This is a comprehensive list of dive gear for Cape Town diving! Whether you’ve recently finished your PADI Open Water course or you’re moving to Cape Town and want to get the most from our temperate waters.
I’ve been diving in and around the cape peninsula for over 10 years now, and I still haven’t explored the tip of the iceberg. Our environment is incredibly unique, with mountain plunging in to the ocean and bays within bays, just the shear beauty on the surface makes Cape Town a must for anyone who is passionate about the ocean!
I originally started diving in Mozambique and subsequently the east coast of Africa. This was my window in to diving, and not ever knowing anything different I assumed that this is the way people dive all around the world. I spent years diving the tropics, where I moved through the ranks and eventually completed my PADI Divemaster course in 2009.
After completing my first professional level in the PADI curriculum, I found myself hooked and impulsively signed myself on to the first PADI IDC (Instructor Development Course) I could find, this course happened to be in Cape Town.
One month later I found myself in Cape Town, and my view of diving very quickly started to change. These people looked different, “they look like they were getting geared up to nuke a submarine” was my first though when seeing people in suits that reminded me of the Michelin man! While the exposure protection had obvious reasons, many of the other pieces of equipment I subsequently started using were not so obvious, this is a list of 4 items that are absolute must haves when diving Cape Town:
Michelin man suits (semidry and dry suits)
While this may seem like an obvious requirement when diving below 14-degree Celsius water, it is something that many people underestimate. When I first got to Cape Town I had a 5mm wetsuit which was quite a bit too thick for the tropics, I thought “this is was way too warm back in Mozambique, it should be perfect for Cape Town”, I very quickly realized this was not a good idea.
While the 5mm suit did okay, I could never comfortably do a dive longer than 30 minutes. This was way off from the hour+ dives I was used to in the tropics, however I kind of just accepted things were this way.
I started teaching PADI courses at Stellenbosch University, and students loved it! We had more than 8 people on course every week, and my diving kept getting more and more, my studies weren’t too happy about this…
Because of the large amount of people doing their diving courses, I was in the water on average 4 hours for 2 days in the week during pool sessions (and no, the pool was not heated), and then 6 hours in the ocean on weekends. This started getting intense, and besides my suit not being adequate for the environment, it was also starting to age after 6 months of repetitive diving. I needed a new suit.
I really wanted a dry suit, however they were completely out of my budget. At the time SCUBAPRO offered a semi-dry suit they called the NovaScotia, a suit named after a province on the North Atlantic Coast of Canada, a pretty cold place. The suit boasted some new technology, it was semi-dry. While the suit wasn’t much thicker than my 5mm, it had much better seals around the neck, wrists and ankles. These seals were made from a special neoprene that would create a seal that would allow minimal water to flush through the suit, instead the water that did enter the suit would slowly seep through the neoprene and be heated by one’s body heat. The suit also addressed one of the weakest points of wetsuits, the zip. It used a patented TZip technology that is also used in dry suits, thus preventing any water from seeping through the zip.
The NovaScotia semi-dry suit was probably the single best investment I made in diving. If it was not for this suit I most probably would not have had many of the experiences that have led me down the path I am on today. For the first time the cold was not a worry. I could dive with the 7 Gill Cow sharks for over an hour and not feel cold, it was a game changer. This suit was my daily runner for 3 years, and still served many other people once I moved on to the next tier of comfort, the dry suit.
Round about the same time SCUBAPRO came up with the NovaScotia they also released a dry suit called the Everdry, this was a “budget” drysuit made from neoprene with the intention that it behaved much more like a wetsuit. It was within my budget, and seeing how my diving was enriched by the semi-dry, I thought I needed to get this.
The Everdry much like the NovaScotia addressed a concern most people had about exposure suits, they didn’t want to feel like a Michelin man. In the past people would simply increase the thickness of their suits, it was common to see 7mm and even 10mm suits, however the new suits were all focusing on their seals and keeping the material as thin as possible. The Everdry was exactly that, it was only 5mm neoprene, which had two advantages. The first being that the suit was stretchy and could fit a variety of sizes, something that Trilaminate suits of the time weren’t very good at. Furthermore the Everdry would eliminate the need for expensive undergarments, because the suit already had a insulate layer, people could get away with wearing whatever warm cotton undergarments they could get their hands on.
