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.

Home testing of the SharkShield

One of the joys of having a manoeuvreable, user-friendly little boat is the opportunities that arise to participate in a variety of  interesting events. Lately, we have been doing a number of open water swims; not swimming, but providing boat support to a swimmer who is traversing a stretch of open ocean. Last year we did the Swim for Hope around Cape Point, and the Freedom Swim from Robben Island to Big Bay, and several more of the same in 2015.

We used SharkShields at the Swim for Hope events, and with the increasing number of swims that Tony has been supporting we thought it might be time to invest in a SharkShield for use in these events. The SharkShield is a portable device designed to be worn by a surfer, free diver or scuba diver. It has a long antenna which emits an electric current which is intended to repel sharks. When used for open water swimming, the SharkShield is typically attached to the side of the boat with the antenna in the water alongside, creating a radius of 3-5 metres within which the current can be felt by a shark. If you touch the end of the antenna there is a noticeable pinching sensation, so swimmers have to be careful when approaching the boat.

Tony testing some SharkShields in the pool
Tony testing some SharkShields in the pool

Proper scientific testing of the device in Australia and South Africa indicates that it is by no means foolproof, and does not work in all situations, but it seems to have a certain usefulness if your visiting white shark is in the right frame of mind. The paper reporting the results of the SharkShield tests says:

Our study assessed the behavioural effects of the electric field produced by the Shark Shield Freedom7™. The study was performed in two locations and tested two distinct approach and behavioural situations to assess whether the response to the Shark Shield™ was consistent across behaviours. The electric field did not affect the proportion of static baits consumed, but significantly decreased the number of breaches, and surface interactions on a towed seal decoy.

The authors suggest that since breaching requires significant energy outlay, sharks may be more cautious to mount a breaching attack in the presence of anything out of the ordinary (I’m paraphrasing). Even with knowledge of the device’s usefulness only in certain situations, it still provides great peace of mind to swimmers while they swim in parts of the ocean where sharks are known to be mobile, such as False Bay.

The Freedom7 unit outside its neoprene case
The Freedom7 SharkShield unit outside its neoprene case

Tony was able to examine and test several lightly- to well-used Freedom7 SharkShields to see which of them worked, and what the battery life was like. In the process he shocked himself several times, which provided great entertainment to me and caused some consternation to the cats, who were themselves strolling around alarmingly close to the antennae. The unit itself is filled with something that looks like glycerin, to keep it pressurised and protect the electronics. The red switch at right turns the device on and off, and red and green lights indicate whether it’s on, charged, and functioning. A wet hand applied to the end of the antenna also gives information on whether the device is functioning…

The shark repellent cable that was tested at Glencairn this summer is a massively scaled up version of these retail SharkShields. It is essential that development and testing of non-lethal shark mitigation devices continues, to provide an alternative to measures such as the KwaZulu Natal shark nets, and the French government’s shark fishing activities at Reunion in response to multiple shark bite incidents at the island.

A Day on the Bay: Looking for whales

Date: 27 October 2014

Ready to roll on the slipway
Ready to roll on the slipway

One day in October last year (there are no acceptable excuses for the delay posting this, so we’ll just leave it at that), Seahorse and her skipper were chartered by a multi-disciplinary team who are working on a project called Sea-Change. If you’ve visited the Sea Point promenade recently, you might have seen a beautiful array of mini-billboards featuring photographs of sevengill cowsharks, kelp forests, and other marine life, including recreations of how early humans may have interacted with the marine environment in the Cape.

Misty morning
Misty morning

The Sea-Change team wanted to find a co-operative whale to swim with and film, being in possession of the necessary permits (many pages of paperwork). It was late in the season for whales in False Bay, and we spent a morning looking for them without any luck. Reports of whales on the Atlantic seaboard led us to Hout Bay about a week later.

Leaping seals
Leaping seals

It was a misty day, and we went as far north as Clifton without seeing any whales. We did see a large sunfish and lots of seabirds (including rows of terns perching on pieces of kelp), and we spent some time at the seal colony at Duiker Island, where the team spent over an hour in the water… without wetsuits! Just as we were about to call it a day we spotted a whale at the entrance to Hout Bay – it may have been there the whole time but the mist was too thick for it to be seen. Unfortunately it didn’t want its picture taken, so we had to call off the search for another day.

Check out the Sea-Change website for more information on the project. There’s also a just-published feature about the project in Africa Geographic that I highly recommend you check out.

