Christmas gift guide 2015

First up, let me refer those of you who are truly bloody-minded Christmas shoppers to the gift guides from previous years: 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014. This one draws heavily upon all of those, and you may safely skip the past editions unless you really want lashings of Christmas gifting cheer. I am tempted to say, as usual, that if you haven’t started thinking about this already, you’ve left it too late… But prove me wrong. (Plus, I’m publishing the gift guide a bit earlier than I usually do – you’ve got a month to get busy.)

This is our Christmas tree. It's cat proof.
This is our Christmas tree. It’s cat proof.


For the person who has everything, or because you’re feeling grateful, consider a donation on behalf of your friend or loved one:


Don’t forget to add a memory card for the lucky recipient’s camera if you plan to gift any of these! Contact Tony for prices.

For the non diver, you could inspire a love for our oceans with one of these:

We’ve really got our money’s worth from our Wild Card this year. It has been used for multiple entries to Cape Point, for De Hoop, and for one or two other trips, and paid for itself in a few months. The full card is a bit pricey, but there’s a great alternative called My Green Card, that costs R110 and gives twelve entries to any of the paid sections of Table Mountain National Park (so, Cape Point, Boulders, Silvermine, Oudekraal, and a few braai areas). Read the fine print carefully though – if you use it up quickly, you have to wait for the 12 months to pass before you can purchase another one. But you can also share the 12 clips with friends, whereas a regular Wild Card is tied to your identity. You will have to go to the SANParks office in Tokai to get a My Green Card.

Something to read

Everything you need to know about finding a book related to the ocean can be discovered in our list of most recommended books, and our guide to finding the book you need (on this blog, at least!). There are a couple of children’s books there, too.

Something to watch

A DVD – either a movie, a series box set, or a documentary – is not a bad gift idea!

Something beautiful

Clip Clop designs and prints beautiful tide charts for Cape Town and Durban and moon phase charts for the year. You can order online or usually find them at Exclusive Books.

If you take your own photos, you could print and frame a couple, create a photo book (Orms can help with this if you don’t know where to start), or experiment with stretched canvas prints if that’s your thing. A digital photo frame pre-loaded with underwater images is also a lovely gift for a diving friend.

Dive gear and useful stuff

Smaller items of gear such as cutting tools, masks, clips and other accessories won’t break the bank. Contact Tony for some ideas and suggestions as to what to get and where to find it.

You can order a WetSac online (seriously, check it out). Otherwise, a fabulous hooded towel that will be the envy of everyone at the dive site can be obtained from one of the surf shops (try Lifestyle Surf Shop and just walk in there with your head up like you don’t care you’re not a surfer) next to Primi Piatti at Muizenberg.

Otherwise, just think a little bit about what might be useful before or after a dive. Sunscreen, deep conditioner, cleansing shampoo, a mini dry bag, a beanie for cold days on the boat,

Visible shipwrecks: Winton and Hermes

Being (in midlife) a creature of the south peninsula, I tend to focus my attentions on False Bay and the Atlantic coast from Hout Bay southwards. But there are rewards for the shipwreck hunter who ventures further north, and even for the shipwreck hunter who doesn’t necessarily want to get their feet wet. A visit to Milnerton beach, and a walk north from Milnerton lighthouse, reveals two shipwrecks in the surf zone. Milnerton beach is surpassingly filthy, but while I was there a beach cleanup was making some headway on the mounds of rubbish tossed off ships in Table Bay that ends up on the beach. The view of the lighthouse from the beach is also far more fetching than the view from the car park, if you can overlook the garbage.

Milnerton lighthouse
Milnerton lighthouse

About one kilometre north of the lighthouse, where the beach is cleaner and pebbles roll euphoniously in the waves, you will come across the massive boilers of the Hermes in the surf. The NSRI gets calls every year from concerned locals worried that a whale is stranded near the beach; the sea spray sometimes pushes through holes in the top of the wreck creating an illusion of a whale’s blow. The Hermes was a liner, built in 1899, on her way to Cape Town with a large cargo of livestock, forage and a few passengers. When she arrived in May 1901 the harbour was full, and she was forced to drop anchor for the night. A north westerly gale came up, she dragged her anchors, and when the captain ordered her engines started, they failed.

