Documentary: Shark (BBC)

BBC Shark
BBC Shark

There is not much to say about this BBC Earth production, other than that it is excellent, contains shark and ray footage unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, and you must watch it. The DVD is now available in South Africa (and of course in the rest of the known world), so you have no excuse.

It was filmed over two years, and from the thousands of hours of footage, three episodes were distilled. The focus is on elasmobranchs, which is slightly broader than the title suggests (but Shark is more catchy). There is a fourth episode devoted entirely to how the series was filmed, including interviews with the camera operators, which was fascinating. I enjoyed seeing the gear they used – as a scuba diver – as much as I did getting an insight into how they framed their shots and told the stories of the different species. A repeated realisation I had watching this episode was how close one has to get to the animals to obtain the kind of footage required for a broadcast-quality production!

I admit that I was frustrated by the brevity of the series – just when I got into it, it seemed to end – but I understand the desire to show only the very best material, to hold viewers’ attention, and to stay focused on the message (which is essentially that sharks are misunderstood and more important, complex and interesting than you may have thought). The series has a strong scientific bent, explaining how scientists’ work assists with conservation and management measures, and how it illuminates the lives of sharks beyond them simply being a potential threat to beach goers. Individual scientists are interviewed in the field, and are shown taking samples, tagging and observing the animals they study. Not all of those scientists were men, ensuring that the program will inspire a new generation of shark scientists of both genders. Thank you, BBC.

The series does a good job of showing sharks other than (in addition to, really) the large, charismatic ones that we’re familiar with as South Africans. Sarah Fowler, co-author of Sharks of the World, said in a talk we attended some years ago that the “average shark” is not a five metre long behemoth with a multitude of sharp teeth. The vast majority of shark species are smaller – say half a metre long – and very unassuming. The catsharks, pyjama sharks and shysharks are the everyday, many times more numerous sharks who get far less press, good or bad, than their larger compadres.

The BBC’s Shark was apparently a welcome addition to Discovery’s Shark Week 2015 – a complete departure from the made-up, mendacious fluff that has been served up on that channel in previous years. Long may it last!

Get the DVD here (South Africa) otherwise here or here.

Bookshelf: Dynasties of the Sea

Dynasties of the Sea – Lori Ann LaRocco

Dynasties of the Sea
Dynasties of the Sea

Global shipping magnates tend to have a few things in common. One is that a strong familial tradition exists, with sons and grandsons taking over the business from their fathers and grandfathers. Further, as described by Rose George in Deep Sea and Foreign Goingher book on the shipping industry, the major shipping companies have turnover comparable to that of Microsoft, but are somehow almost unknown and unrecognised commercial enterprises. The combination of great dynastic wealth and understated power seems to characterise many of the key players in the global shipping industry.

Dynasties of the Sea is a series of interviews with shipping titans and shipping financiers. The list of interviewees is largely male with the exception of Kristin Holth, head of shipping at DNB Bank. This gender bias is likely at least partly due to the tendency of family dynasties to pass control of the business from firstborn son to firstborn son.

It’s not easy to make an interview format work in book form; the best efforts I have seen are Jack Schwager’s Market Wizards series about stock market traders and investment managers. One of the challenges is to record a conversation that will have relevance for some time after the interview. Shipping markets are highly cyclical – violently so – and unfortunately many of the remarks recorded in Dynasties of the Sea are specific to the time and market conditions when the interviews were conducted. Another challenge is to write up an interview as prose, and make it sound varied and interesting (“he said… he replied… he answered… he chortled… he snorted…”). This book fails that test.

If anything, the book works best as a superficial meditation on power. Everyone profiled in the book is able to command massive assets with a wave of a hand, and some interesting psychological insights can be gleaned from how they perceive themselves and the origins of their success. It could also be read as an object lesson on how everyone thinks they are a contrarian, “buying when others are selling” and vice versa. Really?

I am busy reading Maritime Economics by Martin Stopford, which is fabulous but long, and a far more comprehensive and theoretically complete introduction to the shipping world. At 819 pages, however, it may be too big a mouthful for some, in which case this book might be a candidate for a short, easy to follow introduction to some of the issues of global shipping.

