Article: M&G on perlemoen poaching in Hout Bay

The NSRI recently assisted the occupants of a 5.5 metre rubber duck (for scale, almost a metre shorter than Seahorse, which is rated for seven passengers and a skipper) when their single engine failed off Gansbaai. There were eleven divers on the boat, and it was 11.30 pm when they were rescued. The NSRI report of the incident specifically states that the divers were “recreational”, but it is highly likely that they were poachers, illegally harvesting abalone or possibly rock lobster.

The NSRI report was shared on a number of facebook pages maintained by members of the local scuba diving community (including ours). One comment thread in particular, in one of the groups where the report was shared, made me very sad. Multiple commenters suggested that the NSRI should have left the poachers out at sea to be eaten by sharks, and there was even distasteful speculation about the race of the men who were rescued. It’s very easy, on the Internet, to write that you think someone should be abandoned to die, or that they deserve it – but that doesn’t make it a right sentiment. The speed at which we get updates on social media make it easy for us to fail to engage with the nuances of events and situations, and rather to pass swift judgments and wish death on some mother’s child.

This is what the NSRI says about themselves:

Sea Rescue is the charity that saves lives on South African waters. Our crews put their lives at risk in order to save the life of a stranger.  They will voluntarily go to sea in the worst conditions, to help anyone in need.

Nothing there suggests that they will first pass judgment on the activity you’re engaged in, or on how wise you were to go out in such bad sea conditions, and then decide whether to assist or not!

This abalone is several years old
This abalone is several years old

Fisheries management in South Africa has been performed with aggressive incompetence for the past five or more years, with a focus – by the authorities – on personal enrichment and the fruits of corruption. (If you want to learn more about this, I suggest you read the whole of the Feike Management blog, and then start making serious plans to get off the grid, given that the former minister of fisheries is now brokering nuclear deals with that global pariah, Russia.) Management of our abalone stocks has been done on the basis of wishful thinking and illegality.

The communities whose young men choose poaching as a career are poverty-stricken and in many cases beneficiaries of laughably small quotas to catch stocks of fish that no longer exist. It is an economic choice for them, borne of desperation, and often the men who harvest the resource only get a fraction of the ultimate monetary value of the product. An article in the Mail & Guardian by Kimon de Greef, who studied abalone poaching for a Masters degree in conservation biology, explains the economics of the process:

He explained his poaching work as we sat amid the plants and the Rasta, whose name was John, continued preparing his spliff. David told me he skippered a boat for a white diver who had relocated to Hout Bay to target reefs on the Cape Peninsula. Another local diver – whom by chance I’d already interviewed – worked with them, as well as a bootsman, or deck assistant.

The divers paid David R20 a kilogram of perlemoen they harvested; the bootsman earned half as much. The divers also hired carriers to run their catch to middlemen in the community, who paid prices of between R200 and R250 a kilogram. These middlemen sold the product on to buyers from larger criminal syndicates, who ultimately controlled the illicit trade to the Far East.

On a good night, after expenses, the two divers could earn R10 000 each, with David taking home R4  000.

As scuba divers, we tend to see this issue quite simply: someone is illegally taking beautiful, unique creatures out of the ocean! We forget that the communities engaged in these activities are far less privileged than we are, and that this is a complicated, historically fraught issue that won’t be solved by leaving a boatload of poachers to be swept out to sea in the dark of night.

I suggest you read de Greef’s article. It humanises the poachers – puts faces on them – and helps to tease out some of the more complex issues at play regarding this valuable marine resource. Johnny Steinberg did a comprehensive and more detailed review of the illicit abalone trade some years ago, which is a longer read if you’ve got time.

Read the M&G article here.

Bookshelf: Endurance

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage – Alfred Lansing


Sir Ernest Shackleton was a British explorer who mounted an expedition to the Antarctic in 1914. The intention was for a group of men to traverse the Antarctic continent from sea to sea: the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. The expedition did not go as planned; before landing on the continent the expedition’s ship, Endurance, became trapped between ice floes and could not be moved. I’m going to tell you practically the entire story here, but since it’s a historical event it’s not as if I’m spoilering it. Furthermore, if you read one book this year, you should read Endurance. Even foreknowledge of the events it recounts won’t dim your enjoyment.

The men spent six months on board their ship as she drifted with the ice, and when it became apparent that it was about to be completely destroyed by the ice, they decamped – along with their sled dogs – to an ice floe. The floe drifted still further, and when it in turn started to break up – after about five months had passed – the men took to the small boats that they had brought with them from Endurance, and headed for the closest attainable land. Their voyage to uninhabited Elephant Island took a week, during which time the men did not sleep and had very little to eat. They were exposed to the full force of the Southern Ocean, but managed to land on the island and establish a camp.

