Southern African Shark & Ray Symposium 2015 – workshops

View from the top of Red Hill, over Simon's Town
View from the top of Red Hill, over Simon’s Town

The final day of the 3rd Southern African Shark and Ray Symposium comprised three workshops.

The first, hosted by the staff of the Two Oceans Aquarium, was about safe and ethical handling protocols for sharks and rays. Scientists apply tags, take samples and measure animals in order to learn about them, and some contact is inevitable. It is vital to do all the work as quickly as possible, and with as little stress to the animal as possible. I didn’t attend this workshop, but comments from participants indicated that it was extremely useful and practical, with a hands-on section conducted outdoors.

The second workshop, hosted by the team from the Save Our Seas Shark Education Centre in Kalk Bay, was about science communication, which is dear to my heart. I tweeted quite a lot of detail from this workshop (keep reading…), and it was fantastically useful.

The final workshop was hosted by the Save Our Seas Foundation and its CEO Michael Scholl (also known as “the drone guy”!), and dealt with automated identification of sharks from the shape of their dorsal fins – FinPrinting! I didn’t attend this workshop either, and would be interested to hear more about it.

As for the first and second day of the symposium, I created a storify timeline that compiles tweets and images from the day. You can view it here, or read through it below.

Southern African Shark & Ray Symposium 2015 – second day

View from the top of Red Hill, over Simon's Town
View from the top of Red Hill, over Simon’s Town

Overall impressions from the second day of the Southern African Shark and Ray Symposium, which was held from 7-9 September at the Blue Horizon Estate above Simon’s Town, are these nuggets of sharky goodness:

  • Collaboration between scientists leads to amazing things, like the massive acoustic tracking system that covers the entire south and east coasts of South Africa.
  • You can tell a lot about what an animal is doing, without necessarily being right next to the animal all the time, with some clever technology and mathematics (yay maths!)
  • There are tiger sharks that are partially resident off Ponta do Ouro, Mozambique. They are being tracked and studied. Something to bear in mind next time you visit!
  • Sharks that cross borders (e.g. tiger sharks, great white sharks) are hard to conserve and face huge risks when they move out of protected areas.
  • False Bay’s great white sharks are incredibly well understood (great work has been done in the last 5-10 years), and at the same time the more we know, the more questions there are!
  • We are beginning to get a better understanding of sevengill cowsharks in False Bay and research is ongoing. Plus, did you know there’s a huge sevengill population around Robben Island?
  • Many of the shark and ray populations around South Africa’s talks are not comprised of separate groups of animals (e.g False Bay’s white sharks, Gansbaai’s white sharks and so on), but interbreed all along their range. This means you can’t protect one aggregation site and expect the species to survive and thrive – you have to think about threats along the entire range of the animal. This was a common theme in the genetics talks (which is a difficult subject to explain to peasants like me).
  • Juvenile hammerhead sharks aggregate in Mossel Bay at certain times of year! (This wasn’t the point of what was an excellent talk, but I was excited to hear it.)

You can read a summary of all the day two talks on Storify, or I’ve embedded it below:

Southern African Shark & Ray Symposium 2015 – first day

The view from the top of Red Hill, over SImon's Town
The view from the top of Red Hill, over Simon’s Town

Earlier this week I had the great privilege of attending the 3rd Southern African Shark and Ray Symposium, which was held from 7-9 September at the Blue Horizon Estate above Simon’s Town. I am not a shark scientist (these days I am probably best described as a lapsed mathematician) but have an interest in the subject so I went to listen. If I had to provide some bite-sized takeaways from the first day of the symposium, jotted down without applying any of the science communication principles I learned at the workshop yesterday, it would be these:

