Sponges and coral of Malta

I have broken up the invertebrate life into things (mostly) with eyes, and things without. Behold, the things without eyes…

Sponges

Red sponge (Crambe crambe)
Red sponge (Crambe crambe)

The Mediterranean has a history of sponge diving that goes back to antiquity, and we saw quite a variety of sponges, but not vast numbers of them. The Mediterranean bath sponge is the primary target of sponge divers, and comes in a variety of exterior hues. It’s apparently creamy yellow to beige inside.

Bathing sponge (Spongia officinalis) traditionally harvested by Mediterranean sponge divers
Bathing sponge (Spongia officinalis) traditionally harvested by Mediterranean sponge divers
Spongia lamella, the elephant ear sponge
Spongia lamella, the elephant ear sponge
Scalarispongia scalaris
Scalarispongia scalaris
Unknown (to me) but pretty sponge
Unknown (to me) but pretty sponge
Could be the elephant ear sponge... Probably isn't!
Could be the elephant ear sponge... Probably isn't!

Coral

Gold star coral (Astroides calycularis)
Gold star coral (Astroides calycularis)

Dive sites (Jordan): Cedar Pride

During my stay in Jordan, (diving for Dive Aqaba) we often dived the Cedar Pride. She is a Lebanese cargo ship that was scuttled in 1985 after lying in the port for three years, abandoned by her owners after a fire in the engine room in 1982. The ship was sunk as an artificial reef and lies on her port side. The beauty of this dive site is that  the depth on the starboard side is around 10 metres, yet the sand below the port side is around 28 metres.

She lies on a rock formation allowing for a swim through up near the bow. Wreck penetration is also an option for all levels as you can swim through a few hatches or go all the way into the engine room. The ship is 75 metres long and you can explore all of the deck area and several open holds and this wreck is home to a huge variety of marine life. At approximately 150 metres off the beach it is possible to do this dive as a shore entry but it is far better doing a boat dive as there is also a barge and a small fishing vessel close by. The wreck has a permanent buoy and the viz is almost always 25 metres. There is a high speed ferry that runs into Aqaba daily from Egypt and the surge created by this ferry causes the Cedar Pride to rock slightly and if you are near the prop at the time you can see the keel lifting ever so slightly.

Bookshelf: Song for the Blue Ocean

Song for the Blue Ocean – Carl Safina

Song for the Blue Ocean
Song for the Blue Ocean

This book is at once insanely depressing, magnificently written and completely inspiring. It is really, really hard to read – not because of Safina’s writing, which is beautifully eloquent, but because of his subject matter.

The chapters are organised by location, as Safina travels from place to place visiting with fishermen and those whose business revolves around the ocean. He even attends a meeting of ICCAT (the International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna, as he suggests it should be renamed), the laughably ineffective and corrupt legislative body that controls (well, sort of) tuna fisheries around the world.

The fishermen portrayed in the early chapters of the book fall quite neatly into two groups: those who are intent on catching as much as possible, and attribute the apparent scarcity of bluefin tuna, swordfish and other pelagic giants to their increased wiliness and ability to avoid capture, and those who used to make a good living from fishing – 30, 40 or more years ago – and are now unable to make ends meet and are painfully aware of how different the ocean landscape was in their youth.

I was alarmed at how scientists are perceived by the fishermen and fisheries lobbyists, who appear to believe that everyone must share their cynical inability to consider anyone or anything other than themselves and their own welfare. Safina attempts to understand why bluefin tuna fishermen deny that there is any problem with fish stocks, whereas scientists studying this magnificent fish assert that the breeding population is on the verge of collapse.

Safina also writes extensively on salmon, a fish I’d never thought much about before save enjoying photographs of bears trying to catch them as they leap upstream to their breeding grounds, and as a tasty ingredient in my favourite sushi meal. They are remarkable fish, too: the adaptations they have to life in freshwater and the ocean, their ability to return to the stream – the exact tributary – that they were born in, and the design of their bodies makes it all the more tragic that habitat destruction and overfishing is severley endangering wild salmon stocks. Safina describes the ancient forests on America’s northwestern coast, populated by trees that are five to ten centuries old, and how a fallen tree provides habitat and food for an entire mini-ecosystem, including shelter for salmon fry (when the tree falls across a stream). Aggressive logging practices mean that most of these forests, and the creatures they shelter, are being lost forever.

The final chapters detail a visit Safina conducted to the islands of Palau, where he witnessed staggering diversity on the reefs there but also disturbing and heartbreaking overfishing and the extensive use of cyanide to stun and capture reef fish for live sale at the fish market in Hong Kong, amongst other eastern locations. The cyanide poisons the reefs, and often causes horrible illnesses in the divers who deploy it. These sections made me want to go to Palau to dive, fast, before it’s all gone.

