Bookshelf: Ice Blink

Ice Blink: The Tragic Fate of Sir John Franklin’s Lost Polar Expedition – Scott Cookman

Ice Blink
Ice Blink

In Ice Blink, Scott Cookman provides another account of the much-reported final expedition of Sir John Franklin to the Canadian Arctic, in search of a Northwest Passage. The story has been told many times, in many ways, and Cookman’s rendition is gripping.

Several theories have been advanced to account for the failure of any members of Franklin’s expedition to return. A few bodies have been found, and eyewitness accounts from Inuits in the areas that the Erebus and Terror were trapped in the ice provide some clues as to what happened. A conclusive explanation, however, has not been found.

Cookman advances the idea the the men were killed by botulinium toxin, introduced into their diets from poorly prepared tinned food.  He is dogmatic about this theory to the exclusion of all others, and at times makes it sound misleadingly certain that this was the cause of the disaster. In fact, experts fail to agree on what killed the men; other theories include lead poisoning (from the canned food), or simply just the cold and poor preparation.

I would recommend you read this book after you’ve familiarised yourself with some of the other literature about Arctic exploration and Sir John Franklin in particular, and are equipped to separate fact from hypothesis. If you’re interested in the subject, may I strongly recommend The Man Who Ate His Boots and Frozen in Time.

You can read the first chapter of the book here and a New York Times review here.

Get a copy of the book here (South Africa), here or here.

Bookshelf: Climate Change

Climate Change: Briefings from Southern Africa – Bob Scholes, Mary Scholes & Mike Lucas

Climate Change
Climate Change

This is the book on climate change that I never knew I needed. It is written in the form of 55 questions and answers, from a South African perspective. One of the three authors (Dr Mike Lucas) is a biological oceanographer, so there is ample information on the effect of climate change on the marine environment. The other two authors are climate change specialists.

The book is well illustrated with photographs and diagrams. The authors address sea level rise, El Niño, water scarcity, the effect of rising temperatures on the Southern Ocean and Antarctic, and the survival of coral reefs, among other topics. The final few questions deal specifically with practical actions that can be taken to adapt to and (perhaps) avoid climate change, and one’s personal carbon footprint.

You don’t have to be a weather nerd to benefit and learn from this book. I encourage you to seek it out.

Get a copy of the book here (South Africa), here or here.

Bookshelf: Blue Mind

Blue Mind – Wallace J. Nichols

Blue Mind
Blue Mind

In Blue Mind, biologist (turtle researcher) Wallace J. Nichols articulates and elaborates upon an idea you’ve probably already had all on your own: that being close to water is good for you. More precisely, Nichols is interested in what proximity to water does for our brains. In this book he presents scientific evidence for the salutary effects of water on humans, but does not shy away from anecdote. His tone is vigorously optimistic.

I don’t need to look very far to see evidence of Nichols’s hypothesis: Waves for Change teaches youngsters from violent communities in Cape Town to surf, and in the process effects an almost miraculous change in their lives. (They deserve your support.) Nichols also says that he can see a change – a warming – in people’s body language when they enter an aquarium. I spend enough time at the Two Oceans Aquarium that I should have an opinion on this, but I don’t, so I need to look more closely.

I admit that this book is on the fringe of what I would usually read – it is what I would usually dismiss as touchy-feely pop psychology – but I do think Nichols is on to something (and here I am in very excellent company). He holds a Blue Mind Summit every year, bringing together neuroscientists, artists and conservationists to discuss the ocean and the brain, and how to use insights about water’s powers for good.

Read a review at The Guardian, and an interview with Nichols at Outside Magazine. For the extra curious, read a quite a detailed profile of Nichols, also at Outside Magazine.

Get a copy of the book here (South Africa), here or here.

A visit to the Blue Planet aquarium in Copenhagen

On our last day in Denmark, after a week-long family visit between Christmas 2015 and new year 2016, we went to Den Blå Planet, Denmark’s national aquarium. (Actually we were wrong about it being our last day in Denmark, but that’s another story involving Turkish Airlines, who seem to innovate in the field of disappointment.) The aquarium is situated in Kastrup, Copenhagen, quite close to the airport, and overlooks the narrow sound called the Øresund, which separates Denmark from Sweden.

