Bookshelf: The Seabird’s Cry

The Seabird’s Cry: The Lives and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and Other Ocean Voyagers – Adam Nicolson

The Seabird's Cry
The Seabird’s Cry

This is such a wonderful book that I read it twice within the span of six months. In between my two readings, during the northern hemisphere spring, Tony and I visited Pembrokeshire in Wales. This is not the home of Mr Darcy, but rather the location of several islands on which seabirds breed. Seeing puffins, gannets and shearwaters in all their glorious breeding plumage animated Nicolson’s descriptions of their precarious lives. (I do plan to share some photos and details of that visit in future posts.)

Early in this book, Nicolson points out that seabirds are the only creatures on earth that are at home in the water, on land, and in the air. To most of us, albatross are perhaps the most familiar pelagic seabirds – Carl Safina’s Eye of the Albatross both introduced and immortalised these extraordinary ocean wanderers for a popular audience. Nicolson devotes a chapter to each of ten species of seabird, including albatross, and writes with such extraordinary lyricism that at at times it’s possible to mistake this book for something other than popular science.

This blurring of boundaries is quite intentional, and completely revelatory. Rather than sounding pretentious or foolish, as most of us would if we tried to channel Seamus Heaney while summarising scientific papers and interviewing researchers, Nicolson achieves a remarkable feat of science communication. He speaks of the wonder that comes not from ignorance, but from knowledge and understanding, and how powerful a thing it is to know the facts of these animals’ lives.

If the idea of trying to join the worlds of science and poetry (or literature, or culture) grabs you, you may enjoy this video of a conversation on the subject between Adam Nicolson and Tim Birkenhead, a professor of ornithology.


Seabirds are in trouble worldwide, more threatened than any other group of birds. They are facing – amongst others – challenges wrought by changing ecosystems as the climate warms and industrial fishing robs them of their prey. To help them, we need to act, and action comes after seeing and understanding. In this book Nicolson makes an appeal to a part of us other than the rational, fact-collecting, logical entity, and asks us to empathise with these strikingly “other” creatures. I urge you to read this book.

You can read rapturous reviews of this book on The Guardian’s website, on Literary Hub, and at the Financial Times.

Get a copy here (South Africa), or here. It is available for Kindle, but you’ll have to search for that one yourself!

Bookshelf (and article): The Hunt for MH370

The Hunt for MH370: The Mystery, The Cover-Up, The Truth – Ean Higgins

The Hunt for MH370
The Hunt for MH370

Perhaps I’m out of my lane sharing this book on a blog that is mostly, at least tangentially, about the ocean, but I read it very much as someone interested in everything about the ocean, including the subject of a multi-national deep sea search for an aircraft that apparently vanished without a trace in March 2014.

The story of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 is reasonably well known, but unresolved – pieces of wreckage from the plane have been found on Indian Ocean islands such as Reunion, but the crash site and black box of the flight has never been located. Millions of dollars have been spent looking for the plane, but there is no certainty about what happened.

Ean Higgins is an Australian journalist who covered the disappearance of MH370 from day one. In this book he presents several theories as to what occurred on the flight, with varying degrees of plausibility. He does share which theory he finds most likely, and it happens to coincide with the findings of William Langewiesche in a gripping long form article on MH370 that was published in The Atlantic earlier this month. According to Langewiesche,

Because the Malaysians withheld what they knew, the initial sea searches were concentrated in the wrong place—the South China Sea—and found no floating debris. Had the Malaysians told the truth right away, such debris might have been found and used to identify the airplane’s approximate location; the black boxes might have been recovered. The underwater search for them ultimately centered on a narrow swath of ocean thousands of miles away. But even a narrow swath of the ocean is a big place. It took two years to find the black boxes from Air France 447, which crashed into the Atlantic on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in 2009—and the searchers had known exactly where to look.

Higgins writes with compassion about the families and loved ones of the passengers on MH370. He makes it clear that the lack of resolution around the events of that evening in March 2014 has a human impact that those of us who have never had a loved one disappear without an explanation, cannot imagine.

I started reading this book with interest, but also holding a mildly pessimistic expectation that it would re-hash the little I knew about the missing flight, without any conclusions. Contrary to that expectation, I found it surprisingly satisfying, and while the mystery remains mysterious, it is clear from which quarter the truth must emerge. Whether it ever does so, remains to be seen

This is a gripping read that will engender an appreciation for the magnitude of the challenge presented by an underwater search far from shore. Read it, and read the William Langewiesche (author of The Outlaw Sea) article here.

Get a copy of the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here.

Bookshelf: Beachcombing in South Africa

Beachcombing in South Africa – Rudy van der Elst

Beachcombing in South Africa
Beachcombing in South Africa

Why so quiet? What have we been doing? Working, mostly. Trying to stay alive. And a bit of reading, and some beachcombing. Enter this is marvellous little book from fish fundi Rudy van der Elst (A Field Guide to the Common Sea Fishes of South Africa).

