What lies beneath

Reef Leisure Water Sports diving instructor and water sports manager Deon Van Biljon gives guests at Fairmont Zanzibar a fish-eye view of the world.
What lies beneath
By Administrator
Wed 20 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

Reef Leisure Water Sports diving instructor and water sports manager Deon Van Biljon gives guests at Fairmont Zanzibar a fish-eye view of the world.

When you are relying on a tank strapped to your back to breathe, it's no wonder Reef Leisure Water Sports diving instructor Deon Van Biljon is used to keeping an eye on the clock.

The best part of my job is that I am doing what I love.

For Van Biljon, whose company runs watersports and diving activities for the Fairmont Zanzibar and other resorts on the island, much of his working day is determined by the movement of the tides.

"It's dependent on the water; today, there was a start at 5am," he said.

"We get all the staff here, get the boats ready to go out for the trip, make sure the equipment gets loaded on the boat, make sure there is food on the boat, and make sure there is water, life jackets and safety equipment as well.

"When it is a high tide, we have a four-hour period where we can go and do the dives; we have the two hours before the full-high tide, and the two hours after the full-high tide, and then the water will be too low to come back after that period."

But a later high-tide does not mean a later start - in fact it means the opposite, he explained.

"When the tides are such that it is a low tide in the morning, I will get to work at 4am in the morning, load the boats and equipment that was kitted up yesterday, and then one of the skippers will take the boats out and wait for us, and we will do a road transfer to the beach where they will wait for us," Van Biljon said.

"Then we will go out to the atoll where we will do a dive, then we will get back on to the boat where we will eat some food and have some water, and also ‘out-gas' to let some of the nitrogen out of our system."

"Then we will do our second dive, and by the time we have done our second dive the water is high enough for us to come back over the reef at the Mnemba atoll."

"We normally just do two dives a day, because of the water, but sometimes if it is really busy we will do a normal two-dive morning trip, then we will come back and do a road transfer and take some more people out, and stay out there until the water is high enough for us to come back."

After taking guests out on dives, there was still a lot of work to be done at the dive centre, Van Biljon continued.

"We will come back from a dive, and obviously if there are courses going on then I will continue teaching the theory or doing coursework in the pool," he explained.

"If there is nothing happening at the pool I will get our dive master out to do scuba try-outs so there is always something happening there, and some kind of an attraction.

"We will also make sure the equipment is working and fill the cylinders for the next day, and make sure all the gear is returned in correct working order - there's a lot of things to organise. We have to organise transport, and visit other resorts for guests."

On each dive Van Biljon also takes videos using an underwater camera, which he edits into movies that guests can purchase as a memento of their dive.

"After I have edited the movie I will go to different resorts and put the DVD for the day on the laptop, or the big screen, and the guys can come along and have a look and if they want to buy it they can," he said.

"But it also opens other guests' eyes to the underwater environment, which they really like, so we use that as a marketing tool as well."

Van Biljon said the attraction of scuba-diving was that the entire family could participate.

"It's people from all walks of life [taking part]," he said.

"Scuba diving is very family oriented now, you can let your kids start doing bubble maker [classes] from eight years old, and then you can start doing a full certification course from around about 10, although I would recommend people wait until they are 12."

"But once you have done that the whole family can do excursions together."

Zanzibar is blessed by its world-class diving locations, he said.

"The coral life is great, the fish life is brilliant, and the variety of fish here is fantastic - because we are so close to the equator that you will find 90% of tropical species here - and it's a conservation area here, which is an attraction as well," Van Biljon said.

"I have had people here from Australia, and I have personally never dived the Great Barrier Reef, and they have said to me it is on par, while others have said it is on par with the Red Sea. It's stunning diving here."

And if resorts guests don't feel like diving, there are plenty of other activities to keep them occupied that are run from the centre, Van Biljon added.

Water sports available include kite-surfing, reef walking, canoeing or sea kayaking, as well as trips on local boats, and deep sea fishing.

Van Biljon said he also finds time to train staff in his busy day, although he said that for most of them being around boats came naturally.

"They are all very good boatmen, because they have been on the ocean all their lives, and it is very natural to them," he said.

In addition to the usual challenges of running an operation heavily influenced by the weather - sea conditions could sometimes be unfavourable to a pleasant diving experience - Van Biljon said the challenge of running an operation on Zanzibar were mainly caused by geography.

If a boat broke down, for example, the operation would have to wait until spare parts could be sourced from somewhere such as Dar Es Salaam before repairs could be made.

But although the days were long - Van Biljon said he could often work until 10pm in addition to time spent editing videos - the rewards of the job were worth it.

"The best thing about my job is that I am doing what I love," he said. "One of the best things is the teaching side of the job, because a lot of people know it [scuba diving] is there, but they don't know what it is all about - and showing them is a wonderful thing."

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