Newsletter: A raft of penguins

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

SaturdayLaunching from Simon’s Town jetty at 9.00 am for Roman Rock and at 12.00 for Photographer’s Reef or the wreck of SAS Pietermaritzburg

Sunday: Shore dive at Long Beach or A Frame at 9.30 am

Penguins near Boulders Beach
Penguins near Boulders Beach

Conditions in False Bay have been great this week, and I am sure they will be pretty good for the weekend. Some swell arrives tomorrow, so Saturday will be better for boating and Sunday for shore dives. Let me know if you want to get in the water.


Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099

Diving is addictive!

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How to help marine wildlife in distress


It’s not uncommon to come across marine wildlife – seabirds, seals, turtles – apparently in distress. This is not always the case, so before you mount a complex and dangerous rescue mission, or try to provide help where none is needed, it may be wise to get an expert on the telephone to help you determine whether it really is necessary. Fortunately there is a range of 24-hour wildlife hotlines to choose from, depending on what species you are dealing with.


Bull seal with plastic around his neck, in Hout Bay
Bull seal with plastic around his neck, in Hout Bay

Seals with plastic or fishing line around their necks should be reported to the Two Oceans Aquarium (if the seal was spotted around Cape Town harbour or the Waterfront), or, more generally to the SPCA Wildlife Unit on +27 (0) 21 700 4158/4159, or +27 (0) 83 326 1604 after hours and on weekends. Unfortunately the odds are your seal is probably not going to get the help it needs if it isn’t in the port of Cape Town or at the Waterfront; this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your darndest to advocate on its behalf.

You can help to deal with this problem at its source by retrieving any loops of plastic that you see floating in the water when you’re on a boat. Hout Bay harbour is a particular cesspit of plastic pollution, and with a nearby seal colony it’s a recipe for disaster. Cutting through any closed loops on plastic items (such as beer can holders) that you recycle or dispose of yourself also ensures that should the plastic end up in the wild, it won’t entangle an animal.

Seals found lying on the beach are usually not in trouble. Juvenile seals may rest for long periods – a couple of days at a time – on shore, and the most important thing to do is not to disturb them. They don’t need to be kept wet, they don’t need to be fed, and they can inflict a nasty bite. Encourage other members of the public to give the animal a wide berth, particularly if they have dogs. Lead by example. If the animal appears visibly unwell (fitting, for example) or is bleeding, then call the SPCA Wildlife Unit for a chat about what course of action is best.


Seabirds are most often found entangled in fishing line or plastic, pierced by fishing hooks, or, in the event of an oil spill, with oiled feathers. It is important to get help if possible, particularly for oiled birds.

SANCCOB has a 24 hour rescue centre which can be reached on +27 (0)21 557 6155 or +27 (0) 78 638 3731 (after hours & weekends). Their website provides the following advice to would-be seabird rescuers:

What to do when you have found an injured/sick/oiled seabird:

  • If you are unable to handle the seabird, SANCCOB will send out a unit to collect the bird.
  • If you approach any seabird, please approach with care. Some seabirds such as Cape Gannets and African Penguins have sharp beaks.
  • Have with you a towel, or blanket and wear protection over your hands and eyes. Use a towel/blanket to throw over the bird to catch it, ensuring that the bird is able to breathe.
  • If you have a large box ensure that there are holes for air before you place the injured/sick marine bird.

More information can be found here.


During the autumn and winter months, juvenile and sub-adult sea turtles sometimes strand on Western Cape beaches. These animals are often shocked by the cold and in poor shape – they do not typically occur in Cape waters but are washed down in eddies of the Agulhas current.

Do not put the turtle back in the sea or into water. It is probably weak, dehydrated and hypothermic, and is likely to drown. Keep it dry, and call the Two Oceans Aquarium for further instructions and assistance. The aquarium rehabilitates and releases the turtles in warmer water when they are healthy.

Here’s detailed information from the Two Oceans Aquarium on what to do if you find a stranded turtle. Do the right thing!

Whales and dolphins

The City of Cape Town would like ocean users to report whale carcasses before they end up on the beach. This is mostly for public safety and resource allocation purposes, but if we can do anything to keep a whale carcass out at sea (or on a secluded non-swimming beach), it serves a conservation purpose as well. There’s a phone number you can use to do this – read more here.

If you come across a current or imminent live whale or dolphin stranding, contact the NSRI on +27 (0) 21 449 3500 immediately. They will activate the relevant authorities. Try to bear in mind that these events often do not end well for the animals concerned, as they are often sick or disoriented and impossible to assist. Be a help, not a hindrance, and obey whatever instructions you are given by the NSRI, SanParks, or whoever comes to take charge.

