Bookshelf: Into a Raging Sea

Into a Raging Sea: Great South African Rescues – Tony Weaver & Andrew Ingram

I insensitively packed this book for Tony to read while we were aboard MSC Sinfonia for the BirdLife cruise we took in April. It’s a rip-roaring read about various rescues that the NSRI has been involved with over the years, but – perhaps unsurprisingly – Tony wasn’t keen to read about maritime disasters (even ones that ended well) while we were at sea.

Into a Raging Sea
Into a Raging Sea

The book was produced to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the NSRI. There is an element of history – describing the origins of the organisation, and some “sea rescues of yesteryear”. But the bulk of the book describes rescues that took place in the last 15 years. Some of them, such as the sinking of the whale watching boat Miroshga off Hout Bay’s Duiker Island, will be all too familiar from the ensuing press coverage. Others were less familiar, but no less interesting to read about.

One of the things I loved about this book was that it reveals the men and women behind the daring, often dangerous rescues. The rescuers are allowed to recount the events they experienced, using their own words, and this is revealing. These rescuers are not usually lionised by the general public or, as a rule, afforded prolonged media attention, and neither does this book glamorise them or romanticise their achievements. The challenge of the rescues – and occasional raw fear felt by the rescuers –  are vividly portrayed. The writing is beautifully matter of fact, without downplaying the seamanship, strength of character and perseverance required to do this (unpaid) work.

It reminded me fondly of the “drama in real life” stories that I used to devour from the pages of the Readers Digest magazines my grandmother used to bring whenever she came to visit. There are many, short chapters, each one offering its own little catharsis. The rescues span South Africa’s coastline, as well as a few other locations, and not all of them are maritime disasters.

Proceeds of this book support the NSRI. Get a copy for yourself, and all your friends. It will entertain anyone who loves a good story of heroism and adventure, and it will encourage anyone who’s feeling jaded about humanity’s capacity for good. It’s an excellent read.

You can find a copy on Loot if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here.

Bookshelf: Guide to Seabirds of Southern Africa

Guide to Seabirds of Southern Africa – Peter Ryan

Guide to Seabirds of Southern Africa
Guide to Seabirds of Southern Africa

An indispensable companion on Flock at Sea AGAIN! was this book by Peter Ryan, director of the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town. It’s a slim volume that made seabird identification much easier for us (novices) by virtue of its focus. We were at no point able to venture speculatively into the nocturnal birds of prey or the exotic parrot section of the book, as often happens when you put a bird book covering all of southern Africa’s birds into my paws.

The introductory sections of the book explain the ocean environment and the life history of seabirds, with sidebars on specific physiological phenomena that differentiate seabirds from other birds. These sections also provide information on conservation challenges facing seabirds, and some tips on how to watch them. The geographic range covered by the book includes the sub-Antarctic islands (Marion, Tristan da Cunha, Prince Edward, Gough, Crozet, Bouvet, South Sandwich, South Georgia).

Several photographs of each bird are provided, alongside a distribution map, the bird’s measurements, and an identification guide that covers the bird’s appearance as well as call and characteristic flying style. Conservation status and an Afrikaans common name are also mentioned.

Identifying seabirds is difficult, even if you get a good record photo or have enough time to study the bird carefully. There are often subtle variants that differentiate (or don’t!) between different types of very similar-looking birds. For example, there was furious debate during and after the cruise as to whether a Tristan albatross had been seen and photographed, or whether it was just another wandering albatross. The differences between these two types of albatross are almost impossible for the amateur to discern. Similarly, the prions are so similar (to my untrained eye) that the only way to distinguish one from another would be to line up a specimen of each type of prion, and measure their bills.

There wasn’t enough time for us to become expert seabird spotters before we went away, but this book enabled me to make several identifications, including of juvenile and adult birds of the same species. This was pleasing. When it comes to the prions, I am satisfied to know the genus; the species is for those with more time and knowledge than I. I anticipate that it will be of future use in naming and learning about the birds we see in False Bay, and if we ever do a pelagic birding trip – which is on the to do list – it’ll be of great use there, too.

There’s an excellent review, from a real birder, over here.

You can get a copy of the book here. If you’re outside South Africa, get it here or here.

Newsletter: On and off

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

DIY diving!