Hermes (front) and Winton (back)
Hermes (front) and Winton (back)

Seawards and to the north of Hermes, the engine block of the Winton is visible, in much the same way as the SS Clan Stuart can be seen at Glencairn in False Bay. The Winton came aground in July 1934, carrying a cargo of wheat from Port Lincoln in Australia to Liverpool, England. Her captain was unfamiliar with Table Bay and had mistook the red lights on top of the radio mast at the Klipheuwel Wireless Telegraph Station near Milnerton for the harbour lights. Attempts were made to pull her off the beach and some of her cargo was salvaged, but the wheat ignited and efforts to refloat her were to no avail.

On a calm day, an aerial view of the site reveals the full outline of both vessels surrounding the parts that protrude from the water. When I visited, it was rough after a large swell, but the tide was low. At high tide the view will be considerably less impressive.

The boilers of the Hermes in front of Table Mountain
The boilers of the Hermes in front of Table Mountain

It is possible to scuba dive this site, and Underwater Explorers dives the Winton every year during their summer Table Bay wreck diving jamboree. Obviously very calm, low swell conditions are required because the wreck is so shallow and so close to the beach.

Visible shipwrecks: Commodore II

We first saw the Commodore II on Lagoon Beach, Milnerton, when we went to Sophie and Jacobus’s wedding. It was a summer’s day, and she had a boogie board and a pool noodle lying on her keelson, a bride and groom (not Sophie and Jacobus) posing for photos on her, and a gazebo secured to some of the rivets protruding from her timbers. I was fascinated by the strength and size of what remains of the ship, and returned on a clear winter morning, before the beach filled up, to look at her again.

The Commodore II was a four masted schooner built in the United States, with a film credit as one of the sets in the 1935 Clark Gable film Mutiny on the BountyPrivately owned, she ended up in Durban in the late 1930s and fell into disrepair after her owner died.

Commodore II in Table Bay
Commodore II in Table Bay

She was then towed to Saldanha, where she became a floating coal hulk during World War II. After the war she transported coal to South America and timber back to South Africa, but according to one of her crew, the ship ran into many difficulties and conditions on board were dire.

It was either in 1945, 1946 or 1948 (sources differ but I tend to believe the 1946 or 1948 dates) that she was set on fire and allowed to run aground off Milnerton. This was apparently considered an acceptable way of disposing of the vessel.

Not done yet, the Commodore II made an appearance in 2008, when a storm uncovered her remains at Milnerton. At the time the Cape Argus published an interview with one of her former crew, who described his love for the ship and described some of her history. I’m not sure of the status of the wreckage between 2008 and 2013, but the NSRI suggests that during that time the wreck washed into Milnerton lagoon and was secured inside the lagoon by residents who feared for the safety of water users if she was left to move about at will.

Steam rises off the Commodore II in the morning sun
Steam rises off the Commodore II in the morning sun

In September 2013 she came loose and washed out of the lagoon onto the beach. City officials promised to remove her, but two years later they still have not (for which I am glad). Today she lies in front of the Lagoon Beach Hotel, at times right on the edge of the Milnerton lagoon mouth (which moves around on the beach a bit). It is quite conceivable that another storm will wash her off the beach, back into the lagoon, or to a slightly different location, but for now she makes for an arresting sight on a crisp morning.

Finally, because it’s special, here’s one of the official trailers for Mutiny on the Bounty, featuring the Commodore II. I assume that’s her in the long shots, and perhaps the deck and below-deck scenes were also filmed on her. Enjoy –

The NSRI SafeTRX app

At the beginning of this year, the NSRI launched the SafeTrx smartphone app. It is available in other countries, and the NSRI brought it to South Africa. I have been using it since February. It has taken a bit of getting used to with a few missteps on my part, but it now provides great peace of mind whenever I go out to sea. The app is a journey planner for boaters, with the capability of activating emergency contacts should you not return to port on time.

The app is available for iOS and Android systems. Skippers using the app can register a vessel (or more than one vessel) with the app (mine is Seahorse). You can provide a photo of the boat, its registration number, its radio call sign, and whether it has an emergency beacon (EPIRB or similar). When you depart for a trip, you select which vessel you are travelling in, how many passengers, what type of trip you’re doing (diving, cruising, safety, etc.), and an estimated time of arrival. You can also specify the route you’re taking by including waypoints on the trip map.

Once you’ve set up your journey, you can text it to your emergency contact(s). On your return to port, you re-open the app, close your journey, and have the option to text your emergency contacts again to let them know you’re home safely. These are screen shots from Clare’s phone showing the start and end of a trip with six people (including me) on board:

Text messages generated by SafeTrx app
Text messages generated by SafeTrx app

The SafeTrx app comes with a login to the SafeTrx website, which allows you to review your journeys online. You can actually see updates in real time; Clare took this screen shot from the website when I was out at Duiker Island in Hout Bay. When I started to return to Hout Bay harbour, the boat icon could be seen moving (jerkily) towards the harbour entrance.

