Newsletter: Slightly swelly

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Sunday and Monday: Boat dives (location to be decided)

Last weekend we did some boating in Table Bay as a support boat for the Robben Island to Big Bay Freedom Swim. The remnants of the swell on Thursday and Friday was enough to give the swimmers a sizeable challenge with strong currents, choppy surface conditions and very cold patches of water.

Colin swimming across Table Bay
Colin swimming across Table Bay

The swell climbed from under 2 metres to a little over 5 metres this morning.  This means diving tomorrow is pretty much out, as is diving on Saturday (thanks also to the Two Oceans Marathon). The swell drops off during the day on Saturday so both Sunday and Monday should deliver some reasonable diving conditions.

It is difficult to say whether Hout Bay or False Bay would be better on Sunday and Monday, but I will make that decision late on Saturday afternoon. I have Open Water and Advanced Open Water students so one day is likely to include a deep dive to more than 18 metres.

If you are keen to dive on Sunday or Monday, let me know and I’ll schedule you in!

regards

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

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Newsletter: Gloom

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

No diving planned

We have some intense wind and swell coming our way in the next few days, and the weekend does not look suitable for diving.

Cloudy skies over Robben Island
Cloudy skies over Robben Island

On Saturday I’ll be providing boat support for the Robben Island swim, provided conditions in the lee of the island are safe enough for swimmers.

regards

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

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Help Shark Spotters create a free beach info smartphone app!

The signs and Shark Spotters flag at Glencairn
The signs and Shark Spotters flag at Glencairn

Shark Spotters have been keeping bathers and surfers safe, and providing groundbreaking research on Cape Town’s white sharks, for over 10 years. They are currently developing a smartphone app that will provide information on sightings of sharks and other marine life, sea conditions, and other information pertinent to the Shark Spotters program.

The app will be available free of charge, but there are some development costs that have to be raised before it can be launched.

Click here to donate – every bit helps!

A Day on the Bay: Freedom Swim 2016

Maryna and Table Mountain
Maryna and Table Mountain

A day early in April was the date for the annual Freedom Swim, a 7.5 kilometre open ocean cold water swim from Murray’s Bay harbour on Robben Island to Big Bay near Blouberg. As we have in several previous years, we provided boat support for a swimmer.

This entails providing a straight course for the swimmer so as to minimise the distance swum, and keeping an eye on them to ensure that they don’t get too cold or show any other symptoms of hypothermia or distress. It requires communication with race control by radio, and a bit of boat and swimmer dodging in the early stages of the race when the water is thick with activity.

There was a 3.5 metre swell on the day, which made the ride out to the island a bit bumpy. As soon as we were in the shelter of the island, however, the sea was flattened as the swell diverted around the island. The water remained calm until we got quite close to shore, at which point the swell picked up. The final stretch from the rocks at Big Bay to the beach must have been very hairy for the swimmers!

Our swimmer, Maryna, swam in a wetsuit. She was part of the Lighthouse Swim relay team we supported last year. The water was relatively warm (13-16 degrees) clear at the island, and we could see kelp and quite far down into the sea. Great red streaks of water, probably an algae bloom, were filled with sea jellies (which stung Maryna, but she continued strongly). These were replaced by murky green water close to the shore, where the swell had lifted the sand particles into the water column.

It was a good day out, and always a pleasure to see Table Mountain in its majesty from the water.

Newsletter: So you think you can swim

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Saturday & Sunday: Boat or shore dives on both days

We spent Saturday morning shadowing a swimmer doing the Freedom Swim from Robben Island to Big Bay… Around 7 kilometres in 14 degree water that at times looked like brown onion soup filled with jellyfish. The swimmers are a brave and dedicated bunch and I admire them. Our swimmer did the crossing in just over two hours, but some of the swimsuit folks spent 5 hours in the water, bravely swimming into a humping current.

Swimming across Table Bay
Swimming across Table Bay

Dive conditions

The forecast looks like a piece of cake for the weekend… Light winds, not much swell and warm sunny skies. False Bay, however, looks a little off, colour-wise, and there are large colour fronts scattered across much of the bay. There is no certainty on where they will go with the light winds over the next couple of days so it is going to be a matter of making the “call to action” early each morning.

I have both shore dive and boat dive students ready to go, so will do either shore or boat based on what it looks like when we wake up, early, on both Saturday and Sunday.