Urgent call to action on the future of seal diving and snorkeling in South Africa

Seal at the slipway
Seal at the slipway

Proposed changes to the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act (no. 10 of 2004) will limit scuba divers’ and snorkelers access to Cape fur seal colonies. The proposal was brought to our attention by Georgina Jones (for which we thank her!). Unfortunately the timeline for comments is extremely limited: we must submit written responses to the proposal by 30 April, which is this coming Thursday.

Proposed legislative changes with respect to Cape fur seals

The primary change that will affect us as scuba divers and snorkelers is that we will no longer be allowed within 30 metres of a Cape fur seal colony. This will mean that we cannot approach the colonies at Duiker Island in Hout Bay and at Partridge Point in False Bay. Furthermore, it may mean that we cannot even drive the boat through the gap between Duiker Island and the mainland. Boat routing around the Partridge Point colony will also be affected. Fortunately we don’t do any recreational diving around Seal Island in False Bay, so we don’t need to worry about that!

The Government Gazette outlining the changes is long (288 pages) and you can download it in its entirety here, but I have snipped out the relevant sections. The first is the definition of “harrassment” from page 88, which in point (f) relates to all seal species and states that one may not “approach a colony closer than 30 metres”.

Definition of harrassment
Definition of harrassment (click to enlarge)

The second relevant section is on pages 260-261 as they specifically apply to Cape fur seals. Note that the second last bullet point (on the second page, page 261) prohibits “harassment” of seals, which is defined above.

Cape fur seals regulations
Cape fur seals regulations (click to enlarge)
Cape fur seals regulations continued
Cape fur seals regulations continued (click to enlarge)

Why we object to the proposed legislation

Cape fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus pusillus) are not endangered. In Namibia they are hunted, but in South Africa hunting of seals was stopped years ago. They are classified as “Least Concern” on the IUCN Redlist, which states that

Due to their large population sizes, the global Cape Fur Seal (Afro-Australian Fur Seal) population appears to be healthy, and the subspecies should both therefore be classified as Least Concern (LC).

The best place to encounter Cape fur seals is in proximity to a breeding colony (such as Duiker Island in Hout Bay) or haul out spot (such as Partridge Point in False Bay). The largest breeding colony is Seal Island in False Bay, and recreational diving and snorkeling is off limits there owing to the white shark population that feeds there, primarily in winter. Restricting access to 30 metre wide areas around these colonies will not improve the lot of the seal populations in any way.

Fishermen frequently have an adversarial relationship with seals (Shaughnessy & Kirkwood). Allowing scuba divers and snorkelers to approach seal colonies in the water enables them to observe any abuses that may be perpetrated on the seals by water users who do not appreciate the seals’ presence. It also provides a means for monitoring and reporting the impact of plastic pollution on the animals, which may be significant. Loops of plastic from bait boxes, shopping bags and from six packs of canned drinks pose a risk to these curious mammals, who get their heads or flippers stuck inside the plastic loops. This causes slow and painful damage to the animals as they grow.

There is no indication that activity by snorkelers and scuba divers causes the seals any distress or leads to harmful behaviour modification that could impact individual seals’ chances of survival (Kirkwood et al 2003). Seals are curious and friendly, and frequently and willingly approach people in the water in order to interact.

If conducted sensitively, trips allowing visitors to experience Cape fur seals have great conservation value, not only encouraging awareness of seal conservation issues, but also of species that prey on and are preyed upon by seals, and of issues of plastic pollution in the marine environment.

The monetary value of Cape fur seals as a tourism resource is also significant and contributes to South Africa’s tourism sector. In addition to snorkeling and scuba diving trips, run by a number of operators, there are seal viewing boats (which sometimes pose a significant danger to snorkelers and divers in the water, but that’s another story…) operating out of Hout Bay, which bring thousands of visitors, mostly tourists, to see the colonies each year.

As both Duiker Island and Partridge Point are located close to shore, restricting boat movements around them may force watermen to use less safe routes up and down the coastline, and force them further out to sea than they would otherwise choose to venture in order to avoid the seals.

(It is in fact not clear to me whether Partridge Point, which is a resting or haul out spot rather than a breeding colony, will fall under the proposed legislation, but Duiker Island in Hout Bay certainly will, as will Seal Island in False Bay.)

