Dive sites: Steenbras Deep

On Sunday 11 March, since the Cape Argus Pick n Pay Cycle Tour was going to prohibit access to basically the entire peninsula, we decided to take an expedition out to the eastern side of False Bay to do a boat dive with Indigo Scuba, run by Kate and Deon Jonker. We’ve been meaning to do this for ages and ages, so we were very glad to finally get ourselves over there! The southeaster (which had blown strongly in the few days prior to the 11th) actually cleans up the eastern side of False Bay while it messes up the western side, or at least has some positive effect on visibility. So while we are diving in the Atlantic during the summer, Indigo launches out of Gordon’s Bay and explores local dive sites such as Pinnacles, Cow and Calf, and the Steenbras River Mouth.

Deon Jonker skippering the Indigo Scuba dive boat
Deon Jonker skippering the Indigo Scuba dive boat

We met at Indigo Scuba in the morning, loaded up the boat, and then drove the 5 minutes to Harbour Island in Gordon’s Bay, from where we launched. It’s an extremely civilised launch site and overall experience… The foul-mouthed snoek slinging fishermen crowding Miller’s Point seemed like a bad dream!

West coast rock lobster buddy pair
West coast rock lobster buddy pair

It’s about 11 kilometres from Harbour Island to Steenbras Deep, and one has the feeling of being quite far out to sea – although we could see the mountains surrounding False Bay on both sides of us. The wind was stronger than the weather man had predicted, giving rise to some quite serious wind chop and a bumpy and wet boat ride. When we arrived at the reef we could see that there was more wave action on top of the pinnacles than in the deeper water surrounding them. Deon dropped a shot on one of the two pinnacles that comprise the reef (the top of the pinnacle we dropped onto is at about 18 metres, with the sand at about 30 metres). A murky descent (standard for False Bay in summer!) down the shot line led us to the top of the pinnacle, where visibility was only about 2 metres and it was very green.

Bull klipfish
Bull klipfish

As we ventured slightly deeper we encountered some invigorating (ahem!) thermoclines (one of them was actually visible as a haze in the water) and improved visibility. There was quite a strong current in places, and lots of surge.

There are many similarities between the reefs we dive on the western side of False Bay, but the overall pattern of the sea life was subtly different. The fish seemed far less skittish than their compatriots to the west, and happily swam within a few tens of centimetres from my mask. Nudibranchs abound, and close inspection of the corals covering the rocks is well rewarded. There seemed to be fewer sea cucumbers, and feather stars were not quite as dominant as they are in some of the other parts of False Bay. The corals, sponges and sea fans are beautiful and very numerous.

The sand around the reef is very coarse and full of shells, and the reef itself abounds with cracks, gullies, small pointy pinnacles, and walls that can be traversed at a variety of depths. The gullies appear to be much beloved by west coast rock lobster, and shysharks were quite common too.

This reef is not in a marine protected area (MPA) – none of the eastern False Bay dive sites are. Kate, who regularly dives both sides of the bay, says she can see a distinct difference in the number of fish that they see on “their” side of the bay compared to the western side. So even if I am quite cynical about the competence of the administration and will to police the MPAs, clearly they are having some effect!

Dive date: 11 March 2012

Air temperature: 29 degrees

Water temperature: 12 degrees

Maximum depth: 24.8 metres

Visibility: 2-10 metres

Dive duration: 38 minutes

Sea life: Doublesash butterflyfish

Tony first found doublesash butterflyfish at Long Beach in Simon’s Town. They look as though they belong in tropical water, and indeed are related to the butterflyfish one sees further north in Sodwana and Mozambique. They are brightly coloured and so exciting to see!

Two doublesash butterflyfish under the wreck at Long Beach
Two doublesash butterflyfish under the wreck at Long Beach

They mostly eat tubeworm tentacles, and (our observations bear this out) adults are often seen in pairs. These two live under one of the wrecks at Long Beach. I photographed them on a night dive. Tony has seen juveniles further south at Long Beach in front of the Admiral’s Beach – one of them the size of a R2 coin.

Doublesash butterflyfish at Long Beach
Doublesash butterflyfish at Long Beach

This short video clip was filmed by Tony on a very surgy day. You can see the wreck moving up and down vigorously. Watch out for the barehead gobies and for the klipfish who comes to assert his ownership of the territory. The butterflyfish turns on his side occasionally to get out from underneath the boat!

Dive sites (Sodwana): Stringer

Stringer is made up of two separate, small outcrops separated by a sand strip about 20 metres wide. It’s a fish nursery, teeming with life, and we saw juveniles galore!

Dive date: 19 April 2011

Air temperature: 23 degrees

Water temperature: 24 degrees

Maximum depth: 13.8 metres

Visibility: 10 metres

Dive duration: 55 minutes

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!

Diving in poor conditions

There is a constant debate on whether learning to dive in ideal conditions as opposed to atrocious conditions creates a solid diver or turns people away from diving forever.

