Bookshelf: Scuba Confidential

Scuba Confidential: An Insider’s Guide to Becoming a Better Diver – Simon Pridmore

The natural sequel to Scuba Fundamental (though it was written later), this book is aimed at qualified divers who may have reached a plateau with the sport, and want to improve their skills and explore more of what diving has to offer. Author Simon Pridmore does not shy away from subjects such as solo diving, deep diving and technical diving, and offers valuable perspectives from a lifetime in the dive industry.

Scuba Confidential
Scuba Confidential

Pridmore begins with a subject that isn’t discussed enough (because it would supposedly scare away potential new divers): safety. He talks about why divers die, survival strategies, and the essential mental preparation that should come before diving.

Many divers who have passed the first, awkward stage of their careers on scuba seek to improve their skills. Pridmore discusses buoyancy, navigation, and the touchy subject of deco. The following section addresses some of the specialty options available to divers who wish to extend their qualifications: night diving, wreck diving, drift diving, cave diving, ice diving, and technical diving. While you may decide that some of these types of diving are definitely not for you, there is still much to learn from the techniques and thought processes required to do these types of dives safely.

Pridmore also deals extensively with equipment issues, returning to the subject of deploying an SMB, care and use of dive cylinders, mastering your BCD, and dive computers. In many instances, these items of gear are a matter of life and death, and well worth talking about. Narcosis, nitrox, rebreathers and other gas-related subjects round up the sections of the book that pertain to dive safety.

The final chapters deal with dive travel, with a section on liveaboards and a recap of some etiquette, which becomes increasingly important when one is diving with people one doesn’t know.

This book will satisfy a growing diver’s thirst for knowledge, draw attention to areas that need improvement or reflection, and prompt further exploration of dive-related subjects. It’s an excellent gift for the curious diver in your life.

Get a copy of the book here (SA), here (US) or here (UK).

False Bay safety stop

Let the divers eat cake!
Let the divers eat cake!

We had beautiful conditions in False Bay early in September, and while some of the divers were safety stopping I filmed them from the boat. The visibility was that good! Here are Georgina and Arne doing their safety stop and ascent over the reef. Note their textbook use of an SMB to indicate their position to the boat.

Boating at Buffels Bay

We spent a sunny day at Buffels Bay in the Cape Point Nature Reserve, facilitating some boat dives to Batsata Maze and an unnamed reef to the south of Smitswinkel Bay for Old Mutual Sub Aqua Club (OMSAC). We met a whale on one of the dives – he was fascinated by the divers’ orange SMB that they were using while safety stopping, and circled back repeatedly to have a look. It also took quite a bit of doing (in the form of multiple phone calls, emails and an early morning meeting with a ranger) to get permission to drive a boat full of divers and gear through the exclusion zone around Cape Point… But those are other stories.

Waiting to put the boat on the trailer at Buffels Bay
Waiting to put the boat on the trailer at Buffels Bay

The slipway at Buffels Bay is a civilised place, with no jockeying for position or aggressive fishermen. It is in a very rocky part of the bay, however, and at low tide it’s a tricky proposition to avoid clipping your motors on the bottom. On approaching the slipway, I asked the divers to hop off the boat into the water, and we moved slowly towards the shore. The water was slightly deeper than some of them were expecting!

After bringing the divemobile down and putting the trailer into the water, we manoeuvered the boat onto the trailer and winched and pushed it on. It was too shallow to drive the boat on, as I would usually. This is a hyperlapse video so it’s joyfully speeded up to make me look like Superman.

Skills: Deploying an SMB

Carrying an SMB (surface marker buoy) and knowing how to inflate it are vital skills for any diver, and particularly for divers who dive in demanding conditions that may include cold water, currents, and sites that are either far offshore or in areas where there may be a lot of boat traffic. Does that sound like Cape Town? Good, I mean it to.

