Cape Town’s visible shipwrecks: Update on the Commodore II

Until recently, the last time I specifically went looking for the wreck of the Commodore II was in December last year, when I went to Milnerton lagoon beach to show visiting family the beautiful view of Table Mountain. At that time tides and waves had moved the wreck further away from the lagoon mouth, and she was lying on the sand at a spot that would be partially submerged at high tide.

There has been some community discussion about the future of the wreck since late last year, but nothing changed until winter arrived.

Commodore II in December 2016
Commodore II in December 2016

Next time I went to look for the wreck, just after the Cape storm of 7 June this year, I couldn’t find it. A waiter at the Wang Thai restaurant on the beach told me he’d seen it all the way up at the old Wood Bridge at Woodbridge Island, and that people were removing pieces of the wreck and carrying them away. The storm surge had actually lodged the wreck partially under the old Wood Bridge (a sensitive National Monument constructed in 1901), and there was the potential for it to cause damage. There’s a picture of the wreck in this position on page 28 of this document (pdf).

Commodore II, secure for now
Commodore II, secure for now

A few weeks ago Gerhard Beukes, a Milnerton resident, messaged me to say that he had secured the wreck about half way down the lagoon. It had been winched free of the Wood Bridge by Koos Retief, Area Biodiversity Manager at Table Bay Nature Reserve, and had floated back down the lagoon to settle on a sandbank near Gerhard’s home.

Gerhard estimates that the wreck weighs about 25 tons, and with considerable personal effort and some financial outlay he has attached it to the lagoon bank, resting on the sandy bottom in shallow water, with chains and heavy lifting straps. The chain is secured to bolts attached to metal pipes sunk deep into the bank.

The Commodore II in Milnerton
The Commodore II in Milnerton

The arrangement will prevent the wreck from washing around inside the lagoon and potentially injuring kayakers and other water users. It will also prevent it from washing out into Table Bay and becoming a semi-submerged shipping hazard, potentially lethal to vessels (something like the Seli 1 is when her buoy goes missing).

View towards Woodbridge Island
View towards Woodbridge Island

It’s also quite visible: if you walk or drive down Esplanade Street in Milnerton with Lagoon Beach behind you, you’ll come across the remains of the Commodore II next to the bank of the lagoon on your left. The wreck is over 60 years old, which means that under South African law it is protected and removing pieces of it is an offence. I hope that having many local residents’ eyes on the wreck will ensure it some measure of safety, even in the absence of any enforcement of the relevant laws.

How can you help?

To make sure the wreck does not come loose next time a large volume of water washes down the river and into the lagoon after heavy rains, it needs some further reinforcing in its current location. This could be done with a further 5 metre length of heavy duty chain, or (preferably) two loading slings, 25mm steel cable with rings or eyes on both ends. The harness needs to be capable of holding 25 tons of wood in place even under strain, and are necessary to completely stabilise the wreck.

If you have such items lying around unused at home, or are sufficiently moved and interested by the wonderful history of the Commodore II to make a donation, please comment on this post or use the contact form here, and I’ll connect you with Gerhard, the current guardian of the Commodore II.

Are you interested in shipwrecks that you can visit without going underwater? Read more about Cape Town’s visible shipwrecks here.

Newsletter: Testing 123

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Saturday: Two launches from False Bay Yacht Club, meeting at 8.00 am

A long period 3 metre swell arrives tomorrow, drops on Saturday and then builds again on Sunday. I am planning two launches early on Saturday morning as I have several students to certify. We will meet in the car park at False Bay Yacht Club at 8.00 am. Destination unknown and weather dependent. If you’re keen on a magical mystery tour, drop me an email, text or Whatsapp.

The boat from underwater
The boat from underwater

Keeping busy

In case you missed it on the blog this week, we tested one of our self-inflating life jackets in the pool, to see what would happen when it got wet. It works!

