Video (TED): Camille Seaman on photographing icebergs

In this very short talk, Camille Seaman, photographer and author of Melting Away, talks about her approach to iceberg photography, and shows some of her pictures.

Saeaman also photographs storm clouds; she started storm chasing in 2008. Depicting these clouds is another way for her to illustrated how everything in nature is connected.

Bookshelf: Melting Away

Melting Away – Camille Seaman

Melting Away
Melting Away

I first saw Camille Seaman’s photography in a feature on She is thinks about photographing icebergs the way one would photograph a person of advanced age: with respect and reverence.

Melting Away is a book of magnificent photographs taken in the Antarctic and the Arctic. Seaman worked as a resident photographer on cruise vessels taking passengers to each end of the earth, and over a ten year period was able to take portraits of icebergs, each of which has its own character, and to observe the changes that are taking place at the poles as a result of climate change.

A feature on Seaman in the New York Times explains how her Native American heritage influenced her connection to nature and her ability to observe it closely. Her grandfather taught her to recognise trees as one would a person, and to be consciously quiet and observant in the natural world.

The text interspersed between the photographs is surprisingly personal and autobiographical. Seaman writes about her childhood, her aspirations, and the formative experiences that have brought her to where she is: a world-renowned photographer with a unique perspective on the impact humans are having on our planet. I found this part of the book to be fascinating, and would recommend it particularly to young women, especially those who might feel they don’t fit or conform, who are needing hope that somewhere in their future they will find their calling.

You can follow Seaman on instagram for photographs of her travels, and check out a slideshow of her images on The Telegraph website. An interview with Seaman can be found here; she talks quite a lot about her upbringing.

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

Article: The Atlantic on motion sickness

Tony checking out the fishing boat
Tony checking out the fishing boat

Travelling – by boat, car, bus – is supposed to be fun. If you suffer from motion sickness (sea sickness while on a boat), it isn’t. This feels like punishment, and Julie Beck in The Atlantic puts it better than I could:

For so long as man has attempted to tame and traverse the sea, the sea has punished him for it. With barfing.

If you are susceptible, you may have attempted to manage your motion sickness by various means, not excluding ginger biscuits. You may have settled on a gentle medical solution, which works quite well if you remember to take it before setting off on a journey.

The science of motion sickness turns out to be fairly complex and our understanding of it is not yet settled. Beck’s article explains the physical mechanisms at work when we get motion sick and the theories that explain the phenomenon, some of which are supported by the results of new genetic studies done by 23andMe. Sufferers will receive small consolation to hear that their sea sickness can be partly explained by their gender  or age, but may glean some understanding of when they are most susceptible to an uncomfortable ride.

Read the full article here.

Article: Nautilus on sea lamprey

Nautilus ran an article earlier this year about lampreys, fish that look like something out of the X Files. They are probably close relatives of hagfish; like hagfish, lampreys are jawless. They attach their round mouths to other fish and feed on their bodily fluids. They do not have a reputation as civilised dinner conversationalists.

While hagfish are marine animals, lampreys are anadromous: they return to fresh water (usually rivers) to spawn, in the same way that salmon do. When they’ve spawned, they die, fertilising the rivers and surrounding land with the nutrients from their bodies (in the same way as salmon do, but on a smaller scale).

Rehabilitation of North American rivers, along with the removal of dams, opens the way for fish such as salmon and alewives to return. Lampreys have returned too. Until recently they were viewed as invasive pests:

… the conventional American wisdom on sea lampreys was conceived following the late-19th- and early-20th-century collapse of world-renowned trout populations. The lampreys were invasive, having infiltrated the region through shipping canals; Great Lakes fish could not adapt to their ravages. Historical records describe the ease with which nets could be lowered to lake bottoms, then pulled back up with a cargo of sea lamprey-holed carcasses.

More recent research suggests that lampreys are native to at least Lake Ontario and several other lakes in the region, and were only able to colonise the rest of the Great Lakes when their native fish populations were all but destroyed by removing too many fish and modifying the ecosystem through damming, logging and agriculture.

Although they aren’t pretty, lampreys may be less of an invasive parasite and more of an essential participant in a balanced ecosystem than they were once thought to be. Read the Nautilus article here.

