Our protocol for scuba diving with cowsharks

Curious cowshark
Curious cowshark

Shark Alley is a special and unusual dive site just south of Millers Point. It is an aggregation site for broadnose sevengill cowsharks, predators who feed on seals and a variety of other animals. They can grow to three metres in length. These sharks seem to use this site as a resting area (though we aren’t sure – research is ongoing) and their behaviour is typically docile and relaxed. For this reason it is a great place to dive, as the sharks come close enough to get a good look at them but do not behave in a threatening manner.

There has never been a serious incident involving a diver and a shark at this site, but there have been a few incidents. Clare has had her pillar valve gnawed on by a feisty young male shark while on a dive here a few years back, and early in May a diver was bitten on the arm by one of the sharks. That latter bite made the newspaper (the shark drew blood and the NSRI was summoned), but I am sure that there have been other more minor incidents here that didn’t get reported.

Young cowshark
Young cowshark

This got me thinking about a protocol for diving with these animals. Shark dives all over the world are governed by safety protocols and guidelines, usually put in place by dive operators themselves (examples here and here). We do have a set of standards that we adhere to when visiting this site and mention in dive briefings, but I’ve never written them down all together before. I am a firm believer in self regulation, whereby the industry regulates itself so that we don’t end up with a bureaucrat in an office telling us we can’t dive with cowsharks without (for example) a special permit, or (heaven forbid) ever again!

Cowshark passing a diver
Cowshark passing a diver

So here’s our protocol – how we choose to regulate ourselves when diving this site. It’s not a set of hard and fast rules that everyone has to follow, but it’s how we choose to approach dives at Shark Alley, a little bit like Underwater Africa’s diver code of conduct, but for cowshark diving. You are welcome to use these principles yourself, and I’d like to hear any suggestions you have to improve them or for points I may not have thought of.

  1. Do a positive entry (i.e. with your BCD fully inflated) if you are diving off the boat, so you do not risk landing on a shark in mid water. If there is a thermocline, the sharks typically swim above it, and may be shallower than you expect.
  2. Descend slowly in a controlled manner, looking below you at all times. Ensure that you are carrying sufficient weight (you should be able to kneel on the sand if necessary).
  3. Do not make any physical contact with the sharks. Do not try and stroke them as they swim by, and do not hang on their tails or dorsal fins.
  4. Do not feed the sharks. Don’t carry anything edible (sardines, for example) in your BCD, and do not chum from the boat. This includes washing the deck off at the dive site if you’ve just been fishing or on a baited shark dive. Chumming is both illegal (you need a permit) and unsafe, especially if there are divers in the water.
  5. If you have students in the water, perform skills away from the sharks (if possible, avoid conducting skills at this site).
  6. Some sharks will show a keen interest in your camera and flash or strobes. Do not antagonise them by putting a camera directly in their face. If a shark is showing undue interest in your photographic equipment, hold off taking pictures for a moment while it swims away.
  7. Move out of the sharks’ way if they swim towards you. (Here’s a video of Tami doing just that.) Cowsharks are confident and curious, and often won’t give way to divers. Respect their space and move far enough away that they won’t rub against you or bump you as they swim by.
  8. Be alert for any strange behaviour by an individual shark or the sharks around you. Be aware of your surroundings and don’t become absorbed with fiddling with your camera or gear. If a shark does become overly familiar (bumping or biting), gather the divers together in a close group and abort the dive in a controlled manner.
  9. Do not dive at this site at night or in low light. This is probably when cowsharks feed (though we aren’t sure), and as ambush predators their behaviour is likely to be quite different in dark water when they’re in hunting mode.
  10. Do not dive at this site alone. When diving in a group, stay with the group and close to your buddy.

I am not writing this protocol down to make people afraid of diving with cowsharks in Cape Town. But I do think it’s important to remember that this is a dive that needs to be taken seriously, with safety as a priority. Because we can visit this site whenever we want to, it’s tempting to become blasé about what an amazing experience it is, and also about the fact that these are sharks that need to be respected.

