Bookshelf: Watching Whales & Dolphins in Southern Africa

Watching Whales & Dolphins in Southern Africa – Noel & Belinda Ashton

Watching Whales & Dolphins in Southern Africa
Watching Whales & Dolphins in Southern Africa

This is an enormously useful book for local whale watchers, and provides details on the life history and characteristics of the cetaceans found in Southern Africa’s waters. The text is illustrated by beautiful paintings and photographs showing the animals in full from various angles, including what you’d see if they were on the surface of the sea or about to sound.

Noel Ashton is an artist, sculptor and conservationist, whose sculptural work can be seen in the foyer of the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town. Nature writer and designer Belinda Ashton has co-authored several books with him.  The Ashtons also provided the whale and dolphin identification posters upstairs between the Predator Exhibit and the Kelp Forest tank. Their love for the natural world is evident in the beautiful illustrations and careful attention to detail in this book.

There is a history of whaling in South Africa, but fortunately there is now a yearly strong recovery in whale numbers and an appreciation of the economic value of whales alive rather than dead. There are incredible whale watching opportunities all around South Africa’s coast, including world-class shore-based viewing from Cape Town to De Hoop via Hermanus and De Kelders. There is boat-based whale watching out of Cape Town and from Gansbaai, Hermanus, Knysna, Plettenberg Bay, Durban, St Lucia, and other locations in between. For those who do not remember whaling, it is easy to become blasé about this embarrassment of cetacean riches, but it makes us, as South Africans, extremely privileged indeed.

For ocean lovers, this book is as indispensable as a bird book to a twitcher. It is highly recommended.

You can get a copy of the book here (South Africa) or here.

The current form of the KZN Sharks Board

This is the third post in a (long, sorry) series about the KwaZulu Natal Sharks Board. You can read the first post – in which I explain why I’m interested in the Sharks Board and what we know about it – here, and the follow up, describing its history and formal establishment, here.

The KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board Act (No. 5 of 2008) repealed previous legislation pertaining to the Sharks Board. Its aim:

To provide for the establishment of the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board; to determine the objectives, powers, duties and functions of the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board; to determine the manner in which the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board is to be managed, governed, staffed and financed; and to provide for matters incidental thereto.

The act applies to “the control of shark safety devices in the sea, sea shore and sea-bed of the Province.” It repeals the 1964 Natal Provincial Ordinance that established the Sharks Board and which I wrote about in the previous post in this series. It is broadly similar to the 1964 Provincial Ordinance in many respects, so I will primarily highlight the differences between the two pieces of legislation (as far as my amateur legal eagle brain can discern them). Want to read the entire 2008 act for yourself? Download it here.

Curious cowshark
Curious cowshark

Powers, duties and functions of the board (Section 5)

This section is divided into things the Board “must” do (5.1) and what it “may” do (5.2). In many respects, including the section number, it is very similar to the 1964 Provincial Ordinance.

Must

The primary difference between what the Board is mandated to do by the 2008 act, but not by the 1964 Provincial Ordinance, is to

(b) endeavour to introduce schemes [bather protection gear] that

  1. will reduce negative impact on all biodiversity; and
  2. will enhance the survival of caught sharks and other marine animals;

(c) undertake research in order to –

  1. consider and determine the feasibility of applying new or known methods of protection against shark attacks; and
  2. determine any environmental impact arising from the implementation of any schemes or any methods of protection against shark attacks

There is nothing in the 1964 Provincial Ordinance suggesting any concern for the environmental impact of the Sharks Board’s activities. In this respect, the 2008 act is an improvement and perhaps reflective of increased environmental awareness that, some have contended, can be traced back to the “save the whales” campaigns of the 1980s.

The Board is to consider research and recommendations related to bather protection, and to take “reasonable steps” to raise awareness among bathers of the methods used to protect them, and of safety precautions that the bathers must adhere to. The Board is to make itself available to municipalities which are obliged to perform functions in connection with the ocean and the shore, inland waters, and emergency and lifesaving services. The Board may also assist municipalities with scientific research and studies.

A very important part of the act, which again differs from the 1964 Provincial Ordinance, states that the Sharks Board must,

in exercising its powers and performing its duties in terms of this Act –

  1. promote biodiversity and ecological integrity by striving to avoid, mitigate and reduce any negative environmental impact;
  2. do anything in its power to promote the sustainability of marine life;
  3. endeavour to use all dead sharks and other marine animals caught by the schemes implemented in terms of this Act, for scientific research

The Board is to, “where possible, release all live marine animals, including sharks, caught or affected by” the gear, and to keep accurate records of these animals.

