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.

Bookshelf: Frozen in Time

Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition -Owen Beattie & John Geiger

Frozen in Time
Frozen in Time

Depending on whether you’ve followed my advice (who am I kidding) and read Franklin’s Lost Ship or The Man Who Ate His Boots, this book could either be a spoiler or constitute a fairly neat wrapping up of the loose ends and methods used to discover the fate of Sir John Franklin’s vanished 1845 expedition to the Canadian Arctic to search for the Northwest Passage.

Owen Beattie is a Canadian forensic anthropologist (a real one) who exhumed the bodies of three members of Franklin’s expedition who died and were buried on King William Island in the Arctic. Beattie’s team visited the island in 1984 and 1986 to work on the exhumation, examination and reburial of the three men. Buried in the permafrost, the bodies were remarkably well preserved (that’s a picture of one of them on the book’s cover).

Frozen in Time describes Beattie’s search for evidence about what led to the death of the men on the expedition, as well as providing a historical context for their search. The rigors of working in the Arctic – even in summer – and the historical, biological and cultural insight that can be obtained from the examination of dead bodies makes this a gripping read. You can read it as a stand-alone account of the Franklin expedition and its grim ending – no prior knowledge is required. Canadian writer Margaret Atwood’s introduction provides a beautiful interface between history, science and the deeper truths about ourselves that are revealed by the imperative to explore the Arctic.

Not everyone agrees with Beattie and Geiger’s thesis about what killed the men – if you’re still reading my Arctic ramblings, check out the argument put forward here.

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

Bookshelf: The Man Who Ate His Boots

The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage – Anthony Brandt

The Man Who Ate His Boots
The Man Who Ate His Boots

The Northwest Passage  is a sea route (routes, actually) running between Canada and Greenland, across the top of the North American continent through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, and through the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia. At its end is the Far East, for hundreds of years the destination of the thousands of sea voyages that made their way around the Cape of Good Hope, and later through the Suez Canal. Its existence was an enormously appealing idea to Europeans, because if the east could be reached by sailing along the top of the world, great savings of sailing time and expense would result.

For a long time the existence of the Northwest Passage was merely a hypothesis, and in the 1800s the British expended vast quantities of energy exploring the Canadian Arctic in search of a sea route. The passage was first traversed in 1850-54 by Robert McClure, by ship and sledge. Roald Amundsen traversed it entirely by ship in 1903-1906.  Until this century, the route was not navigable for most of the year owing to the presence of sea ice. Now, thanks (?) to climate change, there is far less ice to contend with.

Sir John Franklin was one of Britain’s most eminent Arctic explorers. He made several trips to the Arctic in search of the Northwest Passage. His final expedition, starting in 1845, ended in the disappearance of his two ships (HMS Erebus and HMS Terror), Franklin himself, and all 128 of the men with him.

The story of his expedition, and the searches for evidence of its fate (upwards of 30 expeditions were mounted to look for him), and the subsequent discovery of what had happened (no spoilers here – it was awful) is related in gripping detail in The Man Who Ate His Boots. Brandt also provides ample historical context, describing prior expeditions which serve to illuminate the British motivations behind their exploration of the Canadian Arctic.

There was a curious mixture of stoic heroism and wild arrogance at work during this period of British history. The rigors endured by early Arctic explorers cannot be overstated – the environment is almost entirely hostile to human survival. The British did not believe that there was anything to be learned from the Inuit, indigenous people who live widely spread across the area, and suffered as a result. As one of the Inuit pointed out when the awful lengths Franklin’s men had gone to in order to try to survive were revealed, his people “know how to starve.”

There is a strong thread throughout this book relating to the colonial attitude towards colonised peoples. A belief prevailed in Britain that, equipped with a shotgun and a good pair of shoes, an Englishman could survive anywhere, and that his Christian piety would serve to protect him and speed his endeavours. (On one of Franklin’s earlier expeditions, which was a complete fiasco largely owing to poor planning, the British officers survived whereas the mixed-race local fur traders – who were doing all the manual work and carrying the supplies – perished. This was attributed to the protective influence of the Christian beliefs of the British men.) It was further reckoned that there was nothing to be gained from studying the techinques of the Inuit. Eyewitness accounts from Inuit turned out to hold the key to the fate of Franklin’s party, although their account was not believed initially (they were dismissed as habitually lying “savages”).

Last year, one of Franklin’s ships, HMS Erebus, was discovered by Canadian archaeologists in Queen Maud gulf, where it sank after being trapped in the ice. They are still studying it (the area is only accessible a few months each summer), and I am watching this story with intense interest. There’s more on the discovery at National Geographic.

