Documentary: Diving into the Unknown

Having recently dived into the 21st century (with a Netflix subscription), I looked up this Finnish documentary as soon as it became available. It covers events that took place early in 2014, when a group of Finnish cave diving friends started a traverse of a massive, deep cave system in Norway. Two did not surface from the dive.

Diving into the Unknown
Diving into the Unknown

The Norwegian police, advised by Rick Stanton, a well-regarded British cave diver, closed the cave and announced that it was too dangerous to attempt to retrieve the men’s bodies. Their dive buddies, who had pioneered exploration of the more than 100 metre deep system and felt they knew it like the back of their hands, disagreed. They also felt a duty toward their friends, and therefore planned a mission (illegally) to retrieve their bodies.

Their dives were filmed for this documentary, which features interviews with the surviving divers and another of their friends who trained some of them as cave divers, and accompanied them on their mission. Whether events mirrored those that took place at Boesmansgat in 2005, or whether the ending was quite different, I’ll leave you to find out.

Unless… you read this excellent article from the BBC, before watching the documentary. It will reveal the outcome of the body retrieval dives, but it may also enhance your enjoyment of the film. A chance to study a map of the cave system, which featured in the film but was introduced too late for it to be truly helpful, and a chance to familiarise oneself with the difficult Finnish names, may be of benefit.

This is hardcore diving, to incredible depths, on rebreathers, in overhead environments, and under ice (to start the dive, the men cut a hole in the ice covering a lake surrounded by snowy hills and bare trees). Most of us will never do anything like it. The scenes filmed inside the cave range from serene clarity to heart-stopping moments of claustrophobic intensity as the divers work through obstructions and labour to free their friends’ bodies. Even though this is likely not aspirational for many of us, the questions raised by the men’s mission, especially whether it was wise to go back into the cave at all, make for some interesting discussion.

See the documentary on Netflix, or get the DVD here (South Africa) or here. Here’s the official trailer:

Documentary (BBC): Arctic with Bruce Parry

1422966653_ARCTICfMuch of my recent Arctic obsession has been historical, with a related interest in the hostile environment that has stymied (and killed) so many explorers over the centuries. Bruce Parry is a British documentarian (didn’t know that was a thing, but it seems fun) who seems to be dearly loved and some kind of national institution to the Brits. After watching this five-episode BBC series on the Arctic and its people, we could understand his charm.

Parry visits people living in Siberia, Greenland, northern Canada, Alaska, and the far north of Norway. He throws himself into their activities – whether rounding up reindeer, hunting for seals on the ice, fishing in Alaska (I had some serious lifestyle envy at this point), or racing up mountains. He is sensitive and respectful, and seems to forge genuine bonds with the families he visits.

The common thread that marks the lives of many of the tribes and peoples’ that Parry visits is that climate change, and the encroaching changes wrought by the pace of modern life, are challenging their traditions and lifestyles. Having lived sustainably off the land for generations, these people’s movements, traditions and futures are now circumscribed by all sorts of interventions from modern society. Not least of these is a lack of understanding of and respect for how they live.

Tony and I found much to discuss – for example, after the episode covering a traditional whale hunt in Alaska. Is there a difference between Japanese industrial whaling and an Inuit community’s subsistence hunting  for a couple of whales a year, done with reverence, prayers, and gratitude for the whale, whose bones will be scraped clean by polar bears after the entire carcass has been distributed in the village? Is it possible to kill an animal as large as a whale, humanely? Is all whaling wrong? These are difficult questions but it is worth grappling with them. As my friend Tami has exhorted me in the words of Rilke (in a different context, admittedly), “live the questions!

The series was filmed over the course of a summer, during which time much of the usual ice that marks the Arctic landscape was absent. The look of the landscape initially puzzled (and disappointed) me – without the icy covering, everything looks quite barren and gravelly!

You can get the dvd here (South Africa), otherwise here or here.

Documentary: James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge

James Cameron's Deepsea Challenge
James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge

James Cameron is best known (to people of my *ahem* vintage) as the director of Titanic, or (to those slightly younger) as the director of Avatar. As a result of these multi-billion dollar grossing films, he has more leisure time than most of us. He has used this to excellent effect in recent years, and achieved something that very few others could have done.

Cameron’s interest in deep ocean exploration seems to have been born out of his interest in the Titanic, and he has used tethered ROVs to explore the Titanic as described in Ghosts of the Abyss. He partially funded and spearheaded a project to build a submersible capable of carrying one person down into deepest known part of the ocean, the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, between Japan, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines.