You can get a copy of the book here or here.

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.

Series: Deadliest Catch – Lobster Wars

Lobster Wars
Lobster Wars

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.

You can get the DVD here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise on

Bookshelf: The Penguin Book of the Ocean

The Penguin Book of the Ocean – James Bradley (editor)

The Penguin Book of the Ocean
The Penguin Book of the Ocean

I enjoy anthologies for more than one reason. They are excellent companions during times of stress and business; a short attention span is no hindrance to enjoyment of a collection of extracts and short pieces of writing. Furthermore, if one is lucky, they can be a fertile ground for discovery of new writers, and old writers of whose work one is ignorant.

My experience in the case of The Penguin Book of the Ocean was a happy one. It is a melange of non fiction, poetry, and fiction from a very wide variety of contributors spanning hundreds of years. Bradley attempted to select pieces which show how the ocean shapes our thinking. I enjoyed some of the surfing pieces (I am mystified by surfers, but in awe of how connected they are to the sea), and I loved the Derek Walcott poem, but it was mainly the non fiction that captured my imagination.

For further reading I’ll be tracking down The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger, Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck, and The Outlaw Sea by William Langewiesche in short order. I was also prompted to re-read Thor Heyerdahl’s account of his Kon-Tiki voyage, and Ernest Shackleton’s account of his polar explorations.

A reviewer for The Age in Australia points out that many of the pieces present a masculine approach to the sea, one of opposition rather than harmony. Very few contributors are female (Rachel Carson does feature, thankfully!), but I suspect this is less an omission than it has to do with the fact that fishing, shipbuilding, sailing and all forms of ocean commerce have largely been dominated by men.

It was quite hard to track a copy of this book down, which is why I can’t really provide a link to somewhere you can buy it. It’s an Australian publication and hasn’t really spread beyond Australia’s fair shores. I found mine at Fishpond.

To conclude, here is a picture of Junior being cute.

Junior and The Penguin Book of the Ocean
Junior and The Penguin Book of the Ocean

Shark “research”

It is true to say sharks are in trouble worldwide. Almost any attention to their plight is a step in the right direction. Sadly all too often the attention the sharks receive in the media is of little value to their plight and is purely an attempt to boost the participants’ perception of themselves as “great shark experts”.

This article describes a show that is a perfect example of this. It describes the National Geographic Shark Attack Experiment Live. Does the name make you skeptical? It should. The “experiment” sets out to show little concern for the sharks – a perspex cage was placed in the ocean that a shark would quite likely swim into and risk injury (and I am sure there would be no reporting on this if it happened).

The National Geographic Shark Experiment starts from a premise that comes straight out of Jaws: sharks want to eat people. The only refinement is that the experimenters planned to figure out what garnish they prefer. What is shocking is that the participants are all people who present themselves as being very concerned about sharks. This kind of so-called research is exploitative, tacky, and in poor taste – but, more fundamentally, it does nothing to remove the stigma associated with sharks as mindless predators. It panders to the Shark Week mentality of sharks as ravenous beasts with blood dripping from their jaws, tantalises viewers – exactly as Jaws did – with views of bikini-clad women swimming with apex predators, and has no scientific content whatsoever.

An assortment of other “experiments” were performed, such as dangling a string of plastic beads in front of a shark to prove a bling theory (who thinks this up? no one swims with a pearl necklace on). Once the diver dropped it the sharks followed it down and possibly ate it. The swimming and splashing surfer test was not done near great whites as this would “perk the interest” of any predator… So now reef sharks are no longer predators?

The best for me was diving with a dictaphone and making it seem like this was an earth shattering discovery. Divers dive with all these sharks all the time with video cameras, still cameras, video lights and strobes. What does a dictaphone do differently to all that other electronic equipment? Who swims with a dictaphone, anyway?

Science has proven sharks to most likely be colour blind and use contrast as a visual tool. Dispelling the myth of “yum yum yellow” whilst in a pink bikini is hardly a myth buster. It makes one fairly sure that the “science” was not actually the main feature here.

Pretending that three or four tests done by a single individual can help us to draw any conclusions about sharks is disingenuous and misleading to an often ignorant public who only know what the media tells them about sharks. Real science involves multiple tests, control groups, and the scientific method.

