Bookshelf: Demon Fish

Demon Fish – Juliet Eilperin

Demon Fish
Demon Fish

Reading this so close to Thomas Peschak’s book Sharks and People made for an interesting juxtaposition of two books that are both concerned with similar subjects. Peschak makes his interest in the relationship between humans and sharks explicit in the title of his book, and goes on to explore it in a primarily visual manner.

Juliet Eilperin is an environmental reporter for the Washington Post, and despite the singular focus of its title, her concern in Demon Fish seems to be similar to Peschak’s: sharks and people. I’m not sure if this is because, as an outsider to the world of shark research, shark diving, and shark conservation she had couldn’t but focus on the human element of sharks’ existence, or whether it was a deliberate tactic.

Whatever the reason for the book’s focus, this is actually a very good introductory volume to give to someone who doesn’t know much about sharks, and who may not understand the conservation concerns surrounding them. This is not a scientific volume, and may disappoint shark fanatics who purchase it expecting to be enlightened on shark biology. Eilperin provides some facts about a few of the better known (read: more charismatic) species of shark, but the bulk of the book comprises interviews with shark scientists (such as Neil Hammerschlag, Alison Kock, Sarah Fowler, and Barbara Block), fishermen, activists (including seriously legitimate ones like Sonja Fordham), and Asian players in the shark fin trade.

Eilperin dives with sharks in the Bahamas, eats shark fin soup, and travels the world putting together a picture of sharks’ role in local economies – the lucrative fin trade, whale shark tourism in Belize, cage diving in Gansbaai, South Africa – and in human culture. After visiting a shark caller in Papua New Guinea, she traces the history of the 1916 shark attacks along the North Atlantic coast of the USA that did so much to shape our modern perception of sharks, and interviews Jaws author Peter Benchley’s wife (he is deceased). An analysis of efforts to mitigate human shark interactions, lead her to Cape Town’s Shark Spotters program, the Shark Shield device (formerly Shark POD) and the indiscriminate shark mitigation program of the KZN Sharks Board. The acknowledgements at the end of the book read like a who’s who of shark researchers and conservationists (including the venerable Eugenie Clark). Ms Eilperin’s research was thorough!

The book seems to have been reprinted as Sharks: Travels Through a Hidden World in the United Kingdom. I prefer this title, as Demon Fish seems a little bit exploitative and sensational, particularly given the fairly benign nature of the book’s contents. There is a detailed and fascinating review of Demon Fish at the London Review of Books, an interview with Eilperin here, and a very short interview with her here.

Buy the book here if you’re in South Africa, and here if you’re not. If you want to read it on your Kindle, go here.

Bookshelf: Stars Beneath the Sea

Stars Beneath the Sea: The Extraordinary Lives of the Pioneers of Diving – Trevor Norton

Stars Beneath the Sea
Stars Beneath the Sea

Marine biologist Trevor Norton channels Bill Bryson in this often hilarious collection of vignettes featuring a selection of the adventurers, scientists and other lunatics who shaped the last two hundred years’ history of skin and scuba diving. A propensity for gadget-making and a willingness to experiment on oneself seem to be the personal characteristics that have served these men (all of them, alas) very well in their chosen field.

I hadn’t heard of many of the pioneers profiled by Norton – much of their work was done during the First and Second World Wars, during which time many people were distracted with other matters. Some familiar names do crop up during the course of the narrative, however: Jacques Cousteau (in the chapter about Guy Gilpatric), George Bass (in the chapter on Peter Throckmorton), and John Scott Haldane, who will be familiar to all Divemaster candidates.

Norton contributes personal knowledge of at least one of his subjects: Jack Kitching, a British experimental zoologist. Kitching spent much of his career studying the marine life at Lough Hyne, Europe’s oldest marine reserve. During this time he used a surface supply of air and a makeshift diving helmet (involving a bucket and a hosepipe) to walk about on the bottom of the lough and collect samples. Norton has written more than one account of this time – you can read some here and here.

I found this a refreshing look back to a time when scuba diving wasn’t the slickly packaged, aggressively marketed, neon-hued “cool” sport that it is today. Norton’s writing is very funny, and he fully conveys the quirkiness and eccentricity that enabled his subjects to make some of the advances – scientific and experimental – that they did. I recommend this book – you’ll learn something, and after reading it you’ll probably want to do some further reading. All good things!

You can get a copy of the book here or here, otherwise (possibly – not often in stock) here if you’re in South Africa.

Bookshelf: Beautiful Whale

Beautiful Whale – Bryant Austin

Beautiful Whale
Beautiful Whale featured an article about Bryant Austin last year. He is a photographer who has spent years (and his life savings) photographing whales in the ocean. His aim is to capture the animal in sufficient detail that the image can be blown up to life size. This requires a camera with many megapixels, a massive computer to process the images, and – most importantly – the opportunity to be less than two metres away from the whale, for an extended period of time.