  • Shark mitigation – avoiding negative interactions between humans and sharks – is HARD and a lot of smart people are working on the problem.
  • The City of Cape Town is a world leader in shark mitigation efforts, along with Shark Spotters. They really think about the problem, and care about both people and sharks.
  • If you are not blessed with high coastal terrain and surface-swimming sharks (which would permit a shark spotting program like Cape Town’s one), other shark mitigation measures are in the pipeline… From orca-patterned surfboards (and wetsuits?) to shark exclusion nets to large-scale electrical repellent cables.
  • The KZN Sharks Board catches a lot of sharks, rays and other animals in their gill nets and drum lines, and this is upsetting and far from ideal. But they facilitate an incredible amount of scientific study, too – their catches do not go to waste.
  • The KZN Sharks Board is committed to finding measures other than gill nets and drum lines to keep bathers safe, and they are actively working on the problem (refer to the electrical shark repellent cable I mentioned above).
  • Sometimes scientific research doesn’t look the way you expect or imagine. Ruth Leeney of Protect Africa’s Sawfishes spent months on the ground interviewing Mozambican villagers in the far north of the country to assess the population status of sawfish in Mozambique. She collected data that no one else could have obtained by other means!
  • Smaller, less charismatic sharks, like catsharks, need more love. There are also whole families of sharks that divers don’t see (such as dogfish) and hence aren’t really aware of. They are caught prolifically as by-catch and not much is known about them. But some smart people are working on this!
  • There are motivated, talented scientists working hard in South African government departments to protect our marine resources and making recommendations to manage them sustainably. (There’s also many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip, but they are trying very hard.)
  • Technology – be it cameras, software, or tags – is enabling great leaps in our understanding of what’s out there, which will enable us to protect and conserve things better.
  • Ocean acidification as a result of climate change could affect sharks directly, by actually wearing away their denticles (tooth-like structures on their skin). Denticles protect sharks and help them to swim faster.

I was tweeting from the symposium twitter account, and along with some of the other attendees we produced a fairly comprehensive summary of each talk, along with some visual media. Here’s a link to the day one compendium on Storify, and it is embedded below:

Visible shipwrecks: Winton and Hermes

Being (in midlife) a creature of the south peninsula, I tend to focus my attentions on False Bay and the Atlantic coast from Hout Bay southwards. But there are rewards for the shipwreck hunter who ventures further north, and even for the shipwreck hunter who doesn’t necessarily want to get their feet wet. A visit to Milnerton beach, and a walk north from Milnerton lighthouse, reveals two shipwrecks in the surf zone. Milnerton beach is surpassingly filthy, but while I was there a beach cleanup was making some headway on the mounds of rubbish tossed off ships in Table Bay that ends up on the beach. The view of the lighthouse from the beach is also far more fetching than the view from the car park, if you can overlook the garbage.

Milnerton lighthouse
Milnerton lighthouse

About one kilometre north of the lighthouse, where the beach is cleaner and pebbles roll euphoniously in the waves, you will come across the massive boilers of the Hermes in the surf. The NSRI gets calls every year from concerned locals worried that a whale is stranded near the beach; the sea spray sometimes pushes through holes in the top of the wreck creating an illusion of a whale’s blow. The Hermes was a liner, built in 1899, on her way to Cape Town with a large cargo of livestock, forage and a few passengers. When she arrived in May 1901 the harbour was full, and she was forced to drop anchor for the night. A north westerly gale came up, she dragged her anchors, and when the captain ordered her engines started, they failed.

Hermes (front) and Winton (back)
Hermes (front) and Winton (back)

Seawards and to the north of Hermes, the engine block of the Winton is visible, in much the same way as the SS Clan Stuart can be seen at Glencairn in False Bay. The Winton came aground in July 1934, carrying a cargo of wheat from Port Lincoln in Australia to Liverpool, England. Her captain was unfamiliar with Table Bay and had mistook the red lights on top of the radio mast at the Klipheuwel Wireless Telegraph Station near Milnerton for the harbour lights. Attempts were made to pull her off the beach and some of her cargo was salvaged, but the wheat ignited and efforts to refloat her were to no avail.

