Bookshelf: Shrimp

Shrimp: The Endless Quest for Pink Gold – Jack & Anne Rudloe


Before reading this book it was important to determine the difference between shrimp (which we almost never talk about or eat in South Africa, except for little tins that go into paella when there’s not enough of anything else to make a full meal), and prawns (which are large, and frequently enjoyed). My meanderings around the internet revealed that “shrimp” and “prawn” are common names, not related to any scientific classification, and that by convention shrimp are often small and prawns are large… But it’s not clear cut and no one should be dogmatic about anything in this debate. What Americans call shrimp encompasses our prawns, as well as our tiny shrimps… Hence the term “jumbo shrimp”, which sounds nonsensical to me!

Shrimp capitalises on the popularity of nature books about a single species, often with one word titles, a boom initiated (I think) by Marc Kurlansky’s bestseller CodThe Rudloes are marine biologists and founded the Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratories together (Anne passed away in 2012). Jack Rudloe spent a lot of time on commercial fishing boats, and this book – like Trevor Corson’s book The Secret Life of Lobster – reveals how difficult it is for a writer to remain objective when confronted with the hard working, salt of the earth fisherman archetype.

Despite this, which bothered me slightly, this is a fascinating insight into everything you ever wanted to know about shrimp (slash prawns). Shrimp fisheries and farms worldwide are examined (with a focus on the American Gulf of Mexico fishery), and the dizzying variety of shrimps and prawns is elucidated in some detail. There are diagrams of their bodies, descriptions of their habitats, and details of how they are harvested. The book’s structure is difficult to discern, even chaotic, which throws off a disorganised reader like me (six books on the go, and often fragmentary reading times in elevators and in queues).

I did not find much information in this book about the impact of trawl fisheries, which include horrific bycatch and damage to the ocean floor that is so serious it can be seen from space. It was here that I felt Rudloe’s affinity with the fishermen who do this damage got in the way of a frank assessment of how bad it is. Prawn farming is also not environmentally neutral. The means by which we get prawns onto our plate are actually so bad that the decision whether to eat shrimp and prawns at all should be weighed very carefully.

You can get 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.

Bookshelf: Four Fish

Four Fish – Paul Greenberg

Four Fish
Four Fish

This is a big idea book – perhaps best to compare it to a TED talk, only more substantial. It is structured around four types of fish: salmon, tuna, sea bass and cod. The history of humans’ engagement with these archetypal families of fish enables Paul Greenberg to plot the trajectory of the possible futures we face, feeding ourselves from the ocean.

All four fish – salmon, tuna, sea bass and cod – have been fished to within a hair’s breadth of extinction. The story of cod is perhaps best known, from its original exploitation in the North Atlantic – beginning 1,000 years ago – to the catastrophic failure of the fisheries on the eastern seaboard of North America in the last several decades of the 20th century. Greenberg repeatedly cites and pays homage to Mark Kurlansky’s deceptively slim volume on the subject of cod (Cod), and to some extent this book capitalises on Cod‘s popularity.

Greenberg’s interest, however, is not primarily with the failure of the cod, tuna and salmon fisheries (largely as a result of failing to follow scientific advice in setting quotas – read: rampant greed). He is concerned more with the possibility of farming fish in a commercially viable, sustainable manner. There are lots of problems with fish farming, such as parasites and diseases spread from farmed fish to their wild counterparts, and Greenberg visits a number of aquaculture operations to discover whether sustainable practices that do not harm wild fish are possible.

Ultimately, Greenberg urges us to view fish as wildlife. As scuba divers we are accustomed to thinking about fish this way. We venture into their territory in order to experience them in the wild, and many of us feel outrage when certain types of fish (I have in mind sharks and perhaps tuna) are caught – albeit in perfectly legal fisheries. Greenberg wants us to extend this outrage, or at least recognition that fish are perhaps “the last wild food”, to all kinds of fish. The implications of thinking about fish this way would be that we eat less wild fish, saving it for special occasions, or do not eat it at all. (Perhaps, like Sylvia Earle, those of us who have the luxury of choice in the matter should stop eating fish entirely.) We have managed to execute this mind shift with whales in the last 100 years. The challenge is to extend it to the rest of the ocean’s finned inhabitants.

