Scuba gear: to buy, or not to buy?

Imagine this scenario

You are in the middle of your Open Water course. There is possibly some pressure from your instructor/dive centre to make a scuba gear purchase. It is time to stop and think.

This will not make me very popular in the dive industry…  But I do not recommend you buy your first set of dive gear without a fair amount of research. Sure, this can easily be done on the web or in one day by visiting a few dive centers, but the reality of the matter is you are new to the sport, you have yet to build a vast data bank in your head of the multitude of options available, you are impressed by your instructor’s opinion, and are swayed into buying the gear. A month later you decide diving is not for you, sky diving is the next option and you try and offload the gear with a ”hardly used dive gear” advert… You are going to lose money.

Wetsuit only worn once
Don't let this be you!

But let’s be positive and say that you have decided that diving is the best thing you can do clothed. Some time has passed. You are done with the Adventures in Diving, have at least 10 dives in your dive log and want to dive the world.

You have booked your flights to the Red Sea and are starting to pack, thrilled with the idea of arriving at the dive centre with all of your own gear looking like a hard core diver. You even have your own heavy duty dive bag with wheels,  handles and pockets galore.

You are now faced with a dilemma…

That fancy dive bag, the wheeled one with pockets, weighs 6 kgs empty. That won’t work, so you haul out the old lightweight bag you used on your previous travels.

The water temperature where you are going is 30 degrees, ouch, that 7mm two piece wetsuit won’t work there, so you decide to leave it at home and rent one.  You discover your fins weigh a ton and are so long they wont fit in the old travel bag you are now using for weight saving, your very expensive BCD with 6 pockets, a back plate and 8 D-rings is also far too heavy… and to top it all your top of the range regulator is way too expensive for check in luggage and way too heavy for hand luggage. You decide to leave the whole lot at home and rent the hard and soft gear at your destination.

Ah, that ”brightest dive light in the world” that you bought, weighing in at 3kgs, is a bit too heavy so you decide to leave it at home too, and rent a light.

Dive lights
You can get dive lights in a wide variety of strengths, shapes, weights and profiles. Do your research!

So you arrive at your destination, rent everything you need and have a wonderful trip. You cram as many dives possible into every day and head home feeling wonderful. On the way home you reminisce on the dives, replaying them in your mind over and over again (this always happens when you are a dive junkie, trust me).

  • ”That lightweight BCD I used with rear inflation is much more comfortable than my side inflation one… Hmm…”
  • ”The rental dive torch was small, light and compact, and fitted easily into the one tiny pocket on the BCD, I wonder why I thought I need a BCD with 6 pockets? Hmm…”
  • ”It was real easy getting into the rental wetsuit with a zip in front, why does my wetsuit not have that? Hmm…”
  • “Those short fins were so light and never made my legs tired – why do my fins feel so heavy?… Hmm!”
  • ”That tiny mask they gave me was a breeze to clear, but mine is so big it takes several breaths to empty. Hmm…”

When you arrive home you re-evaluate you dive gear. It’s not junk, by no means, but not quite what you have found to be the best option. So you embark on a long, slow, deliberate road to replace these items with items in the style you have found to be ”your comfort zone”.

What to do?

This point – of having well-formed preferences for different types of gear – is only reached once you have dived for a while, once you have done 10-20 dives. There is no way you are able to reach this point half way into your Open Water course.

Many people will advocate that in the interest of health and hygiene you purchase your own soft gear, wetsuit, booties, fins, mask and snorkel, and some dive centres will only conduct your training if you make this purchase.

In all fairness to the dive centre, sales person, or your instructor, they will give you sound advice, and no manufacturer makes ”junk” in this industry. But the advice will be based on their own style, based on what they have available in their store and they will seldom recommend you shop around. It would be foolish to do so, but before you rush out and buy, try different configurations, rent different gear and decide what works for you.

For some general advice about buying gear, you can visit my follow-up posts on hard (BCD, regulator, cylinder) and soft (wetsuit, mask, fins, booties) gear.

Buying soft gear

Booties

Buying booties is a safe bet as (unless you’re still growing) your feet won’t change size nor will they overheat in warm climates. If you plan to dive in Cape Town (or any other cold water location), rather go for a thick pair of at least 5mm – believe me, it makes a huge difference!

