Bookshelf: Southern African Sea Life

Southern African Sea Life: A Guide for Young Explorers – Sophie von der Heyden

Southern African Sea Life
Southern African Sea Life

Marine biologist and geneticist Sophie von der Heyden has produced a beautiful, practical and useful book for young people wanting to know more about the life found in Southern African coastal waters. Von der Heyden provides information about the different species found on the coast, along with tips on how to spot them, and what gear to take along to the beach for a day of exploration. Care is taken to advise young fishermen how to handle fish (gently) and when to put them back in their rockpools (quickly).

The book’s many photographs were mostly provided by Guido Zsilavecz of SURG, author of two of our favourite nudibranch and local fish identification books. There are images of the marine life as well as the habitats in which it is found, both large and fine scale. The book’s design and layout are varied and colourful, which makes it a pleasure to page through and a source of inspiration for rockpool exploration.

I appreciated the book’s fair treatment of our entire coastline. It is tempting to view the coral reefs of Sodwana and Durban as more romantic and visually striking than the dense carpet of invertebrate life that characterises the Cape’s waters, but the interested explorer is rewarded in both areas. Children’s books about coral reefs are not unusual, but a book that teaches appreciation of the abundance of life along the south western Cape coast is a rare thing indeed.

You can get a copy of this book here. In a couple of years’ time it’ll be on my niece and nephew’s Christmas list!

Our protocol for scuba diving with cowsharks

Curious cowshark
Curious cowshark

Shark Alley is a special and unusual dive site just south of Millers Point. It is an aggregation site for broadnose sevengill cowsharks, predators who feed on seals and a variety of other animals. They can grow to three metres in length. These sharks seem to use this site as a resting area (though we aren’t sure – research is ongoing) and their behaviour is typically docile and relaxed. For this reason it is a great place to dive, as the sharks come close enough to get a good look at them but do not behave in a threatening manner.

There has never been a serious incident involving a diver and a shark at this site, but there have been a few incidents. Clare has had her pillar valve gnawed on by a feisty young male shark while on a dive here a few years back, and early in May a diver was bitten on the arm by one of the sharks. That latter bite made the newspaper (the shark drew blood and the NSRI was summoned), but I am sure that there have been other more minor incidents here that didn’t get reported.

Young cowshark
Young cowshark

This got me thinking about a protocol for diving with these animals. Shark dives all over the world are governed by safety protocols and guidelines, usually put in place by dive operators themselves (examples here and here). We do have a set of standards that we adhere to when visiting this site and mention in dive briefings, but I’ve never written them down all together before. I am a firm believer in self regulation, whereby the industry regulates itself so that we don’t end up with a bureaucrat in an office telling us we can’t dive with cowsharks without (for example) a special permit, or (heaven forbid) ever again!

Cowshark passing a diver
Cowshark passing a diver

So here’s our protocol – how we choose to regulate ourselves when diving this site. It’s not a set of hard and fast rules that everyone has to follow, but it’s how we choose to approach dives at Shark Alley, a little bit like Underwater Africa’s diver code of conduct, but for cowshark diving. You are welcome to use these principles yourself, and I’d like to hear any suggestions you have to improve them or for points I may not have thought of.