Deepsea Challenger is that craft, and Cameron ultimately piloted it to nearly 11,000 metres underwater, and returned safely. James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge is the story of the design, construction, and testing of Deepsea Challenger, and of her dive to Challenger Deep. Unlike Robert Ballard, who favours unmanned ROVs, James Cameron is a proponent of manned ocean exploration, and I can identify with his enthusiasm for putting human eyes on the seabed (in a figuratively literal sense).

Fewer people have seen the bottom of Challenger Deep than have been on the moon. The last (and first) manned voyage there was in 1960, when Jacques Piccard and US Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh piloted Trieste, a bathyscaphe, there and back. Trieste used gasoline for buoyancy, whereas a special, extremely buoyant foam was developed to do the same job for Deepsea Challenger. The challenges of descending to and ascending from such a depth meant that here and there, seemingly archaic pieces of technology were included in the craft. I was tickled by the release of steel ball bearings to establish initial neutral or slightly positive buoyancy at times.

An aspect of the documentary that I found particularly touching was the presence of Don Walsh on Cameron’s ship, to witness the dive to Challenger Deep. You can read a bit of a review of the documentary here. There is an excellent series of National Geographic articles that will give you a feel for the project: part one, part two, a photo gallery, details of the submersible, and a video.

Get the DVD of James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge here, here or here (South Africa).

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.

Documentary: No Limits

Freediving is an intriguing sport to outsiders (like me). There’s not a lot to read about it – James Nestor’s Deep is an overview of the sport (to a certain degree), but the rest of the literature is scarce and specialised. Two books – that need to be read in tandem – which you should read if you’re interested in the sport, are The Last Attempt and The Dive. They concern the love affair of Pipin Ferreras and Audrey Mestre, which directly led to the death of Mestre during a “no limits” record attempt.

No limits freediving is a hard to fathom branch of the sport in which the diver descends – rapidly – on a weighted sled, to a specified depth. To ascend, a pressurised cannister of gas inflates a lift bag, bringing the diver back to the surface. Because of the assisted descent and ascent, the divers are able to go far deeper than the other freediving disciplines. Herbert Nitsch holds the men’s record, to 214 metres.

An ESPN documentary about Audrey Mestre, “No Limits”, is now available on Vimeo. It’s 50 minutes long – a considerable time commitment for an online viewing – but fascinating and well structured, and contains ample footage of no limits dive to satisfy your curiosity. Mestre’s record attempt was prompted in part by  a dive by Tanya Streeter, who had broken both the men’s and women’s no limits record with a dive to 160 metres in 2002. The contrast between Streeter’s safety preparations and Mestre’s – arranged by their respective husbands is telling. The end of this documentary, covering Mestre’s final dive, is profoundly disturbing – watch with caution. I’ve embedded the video below.

“No Limits” – The Audrey Mestre Documentary from on Vimeo.

Documentary: Ice Patrol

Ice Patrol
Ice Patrol

Ice Patrol is a four part BBC documentary featuring the British naval ice breaking ship HMS Endurance, named for Sir Ernest Shackleton’s polar exploration ship that set sail in 1914. Endurance is much like our SA Agulhas II, except the South African polar research ship is run by the department of fisheries, whereas the British entrust theirs to the navy. The producers of the BBC series Frozen Planet made use of Endurance as a platform for filming in the polar regions – ships with ice breaking capabilities and high tech steering systems are relatively uncommon.

The series starts with Endurance docked in the Falkland Islands, and follows her and her crew through a couple of Antarctic missions during a period of several months in late 2008. They land at South Georgia Island, where Shackleton sought rescue for his crew from Norwegian whalers based there, and visit the old whaling station (as an aside, strangely, we don’t see a single live whale throughout the ship’s time at sea). A group of marines re-enact Shackleton’s trek across the island as a training exercise, which proves to be a tough proposition even with modern camping and climbing equipment, skis, high quality outerwear, and the support of a helicopter for part of the trip. Scientists take sediment cores in order to study climate change, and others conduct an aerial survey of seal populations. We meet a variety of penguins, and members of the crew even pay a visit to a US Antarctic base (Palmer Station) – which has a gift shop!

The final episode is concerned with a catastrophic flood in the engine room that occurred in the Strait of Magellan off Chile (fortunately close enough to help that the civilians on board – the cameramen and producers for the documentary, one assumes – could be airlifted to safety). The ship was nearly lost. The documentary series presents this incident (and other minor whoopsies) in an embarrassingly dramatic light, but it seems that the flooding of Endurance was really that serious. She is going out of service in 2015, the damage she sustained being too costly to repair properly.

