Newsletter: Making a difference

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Monday (public holiday): Leaving from  Simons Town at 9.30am and 12.00pm for Atlantis and Photographer’s Reef

We are in  a week long period of practically windless days, not quite winter temperatures and not too much of the dreaded, huge winter swells. You could choose to dive on any of the three days this weekend, or all of them, and I have picked Monday. We will launch from Simons Town at 9.30am and 12.00pm for Atlantis and Photographer’s Reef. Let me know if you’re keen to get out on (and in) False Bay.

Brydes whale showing his head
Brydes whale showing his head

Whale entanglement

It’s been a horrible week. A beautiful Brydes whale became entangled in the ropes of the experimental octopus fishery in False Bay, and drowned. Read about it here (there are some disturbing photos, so take care). In response, there’s a petition to end octopus fishing in False Bay – please sign it.

Can I also encourage you to amplify this issue outside of your usual social networks, who are probably ocean-loving people or friends of ocean lovers, and know about this already. Write an email or call the Department of Environmental Affairs, contact the provincial government, talk to your elected representatives, write to the newspaper. There are some other contact details to be found in one of the links we provided in this newsletter from 2014 that may or may not be useful – sadly this is not a new issue at all.

Beach cleanups

There’s a beach clean up in Cape Town practically every weekend, and it’s fantastic. To find out when they are, follow The Beach Co-Op (facebook / website), and Cape Town Beach Cleanup (facebook / website) to start with. Luckily South Africans are used to doing things themselves, and while the amount of trash recovered is eye-watering, it’s wonderful to see how many people are getting involved with looking after their environment.

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

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New regulations about threatened and protected marine species

I’m back from an overly lengthy blogging hiatus (sorry) to resume a function that I’ve performed once or twice in the past. Fortunately I have had octopus on my mind and had already started posting again, and so we aren’t doing a standing start.

Humpback whale on the beach
Humpback whale on the beach

I have read some legislation so you don’t have to, will try to tell you what it means, and – if necessary and possible – I will tell you how to object to it. Someone has to do it, and my mathematician’s brain actually quite likes trying to follow the logic of these documents. (Previous efforts along these lines include this one on seals, this one on new MPAs, and this one on the Tsitsikamma MPA.)

The new legislation this time is actually two documents that were published in the Government Gazette on 30 May. Before we get into these two most recent documents, however, it may be instructive to look back at the original act that they refer to.

National Environmental Management Act: Biodiversity

The act in question is the National Environmental Management Act: Biodiversity, number 10 of 2004 (pdf full text). We will call it NEMBA for short. This act is a framework which provides for the management and conservation of South Africa’s biodiversity, as well as the protection of species that require or deserve it, the fair apportionment of benefits that may arise from the country’s biological resources, and the establishment of SANBI.

The important sections of this act for us, right now, are sections 56 and 57. Section 56 empowers the Minister of Environmental Affairs to publish in the Government Gazette, from time to time (at least every five years or more often than that), a list of critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable, and protected species. A species may be protected but not endangered; a case in point is the Cape fur seal.

Section 56 of NEMBA
Section 56 of NEMBA

I am not knowledgeable enough to state confidently that the extract above is using a set of widely accepted definitions here. However, this list of definitions from (critically) endangered to vulnerable does look a lot like the IUCN categories for classifying species at risk of extinction.

The next section talks about activities involving species that fall into one of the categories defined in section 56. Provision is made here for the Minister to define activities that are “restricted”, and section 57 specifies that if an activity is restricted, a permit is required in order to perform it. The definition of restricted may vary from species to species (but I am getting ahead of myself).

Section 57 of NEMBA
Section 57 of NEMBA

Finally, section 97 of NEMBA, which is on page 40 of the PDF file I linked to above, empowers the Minister to make regulations dealing with a large number of matters, mostly permits, and threat-minimisation for threatened ecosystems.

Marine Threatened or Protected Species regulations

With that preamble, let us turn to the most recent regulations, which were made in terms of section 97 of NEMBA and pertain to threatened or protected marine species. They come in two parts. The first (pdf – all page numbers below refer to this file) is a set of regulations, mostly related to permits. This sounds very boring, but there are some interesting bits, and an important definition. Definition first:

Definition of harassment
Definition of harassment

This is a very important definition (from page 10-11) as it essentially determines what is legal and what is not in terms of the act, and one that I think is perfectly reasonable. You can still take photos of and dive with seals, turtles and most sharks. Whale sharks and basking sharks are not to be bothered up close, though.

