Sea life: Southern elephant seals

Elephant seal busy moulting
Elephant seal busy moulting

A juvenile southern elephant seal (Mirounga leonina) has been seen around the Cape Peninsula for a couple of months. Almost every year solitary individuals are spotted resting on our shores, but they remain uncommon visitors and always cause a bit of excitement. Their usual habitat is subantarctic and Antarctic waters, including the islands belonging to South Africa and New Zealand, the Falkland Islands, and select parts of continental South America. They feed in Antarctic waters and spend winter down by the pack ice, insulated by tremendous layers of blubber. They are expert divers and can hold their breaths for two hours at a stretch.

Elephant seal cooling off with damp sand
Elephant seal cooling off with damp sand

Southern elephant seals are the largest seals, with the males (which can weigh up to 4,000 kilograms and grow to six metres in length) as much as six times larger than the females, which weigh 400-900 kilograms and grow to between 2.5 and 3 metres in length. At sexual maturity the males develop a big, inflatable rubbery snout (more correctly called a proboscis). This gives them their name, thanks to its rudimentary resemblance to an elephant’s trunk.

Juvenile seals are weaned and leave their mothers when they weigh about 120 kilograms. At this point they are just under a month old. This particular seal, which we saw hauled out near Cape Point, was at least two metres long already, and was busy moulting. During this time, the seal loses (as you can see in the top image) and regrows its fur. Some of its blood supply is diverted towards its skin to facilitate hair growth. Moulting happens during summer, and takes about a month (because it happens so suddenly, it is called a “catastrophic moult”). During this time the seals stay out of the water and possibly do not eat. Lying on the beach, well insulated with blubber, can cause them to overheat, so the seal we saw was flicking damp sand over his (or her) back to cool down.

As far as their conservation status goes, they are listed as of least concern on the IUCN Red List. They are probably helped by living so far from human activity, although they are still affected by plastic pollution, boat strikes and the like.

If you do see one of these animals, don’t be a jerk. Keep your distance (at least 20 metres) and don’t completely surround the seal. This ensures the animal stays happy and calm, and sets an example for others who may not have your good attitude, excellent education and experience with animals. Also, seals can move surprisingly fast on land, and an elephant seal is almost certainly going to weigh a lot more than you do. Tony took these pictures from a respectful distance, with his 150-500 zoom lens.

Article(s): The Longform guide to sea creatures (some holiday reading!)

Here are some holiday reading recommendations – not too taxing, not entirely insubstantial – to enjoy while lounging under an umbrella by the pool or waiting for a flight to board. You will probably enjoy them because they’re about marine life, and I assume that if you didn’t have a passing interest in the ocean, you wouldn’t be reading this blog.

Octopus at Pyramid Rock
Octopus at Pyramid Rock

Longform is a website that provides reading recommendations – usually (as the name suggests) long form stories, not restricted to a particular range of topics. I am a subscriber to the Longform newsletter, and lately a user of their iPad app.

The Longform guide to sea creatures is a short list of juicy long articles whose common thread is that they focus on marine animals. I’ve shared some of them with you already – Killer in the Pool and Moby Duck being the most notable. Others are about giant squid, octopus, tuna, whales, and the Loch Ness monster. It’s a page worth bookmarking, should you anticipate requiring a couple of hours of thoughtful, fact-checked, well researched reading on the subject of marine life.

You can find the list of Longform sea creature articles here, and a mostly overlapping but slightly different version on Slate.com, here. (The advantage of the Slate list is that you can send the articles to your Kindle, to read later.)

 

A visit to the Bredasdorp Shipwreck Museum

Exterior of the shipwreck museum
Exterior of the shipwreck museum

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

Artefacts from SS Maori
Artefacts from SS Maori

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

Interior of the shipwreck museum
Interior of the shipwreck museum

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

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

Tony for scale!
Tony for scale!

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

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

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

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

The Phyllisia circuit at Cape Point

Some time ago I promised to describe the route we took in the Cape Point Nature Reserve to locate the wreck of the Phyllisia, a small fishing trawler wrecked in 1968 and one of the visible shipwrecks around the Cape Peninsula. Here’s that post!

