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.
We are in a phase of semi-decent weekday diving and dodgy weekends again. We had fairly good False Bay diving during the week, but the weekend forecast is not ideal for much beyond storm chasing. Strong winds and some significant swell topped off with a dash of rain are hardly a cocktail for diving. Northerly wind is not that great for False Bay and neither is a 5 metre swell, so best you pursue some other form of activity this weekend.
One of the guys in the Underwater Cape Town facebook group reported a sighting of a john dory at A Frame this week. These fish are striking, solitary, and seldom seen. Bizarrely for such an exotic-looking fish, they are popularly served wrapped in newsprint with a side of chips. We were lucky to spot one at Long Beach a few years ago. (Go check out the video on Underwater Cape Town for a better idea of what they look like, and keep your eyes open next time you go diving!)
Talks talks talks
This Wednesday 17th is the nautical archaeology talk I mentioned in last week’s newsletter. There’s a talk on 23 August about the health of our fish stocks by scientists Colin Atwood and Jock Currie at Bellville Underwater Club – info on facebook. If you have a UCT staff or student card, you can listen to conservation photographer Thomas Peschak speaking on 21 September – info on facebook, too.
I completed the edX-hosted Sharks! MOOC, presented by Cornell University and the University of Queensland, and it was excellent. The content was clear and for me, who stupidly quit high school biology at the age of 14 for the sake of a more classical (less useful) education, filled in a large number of gaps in my understanding of sharks and rays.
Staying with our informal theme of the last few weeks’ (admittedly sporadic) posts, let’s look at a recent article from the New York Times Magazine. Not solely focused on marine animal studies, the article explains how technology has enabled even the general public to directly observe and learn about the migrations of birds, sharks and other animals. The utility of this kind of information is obvious:
By discovering the precise routes animals take during migration, scientists can assess the threats they face, like environments altered by habitat loss and overhunting.
The article’s author is brilliant nature writer Helen MacDonald, who wrote H is for Hawk, and she goes on to muse about the meaning of the relatively few individually tagged and named animals which become icons of their species as they appear to transverse a simplified, borderless planet in solitude. (The OCEARCH sharks on their satellite map refer!) It is easy to lose sight of the rigours of the environments they move through, but easy to become invested in the future of particular individuals.
Did you pick up the July edition of National Geographic to read about great white sharks, or read the article online? (Pro tip: you should.)
The article’s author, science writer Erik Vance, contributes to a blog that I follow called The Last Word on Nothing. I was delighted to read a follow-up he posted to his National Geographic feature, explaining how scientists count sharks. At the heart of the method is a beautiful piece of statistics (a model) that allows scientists to draw conclusions about the size of a population – some of whom are tagged or marked – based on only a sample of the individuals, and what proportion of those sampled individuals is tagged.
Why is it important to know how many great white sharks (or cowsharks, or whale sharks, or or or…) there are? The most obvious answer relates to conservation: if we have a baseline population estimate, we can then determine whether it is increasing or decreasing over time. What is the status of the population? Are these animals endangered, or flourishing? Are conservation measures necessary? Are they effective?
Go and read about counting sharks here. An important thing to pay attention to when you are reading any scientific model is what the underlying assumptions are, because they will show you the circumstances under which the model will fail.
The great white shark is the ocean’s iconic fish, yet we know little about it—and much of what we think we know simply isn’t true. White sharks aren’t merciless hunters (if anything, attacks are cautious), they aren’t always loners, and they may be smarter than experts have thought. Even the 1916 Jersey Shore attacks famously mentioned in Jaws may have been perpetrated by a bull shark, not a great white.
We don’t know for sure how long they live, how many months they gestate, when they reach maturity. No one has seen great whites mate or give birth. We don’t really know how many there are or where, exactly, they spend most of their lives. Imagine that a land animal the size of a pickup truck hunted along the coasts of California, South Africa, and Australia. Scientists would know every detail of its mating habits, migrations, and behavior after observing it in zoos, research facilities, perhaps even circuses. But the rules are different underwater. Great whites appear and disappear at will, making it nearly impossible to follow them in deep water. They refuse to live behind glass—in captivity some have starved themselves or slammed their heads against walls.
The photographs are by Brian Skerry. It’s worth checking out. Read the article here, or pick up a copy of the magazine when you see it on the shelves.
And for the inveterate shark fans and those who want to pursue some further education, it’s not too late to sign up for the Shark MOOC on edX that started on 28 June. Click here to join in.
Sala’s current project is to explore and protect the last pristine marine ecosystems on the planet, and to this end he has led expeditions to comparatively untouched locations around the world. This book documents ten of those expeditions, from tropical to Arctic waters. Rich with photographs, contextualised with beautiful National Geographic-style maps, it is a delight.
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.
In BlueMind, biologist (turtle researcher)Wallace J. Nichols articulates and elaborates upon an idea you’ve probably already had all on your own: that being close to water is good for you. More precisely, Nichols is interested in what proximity to water does for our brains. In this book he presents scientific evidence for the salutary effects of water on humans, but does not shy away from anecdote. His tone is vigorously optimistic.
I don’t need to look very far to see evidence of Nichols’s hypothesis: Waves for Change teaches youngsters from violent communities in Cape Town to surf, and in the process effects an almost miraculous change in their lives. (They deserve your support.) Nichols also says that he can see a change – a warming – in people’s body language when they enter an aquarium. I spend enough time at the Two Oceans Aquarium that I should have an opinion on this, but I don’t, so I need to look more closely.
I admit that this book is on the fringe of what I would usually read – it is what I would usually dismiss as touchy-feely pop psychology – but I do think Nichols is on to something (and here I am in very excellent company). He holds a Blue Mind Summit every year, bringing together neuroscientists, artists and conservationists to discuss the ocean and the brain, and how to use insights about water’s powers for good.