A free-swimming but entangled whale should be immediately reported to the NSRI as well – they will activate the South African Whale Disentanglement Network. Do not attempt to assist the whale yourself – this could be fatal for you (not the whale) – rather make a note of the direction it is swimming, and its precise location, and whatever other helpful information you can provide. Whale entanglements seem to be increasing in frequency around False Bay in particular, as more experimental fisheries are approved. (If this worries you, you could write a letter to DAFF about it.)

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.

Bookshelf: Endurance

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage – Alfred Lansing


Sir Ernest Shackleton was a British explorer who mounted an expedition to the Antarctic in 1914. The intention was for a group of men to traverse the Antarctic continent from sea to sea: the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. The expedition did not go as planned; before landing on the continent the expedition’s ship, Endurance, became trapped between ice floes and could not be moved. I’m going to tell you practically the entire story here, but since it’s a historical event it’s not as if I’m spoilering it. Furthermore, if you read one book this year, you should read Endurance. Even foreknowledge of the events it recounts won’t dim your enjoyment.

The men spent six months on board their ship as she drifted with the ice, and when it became apparent that it was about to be completely destroyed by the ice, they decamped – along with their sled dogs – to an ice floe. The floe drifted still further, and when it in turn started to break up – after about five months had passed – the men took to the small boats that they had brought with them from Endurance, and headed for the closest attainable land. Their voyage to uninhabited Elephant Island took a week, during which time the men did not sleep and had very little to eat. They were exposed to the full force of the Southern Ocean, but managed to land on the island and establish a camp.

Shackleton selected a small subgroup of the men, and in the James Caird, a 6.85 metre wooden boat (for scale, just a bit longer than our rubber duck) they set out on the 1,300 kilometre trip to South Georgia Island, where there was a whaling station and contact with civilisation. This voyage took two weeks of herculean effort. Shackleton and his men then crossed South Georgia Island on foot – scaling incredible elevations with no appropriate mountaineering tools and clothing that was threadbare and unsuitable for the environment by dint of its prior length of service as part of their wardrobes. After wrangling to obtain a vessel and attempts thwarted by ice and weather, a boat was able to rescue the remainder of the crew, who had been waiting on Elephant Island for over three months, eating seals and penguins.

I spoke so incessantly about this book while I was reading (actually listening to) it, and afterwards, that it must have driven Tony mad. The courage and resourcefulness of the expedition members astonished me. They entered a hostile environment, one hundred years ago (compare modern preparations for a trip across the Antarctic), and existed in harmony together, in a range of bitterly perilous situations, without loss of good temper or – incredibly – of life. They took photographs and many of the crew kept meticulous diaries, enabling a detailed reconstruction of the events. I suspect that a large part of my enjoyment was related to the fact that I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by Simon Prebble, who has a beautiful, expressive voice and was able to bring the diary entries of the crew to life using their various accents.

You can get a copy of the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.

There’s a magnificent photo essay about the Endurance (with the expedition photographer Frank Hurley’s original pictures) here.

False Bay photo cruise

First light in the yacht basin
First light in the yacht basin

When diving conditions aren’t great, but it’s nice enough to be on the boat (and occasionally when it’s not!), a tour of False Bay is just the ticket. This particular winter’s day, bundled up in our warmest clothes, we set off at first light from Simon’s Town jetty to get to Seal Island nice and early. We were distracted by the sunrise beauty of Roman Rock lighthouse, and a pod of dolphins on the way out to the island. The dolphins checked us out briefly but didn’t want to stick around, so we left them alone.

Roman Rock at dawn
Roman Rock at dawn

Once we got to the island we were able to witness a couple of breaches of great white sharks chasing seals, as well as one on the decoy towed by Stef of Shark Explorers. He promised us a breach, and delivered! Witnessing these events is so much a matter of luck – you have to be looking in the right direction at the right time, because the sharks don’t give any visible warning of where they’re going to strike. Keeping an eye on small groups of seals returning to the island is the best way to improve your chances of seeing a jumping shark.

Sunrise across False Bay
Sunrise across False Bay

After a while at the island we headed north towards Macassar and Muizenberg. There is a huge, shallow plateau here that stretches far out from shore at a fairly constant depth of 5-7 metres. It was here that we saw quite a bit of whale action on last year’s whale watching trip with Simon’s Town Boat Company. Following the coastline from Muizenberg we admired the quaint old buildings of St James and the colourful beach huts there, and then popped into Kalk Bay harbour to see the fishing boats.

