Christmas gift guide 2013

Ok so this is a bit late, and if you haven’t done your Christmas, Hannukah and Festivus shopping yet, shame on you. Or just shame. Most of these ideas don’t entail going to a mall and having your personal space invaded by ten thousand hormonal adolescents. You can order online, or make a phone call or two. Get going!

Christmas at Sandy Cove
Christmas at Sandy Cove


For the reader, you could check out our book reviews, arranged by topic:

I’m not going to suggest a magazine subscription – I’ve let most of ours lapse as we seem to have entered a long dark teatime of the soul when it comes to South African diving magazines. If the quality picks up, they’ll be back on the gift list at the end of 2014.

Dive gear

Check out What’s in My Dive Bag for some ideas… You can contact Andre for most of these:

Make sure you know the returns/exchanges policy of wherever you make your purchases. Some places can be difficult, and if the mask doesn’t fit it’s no good at all!

For lady divers

For the diving lady in your life (or your man friend with too much hair), what about some rich hair conditioner to apply before going in the water? Suggestions here. A pack of cheap, soft fabric elasticated hairbands is a good stocking filler.

Some high SPF, waterproof sunscreen, or a nice hooded towel for grown ups (available in one or two of the surf shops in Muizenberg) would also not go amiss.


Don’t forget to add a memory card for the lucky recipient’s camera if you plan to gift any of these! Contact Tony for prices.

For the non diver, you could inspire a love for our oceans with one of these:

For those who need (or like) to relax


Wall art

Clip Clop designs and prints beautiful tide charts for Cape Town and Durban and moon phase charts for the year. You can order online or usually find them at Exclusive Books.

My underwater alphabet is available for R200 in A1 size, fully laminated. Shout if you want a copy.

If you take your own photos, you could print and frame a couple, or experiment with stretched canvas prints if that’s your thing. A digital photo frame pre-loaded with underwater images is also a lovely gift for a diving friend.


For the person who has everything, or because you’re feeling grateful:

Documentary: Frozen Planet

Frozen Planet
Frozen Planet

Another expensive (and totally worth it) production from the BBC, Frozen Planet presents an exploration of the polar regions of earth, focusing on the wildlife and natural processes that make these areas so special.

There are episodes devoted to each season of the year, flanked by an episode providing an overview of the polar regions and one dealing with human activities in these areas. A special feature on climate change wraps up the series. Each episode is followed by a ten minute feature called “Freeze Frame”, which explains how particular footage was obtained – usually through a combination of ingenuity, luck, hardiness and persistence.

The series was dogged by two controversies, one minor (to my mind) and another somewhat more significant. The first involves a very brief piece of footage showing a polar bear mother and her newborn cubs. Rather than being filmed in the wild (which would have been almost impossible, if one thinks about it, because the mother bear is in partial hibernation under the snow while she gives birth), the footage was captured in a zoo. The way in which the footage is interspersed with shots of polar bears in the wild is somewhat misleading, and the voice over gives no indication that the mother and her cubs are in captivity.

The second controversy involves climate change, and the increasingly popular anti-science stance espoused particularly by the religous right, a powerful political lobby in the United States which has managed to transform a purely scientific issue into a political one. In a special feature on the third disc of the set, which deals with the changing polar environment as more and more ice melts each year, any mention of the causes of climate change is avoided, and host David Attenborough intones “The days of the Arctic Ocean being covered by a continuous sheet of ice seem to be past. Whether or not that’s a good or bad thing, of course, depends on your point of view.” Rather than taking a definitive evidence-based stance on the fact that global warming is a result of human activity on the planet – a view which is held by mainstream scientists who base their opinions on statistics, observations, experiments and hard evidence – the producers of the series chose to prevaricate in order to avoid offending a vocal and wilfully ignorant minority.

