Ponta do Ouro (Mozambique) 2015 trip report

Sunrise at Planet Scuba
Sunrise at Planet Scuba

Earlier this month we returned from our second ever dive trip to Ponta do Ouro. (It was my third time there – on my first trip, in 2009, I wasn’t qualified to dive yet, and met my future husband, where he was diving and skippering five times a day and living in a reed hut. I still sometimes feel guilty for having a part in him leaving this little piece of paradise.) We flew to Durban. A shuttle transported us to the Kosi Bay border post, where we were met by Mike of Blowing Bubbles Diving. Mike drove us and our luggage over the dunes into town, and dropped us at Planet Scuba, where we would stay for the week.

The new(ish) pharmacy at Ponta do Ouro
The new(ish) pharmacy at Ponta do Ouro

Planet Scuba is situated on top of the hill that overlooks Ponta’s central square. Since my last visit (I think), a pharmacy has opened on the corner (pictured above), and later in the trip we purchased a much needed decongestant there (for a fairly princely sum, but beggars can’t be choosers).

Every morning we would walk down the steps to the road that leads to the beach, and head towards the point to meet up with the boat for diving. After diving, we would either walk back or get a ride on the back of the Blowing Bubbles bakkie. We breakfasted between dives, and then returned to the beach. The dives in Ponta do Ouro are boat dives, and the skippers launch the boat off the beach through the waves. There was almost no swell while we were there, so the surf launches were quite tame!

Laurine and Esther descending
Laurine and Esther descending

We dived for five days, most of us doing ten dives in total. We contemplated a dolphin trip with Dolphin Encountours, but reports were that boats were only seeing one or two dolphins, if any, and the trips cost more than a dive so we carried on diving instead. We were so, so lucky to see a huge pod of dolphins at the end of our last dive, near Ponta Malongane. On our first dive that day we had seen big schools of baitfish near the surface, and the dolphins had probably come to the area for feeding. We weren’t allowed to get into the water with them, but they swam past the boat for ages, and we heard them breathing as they passed by. Tony and I stuck our cameras over the side of the boat, and it turned out there were many more dolphins underwater than we could see on the surface.

Batman takes the reel
Batman takes the reel

The pace of life was very mellow. We dived, ate, slept, and repeated various iterations of that sequence. We admired the community of friendly dogs down at the beach. We enjoyed hungry cats and condensed milk milkshakes at Neptune’s, with a view over the Motel do Mar (where we stayed on our last trip) to the beach. We had a healthy and delicious lunch at Mango above the Dolphin Centre, and got thoroughly soaked by a tropical rainstorm on the way back to Planet Scuba. Christo, Esther and Laurine sampled the “chemical s***storm in a glass” (I quote Esther) that is Ponta do Ouro’s famous R&R (rum and raspberry). Strangely, none of them wanted any more…

The diving was excellent. The water temperature was 23 degrees, and we had (apparently mediocre for Ponta) visibility of about 10 metres, sometimes more. This was very acceptable to us as Capetonians. The reefs are teeming with life, and all of us saw something new. Laurine was enchanted by a turtle, Tony spent most of his dives upside down with his head in crevices in the reef, Christo directed all of us to exciting discoveries with his torch and pigsticker (a metal kebab stick slash pointer that must have a different name but I don’t know it), and Esther maintained her sense of wonder and calm as she brought up the rear of our little group on most dives. On one of the dives a very strong current gave us opportunities to use our SMBs, which was an excellent learning experience and a reminder of how important a safety sausage is, no matter where you are diving.

The air temperature was warm, the wind hardly blew, and for a while we could forget that at home in Cape Town it was cold, frequently dark, and overflowing with commitments and obligations. We returned the way we had come, but feeling a little more ready to cope with the rest of the Cape winter. We’ll be back in a couple of years, Ponta!

(I’ll share some little videos and more photos from the trip over the next couple of weeks.)

Shipspotting: Golar Penguin and passengers

On the way back from Big Bay at the end of the Lighthouse Swim, Tony and I stopped by the Seli 1 and then checked out the ships waiting outside Table Bay harbour. One of them was the Golar Penguin, a LNG carrier.