Greenberg suggests that the sustainable way for fisheries to continue into the future is for fishermen to assume the role of herders – custodians as well as harvesters of the fish. He further contends that we should not try to domesticate (farm) tuna, salmon and most other species that are already considered food fish. These fish have such a high feed conversion ratio (the number of kilograms of food – mostly comprising smaller fish – they need to eat to produce one kilogram of body weight) that farming them results in a net loss to the fish biomass in the ocean. Similarly, tuna ranching (capturing young tuna and raising them to maturity in pens) is also not a viable “farming” technique, as not only are wild fish being removed from the ocean, but they are denied the opportunity to breed. We need to start considering compliant, easily cultivated fish such as tilapia, kona kampachi (Almaco jack) and barramundi as menu options.

There’s a New York Times review of Four Fish here, and a Huffington Post review here. A Time Magazine story on fish also borrows heavily from Greenberg’s work.

You can get a copy of the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here. If you have a SASSI card in your wallet or even the slightest concern about food security, personal ethics and ocean conservation, you ought to read this book.

Bookshelf: Listening to Whales

Listening to Whales: What the Orcas have Taught Us – Alexandra Morton

Listening to Whales
Listening to Whales

Listening to Whales is marine biologist Alexandra Hubbard’s memoir of the thirty-odd years she spent studying wild killer whales, as well as other cetacean species. Morton was born in the United States, the daughter of a famous artist, but discovered her passion for cetaceans while working for eccentric dolphin researcher John C. Lilly. Her orca research took her into Canada’s remote Broughton Archipelago, where she and her husband (who passed away during the research in a solo rebreather diving accident) lived a romantic, itinerant, lonely, and very challenging life following pods of wild orca around and studying their communication.

Morton also spent time in oceanariums and theme parks, observing and working with captive orcas and dolphins. Her insights into the trauma that these unnatural environments inflict on the animals held there are illuminating, and dovetail with the observations made in articles such as The Killer in the Pool and Blood in the Waterand Death at Seaworld.

When the orcas disappeared from British Colombia’s remote waters, Morton wanted to find out why. She soon discovered the reason for their absence: there was a growing number of salmon farms, which started proliferating in earnest in the late 1980s, in the archipelago. The salmon farms used Acoustic Harassment Devices (AHDs) to chase away seals that preyed on the captive salmon. Since sound is of vital importance to orcas for hunting, echo location, and communication, the whales found the noisy environment unliveable and intolerable, and left the area. Morton’s persistence (she wrote over 10,000 letters) led to the withdrawal of the AHDs starting in the early 2000s.

The salmon farms have affected the area in ways other than noise pollution. They generate massive amounts of physical pollutants (from excess food pellets, waste products, and antibiotics used to treat the farmed fish), reducing the water quality. The salmon are also prone to infestation by parasites. Because the farmed fish are kept in such close quarters, there is unchecked spread of diseases and this can spill over to wild populations. There are also potentially serious consequences if farmed salmon escape and breed with wild salmon populations. The fish farming industry is growing rapidly in both size and vogue, and there is massive financial incentive for companies (and government bodies) to cover up the shortcomings and failures of mariculture. Morton’s work uncovering the abuses occurring in Canadian (and other) salmon farming continues to this day. She is a hero.

I think that if I’d had more access to women who were working as scientists when I was a child, my career might have panned out a little differently from the way it has. This is why I am very enthusiastic to discover memoirs by women who are respected in their chosen field, particularly when pursuing that particular field of study would seem to preclude some of the things that some people want, such as a stable family life. Whale scientist Elin Kelsey’s book Watching Giants also falls into this category. Morton’s life story is one of a wandering, resourceful, curious person who has managed to combine significant scientific output with a fulfilling life that has included raising two children, one of whom now works at NASA. Part of her son’s childhood was spent curled up in the bow of the Zodiac his parents were using to track pods of orca!