After reading Alfred Lansing’s book on Shackleton’s original expedition to the Antarctic, I have been obsessed with the icebound regions of the planet, and this is why we ended up watching Ice Patrol. Perhaps it’s not what everyone would consider gripping television, but we found it very enjoyable. The scenery is beautiful, and the glimpses of shipboard life and navy formality (sitting around on the bridge wearing hats, extreme formality mixed with corporate jargon when addressing one another…) are quite entertaining.

You might be able to get a copy here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise go here.

A shark called Submarine, and other lies

We’ve been getting visits to our blog from people wanting to find out about an incident involving a capsized whale watching boat and a monster shark called Submarine, that supposedly took place at Shark Alley off Gansbaai in South Africa. The reason for these queries is a misleading pack of lies broadcast under the title Shark of Darkness as part of Shark Week 2014.

To clear up any confusion you may have as to what is true and what is not about Shark of Darkness, I urge you to read Michelle Wcisel’s post on the subject at Southern Fried Science, and this post by Andrew Ingram of the National Sea Rescue Institute, distancing the organisation from the documentary. Michelle’s post points out how utterly distasteful and inappropriate it is for Discovery to exploit a real event, in which two people died, for ratings, while spinning a web of lies around the real circumstances of the incident.

But since you’re here, and may have arrived here searching on a query like “whale watching boat capsizes in shark alley with passengers” looking for sensational news capitalising on the death of two people, let me clear up some things.

  • A whale watching boat called Miroshga did capsize in Cape Town, off Hout Bay. It went out in a storm, was overloaded, had its bilge pump installed upside down, and was generally a blight on the South African maritime safety record.
  • There are a few locations called Shark Alley in South Africa. The most famous one is at Dyer Island near Gansbaai (a two hour drive from Cape Town) where a seal colony attracts great white sharks to aggregate. White shark cage diving trips are held there, and whale watching trips.
  • No whale watching boat capsized at Shark Alley next to Dyer Island.
  • No great white shark – least of all a fictional monster called Submarine – harrassed passengers of the capsized Miroshga in Hout Bay.
  • Dyer Island is not in Hout Bay.
  • Two passengers on Miroshga died, but not because of marine life. A few passengers spent a couple of hours underwater inside the air pocket of the ship’s hull, but were rescued by the heroes of the NSRI (South Africa’s version of the Coastguard, funded by the public) in appalling conditions.

I even made you a helpful map (click to embiggen):

Helpful map for Shark Week: Shark of Darkness fake documentary
Helpful map for Shark Week: Shark of Darkness fake documentary

In short, Dyer Island, and white sharks, are not in Hout Bay, where the whale watching boat capsized. See how far apart the red stars are on the map? There is also no white shark called Submarine.

If you’d like to learn something proper about sharks and be a force for good in the world, go read Demon Fish or Sharks and People.


We don’t have a television, and I’m not even sure if Shark Week gets broadcast in South Africa, so I haven’t seen this show. But from the discussions I’ve had the misfortune to witness on facebook and other social media, it seems that Shark Week is becoming an annual opportunity to swill ignorance and sensationalism around the trough for a public that is ill equipped to distinguish fact from fiction. Sadly, attempts by scientists and science communicators to provide corrections and factual information to counter Discovery Channel’s deliberate misinformation only serve to generate more publicity for the spectacle, and ultimately, it seems, to benefit Discovery and their bottom line most of all.

Documentary: Blackfish


Blackfish is an almost-Oscar nominated documentary about keeping orcas (killer whales) in captivity. It focuses on Tilikum, a killer whale who was captured off the coast of Iceland in 1983, and now lives at SeaWorld in Florida. Tilikum has killed or been implicated in the deaths of three people, two of whom were his trainers at SeaWorld. The most recent incident received widespread media coverage and was the subject of an excellent article by Tim Zimmermann (a producer of this movie), entitled Killer in the Pool.

The documentary is primarily built around interviews with several former SeaWorld trainers, and uses news reports, home videos, interviews with other players, and other footage to fill in the details of how the orcas are captured, kept and trained. There is a disturbing interview with a man who was involved in the capture of baby killer whales for sale to marine parks – this is no longer done in the United States as a result of a backlash against the practice from the general public, but Russia has no reservations about continuing to do so.

