Diving in the I&J Ocean Exhibit at the Two Oceans Aquarium

The I&J Ocean Exhibit is the largest tank at the Two Oceans Aquarium, and has been open since mid-2016. It features a full 10 metre long tunnel, and is home to Yoshi the turtle, two green turtles, bonito, musselcracker, a guitarfish, some rays, and several other species. Watching the animals being fed at 12pm on a Sunday is a highlight of my monthly shift at the aquarium.

Yoshi the loggerhead turtle
Yoshi the loggerhead turtle

I needed to dive in the tank, and Tony and I were lucky to be escorted by the wonderful Angie, who has been a Divemaster at the aquarium for several years. The dive is easy: the tank is shallow, warm, and the visibility is to all intents and purposes limitless. Angie pointed out that in an out of air situation, we’d just do a CESA to the surface. (This makes the aquarium perhaps the only location you’d use this skill in its pure form…) The animals aren’t dangerous, but they need to be respected, and the soft acrylic windows pose a particular challenge as a careless bump with some dive gear would scratch them from the inside.

Angie and Bob the green turtle
Angie and Bob the green turtle

The green turtles are special. Bob was found in poor shape on the beach at De Hoop when he was the size of a dinner plate, and after several months in intensive care, regurgitated a quantity of plastic, including ribbons and balloons. Now, he is friendly and very attached to humans – he especially loves to have his shell tickled, and wriggles from side to side in appreciation. As a result of the amount of time he spent in veterinary care, he will stay at the aquarium for his own safety.

Tony and Sandy the green turtle
Tony and Sandy the green turtle

Sandy was most likely struck by a boat propellor near Witsand at the mouth of the Breede river. The scars are visible on her carapace in the photo above. She was recently discovered to be definitely female (turtles are tricky). She’s not quite as interested in humans as Bob is, but she was mesmerised by her tiny reflection in Tony’s camera lens, and approached closer and closer to examine it.

The giant guitarfish
The giant guitarfish

In addition to the turtles, Tony enjoyed the fantastic giant guitarfish, and spent much of the dive looking for it. The rays are like puppies, full of youthful exuberance and energy. The schooling fish mostly keep out of the way of the divers, near the surface of the tank, but are a treat to be close to.

We last dived in the aquarium a couple of years ago. The kelp forest, which was an enormously enjoyable dive, is currently closed for renovations but will be re-opening soon. The new shark exhibit will also be open for dives soon (it is already open for looking at, with nine ragged tooth sharks in residence). Meanwhile, the Ocean Exhibit provides more than enough diversion on a day that doesn’t offer good enough weather for a sea dive.

Dive date: 29 April 2017

Air temperature: 30 degrees

Water temperature:  24.8 degrees

Maximum depth: 6.1  metres

Visibility: 15 metres

Dive duration: 36 minutes

Diving with an alpha flag

The vast majority of new divers in Cape Town know where Long Beach in Simon’s Town is. Irrespective of the dive school you choose for Open Water training it is in most cases quite likely you will do at least one dive at Long Beach. There is a very good reason for this: it is diveable in most conditions as is usually the last place on the coastline to be blown out. It is a safe environment and a perfect place for training as it is by far one of the easiest shore entries around.

Divers enter the water as a rubberduck speeds past
Divers enter the water as a rubberduck speeds past

Although it is known to all dive trainers as a training site, very few visitors know this and not all water users (boaters, kayakers and paddle-skiers) are aware of your presence in the water. The average boater does not know the tell-tale signs of bubbles divers make, and why should he? But being struck by a paddle-ski, a propeller, or the keel of a sailboat is going to hurt you and it could easily kill you.

It is not too often that boats buzz by the beach, but on occasion the Navy boats as well as paddlers, and fishermen drive by as well as visitors to the coast with their recreational boats. Even the NSRI uses this beach for training of their boat crews on occasion. Part of a skipper’s training is to be aware of things floating on the surface: buoys could indicate nets, for example, that would snag the propeller, and thus boaters are trained to avoid or approach carefully any such flotation device.

