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 oceanmooc.org 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.

Seals

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

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.

Turtles

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.

Caracals

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.

iSpot

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.

 Poaching

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.

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!