May

The Board may liaise with any relevant institution regarding environmental matters, tourism and economic development in KZN. The Board may consult with any organ of state, organisation, institution, body or committee about any matter related to bather protection.

There are sections permitting the Board to enter into agreements, purchase/lease/hire equipment and property, dispose of worn out or useless equipment (with certain caveats). The Board may also acquire and dispose of interests in companies, partnerships and the like, subject to MEC approval, as well as enter into joint ventures. It may also register patents and trademarks, and buy and sell these at will. This may be important in the future, if the Sharks Board develops a non-lethal (or less lethal) novel method of shark mitigation.

The Board is permitted to “raise funds by any lawful means” including via acceptance of donations, bequests and sponsorships. Funds may also be in the form of “revenue derived from tourism levies and the use of permits”, and similar sources. The Board is permitted to charge fees for provision of services, as well as for “entrance into an exhibition or display of shark control resources by the Board”. This it does do.

Powers of the Sharks Board (Section 6)

This section enables the Board to develop and maintain bather protection equipment “as it deems necessary and practicable” for the safety of bathers. As in the 1964 Provincial Ordinance, the Board is empowered to go over the head of a municipality with which it cannot reach an agreement regarding the nature of the equipment to be used, or the basis on which the municipality is to remunerate the Board.

Composition, Functioning and CEO of the Board (Sections 7-21)

These sections beef up the content of the 1964 Provincial Ordinance but don’t really contain anything particularly interesting. They describe the members of the board, and what qualifications and experience they must collectively embody (someone on the Board must know about marine conservation, someone must be from the tourism sector, someone from a conservation NGO, and so on). The frequency of meetings and procedures for the board’s functioning appear in these sections, too.

Funding of the Sharks Board and Financial Matters (Sections 22-25)

This section is interesting, particularly in light of the information in this link to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation website. Until at least 1999, and probably a few years after that, the Sharks Board was supplementing its funding through the sale of curios manufactured from shark products. I see this is as a classic example of moral hazard, although I may be stretching the definition a little! (The usual example given of a moral hazard would be if an insurance company let you take out fire insurance on your neighbour’s house. This might create an incentive, if you didn’t have strong moral fibre, for you to burn down his property and collect an insurance payout. Here, substitute “sell shark products” for “take out fire insurance”, and “catch more sharks” for “burn down his property” to see what position this places the Sharks Board in.)

According to the 2008 act, the Sharks Board obtains funding from the Provincial Legislature, donations, income (for example from tours of its facility and curio sales), interest on investments by the Board, and fees received for provision of shark control services. It is explicitly stated that souvenirs and curios sold by the Board may “not contain any dead sharks or other marine animals, or part thereof, caught by the schemes implemented in terms of this Act.”

This ensures that the Sharks Board is not given an incentive (see how I avoided using the word “incentivised”?) to catch and kill marine life and removes a potential conflict of interest, between preserving marine life and making money from selling dead marine life. That is why this proposal met with such an outcry.

Dissolving the Sharks Board

Sections 26-34 cover general provisions. Section 29 states that “the Board may only be dissolved in terms of an Act of the Provincial Legislature.” Section 35 repeals the Natal Sharks Board Ordinance (No. 10 of 1964). Section 36 provides continuity between the Board established under that Ordinance, and by this Act. Section 37 states the short name of this act, which is the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board Act, 2008.

In conclusion

Thank you for following along with this exercise in understanding the Sharks Board, its structure, and its obligations. One of the most important things that I have learned from diving (ahem) into the legislation and annual reports of the KwaZulu Natal Sharks Board is that it is a legally constituted body, and for its function to change appreciably, or for it to cease operation (which would probably compromise bather safety in KwaZulu Natal), it would have to be legally dissolved. This fact should inform the approach that we take as concerned ocean people when it comes to directing energy towards protests, engagement with interested and affected parties, and other actions to reduce the shark fishing activity that the Sharks Board currently engages in.

