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Diving the Cape Peninsula and False Bay/SS Lusitania

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The dive site SS Lusitania or just The Lusi is a historical wreck in the offshore area of the Cape Peninsula and False Bay, near Cape Town in the Western Cape province of South Africa.


Understand

Map of the dive site at the wreck of SS Lusitania.

The wreck of the Lusitania is considered by many Cape Town divers to be one of the top wreck dives of the region. It is fairly deep, the wreck is quite broken up, but still interesting, with a number of identifiable components, and the visibility is often quite good. However, it is a physically challenging dive, quite a distance from the launch sites, and conditions are not often suitable, so it is not dived very often. No doubt these factors add to the mystique.

Position

S34°23.40’ E018°29.65’

Just beyond the steep drop-off on the east side of Bellows Rock

This site is in a Marine Protected Area (2004). A permit is required.

The Lusitania aground on Bellows Rock.

Name

The "SS Lusitania" was a Portuguese twin-screw liner of 5557 tons, built in 1906 by Sir Raylton Dixon & Co, and owned by Empreza Nacional De Navegacao, of Lisbon. The ship was wrecked on Bellows Rock off Cape Point at 24h00 on 18 April 1911 in fog while on a voyage from Lourenco Marques (now Maputo) with 25 first-class, 57 second-class and 121 third-class passengers, and 475 African labourers. Out of the 800 people on board, eight died when a life boat capsized. On 20 April the ship slipped off the rock into 37 m of water to the east of the rock.

This wreck should not be confused with the wreck of the "RMS Lusitania", the passenger liner torpedoed off Ireland during the 1st World War by a German U-boat. This is an earlier wreck.

Depth

The depth is 35 to 40m on the wreck. The nearby Bellows Rock is exposed occasionally, but you do not want to go too close. The diveable reef starts at about 15m, but the attraction of the site for most divers is the wreck.

Visibility

Visibility is often quite good when the general conditions are suitable for diving at this site, but as is always the case in Cape Town, there is no guarantee. Visibility of over 8m is considerd acceptable, but on rare occasions it has been reported as over 20m. Anything over 10m may be considered good. Light levels are not necessarily directly related to the bottom visibility, as a layer of poor visibility near the surface is quite common. This results in relatively dark conditions at the bottom, though it may be quite clear. It is seldom so dark that diving without a light would be unacceptably dangerous.

Diver over the wreck of the SS Lusitania

Topography

Bellows Rock is a granite reef, and is probably part of the Cape Peninsula pluton. The top of the reef is exposed by swells, and breaks even in very low swell. The reef slopes down from Bellows Rock to the east, and drops off almost vertically from about 15m to about 33m, where the wreck lies between the base of the wall and some boulders further east. The wreck is very easy to find, and is spread over a fairly large area.

The wreck lies with the stern to the south, where the bottom is at about 40m. The bow is to the north and a bit shallower.

The stern is the deeper part of the debris field, which borders on the sand bottom, and on the base of the rock to the west. In this area there is a shallow cavern and a deep low overhang at the base of the rock, near 40m depth, and another overhang just below 20m. Further north on the rock face there are a couple of vertical ridges running down from near the top of the wall to the wreckage, which are a good guide that you are near the middle of the wreckage. Follow the rock face south to get to the stern, swim out about 45° to the left to find the boilers, and sharp left along the base to find the chains, and from there, back along the chains away from the wall to the anchor and hawsepipes.

The northen section of the wall is not so steep at the base, but is near vertical towards the top, and as you swim north west along the top of the wall at about 20m depth, the reef starts to break up, and a number of pinnacles can be seen, all in the same sort of depth range. The current here is usually fairly srong, and will carry you well away from the rock to the north west.

The wreck itself is structurally broken up — not much of the hull is recognisable, and the hull plating lies collapsed and fairly low over the bottom, with rusted holes chequering the larger expanses of plating between the frams, but towards the centre of the wreckage there is a group of four almost intact scotch boilers, with the structure of two triple large expansion steam engines and condensers nearby, leaning against a high rock. This is probably the highest point of the wreckage.

Occasional dinner plates, fragments of tiles and crockery, pipes, valves, a few portholes and possibly a large switchboard with cables lie scattered below the plating, seemingly at random. There is also a winch and a pair of hawsepipes at the north-eastern end of the debris field, at least one of which is still occupied by its anchor, with a long length of chain attached which partly wraps round the base of the north eastern wall of the rock.