The Blue Planet after the mist cleared
The Blue Planet after the mist cleared

We visited on 1 January, after (eventually) sleeping through the sounds of Copenhagen’s residents letting off five hundred metric tons of fireworks, starting at 5.00 pm the day before. We bought tickets online (a small saving in Danish krone that amounted to eleventy million ZAR) and arrived at opening time. The building is surrounded by a reflection pool, and is built in a spiral form inspired by the shape of a vortex. In the larger halls the high ceilings give a tremendous sense of space; at 10,000 square metres, the building is very large. The halls are generally wide and I imagine it could accommodate a very large number of people before feeling crowded.

Layout of The Blue Planet
Layout of The Blue Planet

The aquarium is divided into three sections. The first is focused on the life found in the lakes and ocean of Denmark and northern Europe. I particularly enjoyed this first part of the aquarium. The animals are adapted to the cold water, so some of them were very similar what we find around Cape Town, and the displays were creative and interesting. There was also the obligatory “anchor with fish” tank, which was (as always) mesmerising. One of the pictures in the gallery below is of Tony checking it out.

Two sea otters live at the aquarium, having been rescued as infants and raised by hand. The male and female otters were found in Alaska when they were four months old with a broken jaw and wounds after a boat strike, and as a 1.5 kg abandoned one day old respectively. As usual, seeing such an intelligent animal in captivity stirs up all sorts of conflicting feelings. That said, you are a stronger person than I am if you could have left these two baby otters to their natural fate (that is, death). The otters spend a lot of time (up to six hours per day) grooming, and in between keep very busy, requiring a lot of enrichment from their four keepers. It was magical to see them.

Also in the northern seas and lakes section is the puffin exhibit, mimicking the cliffs of the Faroe Islands, a Danish territory. Here, also, we found a touch pool (which the Danes call a sensing-aquarium), and a terrifying ambulatory mascot.

The second section of the building is devoted to tropical lakes and rivers, with incredible freshwater exhibits. We saw piranhas, terrapins, frogs, little black rays the size of pancakes, with white polka-dots, and electric eels. The rainforest exhibit is kept at a temperature and humidity level that are impressive in the Scandinavian winter, and I can imagine that this part of the aquarium is popular with expats from warmer climates!

The third part of the aquarium is for the rest of the ocean, and although it’s a big ask to cover (or summarise) so much in the remaining space, it does a fabulous job. The Ocean tank holds four million litres of water, and is home to rays and hammerhead sharks, and other warm water fish. Amongst many other things, there are seahorses, leafy seadragons and coral reef fish to see.

Feeding time in the Ocean tank
Feeding time in the Ocean tank

We watched feeding time for a while, which was quite funny – the aquarists row out onto the water in a small inflatable boat, and administer the snacks from on board. Standing in the tunnel, we could see the boat from below, with the oars working frantically against what I imagine was a bit of surface current.

One of the things that Den Blå Planet does really well is to integrate multimedia, virtual reality and interactive technology into the aquarium experience. This reduces the number of animals required to be on display, and – for the most part – probably takes care of itself, requiring no cleaning and feeding. My favourite such exhibit was the bouncy plankton wall in the ocean section of the aquarium. The photo below is pretty terrible because the display moves all the time, but I put a video on instagram which shows how the plankton clear a space for you when you walk along the wall.

Plankton multimedia display
Plankton multimedia display

We finished off our visit with a flæskesteg sandwich at ØST, the restaurant at the back of the aquarium. It was still a bit misty, but the large windows looking out over the sound let in a lot of light. There is a play area outside, and despite the midwinter temperatures, children in snow suits were making the most of it.