You can read reviews of The Man Who Ate His Boots at the New York Times, Washington Post, and The Guardian. If you enjoyed Endurance, then I recommend you investigate this book. In light of the developing findings of the excavation of HMS Erebus, the material has refreshed relevance today.

Get the book here (South Africa), here or here.

Want more Arctic? Check out True North. There’s also this article on what lives under the ice, and this one on what happens on top of it!

A Day on the Bay: Freedom Swim 2015

Powerful strokes
Powerful strokes

This year we were once again a support boat for the annual Freedom Swim, from Robben Island to Big Bay. This is a 7.5 kilometre route, held every year in April, this year on the 11th. The water is, as you can imagine, often quite cold, and this affects the number of swimmers who are able to complete the route.

Catherine keeps an eye on Ned
Catherine keeps an eye on Ned

This year we supported Ned Denison, an American swimmer who bases himself out of Cork in Ireland (for swimming purposes). I read about his Cork Distance Week – a terrifying bootcamp of open water swimming – a few years ago and was interested to meet him. He has done every open water distance swim you can imagine, including a swim across False Bay from Rooi Els to Miller’s Point.

The press boat filming Ned
The press boat filming Ned

Apart from a very misty start, the day was perfect with no wind and extremely calm seas. Tony kept a good line straight from Murray’s Bay harbour on Robben Island to Big Bay on the Table Bay coastline. Ned didn’t stop once, and finished the swim in under two hours. It was a great day to be out on the boat, and fantastic to watch such a renowned swimmer in action.

Tony watching Ned
Tony watching Ned

Bookshelf: The Control of Nature

Today and tomorrow I’ll tell you about two books I read recently: The Control of Nature, and The World Without Us. They both deal with man’s impact on the environment, but not in the same way as the conservation-related books that I am typically drawn to. They are not directly related to the ocean (although The World Without Us touches on it), but encouraged me to think in new ways about our impact on the planet, in terms a little bit broader than “We catch too much fish” or “We burn too much fossil fuel.”

I was induced to read these two books, one after the other, by an apocalyptic frame of mind (which we might be able to blame on intermittent power outages and some of the other challenges we’re experiencing in South Africa at the moment). Even if you don’t feel as though the sky is about to fall on your head, they are still both highly recommended.

The Control of Nature – John McPhee

The Control of Nature
The Control of Nature

It is a discredit to my literary general knowledge that this is the first book I have read by American author John McPhee. He is a prolific and well regarded non-fiction author whose other work I will be hunting down post haste. The Control of Nature comprises three long essays, each detailing an attempt by man to modify and contain his natural environment. They read like engineering thrillers (which puts me in mind of my brother in law – maybe he needs this book in his life, too). McPhee explains complex engineering concepts in terms that anyone can grasp.

The first essay, entitled Atchafalayadeals with the Mississippi River, which is cannibalised by its distributary the Atchafalaya River in Louisiana, near its mouth. A complex structure called the Old River Control Structure determines how much of the Mississippi is allowed into the Atchafalaya. Left uncontrolled, the Mississippi would change course entirely, with dire economic and sociological consequences for New Orleans and surrounds. The history and workings of the Old River Control Structure alone are fascinating enough to sell the book – check out the Wikipedia entry for a taste of it.

The second essay describes the surprisingly successful attempts by Icelandic islanders from Heimaey to redirect a flow of volcanic lava that was threatening their fishing harbour (of major economic importance – notice a trend here) during an eruption of the volcano Eldfell in 1973. The task was Herculean. Islanders pumped seawater out onto the lava, and worked in conditions so steamy (from evaporating water) and hot that their boots melted and they couldn’t see more than a few metres in front of them. Part of the town was destroyed – preserved like Pompeii – but the size of the island was increased and the harbour is now better protected than it was before the eruption, thanks to lava outflows and rocks shielding it from the prevailing winds. Heimaey is beautiful – there’s a short article about the place here, with photos sourced from here.