My own half-formed view is that it may be productive to try to find ways to support the Sharks Board in its efforts to develop non-lethal shark repellents. An example of how you could be helpful in this regard would be writing to the City of Cape Town and DAFF in support of using Fish Hoek beach as the location for any future trials of the Sharks Board’s electrical shark repellent cable. Fish Hoek beach is far sharkier than Glencairn, and would provide conclusive results regarding the effectiveness of the cable far quicker than Glencairn has (the Glencairn test was largely inconclusive because no white sharks came by). It was excluded as a trial location because DAFF was concerned that the catches of the beach seine (trek) fishermen who operate in the area would be affected by the cable.

Another idea for how you can make a difference would be to engage directly, in a mature manner, with municipalities along the KZN coast to encourage them to reduce their dependence on Sharks Board gear. An example of such an engagement by Sharklife, which was reasoned, practical, data-driven and ultimately a success (and for which many will claim credit) can be found here. These things take time, effort and persistence, and results are incremental rather than spectacularly immediate.

If you have any other ideas as to how a citizen activist – thinking like David Helvarg – could have an impact here, I’d love to hear them.

(A different question, which each person must answer for themselves, is whether this is the area in which one can have the most impact, as a local activist – is it the best use of your energy and ability to make a difference for the ocean? You should read Saved By the Sea, or at least look up the Blue Frontier Campaign, which is explained a bit better on its wikipedia page than on its website, if this seems like a stupid thing to ask.)

The origins of the KwaZulu Natal Sharks Board

This is the second post in a series of three about the KZN Sharks Board.

With increased use of Durban and South Coast beaches after the Second World War – numbers of swimmers and surfers increased exponentially – the incidence of shark attacks rose to the extent that, already in the 1940s, newspaper articles discussed possible “anti-shark” measures. Four shark attacks occurred in December 1957 (known as “Black December” by Durbanites), and by April 1958 a further three had occurred. Five of the seven attacks were fatal, and they occurred at the beach during summer – a crowded, public space. In the same way that the early 21st century shark incidents at Fish Hoek beach could be described as a “public trauma”, these attacks traumatised both Durban locals and holidaymakers from South Africa’s inland provinces.

The history of anti-shark measures and shark research in KwaZulu Natal is traced in detail in this Masters thesis by Melissa van Oordt, which, if you have an interest in the subject, I recommend you download and read. Van Oordt argues that myths about sharks, developed in the minds of the public following shark bite incidents along the Natal coast and fuelled by the media, drove the formation of the Sharks Board and the installation of the bather safety gear along the KZN coast. Sharks were characterised as “rogue”, “man eater” and “brute” – and the language used to describe them shaped the response.

The first nets were deployed in 1952 off Durban’s beaches by an organisation called the Durban Beach Committee, following the lead of  New South Wales in Australia (nets were set there in 1937). After 1964 the beaches on the South Coast were also netted. Other measures, such as helicopter patrols and setting off depth charges, were experimented with, but were found to be ineffective, too expensive and/or too destructive to other marine life.

(It is also worth mentioning that already in 1958 measures such as electrical and chemical shark repellents and mechanical barriers were under discussion. In 1968 -69 development of an electrical shark barrier had made such good progress that full-scale testing at a Natal beach was anticipated “in the near future” [van Oordt page 113]. It has taken over half a century for these ideas to begin to come to fruition, and there is still some way to go.)

Establishment of the Natal Anti-Shark Measures Board

In 1964 the Natal Anti-Shark Measures Board was legally constituted by Natal Provincial Ordinance No. 10, which is freely available from the National Library (this is where I got my copy). The board was formed as a body corporate, which meant among other things that it could “sue and be sued.” Its functions and duties included:

  • taking advice from, considering findings of, consulting with and calling upon scientific and technical research bodies or individuals on the subject of “bather protection against shark attacks”; and
  • considering existing and proposed bather protection schemes to determine their effectiveness, and improving or supplementing them where necessary.

Local government authorities would provide the Anti-Shark Measures Board with estimated expenditure figures for anti-shark measures, as well as plans for any “actual or proposed anti-shark scheme” to which the expenditure figures related. The Sharks Board would vet the schemes proposed by the municipalities, suggest improvements, and approve expenditure for the anti-shark measures. Approved bather protection schemes would be subsidised by the board by at least ten percent of the municipal expenditure.

The Sharks Board was also authorised in the 1964 ordinance to install bather protection schemes on parts of the coast that were not under the jurisdiction of a local authority, and where agreement could not be reached with a local authority regarding the nature of a bather protection scheme, the board was able to go ahead and install shark safety gear, and recover some or all of the costs of doing so from the municipality concerned. This is quite a significant power – I would be curious to know whether it has ever been exercised.