These things aside, Frozen Planet is a magnificent production that shows the scope and complexity of these little-seen parts of our planet. The resourcefulness and adaptations of the animals and birds that spend all or part of their lives enduring the extreme climate and landscape of the polar regions are magnificent. There is wonderful underwater footage, showing penguins, orcas, beluga, seals, narwhal and whales hunting, socialising and feeding, and urchins, sea stars and corals far under the ice. The underwater visibility is astonishing, as is the courage of the cameramen who venture under thick ice into freezing water to obtain footage.

Ice caves under Mount Erebus in Antarctica are spectacular and untouched, and the scale of the plateaus and mountains of the Antarctic is incredible. (In comparison, the Arctic seems like a bustling metropolis!) The completely hostile environment got me all choked up thinking about the early polar explorers who risked (and lost) their lives in efforts to extend the frontiers of human knowledge.

The final episode deals with man’s presence at the poles (scientists in Antarctica, and indigenous people in the Arctic). I loved the footage of Longyearbyen in the Svalbard archipelago (on my “must visit” list). Tony and I particularly enjoyed the segment showing the Danish navy officers  patrolling in Greenland, with fourteen huskies, a sled, skis, and a vast snowy wilderness larger than France and the UK combined.

You can buy the DVD here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here. The US version is narrated by Alec Baldwin.

Documentary: A Cave Diver Story

A Cave Diver Story
A Cave Diver Story

Steve Bougaerts is the owner of Mexico-based Aztec Diving. British by birth, he is a renowned cave explorer and cave diving instructor, and A Cave Diver Story tracks (sort of) a day in his life.

Cecil lent us the DVD, and Tony and I enjoyed this glimpse of an underwater world replete with both beauty and danger. The Yucatan peninsula in Mexico, where the documentary was filmed, is riddled with cenotes (like the blue holes of the Bahamas shown in this documentary) connected to a giant aquifer. Bougaerts and his colleagues seek to map the connections between the cenotes, and spend hours both underwater and on land extending their maps. They use old fashioned mapping techniques underwater, and computer software on land to develop the maps.

The diving technique of the cave divers impressed me. They frog-kick (instead of finning up and down), and the smallest movement seems to propel them forward. All the diving they do seems to be sidemount diving, with an intimidating number of cylinders. Access to the cenotes is often down steep slopes or even vertical walls, requiring a lot of perspiration just to get yourself and your kit to the water.

These divers are determined, and tolerance for errors is nil. There are no flustered, disorganised cave divers (not ones that survive, anyway). I am in awe. It’s beautiful and pristine, but I don’t think it’s for me!

Here’s the trailer:


And here’s an extract from the film:


You can buy the DVD here.

Documentary: Deep Blue

Deep Blue
Deep Blue

Deep Blue is a feature-length film comprising some footage from the BBC’s Blue Planet series (highly recommended) as well as previously unseen footage. Over 7,000 hours of footage were edited down to the original eight hour Blue Planet series, so there was a lot of material to work with. About 25% of the film is previously unseen footage. We watched the Blue Planet series some time ago, and only a small portion of the film looked familiar to me.

It is narrated by actor Michael Gambon, but the narration is very sparse and no effort is made to give the viewer a science lesson. Most of the sound comes from the musical soundtrack, allowing an immersive, almost purely visual experience that I found extremely relaxing. (Footage of orcas chasing a baby gray whale, and coming ashore in Patagonia to hunt baby seals was not relaxing, but those were pretty much the only exceptions.)

Some may be perturbed by the lack of explanation of what is happening on screen (in most cases, the creatures depicted are not even identified), but this film offers an emotional appeal rather than a reasoned or scienfic one. I can imagine showing it to someone who doesn’t know or care for the ocean – it’s completely absorbing and transporting.

If you’re looking to learn something about the ocean from a DVD, I’d suggest you start with Blue Planet. But if you simply want to feel something (and there’s room for that in all human endeavour), this is a good place to start.