Austin travelled to the haunt of Tony Wu, Tonga (to see humpback whales), the West Indies (for sperm whales), and to the Great Barrier Reef (for minke whales). It is not easy to get close to a whale. Austin waited, motionless on the surface, for whales to approach him. When one did, and was sufficiently curious and relaxed to stay near him for twenty minutes or more, Austin was able to photograph it. Through a process of trial and error he figured out how best to angle the camera, and position himself relative to the sun, in order to get images of the whale’s entire body that he could stitch together in an enormous composite panorama. There is a chapter devoted to each location that he visited, and he describes the encounter with each whale in some detail.

The photographic results are breathtaking. This is a large format book, with several fold-out pages that allow study of every detail of the whales. Their eyes are particularly captivating. (I also loved seeing the barnacles and attendant pilot fish.) There is an explanation of how each set of photographs was taken, too, several of which are quite moving.

Austin has exhibited the images, printed out metres long, around the world, starting in whaling nations such as Norway and Japan. In the afterword he explains that he at first believed that the images would be sufficiently powerful standing alone, with no accompanying commentary or polemic about whaling. His experience in taking the exhibition around the world, however, was that people were fascinated with the detail of each encounter with a whale, and wanted to hear about the detail of how he took the photographs.

This, for me, is the most powerful kind of wildlife conservation photography. Austin is not the subject of the pictures (he does not even appear in them), and is at pains to focus attention on the whales rather than himself. As one views the images, however, one becomes curious about the subject of the whale’s gaze – the entity on which its obvious intelligence is focused. In describing how he and the whales co-operated to obtain the photographs, Austin stresses that it was not some special mojo that he has that led to the specialness of the encounter. It is simply that he was there, receptive and non-threatening, which allowed the whales to approach him and his camera.

I think we delude ourselves when we think that images of people interacting with wildlife and the natural environment are the best we can do to rouse concern and care for conservation in others. In most cases, these images are actually symptomatic of the damage that humans have done to the earth. As Thomas Peschak has repeatedly demonstrated, nature can hold its own, and doesn’t need a man in a speedo or someone pretending to be a mermaid to “change perceptions” or make people care about the environment. It is when we get out of the way, as Bryant Austin repeatedly demonstrates in this beautiful volume, that magic happens.

You can get a copy of the book here (if you’re in South Africa), otherwise here or here.

Bookshelf: Sharks and People

Sharks and People – Thomas P. Peschak

Sharks and People
Sharks and People

Thomas Peschak has written and photographed several wonderful books – Currents of Contrast, Lost World, South Africa’s Great White SharkWild Seas Secret Shores of Africa – and will hopefully produce many more. He is a trained marine biologist, but explains eloquently in the introduction to this book how he left science to devote himself full time to photographing the natural (mostly marine) environment, and man’s interaction with it, in the belief that he could make an important contribution to conservation efforts in this way. Unlike some of the other “conservationists” who we’ve encountered paddling in South African seas, Peschak’s assessment of the impact of his work is accurate, and as a rule he does not include himself in the images, which puts him way ahead of the pack (in my book, at least).

Like all of Peschak’s books, the photographs in Sharks and People are breathtaking. They are accompanied by succinct, scientifically up to date information encompassing the various aspects of our relationship with sharks. In the acknowledgements section at the end of the book he lists the various scientists and others who assisted with fact checking the book, as well as citing various studies and papers that provided the scientific information that he discusses.

Peschak does not attempt to whitewash the complexity of our relationship with sharks, and some of his photographs are disturbing and difficult to look at. He also details the impact of the shark nets in KwaZulu Natal – uncomfortable reading, but essential not to ignore or to simplify. This  book is not a breathless injunction to save sharks based on feelings and appreciation of sharks’ beauty. Aesthetic appreciation is certainly there, but so is a clear eyed assessment of the dangers posed to one another by humans and sharks, and the role played by sharks in marine ecosystems.

The photograph on the cover of the book is this one, and Peschak explains its origins (some of that information appears here). On the back cover, you can see this photograph, which is not a composite or manufactured image, but was taken during the testing of a shark shield product in KwaZulu Natal.

You can read an extract from the book here, and also check out some of the shark photographs that appear in the volume.

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

Bookshelf: Sentinel of the Seas

Sentinel of the Seas – Dennis M. Powers

Sentinel of the Seas
Sentinel of the Seas

Lighthouses are beautiful and captivating, often positioned in lonely, windswept locations at the very edge of human settlements. The idea of being a lighthouse keeper, custodian of a light that is a warning against the might of stormy seas over submerged reefs, seems romantic and heroic. It is for these reasons that I am surprised there aren’t more books about lighthouse life; perhaps we are fortunate that there aren’t.