Shackleton selected a small subgroup of the men, and in the James Caird, a 6.85 metre wooden boat (for scale, just a bit longer than our rubber duck) they set out on the 1,300 kilometre trip to South Georgia Island, where there was a whaling station and contact with civilisation. This voyage took two weeks of herculean effort. Shackleton and his men then crossed South Georgia Island on foot – scaling incredible elevations with no appropriate mountaineering tools and clothing that was threadbare and unsuitable for the environment by dint of its prior length of service as part of their wardrobes. After wrangling to obtain a vessel and attempts thwarted by ice and weather, a boat was able to rescue the remainder of the crew, who had been waiting on Elephant Island for over three months, eating seals and penguins.

I spoke so incessantly about this book while I was reading (actually listening to) it, and afterwards, that it must have driven Tony mad. The courage and resourcefulness of the expedition members astonished me. They entered a hostile environment, one hundred years ago (compare modern preparations for a trip across the Antarctic), and existed in harmony together, in a range of bitterly perilous situations, without loss of good temper or – incredibly – of life. They took photographs and many of the crew kept meticulous diaries, enabling a detailed reconstruction of the events. I suspect that a large part of my enjoyment was related to the fact that I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by Simon Prebble, who has a beautiful, expressive voice and was able to bring the diary entries of the crew to life using their various accents.

You can get a copy of the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.

There’s a magnificent photo essay about the Endurance (with the expedition photographer Frank Hurley’s original pictures) here.

Bookshelf: The Gulf Stream

The Gulf Stream: Tiny Plankton, Giant Bluefin, and the Amazing Story of the Powerful River in the Atlantic – Stan Ulanski

The Gulf Stream
The Gulf Stream

Stan Ulanski is an academic with a special interest in the Gulf Stream, both as an oceanographer and meteorologist, and as a keen angler. I was drawn to this book because it reminded me of a book I took out of the school library when I was twelve, also about the Gulf Stream. I remember devouring that book, and have been trying to find it again for much of my adult life. I haven’t succeeded, and this isn’t it.

The Gulf Stream is a fast flowing, warm current that runs from the Carribbean up the east coast of the United States, past Canada, and across the Atlantic Ocean. It is responsible for about ten percent (popular opinion has always held this number to be higher, but it’s not) of the warming of England’s climate, transporting heat from the tropics up into northern latitudes. At the surface, where its flow is fastest, it can move at up to 9 kilometres per hour and the water in the current may be ten degrees warmer than the water surrounding it. Oceanographer/cartographer Matthew Fontaine Maury called it a “river in the ocean”, as it is so distinct from the water surrounding it:

There is a river in the ocean. In the severest droughts it never fails, and in the mightiest floods it never overflows. Its banks and its bottom are of cold water, while its current is of warm. The Gulf of Mexico is its fountain, and its mouth is in the Arctic Sea. It is the Gulf Stream.

The Physical Geography of the Sea, 1855

Ulanski divides his book into three parts. The first section provides an oceanography lesson, as well as a history of how we came to know what we know about ocean circulation. The second section, which I felt could have been beefed up significantly, has a chapter on the plankton, sargassum weed and other small life in the current, and another dedicated to bluefin tuna. I know from Richard Ellis’s tuna book how incredible these creatures are, and I felt that Ulanski could have made more of them. (He may have felt that since tuna have been so extensively eulogised, he has nothing to add – fair enough.)

The final chapter of the second section grated my goat and I struggled to read it – it’s about fishing, a sport of which Ulanski is a keen proponent, and profoundly smug (he “feels no remorse”). I cannot understand sport fishing  (or hunting) of any kind: if you’re going to release the animal after fighting it, exhausting it, and injuring it, what have you achieved? The inflicting of a prolonged, possibly fatal wound on a creature at a significant disadvantage to you in your motorised boat with expensive fishing tackle and crafty lures? How manly. We can appreciate how marvelously put together earth’s creatures are without damaging them with our ego in the process. (I realise that other people feel differently, with equal forcefulness.)

Ulanski concludes with an examination of the history of the exploration and colonisation of the New World, both aided and impeded by the Gulf Stream. It seemed that at times he wanders far from his main subject, but it is instructive to be reminded of what was involved in crossing an ocean before the advent of GPS and the creation of detailed charts. The section on piracy is fabulous and created in me a strong urge to re-watch Pirates of the Caribbean.

