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.

Newsletter: Friday diving

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Friday: Launching at 8.30 and 11.30 am from False Bay Yacht Club

We are back from an exploration trip to De Hoop. We took in Infanta, Arniston and Struisbaai as well as Cape Agulhas. Our aim was to gather info for future dive trips up the coast and we checked out the launch sites, accommodation, eating spots and so on. We went armed with a chart of the wrecks and reefs and chatted to some of the locals who use the areas daily. It was a fantastic trip and one of the highlights was filming the giant short tailed stingrays that are resident in the harbour at Struisbaai. We’ll share that video on Youtube in a day or two, and some photos on our facebook page. Instagram already has some highlights from the trip

Filming rays at Struisbaai harbour
Filming rays at Struisbaai harbour

Dive conditions

The weekend weather does not look all that rosy so we will launch tomorrow at 8.30 and 11.30. Saturday looks really messy and Sunday looks a little wet. We will launch on Sunday if the weather tones down from the current forecast. Either way, let me know if you’d like to be notified of possible Sunday dives, or if you’d like to be on the boat tomorrow.

Just a reminder to make sure your permit to dive in a Marine Protected Area is up to date. Also, if you book a dive please let me know in good time if you can’t take the spot on the boat so that I can give it to someone else.

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

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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.

Handy hints: What to wear on a boat

Mark in his red dress shirt
Mark in his red dress shirt

I don’t have a good enough photo of this, but here’s our super skipper Mark – face obscured by a drop of water – in a VERY smart red dress shirt, hauling Kate’s (left) and Christo’s (right) gear out of the water after a dive. He has elevated the standard of dress on board Seahorse to new heights. Luckily for us, Mark had a formal engagement after skippering, and forgot to bring his usual t shirt to wear on board.

Diving in an MPA

Table Mountain National Park MPA
Table Mountain National Park MPA

A couple of weekends ago I picked up a hard copy of this brochure (PDF) at the Paddlers shop in Simons Town. It’s the Marine Recreational Activity Information Brochure published by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. I wish that more poachers would read it! It has information pertaining to the regulations governing scuba divers, anglers, jet skiers, aquarium keepers, rock lobster, and abalone.

The map at left is from this brochure (PDF), which details all the MPAs along our coastline. Certain areas are restricted zones, which means that NO fishing is allowed there at all. I am always totally delighted when the skipper slows the dive boat to a crawl to inform a clueless (or willfully criminal) kayaker or fishing boat that they’re fishing in a no take zone! This usually happens on the way to Smitswinkel Bay in the Castle Rock restricted zone. Research has shown that restricted zones have dramatically positive impacts on fish populations – the difference between fish and marine life populations just inside and just outside these areas is very dramatic.

I can assure you, from diving in these areas, that even though the policing of restricted zones leaves MUCH to be desired, the experience of diving in one is an absolute pleasure for the most part. Rich dive sites like Partridge Point are testimony to this.

Reading the regulations pertaining to the recreational scuba diving permits that we are required to hold when we dive around the Cape Peninsula (and along much of the South African coast) was enlightening. Most of these are common sense, but it was news to me (for example) that no diving is permitted between 11pm and 4am, anywhere in an MPA! It also put paid to any personal chumming activities… What a pity – I would have loved to have had a great white shark all to myself!

By the way, Bird Island – mentioned below – is near Port Elizabeth. There’s a magnificent lighthouse there.

RECREATIONAL SCUBA DIVING PERMIT CONDITIONS

The holder of a recreational SCUBA diving permit shall:

  1. not remove, unduly disturb or harass any marine organism or habitat, including shells or substrate, marine mammals, seabirds and fish.
  2. not feed fish, practice chumming, or dump any material, or discharge any biological attractants in the MPA.
  3. dive in the Table Mountain, Pondoland, Aliwal Shoal and Stilbaai MPA during daylight hours only (from half an hour before local sunrise to the time of local sunset), unless as part of a group being taken out by an DEA-authorised business operator. A representative of a registered Diving Club or individuals must notify the managing authority of the MPA to their satisfaction if they intend night diving. (Table Mountain (SANParks) – 021-786 5656, Pondoland (Eastern Cape Parks) – 047-387 0451/043-742 4450, Aliwal Shoal (Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife – 0825592848). Stilbaai (CapeNature – 028-754 2234).
  4. not scuba dive in the Bird Island MPA at all.
  5. not dive in any MPA where a scuba diving permit is required between 23:00 and 04:00 at all.
  6. abide by the Diver Code of Conduct (www.environment.gov.za).
  7. note that these conditions will be applicable to any new MPAs that may be declared, regazetted or required to have a permit in the future.
  8. adhere to the condition that boats taking persons diving in an MPA where a permit is required shall only launch from an authorized launching site, and shall not launch earlier than an hour before local sunrise or return later than an hour after local sunset unless night diving in compliance with condition 3.

To obtain your MPA permit, take R100 and your identity document or passport to your nearest post office, and ask for a scuba diving permit form at the counter. It’s a blue and white form, the same one as is used for angling, crayfishing, and some other consumptive marine usage activities.