Mask

Buy an entry level mask so if it needs replacement a few months later it is not a huge financial loss. Besides, a spare mask is always a bonus. Before you decide on a mask try a black skirted mask (the skirt is the soft rubbery material around the glass) and focus on the angle of vision, then try a clear skirted mask and see how different the angle of vision is. Remember that the bigger the mask the greater the volume of water it will hold, so if you despised the mask clearing skill during your training avoid a huge volume mask if possible. Nothing spoils a perfect dive more than a leaky, uncomfortable mask.

Underwater
Choose your mask carefully...
Masks
The black mask holds 180ml of water, while the blue mask on the right holds 370ml - that's more than a full can of cooldrink!

Wetsuit

If your body shape is not “average” (and very few of us are) then an off the shelf wetsuit will most likely not fit as well as a custom made one. Don’t be fooled into believing that a custom made suit is way more expensive – it seldom is – and most wetsuit manufacturers will adjust, re-shape and modify the suit later to ensure a perfect fit. It’s also fairly easy to adjust a wetsuit after the fact if your body shape or composition changes drastically. Ask a lot of questions before buying a wetsuit and try them all on. Too often the effort of getting in and out of a wetsuit in a dive centre makes the second or third one feel comfortable by default… you’re too tired to keep going.

Some things to think about: where do you want the zips – front or back, straight or on the diagonal? How long should they be? Two piece or one piece? Do you want a separate hoodie, or do you want it attached to the suit? How thick should the suit be? What should the neckline be like?

Fins

Fin styles and size are varied and depending on your level of fitness, swimming skills and diving style, the difference between a huge heavy fin and a lightweight shorter fin will make a huge difference to the incidence of cramp whilst diving. Fins also affect your buoyancy and your profile underwater.

Fins
Fins come in a range of size and shapes. Don't call them flippers!

Buying hard gear

Buoyancy Control Device (BCD)

Buying a BCD is a huge decision. The difference between a rear inflation and a side inflation is significant. Do you want integrated weights or not? What about twin dump valves on the rear of the bladder? Lever inflation or button inflation? Back plate or not? If you don’t know what all these terms describe then it is safe to say you are not ready to part with your hard earned cash just yet.

Regulator

If you plan to dive tropical holiday destinations for the rest of your life, then buy a light weight travel easy regulator without a huge three gauge console. But if you want to dive wrecks around the world, do some ice diving and go on to deep technical diving, you will have different priorities. The choices need to be carefully investigated.

Cylinder

A cylinder is a big part of your diving, so do you buy your own or just rent one each time you go diving? It is always nice to have your own of everything, but sometimes if you weigh up the cost of an item against the usage you will have it becomes a grey area. The same can be said for the purchase of any item classed as hard gear.

A 10 or a 12 litre steel cylinder costs around R3000 – R3600 depending on where you shop. Cylinders are also manufactured in aluminum but they are not nearly as popular as steel has become in recent years.

Cylinders
If you decide to purchase your own cylinder, it's critical to maintain it

Rentals cost between R50 and R75 for a cylinder and some places will only charge for the second fill if you do two dives, so you can expect to pay R75 for a full cylinder and a further R30 to fill it for the second dive. At R50 a dive it would take 60 dives to pay for itself excluding fills, but had you dived with your own cylinder after 60 dives you will have spent R4800 if you add the R30 per fill.

Bear in mind a cylinder needs to have a visual inspection annually (about R70) and a hydro test every five years (R140 including a visual at the same time). Dive centers maintain their cylinders to this norm and you will need to do so for your cylinder if you own it. Most reputable dive centers will refuse to fill an out of date cylinder so you will need to have it done.

The decision to buy needs to be based on how often you dive. If you dive once or twice every other month then you will most likely be better off renting, but if you dive every weekend or several times a month, it will pay you to have your own as you will recoup this outlay within two years

Safety stop at Ponta do Ouro
There is a multitude of possible dive gear configurations - take your time deciding what's right for you

The last word

In my honest opinion the best gear to buy is the gear with the best back up service in your area. At some point, and once a year at least, your gear will need a service. Having bought a particular brand because the ”service kits are cheap” is going to be of no value if the servicing agent has no stock, or does not have the correct tools. It is also important to know that the technician doing the work is competent and qualified in your brand of gear. Don’t be fooled by the words ” I have serviced hundreds of these”. Discovering that the technician was perhaps not that good when your regulator fails at 30 meters may spoil your dive.