  1. Do a positive entry (i.e. with your BCD fully inflated) if you are diving off the boat, so you do not risk landing on a shark in mid water. If there is a thermocline, the sharks typically swim above it, and may be shallower than you expect.
  2. Descend slowly in a controlled manner, looking below you at all times. Ensure that you are carrying sufficient weight (you should be able to kneel on the sand if necessary).
  3. Do not make any physical contact with the sharks. Do not try and stroke them as they swim by, and do not hang on their tails or dorsal fins.
  4. Do not feed the sharks. Don’t carry anything edible (sardines, for example) in your BCD, and do not chum from the boat. This includes washing the deck off at the dive site if you’ve just been fishing or on a baited shark dive. Chumming is both illegal (you need a permit) and unsafe, especially if there are divers in the water.
  5. If you have students in the water, perform skills away from the sharks (if possible, avoid conducting skills at this site).
  6. Some sharks will show a keen interest in your camera and flash or strobes. Do not antagonise them by putting a camera directly in their face. If a shark is showing undue interest in your photographic equipment, hold off taking pictures for a moment while it swims away.
  7. Move out of the sharks’ way if they swim towards you. (Here’s a video of Tami doing just that.) Cowsharks are confident and curious, and often won’t give way to divers. Respect their space and move far enough away that they won’t rub against you or bump you as they swim by.
  8. Be alert for any strange behaviour by an individual shark or the sharks around you. Be aware of your surroundings and don’t become absorbed with fiddling with your camera or gear. If a shark does become overly familiar (bumping or biting), gather the divers together in a close group and abort the dive in a controlled manner.
  9. Do not dive at this site at night or in low light. This is probably when cowsharks feed (though we aren’t sure), and as ambush predators their behaviour is likely to be quite different in dark water when they’re in hunting mode.
  10. Do not dive at this site alone. When diving in a group, stay with the group and close to your buddy.

I am not writing this protocol down to make people afraid of diving with cowsharks in Cape Town. But I do think it’s important to remember that this is a dive that needs to be taken seriously, with safety as a priority. Because we can visit this site whenever we want to, it’s tempting to become blasé about what an amazing experience it is, and also about the fact that these are sharks that need to be respected.

In conclusion! Unlike great white sharks, cowsharks (and blue sharks, and mako sharks, and and and…) are not protected in South Africa, so it’s not illegal to fish for them in permitted fishing areas (i.e. outside no take zones, etc). One of the cage diving operators in Gansbaai even used to use cowshark livers in his chum… If you want to make a difference in the lives of cowsharks and ensure they’re still here for us to dive with in future decades, consider writing a letter to the relevant government minister (make sure it’s the current one, in the new cabinet) and also to the shadow minister from the opposition party, requesting protection for more shark species in South African waters.

Schooling fish at Photographer’s Reef

Hottentot at Photographer's Reef
Hottentot at Photographer’s Reef

We don’t often see this many fish in the water. False Bay used to be teeming with fish, but they’ve been fished out, leaving us with the odd patchy school that gets divers very excited. Luckily we have DAFF making sure that existing fish stocks are conserved (excuse me while I cry with laughter/despair). Here’s a group of hottentot at Photographer’s Reef. The best place to see many fish in False Bay is probably Atlantis Reef – check out this video.

Comb jelly on the brunswick

Ocyropsis maculata immaculata under the boat
Ocyropsis maculata immaculata under the boat

We did a beautiful May dive on the Brunswick in crystal clear, cold water, and upon rolling off the boat were greeted immediately with a fairly large group of highly structured jelly like animals, pulsing along as if on a mission to somewhere. They were hard to photograph (my best effort is above) so I took a short video of one of them.

The JellyWatch facebook page helped with identification – they do not appear in any of the marine ID books we own. This species is probably Ocyropsis maculata immaculata, a type of comb jelly that is widely and quite abundantly distributed (although WoRMS doesn’t show it as occuring off the Cape). Apparently (says wikipedia) they use their lobes to escape from danger, clapping them together in order to create a water jet that propels them backwards. They are open ocean animals, which suggests that the lovely clean water we were enjoying right at the north western end of False Bay had been brought in by an upwelling from the deep sea outside the bay, driven by the north westerly winds we’d been having.

They are ctenophores, and instead of stinging cells they have sticky cells called colloblasts that they use to catch food. Every website I’ve looked at mentions what “voracious predators” they are! Other ctenophores that we see locally are comb jellies and sea gooseberries. (More pictures of comb jellies around the Cape Peninsula can be seen here, here and here.) All of these species have little disco lights running along their bodies; this is in fact light being refracted off their eight rows of cilia, which are used for locomotion.

