Bookshelf: Watching Whales & Dolphins in Southern Africa

Watching Whales & Dolphins in Southern Africa – Noel & Belinda Ashton

Watching Whales & Dolphins in Southern Africa
Watching Whales & Dolphins in Southern Africa

This is an enormously useful book for local whale watchers, and provides details on the life history and characteristics of the cetaceans found in Southern Africa’s waters. The text is illustrated by beautiful paintings and photographs showing the animals in full from various angles, including what you’d see if they were on the surface of the sea or about to sound.

Noel Ashton is an artist, sculptor and conservationist, whose sculptural work can be seen in the foyer of the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town. Nature writer and designer Belinda Ashton has co-authored several books with him.  The Ashtons also provided the whale and dolphin identification posters upstairs between the Predator Exhibit and the Kelp Forest tank. Their love for the natural world is evident in the beautiful illustrations and careful attention to detail in this book.

There is a history of whaling in South Africa, but fortunately there is now a yearly strong recovery in whale numbers and an appreciation of the economic value of whales alive rather than dead. There are incredible whale watching opportunities all around South Africa’s coast, including world-class shore-based viewing from Cape Town to De Hoop via Hermanus and De Kelders. There is boat-based whale watching out of Cape Town and from Gansbaai, Hermanus, Knysna, Plettenberg Bay, Durban, St Lucia, and other locations in between. For those who do not remember whaling, it is easy to become blasé about this embarrassment of cetacean riches, but it makes us, as South Africans, extremely privileged indeed.

For ocean lovers, this book is as indispensable as a bird book to a twitcher. It is highly recommended.

You can get a copy of the book here (South Africa) or here.

Bookshelf: SEALAB

SEALAB – Ben Hellwarth


In the 1960s the US Navy developed three undersea habitats, in order to experiment with saturation diving and to explore the possibility of humans living on the ocean floor. Of necessity, any group of people engaged in this pursuit would be separated from life on the surface, in some cases by days or weeks of decompression obligations. SEALAB I, II and II were progressively deeper and more complex habitats. Developing them was a technical challenge that led to many advances that we benefit from today. The experiments also provided an opportunity to study the psychological and physiological effects of isolation, and of long periods of breathing mixed gases under pressure.

The SEALAB experiments took place during the same era as the efforts by NASA to put a person on the moon, and received far less attention. Jacques Cousteau was interested in the project, and himself experimented with underwater habitats called ConShelf I, II and II. These habitats were far better publicised than the US Navy’s efforts, even though their aims were more modest.

Author Ben Hellwarth does not confine his attention to the habitats, but also provides a fairly detailed history of decompression theory and diving history. Like Neutral BuoyancySEALAB might provide a relatively painless introduction to dive theory for Divemaster candidates. In fact, this book reads like a thriller at times! Some photographs from the SEALAB projects are available on the US Navy website, and in this slideshow. To our modern eyes, the clunky and primitive appearance of some of the gear is a reminder of how pioneering the now 60 year old work to allow humans to live and work in the sea was.

If you’re interested in the history of saturation diving, I recommend this article, which covers some of the ground that Hellwarth does in SEALAB. If you want to see it in action, check out Pioneer (fictional movie based on actual events) or the series Deep Sea SalvageYou should also check out this article by Hellwarth, entitled The Other Final Frontierand this podcast/radio show. If you are EXTREMELY interested in this subject but don’t want to read a book, try out this hour-long lecture video by Ben Hellwarth.

Experiments with underwater habitats are ongoing.

Get a copy of SEALAB here (South Africa) otherwise here or here.

Bookshelf: The Most Important Fish in the Sea

The Most Important Fish in the Sea – H Bruce Franklin

The Most Important Fish in the Sea
The Most Important Fish in the Sea

Menhaden are smallish, ordinary looking fish. If you asked a child to draw you a picture of a fish, they’d probably produce something that looks a lot like a menhaden. In The Most Important Fish in the Sea, H Bruce Franklin makes a forceful case that these fish are vital to the ecosystem, and allowing their overfished populations to rebuild to levels closer to pristine could be the most effective measure we can take to restore the health of the oceans.

Menhaden are found all along the western Atlantic coast, from Mexico to Canada. They are filter feeders, and move about in massive schools. This, of course, makes them incredibly easy to catch. Currently they are fished and ground up for fish meal and fish oil, which are used as animal feed, fertiliser, and those omega 3 and 6 dietary supplement pills that can cause fish oil-tainted reflux a few hours after ingestion!