I’d strongly recommend this book to girls considering a career in the natural sciences, and to anyone else who is interested in the ocean, killer whales, fish farming, or just in interesting lives well lived. You can get a copy here or here.

Series: Deadliest Catch – Lobster Wars

Lobster Wars
Lobster Wars

Lobster Wars is a Discovery Channel production, produced by the same team who brought us Deadliest Catch (seasons 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) and its Tuna Wranglers spin-off. It tracks fishermen (and a woman) on board the American lobster boats that set out to fish Georges Bank from the beautiful New England harbours (and expensive holiday destinations) in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

This is a slightly tamer version of Deadliest Catch. The fishermen work long, hard hours on occasion, but the labour is not as backbreaking as it is on board a crab boat. They are at sea for a week at a time, and the lobster traps are lighter and smaller than the crab pots seen on Deadliest Catch. The boats are small, and the fishery is a low volume, high value one – two or three lobsters in a trap is worth getting excited about.

Lobstering can be extremely lucrative, particularly during the winter season shown in the episodes of this series. Fierce competition on the fishing grounds and heavy fishing pressure on a valuable resource (which can sometimes be in oversupply) makes for a turbulent working environment – never mind the weather. While not quite as stormy as the Bering Sea, Georges Bank can throw up some extreme weather events of its own.

The fishing grounds on Georges Bank are “controlled” by different boat captains, who have time-tested locations that they return to year after year. We found this puzzling – that one could exert control at a distance over a piece of sea floor with relatively few conflicts. Or perhaps not so few – this article explains the phenomenon quite well. One source of conflict that recurred repeatedly in this series was between the lobster boats and trawlers, called “draggers” by the lobstermen. The trawlers shown working Georges Bank had outriggers, and if a string of lobster traps gets caught in their gear, the traps can be dragged for miles, and left in a tangled heap far from their original location.

The antics of the crewmen are mildly entertaining, but we struggled to differentiate them because of an apparently universal fondness for pulled-up hoodies among lobstermen. One female crew member is featured, working on board a boat called the Timothy Michael, and acquitting herself marvellously. A new crewman exclaims in disbelief that there’s a woman on board, commenting that he’s been on a boat where there’s been a dog on board, but never a woman. I was impressed by his liberal attitude, and am sure he’s in a supportive, mature relationship with an incredible human being who values his unique strengths and abilities.

This isn’t Deadliest Catch or Tuna Wranglers, but it is entertaining enough. The scenery, of New England and the seascapes, is lovely, and learning about a new fishery is always interesting. There are the usual lyrical waxings about how the “fishery is dying”, but the problem isn’t examined further, and no one dares to suggest that perhaps we’ve already eaten most of the fish in the sea, and if we carry on at this pace, we’ll eat it all.

You can get the DVD on

Article: Outside on tiger sharks in Hawaii

Hawaii is one of the places on earth where an enlightened government is working for mutual safety of the local shark population, and the surfers, swimmers and other water users who occasionally happen upon sharks in their natural habitat. Like our local Shark Spotters program, non-lethal methods are used to manage the chance of human-shark interactions.

Starting in the 1950s, the Hawaiian government killed thousands of sharks as part of a culling program, believing that sharks were territorial and that eliminating a shark seen near a beach would be removing it from its residence, making the beach safer.

Carl Meyer of the University of Hawaii was part of research begun in the 1990s that tracked tiger sharks with hydrophones. Researchers saw immediately that the sharks were not resident in one location but, much as great white sharks do, they range widely. As a response to the very first tracking study, the state of Hawaii stopped hunting sharks after they had bitten humans, as the evidence indicated that the responsible shark would be long gone before a “cull” could be instituted. Meyer says in an interview with Outside Online:

So clearly, there were two broad lines of evidence that this shark control stuff was worthless. One was critical tracking data showing that these sharks were much more mobile than people believed. The second was that people were still getting bitten at sites from which many tiger sharks had already been removed by control fishing. So there’s just no evidence that shark culling makes the water safer. It’s just not demonstrably effective.

