A humpback whale on the beach

Humpback whale on the beach
Humpback whale on the beach

Last year the carcass of a smallish – about 8 metre long – humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) washed up on one of the less-frequented beaches around the Cape Peninsula. I am very belatedly sharing some pictures of it, not least because one doesn’t often get an opportunity to examine an animal like this up close. I view these things with a mixture of sadness and awe; I think it’s easier to process objectively when the animal has already died. Strandings of live cetaceans can be extremely distressing.

Baleen plates
Baleen plates

Some pieces of the whale’s baleen, which these animals use to filter their food from the water, were lying nearby on the beach. A large group of whales had been passing by the Atlantic seaboard in the days preceding the carcass washing up, and it may have been one of them.

The whale had been dead for a few days by the time it washed up on shore, but not so long that a lot of its skin had sloughed off (sometimes dead whales look white all over – as this whale’s belly does – for this reason). There was no obvious cause of death visible on the underside of the whale’s body. It was lying upside down so the top of its body wasn’t accessible.

It is possible that an anthropogenic cause (ingesting plastic, or a ship strike for example) could be responsible for this whale’s death. It’s also possible that the whale was sick or otherwise compromised and died of natural causes. Sometimes, when things in the ocean die, they wash ashore, and we find them.

I’m not sure what ultimately happened to the whale’s remains – it was in the surf line when I saw it, being pushed back and forth by the waves. It might have been taken back out to sea with the tide. I would like to think that it was.

If you come across a dead whale – on the beach or out at sea – here’s what to do.

Article: Outside on acoustic sanctuaries for whales

Departing dolphins, and Christo
Departing dolphins, and Christo

Whales and dolphins make extensive use of sound to communicate. Some of the purposes of this communication may be to organise during a hunt, to socialise or to co-ordinate group movement.

The predominance of long-distance shipping as a cost-effective and efficient way to transport goods around the world has increased the amount of anthropogenic noise in the ocean to the extent that, in some parts of the world, populations of wild cetaceans struggle to make themselves heard in order to communicate with each other.

Outside Online describes a recent paper that proposes “acoustic sanctuaries” to protect cetacean populations of marine mammals off the coast of British Columbia in Canada. This is a fascinating idea, and need not be difficult to implement:

These quiet areas could be pain-free places for governments to formally institute quiet zones, the paper argues. Ships wouldn’t have to be rerouted, the authors note, they would simply have to continue avoiding sensitive areas.

Read the full article here.

To read more about acoustic communication between cetaceans, try this article, the book Listening to Whales by marine mammal scientist Alexandra Morton, or (for a touch of eccentricity) the book Thousand Mile Song.

Article: The Atlantic on finding whales by listening

Humpback whales
Humpback whales

Let’s stay with whales for a bit. I love tales of serendipity in science. My favourite Ed Yong writes for The Atlantic about a team using multiple (160, to be exact) hydrophones (underwater microphones) to listen for fish in the Gulf of Maine. They were able to visualise the locations of millions of herring; they also discovered that they could hear thousands of whale calls clustered in specific locations, mostly humpbacks, which are very vocal animals. But this was not all:

Each whale species calls within a certain frequency range and makes its own distinctive repertoire of sounds. Using this information, the team could look at their recordings and extract the locations of five huge filter-feeding species (the blue, fin, humpback, sei, and minke) and three toothed ones (sperm, pilot, and killer).

The team was able to visualise the spatial distribution of the whales, and scientists may be able to use the multiple-hydrophone technique to study  the interactions of predator and prey species.

Read the full article here.

Whale carcass reporting in Cape Town

Whale skull near the Thomas T Tucker
Whale skull near the Thomas T Tucker

The Environmental Resource Management Department at the City of Cape Town needs your help:

We would like to try and get to whale carcasses well before they wash ashore on our coastline to deal with them more effectively and efficiently. As ocean users, if you come across a whale carcass floating anywhere in False Bay or from Cape Point north to Silwerstroom Strand we would be most grateful if you could call, whatsapp or sms 083 940 8143 (available 24/7) with an approximate location and time of sighting.

Please could I ask that you also forward/share this email to as many friends, colleagues or groups that you are aware of that use the ocean as we would like as large a network of people as possible that could report sightings.

Save that number in your cellphone contacts, and do your bit for beach safety and, hopefully, for the environment, by reporting sightings of deceased whales before they reach the beach.

