Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Bird Island Dives - Part 1

I am quit often asked what it was like diving Bird Island when we still could. In this post, and another, I will relate a few tales to show what we experienced.

Diving Bird Island in the 1990’s was always an adventure. Bird Island (BI) and the surrounding ocean support a tremendous amount and range of marine life. Birds, seals and fish abound. The island is home to great number of gannets and penguins. Being about 10 km offshore it was very often that we found clear water (by clear I mean at least 8-10 m viz). The structure of the island and its accompanying rock outcrops always created some form of upwelling, usually the upwelling was clear and a little cooler than the surface water. Dense clouds of baitfish; fransmadams, blue hottentot, and karanteen would be so plentiful on some reefs off the island that one could not see more that two meters for their numbers. It was actually counter-productive to spearfish in these shoals. The reduced viz(due to baitfishfish) was never desirable at BI because of the sharks. Fish were normally plentiful - ranging from good sized red romans, red stumpnose, scotsman, bronze bream, zebras, poenskop, musselcracker – to large yellowtail – enough to lure any enthusiastic spearfishermen. Unusual fish that we encountered at BI included englishmen and potato bass.

The other exciting aspect of the BI dives was knowing that diving there would almost always result in at least one diver having an encounter with a great white shark – it was guaranteed if one dived near the island. There is a tall ridge of rock to the west of the island called “Black Rock”, which supports a large seal colony and the great whites make use of this “swim-though takeaway”. The probability of encountering a great white increases exponentially as you dive closer to the island and Black Rock.
Passing down-wind of Black Rock or BI allowed visitors will experience the most singular odour of seal excrement and guano respectively. Those prone to sea sickness prefer diving upwind of these invisible malodorous plumes. All this fun could still be had legally before BI and surroundings was declared a marine reserve. Abalone poachers still harvest their lucrative resource despite efforts of the “authorities” to “control” the problem.

These visits to BI involved careful planning to avoid being trapped by high tides on the 35 odd kilometer beach drive from the Sundays River to Woody Cape. Normally we used two or three inflatables would with two or three divers per boat. On arrival at the launch zone just west of the “Kranse” (cliffs), we dumped the boats onto the sand just beyond the surf and unloaded all the required equipment. We drove vehicles and trailers to above the high water mark. Next we tied down or stowed all loose equipment.
The surf was negotiated by both skilled and unskilled skippers. The beach was steep and the surf was often harsh. On occasion we had to circle the boats for up to 10 minutes waiting for a gap and punching foamies (white bubbly broken waves) as well as running from occasional threatening breakers.

As you can guess there was excitement: lots could go wrong – get stuck in sand, caught by the tide, damage a vehicle on the long drive down the ever-changing stretch beach, the surf launches, outboard motor problems, great whites, wind, fog, dirty water.

Take it Easy
On one memorable occasion Fanus Gerber and I were on my inflatable boat and we decide to launch first out of the three vessels on the beach. Boat ready, gear stowed and motor warmed up in the shallows, Fanus was holding the nose into the waves and anchoring the boat in the current. I studied the surf and when I saw the last wave of a set approaching I gave the “let’s go!” command and Fanus hopped on.
Off we went, 30 HP driving the small inflatable – we hit the first foamie then suddenly the power dropped from 30 HP to about 10 HP.
This was very stressful to me as the gap between the sets required more speed and we would never be beyond the breaker zone before the next set arrived. The inevitable outcome would be substantial loss of equipment and possibly even the boat as the breakers were a good 2-2.5 m high. Turning and heading back for shore was a poor option as we would almost certainly be hit from behind and be flipped. I decided to risk the forward option and psychologically pushed the boat forward and willed the set back and down.
At times such as these, time always seems to slow down somewhat. The set was approaching and the waves rose higher and higher as they bore down on their approaching victims.
Logic told me this would be my first flip – 10 years into my diving career.
Well, it had to happen sooner or later, and, at least it would not be because of a stupid error.
The first wave approached and was about to crash as we steamed snail-like up toward the greeny-brown wall. Felt like a lone infantryman charging the cavalry. We wobbled over the summit and flopped down over the other side gaining speed nicely on the “downhill” – almost planing.
My thought: “Wow we are still right side up and going.” The next wave rose even higher and started to crumble. Miraculously a saddle appeared to my left in the approaching wave – I steered for it and again we made it through – close shave spray pouring down on us that the offshore morning wind blew off the breaking wave. We were now in sufficiently deep water to ramp weakly over the remaining waves rather than collide with a wall of water.
Much relived I stopped beyond the backline to attend to the outboard. I drained all three carburetors and the motor was back to normal even before the other two boats had joined us.
I believe there was dirt or residual water in one of the carburetors and this caused the needle and seat to jam open or shut and then either flooded or starve a cylinder causing the power loss. When we got home the very next Monday I included an inline filter and it reduced the problem. Incidentally that is my most common outboard problem.

Some bodies watching me…
We were diving BI exploring the area ~1-1.5 km south west of the Bird Island. The reef was flat sandstone covered in seaweed. We found the odd red stumpnose and big red roman along cracks in the reef. The viz was a suspect 6-8 meters. We had anchored one boats and two “Buggy-boys” drove the boats and picked up fish from the divers as they requested the buggy-boys’ attention with a high pitched “WHOO!”. The dive was rather boring to me, but not for much longer.
I sank down on the next dive and settled on the bottom scanning a 270 degree arc in front of me every 10 – 20 seconds anticipating the white face of an approaching red stumpnose. The water was only about ten meters deep so my bottom time was good. I turned to my left scanning along the bottom when a peripheral movement above got my attention. I froze when recognizing that it was a massive great white shark swimming away from me to the left. Its tail was completing a relaxed thrust toward me. There was a gash in the top part of its tail that was very distingctive. I guessed that the “white” was a good five meters long. It slowly faded out into the gloom and I stayed down while planning my ascent and scanning considerably faster than before – I almost broke my bloody neck looking out for the sharks return!
I believe the absence of the predator, in murky water, is even worse that being able to see it as you are not sure if it snuck around behind for a swift attack(bloody imagination!).
• As my miraculously extended breath ran out, I stealthfully parted with the bottom and swam up slowly making sure I re-inhaled every bit of air that might escape my mask with the decrease of pressure as I approached the surface. This was not for the sake of using that air but rather to silence my ascent. The swim up is most vulnerable as one may be approached in any direction – the bottom or surface offer 50% greater security. Anyway the shark had obviously seen me and come in close to inspect this alien. Having seen what it need to it apparently idled off. There was plenty opportunity for it to have a “Rubidge burger”. After summoning the bakkie-boy and alerting the others to the white presence we moved to another spot.

This experience reinforced two phenomena fairly commonly reported:
• Large great whites are often calm and relaxed when encountered by spearfishermen. The smaller sharks of 3 - 4 m are younger and inexperienced relative to the larger one and adopt a trial and error process much the same as is adopted by your aspiring humans as compared to their more experienced counterparts.
• Secondly the shark was able to differentiate between me and a seal and left “the alien critter” alone – or of course it did not feel the need to feed!

That's all for now

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