Best friends

Given the “each man for himself” mentality that pervades nature, it appeals to me to find a pair of similar marine creatures who appear to be friends (however naive that assumption may be!). Here are some of the highlights of the last few months. And don’t tell me that a golden retriever doesn’t count as a “marine creature”… When he’s this wet, he does!

Pooches at Long Beach
Pooches at Long Beach

I’ve only seen button crabs once, so I don’t know if this is how they usually sit, but I find this pair very endearing! I love the way the grey dude is holding onto the brown one.

Embracing button crabs at Long Beach
Embracing button crabs at Long Beach

Here are his and hers sea anemones, right next to each other at Long Beach. I don’t often see two as close together as this, and I thought the juxtaposition of colours was gorgeous.

His and hers anemones
His and hers anemones

We do sometimes see large groups of starfish feeding. These two, however, appear to be holding hands.

Friendly sea stars
Friendly sea stars

I have struggled endlessly to photograph the orange-clubbed nudibranchs at Long BeachMy camera seems to want to blow out the white whenever I point it at one of them, but the other day, in decidedly inclement conditions, I found two feeding on their favourite meal of bryzoans on a piece of kelp. You can see the particles in the water around them – insidious backscatter – but I was quite happy with this shot. You should see how bad my previous efforts were!

Orange clubbed nudibranchs at Long Beach
Orange clubbed nudibranchs at Long Beach

The first two metres

Looking out to the deeper water
Looking out to the deeper water

I often dive with Tony and his students. Often the students need a briefing in the water before we descend. Sometimes they struggle to get down. First time divers often need a minute or two to acclimatise to being underwater in the ocean. Whatever the reason, I spend a fair amount of time lying on the bottom in less than two metres of water, usually at Long Beach, waiting for the dive to begin. This is a pleasure that one enjoys only on shore dives, when one can swim down a gently sloping bottom enjoying the marine life as it changes with depth.

Tony examining a block on the pipeline at Long Beach
Tony examining a block on the pipeline at Long Beach

I’ve learned so much there. The sunlight is bright at that depth, and even though the gently sloping bottom just looks barren and sandy, close examination is always rewarded. On my way up the beach at the end of a dive, my eye has been attuned to notice the little creatures that I might miss initially, and it’s always a delight to be back in the sunlight again.

Three spot swimming crab in the shallows
Three spot swimming crab in the shallows

It’s at this depth that we often see the three spot swimming crabs. Their shells are often washed up on the beach, with a mournful face design, but the crabs themselves are confident and aggressive. More than once I’ve been faced with one who looked as if he was fixing for a fight, and would gladly take me on. We also frequently see a large crab accompanied by a small one – apparently the female is large, and her special man friend is much smaller.

Fat plough shell burrowing into the sand
Fat plough shell burrowing into the sand

The shallows are where I see lots of gorgeous molluscs of various types. Fat plough shells have magnificent large feet, and it’s a pleasure to see them ploughing (yes!) through the sand. They bury themselves in the sand with only their siphon sticking out into the water – you have to look carefully to spot these – and thus hidden, they can wait and smell and taste when something interesting comes along.

Ribbed turrids at the restaurant
Ribbed turrids at the restaurant

Sometimes we see great convocations of plough shells or ribbed turrids, gathering to munch on a tasty sea jelly corpse, or something else that a mollusc thinks is a good meal. They appear as if from nowhere, but actually they’ve been waiting beneath the sand for this opportunity to arise.

Helmet shell retreating
Helmet shell retreating

Helmet shells have smaller feet, but very attractive black and yellow striped feelers that they wave enthusiastically as they motor across the sand. As a child, I was incredibly excited to find one of their empty shells. As a grown up (mostly) scuba diver, I’m even more excited to spot one on the move.

Anemone in the shallow water
Anemone in the shallow water

It’s in the shallow water that we also sometimes see bluefin gurnards. Here’s one camouflaged against the sand.

