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.

Coastal foraging part II: the feast

The various edible seaweeds that we foraged
The various edible seaweeds that we foraged

After foraging on the sea shore for edible seaweeds and mussels under the guidance of Roushanna and Gael from Good Hope Gardens, we returned to Gael’s house in Scarborough to prepare a meal with our finds. The group divided into four, and we worked together to prepare the food using recipes provided by Roushanna.

Decorating the sushi rolls
Decorating the sushi rolls

Sushi rice mixed with finely chopped sea lettuce (Ulva spp) formed the base of vegetarian sushi rolls, which were decorated with kelp, tongue weed, radishes, avocado, mayonnaise, and a secret sauce (recipe for the rolls here). Sea lettuce was also the seaweed of choice for a couscous and rocket salad, decorated with hibiscus flowers and miniature tomatoes (recipe for the salad here).

I worked on the coleslaw, made from finely sliced red cabbage, carrots, and hanging wrack (Brassicophycus brassicaeformis) – a seaweed I found so tasty and crunchy I could have sat right there in a rock pool and eaten it directly off the rocks. The mussels were picked over, scrubbed, and prepared with white wine, cream, onion, and garlic. Crusty ciabatta soaked up the sauce. Once we were done, it looked as though we had enough mussel shells for our own personal shell midden!

Rinsing and scrubbing the mussels
Rinsing and scrubbing the mussels

Roushanna prepared nori (purple laver, Porphyra capensis) crips for us (like kale chips, but with a crispier texture and more flavour), and chocolate nori ice cream for dessert. We supplied our own drinks. During breaks in the lunch preparation some of the group enjoyed a face (and hand) mask made from seaweed ingredients. Others of Roushanna’s recipes you can explore for yourself are for sea biscuits (scones made with sea lettuce), fruity vegan jelly, and kelp and avo salad.

Lunch was a collaboration, and a tasty culinary adventure. I found it marvelous to discover what is available on the sea shore, and to get a small hint of how our strandloper ancestors foraged on the Cape Peninsula.

Preparing our foraged lunch
Preparing our foraged lunch

(Puzzled what this is all about? Read my first post about coastal foraging here.)

Coastal foraging part I: the forage

Roushanna educates us about foraging for seaweed
Roushanna educates us about foraging for seaweed

A chance conversation with a friend who also volunteers at the Two Oceans Aquarium led to me enrolling in a coastal foraging course with Roushanna and Gael Gray from Good Hope Gardens, the nursery between Scarborough and Cape Point. Their coastal foraging courses are run during the summer months (I went in December), on dates close to spring tide, so that the maximum possible area of shoreline is available to forage on. The course takes the form of a rock pool expedition on Scarborough beach, followed by lunch – prepared by the participants – at Gael’s beach cottage.

Foraging for edible seaweed
Foraging for edible seaweed

As I get older I am finding it increasingly difficult to suppress a wildly eccentric streak that frequently finds me – consciously or unconsciously – making small preparations for some kind of apocalypse (zombie or otherwise). This might be related to living on the South African roller coaster for too long, but whatever the origin of this latent anxiety, it has served to make our home life more sustainable and – little bit by little bit – more independent of the electricity grid, the municipal water system, and grocery stores. The idea of coastal foraging dovetails nicely with my desire to learn how to live a little bit more off the land than off the shelves at Woolworths!

Mollusk permit inspection by fisheries officials
Mollusk permit inspection by fisheries officials

It is important to respect some simple rules to ensure that your foraging is sustainable, safe, kind to the environment, and legal. Each of us had purchased a mollusk permit allowing us to harvest mussels, obtainable from the post office (available for R94 using the same form as the scuba diving in marine protected areas permit), and these were inspected by fisheries officials quite early on in our forage. You don’t need a permit to harvest seaweed (however if you wanted to do it on an industrial scale you might need to go through official channels).

There are three types of mussels found on South Africa shores: the ribbed mussel and black mussel are indigenous, and the Mediterranean mussel is introduced. Unfortunately Mediterranean mussels out-compete the indigenous varieties, and we only saw one or two black mussels while we were out. The mussels we harvested were the Mediterranean variety, distinguishable from black mussels by the thick, flat edge to their shells. Black mussels have pointy edges all around their shells, making them more streamlined.

Mediterranean mussel (left) and black mussel (right)
Mediterranean mussel (left) and black mussel (right)

There is only one type of seaweed growing along our coast that is harmful to eat (acid weed – Desmarestia firma, which has sulphuric acid in its fronds). This brown algae species does not grow on the rocky shore but only further out in the surf zone. This gives rise to the simple rule of only harvesting seaweed that is growing on the rocks, and never collecting seaweed that is floating free.

When harvesting seaweed, we used a pair of scissors to avoid pulling the entire plant off the rocks, and cut no more than a third of the leaves. Seaweed is full of vitamins and minerals, particularly iodine and potassium. It isn’t something you’d make a whole meal of, but it is a healthful addition to many dishes and – once you know how to prepare it – tastes pretty good!