Both Western Australia and Reunion Island (a French territory in the Indian Ocean) have decided recently to hunt sharks after fatal interactions with humans. Meyer explains why localised spikes in shark bites occur, dismissing many of the (understandable) conclusions that people rush to without recognising the inherent variability of natural systems (emphasis mine):

What you tend to have is a typically low number of shark attacks, and over time you might see some spikes in the number of bites. It doesn’t mean there’s any fundamental change in marine ecosystems. It doesn’t mean, for example, that a bunch of sharks have moved into your area. It might be nothing more than natural variability, which occurs in marine or terrestrial systems. Nature is an inherently noisy system. Part of the noise is variation in stuff, including the number of people that get bitten by sharks.

Meyer also discusses the behaviour of sharks around fish farms: they seem to be attracted to the net structures out at sea, although they do not seem to actually eat the fish in the farms. He suggests that the large three dimensional structures of the farms, alone in a vast and featureless oceanscape, are interesting in the same way that a shipwreck or other artificial reef is to a fish. I found this fascinating, but it is not a completely outlandish idea that a creature as intelligent as a shark would perhaps derive visual stimulation from something like a fish farm. He also theorises that they could be good meeting places to hook up with other sharks!

Finally, he touches on the cage diving operations in Hawaii.

Another issue which has generated a lot of heat here in Hawaii and elsewhere is shark cage diving ecotourism. These activities have proven hugely controversial. We’ve done a fair bit of work on the one here on Oahu, including a meta analysis of logbook data and tracking long-term movements of sharks captured at the cage diving sites—the takeaway message is that there’s absolutely no scientific evidence whatsoever that the existing operations off Oahu are a threat to public safety, which has been people’s major concern.

The findings he reports are similar to those reported for False Bay’s white sharks.

Read the full interview here. It contains incredibly important information and principles. It explains how scientists think about animal behaviour, gather evidence, and draw conclusions. Even if you don’t follow any other link I give you this year, please follow this one. Do it!

Why farmed fish isn’t a good thing

This punchy little video by animator Nigel Upchurch explains why we shouldn’t eat farmed fish. As was pointed out in the Ocean2012 video I posted a week or two back, farming fish doesn’t create more fish – it just transforms low value fish into higher value fish, and creates a lot of pollution and other threats to wild fish populations along the way.

This, combined with the problem of overfishing that should make us rightly reluctant to eat just any ocean-caught fish, really creates a minefield for consumers who wish to eat ethically. I encourage you to get and use a SASSI card (or your local equivalent, if you’re not South African), and try to ask the hard questions about where your food comes from.

Via FlowingData.

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.


Documentary: The End of the Line

The End of the Line
The End of the Line

It’s been almost a year since I finished reading journalist Charles Clover’s book The End of the Line, and the DVD of the documentary based on his book has been lying in our living room for I don’t know how long, waiting to be watched. Tony and I finally got around to viewing it recently – we were spurred on somewhat by the knowledge that some of the documentary was filmed in Malta. While we were in Malta in August we met a beautiful bluefin tuna on a dive, and also saw lots of tuna farms along the Maltese coast.

The End of the Line is about fishing, and how we’ve reduced the ocean’s fish stocks by something like 90% during the last half century. Where have all those fish gone, you ask? Well, we ate them. Incredible improvements in fishing technology – massive, factory-sized vessels that flash-freeze the fish while still at sea, huge nets, bottom trawlers – and insatiable demand for fish have conspired to produce what is literally an extinction event for many fish species. Having exhausted the stocks of continental shelf-dwelling fish such as codfish (do yourself a favour and read about the Grand Banks cod fishery in Canada and weep), fishing pressure has moved to deep water species. These species live in oxygen and light-poor environments, so they grow very slowly, live for up to 100 years, and only start reproducing in middle age. They simply cannot withstand the fishing pressure that we are able to exert on their populations, and soon they will be gone too.