In conclusion! Unlike great white sharks, cowsharks (and blue sharks, and mako sharks, and and and…) are not protected in South Africa, so it’s not illegal to fish for them in permitted fishing areas (i.e. outside no take zones, etc). One of the cage diving operators in Gansbaai even used to use cowshark livers in his chum… If you want to make a difference in the lives of cowsharks and ensure they’re still here for us to dive with in future decades, consider writing a letter to the relevant government minister (make sure it’s the current one, in the new cabinet) and also to the shadow minister from the opposition party, requesting protection for more shark species in South African waters.

How you (you!) can make a difference for the environment

Here are some suggestions for things you can do at (or near) home that can have a positive impact on the environment.

Mounds of garbage
Mounds of garbage


The first suggestion is the most important!

Be a busybody

Keep tabs on what’s going on in your area. Are there new building projects or developments planned? Community newspapers are an excellent source of information. Attend meetings that give opportunities for public participation, register as an interested and affected party, make objections, write letters to the environmental consultants and your local council representatives. Also, tell your friends and buddies about opportunities to participate as concerned citizens.

Remember that a development doesn’t necessarily need to be in or on the ocean to affect the marine environment. For example, False Bay is where a large amount of the city’s effluent is pumped out. More people means more pressure on the ecosystem. Demand responsible solutions from municipalities and developers.

Keep tabs on proposed amendments to existing laws, and new laws and bylaws. Who is getting permission to do what? Are these decisions well thought out? Is it wise to allow whelk and octopus fisheries to operate in a bay that is visited by large numbers of whales and dolphins?

Hold the government (specifically DAFF and the Department of Environmental Affairs) to account. The environment belongs to all of us, and if it’s being mismanaged, it’s your heritage that’s being squandered.

An excellent example of the concrete results this kind of action by ordinary citizens can have is the recent flip-flop done by the authorities on the proposed diving ban in the Betty’s Bay MPA after many local divers, marshalled by Indigo Scuba and Underwater Africa, registered as interested and affected parties and submitted objections to the proposal.

Banning diving in the area would have essentially left it wide open for poaching. While the local law enforcement can’t and doesn’t do anything to stop illegal harvesting of perlemoen, eyes in the water in the form of recreational divers can at least keep tabs on what’s happening in the reserve.

You can follow the sequence of events by reading these four posts, in order: (1) proposed diving ban, (2) almost immediate initial results after responses from the diving community, (3) a revised proposal, and finally (4) a cautiously promising start to the consultation process (which is by no means finished).

Evangelise, but not like a crazy person

Wear your heart on your sleeve. Let your friends know that conservation issues and protecting the environment are important to you. Don’t be scary and wild-eyed, just be yourself. (If you’re naturally scary and wild-eyed, I can’t help you.)

When you get an opportunity to discuss an environmental issue with someone who doesn’t know or care as much as you do, stick to the facts. Point them to other sources where they can find information to back up what you’re saying, if they are interested. That way, if they want to relay your argument to someone else, they can do so. Raw outrage isn’t necessarily transmissible (and if you’re too hot under the collar, they may just think you’re a lunatic).

Don’t use jargon. Don’t use cliches (people are smarter than you think). Don’t assume that everyone knows as much as you do about your pet issue – check that you’re pitching your pitch appropriately. Don’t be boring. Show people how beautiful and wonderful and intricate the environment is.

Reef life at Roman Rock
Reef life at Roman Rock

Get your hands dirty

Participate in beach cleanups and underwater cleanups. If you see garbage on a dive (and nothing has taken it for a home), stuff it into your BCD for disposal on land. Get into the habit of picking up stuff that doesn’t belong. Keep an empty bag on the boat for collecting rubbish as you drive in and out of the harbour. Hout Bay is an excellent spot for this. Most harbours are actually filthy.

Consume less of everything

Reduce your carbon footprint. This encompasses all the obvious things: recycle, buy local, seasonal produce, eat less meat, and participate in more recreational activities that are carbon neutral. (Unfortunately diving isn’t technically one of those; even if you do a shore dive, you still need to get your cylinder filled using a compressor that consumes energy.)

