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.

Bookshelf: Antarctica

Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of the World’s Most Mysterious Continent – Gabrielle Walker

THIS is the book about the Antarctic that I have been looking for all of my life. It’s unlikely that this discovery will stop my obsessive consumption of polar-related literature and documentary material, but this is likely a book I will return to again.


The author, a science writer, has visited Antarctica several times, and is thus able to weave her personal experiences of  life on the driest continent with accounts of the science taking place there, and the scientists doing the work. Walker has had the sort of access to the scientists that most of us can only dream of, and makes reasonably good use of it.

Mixed in with stories of her Antarctic travels and meetings with researchers, Walker also briefly recounts the stories of some of the explorers of last century who opened up the interior of the continent. She is able to visit Western Antarctica, a part of the continent that very few people get to, and where the effects of climate change can be seen most clearly.

There’s a much more comprehensive review from The Guardian here. If you’re interested in the Antarctic, and the science that is being done there, you should read this book.

Get a copy here (South Africa), here or here.

Bookshelf: Manta

Manta: Secret Life of Devil Rays – Guy Stevens & Thomas Peschak

I found this book to fill a significant gap in my manta ray knowledge, which was (to be honest) virtually nonexistent. Author Guy Stevens is founder of the Manta Trust and a Save Our Seas project leader, and has spent 15 years in the Maldives studying these enormous, charismatic elasmobranchs. The Manta Trust co-ordinates global manta research efforts, with the aim of protecting and conserving mantas and their relatives.


The photographs in this book are by Thomas Peschak, co-founder of the Manta Trust, with whose extraordinary work you should be familiar. (If not, look here, here and here.)

Everything you might want to know about mantas is here, without being glib about the fact that there is still much we do not understand about these animals. The text covers their biology, life histories, threats to their survival, an identification guide, and numerous accounts by field scientists who study mantas and devil rays. (It was hard not to be envious reading some of the day-in-the-life bits!)

This is a beautiful, substantial book. Get it here.

Bookshelf: Pain Forms the Character

Pain Forms the Character: Doc Bester, Cat Hunters & Sealers – Nico de Bruyn & Chris Oosthuizen

Marion Island is one of South Africa’s two sub-Antarctic Prince Edward Islands, technically part of the Western Cape province. The South African National Antarctic Programme runs a meteorological and biological station there, dedicated to research. The researchers study weather and climate, ecosystem studies, seals (southern elephant seals, and Antarctic and sub-Antarctic fur seals), killer whales and seabirds such as albatross, that nest on the island. Researchers usually spend either three or 15 months at a stretch on the island, whose rugged terrain, intimidating wildlife and challenging weather can be said to “form the character”!

Pain Forms the Character
Pain Forms the Character

Marion Island is also infested by rats, introduced from whaling ships in the 1800s. With no predators, they multiplied to the extent that they threatened seabird populations. Cats were introduced in 1949, and by the 1970s there were 3,400 cats on the island. The cats ate mice, of course, and seabirds. An ambitious eradication program – of which our incredible friend Andre was part – eliminated the last of the cats in the early 1990s. The rat problem has resurged since the cats were removed, but work is in progress to get rid of them, too.

The research programs that currently exist on Marion Island are the legacy of Dr Marthan “Doc” Bester’s 40 year career as a scientist and researcher, and this book is a tribute to him. For this book, authors compiled photographs and testimonies from Bester’s colleagues, former cat hunters, and students, and he is the thread that ties this beautifully produced volume together. The focus is less on the scientific findings (you can find those online), and more on what it’s like to live on Marion Island, with the text complemented by many, beautifully evocative photographs.

Get a copy of the book here.

Bookshelf: The Annotated Old Fourlegs

The Annotated Old Fourlegs – Mike Bruton (and Prof J.L.B. Smith)

This is a beautifully designed and produced annotated version of Old Fourlegs, J.L.B. Smith’s account of the discovery and positive identification of a living coelacanth in 1938. Wide margins around the original text allow Mike Bruton to bring Old Fourlegs up to date with additional scientific information, as well as photographs, explanations, and other curiosities.