Bookshelf: The False Bay story

The False Bay Story – Jose Burman

The False Bay Story
The False Bay Story

The False Bay Story is one of a trilogy of books about the notable bays of the south western Cape,  written by Jose Burman. The other two books (which I have not read) are The Table Bay Story and The Saldanha Bay Story. This volume was published in 1977, and is chiefly concerned with the colonial history of False Bay. It is well illustrated with early maps (which I found particularly interesting), paintings, drawings and photographs. Burman quotes at length from letters and diaries of the Dutch and British settlers at and visitors to the Cape, which makes this book particularly useful as a collection of primary sources.

The book concentrates on the human settlements: Gordon’s Bay, St James, Kalk Bay, Simon’s Town. Burman pays slightly more attention to the shipping and naval activity in the bay than does Arderne Tredgold in Bay Between the Mountainswith particular attention to how this shaped the settlement at Simon’s Town.

It was Burman’s explanation of why False Bay has that name that finally made sense to me. I had a half remembered idea that it was called False Bay because sailors mistook it for Table Bay, but could never imagine how someone could be that stupid. The truth is that Hangklip used to be known as Cabo Falso (False Cape) by Portuguese seafarers who mistook it for Cape Point. Rounding it, they found themselves in a bay, instead of heading up the western side of the Cape Peninsula heading for Table Bay. False Bay got its name from False Cape. Upon investigation, Wikipedia has this precise explanation. Should I have checked there first, and saved all the time I spent reading this book?

As with Bay Between the Mountains, I found a copy of this out of print book on Bid or Buy.

Bookshelf: Bay Between the Mountains

Bay Between the Mountains – Arderne Tredgold

Bay Between the Mountains
Bay Between the Mountains

I have an obsession with False Bay; our lives revolve around its moods, and we spend a lot of time around, under or on the waters of the bay. Tony’s business activities are affected by conditions in False Bay, but we also pay attention to the bay because it’s interesting to us. Life lived according to the rhythms of this beautiful body of water to me feels far more authentic and significant than a life lived according to the rhythms of my alarm clock and office hours.

I’ve been reading some things about the history of False Bay, and this book seemed to be the place to start. It was published in 1985 and is written a bit like a Lawrence G. Green book, but with (I think) slightly more attention to detail and accurate sourcing. There is a list of references at the back, but a lot of it is oral history that Tredgold gleaned from interviewing (then) elderly inhabitants of the settlements on the bay’s edge.

It’s essentially a colonial history of False Bay, with a view that history only started when the Dutch arrived in the Cape. There’s a brief section on the very early geological history of the bay, but not enough for my liking, and I would have liked to know more about the Strandlopers who frequented the area before the Dutch and British started stampeding around and shooting cannonballs at each other.

Tredgold devotes most of his attention to the history of Simon’s Town, Fish Hoek, Kalk Bay, St James, Gordon’s Bay and the Strand. False Bay was a very significant fishing resource right from the time of early Dutch settlement at the Cape, and up until about 1900 a significant amount of whaling was done in the bay, most of it from Kalk Bay. By about 1900 it wasn’t economically viable (too few whales) to run a whaling business inside False Bay any more. I found this remarkably sad – that already over 100 years ago humans had practically exhausted some of the marine resources available to them – but also heartening, given the generous numbers of whales that visit False Bay between June and November in the present day.

Despite the importance of the False Bay fishing opportunities, the focus in this book is on human history. The natural history of the bay is only mentioned insofar as it illuminates the activities of the humans in the settlements on its fringes. There are only two or three mentions of the False Bay white shark population: one is made as part of an account of Simon van der Stel’s visit to Seal Island in 1679. The men caught fish around the island, but sharks took many of them before they could be landed. Little did he know what a massive economic powerhouse the False Bay cage diving industry would be over 300 years later!

There are some interesting stories of some of the many wrecks in False Bay, but for more detail on the human aspect of those I’d suggest the Michael Walker books Hard Aground, Forgotten Shipwrecks of the Western Cape and Shipwrecks of the Far South.

This isn’t an easy book to get hold of – it’s out of print – but you can probably find a copy on Bid or Buy, which is where I found mine.