The view from the start of the trail at Gifkommetjie
The view from the start of the trail at Gifkommetjie

Tami, Maria and I set out on a slightly drizzly, grey morning from the Gifkommetjie parking area inside the reserve. The first part of the walk was a steep descent down to the beach at Gifkommetjie, where we admired some fishing debris. From there, the trail meanders north, parallel to the coast. Most of the path is sandy, but other parts are rocky and hard-packed.

There are natural tunnels formed by the overgrowing milkwood trees, requiring a bit of ducking and crouching to go through. The feeling of being in a forest and yet right by the ocean is lovely. After about 2.5 kilometres – the path gradually bends inland – one reaches a T-junction, with an unambiguous sign saying SHIPWRECK, pointing left. If you want to see the Phyllisia, or just get closer to the coast, take that path!

Turn-off for the Phyllisia
Turn-off for the Phyllisia

It’s another few hundred metres across unclear paths over the dunes to Hoek van Bobbejaan, a promontory with a beach to the north of it (pictured below) that really shows the wildness of this stretch of coast, and how exposed it is to the open ocean. The Phyllisia is right on the outermost point of Hoek van Bobbejaan, and is the same colour as the rocks it’s lying on, so you might need to look carefully!

The beach at Hoek van Bobbejaan
The beach at Hoek van Bobbejaan

Just above the wreck is one of the (I think) large okoume logs that fell off a ship in Table Bay in 2008 – more on that in this post about the Shipwreck Trail. It’s a great spot to take stock of your surroundings, and a vantage point for photos, as Maria demonstrates below!

Tami and Maria on the log at Hoek van Bobbejaan
Tami and Maria on the log at Hoek van Bobbejaan

To return, follow the path back towards the T junction and keep going straight. The path forks again – the left fork will take you towards Brightwater, and is part of the overnight Cape Point trail. Take the right fork – you should start climbing the rocky ridge that you’ve been walking alongside, towards the level of the parking area.

The return route is along the top of the ridge, along paths that we sometimes struggled to find because the vegetation had been burned away. Upright sticks with red and yellow paint on the end provided some guidance at intervals. The views down over the path you’ve just walked, and back towards Hoek van Bobbejaan, are spectacular.

You can of course, also return the way you came, and do a short, sharp climb at the end back to the parking area, or do the entire walk back and forth along the ridge, skipping the milkwood tunnels, and descend to the shipwreck half way through the route.

We saw bontebok, ostrich, baboons, an angulate tortoise, and wonderful spring flowers in the dunes and on the mountain. The walk took us about three hours at a slow pace, with a regular photo stops. As always, if you go hiking, go in a group (four really is ideal), wear appropriate shoes and a hat, apply sunscreen take waterproof or windproof clothing even if the weather looks nice, bring water to drink, stay on the path, and tell someone where you’re going and when to expect you back.

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

Scattered shipwreck: The nameplate of MV Antipolis

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

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

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

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

Antipolis nameplate
Antipolis nameplate

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

Bookshelf: 50 Ways to Save the Ocean

50 Ways to Save the Ocean – David Helvarg

50 Ways to Save the Ocean
50 Ways to Save the Ocean

Effective pro-ocean activism is something that everyone who cares about the marine environment can engage in. This is the strong message of the most recent of David Helvarg’s books, Saved by the Sea, and of this short volume, too. It is illustrated by Jim Toomey, creator of Sherman’s Lagoon.

Rather than being overwhelmed by ocean-related doom and gloom, there are very simple actions that we can incorporate as part of our everyday lives that have a direct impact on the health of the marine environment. The Two Oceans Aquarium does a great job of speaking about this aspect of responsible citizenship on their blog and on Twitter – you should follow them if this is important to you.

