Marine-related MOOCs from Coursera

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.

Paleontology: Ancient Marine Reptiles from the University of Alberta is about dinosaurs that lived in the ocean, and the evolutionary changes that took place in their bodies when they moved from land back to the sea. My five year old self is looking forward to this!

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.

Water: The Essential Resource from National Geographic is aimed at teachers (but is still interesting for the rest of us), and deals with ocean and freshwater ecosystems, water use and environmental stewardship.

Our Earth: Its Climate, History and Processes from the University of Manchester is about earth as a system, shaped by its natural processes. I am currently busy with it, and it seems to be providing a good grounding in basic geology, the water cycle, and life’s impact on the climate of earth.

Finally, because I am still completely obsessed:

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.

The Changing Arctic from Tomsk State University also deals largely with climate and climate change as it relates to the Arctic. The supplementary material is outstanding, and the course uses the work of scientists to tell stories that shed light on Arctic issues. This course comes highly recommended.

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.

Newsletter: Staying out of trouble

Hi divers

Weekend diving

No diving this weekend!

Conditions forecast

The conditions forecast for this weekend is not very different from the weather we had last weekend and as the weather experts say,we are in a seven day cycle. This has been very evident as we have had some really stunning midweek diving days with great conditions and good visibility. My guess is that Saturday will be lousy and although the weather clears on Sunday, it does so in the late afternoon only. Not to mention there are a few drastic swell direction changes starting tomorrow… So I reckon its a stay home weekend.

Sunrise over Sun Valley
Sunrise over Sun Valley

Things to do

There are a lot of things to keep you out of trouble if you aren’t diving:


Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099

Diving is addictive!

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Links to help you keep track of the fleet

The CMA CGM Alexander von Humboldt, one of the world's largest container ships
The CMA CGM Alexander von Humboldt, one of the world’s largest container ships

I’ve written before about the Marine Traffic website, which uses the Automatic Identification System (AIS) that ships above a certain size are required to make use of, in order to track their location. We use it to find out about the ships that sometimes come into False Bay for shelter. Ship Finder is a similar, somewhat more user friendly variant of the Marine Traffic map. I find it a bit easier to use, especially when looking at a vessel’s path through time. If you really want to, you can see air traffic instead (warning: it’s terrifying and you may wish to unsee it)!

There is also OpenSeaMap, which is an offshoot of the OpenStreetMap project. OpenStreetMap is a crowdsourced project to create an editable world map that is free of charge. You can visit the OpenStreetMap website to see what it’s about. OpenSeaMap uses some of the OpenStreetMap data, but also includes marine information such as the location of lighthouses and buoys, and some quite limited AIS information. The map also purports to include tidal data, seabed profiles, and water depths, but is a work in progress.

Finally, there is FleetMon, which requires an email address in order to register. There are various account types, most of which require a subscription, as well as apps for Android and iOS (not free of charge). With a free account you can access FleetMon Explorer through your web browser, and it’s a rich AIS interface with a huge (nearly 400,000) vessel database and beautiful maps. You can create a “fleet” of vessels you’re particularly interested in, and track them around the world. However (and this is quite a biggie) you only get five minutes of FleetMon usage per day. If you want more, you have to pay.

In order of usefulness and accessibility, then, I’d look at Ship FinderMarine TrafficOpenSeaMap and FleetMon. Ship spotters will find some useful tools in that list!

Nothing new under the sun

The recent Ocearch/Shark Men controversy has gripped Cape Town’s water users and drawn some absolute fringe lunatics out of the woodwork, many of whom object to what they perceive to be the cruel and dangerous methods used to affix tags to the white sharks. I can’t say I’m overly comfortable with the idea of hooking a shark, tiring it out and then removing these massive creatures from the water and subjecting their organs to gravity’s pull, but after much thought and debate with Tony, and assurances from the scientists working with the Ocearch team, I have come to the conclusion that the benefits of this research far, far outweigh any brief discomfort that the sharks experience. Sharks that produce tracks like the ones shown here don’t appear to be overly affected by the tagging experience. Not everyone agrees, however.