Bluefin gurnard hiding his blue fins
Bluefin gurnard hiding his blue fins

These fish look quite bland at first – much like barehead gobies – but when they spread their fins out, you see where their name comes from. Each round fin (looks like wings) has a brilliant blue spot on it. They have little barbels under their bodies that they appear to walk on, and they move INCREDIBLY fast. This photo was taken by me trying desperately to keep up!

Bluefin gurnard
Bluefin gurnard

Even on a night dive, the shallows can be an exciting place to be. Tony photographed these green surf mysids as they swarmed around our lights at the end of a night dive last year. When we got home and washed our kit, we found that quite a few of them had hitched a ride in our BCDs!

Surf mysids in the shallows on a night dive
Surf mysids in the shallows on a night dive

Dive sites: MV Romelia

Long before I knew there was such a thing as scuba diving, I knew about shipwrecks. I grew up in Cape Town, and spent a lot of time in various rock pools, on the local beaches, on the Sea Point promenade, and sitting in the back seat of my parents’ Volkswagen Beetle as we whizzed around the peninsula. Cape Town is shipwreck paradise, and the most visible ones to me were the Antipolis, which sticks a tiny bit out of the water at Oudekraal, and the MV Romelia, which used to be an extremely prominent feature on the Llandudno rocks. I liked the Romelia because it was pink.

A photo of the Romelia, aground on the rocks, taken in 1989
A photo of the Romelia, aground on the rocks, taken in 1989

(The picture above is from this website – worth a browse!)

Following Tony and Cecil through a crack
Following Tony and Cecil through a crack

My parents told me the story of the Romelia and the Antipolis often (I liked saying the names, because they sounded romantic and mysterious) – in July 1977 my folks had been married for two years and were living in Cape Town when the tow rope connecting the two vessels to a Japanese tug snapped, and they ran aground independently on the western seaboard of the Cape Peninsula during a winter storm. The Romelia broke in half, and the bow sank, leaving the pretty pink (rusty) stern on the rocks. Later the stern also sank – a great disappointment to me, but no doubt a relief to the owners of the palaces in Llandudno!

Red bait zone and hottentot on the Romelia
Red bait zone and hottentot on the Romelia

I actually had no idea that you could dive on the Romelia, or where it had disappeared to, until the Sunday before Christmas. Our planned boat dive to Die Josie or Tafelberg Reef wasn’t looking like a good idea – reports were that the visibility was pretty poor, and the water was very dark. Grant suggested we go north, around the corner past Maori Bay to the MV Romelia.

Bernita checks out a wall
Bernita checks out a wall

It’s a gorgeous 12 kilometre boat ride from Hout Bay slipway, past the BOS 400 in Maori Bay, past the nudist beach at Sandy Bay (strangely, everyone we could see was fully clothed!), and to Sunset Rocks on the southern end of Llandudno beach. Grant dropped the shot line quite close to the rocks, where an artificial cave is formed by the bow and some large rocks, with the anchors hanging from the ceiling.

Blue anemone on the Romelia
Blue anemone on the Romelia

The visibility was mixed – there were clouds of fry (not sure which species of fish, but they were definitely babies) in the water at points, and the westerly wind of the day before had made things a bit soupy, but as we moved around the site there were patches of very decent visibility. I must confess that we’d been on the wreck for nearly ten minutes when I asked Tony where it was… He pointed at the (in retrospect) suspiciously smooth orange wall we had been hanging in front of since the start of the dive, and I realised that the ship has been so colonised by coraline algae and other sea life that most of it is virtually indistinguishable from the rocks around it.

Gas flame nudibranchs on the Romelia
Gas flame nudibranchs on the Romelia

There are amazing walls – each a different colour. One is mostly orange, another purple, and when you start ascending there are massive sea squirts above about six metres. These are all a rusty reddish brown colour. The rocks and the wreckage – some quite mangled, other sections totally hidden by sea creatures – are heavily encrusted with urchins, sea cucumbers, anemones, nudibranchs, and other invertebrate life. We saw large schools of hottentot in the red bait zone and against some of the walls.

