A visit to the Blue Planet aquarium in Copenhagen

On our last day in Denmark, after a week-long family visit between Christmas 2015 and new year 2016, we went to Den Blå Planet, Denmark’s national aquarium. (Actually we were wrong about it being our last day in Denmark, but that’s another story involving Turkish Airlines, who seem to innovate in the field of disappointment.) The aquarium is situated in Kastrup, Copenhagen, quite close to the airport, and overlooks the narrow sound called the Øresund, which separates Denmark from Sweden.

The Blue Planet after the mist cleared
The Blue Planet after the mist cleared

We visited on 1 January, after (eventually) sleeping through the sounds of Copenhagen’s residents letting off five hundred metric tons of fireworks, starting at 5.00 pm the day before. We bought tickets online (a small saving in Danish krone that amounted to eleventy million ZAR) and arrived at opening time. The building is surrounded by a reflection pool, and is built in a spiral form inspired by the shape of a vortex. In the larger halls the high ceilings give a tremendous sense of space; at 10,000 square metres, the building is very large. The halls are generally wide and I imagine it could accommodate a very large number of people before feeling crowded.

Layout of The Blue Planet
Layout of The Blue Planet

The aquarium is divided into three sections. The first is focused on the life found in the lakes and ocean of Denmark and northern Europe. I particularly enjoyed this first part of the aquarium. The animals are adapted to the cold water, so some of them were very similar what we find around Cape Town, and the displays were creative and interesting. There was also the obligatory “anchor with fish” tank, which was (as always) mesmerising. One of the pictures in the gallery below is of Tony checking it out.

Two sea otters live at the aquarium, having been rescued as infants and raised by hand. The male and female otters were found in Alaska when they were four months old with a broken jaw and wounds after a boat strike, and as a 1.5 kg abandoned one day old respectively. As usual, seeing such an intelligent animal in captivity stirs up all sorts of conflicting feelings. That said, you are a stronger person than I am if you could have left these two baby otters to their natural fate (that is, death). The otters spend a lot of time (up to six hours per day) grooming, and in between keep very busy, requiring a lot of enrichment from their four keepers. It was magical to see them.

Also in the northern seas and lakes section is the puffin exhibit, mimicking the cliffs of the Faroe Islands, a Danish territory. Here, also, we found a touch pool (which the Danes call a sensing-aquarium), and a terrifying ambulatory mascot.

The second section of the building is devoted to tropical lakes and rivers, with incredible freshwater exhibits. We saw piranhas, terrapins, frogs, little black rays the size of pancakes, with white polka-dots, and electric eels. The rainforest exhibit is kept at a temperature and humidity level that are impressive in the Scandinavian winter, and I can imagine that this part of the aquarium is popular with expats from warmer climates!

The third part of the aquarium is for the rest of the ocean, and although it’s a big ask to cover (or summarise) so much in the remaining space, it does a fabulous job. The Ocean tank holds four million litres of water, and is home to rays and hammerhead sharks, and other warm water fish. Amongst many other things, there are seahorses, leafy seadragons and coral reef fish to see.

Feeding time in the Ocean tank
Feeding time in the Ocean tank

We watched feeding time for a while, which was quite funny – the aquarists row out onto the water in a small inflatable boat, and administer the snacks from on board. Standing in the tunnel, we could see the boat from below, with the oars working frantically against what I imagine was a bit of surface current.

One of the things that Den Blå Planet does really well is to integrate multimedia, virtual reality and interactive technology into the aquarium experience. This reduces the number of animals required to be on display, and – for the most part – probably takes care of itself, requiring no cleaning and feeding. My favourite such exhibit was the bouncy plankton wall in the ocean section of the aquarium. The photo below is pretty terrible because the display moves all the time, but I put a video on instagram which shows how the plankton clear a space for you when you walk along the wall.

Plankton multimedia display
Plankton multimedia display

We finished off our visit with a flæskesteg sandwich at ØST, the restaurant at the back of the aquarium. It was still a bit misty, but the large windows looking out over the sound let in a lot of light. There is a play area outside, and despite the midwinter temperatures, children in snow suits were making the most of it.

The restaurant at the aquarium, ØST
The restaurant at the aquarium, ØST

I did not get the same strong conservation message from my visit to The Blue Planet that I think the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town works so hard to propagate. This could be because of different cultural approaches to living a “green” lifestyle; in Scandinavia the government does a lot of the work for you, providing renewable energy, prioritising  pedestrian and bicycle traffic, and making it ridiculously easy to recycle, for example. In South Africa it is more of a conscious personal choice and effort to reduce one’s environmental footprint, and there is there is thus perhaps more of a requirement for direct conservation messaging.