Here’s a good carbon footprint calculator that’ll help you identify the areas of your lifestyle that are having the greatest negative impact on the environment. Mine is my commute to work, which produces a horrific amount of carbon dioxide each month. (If I ever needed a justification for running away to sea with Tony and the cats, this is it.)

If you eat seafood, make wise choices that are kind to the ocean. If you fish for fun, follow the regulations defining what and how much you’re allowed to catch.

Donate responsibly

If you have financial resources and want to make a donation to a conservation organisation, first do your research.

  • What will the money be spent on?
  • What is the track record of the organisation? What projects have they worked on already?
  • Do you agree with their aims, objectives and methods? (Would you be proud to have your name associated with their work?)
  • Will the money be spent on branding and advertising (some people mistake this for real action), or on observable projects that will have a direct impact on an environmental issue that’s important to you?

Remember that addressing an environmental problem may very well involve work with people. Sustainable Seas Trust (not an endorsement, just an example) addresses poverty and food security as a way to relieve pressure on the ocean’s scarce resources, thus caring for people and the sea at the same time. It’s great to take kids snorkeling, but after a while (and a lot of kids) I hope funders can demand a bit more originality and effort in that area.

Personally, I prefer to support organisations that follow scientific advice or include a research component in their activities, because I feel that conservation that isn’t based on scientific data is just marketing… But you may feel otherwise.

If your donation is a significant one, ask for feedback on how it was spent.

Don’t fool yourself

Finally, remember that writing tweets and sharing pictures on facebook doesn’t achieve anything concrete (ok here’s an exception), even though your rate of hashtagging may make you feel like your efforts are putting Greenpeace to shame. Sorry kids. Even Shonda Rhimes says so.

Want to target your tweeting for good? I suggest subscribing to Upwell’s Tide Report.

How do you make a difference for the environment? Would love to hear your suggestions.

Lecture: Sarah Fowler on the challenges & opportunities of shark conservation

Last week Tony and I attended a talk at the Kalk Bay Save Our Seas Shark Centre by Sarah Fowler. Sarah was introduced by Christoper Neff (back in town following the recent shark bite incident in Fish Hoek) and is one of those people who has had such a busy and productive working life that it’s almost futile to try and summarise her qualifications and experience… But she’s a co-author of the fantastic Sharks of the World field guide, founded the European Elasmobranch Society, is a founding trustee of the Shark Trust and has worked in advisory positions to government agencies as well as in an independent capacity as an environmental consultant. She is also the Vice-Chair of International Treaties at the Shark Specialist Group. There’s a better biography of her here – it’s incredibly impressive, and really comforting to know that there are individuals of this calibre involved with shark conservation internationally. Apart from Save Our Seas, our experience of shark conservationists locally has been somewhat dispiriting.

Challenges of shark conservation

Sharks are intrinsically vulnerable animals, perched as they are on the top of the food chain. They are late maturing, long-lived creatures that undergo long (9-18 months – can you imagine!) gestation periods and usually give birth to small litters of well-developed young. They thus have a low population growth rate, and a low resilience to onslaughts by fisheries. Many species of sharks return over and over to the same locations to breed, making them vulnerable to specific habitat threats. Shark populations are also slow to recover, in light of their reproductive characteristics described above.

There is a lack of management of shark fisheries – in many instances, sharks are not the target species but are often bycatch or a byproduct of what the fishery is actually trying to catch. Shark fisheries are low volume, and low value (but the trade in sharks and shark products is high value). From a management perspective, other fisheries have a higher priority to governments and in management treaties.

The IUCN Red List evaluates the global conservation status of plant and animal species. The Shark Specialist Group is responsible for preparing species assessments for elasmobranchs (sharks and rays) for the Red List. There are about 1,040 such species listed on the Red List, of which more than 17% are threatened. The most threatened species are

  • large bodied coastal species such as sawfish, hammerhead and porbeagle sharks, skates, and spiny dogfish
  • deep water benthic (bottom-dwelling) species targeted by fisheries or taken as bycatch
  • freshwater species
  • oceanic pelagics, which are an unregulated target of bycatch fisheries.