Text, Whatsapp, email or carrier pigeon you desires for the weekend and I will add you to the early morning wake up call list…

Photo exhibition

If ever you had the urge to show a friend the beauty of the underwater world that you enjoy, now is your chance. Haul them off to the Two Oceans Aquarium and show them some of the stunning creatures captured on camera at a wide range of dive sites scattered along Cape Town’s shores. The photo exhibition runs for two months and is included in your entry fee to the aquarium. Read more about it here.

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

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Newsletter: Winter rolls in

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Sunday: Launching from Simon’s Town jetty

Winter arrived rather quickly in my opinion, and it went rather quickly from shorts and T shirts weather to requiring much more clothing. There has also been a fair amount of swell rolling around, but the wind direction is becoming more northerly and westerly and that is what we need on our (western) side of False Bay.

Hout Bay at sunset
Hout Bay at sunset

Our boat will be in Table Bay on Saturday for the Robben Island swim so we will provisionally plan to launch on Sunday for diving. There is some south easter on Sunday but hopefully it does not blow as hard as predicted and we can get out. If you have a chance to dive on Saturday you should take it as I think it will be the best day of the weekend, but let me know if you want to be notified of Sunday dives and I will keep in touch.

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

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Article: The Atlantic on jellyfish locomotion

Cross-disciplinary co-operation in the sciences can lead to striking results (it occurred beautifully between mathematics and computer science late last year). In this instance, The Atlantic covers a breakthrough in our understanding of jellyfish locomotion, made by a mechanical engineer.

Moon jelly
Moon jelly

John Dabiri and his team injected dye into the water around a moon jelly as it swam. Like Gandalf’s smoke rings, the jellies created rings of water behind them, moving down their tentacles as they swam.

The team later showed that the moon jellyfish actually produces two vortex rings for every beat of its bell. While the first one travels backwards, a second one rolls back into the bell itself, speeding up as it goes, and sucking water into the center of the jellyfish. This allows the animal to recapture some of the energy it spends on each swimming “stroke,” and pick up speed even when it’s making no effort. For that reason, the moon jellyfish is the most efficient swimmer in the ocean.

Read the full article here – highly recommended.

The origins of the KwaZulu Natal Sharks Board

This is the second post in a series of three about the KZN Sharks Board.

With increased use of Durban and South Coast beaches after the Second World War – numbers of swimmers and surfers increased exponentially – the incidence of shark attacks rose to the extent that, already in the 1940s, newspaper articles discussed possible “anti-shark” measures. Four shark attacks occurred in December 1957 (known as “Black December” by Durbanites), and by April 1958 a further three had occurred. Five of the seven attacks were fatal, and they occurred at the beach during summer – a crowded, public space. In the same way that the early 21st century shark incidents at Fish Hoek beach could be described as a “public trauma”, these attacks traumatised both Durban locals and holidaymakers from South Africa’s inland provinces.

The history of anti-shark measures and shark research in KwaZulu Natal is traced in detail in this Masters thesis by Melissa van Oordt, which, if you have an interest in the subject, I recommend you download and read. Van Oordt argues that myths about sharks, developed in the minds of the public following shark bite incidents along the Natal coast and fuelled by the media, drove the formation of the Sharks Board and the installation of the bather safety gear along the KZN coast. Sharks were characterised as “rogue”, “man eater” and “brute” – and the language used to describe them shaped the response.

The first nets were deployed in 1952 off Durban’s beaches by an organisation called the Durban Beach Committee, following the lead of  New South Wales in Australia (nets were set there in 1937). After 1964 the beaches on the South Coast were also netted. Other measures, such as helicopter patrols and setting off depth charges, were experimented with, but were found to be ineffective, too expensive and/or too destructive to other marine life.

(It is also worth mentioning that already in 1958 measures such as electrical and chemical shark repellents and mechanical barriers were under discussion. In 1968 -69 development of an electrical shark barrier had made such good progress that full-scale testing at a Natal beach was anticipated “in the near future” [van Oordt page 113]. It has taken over half a century for these ideas to begin to come to fruition, and there is still some way to go.)

Establishment of the Natal Anti-Shark Measures Board

In 1964 the Natal Anti-Shark Measures Board was legally constituted by Natal Provincial Ordinance No. 10, which is freely available from the National Library (this is where I got my copy). The board was formed as a body corporate, which meant among other things that it could “sue and be sued.” Its functions and duties included:

  • taking advice from, considering findings of, consulting with and calling upon scientific and technical research bodies or individuals on the subject of “bather protection against shark attacks”; and
  • considering existing and proposed bather protection schemes to determine their effectiveness, and improving or supplementing them where necessary.