Green Point lighthouse

Green Point lighthouse sign
Green Point lighthouse sign

Green Point lighthouse is South Africa’s first lighthouse, commissioned in 1824, and is currently the headquarters of the South African lighthouse service. The lighthouse is instantly recognisable, constructed from immensely thick masonry and painted with red and white diagonal bands. The walls at the base of the tower are almost two metres thick, because the building material is unworked stone bound by lime mortar.

The tower is 16 metres high, with its focal plane 20 metres above sea level. Currently the light is an 800,000 candela metal halide lamp. These facts mean that the light can be seen from 25 nautical miles away. The sound of its fog horn (of a variety called a nautophone) will also be familiar to local residents and boaters. We listened to it for ages while waiting for last year’s Freedom Swim to commence.

View of the lighthouse across Beach Road
View of the lighthouse across Beach Road

Green Point lighthouse works in conjunction with Milnerton lighthouse and the Robben Island light to guide vessels safely into Table Bay, past Robben island and avoiding confusion from the myriad city lights. Technically the lighthouse is situated in Mouille Point. There used to be a Mouille Point light (commissioned in 1842) close to where the wreck of RMS Athens lies. It was decommissioned in 1908 when a light was established on the breakwater nearby. The base of the decommissioned Mouille Point lighthouse still survives at Granger Bay, and when I find it and photograph it I will show it to you.

The rotating lens at Green Point lighthouse
The rotating lens at Green Point lighthouse

The lens, a thing of beauty, was supplied by Chance Brothers; their handiwork is also visible at the Slangkoppunt lighthouse.

The lighthouse is open to the public on weekdays between 10.00 am and 3.00 pm, for a cost of about R14. You can climb up the tower and also browse the fascinating historical displays inside the building. You could also fantasise about working for the lighthouse service, and crash back to earth with the realisation that in today’s age of unmanned lights, it’s a far less romantic job than you think it might be.

As usual, everything I know about this lighthouse that I didn’t learn by looking at it (i.e. most everything), is thanks to Gerald Hoberman’s wonderful Lighthouses of South Africa book.

Genius gear: the Wetsac

Using the WetSac
Using the WetSac

Several years ago the wonderful Tami gave me a WETSAC for my birthday. It sounds like something squishy and perhaps offensive, but in fact it is a marvel of ingenuity and designed to improve the lives of divers and surfers and outdoorsmen everywhere. She bought it at a craft market in Hout Bay, and both of us have been hunting for a retailer of this product since then. Recently, I struck it lucky with a well phrased google search (something like “wet bag”).

How many times have you struggled out of your wetsuit on a rough surface (Miller’s Point parking area and Hout Bay harbour, I’m looking at you), hurting your feet, standing on the neoprene and pressing it into the tar? You’re damaging yourself and your gear! Then you toss the dripping, smelly wetsuit into the back of your car – into a box, if you’re organised – and hope it doesn’t spray seawater and bits of grit from the parking area everywhere while you drive home.

WETSAC is here to help. Essentially a mat that converts into a waterproof bag, it comprises a circular piece of tough fabric with a drawstring around the edge. You stand on it to get out of your suit, throw in your gloves, hoodie and booties, then step off and pull the drawstring tight. Toss the bag into your divemobile and don’t worry about remnants of your diving and changing adventures ending up all over the boot. It is beyond convenient. Plus, you can buy it online. Make a note for next Christmas!

(I was not compensated in any way for this post… The thing is just geninuely nifty!)

The Sea-Change exhibition in Sea Point

A view of the Sea-Change exhibition from  a distance
A view of the Sea-Change exhibition from a distance

We’ve been slow to draw your attention to this (unless you follow us on instagram), but there’s a wonderful photographic exhibition at Sea Point that you should check out, rather than a ridiculous giant pair of sunglassses. The Sea-Change exhibition is the brainchild of a multi-disciplinary team of artists, scientists and multi media experts, with the aim of telling the story of humanity’s earliest days and our ancient relationship with the sea.

The Sea-Change project
The Sea-Change project

The exhibition can be found along the promenade near the ox wagon park, opposite the SABC building in Sea Point. It’s coming down soon, so make haste!

There’s more information on the Sea-Change website, and a lot of gorgeous photos.

Urgent call to action on the future of seal diving and snorkeling in South Africa

Seal at the slipway
Seal at the slipway

Proposed changes to the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act (no. 10 of 2004) will limit scuba divers’ and snorkelers access to Cape fur seal colonies. The proposal was brought to our attention by Georgina Jones (for which we thank her!). Unfortunately the timeline for comments is extremely limited: we must submit written responses to the proposal by 30 April, which is this coming Thursday.