We’ve posted before about how to inflate an SMB, and videos are ten a penny on youtube, but here’s one filmed in fairly common Cape Town conditions. It’s of Tony inflating an SMB that is so large he calls it his sea anchor, in murky green visibility in the Atlantic ocean. This particular SMB is also slightly negatively buoyant, which is slightly annoying as it droops downwards when you unroll it. It does the job, though, and when fully inflated can probably be seen from the moon.

Dive sites (Red Sea): Shark Reef (Ras Mohammed National Park)

Divers below us on the wall at Shark Reef
Divers below us on the wall at Shark Reef

Shark Reef is inside the Ras Mohammed National Park, an area which provided (I thought) the most spectacular dives of our Red Sea liveaboard trip. It is a magnificent advertisement for marine protected areas. The visibility was so good as to be impossible to estimate – I’ve said it was 40 metres in my dive summary below, but really, who can say? I could see as far as I wanted to see.

Coral garden at Shark Reef
Coral garden at Shark Reef

Shark Reef is part of the top of a pinnacle that drops to about 800 metres’ depth. As it approaches the surface, it splits into two smaller pinnacles which are called Shark Reef and Yolanda Reef, which we actually ended up visiting on the same dive (but I’ll write about Yolanda Reef separately). The water here is blue, like ink, and we enjoyed a nice little current that pushed us along from one pinnacle to the next with the reef on our right hand side. On the seaward side we first had deep blue water, and then a coral garden (shown in the photo above) on the plateau between Shark Reef and Yolanda Reef  that sloped gently upwards.

Divers using twinsets in the distance
Divers using twinsets in the distance

We didn’t see a lot of large fish, but I admit to being so awed by the topography and visibility that with all the head swivelling I was doing, I probably wouldn’t have noticed a whale unless it had swum right into my BCD. Because the reef drops off into such deep water, and there are such powerful currents in the region, there is always a good possibility of seeing some large pelagic creatures.

Cardinal fish around a coral head
Cardinal fish around a coral head

We did see huge, swirling schools of smaller fish – cardinal fish, fusiliers, damselfish, and others whose names I didn’t know. At the end of the dive we arrived at Yolanda Reef, where a ship carrying bathroom supplies ran aground in 1980. There was an incredibly powerful current rushing down this part of the reef from the shallows towards the deeper water, and this ended our dive!

We liked Yolanda Reef and its scattered bathroom fittings so much that we returned to dive it again a couple of hours later. The wreck of the ship is actually 200 metres below Yolanda Reef, but it made a big mess as it went down! We surfaced close to the reef in order to avoid a haircut from one of the many large dive boats tooling around the area. Kate and Veronica almost got run down by one of them, and had to ditch their SMB and descend at speed to avoid an accident. Not cool!

Dive date: 20 October 2013

Air temperature: 26 degrees

Water temperature:  27 degrees

Maximum depth: 20.9 metres

Visibility: 40 metres

Dive duration:  41 minutes

The surface is visible against the top of the reef
The surface is visible against the top of the reef

Red Sea 2013 trip report

Me, Christo, Kate and Veronica on the sundeck
Me, Christo, Kate and Veronica on the sundeck

We returned from our Red Sea liveaboard trip on Sunday, and have been slowly returning to normal life (essentially doing things other than eating, sleeping, diving in warm water with magnificent visibility, and lounging around on deck like millionaires). It’s been tough.

Two of the blue o two liveaboards at the jetty
Two of the blue o two liveaboards at the jetty

The itinerary we followed was the Northern Wrecks and Reefs one offered by blue o two. Our vessel was M/Y blue Melody, on the right in the photo above. We dived wrecks like the ThistlegormGiannis D, and Chrisoula K, and a number of reefs. We did a couple of spectacular drift dives, and on most of the wrecks there was the opportunity to go inside for the suitably qualified. It was compulsory to dive with an SMB. The most memorable reef dives were done inside the Ras Mohammed National Park.

