Do your fellow divers not give you the respect you feel you deserve? Lisa has the answer to all your problems: scare them with a high fashion Doberman hoodie! Some visual intimidation will do the trick.
She was trying out a new hoodie that was a gift from a friend on a dive just after Christmas. I thought she looked like a very friendly Doberman, but maybe it is a superhero hoodie like my Batman one. Whatever the case, it looks pretty awesome.
Listening to Whales: What the Orcas have Taught Us – Alexandra Morton
Listening to Whales is marine biologist Alexandra Hubbard’s memoir of the thirty-odd years she spent studying wild killer whales, as well as other cetacean species. Morton was born in the United States, the daughter of a famous artist, but discovered her passion for cetaceans while working for eccentric dolphin researcher John C. Lilly. Her orca research took her into Canada’s remote Broughton Archipelago, where she and her husband (who passed away during the research in a solo rebreather diving accident) lived a romantic, itinerant, lonely, and very challenging life following pods of wild orca around and studying their communication.
When the orcas disappeared from British Colombia’s remote waters, Morton wanted to find out why. She soon discovered the reason for their absence: there was a growing number of salmon farms, which started proliferating in earnest in the late 1980s, in the archipelago. The salmon farms used Acoustic Harassment Devices (AHDs) to chase away seals that preyed on the captive salmon. Since sound is of vital importance to orcas for hunting, echo location, and communication, the whales found the noisy environment unliveable and intolerable, and left the area. Morton’s persistence (she wrote over 10,000 letters) led to the withdrawal of the AHDs starting in the early 2000s.
The salmon farms have affected the area in ways other than noise pollution. They generate massive amounts of physical pollutants (from excess food pellets, waste products, and antibiotics used to treat the farmed fish), reducing the water quality. The salmon are also prone to infestation by parasites. Because the farmed fish are kept in such close quarters, there is unchecked spread of diseases and this can spill over to wild populations. There are also potentially serious consequences if farmed salmon escape and breed with wild salmon populations. The fish farming industry is growing rapidly in both size and vogue, and there is massive financial incentive for companies (and government bodies) to cover up the shortcomings and failures of mariculture. Morton’s work uncovering the abuses occurring in Canadian (and other) salmon farming continues to this day. She is a hero.
I think that if I’d had more access to women who were working as scientists when I was a child, my career might have panned out a little differently from the way it has. This is why I am very enthusiastic to discover memoirs by women who are respected in their chosen field, particularly when pursuing that particular field of study would seem to preclude some of the things that some people want, such as a stable family life. Whale scientist Elin Kelsey’s book Watching Giants also falls into this category. Morton’s life story is one of a wandering, resourceful, curious person who has managed to combine significant scientific output with a fulfilling life that has included raising two children, one of whom now works at NASA. Part of her son’s childhood was spent curled up in the bow of the Zodiac his parents were using to track pods of orca!
I’d strongly recommend this book to girls considering a career in the natural sciences, and to anyone else who is interested in the ocean, killer whales, fish farming, or just in interesting lives well lived. You can get a copy here or here.
Sea Dog is a surfski time trial at Fish Hoek beach that takes place every Friday evening, starting at six in the evening. It runs for the last ten weeks of the year, and the first ten weeks (so twenty weeks, during the summer months). There is a gap in between for Christmas and New Year. It has been running for a few years, and a meet is never cancelled for any reason. We can attest to this, having gone down to the beach during a black south easter with bucketing rain, only to see a hardy group of paddlers battling it out behind the breakers in almost zero visibility.
The event is organised by the Mockes of the paddling shop in Fish Hoek, and there’s usually a photographer (apart from me) to document the event. There are usually a couple of marker buoys out in the bay, and the paddlers do a number of laps around them. I’m not sure of the details of the race format, but it starts and ends on the beach. There are participants of all skill levels, from world champions to weekend warriors.
If you’re around, it’s a lovely thing to watch (or participate in, if you’re a paddler) on a Friday evening after work. We sometimes get dinner and take it down to the beach to watch the proceedings.
Ok so this is a bit late, and if you haven’t done your Christmas, Hannukah and Festivus shopping yet, shame on you. Or just shame. Most of these ideas don’t entail going to a mall and having your personal space invaded by ten thousand hormonal adolescents. You can order online, or make a phone call or two. Get going!
For the reader, you could check out our book reviews, arranged by topic:
I’m not going to suggest a magazine subscription – I’ve let most of ours lapse as we seem to have entered a long dark teatime of the soul when it comes to South African diving magazines. If the quality picks up, they’ll be back on the gift list at the end of 2014.