The website information also allows you to evaluate the directness of the sea routes you follow, which is important when supporting open water swimmers, and gives useful statistics about how far you’ve travelled on the boat and for how long.

Viewing journeys on the SafeTrx website
Viewing journeys on the SafeTrx website

The first time I used the app, I didn’t set my ETA (estimated time of arrival) correctly, and left it on the default value, which is fifteen minutes after the current time. Not long after that time had elapsed, Clare (my emergency contact when she’s not on board) received a phonecall from Maritime Rescue stating that I was overdue and had she been in contact with me? She assured them that she had and that I was a first time user of the app, hence the mistake! We were extremely impressed by the speedy response, and glad to know that the system works so efficiently. Needless to say I have not made the same mistake again.

I encourage you to visit the NSRI website for more information about the use of the app, including download links. If you see me on the jetty and want to take a look at the app set up on my phone, please feel free to ask!

Bookshelf: The Coastal Guide of South Africa

The Coastal Guide of South Africa – Lynne Matthews

The Coastal Guide of South Africa
The Coastal Guide of South Africa

This is a slim guidebook that will be useful to anyone living at the coast or enjoying a holiday there. Covering all of South Africa’s almost 3,000 kilometres of coastline, this book has sections on all the flora and fauna found between the dunes and the ocean. It is by no means exhaustive, and a local guide will always have more information on a particular locale, but for scratching the surface or beginning to learn about coastal life forms, this is an excellent start.

When I was younger we had giant Reader’s Digest guidebooks to help with road trips and visits to the shore, and this is a super scaled-down little cousin of those faithful hardback volumes. The introductory section deals with tides, currents, and the different zones along our coastline. There are sections on plants, birds, fish, invertebrates, reptiles and mammals. The species identification information is good, with distribution, size and the main identifying features provided, at a minimum.

There is also a section on fishing regulations. I’m not a fisherman so I can’t comment on whether it’s even worth putting these in a book – are they static, or subject to frequent change at the whim of DAFF? There is also a section on SASSI – how to eat seafood sustainably. If I had to add a section, I’d ask for something on ocean safety – rip currents, drinking and swimming, not wearing sunscreen, boating foolishly, scuba diving in boat traffic without a buoy – all the things that keep the NSRI and lifesavers busy over the festive season. One can’t be reminded often enough.

The book is mainly illustrated with line drawings and paintings, as well as several maps. If you have space in your bag for a larger format book, I’d recommend Southern African Sea Life: A Guide for Young Explorers over The Coastal Guide of South Africa because it’s more practical and detailed, but if you don’t have children you might feel shy whipping that one out while on the beach!

You can get a copy of this book here.

Christmas gift guide 2014

It’s almost that time of year again. Are you ready to see Santa underwater? I didn’t think so.

Santa diving the Aster
Santa diving the Aster


Consider a Discover Scuba Diving experience for non-divers, and for qualified divers a Refresher, a Specialty course, or a voucher for some boat dives. A False Bay or Atlantic Seaboard photo cruise is fun for the whole family.

Email Tony for prices and more information.

Something to read

Everything you need to know about finding a book related to the ocean can be discovered in our list of most recommended books, and our guide to finding the book you need (on this blog, at least!).

Something to watch

A DVD – either a movie, a series box set, or a documentary – is not a bad gift idea!

Dive gear

Smaller items of gear such as cutting tools, masks, clips and other accessories won’t break the bank. Contact Tony for some ideas and suggestions as to what to get and where to find it.

Keeping it local

Support some local entrepreneurs!

  • Rochelle at Oceanscape sells gorgeous ocean-themed clothing at her online shop.
  • Kerri now stocks a range of ocean-themed jewellery at various markets. Check out Accessories for Aquaholics.

Thinking outside the box

What about a day trip to Cape Point, a donation to a worthy cause on behalf of your loved one (the NSRI is always first on our list), an underwater photo shoot, or (if you take photographs or can find a photographer whose work you like and isn’t too expensive) a framed or mounted picture of some of our local marine life?

You can also refer to Christmas gift guides from previous years (2011, 2012 and 2013) for more ideas. Be safe this festive season!