Funnily enough, the white shark is not a typical shark (nor is the whale shark). Both are actually fairly well protected, but they differ from the “average” shark in several other ways. The typical shark – if one were to average across all shark species – is small (about 1 metre long), flat (batoid), with uncertain distrubition, unknown population trends, and largely unknown life history. It is probably endemic to a particular region, making it vulnerable to habitat loss. It is utilised bycatch if not actually targeted by fisheries (in other words, if they’re caught by accident, they are used rather than thrown back into the sea). Its fisheries are unregulated and unrecognised. There is no fisheries management or biodiversity conservation attention being paid to the average shark. The species is probably on the IUCN Redlist as critically endangered, or there is insufficient data on it.

What needs to be done

Urgent conservation and management actions are required. Fisheries management (quotas and Total Allowable Catch or TAC) at a regional and national level is required. Shark finning must be banned.

Since some shark species (such as great whites and bull sharks) are highly migratory and regularly cross international borders, countries must co-operate in the conservation of such species. The Convention on Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS) is one means of cementing co-operation. The CMS Shark Memorandum of Understanding is intended to improve the conservation status of several species of sharks listed in the CMS appendices. South Africa signed this treaty in May 2011, and is one of seven African signatories out of a total of 16 countries.

Who should take action?

How we can take action?

These aren’t complicated, time-consuming or difficult things to do. Most of them require a keyboard and a word processing program, a pen and paper, or firing off an email.

  • follow codes of conduct for diving and angling
  • write to elected representatives and government ministers (and shadow ministers)
  • ask them to follow scientific advice (this is VITAL – scientists are the only ones with no financial or status-related interests in the game) for national fisheries management and biodiversity conservation measures
  • ask what your government is doing to implement international biodiversity conventions
  • get yourself photographed hanging onto a shark’s dorsal fin, while wearing a bikini

(Regarding that last point, if you’ve read my post on the proliferation of ridiculous “shark activists” and conservationists that seem to bedevil us, you’ll be well aware of my views of that sort of exploitative, self-promotional behaviour.) Sarah was extremely diplomatic when I asked her about the sheer number of organisations that claim to be saving sharks, and whether this represents an unneccesary division of labour. Perhaps better results could be achieved by one or two organisations that envelop all the others? In reply, Sarah said that there is a role for every kind of organisation, from pure scientific research groups to those who are in favour of more direct (not illegal) action. She wryly observed that some groups’ only role seems to be to make everyone else look good!

This was a fascinating talk from someone who has been actively involved in shark conservation for many years. It confirmed my long-held suspicions that shark conservation is not glamorous work, and anyone who claims that it is – or is constantly getting themselves photographed with no other outputs in evidence – is not doing what they’re claiming to be doing.

Here’s a video of Sarah Fowler discussing a similar subject (at an event covered here).

I actually don’t know too well what the status of South Africa’s shark conservation action plan is (if there is one), and will do my best to find out and report back when I do.

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…

Diver Code of Conduct

I had to dig around a bit to find this, but Underwater Africa put together a Diver Code of Conduct that all recreational scuba diver users of MPAs in South Africa are encouraged to follow. Here it is:

A Recreational Scuba Diver should:

  1. Avoid all unnecessary contact or interference with marine life and habitats.
  2. Strive to develop and maintain excellent buoyancy control skills.
  3. Not take or purchase any souvenirs such as corals or shells.
  4. Keep diving sites and launch areas clean.
  5. Support service providers that adopt environmentally friendly practices.
  6. Obey local laws and regulations.
  7. Learn about the underwater environment and the impact of humans on the environment.
  8. Dive within the limits of training and experience.
  9. Show consideration towards fellow divers and other users.
  10. Encourage other divers to follow this Code of Conduct.
  11. Help create conservation awareness amongst the local community, general public and diving community.

I think it’s good!

