As your self-appointed education officer and fellow perpetual student, it is my duty to inform you of an upcoming MOOC on the Futurelearn platform, entitled “Monitoring the Oceans from Space“. In the five weeks of the course, which starts on 24 October, you will learn about using satellite data to monitor the health of the oceans. You will also learn how to access some of the ocean monitoring data that is collected every day about weather phenomena, icebergs, sea levels, ocean temperature, and more. If you’re into creating your own visualisations or crunching numbers yourself, this should appeal.
Climate Change: Briefings from Southern Africa – Bob Scholes, Mary Scholes & Mike Lucas
This is the book on climate change that I never knew I needed. It is written in the form of 55 questions and answers, from a South African perspective. One of the three authors (Dr Mike Lucas) is a biological oceanographer, so there is ample information on the effect of climate change on the marine environment. The other two authors are climate change specialists.
The book is well illustrated with photographs and diagrams. The authors address sea level rise, El Niño, water scarcity, the effect of rising temperatures on the Southern Ocean and Antarctic, and the survival of coral reefs, among other topics. The final few questions deal specifically with practical actions that can be taken to adapt to and (perhaps) avoid climate change, and one’s personal carbon footprint.
You don’t have to be a weather nerd to benefit and learn from this book. I encourage you to seek it out.
On our last day in Denmark, after a week-long family visit between Christmas 2015 and new year 2016, we went to Den Blå Planet, Denmark’s national aquarium. (Actually we were wrong about it being our last day in Denmark, but that’s another story involving Turkish Airlines, who seem to innovate in the field of disappointment.) The aquarium is situated in Kastrup, Copenhagen, quite close to the airport, and overlooks the narrow sound called the Øresund, which separates Denmark from Sweden.
We visited on 1 January, after (eventually) sleeping through the sounds of Copenhagen’s residents letting off five hundred metric tons of fireworks, starting at 5.00 pm the day before. We bought tickets online (a small saving in Danish krone that amounted to eleventy million ZAR) and arrived at opening time. The building is surrounded by a reflection pool, and is built in a spiral form inspired by the shape of a vortex. In the larger halls the high ceilings give a tremendous sense of space; at 10,000 square metres, the building is very large. The halls are generally wide and I imagine it could accommodate a very large number of people before feeling crowded.
The aquarium is divided into three sections. The first is focused on the life found in the lakes and ocean of Denmark and northern Europe. I particularly enjoyed this first part of the aquarium. The animals are adapted to the cold water, so some of them were very similar what we find around Cape Town, and the displays were creative and interesting. There was also the obligatory “anchor with fish” tank, which was (as always) mesmerising. One of the pictures in the gallery below is of Tony checking it out.
Two sea otters live at the aquarium, having been rescued as infants and raised by hand. The male and female otters were found in Alaska when they were four months old with a broken jaw and wounds after a boat strike, and as a 1.5 kg abandoned one day old respectively. As usual, seeing such an intelligent animal in captivity stirs up all sorts of conflicting feelings. That said, you are a stronger person than I am if you could have left these two baby otters to their natural fate (that is, death). The otters spend a lot of time (up to six hours per day) grooming, and in between keep very busy, requiring a lot of enrichment from their four keepers. It was magical to see them.
Also in the northern seas and lakes section is the puffin exhibit, mimicking the cliffs of the Faroe Islands, a Danish territory. Here, also, we found a touch pool (which the Danes call a sensing-aquarium), and a terrifying ambulatory mascot.
The second section of the building is devoted to tropical lakes and rivers, with incredible freshwater exhibits. We saw piranhas, terrapins, frogs, little black rays the size of pancakes, with white polka-dots, and electric eels. The rainforest exhibit is kept at a temperature and humidity level that are impressive in the Scandinavian winter, and I can imagine that this part of the aquarium is popular with expats from warmer climates!
The third part of the aquarium is for the rest of the ocean, and although it’s a big ask to cover (or summarise) so much in the remaining space, it does a fabulous job. The Ocean tank holds four million litres of water, and is home to rays and hammerhead sharks, and other warm water fish. Amongst many other things, there are seahorses, leafy seadragons and coral reef fish to see.
We watched feeding time for a while, which was quite funny – the aquarists row out onto the water in a small inflatable boat, and administer the snacks from on board. Standing in the tunnel, we could see the boat from below, with the oars working frantically against what I imagine was a bit of surface current.