There is no evidence of a surface marker buoy
There is no evidence of a surface marker buoy

So why do most divers dive without any form of warning to a boat that they are there, and why would they do so when part of what they are teaching new divers involves ascending in random spots all over the area? “We seldom ascend during a dive” is most often the answer as to why yet there are several surface skills, training ascents and the constant risk of an unplanned ascent by a new diver coming to terms with buoyancy (or in some cases having a mild panic attack and dashing to the surface).

The simple answer is that it is not required by law in South Africa to tow a buoy or alpha flag… But then it’s not law that as an Open Water diver you can’t go to 50 metres during a dive. You are taught not to exceed your training level, your logic will also most likely tell you it’s a risky plan, but if you are foolish enough to try who would stop you?

More divers entering the water without a buoy or flag
More divers entering the water without a buoy or flag

It is fortunate that the dive industry is largely self-regulated and as divers we are free to explore the ocean at will. Scuba diving is a very safe sport and provided you stay within the guidelines of you training agency you will have thousands of safe and enjoyable dives. When doing a boat dive, the skipper will typically erect an Alpha flag to indicate to other boats that he has divers in the water (if your skipper doesn’t do this, it’s time to switch dive charters to one that’s more safety conscious).

You could dive without a pressure gauge – but that would be foolish – you could dive without a mask, but then you would see very little, and you could also dive without an alpha flag, but none of the surface water users would see you or know you were there. Would that not be foolish?

Article: Wired on escaping from a submarine

Ever wondered whether submariners can escape when their vessel floods, catches on fire, or needs to be ditched for some other reason? Wired.com, source of many nifty nuggets of joy, has a diagram and a video of a training facility located in the United States, for submariners to practice escaping their submarines. Check out the article here.

The dude is yelling in the video to release air from his lungs, thus avoiding a lung over-expansion injury. It’s the same reason you exhale when doing a CESA, as a scuba diver.

FAQ: Don’t you feel claustrophobic underwater?

Many people seem to think that they’ll experience claustrophobia when they put their faces in the water, with their breathing restricted to their regulator, wearing a wetsuit, and having all that water around them.

Here are some facts…

Breathing from a regulator

A regulator or demand valve is a brilliantly designed piece of equipment that attaches to a hose linked to a cylinder of compressed air. It’s constructed so that it’s easy to breathe from – no more effort is required than breathing without one, it gives you as much air as you need, and you can even cough or (I know this from sad experience) vomit with it in your mouth and you won’t have ANY trouble at all with the consequences… If you get my drift. In the unlikely event that it fails, it won’t fail in the “off” position and stop your air supply; it will free flow (deliver a continuous stream of air). One of the skills you do in your Open Water course is breathing off a free-flowing regulator, so you are fully equipped to handle this situation.

Your regulator delivers more than enough air, NOT less than you get breathing on land. If you do at some point feel as though you’re not getting enough, it’s because you’re breathing too shallowly. When you dive, your breathing must be deep and slow. Extracting the full goodness out of each breath maximises your enjoyment: your air will last longer, and you’ll feel more relaxed.

Bubbles rising in the Atlantic
Bubbles rising in the Atlantic

Having to breathe out of your regulator – as opposed to being able to go take one breath in each corner of the room, or open your mouth as wide as it can go – is not restrictive at all. If you think about it, when you breathe on land, you’re drawing in the air that is in front of your face. There’s no hardship in not being able to take in the air from down the passageway – that’s not where you are.

What’s more, having the regulator in your mouth only feels funny for the first few minutes. It’s made with soft rubbery flanges that fit in your mouth (mouthpieces come in different sizes, too) and once it’s seated properly you won’t even know it’s there. If you’ve snorkeled, you know what it feels like to have a mouthpiece between your teeth. Breathing from a regulator is easier than breathing from a snorkel, and what’s more you don’t have to worry about rogue waves splashing water into your breathing apparatus! So if you can snorkel, you can definitely scuba dive.