Dive sites: SS Clan Stuart

Here’s the SS Clan Stuart, courtesy of Google maps…


The entry used to be across the beach – you parked outside the cemetery, kitted up and walked across the road. One climbed over the low brick wall, walked carefully across the railway line and onto the sand. It’s necessary to take care going through the breakers – while they may look small, they’re often strong enough to knock you off your feet.


I’m not sure how to get in at this dive site any more. The repairs to the Simon’s Town railway line have entailed the dumping of hundreds of very large rocks into the ocean, from just below the railway line all the way across the beach. At high tide, the water comes all the way up to the edge of the rocks. Tony and I checked out the site last weekend, and getting over the boulders is almost impossible, let alone fully kitted out.

I’m not sure who to complain about this to… The Clan Stuart was one of the only shore-entry wreck dives in Cape Town, and suddenly it’s a shore entry no more. I can’t see dive charters bringing their boats here – it almost seems like a waste, since the site is so familiar. I’d like it if some of our MPA permit money was spent to make a pathway for divers down to the sand. Maybe Underwater Africa can get on the case!

Update: You can read about how to get in at the Clan Stuart dive site here. Rest assured, when the railway repairs were completed a way was made to access the beach in front of the wreck!

Bookshelf: The End of the Line

The End of the Line
The End of the Line

The End of the Line – Charles Clover

This book should be billed as compulsory reading for anyone who eats fish. Clover, a journalist, describes from various perspectives the effects of overfishing on the world’s oceans. The European Union comes in for a particular roasting, on several counts – which surprised me, because I thought it would be primarily the Japanese who get it in the nose for their exploitation of bluefin tuna.

As a mathematician, I am horrified by Clover’s indictment of the mathematical models used to manage fish populations. The more sophisticated these models have gotten, the less effective has our management of wild fish populations been. There is also (as usual) a disturbing disconnect between the mild-mannered scientists doing the work, and the public policy makers and governments who are chiefly interested in preserving their own status – of necessity a very short-term view of things.

That said, it is incredible how quickly wild fish populations have been decimated and even destroyed. Clover describes the piscine bounty that awaited the pilgrims arriving on the Mayflower in 1620, and describes how the same fishing grounds are now closed because there is simply nothing left to catch.

My favourite (and the most hopeful) part of the book was the section on marine reserves, and I was delighted and astonished to learn about Goat Island in New Zealand, about 90 kilometres north of Auckland. The reserve was established in 1975 and opened to the public in 1977 (it’s now a HUGE attraction for tourists and locals alike – refer to Sylvia Earle’s comments on the value of the whale watching industry as opposed to whaling for another example of how marine life can have more value alive than dead), and both Clover’s book and my internet wanderings confirm that the ocean there now teems with life to such an extent that children stand knee-deep in the water at the beach, surrounded by shoals of curious fish. Here’s Clover’s description of the place – I would LOVE to visit it!

Leigh is perhaps the world’s best example of what natural ecosystems look like when they are left alone, without fishing pressure, for a long time. The reserve has exceeded its founders’ original expectations, and not just from an ecological point of view. Before it was earmarked as a reserve, Goat Island was a popular fishing spot for fishermen. Conflict arose with the marine lab because, as Wilson put it, “people kept eating the experiments.” The reserve was created, after twelve years of lobbying by Ballantine and his colleagues at the university marine lab, for narrowly scientific reasons. Ballantine is the first to admit that he never foresaw what an attraction the reserve would become…

We stood looking at these unexpected beneficiaries of science. Most were families who had driven out of Auckland for the day to stand in the clear sea water and gawk as a profusion of fish swam around them. Others came to snorkel, renting a wetsuit on the beach for a few dollars, or to stare through the glass panel of the boat at the fearless shoals of large snapper, blue maomao, and spotties that swam above forests of kelp, only yards from the shore…

What happened to the ecosystem was also unexpected. Snapper are the most prized sporting fish on this coast – and for that reason increasingly small and scarce. In the 1,370 acres of the reserve, the largest snapper are eight times the size of the snapper outside. They are also fourteen times more numerous. Brochures tell you that you will also find butterfly perch, silver drummer, porae, red moki, leather jacket, blue cod, red cod, goat fish, hiwihiwi, butterfish, marble fish, red-banded perch, and demoiselles – all swimming around without fear of people and within a few yards of the shore. Indeed, they have so little fear that they may nibble you to see if you are edible.

