For those who don’t know Cape town is Surrounded by the icy blue Atlantic and in Summer a warm Indian current drifts into False Bay on the South Side of the city , heating the water and creating a unique blend of Atlantic and Indian ocean marine life. Here anything above 18C is considered warm….really warm and temperatures above 20C are extremely rare . On deeper dives and on the other side of the city ,or the “Atlantic side” as the locals say summer temperatures of 10C – 14 C are more typical. These Cold waters team with rich marine life that I appreciate more and more the longer I spend time in the tropics. Kelp forests , dazzling varieties of shell fish , small sharks , giant sting rays and playful seals are all common sights in these busy blue waters . After having dived in this environment for years , I often find tropical reefs appear eerily barren and empty in comparison to the rich cold water Kelp forests where a mishmash of colorful life teams on every possible surface. These conditions present special challenges for dive training and can be intimidating even for experienced tropical divers.
My story is a typical one , I did an open water course in the Red Sea while in Dahab on a back packing trip 16 years ago . It was great , so easy and everything looked so pretty , soft , fluffy and nice. I’d always been fascinated by diving and loved snorkeling so doing an Open Water course seemed the next logical step , then I returned to Cape Town and ….Nothing. The water looked so dark and intimidating with those scary kelps brushing up against you in the often low visibility icy water…I was just too scared to try and also in those days diving seemed like a pursuit of the tough guys, the big boys or “Manna” as they say in South Africa. Of course it was really just a case of not knowing where or when to go and after a few years my desire to dive got to strong that I couldn’t resist anymore and decided to take the proverbial plunge . With true gonzo reasoning I figured “hey there’s an ocean, may as well dive in it”, of course my friends and family told me I was nuts .
One refresher later and I was off , I loved it . The Kelp forests were of course gorgeous , no where near as spooky as I imagined them to be and on my first two dives I did not even notice the cold. Next thing I knew I was buying gear and part of a tight knit local dive community with a wild west of diving spirit of exploration and adventure that I found intoxicatingly exhilarating. Advanced and Rescue courses followed and before I knew it I was on a Divemaster course and leading other divers.
The main consideration in a cold water , heavy wetsuit environment is of course buoyancy, but lets not forget about the often overlooked discomfort that comes with heavy wetsuits and dry suits. On land you can get really hot , especially in a place like Cape Town with hot summers and cold oceans, also movement is restricted and it can be difficult to feel your equipment , not to mention the suffocating feeling of a tight hood around your neck in the hot sun. The first thing to do is make sure that you are going to be using a comfortable wetsuit of the appropriate thickness that fits you well . Take time out to visit the dive center you will be diving with a day or two before your dives to check out and try on the equipment you will be hiring. In Cape Town the standard hire suit is a 5mm full wetsuit with a 5mm over piece and hood, although many locals choose to dive in Semi Dry and dry suits. It’s important to remember that a thick wetsuit will make you way more positively buoyant , while at the same time the steel cylinders used in cape town and other cold water destinations are about 2kgs more negatively buoyant than aluminum cylinders and are used for exactly this reason, to reduce the amount of weight you need. I find a good rule of thumb is to start with 10% of bodyweight with a steel cylinder and a 5mm full 1 piece wetsuit , then add 2kgs for every additional wetsuit layer and 500 grams for gloves , 500 grams for booties and 500 grams for a hood. People sometimes don’t realize just how buoyant even a small piece of neoprene can be and under weighted divers are the most common problem encountered by Instructors and Divemasters in these conditions. Another thing to remember is that cold water diving can be a much more physical sport , the equipment is heavier and often the infrastructure is less well developed in popular tropical dive locations .
This can often mean passing weights up to small dive boats, steep shore entries in full dive gear and hauling yourself over the side of an inflatable boat to exit the water. All of this can add to the fun and the exhilaration , but it’s important to be mentally and physically prepared . Take time out to find out exactly what you will be getting yourself into , the expected conditions , type of boat , entries and exits and and speak to your dive center so that they can place you on a trip that you will find suitable and enjoyable. There is almost always a suitable dive site with something worthwhile to see .
As for the dives sites,for shore dives, my personal favorites are “Justin’s Caves” located near Ouderkraal , on the Atlantic Side of Cape Town between Hout Bay and Camps Bay, as well as, “A Frame” and, “Windmill beach“, both located at the far end of Simons Town on False Bay. These are all colourful reef dives and Justin’s Caves consists of a series of swim throughs, while A frame has a huge overhang cave swim through and Windmill has 3 beautiful coral covered granite pinnacles. Also don’t forget about the ultimate Cape Town shore dive,”Castle Rocks” at the end of Millers Point,although be warned , the entry for this dive involves a steep climb and a tricky entry over a lot of rocks! You can also go and check out the “Cowsharks” dive at Millers point, but this is usually easier to do from a boat due to the long surface swim and tricky entry/exit. Cowsharks, when done as a boat dive, is often done on the same trip as “Partridge Point” which is a beautiful reef and home to a colony of playful seals and this site is also often referred to as “The Seals dive. Advanced divers should check out “Atlantis” in False bay and “Star walls” in Hout Bay as they offer some of the best examples of Cape Town’s spectacular cold water reefs.”Roman Rock” is also great when you can find a boat going there and catch it on a good day. Another site worth mentioning is the “PMB wreck” in False Bay, this ship which was renamed as the Pietermaritzburg(PMB) and was originally called the Pelorus and actually led the D-Day invasion during the second World War. Sold to South Africa in the early 60’s and sunk in 1994 the PMB makes a great wreck dive and sits at 21 meters. There are also numerous other wrecks and deeps dives like the Wrecks of Smitswinkel Bay where you can find a series of large wrecks forming an artificial reef with depths of up to 50 meters. There are too many other great sites to mention here,but I will be discussing some of them in our “Dive Sites” section soon.