The restaurant at the aquarium, ØST
The restaurant at the aquarium, ØST

I did not get the same strong conservation message from my visit to The Blue Planet that I think the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town works so hard to propagate. This could be because of different cultural approaches to living a “green” lifestyle; in Scandinavia the government does a lot of the work for you, providing renewable energy, prioritising  pedestrian and bicycle traffic, and making it ridiculously easy to recycle, for example. In South Africa it is more of a conscious personal choice and effort to reduce one’s environmental footprint, and there is there is thus perhaps more of a requirement for direct conservation messaging.

Anyway, if you’re in Copenhagen, visit! Next time we’re in Denmark, we’ll check out the little Øresund Aquarium at Helsingor, which is entirely focused on local fauna.

Bookshelf: Cold

Cold – Ranulph Fiennes


I have been lax with book posts lately, but hope to remedy that in fairly short order (sorry for you!). This book, Cold by famed British explorer Ranulph Fiennes (not to be confused with Lord Voldemort), is the one that set me off on my recent epic binge on Arctic literature, which is far from over.

Fiennes has made a life of adventuring and exploring, crafting challenging itineraries across some of the most unforgiving terrain on the planet. He solicits sponsorship for the expeditions, and raises funds from book sales and speaking engagements.

This book focuses on his journeys through the world’s coldest regions. Fiennes intermingles historical accounts of exploration and discovery with his own adventures. It is surprising how, in the earth’s most extreme climates, life and travel has not gotten appreciably easier over the last several hundred years.

It was Fiennes’s historical account of the search for the Northwest Passage, represented in the greatest drama by Sir John Franklin’s final expedition, that drove me to seek out other books on the subject – I can recommend The Man Who Ate His BootsFranklin’s Lost Shipand Frozen in Time for starters. His accounts of his own travel in Norway, Greenland and the Canadian Arctic made me want to pack my bags and visit those magnificent places.

Fiennes faces death and disfigurement several times in the course of Cold. His determination and courage are notable but he is definitely a man of an earlier era. There are interviews with Fiennes here and here. A review of Cold can be read here.

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

A new ocean MOOC starting on Monday!

Online learning with SDI
Online learning

This one snuck up on me. Starting on Monday 25 April (yes, this Monday), a massive open online course (MOOC – remember those?) about science-based solutions to challenges facing the world’s oceans becomes available to the curious. It’s a collaboration between Kiel University in Germany, its GEOMAR Hemholtz Centre for Ocean Research and “cluster of excellence” (I don’t know!) The Future Ocean, and the International Ocean Institute.

The course syllabus is comprehensive and spans 10 weeks of online study. You will cover topics from oceanography, marine biology, and geology. The aspects of the course related to humans include ocean governance, human-ocean interactions, changes happening along our coastline, and – most importantly – solutions from marine spatial planning to ecosystem management.

It looks very comprehensive and unmissable if you’re a marine freak. Go to to learn more and sign up. For your own privacy, protection and future access (and this applies to every website that offers you the option, not just this one) don’t sign in with your facebook, linkedin or other credentials. Make a new account using your email address, and create a new password.

Get to it.

How to help marine wildlife in distress


It’s not uncommon to come across marine wildlife – seabirds, seals, turtles – apparently in distress. This is not always the case, so before you mount a complex and dangerous rescue mission, or try to provide help where none is needed, it may be wise to get an expert on the telephone to help you determine whether it really is necessary. Fortunately there is a range of 24-hour wildlife hotlines to choose from, depending on what species you are dealing with.


Bull seal with plastic around his neck, in Hout Bay
Bull seal with plastic around his neck, in Hout Bay

Seals with plastic or fishing line around their necks should be reported to the Two Oceans Aquarium (if the seal was spotted around Cape Town harbour or the Waterfront), or, more generally to the SPCA Wildlife Unit on +27 (0) 21 700 4158/4159, or +27 (0) 83 326 1604 after hours and on weekends. Unfortunately the odds are your seal is probably not going to get the help it needs if it isn’t in the port of Cape Town or at the Waterfront; this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your darndest to advocate on its behalf.