Notice also that we now have a definition for harassment of dolphins; it has been my understanding (perhaps incorrect) that until now there has been a loophole in that there has been no legal prohibition on approaching dolphins in a boat, whereas boats must stay at a distance of 300 metres away from whales. I can think of other things I have seen boats doing with dolphins – such as corralling them by speeding in a circle at full throttle – that also seem like harassment to me, but don’t quite fit this definition. But I think this is a start. Also, no swimming with dolphins – for profit or not.

Swimming with dolphins
Swimming with dolphins

The regulations go on to state that their purpose relates to the permit system provided for in NEMBA, to registration and legislation of facilities like wildlife breeders and rehabilitators, and to the regulation of activities defined as “restricted”. The regulations also provide some further stipulations regarding boat-based whale and dolphin watching, and white shark cage diving. It is specifically stated that the regulations are to be applied in conjunction with CITES, international regulations which circumscribe international trade in wildlife (and in this way achieve protection for some species).

Page 17-18 defines restricted activities (in other words, activities which you either cannot do at all, or for which you need a permit).

Restricted activities
Restricted activities

Page 18 further clarifies that a permit is required in order to carry out a restricted activity, and the regulations go on to define various types of permit in terms of their period of validity and other criteria.

Permits required for restricted activities
Permits required for restricted activities

There is a lot more on permits, the risk assessments required before they can be issued, and criteria to consider in permit applications. (Does the applicant have a record of offences under NEMBA? Are there objections to issue of the permit? And so on.)

Page 38 mentions that in the case of a captive breeding or exhibition facility, no whales, dolphins, seals, sea birds, white sharks, basking sharks or whale sharks may be introduced from the wild. If I read this correctly, this puts paid to the restocking of dolphinariums with wild-caught animals. Also a start. If you are interested in this aspect of the regulations, I would encourage you to go through the document yourself.

There are some more good provisos aimed at the regulation of wildlife sanctuaries, but that isn’t my main area of interest here.

You may have picked up that some of the activities defined as restricted may be required actions in the event of a whale stranding, for example, or the entanglement of a seabird or turtle in fishing lines. What to do?

One must still act within the law when a stranding occurs
One must still act within the law when a stranding occurs

The regulations make specific provision for the cases in which one might need to handle, move, or even kill an animal listed as threatened or protected. Only those individuals or organisations which are in possession of a permit may perform any of these restricted activists; this largely precludes members of the public from assisting in any significant way at whale stranding, for example. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing.

Exceptional circumstances
Exceptional circumstances

Finally the regulations turn to white shark cage diving, and boat-based whale and dolphin watching. I am not sufficiently familiar with the existing regulations of these two industries to comment on what is different or new here, but it is interesting to read through the provisions for each. They seem well regulated. Free diving with white sharks is specifically forbidden. Additionally, as item (e) below states, even if an operator is in possession of a cage diving permit, this does not permit them to chum (“provision” or “attract” sharks) anywhere else.

Cage diving conditions
Cage diving conditions

List of Threatened or Protected Marine Species

The second part of the Government Gazette publication on 30 May is a list of threatened and protected animals. This list mentions fish, whales, seabirds, turtles, and even hard corals. This document (pdf – page numbers below refer to this file) has a very particular tabular layout.

How the list of species works
How the list of species works

Column 2 defines the restricted activities that are prohibited in terms of section 57 of NEMBA (see above). Column 3 provides the exceptions to that rule. [This column of the table mentions section 57(4) of NEMBA – you’ll see my extract above only goes up to (3). I suspect there’s an amendment to the act that I haven’t found that includes this item.]

There is very little variation in the list of restricted activities (column 2) across all the animals and birds; whales have the most interesting list of exempt activities (column 3), which is why we will look at them as an example. This table is from pages 138-139. Click to enlarge.

Whales (page 138-139)
Whales (page 138-139)

Column 2 of the table above defines all the things you can’t do to whales – the “restricted activities”. Column 3 lists a whole lot of terrible-sounding things that can be performed under certain exceptional conditions, in the event of a whale stranding itself on the beach, for example.

This is a good time to practise using the definitions. Notice that column 3 allows “harassing [of the stranded whale] by any Departmental official.” This does not mean that someone from Environmental Affairs is allowed to go and prod a stranded whale with a stick, or throw sand at it. We are talking about harassment in terms of the legal definition above, and this may include “disturbing” the whale, or approaching closer than 300 metres on a boat, for example.

