Newsletter: Mountain side

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Saturday: Boat dives from Hout Bay or False Bay

Last weekend’s dives were pretty good; the visibility was better further south on Sunday. On Saturday we met an octopus at Long Beach, who tried very hard to persuade us he was a piece of kelp.

Octopus imitating kelp
Octopus imitating kelp

This week has had a fair whack of wind on and off, and False Bay currently looks pretty grumpy with very little sign of visibility. Hout Bay also looked a little off this morning, but the wind should have improved that.

I will stick my neck out and say we will launch on Saturday, and it needs to be really early as the wind picks up around midday.

Where we will need to wait for a visual check late tomorrow to decide which side of the mountain we will dive. I don’t think the conditions will be great for training dives and we may end up in the cold Atlantic. Either way we meet at 7.30 am at either Hout Bay slipway or False Bay Yacht Club parking in Simons Town. Text me if you want to join in.


Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099

Diving is addictive!

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Monitoring the Oceans from Space MOOC

As your self-appointed education officer and fellow perpetual student, it is my duty to inform you of an upcoming MOOC on the Futurelearn platform, entitled “Monitoring the Oceans from Space“. In the five weeks of the course,  which starts on 24 October, you will learn about using satellite data to monitor the health of the oceans. You will also learn how to access some of the ocean monitoring data that is collected every day about weather phenomena, icebergs, sea levels, ocean temperature, and more. If you’re into creating your own visualisations or crunching numbers yourself, this should appeal.

The course is presented by EUMETSAT and was developed by Imperative Space in partnership with Plymouth Marine Laboratory, the National Oceanography Centre (Southampton), CLS France and NASA JPL.

Read more about the MOOC here, and register here.

Here’s a trailer:

Regular service on this blog should resume in the forseeable future; it’s been a heck of a year, so forgive us!

Sharks! MOOC videos (part II)

Here is a selection of the videos for weeks three and four of the recent Sharks! MOOC hosted on edX. You can find weeks one and two here. All the videos are available on youtube if you’re really interested – you can check out the channel containing all this year’s videos, or a giant playlist containing all the videos from the 2015 iteration of the course.

Dark shyshark on the sand at Long Beach
Dark shyshark on the sand at Long Beach

Week 3: Thinking like a Shark – Brains and Behavior

Introduction – thinking like a shark

General organisation of the nervous system

Brain regions overview

Brain size

Prey localisation

Seeing underwater

Eyes for deep water

Lateral line system and Ampullae of Lorenzini

Electric snouts

Group hunting – broadnose sevengill sharks – an interview with Dave Ebert on research he did decades ago on the sevengill cowsharks of Millers Point

Week 4: Sharks in the World – Human Interactions, Ecology, and Conservation

Introduction – sharks in the world

What sharks eat

Food webs

What eats sharks?

Deep water communities

Shark struck

The problem with shark nets

Why are aquariums important?


Industrial fishing

The art of Ray Troll

Sawfish DNA

Sharks! MOOC videos (part I)

I completed the edX-hosted Sharks! MOOC, presented by Cornell University and the University of Queensland, and it was excellent. The content was clear and for me, who stupidly quit high school biology at the age of 14 for the sake of a more classical (less useful) education, filled in a large number of gaps in my understanding of sharks and rays.

The course format was a mix of video lectures and interviews, notes, diagrams and multiple choice questions for grading purposes. The videos are available on youtube – you can check out the channel containing all this year’s videos, or a giant playlist containing all the videos from the 2015 iteration of the course.

I’m going to link to some of the most interesting videos below, so you can get a taster of what the course was like. Please sign up next time it gets offered, if you didn’t do so this time!

Broadnose sevengill cowshark at Shark Alley
Broadnose sevengill cowshark at Shark Alley

Week 1: The Big Shark Picture – Biodiversity and Evolution

Intro – the big shark picture

Shark tracking

Light, depth and landforms

Habitat dive


Origins of taxonomy

Start with the fins

Skeletal anatomy

14 living orders

Species discovery

A walk through deep time

Bear Gulch – a golden age of sharks

Megatooths of Maryland

Week 2: Miracles of Evolution – Functional Morphology and Physiology

Introduction – miracles of evolution

Why a hammerhead?

How shark tails work


Oil and water

Edged weapons

Blue shark vs white shark

Pursue or ambush?

Manta ray feeding and migration

Shark vs mammal circulation

Breathing water

Countercurrent gas exchange

Osmoregulation in the bull shark

Greenland sharks

Reproduction in the sand tiger (ragged tooth) shark

Modes of reproduction

Week 3 (shark brains and behaviour) and 4 (sharks in the world) videos will follow in a separate post.

Article: The New York Times Magazine on animal tagging

Staying with our informal theme of the last few weeks’ (admittedly sporadic) posts, let’s look at a recent article from the New York Times Magazine. Not solely focused on marine animal studies, the article explains how technology has enabled even the general public to directly observe and learn about the migrations of birds, sharks and other animals. The utility of this kind of information is obvious:

By discovering the precise routes animals take during migration, scientists can assess the threats they face, like environments altered by habitat loss and overhunting.

A white shark with a satellite tag
A white shark with a satellite tag

The article’s author is brilliant nature writer Helen MacDonald, who wrote H is for Hawk, and she goes on to muse about the meaning of the relatively few individually tagged and named animals which become icons of their species as they appear to transverse a simplified, borderless planet in solitude. (The OCEARCH sharks on their satellite map refer!) It is easy to lose sight of the rigours of the environments they move through, but easy to become invested in the future of particular individuals.

Erik Vance’s article on great white sharks for National Geographic covers tagging, and he elaborates on his blog about how tags can facilitate population estimates. You can also read about whale tagging, tuna tagging, and the tagging study taking place on False Bay’s cowsharks.