What we already know (real facts by unscientific people): thousands of divers worldwide dive with shiny, dangling scuba gadgets, strobes, cameras, bright shiny regulators, a multitude of brightly coloured fins, masks and wetsuits. Some dive in swimwear with bright shiny silver cylinders strapped to their backs. These people have black skin, pale skin, or bright red sunburned skin. A vast majority of them urinate in the water, their wetsuits and their swimsuits… And you’re more likely to be involved in a car accident on your way to the beach than you are to be bitten by a shark.

And yet, a respected (I think) institution such as National Geographic chooses to associate itself with a television special that takes, as its starting point, the view that sharks are looking for (appropriately dressed) humans to bite. How classy and scientifically up to date.

Bookshelf: Dive South Africa

Dive South Africa
Dive South Africa

Dive South Africa – Al J. Venter & John H. Visser

Veteran war correspondent (and veteran scuba diver) Al J. Venter has written over 35 books – chiefly about the various conflicts and wars he has covered, but also several about diving. Where to Dive, The Ultimate Handbook on Diving in Southern Africa, and The South African Handbook for Divers are long out of print, but his most recent volume, Dive South Africa, was published in 2009 and is available both on and in many dive shops. I have a feeling I picked up my copy at Lightley’s Houseboats in Knysna. I read it just after I started diving, and I fear it gave me a rather skewed view of what scuba diving can be about. I reread it recently, with a little more knowledge and slightly higher expectations of the sport, and humans in general.

This book is basically about overgrown boys shooting stuff and looting things. An aggressive, macho diving culture is portrayed here, and many beautiful reefs are described in terms of what you can find there to kill with your speargun (and, presumably, feel terribly manly afterwards). FIST BUMP! Women are not mentioned without the qualifier “pretty” or “attractive” – no other attribute apparently matters. Sharks are uniformly referred to as “beasts”, “monsters” or “brutes”.

Venter covers dive locations such as Port Elizabeth, Durban, Plettenberg Bay, Knysna, Arniston, East London, Port Alfred, the Mossel Bay area and a number of other destinations with good diving. These destinations sometimes get poor exposure – local diving magazines are particularly guilty of this – at the expense of Sodwana and Aliwal Shoal (which also feature in some detail). A lot of the focus – in the coverage of all these locations – is on where to go to shoot big fish, but these are somewhat useful chapters for divers who want to go off the beaten track a little bit, and experience even more of the diving that South Africa has to offer. Use of this book as a reference – perhaps in conjunction with the Atlas of Dive Sites of Southern Africa and Mozambique is probably ideal for the explorer at heart. It is the chapters on particular destinations – some of them off the beaten track and even lacking dive centres within a hundred kilometres – that are the most useful part of this book. There is even a chapter on diving a wreck in Mozambican waters, with the attendant difficulties of operating in what was then a guerilla state.

A seasoned wreck diver, Venter devotes several chapters to important wrecks in South African waters. An entire chapter – with atmospheric photographs – is dedicated to the wreck of the Maori. Chapters are also devoted to the Colebrooke, the Klipfontein, and the City of Hankow in Saldanha. Much mention is made of the Birkenhead near Arniston. Venter has an interest both in the wrecks as they are now, and the stories behind their sinking and the rescue of their crew and passengers (if that took place). Some of the wrecks are not permitted to be dived any more, so the oral histories recorded here of what the condition of the wrecks are (and even their location) are important. The extensive looting of many of the shipwrecks Venter describes (many in False Bay and Table Bay), however, would make an archaeologist (a proper one) tear his hair out. SAHRA, the body meant to regulate these activities, doesn’t seem to care, and actually didn’t exist when a lot of the plunder and pilfering took place.

There are several chapters about sharks, including a lengthy one about Walter Bernardis of African Watersports, a veteran baited shark dive operator. Bernardis describes in detail the process for doing baited dives with large sharks such as tigers and bull (Zambezi) sharks, as well as an incident in 2006 when he himself was bitten. Strong respect and awe for the sharks is clearly present in both Venter and Bernardis, but the feeling I was left with after reading the chapter on baited tiger shark dives was that it’s a completely stupid idea, and extremely dangerous – both to the divers and to the sharks. Pictures such as the horrible one in this blog post, depicting sharks hurting themselves on the mechanisms used to chum – often involving steel cable and washing machine drums – show that this exploitation cannot be good for the sharks. It is purely a money-making racket and there is very little actual regard for the animals themselves.

