Newsletter: Life aboard

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Staying dry

The swell peaks at 8 metres with 18 second period tonight. It starts to drop off during the following few days, however I doubt the conditions will have settled enough on Saturday for training dives. Sunday has some south easter so we will have a dry weekend.

SA Agulhas II berthed in Cape Town
SA Agulhas II berthed in Cape Town

SA Agulhas II open day

Visit the East Pier Quay at the V&A Waterfront on Saturday (24 June) to get a rare opportunity to go aboard South Africa’s state of the art polar research vessel, SA Agulhas II. A little bit more info from the Department of Environmental Affairs is available here (pdf). We visited the ship a few years ago – read more about that visit here.

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

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

Bookshelf: Ice Blink

Ice Blink: The Tragic Fate of Sir John Franklin’s Lost Polar Expedition – Scott Cookman

Ice Blink
Ice Blink

In Ice Blink, Scott Cookman provides another account of the much-reported final expedition of Sir John Franklin to the Canadian Arctic, in search of a Northwest Passage. The story has been told many times, in many ways, and Cookman’s rendition is gripping.

Several theories have been advanced to account for the failure of any members of Franklin’s expedition to return. A few bodies have been found, and eyewitness accounts from Inuits in the areas that the Erebus and Terror were trapped in the ice provide some clues as to what happened. A conclusive explanation, however, has not been found.

Cookman advances the idea the the men were killed by botulinium toxin, introduced into their diets from poorly prepared tinned food.  He is dogmatic about this theory to the exclusion of all others, and at times makes it sound misleadingly certain that this was the cause of the disaster. In fact, experts fail to agree on what killed the men; other theories include lead poisoning (from the canned food), or simply just the cold and poor preparation.

I would recommend you read this book after you’ve familiarised yourself with some of the other literature about Arctic exploration and Sir John Franklin in particular, and are equipped to separate fact from hypothesis. If you’re interested in the subject, may I strongly recommend The Man Who Ate His Boots and Frozen in Time.

You can read the first chapter of the book here and a New York Times review here.

Get a copy of the book here (South Africa), here or here.

Article: Outside on acoustic sanctuaries for whales

Departing dolphins, and Christo
Departing dolphins, and Christo

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

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

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

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

Read the full article here.

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

Whale carcass reporting in Cape Town

Whale skull near the Thomas T Tucker
Whale skull near the Thomas T Tucker

The Environmental Resource Management Department at the City of Cape Town needs your help:

We would like to try and get to whale carcasses well before they wash ashore on our coastline to deal with them more effectively and efficiently. As ocean users, if you come across a whale carcass floating anywhere in False Bay or from Cape Point north to Silwerstroom Strand we would be most grateful if you could call, whatsapp or sms 083 940 8143 (available 24/7) with an approximate location and time of sighting.

Please could I ask that you also forward/share this email to as many friends, colleagues or groups that you are aware of that use the ocean as we would like as large a network of people as possible that could report sightings.

Save that number in your cellphone contacts, and do your bit for beach safety and, hopefully, for the environment, by reporting sightings of deceased whales before they reach the beach.

Ideally (environmentally speaking) dead whales should be left out at sea to be scavenged upon by marine life and then sink to the bottom and return their nutrients to the ecosystem. Unfortunately the prevailing summer wind direction in Cape Town (south easterly) generally brings any such carcasses onto the beach in False Bay. This is a hazard to human safety because of the co-incident inshore presence of great white sharks during the summer months. A dead whale is a great feeding opportunity for sharks, and its accompanying oil slick will be evident from miles away, potentially bringing in more sharks to investigate. This is why the City wants the opportunity to deal with whale carcasses before they reach your local swimming beach.

It’s timely to remember that while some cetaceans die and end up on the beach because of reasons such as ship strikes, ingesting plastic or other pollutants, or acoustic disturbances related to human activity, some of these animals also die of natural causes or illness unrelated to man’s impact on earth. Many times, scientists will examine the dead animal and be able to state what most likely led to its demise. While it is distressing to see any dead animal, and particularly strange and discomfiting to see a whale on shore, this is not necessarily confirmation that “the ocean is dying” or that we are “killing False Bay.” Sometimes it’s just the circle of life. Dead whales were an important source of nutrients and building materials to Strandloper communities long before industrial shipping plied the world’s seas.

For more on what happens to whales that die at sea (hint: it’s magnificent), check out this video. For more on the collision of dead whales and the urban environment, there’s this post about a whale on the beach in Fish Hoek, this one about a whale on the road in Cape Town, and this one about a stranded whale in the United States.

But I digress. Save this phone number: 083 940 8143, and tell your ocean-loving paddler, surfer, sailor, boater and diver friends to do the same!