Article: M&G on perlemoen poaching in Hout Bay

The NSRI recently assisted the occupants of a 5.5 metre rubber duck (for scale, almost a metre shorter than Seahorse, which is rated for seven passengers and a skipper) when their single engine failed off Gansbaai. There were eleven divers on the boat, and it was 11.30 pm when they were rescued. The NSRI report of the incident specifically states that the divers were “recreational”, but it is highly likely that they were poachers, illegally harvesting abalone or possibly rock lobster.

The NSRI report was shared on a number of facebook pages maintained by members of the local scuba diving community (including ours). One comment thread in particular, in one of the groups where the report was shared, made me very sad. Multiple commenters suggested that the NSRI should have left the poachers out at sea to be eaten by sharks, and there was even distasteful speculation about the race of the men who were rescued. It’s very easy, on the Internet, to write that you think someone should be abandoned to die, or that they deserve it – but that doesn’t make it a right sentiment. The speed at which we get updates on social media make it easy for us to fail to engage with the nuances of events and situations, and rather to pass swift judgments and wish death on some mother’s child.

This is what the NSRI says about themselves:

Sea Rescue is the charity that saves lives on South African waters. Our crews put their lives at risk in order to save the life of a stranger.  They will voluntarily go to sea in the worst conditions, to help anyone in need.

Nothing there suggests that they will first pass judgment on the activity you’re engaged in, or on how wise you were to go out in such bad sea conditions, and then decide whether to assist or not!

This abalone is several years old
This abalone is several years old

Fisheries management in South Africa has been performed with aggressive incompetence for the past five or more years, with a focus – by the authorities – on personal enrichment and the fruits of corruption. (If you want to learn more about this, I suggest you read the whole of the Feike Management blog, and then start making serious plans to get off the grid, given that the former minister of fisheries is now brokering nuclear deals with that global pariah, Russia.) Management of our abalone stocks has been done on the basis of wishful thinking and illegality.

The communities whose young men choose poaching as a career are poverty-stricken and in many cases beneficiaries of laughably small quotas to catch stocks of fish that no longer exist. It is an economic choice for them, borne of desperation, and often the men who harvest the resource only get a fraction of the ultimate monetary value of the product. An article in the Mail & Guardian by Kimon de Greef, who studied abalone poaching for a Masters degree in conservation biology, explains the economics of the process:

He explained his poaching work as we sat amid the plants and the Rasta, whose name was John, continued preparing his spliff. David told me he skippered a boat for a white diver who had relocated to Hout Bay to target reefs on the Cape Peninsula. Another local diver – whom by chance I’d already interviewed – worked with them, as well as a bootsman, or deck assistant.

The divers paid David R20 a kilogram of perlemoen they harvested; the bootsman earned half as much. The divers also hired carriers to run their catch to middlemen in the community, who paid prices of between R200 and R250 a kilogram. These middlemen sold the product on to buyers from larger criminal syndicates, who ultimately controlled the illicit trade to the Far East.

On a good night, after expenses, the two divers could earn R10 000 each, with David taking home R4  000.

As scuba divers, we tend to see this issue quite simply: someone is illegally taking beautiful, unique creatures out of the ocean! We forget that the communities engaged in these activities are far less privileged than we are, and that this is a complicated, historically fraught issue that won’t be solved by leaving a boatload of poachers to be swept out to sea in the dark of night.

I suggest you read de Greef’s article. It humanises the poachers – puts faces on them – and helps to tease out some of the more complex issues at play regarding this valuable marine resource. Johnny Steinberg did a comprehensive and more detailed review of the illicit abalone trade some years ago, which is a longer read if you’ve got time.

Read the M&G article here.

How to park a boat

The NSRI boats tied up at the jetty
The NSRI boats tied up at the jetty

Tony and I had lunch in Hout Bay recently, and while we were sitting at The Lookout Deck waiting for our food, we had lots (and lots and lots) of time to contemplate the beautiful view of Hout Bay, the yachts, and the mountains beyond. The NSRI was out and about doing training, and the highlight of our afternoon was watching this nifty bit of parking, with the RIB pushing the hard boat along from a side by side position. If those aren’t the right technical terms for what was going on, the complaints department is behind the third door to the left.

It wasn’t quite as large a situation as we witnessed in the Red Sea, but nonetheless very impressive!

A shark called Submarine, and other lies

We’ve been getting visits to our blog from people wanting to find out about an incident involving a capsized whale watching boat and a monster shark called Submarine, that supposedly took place at Shark Alley off Gansbaai in South Africa. The reason for these queries is a misleading pack of lies broadcast under the title Shark of Darkness as part of Shark Week 2014.