The Sharks Board’s source of funding was declared to be “donations and bequests received by it”, as well as funds “appropriated by the Provincial Council for the purpose” – in other words, funds distributed to the Sharks Board by the Natal provincial government.

The Sharks Board was thus established legally, with most of its funding coming from the Natal provincial government. It had fairly broad powers in terms of installing bather protection gear along the Natal coastline, and no particular prohibitions on what it could and could not engage in.

Changing attitudes

White shark making another pass
White shark in False Bay

Van Oordt describes how, in the 1980s, the Sharks Board began releasing live sharks caught in the nets, reflecting a changing view of sharks, and the environment in general, that had begun to emerge among scientists and the general public. In 1991, in a further concrete indication of changing attitudes to sharks, great white sharks were legally protected in South African waters, making it illegal to catch or kill them unless authorised by the Department of Environmental Affairs.

Until fairly recently (at least until 1998 and possibly 2003) it was the case that:

The NSB sells certain shark products to defray expenses. Income from such sales is small relative to total expenditures. Products sold from the Board’s curio shop include shark teeth – sold either loose or with a jump ring for attachment to a jewellery chain – and entire jaw preparations. In addition, dried fins are stockpiled and sold, usually annually. Initially sales of fins were to local exporters by a tender process but the NSB is now investigating direct export. Fins and teeth from great white sharks Carcharodon carcharias are not sold because the species is locally protected. The meat from netted sharks is generally not sufficiently fresh for human consumption. Experimental inclusion of the meat in animal feed has been unsuccessful. [Source]

As we will see in the following post, such sales of shark products were forbidden by an act of 2008 which superseded the 1964 ordinance that established the Sharks Board. This, too, could be an indication of changing attitudes towards sharks and shark conservation in South Africa.

Fact finding about the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board

The KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board (KZNSB) is frequently discussed, and often vilified, among ocean-loving South Africans. Rumour abounds; whole websites, devoted entirely to inaccurate speculation, exist. When the Sharks Board tested a shark repellent cable in the waters of Cape Town, starting in late 2014, I was frustrated by my lack of knowledge about how the KZNSB is structured, who funds it, and who mandates it to do what it does. Understanding these aspects of the Sharks Board’s operations could surely assist with moving towards a future where, if the Sharks Board still exists, it uses primarily non-lethal shark mitigation measures. (Unfortunately, no scalable measures suitable for the KZN coastline exist yet.)

Many people are concerned by declining shark populations, but many people are also concerned about their safety when they go for a surf or a swim. These groups overlap, but not wholly. The ideal shark mitigation measure combines bather safety with shark conservation. Examples exist, but they are rare. Cape Town’s Shark Spotters do an excellent job of striking a balance between safety and conservation, but what many commentators – who advocate deploying shark spotters at sharky beaches the world over – do not admit (or realise) is that Shark Spotters works because in Cape Town we have elevated ground close to the ocean, and great white sharks that spend a lot of time swimming on the surface when they are inshore. Take away one of those two crucial elements, and an already tricky job becomes exponentially more challenging.

What the KZNSB does

The KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board protects bathers in KZN with what are essentially fishing measures: 23.7 kilometres of gill nets and 79 drum lines are installed along 38 beaches in the province. These nets and drum lines catch sharks and other marine creatures. The nets are checked by Sharks Board employees, and live sharks (and other animals) are released. Sharks that don’t survive are used for a variety of research – the Southern African Shark and Ray Symposium in September featured at least six presentations based on samples and data obtained from the Sharks Board.

While it is legal (read carefully – I am not condoning the practice) for the Sharks Board to remove sharks from the ocean, it is no longer considered ethical for scientists who wish to study sharks to use lethal sampling methods – to go out and shoot a shark so that they can study its stomach contents, for example. This practice would also be illegal for sharks that are protected, such as great whites in South Africa (the Sharks Board is permitted to catch them, however). There is much about shark biology that can be learned from a dead shark – for example an understanding of its reproductive systems, its position in the food web, its diet, samples to determine genetic inter-relatedness of populations, and age and growth data can all be gleaned from a necropsy. Perversely, much of the scientific output obtained from these avenues of research is useful for shark conservation and management planning. This is why, when a shark washes up dead or is accidentally caught in the Western Cape, scientists are keen to learn as much as possible from a dissection.

