Newsletter: Whether the weather

Hi divers

We ventured out to Long Beach last weekend and found the conditions to be less than ideal: surgy, especially for a 10 year old student, and with 3-4 m visibility. Winter diving is around the corner and we look forward to improved conditions.

The forecast for the weekend is not that great. The visibility is reasonable, but there is currently a 17 second period swell in False Bay and that won’t do much to maintain the viz. Saturday looks to be the best option for boating, but an early start is needed as the wind picks up around midday. I will make the call late tomorrow afternoon as to whether we have launch weather or not. Text, email, call, or Whatsapp me if you want to dive.

Strepies at Long Beach
Strepies at Long Beach

Cowsharks

It’s been an exciting week at Shark Alley, unless you’re a cowshark. Several dead cowsharks have been found this week, and no live ones have been spotted. The dead cowsharks appear to have been skilfully predated upon by orcas! We observed a similar phenomenon exactly a year ago. There’s some more information and a photo of one of the sharks on the Spot the Sevengill Shark facebook page (and a further update on the dissection results here).

This is also a good opportunity to remember what a privilege it is to dive with the cowsharks by viewing a video Jerrel recently compiled from footage taken at the site just over a year ago. We have a cowshark diving protocol as a reminder of how we approach this amazing dive.

Dive gear sale

Monty of Scuba Culture is having a stock clearance sale, so if you’re in need of a hose, a cutting tool, or something else shiny or cool, contact him to find out what he’s got available.

MPA Permits

Please remember to bring your permit to dive in a marine protected area with you when you come for a dive. Ideally they should be on the boat with you when you come diving (as that’s where they’ll get checked). If you don’t have a permit, the post office can help. We also have temporary permits available, valid for a month, but not very cost effective.

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

To subscribe to receive this newsletter by email, use the form on this page!

Article: Outside on acoustic sanctuaries for whales

Departing dolphins, and Christo
Departing dolphins, and Christo

Whales and dolphins make extensive use of sound to communicate. Some of the purposes of this communication may be to organise during a hunt, to socialise or to co-ordinate group movement.

The predominance of long-distance shipping as a cost-effective and efficient way to transport goods around the world has increased the amount of anthropogenic noise in the ocean to the extent that, in some parts of the world, populations of wild cetaceans struggle to make themselves heard in order to communicate with each other.

Outside Online describes a recent paper that proposes “acoustic sanctuaries” to protect cetacean populations of marine mammals off the coast of British Columbia in Canada. This is a fascinating idea, and need not be difficult to implement:

These quiet areas could be pain-free places for governments to formally institute quiet zones, the paper argues. Ships wouldn’t have to be rerouted, the authors note, they would simply have to continue avoiding sensitive areas.

Read the full article here.

To read more about acoustic communication between cetaceans, try this article, the book Listening to Whales by marine mammal scientist Alexandra Morton, or (for a touch of eccentricity) the book Thousand Mile Song.

Bookshelf: Voices in the Ocean

Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins – Susan Casey

Voices in the Ocean
Voices in the Ocean

It is clear from the first pages of Voices in the Ocean that Susan Casey is enchanted by dolphins, and her book does not shy away from the mysticism and wild attributions of almost supernatural powers that dog our toothed marine mammal friends. She is author of The Wave and The Devil’s Teeth, and favours an immersive and almost obsessive style of engagement with her subject. This makes for good reading.

Despite the persistent thread of woo running through the entire book, Casey manages to expose important and awful aspects of humans’ relationship with dolphins. Some of these are often overlooked. She visits dolphins in theme parks, goes to the cove at Taiji in Japan (location of a famous dolphin hunt), and – in what I view as the most important section of the book because the topic is so under-reported – the Solomon Islands.

The Solomon Islanders have a long history with dolphins, both slaughtering them for their teeth (as money), and capturing the animals to sell them to marine parks. The scale of the Solomon Islands’ involvement in dolphin killing and trade is massive and horrific. Some of the incidents are completely pointless, executed in order to hold conservation organisations to ransom. Casey visits the islands, meets some of the players, and tries to make sense of the chaos and menace she finds there.

Casey concludes with a study of the Minoan culture on Crete, a hopeful note after a trip into the hellish depths of depravity that seem to occur more often than not at the human-dolphin interface. You can read more about Voices in the Ocean at Outside Magazine, the Guardian, and the New York Times.