On a calm day, an aerial view of the site reveals the full outline of both vessels surrounding the parts that protrude from the water. When I visited, it was rough after a large swell, but the tide was low. At high tide the view will be considerably less impressive.

The boilers of the Hermes in front of Table Mountain
The boilers of the Hermes in front of Table Mountain

It is possible to scuba dive this site, and Underwater Explorers dives the Winton every year during their summer Table Bay wreck diving jamboree. Obviously very calm, low swell conditions are required because the wreck is so shallow and so close to the beach.

Visible shipwrecks: Commodore II

We first saw the Commodore II on Lagoon Beach, Milnerton, when we went to Sophie and Jacobus’s wedding. It was a summer’s day, and she had a boogie board and a pool noodle lying on her keelson, a bride and groom (not Sophie and Jacobus) posing for photos on her, and a gazebo secured to some of the rivets protruding from her timbers. I was fascinated by the strength and size of what remains of the ship, and returned on a clear winter morning, before the beach filled up, to look at her again.

The Commodore II was a four masted schooner built in the United States, with a film credit as one of the sets in the 1935 Clark Gable film Mutiny on the BountyPrivately owned, she ended up in Durban in the late 1930s and fell into disrepair after her owner died.

Commodore II in Table Bay
Commodore II in Table Bay

She was then towed to Saldanha, where she became a floating coal hulk during World War II. After the war she transported coal to South America and timber back to South Africa, but according to one of her crew, the ship ran into many difficulties and conditions on board were dire.

It was either in 1945, 1946 or 1948 (sources differ but I tend to believe the 1946 or 1948 dates) that she was set on fire and allowed to run aground off Milnerton. This was apparently considered an acceptable way of disposing of the vessel.

Not done yet, the Commodore II made an appearance in 2008, when a storm uncovered her remains at Milnerton. At the time the Cape Argus published an interview with one of her former crew, who described his love for the ship and described some of her history. I’m not sure of the status of the wreckage between 2008 and 2013, but the NSRI suggests that during that time the wreck washed into Milnerton lagoon and was secured inside the lagoon by residents who feared for the safety of water users if she was left to move about at will.

Steam rises off the Commodore II in the morning sun
Steam rises off the Commodore II in the morning sun

In September 2013 she came loose and washed out of the lagoon onto the beach. City officials promised to remove her, but two years later they still have not (for which I am glad). Today she lies in front of the Lagoon Beach Hotel, at times right on the edge of the Milnerton lagoon mouth (which moves around on the beach a bit). It is quite conceivable that another storm will wash her off the beach, back into the lagoon, or to a slightly different location, but for now she makes for an arresting sight on a crisp morning.

Finally, because it’s special, here’s one of the official trailers for Mutiny on the Bounty, featuring the Commodore II. I assume that’s her in the long shots, and perhaps the deck and below-deck scenes were also filmed on her. Enjoy –

Mouille Point lighthouse (decommissioned)

The base of the Mouille Point lighthouse at Granger Bay
The base of the Mouille Point lighthouse at Granger Bay

We aren’t done with lighthouses yet. One of the ones I haven’t told you about is the old Mouille Point lighthouse, which is located in Granger Bay. This is what I used to interchangeably call the lighthouse at Green Point, but in fact they have always been two entirely different entities. The Green Point lighthouse was built in 1824, and was the first lighthouse in South Africa. The lighthouse at Mouille Point, a few kilometres down the road, was built in 1842 and decomissioned in 1908 when a light was established on the breakwater (or mole, hence the name) at Mouille Point making the light redundant.

This lighthouse was a beautifully cylindrical tapering tower, with horizontal stripes up its length. The base of the old Mouille Point lighthouse still stands, on the grounds of the Cape Technikon Hotel School. It is behind a parking boom, but if you speak politely to the security officials they will let you walk onto the premises to take some photographs. When I visited there was a wedding going on, and it took some manoeuvring to take these pictures without guests appearing in them!