Moreover, there are just too many caveats – dive briefings must take HOURS – and the sharks are not in a state that is conducive to calm interaction, which is not good for the divers’ peace of mind either. Venter’s endorsement of Bernardis’ practice of riding the sharks is disappointing, but shouldn’t surprise me I suppose! It has been extremely lucky, thus far, that no one has been badly injured by a shark in – understandably – a frustrated feeding frenzy. There have been incidents, and recently, but the practice continues and is extremely lucrative for the often completely unethical and fame-hungry operators that offer it.

Beautiful colour photographs by Peter Pinnock, Andrew Woodburn and others appear in plates in three sections of the book. Throughout the rest of the book, black and white images taken both above and below the water are featured. There is a brief chapter on underwater photography in which Venter interviews some of the more renowned practitioners of the art, and Thomas Peschak gets a mention.

The book has no index, which makes finding a piece of information after the fact – such as the chapter on diving in Knysna in preparation for our second visit there – completely impossible.

Venter has clearly led a rich, full life and enjoyed a variety of thrilling and hair-raising experiences underwater. His knowledge of our coastline is top notch. For the information on diving conditions and locations around our coast it’s a far more useful reference, however, than The Dive Spots of Southern Africa, for example, even if the information (depths, distances, etc) is slightly less comprehensive. It should NOT be the first book on South African diving that you read (purely from the perspective of the outdated “dive culture” that it presents), but it WILL expand your knowledge – of both facts and the origins of South African diving culture – if you do decide to add it to your library.

You can buy the book here.

Series: Wreck Detectives

Wreck Detectives Series 1
Wreck Detectives Series 1

The premise is simple (if contrived): a land-based historian (Jeremy Seal) and an “intrepid diver” (Miranda Krestovnikoff) attempt to resolve mysteries (identity, manner of sinking, date and reason for wrecking, and so on) surrounding various shipwrecks in the British Isles. They only have one week to do it in (one is frequently reminded of this). There are eight episodes, each dealing with a particular wreck site.

To assist them, the hosts bring in experts in whatever field they are studying. This is actually the best part of the series: the array of experts is very impressive. In increasing order of specialisation, some examples are one who knows all about frigates, one who’s an expert on cannons, and another who specialises in a particular type of pottery jug that was popular on ships during a particular era. The one whose job I most envied was a Ministry of Defence damage assessor, who assisted the wreck detectives in figuring out what sort of device sank the HMS Lawford off Normandy, two days after D-Day in 1944.

During the week in which the wreck detectives do their work, Jeremy Seal follows up clues and interviews experts on dry land. Miranda Krestovnikoff and a Divemaster whose name did not stick (his contribution was limited to saying things like “descend on the shot line”) dive on the wrecks. The diving, about which much hoopla is made, seems similar to Cape Town diving at its worst. Visibility was generally poor (5 metres was exciting), and they often had to contend with strong currents. I suppose that poor or treacherous sea conditions are almost a given when you’re diving a ship that wrecked because of those very conditions! Tony and I did feel very proud of ourselves, though, as the diving team were being lauded as heroes for descending to a depth of 30 metres in slightly dodgy visibility. All in a weekend’s work, for us!

The Wreck Detectives vessel off the coast of Scotland
The Wreck Detectives vessel off the coast of Scotland

Unfortunately the BBC seems to have window-dressed somewhat with the selection of presenters for this series. Jeremy Seal is credible, knowledgeable, and can hold up a conversation. I can’t say as much for his co-presenter, whose contributions were restricted to repeating what someone else had just said, and getting it wrong about 60 percent of the time – like an inaccurate echo. I am annoyed by apparently ignorant female television presenters (or even loud, vacuous ones who are secretly knowledgeable), because I feel that it feeds into a stereotype about women that doesn’t need reinforcing. Feminist rant over.