Ashley slip streaming behind the boat
Ashley slip streaming behind the boat

After leaving Kalk Bay we headed towards Fish Hoek, where we encountered our next door neighbour Ashley, out on his paddle ski. He wanted to catch up with his buddies, so we motored slowly out of the bay with him riding in our wake until the gap was closed. We meandered back past Glencairn, the quarry, and the Clan Stuart, finishing up back at Simon’s Town jetty.

Glencairn quarry
Glencairn quarry

These trips are ideal for photographers (or adventurers) who want to see the beautiful coastline of False Bay from a different angle. There is also the opportunity to see some of the marine wildlife that inhabits our bay between the mountains – birds, whales (when in season, and from a distance), dolphins, sharks (if lucky), sunfish (if lucky!), seals, and penguins. If you’d like to be informed about future False Bay photo cruises, get in touch or subscribe to our newsletter for advance notice.

Humboldt penguins at Copenhagen Zoo

While we were in Denmark between Christmas and New Year we visited the Copenhagen Zoo. I was specially enchanted by the Humboldt penguins (they look a lot like African penguins, but originate in Peru and Chile). Their exhibit was set up so that you could see them swimming underwater. Even though it was very cold, they seemed quite happy and well insulated.

We occasionally see penguins while boating around False Bay, but I’ve never had a chance to swim with one on a dive. I think they’re shy that way.

A Day on the Bay: Racing at sea

Sunrise behind Simon's Town Yacht Club
Sunrise behind Simon’s Town Yacht Club

Clare is not good at early mornings, but I love to see the sun rise, and one beautiful Saturday just before Christmas – when visibility was unfortunately too poor to take divers out – I took Seahorse to False Bay Yacht Club at first light. The day turned out to be quite hectic for other ocean users, but I was able to calmly observe the action.

I started with a quiet tour to Ark Rock and past Roman Rock lighthouse. I spotted a lone baby penguin heading home to Boulders Beach. He was making quite a lot of noise, telling me where he was going.

Abandoned rubber duck off Cape Point

NSRI Simon's Town rescue boat Spirit of Safmarine
NSRI Simon’s Town rescue boat Spirit of Safmarine

The NSRI were out and about for a surfski race (see below), but their rescue boat was called away owing to reports of an abandoned rubber duck, found 4 nautical miles off Cape Point by fishermen. The tiny duck was towed (at high speed) back to base, where several sets of dive gear were found on board. The boat was handed over to the police, and it’s a mystery whether or not they located the owner.

The rubber duck under tow
The rubber duck under tow

Cape Point Challenge

Once they had towed the rubber duck, the NSRI went back to monitoring the Cape Point Challenge surfski race. This race involved a paddle from Scarborough, around Cape Point, into False Bay and up to Fish Hoek. I spotted Gary, our neighbour and Divemaster candidate, looking strong.

Gary working his paddle!
Gary working his paddle!

Governor’s Cup

Yachting in False Bay
Yachting in False Bay

When I decided to call it a day and return to the Yacht Club I was faced with a small challenge. 22 December happened also to be the starting date for the Governor’s Cup yacht race from Simon’s Town to St Helena island, several thousand kilometres away. There was a lot ofboat traffic, and I had to queue for the slipway for quite a while. There were the race participants, as well as a large number of smaller sailing and motor vessels seeing them off.

The Governor's Cup yacht race started from Simon's Town
The Governor’s Cup yacht race started from Simon’s Town

Sophie, our diving buddy who has travelled with us to Sodwana before, happened to be on one of the yachts. Fortunately it was such a beautiful day I didn’t mind waiting.

Movie: March of the Penguins

March of the Penguins
March of the Penguins

French cinematographers spent a full year in Antarctica filming the life cycle of the emperor penguin for La Marche de l’Empereur, or March of the Penguins. Emperor penguins lead remarkable, complex lives marked by apparent touches of compassion, fidelity and stoicism in the face of hardship (it may seem thus because of their fixed facial expressions) that gives their story particular popular appeal. Happy Feet depicted a little of the habits of these birds, but while watching it I was constantly wishing for the unvarnished realism of this documentary feature.

Emperor penguins breed at the same place each year, a location that is over 100 kilometres from the sea by the beginning of winter (in summer the ice recedes). The eggs are incubated by the males, who rest the eggs on top of their feet, while the females return to the ocean to feed. There is little that is easy about being an emperor penguin: extended periods without food for both sexes, the males huddle together for warmth during the long, dark, cold Antarctic winter, and the females’ make long journeys to the ocean in search of sustenance.