How we think seals need to be protected

A more impactful (sorry, hate that word) way to protect seals from perceived harrassment would be to enforce a Code of Conduct for seal tourism operators. This would prohibit landing of people on a seal colony by tourist operators. The use of toys such as bits of rope to attract seals in the water should also be prohibited. Teaching seals to identify human manufactured materials as playthings will only lead to more entanglement of young animals in plastic waste. Strict boat speed limits should be enforced around seal colonies and haul out spots. Finally, no bait or chum should be permitted to be used by operators, even if it is kept on the boat and trickled over the side or held inside a glove and not given to the seals.

How to submit comments

If you enjoy snorkeling and diving with seals and want to be able to share that with friends and family in the future, or have a business that profits from seal trips, or if you like to win photography competitions with pictures of seals chomping at your dome port, this means you have a vested interest in the legislation that has been proposed.

The quickest way to comment is to send an email to nmbedzi@environment.gov.za with your comments or objections. Feel free to use any or all of the ones we have listed above. Please do this now!

Contact details to submit comments
Contact details to submit comments (click to enlarge)

Operators who do white shark trips and turtle nesting tours in Sodwana should also consult the proposed changes carefully, because they may impact their operations as well.

Newsletter: Creatures of the deep

Hi divers

Weekend dives

Saturday: Aqualung Fun Day at Harbour Island

Sunday: Boat or shore dives in False Bay, to be confirmed

Simon's Town harbour looking pristine last Sunday
Simon’s Town harbour looking pristine last Sunday

We dived last weekend in False Bay. The conditions were great for being out and about on the boat, but the visibility was a little mediocre. In fact we should have just dived under the jetty in Simon’s Town, as the viz was not too bad there. The good thing is that the ocean always has a surprise ready and we were treated to the sight of a lesser spotted, light blue, teeth-chattering frozen Andre and his henchman Jesse as we brought the boat in after the first dive.

Jesse and Andre under the jetty
Jesse and Andre under the jetty

This weekend sees the first Aqualung Fun Day in Gordon’s Bay on Saturday. Our boat will be there and we are hoping for good conditions. Here’s how to get there. On Sunday we will dive from Simon’s Town but at this point it is difficult to be sure whether we will shore dive or boat dive. It is a spring tide, and low tide will be close to midday plus the wind forecast is a little hectic. If you’d like to be on standby to dive, reply to this mail or send me a text message.

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

To subscribe to receive this newsletter by email, use the form on this page!

Scuba diving parties for kids

Learning to snorkel
Learning to snorkel

Earlier this month we hosted a scuba diving birthday party in our pool, for a group of extremely excited eight year olds. It was a slightly chaotic but enormously enjoyable day! The boys first mastered the use of snorkels, making drawings on slates while submerged. We were impressed by how well they took to skin diving, and they rocketed up and down the pool like sea otters.

After that they tried out scuba gear, and we were amused by the various ways they found to enjoy themselves. One of the boys kept inflating his BCD because he liked the sound the over-pressure valve made. Another made foamy fountains of water by purging his octo in the shallows. Others seemed to feel like Jacques Cousteau as they explored the pool! We taught them how to inflate an SMB using their spare regulator, and brought out our collection of underwater cameras for them to take innumerable selfies and group portraits that they could take home with them.

Parties like this are ideal for small groups of four to six participants, as they are supervision-intensive and a small group lets each child fully enjoy their turn to try out scuba gear under the supervision of the instructor. A little bit of advance planning is recommended for the purposes of paperwork, so get in touch sooner rather than later if you think this is something your child might enjoy. We can conduct the event in your swimming pool at home if it’s less than two metres deep, or at our pool. We have conducted a similar event at the Virgin Active gym, but that requires special permission. Be warned, the scuba diving bug might bite!

Sketching on slates
Sketching on slates

The PADI Bubblemakers and Seal Team programs are designed for kids aged 8-10, and enable them to master the use of scuba gear in the swimming pool. You can read more about those programs on the PADI website. From the age of 10, children can obtain a Junior Open Water qualification, which upgrades to a full Open Water qualification when they turn 15.

I’ve carefully chosen these photos so you can’t identify the kids, hence their mixed quality! The big kid with the silver hair is Tony.