Kite surfers at Muizenberg
Kite surfers at Muizenberg

False Bay has been on and off this week. The swell is not wicked but it’s there and noticeable. The weekend does not look terrible, but we will leave the choice of diving or not up to you… We are heading north in search of warmer water. We are back in town next week Friday and will be ready to dive.

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

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BirdLife South Africa Flock at Sea AGAIN! 2017 – part ii (the birds)

We were surprised by the intensity of the birding that took place on Flock At Sea AGAIN! 2017. In retrospect we shouldn’t have been, but being around 2,000 serious twitchers was, at turns, overwhelming and hilarious. Tony and I spent quite a lot of time on deck 4 of MSC Sinfonia, bothering our friend Ian. An enduring memory of this time was turning around from the rail to see a wall of K-Way clad birders charging towards us like buffalo, heading for the stern of the ship, where something special had just been spotted.

Annoying Ian
Annoying Ian

There was serious camera hardware on board. Tony’s modest 200-500mm Sigma lens sometimes gets admiring glances from the uninitiated, but on this cruise it left something to be desired (as you can see in comparison to Ian’s rig in the photo above).

The gun show
The gun show

It is known by anyone who’s been on a boat that taking photos on the ocean is difficult, especially of a fast moving, distant subject such as a bird. Tony had a go at some bird photos, with reasonable success. Trying to identify what we’d seen afterwards was fun. We were definitely not the people who were calling the name of the bird before photographing it! Once we came across a large aggregation of birds feeding on something on the surface, and once some dolphins, but there were fewer marine mammal sightings than we’d hoped.

An older wandering albatross
An older wandering albatross

I loved seeing the albatross, and because of their great size and confidence in approaching the ship, I found them easiest to identify. Both Peter Harrison’s talk  and Carl Safina’s brilliant Eye of the Albatross emphasised the extraordinary longevity and fidelity of these birds, and the loneliness of their lives in between visits to the breeding islands. In addition to the ones pictured above, we also saw Indian yellow-nosed albatross, which I’d previously seen sitting on the surface of the ocean above the wreck of the Fontao in Durban, waiting for snacks from the fishermen there.

There were plenty of places to watch the sea all around the ship. Deck four ran along both sides of the vessel close to the ocean, and the triangular viewing platforms that protrude at the stern were a popular sunset location. Around the central area on the top deck that contains the swimming areas, a raised wrap-around deck also provided good viewing opportunities, but it was too high up for proper bird watching.

The light varied a lot depending on the time of day (duh!) and the degree of cloud cover. It was windy almost all the time. I was surprised by the speed of the ship; when we were moving between birding locations we cruised at up to 25 knots. Only on one of the days was the sea rough enough to splash onto the lower decks.

Wind protection
Wind protection

We saw some things we’d never seen before, like an extravagant double rainbow just before sunset. It was wonderful to be completely surrounded by ocean, and to watch how the colour of the sea changed through the day. We were travelling over deep water, and the profound blue of the ocean when the bottom is hundreds of metres below is something special. Look at the wake in the rainbow picture for an example.

Double rainbow
Double rainbow

We saw a few other ships, but not as many as I’d expected. There was some tooth-gnashing among the twitchers when, on the last full day of the cruise as we headed back towards Cape Town, some fishing trawlers were seen in the distance. It was fascinating to watch the trawlers turn on a dime and mow back and forth, but the clouds of seabirds behind the ship remained just out of proper sight.

Fishing trawler at work
Fishing trawler at work

There’s an album of photos (including some of the ones I’ve included here) on facebook, if you’re interested! And if you’re interested in seabirds, I can’t think of a better place to start than Carl Safina’s Eye of the Albatross.

BirdLife South Africa Flock at Sea AGAIN! 2017 – part i (the boat)

A disclaimer up front: Tony and I are not bird people (we are more “anything that moves” people). While we are friends with several serious twitchers, we tend to get distracted by landscapes and the large beige beasts that birds sometimes sit on. Our decision to book a spot for ourselves on the BirdLife South Africa AGM trip, Flock at Sea AGAIN! 2017 may seem puzzling.

View of Table Mountain as we were leaving Cape Town
View of Table Mountain as we were leaving Cape Town

We had a few reasons for wanting to do the trip, which ran from Monday 24 until Friday 28 April. First, we wanted to figure out whether the two of us can handle cruise ship life (confined space, many people, forced entertainment, dancing girls) sufficiently well that long held dreams of a Hurtigruten trip, or a cruise along the Alaskan coastline, could one day be realised. This short, reasonably inexpensive trip seemed an ideal proving ground. A second reason was that the route the cruise would follow promised the opportunity to see some cool stuff (including birds), and to go to parts of the ocean we’re not likely to get to on our own.

