Series: Wreck Detectives

Wreck Detectives Series 1
Wreck Detectives Series 1

The premise is simple (if contrived): a land-based historian (Jeremy Seal) and an “intrepid diver” (Miranda Krestovnikoff) attempt to resolve mysteries (identity, manner of sinking, date and reason for wrecking, and so on) surrounding various shipwrecks in the British Isles. They only have one week to do it in (one is frequently reminded of this). There are eight episodes, each dealing with a particular wreck site.

To assist them, the hosts bring in experts in whatever field they are studying. This is actually the best part of the series: the array of experts is very impressive. In increasing order of specialisation, some examples are one who knows all about frigates, one who’s an expert on cannons, and another who specialises in a particular type of pottery jug that was popular on ships during a particular era. The one whose job I most envied was a Ministry of Defence damage assessor, who assisted the wreck detectives in figuring out what sort of device sank the HMS Lawford off Normandy, two days after D-Day in 1944.

During the week in which the wreck detectives do their work, Jeremy Seal follows up clues and interviews experts on dry land. Miranda Krestovnikoff and a Divemaster whose name did not stick (his contribution was limited to saying things like “descend on the shot line”) dive on the wrecks. The diving, about which much hoopla is made, seems similar to Cape Town diving at its worst. Visibility was generally poor (5 metres was exciting), and they often had to contend with strong currents. I suppose that poor or treacherous sea conditions are almost a given when you’re diving a ship that wrecked because of those very conditions! Tony and I did feel very proud of ourselves, though, as the diving team were being lauded as heroes for descending to a depth of 30 metres in slightly dodgy visibility. All in a weekend’s work, for us!

The Wreck Detectives vessel off the coast of Scotland
The Wreck Detectives vessel off the coast of Scotland

Unfortunately the BBC seems to have window-dressed somewhat with the selection of presenters for this series. Jeremy Seal is credible, knowledgeable, and can hold up a conversation. I can’t say as much for his co-presenter, whose contributions were restricted to repeating what someone else had just said, and getting it wrong about 60 percent of the time – like an inaccurate echo. I am annoyed by apparently ignorant female television presenters (or even loud, vacuous ones who are secretly knowledgeable), because I feel that it feeds into a stereotype about women that doesn’t need reinforcing. Feminist rant over.

I sound negative, but we actually really enjoyed this series. Once you tune out the inanity, the contributions of the archaeologists, maritime historians, shipbuilders, and other experts make this an extremely engaging and wide-ranging show. My favourite episode – which reduced me to tears more than once, to my chagrin – was the one about HMS Lawford. The wreck detectives marshall the only two surviving crewmen, who were 18 and 19 years old at the time – mere boys – and involve them in the search for answers as to why the navy’s official report of the sinking appears to contradict their memories of it (which, in turn, contradict each other). Seal visits a WWII graveyard in France with the two men. The waste of life is heartbreaking, as is the inscription on the gravestones of some of the men who perished when the HMS Lawford sank: something along the lines of “Here lies an unknown sailor from the 1939-1945 war. Known unto God.”

There’s another episode in which the great (perhaps two greats?) grandson of one of the survivors of the shipwreck, an elderly retired vicar, travels on the boat with the wreck detectives. In both this case and the one in the prior paragraph, these gentlemen were able to watch a live feed of the video footage while the divers explored the wreck. For the two navy men, it was the first time they were seeing their ship in 60 years. I loved seeing their wonder and amazement at seeing something so familiar – the vessel on which they spent all their time at one stage of their lives – and yet so unfamiliar, lying on the bottom of the ocean, revealed by technology that doesn’t exist in their life experience.

We learned a huge amount from this show and it gave us lots to discuss. We are both in awe of the British propensity for record keeping, and their faithful protection and preservation of their historical sites. It also made me want to spurn London for the coastline next time I am in the United Kingdom, and brought back fabulous memories of a solitary morning I spent in Portsmouth dockyard after arriving on the ferry from Jersey in the Channel Islands.

A second season was made but to my knowledge has not been released on DVD (yet). The DVD set is available here.

Series: Deadliest Catch, Season 2

Deadliest Catch Season 2
Deadliest Catch Season 2

Tony and I loved the first season of Deadliest Catch – watching men pit themselves against the  might of the ocean and the wiliness of its creatures was kind of thrilling.

Season two dishes up more of the same – the boats and captains are largely the same as in the first season, and it also covers the Alaskan king crab and opilio crab seasons. As a bonus, we get to see one of the captains (Sig and the Northwestern) fishing for cod at the start of the season, because the weather was too violent to go far out to sea in search of crab.