Local government authorities would provide the Anti-Shark Measures Board with estimated expenditure figures for anti-shark measures, as well as plans for any “actual or proposed anti-shark scheme” to which the expenditure figures related. The Sharks Board would vet the schemes proposed by the municipalities, suggest improvements, and approve expenditure for the anti-shark measures. Approved bather protection schemes would be subsidised by the board by at least ten percent of the municipal expenditure.

The Sharks Board was also authorised in the 1964 ordinance to install bather protection schemes on parts of the coast that were not under the jurisdiction of a local authority, and where agreement could not be reached with a local authority regarding the nature of a bather protection scheme, the board was able to go ahead and install shark safety gear, and recover some or all of the costs of doing so from the municipality concerned. This is quite a significant power – I would be curious to know whether it has ever been exercised.

The Sharks Board’s source of funding was declared to be “donations and bequests received by it”, as well as funds “appropriated by the Provincial Council for the purpose” – in other words, funds distributed to the Sharks Board by the Natal provincial government.

The Sharks Board was thus established legally, with most of its funding coming from the Natal provincial government. It had fairly broad powers in terms of installing bather protection gear along the Natal coastline, and no particular prohibitions on what it could and could not engage in.

Changing attitudes

White shark making another pass
White shark in False Bay

Van Oordt describes how, in the 1980s, the Sharks Board began releasing live sharks caught in the nets, reflecting a changing view of sharks, and the environment in general, that had begun to emerge among scientists and the general public. In 1991, in a further concrete indication of changing attitudes to sharks, great white sharks were legally protected in South African waters, making it illegal to catch or kill them unless authorised by the Department of Environmental Affairs.

Until fairly recently (at least until 1998 and possibly 2003) it was the case that:

The NSB sells certain shark products to defray expenses. Income from such sales is small relative to total expenditures. Products sold from the Board’s curio shop include shark teeth – sold either loose or with a jump ring for attachment to a jewellery chain – and entire jaw preparations. In addition, dried fins are stockpiled and sold, usually annually. Initially sales of fins were to local exporters by a tender process but the NSB is now investigating direct export. Fins and teeth from great white sharks Carcharodon carcharias are not sold because the species is locally protected. The meat from netted sharks is generally not sufficiently fresh for human consumption. Experimental inclusion of the meat in animal feed has been unsuccessful. [Source]

As we will see in the following post, such sales of shark products were forbidden by an act of 2008 which superseded the 1964 ordinance that established the Sharks Board. This, too, could be an indication of changing attitudes towards sharks and shark conservation in South Africa.

Fact finding about the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board

The KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board (KZNSB) is frequently discussed, and often vilified, among ocean-loving South Africans. Rumour abounds; whole websites, devoted entirely to inaccurate speculation, exist. When the Sharks Board tested a shark repellent cable in the waters of Cape Town, starting in late 2014, I was frustrated by my lack of knowledge about how the KZNSB is structured, who funds it, and who mandates it to do what it does. Understanding these aspects of the Sharks Board’s operations could surely assist with moving towards a future where, if the Sharks Board still exists, it uses primarily non-lethal shark mitigation measures. (Unfortunately, no scalable measures suitable for the KZN coastline exist yet.)

Many people are concerned by declining shark populations, but many people are also concerned about their safety when they go for a surf or a swim. These groups overlap, but not wholly. The ideal shark mitigation measure combines bather safety with shark conservation. Examples exist, but they are rare. Cape Town’s Shark Spotters do an excellent job of striking a balance between safety and conservation, but what many commentators – who advocate deploying shark spotters at sharky beaches the world over – do not admit (or realise) is that Shark Spotters works because in Cape Town we have elevated ground close to the ocean, and great white sharks that spend a lot of time swimming on the surface when they are inshore. Take away one of those two crucial elements, and an already tricky job becomes exponentially more challenging.

What the KZNSB does

The KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board protects bathers in KZN with what are essentially fishing measures: 23.7 kilometres of gill nets and 79 drum lines are installed along 38 beaches in the province. These nets and drum lines catch sharks and other marine creatures. The nets are checked by Sharks Board employees, and live sharks (and other animals) are released. Sharks that don’t survive are used for a variety of research – the Southern African Shark and Ray Symposium in September featured at least six presentations based on samples and data obtained from the Sharks Board.