Proposed legislative changes with respect to Cape fur seals

The primary change that will affect us as scuba divers and snorkelers is that we will no longer be allowed within 30 metres of a Cape fur seal colony. This will mean that we cannot approach the colonies at Duiker Island in Hout Bay and at Partridge Point in False Bay. Furthermore, it may mean that we cannot even drive the boat through the gap between Duiker Island and the mainland. Boat routing around the Partridge Point colony will also be affected. Fortunately we don’t do any recreational diving around Seal Island in False Bay, so we don’t need to worry about that!

The Government Gazette outlining the changes is long (288 pages) and you can download it in its entirety here, but I have snipped out the relevant sections. The first is the definition of “harrassment” from page 88, which in point (f) relates to all seal species and states that one may not “approach a colony closer than 30 metres”.

Definition of harrassment
Definition of harrassment (click to enlarge)

The second relevant section is on pages 260-261 as they specifically apply to Cape fur seals. Note that the second last bullet point (on the second page, page 261) prohibits “harassment” of seals, which is defined above.

Cape fur seals regulations
Cape fur seals regulations (click to enlarge)
Cape fur seals regulations continued
Cape fur seals regulations continued (click to enlarge)

Why we object to the proposed legislation

Cape fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus pusillus) are not endangered. In Namibia they are hunted, but in South Africa hunting of seals was stopped years ago. They are classified as “Least Concern” on the IUCN Redlist, which states that

Due to their large population sizes, the global Cape Fur Seal (Afro-Australian Fur Seal) population appears to be healthy, and the subspecies should both therefore be classified as Least Concern (LC).

The best place to encounter Cape fur seals is in proximity to a breeding colony (such as Duiker Island in Hout Bay) or haul out spot (such as Partridge Point in False Bay). The largest breeding colony is Seal Island in False Bay, and recreational diving and snorkeling is off limits there owing to the white shark population that feeds there, primarily in winter. Restricting access to 30 metre wide areas around these colonies will not improve the lot of the seal populations in any way.

Fishermen frequently have an adversarial relationship with seals (Shaughnessy & Kirkwood). Allowing scuba divers and snorkelers to approach seal colonies in the water enables them to observe any abuses that may be perpetrated on the seals by water users who do not appreciate the seals’ presence. It also provides a means for monitoring and reporting the impact of plastic pollution on the animals, which may be significant. Loops of plastic from bait boxes, shopping bags and from six packs of canned drinks pose a risk to these curious mammals, who get their heads or flippers stuck inside the plastic loops. This causes slow and painful damage to the animals as they grow.

There is no indication that activity by snorkelers and scuba divers causes the seals any distress or leads to harmful behaviour modification that could impact individual seals’ chances of survival (Kirkwood et al 2003). Seals are curious and friendly, and frequently and willingly approach people in the water in order to interact.

If conducted sensitively, trips allowing visitors to experience Cape fur seals have great conservation value, not only encouraging awareness of seal conservation issues, but also of species that prey on and are preyed upon by seals, and of issues of plastic pollution in the marine environment.

The monetary value of Cape fur seals as a tourism resource is also significant and contributes to South Africa’s tourism sector. In addition to snorkeling and scuba diving trips, run by a number of operators, there are seal viewing boats (which sometimes pose a significant danger to snorkelers and divers in the water, but that’s another story…) operating out of Hout Bay, which bring thousands of visitors, mostly tourists, to see the colonies each year.

As both Duiker Island and Partridge Point are located close to shore, restricting boat movements around them may force watermen to use less safe routes up and down the coastline, and force them further out to sea than they would otherwise choose to venture in order to avoid the seals.

(It is in fact not clear to me whether Partridge Point, which is a resting or haul out spot rather than a breeding colony, will fall under the proposed legislation, but Duiker Island in Hout Bay certainly will, as will Seal Island in False Bay.)

How we think seals need to be protected

A more impactful (sorry, hate that word) way to protect seals from perceived harrassment would be to enforce a Code of Conduct for seal tourism operators. This would prohibit landing of people on a seal colony by tourist operators. The use of toys such as bits of rope to attract seals in the water should also be prohibited. Teaching seals to identify human manufactured materials as playthings will only lead to more entanglement of young animals in plastic waste. Strict boat speed limits should be enforced around seal colonies and haul out spots. Finally, no bait or chum should be permitted to be used by operators, even if it is kept on the boat and trickled over the side or held inside a glove and not given to the seals.