None of the uses I listed above are good ones for a fish that has such important roles in the ocean ecosystem. Menhaden are remarkably fast maturing and fertile little fish, which is an excellent characteristic for a fishery that is the largest on the United States west coast. They clean the water as they feed, straining algae and plankton out of the water. This helps reduce the possibility of harmful phytoplankton blooms (which cause “dead zones”, hypoxic areas, when they die). Menhaden also serve as food for a wide range of larger predatory fish and birds, including tuna and sharks. In quite a literal sense, an entire ecosystem depends upon their presence. (They are also historically important – for example, Native Americans taught European settlers how to plant menhaden with their crops, as fertiliser – Southern Fried Science explains. For more on the fish oil subject, check out Paul Greenberg‘s article for the New York Times.)

Menhaden populations have in the past been fished almost to the point of collapse, and their range has been significantly reduced. Recently catch limits have been reduced in the United States, but even more recently they have been increased again. In The Most Important Fish in the Sea, H Bruce Franklin returns again and again to the fact that the menhaden fishery is essentially a monopoly, with a single company called Omega Protein allocated 80% of the catch quota. This leads to all kinds of problems. As Carl Safina points out, expanding the menhaden fishery benefits this one company. Menhaden left in the sea benefit a large number of companies and individuals, from whale watching operations to recreational fishers and fisheries for all the predator species (tuna, striped bass, etc.) that feed on menhaden.

The Most Important Fish in the Sea is an impassioned ode to a remarkable small fish, and an equally impassioned plea for our attention to its continued existence at levels sufficient to perform its role in the ecosystem and sustain all the species that depend upon it. As Mark Kurlansky does in Cod, Franklin places the menhaden in their historical context, and establishes the debt that we owe to these unassuming ocean inhabitants. When we destroy a species, we don’t just destroy a food source or a fertiliser ingredient or a tourist attraction and bear the economic consequences. There are cultural results, too – this book and others, like People of the Sturgeonexplain this devastating unintended consequence. Worth thinking hard about.

Get hold of the book here (South Africa), here or here.

Bookshelf: Saved by the Sea

Saved by the Sea: A Love Story with Fish – David Helvarg

Saved by the Sea
Saved by the Sea

I think this book belongs to the same broad genre – one for which I have a lot of time – as Tim Ecott’s Neutral Buoyancy. If I had to describe the authors of this genre, I would call them “thinking scuba divers” (as opposed to the unthinking kind). David Helvarg is a former war journalist turned environmental activist. In this beautiful, heart-wrenching book he chronicles his own life as it has touched upon the world’s oceans.

Helvarg is founder of the Blue Frontier Campaign, and, as he explains in this book, he encourages and facilitates environmental activism. Helvarg’s idea of activism does not seem to be topless protests about vague global issues, but rather entails groups of concerned citizens becoming involved in intensely local issues: a Seaweed Rebellion. The feeling of helplessness and doom which sometimes threatens to overwhelm those with a concern for the ocean’s future can be fruitfully channeled into unglamorous but entirely useful small acts of advocacy and change. The kind of activism that Helvarg encourages in Saved by the Sea comprises small, cumulative actions, like writing letters to government representatives on subjects that concern you; participating in coastal clean ups; getting involved in citizen science projects in your area. He lists fifty ways to save the ocean (and has written a book on that subject) – print them out and do your bit. The key is to do something, where you can (and that is usually right on your doorstep).

I would recommend the book purely for the activist spirit that Helvarg espouses (he explains why he formed Blue Frontier in the prior link), but in addition to this his book is wonderfully written and affirming of the variety and beauty of the ocean. He describes scuba dives in some of the world’s most pristine areas, surfing trips in South America, travels to the Antarctic. Interwoven with these encounters with the natural world is Helvarg’s own life, and love, story. He does not shy away from difficult feelings and experiences. This is an autobiography, and one you’ll be richer for having read.

You can get a copy of the book here (South Africans), here or here.