Some of the information Safina presents may have dated slightly, as the book was published in 1997, but the trends are excruciatingly clear. (Here’s a recent article by Safina on the state of tuna conservation.) There’s a lot of reported conversation with the users of the resources that Safina analyses – loggers, fishermen and cattle farmers (everything is connected!) and quite a lot of political and legal detail (some editing may have been beneficial here). It alternated between lulling me to sleep and making my blood boil! The chapters on Hong Kong and on the bluefin tuna fishermen and lobbyists in the USA are particularly nauseating – I find it hard to relate to, or condone, the attitudes of the businessmen and legislators who refuse to exercise any due diligence on where the fish they purchase comes from, and whether it’s from an endangered population or not.

You can 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. It’s an uncomfortable wake up call.

Sea life: False plum anemone

The false plum anemone (Pseudactina flagellifera) is one of the larger and most venomous anemones found in Cape waters. That said, it won’t hurt you unless you have an open wound that you somehow manage to get in contact with its tentacles! They can grow to prodigious sizes. Like all anemones, the prey is captured with the tentacles (which are sticky and cause paralysis in the molluscs and crustaceans that it feeds on) and stuffed into the central mouth cavity.

The anemone has spherules, which are small bead-shaped protrusions, at the base of its tentacles, as well as vesicles filled with toxins, which are used for defence. They contain nematocysts or stinging cells. These anemones can move about slowly, and will attack other, unrelated anemones with its vesicles. We often see Cape rock crabs sheltering next to large false plum anemones.

False plum anemone at A Frame
False plum anemone at A Frame

Their tentacles frequently have mauve tips, which I think are very pretty. They apparently do not readily retract their tentacles (according to Two Oceans), and I was surprised to see several at A Frame recently with their tentacles completely hidden.

Dive sites: Maidstone Rock

Sinuous sea fan with brittlestars on board
Sinuous sea fan with brittlestars on board

Maidstone Rock is an infrequently-dived site in the offshore region of Seaforth and Boulders Beach. The boat rides from Miller’s Point or Long Beach are only a few minutes (shorter from Long Beach). Grant took us to an area of the reef that is newly discovered, so we got to explore some virgin territory.

Klipfish in disguise
Klipfish in disguise

The reef is characteristic of the others we have dived in the area, with low rocky outcrops heavily encrusted with invertebrates. We found a small anchor and rope, but they had obviously been in the water for a long time and were almost unrecognisable.

Brass valve handle in situ
Brass valve handle in situ

I found an old brass valve handle or similar (treasure!), which Tony is cleaning up with diluted pool acid, tartaric acid and lots of patience, and we also came across a large (perhaps one metre diameter) brass or other metal ring that looked a bit like a truck tyre without sidewalls. It is heavily overgrown with feather stars and other invertebrate life.

Mysterious metal ring
Mysterious metal ring

I also found several well-camouflaged klipfish. Unlike our confident friends at Long Beach, these klipfish were hiding in crevices in the rocks and generally trying not to be seen.

Strawberry sea anemones
Strawberry sea anemones

Dive date: 5 June 2011

Air temperature: 23 degrees

Water temperature: 15 degrees

Maximum depth: 25.1 metres

Visibility: 10 metres

Dive duration: 39 minutes

Tony at the safety stop with the valve handle on his reel
Tony at the safety stop with the valve handle on his reel
Diver ascending past an SMB
Diver ascending past an SMB

Life at Long Beach

Here’s a clip I made after a beautiful dive at Long Beach in Simon’s Town. I spent a lot of time with a curious octopus, and with a friendly super klipfish who wanted to play (his friends came to check me out too). Look out for the gorgeous pink anemone and barehead gobies under the barge wreck. There is a FIFA World Cup 2010 cap that is full of feather stars, some lovely starfish, and a bluefin gurnard right at the end.

Newsletter: The best of winter

Aaaah so you made it here!

On Friday we launched from OPBC and dived the wreck of the Matapan. This is an old fishing trawler lost since 1960. Peter Southwood has put up a lot of info on Wikivoyage. The sun shone all day, there was very little wind and 14 degree water. Seeing the city and the Waterfront, not to mention the mountain, from the ocean is quite special.

Cuttlefish on the SAS Pietermaritzburg
Cuttlefish on the SAS Pietermaritzburg

On Saturday a bunch of us attended the well organised OMSAC Treasure Hunt. We dived the wreck of the SAS Pietermaritzburg and had really good visibility and 14 degree water.

Broadnose sevengill cowshark at Shark Alley
Broadnose sevengill cowshark at Shark Alley

The second dive was to Shark Alley in front of Pyramid Rock, and had milky visibility but lots of cowsharks. Last time we dived there we saw a shark with a hook in its mouth, sticking out the left side and all encrusted. We saw this same shark over a year ago when the hook was shiny clean. Imagine the trauma having this huge thing in your face. Made of stainless steel, these hooks do not corrode and fall off, and may be there for years. On this dive we saw another shark with a hook out the left side of its face. It is still shiny and new but does not look like it is a pain free attachment.

Cecil's head emerging from a hole in the Aster
Cecil’s head emerging from a hole in the Aster

Sunday morning we launched from Hout Bay and dived the wreck of the MV Aster, scuttled in 1997 by divers for diving and we were lucky to spot this blue eyed head sticking out of a hatch. We also watched bubbles coming out of strange places as Peter Southwood did a penetration into the bowels of the ship.