Bookshelf: Mountains in the Sea

Mountains in the Sea: A Celebration of Table Mountain National Park – John Yeld & Martine Barker

Mountains in the Sea
Mountains in the Sea

Mountains in the Sea is a beautiful coffee table book showcasing the beauty and history of Table Mountain National Park, which stretches the entire length of the Cape Peninsula, in between the urban areas. There is minimal text by veteran environmental journalist John Yeld, and the photographs are from both authors as well as from the archives and other sources.

This is a really gorgeous volume that manages to inform by the choice of images as well as via the text. I have a list of new places I would like to explore after reading it, and half an ambition to do the Hoerikwaggo Trail. It is a wonderful souvenir for visitors, but also an excellent reference for Capetonians who want to get the most out of the natural environment on their doorstep.

You can get a copy of the book here. There is also a pocket-sized volume which has been of great utility to me during my explorations of Table Mountain National Park, but it is harder to find.

Bookshelf: Pirate Hunters

Pirate Hunters – Robert Kurson

Pirate Hunters
Pirate Hunters

For the days that I spent listening to the Pirate Hunters audiobook on the way to and from work (I have a long commute), I was transported from wintry Cape Town to a sandy bay in the Dominican Republic, to the Archive of the Indies in Seville, Spain, and to the deck of a pirate ship in the seventeenth century.

Friends John Chatterton and John Mattera undertake an obsessive quest to locate a vessel that belonged to the legendary pirate Joseph Bannister. There are accounts of the battle that claimed his ship, but not enough evidence to   The life of a treasure hunter may appear romantic from the outside, but in reality it is expensive, monotonous, and frustrating – punctuated with moments of delirious elation. (Treasure – The Search for Atocha also gives an excellent perspective on this irony.)

Robert Kurson is the author of Shadow Divers (gripping), which also features veteran wreck diver John Chatterton as he embarks on a dangerous quest to identify a sunken submarine in the North Atlantic. Unlike Shadow Divers, diving is not as much of the focus in Pirate Hunters. The diving that does take place is in shallow, light-filled tropical water and entails minimal risk to the participants. In both books, however, there is an intense focus on the historical research that is required to positively identify a shipwreck. In Pirate Hunters, Kurson does an excellent job of taking us inside the mind of the pirate Bannister, and it is through a thorough understanding of his motives and character that Chatterton and Mattera make their biggest breakthrough.

Check out the New York Times review of the book, which does highlight some of its shortcomings relative to Shadow Divers. If you’re pirate obsessed or a maritime history buff, however, you’ll enjoy Pirate Hunters regardless.

You can pick up a copy of the book here, if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here.

Visible shipwrecks: Nolloth

The engine block of the Nolloth in the foreground
The engine block of the Nolloth in the foreground

The second visible shipwreck along the Cape Point Shipwreck Trail, about three kilometres from the start in the Olifantsbos parking area, is the Nolloth. She was a Dutch coaster carrying a cargo of (mostly) liquor, and struck a submerged rock (probably Albatross Rock, nemesis of many ships) off Olifantsbos in April 1965. Her captain ran her aground to save the cargo and prevent loss of life. Customs officials swiftly salvaged the cargo!

Engine block of the Nolloth
Engine block of the Nolloth

The Nolloth lies just in the waves at high tide. We visited a couple of hours after high tide, and were able to walk all the way around the wreckage without getting our feet wet. She lies at an angle, with much of her seemingly buried in the sand. Her engine block is partially exposed, and for the mechanically minded, prolonged examination of the cogs and gears will be rewarding.

Ribs of the Nolloth
Ribs of the Nolloth

The wildness of the location lends a very special quality to this wreck that is lacking in Cape Town’s visible shipwrecks that are situated in more urban environments – RMS Athens comes to mind. It is a remote and very beautiful spot, but would be possessed of far fewer benign qualities on a dark and stormy night.