Maritime archaeologist John Gribble is speaking at the auditorium of the South African Astronomical Observatory on Wednesday 17 August, 4.30 for 5.00 pm. His talk is entitled “From Shipwrecks to Hand Axes: An Introduction to South Africa’s Maritime and Underwater Cultural Heritage” and is described as follows:

South Africa’s maritime and underwater cultural heritage is surprisingly diverse and extremely rich. Although shipwrecks are the most obvious elements of this rich heritage resource, there are a range of pre-colonial maritime heritage resources that are less well known. This talk will introduce South Africa’s maritime and underwater cultural heritage, highlight the archaeological importance of this resource, and touch on a few examples of interesting, local historical wrecks.

There is no need to book, the event is free to the public.


Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099

Diving is addictive!

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Cape Town’s visible shipwrecks

If you’re planning a trip to Cape Town and have a love of shipwrecks on shore, you’re in luck. Visiting some of the wrecks that are visible above the water around the Cape Peninsula can be combined with your exploration of the city, and will ensure that you don’t miss any of its outdoor highlights. Some of these visible shipwrecks can be reached by road, and one or two of them will require a short boat ride.

A map showing all these wrecks can be found here. A mini travel guide to Cape Town’s shipwrecks on shore, in the form of an ebook entitled Cape Town’s Visible Shipwrecks and written by yours truly, is available here.

Table Bay to Oudekraal

What remains of RMS Athens
What remains of RMS Athens

SS Winton and SS Hermes
Commodore II
RMS Athens
MV Antipolis

Maori Bay to Kommetjie

The BOS 400 and Seahorse
The BOS 400 and Seahorse

MFV Harvest Capella
MV BOS 400 (also check out this post and this one) – also a dive site
SS Kakapo

Cape Point Nature Reserve

Ribs of the Nolloth
Ribs of the Nolloth

SS Thomas T Tucker
SS Nolloth
FV Phyllisia

False Bay

The Clan Stuart engine block seen from a stern facing position
The Clan Stuart engine block seen from a stern facing position

SS Clan Stuart – also a dive site

Bonus wreck stuff

Cape Town is well supplied with museums, many of which have maritime history items on display:

In addition to the general shipwreck artefacts on display at the museums listed above, you can check out the following specific wreck remains, some of which are not labelled or take a little bit of finding:

The shell midden at Miller’s Point

(An alternative title for this post could be: How I Got Really Excited About Walking Around on a Historical Garbage Dump.)

The secluded bay at Millers Point
The secluded bay at Millers Point

On the seaward side of the parking areas at Miller’s Point is a short string of beautiful, secluded coves demarcated by rounded granite boulders like the ones that shelter Windmill Beach, Fisherman’s Beach and Boulders Beach further north. This area is much beloved by free divers and snorkelers, and also by day trippers who make use of the braai area and massive tidal pool on weekends and during holiday seasons.

To get to these coves, and to the braai area (located on the site of a former whaling station) and tidal pool, one must walk past and over what looks like an overgrown sand dune. The truth is, it’s something a bit more special than that. For one thing, the dune vegetation is considered an excellent example of Coastal Duneveld, one of the last remaining undisturbed sites on the Cape Peninsula, for which reason you shouldn’t go trampling on it at will.

A path cut over the top of the midden
A path cut over the top of the midden

Furthermore (and the point of this post), the sand dune at Miller’s Point is actually a Late Stone Age shell midden, or ancient garbage heap. Early inhabitants of this stretch of coastline discarded the shells of the shellfish that they consumed in distinct areas, of which this is one. Embedded in the sand and between the roots of the dune vegetation are thousands and thousands of shell fragments, representing the highly nutritious marine diet of hunter gatherers who moved along the southern African coastline.

According to the City of Cape Town’s local development framework for Miller’s Point, a 2004 document, at least the top and/or edges of this midden probably date from the early 1700s:

Early pre-colonial references to the use of the site are contained in a shell midden associated with the large dune immediately west of the tidal pool recreation area. A shell midden is an accumulation of shellfish, bone and stone artefacts, which mark places where people stayed or prepared food. The presence however of early 18th Century colonial artefacts mixed in with the shell deposits suggests that part of the midden was deposited fairly recently. The preservation of this midden is important for a number of reasons, one of which is that the presence of colonial artefacts may represent evidence of contact between indigenous groups and early colonists.