When the female penguins return, they recognise their mate by their call, and for the remainder of the summer the parents shuttle back and forth to the sea in order to fish. The chicks are threatened by starvation and predators, and if one of their parents die their odds of survival are slim, but the persistence of these birds in the face of incredible hardships is remarkable.

I watched the film in its original French, with subtitles. While the sound of the language is beautiful, the dialogue may seem a little strange – it’s narrated in the first person by a male and female voice actor, with a child for the chick’s voice. The music is atmospheric and quite beautiful. The American release uses a more conventional third person narrative by Morgan Freeman. I’d suggest that whichever version you choose, you watch the extra material on the DVD about the filming of the documentary. The penguins endured months of darkness and howling wind as they incubated their eggs, and the film makers did likewise (minus the eggs)!

You can buy the DVD here (if you’re in South Africa) otherwise here or here.

Movie: Happy Feet

Happy Feet
Happy Feet

We watched Happy Feet during a time of stress (preparing to move house!), and found it (mostly) calming and funny. There were some quite serious, emotionally wracking moments, but – as one expects from animated movies aimed primarily at children – everything works out in the end. I must admit I dragged my feet over seeing it, because the idea of singing penguins just didn’t grab me. I adore adore adore the laconic penguins in the Madagascar movies – they (and Sacha Baron Cohen) are the primary reason I sat through any of them – but singing and dancing as well as speaking just seemed too much.

They are quite charming, though, and the music is a very enjoyable component of this film. Robin Williams is a treat and I wished his characters had more screen time. The penguins also dance (not at first), and my heart did melt a little at the sight of a tap dancing little fluffball.

As with most (all) films of this genre, there is a strong message. In Happy Feet the message is about being yourself, not conforming because others say you should, and that if you are patient you will find friends who appreciate you for your uniqueness. For grown ups (and perhaps some perceptive youngsters) there’s quite a weird, sinister plotline involving the ancient religion of the penguins, with creepy elder penguins pronouncing judgments on nonconformists and invoking all sorts of religious terminology that I thought muddied the waters somewhat. I thought the “be true to yourself” message was enough, and that children don’t necessarily need to think about the fact that it could lead to ostracism by your spiritual community, or that their spiritual community could perhaps be deluded by powerful leaders and tradition. I suppose a religious studies class could develop this analysis to whatever level their hearts desired!

I digress. The scientific/marine plotline addresses overfishing, which has depleted the food of the emperor penguins. Mumble, the (different) main character, and a motley cast of helpers, manage to alert the humans to the problem, and the film ends (sorry) with a rapprochement between the humans and penguins and the establishment of a Marine Protected Area in Antarctic waters. Along the way Mumble spends time in captivity in an aquarium, and those scenes were heartbreaking.

The life cycle of the emperor penguin is illustrated beautifully, with the males incubating the eggs during the gruelling winter months while the females head to the ocean to forage for food. Footage of leopard seals and orcas is beautifully done, but (as with all films of this type) they are anthropomorphised as bloodthirsty villains. Also exposing children to positive portrayals of these creatures would be wise. March of the Penguins is a good accompaniment to this movie.

You can purchase the DVD here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here.

Seal Island in False Bay

I took this (shaky) video on a visit to Seal Island in False Bay in late July 2012 on the Shark Spotters research boat. The island is a granite outcropping of rock about 800 metres long and 50 metres wide, and is about 6 kilometres from Macassar Beach, and fifteen kilometres (my google maps estimate) from Simon’s Town.

It is the main breeding colony for Cape fur seals in this region. Up to 70,000 seals can be found on the island at peak times of year; when I took this video (during winter), there were probably 40-50,000 seals present.When downwind of the island, one can almost taste the seals on the air. It’s pungent – eye-wateringly so.

The island has no soil or plants, but at one stage there was enough guano and African penguin eggs to support a thriving industry harvesting them. Today up to 80 pairs of African penguins breed on Seal Island – a small population compared to the seals, but significant for this at-risk seabird. The highest point on the island is about six metres above the high tide level. Quite a few other species of birds breed at the island and can be seen there.

Remains of human activity include bits of an old radio mast and some huts and other structures from the guano collection days. In the water around the island, great white sharks can be seen during the winter months, predating on young, newly-weaned seals. During the summer months the sharks move inshore and the seals make far more extensive use of the water around the island.

Three cage diving operators have a licence to bring guests to the island.