Ideally (environmentally speaking) dead whales should be left out at sea to be scavenged upon by marine life and then sink to the bottom and return their nutrients to the ecosystem. Unfortunately the prevailing summer wind direction in Cape Town (south easterly) generally brings any such carcasses onto the beach in False Bay. This is a hazard to human safety because of the co-incident inshore presence of great white sharks during the summer months. A dead whale is a great feeding opportunity for sharks, and its accompanying oil slick will be evident from miles away, potentially bringing in more sharks to investigate. This is why the City wants the opportunity to deal with whale carcasses before they reach your local swimming beach.

It’s timely to remember that while some cetaceans die and end up on the beach because of reasons such as ship strikes, ingesting plastic or other pollutants, or acoustic disturbances related to human activity, some of these animals also die of natural causes or illness unrelated to man’s impact on earth. Many times, scientists will examine the dead animal and be able to state what most likely led to its demise. While it is distressing to see any dead animal, and particularly strange and discomfiting to see a whale on shore, this is not necessarily confirmation that “the ocean is dying” or that we are “killing False Bay.” Sometimes it’s just the circle of life. Dead whales were an important source of nutrients and building materials to Strandloper communities long before industrial shipping plied the world’s seas.

For more on what happens to whales that die at sea (hint: it’s magnificent), check out this video. For more on the collision of dead whales and the urban environment, there’s this post about a whale on the beach in Fish Hoek, this one about a whale on the road in Cape Town, and this one about a stranded whale in the United States.

But I digress. Save this phone number: 083 940 8143, and tell your ocean-loving paddler, surfer, sailor, boater and diver friends to do the same!

Marine-related MOOCs from edX

As a fourth and final (perhaps) installment to our guide to ocean-related MOOCs for the curious armchair scholar, here is a list of offerings from provider edX, including one about SHARKS. All about sharks!

I have only just discovered edX, so (unlike Coursera, Future Learn and Open2Study) I have not done any of these courses, and don’t speak from experience. The format looks similar to Coursera, so you can pay to get a “verified certificate” for the course, or just choose to audit it (like a Scientologist… bad joke, sorry), which doesn’t cost anything. Like Coursera, edX has an app so you can work (on certain mobile-friendly courses) on your iPad or Android tablet.

Sharks! Global Biodiversity, Biology, and Conservation is from Cornell University and the University of Queensland, and looks like a complete primer about sharks, from their evolutionary and life history all the way through to management issues and human-shark interactions. The next sessions starts on 28 June. Will I see you there?

Tropical Coastal Ecosystems (also from the University of Queensland) is self-paced, which means you can start whenever you want to. The Great Barrier Reef is used as a study example in many instances, and the course deals with coral reefs, seagrass meadows, and mangrove swamps.

Two courses that are focused more specifically on climate and related science are:

Climate Change: The Science from the University of British Columbia in Canada doesn’t have any current or future sessions scheduled, but you can still view the course material. This course not only covers climate, science, but aims to equip you to evaluate climate science, and to communicate facts about the climate to others.

Sensing Planet Earth – Water and Ice from Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden deals with the measurement and monitoring of earth’s ice and water bodies, in order better to understand the changing climate.

Have fun!

Say yes to 22 new Marine Protected Areas for South Africa

Twenty two new marine protected areas have been proposed for South Africa. The benefits of MPAs are well known, so this is excellent news for the future of our marine environment. The public is invited to comment on the proposal, and as a responsible ocean loving individual, sending an email to comment would be one of the ways you can save the ocean. Read on to find out the details.

Proposed new MPAs for South Africa (existing ones in navy blue)
Proposed new MPAs for South Africa (existing ones in navy blue)

Included in the proposed new Marine Protected Areas are South Africa’s first offshore MPAs. The press release from the Department of Environmental Affairs states that:

Many of these new MPAs aim to protect offshore ecosystems and species, ranging from deep areas along the Namibian border to a more than tenfold expansion of iSimangaliso Wetland Park in the KwaZulu-Natal Province. They include charismatic features, such as, fossilised yellow wood forest at a depth of 120m off Port Nolloth, a deep cold-water coral reef standing 30m high off the seabed near Port Elizabeth and a world famous diving destination where seven shark species aggregate, at Protea Banks in KwaZulu-Natal. These MPAs also include undersea mountains, canyons, sandy plains, deep and shallow muds and diverse gravel habitats with unique fauna.

What good will these MPAs do? According to the press release:

The new MPAs will secure protection of marine habitats like reefs, mangroves and coastal wetlands which are required to help protect coastal communities from the results of storm surges, rising sea-levels and extreme weather. Offshore, these MPAs will protect vulnerable habitats and secure spawning grounds for various marine species, therefore helping to sustain fisheries and ensure long-term benefits important to food and job security.