Anyway, if you’re in Copenhagen, visit! Next time we’re in Denmark, we’ll check out the little Øresund Aquarium at Helsingor, which is entirely focused on local fauna.

A few days in Knysna

Beaching the ferry in shallow water
Beaching the ferry in shallow water

We were very upset to hear that Lightley’s Houseboats, operating on the Knysna lagoon, went into liquidation last year. Fortunately the boats and licence to operate have been acquired by a lovely Dutch couple who are now operating under the name Knysna Houseboats. We took a short break in late April and spent four nights on a houseboat on the lagoon. The boats have been refurbished, standards have been raised, and the company has moved from the jetty at Belvidere to one in the Thesen Island harbour.

Entrance to the Knysna lagoon from the sea
Entrance to the Knysna lagoon from the sea

Houseboating is the most relaxing kind of holiday you can have; no unexpected visitors, no television (well, we don’t have one of those at home either), no computers (Tony forgot his and didn’t miss it at all), and nowhere particular to go. A skipper’s licence isn’t required to pilot the boats, but you have to go through a half hour course and write a short test before being issued with a temporary licence. The boats have a single 40 hp motor, and ours reached a roaring top speed of 10km/h heading downcurrent.

The last two occasions we’ve visited Knysna we dived in search of seahorses, beneath the Sanparks jetty on Thesen Island. The time to do this is half an hour before high tide, for a couple of reasons. One is that the tidal currents in the lagoon are something fierce; unless you want to do a drift dive out through the Heads, you have to dive near slack water. The other is that the rising tide brings clean seawater into the lagoon, increasing visibility. At low tide (we discovered last time we dived there) the visibility is so bad you can’t see a hand in front of your face. We found seahorses both times we dived in Knysna, but the second time (at low tide) more luck than skill was involved.

This time, high tide fell very early in the morning and in the evening. Because it’s close to winter, days are short, and we’d have had to have dived just before sunrise or just before sunset to coincide with the tide. This seemed like hard (and cold) work. We were on holiday, and lazy, so we left the dive gear at home this time. Hopefully next time we go to Knysna the tides will be in our favour, because I did miss seeing those little critters!

One thing we did do that caused us raucous enjoyment was to sit on the edge of our boat one evening as the tide was going out, with a torch and a plastic salad bowl. The most amazing creatures swam past on the outgoing tide, and with some judicious co-ordination of torch and bowl we were able to catch one or two of them, take their picture, ooh and aah, and then release them back into the lagoon. We saw flatworms, lots of baby sole, shrimps with incredible glowing eyes and almost transparent bodies, and even a small blue fish shaped like a needle that we weren’t quick enough to catch.

Seal beating an octopus

During the day we looked at birds, motored around the lagoon a little bit, read, napped (embarrassingly much), and enjoyed the view. On one occasion we beached the boat and Tony wandered up and down a sandbank, where we could hear the sounds of mudprawns and a host of other creatures living just under the mud exposed by the retreating tide.

Heron on a moored boat
Heron on a moored boat
Geese in formation
Geese in formation

There is currently no dive operator or shop in Knysna, but they seem to open and close frequently. There is an angling and diving club in Knysna, and they can probably refer you to a local diver who can guide you if you want to dive the wreck of the Paquita near the Heads, or one of the other reefs in the area outside the Heads.

Rowing boat on shore
Rowing boat on shore

The perlemoen poacher

I met an abalone poacher some time ago – just after I first came to Cape Town. He’d brought his regulator in for repairs to a dive shop that I happened to be visiting. When the technician opened it up, it was packed solid with particles of rust from his dive cylinders. Confronted with the information that it will cause him to drown one day if he doesn’t bring his cylinders for a visual inspection and hydrostatic cleaning, the poacher explained that his dive cylinders wouldn’t pass a visual, because they’re painted black (instead of South Africa’s regulation grey and canary yellow).

His cylinder isn’t the only thing that is painted black. ALL his dive gear – wetsuit, booties, hood, gloves, regulator, hoses, first stage, pillar valves, BCD, mask, fins, torches, dive computer – is black. There’s not a single reflective surface anywhere. According to the poacher, if he was standing by the side of the road in his dive gear at night, fully kitted up, and you drove past, you wouldn’t see him. At all.