If you’re interested to go and look, the pages of the species list pertaining to seals and their relatives is on pages 141-144. There are no special provisions to worry responsible water users, and the definition of seal harassment as shown above (approaching a colony closer than 15 metres in a boat or 5 metres as a human) is I think entirely reasonable.

Finally, here’s an extract from the permit application form. I include this to show you that all the restricted activities for which permits are required are pretty extreme, and not things that your average recreational diver would reasonably want to do.

Restricted activities permit application form extract
Restricted activities permit application form extract

This has been long, but I hope helpful. The regulations aren’t open to comment (I think I may have missed that earlier this year or last year… oops), they are final.

Energy and advocacy is best directed towards things that the diving community can have an impact on as a collective voice, and in ways that will have a chance of success. In other words, perform actions out in the real world, and align yourself with organisations that do real, scientifically informed conservation work.

I’m sure you all can think of other ideas, but I do have one suggestion regarding a species that isn’t listed here. The sevengill cowsharks that we see at Millers Point aren’t protected (they are “data deficient” on IUCN Red List). If you feel strongly about them, can I suggest as an easy first step, writing some letters (the letter in that link is out of date due to ministerial shufflings, and shark finning in South African waters is banned but this is poorly enforced – but you get the idea).

Once again here’s a link to the regulations, and here’s a link to the species list. Both are pdf files, hosted on this site in case the Government Gazette links above break one day.

 

Octopus playing the imitation game

We saw this octopus on a dive at Long Beach in March. It seemed to be imitating seaweed with its tentacles, but I’m not sure. What do you think?

If you haven’t read it yet, this article from the Daily Maverick illuminates some aspects of the until-now impenetrable octopus fishery in False Bay, while we’re on the subject of octopus. The permit-holder has been on a temporary permit for over 15 years, as the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has been rolled over the five year permit three times so far.

Whales appear to be the by-catch of this fishery – an issue that I don’t think is addressed sufficiently in the article. There is a potential human cost here, too, as the teams that disentangle whales do so at considerable risk to their own lives, and without compensation. The intelligence of octopus is not controversial, and it is interesting to examine the ethics of the fishing method specifically as it relates to this.

Newsletter: Warmer and warmer

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Friday: Shore diving at Long Beach at 10.00 am

Saturday: Launching from False Bay Yacht Club at 7.00 am for a double tank dive

The days are getting longer and the daytime temperatures are slowly creeping upwards… Well, on some days. Saturday looks like a better bet for False Bay with Hout Bay being an option on Sunday. The water colour off Dungeons has improved slightly today.

Tomorrow I am shore diving students at Long Beach at 10.00 am. On Saturday we will do an early False Bay double tank dive at 7.00 am. Let me know if you’d like to get wet.

 

DAFF octopus fishing gear
DAFF octopus fishing gear

Here’s a little bit of reading on the octopus fishery in False Bay (courtesy of Yvette!). This NSRI blog post, and the comments, are also required reading.

Coming up

As part of First Thursdays, you can attend the opening of the Birdlife Oceans of Life photographic exhibition at the South African Museum on the evening of Thursday 6 October. There’s information here (facebook) – this year’s exhibition includes a retrospective of the last few years’ best images.

Diversnight is on Saturday 7 November, so start charging your torches!

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

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Newsletter: Think again

Hi divers

Weekend diving

No dives planned

Diving has been far from spectacular of late and the weekend looks marginal again. There is a wind window on Saturday morning, but it is under pressure from a chance of rain, and a 3 metre swell with a 15 second period. Sunday looks a little too windy (again).

I don’t think that it’s going to be worthwhile to plan anything. If you choose to dive on Saturday, take your time and check out a few different spots before you decide where to get in.

Balloon offshore of Hout Bay
Balloon offshore of Hout Bay

If you’ve ever considered releasing balloons into the air at a party (or a wedding) because it looks pretty, please think again. We found this balloon far offshore near Tafelberg Reef outside Hout Bay. Unsuspecting marine life could have eaten it, or gotten tangled in the ribbon tied to it.

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!

Bookshelf: The Last Dive

The Last Dive – Bernie Chowdhury

The Last Dive
The Last Dive

The Last Dive is a number of things: a history of how cave diving techniques came to be applied to advanced wreck diving (use of lines for wreck penetration, for example), the story of the early days of mixed gas diving in the United States, the chronicle of the close-knit bands of divers who risked their lives to explore the cold, deep waters off the north Atlantic seaboard of the USA and retrieve trinkets from the many vessels wrecked there, and a biography of Chris and son Chrissy Rouse, who were involved in all of the aforementioned threads of the tale. The central subject of the book is the Rouses’ death while (or just after) diving on the German U-boat discovered by a local dive boat skipper.