The DVD is available here if you’re in South Africa and here if you’re not.

Documentary: Great Barrier Reef

Great Barrier Reef
Great Barrier Reef

I have been diving for nearly three years, and have a shortish list of underwater places in the world I’d like to visit. (Unfortunately each of them is ruinously expensive to go to, so we’re going to have to start playing the lotto – I’ve heard that this marginally increases your chances of winning.) The Great Barrier Reef wasn’t on my list until I watched this BBC series, narrated by Monty Halls. I now want to dive near the Great Barrier Reef, and perhaps on it. I’ll explain why further on.

The series is divided into three one hour episodes. The first episode deals with the reef itself – the coral and creatures that live on it, and the incredible diversity of life that it supports – in exactly the sense you’d expect from a documentary about a giant coral reef that’s visible from space.

It was the second episode, entitled “Reef to Rainforest”, that caught my imagination, however. Between the Australian mainland and the reef itself lies “the lagoon”, a wide expanse of sheltered water with an apparently featureless sandy bottom. Oases of life exist there, however: some of the corals and life forms that cluster together for shelter reminded me very much of what one finds when venturing off onto the sand at Long Beach (for example). There are also giant sting rays (the BBC footage of one of them feeding in the sand was slightly better than mine), hammerhead sharks, and all sorts of creatures that made me want to go and explore this apparent – but not actual – underwater desert. Halls also visits the wreck of the SS Yongala, a wreck in the lagoon area that supports almost unbelievable quantities of life. In close proximity to the wreck the water looks like fish soup, and larger predators whizz by causing the schools of smaller fish to make lightning fast direction changes. I must dive there.

The third episode is also magnificent, documenting the creatures that travel for thousands of miles to breed, mate and feed on the reef. Green turtles, innumerable seabirds, dwarf minke whales, manta rays, and tiger sharks all visit the reef and benefit from its nutrients and habitats. Thousands of green turtles visit Raine Island to lay their eggs each year, and this uninhabited (and access-forbidden) island is also a rookery for a miraculous array of seabirds – boobies, frigatebirds, shearwaters, tropicbirds.

You can read some of Halls’ thoughts on the experience of filming this documentary here. I’m jealous, not least of his opportunity to go nose to nose with a minke whale. He snorkels, paddles, walks about and dives through a variety of habitats, including a gloriously muddy mangrove swamp. His narration while wearing a full face mask is hard to listen to – poor sound quality – but in general he’s convincing and easy to listen to.

You can buy a copy of the DVD here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here.

Documentary: Ghosts of the Abyss

Ghosts of the Abyss
Ghosts of the Abyss

I must say I was not filled with optimism when the Disney logo swirled across our screen at the start of the DVD, but having watched all 60-odd minutes of this James Cameron (he of the 1997 film Titanic, inter alia) production, my concerns were dispelled.

In many ways this documentary can be viewed as the companion piece either to the movie Titanic, or to the various books by Robert G. Ballard concerning this great wreck. Having become fascinated by the ship, Cameron mounted an expedition in August and September 2001, on board a research vessel loaded with Mir 1 and Mir 2, two Russian submersibles, as well as two ROVs, each about the size of a cooler box (albeit cooler boxes costing $250,000), that were able to penetrate the wreck while being operated remotely, tethered to the main submersibles by fiber optic cables.

The documentary is narrated by Bill Paxton, star of my favourite series Big Love, who played a role in the movie Titanic and actually goes on a dive or two in the submersibles. The experience of descending the 4,000 or so metres to the ocean floor, and seeing the great ship illuminated by a special lighting rig to facilitate cinematography, must be life-altering. Tony and I had a (brief) debate as to whether we’d accept the offer of a visit to the wreck in one of the tiny (three-man) submersibles… The agreement was that we would, as long as we went together!