Golar Penguin
Golar Penguin

She is under the flag of the Marshall Islands. This is a flag of convenience (though, it seems, quite a reputable one), and if you want to know more about the legal implications of the fact that 40% of all world shipping by deadweight tonnage fly Panamania, Liberian or Marshall Islands flags, I suggest you pick up the excellent book The Outlaw Sea by William Langewiesche.

Most interesting to us, however, was the small group of Cape fur seals basking in the sea on the ship’s bulbous bow, which was sticking quite far out of the water because she seemed to be unladen. The purpose of this bow shape, which is only effective on ships above a certain size that cross large bodies of water, is to reduce drag, increase speed and to improve fuel efficiency.

Seals in the sun
Seals in the sun

The seals, however, like it as a haul out spot. Who are we to argue?

Seli WHAT?

After our team of relay swimmers completed the Lighthouse Swim, Tony and I made our way back towards Granger Bay via a meandering route that included a search for the buoy marking the Seli 1, off Blouberg beach. We did not find it.

The Seli 1 under Table Mountain
The Seli 1 under Table Mountain

What we did find was quite disturbing: a hissing, pulsating patch of water beneath which the rusty wreckage of the Seli 1 lies, very close to the surface. There was no wind and very little swell when we were searching for the wreck, and initially we thought it was a school of baitfish disturbing the surface in that way. Fortunately we approached the spot slowly, because if we’d ridden over the wreckage this would be a different kind of blog post altogether.

The sea reveals the Seli 1
The sea reveals the Seli 1

We rode around the spot as close as we dared, watching the image of the objects below us on the sonar. The buckled plates of the wreck, where the SA Navy divers did their work with explosives to reduce it below the waterline in 2013, were clearly visible. The wreckage – particularly the shallowest part pictured above – is a definite hazard to any boat with a keel. We couldn’t tell exactly how much clearance there is between the top of the shallowest part of the wreck and the surface, but it didn’t seem to be more than half a metre. I hope it’s more than that, and I also hope that SAMSA pays attention to our request for a replacement marker buoy on the wreckage to warn ships (but considering how many channels of communication I had to try before not getting some kind of error, I haven’t a lot of hope).

Bookshelf: Shark

Shark: Fear and Beauty – Jean-Marie Ghislain


Jean-Marie Ghislain is a Belgian photographer who has had the privilege to visit far flung places on earth, and to dive with charismatic megafauna of all descriptions. This book is a beautiful collection of images of all kinds of sharks, taken from South Africa to Guadaloupe. The images were taken using natural light only. The level of detail in some of the photographs is almost comparable to the pictures in Beautiful Whale.

There are several images of our local broadnose sevengill cowsharks, and I have enjoyed being able to show them to friends who aren’t familiar with these sharks (my own photos are pretty poor)!

The photos are entirely black and white, which lends a solemnity and luminosity to the sharks’ bodies that is very beautiful. There is almost no text, and one doesn’t miss it. At the back of the book, a mosaic of the photos presents information on the type of shark, the camera settings and a few sentences on the taking of or the motivation for the picture.

The photographs reveal that author is of the school of thought that advocates touching sharks, and some of the photographs even depict illegal dives outside the cage with great white sharks at Isla Guadalupe. This is a great pity and should not be mistaken for an activity that has any conservation benefits for sharks whatsoever.

You can see a couple of the photos from the book, and some information about the author, in this article from the Telegraph.

Get a copy of the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here.

Bookshelf: Whales and Dolphins in Question

Whales & Dolphins in Question: The Smithsonian Answer Book – James G. Mead & Joy P. Gold

Whales and Dolphins in Question
Whales and Dolphins in Question

Bernita brought us this book as a gift from her travels in America early this year. It’s published by the Smithsonian Institution, which is an American conglomerate of museums and research institutions. (If you’ve watched Bones, think of the Jeffersonian – which is fictional but based on the Smithsonian – and you’ve got a good idea of what it’s like. I digress.) The book is arranged in question and answer format. The questions are drawn from the thousands of letters, emails and phone calls received from members of the public by the Smithsonian each year.

Every aspect of cetacean science is covered here. I appreciated the fact that where there is uncertainty or gaps in our knowledge, the authors said so. Science helps us to know things, but equally important is to recognise what we don’t know. Because they live so long, dive so deep and swim so far in such a big ocean, it is hard to learn some things about whales, but with diligent work and intelligent study design, we can still infer much.