There are two schools of thought:

  1. Those that say if you successfully complete your Open Water dives in poor visibility, rough conditions and lousy weather it makes you a stronger more capable diver able to enjoy future dives in great conditions safe in the knowledge that you know you are capable in poor conditions. This group believe that in poor conditions you will learn more, and have a sense of how current, surge and poor visibility affect your diving. This is then meant to make you a stronger and more experienced diver.
  2. Those who claim that it is better to teach in ideal conditions with great visibility and build confidence before being subjected to some harsh sea conditions . This group believe that building confidence in idea conditions creates a diver comfortable with all aspects of the skills and gear you require in a safe environment before having to deal with the harsh sea conditions sometimes experienced.

Personally I am a strong supporter of the second school of thought. I firmly believe that becoming comfortable with the skills, equipment and general dive protocol is more easily achieved in idea conditions.

Flat, clear summer seas on the Atlantic seaboard (and the Blue Flash boat)
Flat, clear summer seas on the Atlantic seaboard (and the Blue Flash boat)

The urge to carry on diving is largely motivated by the level of enjoyment of the last dive you did and what you saw that intrigued you. The learning curve for new divers is very steep and students go from feeling clumsy and out of control to comfortable within a few dives.

If your training has been good then you have control of your buoyancy, your breathing and a good grasp of the concept of diving. What you lack is experience and this comes in leaps and bounds with every dive you do. Your buoyancy takes a while to fine tune, as does your breathing and weighting, but the more you dive the quicker this happens. Diving once a month for example does not give you as much confidence and experience as quickly as you would get if you did three dives on one day every three months.

Once you have done several dives in good conditions you are comfortable in your gear and have control of your breathing and buoyancy. If then faced with poor conditions your main concern then is only the environment and if you can’t see your hand in front of you it is less intimidating knowing you can lay a hand on your pressure gauge instantly, your hand finds your inflator the instant you look for it and so on.

As an inexperienced diver groping around in poor conditions for your gauge or inflator because you are not yet comfortable in your gear increases you stress levels which in turn increase your breathing rate. A stressed diver groping around trying to find a pressure gauge will be a candidate for a panic attack. Many an ex-diver will tell you that the reason they no longer dive is due to a “bad experience”.

So I believe that you should learn to dive in great conditions, build your confidence slowly and avoid diving when conditions are sketchy. This way even a bad day of diving will beat a good day in the office.

Sodwana 2011 trip report

We have recently returned from another successful dive trip to Sodwana Bay. For those that have not been there, it is a sheltered bay just south of the Mozambique border and is home to one of the top dive sites in the world. The coastline consists of approx. 12-15 kilometres of pristine reef with much of it at a depth of between 12 and 20 metres. There are deeper sites there too but for the vast majority of recreational divers, Two Mile, Five Mile and Nine Mile reef are diving destinations unparalleled in South Africa.

Swimming pool and dining area (on the right) at Coral Divers
Swimming pool and dining area (on the right) at Coral Divers

Sodwana Bay has a selection of 10-15 dive operators and they all have something special to offer. We chose Coral Divers on both the trips we have done for a host of reasons. The camp runs perfectly, the food is excellent, the dive planning and beach control is exceptional and they are very accommodating when it comes to divers chopping and changing sites and dives. The boats are in good condition and we had not a single reason to complain about anything. They transport you to and from the beach by means of a covered trailer with benches towed slowly by a tractor, they have gear crates, showers and baths for gear rinsing and adequate place to hang your gear to dry. Their camp is the closest to the beach of all the dive operators which makes things very quick and easy when you head out for your day’s dives.

The tractor (left) and gear rinsing and drying area
The tractor (left) and gear rinsing and drying area

They run a tight ship and everything runs on schedule. There seems to be adequate staff to ensure all this happens. The skipper we had (JERRY!) and the Divemaster (Darryl) allocated to our boat were superb, experienced and flexible. The group was a mixture of qualified divers and Open Water students and they ensured we dived safe sites that were suitable for all levels. You may find better service elsewhere in Sodwana but Coral Divers have ensured that both our trips were exceptional events so I can’t imagine trying someone else.

Naughty monkeys outside one of the cabins
Naughty monkeys outside one of the cabins

Accommodation options range from safari tents erected on wooden decking with corrugated roofing overhead (on special at the moment for R50 per person per night) to wooden cabins with no bathroom (you use the communal ablutions, which are spotless), a bathroom attached to the cabin but that must be accessed from outside, or a full en suite arrangement. Bedding and mosquito nets are provided in the cabins and everything is in good repair.

There is a large kitchen with self-catering facilities and tons of secure fridge space, or you can order from the restaurant. The food is hearty and there’s something to please everyone. A buffet is also available at breakfast and dinner. If you want a cheap holiday you can do it very comfortably here, but it’s also possible to have a fully luxurious stay where all your requirements are met.

The shady dive camp is home to large troupes of monkeys, mongooses, some cats and their kittens, squirrels, and even some small deer. Further away from the main building are camping and caravan sites. We’ve gone out of season both times we’ve visited because we prefer not to have to queue to get to the beach! It can get very busy over public holidays and at peak times.

As far as the dives went, Clare will write some posts about them. Suffice it to say that while it was slightly surgy, the visibility ranged from 10 to 25 metres, water temperatures were never lower than 23 degrees, and we saw fish, coral, turtles, rays, dolphins, and tropical marine life in abundance!