The wreckage is encrusted with coralline algae, but not thickly, which makes the pieces easy to see, unlike most of the local wrecks which are much more thickly encrusted. The wreckage is not particularly rich with reef life, unlike the rocks, which are.

Geology: Granite of the late Pre-Cambrian Peninsula pluton

Conditions

This site should only be dived if the swell is very low, as the break on Bellows Rock can be powerful and dangerous. The ride is relatively long, and will be uncomfortable in a chop. The site is usually dived at short notice, often on weekdays, and early in the morning before the wind picks up. When conditions are good it is an exciting and spectacular dive and is considered to be one of the prime dives of the region. Visibility is usually good when the site is diveable, and on very rare occasions may exceed 40m. There may be a current setting west, which will carry you onto the rock if you are not careful during the ascent.


Get in

SS Lusitania

Access to this site is only by boat. It is 19.2km from Millers Point slipway.

See

Marine life

The reef is encrusted with colourful invertebrates. Occasionally a shoal of Yellowtail Seriola lalandi will swim past.

Features

A steel wreck of historical interest. The structure of the hull has broken up considerably, but there are still a number of recognisable engineering components of interest.

Photography

(photographic equipment suggestions)

Routes

No particular route is recommended, but starting deep at the stern and working north to the bow and then ascending along the wall is suggested. This allows you to assess the current direction and strength, which may be quite strong if setting to the west. This route allows the current to carry you clear of the rock during ascent if you stay in sight of the top of the wall Make your final ascent when the current starts to take you away from the reef and you will be sure to be clear of the rock. An alternative suggestion is to swim away from the rock to the north-east (towards the sun on an early morning dive) to get away from the white water around the rock. Most divers will choose to surface with a DSMB so the boat can keep track of their position, as there is usually a current setting west to north west, and land is far away.

The wreck is on the east side of the rock, which is upstream, so be ready to descend immediately and be quick with surface checks, as the boat will usually drop the divers off quite close to the rock. The ideal drop is at the edge of the wall, as this makes the wreck very easy to find, but a major delay in descent can have you washed over the rock. This has happened, and the divers, though uninjured, were unable or unwilling to continue with the dive.

When ascending (preferably on a DSMB) keep a lookout for white water above you and do not surface if you can see it. The break over the rock can occasionally produce eddies powerful enough to drag an SMB several metres, with a diver hanging on. If this happens it is preferable to let out a few metres of line to avoid being pulled upwards as the float goes sideways faster then you can swim. It may well go dark above while this happens due to the large volume of white water overhead. This is not a good place or time to surface, but at least you will know you are on the downstream side of the rock. The boat can not come in close to the rock to pick you up. Rather stay at about 6m (or deeper) and swim away or around the break until clear.

It is usually not a good idea to swim upcurrent to get away from the rock, as you have to swim hard and continuously. It is more effective to swim across the current before you are near the white water, so that the current carries you past the break, rather than towards it. It is much safer to be picked up downstream.

Stay safe

Hazards

  • Cold water is possible.
  • Strong winds may develop over a short time, particularly in summer.
  • There is usually a strong surge and breaking waves over the exposed rock and surrounding shallow areas.
  • Nitrogen narcosis is probable on air and Nitrox mixtures.
  • A current is often present, and may carry divers towards the white water. This should be avoided by swimming away from the rock across the current (usually to the north) when ascending if the current is flowing to the west, as is frequently the case.

Skills

The ability to deploy a DSMB is strongly recommended, as is the fitness and agility to get back into the boat after the dive quickly and with a minimum of fuss, as the boat can not hang around near the rock.

Certification for diving deeper than 30m will be expected — This is not a dive for beginners. Most dive operators will not book divers for this site unless they have seen them in the water and are satisfied with their skills and fitness.

Equipment

A DSMB and reel for each diver are highly recommended in case of being separated and off the wreck, A light is also strongly recommended as it is frequently quite dark due to overcast conditions. Nitrox can increase no-stop time, Trimix can reduce the risk of narcosis. A dry suit will be warmer both during the dive and while travelling there and back, specially in winter. A fairly large cylinder will be required, and either a pony cylinder or isolation manifolded twins will give the peace of mind of a fully independent backup gas supply.


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