Deeply Dippy: Learning to Scuba Dive in Cape Town

Divers love to point out that we know more about space than what’s under the sea – and that learning to dive is much easier than becoming an astronaut. Alison Westwood went scuba diving for the first time and discovered she was in her element.

The bottom of a swimming pool is an odd  classroom. You have to use sign language and, when you laugh, only bubbles come out. The lessons are pretty easy, though. The most important one is never to hold your breath underwater. I’ve been holding mine in anticipation of today: the start of my Open Water Diver course.

Day 1: A funny sort of spacesuit

When I arrive at Pisces Divers in Glencairn, instructor Brett Miles shows me to a sofa and puts on a DVD. I’m a little disappointed not to be in the sea immediately, but least I won’t be learning to dive the same way I learnt to swim (thrown into a pool aged six months).

The PADI approach begins with videos featuring slim, tanned people and a fat guy in a Hawaiian shirt to liven things up. Despite Mr Hawaii’s antics, the videos are interesting and easy to understand. I learn a new vocabulary: thermocline, nitrogen narcosis and squeeze.

For my first pool dive, I struggle into the apparel required for immersion in Cape waters – thick black neoprene dungarees, hooded body suit, gloves and booties – and then the standard dive gear of weight-belt, buoyancy jacket, air cylinder and octopus-like regulator, mask, snorkel and fins. I look like a spaceman with the wrong shoes on.

One of the skills I must learn is to attain neutral buoyancy – essentially weightlessness. As I lie at the bottom of the deep end and try to pivot my body on the tips of my fins, it occurs to me that astronauts are trained to handle zero gravity underwater.

Back at the shop I meet Flight-Sergeant Etienne Oosthuizen from Pretoria, who has come to book a boat dive. Oosthuizen suffers what is apparently a common symptom among divers: serious addiction. He did his first dive in 1994 and loved it. ‘But I was only a corporaaal. I didn’t have moooney.’ On his promotion, the first thing he bought was dive gear. ‘I went to Ahbsah and got a crrrredit carrrd,’ he beams.

With no ocean near his home town, Oosthuizen dives every weekend at Miracle Waters, an old quarry. He shows me a magazine article about his dive club sinking a Puma helicopter in the quarry. ‘There’s also a bus and a Harley and a bathroom and some street signs down there,’ he informs me.

Day 3: Swimming with Hottentots

It’s my first open water dive and I’m nervous. In a pool, there’s not much that can go wrong, but the sea deserves respect. I stare at it while I sip coffee. It looks calmer than I do. Brett and I pack kit bags, adding more weights to our belts to compensate for the extra buoyancy of salt water. We’re doing two shore dives at Windmill Beach, just next door to Boulders and just as pretty, only without the penguins.

Brett runs through what we’re going to do on the dives: the same skills I learnt in the pool, only now I’ll have surge (moving water) and poor visibility to deal with. It’s low tide, so we’ll only get to six metres. Once we’ve swum out, Brett gives the signal to descend, a thumb down. I let the air out of my BCD … into the murky water I sink. I’m soon completely disorientated and stick to Brett like a great blundering barnacle as he moves off down the sandy seabed.

There are streamers of khaki kelp, pink rocks, orange starfish and silver fish, but I’m too busy to notice them. I’m having trouble equalising. The surge keeps pushing me to the surface. My legs and fins seem to have a life of their own and I waggle my arms like a drowning puppy. My breath seems to be sucking air faster than my regulator will supply it. I feel a tiny stirring of panic and remind myself: relax, breathe slowly and deeply. Brett signals, ‘OK?’ Okay.

On a patch of sand beyond the kelp we run through the skills. No worries there. A short exploration of rocks and kelp forest and we’re back at our starting point. First dive over. Hmm, I didn’t enjoy it that much. Off with our gear for a surface interval – diver-speak for a break. Despite my impression of hysterical hyperventilation, Brett says my air consumption was excellent. I check my air pressure gauge to make sure he’s not just being nice, but I’ve used the same amount he has. My confidence returns.

