Google street view goes to the Antarctic

The ice-obsessed will rejoice with me at this (not at all recent, actually) news: Google has included a number of Antarctic destinations on street view. Destinations include Half Moon Island in the South Shetlands, South Georgia Island, where Sir Ernest Shackleton is buried, Robert Falcon Scott’s hut from his ill-fated 1912 expedition, Shackleton’s hut on Ross Island, an adélie penguin rookery at Cape Royds, the South Pole telescope, the ceremonial south pole, and a couple more on the Antarctic continent.

While we’re down in the Antarctic with Google, they have also provided an interactive map of Shackleton’s Endurance mission of 1914 that gives an excellent idea of the distances covered, and includes both recent and historical photographs.

The Antarctic imagery joins Google’s prior imaging of coral reefs in Australia and a view of the inside a ship.

It’ll be quite a long while (a lot of lottery plays!) before we can afford to go to the Antarctic, and the continent might be much changed by global warming by the time we get there, but in the mean time there’s Google…

Wind speed on the go

Tony taking a measurement
Tony taking a measurement

We have had a couple of spectacularly windy weekends in a row, and have had the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the weather. We have a weather station at home, and for mobile use we have a WeatherFlow Wind Meter. These are widely used by para-gliders, sailors, windsurfers, kite surfers, and others who need to know what the wind is doing at a particular location. This miniature anemometer plugs into the headphone jack on iPhone and Android devices, and takes wind readings via an app.

The app allows you to save readings, which makes them available on the internet. If you see a facebook post with a wind reading, it’s from our Wind Meter, and Tony is probably on the boat. If the wind is very strong, he’s more likely on land! An example of a recent reading (taken when I snapped the above photo of Tony) can be viewed here.

We find this very useful to correlate wind speed and direction to sea conditions. A southerly wind, for example, is particularly uncomfortable for diving in False Bay. Using his mini anemometer, Tony has been able to establish at approximately what wind speed it becomes too unbearable! One of the effects that global warming is going to have on our local weather in Cape Town is increased windiness, so I think we’ll have plenty of opportunity to play with the Wind Meter and go FULL WEATHER NERD. Watch out…

Links to help you keep track of the fleet

The CMA CGM Alexander von Humboldt, one of the world's largest container ships
The CMA CGM Alexander von Humboldt, one of the world’s largest container ships

I’ve written before about the Marine Traffic website, which uses the Automatic Identification System (AIS) that ships above a certain size are required to make use of, in order to track their location. We use it to find out about the ships that sometimes come into False Bay for shelter. Ship Finder is a similar, somewhat more user friendly variant of the Marine Traffic map. I find it a bit easier to use, especially when looking at a vessel’s path through time. If you really want to, you can see air traffic instead (warning: it’s terrifying and you may wish to unsee it)!

There is also OpenSeaMap, which is an offshoot of the OpenStreetMap project. OpenStreetMap is a crowdsourced project to create an editable world map that is free of charge. You can visit the OpenStreetMap website to see what it’s about. OpenSeaMap uses some of the OpenStreetMap data, but also includes marine information such as the location of lighthouses and buoys, and some quite limited AIS information. The map also purports to include tidal data, seabed profiles, and water depths, but is a work in progress.

Finally, there is FleetMon, which requires an email address in order to register. There are various account types, most of which require a subscription, as well as apps for Android and iOS (not free of charge). With a free account you can access FleetMon Explorer through your web browser, and it’s a rich AIS interface with a huge (nearly 400,000) vessel database and beautiful maps. You can create a “fleet” of vessels you’re particularly interested in, and track them around the world. However (and this is quite a biggie) you only get five minutes of FleetMon usage per day. If you want more, you have to pay.

In order of usefulness and accessibility, then, I’d look at Ship FinderMarine TrafficOpenSeaMap and FleetMon. Ship spotters will find some useful tools in that list!

Article: Phenomena on blue whale earwax

Ed Yong at Phenomena writes about the information that can be gleaned from a plug of blue whale earwax. Earplugs of blue whale wax look a bit like battered candles, and contain alternating layers of dark wax (from when the whale is migrating) and light wax (from when the whale is feeding). Counting rings of earwax provides a way to estimate the age of blue whales – there are two rings for each year of the whale’s life.

The wax also absorbs pollution from the whale’s environment, and contains some of the hormones that the whale’s body produced in life. Researchers at Baylor University analysed a plug of wax from a male blue whale that died as a result of a ship strike and washed up on a beach in California. From concentrations of testosterone and cortisol (a stress hormone) they were able to determine when the whale reached sexual maturity. They also found a disturbing array of pollutants including DDT and mercury. Sadly, the highest concentration of pollutants appear in the earwax from the first six months of the whale’s life, suggesting that they were passed along in its mother’s milk.