Chapter by chapter, van der Elst describes the types of debris that one might find on a beach. After a brief orientation chapter covering the ocean current regime around South Africa, relevant regulations, safety, beach ecology, tides, pollution and more, we launch into a tour of washed-up treasures.

Predictably, many of the items to be found are organic in nature – plants, invertebrates of various types, eggs and egg cases, fishes, birds, and shells. There are also items such as oceanographic devices, tags from marine animals, fishing equipment, cyalumes, buoys – some of these (such as tags) should be returned to their owners, and others should be removed from the vicinity of the ocean (such as discarded fishing nets and lines).

The chapter on marine animals (resting, nesting and stranded) is exceptionally useful and it is almost for this alone that I’d like to put a copy of this book in every home in every coastal town in the country. Seals, whales, turtles and seabirds can end up on the beach, sometimes in difficulty and at other times not. It can be hard to tell, and well-meaning members of the public can unwittingly cause great harm while trying to assist. A list of useful contacts in this regard appears at the end of the book, such as the Two Oceans Aquarium and the SPCA (region-specific).

The final two chapters cover miscellaneous “treasures” such as fossilised sharks teeth, sea glass, logs, and actual treasure, as well as beachcombing through the ages in South Africa. Here we learn about tidal fish traps, coastal caves, and other historical coastal dwellers who made their living from the sea.

We’ve found some awesome things on the beach, from shipwrecks to goose barnacles to rare crabs. Beachcombing is an accessible hobby that requires nothing but time, observation skills, curiosity, and a beach to stroll on.

This is a beautifully illustrated, comprehensive little volume that deserves to come with you on your beach holiday. It’ll prompt more careful examination of the flotsam and jetsam on your local beach, and, probably, more early morning low-tide visits to find the best pickings!

Wild Card magazine featured this book when it was published. Get it online here if you’re in South Africa, or here for your Kindle.

Bookshelf: Seaweed Chronicles

Seaweed Chronicles: A World at the Water’s Edge – Susan Hand Shetterly

Seaweed Chronicles
Seaweed Chronicles

This is one of the best kinds of popular science book. It reads so easily that by the time you’ve absorbed enough material to attain a diploma in phycology (the study of seaweed), you also feel as though you’ve met and befriended a varied cast of individuals whose lives revolve – in various ways – around slippery marine algae.

It’s written by an American author, and the book centres squarely on the coast of Maine in the United States, obviously much loved by the author. It’s not clear initially that the geographical focus of the book is so narrow; some readers may want to know this in advance. While reading, I was grateful for the perspective that a Veld and Sea seaweed foraging course gave me on our local seaweeds.

Vignettes of seaweed-centred lives, from foragers turned businesspeople, to scientists, to shepherds whose flocks feast on seaweed during their coastal sojourns, introduce us to a cast of characters illustrating the many uses and commercial possibilities of seaweed, as well as the management and conservation challenges associated with its harvest. Seaweeds are pivotal in coastal ecosystems, providing vital habitat and sustenance. This isn’t just a science book (which some may find frustrating). It’s as much about the people as about the seaweed – but you will learn some science from it!

There’s a good review here at the New York Journal of Books.

Get the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here.


Bookshelf: Poacher

Poacher: Confessions from the Abalone Underworld – Kimon de Greef and Shuhood Abader


Abalone (perlemoen to locals) are inoffensive, slow moving marine snails, with frilly grey bodies covered by a knobbly shell that doesn’t look like anything special until you find an empty one on the beach and see the mother of pearl interior, polished for years by the body of the now-dead snail. Some people like to eat them; in Asia, many people like to eat them, and they are seen as a status symbol. They are farmed, at enormous expense and for staggering profits, at several locations along South Africa’s coast. When we visited an abalone farm in Hermanus several years ago, the tour guide told us that the demand for abalone from the east is essentially “limitless”. You can imagine, if you don’t know already, the financial temptation that such a creature might present.

Kimon de Greef is a South African journalist with a longstanding interest in perlemoen poaching and other forms of illicit trade. His reporting on abalone poaching has been longstanding, nuanced and detailed – one example here, and another here. A 2014 report (pdf) he wrote for Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network, is also worth a read. The second author of Poacher, Shuhood Abader (not his real name), is a former abalone poacher, and this book is his story.

Rather than a focus on statistics and an analysis of the scale of the abalone poaching problem in South Africa and how to fix it, Poacher comes at the issue in a deeply personal way, thus forcing us out of our righteous outrage and into the uncomfortable space of empathy with someone whose actions we disapprove of. We hear Abader’s story in his own words, with context provided by de Greef’s reporting and analysis.