What does he do with all this stealth gear? He dives, alone, at night, to fetch abalone (perlemoen) from the sea. His dives are often to 50 metres, on air, and he has no redundancy in his setup. No alternate air source on his cylinder (“For whom?” he asked), and no buddy. He sometimes does four such dives a night, and can make R40,000 for a single night’s work.

His view of what he does is that the abalone lives in the sea, and if he goes and fetches it, it’s his. “The ocean is free,” he said. Hardly anyone else is prepared to do four night dives in a row to depths of 50 metres with no support except for a boat on the surface (with no lights showing), and to look for abalone and pry them off the rocks with a crowbar. Why shouldn’t he reap the rewards? He told me that he’s not taking money from poor people – he’s only taking from the ocean, and it’s a big place.

It’s dangerous work, too (and not just because of the way he dives). There are rival poaching groups on the south/east and west coasts, and a police crackdown on the west coast has brought “boatloads” of their poachers across to this side of the world. Shots have been fired, cylinders have been filled with water (hence at least some of the rust), and a simmering atmosphere of impending violent conflict has arisen.

This was the first time that I’d talked to a poacher, and it gave me a lot to think about. This is a world that we don’t necessarily have any insight into as recreational scuba divers, even though we know that what the poachers do is wrong.

Clare and I have seen poachers once or twice before, filling cylinders or buying gear (lots of it, expensive stuff) from dive shops all over. I’ve also seen more than one at Miller’s Point, early in the morning. One tried to sell me his dive gear for money to get home, because his friends had left him alone at the slipway wearing nothing but a wetsuit and his trenchcoat.

You may wonder why I am mentioning this. No one talks about it in the dive industry because it’s awkward and poachers have a lot of cash to spend on gear and air fills. But there is value in looking at hard issues. Tomorrow there is some more reading about abalone poaching, and it’s very thought provoking!

Bookshelf: Poseidon’s Steed

Poseidon’s Steed – Helen Scales

Poseidon's Steed
Poseidon's Steed

Poseidon’s Steed is marine biologist Helen Scales’ first book; its subject is the seahorse. The book is short – I read it in less than half a day whilst convalescing with a cold – but packed with everything that is interesting about seahorses.

I am well acquainted with the pull that these (mostly) tiny creatures exercise on people – Tony has been obsessed with seeing a seahorse for years, and I was delighted to share in his first sighting during a dive in the Knysna lagoon just after we met. The Knysna (or Cape) seahorse, Hippocampus capensis, features towards the end of Scales’ book, where she discusses the threats to its habitat and its extremely limited geographical range.

The first section of the book situates seahorses in culture, myth and history, and reveals that they have been venerated and depicted in art and design for thousands of years. Scales hops – seemingly – from topic to topic with great ease, and before you realise it she’s painted a complete picture of the seahorse and its role in human life for generations.

Scales describes seahorse biology, clearing up for me the reason why we saw such colour variation among the seahorses we spotted in Knysna: they are able to change their body colour at will. This makes it tricky to differentiate species, but extensive research has placed the current known number of seahorse species at about 40. Unique among animals, the male seahorse actually experiences pregnancy, and these creatures exhibit great fidelity to their mates. Pipefish, those close relatives of the seahorse, are also covered.

Seahorses are popular exhibits in aquaria – including tanks maintained by private individuals – and Scales traces the history of the aquarium from its origin in Victorian times, when it satisfied the prevailing mania for collecting and categorising. Husbandry of seahorses for aquaria is big business, and Scales mentions a company called Ocean Rider as an example of seahorse breeders. This takes the pressure off populations of wild seahorses, which are particularly vulnerable to human exploitation and pollution because they exhibit such habitat fidelity.

Seahorses are also vulnerable because they have attained almost mythic status in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and are used to cure all manner of ailments. A chapter on their role as medicine gives perspective on the use of species from both the plant and animal world as medicine – Scales locates TCM nicely in history, tracing its development and explaining the difficulties of testing whether a specific item – such as ground up seahorse – can cure a specific ailment (the holistic approach taken by practitioners of this type of medicine means that each individual receives a very specific, tailored cocktail of medications).

Project Seahorse began in 1996, in response to the realisation that harvesting of seahorses from their habitats was far more widespread and intensive than had been suspected. The project was piloted in the Philippines, and involved the local community – who derived income from the seahorse trade – in setting aside part of the ocean on their doorstep as a no-take marine reserve. The community also allowed researchers to measure and weigh the seahorses that they did harvest, and logged their catch daily for study purposes. The results have been encouraging, and it is clear that involving the local community – who make a living from the resource – in the conservation effort was key. Project Seahorse has subsequently expanded its reach and scope considerably.