What a time to be alive. Read the full New York Times Magazine article here.

Two ways to count sharks

Did you pick up the July edition of National Geographic to read about great white sharks, or read the article online? (Pro tip: you should.)

The article’s author, science writer Erik Vance, contributes to a blog that I follow called The Last Word on NothingI was delighted to read a follow-up he posted to his National Geographic feature, explaining how scientists count sharks. At the heart of the method is a beautiful piece of statistics (a model) that allows scientists to draw conclusions about the size of a population – some of whom are tagged or marked  – based on only a sample of the individuals, and what proportion of those sampled individuals is tagged.

A dorsal fin breaks the surface
A dorsal fin breaks the surface

Why is it important to know how many great white sharks (or cowsharks, or whale sharks, or or or…) there are? The most obvious answer relates to conservation: if we have a baseline population estimate, we can then determine whether it is increasing or decreasing over time. What is the status of the population? Are these animals endangered, or flourishing? Are conservation measures necessary? Are they effective?

Go and read about counting sharks here. An important thing to pay attention to when you are reading any scientific model is what the underlying assumptions are, because they will show you the circumstances under which the model will fail.

And for some hot off the press South African research on a related subject but taking a different (genetic) approach, check out this press release. The study’s author, Sara Andreotti, spoke on the topic at the SA Shark and Ray Symposium in 2015.

Help Shark Spotters create a free beach info smartphone app!

The signs and Shark Spotters flag at Glencairn
The signs and Shark Spotters flag at Glencairn

Shark Spotters have been keeping bathers and surfers safe, and providing groundbreaking research on Cape Town’s white sharks, for over 10 years. They are currently developing a smartphone app that will provide information on sightings of sharks and other marine life, sea conditions, and other information pertinent to the Shark Spotters program.

The app will be available free of charge, but there are some development costs that have to be raised before it can be launched.

Click here to donate – every bit helps!

Bookshelf: One Breath

One Breath: Freediving, Death, and the Quest to Shatter Human Limits – Adam Skolnick

One Breath - Adam Skolnick
One Breath – Adam Skolnick

This is the book on freediving that has long needed to be written. Structured, well researched, and focused, you must to read it if you have an interest in the sport. It is the best book by far that I, a rank outsider to freediving, have read on the subject.

Adam Skolnick centres his narrative on two figures: Nick Mevoli, who died during a dive in 2013, and William Trubridge, world record holder and organiser and around whom the small freediving community seems to pivot.

Skolnick explains the development of the sport, and narrates the life of Nick Mevoli, attempting to unravel the obsession that freediving engenders in its participants. With detailed descriptions of freedving competitions, such as the Vertical Blue series of events, this is the closest I have gotten to understand the mechanics of the sport, and the impulse that drives its participants. There is no attempt to airbrush the physical toll exacted by freediving or to gloss over the dangers of the sport.

Here’s an illuminating review of the book:

The dreadful (and unnatural) toll of freediving

Get a copy here (South Africa), here or here.

If you’re interested in freediving, read (with caution) The Last Attempt and The Dive, watch The Big Blue, and also watch this video of William Trubridge diving to 100 metres, which is utterly transcendent.

Article: National Geographic on great white sharks

The July 2016 issue of National Geographic contains an article entitled “Why Great White Sharks are Still a Mystery to Us“, and luckily for those of us who don’t have approximately $100 to drop on a magazine (I exaggerate, and it’s probably worth it), it’s available online as well. It’s an excellent explanation for why and how technology is being used to study these remarkable creatures.

The great white shark is the ocean’s iconic fish, yet we know little about it—and much of what we think we know simply isn’t true. White sharks aren’t merciless hunters (if anything, attacks are cautious), they aren’t always loners, and they may be smarter than experts have thought. Even the 1916 Jersey Shore attacks famously mentioned in Jaws may have been perpetrated by a bull shark, not a great white.

We don’t know for sure how long they live, how many months they gestate, when they reach maturity. No one has seen great whites mate or give birth. We don’t really know how many there are or where, exactly, they spend most of their lives. Imagine that a land animal the size of a pickup truck hunted along the coasts of California, South Africa, and Australia. Scientists would know every detail of its mating habits, migrations, and behavior after observing it in zoos, research facilities, perhaps even circuses. But the rules are different underwater. Great whites appear and disappear at will, making it nearly impossible to follow them in deep water. They refuse to live behind glass—in captivity some have starved themselves or slammed their heads against walls.

The photographs are by Brian Skerry. It’s worth checking out. Read the article here, or pick up a copy of the magazine when you see it on the shelves.

And for the inveterate shark fans and those who want to pursue some further education, it’s not too late to sign up for the Shark MOOC on edX that started on 28 June. Click here to join in.

Bookshelf: Pristine Seas

Pristine Seas: Journey to the Ocean’s Last Wild Places – Enric Sala

Pristine Seas - Enric Sala
Pristine Seas – Enric Sala

Those of us who will likely never visit Kingman Reef and the Line Islands in person should be grateful for Enric Sala. Marine ecologist and National Geographic Explorer in Residence, Sala brings the same substance, urgency and gravitas to his underwater photography that Thomas Peschak does. He can truly be called a conservation photographer, having left a career as a research scientist to work on saving the ocean’s wild places.

Sala’s current project is to explore and protect the last pristine marine ecosystems on the planet, and to this end he has led expeditions to comparatively untouched locations around the world. This book documents ten of those expeditions, from tropical to Arctic waters. Rich with photographs, contextualised with beautiful National Geographic-style maps, it is a delight.

Read an interview with Sala here, and an article about the man by author Juliet Eilperin can be found here.

Get a copy here (South Africa), here or here.

If this is right up your alley, check out Blue Hope as well.