Sentinel of the Seas is about the St Georges Reef Light, situated on a rock about 10 kilometres off the northern Californian coast. The subject was researched in painstaking detail by the author, and he provides a great deal of colour to the process of constructing the lighthouse and its subsequent manned use as a warning to shipping. The cover photograph at left shows the small size of the rocky outcrop on which the lighthouse stands. The challenges of construction work at this location, combined with frequent salty inundations and fluctuating tides, were considerable. The main theme related to the St Georges Reef Light is, however, interwoven with several other ideas and story lines and the entire book is poorly edited, rendering the overall thread of the narrative disorganised and difficult to follow.

Today the lighthouse is in disuse after being replaced by a floating light buoy (apparently these days all but one or two lighthouses off the American coast are unmanned), but has been the subject of efforts to restore and preserve it. It has an official website, and at various times tours to the facility by helicopter have been offered.

There are no photographs in this book – I thought it could have done with some, even if they were only of the lighthouse as it appears today (although historical photos do exist). I was struck by the similarity between this light and Roman Rock, although I suspect Roman Rock’s location is a little more sheltered. Since the rock on which Roman Rock is built isn’t visible (the lighthouse base may cover it completely – I’m not sure), I wonder how it was constructed. Something to find out!

You can buy the book here. I’d recommend it primarily for die-hard pharologists. For the rest of you, check out the Hobermans’ beautiful offering about the lighthouses along the South African coast.

Bookshelf: The Docks

The Docks – Bill Sharpsteen

The Docks
The Docks

Given my obsession with container ships, when I found this book, I felt that I’d won some sort of lotto of readers. There were sections that were so gripping I couldn’t put it down, and others that had me putting the book aside for days on end, reading cookbooks instead.

Bill Sharpsteen is a freelance journalist and photographer, and former documentary producer. He spent time with a broad cross-section of the various players who make up the labour force and neighbouring community of the Port of Los Angeles, the busiest container port in the United States.

A significant theme that crops up repeatedly is the question of maintaining the levels of activity and business that are commercially required while balancing this frenetic activity with efforts to have as little environmental impact as possible. Diesel trucks are a cause of serious pollution with massively deleterious effects to human health, and the visual impact of the cranes at the port is the source of much unhappiness for homeowners in neighbourhoods overlooking the harbour. Electric trucks have been phased in, and large power points are being installed on the docks so that ships don’t have to run their engines (spewing diesel particulate matter into the air) while at their moorings.

Sharpsteen spent quite a bit of time with Geraldine Knatz, the executive director of the port, who retired at the end of 2013. Her job has been undoubtedly challenging, but I found it quite hard to assess whether the port authorities were mostly paying lip service to environmental improvements, or whether it is a sincere commitment to minimising the impact of the port on the surrounding neighbourhoods and the coastline it inhabits. Sharpsteen also spoke to residents of the neighbourhoods around the port, some of who have devoted years of their lives to agitating for improved treatment of the environment, and railing against the height of new cranes when they were installed. The intensity of some of these individuals was concerning.

As in The Box, the labour unions formed by the longshoremen play – of necessity – a fairly central role in this book. Technology -containerisation, automation and computers – has transformed the way in which goods are loaded, transported, and unloaded, and the hundreds-year old profession of longshoreman has undergone significant changes in the last few decades. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union has been at the centre of a great deal of turmoil that has accompanied these changes. Women have also gained access to many jobs that they were not previously allowed to do – this has required legal action and a great deal of struggle.

Call me cold hearted, but I was not specially gripped by the human aspects of this story. I am more interested in how the great machine functions – such as the technical details of how a ship with a draft only 30 centimetres less than the depth of the channel it’s travelling through manages to make it into the harbour without running into difficulty. I wish that Sharpsteen had spent more time with the pilots (this was one of my favourite parts of the book), the Coastguard patrollers, and some of the captains of the ships that frequent the port. I’d also have liked a better understanding of how it’s decided which container goes where, and when.

There’s a Wall Street Journal review of this book by Marc Levinson, author of The Box, here.

You can get the book here if you are in South Africa and here if you’re not. If you want to read it on your Kindle, go here.

Bookshelf: The Wavewatcher’s Companion

The Wavewatcher's Companion
The Wavewatcher’s Companion

The Wavewatcher’s Companion – Gavin Pretor-Pinney

Gavin Pretor-Pinney is probably best known for The Cloudspotter’s Guidea chatty, informative companion for the daytime sky-gazing enthusiast that covered everything that there is to know about clouds (and a bit more). In The Wavewatcher’s Companion (lent to me by Christo, who read it during the course of our Red Sea liveaboard trip last year) he takes a similar approach to waves.