Cecil ascending next to the mast of the Aster
Cecil ascending next to the mast of the Aster

Once back on land we drove off to Long Beach to continue an Open Water course.

A warty pleurobranch channelling Yoda from Star Wars
A warty pleurobranch channelling Yoda from Star Wars

Monday we were back at Long Beach for more student dives so four days of 14 degree water and nice visibility had me in a good mood. After the students were done I popped out to visit the artificial reef we have been building. I was in the water there again today and the conditions are very good, with lots of life around.

Bold klipfish on the pipeline at Long Beach
Bold klipfish on the pipeline at Long Beach

Weekend diving

On Saturday I am continuing with an Open Water course at Long Beach, and on Sunday we’ll be doing some shore dives – hopefully at  A Frame and the Clan Stuart, conditions permitting. Please let me know in good time if you’d like to join in.

regards

Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099
www.learntodivetoday.co.za
www.learntodivetoday.co.za/blog

Diving is addictive!

Dive sites: Tivoli Pinnacles

Tivoli Reef near Roman Rock
Tivoli Reef near Roman Rock

This is a recently discovered site near Roman Rock, named Tivoli Pinnacles because of its position east of Roman Rock (as Tivoli is east of Rome). It’s a very short boat ride straight out to sea from Long Beach, and the site is very close to the approach lanes for Simon’s Town Harbour.

The reef has a low, rocky relief
The reef has a low, rocky relief

We started our dive on top of one of the southern pinnacles, and drifted with the current, spending most of the dive at about 18-20 metres. The relief is quite flat away from the pinnacles, but there is a lot to see.

A smooth horsefish, trying not to be noticed
A smooth horsefish, trying not to be noticed

Tony found a horsefish, resting in a gap in the rocks, Andrew found an evil eye puffer fish for me to photograph, and I spotted a wide array of nudibranchs – mostly silvertip, crowned and gas flame.

This was a very easy dive in the conditions we did it in. There are ample opportunities to stop and examine the reef as you pass over it, and the depth is relatively constant. It was my second dive of the day and I actually went properly into deco… During the six minute deco/safety stop that my dive computer demanded a large and friendly seal frolicked around us. When we surfaced, he was leaping about next to the boat.

Grant had received a call that there was a large pod of dolphins off Kalk Bay harbour, probably feeding, so we followed the massive flock of cormorants north, and drove past the pod. There were maybe 500 long beaked common dolphins all together, including a lot of very tiny calves. It was beautiful.

Dive date: 5 June 2011

Air temperature: 23 degrees

Water temperature: 15 degrees

Maximum depth: 21.9 metres

Visibility: 10 metres

Dive duration: 42 minutes

Seal at the safety stop
Seal at the safety stop
Common long beaked dolphins on the surface
Common long beaked dolphins on the surface

Newsletter: Biomimicry and floods

Hello everyone

This newsletter is late because we have just attended an extremely interesting talk at the Two Oceans Aquarium on biomimicry… Bio what? Google it, but it is a fascinating look at how man can mimic nature in order to solve problems. For example, cars designed to look like a boxfish have aerodynamics of note, and wind generator blades shaped as whale pectoral fins are up to 75% more efficient and so it goes on.

Cecil doing his first deep dive in a drysuit
Cecil doing his first deep dive in a drysuit

Last weekend we managed only one deep dive to the Good Hope wreck (around 35 metres on the sand) and had good visibility and warmish 14 degree water.

Walking anemone on the SAS Good Hope
Walking anemone on the SAS Good Hope

The last few days have been wet and dry days as the ”summer winds” southeaster has blown all week… Let’s not go down the weather forecasting route!! Spoiling the dive conditions, but a wet week anyway as we had a catastrophic water pipe failure at home last week, flooding the entire house with enough water to snorkel around in… The water had run for around 8-10 hours so there was plenty of time for it to dam up…

Redfingers on the SAS Good Hope
Redfingers on the SAS Good Hope

This weekend we are attending the OMSAC Treasure Hunt on Saturday, and on Sunday will do an early boat dive out of Hout Bay to dive the wreck of the Aster, a wreck sunk by divers for divers which has wreck penetration possibilities. This is an ideal dive to start an Advanced course or a Wreck Specialty. The wreck also lies within swimming distance of another wreck called the Katsu Maru.

Frilled nudibranch on the SAS Good Hope
Frilled nudibranch on the SAS Good Hope

After Hout Bay we will move to Long Beach and continue with Open Water dives. Please let me know, if you haven’t already, if you’d like to come along on Sunday morning to the Aster. There are only two places left and please remember that boat dives cost R200. If you’re heavy on air, order a 15 litre cylinder in good time for R80, and if you’re Nitrox certified let me know if you require it.

Divers at the safety stop, ascending on the shot line
Divers at the safety stop, ascending on the shot line

Also, please don’t forget to bring your MPA permits if you come diving with us. They’re available at the Post Office, and if you’re caught without one your kit (or mine, if you’re using it) can be confiscated. That’ll keep me on your Christmas list for a loooooong time…

regards

Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099
www.learntodivetoday.co.za
www.learntodivetoday.co.za/blog

Diving is addictive!