The Annotated Old Fourlegs
The Annotated Old Fourlegs

Old Fourlegs describes the months in 1938-1939 during which Smith confirmed the identity of the coelacanth with the essential assistance of Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer of the East London Museum. Ms Courtenay-Latimer acquired a fish specimen from a trawler captain, and, realising that it was an exceptional find, contacted Smith, an ichthyologist at Rhodes University. A rollercoaster of events – which involved the chartering of a South African Airforce plane and stretched all the way to then-Prime Minister D.F. Malan – was set in motion. Old Fourlegs is a surprisingly emotional, thrilling book by a man deeply invested in his work, and whose world was upended by the discovery of living coelacanths in the waters of the southern Indian Ocean.

It is also a book of its time, and today’s readers will find some parts by turns mystifying, and others offensive. The offensive bits – including lionising D.F. Malan, who, with his government, laid the foundations of the edifice of South Africa’s apartheid legislation – remain so, but Bruton’s annotated version provides context for readers unfamiliar with the history.

The book concludes with an examination of the cultural legacy of the coelacanth, which is disproportionately significant. The fish also has deep and wide links to South Africa and our research and diving community. If you have the appropriate (very deep diving) qualifications, you can dive with them in Jesser Canyon in Sodwana Bay. If you’ve never seen a video of one of these magical animals in motion, I encourage you to hit up youtube. Watch with the sound off for best effect.

Get the book here (South Africa), here or here. This is a volume you should read in hard copy, not as an ebook.

Bookshelf: Between the Tides

Between the Tides: In Search of Sea Turtles – George Hughes

I have been late in coming to this book, which was published about five years ago. George Hughes is a world-renowned, South African turtle scientist whose work has done much to ensure protection for sea turtles in the southern Indian Ocean. He was the guest speaker at an event held at the Two Oceans Aquarium to celebrate the release of Yoshi, the loggerhead turtle who spent over 20 years at the aquarium and is now powering along the Namibian coastline in rude health.

Between the Tides
Between the Tides

Dr Hughes was CEO of the Natal Parks Board and then Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, but Between the Tides relates his early career as a student looking for turtles along South Africa’s wild north east coast, in places that today support thriving dive and fishing charters. His legacy of turtle research continues.

Turtle surveys were conducted around Madagascar, the Comores, Reunion, the Seychelles, and on the Mozambique coast. The fact that the iSimangaliso Wetland Park now exists, offering a protected and well-regulated breeding environment for three species of turtles (loggerhead, leatherback and green – discovered there in 2014) is thanks to the early and persistent work of Dr Hughes and his colleagues. Turtles were first found nesting on this piece of coast in 1963, when it was still completely wild and mostly neglected by the authorities. In this book Dr Hughes recounts the development of the tagging program that he started, in which over 350,000 hatchlings were flipper tagged and/or marked over a period of 31 years.

Only about two out of every 1,000 hatchlings survive to return to the area in which they hatched, to breed. Female loggerheads are estimated to reach maturity around the age of 36 years, during which time they navigate an ocean of threats. This makes every surviving hatchling incredibly valuable.

The recovery of the number of loggerheads, in particular, has been quite spectacular, with more modest but noticeable gains in the leatherback population. More recently, as technology has allowed it, satellite tagging has shown their movements around the Indian ocean

If you find a baby sea turtle on the beach (this is the time of year when they start washing up), here is what you should do. The most important thing is to keep it dry, and to contact the aquarium as soon as possible.

Dr Hughes also discusses the sustainable use of sea turtles (for example, for food), something which I’d never thought about and which for that reason is fascinating – and very challenging to come at with an open mind, and appreciating the viewpoints of a scientist who has been steeped in turtle research for most of his life.  This is an excellent, proudly South African marine science book, written to be accessible even to those who aren’t turtle fanatics a priori. Highly recommended.

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