Pretor-Pinney is not concise or reverent, and frequently errs on the side of too much witty banter; this may irritate those who are seeking a serious scientific work, and I’d point you in the direction of something like The Power of the Sea if that’s what you’re after. The Wavewatcher’s Companion also does not focus exclusively on waves that are found in water – a fact which initially bothered me, as those are the waves that I’m interested in. My frustration was forgotten, however, because the sections on electromagnetic waves, sound waves and shock waves, for example, were very interesting, and helped me to understand some phenomena that I’m familiar with from other contexts.

I particularly enjoyed the sections on tides (despite Rachel Carson’s efforts, I still don’t completely understand them) and big wave surfing. The author goes surfing in Hawaii with Andrew Marr, a South African big wave surfer, much as Laird Hamilton took the author of The Wave with him on surf trips. Did you know that there’s a surf spot on the Eisbach River in Munich, Germany? Check it out.

The book is well illustrated with photographs and diagrams, and one of the photographs and the related text cleared up a question I’ve always had regarding a peculiar cloud formation that appears over the mountains around False Bay (there was a picture of it). It turns out to be a lenticular cloud, which is as a result of a standing wave that develops on the downwind side of the mountain under certain conditions.

I recommend this book for all but the purist who wishes for Serious Science, Seriously Presented. It is a perfect holiday read, digestible in bite sized chunks. Some of the more technical sections required repeat readings, which perhaps justifies the author’s efforts to channel Bill Bryson in the intervening paragraphs.

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

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.

Bookshelf: The Rapture of the Deep

Rapture of the Deep: And Other Dive Stories You Probably Shouldn’t Know – Michael Zinsley

Rapture of the Deep
Rapture of the Deep

I shouldn’t have read this book after The Face of the Deep by Thomas Farber. The comparison is unfavourable. While Farber is lyrical and thoughtful, Zinsley describes alcohol-fueled romps through the South Pacific, Southeast Asia and the Caribbean while working as a diving industry professional.

While most of the observations about the cultures that the author encounters are quite prosaic, this is the first book I’ve read that frankly deals with the commercial side of recreational scuba diving. Perhaps it is necessary to be prosaic in order to discuss this; the reality is far from the romantic vision sold by some of the dive certification agencies. Zinsley describes greedy dive shop owners who send their staff out to dive in appalling conditions, and does not mince words about the paltry pay one can expect as a Divemaster. He observes that Instructors get paid slightly more, but that they tend to spend most of their time in swimming pools, and that a number of them end up as shopkeepers, hardly diving at all.

There are some highly amusing but very politically incorrect descriptions of Zinsley’s former students and clients who dived with him at the various operations where he worked as Divemaster. It seems that a lot of the time, your Divemaster can tell within a few minutes whether you’re going to be trouble on a dive or not. (Try not to be trouble! It’ll keep you healthy – or alive – and make the dive a lot more enjoyable for everyone.) Zinsley describes his experiences with nitrogen narcosis and a scare with decompression sickness.

Zinsley has visited and dived in some of the world’s most exotic destinations, and it’s probably more accurate to classify Rapture of the Deep as a travelogue with diving. This is a light, riotous, unapologetically misogynistic read with no literary pretensions whatsoever. I’d specially recommend it for professionals in the dive industry, who will empathise with much of what Zinsley describes.

You can buy the book here if you are in South Africa, and here if you’re not. If you want to read it on your Kindle, go here.

Bookshelf: The Face of the Deep

The Face of the Deep – Thomas Farber

The Face of the Deep
The Face of the Deep

Thomas Farber is a senior lecturer at UC Berkley and author of numerous books. The Face of the Deep is difficult to explain and classify. It is a literary meditation on salt water, which Farber loves. He writes about surfing, scuba diving, and the islands and islanders of the South Pacific.

In the subject matter of this book I was slightly reminded of Seven Tenths by James Hamilton Patterson, but The Face of the Deep is less accessible than that. Farber’s writing seems to require one to hold it in one’s mind like one holds a handful of water: it wants to slip away, flow from one subject to another. Until I accepted that this was how to accept what the book is about, I was frustrated by what seems like a very scattered approach, as I was expecting something like Tim Ecott’s Neutral Buoyancy from this small volume.

This is a poetic memoir that lightly straddles several genres, and one that I’d recommend to surfers (who seem to have a frame of mind more attuned to the mystical aspects of the ocean) more than I would recommend it to divers. If you love words, and meditations, and salt water, however, then give it a try.

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