Bookshelf: Empire Antarctica

Empire Antarctica – Gavin Francis

Empire Antarctica
Empire Antarctica

The Antarctic is the only continent that has no indigenous human inhabitants. The only people who occupy this ice-covered continent are scientists, kept company by penguins, seals, and other birds and marine mammals. Medical doctor Gavin Francis spent 14 months there at the British Antarctic base called Halley Research Station. He was drawn to the post by the prospect of the solitude he would experience and by the “blankness” of Antarctica – without human inhabitants, it lacks a cultural and historical context in the sense that we experience culture when we travel to other destinations. He was also enamoured of the emperor penguins that breed on the continent, and desired greatly to see them.

This is a beautifully written book. Francis steeped himself in the writings of explorers who visited the continent before him, and in the scientific literature of emperor penguins (though he does not mention having watched March of the Penguins or Happy Feet – clearly a gap in his research!). He alternates between lyrical and scientific frames of mind, evocatively describing the exploration of an ice cavern and then, in detailed practical terms, the dissection of a baby penguin. He does not mention very much about his human companions at the base, and I was glad of this. It gives a good sense of how he experienced his year on the ice – there were some other people there, but he was largely wrapped up in his internal experience of the place.

Francis structures his book around the passage of the seasons. This is a logical choice, as in Antarctica the cold and darkness of winter are magnified to the most extreme degree possible, only to be completely cast away by the endless days of the polar summer (not much warmer, however). There is enough information about the mundane details of his life on the base to satisfy one’s curiosity (for example, the modern outdoor clothing they used was so warm that even in a blizzard he could not feel the wind through his layers). But the focus is squarely on the continent itself, its beauty and inhospitable extremes. His descriptions of the emperor penguin colony close to the base, and the Adélie penguins found along the coast, are exuberant and moving.

The existential angst experienced by Francis as the end of his posting in the Antarctic draws nearer – should he return to civilisation? What should he do with his life? – is magnified by the lack of distractions on the ice. After a largely uneventful (yet fascinating to read about) year, he describes his subsequent life choices – marriage, three children – quickly, and glosses over what must have been a substantial period of adjustment to life in warmer, more populous climes. This is an incredible book that made me want to go to the ice, and stayed in my mind for some time after I finished reading it.

You can also read reviews from The Economist, the Telegraph and the Washington Times. Francis wrote for The Guardian about his experience at the end of the world – it’ll give you a good sense of his writing style.

You can get a copy here, here or – if you’re in South Africa – here.

If you’re as ice-obsessed as I am, also check out Endurance (for some historical context), and Ice Patrol.

Bookshelf: Blue Hope

Blue Hope – Sylvia Earle

Blue Hope
Blue Hope

National Geographic Explorer in Residence Sylvia Earle gave a TED Talk in 2009 in which she made a wish – that we would all

… use all means at your disposal — films, expeditions, the web, new submarines — to create a campaign to ignite public support for a global network of marine protected areas; Hope Spots large enough to save and restore the blue heart of the planet.

Sylvia Earle is the kind of person – with a storied career in marine science, conservation and exploration – that people listen to. She is the author of several books and contributor to many others, among them The World is BlueSea Changeand an illustrated atlas of the ocean.

It is therefore not surprising that Mission Blue, a global initiative to establish Hope Spots all over the planet, was the response to Dr Earle’s wish. There are are to be six Hope Spots in South Africa, with new ones (False Bay! False Bay!) being announced on a regular basis. The Sustainable Seas Trust is locally co-ordinating the establishment of the South African Hope Spots.