In this season we see the effects of rogue waves and ice on a ship (both very scary!). Some of the captains fished uncomfortably close to the Bering Sea ice pack, and while it looks very beautiful, it’s incredibly dangerous. The build up of ice on the boats is also quite awe-inspiring… I really enjoy chipping ice out of my freezer at home, but this is in another league entirely! There is also a bit of humour as two of the captains (Sig and Phil) mess with each other’s gear.

The cameramen do an incredible job – it’s easy to forget that they have to stand on an icy deck that is heaving and tipping, periodically swamped by waves, with the crewmen, in order to capture the action. We both felt, however, that we’d like to see a little more of the action underwater. What does the bottom of the Bering Sea look like? How do the crabs move about – in packs? Singly? What other things live down there? There was a computer animation depicting the fishing strategy of one of the captains, who favours soft, muddy sandbanks for opilio crab and met with roaring success, and a couple of brief shots of the crab pot as it was lifted up through the water against the side of the boat, but there’s scope for a lot more here.

I adore this show – the power of the sea and the character of the individuals who work it are fascinating to me. There’s a lot more that future seasons can deliver, and I hope Discovery Channel keeps developing the show.

You can get the DVD box set here if you’re in South Africa, and here if you’re not.

Series: Deadliest Catch – Tuna Wranglers

Tuna Wranglers
Tuna Wranglers

While waiting for Season 2 of Deadliest Catch to arrive, Tony and I watched this. It’s just two 45 minute episodes, and it concerns the tuna fishermen off South Australia. It’s another Discovery Channel offering.

Complete aquaculture of tuna (rearing them from larval stages to adult) has proved difficult for several reasons. Tuna are extremely active – they have incredibly fast metabolisms, eat prodigiously, and swim long distances (their bodies are maginficently put together for swimming). Simulating their natural environment in a pen is almost impossible (much like rock lobster). They require high-energy food, and lots of it, making farming them an expensive proposition. They are also notoriously reluctant to spawn in captivity, which defeats the purpose of farming them! The fish are delicate and manhandling them to extract eggs manually or check their state of sexual maturity decreases their value on the open market. Finally, there are concerns that fish that escape from captivity may act differently to wild fish, and carry parasites and viruses that could decimate wild populations should they become exposed to them.

Southern bluefin tuna are thus caught on the continental shelf south of Australia when they weight 15-20 kilograms (at an age of about 2 years). They are transferred from the giant purse seine nets into holding pens while out at sea, and the pens are then towed back to Port Lincoln in South Australia – very slowly. There the tuna are transferred to farm pens (ranches!), and fattened up for a couple of years until they weigh 30-40 kilograms. The fish are then caught – by hand, by divers, to avoid damaging them – in the pens, flash frozen, and shipped to Japan. This is big money – a large, perfect tuna (unbruised and unmarked) fetches thousands and thousands of dollars in Japan.

The fishing process is fascinating – the ships can be out for weeks at a time. One ship looks for the tuna and baits them (throws sardines overboard to move the school in the direction desired), another deploys the purse seine nets around the school of tuna, and a third boat transfers the tuna from the nets to holding pens, and tows the pens full of live tuna back to port. A spotter plane also looks for tuna sunbathing near the surface – they need the sun to warm them in order to allow them to digest their food as fast as possible. We loved the CGI animations showing the fishing process.

The pens are essentially giant nets, closed at the bottom, with floats around the rim. Divers have to check the nets for breakages, monitor the conditions of the fish, and (occasionally) deal with sharks who bite their way in, understandably attracted to a giant floating lunchbox of tuna goodness. They either shoot them (last resort) or wrestle them out of the pen by hand. Bronze whalers are the most common invaders. The underwater footage of the pens and of the divers working in them is magnificent – crystal clear water, thousands of incredible, sleek fish, and a sense of space yet security. The divers are tethered to the surface so that they can maintain radio contact with the boat (they wear full face masks) and for air supply, or free dive. There are many ways to get tangled on things, so if they’re on scuba they wear their cylinders (for emergencies) upside down with the pillar valve pointing downwards to minimise that risk. As some of the divers said, they can’t believe they get paid to dive, because they enjoy it so much.

This is a fascinating look at the tuna fishing process, and eye-opening as far as the amounts of money that are spent to find, catch and rear these incredible fish. In comparison to the crab fishermen of Alaska, the fishing process is child’s play in terms of safety and working conditions. The deck hands on the bait boat don’t seem to do anything more physically strenuous than toss handfuls of sardines overboard once the tuna have been located. Boredom seems to be the biggest challenge.