Some suggestions for simple actions that can make a difference include:

  • Don’t use single-use plastic bags
  • Say no to straws and balloons
  • Drink only tap, not bottled, water
  • Put cigarette butts in the bin
  • Cut all loops of plastic and other non-biodegradable materials before throwing them away (this prevents entanglement by seals and other marine life if/when the material ends up in the ocean)

Many of the actions that Helvarg suggests entail simply enjoying the marine environment, and this is a profound but familiar idea. When we care about something, we will protect it, and by enjoying the sea through diving, visiting the beach, or riding on a boat, we will come to care about it and its inhabitants. The emphasis in many of the sections is also on safe enjoyment of the ocean. Helvarg does not explain his focus on safety, but one reason I can think of for encouraging careful and safe enjoyment ocean-related activities is to ensure that these activities will remain available to everyone. Bad publicity after marine accidents can drive people away from the beach!

50 Ways to Save the Ocean connects patriotism and pride with care for the environment, which is an excellent approach for robustly patriotic people like Americans. For South Africans, whose feelings towards their country are – for historical reasons – often a little less straightforward than those of your average flag-waving American, this approach may not be the best one. Helvarg also provides the contact details of a large number of US-based organisations that espouse the values he advocates and engage in the kinds of conservation activities he describes. Someone needs to write a version of this book for South Africans!

This is the kind of book you could go through with a relatively young child, and decide together which actions you’re going to implement together. The reading level isn’t complex.

Get the book here, here or here (if you’re in South Africa).

Stowaway

On a warm day when the boat is in the driveway, it’s not unusual to find a little stowaway asleep in the console. We think he’s been doing this for ages, but we’ve only discovered it in the last couple of months.

Comfy in the console
Comfy in the console

Junior’s unorthodox choice of napping spot is cool, shady and often contains a jacket or two for him to lie on.

Junior in the console
Junior in the console

When it gets too warm, he moves his head further into the shade.

Trying out different sleeping positions
Trying out different sleeping positions

Bookshelf: North to the Night

North to the Night: A Spiritual Odyssey in the Arctic – Alvah Simon

North to the Night
North to the Night

Having for some time immersed myself in literature and film about the Antarctic (Endurance, Empire AntarcticaIce Patrol), I have lately turned my attention to the Arctic. Unlike Antarctica, the Arctic is inhabited by humans, but if you go too far north, you run out of land. This is not a problem experienced by Antarctic explorers.

Alvah Simon and his wife Diana set out to explore the Arctic in their sailboat, and decided (against all advice) to overwinter in a cove in Baffin Bay (which is more like a sea than a bay, and is situated between Greenland and the Canadian Arctic). North to the Night tells the story of their journey to the Arctic, and the dark, freezing winter that Alvah Simon spent there, alone save for his cat Halifax, with his boat trapped in the ice.

The subtitle of the book is apt: the intensity of Simon’s winter experience was such that he underwent a sort of spiritual transformation – perhaps an argument could be made that he started to lose touch with his sanity, or reality. The book thus serves to contrast the intensely practical preparations that the Simons had to make for the voyage, with the epiphanies they experienced as they explored and survived in one of the most challenging environments on earth.

I was frequently frustrated with Simon’s over confidence and willingness to disregard the advice of people with far more sailing and survival experience than he had, but to his credit he seems to be able to see his own stubbornness, and does not attempt to justify or defend it. He is also able to see, in retrospect and to his credit, to what extent he tested his marriage with this journey.

Probably a requirement to embark on this kind of trip is a certain steeliness of will and ironclad self confidence that manifests itself as arrogance, or even foolhardiness. It is also my suspicion that many with similar aspirations don’t return from their adventures, or don’t even set out in the first place. For this reason Alvah Simon’s beautifully written account is particularly precious and rare.

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

Newsletter: Carbon copy

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Friday: Shore dives at Long Beach

Saturday: Very early boat dives from Simon’s Town jetty

Sunday: Wait and see

The last two months have been what I would call an almost ideal summer.The weather has been terrific and the hectic south easters we had a year ago have not been much of an issue. Whilst we still await the icy crystal clean Atlantic to materialise, the viz has been good more often than not on both sides of the mountain. Roll on January.