Midden’s are distinguishable from random piles of shells by the fact that they contain a uniformity of species (this one is mostly the shells of abalone and limpets with some little whelks, as far as I can tell) of a size that would make them worthwhile to collect for food (i.e. not too small), as well as the remains of bones, tools and charcoal.

Steep slope of the shell midden
Steep slope of the shell midden

It goes without saying that as a historical site, which should be signposted and boardwalked to protect the vegetation and shell midden remains, you shouldn’t remove anything from the area, or be too free and easy wandering off the sandy paths, many of which have been cut straight through the midden. Hopefully SAHRA and the City of Cape Town will one day be able to protect and preserve this site. But these things take time and money, both of which are in short supply, so in the mean time let us be responsible citizens: excited about our nearby midden, but respectful and mindful of its cultural and historical value.

To further your education about shell middens, should you wish to, I recommend Shorelines, Strandlopers and Shell Middens – there is much to be discovered and investigated along this coastline of ours. For an interpretation of how our local history may have looked, you could also investigate the Sea-Change exhibition while it’s still on the Sea Point Promenade.

Cape Town’s visible shiprecks: SS Clan Stuart

The Clan Stuart is an iron shipwreck that is 100 years old this year. One of the few shipwrecks in Cape Town that is accessible as a shore dive, she is also occasionally dived by boat. Her engine block protrudes from the water at almost all states of the tide – sticking far out at spring low, and almost covered at spring high.

Heavily encrusted engine block of the Clan Stuart
Heavily encrusted engine block of the Clan Stuart

Divers tend to encounter the engine block of the Clan Stuart wreck from below, looming abruptly ahead of them as they traverse the wreck. Anglers view it from the vantage point of the beach, casting their lines in front of and around it. Dog walkers have a similar view. Everyone else sees this piece of False Bay history from the road or train, as they head into Simon’s Town or back towards Fish Hoek. Occasionally navy cadets, snorkelers, or (according to legend) scuba divers after a great white shark sighting will climb on top of the engine block, but for the most part – maybe because of its rough and unwelcoming texture – it’s left to the oyster catchers, gulls, and mussels.

The Clan Stuart engine block seen from a stern facing position
The Clan Stuart engine block seen from a stern facing position

On a rare windless day in False Bay, when the water was calm and surprisingly clean, Tony, Christo and I took a trip out to Mackerel Bay after dropping the divers off at the jetty in Simon’s Town. Tony was in the middle of doing some work on the boat, and wanted to show me how well it was going.

The Clan Stuart engine block
The Clan Stuart engine block

We were able to approach the engine block of the Clan Stuart quite closely. You can see in the photo above that the water was quite clean, and we could see the kelp on the wreck and some of the shallower wreckage. The engine of the ship was a triple expansion steam engine, and the engine block has three separate cylinders in which the hot steam was expanded.

Seaward side of the Clan Stuart engine block
Seaward side of the Clan Stuart engine block

We look forward to seeing the finished Clan Stuart documentary that some local filmmakers and researchers are compiling!

Protection of wrecks in South Africa

The issue of protection for local shipwrecks has come to the fore in the last two weeks when it became apparent that huge quantities (18 tonnes of steel this week, much brass last week) of metal have been removed from the wreck of the SAS Pietermaritzburg which lies just a kilometre from Miller’s Point. Divers are up in arms at the destruction of one of Cape Town’s most popular wreck dives, as are some who feel that because of the ship’s history, it should be left alone.

Metal salvaged from the SAS Pietermaritzburg on the jetty at Simon's Town
Metal salvaged from the SAS Pietermaritzburg on the jetty at Simon’s Town

Shipwrecks in South Africa are protected under the National Heritage Resources Act (NHRA) of 1999. The act protects wrecks as archaeological sites, but only wrecks that are more than 60 years old. This would include a wreck like the SS Maori, but not a wreck as recent as the BOS 400 or any of the Smitswinkel Bay wrecks – or, unfortunately, the SAS Pietermaritzburg (the wreck is under 20 years old, even though the ship itself is over 60).