Night Diving as a Specialty or a fun dive

Tony and I do night dives quite often. We love it – there are creatures that only come out at night, and there’s something very exciting about going somewhere familiar and seeing how different it looks at night. We’ve seen something new on every night dive we’ve done (latest: white sea catfish at Long Beach). Besides, I LOVE cyalumes (for the uninitiated, those are the awesome little light sticks that you snap to release a chemical and then they start glowing) and all things glow in the dark.

I admit that I found my first night dive a little bit scary, and I still find I have to be more deliberate about relaxing in the water and not letting my imagination run wild. But it’s a very good discipline, forcing yourself to breathe deeply and be calm, and very quickly you get distracted by all the creatures that are either attracted to or hypnotised by your torch.

A lot of fish will swim right up to your torch, giving excellent photographic opportunities and time to examine them in detail. I specially like the beaked sandfish – they only come out at night (when I dive Long Beach during the day, I always wonder where they are). They’re long, thin, shiny, cream-coloured fish with translucent fins like dragon fly wings, and they use their pointy noses to dig themselves into the sand when they get a fright. But most of the time they gather together in little groups, milling about langurously on the sand. They love to check out torches and are not shy unless you make sudden moves or try to touch one.

I’m busy doing the PADI Night Diver Specialty – since we do so many night dives, and since I’m hungry to learn more at the moment, it seemed like a good idea. It’s not a demanding course at all, but I’m enjoying it. The manual covers night diving techniques in a lot of detail, and has a very useful section on choosing a dive light, and the relative advantages of different types of light and batteries. Most of it seems to be common sense, like remembering not to shine your light in people’s eyes, not going into any overhead environments (because there’s no daylight for orienting yourself) and making sure you have a backup light. However, it’s the kind of common sense that one needs to be reminded of or have specifically pointed out – I would never have thought about the danger of going into caves or penetrating wrecks at night, and would probably have gotten myself into trouble without giving it a second thought.

The practical section of the course involves three dives. There are a couple of navigation tasks, and on one of the dives you have to sit on the bottom for three minutes with the lights off. It’s surprising how light it is underwater at night. We did a night dive at Long Beach on Saturday, and even though there was cloud covering the moon, the ambient light underwater from our cyalumes and from the city lights was not inconsiderable.

If you enjoy night diving, or want to challenge yourself with something new, different and unusual, this is a really cool specialty to try. You can also do a night dive as a fun dive with an Open Water Qualification, or as an Adventure dive towards your Advanced Open Water diver qualification.

Bookshelf: Coastal Fishes of Southern Africa

Coastal Fishes of Southern Africa – Phil & Elaine Heemstra

Coastal Fishes of Southern AfricaThis is a useful book with a lot of good information about the species described. As I’ve used the book I’ve gotten more and more familiar with the different shapes that characterise the different kinds of fish. The contents page usefully categorises the fish by physical attributes.

It’s tricky to use as a fish identification guide sometimes, because the colours of the fish are drawn and painted (no photos) as you’d see them on the surface, or in very little water – not as at 20 metres. So the reds are brighter than you’d expect. I’ve found this book invaluable, despite having to get used to not skipping over fish that look “too bright” in my quest to figure out what I’ve seen on a dive.

There’s a lot of good information about the behaviour of the different species, so it’s a very useful source of information after you’ve identified what you’ve seen. I tend to use Two Oceans or A Field Guide to the Marine Animals of the Cape Peninsula (reviews to follow) for a first-pass idenfitication, and then this book to get a better idea of how the animal behaves, breeds and feeds.

Get your copy here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise click here.

Diving from a boat

There are divers around the world that will – and do – happily dive from all sorts of vessels. In some parts of the world diving takes place from reed rafts (Lake Malawi), from mokoros – similar to a hollowed out tree (some places in Mozambique), from canoes, jet skis, house boats (Lake Kariba), various hard boats and of course the most popular, rubber ducks. Their real name is semi rigid inflatables. People also use fold away inflatables with smaller motors in many places: these boats can be stored in your boot, inflated at the dive site, loose floor boards placed inside and a small outboard attached. All of this takes less than an hour and you are on your way to a dive site of your choice with a few buddies (only a few as they are small boats).