Most of this marine menagerie is readily visible to an inexperienced eleven-year-old snorkeler in a rented wetsuit… Further out, in deeper water accessible to more adventurous divers, are delicate gorgonian fans, lace corals, sponges, sea squirts, and anemones. Under the kelp forests, hidden in holes and crevices in the rock ledges, are big rock lobster, or crayfish, much larger than those in the commercially fished waters outside…

This makes me kind of wistful when I think about what our coastline could look like, if the MPA permits were properly administered and the money collected went to actually protecting the ocean and deterring poachers. (Contact Underwater Africa if you want to stay up to date on this issue.)

In my post about sea urchins I mentioned how juvenile abalone shelter among urchins. When the rock lobster population gets out of hand, too many urchins (their favourite food) get eaten, and the population of abalone is affected. In the same way, the food chain has been severely disrupted in oceans around the world through the activities of humans. Furthermore, instead of restoring a balance by removing fishing from the equation in the worst affected areas, other top predators such as seals have been allowed to multiply unchecked. We aren’t allowed to catch undersized cod, but seals certainly are! Here’s Clover’s description of how the food chain is supposed to work, in the Goat Island reserve:

When the reserve was created, explains Ballantine, there was nothing particularly special about the marine ecology. The rocky coastal reefs were known as “rock barrens” because nothing grew on them. The most common bottom-living species were large sea urchins, which graze on kelp. As in other parts of New Zealand’s northeast coast, the kelp forests had virtually disappeared by the 1960s. The connection between the disappearance of the kelp and overfishing became clear only when the Goat Island Reserve had been established for many years. At a certain point,the undisturbed snapper and crayfish reached a size at which they could prey on the kina, or large sea urchins, that fed on kelp. So the kelp forests gradually returned, bringing in turn food and shelter for many other species of fish and shellfish. Biologists call this a “trophic cascade”, when the recovery of predators at the top of the food chain has effects that flow down to lower levels.

The book is written in a journalistic style, but it’s not always easy to keep track of the facts that Clover throws at one. He adds a bit of local colour with interviews with fishermen and officials, but some maps would have gone a long way towards demonstrating the extent of the problem and educating those less knowledgeable about North American geography than… well, who DOES know about American geography? (I doubt many Americans do!)

I also felt that Clover could have made more of just how incredible the different fish are, as marvels of nature. He mentions that the bluefin tuna can accelerate faster than a Porsche, and for many of the deep-sea fish he lists the very advanced ages they can attain (some over 100 years), but there’s very little sense of wonder in his descriptions. As you will be when you read this book, I think he may have been overwhelmed by the numbers and lost track of the victims in all of this.

The magnitude of the problem seems completely insurmountable, and as an individual there seems little to be done. I would encourage you, however, to read this book and be sensible about the fish choices you make. It’s both a human health issue – when we run out of fish, our diets will be MUCH poorer for it – and a conservation issue. Get hold of a SASSI card. Keep your conscience clean when eating seafood! Perhaps that can be a new year’s resolution for all of us…

The book is available here. I’ll do a review of the documentary based upon it as soon as we get a chance to watch it!

Sea life: Molluscs

Helmet shell
Helmet shell on the move at night at Long Beach

I know octopus are molluscs, but by the title of this post I mean things with external shells – abalone, limpets, whelks, mussels and chitons. Couldn’t find a word that covers all of them!

Giant alikreukel at Fisherman's Beach
Giant alikreukel at Fisherman's Beach

When I was a child, apart from interfering with innocent sea anemones, I enjoyed everything else that the rocky shore had to offer. I collected shells, tried to pull limpets off the rocks, and admired the tracks left in the sand by plough shells on Fish Hoek Beach. As a scuba divers, the temptation is to dismiss all these creatures as not being that interesting – after all, we dive in order to see BIG things, like rays, sharks, fancy fish, and octopus.

