what’s under the waves. That is kind of thrilling!

You can obtain a copy here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise click here.


Not getting anywhere

Often divers find that the hi-tech latest fins they bought for a packet are not giving them the pleasure and speed they thought. The slightest current has them finning as fast as possible, consuming air rapidly and not keeping up with the other divers.

A decent pair of fins allows you to use your most powerful muscle, your thigh muscles. If you fin like you ride a bicycle you will go nowhere.

The downward stroke delivers the most propulsion. Keep your leg straight and kick down slowly, bending the knee slightly on the upward stroke. You will find long leisurely fin strokes will use little energy and give you exceptional forward movement.

It is also important you have a good horizontal profile in the water because if you are swimming almost upright across the bottom you create a huge amount of resistance. Stay streamlined, keep your arms at your side and ensure all your gear is tucked and clipped close to your body.

Big fins
Ensure you have a good horizontal profile in the water (hint: this isn't good)