Clouds at Scarborough
Clouds at Scarborough

You can read more about the Good Hope Gardens coastal foraging experience here and here. Watch this space for more about what we prepared with our seaweed spoils…

Bookshelf: Are Dolphins Really Smart?

Are Dolphins Really Smart? – Justin Gregg

Are Dolphins Really Smart?
Are Dolphins Really Smart?

Beliefs about dolphins’ superior intelligence, bond with humans, mystical abilities and their disproportionate intellectual capabilities abound. There is a personhood movement that seeks to acquire rights for dolphins just like humans. In Are Dolphins Really Smart?, marine mammal scientist Justin Gregg examines the evidence for outsize dolphin intelligence, and compares it to other animals. I was pleased to see chickens get more than a mention!

Dr Gregg‘s frustration with the “woo” surrounding dolphins is palpable as he attempts to demolish the facade of pseudo-science and fantasy that dolphins seem to attract. Secretly I think that many people want to believe that there is something magical about dolphins, even without subscribing to the fact that they can heal at a distance or communicate with aliens. For that reason (I think), I found this a fairly uncomfortable and negative read. Predictably the book caused a bit of a media storm upon its release. It’s a short read, but requires careful scrutiny in order not to miss the subtleties and brutalise the message.

This book is perhaps less about dolphins than you might expect, and more about the difficulties in studying animal cognition and intelligence. It is enlightening, for someone who isn’t a scientist, to gain an understanding of the challenges involved – not just in studying, but in actually first defining the terms of reference.

You can also read reviews at Southern Fried Science (read the comments too), Salon.com and Discover Magazine.

If you’re interested in animal intelligence and (dare I say it) emotions, let me recommend Carl Safina’s latest book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. If you’re particularly into dolphins, I suggest Susan Casey’s Voices in the Ocean for a broad layman’s overview with a focus that is not purely scientific, and Dolphin Confidential by Maddalena Bearzi for the field scientist’s perspective.

Get the book here (South Africa), here, or here.

Bookshelf: Voices in the Ocean

Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins – Susan Casey

Voices in the Ocean
Voices in the Ocean

It is clear from the first pages of Voices in the Ocean that Susan Casey is enchanted by dolphins, and her book does not shy away from the mysticism and wild attributions of almost supernatural powers that dog our toothed marine mammal friends. She is author of The Wave and The Devil’s Teeth, and favours an immersive and almost obsessive style of engagement with her subject. This makes for good reading.

Despite the persistent thread of woo running through the entire book, Casey manages to expose important and awful aspects of humans’ relationship with dolphins. Some of these are often overlooked. She visits dolphins in theme parks, goes to the cove at Taiji in Japan (location of a famous dolphin hunt), and – in what I view as the most important section of the book because the topic is so under-reported – the Solomon Islands.

The Solomon Islanders have a long history with dolphins, both slaughtering them for their teeth (as money), and capturing the animals to sell them to marine parks. The scale of the Solomon Islands’ involvement in dolphin killing and trade is massive and horrific. Some of the incidents are completely pointless, executed in order to hold conservation organisations to ransom. Casey visits the islands, meets some of the players, and tries to make sense of the chaos and menace she finds there.

Casey concludes with a study of the Minoan culture on Crete, a hopeful note after a trip into the hellish depths of depravity that seem to occur more often than not at the human-dolphin interface. You can read more about Voices in the Ocean at Outside Magazine, the Guardian, and the New York Times.

You can get a copy of the book here (South Africa), here or here.

Article: The Atlantic on jellyfish locomotion

Cross-disciplinary co-operation in the sciences can lead to striking results (it occurred beautifully between mathematics and computer science late last year). In this instance, The Atlantic covers a breakthrough in our understanding of jellyfish locomotion, made by a mechanical engineer.

Moon jelly
Moon jelly

John Dabiri and his team injected dye into the water around a moon jelly as it swam. Like Gandalf’s smoke rings, the jellies created rings of water behind them, moving down their tentacles as they swam.

The team later showed that the moon jellyfish actually produces two vortex rings for every beat of its bell. While the first one travels backwards, a second one rolls back into the bell itself, speeding up as it goes, and sucking water into the center of the jellyfish. This allows the animal to recapture some of the energy it spends on each swimming “stroke,” and pick up speed even when it’s making no effort. For that reason, the moon jellyfish is the most efficient swimmer in the ocean.

Read the full article here – highly recommended.

The Cape Agulhas lighthouse museum

Cape Agulhas lighthouse
Cape Agulhas lighthouse

The ground floor of the Cape Agulhas lighthouse is devoted to a lighthouse museum and curio shop/tourist information centre. The museum is small, but well worth investigation if you’re a lighthouse buff.

Poster display about the Cape Agulhas lighthouse
Poster display about the Cape Agulhas lighthouse

There is a large number of posters on display, covering the history of the Agulhas light and the surrounding area, as well as lighthouses around the world. There is also a selection of lenses and other historical lighthouse and rescue equipment.

Display of historical lighthouse paraphernalia
Display of historical lighthouse paraphernalia

Entry to the museum is included in the lighthouse entrance fee.