Kelp limpet at Fisherman's Beach
Kelp limpet at Fisherman's Beach

The truth is, however, that during my dives I’ve seen a lot of the shells I used to pick up as a child. With a couple of notable differences. One is that these shells are generally inhabited – and their inhabitants are far more brightly coloured and interesting than I ever imagined they would be. The other difference is that, in general, the specimens I see strolling around on the sea bed are bigger than the empty shells I found in rockpools and on the beach. Much bigger (and it’s not just the magnifying effect of the water).

Ribbed turrid on the move at Long Beach
Ribbed turrid on the move at Long Beach - look at that gorgeous foot!

Take abalone (perlemoen) for example. Prized by sexually insecure foreigners, these gastropods are poached almost into oblivion all along the South African coastline. Most of my diving is done in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) for which I pay for a permit, but this doesn’t make them immune to poaching. It takes years – up to 30 years – for an abalone to grow to its maximum size of about 18 centimetres in diameter. These are incredibly slow-growing creatures. So when I see a massive specimen clinging to a rock at Fisherman’s Beach, or strolling across the sand with the edges of its mantle waving festively at Long Beach, I feel hugely privileged. He’s almost as old as I am!

Abalone on the pipeline at Long Beach
Abalone on the pipeline at Long Beach

A week ago I found an abalone at Long Beach that had gotten flipped over, and his (very beautiful) foot was in the air. I took a picture, righted him, and took another picture. Even though he was not very big (about 13 centimetres) his shell was so encrusted that he was clearly quite old.

Upside down abalone
Upside down abalone
Right side up abalone
Right side up abalone

We also see many whelks of various kinds. These are voracious predators – they will drill holes in other shells using acid, and then inject digestive juices in order to digest their prey while they are still inside their shell. If you find shells with small holes drilled in them, it’s probably one that met an unlucky end at the hands (foot?) of a whelk.

Deadly (or passionate?) embrace at Long Beach
Deadly (or passionate?) embrace at Long Beach

Chitons are protected by a row of eight overlapping plates – if you find a piece of shell that looks like a little boomerang, that’s a piece of chiton. They come in various sizes from the very small (1 centimetre) to the rather impressive. They can’t see a thing – their heads are completely hidden under their plates. They have a very sharp tongue called a radula that they use to scrape algae and other tasty goods off the rocks for food.

Tiny chiton in a bivalve at Long Beach
Tiny chiton in a bivalve at Long Beach

Another regular sighting is the allegedly tasty alikreukel – the biggest snail you’ll ever see. As a child I would pick up the little trapdoors they use to seal their shells – one side is usually gorgeous mother of pearl, and the other has little knobbles. These snails are quite active and we often see them moving about.

Alikreukel with sealed shell
Alikreukel with sealed shell at A Frame

There’s a lot to see if you slow down and take your time over small areas of the sand, rocks or reef. You’ll often find a handsome mollusc hiding in amongst the seaweed, or making his way across a sandy patch. They’re little miracles in and of themselves – take a look!

MPA Permit price increase

I just went to the post office to renew my permit to scuba dive in Marine Protected Areas. Last year this time I paid R79.00 for a permit. Today I paid R85.00, and the lady at the counter said “you’re lucky, babes, because from 1 October 2010 the permit will cost R94.00.”

Fee increases are apparently promulgated via the Government Gazette but even with my advanced Googling skills I can’t find any evidence of it.

Even though the increase only amounts to R9.00 – enough to buy a Steri Stumpie with a bit of change – this is quite a hefty 10.6% percentage increase. Apparently Marine and Coastal Management intend to increase the permit prices dramatically over the next few years.

Underwater Africa’s website has a bit of information on their stance on MPAs, with particular reference to what we should expect from proper Marine Protected Areas: no fishing, no pumping of effluent, no poaching. Has anyone been on a boat launching from Miller’s Point lately, and had to fight their way through snoek fishermen? Hmm?