To clear up any confusion you may have as to what is true and what is not about Shark of Darkness, I urge you to read Michelle Wcisel’s post on the subject at Southern Fried Science, and this post by Andrew Ingram of the National Sea Rescue Institute, distancing the organisation from the documentary. Michelle’s post points out how utterly distasteful and inappropriate it is for Discovery to exploit a real event, in which two people died, for ratings, while spinning a web of lies around the real circumstances of the incident.

But since you’re here, and may have arrived here searching on a query like “whale watching boat capsizes in shark alley with passengers” looking for sensational news capitalising on the death of two people, let me clear up some things.

  • A whale watching boat called Miroshga did capsize in Cape Town, off Hout Bay. It went out in a storm, was overloaded, had its bilge pump installed upside down, and was generally a blight on the South African maritime safety record.
  • There are a few locations called Shark Alley in South Africa. The most famous one is at Dyer Island near Gansbaai (a two hour drive from Cape Town) where a seal colony attracts great white sharks to aggregate. White shark cage diving trips are held there, and whale watching trips.
  • No whale watching boat capsized at Shark Alley next to Dyer Island.
  • No great white shark – least of all a fictional monster called Submarine – harrassed passengers of the capsized Miroshga in Hout Bay.
  • Dyer Island is not in Hout Bay.
  • Two passengers on Miroshga died, but not because of marine life. A few passengers spent a couple of hours underwater inside the air pocket of the ship’s hull, but were rescued by the heroes of the NSRI (South Africa’s version of the Coastguard, funded by the public) in appalling conditions.

I even made you a helpful map (click to embiggen):

Helpful map for Shark Week: Shark of Darkness fake documentary
Helpful map for Shark Week: Shark of Darkness fake documentary

In short, Dyer Island, and white sharks, are not in Hout Bay, where the whale watching boat capsized. See how far apart the red stars are on the map? There is also no white shark called Submarine.

If you’d like to learn something proper about sharks and be a force for good in the world, go read Demon Fish or Sharks and People.


We don’t have a television, and I’m not even sure if Shark Week gets broadcast in South Africa, so I haven’t seen this show. But from the discussions I’ve had the misfortune to witness on facebook and other social media, it seems that Shark Week is becoming an annual opportunity to swill ignorance and sensationalism around the trough for a public that is ill equipped to distinguish fact from fiction. Sadly, attempts by scientists and science communicators to provide corrections and factual information to counter Discovery Channel’s deliberate misinformation only serve to generate more publicity for the spectacle, and ultimately, it seems, to benefit Discovery and their bottom line most of all.

Bookshelf: Surf Science

Surf Science – Tony Butt

Surf Science
Surf Science

It is well known that:

  1. I am not a surfer (but Kate is, lately!); and
  2. Conditions that make for great surfing generally mean poor diving, and vice versa.

The second point above is exactly why reading a book on what makes waves turned out to be an extremely enlightening experience.

Dr Tony Butt lives in Spain on the exposed north Atlantic coast (good waves), but apparently spends the southern winter in Cape Town, surfing Dungeons where possible I imagine! He is a physical oceanographer. In Surf Science he explains where waves come from, and what leads to different kinds of surfing conditions.

His explanation of the origin of the waves that reach the coast starts at the very beginning, with an explanation of the drivers of weather systems. This section caused me to jump up and down with excitement, and to speak many long sentences to long suffering husband Tony. His expository method is easy to follow at each step, and for the first time I feel that I have a grip on . First we build up a mental model of the earth as a stationary globe with no land, and then gradually add rotation about its own axis, rotation around the sun (seasons), and the presence of continents to the model. At each step further understanding of the average world weather patterns (north Atlantic high, roaring forties, and so on) is improved.

The book goes on to cover the propagation of swell, and what happens when waves arrive in shallow water, break, and possibly allow surfing. Butt also deals with water temperature, tides, and rip currents, and concludes with a few chapters on surf forecasting models and how to read them. Throughout the concepts are illustrated with straightforward diagrams, and end-of-chapter boxes contain formulae for the mathematically inclined.

This is a shorter and more richly illustrated book than The Wavewatcher’s Companion, serving a different audience. Both surfers and divers can benefit from Surf Science, as well as the yachting fraternity, NSRI crew members, and anyone else who has an interest in the mechanics of the ocean. This volume has more the flavour of a textbook, with no unnecessary information, anecdote or humourous asides. There is a place for both books!

You can get a copy here or here, or here (if you’re in South Africa).