Make sure you know the returns/exchanges policy of wherever you make your purchases. Some places can be difficult, and if the mask doesn’t fit it’s no good at all!
For lady divers
For the diving lady in your life (or your man friend with too much hair), what about some rich hair conditioner to apply before going in the water? Suggestions here. A pack of cheap, soft fabric elasticated hairbands is a good stocking filler.
Some high SPF, waterproof sunscreen, or a nice hooded towel for grown ups (available in one or two of the surf shops in Muizenberg) would also not go amiss.
Don’t forget to add a memory card for the lucky recipient’s camera if you plan to gift any of these! Contact Tony for prices.
If you take your own photos, you could print and frame a couple, or experiment with stretched canvas prints if that’s your thing. A digital photo frame pre-loaded with underwater images is also a lovely gift for a diving friend.
For the person who has everything, or because you’re feeling grateful:
Are you a scientist? Probably not. Nor am I. Are you interested in science and what it can reveal about the creatures, processes and threats to our oceans? Fortunately for you I have some resources to assist in your quest to stay well informed and to avoid quackery, lunacy, and the sort of utter disregard for facts that is commonly found (for example) in so-called “interest groups” on facebook.
The scientific method is a process (often represented as a flowchart) followed when making scientific inquiries. There are occasional debates as to whether it’s still relevant in the age of “big data” or whether its formulation was flawed (and idealistic) to begin with. Its representation as a flowchart is frequently criticised because it makes the process seem simple and linear, with no doubling back and repetition, but these are minor quibbles, and most people who are living successfully (in the sense of being well-adjusted, mentally balanced, and rational) in the modern world can accept a certain degree of nonlinearity, the odd grey area, and a degree of ambiguity.
There is, however, no escaping the fact that the scientific method explains, at its core, how science works: have an idea, test its validity, revise and re-test if necessary, and draw conclusions. Most scientific papers are written with a flow of logic that conforms to the scientific method, whereas in practice things weren’t so neat and step by step. Presenting one’s findings clearly isn’t a bad thing – au contraire – but it can mislead non-scientists, who don’t spend their days doing experiments or gathering data to test their hypotheses, as to exactly what doing science is like.
Fortunately the University of California at Berkeley has an excellent tutorial, with diagrams, explaining how science actually works. One of the things that is key is that it doesn’t happen in a vacuum: the scientific community plays a vital role in ratifying new findings. It’s extremely unlikely that an incredible scientific advance that hasn’t been peer reviewed and accepted by other scientists working in that field is actually that incredible. The author may well be a quack.
Read the UC Berkeley article here. It’s helpful. If you want to read something by a real scientist, giving an example of how it all works, you can do a lot worse than this beautiful essay on studying belly button microbes. Not kidding.
How to read and understand a scientific paper
Paywalls are becoming less popular, and this is good for science. PLOS ONE is a good example of an online journal with free access for everyone with an internet connection. I wrote about one of the papers recently published there, here. So – anyone can get their hands on peer-reviewed (this is very important) scientific research. But many scientific papers are intimidatingly complex, and seem too difficult for a layperson to understand.
I’m willing to concede that yes, there are some papers you and I will never be able to grasp even the gist of without a lot of extra education… But with a bit of work it’s possible to get a pretty good idea of what’s potting in some of the more accessible fields of scientific inquiry. Jennifer Raff, a scientist who studies anthropology and genetics, wrote an article about how to properly read and understand a scientific paper. It’s aimed at those working in a scientific field who would need to read relevant papers to keep up to date with research.
Her article contains good advice, however, for an interested non-scientist with a bit of understanding who wishes to have a crack at reading some proper research. Some moderately hard work is involved, but your persistence will be rewarded. Unless you pick a paper about string theory, particle physics, or New Testament Greek (assuming you don’t already have a background in any of those), in which case you’re on your own.
10 questions to distinguish real from fake science
You won’t only read scientific papers to learn about new findings in the fields you’re interested in. In fact, you’ll probably get most of your knowledge from blogs, news articles, and other secondary (or tertiary…) sources. How do you figure out whether you’re reading about something truly amazing, or truly bogus, without having a peer reviewed mainstream journal article at your fingertips?