The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs by National Geographic photographer Flip Nicklin. It’s beautiful to page through, if you don’t feel up to the demands of reading words, and also easy to dip into because of how it is divided up. I was a whale-obsessed seven year old; I think this book would be a great help to parents of similarly curious children whose every sentence is a question! That is not to say that it is aimed at kids – you might need to do a bit of interpretation if reading with a primary school child. There are extensive references at the back of the book, should you wish to track down the original papers from which the

There is another book in the series called Sharks in Question, which has one author in common with Whales in Question, and if this book is anything to go by, should be a wonderful read.

You can get a copy of Whales in Question here (South Africa), or here. Thank you Bernita!

Article: The New Yorker on sharing the sea with sharks

You have probably all read this article, and if you haven’t you should. South African-born social anthropologist Ceridwen Dovey does an excellent job of introducing and interrogating the various shark bite mitigation measures available in the New Yorker, no less. The subject has been in and out of the news with increasing frequency for at least two years, owing largely to sensational reports of sharks repeatedly biting people in Australia and Reunion. The Western Australian response to a spate of shark bites at beaches in the state has been to fish out sharks using nets and drumlines – the same approach taken by the KZN Sharks Board here in South Africa.

Dovey speaks to Christopher Neff, who thinks deeply about the language we use to speak about shark bites, and their political and social ramifications. Cape Town’s amazing Shark Spotters program gets a mention, as does the SharkShield. There are many non-lethal measures currently in testing – not all of them as location and species dependent as Shark Spotters (which works because Cape Town’s great white sharks are a surface-swimming species and are visible from high ground close to the coast). It is a hopeful time for relations between sharks and humans, as long as the scientific impetus is not allowed to flag.

Full article here.

Bookshelf: 52 Blue

52 Blue – Leslie Jamison

52 Blue
52 Blue

This book turned out to be something entirely different than what I expected (I probably did not do enough research before committing to it). The subject matter sounds cool: a lone whale, calling at a frequency different from all other whales (52 Hertz), roams the world’s oceans in solitude. This whale actually exists.

Only this is not what the book is about. Jamison weaves together the story of the whale with the story of a woman who is equally solitary, not necessarily by choice. This is not a book about a whale. It is about being alone, for which the 52 Hz whale is used a metaphor. All sorts of cultural significance has been attached to the poor beast. It is the subject of a crowdfunded documentary. It has a twitter account.

I imagine that I would find it difficult, were I a serious cetacean researcher, to cope with the emotional baggage that the idea of this heavily anthropomorphised whale seems to rouse in people. There is so much internet matter about the 52 Hz whale that it is almsot overwhelming, but this BBC article presents a balanced view of the story, including the fact that some scientists think the whale might not be all that lonely after all.

You can read an extract from 52 Blue, (possibly) the full essay here, or you can buy the Kindle single.

If you are after WHALE FACTS or SCIENCE rather than all the feels, might I point you in the direction of Beautiful Whale, Listening to Whalesor Watching Giants. If it is adventure you are after, look no further.

Bookshelf: The World Without Us

Today we continue the theme begun yesterday: our impact on the planet. Instead of thinking about things on the scale of the individual, this book forces us to think on a far larger one.

The World Without Us – Alan Weisman

The World Without Us
The World Without Us

The World Without Us is a three hundred page Gedanken or thought experiment in which the author imagines what would happen on earth if all human beings disappeared. The means of the disappearance is not important, but obviously if humans disappeared because the entire earth was annihilated, the thought experiment would be entirely pointless. So Weisman assumes that earth is left pretty much the way it is now, just without people.

This is an entirely speculative work, as we have very little to go on when trying to figure out how an ecosystem will recover or how an urban metropolis will decay in the complete absence of human intervention. I found most interesting the information about the properties of materials and structures – how long they will last, what causes them to break down, and so on – as well as the often obscure case studies that Weisman unearths in order to illustrate a point, and the fragments of pristine environments that he writes about (like the Białowieża Forest in Poland).

