Winter Wonder Land

Some people love it, others hate it: winter. Being from The Netherlands winter in the Cape cannot be compared to winter up North. Sure, the temperature occasionally drops below zero degrees and we do get some snow in the mountains, but overall the winters are rather mild and (if we are lucky) bring some much needed rain. In between all that, you can expect sunny skies and a pleasant 18-ish degrees. And even better, with winter comes amazing diving and that is exactly what we have been having in False Bay over the last two months.

As for most diving destinations, the wind plays a large factor in how the conditions underwater will be and the Cape is not different. In general it can be stated that summer winds (from the southeast) are less favourable for the area of Simon’s Town in False Bay as it can strongly decrease the visibility in this part of the bay. However, we are lucky to have more options as the Atlantic and Rooi Els on the other sides of False Bay, which clean up in summer. Simon’s Town is by far the place to be in winter – due to mostly a north-northwesterly wind blowing – which means amazing visibility and a flat ocean. So even for those who dislike winter – including myself – the great diving by far makes up for it.

Without a doubt it can be stated that we currently have been spoiled for weeks. The northerly wind has done its job well and turned False Bay in a “lake” with visibility over 15 meters on most of the shore dives. Therefore every free moment was spend diving, training or for pure pleasure, and it was worth every minute. Dive sites as Windmill Beach and A-frame have been so clear that we got lost because we saw areas we never noticed before.

Both these dive sites are known for its incredible colourful walls and boulders. The corals and sea fans flourish in abundance and especially the macro life is mind blowing. There are people claiming the Cape isn’t that colourful as some of the more tropical reefs, but those divers definitely have not giving it a fair change then. Sure, the there are no big schools of guppies or moral idols and we don’t have clown fish, but what we do have is overwhelming in a complete different manner. And on those winter days when the bay is flat and the water crystal clear, there is no more exciting or beautiful place I rather dive than at home in the Cape.

Why we love Cape diving

We all know that the Cape Town area is famous for the iconic Table Mountain, forever views of Cape Point, its stunning beaches around Camps Bay and not to forget the world class wine farms. However an often forgotten sight seeing destination is underwater. The Cape Peninsula has a unique aquatic environment as two of the major oceans meet at Cape Point, bringing together the best of both worlds. We find that this is something well worth exploring.

To get a broad orientation, we can divide the Cape Peninsula in those two areas. On the West you find the Atlantic Ocean, roughly stretching from Cape Point all the way up the coast toward Namibia and on the East side the Indian Ocean is located which covers the area of False Bay. In general terms we can state that False Bay is the ‘warmer’ side as it is influenced by the Indian Ocean, where the Atlantic side is well.. colder. Although the water temperature is an often heard excuse to not dive around the Cape, you can take our word for it that it will not disappoint.

There are many aspects that make this area extremely attractive for diving, starting with the many options we have to access dives sites via shore entries. This means no boat arrangements, seasickness tablets or extra costs, but simply kit up and walk in at any time! So if you so don’t mind the slight chill, you will be rewarded with a unique experience and have the chance to spot species that do not exist anywhere else in the world.

People often ask us why we love diving in the Cape so much as “there is no tropical fish life”? While this is indeed correct, the amount of other (small and big) life and the colours of the reef are stunning. Honestly, diving in the Cape is never boring! As mentioned, this place has features that no other place in the world has. Firstly, we are blessed with humpback whales, dolphins, southern right whales, orcas, Cape fur seals and yes, the great white shark. Where that last one might not sound like much of a good thing, they are magnificent animals and are a protected species in South Africa. To set your mind at ease, they do not like scuba divers and are therefore very very rarely spotted while diving. Secondly, there are four absolute must see’s/do’s while diving in the Cape, namely: dive in the kelp forests, play with the Cape fur seals, explore one of the many wrecks (this place is called “Cape of Storms” for a reason) and jump in with the ancient seven-gill cow sharks.

In the coming blogs these dives will be highlighted in more details and hopefully it will show why we love Cape Town diving so much and never let a week go without having a peek underwater!

Joining the search with ELMO

If only we would get a Rand for every time student divers or just people on the beach ask us; “Have you seen a shark?”. This might seem an easy enough question, however it actually leaves us with a rather complicated answer. The answer is yes, on every single dive in Cape Town we see one or more sharks. Are these the sharks most people are referring to? most likely not. The shark they want to hear about is the majestic Great White shark. Though this is a shark common to this part of the South African coast; they are in all honestly rarely ever seen while scuba diving. What we do see a lot are Shysharks and Catsharks.

These significantly smaller sharks are often overlooked, or should I rather say underappreciated. Worldwide there are 204 different Chondrichthyan species (cartilaginous fish) of which 56 occur in South Africa. Of those 36 of them are endemic to Southern Africa and therefore cannot be seen anywhere else in the world. Despite the fact these species are so special and unique to South Africa, there is actually very little known about these fish. That is why we decided to become citizen scientists and join the search with ELMO.

ELMO stands for South African Elasmobranch Monitoring, a project set up by marine ecologist Lisa Schroeter to study Elasmobranches; or in other words sharks, rays and skates. All of these belong to the class of cartilaginous fish, which means that their skeletons are not made of bones like humans, but are made of cartilage, and additional to that they also do not have a swim bladder. This skeleton structure is crucial in understanding the survival chances of the species after for example being caught by fishermen, something that regularly happens as these Shysharks are mostly found in shallow water. Because these fish do not have a bone structure in place, it means as soon as they are taken out of the water their intestines collapse as nothing keeps these is place. So even when one of these sharks is caught and released, the chance of survival because of internal organ damage is very slim. This in combination with threats such as marine pollution, bycatch and habitat loss contribute to a possible decline in their populations, something we know very little about as there is a lack of long term information. This makes it difficult to monitor their conservation status, therefore increasing the possibility that the species might go extinct before being able to protect it.

So when ELMO needed divers to help monitoring Elasmobranches in False Bay, we were quickly on board and so our hunt for mermaid’s purses (egg cases) began. All skates and some sharks are oviparous; this means they lay eggs instead of giving live birth. They attach these egg capsules to rocks, sea fans or seaweeds and it contains an embryo that feeds on the yolk until it is big enough to hatch. The most common oviparous species in False Bay are Shyharks and Catsharks; those smaller sharks we see very often but know so little about. So from now on the Puffadder and Brown Shysharks and Pyjama Sharks and their eggs will have our special attention. The eggs encountered will be labelled and we will monitor “our” eggs to see how they grow and for example survive a storm like we had a few weeks ago.

We are extremely excited to be part of this project and to learn and contribute to the knowledge about these sharks life cycles and habitats that from this point on will only grow further. And next time when we encounter one of those “normal” Shysharks or Catsharks in False Bay, we will remember how exceptional they actually are.

To Be Continued.