Tuna can only be spotted when the sea is flat, and while the ocean south of Australia is cold and temperamental, in general the Bering Sea where the crab fishermen make a living makes it look like my bathtub – before I climb in! The most dangerous part of the whole trip is entering Lincoln Bay with the incoming tide, site of Dangerous Reef where Peter Gimbel and company found great white sharks during the filming of Blue Water, White Death.

The question of the scarcity of bluefin tuna, and the impact that the current fishing practices are having on these incredible fish is not dealt with in this series at all. I imagine it’d put a SERIOUS damper on all that Australian enthusiasm…

You can get the DVD here.

Series: Deadliest Catch, Season 1

Deadliest Catch Season 1
Deadliest Catch Season 1

Shoo, we love this show! It’s a documentary-style reality show about  crab fishermen in Alaska. It’s back-breaking, dangerous work conducted in short bursts on the Bering Sea near the top of the world (the sea Sarah Palin looks across from her front porch in order to spy on Russia). The crab fishing (in this season at least) is done derby-style: the government opens the season on a particular date, and then based on how much is caught, closes it a few days thereafter.

The men work almost 24 hours a day, knowing that their available time to take advantage of the crab bounty is short. The captains engage in the strategising and planning – they have to decide where to lay their crab traps (called pots) and when to collect them again, hopefully bursting with crab. For the deckhands, it’s cold, wet, dangerous (lots of moving parts) and repetitive. They put the crab pots overboard, each weighing several hundred kilograms. When they collect a string of pots, one man throws a grapple hook to land between two buoys floating above the pot, and the crane then winches the even heavier full pot onto the boat. Its contents are transferred to a sorting table where female (in the case of king crabs), small and dirty (barnacle-encrusted) crabs are thrown back into the sea. The live crab are transferred to water-filled holding tanks on the boat, and at the end of the season they are offloaded directly to a processing plant.

I’ve always had a little obsession with fishing boats, and Tony’s not-so-secret desire is to spend a day on one of the little boats that goes out of Kalk Bay harbour to see what goes on… This is almost as good as being on one yourself. The sea is fierce, huge and beautiful, and the two seasons take place in October (king crab) and January (opilio crab) so the winter weather is harsh. There’s freezing spray, howling winds, huge waves and icy water. To fall overboard without a survival suit on amounts to almost certain death.

Despite the dangers, the competition is fierce. Crab are valuable – the larger king crab were selling for nearly $30 each when this season was filmed (2005) and men make fortunes in a few days doing this work.

You can get the DVD box set here if you’re in South Africa, and here if you’re not.

Series: Shark Week featuring Mythbusters – Jaws Special (Disc 1)

Shark Week
Shark Week

Shark Week features annually on the Discovery Channel. It’s been condemned for taking a sensationalist approach to sharks and shark attacks, but Tony and I loved the Air Jaws episodes produced by our own Chris Fallows of Cape Town. This two-DVD set is season 4 of Shark Week screened in 2005 (the 30th anniversary of the release of Jaws), and features a range of programs all about sharks.

Here are reviews of the features on the first disc of the DVD pack. I must admit I wasn’t filled with optimism when we started watching…

Blood in the Water

Blood in the Water is a feature-length made for television movie that documents the five shark attacks that took place off the New Jersey coastline of the United States in 1916. It’s high on gore – seriously, there are some VERY graphic re-enactments of the attacks, featuring an animatronic shark, and the resulting injuries are lingered over by the camera. There’s a LOT of blood. Just seeing the shark attacks was quite disturbing (and not necessarily helpful).

What was interesting was to hear just what a poor state marine science was in 100 years ago. At that stage, scientists had no idea that a shark possessed the strength to bite through human limbs, and wild conspiracy theories flew back and forth.

The documentary is filmed as though it was made by a documentary filmmaker in 1916. The protagonists (except the shark) are interviewed, all in period costume, and we witness all the attacks, and the aftermath. A newspaper reporter provides continuity, as we see him delivering his reports on the events by phone. The voice-over artist who provides the narration has one of those fat, dramatic (cheesily so) voices that was made to sow hysteria and talk about shark attacks.

There’s very little science. The question of what kind of shark it was isn’t addressed in any detail – at first it was thought to be a great white, but then three attacks took place in a freshwater creek, at locations up to 3 kilometres from the sea. Bull sharks are comfortable swimming up rivers, but even with the spring high tides that were a feature of the day of the attacks, I find it hard to believe that a great white would venture so far from the ocean.

