SATS General Botha, diving Cape Town, lesser know wrecks

Diving Cape Town – lesser known wrecks – SATS General Botha

The General Botha’s not only the deepest shipwreck in False Bay, it’s by far the longest serving and most historically significant of the “Lesser known shipwrecks” series. It is the ship largely responsible for training the South African Navy, and later scuttled by gunfire from the Scalla Battery in Simon’s Town. The wreck lays below 50 meters and besides being shot down as a naval exercise, is much more intact than one would expect. It lays on a flat sandy bottom facing SW. For technical divers interested in diving Cape Town’s waters, this is a must.

The trip out to the SATS General Botha is another long one, approximately 15km from Miller’s Point. This dive requires quite a bit of gear and special procedures, for it is far below the reach of recreational diving standards. You need to be a technical diver to see this ship. Because of this we are only 6 divers on the boat, 3 who will hit the bottom and 3 who will be supporting us on the way up. The boat is full, each of the deep divers have 4 cylinders and the support divers are each carrying two cylinders of their own and a spare deco cylinder of each gas we may need on our return to the surface. There’s a total of 21 cylinders on the boat, we’re traveling heavy.

After a ride out where we come across a group of seals and the occasional whale we have arrived. Floating above the wreck the only confirmation that we have that we won’t be diving a sandy desert is a small irregularity on the boat’s sonar. This is not the first time we’ve been here, so we know the coordinates are correct and the blob on the screen is the ship that trained the South African Navy.

The SATS General Botha before it was shot down by the Scalla Battery - source: SAN Archives

The SATS General Botha before it was shot down by the Scalla Battery – source: SAN Archives

All geared up, pre-dive checks done, and the skipper starts his countdown. We roll back and immediately start our descent down the shot line. At 10m the 3 lead divers reconvene along the line and do a bubble check and a S-drill for good measure, it is best we find out if something’s wrong sooner rather than later. After a round of OKs we make our way down. Diving these depths makes you forget you’re underwater, and instead you feel like you’re free falling through the sky. Beneath you it’s a dark blue, and above you a lighter blue, it seems like you’re in a never ending void. I cannot describe the solace each free-fall brings me.

A diver approaching the bow of the SATS General Botha – source: Jean Tresfon

Our landing site is spot on thanks to the skipper’s precision placement of the shot, this makes for a conservative start to the dive. Our dive plan was to the the deck, however we cannot assume that this would be the case, in technical diving we always have to assume that we may hit the deepest part of a dive, especially on a dive with such a big free-fall and the chance of bad visibility. Luckily today the visibility was great! Even though we have enough gas to dive for a few hours at recreational depths, at this depth we only have 30 minutes to complete the mission. Today’s mission is to place a geocache on the deck. A time capsule gathering the names of all those who have had the privilege to dive this site.

Diver inside the SATS General Botha – source: Jean Tresfon

The wreck is full of life, and still very intact for its age. Shipwrecks at depth suffer less from heavy seas, and are therefore much more intact than those who went down shallower. Besides the normal backdrop of hottentot, galjoen and pyjama sharks, there’s an unmatched amount of catfish on this wreck. Every crevice has little tentacles sticking out of it, and as you move your light on to it a school of catfish start squirming around. With our mission complete its time to do our ascent.

Divers passing the support structure for a foredeck gun – source: Jean Tresfon

We planned this dive so it ended back at the shot line. Its always preferable to end this way for if anything goes wrong we have a reference and a weight we can work with. This does not mean we use the shot line, we end each dive the way it was planned to end, with a deployment of our DSMBs. Sending an DSMB up from 50m is quite the sight. After the signal to go up we all prepare our DSMBs, waiting for the last person to be ready before deploying. The reason we do this is because of ocean currents, while there may not be a current at depth, there may be currents on the surface that will drag the diver with them. Therefore, it is important we all deploy at the same time to ensure we are dragged equally and remain as a team.

Approximate state of the wreck in June 2006 - source: Peter Southwood

Approximate state of the wreck in June 2006 – source: Peter Southwood

On the surface the support divers are getting ready. They don’t need to see our DSMBs to know when we are surfacing, because they know the dive plan just as well as we do, and as 30 minutes hits they are fully kitted up waiting for the DSMBs to pop out the water. The boat has been following our bubbles, so it also knows exactly where we are. As the DSMBs surface the support divers roll back and descend.

We start making our way up from the surface, there are no deco stops in the first 30m of our ascent, so we are focused on keeping a 9m a minute ascent. If we ascend too slow we build up unnecessary deco, too fast and we risk decompression sickness. This is a tightly choreographed dance, and as we reach 20m we are greeted from above by our supporting angels.

Meeting the support team is always an incredibly satisfying moment. The faces of the support divers light up because they see we have executed the mission safely, and our faces light up because we know if something went wrong we have our brothers in arms. Because of this symbiotic relationship between divers, technical diving creates a bond unlike any other.

Time has come for deco, today we are using two of the most popular gasses, we are carrying 10/50 Trimix and 100% Oxygen. Our deco time is 40 minutes, where we slowly make our way from 22m to 6m. Our longest stop is always at 6m when we’re doing ocean dives, ideally this would be 3m, however we plan for a worst case scenario where the swell would make 3m inaccessible. Deco stops are always full of surprises, and today is no different. Within a few minutes of our stop a large group of seals returning to Seal Island from the open ocean takes an interest in us. Seals are very curious creatures, and love to show off, so for the next 40 minutes we have our very own in water entertainment. It seems like seals are the backdrop when diving Cape Town.

Once deco is done the support divers assist us with our gear, it is important to remain relaxed after decompression as it is good practice to assume there is still a fair amount of silent bubbles in your system. All 21 cylinders are dragged back on to the boat and we start the journey home. Cold fingers, a big smile and a slab of chocolate. Another great day diving Cape Town!

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