Mark, Liam and Alex on the boat last Friday
Mark, Liam and Alex on the boat last Friday

The coming weekend’s forecast is almost a carbon copy of last weekend, so we will shore dive tomorrow and have early start on Saturday before the wind arrives. Sunday we will follow a “let’s wait and see” plan as it’s not too clear whether the wind will be as strong as the forecast says it will. That leaves Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday for us to wrap up diving for 2015.

Taking a break

We will be closed from 24 December until 3 January 2016. If we don’t see you before then, have a merry Christmas and a jolly new year. Be safe and get some rest. We would would like to thank everyone that has dived with us throughout the year. Your support is appreciated and I know I have had a lot of fun, laughs good and bad viz, and an abundance of cake.

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

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Bookshelf: The Man Who Ate His Boots

The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage – Anthony Brandt

The Man Who Ate His Boots
The Man Who Ate His Boots

The Northwest Passage  is a sea route (routes, actually) running between Canada and Greenland, across the top of the North American continent through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, and through the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia. At its end is the Far East, for hundreds of years the destination of the thousands of sea voyages that made their way around the Cape of Good Hope, and later through the Suez Canal. Its existence was an enormously appealing idea to Europeans, because if the east could be reached by sailing along the top of the world, great savings of sailing time and expense would result.

For a long time the existence of the Northwest Passage was merely a hypothesis, and in the 1800s the British expended vast quantities of energy exploring the Canadian Arctic in search of a sea route. The passage was first traversed in 1850-54 by Robert McClure, by ship and sledge. Roald Amundsen traversed it entirely by ship in 1903-1906.  Until this century, the route was not navigable for most of the year owing to the presence of sea ice. Now, thanks (?) to climate change, there is far less ice to contend with.

Sir John Franklin was one of Britain’s most eminent Arctic explorers. He made several trips to the Arctic in search of the Northwest Passage. His final expedition, starting in 1845, ended in the disappearance of his two ships (HMS Erebus and HMS Terror), Franklin himself, and all 128 of the men with him.

The story of his expedition, and the searches for evidence of its fate (upwards of 30 expeditions were mounted to look for him), and the subsequent discovery of what had happened (no spoilers here – it was awful) is related in gripping detail in The Man Who Ate His Boots. Brandt also provides ample historical context, describing prior expeditions which serve to illuminate the British motivations behind their exploration of the Canadian Arctic.

There was a curious mixture of stoic heroism and wild arrogance at work during this period of British history. The rigors endured by early Arctic explorers cannot be overstated – the environment is almost entirely hostile to human survival. The British did not believe that there was anything to be learned from the Inuit, indigenous people who live widely spread across the area, and suffered as a result. As one of the Inuit pointed out when the awful lengths Franklin’s men had gone to in order to try to survive were revealed, his people “know how to starve.”

There is a strong thread throughout this book relating to the colonial attitude towards colonised peoples. A belief prevailed in Britain that, equipped with a shotgun and a good pair of shoes, an Englishman could survive anywhere, and that his Christian piety would serve to protect him and speed his endeavours. (On one of Franklin’s earlier expeditions, which was a complete fiasco largely owing to poor planning, the British officers survived whereas the mixed-race local fur traders – who were doing all the manual work and carrying the supplies – perished. This was attributed to the protective influence of the Christian beliefs of the British men.) It was further reckoned that there was nothing to be gained from studying the techinques of the Inuit. Eyewitness accounts from Inuit turned out to hold the key to the fate of Franklin’s party, although their account was not believed initially (they were dismissed as habitually lying “savages”).

Last year, one of Franklin’s ships, HMS Erebus, was discovered by Canadian archaeologists in Queen Maud gulf, where it sank after being trapped in the ice. They are still studying it (the area is only accessible a few months each summer), and I am watching this story with intense interest. There’s more on the discovery at National Geographic.

You can read reviews of The Man Who Ate His Boots at the New York Times, Washington Post, and The Guardian. If you enjoyed Endurance, then I recommend you investigate this book. In light of the developing findings of the excavation of HMS Erebus, the material has refreshed relevance today.

Get the book here (South Africa), here or here.

Want more Arctic? Check out True North. There’s also this article on what lives under the ice, and this one on what happens on top of it!