There are some fantastic pictures of the Nolloth in Brian Wexham’s Shipwrecks of the Western Cape, taken, I suspect, within 20 years of her running aground. There is far more of her visible – she looks like a ship on the beach rather than a ship in the beach! There is also evidence of some low wreckage in the shallows that might still be visible when the tide is at its nadir, but I would caution against too much barefoot exploration of rockpools unless the water is very clear and your tetanus shots are up to date.

The Nolloth on the beach south of Olifantsbos
The Nolloth on the beach south of Olifantsbos

The Nolloth signals the point at which one turns back along the Shipwreck Trail to head towards Olifantsbos once more. Tami, Maria and I spent a wonderful morning on the Shipwreck Trail exploring the Thomas T Tucker and the Nolloth. As an aside, I would like to apologise to the resident chacma baboons for disturbing the peace when I realised that – with the help of a Slingsby Map – I had in fact successfully navigated us (along a marked and named trail, mind you) to not one, but two shipwrecks.

Visible shipwrecks: Thomas T Tucker

The first boiler of the Thomas T Tucker you'll come across
The first boiler of the Thomas T Tucker you’ll come across

If you’re a fan of visible shipwrecks, may I recommend the Shipwreck Trail in the Cape Point section of Table Mountain National Park? I’ll write a separate post just about the trail, but this post and the one that follows (about the Nolloth) concern two shipwrecks, high and dry on the shore, that can be see on the route.

Three large pieces of the Thomas T Tucker on the rocks
Three large pieces of the Thomas T Tucker on the rocks

The SS Thomas T Tucker was an American-built Liberty ship. These cargo vessels were of a standardised design and were built in great numbers, and at great speed, during World War II. They were used to transport war materiel to the Allied troops, and this is what the Thomas T Tucker was busy doing when she found herself off Olifantsbos in November 1942. She was on her maiden voyage from New Orleans to Suez, hugging the coast in a thick fog for fear of German U-boats.

The Thomas T Tucker's second boiler, high on the beach
The Thomas T Tucker’s second boiler, high on the beach

When she ran aground on 27 November (our wedding anniversary!), her captain reported that the ship was aground on Robben Island, which is over 40 kilometres to the north. The ship’s compass was found to be out by 37 degrees, which may have contributed to the accident.

Today the Thomas T Tucker is beautifully spread out on a beach about two kilometres from the parking area at Olifantsbos, inside the Cape Point Nature Reserve. She was 135 metres long, so there was a lot of ship to distribute. There are some great pictures in Shipwrecks of the Western Cape by Brian Wexham, from (I think) the 1980s. They give a good idea of how the wreck has deteriorated.

You will first come upon one of her boilers, high up on the beach, close to a small headland. If you look back the way you’ve come (first photo, above) you can see Misty Cliffs, Scarborough and – perhaps – Slangkop Lighthouse. Beyond that she is in several large pieces on the rocks, and higher up the beach. A third (bonus!) section of wreckage lies a couple of hundred metres further along the Shipwreck Trail (also called the Thomas T Tucker trail), so isolated from the rest of the wreck that I at first thought that it came from a different ship.

The "bonus wreckage" of the Thomas T Tucker further along the beach
The “bonus wreckage” of the Thomas T Tucker further along the beach

We visited the wreck of the Thomas T Tucker an hour or two after high tide. At low tide, all the pieces of the wreck are accessible; we could not reach the most distant piece without getting our feet wet! There is some wreckage that isn’t visible, lying in the shallow water, which you can visit on a scuba dive if you get the appropriate permission to have dive gear on a boat within the exclusion zone around Cape Point. We were lucky to have fairly dramatic skies for photography. The way in which the wreck is scattered is a testament to the exposed nature of this coast, and the power of the Atlantic Ocean.