While it is legal (read carefully – I am not condoning the practice) for the Sharks Board to remove sharks from the ocean, it is no longer considered ethical for scientists who wish to study sharks to use lethal sampling methods – to go out and shoot a shark so that they can study its stomach contents, for example. This practice would also be illegal for sharks that are protected, such as great whites in South Africa (the Sharks Board is permitted to catch them, however). There is much about shark biology that can be learned from a dead shark – for example an understanding of its reproductive systems, its position in the food web, its diet, samples to determine genetic inter-relatedness of populations, and age and growth data can all be gleaned from a necropsy. Perversely, much of the scientific output obtained from these avenues of research is useful for shark conservation and management planning. This is why, when a shark washes up dead or is accidentally caught in the Western Cape, scientists are keen to learn as much as possible from a dissection.

The website of the KZNSB describes a number of measures that the Sharks Board has taken to reduce its catches of species other than sharks. In particular, entanglement of cetaceans such as dolphins and baby whales is (apart from the environmental impact and sheer wastefulness) a highly emotive issue and a public relations nightmare for the Sharks Board and they actively seek to mitigate this kind of by-catch. In 2014, only about 40% of “non-target species” caught in the nets were released alive (no whales were killed).

How does the KSNZB, an organisation whose activities have a potentially significant impact on shark populations, fit in with broader initiatives to take better care of South Africa’s sharks?

Shark Biodiversity Management Plan

Puffadder shyshark at Long Beach
Puffadder shyshark at Long Beach

In March of this year, South Africa’s Shark Biodiversity Management Plan was published by the Department of Environmental Affairs. It is a remarkable document and represents the culmination (and the beginning) of a great deal of work by a great many people. It deserves (and will hopefully get) a more detailed examination than this, but I have isolated the sections that pertain to the KZNSB because they shed light on how the KZNSB is characterised by the government, and on the pressures it is under.

In the South African Shark Biodiversity Management Plan on pages 13-14, the KZNSB is listed as an organisation that “actively support[s] the management and conservation of sharks”.

On page 29 the KZNSB is listed as a responsible party under part of the Biodiversity Management Action Plan, with things to do in order to effect conservation of sharks in South African waters. The KZNSB is to “research and implement methods mitigating by-catch (e.g. drum lines)”, high priority, to start within a year of March 2015 and to be completed within five years; and to “investigate alternatives to shark fishing systems”, with the same priority and timeline. We know that the KZNSB has been actively testing alternatives to nets and drum lines – their shark repellent cable test in Cape Town’s waters is a case in point.

Page 25 states that the KZNSB is “cognisant of the need to minimise the environmental impact on biodiversity, while striving to improve/evaluate methods that have a lower environmental cost.”

The piece of legislation (more on this later) that establishes the Sharks Board mandates the sharks board to consider alternative mitigation methods, to reduce environmental impact, and “enhance the survival of caught sharks and other marine animals.” The particular section of the act defining the Sharks Board’s mandate is quoted in the KZNSB 2014 Annual Report (pdf). The report also suggests (on page 23) that pressure from environmental groups is providing an additional impetus to the development of other bather protection strategies.

All this underscores the fact that the Sharks Board is expected to find alternative (non-lethal) shark mitigation methods, and is legally mandated to attempt to do so.

National Plan of Action for Sharks

The South African National Plan of Action for Sharks (NPOA) sets goals for the implementation of measures towards ecologically and economically sustainable shark fisheries, and aims to improve conservation and management of sharks found in South African waters. The KZNSB is mentioned on page 13 of the NPOA document, as a “directed shark fishery”, with a reminder that

In terms of the provincial KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board Act, 2008 (Act 5 of 2008), the KZNSB is required to endeavour to introduce schemes that will reduce negative impact on all biodiversity. In addressing biodiversity issues the KZNSB has already reduced the number of nets, introduced drum lines, and has removed shark fishing gear during the annual winter sardine run.

The Sharks Board is thus recognised in its capacity as a shark fishery in the NPOA document and mandated to conduct itself as described above (a broad requirement), as well as a potentially important player in the conservation of South Africa’s sharks in the Shark Biodiversity Management Plan.