 Finally, McPhee deals with Los Angeles, a city which seems ubiquitous in a certain type of news media, but for reasons entirely other than the ones McPhee writes about. It turns out that the San Gabriel mountains above Los Angeles have some striking similarities to the fynbos-covered slopes around Cape Town. The climate is also Mediterranean – hot, dry summers and wet winters. The vegetation in the San Gabriel mountains is called chaparral, and like fynbos it needs to burn every decade or so for germination of new plants and removal of the overstory of growth. Volatile oils in the leaves of these plants mean that they burn hot and fast, and sometimes gases released from the plants explode in the air as they burn. After a fire, the steep slopes are vulnerable to landslides, comprising rock, gravel and mud. Debris basins – essentially giant empty reservoirs – are built to collect the debris from these massively destructive floods before it reaches the expensive homes high in the mountains. When the debris does reach an area of human habitation, the effects are swift and disastrous.

All three the enterprises McPhee describes are (or were) very costly. Two of them – the government-led control of the Mississippi and of the Los Angeles mudslides – are ongoing and will always be as long as populations inhabit the areas concerned or wish to continue with commerce as it currently is. Iceland is in a volcanic region and it is entirely conceivable that another eruption may threaten property and economics of a region in the future, and that another attempt will be made to drive back a metres-thick flow of boiling magma. I was exhausted after reading this book, and wished that everyone could just down tools and go away. I was also amazed by the scale of the efforts that go on every day to make our world habitable, wherever we choose to set down roots. I wondered what sort of similar activities, frenetic attempts to subdue and hold back earth and water, happen around me that I am not aware of.

A New York Times review of the book can be found here.

 You can get a copy of the book here (South Africa) otherwise here or here. I also discovered that the New Yorker published lengthy extracts from this book – you can read them online. For all I know it may even be the whole thing!

Our protocol for scuba diving (and snorkeling) with Cape fur seals

Tamsyn with the seals
Tamsyn with the seals

Scuba divers’ and snorkelers’ interactions with Cape fur seals have been in the spotlight recently in light of proposed legislation that would limit us to keeping a distance of more than 30 metres from any group of 50 or more seals. We wrote about the proposed legislation in detail, and one of the alternatives we suggested to an outright ban on approaching seal colonies and haul out spots was the introduction of a seal diving code of conduct.

We prepared something similar for scuba diving with broadnose sevengill cowsharks in False Bay. The idea is to draw up a set of guidelines that will ensure the well being of the species we’re diving with, and the safety and enjoyment of the divers.

Here’s our seal diving code of conduct. We’d love to hear your comments and suggestions. Is there anything we’ve left out?

  1. We are visiting the seals in order to see them in the water. Under no circumstances will we land on their colony, climb onto the rocks from the water, or otherwise harass them on land.
  2. We won’t try to chase the seals off their haul out spot or colony into the water by clapping, shouting, or otherwise creating a disturbance when we approach. If the seals want to get into the water to play (which they often do), they will.
  3. Seals will interact with us if and when they want to. We won’t use toys such as bits of rope to attract seals to us in the water so that we can photograph or examine them. This teaches seals to identify human-manufactured materials as playthings, and will lead to more entanglement of curious young animals in plastic waste.
  4. We won’t try to touch the seals, and nor will we encourage them to interact physically with us by offering them parts of our gear or other items to chew on. (We recognise that they may do this anyway, but we will not encourage it.)
  5. We use no bait or chum in the water around seal colonies (or anywhere else, unless we have a permit to do so). Apart from it being illegal, it could potentially modify the seals’ behaviour around humans, and may attract charismatic marine megafauna other than the species we’re visiting the area to dive with.
  6. We treat the area all around a seal colony as a no-wake zone. This means the boat engine speed when moving around there is just a little more than an idle, but enough to move forward. When approaching the area, we will slow down well in advance in case other operators have a buoy, divers and/or snorkelers in the water. We recognise that the ocean does not belong to us, and that others have as much right to be at any particular location as we do. This, and concern for vulnerable water users and seals on the surface, informs how we use our boat in the vicinity of a seal colony.

Diving and snorkeling with seals is great fun and a privilege that we have as water users. We’d like to see it appreciated as such, and hopefully this will inform how we interact with these puppy dogs of the ocean.

Urgent call to action on the future of seal diving and snorkeling in South Africa

Seal at the slipway
Seal at the slipway

Proposed changes to the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act (no. 10 of 2004) will limit scuba divers’ and snorkelers access to Cape fur seal colonies. The proposal was brought to our attention by Georgina Jones (for which we thank her!). Unfortunately the timeline for comments is extremely limited: we must submit written responses to the proposal by 30 April, which is this coming Thursday.