Exploring: The shark exclusion net at Fish Hoek beach

The net, with a hand for scale
The net, with a hand for scale

One Tuesday in early December, Tony escorted some members of the media – Murray Williams of the Cape Argus, and Bruce Hong of Cape Talk radio, on a dive along the inside of the shark exclusion net at Fish Hoek beach. It was just before the start of the school holidays, and since the net has been trialled multiple times by now and is working well, it’s a good time to raise awareness of the additional beach safety and – importantly – peace of mind that the net offers. I tagged along as photographer.

Over-under view of the exclusion net at Fish Hoek
Over-under view of the exclusion net at Fish Hoek

The net at Fish Hoek beach is a world first. It has a fine mesh that is highly visible underwater, and is designed not to catch anything – unlike the shark gill nets in KwaZulu Natal. The net is put out in the morning and retrieved at the end of the day, but only when sea conditions allow it. The south easterly wind can bring huge quantities of kelp into Fish Hoek bay which would foul the net, so when there is a strong south easter the net cannot be deployed.

If you’re a water person, please educate yourself on how the net works, and its intention, and share it with your friends. Even now, nine months after the trial started, I hear uninformed comments from people who have not bothered to do any reading about the net, and assume it’s the same kind of net as the ones in Durban. It’s not. The whole idea is that nothing – no sharks, no humans, no klipfish – gets hurt. Shark Spotters and the City of Cape Town have been very clear on this from the start. I had a bit of a rant about this late last year.

Murray dives down to check out the exclusion net
Murray dives down to check out the exclusion net

I digress. We went to the beach, got suited up, and went to check out the net. It was spring low tide, so at its southernmost end we were in about 2 metres of water. The net is high enough that when the tide comes in and the yellow floats rise with the water level, it simply unfurls further downwards, making an unbroken curtain. The lower portion of the net rests on the sand, with two parallel weighted lines to ensure that it lies flat. You can see that in the photo above Murray is gripping one of these leaded lines, and that there is a fairly large amount of net waiting on the sand for higher tides.

Murray and Monwa discuss the net
Murray and Monwa discuss the net

We stuck close to the net, and didn’t see much marine life on the sandy bottom. I spotted a large sand shark (when I say I “spotted” him, I mean that I almost landed on top of him). We were mutually surprised, and he zipped away into the bay, sliding neatly under the bottom of the net. I also saw a box jelly cruising along the net. Given my recent history with box jellies, I kept clear! The sea floor in the area where the net is deployed is level, sandy and free from rocks. There’s more life on the catwalk side, where beautiful rock pools wait to be snorkelled.

We were accompanied by Monwabisi Sikweyiya, who is the Field Manager of Shark Spotters. He is a hero and I always feel a bit star-struck when I see him (although he has no idea why – he probably just thinks there’s something wrong with me). He swims along the net regularly – someone does each time it is deployed, actually – to make sure that it’s released properly and hanging straight down.

After the dive
After the dive

Swimming inside the net is completely voluntary. When a shark is seen in Fish Hoek bay the Shark Spotter still sounds the siren and the flag is raised to clear the water. The Shark Spotters team are still waiting to see how a shark will respond to the net when it swims close enough to be aware of it. So far none of the local sharks have come close to the net, as the summer season when sharks move inshore has only just started. Tony was half hoping that we’d be swimming along inside the net, look out through the mesh – and blammo!  – see a great white shark. But we had no such luck, if that is the right word.

You can read the article that Murray Williams from the Argus wrote after the dive, here.

Dive date: 3 December 2013

Air temperature: 22 degrees

Water temperature:  17 degrees

Maximum depth: 2.3 metres

Visibility: 4 metres

Dive duration:  25 minutes

Newsletter: In the net

Hi divers

Weekend plans

For a change the weather looks good for the weekend. I cancelled last weekend but that was a mistake as the conditions turned out to be good (loud self inflicted slap). The wind won’t be too strong, and the swell is from the south east which means flat sea along the Atlantic seaboard. I would like to dive North and South Paw on Saturday from OPBC and possibly do a double tanker to Justin’s Caves on Sunday. Text or email me if you want to dive.

Last week’s diving

Wild wind and grumpy sea in False Bay has had us on the Atlantic coastline most of this week. We have done a few trips to Duiker Island and spent an afternoon just off Oudekraal. The water is cool and clean.

We did manage a warm(ish) dive in False Bay on Tuesday when we were fortunate to take two media people for a dive along the new shark exclusion net in Fish Hoek. It was spring low tide so we could almost have walked out to the end of the net, but the idea was to get some photos and a positive story out on the merits of the net, the work involved in deploying and retrieving it and the conservation efforts behind it all. An article appeared in yesterday’s Cape Argus – you can read it here and see some photos from the day on facebook.

