A Christmas dive with cowsharks

One of Cape Town’s best known dive sites is called Shark Alley, located close to shore near Pyramid Rock in False Bay. Here, broadnose sevengill cowsharks may be seen fairly reliably. There are times when they aren’t around (perhaps owing to a recent orca predation, or some other mysterious cause).

Jerrel filmed this beautiful footage on a dive at Shark Alley in December 2014, on a calm day with pretty good visibility. Look out for our boat, Seahorse, and of course the sharks. Thanks to Jerrel for the video!

If you’re curious as to how one conducts a dive with three metre long apex predators, check our our protocol for scuba diving with cowsharks. An ethical dive operator will also inform you of the likelihood of seeing the cowsharks, and whether they have been seen recently (i.e. in the last few days) by divers, before accepting money to take you diving at the site.

Newsletter: The right thing

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Saturday: Boat dives from Hout Bay / shore dives at Long Beach

It would seem from the forecast that it is a open and shut case of where to go and what to do this weekend. To be honest I am not too sure of the right thing to do! Both the Atlantic and False Bay are a colour that does not exactly inspire one to throw on a wetsuit.

Peace and quiet in Hout Bay
Peace and quiet in Hout Bay

The wind has blown more easterly and north easterly today than was expected, so it will not have done much for the visibility on either side. Sunday is out of the question as the forecast is for humping south easter, so that leaves Saturday.

I am launching from Hout Bay tomorrow afternoon and will have a better idea of whether it is clean enough for Saturday. The other option is shore diving at Long Beach. I reckon that there is about a strong chance that the water won’t be clean enough for any diving at all, though.

Privileges and responsibilities

We are very privileged to be able to dive with some beautiful and charismatic marine life around the Cape Peninsula, but with that privilege comes responsibility. Here are reminders of our best practices for diving with seals and with the sevengill cowsharks.

Happy snaps

There are some super photos on facebook, taken by local photographer Mark Harley, from when Dungeons was pumping last week – check them out here.

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

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Documentary (BBC): Arctic with Bruce Parry

1422966653_ARCTICfMuch of my recent Arctic obsession has been historical, with a related interest in the hostile environment that has stymied (and killed) so many explorers over the centuries. Bruce Parry is a British documentarian (didn’t know that was a thing, but it seems fun) who seems to be dearly loved and some kind of national institution to the Brits. After watching this five-episode BBC series on the Arctic and its people, we could understand his charm.

Parry visits people living in Siberia, Greenland, northern Canada, Alaska, and the far north of Norway. He throws himself into their activities – whether rounding up reindeer, hunting for seals on the ice, fishing in Alaska (I had some serious lifestyle envy at this point), or racing up mountains. He is sensitive and respectful, and seems to forge genuine bonds with the families he visits.

The common thread that marks the lives of many of the tribes and peoples’ that Parry visits is that climate change, and the encroaching changes wrought by the pace of modern life, are challenging their traditions and lifestyles. Having lived sustainably off the land for generations, these people’s movements, traditions and futures are now circumscribed by all sorts of interventions from modern society. Not least of these is a lack of understanding of and respect for how they live.

Tony and I found much to discuss – for example, after the episode covering a traditional whale hunt in Alaska. Is there a difference between Japanese industrial whaling and an Inuit community’s subsistence hunting  for a couple of whales a year, done with reverence, prayers, and gratitude for the whale, whose bones will be scraped clean by polar bears after the entire carcass has been distributed in the village? Is it possible to kill an animal as large as a whale, humanely? Is all whaling wrong? These are difficult questions but it is worth grappling with them. As my friend Tami has exhorted me in the words of Rilke (in a different context, admittedly), “live the questions!

The series was filmed over the course of a summer, during which time much of the usual ice that marks the Arctic landscape was absent. The look of the landscape initially puzzled (and disappointed) me – without the icy covering, everything looks quite barren and gravelly!

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

Article: Smithsonian on whether shark repellents really work

The Freedom7 SharkShield unit outside its neoprene case
The Freedom7 SharkShield unit outside its neoprene case

Here’s a quick read on shark repellents from Smithsonian.com. While it only takes a few paragraphs to explain the different attempts humans have made to avoid encountering sharks while using the ocean, the task of actually developing technology to do this is far more complex. Testing shark repellents is also ethically difficult – in the same way that it’s hard to test medications for use during pregnancy, as one could be causing harm to human subjects.

(It’s worth reading a bit about the Shark Shield device pictured above for more on testing. Testing the efficacy of stripy wetsuits, on the other hand, is almost impossible, and for this reason they can be almost impossibly lucrative – imagine a product where you don’t have to prove whether it works, and when it fails you can (a) throw up your hands and make an excuse along the lines of “it was a freak event”/”the guy must have been wearing it incorrectly” or (b) close the company and disappear.)

The “electronic fence” mentioned at the end of the article is the shark repellent cable that the KwaZulu Natal Sharks Board tested at Glencairn last summer. You can read more about that (also from Smithsonian.com) here.