You can help to deal with this problem at its source by retrieving any loops of plastic that you see floating in the water when you’re on a boat. Hout Bay harbour is a particular cesspit of plastic pollution, and with a nearby seal colony it’s a recipe for disaster. Cutting through any closed loops on plastic items (such as beer can holders) that you recycle or dispose of yourself also ensures that should the plastic end up in the wild, it won’t entangle an animal.

Seals found lying on the beach are usually not in trouble. Juvenile seals may rest for long periods – a couple of days at a time – on shore, and the most important thing to do is not to disturb them. They don’t need to be kept wet, they don’t need to be fed, and they can inflict a nasty bite. Encourage other members of the public to give the animal a wide berth, particularly if they have dogs. Lead by example. If the animal appears visibly unwell (fitting, for example) or is bleeding, then call the SPCA Wildlife Unit for a chat about what course of action is best.


Seabirds are most often found entangled in fishing line or plastic, pierced by fishing hooks, or, in the event of an oil spill, with oiled feathers. It is important to get help if possible, particularly for oiled birds.

SANCCOB has a 24 hour rescue centre which can be reached on +27 (0)21 557 6155 or +27 (0) 78 638 3731 (after hours & weekends). Their website provides the following advice to would-be seabird rescuers:

What to do when you have found an injured/sick/oiled seabird:

  • If you are unable to handle the seabird, SANCCOB will send out a unit to collect the bird.
  • If you approach any seabird, please approach with care. Some seabirds such as Cape Gannets and African Penguins have sharp beaks.
  • Have with you a towel, or blanket and wear protection over your hands and eyes. Use a towel/blanket to throw over the bird to catch it, ensuring that the bird is able to breathe.
  • If you have a large box ensure that there are holes for air before you place the injured/sick marine bird.

More information can be found here.


During the autumn and winter months, juvenile and sub-adult sea turtles sometimes strand on Western Cape beaches. These animals are often shocked by the cold and in poor shape – they do not typically occur in Cape waters but are washed down in eddies of the Agulhas current.

Do not put the turtle back in the sea or into water. It is probably weak, dehydrated and hypothermic, and is likely to drown. Keep it dry, and call the Two Oceans Aquarium for further instructions and assistance. The aquarium rehabilitates and releases the turtles in warmer water when they are healthy.

Here’s detailed information from the Two Oceans Aquarium on what to do if you find a stranded turtle. Do the right thing!

Whales and dolphins

The City of Cape Town would like ocean users to report whale carcasses before they end up on the beach. This is mostly for public safety and resource allocation purposes, but if we can do anything to keep a whale carcass out at sea (or on a secluded non-swimming beach), it serves a conservation purpose as well. There’s a phone number you can use to do this – read more here.

If you come across a current or imminent live whale or dolphin stranding, contact the NSRI on +27 (0) 21 449 3500 immediately. They will activate the relevant authorities. Try to bear in mind that these events often do not end well for the animals concerned, as they are often sick or disoriented and impossible to assist. Be a help, not a hindrance, and obey whatever instructions you are given by the NSRI, SanParks, or whoever comes to take charge.

A free-swimming but entangled whale should be immediately reported to the NSRI as well – they will activate the South African Whale Disentanglement Network. Do not attempt to assist the whale yourself – this could be fatal for you (not the whale) – rather make a note of the direction it is swimming, and its precise location, and whatever other helpful information you can provide. Whale entanglements seem to be increasing in frequency around False Bay in particular, as more experimental fisheries are approved. (If this worries you, you could write a letter to DAFF about it.)

Terrestrial citizen science opportunities in Cape Town

For the sake of completeness, here are a few opportunities for ordinary citizens to contribute to science and conservation in Cape Town in the terrestrial realm. If it’s marine citizen science and conservation you’re after, read this post.

Western leopard toads

Western leopard toad attitude
Western leopard toad attitude

Western leopard toads are gorgeous, endangered palm-sized toads that are found from Rondebosch to Bergvliet to Hout Bay, Sun Valley (hello!) and Glencairn. They are threatened by urbanisation, particularly during their breeding season. On rainy evenings in August they migrate en mass from neighbourhood gardens like ours – where they live quiet lives – to communal breeding ponds. This often entails dangerous road crossings, where hundreds of toads used to become roadkill.