I will focus on the rubber ducks we use most often in South Africa, but most of these points apply to any type of vessel.

Much of the diving in South Africa and in many parts of Mozambique require a boat capable of taking 12 to 14 people and all their gear, and then being rugged enough to launch and return through rough surf, and then be able to withstand beaching. A dive boat with 10 divers, 10 sets of gear and all the safety gear can weigh around two tons. That’s a lot of weight when the boat is slammed onto the beach at a speed suitable to ensure it comes to a stop high enough out of the water so you can just step off.

Preparing to launch the boat
Pushing the boat into the water at Ponta do Ouro

There is a lot to a dive boat, irrespective of whether it is a hard boat, a huge live aboard or a rubber duck. They require maintenance, and this can easily be managed if divers just have a little respect for them. Sure, the owner/operator must be held responsible, but with a little attention to the small details they offer us as divers years of good service.

It goes without saying that you expect a boat to have all the necessary safety gear, life jackets, flares, first aid kit, emergency oxygen, tool kit etc. I believe you will find most operators following the law here. Just as motor cars need to pass a roadworthy test, so boats need a seaworthy inspection and to pass this there is a list of requirements to be met. Having met this, passed the inspection, mostoperators will usually comply, as a rule.

Be gentle

Almost all boats have a wooden or fibreglass deck. Tossing your gear around and dumping weight belts on the boat, all contribute to the damage sustained by operators, but often it is your foot, your regulator or pressure gauge or perhaps your expensive air integrated dive computer that gets damaged when someone tosses their weight belt on board. Always hand things up to the people on the boat, never toss them up.

Pontoons are tough and designed to withstand much abuse. However, the wire ring you used to fix your zip, the sharp edged cable ties on you gear, the rough edges of your cylinder boot, and your dive knife, all pose danger for the pontoon. Think about the pontoon when you drag your gear on and off the boat, and think about the grooves created by dragging kit over the pontoon time and time again.

The console up front usually houses all the electrical connections and switches for the boat’s electrical system, and just shoving all your belongings in there is not the way to go. Ask the skipper where you should put things as he/she will have a place for everything.

All skippers have a specific place for everything on their boats. Respect this as it makes it easier for the skipper to produce things for you on demand when you want them. Another important consideration is that it may be the place the first aid kit is kept and in an emergency it is annoying to a skipper to find their first aid kit has been replaced with a camera, cell phone and towel.

Loading the boat

When your gear is being loaded:

  • make sure you know where on the boat it is placed;
  • make sure you place your fins close by;
  • make sure your mask is there, either around your neck or in your fin (not on your head!);
  • make sure your weight belt is loaded and that you can recognise it;
  • and make sure you are kitted up and dressed ready to go when the boat leaves
Launching the boat at Ponta do Ouro
Divers climb aboard after pushing the boat into the sea at Ponta do Ouro, Mozambique

Launch times

Respect the launch times! You may be doing one dive and have all day, but there are others doing the next dive that are going to run late if you hold the boat up.

When the boat leaves the beach or the jetty, stay seated, feet in the foot straps and hold on tight. This is not the time to be walking around the boat passing the skipper your keys, glasses and cameras. This unbalances the boat and makes it harder to negotiate the surf or other boat traffic. This is also the time when you would fall off and blame the skipper.

Before the dive

At the dive site, follow the basic rule: be opposite your gear, and don’t expect heavy dive gear to be passed around on the boat. When the skipper comes round to put your gear on your back, make sure you are ready with the straps extended, the clips done or undone as you require, your air turned on, and that you have your weight belt on, right hand release. Don’t expect the skipper to do everything for you as it’s unfair on all the other divers who kit themselves up and are ready to roll two minutes after the boat stops, only to have to wait 10 minutes for you because you are on the wrong side of the boat, can’t find your mask, forgot what colour your fins are, etc. Finally, when you are all ready, the skipper will count you down. Go on the word “go” (or whatever word the skipper tells you to roll over on) – if you hesitate stay on the boat, or you may land on the person next to you and injure them.