For those not in the know, you need a permit to dive almost everywhere in South Africa. Consequences for not having one can be severe: if you are requested to produce your ID and permit at a dive site and are unable to do so, your gear can be confiscated, which is an expensive event. We’ve seen the officials checking permits periodically all along the False Bay coast.

You can get these permits at any post office branch. Just walk up to the counter and say you want a “scuba diving permit”. It’s the same form that you fill in to get an angling or crayfishing permit.

Newsletters you should be subscribed to

As a veteran newsletter subscriber, and someone who actually ENJOYS getting them in my inbox (not everyone does) – probably a sad reflection on my self esteem, that I need to request people to email me! – I can offer you the following hints for signing up:

  • Some websites have a Subscribe box on their front page. Use it!
  • The other place to look for a subscription option is on the Contact page.
  • If there’s no explicit newsletter link, it’s often worth dropping the site owner an email asking to be subscribed to their newsletter if they have one. If they don’t, perhaps they’ll take the hint and start something up…

You can get subscribed to Tony’s newsletter by emailing him. It tells you about planned dives and courses, as well as report backs on recent underwater activity.

If that’s not enough, check out the following newsletter writers:

Cape Town

Keep up with what’s going on at the Two Oceans Aquarium at the V&A Waterfront by signing up for their newsletter. They have regular concerts, conservation activities, and other special events at the aquarium.

Chris and Monique Fallows at Apex Predators run shark cage diving and photography trips to Seal Island. We haven’t done a trip yet – wanted to go in high shark season but this year it corresponded with high World Cup tourist season, so we’ll do it next year – but their detailed updates on the marine activity in False Bay are awesome… Sightings of of orcas, dolphins, whales and sharks abound, and Chris’s photos are amazing.


PADI sends out newsletters periodically, describing diving destinations, certification options, and other bits and bobs related to scuba diving. Depending on which box you ticked when you registered for your course, you may already be on their mailing list.


The Dive Site is South Africa’s best diving magazine. By a LONG way. And that’s after only one issue! They send out a weekly newsletter by email filled with photos, blogs, competitions and event notifications, and if you haven’t managed to get a print subscription to the magazine, it’s available on their website in digital format.

African Diver Magazine is an online-only magazine published once a quarter. If you join their mailing list, you’ll get a notification when the new edition is released.

Conservation & Volunteering

South African

If you’re using the ocean at all, whether as a diver, surfer, beachgoer or sailor, you should be supporting the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI). They are staffed entirely by volunteers and do amazing work. It costs R100 per year to be a member, and you get a cool magazine every quarter. They also have a newsletter.

SANCCOB (The Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds) is in the news every time an oil spill gets on the feathers of our cormorants and penguins. They are a non-profit seabird conservation and protection organisation based in Cape Town. There is a volunteer program if you want to get your hands dirty (and get nipped!). They have a newsletter.

Conservation and shark specialty diver training body SharkLife has a newsletter – look for the link in the left column of their site.

Underwater Africa is an advocacy group that liaises with government regarding Marine Protected Areas and the permits we require to dive in them. Register with them to receive updates – this should concern all South African divers.

The South African branch of the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) has an e-newsletter. They’re the people who run the SASSI initiative – if you don’t know about it, you should!


National Geographic has a range of newsletters you can pick and choose from. Their photography in particular is spectacular.

The National Ocean Service is part of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and sends out a periodic newsletter. Their educational Ocean Explorer program also has a newsletter.

Project AWARE is all about divers conserving marine environments. They’re an international organisation and it’s well worth getting on their mailing list to stay informed. There’s a Project AWARE specialty course that divers can do.

Ocean Conservancy is the non-profit organisation behind International Coastal Cleanup Day and several other conservation initiatives. Worth keeping up to date with their news.

The Save Our Seas Foundation has a newsletter, but it seems to get sent out VERY irregularly… like once a year. May be worth signing up for, as they do really good work.

The Smithsonian Ocean Portal sends out a newsletter advertising events, updates to their blogs, and covering ocean news. The Smithsonian is a venerable institution that encapsulates almost everything that is interesting about America… Check it out!