MSC Sinfonia looking festive
MSC Sinfonia looking festive

We made the booking nearly two years in advance to assist BirdLife in getting enough passengers on board to secure permission from MSC to determine the route the cruise ship would take. This also meant that the price was seriously discounted, which was great. At the time, I felt ridiculous for planning a holiday so far in the future and couldn’t imagine being around to go on it, but here we are.

Route of Flock at Sea AGAIN! 2017
Route of Flock at Sea AGAIN! 2017

The cruise route was out along the edge of the continental shelf from Cape Town towards a few seamounts that lie more or less directly south of Cape Agulhas. There was birding, with bird guides who could identify a hummingbird at 300 metres with one eye blindfolded, on most of the decks of the ship during daylight hours. There was also a full lecture schedule, which was part of what appealed to me about the cruise. I listened to Peter Harrison, raconteur extraordinaire, bird guide author and artist, talk on penguins and albatrosses, and Prof Peter Ryan talk about Marion Island. The talks were held in the ship’s theatre, and were illustrated with magical pictures taken by the speakers. This was one of the highlights of the trip for me.

Attending a talk in the ship's theatre
Attending a talk in the ship’s theatre

I also attended a talk on Antarctica, and one on the Albatross Task Force. This is a project of BirdLife that works to reduce seabird bycatch in the fishing industry. This has been a very successful program to date, and has overseen significant reductions in albatross mortality on long lines.

The view of the Table Mountain range gets more complicated as one moves south alongside the peninsula
The view of the Table Mountain range gets more complicated as one moves south alongside the peninsula

Being on such a big ship was a new experience. The first night was a bit wild and windy, but I was more disturbed by the whistling of the wind through our balcony door (showing great mechanical aptitude, it took us 24 hours to figure out how the latch worked) than by particularly extreme movement of the ship. Some of the days were cloudy, but the air temperature was comfortable – mostly because we were travelling eastwards towards warmer water, even though we were moving south as well.

Having a room with a balcony meant that escape was always possible. In practice, however, the ship was so large that one could always find a quiet spot to contemplate if it was required. We ate our meals at the buffet restaurant because we enjoyed the flexibility (and the food), but for those who like to dress up and be waited upon there was a fancier restaurant with set times for sittings.

Takkies on the sun deck
Takkies on the sun deck

We had a great time, finding it extremely relaxing to be surrounded by the ocean with no option to engage in anything stress-inducing. In a couple of days I’ll share a bit more of what we saw while on board, but I’ll leave you with some of the views that we saw while on board, and on returning to harbour at the end of the trip.

Newsletter: In the zone

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Sunday: Boat dives or Long Beach dives, depending on conditions

We seem to have fallen into a weekday diving zone where conditions are good for a few days during the week and then the weekend comes and the wheels fall off.

There is a lot of swell and wind in the forecast as well as some abrupt wind direction changes. This all makes for “look before you go” type planning that hardly works well. Saturday is definitely out. Sunday will depend on how bad Saturday is, and we will make the call on Sunday morning.

Langebaan lagoon
Langebaan lagoon

As a last resort we may opt for a Long Beach dive as it is somewhat sheltered.

Diversnight

We got the date wrong last week. (It’s correct here.) Diversnight is on Saturday 4 November this year. Diarise!

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!

Article: Outside on shark repellents

A recurring but seemingly never-resolved question that intrigues shark researchers and management entities is that of whether there exists a reliable, non-lethal shark repellent.

Such a shark repellent would solve all manner of management problems: organisations like Shark Spotters exist partly to navigate that tense, thin line between sharks killing people and people killing sharks.

Furthermore, there would be a significant financial payoff associated with a successful patent of such a product. (I do not mean to suggest that this is the primary motivation for doing this kind of research, but untested, untestable products like this cannot possibly be marketed with anything else in mind.)