Over-under view of the exclusion net at Fish Hoek
Over-under view of the exclusion net at Fish Hoek

Sevengill cowshark project

There is a huge amount of work going on to try and establish a photo ID project for the sevengill cowsharks that hang out at Shark Alley. Its a dive most people really enjoy and very little is know about their movements and habits. Please go and like the project’s facebook page and if you have anything to contribute… info, stories etc… please do so! All the information about what is required for the project can be found on the facebook page.

Pool deck at home is complete
Pool deck at home is complete

Festive season diving

Lots of public holidays and annual leave happening over the next few weeks means we will try and schedule more weekday diving than normal. I will send out text messages if I schedule dives in between newsletters – let me know if you don’t usually get texts from me (and want to), and I will add you to the sms list.

Things are looking so good at home now – we just got the pool deck finished – that I’m looking forward to spending some time doing confined water skills with my Open Water students too!

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

To subscribe to receive this newsletter by email, use the form on this page!

A Day on the Bay: Whale season

Date: 11 July 2013

With the whales at Partridge Point
With the whales at Partridge Point

The photograph above was taken by Dave Hurwitz of Simon’s Town Boat Company, the holder of the whale watching licence for False Bay. I noticed the whale watching boat coming closer and closer as I was taking a group of divers out of the water at Seal Rock, and it was only once they were in the boat that we realised that a pair of humpback whales was coming closer and closer to our position. We held our breath and enjoyed the show – it is not often that this happens!

At this time of year there are both humpback and southern right whales in the bay, but there are strict regulations about approaching them. In this case the whale approached us, and I wasn’t about to leave the divers on the surface while I was busy retrieving them!

Humpback whales
Humpback whales

This amazing experience was only one of the parts of this day, which started early and ended late after two separate charters. One was a group of Finnish tourists who snorkeled and dived with the seals at Partridge Point – they were the ones lucky enough to enjoy the spectacle of the whales.

The second charter was a group of divers who wanted to dive with the seals, and then visit the cowsharks at Shark Alley. The visibility was so good I could see the divers on the bottom. We spotted an absolutely enormous bull seal on the rocks at Seal Rock, as well as some really adorable smaller juvenile seals.

Dusky dolphins in Maori Bay

One Saturday in late October last year we went out to Maori Bay in the hope of a dive on either the SS Maori or BOS 400 wreck. Unfortunately the swell was huge and moving directly into Maori Bay, and the water was green from a developing algal bloom (but still freezing cold). We decided not to dive – the conditions just weren’t good enough.

Dolphins in Maori Bay
Dolphins in Maori Bay

While we were still in Maori Bay, discussing our options and checking out the conditions, a pod of dusky dolphins arrived from somewhere north of us, and surrounded the boat. The engines were off and all we could hear was the dolphins’ breath sounds, and the swell slapping on the sides of the boat and breaking slightly on the rocks at the edge of the bay. We sat watching the dolphins for some time. They were playful and very curious, coming close to the boat and filling the bay. There were at least 30 dolphins, perhaps as many as 50. They weren’t on their way anywhere, just milling around.

After quite a while, because the dolphins were so calm and curious, we slipped over the side of the boat to see if they’d like to take a look at us in the water. They did want to. The four of us (Tony was in his drysuit, which isn’t really suitable for snorkeling, so he stayed on the boat with skipper Mark) floated around the boat on snorkel, and the dolphins approached us repeatedly, often swimming in pairs or threes. The water wasn’t too clear so they approached as ghostly shapes in the gloom and then materialised a few metres from us. They’d look at us, and then swim by. We could hear them clicking under the water.

The conditions were far from ideal – you can see how large the swell was and how green the water in the video – but we loved spending time with these animals. They came very close, sometimes closer than arm’s length, but they didn’t touch us (and we didn’t touch them). This was a very unusual encounter. When the boys got out of the water, Odette and I stayed in for a bit, and the dolphins came even closer.

We have seen dolphins on both the False Bay and Atlantic sides of the peninsula. The pods of dolphins we’ve seen in False Bay are usually hunting or on their way somewhere (and are usually long beaked common dolphins). This was the first time I’ve seen dolphins who didn’t seem to have anything particular to do at that moment.