Fear not. This list is written primarily with the pharmaceutical and related industries in mind, but it’s an excellent read for anyone interested in science, but not completely confident of their ability to discern legitimate science from pseudoscience (or worse). Remembering these questions – or even just some of them – will help you to be less easily swayed by each season’snew fad, no matter how much jargon the marketing team wraps it up in. The first two questions – “what is the source?” and “what is the agenda?” (or, as I like to ask, “where is the money?”) are, to me, the most important. Here’s the complete list of questions.
Getting your hands dirty
If you want something to practise your newfound skills of scientific discernment on, take a look at these – not actual scientific papers, but new advances in the field of shark science (if that’s a thing):
Lobster Wars is a Discovery Channel production, produced by the same team who brought us Deadliest Catch (seasons 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) and its Tuna Wranglers spin-off. It tracks fishermen (and a woman) on board the American lobster boats that set out to fish Georges Bank from the beautiful New England harbours (and expensive holiday destinations) in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
This is a slightly tamer version of Deadliest Catch. The fishermen work long, hard hours on occasion, but the labour is not as backbreaking as it is on board a crab boat. They are at sea for a week at a time, and the lobster traps are lighter and smaller than the crab pots seen on Deadliest Catch. The boats are small, and the fishery is a low volume, high value one – two or three lobsters in a trap is worth getting excited about.
Lobstering can be extremely lucrative, particularly during the winter season shown in the episodes of this series. Fierce competition on the fishing grounds and heavy fishing pressure on a valuable resource (which can sometimes be in oversupply) makes for a turbulent working environment – never mind the weather. While not quite as stormy as the Bering Sea, Georges Bank can throw up some extreme weather events of its own.
The fishing grounds on Georges Bank are “controlled” by different boat captains, who have time-tested locations that they return to year after year. We found this puzzling – that one could exert control at a distance over a piece of sea floor with relatively few conflicts. Or perhaps not so few – this article explains the phenomenon quite well. One source of conflict that recurred repeatedly in this series was between the lobster boats and trawlers, called “draggers” by the lobstermen. The trawlers shown working Georges Bank had outriggers, and if a string of lobster traps gets caught in their gear, the traps can be dragged for miles, and left in a tangled heap far from their original location.
The antics of the crewmen are mildly entertaining, but we struggled to differentiate them because of an apparently universal fondness for pulled-up hoodies among lobstermen. One female crew member is featured, working on board a boat called the Timothy Michael, and acquitting herself marvellously. A new crewman exclaims in disbelief that there’s a woman on board, commenting that he’s been on a boat where there’s been a dog on board, but never a woman. I was impressed by his liberal attitude, and am sure he’s in a supportive, mature relationship with an incredible human being who values his unique strengths and abilities.
This isn’t Deadliest Catch or Tuna Wranglers, but it is entertaining enough. The scenery, of New England and the seascapes, is lovely, and learning about a new fishery is always interesting. There are the usual lyrical waxings about how the “fishery is dying”, but the problem isn’t examined further, and no one dares to suggest that perhaps we’ve already eaten most of the fish in the sea, and if we carry on at this pace, we’ll eat it all.
We took a trip to Seal Island in False Bay to see the white sharks there, in late July. I’ve already posted my video footage from the cage. We also took some photos – mostly Tony. The trip entailed getting up very early, so as to be at Seal Island by sunrise. Once there, we scanned the horizon for predatory behaviour: typically, the white sharks here attack the juvenile seals from below, often launching their entire bodies out of the water in an explosive burst of energy.
It was a very rough day with a swell of about five metres, and from speaking to people who come to Seal Islandoften, I gather that the sharks tend to be less active on days like this. Their accuracy in striking the seals is reduced by the movement of the water column. Nonetheless we did see a couple of predation events, with the characteristic flock of seabirds waiting to pick up any leftovers, and the slick of “oily seal juices” (to quote Gary!) left on the surface afterwards. The sharks are so quick that if you’re looking the wrong way, it’ll all be over by the time you turn around.
After some time watching natural behaviour, a decoy (surprisingly realistic looking, made to resemble a young seal) is towed behind the boat, to try and elicit breaching behaviour from the sharks. We didn’t have much luck here, again probably because of the surgy seas, but one shark made a few investigations of the decoy before losing interest.
Finally sharks are attracted to the boat using chum, which is mostly fish oils and other fishy substances. A tuna head was splashed in the water near the boat, and when sharks came to investigate it they were visible from the cage. While in the cage we breathed off scuba regulators, which was great. Trying to breath-hold or snorkel while the sea was so choppy would have been next to impossible. The sound of the bubbles emanating from our regulators didn’t bother the sharks at all.