Pieces of the SAS Pietermaritzburg on the jetty
Pieces of the SAS Pietermaritzburg on the jetty

The crucial definition (found in that section of the NHRA) relating to shipwrecks is this one:

archaeological” means: wrecks, being any vessel or aircraft, or any part thereof, which was wrecked in South Africa, whether on land, in the internal waters, the territorial waters or in the maritime culture zone of the Republic, as defined respectively in sections 3, 4 and 6 of the Maritime Zones Act, 1994 (Act No. 15 of 1994), and any cargo, debris or artefacts found or associated therewith, which is older than 60 years or which SAHRA considers to be worthy of conservation;

The act thus defines shipwrecks older than 60 years, and associated debris, as archaeological sites, which are to be administered and conserved by SAHRA (The South African Heritage Resource Agency). The regulations pertaining to treatment of archaeological sites are enumerated in Part 2, Section 35 item 4 of the NHRA, which states that no person may, without the relevant permits,

a) destroy, damage, excavate, alter, deface or otherwise disturb any archaeological or palaeontological site or any meteorite;

b) destroy, damage, excavate, remove from its original position, collect or own any archaeological or palaeontological material or object or any meteorite;

c) trade in, sell for private gain, export or attempt to export from the Republic any category of archaeological or palaeontological material or object, or any meteorite; or

d) bring onto or use at an archaeological or palaeontological site any excavation equipment or any equipment which assist in the detection or recovery of metals or archaeological and palaeontological material or objects, or use such equipment for the recovery of meteorites.

The wikivoyage site on diving in South Africa has a useful summary.

How does this apply to the Pietermaritzburg?

The SAS Pietermaritzburg was scuttled in 1994, and is thus nowhere near 60 years old. These legal protections do not apply to it. This means that you will not face a fine or prison term for removing artefacts or other items from the vessel. I imagine that some kind of permit is required to perform the salvage that is currently taking place on the wreck, but unfortunately it looks as though this permit has been issued which allows the work to go ahead.

What to do?

Attend the meeting advertised below (it’s next week), write letters to the newspaper and to the Simon’s Town Civic Association (they will forward them to the relevant authorities), and make your opinions heard! We’ll be at the meeting, and will report back on the proceedings:

It has been brought to the attention of the Society and the Civic Association that a salvor has been cutting and recovering steel from the wreck of the SAS Pietermaritzburg. This ship was scuttled off Miller’s Point to act as an artificial reef. Apart from serving the South African Navy for many years the Pietermaritzburg, originally named HMS Pelorus, led the D-Day Invasion fleet on the 6th June 1944. Many feel that in the light of this ship’s history it should be left as is.

In order for a provisional protection order to be placed on the wreck it requires a meeting to be held at which the public must express their desire in this respect. A meeting will therefore be held at the Simon’s Town Museum on Monday 30th July at 17h30 to which all interested parties are invited.

Bookshelf: Dive South Africa

Dive South Africa – Al J. Venter & John H. Visser

Dive South Africa
Dive South Africa

Veteran war correspondent (and veteran scuba diver) Al J. Venter has written over 35 books – chiefly about the various conflicts and wars he has covered, but also several about diving. Where to Dive, The Ultimate Handbook on Diving in Southern Africa, and The South African Handbook for Divers are long out of print, but his most recent volume, Dive South Africa, was published in 2009 and is available in many dive shops. I have a feeling I picked up my copy at Lightley’s Houseboats in Knysna. I read it just after I started diving, and I fear it gave me a rather skewed view of what scuba diving can be about. I reread it recently, with a little more knowledge and slightly higher expectations of the sport, and humans in general.

This book is basically about overgrown boys shooting stuff and looting things. An aggressive, macho diving culture is portrayed here, and many beautiful reefs are described in terms of what you can find there to kill with your speargun (and, presumably, feel terribly manly afterwards). FIST BUMP! Women are not mentioned without the qualifier “pretty” or “attractive” – no other attribute apparently matters. Sharks are uniformly referred to as “beasts”, “monsters” or “brutes”.