This book is a commemorative volume that accompanies the Hope Spot initiative (there is also a companion film that I haven’t gotten my hands on yet). Each of the seven chapters commences with a short essay by Dr Earle, reflecting on her long life lived in close relation to the ocean. She outlines the marine conservation challenges and priorities that should engage us today. As a woman scientist beginning her career in the 1950s and 1960s, she has faced the challenge of forging a career for herself during a time when it was considered humorous and clever to belittle women’s contributions through sexist language (I refer you to Mad Men for an accurate depiction of the milieu). She recounts the story of her first week-long stay in an underwater habitat, in the company of a group of female scientists. Upon their return to dry land, news of their adventure flooded the newspapers. Instead of being referred to as “aquanauts”, like their male counterparts, the female scientists were called “aquabelles” and “aquanauties” in the press.

The bulk of the book, however, is visual, and comprises photographs by a veritable pantheon of underwater photographers, including Paul Nicklen, David Doubilet, Thomas Peschak, Brian Skerry, and Alexander Mustard. The photographs are interspersed with quotes from poets, actors, scientists and other thought leaders (I don’t mean to imply that actors are thought leaders).

This is a beautiful book – a worthy addition to the library of underwater photography aficionados and Sylvia Earle fans. (I am the latter.) You can get it here or here, and if you’re in South Africa try here.

Newsletter: Measuring up

Hi divers

Weekend plans

Saturday: Student dives at Long Beach, starting early (casual divers welcome)

Sunday: Boat dives from Simon’s Town jetty to Atlantis at 9.30am / Maidstone Rock at 12.00

Dive report

Last weekend we chose to dive Hout Bay, partly because I expected Simon’s Town to be a little too busy given it was nearing the end of the Lipton Cup, a sailing regatta hosted by False Bay Yacht Club. The sea was flat, with light winds and sunny weather and good visibility. We did three dives but by the third one were a bit chilly! It was sad to see all the poaching boats, and the damage that’s been done to the wreck of the Maori lately.

Diving at Vulcan Rock on Sunday
Diving at Vulcan Rock on Sunday

This weekend I think False Bay will be the place to be. We had really good conditions yesterday and the wind direction has been good for False Bay viz. There is going to be some swell so I think we will shore dive at Long Beach with students on Saturday (I’ll be focusing on my students, but casual divers are most welcome to tag along). We will hit the high seas for boat diving on Sunday. We will launch from Simon’s Town jetty to dive Atlantis at 9.30am and the beautiful Maidstone Rock at 12.00. Text or email me if you feel like a dive.

Physiology at the extremes

I attended a conference today focusing on how the human body responds to extreme conditions, with a focus on cold water immersion (but also including exposure to alcohol, drugs, and hyperthermia). It was fascinating, and one of the important things I took away from it is how important it is to take seriously our dives in Cape Town’s water. Our physiological responses and capabilities change after an extended period of time in cold water, and while you may feel that you’re still mentally sharp and fully in control, the opposite may be true, and this is when accidents happen. I’m looking forward to incorporating some of the things I’ve learned into our day to day diving activities at Learn to Dive Today.

Measuring wind speed on the boat
Measuring wind speed on the boat

Dive travel

Pencil in a trip to Ponta do Ouro in late April/sometime in May next year. We’ll start planning it early next year, but we’ll aim for five days of diving with a day of travel on each side. Start saving now! We have had amazing experiences there – some of our favourite dives were done at reefs called Doodles and Texas.

Faraway friends

We are thinking of our diving friends in far off lands – Bernita and Tamsyn, sending all good thoughts your way!


Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099

Diving is addictive!

To subscribe to receive this newsletter by email, use the form on this page!

Newsletter: Over the rainbow

Hi divers

Weekend diving

Sunday: Boat dives to Maidstone Rock at 9.30 and Spaniard Rock at 12.00

Conditions report

False Bay has really delivered over the last few weeks. I have been fortunate to launch on 4 days this week and we have been rewarded with 15-16 degree water and really good visibility. The temperature dropped a degree today but we still had great viz, not much wind and very little swell.

Last Sunday morning we took an extremely wet (not in the forecast!) trip out to Seal Island, where we saw a couple of white shark breaches and a beautiful rainbow. On the way there and back we did feel like we were part of the Deadliest Catch reality show, though!  Andre took this picture on the boat.