All that equipment

Some people worry about wearing a mask, and think they might feel closed in with one covering their eyes and nose. Firstly, it’s important to note that it’s essential for the mask to cover your nose so that you can equalise your ears . If you wore swimmers’ goggles, they would get compressed onto your face at depth (which would hurt, and might look funny). This way, you can exhale through your nose into the mask to equalise (one of many techniques).

To be honest, a mask is no more claustrophobic to wear than a pair of wrap around sunglasses, and it’s probably going to be a lot more comfortable once you’ve found the one that suits your face shape.

Oscar enjoying all that space
Oscar enjoying all that space

Others worry about wearing a wetsuit, that they won’t feel free to move. They’re right about that: wearing a wetsuit on land is one of the least comfortable things you can do. They’re hot, restrictive, and tight. In the water, however, you won’t even notice it’s there. Wetsuits keep you warm (important in the Cape) and protect you from marine creatures that might sting or scratch you as you pass through their domain. Deciding you won’t like or try diving because wetsuits make you feel cramped is like deciding you aren’t going to eat Haagen-Dazs ice cream because you don’t like the font they write their product labels in.

All that water

Finally, some people worry that they’ll feel trapped under the weight of all the water above them, and that it’s impossibly far to get to the surface. There are a few answers to this:

Firstly, you’ll learn a skill called a CESA, or Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent, on your Open Water course. This enables you to swim for the surface in a controlled, non-panicky manner if you need to. This is not something you’ll just do if you’re feeling uncomfortable one day – it’s for when you run out of air and have no buddy nearby to borrow an octo from.

Second, when you learn to dive you’re not suddenly going to start spending all your time at 30 metres. The PADI Open Water course qualifies you to dive to 18 metres, and you have to do an Advanced course to get to 30 metres, and a Deep specialty to get to 40 metres. So these things come with time. Some divers have no interest in deep diving, and there’s nothing wrong with that – Tony and I spend most of our time in less than 10 metres of water because the best and easiest photographic opportunities are there, and we can stay down a looooong time because our air lasts forever! Your first diving experiences will be in relatively shallow water, and only as you get used to being underwater will your instructor gradually increase the depth you go to.

Looking up in the clear Atlantic
Looking up in the clear Atlantic

I will admit that when visibility is poor, one loses the feeling of having three beautiful dimensions around one to play in. But this is infrequent, and if you’re diving for fun, then you hopefully won’t have to get in the water when conditions aren’t great (unless you’re desperate to get wet, in which case you won’t care!). But the feeling of space when one drops into the gin-clear water of the Atlantic on a summer’s day is so extreme as to make one almost dizzy. Being underwater is the closest I get to flying, and I love it.

In conclusion, diving involves a fair amount of unfamiliar equipment, and is quite different to our day-to-day experiences as human beings on planet earth. You may not like it; but you probably will. If you’re not sure, sign up for a Discover Scuba Diving experience (DSD). Tony even sometimes does these in people’s swimming pools – just to give you a taste of the freedom that comes with breathing underwater. You can make an educated decision about diving after that.

Sea life: Klipfish

Lazy klipfish at Long Beach
Lazy klipfish at Long Beach

I find klipfish the most frustrating creatures to identify – they come in a bewildering array of colours and patterns, and I am waiting impatiently for Guido Zsilavecz of SURG‘s book on klipfish to be completed!

Klipfish and sea lettuce
Klipfish and sea lettuce at Long Beach

Klipfish are lazy swimmers, and green and brown ones are usually seen very well camouflaged among fronds of sea lettuce or kelp. They tend to move in exactly the same way as the seaweed, allowing themselves to be pushed around by the surge, which makes them hard to spot.

Klipfish hiding on kelp
Klipfish hiding on kelp at Long Beach

There are also the more colourful variety – busy purple patterns being the most common – who hide themselves where there’s a lot of coraline algae and other purple seaweed growth. While they tend to spend most of their time curled lazily against the side of rocks or on the pipeline, they can swim away with startling speed when they feel nervous.