This neoprene style drysuit however had its limitations, it worked well for recreational dives, however when I started doing technical diving things changed. Because of the tight fit you were very limited on undergarments, and now that I was needing to be underwater for up to 2 hours at a time, I needed something that I could wear thicker garments underneath. And so I moved on to the Otter Britannic, the golden standard in dry suits, a no nonsense workhorse Trilaminate suit. This suit was tailor made and fit me like a glove, it actually fit me so perfectly that 7 years later I still can’t find something better. Trilaminate suits are not only much warmer due to the options in undergarments, but in my experience they have proven to be financially a much better investment. My wetsuit didn’t last longer than 2 years, and the semi-dry’s seals started giving way after 3 years. My dry suit has lasted me 7 years now, and it hasn’t even reached half way in its life cycle. While the upfront cost may be high on these suits, they are definitely worth it in the long run!
Inflatable bags (DSMBs)
This is not something unique to Cape Town, many other place around the world use these and many training organisations such as PADI and SSI have this in their Open Water programs as a required skill. However, to me this was very new.
From my PADI Divemaster training I had been taught how to use a DSMB (Deployable Surface Marker Buoy), however it wasn’t something we ever used in Mozambique or in any of the other east coast diving destinations I visited. Most of the east coast of Africa was diving a system where they would have a permanent buoy attached to a reel that a Divemaster would carry at all times, the boat would then follow the buoy on the surface and thus know exactly where all divers are.
In Cape Town the diving is much different. I very quickly noticed that carrying a permanent buoy through the kelp forests simply wasn’t a good idea, it was more of a safety hazard rather than an aid. But this is not why the divers weren’t using them. The real reason Cape diving uses DSMBs instead of permanent buoys is because of smaller buddy teams. While most of the east coast dives as a large group where everyone on the boat follows a single guide, in Cape Town most people dive in groups of 3 and smaller. The boats here drop a shot (a weight on a large buoy) which marks the center of the dive site, buddy teams then use this as their reference point to get down instead of needing a dive guide to quickly swim down to mark the spot. The buddy groups are then able to do their own planned dive and then deploy their DSMBs at the end of the dive notifying the dive skipper and other boats of their whereabouts.
So why doesn’t everyone dive this way? Well the answer is simple, current. In Cape Town skippers can assumed we will only stray from the initial location as far as we can swim, this is because Cape Town barely has any ocean currents, especially in False Bay where over 80% of our diving happens. On the East Coast of Africa this is very different, the strong Benguela Current is unforgiving, and if a few divers split from the group and go unnoticed they can drift for kilometers before surfacing. If this were to happen and they deployed their DSMBs they could be too far gone for the skipper to have them in his sight. DSMBs are therefore not a more superior way of diving, they are merely a response to an environment.
One of Cape Town’s biggest claim to fame is its photographers. Our underwater photographers have won some of the most prestigious local and international competitions more often than those from any other part of southern Africa.
Something you’re hear most of them say is that “your lights are more important than your camera”, and this cannot be more true. Cape Town diving with a torch is a different world. Because of the nutrient rich temperate waters, our dive sites tend to be dark, and many times I quite enjoy swimming through a gloomy kelp forest or ship wreck. However, if you bring along some light the whole environment changes, with the flick of a switch you go from a misty forest to a flowery garden with more diversity and colour than you’ll find on most coral reefs!
There are many options for lights, and you will quickly find that the most expensive item in diving ends up being a good torch. However, my recommendation would be to get something that has a wide angle lense, an LED and a rechargeable battery.
I know this is something that you need no matter where you are, and you are exposed to it during your PADI Advanced Open Water course, however in the cape it is essential if you want to get the most out of your diving. Something that is unique to our location is the work done by a true inspiration by the name of Peter Southwood. He has single handedly created the biggest directory of dive sites I have yet to see. Not only does he provide the exact coordinates to hundreds of dive sites, he also has a comprehensive navigation guide that accompanies them.
Most of our known dive sites are shore based, so you could dive a new site every day of the year without ever needing to jump on a boat. This makes the need for a compass so much more significant, as there will be no boat coming to fetch you if you stray a bit too far.
While there are a bunch more items I can think of, I believe these are the main 4 to focus on when starting out in Cape Town! I hope this guide has been useful and I hope to see you in the Cape waters soon!