I sound negative, but we actually really enjoyed this series. Once you tune out the inanity, the contributions of the archaeologists, maritime historians, shipbuilders, and other experts make this an extremely engaging and wide-ranging show. My favourite episode – which reduced me to tears more than once, to my chagrin – was the one about HMS Lawford. The wreck detectives marshall the only two surviving crewmen, who were 18 and 19 years old at the time – mere boys – and involve them in the search for answers as to why the navy’s official report of the sinking appears to contradict their memories of it (which, in turn, contradict each other). Seal visits a WWII graveyard in France with the two men. The waste of life is heartbreaking, as is the inscription on the gravestones of some of the men who perished when the HMS Lawford sank: something along the lines of “Here lies an unknown sailor from the 1939-1945 war. Known unto God.”

There’s another episode in which the great (perhaps two greats?) grandson of one of the survivors of the shipwreck, an elderly retired vicar, travels on the boat with the wreck detectives. In both this case and the one in the prior paragraph, these gentlemen were able to watch a live feed of the video footage while the divers explored the wreck. For the two navy men, it was the first time they were seeing their ship in 60 years. I loved seeing their wonder and amazement at seeing something so familiar – the vessel on which they spent all their time at one stage of their lives – and yet so unfamiliar, lying on the bottom of the ocean, revealed by technology that doesn’t exist in their life experience.

We learned a huge amount from this show and it gave us lots to discuss. We are both in awe of the British propensity for record keeping, and their faithful protection and preservation of their historical sites. It also made me want to spurn London for the coastline next time I am in the United Kingdom, and brought back fabulous memories of a solitary morning I spent in Portsmouth dockyard after arriving on the ferry from Jersey in the Channel Islands.

A second season was made but to my knowledge has not been released on DVD (yet). The DVD set is available here.

Bookshelf: Fatally Flawed

Fatally Flawed: The Quest to be Deepest – Verna van Schaik

Fatally Flawed
Fatally Flawed

Verna van Schaik holds the record for the deepest dive on scuba by a woman, to 221 metres in a water-filled cave called Boesmansgat in the Northern Cape. If the name Boesmansgat rings bells, it’s probably because you heard about it as the cave that claimed the lives of Deon Dreyer in 1994, and, more recently, the Australian diver Dave Shaw, who went to recover Deon’s body. The story of that mission is recounted in Raising the Dead (also called Diving into Darkness).

Verna van Schaik was present on the day when Dave Shaw died – she had a critical support role as the person managing all the divers from the surface. She describes her emotions and how difficult it was to know what to do in the situation that arose. Her account of the build-up to Shaw’s dive, the actual unravelling of events, and the aftermath, is fascinating when read in conjunction with Raising the Dead, because she was actually on the team, whereas the other book is written with the apparent objectivity of a third party. Van Schaik criticises Dave Shaw and Don Shirley for going ahead with the dive – she says that they hadn’t slept enough, and that there had been several critical equipment failures the night prior to the dive which made it a desperately risky undertaking.

The book traces her career as a female deep diver. It includes her struggles to be accepted in this very male-dominated sport, her struggle to find and keep a trusted dive buddy, and numerous descriptions of the difficulty of managing a team of divers engaged in high-risk record-seeking endeavours.

She describes the fear she has felt on some of her record-setting dives, and the experience of becoming entangled in her line while at the bottom of a cave, all alone. Very deep dives are of necessity solo dives – there simply aren’t enough people who can and want to dive that deep for buddying up to be an option, and when every single small decision is a choice between life and death, having a buddy can be more of a liability than a help.

Van Schaik does, however, stress that very deep dives require a team of support divers who meet the deep diver on his or her way up from the deepest point. She prefers continuous support (never leaving the deep diver alone during the long decompression) but Shaw and Shirley, for example, planned for divers to be with them only for ten minutes of every hour.

It’s a quick read, could have done with a spell-check, but, especially if you’re familiar with the Dave Shaw story, I recommend it.

I actually read this book on my iPad using the Kindle app and you can get a Kindle copy here, but you can get a hard copy of the book here. As an aside, I found Verna’s old blog, here. It’s an interesting read!