Diving the Cape Peninsula and False Bay/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.
Although the primary attraction is the wreck, the site is also good for those with no interest in wrecks at all, as there is a huge reef at the same site, with depths from just below 40m up to near the surface, though the parts shallower than about 10m are seldom divable due to the proximity of the powerful break at the half tide rock.
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 "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.
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 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 considered 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.
Bellows Rock is a huge granite outcrop, probably about 100m in diameter, 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 exposed section is very small compared to the extent of the massive bulk of the rock.
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 northern 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. If you continue around the rock the edge of the dropoff varies but is generally around 20m on the north side. It is shallower on the south face, where the sheer drop starts above 12m in places, and drops almost vertically. The bottom depth is said to exceed 40m on this side.
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.
Lusi pinnacle — Close by to the east of the boilers there is a high rock with some engine structure, and a fairly low ridge extends south of this. This ridge separates the main part of the wreckage from the more scattered parts further east. On the east side of the low ridge there is a gap with sand and small boulders, then a large ridge, which extends from roughly east of the high rock of the inner ridge, magnetic south, for an unknown distance estimated as at least 50m, The high point on this ridge is a pinnacle that rises to 17m at the top, then slopes down again towards the south. The west side of the ridge is steep, and lies approximately north-south magnetic. At the pinnacle it is nearly vertical from the bottom of the gulley at 40m to about 25m at the top of the wall, then slopes more gradually up to the east to the top. The top part is a gnarly lump of rock, and on the east side there is a small cavern/overhang at about 25m, then the slope further down to the east is more gradual, though still steep, until it reaches sand bottom at 41m. Beyond this, to the east, the bottom is sand with smaller boulders and low outcrops scattered around for as far as one can see. Between the Lusi pinnacle and the inner ridge there is another ridge in the south of the gap.
Wreckless Reef — To the north of the pinnacle there is a large area of deep reef sheltered from the current by the lee of Bellows Rock that has been named Wreckless Reef by local divers who end up there instead of on the Lusi when the current is strong.
Geology: Granite of the late Pre-Cambrian Peninsula pluton
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. A north setting current has also been experienced, which can be strong enough that most divers will be unable to get to the wreck, and will be carried around to the north side of Bellows Rock onto "Wreckless Reef"
Access to this site is only by boat. It is 19.2km from Millers Point slipway.
The reef is encrusted with colourful invertebrates. Occasionally a shoal of Yellowtail Seriola lalandi will swim past.
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.
(photographic equipment suggestions)
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.
- 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 at the depth of the wreckage.
- Although penetration of the wreck is not really possible, it is still possible for the unwary diver to get snagged in the wreckage.
- 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. If the visibility in the upper water is poor, which can easily happen in summer, it isn't possible to know which way you are going without a compass.
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.
Ability to follow a compass bearing is necessary if the upper water visibility is bad, as you may need to swim across the current to move a safe distance from the rock. As you will have no visual refefence the only other way you will know where you are is if you get too close and get caught in the break, by which time it will be too late to try to get away.
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.
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. A compass is strongly recommended, and is necessary if the upper water visibility is poor.