Weisman moves from ecosystem to ecosystem, considering forests, farmland, cities, and the ocean. He finds experts in fields you don’t even know exist. He speaks to archaeologists, zoologist, everyone in between. It’s tricky to explain how the book is written; it is not a series of abstract imaginings, but rather a series of vignettes and interviews that Weisman pulls together to make a point. It’s easy to read short sections at a time, but hard to put down. In the ocean chapter, he writes about Kingman Reef, which is our best guess at what an untouched coral reef ecosystem should look like (spoiler: LOTS of sharks). Some things, such as plastic in the ocean, are unfortunately forever.

Despite the apparently gloomy subject matter, I found the book hopeful. It appealed to me as someone who cares about the environment (and if you think that people care too much about the environment, then this book will probably enrage you). I enjoyed imagining my office building with trees growing from the windows on the upper stories, and the parking areas filling with water. After a few good nights’ sleep, I find it hopeful less because it enabled me to imagine my corporate workplace being absorbed by nature, and more because it describes the resilience of the planet. Some environmental disasters, such as the destruction of most coral reef ecosystems as the ocean warms and acidifies, are most likely a foregone conclusion unless an incident of the type upon which this book is predicated takes place and prevents us from adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by destroying humanity entirely. Other predicted environmental catastrophes, however, are not a shoo-in, and can still be avoided or recovered from with some decisive action.

The book seems to have stirred a bit of controversy among reviewers, some of whom were disturbed by the absence of a human perspective or gaze by which to orient the narrative. This bothered me not at all, and I didn’t try and extract anything profoundly philosophical from that aspect of it. I quite enjoy imagining what the Cape Peninsula looked like when it was pristine, before we built the three Disa Park towers on it – one of my favourite photographs is this one, of mist covering Cape Town below Table Mountain. I like to imagine that this is how it looked (minus the boats) before there were any people here.

A blanket of mist below Table Mountain
A blanket of mist below Table Mountain

Reviews of the book from the Washington Post, New York Times (also here) and the Guardian may assist your decision on whether to read this book. I hope you will read it. 

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

Bookshelf: The Control of Nature

Today and tomorrow I’ll tell you about two books I read recently: The Control of Nature, and The World Without Us. They both deal with man’s impact on the environment, but not in the same way as the conservation-related books that I am typically drawn to. They are not directly related to the ocean (although The World Without Us touches on it), but encouraged me to think in new ways about our impact on the planet, in terms a little bit broader than “We catch too much fish” or “We burn too much fossil fuel.”

I was induced to read these two books, one after the other, by an apocalyptic frame of mind (which we might be able to blame on intermittent power outages and some of the other challenges we’re experiencing in South Africa at the moment). Even if you don’t feel as though the sky is about to fall on your head, they are still both highly recommended.

The Control of Nature – John McPhee

The Control of Nature
The Control of Nature

It is a discredit to my literary general knowledge that this is the first book I have read by American author John McPhee. He is a prolific and well regarded non-fiction author whose other work I will be hunting down post haste. The Control of Nature comprises three long essays, each detailing an attempt by man to modify and contain his natural environment. They read like engineering thrillers (which puts me in mind of my brother in law – maybe he needs this book in his life, too). McPhee explains complex engineering concepts in terms that anyone can grasp.

The first essay, entitled Atchafalayadeals with the Mississippi River, which is cannibalised by its distributary the Atchafalaya River in Louisiana, near its mouth. A complex structure called the Old River Control Structure determines how much of the Mississippi is allowed into the Atchafalaya. Left uncontrolled, the Mississippi would change course entirely, with dire economic and sociological consequences for New Orleans and surrounds. The history and workings of the Old River Control Structure alone are fascinating enough to sell the book – check out the Wikipedia entry for a taste of it.

The second essay describes the surprisingly successful attempts by Icelandic islanders from Heimaey to redirect a flow of volcanic lava that was threatening their fishing harbour (of major economic importance – notice a trend here) during an eruption of the volcano Eldfell in 1973. The task was Herculean. Islanders pumped seawater out onto the lava, and worked in conditions so steamy (from evaporating water) and hot that their boots melted and they couldn’t see more than a few metres in front of them. Part of the town was destroyed – preserved like Pompeii – but the size of the island was increased and the harbour is now better protected than it was before the eruption, thanks to lava outflows and rocks shielding it from the prevailing winds.