The new MPAs will increase the protected portion of South Africa’s territorial waters from less than 0.5%, to 5%. The government has undertaken to get this figure to 10% by 2019.

What does this mean for you?

Scuba diving

If you’re a scuba diver, you probably know that diving in a Marine Protected Area – particularly in a no-take zone – is an extra special experience because of the abundant fish and other marine life. The prospect of richer, more diverse dive sites to explore is an exciting one, but there are more benefits to this proposal than just enhanced eco-tourism opportunities.

Scuba diving businesses will have to acquire permits from the Department of Environmental Affairs (for about R500 per year) to operate in the Marine Protected Areas. (This has been in force for some time, and ethical dive operators in Cape Town who take clients diving in any of the existing MPAs should be in possession of a permit already.) There are also the permits issued to individual scuba divers (for about R100 per year, obtainable at the post office) to dive in an MPA – you will see this mentioned in Tony’s newsletter now and then, as a reminder.

Environmental protection

Some of the new MPAs are in offshore regions that would otherwise be at risk from destructive trawl fishing and other exploitative activities such as mineral, oil and gas extraction from the seabed.

Many of these MPAs will, like the Tsitsikamma MPA, serve as nurseries for fish stocks. Recreational and commercial fisheries will benefit from allowing the fish to spawn unmolested in protected areas along the coast. Holding ourselves back from fishing everywhere, at every opportunity, shows long-term thinking, and will have short-term benefits as well as for future generations.

Undesirable activities

Not all of the MPAs will be closed to fishing – those of you familiar with the network of protected areas around the Cape Peninsula will be familiar with this idea. For example, a number of pelagic game- and baitfish species may be caught within the Controlled Pelagic Zones of the Amathole, iSimangaliso, Protea and Aliwal Shoal Marine Protected Areas. Commercial fishing permits may also be issued for use in the MPAs.

Existing discharges of effluent are permitted to continue – specifically into the Aliwal Shoal MPA.  This means that SAPPI may continue to pump wood-pulp effluent onto the dive sites there.

What to do?

If you would like to show your support for the proposal – and who doesn’t love a well-chosen MPA? – send an email to MPARegs@environment.gov.za. You have until 2 May 2016 to do so, and you can include any other relevant comments about the MPA proposal in your missive.

You can download the full document detailing the proposed new MPAs complete with maps, management regulations and co-ordinates (a 336 page pdf) here.

Tony and I are looking forward to passing over some of the new MPAs on the Agulhas Bank (maybe numbers 11 and 12 on the map above) next year – without getting wet. You can come too! (But you may have to impersonate a twitcher.)

Who to thank?

This project has been spearheaded by a team at SANBI (the South African National Biodiversity Institute) led by Dr Kerry Sink. Dr Sink has been awarded a prestigious Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation for 2016, and her fellowship work encompasses a range of projects aimed at strengthening and expanding South Africa’s network of Marine Protected Areas.

We are extraordinarily fortunate to have a scientist and conservationist of Dr Sink’s calibre as a champion for MPAs in South Africa. So you can thank her!

Bookshelf: Sharks in Question

Sharks in Question – Victor G Springer & Joy P Gold

Sharks in Question
Sharks in Question

After an extremely enjoyable and informative experience with Whales and Dolphins in Question, another volume in the Smithsonian’s “in question” series, I sought out Sharks in Question.

Published in 1989, this book is chiefly enlightening as a primer in how shark science and attitudes towards sharks have progressed in the last quarter century. Like Ainley and Klimley’s Great White SharksSharks in Question is seriously dated. Far from making this a frustrating reading experience, I found it incredible how much more certain we are of so many things that the authors mention here in speculative terms.

If you’re looking for some current shark science, I would recommend Global Perspectives on the Biology and Life History of the White Shark or Sharks of the World. You could also check out the BBC’s wonderful Sharks series. If you are looking to complete your library of all things shark, however, you could find a place for this volume.

You might be able to get a copy here (South Africa), otherwise here or here.

Marine-related MOOCs from Open2Study

Let me continue to encourage you to use your spare time to pursue the subjects and ideas that interest you even if you have spectacularly missed your calling in life. It is a great time to be alive! I have heard about this thing called the Internet, that apparently contains almost all of human knowledge. Including a bunch of MOOCs.

Among the first MOOCs I did were these two from Open2Study, an Australian course provider.