I plan to read Close to Shore and see whether that sheds any light on the subject.

Deadly Waters

Deadly Waters is presented by the excitable Les Stroud, and starts with him jumping out of a helicopter into a swirling maelstrom of sharks. He is one of those people who has a career encapsulated in his job title, and then (perhaps out of insecurity?) tacks on something totally inappropriate that minimises everything that went before. So, he’s a Filmmaker, Outdoor Adventurer, Singer-Songwriter, Performer. Don’t worry, Les – we have encountered the odd Shark Conservationist, Actress (in breakfast cereal commercials), Underwear Model

Using data on shark attacks and fatalities, he visits each of five “hotspots” he’s identified, in order to FIND OUT WHAT MAKES THESE WATERS SO DEADLY. It’s very exciting. My favourite part was when his crew made a chumsicle – yes, a chumsicle, of frozen fish bits and goop – to drag behind the boat at the speed of a human swimmer. Actually I just liked the way they kept saying “chumsicle.”

To be honest after ten minutes of Mr Stroud’s close-talking, arm-waving high-energy sensationalism I was ready to rip off my laptop screen and hurl it at the wall… This show helped me to understand why Shark Week has been criticised for its take on sharks. It’s sensational, unscientific (to the point of being laughable) and focuses on sharks as predators of humans. There’s very little explanation of accidental predations, no discussion of the fact that sharks don’t actually seek out human flesh because they like the taste (they don’t) and no actual shark experts except for those whose knowledge is entirely anecdotal.

Fast forward.

Great White Waters

It doesn’t get any better. I thought Les Stroud was a buffoon, and whoever the host of this effort ranks just above him on the list of clueless entertainers. I thought Deadly Waters was unscientific, but this show’s effort to plumb the depths of a great white shark’s appetite reaches entirely new levels of pseudoscience.


You can get the DVD set here.

Series: Treasure Quest – HMS Victory special

Treasure Quest - HMS Victory
Treasure Quest - HMS Victory

This is an excerpt of two episodes from the Discovery Channel series Treasure Quest, which recounts the activities of Odyssey Marine Exploration as they travel the English Channel one summer, looking for valuable shipwrecks to salvage. Odyssey is a listed company that conducts for-profit archaeology.

The episodes cover the discovery and subsequent identification of the HMS Victory in the English Channel. The Victory was an 18th century British warship believed to have been carrying substantial loot when she sank. The explanation of the process of investigation, and recovery of two cannons from the site, is fascinating.

The DVD is available here. There’s no need to purchase it if you already own the first season of Treasure Quest, as this is simply the two episodes of that season that deal with the Victory.

Series: Treasure Quest

Treasure Quest
Treasure Quest

Odyssey Marine Exploration is a listed company (Nasdaq: OMEX) that conducts deep-sea salvage operations on shipwrecks believed to be valuable (in money terms). They use side scan sonar to map the sea floor, expert eyes to identify potential targets, and tethered ROVs to examine those targets and decide whether they’re worth salvaging. The Wired magazine article I posted about here describes their activities. As I mentioned in that post, some are critical of the company for being treasure hunters and failing to preserve the archaeological remains of the ships they plunder. They’ve also run afoul of several governments for a variety of reasons relating to salvage rights.

Treasure Quest (only one season on DVD so far) documents a season of wreck hunting in the English Channel. We are frequently told it costs over $30,000 per day to keep the operation running, and it’s clear from the awesome ships and gadgets used by the crew that this is a big money operation. There seems to be a job for every single kind of person: computer techs, general handymen, project managers, archaeologists and historians, photographers, sailors, and those skilled at Playstation (they drive the ROVs using joysticks from the surface).

The vessels explored ranged from merchant to pirate ships, navy vessels to submarines – of various eras. Their most exciting find in this series was the wreck of the HMS Victory (one of the six ships that bore the name), an 18th century British warship believed to have been carrying a lot of treasure. Not all the episodes involved a successful outcome, but the variety of the activities recorded, along with the total romance and drama of being at sea looking for pirate treasure with the finest modern technology, ensured that we kept watching.

Two of the episodes in the middle of the series are purely archaeology and marine history focused. Keen to show they’re not just treasure hunters (they are) the Odyssey team checked out four German U-boats in the English channel. This was quite a moving episode – not because of the ramblings of the member of Odyssey’s crew who spent years as a submariner and seemed to have forgotten that sixty five years ago the German submariners were the sworn and heartfelt enemies of his Allied brethren, but because of the extremely funny (inadvertently) yet sincere German U-boat historian whose expertise assisted the Odyssey team members in identifying which sub was which. When I see those submarines on the ocean floor – whether intact (indicating that the men inside died slowly, knowing what was coming) or ripped to shreds (indicating a mercifully quick death) – I am filled with respect for those who would agree to spend weeks in a confined space, out of sight of daylight, facing constant threats of danger.