Wall of purple
Wall of purple

There are ample opportunities to swim through cracks in the rocks and between the wreck and the rocks, and this demanded good buoyancy control and some smart finning because there was a fair amount of surge. A particularly alluring gap was just too narrow for me, but every time I went close to try and take a photo through it the surge pushed me up perilously close to the wall, and I had to give up.

Another nudibranch on the Romelia
Another nudibranch on the Romelia

Most of the photos I took are of a macro nature because the visiblity didn’t warrant wide angle shots… You can see in the shots of the divers above that the water was very murky. But there’s also no opportunity really to get a panoramic view of anything because the site is more a series of passages and swim throughs than a giant ship lying on the ocean floor like the Smitswinkel Bay wrecks.

Violet spotted anemone
Violet spotted anemone

More information on the wrecks of the Romelia and the Antipolis can be found here, along with some super photos.

Profusion of life on the Romelia
Profusion of life on the Romelia

Dive date: 19 December 2010

Air temperature: 27 degrees

Water temperature: 7 degrees

Maximum depth: 18.5 metres

Visibility: 5-8 metres

Dive duration: 45 minutes

Newsletter: Dive report and southeaster

Hi everyone

I hope you have had a great Christmas and hopefully a break from the office. Fortunately my ”office” has been busy and I don’t relish a break from it. I know there are many of you chomping at the bit to dive and finish your courses but the southeaster has been howling non-stop since Saturday and the sea looks a little like pea soup. I hope it dies down soon so we can all get back in the water. Sunday’s early boat dives were also cancelled due to an unforseen breakage on the boat.

Strawberry sea anemones and a pink urchin on the Romelia
Strawberry sea anemones and a pink urchin on the Romelia

I spent Friday in the Newlands swimming pool with a family of five, the youngest being 9 years old. Abby was doing a program called Seal Team. It is unbelievably rewarding teach such young kids to dive and her older sister and brother, mom and dad took longer to get comfortable than she did. I had hoops in the water and by the second session in the water her buoyancy was perfect and she swam through the hoops with a big smile on her face.

Gas flame nudibranch on the Romelia
Gas flame nudibranch on the Romelia

I am going to plan a day in the diving pool at Newlands, it’s five meters deep and a perfect place to hone bouyancy skills, trim your gear and cull some of the weight from your heavy weight belts. Its also a wonderful place to test and get acquainted with all the amazing dive gear you got for Christmas…

Divers explore a wall
Divers explore a wall

Early January I will be starting a Wreck specialty and plan to include penetration into the Aster, lying in Hout Bay on the sand at 25 metres. I am also going to run a Nitrox and Deep specialty so if going to 40 metres is on your to do list don’t miss this (I hope you got a torch for Christmas)!

We recently dived the wreck of the Romelia (pictures courtesy of Clare). The visibility was not great but the colours and sea life were stunning.

Sea life on the side of the Romelia (encrusted with orange coraline algae)
Sea life on the side of the Romelia (encrusted with orange coraline algae)

There is an amazing contrast between the life, colour and water temperature between the Atlantic sites and the False Bay sites. I tend to favor the False Bay coast as the water is warmer but every time I dive the Atlantic I am astounded by the clarity of the water. On our last wreck dives, the Maori and the BOS 400 we had 20 plus metres visibility.

Hottentot in the red bait zone above the Romelia
Hottentot in the red bait zone above the Romelia

regards

Learn to Dive Today logoTony Lindeque
076 817 1099
www.learntodivetoday.co.za
www.learntodivetoday.co.za/blog
Diving is addictive!