I’ve been following the Southern Fried Science blog for over a year now. It’s interesting, science-based, accessible, and attracts comment and discussion from actual academics, grad students, and people who are working in the marine sciences. As frustration levels rose reading some of the comments of local “interested parties” regarding the Ocearch study, I remembered a remarkably similar controversy that was raised and largely resolved on the SFS blog over a year ago. It even had a similar group of protagonists.

The cause of the controversy was this still photograph, showing a great white shark in the Farallon Islands off California before it was tagged by the Shark Men under the leadership of Dr Michael Domeier (who is not involved in the current Ocearch study in South Africa), and one year later – looking decidedly the worse for wear:

Junior the great white shark
Junior the great white shark

You can read the article about this photograph, and the concerns it raised, here. Refreshingly, one of the writers of the SFS blog pursued this issue, gained access to the full video from which this still was taken, and in this article lays the issue to rest (Junior was bitten by another shark – by no means an unusual event if you’re a shark).

The comment sections on both articles are both informative and depressing, and many well-known (and notorious) names pop up over and over. It seems that my rant about do-nothing “shark activists” could be applied to some fame-seekers (with an ostensibly more scientific bent) on the other side of the Atlantic, too. We’ve seen many of the names that appear in the comments on these two blog posts show up in discussions of the local Ocearch work, trying to tear down the research and the individuals involved. The infighting, rivalry and the number of bizarre personal vendettas that appears to exist among individuals who should only have the welfare of the creatures they study or strive to protect is quite alarming.

This is a very good antidote to all of the petty back and forth. And this is a surprising and rational take on the issue from a very interested group of water users who will benefit hugely from the research – the Fish Hoek Surf Lifesaving Club.

Article: Wired on Sealand

I’ve been trying to find this Wired magazine article for a while – I first read it years ago. Sealand is a World War II anti-aircraft platform (or “sea fort”) in the North Sea, 10 kilometres off the coast of Great Britain. It was established as an independent nation (with its own passports and coinage) nearly 50 years ago by the Bates family, but is not recognised as such by any other sovereign state.

The article describes the establishment of HavenCo in late 2000, an offshore data haven (basically a location equipped with massive computing power and internet connectivity that would host websites whose content is illegal in certain jurisdictions – such as online gambling sites and the website for the Tibetan nation, which for obvious reasons can’t be hosted in China). HavenCo ceased operation in 2008, but the state of Sealand still exists (albeit in a much diminished state).

There’s something incredibly romantic about a private island – granted this isn’t the kind of island Richard Branson spends the summers on, but the brisk sales of Sealand merchandise (including titles such as Baron and Baroness) indicates that I’m not alone in being slightly bewitched by this idea.

The website for Sealand can be found here. There’s a bit about whether Sealand really is a sovereign state in this article.

Click here to read the Wired article.

If this kind of thing interests you, I’d strongly recommend Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon (available here for Kindle and here if you’re not in South Africa). Most of the time it’s my favourite book in the whole world.

Article: How Stuff Works on sharks

Here’s a link to the article on sharks. In case you need some light reading! If you’re in the mood, you can also check out these links, from the same website:

Article: How stuff works on marine mammals and more

Here’s some more goodness from… This time something on marine mammals:

And some other marine creatures:

Finally, some links on moving about in the ocean…

Article: Wired on escaping from a submarine

Ever wondered whether submariners can escape when their vessel floods, catches on fire, or needs to be ditched for some other reason?, source of many nifty nuggets of joy, has a diagram and a video of a training facility located in the United States, for submariners to practice escaping their submarines. Check out the article here.

The dude is yelling in the video to release air from his lungs, thus avoiding a lung over-expansion injury. It’s the same reason you exhale when doing a CESA, as a scuba diver.

Article: How Stuff Works on shark species is a great website with tons of information about anything you’ve ever wondered about. Here’s their take on great white sharks. There’s a good list of sources at the end.

How Stuff Works also has good articles on other shark species:

Article: Wired on ancient sharks

Wired magazine features a research paper on a prehistoric shark, Ptychodus mortoni, which was up to 11 metres long and had flattened teeth, much like those of sting rays, suitable for crushing hard-shelled creatures. Its size makes it comparable to modern basking sharks and whale sharks, and one of the largest shellfish eaters ever.

Read the full article here.