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

Article(s): The Longform guide to sea creatures (some holiday reading!)

Here are some holiday reading recommendations – not too taxing, not entirely insubstantial – to enjoy while lounging under an umbrella by the pool or waiting for a flight to board. You will probably enjoy them because they’re about marine life, and I assume that if you didn’t have a passing interest in the ocean, you wouldn’t be reading this blog.

Octopus at Pyramid Rock
Octopus at Pyramid Rock

Longform is a website that provides reading recommendations – usually (as the name suggests) long form stories, not restricted to a particular range of topics. I am a subscriber to the Longform newsletter, and lately a user of their iPad app.

The Longform guide to sea creatures is a short list of juicy long articles whose common thread is that they focus on marine animals. I’ve shared some of them with you already – Killer in the Pool and Moby Duck being the most notable. Others are about giant squid, octopus, tuna, whales, and the Loch Ness monster. It’s a page worth bookmarking, should you anticipate requiring a couple of hours of thoughtful, fact-checked, well researched reading on the subject of marine life.

You can find the list of Longform sea creature articles here, and a mostly overlapping but slightly different version on Slate.com, here. (The advantage of the Slate list is that you can send the articles to your Kindle, to read later.)

 

Newsletter: Smoke on the water

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Sunday: Boat or shore dives, conditions dependent!

We have had terrific conditions all week and have been taking full advantage. False Bay is cleanish and warmish. Visibility has varied from site to site but the bay is full of life. On Tueday we spent our surface interval time photographing sea swallows at Batsata Maze. Wednesday’s surface interval was spent filming giant short tail sting rays at Millers Point, and today we were fortunate enough to have two orcas swim by close inshore whilst the divers were on the SAS Pietermaritzburg this morning. Who knows what we will see tomorrow!

Giant short tailed sting ray behind the boat at Millers Point
Giant short tailed sting ray behind the boat at Millers Point

Sadly the diving today was somewhat overshadowed by the raging fire that descended on Simon’s Town with the westerly wind, despite the best efforts of many firefighters. Watching from the water you could see the speed at which the fire traveled and I doubt anything other than a thundershower was going to slow it down. On the run back into Simon’s Town we went through really thick smoke.

Simon's Town fire
Simon’s Town fire

The weekend, however, does not look too rosy. At cowsharks this afternoon the swell was quite noticeable and although it stays at 3 metres for most of tomorrow, the forecast is for 5-6 metres on Saturday. It seldom reaches the height in the forecast but even at 4-5 metres diving becomes less than great. Surge and low viz are on the cards. I think there will be a better than good chance that Sunday will be semi-decent so I will provisionally schedule diving, either from the boat or perhaps a shore dive or two… Text me if you want to join and I’ll keep you posted.

Diarise

Don’t forget the Shark Spotters fundraiser on Sunday – should be fun!

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

To subscribe to receive this newsletter by email, use the form on this page!

Bookshelf: Watching Whales & Dolphins in Southern Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bookshelf: Beneath the Surface

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

Beneath the Surface
Beneath the Surface

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

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

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

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

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

Bookshelf: Swimming with Orca

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

Swimming with Orca
Swimming with Orca

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

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

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

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

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

Get a copy of the book here or here.

Southern African Shark & Ray Symposium 2015 – first day

The view from the top of Red Hill, over SImon's Town
The view from the top of Red Hill, over Simon’s Town

Earlier this week I had the great privilege of attending the 3rd Southern African Shark and Ray Symposium, which was held from 7-9 September at the Blue Horizon Estate above Simon’s Town. I am not a shark scientist (these days I am probably best described as a lapsed mathematician) but have an interest in the subject so I went to listen. If I had to provide some bite-sized takeaways from the first day of the symposium, jotted down without applying any of the science communication principles I learned at the workshop yesterday, it would be these:

  • Shark mitigation – avoiding negative interactions between humans and sharks – is HARD and a lot of smart people are working on the problem.
  • The City of Cape Town is a world leader in shark mitigation efforts, along with Shark Spotters. They really think about the problem, and care about both people and sharks.
  • If you are not blessed with high coastal terrain and surface-swimming sharks (which would permit a shark spotting program like Cape Town’s one), other shark mitigation measures are in the pipeline… From orca-patterned surfboards (and wetsuits?) to shark exclusion nets to large-scale electrical repellent cables.
  • The KZN Sharks Board catches a lot of sharks, rays and other animals in their gill nets and drum lines, and this is upsetting and far from ideal. But they facilitate an incredible amount of scientific study, too – their catches do not go to waste.
  • The KZN Sharks Board is committed to finding measures other than gill nets and drum lines to keep bathers safe, and they are actively working on the problem (refer to the electrical shark repellent cable I mentioned above).
  • Sometimes scientific research doesn’t look the way you expect or imagine. Ruth Leeney of Protect Africa’s Sawfishes spent months on the ground interviewing Mozambican villagers in the far north of the country to assess the population status of sawfish in Mozambique. She collected data that no one else could have obtained by other means!
  • Smaller, less charismatic sharks, like catsharks, need more love. There are also whole families of sharks that divers don’t see (such as dogfish) and hence aren’t really aware of. They are caught prolifically as by-catch and not much is known about them. But some smart people are working on this!
  • There are motivated, talented scientists working hard in South African government departments to protect our marine resources and making recommendations to manage them sustainably. (There’s also many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip, but they are trying very hard.)
  • Technology – be it cameras, software, or tags – is enabling great leaps in our understanding of what’s out there, which will enable us to protect and conserve things better.
  • Ocean acidification as a result of climate change could affect sharks directly, by actually wearing away their denticles (tooth-like structures on their skin). Denticles protect sharks and help them to swim faster.

I was tweeting from the symposium twitter account, and along with some of the other attendees we produced a fairly comprehensive summary of each talk, along with some visual media. Here’s a link to the day one compendium on Storify, and it is embedded below:

Bookshelf: Empire Antarctica

Empire Antarctica – Gavin Francis

Empire Antarctica
Empire Antarctica

The Antarctic is the only continent that has no indigenous human inhabitants. The only people who occupy this ice-covered continent are scientists, kept company by penguins, seals, and other birds and marine mammals. Medical doctor Gavin Francis spent 14 months there at the British Antarctic base called Halley Research Station. He was drawn to the post by the prospect of the solitude he would experience and by the “blankness” of Antarctica – without human inhabitants, it lacks a cultural and historical context in the sense that we experience culture when we travel to other destinations. He was also enamoured of the emperor penguins that breed on the continent, and desired greatly to see them.

This is a beautifully written book. Francis steeped himself in the writings of explorers who visited the continent before him, and in the scientific literature of emperor penguins (though he does not mention having watched March of the Penguins or Happy Feet – clearly a gap in his research!). He alternates between lyrical and scientific frames of mind, evocatively describing the exploration of an ice cavern and then, in detailed practical terms, the dissection of a baby penguin. He does not mention very much about his human companions at the base, and I was glad of this. It gives a good sense of how he experienced his year on the ice – there were some other people there, but he was largely wrapped up in his internal experience of the place.

Francis structures his book around the passage of the seasons. This is a logical choice, as in Antarctica the cold and darkness of winter are magnified to the most extreme degree possible, only to be completely cast away by the endless days of the polar summer (not much warmer, however). There is enough information about the mundane details of his life on the base to satisfy one’s curiosity (for example, the modern outdoor clothing they used was so warm that even in a blizzard he could not feel the wind through his layers). But the focus is squarely on the continent itself, its beauty and inhospitable extremes. His descriptions of the emperor penguin colony close to the base, and the Adélie penguins found along the coast, are exuberant and moving.

The existential angst experienced by Francis as the end of his posting in the Antarctic draws nearer – should he return to civilisation? What should he do with his life? – is magnified by the lack of distractions on the ice. After a largely uneventful (yet fascinating to read about) year, he describes his subsequent life choices – marriage, three children – quickly, and glosses over what must have been a substantial period of adjustment to life in warmer, more populous climes. This is an incredible book that made me want to go to the ice, and stayed in my mind for some time after I finished reading it.

You can also read reviews from The Economist, the Telegraph and the Washington Times. Francis wrote for The Guardian about his experience at the end of the world – it’ll give you a good sense of his writing style.

You can get a copy here, here or – if you’re in South Africa – here.

If you’re as ice-obsessed as I am, also check out Endurance (for some historical context), and Ice Patrol.