Small klipfish at Long Beach
Small klipfish at Long Beach

These fish usually seem to be solitary, but Tony and I saw a pair of them fighting – we think – at Long Beach a week or two ago. Since they seem fairly territorial, that may have been the source of the dispute. Whatever they were doing, it was the first time we’ve seen more than one of these fish in the same place, let alone interacting.

Fighting klipfish
Fighting klipfish at Long Beach

On Saturday I met a klipfish at Long Beach who was incredibly tame. He submitted to (and seemed to enjoy) having his chin tickled, head butted my mask a few times, and nibbled at my bubbles after trying to swim into by BC. I was interacting with him while Tony was doing the CESA skill with a student, and it was wonderful. Feeling that the fish are noticing you, rather than just swimming past oblivious (or hiding in panic), is very special.

Klipfish getting his chin tickled
Klipfish getting his chin tickled
Coming in for a kiss
Coming in for a kiss

Here’s an extremely dodgy video (the sea lettuce was somewhat annoying) of me and Corné (with the orange SMB) having some quality klipfish time.

Out of air!

Out of air emergencies should not happen. Diving safely includes being sure that you have checked everything yourself, doing a buddy check and diving within your own personal limits. Always avoid making too many changes to your gear configuration and don’t test more than one new item at a time unless you are in shallow, confined water.

Most incidents are a culmination of several small mishaps and would most likely not have occurred had just one error being omitted. The other issue to be aware of is trusting your training and avoid thinking you know better. Here’s why…

I was diving in Mozambique, did a backward roll, and a negative entry (that’s when you don’t hang around on the surface with an inflated BCD, but start your descent immediately). Now, doing negative entries is not ideal, but the surface current was strong, we were diving a small reef and I wanted to get down quickly. So after the roll I finned down head first as fast as I could, without a buddy… Mistakes number one and two.

At 18 meters I found breathing to be difficult. Having just over-exerted myself I stopped to catch my breath but found as I reached the end of my breath my regulator stopped giving me air. Slow breaths were okay but it would not deliver what I needed. I instinctively looked at my pressure gauge, plenty of air in the cylinder but the needle dropped off as I took a deep breath.

“AHA my cylinder is not all the way open,” I thought so I reached up to try and check. It felt open, but convinced I was not doing it properly I took my kit off, held it in front of me and checked. The cylinder was all the way open, and now suddenly I was not getting air at all. I swam to the surface, slowing at about 8 metres to grab a few breaths from a buddy pair descending slowly.

On the surface I signaled the boat and whilst remaining in the water had the top man change my regulators – mistake number three. Straight back down to 18 metres I went, breathing normally and as soon as I turned face down to scan the sea for the group I ran out of air again. Back to the surface as fast as possible! A CESA from 18 metres is relatively difficult once you are stressed and short of breath from over exertion.

On the second descent logic was telling me the problem had to be my cylinder, but arguing with myself I dismissed this as I had serviced my cylinder less than three months prior to this and felt it could not possibly be at fault.

Back in camp I stripped my pillar valve and found it to be blocked with rust and sand. How could this be?

After investigating it turns out the cylinder was dropped from a vehicle a few weeks before this by the compressor operator. The pillar valve was damaged, so they drained it in a hurry, causing condensation, dropped it again in the sand, rinsed it with the water used for cooling cylinders whilst filling (salty water), emptied the water out, replaced the pillar valve with a used one, without a snorkel (a small pipe that runs from the bottom of the pillar valve into the cylinder). I got it back full of air unaware of the incident. The salty water inside rusted the cylinder, the absence of a snorkel meant that every time I was pointed head down the scales inside slowly drifted into the pillar valve until it was totally blocked.

It is not unusual for a little spot of rust to develop in a cylinder. It’s not ideal but it won’t kill you. However a snorkel ensures the pillar valve is supplied with clean air and the scales are kept out – in my situation in Mozambique, the scales would have settled around the top of the snorkel where it attaches to the pillar valve, instead of blocking the valve completely. The other end of the snorkel would have been a bit further into the cylinder, drawing clean air. When I took my cylinders to Orca Industries recently for their annual maintenance, I was very impressed that they insisted on checking each one for snorkels, and fitting them if they were absent.