I first encountered the Rouses in Robert Kurson’s book Shadow Divers, a gripping read about the efforts to identify the same mysterious German U-boat that the Rouses perished on, off the coast of the US, and Deep Descent, which describes diving on the wreck of the Andrea Doria and features many of the same divers and dive charter operators. Their relationship is (perhaps too) sympathetically portrayed by author Bernie Chowdhury, a friend of the family.

The Rouses were extremely technically proficient divers, but their downfall seems to have been their fraught and fractious relationship that was characterised by vicious bickering and name-calling that stopped only when they put regulators in their mouths to descend into a cave or onto a wreck. Chowdhury shows how their difficult (but ultimately loving) relationship led them to doing a dive (their final one) onto the U-boat when the conditions were decidely sub par. Their choice to dive to over 80 metres on air, when they were proficient in mixed gas use, as well as what seemed to be the firm conviction of Chrissy (the younger) Rouse that he was immortal, also appears to have contributed greatly to their deaths.

Both Chris and Chrissy Rouse died of DCS – Chris died in the water within minutes of surfacing, and his son Chrissy hours later in a recompression chamber. They had both ascended rapidly without any decompression stops, from a longer than planned dive to over 80 metres, having lost their stage cylinders in their disorientation after emerging from a disastrous penetration of the submarine during which Chrissy became trapped under a fallen book shelf and a self-inflating life raft.

Earlier in the book, Chowdhury describes his own experience of very serious decompression sickness, which gives great insight into how debilitating (if not fatal) the experience of being bent can be. His enumeration at the end of The Last Dive of the serious physical conditions now prevalent among divers of his generation who have persistently pushed the envelope and, in many instances, been bent and recovered, serves as a cautionary tale to those who believe that no-decompression limits are for wussies.

As I expressed in my review of Deep Descent, I strongly disapprove of the macho cowboy attitude that seems to be (have been?) disturbingly prevalent among the divers and charters of this generation (and not limited to the United States). But Chowdhury’s book is more than an ode to the glory days of artifact retrieval and experimentation with trimix. As a history of cave diving, mixed gas diving and advanced wreck diving it’s invaluable. As a diver himself, conversant with all these disciplines, Chowdhury is able to explain in simple terms concepts that would slow down someone who hasn’t done a dive course. The book is very readable despite the technical subjects covered.

Chowdhury does not conclude that the risks taken to achieve what this particular group of divers did were unreasonable, and does not overtly criticise the Rouses for the attitudes and behaviour that – I think most sensible people would agree – contributed to their deaths instead of just a scare that might have forced an adjustment to the dive plan. While he admits to having experienced times of ambivalence about diving, particularly when he describes the strain it placed on his relationship with his wife and son and the long road to rehabilitation that followed his episode of the bends, his equilibrium surprisingly undisturbed by the loss of several friends and acquaintances to the sport he loves, and his own health difficulties.

For some more perspectives on this book and the perceived accuracy of the descriptions of the events it covers, you can read this review and this discussion.

You can purchase the book here if you’re in South Africa, and here if you’re not. The Kindle edition is available here and here.

Oh, and go sign up for some DAN insurance, please?

Bookshelf: Diver Down

Diver Down: Real-World Scuba Accidents and How to Avoid Them – Michael R. Ange

Diver Down
Diver Down

This book should be compulsory reading for all careless, lazy, poorly-trained, slapdash or happy-go-lucky divers out there. In fact, for all divers.

This book is short with lots of sidebars (I don’t like these in books – they make it hard to read smoothly). Each chapter starts with an account of a diving accident (not all of them fatal). An analysis of what went wrong follows, as well as a short checklist of what you can do to avoid a similar fate.

I was at first reluctant to read this book because I thought it might scare me, but Tony devoured it and suggested I read it. It was disturbing, but didn’t give me nightmares. Michael Ange doesn’t write in a prurient or senstational manner – he just presents the facts. He has ample experience reviewing diving accidents.

Most of the time it was really simple things that caught people out, or a cascade of trivial compounding errors or problems. Often it was ego or over-confidence that led to the problems. Controlling partners or well-meaning parents who pressured their loved ones into doing things they shouldn’t also feature strongly.

The emphasis is on training, experience and common sense – every single thing you learn in your dive courses is vital. PADI and friends want to make diving fun and accessible, and they’ve pared down the manuals to be as concise and un-intimidating as possible… So EVERY SINGLE WORD counts. This is both a good thing (no scary huge textbooks) and a bad thing (you NEED to pay attention when you read and watch the DVDs and spend time with your instructor).