Venter covers dive locations such as Port Elizabeth, Durban, Plettenberg Bay, Knysna, Arniston, East London, Port Alfred, the Mossel Bay area and a number of other destinations with good diving. These destinations sometimes get poor exposure – local diving magazines are particularly guilty of this – at the expense of Sodwana and Aliwal Shoal (which also feature in some detail). A lot of the focus – in the coverage of all these locations – is on where to go to shoot big fish, but these are somewhat useful chapters for divers who want to go off the beaten track a little bit, and experience even more of the diving that South Africa has to offer. Use of this book as a reference – perhaps in conjunction with the Atlas of Dive Sites of Southern Africa and Mozambique is probably ideal for the explorer at heart. It is the chapters on particular destinations – some of them off the beaten track and even lacking dive centres within a hundred kilometres – that are the most useful part of this book. There is even a chapter on diving a wreck in Mozambican waters, with the attendant difficulties of operating in what was then a guerilla state.

A seasoned wreck diver, Venter devotes several chapters to important wrecks in South African waters. An entire chapter – with atmospheric photographs – is dedicated to the wreck of the Maori. Chapters are also devoted to the Colebrooke, the Klipfontein, and the City of Hankow in Saldanha. Much mention is made of the Birkenhead near Arniston. Venter has an interest both in the wrecks as they are now, and the stories behind their sinking and the rescue of their crew and passengers (if that took place). Some of the wrecks are not permitted to be dived any more, so the oral histories recorded here of what the condition of the wrecks are (and even their location) are important. The extensive looting of many of the shipwrecks Venter describes (many in False Bay and Table Bay), however, would make an archaeologist (a proper one) tear his hair out. SAHRA, the body meant to regulate these activities, doesn’t seem to care, and actually didn’t exist when a lot of the plunder and pilfering took place.

There are several chapters about sharks, including a lengthy one about Walter Bernardis of African Watersports, a veteran baited shark dive operator. Bernardis describes in detail the process for doing baited dives with large sharks such as tigers and bull (Zambezi) sharks, as well as an incident in 2006 when he himself was bitten. Strong respect and awe for the sharks is clearly present in both Venter and Bernardis, but the feeling I was left with after reading the chapter on baited tiger shark dives was that it’s a completely stupid idea, and extremely dangerous – both to the divers and to the sharks. Pictures such as the horrible one in this blog post, depicting sharks hurting themselves on the mechanisms used to chum – often involving steel cable and washing machine drums – show that this exploitation cannot be good for the sharks. It is purely a money-making racket and there is very little actual regard for the animals themselves.

Moreover, there are just too many caveats – dive briefings must take HOURS – and the sharks are not in a state that is conducive to calm interaction, which is not good for the divers’ peace of mind either. Venter’s endorsement of Bernardis’ practice of riding the sharks is disappointing, but shouldn’t surprise me I suppose! It has been extremely lucky, thus far, that no one has been badly injured by a shark in – understandably – a frustrated feeding frenzy. There have been incidents, and recently, but the practice continues and is extremely lucrative for the often completely unethical and fame-hungry operators that offer it.

Beautiful colour photographs by Peter Pinnock, Andrew Woodburn and others appear in plates in three sections of the book. Throughout the rest of the book, black and white images taken both above and below the water are featured. There is a brief chapter on underwater photography in which Venter interviews some of the more renowned practitioners of the art, and Thomas Peschak gets a mention.

The book has no index, which makes finding a piece of information after the fact – such as the chapter on diving in Knysna in preparation for our second visit there – completely impossible.

Venter has clearly led a rich, full life and enjoyed a variety of thrilling and hair-raising experiences underwater. His knowledge of our coastline is top notch. For the information on diving conditions and locations around our coast it’s a far more useful reference, however, than The Dive Spots of Southern Africa, for example, even if the information (depths, distances, etc) is slightly less comprehensive. It should NOT be the first book on South African diving that you read (purely from the perspective of the outdated “dive culture” that it presents), but it WILL expand your knowledge – of both facts and the origins of South African diving culture – if you do decide to add it to your library.

You can buy the book at your local dive shop.