Captain Mohammed and Tony on the fly deck
Captain Mohammed and Tony on the fly deck

Life on board the boat had a simple rhythm: dive, eat, sleep, repeat. During surface intervals the crew moved to new sites, and we either dived directly from the liveaboard or were transported short distances (in full kit) on Zodiacs – rubber ducks like the ones we use in Cape Town. During the time we were away, we had the opportunity to do 21 dives of which four were night dives. The diving was spread over six days. We skipped a couple of dives for various reasons including tiredness and illness, but overall managed to do a lot of diving in a short space of time. The warm water and helpfulness of the crew meant that it wasn’t nearly as physically taxing as you’d imagine. We used Nitrox throughout, not so much because we were doing particularly deep dives and needed the extra time (though it certainly helped), but for overall health reasons and to minimise fatigue.

Bluff Point
Bluff Point

Most of the time we were within sight of land. The landscape is mainly desert, with spectacular sunrises and sunsets. The reefs rise to within a few feet of the surface, and are clearly visible from the boat when it isn’t moving. Navigation in the Red Sea must be very tricky for the inexperienced, however. The number of spectacular wrecks is testament to this!

Sunset over the Red Sea
Sunset over the Red Sea

The day we arrived in Egypt and the day of our departure were mostly spent at the Marriott Hotel in Hurghada, waiting to board our vessel (the first day) and the plane (the last day). We lounged by the pool and checked out the private beach there, and felt very relaxed.

Prior to the trip we had some (understandable) concerns regarding the safety of travelling through Egypt to get to the liveaboard, but we kept tabs on the travel advice provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the UK. Since we would merely be in transit through Cairo airport, and would not actually be sleeping a single night on land, we were happy to go ahead with the trip. The Red Sea coastal area has been extremely calm throughout the recent unrest, and, as it derives 95% of its revenue from tourism, the locals have been keen to keep it that way.

The beach at the Marriott Hotel in Hurghada
The beach at the Marriott Hotel in Hurghada

We took a lot of photo and video on the trip, and will be sorting through it and sharing it over the next couple of months. Watch this space!

Newsletter: Green, brown and blue

Hi divers

In the midst of the red tide/dirty water!
In the midst of the red tide/dirty water!

We’ve had really odd conditions in False Bay this past week – some absolutely spectacular visibility, mixed with some decidedly brown, murky water. Conditions last Saturday were good underwater, but the wind was far too strong and the surface conditions were too bad for new divers so we called off the second Open Water dive that day.

Last Sunday we did two boat dives in False Bay, the first of which featured some truly awful visibility (picture above), and the second of which (picture below) boasted some of the best visibility that one ever sees in False Bay. There’s been an extensive red tide which has been visible from Boyes Drive for over a week, and this is seriously affecting the visibility in certain areas of the bay.

Goot deploys an SMB in the crystal clear water at Caravan Reef
Goot deploys an SMB in the crystal clear water at Caravan Reef

There was a very strong surface current (and current underwater) during last weekend’s boat dives, and we were reminded of the importance of carrying a signalling device such as an SMB, and a whistle on your inflator hose to call the boat. If you need an SMB, Andre in Simon’s Town has some very good ones which are not negatively buoyant, making them much easier to inflate while you’re below the surface.

Colourful reef life at Roman Rock
Colourful reef life at Roman Rock

We had 15 metres of visibility on the Clan Stuart on Monday, which is truly unusual for this wreck as it’s quite exposed. There seems to have been some water mixing going on over the last few days, however, and today there were patches of clean water interspersed with pockets of green, milky water at Windmill and Long Beach. The wind is blowing from a favourable direction, however, so we hope it’ll clean the bay a bit more before the weekend.

Compass sea jellies and fish in the current at Caravan Reef
Compass sea jellies and fish in the current at Caravan Reef

Weekend diving

Tomorrow I have Discover Scuba divers at Long Beach, and then some time in the pool. The weekend is chock full of Open Water and Discover Scuba Diving dives, so I’ll spend most of the time at Long Beach and, conditions permitting, Windmill, A Frame and/or the Clan Stuart.