The website of the KZNSB describes a number of measures that the Sharks Board has taken to reduce its catches of species other than sharks. In particular, entanglement of cetaceans such as dolphins and baby whales is (apart from the environmental impact and sheer wastefulness) a highly emotive issue and a public relations nightmare for the Sharks Board and they actively seek to mitigate this kind of by-catch. In 2014, only about 40% of “non-target species” caught in the nets were released alive (no whales were killed).

How does the KSNZB, an organisation whose activities have a potentially significant impact on shark populations, fit in with broader initiatives to take better care of South Africa’s sharks?

Shark Biodiversity Management Plan

Puffadder shyshark at Long Beach
Puffadder shyshark at Long Beach

In March of this year, South Africa’s Shark Biodiversity Management Plan was published by the Department of Environmental Affairs. It is a remarkable document and represents the culmination (and the beginning) of a great deal of work by a great many people. It deserves (and will hopefully get) a more detailed examination than this, but I have isolated the sections that pertain to the KZNSB because they shed light on how the KZNSB is characterised by the government, and on the pressures it is under.

In the South African Shark Biodiversity Management Plan on pages 13-14, the KZNSB is listed as an organisation that “actively support[s] the management and conservation of sharks”.

On page 29 the KZNSB is listed as a responsible party under part of the Biodiversity Management Action Plan, with things to do in order to effect conservation of sharks in South African waters. The KZNSB is to “research and implement methods mitigating by-catch (e.g. drum lines)”, high priority, to start within a year of March 2015 and to be completed within five years; and to “investigate alternatives to shark fishing systems”, with the same priority and timeline. We know that the KZNSB has been actively testing alternatives to nets and drum lines – their shark repellent cable test in Cape Town’s waters is a case in point.

Page 25 states that the KZNSB is “cognisant of the need to minimise the environmental impact on biodiversity, while striving to improve/evaluate methods that have a lower environmental cost.”

The piece of legislation (more on this later) that establishes the Sharks Board mandates the sharks board to consider alternative mitigation methods, to reduce environmental impact, and “enhance the survival of caught sharks and other marine animals.” The particular section of the act defining the Sharks Board’s mandate is quoted in the KZNSB 2014 Annual Report (pdf). The report also suggests (on page 23) that pressure from environmental groups is providing an additional impetus to the development of other bather protection strategies.

All this underscores the fact that the Sharks Board is expected to find alternative (non-lethal) shark mitigation methods, and is legally mandated to attempt to do so.

National Plan of Action for Sharks

The South African National Plan of Action for Sharks (NPOA) sets goals for the implementation of measures towards ecologically and economically sustainable shark fisheries, and aims to improve conservation and management of sharks found in South African waters. The KZNSB is mentioned on page 13 of the NPOA document, as a “directed shark fishery”, with a reminder that

In terms of the provincial KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board Act, 2008 (Act 5 of 2008), the KZNSB is required to endeavour to introduce schemes that will reduce negative impact on all biodiversity. In addressing biodiversity issues the KZNSB has already reduced the number of nets, introduced drum lines, and has removed shark fishing gear during the annual winter sardine run.

The Sharks Board is thus recognised in its capacity as a shark fishery in the NPOA document and mandated to conduct itself as described above (a broad requirement), as well as a potentially important player in the conservation of South Africa’s sharks in the Shark Biodiversity Management Plan.

Concerns

On page 23 of the KZNSB 2014 Annual Report (pdf), it is noted that one of the “challenges” facing the Sharks Board is that “other organisations are also developing environmentally-sensitive shark repellent technologies which may compete with that being developed by KZNSB.” I don’t know how exactly to read this, but it seems that the Sharks Board is concerned that if another entity were to develop a shark mitigation technology that doesn’t kill sharks, this would be a bad thing for the KZNSB. I can only infer that this refers either to potential lost profits from licencing a KZNSB-developed product, or to costs that the KZNSB would potentially incur should they be forced to implement an environmentally friendly shark mitigation technolgy developed by someone else.

Either way, it establishes a strong financial motive – at least at top management level – behind efforts to develop non-lethal shark repellent strategies. While this impurity of motive may not warm your environmentalist’s heart, a quick scan of the KZNSB annual reports should convince you that it is more analogous to a corporation than to an environmental organisation or charity and it should be expected to operate as such. Individual motivations of staff and researchers within the Sharks Board may well be related to shark conservation, but the organisation as a whole must remain financially viable.