Enter Toad NUTS. I’ve blogged before about the Noordhoek Unpaid Toad Savers project, but in the interim exciting developments have expanded the reach and effectiveness of the program. A mobile app has revolutionised the process of collecting and reporting on toad sightings, enabling rigorous data collection. All sorts of analyses are possible once some good data is obtained.

In terms of direct interventions to reduce toadkill during the breeding season, the most effective one has been a temporary barrier on each side of Noordhoek Main Road is used to capture toads attempting to cross. The barrier is patrolled by volunteers, who then move the toads from one side of the road to the other.

If you live in a Western leopard toad area, contact your local Toad NUTS representative to get involved.


Caracal footprints near our home
Caracal footprints near our home

The Urban Caracal Project aims to determine the size of the caracal population on the Cape Peninsula, as well as the threats facing these gorgeous red cats – of which urbanisation and its trappings may be chief. If you don’t know what a caracal (or rooikat) is, ask the google. They are incredibly charismatic creatures.

You can help by reporting caracal sightings, and calling in any caracal roadkill that you see while travelling Cape Town’s roads. You can find contact details for the project on the Urban Caracal Project website, or send them a message on facebook.

Be a marine citizen scientist (slash conservationist) in Cape Town

Here are a few ways for Capetonians to save the ocean. Some through direct action, and others through support for scientific research that enables policy makers and conservationists to make good decisions about which species and habitats need protection.

I’ll update this list as new projects are brought to my attention. If you know of an opportunity for ordinary citizens to make a difference for marine science and/or conservation, let me know and I’ll add it here.

Dolphin species distribution

Sea Search would like to map dolphin distribution with the help of citizen scientists (you), partly in order to anticipate what changes may occur in response to climate change. All you need to do is report dolphin sightings and a bit of supporting information via their facebook profile, twitter handle, or iSpot project page. You can read more about their research project here.

Sevengill cowshark sightings

This cowshark appears to have been tagged
This cowshark appears to have been tagged

The Spot the Sevengill Shark project has a facebook page where you can submit images of broadnose sevengill cowsharks taken in False Bay and surrounds. The unique markings on these sharks enable repeat identification from well-composed images. Information about the sex, general appearance and behaviour of these sharks is also useful. There’s some information about the research project here. This is also a great project to follow (on facebook) to keep up to date with the tagging studies that are currently being done on this population of sharks.

For a more global flavour, you can check out the Sevengill Shark Identification Project. It operates mostly in the San Diego area in the USA, but accepts sevengill cowshark sightings from locations around the world, including from South Africa. Their facebook page recently celebrated the first logged sighting from False Bay.

Great white sharks

If you spot a great white shark – while diving, paddling, swimming or surfing for example – please report it to Shark Spotters! This enables the general public to be alerted if necessary, and also provides valuable data for research about white sharks in False Bay and around the peninsula.

You can either report the sighting via the Shark Spotters website, or you can call or text +27 (0) 78 174 4244. Provide as much information as possible, obviously including the location where you saw the shark, and when. If you have a photo or video, that’s a bonus!

Sharks and rays

The ELMO (South African Elasmobranch Monitoring) project collects reports of elasmobranch (shark and ray) sightings along the South African coastline. For the avid beachcomber, their database includes egg cases. The data collected is available to any interested party for their own projects, and can assist conservationists and politicians to make good decisions in order to protect species that need it.

The ELMO website is full of excellent information, including identification guides for egg cases and elasmobranchs, and a handling guide for live animals (aimed at fishermen, not people who are grabby – don’t be like that). You can submit your sightings online.

You can also find ELMO on facebook and twitter.


Upload photographs of the marine species you see to the iSpot, SAJellyWatch, or one of the Avian Demography Unit’s project pages. These observations are a help to researchers tracking species distribution – for example, as part of climate change and invasive species research.

More information can be found here.


If you see marine poaching activity in progress, please call to report it. The phone numbers you will need can be found here.

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.