The view out of the windows of the Mirs is very limited, so cameras mounted outside the submersible record the state of the wreck and the faces of the submersible passengers as seen through their view ports. Animation is used to show where fittings and decorations existed, and then faded away to show the way the wreck looks now (or did, ten years ago). On one hand it’s a scene of great devastation, but on the other surprising details remain as they were that April night in 1912. A water carafe stands on a dresser, undisturbed; leaded glass windows survive intact; and part of the ship’s steering equipment remains on the bridge.

Until now the most complete pictures I’d seen of this wreck were artist’s renderings – its great depth, size and the darkness surrounding it preclude wide-angle photography. The sophisticated lighting and camera equipment used by Cameron’s crew produced spectacular footage that evokes both the loneliness and the grandeur of the wreck. The film was originally produced for an Imax in 3D.

You can get the DVD here if you are in South Africa, otherwise here.

Documentary: Blue Holes – Diving the Labyrinth

Blue Holes
Blue Holes

Cecil, cave diver to be (he probably is one by now thanks to Buks Potgieter of IANTD) lent us this National Geographic production. It’s just under an hour long, and recounts an expedition to seven of the blue holes in the Bahamas. A blue hole is a kind of vertical cave, roughly circular. They often contain freshwater (light) on top of saltwater (heavy). The reaction between the two layers of water where they meet (called the halocline) eats away horizontal passages off the main shaft of the sinkhole over time. Sometimes there is a layer of hydrogen sulphide, created by bacteria and decaying organic matter, beneath which is an anoxic (devoid of oxygen) layer of water which preserves organic remains (bones, not flesh) with remarkable fidelity. For this reason blue holes are sometimes referred to as time capsules. The deep water is usually very, very clear.

Here’s a picture of the Blue Hole on Gozo in Malta, where Tony and I dived earlier this year. It doesn’t have a freshwater layer – it’s sea water all the way, but the top view you can see here illustrates what a blue hole looks like. Beautiful!

The Blue Hole on Gozo
The Blue Hole on Gozo

The multidisciplinary research team shown in this special aimed to uncover the ancient history of the Bahamas, which no longer have any large predators (such as crocodiles) occuring naturally there. Aside from the diving (more on that just now) there’s a bit of palaentology, anthropology and archaeology to keep history buffs happy. Blue holes are currently the subject of much reasearch, and as the narration in this special points out, rising sea levels threaten to flood the holes and destroy the anoxic conditions that make them such excellent preservers of the past – so there is a sense of urgency to the studies being conducted.

The diving, though, is mainly what interested us (and Cecil, I suspect). The footage inside the blue holes shows how beautiful they can be, with stalagmites and stalagtites in the side passages carved out by the halocline as the sea level changed. It also shows how treacherous cave diving can be – fine silt covers most of the surfaces, and even the pressure wave created by a diver swimming forward above the bottom of the cave can stir it up… Never mind a careless fin stroke or bumping the bottom!

Some of the diving was done on air and other gas mixes, using open circuit scuba with side mount arrangements to make the divers’ profiles wider but flatter. Other dives, to greater depths (both vertical and horizontal), were done on rebreathers. One of the advantages of a rebreather, apart from ridiculously long bottom time, is no bubbles, which is great for photography and for cave diving where bubbles can disturb sediment and even bring down bits of rock from the ceiling. One of the divers claims that 10% of all rebreathers sold have killed their owners (this is an exaggeration – according to DAN, only about 5% of diving fatalities are on rebreathers but one must adjust for the fact that open circuit is far more prevalent)… And that while she’s putting her kit together she thinks about all her dead friends who perished using these devices. If that was my state of mind before going in the water, I wouldn’t dive – the depression would kill me first! The divers go through a 40 point written checklist before they get in the water for a dive and are very, very careful about maintaining their rebreathers.

This is a beautiful look at the treasures hidden in places that many of us will never visit. The photography is wonderful, even if the narration is a little bit over the top dramatic (but we’ve been spoiled by the refined dignity of the BBC, I think!). It’s a little bit sobering from a diving perspective, but one can only admire people whose determination to break new ground and advance science leads them to the very edge of what technology can currently assist with.

