Terrestrial citizen science opportunities in Cape Town

For the sake of completeness, here are a few opportunities for ordinary citizens to contribute to science and conservation in Cape Town in the terrestrial realm. If it’s marine citizen science and conservation you’re after, read this post.

Western leopard toads

Western leopard toad attitude
Western leopard toad attitude

Western leopard toads are gorgeous, endangered palm-sized toads that are found from Rondebosch to Bergvliet to Hout Bay, Sun Valley (hello!) and Glencairn. They are threatened by urbanisation, particularly during their breeding season. On rainy evenings in August they migrate en mass from neighbourhood gardens like ours – where they live quiet lives – to communal breeding ponds. This often entails dangerous road crossings, where hundreds of toads used to become roadkill.

Enter Toad NUTS. I’ve blogged before about the Noordhoek Unpaid Toad Savers project, but in the interim exciting developments have expanded the reach and effectiveness of the program. A mobile app has revolutionised the process of collecting and reporting on toad sightings, enabling rigorous data collection. All sorts of analyses are possible once some good data is obtained.

In terms of direct interventions to reduce toadkill during the breeding season, the most effective one has been a temporary barrier on each side of Noordhoek Main Road is used to capture toads attempting to cross. The barrier is patrolled by volunteers, who then move the toads from one side of the road to the other.

If you live in a Western leopard toad area, contact your local Toad NUTS representative to get involved.

Caracals

Caracal footprints near our home
Caracal footprints near our home

The Urban Caracal Project aims to determine the size of the caracal population on the Cape Peninsula, as well as the threats facing these gorgeous red cats – of which urbanisation and its trappings may be chief. If you don’t know what a caracal (or rooikat) is, ask the google. They are incredibly charismatic creatures.

You can help by reporting caracal sightings, and calling in any caracal roadkill that you see while travelling Cape Town’s roads. You can find contact details for the project on the Urban Caracal Project website, or send them a message on facebook.

Be a marine citizen scientist (slash conservationist) in Cape Town

Here are a few ways for Capetonians to save the ocean. Some through direct action, and others through support for scientific research that enables policy makers and conservationists to make good decisions about which species and habitats need protection.

I’ll update this list as new projects are brought to my attention. If you know of an opportunity for ordinary citizens to make a difference for marine science and/or conservation, let me know and I’ll add it here.

Dolphin species distribution

Sea Search would like to map dolphin distribution with the help of citizen scientists (you), partly in order to anticipate what changes may occur in response to climate change. All you need to do is report dolphin sightings and a bit of supporting information via their facebook profile, twitter handle, or iSpot project page. You can read more about their research project here.

Sevengill cowshark sightings

This cowshark appears to have been tagged
This cowshark appears to have been tagged

The Spot the Sevengill Shark project has a facebook page where you can submit images of broadnose sevengill cowsharks taken in False Bay and surrounds. The unique markings on these sharks enable repeat identification from well-composed images. Information about the sex, general appearance and behaviour of these sharks is also useful. There’s some information about the research project here. This is also a great project to follow (on facebook) to keep up to date with the tagging studies that are currently being done on this population of sharks.

For a more global flavour, you can check out the Sevengill Shark Identification Project. It operates mostly in the San Diego area in the USA, but accepts sevengill cowshark sightings from locations around the world, including from South Africa. Their facebook page recently celebrated the first logged sighting from False Bay.

Great white sharks

If you spot a great white shark – while diving, paddling, swimming or surfing for example – please report it to Shark Spotters! This enables the general public to be alerted if necessary, and also provides valuable data for research about white sharks in False Bay and around the peninsula.

You can either report the sighting via the Shark Spotters website, or you can call or text +27 (0) 78 174 4244. Provide as much information as possible, obviously including the location where you saw the shark, and when. If you have a photo or video, that’s a bonus!

Sharks and rays

The ELMO (South African Elasmobranch Monitoring) project collects reports of elasmobranch (shark and ray) sightings along the South African coastline. For the avid beachcomber, their database includes egg cases. The data collected is available to any interested party for their own projects, and can assist conservationists and politicians to make good decisions in order to protect species that need it.

The ELMO website is full of excellent information, including identification guides for egg cases and elasmobranchs, and a handling guide for live animals (aimed at fishermen, not people who are grabby – don’t be like that). You can submit your sightings online.

You can also find ELMO on facebook and twitter.

iSpot

Upload photographs of the marine species you see to the iSpot, SAJellyWatch, or one of the Avian Demography Unit’s project pages. These observations are a help to researchers tracking species distribution – for example, as part of climate change and invasive species research.

More information can be found here.

 Poaching

If you see marine poaching activity in progress, please call to report it. The phone numbers you will need can be found here.

A humpback whale on the beach

Humpback whale on the beach
Humpback whale on the beach

Last year the carcass of a smallish – about 8 metre long – humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) washed up on one of the less-frequented beaches around the Cape Peninsula. I am very belatedly sharing some pictures of it, not least because one doesn’t often get an opportunity to examine an animal like this up close. I view these things with a mixture of sadness and awe; I think it’s easier to process objectively when the animal has already died. Strandings of live cetaceans can be extremely distressing.