While my personal preference would be for a heavier focus on the oceanography and marine biology of the Gulf Stream, Ulanski is quite right to include a comprehensive section exporing humans’ relationship to this massive current. It has shaped the settlement and economies of all the lands adjacent to it.

Here’s an incredible visualisation of ocean currents – you can see the Gulf Stream prominently in the Atlantic. What is it like to be adrift on the Gulf Stream? Find out here.

The Perfect Storm deals with the 1991 nor’easter, a storm (not uncommon in the western United States) generated by the interaction of the warm water of the Gulf Stream with atmospheric phenomena. The Gulf Stream is the “weather-maker” of the western Atlantic, according to the author, and these interactions between the current and the atmosphere will become increasingly important and explosive as the global climate changes (and let me clarify, the change has come about because of human behaviour).

If you’re in South Africa, get the book here, otherwise here or here. For an even more wide-ranging view of the Atlantic ocean (minus the marine biology), check out Simon Winchester’s Atlantic.

Article: GQ on a Bering sea rescue

Returning fishing boat
Returning fishing boat

Continuing with our theme of being lost at sea (sometimes after massive storms), in 2008 GQ published a piece about the rescue of forty two fisherman in the Bering Sea (Deadliest Catch territory). There are a number of problems with going overboard in a place like the Bering Sea. The temperature of the ocean is the major concern – it is cold enough to kill a person in a few minutes. There’s also the relative isolation of boats fishing there – and if you’re close enough to shore or another vessel for a timely rescue to be effected, there is the problem of inclement weather hindering rescue efforts.

Read the complete article here. It gives a good feel for life on a fishing boat, how it feels when that boat catches on fire out at sea, and the intricacies of a rescue effort involving Coast Guard rescue swimmers. It’s a fast, entertaining read.

Article: Men’s Journal on being lost at sea

Harbour swimming in Denmark
Harbour swimming in Denmark

Men’s Journal (I’m allowed to read it!) reports on a Walt and Christopher, a father and son swept out to sea while swimming off a beach in Florida. Christopher is autistic, and his son’s lack of verbal communication and feedback presents an additional challenge to his father as they struggle to survive.

Walt has tried to imagine what that night was like for Christopher. He has imagined it repeatedly, in his sleep, at his work, in his rented hotel suite with the curtains drawn, the empty plastic soup containers on the counter. He has imagined Christopher giggling and splashing, the fish touching his back and arms; Christopher staring in awe at the dolphin snouts and falling stars, soothed by the foam tops of the waves; has imagined the whole night was like this one big adventure, the biggest adventure Christopher will ever have in his life, floating on his back as the water warmed his ears, in wonder as the sounds changed beneath the surface; has imagined that those sounds captivated his son’s imagination, and that since Christopher loves to float and swim more than anything, perhaps he even had fun. And the phosphorescence, the most colorful thing, he hopes it passed his son in a trail on the top of the water, long and thin, sparkling there like something hopeful; prays that Christopher got to see it. He has to believe he did. He can just picture Christopher sticking his hand in the filmy substance, holding it up to the moonlight, slick and shiny and Disney green. In fact, he cannot bring himself to imagine anything else. Walt aches for the day, a day that will probably never come, when he’ll be able to actually talk to Christopher, and ask him about what he saw and what he felt and what he was thinking, how he survived.

Read the full article here.

A Day on the Bay: Racing at sea

Sunrise behind Simon's Town Yacht Club
Sunrise behind Simon’s Town Yacht Club

Clare is not good at early mornings, but I love to see the sun rise, and one beautiful Saturday just before Christmas – when visibility was unfortunately too poor to take divers out – I took Seahorse to False Bay Yacht Club at first light. The day turned out to be quite hectic for other ocean users, but I was able to calmly observe the action.

I started with a quiet tour to Ark Rock and past Roman Rock lighthouse. I spotted a lone baby penguin heading home to Boulders Beach. He was making quite a lot of noise, telling me where he was going.

Abandoned rubber duck off Cape Point

NSRI Simon's Town rescue boat Spirit of Safmarine
NSRI Simon’s Town rescue boat Spirit of Safmarine

The NSRI were out and about for a surfski race (see below), but their rescue boat was called away owing to reports of an abandoned rubber duck, found 4 nautical miles off Cape Point by fishermen. The tiny duck was towed (at high speed) back to base, where several sets of dive gear were found on board. The boat was handed over to the police, and it’s a mystery whether or not they located the owner.