Boating in rain gear
Boating in rain gear

Dive planning

These conditions look set to hold for the weekend. There is no doubt that both days will be great but I am going to pick Sunday and launch 9.30 from the jetty in Simon’s Town and we will go to Maidstone Rock for the first dive and Spaniard Rock at 12.00. Text me to book.

Rainbow over the deep south
Rainbow over the deep south


DAN is holding another day of talks focused on diver health and safety on Saturday 2 August, at Unique Hydra (the same venue as last time). You can see more information about the event and the program here. These events are highly recommended and I encourage you to attend.


Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099

Diving is addictive!

To subscribe to receive this newsletter by email, use the form on this page!

Newsletter: Exploring False Bay

Hi divers

Weekend plans

Sunday: False Bay photo cruise, meet at 7.15 am on Simon’s Town jetty

Sunrise in Simon's Town yacht basin
Sunrise in Simon’s Town yacht basin

Dive conditions

We have had really good conditions for a few weeks now with visibility between 10 and 20 metres depending on where in the bay you are diving.

This weekend is however more like one of those hard to call weekends we have so often in summer. There is a lot of rain in the next two days, a 5.5 metre swell and gale force winds but that is mostly gone by Sunday. The question is where will the dirty rain water run off end up, and how much surge will remain from the south westerly swell? Not to mention the day time temperature will max out at 12 degrees.

Sunrise at Roman Rock
Sunrise at Roman Rock

I think the best weekend option is to cover the tank rack with the bench on Sunday and have an early morning meeting time (7.15 am on the Simon’s Town jetty) and do another trip to Seal Island, Muizenberg, Fish Hoek and Kalk Bay… or head south to Rocky Bank Whittle Rock and Cape Point. On last weekend’s trip we saw a breaching great white shark at Seal Island, a small pod of dolphins, and the most beautiful sunrise. There are some photos on facebook from last Sunday’s trip.

Text or email me if you want to join us on Sunday to explore False Bay, and remember to dress warmly!


Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099

Diving is addictive!

To subscribe to receive this newsletter by email, use the form on this page!

Handy hints: Getting respect on the boat

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.

Lisa in her awesome Doberman hoodie
Lisa in her awesome Doberman hoodie

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.

Bookshelf: Listening to Whales

Listening to Whales: What the Orcas have Taught Us – Alexandra Morton

Listening to Whales
Listening to Whales

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.

Morton also spent time in oceanariums and theme parks, observing and working with captive orcas and dolphins. Her insights into the trauma that these unnatural environments inflict on the animals held there are illuminating, and dovetail with the observations made in articles such as The Killer in the Pool and Blood in the Waterand Death at Seaworld.

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 surfski time trial (11 October 2013)

Paddlers in front of the catwalk
Paddlers in front of the catwalk

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.

Christmas gift guide 2013

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!

Christmas at Sandy Cove
Christmas at Sandy Cove


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.

Dive gear

Check out What’s in My Dive Bag for some ideas… You can contact Andre for most of these:

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.

For the non diver, you could inspire a love for our oceans with one of these:

For those who need (or like) to relax


Wall art

Clip Clop designs and prints beautiful tide charts for Cape Town and Durban and moon phase charts for the year. You can order online or usually find them at Exclusive Books.

My underwater alphabet is available for R200 in A1 size, fully laminated. Shout if you want a copy.

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:

Science for the rest of us

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.

xkcd Science shirt
xkcd Science shirt

(Curious about the shirt? Here’s the explanation.)

The scientific method

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.

Read that article here.

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’s new 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):

  1. The new Shark Safe Barrier: After you’ve read the official press release, check out these two posts from the Shark Alley blog for a different viewpoint.
  2. Two new wetsuit designs from Shark Attack Mitigation Systems, one claimed to “repel” sharks, and another that will allow you to be camouflaged from them while in the water.

See if you can figure out where the original idea or hypothesis came from, and how the experiment was designed (if there was one). What do you think about these two innovations?