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.
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.
The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage – Anthony Brandt
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”).
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.
The mouth of the Breede River is a fascinating and beautiful location. There’s a treacherous sandbar (more on that just now). There are wide, natural vistas. There are sleepy holiday villages on each side of the river mouth. There’s an additional little frisson of excitement related to the fact that bull sharks use the Breede River, and must be passing by all the time (right?!).
When Tony and I were in the area for a spring break, we explored the area. I wanted to see whether I could find the remains of SS Kadie, a steaam-assisted sailing ship that is an integral part of the history of the area. The Kadie was built in Scotland in 1859, for the specific purpose of navigating the Breede River and up and down the coast, as a trading vessel. She did venture out to sea on longer voyages, on one occasion carrying a cargo of ostriches to Mauritius. (You can read a lot more about her history, and that of the Barry family who operated her, here.)
On 17 December 1865 the Kadie ran aground and sank while attempting to cross the sandbar at the mouth of the Breede River. She is easy to find, but you should visit at low tide. Take the turnoff to the river mouth from the dirt road to Infanta. It’s a small sign and easy to miss! Descend the wooden staircase onto the beach, and walk right. You will soon see pieces of the Kadie on the beach, in the shallow rockpools, and out in the surf zone. Best to go at low tide, or at least not at the peak of high tide.
The Japanese crew of the MFV Meisho Maru No. 38 could not have picked a more beautiful piece of South African coastline to run aground on. Granted, it was 3am on 16 November 1982 when they got into difficulties, and sightseeing was probably not high on their priority list, but the fact remains that the wreck is in a remarkably scenic spot. It is also within spitting distance (OK, two kilometres) of the lighthouse at Cape Agulhas.
It is also very easy to access. By foot, it is a flat walk along the coast for 1.5 kilometres from the signage at the southernmost tip of Africa. There is a well-kept dirt road out of L’Agulhas, which terminates at Suiderstrand, that runs parallel to the coast. If you drive along the road rather than walk next to it, you will see the wreck in short order.
Here’s a picture of what the wreck looked like not long after grounding in 1982. (Compare it to these pictures of the Eihatsu Maru, aground at Clifton…) She was about 45 metres long, and was carrying a catch of tuna. Her entire crew (17 men) managed to get ashore All that remains now is the bow of the ship, facing out to sea after being turned around by the waves. When we arrived, some Egyptian geese were sitting pensively on the railings. The rest of the wreck has broken up and is hidden in the surf zone.
Decimal-form co-ordinates for the wreck are -34.829763, 19.983845, but if you drive from L’Agulhas towards Suiderstrand along the dirt road, you can’t miss it.
Same again is not a phrase we can use for December this year. Last December was appalling by comparison and although we are only 10 days into the month, we have already done twice the number of dives we did in the whole of December last year.
Conditions this past weekend were great and they have been the same all week. The westerly wind today has made things even better and tomorrow and Saturday should be pretty good… In False Bay. The Atlantic looks a little dark and the water temperature is 16 degrees Celcius, which doesn’t herald good viz that side.
We are launching tomorrow and Saturday, but I think Sunday will be a little too windy for diving. The forecast is for it to blow hard from midday on Saturday, so we will launch for a double tanker at 6.00 am on Saturday from Simon’s Town jetty.
Remember our free try dives in the pool until Christmas eve. We have had some bookings and the pool is warm! It’s a great opportunity to introduce your friends and family to scuba diving. Get in touch if you want to bring someone over – booking is essential.
Please have your MPA permits up to date – you can get one for R94.00 at the post office. Take along your ID document.
On the subject of Marine Protected Areas, please read this and send in your comments about the imminent opening of the Tsitsikamma MPA to fishing. Allowing fishing in a marine protected area is a bit of a contradiction in terms, so I encourage you to read about the proposal and let your voice be heard on the subject.
James Cameron is best known (to people of my *ahem* vintage) as the director of Titanic, or (to those slightly younger) as the director of Avatar. As a result of these multi-billion dollar grossing films, he has more leisure time than most of us. He has used this to excellent effect in recent years, and achieved something that very few others could have done.
Cameron’s interest in deep ocean exploration seems to have been born out of his interest in the Titanic, and he has used tethered ROVs to explore the Titanic as described in Ghosts of the Abyss. He partially funded and spearheaded a project to build a submersible capable of carrying one person down into deepest known part of the ocean, the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, between Japan, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines.
Deepsea Challenger is that craft, and Cameron ultimately piloted it to nearly 11,000 metres underwater, and returned safely. James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge is the story of the design, construction, and testing of Deepsea Challenger, and of her dive to Challenger Deep. Unlike Robert Ballard, who favours unmanned ROVs, James Cameron is a proponent of manned ocean exploration, and I can identify with his enthusiasm for putting human eyes on the seabed (in a figuratively literal sense).
Fewer people have seen the bottom of Challenger Deep than have been on the moon. The last (and first) manned voyage there was in 1960, when Jacques Piccard and US Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh piloted Trieste, a bathyscaphe, there and back. Trieste used gasoline for buoyancy, whereas a special, extremely buoyant foam was developed to do the same job for Deepsea Challenger. The challenges of descending to and ascending from such a depth meant that here and there, seemingly archaic pieces of technology were included in the craft. I was tickled by the release of steel ball bearings to establish initial neutral or slightly positive buoyancy at times.