The rubber duck under tow
The rubber duck under tow

Cape Point Challenge

Once they had towed the rubber duck, the NSRI went back to monitoring the Cape Point Challenge surfski race. This race involved a paddle from Scarborough, around Cape Point, into False Bay and up to Fish Hoek. I spotted Gary, our neighbour and Divemaster candidate, looking strong.

Gary working his paddle!
Gary working his paddle!

Governor’s Cup

Yachting in False Bay
Yachting in False Bay

When I decided to call it a day and return to the Yacht Club I was faced with a small challenge. 22 December happened also to be the starting date for the Governor’s Cup yacht race from Simon’s Town to St Helena island, several thousand kilometres away. There was a lot ofboat traffic, and I had to queue for the slipway for quite a while. There were the race participants, as well as a large number of smaller sailing and motor vessels seeing them off.

The Governor's Cup yacht race started from Simon's Town
The Governor’s Cup yacht race started from Simon’s Town

Sophie, our diving buddy who has travelled with us to Sodwana before, happened to be on one of the yachts. Fortunately it was such a beautiful day I didn’t mind waiting.

Wind Atlas for South Africa (and divers too)

The Wind Atlas for South Africa (WASA) project was launched in mid-March, having been funded by the Danish government (masters of wind farming), and the United Nations Development Program-Global Environment Facility (UNDP-GEF). The atlas shows wind direction, frequency, and estimated power output, and the data was collected from a grid of wind measurement stations all over the country. Its primary use will be to assist South Africans in tapping the energy of the wind to generate electricity. This is incredibly exciting, as within a few months a wind turbine offsets the carbon emissions required to construct it, and then runs virtually emission-free for up to 20 years. Also, we’re all really tired of Eskom (supplier of electricity) encouraging us to purchase less of its product (electricity), and randomly switching off the power when we’re stuck in a shopping mall parking area or trying to cook dinner. I would love to see an economist’s take on that dogshow.

WInd farm off the coast of Denmark
WInd farm off the coast of Denmark

I digress. There’s quite a bit of techinical information on the CSIR WASA site, as well as in some of the news articles describing the project, but the gist of it is that measurements have been taken over the last 2-3 years, and supplemented by a mathematical model to provide a smooth map of wind speeds across most of South Africa. Thirty years of global data was used to calibrate the model.

All well and good, you say, but how on earth is this relevant to diving? Well, you’ll notice that the Learn to Dive Today newsletter frequently contains reference to wind speed and direction, and this affects where we can dive, and when. In summer, if the southeaster has been blowing, it’s Atlantic or eastern False Bay. In winter, the northwester makes the latter two destinations undiveable, but cleans up western False Bay delightfully. So wind is pretty central in the lives of local scuba divers. Wind is also the primary generating force for waves and the massive swells that arrive at our shores from the Southern Ocean, which affects our diving too.

Wind is also fairly central to the lives of everyone else who lives in this part of the world… If you speak to any Capetonian about the weather (a favourite topic), the wind is bound to come up (in discussion, not literally)!

30 year annual mean wind speed (measured in m/s) 100 metres above ground level
30 year annual mean wind speed (measured in m/s) 100 metres above ground level

With all this in mind, it’s quite gratifying to look at a WASA map, and see that our local obsession is justified. The Cape Peninsula and Gordon’s Bay area are among the windiest in the entire area mapped. Red indicates wind speeds of 10 metres per second, the green is about 5 metres per second, and purple (there’s almost none of it) is virtually windless. The source of this map is here.

If you’re a local diver, I encourage you to pay attention to the wind. Even if the weekend’s not windy (most people’s diving time), the wind in the week before will give clues as to what the sea conditions will be. Reading the newsletters of ethical operators will give you good insight into local weather patterns, courtesy of his years of reading the wind and water. If nothing else, an awareness of the wind will lead you to feel less disappointed when a dive is cancelled because of it, and enable you to make safe diving choices about what sort of conditions you want to go diving in. Unfortunately not all dive charters will hold back on launching when conditions are poor, and you can avoid an expensive zero-viz dive or getting seasick (or lost) on the surface by watching the weather yourself and making deductions.

Friday poem: To Cruel Ocean

Something from the French polymath Victor Hugo, which shows that not everyone loves the sea and what it represents.

To Cruel Ocean – Victor Marie Hugo

Where are the hapless shipmen? – disappeared,
Gone down, where witness none, save Night, hath been,
Ye deep, deep waves, of kneeling mothers feared,
What dismal tales know ye of things unseen?
Tales that ye tell your whispering selves between
The while in clouds to the flood-tide ye pour;
And this it is that gives you, as I ween,
Those mournful voices, mournful evermore,
When ye come in at eve to us who dwell on shore.