One of the things that Den Blå Planet does really well is to integrate multimedia, virtual reality and interactive technology into the aquarium experience. This reduces the number of animals required to be on display, and – for the most part – probably takes care of itself, requiring no cleaning and feeding. My favourite such exhibit was the bouncy plankton wall in the ocean section of the aquarium. The photo below is pretty terrible because the display moves all the time, but I put a video on instagram which shows how the plankton clear a space for you when you walk along the wall.
We finished off our visit with a flæskesteg sandwich at ØST, the restaurant at the back of the aquarium. It was still a bit misty, but the large windows looking out over the sound let in a lot of light. There is a play area outside, and despite the midwinter temperatures, children in snow suits were making the most of it.
I did not get the same strong conservation message from my visit to The Blue Planet that I think the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town works so hard to propagate. This could be because of different cultural approaches to living a “green” lifestyle; in Scandinavia the government does a lot of the work for you, providing renewable energy, prioritising pedestrian and bicycle traffic, and making it ridiculously easy to recycle, for example. In South Africa it is more of a conscious personal choice and effort to reduce one’s environmental footprint, and there is there is thus perhaps more of a requirement for direct conservation messaging.
Anyway, if you’re in Copenhagen, visit! Next time we’re in Denmark, we’ll check out the little Øresund Aquarium at Helsingor, which is entirely focused on local fauna.
The course syllabus is comprehensive and spans 10 weeks of online study. You will cover topics from oceanography, marine biology, and geology. The aspects of the course related to humans include ocean governance, human-ocean interactions, changes happening along our coastline, and – most importantly – solutions from marine spatial planning to ecosystem management.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As a fourth and final (perhaps) installment to our guide to ocean-related MOOCs for the curious armchair scholar, here is a list of offerings from provider edX, including one about SHARKS. All about sharks!
I have only just discovered edX, so (unlike Coursera, Future Learn and Open2Study) I have not done any of these courses, and don’t speak from experience. The format looks similar to Coursera, so you can pay to get a “verified certificate” for the course, or just choose to audit it (like a Scientologist… bad joke, sorry), which doesn’t cost anything. Like Coursera, edX has an app so you can work (on certain mobile-friendly courses) on your iPad or Android tablet.
Two courses that are focused more specifically on climate and related science are:
Climate Change: The Sciencefrom the University of British Columbia in Canada doesn’t have any current or future sessions scheduled, but you can still view the course material. This course not only covers climate, science, but aims to equip you to evaluate climate science, and to communicate facts about the climate to others.
Coursera is not the only provider of MOOCs. In fact, providers are legion. Future Learn is another provider, owned by the Open University, with an emphasis on European (mostly British) institutions as course providers. I have enjoyed a couple of their courses and can see a few more that interest me!
Don’t use these courses as a cudgel to beat yourself with. If you sign up for one and circumstances intrude and prevent you from finishing it within the allotted time, don’t be alarmed. The learning is meant to be for your own enjoyment, and the material will either remain accessible to you as a past student, or you can re-enroll for a future iteration of the course.
MOOC stands for Massive Online Open Course. These courses are available over the internet, allowing theoretically unlimited class sizes. Courses typically comprises a mix of short video lectures, supplemental reading material, assignments and/or quizzes. Many MOOCs are offered free of charge.
Coursera is one of the largest providers of MOOCs, offering top quality classes from a range of universities, including many excellent ones. Through Coursera I have learned about chicken husbandry, animal behaviour, R programming, maps and map making, statistics, machine learning and some marine-related topics. Here is a selection of Coursera offerings that you might enjoy if you are interested in the ocean and, more broadly, the environment:
Marine Megafauna from Duke University is about large ocean creatures – turtles, whales, sharks, seals, penguins – and what they reveal about the ocean. As part of the course we read scientific papers and extracted data and conclusions from them. This is an excellent skill to learn.
Ocean Solutions from the University of Western Australia is concerned with the resources of the ocean and how we can use them to mitigate water and food scarcity, cope with climate change, and use them to source sustainable energy.
Introduction to the Arctic: Climate from the University of Alberta is the first of a planned series of MOOCs about the Arctic. It deals with the various environments that make up the Arctic, how climate systems operate there, and the impacts of climate change on this sensitive region. If you do this one, I suggest playing the lecture videos at 1.5x speed to preserve sanity.
Some of these courses have set start dates; you can either enroll and wait for the date to roll around, or, if the next starting date is undetermined, sign up to be notified when it is announced. Other courses are self-paced, so you can sign up whenever you want to and work at your own pace. Coursera has a fantastic app that functions extremely well (at least on my iPad) for learning on the go.
Coursera is not the only provider of MOOCs – I’ll share some others in a later post.
Much 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.
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.
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).