<strong><a href=”https://www.learntodivetoday.co.za/blog/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/small-colour-e1284626229322.jpg”><img class=”alignleft size-full wp-image-486″ title=”Learn to Dive Today logo” src=”https://www.learntodivetoday.co.za/blog/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/small-colour-e1284626229322.jpg” alt=”Learn to Dive Today logo” width=”73″ height=”67″ /></a>Tony Lindeque</strong>
076 817 1099
<a href=”http://www.learntodivetoday.co.za” target=”_blank”>www.learntodivetoday.co.za</a>
<a href=”https://www.learntodivetoday.co.za/blog” target=”_self”>www.learntodivetoday.co.za/blog</a>
<em>Diving is addictive!</em>

Touch Pool ruminations

I spend one Sunday afternoon a month (the third Sunday – come and say hi – you can catch the shark feeding at 1500 while you’re there, and it might even coincide with my tea break!) at the Two Oceans Aquarium, volunteering at the Touch Pool or the microscope. It’s my job to interpret the exhibits to visitors, introducing them to the joys of marine life. My entire afternoon is documented on beenthere.tv because the camera is located just opposite the Touch Pool.

Working at the Touch Pool
Working at the Touch Pool - sore back at the end of the day!

The Touch Pool is nothing special to look at. It’s a low concrete pool with a rim wide enough for little people to sit on. On any given day it contains icy cold water that is being constantly replaced by the aquarium’s filtration system, several sea anemones, a couple of hermit crabs, some whelks, lots of different kinds of seaweed and sea sponges, some starfish, several abalone shells, and a sea urchin or two.

Working at the Touch Pool
Working at the Touch Pool

As a volunteer at the Touch Pool, I explain simple facts about the sea life to visitors. I also guide them regarding how to interact with the exhibit – no squeezing or pulling, do not take the anemones, crabs, urchins and starfish out of the water, and the like. We also tell the visitors where on their bodies to touch the creatures – most importantly, not to stick their fingers into the sea anemones’ mouths!

Working at the Touch Pool
Looking for the hermit crab

The point of the Touch Pool is to touch. For really small children, it’s just about the different textures – toddlers love the slimy, knobbly and smooth seaweed and the rough sea sponges. Older children also love the seaweed too, but their chief interest is in the starfish and sea anemones. The experience of touching a starfish – gently, just under the surface of the water – is transformative.

 

The things that fascinate me about the Touch Pool are these:

  • Children will run towards the Touch Pool, past exhibits showing large, colourful, exotic fish, shouting “I want to touch the starfish”. This experience means more to many of them than the chance to see marine life that they’d NEVER see ordinarily, even large impressive creatures like sharks and rays.
  • Many adults have never interacted with marine life at all. It’s very special to help a grown up in their twenties or thirties feel the side of a sea anemone for the first time, or run their finger over the rough skin of a starfish. The adults are often more reluctant and fearful than the children.

Aquariums around the world have Touch Pool facilities. The animals are rotated in and out so that they have time to recover – it is unquestionably stressful for a starfish to be groped repeatedly by chubby little hands. But the curators have determined that the virtues of this kind of exhibit are outweighed by the risks to the animals.

As a diver, I am well aware of the debate surrounding touching of the sea creatures we encounter. I am of the view that interacting by touch with marine life is not totally taboo, and when I see the effect of giving this opportunity to small children and others – most if not all of them not scuba divers – I am convinced that there is a place for this kind of interaction in our experience of the sea.

Exhausted at 6pm
Exhausted at 5.30pm

Wreck specialty course… Part 2

Tami, Kate and I are busy with the PADI Wreck Specialty course, and did our third of four dives on Sunday 21 November. It was miserable weather, pouring with rain, but Kate demonstrated the virtues of organising a rental car with ample boot space.

Dive 3: SAS Good Hope

Sea fans on the SAS Good Hope
Sea fans on the SAS Good Hope

The SAS Good Hope is one of the five ships scuttled in Smitswinkel Bay. This was the second dive I’ve done on it. (The first one involved an unfortunate case of nitrogen narcosis – I had to briefly stop my descent because I felt it again this time, but nowhere near as badly.)