Dive briefings are also important. Your local Divemaster isn’t trying to dampen the mood by warning you not to surface without an SMB – he’s ensuring that you don’t end up out at sea without a signalling device, or with an unwanted Yamaha haircut. When the skipper and Divemaster speak they’re doing it out of a wealth of local (and that’s important) experience. Pay heed.

You can get a copy of the book here if you’re in South Africa, and here otherwise. If you want to read it on your Kindle, go here. If you dive, you should read it. And you should do a Rescue Diver course.

Handy hints: Kelp diving

Kate stuck in the kelp
Kate stuck in the kelp

Contrary to popular belief, nothing bad will happen to you if you get caught up in a bed or forest of kelp. It may be inconvenient, and slow you down briefly, and you may experience emotion of extreme resentment and sheepishness like those that Kate is clearly experiencing in the photo above (taken at A Frame), but you won’t drown or be trapped forever amid the slippery brown strands.

If you really have a problem with kelp, I suggest that you only dive areas with lots of kelp at high tide. You won’t have as much of a problem with a surface swim through dense kelp forests when the tide is fully covering the kelp stipes, but in a situation when the tide is low (as above), a surface swim becomes a slow and awkward proposition.

Kelp blades (the leaves) are flat and very smooth, and while you may feel that they are wrapping around you, they’re really just sliding over your wetsuit. Move slowly, don’t panic, and use your hands to keep your face clear. Lots of awesome critters live in the kelp – don’t be a hater!

Bookshelf: Shadow Divers

Shadow Divers – Robert Kurson

Shadow Divers
Shadow Divers

This book is gripping – I loved it. It describes the discovery and diving on a German U-boat in the northern Atlantic Ocean. It took over six years before the vessel was conclusively identified, and Kurson describes the process followed – including multiple dead ends – by John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, the two divers who persisted with the mystery long after others had lost interest.

It’s a mixture of terrifying deep wreck diving and penetration, WWII history, and personal drama that I found quite irresistible. Three divers died on the submarine before it was identified, and every imaginable diving accident – from entanglement to DCS to panic to nitrogen narcosis (a big feature, since the sub lies at about 70 metres and initially the diving on her was on air), and the constant risk of being lost at sea if you didn’t surface on the line – occurs. I still don’t think this kind of diving is for me – the dangers are too great.

I admired the determination of Chatterton and Kohler to put a name to the submarine, thus providing closure to the families of the German officers who perished on board. Their rectitude and determination not to desecrate a war grave and the resting place of nearly sixty men was admirable. It’s possible that, had they agreed to rummage among the human remains all over the submarine, they’d have located an item of someone’s personal effects that would have speeded the identification process, but they refused to disturb the bones.

The culture of American deep wreck diving sounds as though it is quite macho and cowboy-like (one group of divers wore matching denim jackets with a skull and crossbones on it), and for Chatterton and Kohler to buck that trend was a big thing.

I learned one useful thing that has stayed in my mind since I finished the book – maybe I knew it all along, but it was articulated here in a clear manner: when you run into difficulties in the water, solve the first problem completely before you try to solve a second or third one. You need to answer each problem fully when it occurs, because accidents happen when a small thing is ignored, which then combines with another problem to cause a life-threatening situation.

In the acknowledgements, Kurson mentions Deep Descent by Kevin McMurray, which describes diving on the wreck of the Andrea Doria in the same dangerous, cold, rough piece of ocean. Many of the protagonists in MacMurray’s book appear in Shadow Divers, as do the same pair of dive boats – the Seeker and the Wahoo. He also cites Neutral Buoyancy by Tim Ecott, another of our favourite diving books, as an inspiration and source for some of the decompression theory.

Unfortunately the aggressive, fiercely competitive ethos that has been allowed to fester among this particular group of divers has led to the publication of a rival account by Gary Gentile (who appeared extensively in Deep Descent). It’s called Shadow Divers Exposed and apparently refutes much of what is described by Kurson. Gentile is clearly a bitter and angry man, with several axes to grind. It does however seem possible that in focusing the book so squarely on Kohler and Chatterton, Kurson allowed it to seem as though the two of them are due more credit for identifying the U-boat than they really are, so this book should be read with a small measure of caution. I would still strongly recommend it, however – the overarching truths and events described did take place, even if a few small-minded participants and observers would quarrel over specific details.

The book is available here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here. If you want to read it on your Kindle, go here.