The film’s director, Rupert Murray, had this to say on the DVD sleeve (an environmentally friendly cardboard folder):

Many natural history films about the oceans contain incredible footage and inspire passion for the natural world but we felt angry that more often than not they perpetuate a myth about the seas, that they exist in a perfect pristine bubble untouched by humankind. Now man’s destructive influence extends to every previously hidden canyon and crevice. Fishing has even induced evolutionary changes in fish. We are consuming every level of the food chain and the future looks deeply uncertain. We wanted to tell the true story of what is happening to our oceans by focusing on the most efficient predator operating in the system, man. It’s a fascinating and intriguing story that many people haven’t heard before and we felt it needed to be told because ocean issues are not on the agenda as much as they need to be. This problem affects 70% of our planet and the livelihoods of a billion people but The End of the Line is ultimately a story of hope because there is light at the end of the tunnel. Thankfully the solutions to such a seemingly massive and universal problem are stunningly simple. All we have to do now is make them happen.

There is more here than destruction of species and alteration of ocean ecosystems. One of the things that has struck me and Tony as we’ve watched several seasons of Deadliest Catch, about crab fishermen in Alaska, is that in many communities fishing is a family business that has been passed from father to son for generations. These “artisanal” fishermen (even though in the first world many of them use big boats now) are standing to lose their livelihood, but also a part of their identity. That loss of a heritage can’t be quantified. The End of the Line highlighted foreign fishing boats stripping the coast of Senegal while local fishermen using traditional methods struggle to find any more fish, but this problem is not unique to Senegal, or even to Africa. (As an aside, our suspicions about how well-regulated the Alaskan crab fishery is – it’s a shining example of attempts at sustainability – and the role of the US Coastguard in policing the fishing grounds and chasing out illegal fishing vessels, were confirmed. Nice job, Alaska!)

Dietary recommendations are that we consume fish at least one to three times per week. It’s important to balance the health benefits of a seafood-rich diet with an approach that preserves ocean resources so that we can still eat fish in the future. I firmly believe that by moving responsibility for making good seafood choices up the supply chain, to retailers and restauranteurs, a very significant difference can be made to the future of fishing.

Some restaurants are already ensuring that the only options they offer to consumers are environmentally friendly ones, but Charles Clover (author of The End of the Line and featured in this documentary) found in an informal survey of the world’s most influential seafood chefs that the industry is divided, with many restaurants continuing to serve juvenile fish or endangered species (and sometimes both). The fact remains that, until we can be sure that the seafood on offer in restaurants isn’t from a species that we wouldn’t, in good conscience, want to eat, the responsibility for making right choices lies with us, as final consumers of seafood.

The solutions that you can apply are these:

  • only buy seafood that is not from an endangered species, that is caught in a responsible manner, and that is sustainably fished. A list of retailers stocking only seafood from the SASSI green and orange list can be found here. Boycott the rest.
  • only eat at restaurants that serve food from the SASSI green and orange list, and choose to eat from the green list (I know, it means forgoing sole and prawns… very hard to say no!) Boycott the rest. In Europe there is a campaign called Fish2Fork which rates restaurants that serve sustainable seafood.
  • get hold of a SASSI information card, keep it in your wallet, and evangelise on its use to your dining companions. Read and understand the charter that seafood retailers who affiliate with SASSI must adhere to. There’s also a smartphone app from the Monterey Bay Aquarium called Seafood Watch but my concern with it is that regional names for fish and availability of species can differ between the US and South Africa, so take care.
  • be educated about the issues and take responsiblity for the future health of our oceans – as an inhabitant of planet earth, they belong to you, and you shouldn’t be cool with governments allowing them to be plundered in the name of short-term financial gain. Don’t pretend it’s not your problem. It is. Do some googling – this article and this article are a good start. Watch this documentary – local foodie Dax was appalled by how empty the cinema was when he watched it on circuit, but rent or buy the DVD (or just watch all the videos on this page) and expand your mind.
  • eat smaller fish: herring, sardines, mackerel. These fish are used in fish farming – they are fed to the tuna and salmon at the farms. Estimates are that it takes 5 kilograms of wild fish to raise 1 kilogram of farmed fish. This doesn’t make sense, and it’s wasteful. Besides, the omega 3’s and 6’s are abundant in those little chaps, and they are low on the food chain meaning there’s no danger of mercury poisoning as there is with tuna, which has absorbed the mercury from the entire food pyramid below it.
  • come diving, see fish in the wild, and appreciate that they are not just food… They are beautiful living creatures in their own right, and deserve our respect and protection.