If you’d like to tag along give me a shout. A shore dive at a familiar site is the perfect opportunity to hone your skills and test new gear.

Student news & travel

Congratulations to Gerard and Goot, both of whom have just (about half an hour ago) qualified as Enriched Air and Deep divers. These two courses are a very good idea if you plan to dive a lot in Cape Town, and – as I told them this evening – after finishing them, they’re complete divers who will only benefit from further experience.

We also found this picture of Cecil that was taken on his very first Open Water dive, late last year. Compare that to his recently-acquired cave diving qualification… Time flies! This time last year Kate was also with us, finishing her Advanced course and on the way to Divemaster. She’s now a fully-fledged PADI Instructor, having qualified in June in Sodwana.

A root mouth jellyfish eating a compass sea jelly at Caravan Reef
A root mouth jellyfish eating a compass sea jelly at Caravan Reef

While on the subject of current and former students, Tami, Keren and Nils have just finshed some (apparently wonderful) dives in the Red Sea as part of a family holiday to Israel. We’re looking forward to hearing about their trip when they get home.

Peter Southwood swimming a shallow contour at Caravan Reef (south)
Peter Southwood swimming a shallow contour at Caravan Reef (south)

If word of all this dive travel is giving you itchy feet, fear not: we have not forgotten about a dive trip for early next year, and will keep you posted as the plan emerges!

Clare and I visited OMSAC in Pinelands last Thursday evening for a talk on SASSI, and plan to visit again on Thursday 24 November to listen to Alistair Downing from Underwater Explorers talking about West Coast wrecks. OMSAC is a friendly, vibrant little club and we felt very welcome there even though technically we are members of their rivals FBUC! I will remind you of Alistair’s talk closer to the time – it’s a good opportunity to visit the club.

Regards

Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099
www.learntodivetoday.co.za
www.learntodivetoday.co.za/blog

Diving is addictive!

Dive sites: SS Lusitania

According to Peter Southwood, on the wikivoyage page for the SS Lusitania,

The wreck of the Lusitania is considered by many Cape Town divers to be one of the top wreck dives of the region. It is fairly deep, the wreck is quite broken up, but still interesting, with a number of identifiable components, and the visibility is often quite good. However, it is a physically challenging dive, quite a distance from the launch sites, and conditions are not often suitable, so it is not dived very often. No doubt these factors add to the mystique.

Waves breaking over Bellows Rock
Waves breaking over Bellows Rock

Tony and I had heard about the mystique surrounding this wreck, but because we hadn’t had an opportunity to dive it since he’s been in Cape Town (about two years now) we didn’t know much about it. Beautiful weather in the middle of winter provided an opportunity to take the long boat ride out of False Bay, past Cape Point, and further south to Bellows Rock. Bellows Rock is named for the way in which the water smashes over the top of it, and the break is apparently visible from Macassar – at the northern end of False Bay – when the swell is large.

The ship is now very broken up, after 100 years lying below Bellows Rock
The ship is now very broken up, after 100 years lying below Bellows Rock
A fish darts among pieces of the ship
A fish darts among pieces of the ship

The Lusitania was a large Portuguese liner that ran aground on Bellows Rock in late April 1911, carrying about 800 passengers. All but eight survived (a lifeboat capsized), and after a few days the ship slid down the side of Bellows Rock to where it now lies in 37 metres of water. A light Nitrox mix will help increase dive times here. She’s an old wreck – as old as the Clan Stuart – and very broken up. The wreckage is readily discernible, however, because it is not very encrusted with marine life at all. The surrounding reef, made up of granite boulders with a some nice holes, overhangs and places to look underneath, is very colourful and well encrusted with sponges. There are also massive numbers of West coast rock lobster!