 Finally, McPhee deals with Los Angeles, a city which seems ubiquitous in a certain type of news media, but for reasons entirely other than the ones McPhee writes about. It turns out that the San Gabriel mountains above Los Angeles have some striking similarities to the fynbos-covered slopes around Cape Town. The climate is also Mediterranean – hot, dry summers and wet winters. The vegetation in the San Gabriel mountains is called chaparral, and like fynbos it needs to burn every decade or so for germination of new plants and removal of the overstory of growth. Volatile oils in the leaves of these plants mean that they burn hot and fast, and sometimes gases released from the plants explode in the air as they burn. After a fire, the steep slopes are vulnerable to landslides, comprising rock, gravel and mud. Debris basins – essentially giant empty reservoirs – are built to collect the debris from these massively destructive floods before it reaches the expensive homes high in the mountains. When the debris does reach an area of human habitation, the effects are swift and disastrous.

All three the enterprises McPhee describes are (or were) very costly. Two of them – the government-led control of the Mississippi and of the Los Angeles mudslides – are ongoing and will always be as long as populations inhabit the areas concerned or wish to continue with commerce as it currently is. Iceland is in a volcanic region and it is entirely conceivable that another eruption may threaten property and economics of a region in the future, and that another attempt will be made to drive back a metres-thick flow of boiling magma. I was exhausted after reading this book, and wished that everyone could just down tools and go away. I was also amazed by the scale of the efforts that go on every day to make our world habitable, wherever we choose to set down roots. I wondered what sort of similar activities, frenetic attempts to subdue and hold back earth and water, happen around me that I am not aware of.

A New York Times review of the book can be found here.

 You can get a copy of the book here (South Africa) otherwise here or here. I also discovered that the New Yorker published lengthy extracts from this book – you can read them online. For all I know it may even be the whole thing!

When it rains…

When does rain fall in Cape Town? What time of day is it safe to leave home without an umbrella, during which months? Am I right in thinking it always pours with rain between 6.00 and 7.00 in the morning when I have to think about getting up?

We haven’t been collecting our weather station data for long enough, but I can tell you what time of day it most often rained during 2014, in each month. I showed you a slice of one of these circular charts last month, to visualise what the wind speed is at different times of day, by month.

Here’s a full circular chart showing the frequency of rain events (i.e. rainfall in a particular hour) in 2014, throughout the day, divided by month. February, April, October and December 2014 were particularly dry months – there are hardly any blue stripes on those segments. The darkest blue stripe you can see, in May, tells us that during the hour from 4pm to 5pm in the month of May, there were six or more days on which it rained (“rain events”).

Time of rain events each month in 2014
Time of rain events each month in 2014

What can we conclude from this circular plot? Looking at the rainier months (May to August), a pattern of rain during the night (outside edge of the circle) can be discerned, as well as in the early hours of the morning (near the centre of the circle). The morning – specially in May-July – seems to be a time when the rain is less frequent during this time.

Once we have a few more years of data, these circular plots will take on more conviction as we are able to smooth out annual fluctuations in rainfall and see broader patterns. March 2014 looks surprisingly (blue) wet, or April was surprisingly (pale) dry. Another year’s data will allow us to figure out which was the case. Watch this space.

A note on the graph

This chart is after Jason and Doug’s chart on their Penang weather blog. The piece of pretty R that did the plotting is here, if that floats your boat:

ggplot(df_summarised, aes(x=month, y=hour, fill=events)) +
  geom_tile(colour="grey70") +
  scale_fill_gradientn(colours = col, name="Rain\nevents\n")+
  scale_y_continuous(breaks = seq(0,23),
                              "1:00pm","2:00pm","3:00pm","4:00pm","5:00pm","6:00pm","7:00pm","8:00pm","9:00pm","10:00pm","11:00pm")) +
  coord_polar(theta="x") +
  ylab("HOUR OF DAY")+
  ggtitle("Number of rain events by month and time of day")+
        plot.title = element_text(lineheight=1.2, face="bold",size = 14, colour = "grey20"),
        plot.margin = unit(c(-0.25,0.1,-1,0.25), "in"),