Newsletter: Shark love

Hi divers

First up, the bad news: there will be no diving in False Bay this weekend. (The Atlantic is a small possibility, maybe on Sunday, but we will wait and see.) The reasons for this will become clear as you read on.

Last weekend’s diving

Last weekend we did JP’s first sea dive at Long Beach in Simon’s Town. Conditions were fair, with visibility of about 4 metres and patches of cleaner water. There’s an album with some photos from last weekend on our facebook page, here. I was also in the sea at Shark Alley and Partridge Point early in the week, and conditions were patchy (about 4 metres visibility) and deteriorating owing to a massive, continuing plankton bloom.

Pelagic shark diving

The Shark Explorers boat
The Shark Explorers boat

Today I spent the day on the Shark Explorers boat, far out of sight of land, on the edge of the continental shelf at a location known as the “Tuna Grounds”, where the water is over 350 metres deep. We were diving with pelagic sharks – sharks like blues and makos that live in the open ocean. A tuna also popped in to say hello, as well as hundreds of seabirds including several albatross.

Black browed albatross
Black browed albatross

It’s a two hour boat ride out of Simon’s Town, looking for the warm Agulhas current, and although the sea was rough almost all the way there, the water went from chocolate brown in False Bay to green, to beautiful, deep blue. A small chum drum was placed in the water suspended from a buoy, and after about fifteen minutes the first shark arrived. We saw one mako shark, and a large number of blue sharks. We spent over an hour in the water – you descend to about 5 metres and hover within sight of the chum drum at all times. These underwater pictures were grabbed from the video footage I took today – more to follow!

A blue shark comes to investigate
A blue shark comes to investigate

I have done baited shark dives before – with tiger sharks in Aliwal Shoal, and more recently a cage dive with white sharks in Gansbaai. Today’s dive was a very different experience to Aliwal Shoal, where the sharks are sometimes whipped into a feeding frenzy and injure themselves biting on the chum drum. The situation can be very tense and uncomfortable for the divers and in fact a diver was recently bitten during one of these dives by a shark that (I think) was in feeding mode because of the chumming, and became confused by the diver’s hand and foot movements in the water.

Blue shark
Blue shark

Today’s sharks were attracted by the chum drum, but they stuck around because they were curious about the people in the water. They were very interactive, and investigated our cameras and dive gear, sometimes with gentle nibbles. Morne, the Shark Explorers owner, is extremely relaxed with these creatures and very knowledgeable about their habits. A lot of what he did in the water was to prevent the sharks from hurting themselves (for example by biting on the rope of the chum drum).

Dolphins in False Bay
Dolphins in False Bay

On the way back to Simon’s Town we encountered a pod of 400 or so common dolphins in False Bay, being pursued by a Brydes whale. We are very fortunate to live in such a rich environment that is bursting with health.

As you can imagine, good buoyancy control is essential for a dive like this – the bottom of the sea is so far below that no one is going to come and fetch you if you sink! Also, if you’re even slightly prone to seasickness I would suggest some Stugeron or similar… It’s a loooooong day on the boat. All of us carried SMBs and were instructed to surface and raise them immediately if we lost sight of the chum drum. The boat follows the buoy attached to the drum as it drifts in the (sometimes very strong) current. If you’d be interested in coming on a trip like this, please let me know so we can arrange a group – I have promised to take Clare with me next time, because she spent the day working in Excel while I was playing with sharks!

Weekend diving

As for the reasons why we won’t be in False Bay this weekend, I encourage you to study the following sequence of three photos taken out at sea, near Cape Point, and inside False Bay. I don’t want to dive in coffee… Do you? I have several Open Water students and Discover Scuba Diving candidates just itching to get into the water, but for your first sea diving experience I prefer to ensure excellent conditions.

I’ll send out text messages if there’s a chance of going on the boat to the Atlantic on Sunday, once he sends out a newsletter, or if False Bay miraculously clears up. If you don’t usually get these messages and would like to, please send me an email with your cell number and I’ll be sure to keep you in the loop.


Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099

Diving is addictive!

P.S. This blog is entered in the South African Blog Awards and we hope to use it to raise the profile of Cape Town diving a bit. We’d really appreciate your vote, if you enjoy the blog – to vote for us click here or on the banner at the top of the page in the right hand sidebar. You can only vote once, and if you’ve already done so then many thanks!