Life-size model of a white shark
Life-size model of a white shark

There are several ideas that have been either proposed, tested, or marketed. The SharkShield has been tested (not just by us), with mixed results. A shark repellent wetsuit has certainly been well publicised (there’s even a TED Talk), but, like medicines for pregnant women, I can’t see how it can be properly, ethically tested in order to state with some degree of certainty, in a statistical sense, that it works. The test described here has N=2, and there wasn’t a human in the suit.

I digress. Outside Online has an interesting article this month about the efforts by Eric Stroud, a pharmaceutical consultant, who – after much experimentation – settled on several compounds found in decaying shark flesh, which seem to work well as a repellent of about 30 species of mostly coastal sharks. The compound can also be synthesised, although the real thing, from a dead shark, apparently works better. Stroud’s financial backers travelled to Mossel Bay to visit Oceans Research, a multi-disciplinary research organisation with several shark scientists on its staff, to test the chemical on great white sharks. The article provides an overview of the history of shark repellent technology, and brings us up to date with this new chemical alternative. It’s early days…

Read the full article here. And remember, kids, that while the only thing that will keep you completely safe from a shark is not going into the sea at all, there are a bunch of simple, sensible things you can do to reduce your chances of meeting a man in a grey suit. Do them!

Article: The Atlantic on booming cephalopod populations

Let’s not quit our contemplation of the remarkable octopus just yet. For The Atlantic, the wonderful Ed Yong reports on a long-term (since the 1960s) trend of increasing cephalopod populations in the world’s oceans. Cephalopods are octopus, squid, and cuttlefish. The first paragraph of Yong’s article describes cuttlefish in Australian waters that are “the size and weight of a corgi”. I’m hooked (and slightly alarmed).

Octopus at Long Beach
Octopus at Long Beach

Scientists have found that, while there are short-term fluctuations, the overall trend in all kinds of cephalopod populations is up. The populations for which data was collected – largely from fisheries – live in all parts of the ocean, in both hemispheres, suggesting that a global phenomenon is affecting their breeding and survival success rates. Climate change and our overfishing of the ocean’s other inhabitants, as Yong points out, are obvious potential candidates here.

This issue is particularly relevant given the presence of an octopus fishery in False Bay, but unfortunately no one knows how successful that fishery has been (and I don’t buy anecdotal evidence on this – give me data).

Read the full article here.

Newsletter: Spring into action

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Sunday: Double tank dive in the ocean, location to be confirmed

What to say about the weekend? Saturday looks way too windy for my liking. Sunday is almost windless, however some swell and the howling south easterly wind all of the previous night might not leave False Bay very pleasant.

It is not inconceivable that Hout Bay cleans up… but last weekend was similar conditions and the Atlantic stayed green. I will launch on Sunday for a double tank dive, destination unknown and launch site to be confirmed late on Saturday. You know the drill if you want to come along!

Spring flowers in the West Coast National Park
Spring flowers in the West Coast National Park

For your diary

Diversnight this year is on Saturday 4 November. For those that don’t know it is an annual event, held worldwide, with the aim of getting as many people underwater at 8.17 pm (2017 – get it?) on the evening of the first Saturday of November. All of the many locations worldwide send in numbers and a bunch of Norwegian enthusiasts collate it all. Join us!

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

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Newsletter: Hello

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Sunday: Boat dives from Hout Bay at 9.30 am

Seagull saying hello at Melkbosstrand
Seagull saying hello at Melkbosstrand
It’s a weekend with conditions that make choosing between the Atlantic and False Bay a bit difficult. There is 20+ km/h south easterly wind on Friday and Saturday, with a lot less for Sunday. The Atlantic will be cleaner than False Bay, but the swell in the forecast, if it arrives and is 4 metres as predicted, will make it unpleasant on that side.

Despite these odds I think I will stick my neck out and plan for Hout Bay on Sunday at 9.30 am, and confirm the plans late on Saturday afternoon. Most likely sites will be Die Josie and either the Sentinel or the wreck of SS Maori. Let me know if you’re keen.

Demystifying Groundwater – a talk

On Tuesday 5 September there’s a talk at Kommetjie Primary School at 7.30pm. The speaker is Dr Ricky Murray, a hydrologist, and he will talk about all things related to groundwater. This issue should interest anyone who has a borehole, as well as others who have heard of the plans to drill into the Table Mountain aquifer as a last-minute half baked attempt to relieve the water crisis that Cape Town is experiencing. Entrance fee R50 (including a beverage).

Here’s a link to the facebook event with all the details.

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

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