Baleen plates
Baleen plates

Some pieces of the whale’s baleen, which these animals use to filter their food from the water, were lying nearby on the beach. A large group of whales had been passing by the Atlantic seaboard in the days preceding the carcass washing up, and it may have been one of them.

The whale had been dead for a few days by the time it washed up on shore, but not so long that a lot of its skin had sloughed off (sometimes dead whales look white all over – as this whale’s belly does – for this reason). There was no obvious cause of death visible on the underside of the whale’s body. It was lying upside down so the top of its body wasn’t accessible.

It is possible that an anthropogenic cause (ingesting plastic, or a ship strike for example) could be responsible for this whale’s death. It’s also possible that the whale was sick or otherwise compromised and died of natural causes. Sometimes, when things in the ocean die, they wash ashore, and we find them.

I’m not sure what ultimately happened to the whale’s remains – it was in the surf line when I saw it, being pushed back and forth by the waves. It might have been taken back out to sea with the tide. I would like to think that it was.

If you come across a dead whale – on the beach or out at sea – here’s what to do.

Newsletter: Winter rolls in

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Sunday: Launching from Simon’s Town jetty

Winter arrived rather quickly in my opinion, and it went rather quickly from shorts and T shirts weather to requiring much more clothing. There has also been a fair amount of swell rolling around, but the wind direction is becoming more northerly and westerly and that is what we need on our (western) side of False Bay.

Hout Bay at sunset
Hout Bay at sunset

Our boat will be in Table Bay on Saturday for the Robben Island swim so we will provisionally plan to launch on Sunday for diving. There is some south easter on Sunday but hopefully it does not blow as hard as predicted and we can get out. If you have a chance to dive on Saturday you should take it as I think it will be the best day of the weekend, but let me know if you want to be notified of Sunday dives and I will keep in touch.

regards

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

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Newsletter: Stuck record

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Monday: False Bay diving, launching from Simon’s Town jetty

Sunrise over Macassar and the eastern side of False Bay
Sunrise over Macassar and the eastern side of False Bay

I feel like a stuck record when another newsletter has no real news of the diving kind. A good newsletter is also meant to be full to the brim of diving related plans, but this weekend does not allow me completely to fulfil that requirement.

Hout Bay may just be magical tomorrow: the south easter has blow strongly all day, but there has been some swell and it did not look all that great this morning. I think I’m going to hedge my bets on the swell and wind being light for Monday and will launch in False Bay. Let me know if you want to be on the boat.

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

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Newsletter: Tow the line

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

No diving

Dive conditions

Seasonal changes are one thing, but the conditions have been less than great for a while. Good diving days have been rare over the last six weeks. This weekend – again – is not too rosy from more than one angle.

Firstly, this week my tow vehicle decided to have a career change, so the boat has nothing to attach to. Secondly, even if I am able to wrest the panel van back from my wife, shore dives don’t look like a good option as there is a 2.5 metre, 16 second swell tomorrow. This grows to 4 metres on Sunday, and the swell goes somewhat southerly. This lingers on Monday, by which time the wind starts humping again.

The Jeep in happier days, at Hout Bay
The Jeep in happier days, at Hout Bay

Plan ahead

Please bear in mind, if you do head out to Simon’s Town this weekend, that the navy is running a simulated disaster/attack scenario from early on Saturday morning, and you should expect detours and delays. Plan accordingly!

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

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Article: Outside on acoustic sanctuaries for whales

Departing dolphins, and Christo
Departing dolphins, and Christo

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

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

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

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

Read the full article here.

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

Article: The Atlantic on finding whales by listening

Humpback whales
Humpback whales

Let’s stay with whales for a bit. I love tales of serendipity in science. My favourite Ed Yong writes for The Atlantic about a team using multiple (160, to be exact) hydrophones (underwater microphones) to listen for fish in the Gulf of Maine. They were able to visualise the locations of millions of herring; they also discovered that they could hear thousands of whale calls clustered in specific locations, mostly humpbacks, which are very vocal animals. But this was not all:

Each whale species calls within a certain frequency range and makes its own distinctive repertoire of sounds. Using this information, the team could look at their recordings and extract the locations of five huge filter-feeding species (the blue, fin, humpback, sei, and minke) and three toothed ones (sperm, pilot, and killer).

The team was able to visualise the spatial distribution of the whales, and scientists may be able to use the multiple-hydrophone technique to study  the interactions of predator and prey species.

Read the full article here.

Whale carcass reporting in Cape Town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newsletter: Castles in the sand

Hi divers

Summer weather patterns and wind direction are sure taking their time heading off. This far into March and we have not yet had any spectacular diving. Well it has to change sometime, but I don’t think the time is this weekend.

Saturday looks good from a wind point of view, however the swell is supposed to peak at 4 metres on Friday afternoon with a 14 second period. That will make for  very surgy diving, and even deep dives will feel the 14 seconds. The swells don’t always arrive as predicted but this evening just before sunset it was already at 3 metres and starting to ruffle a few feathers.

Aaaaaaand tip!
Aaaaaaand tip!

Sadly, once again, I think we are set for a dry weekend. Sunday has more wind and less swell, and visibility will most likely be good out of Hout Bay but 15 knots of wind, 2-3 metre swells will not make for great diving. I have a sand dune at home so if you are at a loose end you are welcome to pop in and build a castle.

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

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