We spent about twenty minutes (or maybe more – I am not sure) in the cage, some of it just waiting for action, and some of it with our full attention focused on the enormous fish swimming by and looking at us with its black eyes. Five minutes of looking at a great white shark, eye to eye, gives sudden perspective on life and the natural world. I’ll recommend this experience to anyone who will listen!
Tony may not thank me for posting these photos on the internet. On the last dive we did in Durban, to Doug’s Cave and surrounds on the Blood Reef complex, we found a large piece of fabric wrapped quite tightly around the reef. We first saw it when we dived Birthday Ledges (Ferdi, our divemaster on that dive, tried to get it off the reef, without success), and then on this particular dive we ended up at Birthday Ledges at the end of a nice drift with the current. Patrick, our Divemaster from Calypso, managed to remove it, and it was confiscated by Tony to play with at the safety stop.
It turns out there’s a lot of ways you can style bold, bright prints in autumnal hues combined with a wetsuit and a Batman hoodie.
Hi divers We had really good conditions last weekend with Saturday being the best. We dived Photographer’s Reef and Roman Rock. Sunday was good at Photographer’s Reef and the Brunswick, but you could see signs of red tide coming and by Monday it was all over False Bay. On Tuesday the swell and the red tide messed up the diving. There are still patches of red tide about but it is not widespread, so odds are good for a diving weekend.
Long weekend plans
This weekend, Friday and Saturday are the days I believe will be best for diving. Sunday will be too windy. There is not much swell about but there is currently a south easterly wind which comes straight into False Bay. My guess is that we will be better off launching from Hout Bay. The sea temperature in False Bay is around 14 degrees, as is the Atlantic, but the weather buoy off Kommetjie shows a temperature drop which usually indicates improving viz. Either way, the plan is to launch at 10.00am and 12.30pm. Neither days will be dives deeper than 18 metres as I have Open Water students on the boat. If you want to get wet, text me and I’ll put you on the list.
Free dives for ladies on Friday
Being Women’s Day on Friday, our lady divers will be given a free boat dive to say thanks for never understanding that men don’t need veggies! Cake, yes, any time. But no veggies. One free dive per lady, and kit rental is not included. First come first served! All of you, ladies and gentlemen, must have an up to date MPA permit please. Go to the post office and get one, and bring it with you on the boat.
I will be out of action on the weekend of 24-25 August. Luckily for you, if you want to dive, OMSAC are holding a Treasure Hunt, and you can join one of the boats going out on that day. We went two years ago and it was great fun. The event details are here. If you need a heart to heart and some encouragement to be adventurous, let me know!
I’ve tried to dive the Coopers light wreck before. It didn’t end well. This time, I was determined to see the wreck, and see it I did, on the third and final day of diving that we did on our Durban trip. The visibility was at least 25 metres – in the range where it almost doesn’t matter what the number is, it’s so fantastic. The water was warm, even at the bottom, and the wreck is something special to see.
No one knows what the name of the ship that lies wrecked opposite the Cooper lighthouse on the Bluff (hence it being commonly referred to as the Coopers light wreck). There is speculation that it’s an old whaler because of a curious structure on the aft deck that looks like a harpoon gun. It is in fact part of the ship’s steering mechanism – whaling ships had guns on their bows, not at the back of the ship.
According to Patrick at Calypso, here is a possibility that this wreck is the Terrier IV, an old whaler chartered by Peter Gimbel and Ron and Valerie Taylor for the filming of their shark documentary Blue Water White Death. The Terrier sailed from Durban to Sri Lanka to Australia, as recounted by Peter Matthiessen in his book about the trip, entitled Blue Meridian.
I digress. The wreck is about 76 metres long and a bit over 10 metres wide, with a single propellor. There are two huge boilers near the middle of the wreck, and the bow and stern are fairly intact. The wreck and its vicinity teem with harlequin goldies, lionfish, and baitfish. We saw a large ray swimming languidly past behind a curtain of piggies, and a large scorpionfish resting at the bow. The size of the wreck makes it quite suitable to explore in its entirety on a single dive, although it is the kind of place that will bear many repeat visits.
We dived the wreck on 32% Nitrox, which gave us decent bottom time, the wreck lying at a maximum depth of 30 metres on the sand. I was having mask (actually, probably hair) trouble again, however, and used up a fifth of my air just clearing my mask. So I didn’t have as long a dive as I’d have liked.