Seahorses do not perform a misson-critical role in our oceans; they are not a “keystone species“, and if we remove all of them our oceans won’t collapse and cease to function as ecosystems. In the epilogue, Scales quotes David Attenborough (from page 4 of this interview) as saying that the primary reason for conservation of our natural world is “Man’s imaginative health”.

I can partly support this view, but I think it’s the English literature major in me that’s getting behind it. Certainly, in the case of the seahorse, the greatest loss would be the sense of wonder experienced daily by visitors to the Tennessee Aquarium  and many other public aquaria, scuba divers in Australia, Mozambique, the Knysna Lagoon, and visitors to countless other sensitive locations around the world where these creatures are found. There is, on the other hand, a hint of arrogance in claiming that the primary reason for us not to damage the earth and decimate her species is for our own good. Elsewhere in the interview Attenborough says:

The fundamental issue is the moral issue – and I’ve always said that. The moral issue is that we should not impoverish this world.’

And this, I think, is the point: for us to have arrived, at the end of a process longer than we can adequately comprehend, and behave as though our late arrival gives us licence to wreak havoc on ecosystems that have existed – in balance, without interference – for aeons – is wrong. Just wrong.

Whale sharks are one of the species referred to as charismatic megafauna – species with wide popular appeal that can be used as icons by conservationists and elicit disproportionately strong responses to appeals for their protection. Perhaps seahorses should be listed as charismatic microfauna (I’m not entirely sure that’s a formal name for anything!) – they seem to capture the imagination all out of proportion to their size.

There is much to love about seahorses. You can buy the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise click here. If you want to read it on your Kindle, go here.


Article: Wired on seahorses

Here’s a beautiful short article on Wired.com about seahorses, revealing research that indicates that their S-shaped bodies give them an advantage in hunting for food over their pipefish relatives. They’re apparently among the fastest feeders known, and their distinctive body shape gives them an extra couple of millimetres of strike range.

All the images included with the article were taken at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where they are currently holding an exhbition called The Secret Lives of Seahorses. I think Tony and I need to pay it a visit!

Bookshelf: Atlas of Dive Sites of South Africa & Mozambique

Atlas of Dive Sites of South Africa & Mozambique – Fiona McIntosh

Atlas of Dive Sites of South Africa and Mozambique
Atlas of Dive Sites of South Africa and Mozambique

This is a brand new release from MapStudio and diver-author Fiona McIntosh. McIntosh specialises in outdoor adventure topics (hiking routes, caving, etc.) and she has produced a handy volume detailing the best dive spots around South Africa in some detail. The “atlas” moniker is accurate: the volume includes maps of the whole area, with inserts depicting the dive sites in question. This potentially enables experienced divers to explore sites independently of a local operator.

There are only a few sites featured in each area, but the dive sites featured are the “best” in each location. They have been selected on the basis of safetly, and pristine condition. There are additional sites listed, along with their locations, but maps and reviews only appear for the short list of top dive sites in each place.

There are lots of interesting sidebars detailing local attractions (for example, a shyshark and catshark feeding dive offered in Mossel Bay, seahorse hunting in Knysna, the chokka dive in Port Elizabeth every August, and shark cage diving in False Bay at Seal Island). The dive site descriptions include details of what marine life can be seen, and the nature of the entry (important for shore dives). Made me want to put on my kit and get in the water again as soon as possible! The weekend is too far away…

I was interested to see the quality of diving offered on the south coast in locations such as Plettenberg Bay. Apparently there are also some super dives in Hermanus, though no permanent dive operator there. The atlas definitely made me want to travel!

At the back of the atlas is a section on marine life, by SURG‘s Georgina Jones. It’s a whirlwind tour, of necessity, since it covers not only the Cape but the entire South African coastline.

Dive Atlas launch function
Dive Atlas launch function

The book also includes contact details of the various dive operators around the country, as well as general dive tourism information. I was pleased to note that in the Cape Town section, McIntosh includes the web address of Peter Southwood’s wikivoyage page on diving around the Cape Peninusla and False Bay for those who require more detailed information.

Tony and I attended the launch last week, at the NSRI Station at the Waterfront (very cool venue!) and enjoyed catching up with the diving establishment of Cape Town. Fiona gave a whirlwind tour of diving in Southern Africa (the Mozambique section of her talk – and of the atlas – made me drool), and Georgina did a natural history tour of Cape diving for us. We are definitely very fortunate here in the Cape!