To bring our attention back to the original topic: here is the article on shark repellents at Smithsonian.com, with ample links for you to pursue interesting avenues of exploration!

Southern African Shark & Ray Symposium 2015 – workshops

View from the top of Red Hill, over Simon's Town
View from the top of Red Hill, over Simon’s Town

The final day of the 3rd Southern African Shark and Ray Symposium comprised three workshops.

The first, hosted by the staff of the Two Oceans Aquarium, was about safe and ethical handling protocols for sharks and rays. Scientists apply tags, take samples and measure animals in order to learn about them, and some contact is inevitable. It is vital to do all the work as quickly as possible, and with as little stress to the animal as possible. I didn’t attend this workshop, but comments from participants indicated that it was extremely useful and practical, with a hands-on section conducted outdoors.

The second workshop, hosted by the team from the Save Our Seas Shark Education Centre in Kalk Bay, was about science communication, which is dear to my heart. I tweeted quite a lot of detail from this workshop (keep reading…), and it was fantastically useful.

The final workshop was hosted by the Save Our Seas Foundation and its CEO Michael Scholl (also known as “the drone guy”!), and dealt with automated identification of sharks from the shape of their dorsal fins – FinPrinting! I didn’t attend this workshop either, and would be interested to hear more about it.

As for the first and second day of the symposium, I created a storify timeline that compiles tweets and images from the day. You can view it here, or read through it below.

Our protocol for scuba diving (and snorkeling) with Cape fur seals

Tamsyn with the seals
Tamsyn with the seals

Scuba divers’ and snorkelers’ interactions with Cape fur seals have been in the spotlight recently in light of proposed legislation that would limit us to keeping a distance of more than 30 metres from any group of 50 or more seals. We wrote about the proposed legislation in detail, and one of the alternatives we suggested to an outright ban on approaching seal colonies and haul out spots was the introduction of a seal diving code of conduct.

We prepared something similar for scuba diving with broadnose sevengill cowsharks in False Bay. The idea is to draw up a set of guidelines that will ensure the well being of the species we’re diving with, and the safety and enjoyment of the divers.

Here’s our seal diving code of conduct. We’d love to hear your comments and suggestions. Is there anything we’ve left out?

  1. We are visiting the seals in order to see them in the water. Under no circumstances will we land on their colony, climb onto the rocks from the water, or otherwise harass them on land.
  2. We won’t try to chase the seals off their haul out spot or colony into the water by clapping, shouting, or otherwise creating a disturbance when we approach. If the seals want to get into the water to play (which they often do), they will.
  3. Seals will interact with us if and when they want to. We won’t use toys such as bits of rope to attract seals to us in the water so that we can photograph or examine them. This teaches seals to identify human-manufactured materials as playthings, and will lead to more entanglement of curious young animals in plastic waste.
  4. We won’t try to touch the seals, and nor will we encourage them to interact physically with us by offering them parts of our gear or other items to chew on. (We recognise that they may do this anyway, but we will not encourage it.)
  5. We use no bait or chum in the water around seal colonies (or anywhere else, unless we have a permit to do so). Apart from it being illegal, it could potentially modify the seals’ behaviour around humans, and may attract charismatic marine megafauna other than the species we’re visiting the area to dive with.
  6. We treat the area all around a seal colony as a no-wake zone. This means the boat engine speed when moving around there is just a little more than an idle, but enough to move forward. When approaching the area, we will slow down well in advance in case other operators have a buoy, divers and/or snorkelers in the water. We recognise that the ocean does not belong to us, and that others have as much right to be at any particular location as we do. This, and concern for vulnerable water users and seals on the surface, informs how we use our boat in the vicinity of a seal colony.

Diving and snorkeling with seals is great fun and a privilege that we have as water users. We’d like to see it appreciated as such, and hopefully this will inform how we interact with these puppy dogs of the ocean.

The shell midden at Miller’s Point

(An alternative title for this post could be: How I Got Really Excited About Walking Around on a Historical Garbage Dump.)

The secluded bay at Millers Point
The secluded bay at Millers Point

On the seaward side of the parking areas at Miller’s Point is a short string of beautiful, secluded coves demarcated by rounded granite boulders like the ones that shelter Windmill Beach, Fisherman’s Beach and Boulders Beach further north. This area is much beloved by free divers and snorkelers, and also by day trippers who make use of the braai area and massive tidal pool on weekends and during holiday seasons.

To get to these coves, and to the braai area (located on the site of a former whaling station) and tidal pool, one must walk past and over what looks like an overgrown sand dune. The truth is, it’s something a bit more special than that. For one thing, the dune vegetation is considered an excellent example of Coastal Duneveld, one of the last remaining undisturbed sites on the Cape Peninsula, for which reason you shouldn’t go trampling on it at will.

A path cut over the top of the midden
A path cut over the top of the midden

Furthermore (and the point of this post), the sand dune at Miller’s Point is actually a Late Stone Age shell midden, or ancient garbage heap. Early inhabitants of this stretch of coastline discarded the shells of the shellfish that they consumed in distinct areas, of which this is one. Embedded in the sand and between the roots of the dune vegetation are thousands and thousands of shell fragments, representing the highly nutritious marine diet of hunter gatherers who moved along the southern African coastline.