There are some still photos from the special here (go and look – very lovely). An article on blue holes in the Bahamas appears here.

You can get a copy of the DVD here.

Christmas gift guide 2011

It’s that time of year again. I trust you are all feeling suitably festive. Here’s our annual (well, second so far) Christmas gift guide. Use it/don’t use it…


For the reader, you could check out our book reviews, arranged by topic:

There are also a couple of children’s books to consider.

Dive gear

Check out What’s in My Dive Bag for some ideas… You can contact Andre for most of these:

Probably not a good idea to get a mask unless the place you buy it will let the person exchange it if it doesn’t fit!


For the person who has everything, or just because you’re feeling grateful:


Don’t forget to add a memory card for the lucky recipient’s camera if you plan to gift any of these!

For those who need (or like) to relax

Magazine subscriptions

Wall art

Clip Clop designs and prints beautiful tide charts for Cape Town and Durban and moon phase charts for the year. You can order online or find them at Exclusive Books.

Documentary: South Pacific (BBC)

South Pacific
South Pacific

Cecil lent Tony and me this six-part BBC nature series, dealing with the 20,000 islands and wondrous diversity of the South Pacific Ocean. It’s of the same very high standard as Blue Planet and Nature’s Great Events, and we enjoyed it immensely. Each episode is 50 minutes long, with a 10 minute additional feature on how a particular aspect of the episode was filmed. Some impressive camera equipment, local knowledge, great patience and a small measure of luck makes for a visual feast. We loved seeing the vortices that form under a wave as it travels over the seabed, and watching a surfer in a giant tube in slow motion. We love water!


The natural history of these myriad islands is totally unique, and one episode is devoted to examining how the various life forms spread from place to place. There’s also a LOT of ocean in between the islands, and this has its own special character, including many beautiful coral reefs. The volcanic nature of many of the islands (subject of another episode) has given rise to beautiful atolls and lagoons, black volcanic sand, and life that somehow thrives on barren lava fields.

The idiosyncratic nature of many of the islands and their inhabitants is examined in an episode called Strange Islands. Much of the wildlife on the South Pacific Islands walks a fine line of survival, and the introduction of mammalian predators has wreaked havoc on flightless birds such as the totally adorable kakapo (a large parrot), for example. This episode also featured Easter Island, which used to be richly forested but is now a barren wasteland almost devoid of the life forms that used to shroud its rocky shores. All that remain of the prior inhabitants are their solemn Moai statues. I find it alarming that the Rapa Nui, a thousands of years old civilisation, managed to collapse several hundred years ago through (hypothesised – Jared Diamond writes fascinatingly about this in Collapse) environmental mismanagement. It always seemed to me a very modern problem, but it isn’t (hello, Mayans!).

It was wonderful to see the albatross chicks and other seabirds at French Frigate shoals, having read about them (and these islands) in Eye of the Albatross. Their wingspan is completely breathtaking! Tony and I also added Bora Bora, the Solomon Islands, Palau and the Galapagos to our travel bucket list. As each island group appeared on the screen, Tony’s first words were, “How do you get there?”

The final episode, “Fragile Paradise”, was both hopeful and awful. Coral reefs are being rebuilt after destruction by storms, dynamite fishing and other not so nice human interventions by coral gardening – growing shoots of coral, and then replanting them on damaged reefs. The sequences about this were beautiful and promising.

The part that really upset me and Tony was about fishing. Because the South Pacific is so large, it’s difficult to police, and there are no regulations about fishing in ocean that is not part of a particular country’s territorial waters. A pair of cameramen go inside a purse seine net that caught 150 tons of yellowfin tuna in a few hours (before the advent of these massive nets it would take a year to catch this much fish), and film the fish panicking and trying to escape as the net tightens. It was awful.