If you enjoyed The Outlaw Sea, or are interested in piracy, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, or general ocean governance issues, Contemporary Issues in Ocean Governance from the University of Wollongong will tickle your fancy.

If you’re interested in the Antarctic, have a look at Marine and Antarctic Science from the University of Tasmania for a quick tour of marine food webs, fisheries issues, and how the ocean regulates earth’s climate.

The final MOOC I want to mention is one I haven’t done, but Georgina and Kate have (and found it fascinating – I trust their judgment). The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has launched a MOOC on marine debris. You can find more information about it here. The MOOC ran until December 2015, but one hopes it will be repeated!

Marine-related MOOCs from Future Learn

Coursera is not the only provider of MOOCs. In fact, providers are legion. Future Learn is another provider, owned by the Open University, with an emphasis on European (mostly British) institutions as course providers. I have enjoyed a couple of their courses and can see a few more that interest me!

My favourite Future Learn MOOC is Shipwrecks and Submerged Worlds: Maritime Archaeology from the University of Southampton. I’d like to think that it covers similar ground to the NAS course, but obviously without the practical aspect.

Also from the University of SouthamptonExploring our Oceans deals with ocean exploration and the variety of ecosystems found beneath the waves.

Introduction to Ecosystems from The Open University deals with the web of life and how organisms interact with their environment.

There are several climate-related Future Learn MOOCs on offer, including Climate Change: Challenges and Solutions, Our Changing Climate: Past, Present and Future and Causes of Climate Change.

Courses related to sustainable solutions to the world’s problems include Elements of Renewable Energy and Water for Liveable and Resilient Cities.

Don’t use these courses as a cudgel to beat yourself with. If you sign up for one and circumstances intrude and prevent you from finishing it within the allotted time, don’t be alarmed. The learning is meant to be for your own enjoyment, and the material will either remain accessible to you as a past student, or you can re-enroll for a future iteration of the course.

Marine-related MOOCs from Coursera

MOOC stands for Massive Online Open Course. These courses are available over the internet, allowing theoretically unlimited class sizes. Courses typically comprises a mix of short video lectures, supplemental reading material, assignments and/or quizzes. Many MOOCs are offered free of charge.

Coursera is one of the largest providers of MOOCs, offering top quality classes from a range of universities, including many excellent ones. Through Coursera I have learned about chicken husbandry, animal behaviour, R programming, maps and map making, statistics, machine learning and some marine-related topics. Here is a selection of Coursera offerings that you might enjoy if you are interested in the ocean and, more broadly, the environment:

Marine Megafauna from Duke University is about large ocean creatures – turtles, whales, sharks, seals, penguins – and what they reveal about the ocean. As part of the course we read scientific papers and extracted data and conclusions from them. This is an excellent skill to learn.

Paleontology: Ancient Marine Reptiles from the University of Alberta is about dinosaurs that lived in the ocean, and the evolutionary changes that took place in their bodies when they moved from land back to the sea. My five year old self is looking forward to this!

Ocean Solutions from the University of Western Australia is concerned with the resources of the ocean and how we can use them to mitigate water and food scarcity, cope with climate change, and use them to source sustainable energy.

Water: The Essential Resource from National Geographic is aimed at teachers (but is still interesting for the rest of us), and deals with ocean and freshwater ecosystems, water use and environmental stewardship.

Our Earth: Its Climate, History and Processes from the University of Manchester is about earth as a system, shaped by its natural processes. I am currently busy with it, and it seems to be providing a good grounding in basic geology, the water cycle, and life’s impact on the climate of earth.

Finally, because I am still completely obsessed:

Introduction to the Arctic: Climate from the University of Alberta is the first of a planned series of MOOCs about the Arctic. It deals with the various environments that make up the Arctic, how climate systems operate there, and the impacts of climate change on this sensitive region. If you do this one, I suggest playing the lecture videos at 1.5x speed to preserve sanity.

The Changing Arctic from Tomsk State University also deals largely with climate and climate change as it relates to the Arctic. The supplementary material is outstanding, and the course uses the work of scientists to tell stories that shed light on Arctic issues. This course comes highly recommended.

Some of these courses have set start dates; you can either enroll and wait for the date to roll around, or, if the next starting date is undetermined, sign up to be notified when it is announced. Other courses are self-paced, so you can sign up whenever you want to and work at your own pace. Coursera has a fantastic app that functions extremely well (at least on my iPad) for learning on the go.

Coursera is not the only provider of MOOCs – I’ll share some others in a later post.