Concerns

On page 23 of the KZNSB 2014 Annual Report (pdf), it is noted that one of the “challenges” facing the Sharks Board is that “other organisations are also developing environmentally-sensitive shark repellent technologies which may compete with that being developed by KZNSB.” I don’t know how exactly to read this, but it seems that the Sharks Board is concerned that if another entity were to develop a shark mitigation technology that doesn’t kill sharks, this would be a bad thing for the KZNSB. I can only infer that this refers either to potential lost profits from licencing a KZNSB-developed product, or to costs that the KZNSB would potentially incur should they be forced to implement an environmentally friendly shark mitigation technolgy developed by someone else.

Either way, it establishes a strong financial motive – at least at top management level – behind efforts to develop non-lethal shark repellent strategies. While this impurity of motive may not warm your environmentalist’s heart, a quick scan of the KZNSB annual reports should convince you that it is more analogous to a corporation than to an environmental organisation or charity and it should be expected to operate as such. Individual motivations of staff and researchers within the Sharks Board may well be related to shark conservation, but the organisation as a whole must remain financially viable.

A news report in November 2014, to which I have not been able to find a follow up, quoted the KZNSB CEO as suggesting that the Sharks Board be able to sell shark meat, fins, and other curios manufactured from shark products (such as teeth) in order to raise funds. The difficulty with this suggestion – which is expressly forbidden in the 2008 KwaZulu Natal Sharks Board Act – is that it could create an incentive not to release live sharks caught in the nets, or for the Sharks Board to deliberately harvest sharks in order to turn a profit.

In summary

What I hope I have provided is an overview of some facts about the Sharks Board that can be obtained from publicly available sources, all of which I have linked to in the text. I will do two follow up posts in which I will look at the origins of the Sharks Board and the legislation (from 1964 and 2008) that gives it its mandate and legal structure. Do ways exist in which concerned, rational, ocean loving citizens can work to create a future in which the South African coastline is free of nets and drum lines? What kind of things should we support in order to make the whole of South Africa – and not just Cape Town – a world leader in shark mitigation techniques?

At the very least an understanding of the entity that is the Sharks Board may assist in determining whether a particular form of activism or protest about its activities is likely to have any effect. And if a form of protest is not going to be ineffective, regardless of the passion and enthusiasm behind it, those energies could be better spent on one of the many other threats to the marine environment.

 

Documentary: Shark (BBC)

BBC Shark
BBC Shark

There is not much to say about this BBC Earth production, other than that it is excellent, contains shark and ray footage unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, and you must watch it. The DVD is now available in South Africa (and of course in the rest of the known world), so you have no excuse.

It was filmed over two years, and from the thousands of hours of footage, three episodes were distilled. The focus is on elasmobranchs, which is slightly broader than the title suggests (but Shark is more catchy). There is a fourth episode devoted entirely to how the series was filmed, including interviews with the camera operators, which was fascinating. I enjoyed seeing the gear they used – as a scuba diver – as much as I did getting an insight into how they framed their shots and told the stories of the different species. A repeated realisation I had watching this episode was how close one has to get to the animals to obtain the kind of footage required for a broadcast-quality production!

I admit that I was frustrated by the brevity of the series – just when I got into it, it seemed to end – but I understand the desire to show only the very best material, to hold viewers’ attention, and to stay focused on the message (which is essentially that sharks are misunderstood and more important, complex and interesting than you may have thought). The series has a strong scientific bent, explaining how scientists’ work assists with conservation and management measures, and how it illuminates the lives of sharks beyond them simply being a potential threat to beach goers. Individual scientists are interviewed in the field, and are shown taking samples, tagging and observing the animals they study. Not all of those scientists were men, ensuring that the program will inspire a new generation of shark scientists of both genders. Thank you, BBC.

The series does a good job of showing sharks other than (in addition to, really) the large, charismatic ones that we’re familiar with as South Africans. Sarah Fowler, co-author of Sharks of the World, said in a talk we attended some years ago that the “average shark” is not a five metre long behemoth with a multitude of sharp teeth. The vast majority of shark species are smaller – say half a metre long – and very unassuming. The catsharks, pyjama sharks and shysharks are the everyday, many times more numerous sharks who get far less press, good or bad, than their larger compadres.

The BBC’s Shark was apparently a welcome addition to Discovery’s Shark Week 2015 – a complete departure from the made-up, mendacious fluff that has been served up on that channel in previous years. Long may it last!

Get the DVD here (South Africa) otherwise here or here.