The documentary has had an impact on SeaWorld’s profits and popularity – not as much as I’d like, but it’s noticeable. Several musicians have refused to perform at the parks, citing new awareness following Blackfish as the reason. The documentary exposes the factual errors that SeaWorld staff persist in repeating to the public – an example is their claim that the lifespan of captive orcas is as long or longer than orcas in the wild because they get such good veterinary care, and they aren’t exposed to the dangers of the open ocean. Captive orcas actually have significantly shorter lifespans (and more miserable lives) than their wild counterparts.

This is an upsetting film, but not only for the reasons I expected. While it is harrowing to watch a five ton animal dragging a human being underwater, I actually found it more upsetting to watch the five ton animal simply leaping and swimming around in its tank. I don’t think it’s suitable for children, but you should watch it.

For further reading on this subject I recommend Death at Seaworld, and this article at Southern Fried Science by Naomi Rose, who was heavily featured in the same book. CNN has shown the documentary several times, and there are some clips and a short article about it here. Producer Tim Zimmermann’s website has updates on various subjects related to SeaWorld, cetaceans in captivity, and (if that’s your thing) veganism.

For the other side of the argument, there is (for example) this advertorial-style article at CNN, in which the author claims that marine parks make valuable contributions to science, research and conservation, and offers the solution that because the orcas’ natural habitat is being polluted, they should be kept in tanks for their own safety. Someone should tell the author that it is possible to manage marine mammal strandings (in South Africa, for example) without the help of theme parks.

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

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:

Documentary: Frozen Planet

Frozen Planet
Frozen Planet

Another expensive (and totally worth it) production from the BBC, Frozen Planet presents an exploration of the polar regions of earth, focusing on the wildlife and natural processes that make these areas so special.

There are episodes devoted to each season of the year, flanked by an episode providing an overview of the polar regions and one dealing with human activities in these areas. A special feature on climate change wraps up the series. Each episode is followed by a ten minute feature called “Freeze Frame”, which explains how particular footage was obtained – usually through a combination of ingenuity, luck, hardiness and persistence.

The series was dogged by two controversies, one minor (to my mind) and another somewhat more significant. The first involves a very brief piece of footage showing a polar bear mother and her newborn cubs. Rather than being filmed in the wild (which would have been almost impossible, if one thinks about it, because the mother bear is in partial hibernation under the snow while she gives birth), the footage was captured in a zoo. The way in which the footage is interspersed with shots of polar bears in the wild is somewhat misleading, and the voice over gives no indication that the mother and her cubs are in captivity.

The second controversy involves climate change, and the increasingly popular anti-science stance espoused particularly by the religous right, a powerful political lobby in the United States which has managed to transform a purely scientific issue into a political one. In a special feature on the third disc of the set, which deals with the changing polar environment as more and more ice melts each year, any mention of the causes of climate change is avoided, and host David Attenborough intones “The days of the Arctic Ocean being covered by a continuous sheet of ice seem to be past. Whether or not that’s a good or bad thing, of course, depends on your point of view.” Rather than taking a definitive evidence-based stance on the fact that global warming is a result of human activity on the planet – a view which is held by mainstream scientists who base their opinions on statistics, observations, experiments and hard evidence – the producers of the series chose to prevaricate in order to avoid offending a vocal and wilfully ignorant minority.

These things aside, Frozen Planet is a magnificent production that shows the scope and complexity of these little-seen parts of our planet. The resourcefulness and adaptations of the animals and birds that spend all or part of their lives enduring the extreme climate and landscape of the polar regions are magnificent. There is wonderful underwater footage, showing penguins, orcas, beluga, seals, narwhal and whales hunting, socialising and feeding, and urchins, sea stars and corals far under the ice. The underwater visibility is astonishing, as is the courage of the cameramen who venture under thick ice into freezing water to obtain footage.

Ice caves under Mount Erebus in Antarctica are spectacular and untouched, and the scale of the plateaus and mountains of the Antarctic is incredible. (In comparison, the Arctic seems like a bustling metropolis!) The completely hostile environment got me all choked up thinking about the early polar explorers who risked (and lost) their lives in efforts to extend the frontiers of human knowledge.

The final episode deals with man’s presence at the poles (scientists in Antarctica, and indigenous people in the Arctic). I loved the footage of Longyearbyen in the Svalbard archipelago (on my “must visit” list). Tony and I particularly enjoyed the segment showing the Danish navy officers  patrolling in Greenland, with fourteen huskies, a sled, skis, and a vast snowy wilderness larger than France and the UK combined.

You can buy the DVD here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here. The US version is narrated by Alec Baldwin.