On the surface
Divers preparing to descend after rolling off the boat

On the surface

At the end of the dive, signal you are OK once on the surface, then watch the boat as it approaches you. Don’t stick your face in the water and expect the boat not to run you over. Hand up your weight belt, camera, torch etc when the boat is alongside, but make sure the skipper has a firm grip on it before you release it. Just shoving it in his or her direction is no guarantee that the item won’t end up on the bottom.

When you hand your BCD and cylinder up, make sure your BCD has some air, but is not totally inflated. Make sure you give it a shove from the bottom and most of all, if possible give the skipper a chance to tie it down before you demand a hand-up. Once on the boat take care of your own kit, roll up your SMB, tuck your regulators away, and place your fins and mask out of harm’s way, preferably inside or close to your BCD. Make space for others to get into the boat, or better still, give them a hand. Don’t scatter your gear around, as a deck littered with fins, masks and cameras becomes a difficult place for a skipper to work and things will get broken… Your things!

After the dive

At the end of the dive make sure you collect all your gear as soon as possible. The boat may need to be loaded for the next launch and if you first get undressed, have a snack and then stroll over to the boat, it is likely your gear will be mixed up with the next load of divers’ gear.

Imagine this…

The boat arrives at the dive site, a few people are sitting at opposite ends of the boat to their kit, gear is passed around and a mask is crushed, someone starts bellowing, someone else drops his mask in the water as they are trying to rinse it while fully kitted up (rinse your mask first), they start whining, someone else who does not service their gear has a faulty regulator, they swear blind it was okay on the beach but you can see clearly the hose has been torn for months and is badly cracked, someone says “oops, I forgot my fins in the car”, so the skipper hauls out all the spares he has, gets everyone sorted out and you all roll back into the water.

Someone hesitates, and lands on another diver, gashing their head open with a cylinder, so the diver is hauled out of the water. The gash in their head requires bandaging, yet at the same time five hands appear next to the boat all demanding cameras. The skipper usees all his psychic skill to ensure everyone gets their own camera, then observes that a few divers are struggling to descend. The skipper hauls out the extra weights, sorts them out and down the divers go, all but one –  ”I forgot to put my weight belt on!” So they get sorted out and descend.

Twenty minutes into the dive someone pops out of the water like a cork, and gets hauled out of the water. As a safety measure the skipper administers oxygen. Their buddy surfaces a few minutes later, swims up to the boat and tosses their weight belt on board, landing on their buddies head.

These thing happen, fortunately very very seldom, but every diver wants to have a good time, a good dive and a pleasant boat trip, and if we all follow the instructions of the skipper, the Divemaster or Instructor and basic dive safely protocol, these things will not happen. Plan your dive and dive your plan.

On a typical day a skipper can easily see between 20 and 40 different people. It is not possible for the skipper to remember what your weight belt looks like, what colour your fins were and what gear you are using, so make it easier by being responsible for your gear. If you have rental gear it will often be numbered: remember the numbers, remember the colour of your fins and mask, so keeping all your kit together in one spot on the boat will make this easier.

Driving a boat is easy?

Boats look really easy to drive: a steering wheel, a control box that puts the boat in gear and accelerates all at the same time, no clutch, no hand brake, no turn signals, wide open expanse of ocean to drive in – it stands to reason it must be really easy. And it is: on a nice calm day with flat seas, no wind, and no swell, it is real easy to place a boat precisely in the spot you want it, run it up next to the jetty and come to a stop millimeters from the side.

Surf launch in Mozambique
Launching through the surf at Ponta do Ouro in Mozambique

But on a day when the wind is humping, there is a big swell and lots of other boat traffic it becomes a little more challenging. If you are asked by the skipper to sit down, keep your feet in the foot straps and hold on, then do so, as he/she probably knows better. A skipper doing surf launches needs to concentrate only on the boat while launching and beaching. Don’t walk around, shout at them or hand them things as they are reading the water, the swell, and the gap that is forming out at the back line and making a decision to go or not to go. Your safety is their primary concern. Once committed to the break in the swells it is not easy to change your mind.