Later in the episode we see the tuna fishermen of the Solomon islands, who are ensconced on equally dodgy looking fishing vessels but instead of using nets sit in a row on the back of their vessel with long fishing rods, each man catching one tuna at a time. There’s a slowed down sequence showing the school of yellowfin in the water, and then the fish on the hooks, coming out of the water, and being flicked off the hooks onto the deck of the ship by the fishermen. It was also horrible, though – those magnificent fish were, seconds ago, swimming powerfully through the water. In a matter of seconds they are flying through the air, hitting a hard metal surface, and (assuming the fall doesn’t kill them – there was a lot of blood) suffocating to death in a pile of their brothers and sisters.

The irony is that this fishing method is sustainable in terms of catch volumes and methods – even though it looks brutal and the creatures the men were catching are so utterly spectacular. I’m pretty sure we weren’t meant to admire what was happening, and the producers of the series cleverly opened an ethical dilemma in my mind (about eating fish at all!) whilst showing us the only manner of commercial fishing that doesn’t devastate fish stocks. Purse seine nets catch entire schools of tuna, whereas rod and line fishermen can’t catch all the fish in a school and thus leave it to breed another day.

You can get a copy of the DVDs here if you are in South Africa, and here otherwise. As with all the BBC’s nature documentaries, this one is highly recommended.

Documentary: Sharkwater

Sharkwater DVD
Sharkwater DVD

Rob Stewart is an underwater still photographer who decided to make this film at the tender age of 22. The original plan was to produce a documentary of “pretty pictures of sharks.” He spent the next four years on the road, filming sharks and getting mixed up with Captain Paul Watson and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (like Greenpeace but with weapons, they attempt to enforce international conservation laws in international waters – using tactics which range from throwing acid, ramming and sinking other ships, to damaging fishing gear, and direct confrontation).

The documentary is thus a blend of beautiful images of sharks in their natural habitat, and drama on land and on board the Sea Shepherd vessel that Stewart hitches a ride on. In Costa Rica they uncover a massive shark finning operation to which the government is turning a blind eye, and are arrested thanks to corrupt officials paid off by the long line fishermen they encounter and harrass offshore. Stewart travels to the Galapagos Islands – thought at one stage to be a safe haven for sharks – too, and the images of the wildlife there are astonishing.

This is an upsetting film. Unlike Disney’s Oceans, the footage of shark finning is real and horrifying. There are several scenes of seals and turtles being killed, and one image in particular, of the beak being removed from a living turtle, kept me from sleeping the night after I watched this. The murderous extravagance of fishing tactics such as long lining are shown here in some detail, and at times I could understand wanting to go out and sink a Norwegian whaling ship (Sea Shepherd sank a whole fleet of them, once!) or ramming a poacher’s boat to put a stop to this kind of activity.

Stewart doesn’t offer any concrete solutions – his film is more a call to action than a manifesto for change. Solving the issues of poaching, shark finning and long lining require changes not just in individual behaviour, but – in several cases – cultural mores and preferences. A brief interview with a young Asian bride – clearly educated – who says that she refuses to serve shark fin soup at her wedding (despite the prestige attached to this dish), is hopeful. Conservation is only possible after addressing the issues of poverty that force (or seem to force) coastal populations into plundering the ocean without regard to conservation status and the livelihood of future generations.

This is a beautifully filmed and heartfelt documentary effort that juxtaposes the beauty of the underwater environment with the ugliness of many of those who benefit from its wealth. Stewart loves sharks, he loves to photograph them, and for those who do not share his love, he repeatedly emphasises their role in the ecosystem as top predators. Their presence throughout the existence of complex life on earth has shaped behaviours present in creatures lower down the food web, such as schooling and camouflage.

The DVD is available here for South Africans, otherwise from here. There is also a book of photos from the documentary available. The official website for the documentary is here.