All about the shark exclusion net at Fish Hoek beach

Over-under view of the exclusion net at Fish Hoek
Over-under view of the exclusion net at Fish Hoek

The trial of the shark exclusion net at Fish Hoek beach has come to an end, and since we’re still seeing and hearing from people who don’t know anything about the net, or how it works, I thought we’d provide a full guide to the net, using all the blog posts we’ve published since the trial was announced. It’s a combination of a conservation initiative and a human safety initiative, and has achieved both goals beautifully.

Finally, you can read about the end of the trial and the possible future of the net here, or here.

Meanwhile, the Fish Hoek business community has had its best year in recent memory, thanks at least in part to the exclusion net, which has given bathers a sense of security about visiting Fish Hoek beach again. As small business owners in the deep south, we’re grateful for the efforts of Shark Spotters and the City of Cape Town to make the local beaches safe, and also to make them feel safe.

Just to be absolutely clear, the organisations involved in the implementation of the shark exclusion net at Fish Hoek are the City of Cape Town and Shark Spotters. It was “monitored” by the thousands of swimmers who enjoyed using it!

The elusive E-Whale

E-Whale on the horizon
E-Whale on the horizon

E-Whale is an ore and oil carrier, built in 2010 and registered in Monrovia, that has been at anchor in Table Bay, Cape Town, for over two years (since April 2012). The ship has been arrested because of debts of her owners, and her papers have been seized. She has a length of 340 metres and a beam of 60 metres, with a crew of 17 (not all of whom may be on board at this stage).

Table Mountain and E-Whale
Table Mountain and E-Whale

The vessel has a freeboard (the height from the sea surface to the deck) of over 30 metres, making it very exciting to pass close to her in a small boat (as we did, on our way back to OPBC after the Freedom Swim). We felt very small. To gain access to the deck when the ship is not in port, a crane is used to lift passengers on board while they are seated in a net. She is completely empty at the moment and riding very high out of the water, so her rudder is visible at the stern, partially protruding from the water.

E-Whale in Table Bay
E-Whale in Table Bay

Only one of the two anchors at her bow was deployed, but the following day’s weather forecast entailed a north westerly gale, which I am sure would have necessitated additional precautions.

Bow and anchors of E-Whale
Bow and anchors of E-Whale

She has a distinctive whale marking on her funnel, its cuteness somewhat at odds with the industrial aura projected by the rest of the vessel!

Whale marking on the funnel of E-Whale
Whale marking on the funnel of E-Whale

E-Whale has sister ships A-B-C-D-F-, G- and H-Whale, all of which are oil tankers. The company which owns them, Taiwan Maritime Transportation (TMT), has filed for bankruptcyA-Whale attempted to help skim oil pollution off the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, but doesn’t seem to have been up to the job.

Just this week E-Whale (which Tony pronounces “E-Whaley”) was sold for $61 million. We will miss seeing her on the AIS map!

Passing MV Anangel Happiness

Anangel Happiness in Table Bay
Anangel Happiness in Table Bay

Anangel Happiness is a Greek bulk carrier that was anchored in Table Bay on the day of the Freedom Swim. We buzzed her on our way back to the slipway at Granger Bay. She is 292 metres long and 46 metres wide, and was built in China in 2008.

Superstructure of Anangel Happiness
Superstructure of Anangel Happiness

For some reason she has a shamrock on her funnel!

A Day on the Bay: Swimming for Freedom

Motoring out to Robben Island - looking back at Table Mountain
Motoring out to Robben Island – looking back at Table Mountain

Here’s a round up of Clare’s posts about the Freedom Swim from Robben Island to Big Bay:

  1. Freedom Swim part I: Boating to Robben Island
  2. Freedom Swim part II: Waiting to start
  3. Freedom Swim part III: Swimming across Table Bay
  4. Freedom Swim part IV: Heading home

It was such a beautiful day out that we had to split the posts up to maximise the number of photos we could share. Hope you don’t mind.