A news report in November 2014, to which I have not been able to find a follow up, quoted the KZNSB CEO as suggesting that the Sharks Board be able to sell shark meat, fins, and other curios manufactured from shark products (such as teeth) in order to raise funds. The difficulty with this suggestion – which is expressly forbidden in the 2008 KwaZulu Natal Sharks Board Act – is that it could create an incentive not to release live sharks caught in the nets, or for the Sharks Board to deliberately harvest sharks in order to turn a profit.

In summary

What I hope I have provided is an overview of some facts about the Sharks Board that can be obtained from publicly available sources, all of which I have linked to in the text. I will do two follow up posts in which I will look at the origins of the Sharks Board and the legislation (from 1964 and 2008) that gives it its mandate and legal structure. Do ways exist in which concerned, rational, ocean loving citizens can work to create a future in which the South African coastline is free of nets and drum lines? What kind of things should we support in order to make the whole of South Africa – and not just Cape Town – a world leader in shark mitigation techniques?

At the very least an understanding of the entity that is the Sharks Board may assist in determining whether a particular form of activism or protest about its activities is likely to have any effect. And if a form of protest is not going to be ineffective, regardless of the passion and enthusiasm behind it, those energies could be better spent on one of the many other threats to the marine environment.

 

Bookshelf: The Reef Guide

The Reef Guide: East & South Coasts of Southern Africa – Dennis King & Valda Fraser

The Reef Guide
The Reef Guide

It was with extreme joy that I discovered this book. I brought it home and placed it on the table in front of Tony with an air of insufferable smugness and satisfaction – the same attitude he displays when he’s done something cool to the boat or his car. This book is excellent news for warm water divers, even part-time ones like us.

It’s a combination of Reef Fishes and Corals by Dennis King, and More Reef Fishes and Nudibranchs, by King and Valda Fraser, as well as a lot of additional material. It covers the south east and north coast of South Africa, so will be indispensible for trips to Sodwana and Durban. It also applies to Mauritius, Reunion, the Seychelles, the Comores and the Maldives. So I’ll have it with me for our 2016 Maldives live aboard trip… Diarise!

I’ve always travelled to Sodwana and Durban with my copies of Reef Fishes and Corals and More Reef Fishes and Nudibranchs, but if I must be honest I find it very hard to navigate the two books. There isn’t a clear division of species between them, so there are parrotfish (and wrasses, and rays, and so on) in both books and I’d need to check twice over to try and identify each creature I saw. This got tiring. Plus, the indices have a few incorrect page numbers in them, and if one thing is going to make me want to toss a book across the room, it’s a frustrating index. (A poorly drawn up index can render the best cookery book almost unusable, but that’s another story.)

The Reef Guide is a triumph. It covers 578 species of marine fish and 228 invertebrate species. Each creature has a beautiful photograph to identify it and brief details of appearance, behaviour and distribution. There is an index of scientific names (which is useful when travelling outside of South Africa, because common names vary widely) and common names as used locally.

There is also a glossary and a further reading section, referring the interested reader to books by local authors like Georgina Jones (A Field Guide to Marine Animals of the Cape Peninsula) and Guido Zsilavecz (Coastal Fishes of the Cape Peninsula and False Bay, Nudibranchs of the Cape Peninsula and False Bay). Some of the species in this book are found in Cape waters, but I wouldn’t use it as a primary reference. The further reading list also points to George Branch’s The Living Shores of South Africa, the invaluable Two Oceans by Branch and Griffiths, et al, Heemstra’s Coastal Fishes of South Africa, and Rudi van der Elst’s Guide to the Common Sea Fishes of Southern Africa. We are extremely fortunate to have a veritable library of marine reference books to consult as South African divers.

You can read more about The Reef Guide here.

Grab a copy here, before your next diving holiday. I’m looking forward to using it.

Bookshelf: Southern African Sea Life

Southern African Sea Life: A Guide for Young Explorers – Sophie von der Heyden

Southern African Sea Life
Southern African Sea Life

Marine biologist and geneticist Sophie von der Heyden has produced a beautiful, practical and useful book for young people wanting to know more about the life found in Southern African coastal waters. Von der Heyden provides information about the different species found on the coast, along with tips on how to spot them, and what gear to take along to the beach for a day of exploration. Care is taken to advise young fishermen how to handle fish (gently) and when to put them back in their rockpools (quickly).