You can get a copy of the atlas here.

Sea life: Pipefish

Bright green longsnout pipefish
Bright green longsnout pipefish on the sand at Long Beach

Tony has a soft spot for pipefish – they are related to seahorses (and he loves those), and share many physical features such as the shape of their snouts, and the small (seemingly ineffectual) fins that propel them through the water. Like seahorses, the males incubate the eggs – sometimes we find really chubby specimens with little bulging tummies, and I suspect those are the dutiful fathers.

Longsnout pipefish at Long Beach
Longsnout pipefish at Long Beach

The type of pipefish that we find in Cape Town, the longsnout pipefish, comes in an array of colours, from bright green to brown. They’re usually spotted curled around a piece of sea grass, but sometimes out on the sand as well. They generally seem very laid back and sluggish in the water, but are capable of whip-like bursts of speed when they put their minds to it.

Pipefish at Long Beach
One of Tony's pictures of a pipefish at Long Beach

We mostly see them at Long Beach, where there’s lots of plant life for them to hide in amongst.

Looking for seahorses in Knysna

Tony is obsessed – and I mean obsessed – with seahorses, and by all accounts has been hunting for them everywhere he’s ever dived. For this reason he was very keen to dive in Knysna, home of the Knysna seahorse, and to see if we could find some.

We go houseboating in Knysna every year (so far), and we’re able to dock the houseboat on Thesen Island at the jetty there. The first time we went, Tony’s friend Cameron showed us where to dive, and accompanied us in the water while his girlfriend Claire paddled her kayak around on the surface.

The magnificent Knysna Lagoon opens to the sea through a very narrow opening called the Heads. Because it’s so narrow, the tidal pull into and out of the lagoon is incredibly strong, and it’s not wise to dive while the tide is going in or out. The dive sites inside the Heads (and there are several, including a wreck called the Paquita which I’m dying to visit) should only be dived around the turn of the tide, from half an hour before to half an hour after, unless you have a hectic drift dive in mind (and some people do!).

The first time we dived the Sanparks Quay on Thesen Island was in August 2009, and we dived at high tide one afternoon. It’s a bit of a walk from the houseboats jetty to the Sanparks Quay, especially wearing full kit, but at high tide the entrance is reasonably easy. You just stride down some steps next to the quay and into the water. It’s a so-called junkyard dive, with lots of tyres, bottles and other bits of rubbish, but also very beautiful to see how the sea life has colonised the junk. At high tide the water is deep, clean, and still. The fishermen on the quay were profoundly amused by our antics, and one has to watch out for their lines and hooks while diving this site.


Junkyard dive
Beauty in the junkyard

The seahorses are really hard to spot – many of them are brown (we did find a bright yellow one), smallish, and well-camoflaged among the debris. They wrap their little tails around things and sway in the current. We saw three or four, and Tony was so excited when we spotted the first one that I could hear him shouting through his regulator.


Knysna seahorse in hiding
Knysna seahorse in hiding

Dive date: 18 August 2009

Air temperature: 22 degrees

Water temperature: 15 degrees

Maximum depth: 5 metres

Visibility: 15 metres

Dive duration: 19 minutes

The second time Tony and I dived the Sanparks Quay was at low tide (high tides were at night while we were there) in June this year. We were alone, and it wasn’t as easy as the previous time. The bottom of the steps ended before the waterline, so we had to leap off instead of just walk into the water. The visibility was less than a metre – like swimming in ProNutro – so I held onto Tony’s arm for dear life for most of the dive because if he moved too far I lost him.  The tide going out stirs up a lot of silt and brings dirty water from higher in the lagoon, which makes it very hard to see anything.

Despite the conditions, we did spot one tiny little sea horse, which made it worthwhile. There was also a crowned and an orange-clubbed nudibranch nudibranch, but we didn’t stay long because the conditions were so poor. We swam under the pier a little, which we didn’t do the first time. We learned why it’s a good idea to dive at HIGH tide next time!

Dive date: 16 June 2010

Air temperature: 20 degrees

Water temperature: 12 degrees

Maximum depth: 4.9 metres

Visibility: 0.5 metres

Dive duration: 35 minutes

If you don’t spot any seahorses, or don’t fancy a dive, you can visit the Sanparks office at the far end of the quay (closest to the Heads). They have a beautiful tank FULL of seahorses, who are extremely obliging photographic subjects.


Knysna seahorse
Knysna seahorse in the Sanparks Building