Grant gave us a bone-chilling briefing that had me convinced (if one of the other divers on the boat hadn’t done it already by telling me with dewy eyes that this was “the Mount Everest of diving”) that this is quite a higher grade dive that requires wits, fitness and no small measure of courage for a scaredy-cat like me. The wreck lies right next to Bellows Rock, which is surrounded by a large area of breaking waves and white water. Descents at this site must be rapid – no messing around on the surface doing buddy checks (“PADI stuff”, as Grant called it once) – and descents are equally demanding. There’s usually a current pushing towards the north west, and this will force one onto the rock unless you take care. Grant advised us to swim gently in a north easterly direction (more or less across the current) as we ascended, and to do our safety stops at eight metres instead of the usual five. He warned us not to surface if we saw white water above us. He told us that he has “survived” being washed over Bellows Rock itself, but that it’s not an experience one wants to have unless it’s absolutely necessary.

West coast rock lobster
West coast rock lobster

The ride out to Bellows Rock is magnificent, and takes about 20-25 minutes at the speed Grant drives (very fast). The sea was nice and flat inside False Bay, but outside the bay there was a small swell. Even though it was only 2-3 metres, Bellows Rock and surrounds looked like a terrifying whirlpool to me. Grant couldn’t drop a shot line onto the wreck because it would get washed over the rock (and presumably have to stay there forever, which would be an inconvenience). The plan was for us to enter the water in two groups. The first group kitted up, and Grant drove the boat as close as he dared to the white water around the rock, so that we were right over the wreck. He counted down, slowed the boat to a crawl, and the divers were gone. As soon as they rolled off he drove away so that the second group – me, Tony, Cecil and Ivan – could get ready.

Kitting up on the boat (that's not us!)
Kitting up on the boat (that’s not us!)

Our entry probably looked just as scary, but I wasn’t actually looking at the water! Next time I do this dive I’d take more weight – for deep dives my preferred weighting is marginal and I have to swim down the first 3-5 metres; this wasn’t ideal for this dive, and because I was anxious about getting down quickly, I breathed too fast and struggled to sink! Once we were in, however, everything was fine.

What remains of the SS Lusitania
What remains of the SS Lusitania

The Lusitania was a 5 557 ton vessel, very large. There are big, complete pieces of wreckage scattered about, but very little actual structure remains. Close to Bellows Rock – which drops off precipitously below the water line – are lots of interesting bits and pieces, but getting there and away is difficult because of the current. We spent some time exploring the edge of the wreck furthest from Bellows Rock, and then swam slightly north over some rocky reef that reminded me a lot of Klein Tafelberg Reef in Hout Bay.

Sponge on the wreck site
Sponge on the wreck site

Our ascent was uneventful – we followed instructions, did a deep safety stop, and surfaced a safe distance from Bellows Rock. The water was very clean, and very cold, but as we moved further towards the entrance to False Bay the visibility declined somewhat. I’d like to dive this wreck again, but conditions have to be very special – with almost no swell and no wind – for it to be safe. I feel like a Philistine for admitting that the challenging nature of this dive was not compensated for by the specialness of the dive site itself, although it is without doubt a very interesting and varied dive.

A torch reveals the colours of the soft corals all over the site
A torch reveals the colours of the soft corals all over the site

The boat ride back past Cape Point and along the eastern shore of the Cape Point Nature Reserve was beautiful. We saw several whales, a sunfish (briefly), seabirds, and – for most of the trip – the ocean floor beneath us, as the water was crystal clear. It was, as Cecil said, an absolute treat and a wonderful way to spend a morning (all of it, even the death-defying leaps from a slow-moving boat!).

Cave just beyond Smitswinkel Bay
Cave just beyond Smitswinkel Bay

Dive date: 16 July 2011

Air temperature: 21 degrees

Water temperature: 14 degrees

Maximum depth: 37.0 metres

Visibility: 12 metres

Dive duration: 36 minutes

Tony managing the reel at the safety stop
Tony managing the reel at the safety stop

Dive briefings

Diving in Cape Town is often done without a Divemaster. Many of the dive sites are shore entries and quite often they are dived by casual divers and groups of friends.