Being a South African today is complicated. Our history gives none of us a free pass to relax into ignorant bliss, simple judgments or two dimensional interpretations of where we find ourselves and where we are going as people and a country. Yes, it might seem tiring for those of us whose privilege is showing, but the last several hundred years of our history demands a reckoning and we ought to show up for that, no matter what it requires. This reckoning extends beyond hard conversations and simple matters of ensuring everyone access to healthcare, education, property, jobs, credit, public spaces, and the like. It extends even to nature reserves and marine protected areas, those spaces that we view as sacred and untouchable. (I remind you of this discussion we had on the Tsitsikamma MPA – similar complexities exist for many, if not all the wild spaces in South Africa.)

Marine poachers are fairly visible to the scuba diving community. (Recreational divers are even mistaken for them on occasion.) The ISS has published two in depth reports (Steinberg and Goga) on the subject, some years apart. Abalone poaching is one of those issues that seems to cause particular outrage among scuba divers and the ocean-loving community, and this is, to some extent, understandable. Poacher, however, asks us to set aside that outrage and to learn another side to the story. This may disturb your equilibrium – the more the idea of there even being “another side” troubles or enrages you, the more strongly I recommend you read this book.

When Poacher was released there was excellent media coverage, which you should check out to get a flavour of the topic, and the two authors. Examples are this Daily Maverick article, detailed coverage by The Guardian, and an interview with one of the authors here. You can even read extracts from the book at the Johannesburg Review of Books, on News24, at Wits University’s Africa-China reporting project, and at the Daily Maverick. There’s a radio interview with de Greef here.

Please read this book. Get a copy at your local bookstore, online in South Africa here, or on Amazon.

If you read this in time, Kimon de Greef is discussing the book on the evening Thursday 4 July 2019 at Kalk Bay Books – phone them for details and to RSVP (essential).

Bookshelf: Eye of the Shoal

Eye of the Shoal: A Fishwatcher’s Guide to Life, the Ocean and Everything – Helen Scales

Eye of the Shoal
Eye of the Shoal

This is an absolutely wonderful book about fish. Everything about fish. Helen Scales is a marine biologist and the accomplished author of marine-themed books (I previously wrote about Poseidon’s Steedher book about seahorses).

Here, Scales delves into the world of an animal whose variety seems almost without limit. Her book overflows with wonders, and interweaves science, adventure and mythology to shed light on the under-appreciated inhabitants of the underwater realm.

Unsolicited (this is almost always the case), I read half of this book to Tony while I was busy with it, and it delighted both of us. We learned about bioluminescent fish, poisonous fish, the sounds fish make, and the colours of their skin. We learned about fish that use tools, fish cognition, and about the state of the science regarding whether fish experience pain. We even learned about moray eels and grouper hunting co-operatively.

As a scuba diver, Scales relates tales of dives on which she observed the behaviours and phenomena she describes, and I was inspired to pay more attention to the activities of the fish we see on dives around Cape Town. They may (almost) all be the same colour, but there are certainly things that they do, and fascinating ways of being, that I am failing to appreciate.

Scales provides a bibliography on her website with links to the open access scientific papers that she used to research the book.

Get the book here (South Africa), here (US) or here (UK).

Bookshelf: Into the Raging Sea

Into the Raging Sea: Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of El Faro – Rachel Slade

Into The Raging Sea
Into The Raging Sea

If the article I shared earlier this week made you want to learn more about the 2015 sinking of El Faro, an American cargo ship, this book is for you.

Using the 26 hours of voice recordings recovered from the ship’s deep water resting place after a prolonged search, Rachel Slade is able to reconstruct, in detail, the final voyage of El Faro. Slade also attended the hearings on the sinking held by the US Coast Guard, and interviewed the family and friends of El Faro‘s crew. The result is a detailed and illuminating investigative work that explains the disaster more comprehensively than simply to say that the ship sailed into a hurricane and sank. Slade also emphasises the humanity, connections and personalities of the captain and crew, who otherwise might be lost in the telling as statistics of loss.

The official explanations, and absence of any assumption of culpability for the tragedy, are enraging and frustrating, but illustrate the insidious pressure to take risks that commercial mariners may experience from ship owners and operators. This dynamic plays out at all scales. Even as a small business owner, Tony is sometimes asked to launch his boat in conditions that he deems unsafe. A client may put their own financial gain ahead of the safety of the divers, or of my husband. The risk of such a venture is entirely with the captain and others on the vessel, while the decision-maker (and financial beneficiary of the decision) sits ashore in safety like General Melchett sending his troops to their doom.

Slade’s book is a gripping read, accurately and comprehensively reported, and will appeal to anyone with an interest in maritime drama. It is also of particular interest given that warming oceans will give rise to more storms like Jaoquin, and our ability to forecast their movements with accuracy will, to an increasing degree, impact captains’ ability to keep themselves, their crew and their cargo out of harm’s way.