Proposed legislative changes with respect to Cape fur seals

The primary change that will affect us as scuba divers and snorkelers is that we will no longer be allowed within 30 metres of a Cape fur seal colony. This will mean that we cannot approach the colonies at Duiker Island in Hout Bay and at Partridge Point in False Bay. Furthermore, it may mean that we cannot even drive the boat through the gap between Duiker Island and the mainland. Boat routing around the Partridge Point colony will also be affected. Fortunately we don’t do any recreational diving around Seal Island in False Bay, so we don’t need to worry about that!

The Government Gazette outlining the changes is long (288 pages) and you can download it in its entirety here, but I have snipped out the relevant sections. The first is the definition of “harrassment” from page 88, which in point (f) relates to all seal species and states that one may not “approach a colony closer than 30 metres”.

Definition of harrassment
Definition of harrassment (click to enlarge)

The second relevant section is on pages 260-261 as they specifically apply to Cape fur seals. Note that the second last bullet point (on the second page, page 261) prohibits “harassment” of seals, which is defined above.

Cape fur seals regulations
Cape fur seals regulations (click to enlarge)
Cape fur seals regulations continued
Cape fur seals regulations continued (click to enlarge)

Why we object to the proposed legislation

Cape fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus pusillus) are not endangered. In Namibia they are hunted, but in South Africa hunting of seals was stopped years ago. They are classified as “Least Concern” on the IUCN Redlist, which states that

Due to their large population sizes, the global Cape Fur Seal (Afro-Australian Fur Seal) population appears to be healthy, and the subspecies should both therefore be classified as Least Concern (LC).

The best place to encounter Cape fur seals is in proximity to a breeding colony (such as Duiker Island in Hout Bay) or haul out spot (such as Partridge Point in False Bay). The largest breeding colony is Seal Island in False Bay, and recreational diving and snorkeling is off limits there owing to the white shark population that feeds there, primarily in winter. Restricting access to 30 metre wide areas around these colonies will not improve the lot of the seal populations in any way.

Fishermen frequently have an adversarial relationship with seals (Shaughnessy & Kirkwood). Allowing scuba divers and snorkelers to approach seal colonies in the water enables them to observe any abuses that may be perpetrated on the seals by water users who do not appreciate the seals’ presence. It also provides a means for monitoring and reporting the impact of plastic pollution on the animals, which may be significant. Loops of plastic from bait boxes, shopping bags and from six packs of canned drinks pose a risk to these curious mammals, who get their heads or flippers stuck inside the plastic loops. This causes slow and painful damage to the animals as they grow.

There is no indication that activity by snorkelers and scuba divers causes the seals any distress or leads to harmful behaviour modification that could impact individual seals’ chances of survival (Kirkwood et al 2003). Seals are curious and friendly, and frequently and willingly approach people in the water in order to interact.

If conducted sensitively, trips allowing visitors to experience Cape fur seals have great conservation value, not only encouraging awareness of seal conservation issues, but also of species that prey on and are preyed upon by seals, and of issues of plastic pollution in the marine environment.

The monetary value of Cape fur seals as a tourism resource is also significant and contributes to South Africa’s tourism sector. In addition to snorkeling and scuba diving trips, run by a number of operators, there are seal viewing boats (which sometimes pose a significant danger to snorkelers and divers in the water, but that’s another story…) operating out of Hout Bay, which bring thousands of visitors, mostly tourists, to see the colonies each year.

As both Duiker Island and Partridge Point are located close to shore, restricting boat movements around them may force watermen to use less safe routes up and down the coastline, and force them further out to sea than they would otherwise choose to venture in order to avoid the seals.

(It is in fact not clear to me whether Partridge Point, which is a resting or haul out spot rather than a breeding colony, will fall under the proposed legislation, but Duiker Island in Hout Bay certainly will, as will Seal Island in False Bay.)

How we think seals need to be protected

A more impactful (sorry, hate that word) way to protect seals from perceived harrassment would be to enforce a Code of Conduct for seal tourism operators. This would prohibit landing of people on a seal colony by tourist operators. The use of toys such as bits of rope to attract seals in the water should also be prohibited. Teaching seals to identify human manufactured materials as playthings will only lead to more entanglement of young animals in plastic waste. Strict boat speed limits should be enforced around seal colonies and haul out spots. Finally, no bait or chum should be permitted to be used by operators, even if it is kept on the boat and trickled over the side or held inside a glove and not given to the seals.

How to submit comments

If you enjoy snorkeling and diving with seals and want to be able to share that with friends and family in the future, or have a business that profits from seal trips, or if you like to win photography competitions with pictures of seals chomping at your dome port, this means you have a vested interest in the legislation that has been proposed.