Bookshelf: Beneath the Surface

Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, Seaworld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish – John Hargrove

Beneath the Surface
Beneath the Surface

As a counterpoint to orca scientist Dr Ingrid Visser’s memoir that we discussed earlier this week, John Hargrove’s Seaworld exposé describes the conflicted, thrilling life of an orca trainer working at a marine theme park. Hargrove appeared in the documentary Blackfish, but in this book he greatly expands on his experiences at the Seaworld parks in the United States, and at Marineland in the south of France.

Hargrove counts being close to the orca, and having opportunities to interact with them, as one of the great privileges of his life. Understandably, he grew to love the animals, and ultimately he says that it was his love for them that forced him to stop working as a trainer and to become an anti-captivity advocate. This decision clearly came after great internal struggle, and he has been subjected to vitriolic online attacks and character assassinations as a result of his new stance on keeping cetaceans captive. I have no doubt that there are aspects of the story he tells that it may be possible to re-tell with greater accuracy, but when so many elements of his story are corroborated by other sources, I feel it is nitpicking to take issue with what is, ultimately, Hargrove’s life story.

You can read reviews of the book here and here. If you’ve been as hypnotised as I have been by the unfolding train wreck that is the post-Blackfish Seaworld story, however, you will be completely absorbed by this memoir.

If you want to experience orca, whales or dolphins without buying a ticket to a marine park, may I suggest you read this article for suggestions, or book a ticket to South Africa between June and November (whale season), or visit Dolphin Encountours in Ponta do Ouro, or connect with a host of other responsible, licenced operators who will allow you to experience the animals in the wild without harassing or harming them.

Get a copy here (South Africa), here or here.

Bookshelf: Swimming with Orca

Swimming with Orca: My Life with New Zealand’s Killer Whales – Dr Ingrid N Visser

Swimming with Orca
Swimming with Orca

Long before it was fashionable, Dr Ingrid Visser was studying orca. The New Zealand-born scientist (with Dutch ancestry, hence the familiar surname to South Africans) describes her early scientific career and work in this book, emphasising how difficult it was to strike out into what was a new field of study in New Zealand. Her struggles to obtain funding and equipment for her research were overcome with ingenuity and sheer persistence.

Visser does not hesitate to get into the water to observe the orca that she studies, and spends hours and hours out at sea looking for them. Through diligent public relations, she has built up a network of individuals around New Zealand who report orca sightings to her, enabling her to launch her rubber duck and go to find them as quickly as possible.

There is excellent advice in this book regarding dealing with stranded cetaceans. Visser now runs the Orca Research Foundation, and is outspoken regarding the inappropriateness of keeping orcas and other cetaceans in captivity. Her scientific research has been misappropriated and misrepresented by Seaworld on occasion, to her great ire!

I am always on the lookout for books that would have inspired me as a teenager, and this is one of them. It is simply written and suitable for (I am guessing) age 13 and above. I admire Dr Visser’s refusal to back down at the start of her career, when her lack of experience, her age and her gender were against her. There is perhaps less focus on the orca themselves, and more on academic challenges, than one might expect of a book with the title Swimming with Orca – but I hope that in time Dr Visser will author another volume focused solely on her study subjects.

For more on orca research, this time in the Pacific north west, and a stronger focus on the whales themselves, I recommend Listening to Whales.

Get a copy of the book here or here.

Bookshelf: Mountains in the Sea

Mountains in the Sea: A Celebration of Table Mountain National Park – John Yeld & Martine Barker

Mountains in the Sea
Mountains in the Sea

Mountains in the Sea is a beautiful coffee table book showcasing the beauty and history of Table Mountain National Park, which stretches the entire length of the Cape Peninsula, in between the urban areas. There is minimal text by veteran environmental journalist John Yeld, and the photographs are from both authors as well as from the archives and other sources.

This is a really gorgeous volume that manages to inform by the choice of images as well as via the text. I have a list of new places I would like to explore after reading it, and half an ambition to do the Hoerikwaggo Trail. It is a wonderful souvenir for visitors, but also an excellent reference for Capetonians who want to get the most out of the natural environment on their doorstep.

You can get a copy of the book here. There is also a pocket-sized volume which has been of great utility to me during my explorations of Table Mountain National Park, but it is harder to find.

Bookshelf: Pirate Hunters

Pirate Hunters – Robert Kurson

Pirate Hunters
Pirate Hunters

For the days that I spent listening to the Pirate Hunters audiobook on the way to and from work (I have a long commute), I was transported from wintry Cape Town to a sandy bay in the Dominican Republic, to the Archive of the Indies in Seville, Spain, and to the deck of a pirate ship in the seventeenth century.