Diver Code of Conduct

I had to dig around a bit to find this, but Underwater Africa put together a Diver Code of Conduct that all recreational scuba diver users of MPAs in South Africa are encouraged to follow. Here it is:

A Recreational Scuba Diver should:

  1. Avoid all unnecessary contact or interference with marine life and habitats.
  2. Strive to develop and maintain excellent buoyancy control skills.
  3. Not take or purchase any souvenirs such as corals or shells.
  4. Keep diving sites and launch areas clean.
  5. Support service providers that adopt environmentally friendly practices.
  6. Obey local laws and regulations.
  7. Learn about the underwater environment and the impact of humans on the environment.
  8. Dive within the limits of training and experience.
  9. Show consideration towards fellow divers and other users.
  10. Encourage other divers to follow this Code of Conduct.
  11. Help create conservation awareness amongst the local community, general public and diving community.

I think it’s good!

Backward roll

On a boat dive off a rubber duck, all the divers roll backwards into the water at the same time. The skipper stops the boat, counts down, and everyone rolls backwards off the pontoon simultaneously. There are good reasons for the emphasis on doing it at the same time:

  • if there’s even a slight wind or current, the boat drifts
  • once divers hit the water, they start drifting too

Even a second’s hesitation can combine with one of the above to have you landing on top of another diver. It may not hurt you, but the diver already in the water is unlikely to be wearing a hard hat to protect them from your cylinder! If you miss the count down for whatever reason, WAIT on the boat. The skipper will bring you around and drop you again when it’s clear.

The alternative – rolling into the water on top of everyone else – will ensure that you don’t get invited back for more boat dives!

Ever wondered what it’s like to do a backward roll? Check out this video I took at the start of a dive on Bikini, Two Mile Reef, in Sodwana.

Life in a dive camp

Depending on the type of accommodation you have chosen, if you are in a packed camp then have some respect for other divers in the camp or cabins next to you. You may be on a party trip but they might be on a peaceful break from a hectic work environment.

These are a few of the camp rules I have used in some of the camps I have worked…

Noise

Please respect the fact that some people in the camp are on an early dive and need to sleep. No noise after 10 pm. Go to the beach or a pub if you want to be noisy.

Dive planning

Dive planning takes place in the dining area every day at a specific time. Please be there, if you are not there we cannot book a dive for you.

Dive planning
Dive planning noticeboard

Kit up and launch times

Kit up time and launch times are on the board, please be ready to kit up at the designated time. Please sign the launch sheet, produce your dive card and complete an indemnity before you go diving.

Boat rules

Please ensure your kit, mask, fins and weight belt are on the boat you are on.

Try and sit opposite your gear from the launch as it is not safe to move kit around on a full dive boat.

Please ensure you are opposite your kit before you put your weight belt on.

Rinse your mask before you kit up as you are less likely to fall in the water.

Ready your kit by loosening the straps clips etc., so when someone gets to you to help, you are ready. This reduces the time spent bobbing on the ocean which causes seasickness in some divers.

At the end of the dive please hand your weights up before you remove your kit.

Once you are on the beach please take you mask and fins off the boat, and the staff will often bring the rest. A good habit is to remove your regulators and BCD and wear them back to you base as some operators can be hard on gear. (Remember to dry and replace the dust cap.)

Some more boat etiquette can be found in this post!

Dos and don’ts for boat dives

Don’t talk about soup sandwiches, cheesy garlic rolls and other such topics on the boat while someone is throwing up… Be nice!

Don’t walk around the boat once you have your weight belt on. If you fall in the water we all laugh first and then try to rescue you, and by then you may be on the bottom… Not nice!

Don’t rinse your mask, fully kitted up or while the boat is moving… You will lose it (or fall overboard) and we will all laugh again… You then get to sit on the boat while we dive… Not nice!

Don’t shout “yee haa!” when the skipper gets the boat airborne on a huge wave… Its embarrassing enough with just you lot watching him fluff things, so when you shout everyone on the beach looks as well… Not nice!

Don’t all rush to one side of the boat when someone shouts “dolphins!” The boat becomes unbalanced and the skipper (or a diver) sometimes falls off… Not nice.

Don’t call your mask  goggles, your fins flippers, your weights sinkers and your cylinder a tin of oxygen… Your Instructor gets embarrassed and gets a beer fine.

Tim and Grace on the boat in Ponta do Ouro
Tim and Grace on the boat in Ponta do Ouro

Do check that your buddy is on the boat after a dive as most skippers and some DM’s went to night school and can’t count during the day. Plus it’s a waste of fuel to drive all the way back to the dive site to fetch him if you forget.

Do make sure your air is on before you fall into the water… Look at your gauge, take a few deep breaths, and if the needle fluctuates you air is not on. If you can’t breathe at all, it is also not on…

Do remember to shout “man overboard!” if your male buddy falls in the water, but please shout “girl overboard!” if your buddy is not male… Girls are sensitive about these things… Besides if a girl falls overboard all the guys do too… to help… This makes the boat fast and the skipper falls off…

Reef rules

Please remember, coral reefs are delicate, home to creatures we are privileged to visit and need to be respected. Control your buoyancy, tuck in your gauges, octos and torches.

Some of the corals have taken hundreds of years to grow to their current size. A careless fin kick could destroy decades of growth.

Don’t touch anything – coral reefs are a delicate ecosystem, and you can transport algae and other organisms on your hands from one coral to the other. This isn’t a good thing – it’s the equivalent of coughing on someone when you have a cold!

No touching! I am looking at you!
No touching! I am looking at you!

And finally…

Do not go deeper than the bottom!

Do not bite anything that bites you!

If your buddy is bitten by anything he should not be touching please take a picture for us to use in issuing beer fines!