Strawberry sea anemones on the SAS Good Hope
Strawberry sea anemones on the SAS Good Hope

The water was a chilly 13 degrees at the bottom, and while the visibility was excellent – perhaps 10 metres – it was very dark. The wreck is spectacular, of massive dimensions (94 metres long) and with large sections caved in. There are numerous bits of metal to swim under (we did try one or two under Tony’s instruction) and overall it is incredibly dramatic. The darkness, however, meant that even though my eyes could see the entire structure in front of me, my camera couldn’t see more than a foot or two. So the only pictures that came out were of a macro nature.

Horse mussel on the SAS Good Hope
Horse mussel on the SAS Good Hope

Our skills on this dive involved use of a reel and line. We tied off the reel on the wreck, and then swam into the current, keeping it tight as if we were going to using it in penetration. We turned two corners and tied it off each time. I really do not like the way I feel at depth – I feel noticeably stupid – but I was quite proud of our performance.

Tying off the reel
Tying off the reel - sorry anemones!

We did a good safety stop in very green murk, and deployed an SMB from seven metres or so. There was a fairly large swell so surface conditions were not ideal, but I managed to keep my breakfast down which pleased me no end.

Soft corals on the SAS Good Hope
Soft corals on the SAS Good Hope

Sea life: Anemones

As a child I was delighted by sea anemones, and no doubt caused absolute havoc among the rock pools, sticking my chubby fingers into every hapless anemone who happened to cross my path. As a grown-up scuba diver, I am still delighted by them, and have realised that they look much prettier – and are much happier – without the interference of my digits.

Blue sea anemone at Long Beach
Blue sea anemone at Long Beach

As a novice underwater photographer, sea anemones are the ideal photographic subject. They are stationary, usually located on the sand so that I can lie right down next to them and get some solid purchase, come in a variety of pretty colours, and when there’s surge they offer just enough movement of tentacles to provide a little but not insurmountable challenge.

Anemone in a concrete block
Anemone in a concrete block on the pipeline at Long Beach
Sea anemone at Fisherman's Beach
False plum anemone at Fisherman's Beach

While they are rarely spotted on the move, they do have some element of mobility. While I was doing my volunteer training at the Two Oceans Aquarium, we were told of a specimen living in the tanks located in the classrooms upstairs who mounted a daring escape attempt and in the process completely blocked the filtering system for his tank. During the rescue/unblocking process he had to be cut in half (horizontally), and both halves survived for about two weeks before slipping this life’s mortal coil.

Beautiful anemone on shells at Long Beach
Beautiful anemone on shells at Long Beach
Sea anemone at Long Beach
Sea anemone at Long Beach with mouth visible

During our training we learned that anemones have a hydrostatic skeleton – they draw water into their bodies, and contract their muscles against the water in order to hold their shape. This is why it’s not kind or nice to touch an anemone in the centre, or to stick your finger into its mouth (the central opening). The pressure you exert can force the water out of his body, and while it is possible to recover from this, it takes a while. At the touch pool at the aquarium we encourage the kids to touch the anemones on the side, below the tentacles, and very gently.

Blue anemone at Long Beach
Blue anemone at Long Beach
Long Beach sea anemone
Long Beach sea anemone

Anemones are radially symmetric (i.e. their body structure radiates from a central point) and use their stinging tentacles to capture small shrimps, plankton and other unsuspecting prey in the water. The prey is paralysed by the stinging cells, and then the anemone draws it inwards towards its mouth.

False plum anemone at Fisherman's Beach
False plum anemone at Fisherman's Beach

A lot of the time they seem to get sand over their mouths – I always worry that it feels uncomfortable, and I wonder how they get rid of it to eat… But I guess they are accustomed to it, living where they do! I have tried purging my octo gently over one of them to blow away the sand, but it didn’t work.

Anemone at Long Beach
Anemone at Long Beach
Pink anemone at Long Beach
Pink anemone at Long Beach, mouth covered with sand