Friends John Chatterton and John Mattera undertake an obsessive quest to locate a vessel that belonged to the legendary pirate Joseph Bannister. There are accounts of the battle that claimed his ship, but not enough evidence to   The life of a treasure hunter may appear romantic from the outside, but in reality it is expensive, monotonous, and frustrating – punctuated with moments of delirious elation. (Treasure – The Search for Atocha also gives an excellent perspective on this irony.)

Robert Kurson is the author of Shadow Divers (gripping), which also features veteran wreck diver John Chatterton as he embarks on a dangerous quest to identify a sunken submarine in the North Atlantic. Unlike Shadow Divers, diving is not as much of the focus in Pirate Hunters. The diving that does take place is in shallow, light-filled tropical water and entails minimal risk to the participants. In both books, however, there is an intense focus on the historical research that is required to positively identify a shipwreck. In Pirate Hunters, Kurson does an excellent job of taking us inside the mind of the pirate Bannister, and it is through a thorough understanding of his motives and character that Chatterton and Mattera make their biggest breakthrough.

Check out the New York Times review of the book, which does highlight some of its shortcomings relative to Shadow Divers. If you’re pirate obsessed or a maritime history buff, however, you’ll enjoy Pirate Hunters regardless.

You can pick up a copy of the book here, if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here.

Bookshelf: Shark

Shark: Fear and Beauty – Jean-Marie Ghislain


Jean-Marie Ghislain is a Belgian photographer who has had the privilege to visit far flung places on earth, and to dive with charismatic megafauna of all descriptions. This book is a beautiful collection of images of all kinds of sharks, taken from South Africa to Guadaloupe. The images were taken using natural light only. The level of detail in some of the photographs is almost comparable to the pictures in Beautiful Whale.

There are several images of our local broadnose sevengill cowsharks, and I have enjoyed being able to show them to friends who aren’t familiar with these sharks (my own photos are pretty poor)!

The photos are entirely black and white, which lends a solemnity and luminosity to the sharks’ bodies that is very beautiful. There is almost no text, and one doesn’t miss it. At the back of the book, a mosaic of the photos presents information on the type of shark, the camera settings and a few sentences on the taking of or the motivation for the picture.

The photographs reveal that author is of the school of thought that advocates touching sharks, and some of the photographs even depict illegal dives outside the cage with great white sharks at Isla Guadalupe. This is a great pity and should not be mistaken for an activity that has any conservation benefits for sharks whatsoever.

You can see a couple of the photos from the book, and some information about the author, in this article from the Telegraph.

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

Bookshelf: Whales and Dolphins in Question

Whales & Dolphins in Question: The Smithsonian Answer Book – James G. Mead & Joy P. Gold

Whales and Dolphins in Question
Whales and Dolphins in Question

Bernita brought us this book as a gift from her travels in America early this year. It’s published by the Smithsonian Institution, which is an American conglomerate of museums and research institutions. (If you’ve watched Bones, think of the Jeffersonian – which is fictional but based on the Smithsonian – and you’ve got a good idea of what it’s like. I digress.) The book is arranged in question and answer format. The questions are drawn from the thousands of letters, emails and phone calls received from members of the public by the Smithsonian each year.

Every aspect of cetacean science is covered here. I appreciated the fact that where there is uncertainty or gaps in our knowledge, the authors said so. Science helps us to know things, but equally important is to recognise what we don’t know. Because they live so long, dive so deep and swim so far in such a big ocean, it is hard to learn some things about whales, but with diligent work and intelligent study design, we can still infer much.

The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs by National Geographic photographer Flip Nicklin. It’s beautiful to page through, if you don’t feel up to the demands of reading words, and also easy to dip into because of how it is divided up. I was a whale-obsessed seven year old; I think this book would be a great help to parents of similarly curious children whose every sentence is a question! That is not to say that it is aimed at kids – you might need to do a bit of interpretation if reading with a primary school child. There are extensive references at the back of the book, should you wish to track down the original papers from which the

There is another book in the series called Sharks in Question, which has one author in common with Whales in Question, and if this book is anything to go by, should be a wonderful read.

You can get a copy of Whales in Question here (South Africa), or here. Thank you Bernita!