The quickest way to comment is to send an email to nmbedzi@environment.gov.za with your comments or objections. Feel free to use any or all of the ones we have listed above. Please do this now!

Contact details to submit comments
Contact details to submit comments (click to enlarge)

Operators who do white shark trips and turtle nesting tours in Sodwana should also consult the proposed changes carefully, because they may impact their operations as well.

Google street view goes to the Antarctic

The ice-obsessed will rejoice with me at this (not at all recent, actually) news: Google has included a number of Antarctic destinations on street view. Destinations include Half Moon Island in the South Shetlands, South Georgia Island, where Sir Ernest Shackleton is buried, Robert Falcon Scott’s hut from his ill-fated 1912 expedition, Shackleton’s hut on Ross Island, an adélie penguin rookery at Cape Royds, the South Pole telescope, the ceremonial south pole, and a couple more on the Antarctic continent.

While we’re down in the Antarctic with Google, they have also provided an interactive map of Shackleton’s Endurance mission of 1914 that gives an excellent idea of the distances covered, and includes both recent and historical photographs.

The Antarctic imagery joins Google’s prior imaging of coral reefs in Australia and a view of the inside a ship.

It’ll be quite a long while (a lot of lottery plays!) before we can afford to go to the Antarctic, and the continent might be much changed by global warming by the time we get there, but in the mean time there’s Google…

Guest contribution: Heinrich’s seal diving video

Heinrich learned to scuba dive recently, and on his final Open Water dive at Duiker Island in Hout Bay, he brought along his Go-Pro camera. He edited together some footage from that dive, and is generously allowing us to share it here.

Seal Dive at Duiker Island, South Africa from Heinrich Meyer on Vimeo.

The last training dive for my OWD. Amazing dive site with Seals everywhere you look. They are very playful and like to interact with divers. And by interact I mean biting… 😀

Bookshelf: The View from Lazy Point

The View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World – Carl Safina

The View from Lazy Point
The View from Lazy Point

The Carl Safina we (I) know and love – brilliant, lyrical, and wide ranging – returns with this book after his angry eulogy for the Gulf of Mexico (A Sea in Flames) after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. This book is a return to the style of his other titles, which you should read as a matter of urgency: Song for the Blue OceanVoyage of the Turtle, and Eye of the AlbatrossIf you had to choose one author to be your guide to everything that’s wrong with, and everything that’s hopeful about our blue planet, Carl Safina would be that writer.

Safina won the 2012 Orion Book Award for The View from Lazy Point, but not everyone loves his sometimes wordy style (channeling great American nature writers such as Henry David Thoreau), so he may be an acquired taste. If you like a bit of literature mixed in with your science, I think you’ll love Safina’s writing. At intervals he allows outrage or anger to break through into his reverie; an encounter with duck hunters near his home, for example, left me with my heart pounding.

Lazy Point is a promontory at the end of Long Island Sound, not that far from New York city. Just looking at the area on the map makes me want to go there – it’s in an area frequented by vast numbers of migratory birds and abundant fish species, with an intriguingly convoluted coastline. Safina owns a cottage at Lazy Point, and The View from Lazy Point is structured around the seasonal changes he is able to observe from this spot. The daily walks he takes on the beach with his dog reveal the changing landscape and its inhabitants as the year passes.

Safina is a fisherman, and mounts an impassioned (and relatively convincing) defence of the activity. He also admits that he struggles with it, which I found slightly reassuring. He has given up shark fishing (at least, he doesn’t keep the sharks he catches any more). I’ve struggled with his fishing narratives before; fortunately in this book he’s more concerned with food than sport.

During the course of the year, Safina also travels – to Palau, Alaska, Svalbard, Belize – seeking first hand the effects of climate change and pollution on the marine environment and the people who depend on it. He sees ice melting and coral reefs bleached and overgrown with algae. I didn’t realise the extent to which coastal communities (mostly on islands) are already having their lands inundated by rising sea levels, crops destroyed and homes flooded. The problems and challenges identified in this book are massive in scope, and probably the most important (self-created) threats humanity has ever had to contend with.

After all, only in the last few decades have we understood anything, really, about how the world actually works. … Consequently most of civilization remains uninformed about the two great realities of our existence: all life is family, and the world is finite. … What I’m saying, basically, is that in very consequential ways, our modes of conduct are so out of sync with reality that they’re essentially irrational.

His call to action is justified. You can read an interview with Safina here, and other reviews of this book at the LA Times and New York Times.

You can get a copy of the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here. I think you should read it.