An aspect of the documentary that I found particularly touching was the presence of Don Walsh on Cameron’s ship, to witness the dive to Challenger Deep. You can read a bit of a review of the documentary here. There is an excellent series of National Geographic articles that will give you a feel for the project: part one, part two, a photo gallery, details of the submersible, and a video.
Get the DVD of James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge here, here or here (South Africa).
Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Cave on Earth – James Tabor
In Blind Descent, James Tabor has written a rip-roaring account of the race to find the deepest cave on earth. Two “supercaves” (Chevé in Mexico and Krubera in the Georgian Republic) were in contention for the world’s deepest cave. The “deepest” measurement is one of vertical depth. Bill Stone and Alexander Klimchouk led multiple expeditions, over a period of years, to Chevé and Krubera respectively, striving to extend the deepest known point of each cave.
One of the two men Tabor profiles in this book, Bill Stone, sounds like a real-life Clive Cussler character (I do not say this with unalloyed admiration). Among other impressive accomplishments, Stone invented a type of rebreather (later acquired by Poseidon) that he tested and refined during his cave explorations. (Stone has subsequently turned his attention to space exploration and mining. It turns out I read an article about him from 2004, some time back – it’s a cracking good read and gives you a sense of the man.)
There are many ways to die in a cave – for example by falling, contracting an infection, drowning, getting lost or trapped – a litany of horrors. An array of specialised skills is required to explore supercaves. Cavers spend weeks underground, often in damp, unstable conditions.
An integral part of any team doing caving of this nature, are cave divers. Their role is typically to explore sumps – passages submerged underwater. Visibility may be poor, the water may be in motion, and it is usually unclear whether the sump has an exit at the other end. Squeezing through confined spaces, after doffing dive gear, is not unusual. They also have to get themselves and their dive gear into the cave, rappelling down vertical cliffs, crawling through tunnels, or whatever is required.
Having grown up (as a diver) believing that cave diving is one of the ultimate technical and mental challenges, and certainly one of the pinnacles of diving accomplishment, I was mildly amused and puzzled that Tabor did not make more of these individuals in Blind Descent, and glossed over many of the aspects of cave diving that make it so ridiculously challenging. At certain points he actually makes it seem like something someone who qualified as an recreational scuba diver a year or so ago can do, if they just get shown how the controls on a rebreather work. Right. (If you are brave, watch Sanctum for some dramatised spelunking and cave diving.)
This is definitely not a book about cave diving, but there is some of it in here and it gets overshadowed by other feats of strength and endurance. Blind Descent is, however, a gripping read and I do recommend it.
Read a review of Blind Descenthere and an interview with Bill Stone here. Get a copy of the book here (South Africa), here or here.
The sea swallow, Glaucus atlanticus, is a type of pelagic nudibranch. Pelagic means it lives in the open ocean, and being a nudibranch makes it a member of the phylum Mollusca. They are also called blue dragons, blue sea slugs, and a few other similar names. Because of where they live, these striking creatures are not frequently seen, so we were lucky to encounter a few of them after a dive at Batsata Maze in the south western part of False Bay, just south of Smitswinkel Bay.
The blue patterned side of this nudibranch that is visible when viewed from above is actually its underside. The top surface of the animal, which points down, is counter-shaded (like a great white shark). It is a greyish silver colour to blend in with the surface of the sea when viewed from underwater.
Sea swallows suck air into a gas-filled sack inside their bodies, for buoyancy. They prey on blue bottles (also called Portuguese man o’war) and retain and concentrate the blue bottles’ venom in their bodies for use against their own enemies. This makes them extremely venomous with the potential to sting badly.
Luckily the intrepid Carel leaped into the water to scoop one into a cup and we could all take a closer look (don’t touch!) on the boat and get some photographs. Afterwards, our visitor was returned safely to the ocean.
They are widely distributed through many of the world’s oceans, and sometimes wash up on the beaches in False Bay. They are unusual, but not earth-shatteringly rare. If we were more social media savvy we would have managed to use this sighting to manufacture the kind of hysteria generated by that facebook page whose title expresses an intense and profane love for “science“, or a few other media channels. But we’re not, so you get this blog post!
Saturday: Dives from Simon’s Town jetty at 9.00 and 11.30 am, sites dependent on conditions
We had good conditions last week; they held for the weekend and then kept going at the start of this week. Yesterday and today, however, the viz took a bit of a nosedive and is possibly going to settle into the summer visibility groove of a warm 4- 6 metres, depending on your eyesight. There is very little swell or wind in the forecast which will help.
I doubt there will be too much difference between Saturday and Sunday so the plan is as follows: a screechingly early double tank launch on Saturday (6.00 am on the Simon’s Town jetty). On Sunday we will meet for 9.00 am and 11.30 am. The sites will depend on what we find on Saturday.
This Cape long-legged spider crab hitched a ride to the surface on one of the divers’ booties this week. Isn’t he a handsome chap? He is back where he belongs!
Try diving in the pool
In the month of December until Christmas, we are offering Discover Scuba sessions (try dives) in our pool, free of charge, every Wednesday and Thursday after 3.00 pm. If you have a friend that needs a little persuasion to qualify as your future dive buddy, then bring them along. Booking is essential. Get in touch if you want to reserve a slot.