How to submit comments

If you enjoy snorkeling and diving with seals and want to be able to share that with friends and family in the future, or have a business that profits from seal trips, or if you like to win photography competitions with pictures of seals chomping at your dome port, this means you have a vested interest in the legislation that has been proposed.

The quickest way to comment is to send an email to with your comments or objections. Feel free to use any or all of the ones we have listed above. Please do this now!

Contact details to submit comments
Contact details to submit comments (click to enlarge)

Operators who do white shark trips and turtle nesting tours in Sodwana should also consult the proposed changes carefully, because they may impact their operations as well.

Article: The Guardian on a bungled tuna fishing IPO

Here’s a rare intersection of something tangentially related to my job, and this blog. An IPO, or initial public offering, is when a privately owned company lists its shares on a stock exchange. It is a capital raising exercise: shareholders pay for part-ownership in the company, and will usually expect to receive a portion of the company’s future earnings in the form of dividends. Shares in the company will trade publicly on whatever stock exchange the company has listed on. The firm receives a cash injection from the shareholders when it lists, and can use this to expand, or for other capital-intensive projects.

China Tuna Industry Group, a tuna fishing company, attempted to list on the Hong Kong stock exchange last June. The firm targets bigeye and yellowfin tuna, which are IUCN redlisted as vulnerable and near threatened respectively. In its prospectus – a document meant to entice investors to sign up to purchase shares in the IPO – the company states that it can catch more tuna than quotas allow, because there is no enforcement of catch limits. As the excellent Guardian article on the IPO states (emphasis mine):

In a series of circular arguments, the document stated that China, which presides over the world’s largest long-distance fishing fleet, would not crack down on companies engaged in illegal fishing because it never had in the past; that the catch limits set by the Regional Fisheries Management Organizations apply only to China the country, not to actual Chinese fishing boats; and that even if the catch limits did apply, the regional fisheries organizations would not enforce them because “there is no sanction for non-compliance with Bigeye catch limits.”

The IPO was cancelled because of negative publicity, which escalated when Greenpeace got involved. The Chinese government and the investment bank handling the IPO (shame on them) were, respectively, amazed (sure) and silent on the subject.

Read the Guardian article here. It’s an revealing journey through the legal loopholes, apathy, and big money that characterise so much of what is wrong with global fisheries, and China’s in particular.

Article: Phenomena on ocean calamities

The news article/paper that we read yesterday was a serious, yet hopeful assessment of the current and future state of ocean animals. Today’s article is also by Carl Zimmer, writing for Phenomena, and covers an opinion piece that appeared in Bioscience. A group of marine biologists criticises the tendency of scientists to generalise local effects into a supposed global “ocean calamities”. This breeds pessimism and inaction, as the general public is assailed by one apparent disaster scenario after another, and a point of fatigue is reached. The authors contend that

… the marine research community may not have remained sufficiently skeptical in sending and receiving information on the problems caused by human pressures in the ocean and that there is a need to revisit the process by which potential or isolated problems escalate to the status of ocean calamities.

It must be tempting, as a conservation biologist or environmental activist (two different professions) to talk up the dire threats facing coral reefs, or sharks, or whales, in order to attract attention or funding. But it is important to keep things in their proper context and perspective. Furthermore, all of us have a duty to remain skeptical, to investigate claims that seem extreme, and to do a little research beyond the headlines, tweets and facebook status updates. Make no mistake, this is not about being skeptical of science and its capacity to assist us in understanding the world around us; it is about being skeptical about how facts are presented, paraphrased, and – after enough repetition – possibly distorted.

Read Zimmer’s full article here. As an aside, he mentions his New York Times article on the Science paper concerning the health of the world’s oceans that we discussed yesterday. He asked the authors of the ocean calamities paper whether the Science paper was overstating the threats to marine life. Their response was that the paper was balanced and an accurate assessment of the current state of affairs.

I also encourage you to check out the original paper that Zimmer is writing about, which runs through several well-known “ocean calamities” (jellyfish blooms, harmful algal blooms, overfishing, invasive species, etc) and assesses the extent of the evidence for each one to qualify as a global threat to the oceans.