Another episode entails a visit to the wreck of the RMS Lusitania, off the Irish coast. This wreck was purchased many years ago by a wealthy entrepreneur who chartered the Odyssey vessel to conduct dives on the wreck over a period of about a week, in order to photograph the vessel and to try and determine why she sank so rapidly.

The final episode is an account of the greatest succcess Odyssey has had to date, the discovery of a wreck they call The Black Swan (and the source of much of the diplomatic controversy that the company has experienced). Seventeen tons of gold and silver coins were recovered from this site but owing to a lengthy legal process, they are in limbo and cannot be disposed of as yet.

Tony and I devoured this series, both of us contemplating selling our worldly possessions and buying a ship to hunt treasure with! After reading Robert Ballard’s book on using submersibles to explore depths beyond those which a human on scuba could penetrate – The Eternal Darkness – seeing the tools he describes being used first-hand was fabulous. There’s a lot of  computer animation depicting the ships being explored, their sinking, the layout of the Odyssey vessel, the layout of the wreck sites, and just about everything else that could be useful to illustrate what’s being sought and how the search is conducted.

The box set is available here. It comes highly recommended if you aren’t offended by for-profit archaeology, or if you’re interested in shipwrecks, technology with marine applications, or anything related.

Series: The Deep

The Deep
The Deep

The Deep is a five episode BBC production starring Minnie Driver and two other actors who I am sure are famous on Mud Island. It has mostly been panned by critics, but Tony and I quite enjoyed it. We found it pretty gripping and watched it over several consecutive evenings.

It’s set almost entirely on a submarine, 600 metres beneath the North Pole. The crew are visiting a hydrothermal vent field to do scientific research, but first have to figure out what happened to an earlier expedition that was lost with all hands, six months prior. The repercussions of their discoveries (we are told) could set off world wars if the information they uncover were to fall into the wrong hands. And besides the explosive discoveries, the crew find themselves trapped under the ice with no power, communications, and limited air. It’s uncertain as to whether they’ll escape with their lives (cue DRAMATIC MUZAK).

I’m not sure what audience this was intended for, but there’s a lot of repetitious explanation of what’s happening, and I imagine the actors must have felt like total bananas saying some of the lines. Stating the obvious – often summarising the entire series of events that has transpired to date – is commonplace. The script is not in the tradition of Shakespeare. That said, it gets the job done, and it’s the atmospheric interior of the Russian submarine and the cramped but high-tech British submersible that provide much of the interest and entertainment.

I must confess not to be terribly well-versed in the undersea horror genre, but this is more of a thriller than a horror (for which I was grateful). I think this series has what must be the standard ingredients of cramped spaces, uncertain future survival, and some emotional entanglements to add spice to the plot.

I was annoyed and disappointed by Minnie Driver’s character, Frances Kelly, who is the captain of the British submarine. She’s supposed to be a capable, unflappable leader, but is reduced to a simpering lip-quivering mass of jelly by one of her crew, with whom she is having an adulterous affair. Her leadership abilities are seriously compromised by their attraction, and we find her uttering a lot of painfully embarrassing pleas in his general direction (as he prepares to commit unspeakable acts of courage), accompanied by heaving bosoms and wide eyes.

Initially I was pleased to see what appeared to be a positive female role model in Captain Kelly – and the submarine’s crew is pretty diverse in all respects – but the ultimate message recieved is that even a woman who is a highly-qualified scientist and leader will be undone in all respects by the devastating charisma and good looks of her one true love (or lust). And, also, that if you’re in LURVE, an adulterous affair is just fine. Bleugh. End of rant. I think Captain Kathryn Janeway , captain of the Starfleet starship USS Voyager, spoiled me.

There are some illogical and impossible to justify decisions on the part of members of the crew, numerous implausibilities, and some downright ridiculous situations… For example, “triangulating the click signals” of the pod of beluga whales visible through the front windscreen (is that the right term?) of the submarine in order to find the hole in the ice to which they’re headed, instead of just following them using visual contact… Maybe I’m just not sophisticated enough!

There’s not much marine life on show – the aforementioned beluga, and a squid-like deepsea creature with glowing dots – but the focus here is on the storyline and the cramped interiors of the submarines.

The DVD is available here. Here’s the official BBC website page for the mini-series.