The second dive involves a few more exercises, including my least favourite: mask removal. After a healthy dose of sea water in the sinuses, we go exploring again. This time I’ve got my limbs and buoyancy under control. I notice multi-coloured urchins and anemones, schools of shining Hottentots, clouds of transparent baby prawns and the sinuous sway of the kelp. At the Two Oceans Aquarium, I always lose myself watching the kelp forest. This is even better: I’m part of the dance.

People are standing on the boulders watching as we emerge from the water. I feel like a cross between a Teletubby and a Bond girl. We flap like landed fish trying to get out of our suits. My feet are so cold it’s painful to walk, but I feel euphoric.

Day 4: D-Day

Oh boy. This is it. I’m sitting on the edge of the boat in the middle of False Bay. The other divers have already disappeared in a fizz of white bubbles. I do the buddy check with Brett:  BCD, weights, releases and air are fine. Pressing my weight belt with one hand and mask and regulator with the other, I tumble backwards into the water, swim towards a buoy and grab the anchor line. I peer under the surface. Shafts of sunlight vanish into green depths. The rope disappears down, down, down. I have a perfectly reasonable urge not to follow it, but I press my air release and the sea closes over my head.

To my surprise, it doesn’t get darker as we descend. Without any reference points, it’s like floating in cool aqua light. I’m a big black balloon sliding slowly along a string. The sea floor looms and I land with a bump. I look at my depth gauge: 15 metres. I visualise sitting at the bottom of a three-storey tower of water and look up, but can’t see the surface. Then I look around and forget the world above.

I remember the first time I climbed Table Mountain and found myself in a garden of bizarre plants. This is like fynbos on drugs. Strong, psychedelic drugs. I’m exploring an alien landscape, a riot of rich life in utterly unfamiliar shapes. Words are useless here. ‘Tube worms’ is an insultingly inadequate phrase for a forest of hollow trees, furred with rainbow lichen, whose stumps open and close spookily. A plain of miniature golden baobabs is scarcely dignified by the term ‘sea cucumbers’. Only the shy sharks, skulking and brindled, and gas-flame nudibranches, fronds blazing blue-white, have names that even begin to describe them.

Much too soon, Brett signs a thumb up. I ascend obediently, but reluctantly. The scenery at the surface seems flat and colourless. It’s noisy up here; things move too fast. Already suffering withdrawal symptoms, I realise why divers like Flight-Sergeant Oosthuizen will go into debt to do this. Who’d cry for the moon when the underside of the sea holds such unearthly beauty?

Cape dive highlights

‘Cape Town diving is seriously undersold,’ growled one veteran diver I met. He’s right: there’s a choice of two oceans, a multitude of reef and wreck sites, and spectacular sea life. Try these for starters…

Cowsharks at Pyramid Rock: A prehistoric apex predator, the seven-gill cowshark is a social feeder and can be observed in large groups of up to 18 individuals at this False Bay dive site in summer. They reach three metres in size and swim within arm’s length of divers.

Photographer’s Reef: Considered by many Cape divers to be the best shallow reef in False Bay, it’s only 300 metres off Boulders Beach and has deep cracks, caves and holes with lots of corals and ferns. The small caves are safe to enter.

Seal Island: Curious and playful, Cape fur seals will often put on a display of ‘hydrobatics’ for divers. A dive with the colony near Hout Bay is easy, shallow and an absolute must.

Wreck dives: Cape waters are littered with shipwrecks recent and ancient. Beginner wreck dives include the Brunswick – an British East-Indiaman captured by the French and ran aground in Simon’s Town in 1805 – and the SAS Pietermaritzburg – formerly the HMS Pelorus used in the D-Day landings, which now lies just off Miller’s Point.

First published in the January 2008 issue of Getaway Magazine

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