Bookshelf: Rescue Warriors

Rescue Warriors: The US Coastguard, America’s Forgotten Heroes – David Helvarg

Rescue Warriors
Rescue Warriors

Much of this book reads like one of the Reader’s Digest “drama in real life” stories that I used to devour from the magazines that my granny brought us when she came to visit. (She’d also bring a packet of Sparkles or Cadbury Eclairs.)

Journalist, activist and former war correspondent David Helvarg (who also wrote Saved by the Sea and 50 Ways to Save the Ocean) spent two years embedded with various branches of the US Coastguard in order to experience their work.

I had naively thought that the US Coastguard, despite being funded by the government, and despite their website having a .mil for military domain name, was just a slightly larger, more financially flush version of South Africa’s National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI).

I was wrong. The mandate of the US Coastguard is to enforce maritime law (this is its primary difference from the NSRI) as well as to perform search and rescue operations. Viewers of the Deadliest Catch series will be familiar with the rescue work of the Coastguard in extremely challenging conditions. As a result of its law-enforcement mission, the Coastguard uses weapons and provides a lot more military-style training than you’d expect from a pure rescue operation. The Coastguard falls under the department of homeland security and operates cutters (with guns), icebreakers, small boats, helicopters, and other aircraft.

Helvarg’s conservationist tendencies shine through in several parts of Rescue Warriors, and he does not shy away from confronting the aspects of the Coastguard that he finds problematic. His contention is that the Coastguard receives far less publicity than it deserves. This book goes some way towards bringing attention to the individuals who have saved tens of thousands of people during Hurricane Katrina, via water evacuation during the September 11 attacks, and in countless other less well-known emergency situations.

This is a gripping read which I thoroughly enjoyed. I was amazed by the amount of funding and equipment that the Coastguard has at its disposal compared to the NSRI, even though the organisation is actually badly underfunded, especially when considered relative to the rest of the United States war machine. I was also impressed by the egalitarian approach that draws many women to join the Coastguard and enables them to rise in its ranks. The Coastguard made all its jobs available to women in 1977, something which other branches of the military have not yet done.

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

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.

Cape Agulhas lighthouse

View of Cape Agulhas lighthouse from the seaward side
View of Cape Agulhas lighthouse from the seaward side

The Cape Agulhas lighthouse is the most visually pleasing lighthouse that I’ve visited so far. Tony and I visited it while we were staying at De Hoop last September.

View of Cape Agulhas from the top of the lighthouse
View of Cape Agulhas from the top of the lighthouse

Cape Agulhas was named by the Portuguese from their word for needle. During the 1500s, when they were plying Southern Africa’s coastline, the magnetic declination in the area was approximately zero, meaning that there was no deviation between true and magnetic north, and the compass needle pointed to true north.

The door at the top of the tower
The door at the top of the tower

(Technical sidebar: Cape Agulhas lay on an agonic line during the 1500s. An agonic line is a line on the earth’s surface along which the magnetic declination or variation is zero. Earth’s magnetic field slowly changes, and with it the positions of the north and south magnetic poles. For this reason, the variation between true and magnetic north at a point on the earth changes slowly over time. You can examine a map of historic declination over the last 400-odd years here – if you scroll it back to 1590 you can see the green line through Cape Agulhas.)

The lighthouse is within walking distance of the southernmost tip of Africa inside the Agulhas National Park, and was built on land donated by Michiel van Breda, a local landowner (for whom Bredasdorp was named). Van Breda had experienced the trauma of shipwrecks along the stretch of coastline on his farm, with hundreds of dead bodies washing up after ships foundered on the rocky shores in rough seas. The shipwreck museum at Bredasdorp commemorates many of these wrecks.

The lens inside the lantern house
The lens inside the lantern house

The lighthouse was commissioned on 1 March 1849. It has a 7.5 million candela light that emits one flash every 5 seconds and has a range of 31 nautical miles. The lighthouse tower is 27 metres high, with a focal plane 31 metres above sea level. The tower is made of limestone with a white lantern house. By the 1960s the tower had deteriorated to such an extent that the lighthouse was temporarily decommissioned (its job performed in the interim by an aluminium tower), and restoration was undertaken. It was recommissioned in 1988.

View of L'Agulhas
View of L’Agulhas

The lighthouse is open to the public (also on weekends, which is unusual for a South African lighthouse) and contains a museum and a gift shop on the ground floor. The view from the top is well worth the climb.

If you love lighthouses, you need to get hold of Gerald Hoberman’s Lighthouses of South Africa.

Bookshelf: Franklin’s Lost Ship

Franklin’s Lost Ship: The Historic Discovery of HMS Erebus – John Geiger and Alanna Mitchell

Franklin's Lost Ship
Franklin’s Lost Ship

Since reading The Man Who Ate His Boots, my obsession with the history of the exploration of the Canadian Arctic has not abated. You can expect to be troubled by many more Arctic book reviews and related material from me.