Beaching the boat after a dive in Ponta do Ouro
Beaching the boat after a dive in Ponta do Ouro

In a nutshell…

Pay attention to the boat briefing as the skipper has the responsibility for your safety. Make it easy for him to keep you safe. In an emergency you will expect the skipper to produce a first aid kit in a flash, produce pure oxygen in an instant and radio for help in an extreme emergency. This will happen, and your emergency will be dealt with expertly, if the skipper finds his first aid kit accessible, his oxygen set at hand and his radio functioning. But if you shoved your bag in the console and ripped wires out of the radio, dumped your personal bag of clothing on the first aid kit, moved the oxygen somewhere else on the boat to make space for your camer – when these things happen all they do is delay the reaction time of the help that you the diver need.

Pay attention to the dive briefing. Chances are the dive master has been there many times before and is speaking from experience. If you are unsure of something, ask – there are no stupid questions, and the only stupid mistake is not asking if you are unsure.

Many divers have done hundreds and in some cases thousands of dives, all incident free, all enjoyable and all conducted safely and this is largely due to their own exceptional skills, and exceptional skills held by skippers and divemaster coupled to a level of boat etiquette we all have or should have. This is just one more reason to dive, to enjoy the wonders the ocean never fails to deliver.

Diving in Jordan

Diving in the Red Sea is rated by many as the best diving they have ever done. To many people the Red Sea is in Egypt as most of the renowned dive sites operate from live-a-boards from Egyptian cities.

Red sea corals
Coral in the Red Sea

However if you are like me and prefer the less travelled road and enjoy smaller groups and out of the way places, then Jordan is an extremely good option. Dive Aqaba located in the town of Aqaba in Jordan is the place to go.

Sunken tank in Jordan
This tank was placed as an artificial reef by order of the King of Jordan, who is a diving fanatic!

A PADI IDC Centre run by Rod Ibbotson and Ashraf Sulaibi, Dive Aqaba has everything you need. They run an amazing day boat which has recently had a major face lift and upgrade and was in my opinion an amazing dive boat when I was there but must be stunning now.

The boat runs out of the harbor daily and returns in the late afternoon. Between dives you are fed a meal they call lunch, an understatement of note as it is more of a feast. Having lived there for several months I tried many of the local restaurants and none of the amazing meals came close to the food served on the boat Laila 1. In the middle of winter when the water was cold (21 degrees celsius!) you are served hot soup, tea, coffee etcetera between dives. The kit up area on the boat is spacious, the dining area like a small restaurant and the upper deck a perfect spot to sit and absorb the desert sun on the trip out to the dive sites and back to shore.

Aqaba has an amazing array of dive sites for everyone, from snorkeling to deep technical dives, wall diving and the most amazing wrecks. My favorite dive there was the wreck of the Cedar Pride.

Cedar Pride wreck
The wreck of the Cedar Pride in the Red Sea

The Cedar Pride was damaged by a fire in 1982 whilst in the Port of Aqaba. In 1985 she was towed out and scuttled 150 metres from the beach and now lies in 28 metres of water on her starboard side. The Min depth is 10 metres and the max is 28 metres so it is a perfect dive for all qualifications and even has entry points for penetration, swim through and a swim through under the bow. The ship is about 75 metres long and with an average viz of 20 – 25 metres the Cedar Pride is an amazing site.

Wreck of the Cedar Pride
Wreck of the Cedar Pride

The city of Aqaba has an amazing array of clubs, hotels, bars and shops, and is safe and clean. It is a very pleasant place to stroll around in. Internet cafés are all over and there is wifi in most restaurants, not to mention hubbly bubblies everywhere.

Rod has been instrumental in many issues of conservation in the bay of Aqaba, has discovered wrecks, dive sites and many other wonders of the deep and will ensure you leave Jordan with a sense of satisfaction seldom found anywhere in the world.

Sodwana dive sites

This isn’t an exhaustive list by any stretch of the imagination, but these are the sites we’ve dived and photographed in Sodwana. This post will be updated as we do more diving in that beautiful part of the world!

Two Mile Reef

Shark tale

As a freelance instructor I dive at Long Beach behind Simon’s Town railway station several times a week. Long Beach is an ideal training site as it offers protection from the weather under most conditions, visibility is almost always 5 metres plus and it is one of the easiest shore entry dive sites around the Cape Peninsula.