The DVD release of The End of the Line contains several short films as bonus features. You can see some of that material here. You can get the DVD here if you’re in South Africa, and here if you’re not.

Here’s the trailer to whet your appetite…

Sea life: Bluefin tuna

A truly majestic fish
A truly majestic fish

I have eulogised – a deliberate choice of word – the bluefin tuna at length on this blog, and others have done so in print, and far more eloquently than I. We were extremely, extremely fortunate to encounter a lonely Atlantic bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) on a dive around the Inland Sea on Gozo, Malta. He stayed with us for nearly half an hour, constantly circling, and looked as if he wanted to be fed, making munching motions every time he came near one of us. He had probably escaped from one of the nearby fish farms (more on those later, but there’s some information here to get you started), and had perhaps learned to associate divers with food.

Atlantic Bluefin Tuna, Thunnus thynnus
Atlantic Bluefin Tuna, Thunnus thynnus

These creatures can accelerate as fast as a Porsche, and we were able to observe a couple of times how he went from languid cruising to high speed fish chasing mode. We both felt that we could have stayed with him for much longer, but he left when we swam into a cave.

Atlantic Bluefin Tuna, Thunnus thynnus
Atlantic Bluefin Tuna, Thunnus thynnus

I found this an incredibly sad experience, because this schooling fish is meant to travel en masse with his brothers and sisters, but here he was alone, and seemed lost. It was also a mountain top experience (how I hate that expression) for me – I’d just read Song for the Blue Ocean and Tuna, and my head was filled with facts about these beautiful fish. Seeing one in the flesh was almost too much to contain within the confines of my regulator.

Looking like mercury with Tony's video light on him
Looking like mercury with Tony's video light on him

Dive sites (Malta): Statue of Christ

Tony hovers behind the statue for scale
Tony hovers behind the statue for scale

The people of Malta are predominantly Catholic, and the islands are full of visual reminders of their faith. One we particularly liked was a magnificent statue of Jesus Christ, purposely placed in the ocean as an attraction for scuba divers.

The statue stands in a natural amphitheatre of rock
The statue stands in a natural amphitheatre of rock

The three metre tall, 13 ton statue by Maltese sculptor Alfred Camilleri Cauchi, made of concrete-covered fiberglass, was commissioned to commemorate the 1990 visit of Pope John Paul II to Malta. After being blessed by His Holiness, the statue was placed on the seabed near St Paul’s Islands as an attraction for divers.

Christ's face is upturned towards the surface (or heaven, if you prefer)
Christ's face is upturned towards the surface (or heaven, if you prefer)

Ten years later the statue was moved to its current location about two kilometres offshore (off Qawra Point) near the (deliberately scuttled) wreck of the Imperial Eagle. The Imperial Eagle is a ferry that used to travel between Malta and Gozo, and was scuttled in July 1999. The statue was moved because the water clarity in its original location had deteriorated to the extent that it was no longer being dived. Explanations for this include increased boat traffic in the area (and possible dumping of waste from the vessels), and the nearby fish farms.

The statue is to scale, and three metres tall
The statue is to scale, and three metres tall

It’s a tranquil and serene environment, and we found the statue, which is somewhat encrusted with sea plants and algae (but not nearly as much as it would be if it were in the waters of Cape Town!) quite beautiful and compelling.

Tony hovers behind the statue for scale
Tony hovers behind the statue for scale

The statue stands on white sand in a natural circular amphitheatre, at a depth of about 28 metres. It is a short swim from the statue to the nearby Imperial Eagle. Dive details shown below are for a boat dive we did on both sites.

The large plinth rests on white sand
The large plinth rests on white sand

Dive date: 3 August 2011

Air temperature: 31 degrees

Water temperature: 18 degrees

Maximum depth: 37.0 metres

Visibility: 30 metres

Dive duration: 35 minutes

Tony swims off towards the Imperial Eagle shipwreck
Tony swims off towards the Imperial Eagle shipwreck