The book’s many photographs were mostly provided by Guido Zsilavecz of SURG, author of two of our favourite nudibranch and local fish identification books. There are images of the marine life as well as the habitats in which it is found, both large and fine scale. The book’s design and layout are varied and colourful, which makes it a pleasure to page through and a source of inspiration for rockpool exploration.

I appreciated the book’s fair treatment of our entire coastline. It is tempting to view the coral reefs of Sodwana and Durban as more romantic and visually striking than the dense carpet of invertebrate life that characterises the Cape’s waters, but the interested explorer is rewarded in both areas. Children’s books about coral reefs are not unusual, but a book that teaches appreciation of the abundance of life along the south western Cape coast is a rare thing indeed.

You can get a copy of this book here. In a couple of years’ time it’ll be on my niece and nephew’s Christmas list!

Thank you and happy new year

Hey dive buddies! Thank you for a year of amazing dives and good friendships. Please find yourself in this selection of happy diver photos taken in 2013. I’m sorry we don’t have one from every single dive we did. We look forward to many more good dives together in 2014!

Underwater fashion show

A fashionable scarf
A fashionable scarf

Tony may not thank me for posting these photos on the internet. On the last dive we did in Durban, to Doug’s Cave and surrounds on the Blood Reef complex, we found a large piece of fabric wrapped quite tightly around the reef. We first saw it when we dived  Birthday Ledges (Ferdi, our divemaster on that dive, tried to get it off the reef, without success), and then on this particular dive we ended up at Birthday Ledges at the end of a nice drift with the current. Patrick, our Divemaster from Calypso, managed to remove it, and it was confiscated by Tony to play with at the safety stop.

It turns out there’s a lot of ways you can style bold, bright prints in autumnal hues combined with a wetsuit and a Batman hoodie.

Saluting in a skirt
Saluting in a skirt

Durban dive sites

Craig, Maurice, Tony and Christo safety stopping above the Fontao wreck
Craig, Maurice, Tony and Christo safety stopping above the Fontao wreck

Here’s a round up of the sites we dived on our trip to Durban in June 2013, and on prior trips up north:

Durban diving involves a surf launch from the beach near the harbour entrance, and a characteristically long boat ride, usually of at least 25 minutes. It’s essential to carry an SMB. We dived with Calypso and highly recommend them.

There are some nice Durban dive site summaries here, here and here.

Dive sites (Durban): Blood Reef (Doug’s Cave to Birthday Ledges)

Descending near Doug's Cave
Descending near Doug’s Cave

For our last dive we enjoyed lovely drift dive in the fashion of Sodwana. We were aiming to drop in at Doug’s Cave, which is apparently a proper cave in which ragged toothed sharks occasionally lie in repose. Because of the current we missed the cave, and instead of fighting current to get back to it, we continued along the reef at a leisurely pace.

Boxy
Boxy

I was very excited to find a sort of overhang that seemed to be a meeting place for trumpetfish. There were two or three underneath the rock, and another one hanging about on a patch of sand in front of the little cave. The dive was incredibly colourful (especially when I got my strobe to fire correctly), and Maurice and Craig helpfully found several nudibranchs, and showed them to me.

Branching soft corals
Branching soft corals

Towards the end of the dive, as we arrived at Birthday Ledges, we once again found the large piece of yellow and red fabric wrapped around part of the reef that we’d seen on our Birthday Ledges dive the previous day. Patrick, our Divemaster (and owner of Calypso) persisted, and managed to unwrap it. Tony confiscated it immediately, and put on quite a show at the safety stop. We’d had a long dive on the Coopers light wreck a couple of hours prior, so we were out of time before we knew it.

Raggy scorpionfish in repose
Raggy scorpionfish in repose

I thought the Blood Reef complex was amazing, with a lot to see. It’s suitable for drift dives in either direction, depending where the current is going (north-south or south-north), and if there’s no current, that’s also fine. It’s a fairly long boat ride by Cape Town or Sodwana standards (if you’re diving Two Mile), but you’re close to shore.

Dive date: 20 June 2013

Air temperature: 23 degrees

Water temperature: 22 degrees

Maximum depth: 20.1 metres

Visibility: 20 metres

Dive duration: 48 minutes

Draping the sarong
Draping the sarong