This book is a well-illustrated account of the discovery of one of Sir John Franklin’s ships, HMS Erebus, in the waters north of Canada. You will (may?) recall that Franklin’s entire expedition – some 130 men and two ships – disappeared while searching for the Northwest Passage, on a journey begun in 1845. Parts of the mystery of their disappearance, and what happened to them, have since been resolved, but until late 2014 ago no sign of either of the two ships had been found.

If you are interested in the story, this relatively short book both recounts what is known of Franklin’s expedition and the subsequent searches for him and his men, as well as detailing the recent discovery of HMS Erebus by a team of Parks Canada archaeologists. There are underwater photographs and side-scan sonar images showing the ship standing upright in about eleven metres of water. It’s an excellent complement to Anthony Brandt’s more detailed history, but can equally well be read on its own, as an account of history spanning 160 years, meeting technology from the present.

Some sections – such as the extensive and laudatory passages devoted to former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper and his reflections on the discovery – were puzzling to me. I was pleased to see how much credit was given to the indigenous Canadian people and their maps and oral histories for their role in locating the ship. Their accounts of the fate of Franklin’s men, and clues as to the location of his ships, proved crucial in the discovery of HMS Erebus, despite being immediately disregarded by Franklin’s contemporaries.

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

A visit to the Bredasdorp Shipwreck Museum

Exterior of the shipwreck museum
Exterior of the shipwreck museum

In the centre of Bredasdorp, the sleepy town in the Overberg that you will likely pass through on your way to De Hoop, Cape Agulhas, Arniston or any of the surrounding areas, is a museum devoted to shipwrecks. Tony and I paid it a visit while we were staying at De Hoop in September last year, and enjoyed it immensely. The museum is situated in an old church, and spills over into two other adjacent historical buildings.

Artefacts from SS Maori
Artefacts from SS Maori

The shipwreck museum contains artefacts from a wide variety of wrecks – many of them from the coastline between Danger Point and Cape Agulhas, but others from further afield (including our neck of the woods)! There is a display about SS Maori, including some of the pottery that was in the mixed cargo on the vessel.

Interior of the shipwreck museum
Interior of the shipwreck museum

In addition to cargo items (including a vast array of bottles spanning a few hundred years of history), there are figureheads, binnacles, ship’s bells, cannons and anchors – the latter located outside in a beautiful garden behind the museum. The ship’s wheel of SS Kadie, wrecked at the mouth of the Breede River, is also on display. The Arniston, Queen of the Thames, and Birkenhead wrecks also feature prominently. Familiarising yourself in advance with some details about the most prominent wrecks of the Overberg region will enrich your visit.

A separate garage-like structure (technically known as the Old Coach House), accessible over a tiny river bridge in the garden, contains a historical fire engine, carriages and other vehicles and implements of everyday life from a century ago. There is even a rocket-propelled breeches buoy apparatus, used from shore to rescue shipwreck survivors.

Tony for scale!
Tony for scale!

Another building included in the museum facilities is a fully furnished historical Overberg home called the Old Parsonage – when we walked through, there was even a (real live) cat having a cool nap on a hand-sewn quilt in one of the bedrooms.

Reminder about regulations pertaining to shipwrecks
Reminder about regulations pertaining to shipwrecks

Since we’re thinking about shipwrecks, a reminder about South African legislation pertaining to historical wrecks is timely!

If you’re in the area the Bredasdorp Shipwreck Museum is definitely worth a visit. Opening hours and contact details can be found here. The entry fee is minimal.

Scattered shipwreck: The nameplate of MV Antipolis

Plaque and Antipolis nameplate at the Twelve Apostles
Plaque and Antipolis nameplate at the Twelve Apostles

MV Antipolis ran aground off Oudekraal, along the Cape Peninsula’s western coast, in July 1977. The wreck is visible at low tide, and can be seen from the deck at the nearby Twelve Apostles Hotel – you can admire it while drinking cocktails (or Fanta Grape, if you’re as wild as Tony and me) at the Leopard Bar.

Plaque commemorating wreck of the Antipolis
Plaque commemorating wreck of the Antipolis

I was quite surprised to discover the (a?) nameplate of the Antipolis, along with a small plaque commemorating the wreck, on the large terrace adjacent to the Leopard Bar, which I accessed during the course of a very lovely wedding at the hotel. I am sure that if you asked nicely, or moved smoothly like a lizard, you could do the same, even without a wedding invitation in hand. You might be able to crane your neck from the deck of the Leopard Bar, too.

Antipolis nameplate
Antipolis nameplate

If you’re interested in visible shipwrecks, check out my ebook Cape Town’s Visible Shipwrecks: A Guide for Explorers!