Do not confuse this book with Into a Raging Sea, the excellent book about South Africa’s National Sea Rescue Institute.

Get Into The Raging Sea here (US), here (UK) or here (South Africa).

Article: Vanity Fair on the sinking of El Faro

William Langewiesche, author of The Outlaw Sea (one of my favourite books) wrote an in-depth article for Vanity Fair, about the sinking of the American cargo ship El Faro, with the loss of all hands on board, in hurricane Jaoquin in 2015. Called the “worst U.S. maritime disaster in three decades”, the loss of El Faro should have been avoidable.

With access to the 26 hours of recordings from the El Faro‘s “black box”, found after an almost year-long search, Langewiesche is able to provide detailed reporting on the hours leading up to the disaster. I found two aspects of the incident incredibly instructive. The sequence of decisions made about where to sail relative to the hurricane, and the culture onboard, seemed worth pondering. Weather forecasting services (a personal obsession) were also key to the fate of the ship to a surprising degree.

It is unlikely that Davidson [the captain] ever fully understood that he had sailed into the eye wall of Joaquin, but he must have realized by now that he had come much too close. As is usually the case, the catastrophe was unfolding because of a combination of factors that had aligned, which included: Davidson’s caution with the home office; his decision to take a straight-line course; the subtle pressures to stick to the schedule; the systematic failure of the forecasts; the persuasiveness of the B.V.S. graphics; the lack of a functioning anemometer; the failure by some to challenge Davidson’s thinking more vigorously; the initial attribution of the ship’s list entirely to the winds; and finally a certain mental inertia that had overcome all of them. This is the stuff of tragedy that can never be completely explained.

Read the full article here. It’s a gripping read by a master storyteller.

Bookshelf: Sea Change

Sea Change: Primal Joy and the Art of Underwater Tracking – Craig Foster & Ross Frylinck

Sea Change
Sea Change

The Sea Change project may be familiar to you from their large format photographic displays, one of which was for a time along the promenade in Sea Point, and is currently in Lamberts Bay. You may have read about the project, or seen its members – ocean-loving filmmakers, journalists, scientists – diving in the cold water of False Bay year round, without wetsuits. You may even have seen the BBC’s Blue Planet II series, in which the filmmakers, guided by Craig Foster and his fellows, captured an incredible octopus sequence filmed on our doorstep in False Bay.

The Sea-Change book has been a long time in the making, and is the product of hours upon hours upon hours spent in the water, observing the animals that call the kelp forests home. The book contains a story of loss and discovery – that of Ross Frylinck – interwoven with large-format photographs of scenes from the kelp forest, taken by filmmaker and naturalist Craig Foster, a co-founder of the Sea-Change project. Foster also provides the captions.

As a diver, it was immediately clear to me that a great deal of patience and close observation was required to gain the deep understanding that Foster has of the smallest creatures living among the kelp. There is no substitute for time in the water. There is no substitute for swimming slowly, deliberately, and for spending extended time looking at one place. The marks that animals leave on rocks, kelp stipes, the sand, and even on each other’s shells, can tell a story.

I learned a huge amount about animal behaviour from this book, and about the interconnectedness of all the elements of the watery, beautiful world around the Cape Peninsula. The photographs are beautiful and striking, capturing moments that one would be extremely lucky to see during the normal course of things. Diving for more than an hour a day, every day of the year, however, makes such things more commonplace.

Sea Change presents a beautiful opportunity for the wider community of ocean lovers to learn from the unique approach taken by the Sea-Change team (this article gives a good sense of it), and to learn how to understand and observe the animals that surround us when we look beneath the surface of the inshore kelp forests. The project also has something to say about how science happens, and the vital connection between science and storytelling. Identifying animals is fun, but – as any veteran twitcher will tell you – the next level is understanding behaviour. This is a challenge I’m happy to take up.

Get a copy here, or directly from the Sea Change team.

Bookshelf: Shark

Shark – Brian Skerry

Brian Skerry is a National Geographic photojournalist, with whose TED Talk you may be familiar. This book is a collection of articles – about sharks – that appeared in National Geographic magazine, accompanied by one magnificent shark photograph after another. Each chapter’s text is reasonably short. Here, the photos are the primary focus.


The chapters focus on four species of shark: great white, white tip, tiger sharks, and mako sharks. Additional text is contributed by several National Geographic writers, and experiencing the familiar editorial quality and stylistic approach of the magazine is like settling down for a chat with an old friend.

The final chapter of the book, written by Skerry, is an appeal for increased understanding of sharks and their vital place in ecosystems, and increased protection for them – in the form of marine reserves, and less fishing, for example. The photographs selected for this chapter makes it clear that in Skerry’s view, science (especially tagging studies) is vital to the endeavour of better understanding sharks, and protecting them.

Get a copy of the book here (South Africa), here or here.