According to the City of Cape Town’s local development framework for Miller’s Point, a 2004 document, at least the top and/or edges of this midden probably date from the early 1700s:

Early pre-colonial references to the use of the site are contained in a shell midden associated with the large dune immediately west of the tidal pool recreation area. A shell midden is an accumulation of shellfish, bone and stone artefacts, which mark places where people stayed or prepared food. The presence however of early 18th Century colonial artefacts mixed in with the shell deposits suggests that part of the midden was deposited fairly recently. The preservation of this midden is important for a number of reasons, one of which is that the presence of colonial artefacts may represent evidence of contact between indigenous groups and early colonists.

Midden’s are distinguishable from random piles of shells by the fact that they contain a uniformity of species (this one is mostly the shells of abalone and limpets with some little whelks, as far as I can tell) of a size that would make them worthwhile to collect for food (i.e. not too small), as well as the remains of bones, tools and charcoal.

Steep slope of the shell midden
Steep slope of the shell midden

It goes without saying that as a historical site, which should be signposted and boardwalked to protect the vegetation and shell midden remains, you shouldn’t remove anything from the area, or be too free and easy wandering off the sandy paths, many of which have been cut straight through the midden. Hopefully SAHRA and the City of Cape Town will one day be able to protect and preserve this site. But these things take time and money, both of which are in short supply, so in the mean time let us be responsible citizens: excited about our nearby midden, but respectful and mindful of its cultural and historical value.

To further your education about shell middens, should you wish to, I recommend Shorelines, Strandlopers and Shell Middens – there is much to be discovered and investigated along this coastline of ours. For an interpretation of how our local history may have looked, you could also investigate the Sea-Change exhibition while it’s still on the Sea Point Promenade.

Bookshelf: Four Fish

Four Fish – Paul Greenberg

Four Fish
Four Fish

This is a big idea book – perhaps best to compare it to a TED talk, only more substantial. It is structured around four types of fish: salmon, tuna, sea bass and cod. The history of humans’ engagement with these archetypal families of fish enables Paul Greenberg to plot the trajectory of the possible futures we face, feeding ourselves from the ocean.

All four fish – salmon, tuna, sea bass and cod – have been fished to within a hair’s breadth of extinction. The story of cod is perhaps best known, from its original exploitation in the North Atlantic – beginning 1,000 years ago – to the catastrophic failure of the fisheries on the eastern seaboard of North America in the last several decades of the 20th century. Greenberg repeatedly cites and pays homage to Mark Kurlansky’s deceptively slim volume on the subject of cod (Cod), and to some extent this book capitalises on Cod‘s popularity.

Greenberg’s interest, however, is not primarily with the failure of the cod, tuna and salmon fisheries (largely as a result of failing to follow scientific advice in setting quotas – read: rampant greed). He is concerned more with the possibility of farming fish in a commercially viable, sustainable manner. There are lots of problems with fish farming, such as parasites and diseases spread from farmed fish to their wild counterparts, and Greenberg visits a number of aquaculture operations to discover whether sustainable practices that do not harm wild fish are possible.

Ultimately, Greenberg urges us to view fish as wildlife. As scuba divers we are accustomed to thinking about fish this way. We venture into their territory in order to experience them in the wild, and many of us feel outrage when certain types of fish (I have in mind sharks and perhaps tuna) are caught – albeit in perfectly legal fisheries. Greenberg wants us to extend this outrage, or at least recognition that fish are perhaps “the last wild food”, to all kinds of fish. The implications of thinking about fish this way would be that we eat less wild fish, saving it for special occasions, or do not eat it at all. (Perhaps, like Sylvia Earle, those of us who have the luxury of choice in the matter should stop eating fish entirely.) We have managed to execute this mind shift with whales in the last 100 years. The challenge is to extend it to the rest of the ocean’s finned inhabitants.

Greenberg suggests that the sustainable way for fisheries to continue into the future is for fishermen to assume the role of herders – custodians as well as harvesters of the fish. He further contends that we should not try to domesticate (farm) tuna, salmon and most other species that are already considered food fish. These fish have such a high feed conversion ratio (the number of kilograms of food – mostly comprising smaller fish – they need to eat to produce one kilogram of body weight) that farming them results in a net loss to the fish biomass in the ocean. Similarly, tuna ranching (capturing young tuna and raising them to maturity in pens) is also not a viable “farming” technique, as not only are wild fish being removed from the ocean, but they are denied the opportunity to breed. We need to start considering compliant, easily cultivated fish such as tilapia, kona kampachi (Almaco jack) and barramundi as menu options.

There’s a New York Times review of Four Fish here, and a Huffington Post review here. A Time Magazine story on fish also borrows heavily from Greenberg’s work.

You can get a copy of the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here. If you have a SASSI card in your wallet or even the slightest concern about food security, personal ethics and ocean conservation, you ought to read this book.

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.

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.