Dive briefing on the beach at Sodwana
Dive briefing on the beach at Sodwana

Resort environments most often only conduct led dives, meaning there is a Divemaster that knows the site, the local conditions and the wildlife you will most likely encounter. These dives will invariably start with a dive briefing where the site will often be drawn on the sand or displayed in a book. The Divemaster will detail the site, the dive time, what percentage of you air will mean that you are “low on air” (often based on the depth, conditions and skills of the group), who leads, who follows and who buddies up with whom. Dive time and profile will also probably be based on the Divemaster’s computer. A good briefing will also cover lost buddy procedure, what to do in an emergency and the hand signals that will be used. Entry and exit techniques or special requirements will also feature. Some briefings will also include the signals for specific creatures.

In essence a dive briefing should cover as much as possible is a relatively short time (10 minute briefings will bore any diver to death) unless you are planning a very technical or potentially hazardous dive. The more you cover in a briefing the less chance of confusion underwater.

Diving, irrespective of the location is best conducted in a safe manner. (You get to do a lot more dives that way!) Understanding the weather, assessing the conditions and having some knowledge of the site goes a long way to ensure a good dive. Diving within your own ability also rates highly.

Cape Town offers the qualified diver a wide range of dives and the fact that there might not be a Divemaster with you does not mean you should not experience the dives. There are a few basics to consider, knowing the dive site is only possible after you have dived it a few times. Once you have decided to dive a site, read all the available information on the wikivoyage site for diving in Cape Town. This website will be your Divemaster. It will tell you how to get in and out, what skills and qualifications you need, depth, and the marine life to be expected. It will also tell you which weather conditions are best for the site. Pay close attention to the bearings if you want to see a specific feature, and know what the bearing is to get you back to shore.

Armed with all of this knowledge you and your buddy/buddies need only agree on a few issues before you set off. Plan your dive and dive your plan. If you agree it will be a 40 minute dive, stick to that. If you decide on who will lead then keep the order as such. Who your buddy will be and depth are important and it is important to agree on signals. As a qualified diver you are responsible for your own air so you need not have a Divemaster check it for you. If you are a group that dive together often then its best to base the dive time on the member with the worst air consumption, unless they are happy to return to shore alone. You will need a compass, and you will need to read the site details together to ensure you all have a good idea of the environment and likely conditions. You must have an SMB as this avoids the potential haircut you can receive from a passing boat.

It should not be required to cover this but I will ANYWAY, Make sure your equipment is proper, the correct size, and in serviceable condition. Don’t enter the water if you have an equipment malfunction or a leak or any other issue. Don’t think “we won’t be deep,” or “we won’t be far from the shore” and dive with faulty equipment. Should an emergency arise and you are swept out to sea, that small leak on you BCD will soon be a huge problem.

Diving is a very safe sport if you follow the rules, do the checks, and dive within your training. Do these things and you will have thousands of dives, each one often better that the last one.

Skills: Inflating an SMB

Clare's SMB going south
Clare’s SMB going south

I have often watched divers having difficulty inflating their SMBs. Usually when you haul out the SMB it sinks, you have one hand on the SMB trying to get it to be higher than your octo and the other hand on your octo. Somehow it just won’t float like you want it to and by the time you get some some semblance of control it’s full and hauling you to the surface. I too have experienced this and this might help.

SMB (with smiley face), D ring and pool noodle
SMB (with smiley face), D ring and pool noodle

Next dive try this: attach a small piece of pool noodle to the D-ring on the top of the SMB. If you don’t have a decent SMB that will allow this, put the piece of pool noodle inside the SMB. This will ensure the SMB has the correct profile for inflation. Deflate your BCD a little to make you negatively buoyant so the SMB doesnt haul you to the surface.

Clare inflating an SMB
Clare inflating an SMB

Instead of using your octo, hold the SMB open and exhale into it (hold the SMB above you and let it capture your exhalation bubbles). This will inflate it enough for its trip to the surface. Do NOT remove your regulator and use it to inflate an SMB!