The scientists intend their study to be a “proof of concept” – they only analysed a single earplug, but these samples exist in museums around the world and should be kept and studied from future whale necropsies. Science at work!

Read the complete article here.

Weather at home

It’s been interesting for me, being close to someone whose job is at least partly weather dependent. My job is (alas) not weather dependent at all.

Rain gauge waiting to collect some rain
Rain gauge waiting to collect some rain

There are days that aren’t suitable for diving (at least, we think so), and ideally one wants to identify them in advance for planning purposes and to maximise the use of days with good conditions. The result of this is that Tony is very interested in what the weather is doing. There are fairly predictable cause and effect relationships between the prevailing winds and underwater visibility in the ocean around the Cape Peninsula, but there is a host of other variables – such as how long the wind has blown for, and what the air temperature is – that can complicate things.

The anemometer attached to the satellite dish
The anemometer attached to the satellite dish

We (mostly Tony) spend quite a bit of time looking at weather online, particularly as the Thursday newsletter deadline approaches. What we don’t always know (except from the live buoys at Kommetjie and the intermittently working ones in False Bay) is what the weather is doing at home, where we live close to the ocean on the edge of False Bay.

With this in mind Tony’s birthday present this year was a home weather station, a (not entirely selfless) gift that will keep both of us interested and occupied for hours. I chose the Oregon Scientific Anywhere Weather Kit, which comes with a barometric pressure, temperature and humidity sensor, an automatically emptying rain gauge, and a wind vane and anemometer. You can add other sensors if you wish. Wonderfully, when the main unit is plugged into your modem/router, the data collected by the sensors is saved online for viewing on a computer, and a smartphone app (for iOS or Android) lets you check the weather at home while you’re at work, if that’s your thing.

The home screen of the iOS Oregon Scientific Anywhere Weather app
The home screen of the iOS Oregon Scientific Anywhere Weather app

It’s possible for you to see the weather at our house – if you have a smartphone and IF (big if) you care. You just need to download the relevant app (iOSAndroid) from the Apple app or Google Play store on your phone, register as a user on the app, and then add Tony as a friend (search for his name and surname by clicking on the “+” button in the Community section of the app, and send him a friend request). Then if you go to “Map” you can search for your friends’ weather stations (or any others in the area that have their permissions set to allow you to view the data). If you don’t know where we live, email Tony and ask him.

The temperature and humidity display of the OS Anywhere Weather app
The temperature and humidity display of the OS Anywhere Weather app

Tracking sharks on your mobile with Shark Net

Shark Net
Shark Net

Scientists working off the coast of California in the US have released an app for iOs mobile devices that enables users to track great white shark movements in (virtually) real time. Making use of a network of fixed buoys and drifting wave gliders. The initiative is part of the Global Tagging of Pelagic Predators project, which uses tags and listening devices to track the movements of migratory ocean species such as tuna, turtles, marlin, and several kinds of shark.

The map shows the area of coast that is marked by buoys and wave gliders
The map shows the area of coast that is marked by buoys and wave gliders

The white sharks for which this app (called “Shark Net“) shows the tracking data are equipped with acoustic tags. When they pass within about 300 metres of a wave glider or fixed buoy, a signal is registered, the shark’s location is calculated, and the data is sent to a listening station with a central repository of shark tracking data. The system obviously only tracks sharks that are tagged, and only when they pass near a buoy. The technology for the wave gliders is pretty nifty.

The information collected by the scientists is useful for identifying the hotspots along the Californian coast where white sharks congregate in late summer (much as our local white sharks move inshore at the start of summer) after spending time further offshore at the Farallon Islands and beyond. It also helps to identify “highways” or particular routes that the sharks favour to move between feeding locations. Allowing the public to view the data as it is being collected serves several purposes – not least, allowing us to see these creatures as they move about in their domain, to form attachments to them and to develop a special interest in their behaviour, and to understand something of how scientists work to understand the ocean ecosystem and its inhabitants.

Each tagged shark has a bio and photograph included in the app
Each tagged shark has a bio and photograph included in the app

You should also check out the GTOPP publications page which has pdf downloads of the research that the program has produced.

Año Nuevo is the site of an elephant seal breeding colony and hosts an underwater receiver
Año Nuevo is the site of an elephant seal breeding colony and hosts an underwater receiver

You can download the app here. It’s free!