On Wednesday 25 August I was on a training dive with three students. I briefed them as usual and off we went. The visibility was around 6–8 metres and I was surprised to find nothing to show them. Around the barge, over the fishing boat, down the inner pipeline, nothing to be seen. I was starting to feel the place was barren, and it was very strange. Suddenly a klipfish came racing across the sand faster than I believed they could swim and I half expected a seal to be close behind as I had seen one on the surface before we started the dive, but nothing. I honestly couldn’t find anything, no shysharks, no pipefish, no crabs, no octopus and I can almost guarantee I will find these creatures there on any dive. Not even the hundreds of busy little hermit crabs were scurrying around and I could not find any movement. I started to think that perhaps the water had been poisoned by some ship or something weird and all signs of life had moved off somewhere else.

We were just reaching the western end of the outer pipeline, about 60 metres offshore and at a depth of around 5 metres when I looked up and less than five metres away was a 2-3 metre great white shark. She was just cruising very, very slowly and must have seen us long before we saw her. I was most awestruck by the shark’s graceful poise and her girth. The other impressive feature was the length of the pectoral fins. She circled slowly around us and them slowly swam away, close above two other divers in the water not too far from us, and disappeared.

What to do when you see a shark?

Well, we all have our own theory and during briefings we always tell divers what we will do and how we will react. But will we react the way we think we will, and how will we deal with divers that panic?

I always brief divers as to what I will do and what they should do, and this is what we did. We all dropped to the sand, me first as I saw it first. I pulled my buddy, the most jumpy student, down and deflated his BC well before he saw it, I then pulled the other pair closer and dumped their air. It was a family and the youngster was 13 years old. He saw the shark but did not know what he was looking at. We then swam slowly back to shore without seeing the shark again. The first thing they said was ”I thought you said you never see great whites here!” so I had egg on my face as I had just said that – honestly – as I had never seen a great white there before! Oh well…  I will need to modify my dive briefing slightly now!

In all reality the shark had been watching us for a while, possibly thinking “man, they make a noise.” According to the Introduction to Sharks course offered by SharkLife (it’s free and fantastic – do it now!), sharks are highly sensory creatures. Sharks have eyes on either side of their heads, which means they have a nearly 360 degree visual field (compare that to the approximate 120 degree width of your visual field when wearing a scuba mask). They have a small blind spot directly in front of their snouts – too small for you to hide in! – and another one just behind their heads. They can focus their eyes at a range of distances, and have excellent vision even in low light conditions. Sharks also have excellent hearing, augmented by a “lateral line” which extends along their bodies and provides additional sensory information.  Their sense of smell is likewise highly developed. In a great white shark, 18 percent of its brain mass (largest percentage of all sharks) is devoted to the processing of olfactory (smell) information. As if this arsenal of highly developed sensory organs is not enough, sharks also have electroreceptive cells called Ampullae of Lorenzini located around their snout and head area. These cells can detect tiny bioelectrical impulses given off by muscle movement of potential prey (which is why it’s a bad idea, as a spearfisherman, to swim along with dying fish attached to your belt). The Ampullae are sensitive to temperature, and are also used in navigation.

Anyway… the shark swam a circle wondering what on earth we were looking for, and then swam off looking for something to eat. Clearly she did not find our presence worthy of investigating or for that matter munching. This just shows that divers that are slowly swimming along with good buoyancy, looking at the marine life in the ocean are just not on a sharks’ to do list.

Great white shark in Mozambique
A great white shark I photographed in Mozambique

Divers seldom get to see great whites. I have been diving for 18 years and have only seen three on a dive. I have done over 100 dives at Long Beach in the last year without seeing one and numerous dives at other dive sites in Cape Town, including at Sunny Cove where I was sure I would see one. Without a single sighting. So remember: stay calm, stay together and enjoy the moment because it is not something you get to experience too often.

If you want to chat about this, please email me!

Win a DSD for you and a friend on iMod

Tony is running a competition on www.imod.co.za, an awesome blog operated by Christopher Mills. You can win a DSD for two, or, if you’re a qualified diver, a refresher for you and a friend or (if you’re not in need of a refresher) a shore dive with kit, guided by Tony.

If you have friends and family you think might enjoy diving, this is a super opportunity to get them involved.

The link to the competition is here. The competition ends at noon on 29 August, so pay iMod a visit and enter now!