Bookshelf: Polar Obsession

Polar Obsession – Paul Nicklen

Polar Obsession
Polar Obsession

Paul Nicklen is a National Geographic contributing photographer who grew up in the far northern reaches of Canada, living in tiny settlements mostly populated by Inuit people. From them he learned how to survive in the bitterly cold environment (summer is less than a month long), and a respect and admiration for the creatures that live in those conditions. His love for the hostile but fragile polar ecosystems led him to document them in order to raise awareness of the threat they face from global warming.

Polar Obsession is an enormous, glossy, coffee table book (too large to read comfortably in bed with one’s husband!) full of beautiful photographs of polar bears, sea birds, seals, whales, wolves, reindeer, penguins, krill, and the polar landscapes.

Nicklen ventures into the freezing (-1.5 degrees celcius) water, and swims under the ice to capture the activity of the creatures who spend time there. Many planktonic creatures – amphipods, copepods and krill – congregate under the ice, and are devoured by whales and various fish such as Arctic cod. His photographs bear out the fact that he has exercised profound patience in order to capture the particular moments and interactions – a lot of his job is waiting for everything to be in the right state: light, weather, and the animal itself.

Nicklen’s stories about how he took some of the photographs are wonderful and often hilarious. This little video describes one of the stories and photo series in the book: an interaction Nicklen had with a female leopard seal.

There are is another video on YouTube about the book here, and you can see some more of Nicklen’s polar photos here and here. For those who are interested in the technicalities of this kind of work, Nicklen lists his camera gear and the supplies he would require for a photographic expedition in the far north or south. He often wears a drysuit even when working on the ice, because he has fallen through the ice more than once, and a drysuit dramatically improves his chances of survival.

This is a magnificent book – one of my friends, who has a special fondness for polar bears, is getting it for Christmas! It made me want to visit South Georgia Island and the Antarctic particularly much.

You can purchase a copy of the book here if you’re in South Africa, and here if you’re not.

Dive sites: Maidstone Rock

Sinuous sea fan with brittlestars on board
Sinuous sea fan with brittlestars on board

Maidstone Rock is an infrequently-dived site in the offshore region of Seaforth and Boulders Beach. The boat rides from Miller’s Point or Long Beach are only a few minutes (shorter from Long Beach). Grant took us to an area of the reef that is newly discovered, so we got to explore some virgin territory.

Klipfish in disguise
Klipfish in disguise

The reef is characteristic of the others we have dived in the area, with low rocky outcrops heavily encrusted with invertebrates. We found a small anchor and rope, but they had obviously been in the water for a long time and were almost unrecognisable.

Brass valve handle in situ
Brass valve handle in situ

I found an old brass valve handle or similar (treasure!), which Tony is cleaning up with diluted pool acid, tartaric acid and lots of patience, and we also came across a large (perhaps one metre diameter) brass or other metal ring that looked a bit like a truck tyre without sidewalls. It is heavily overgrown with feather stars and other invertebrate life.

Mysterious metal ring
Mysterious metal ring

I also found several well-camouflaged klipfish. Unlike our confident friends at Long Beach, these klipfish were hiding in crevices in the rocks and generally trying not to be seen.

Strawberry sea anemones
Strawberry sea anemones

Dive date: 5 June 2011

Air temperature: 23 degrees

Water temperature: 15 degrees

Maximum depth: 25.1 metres

Visibility: 10 metres

Dive duration: 39 minutes

Tony at the safety stop with the valve handle on his reel
Tony at the safety stop with the valve handle on his reel
Diver ascending past an SMB
Diver ascending past an SMB

Hitch hikers

The idea for this post was prompted by a two recent dives. One we did at Partridge Point, where the life on the rocks is so prolific that in places it seemed to be stacked on top of itself for want of space. The other we did one evening at Long Beach, and on the way out at the end of the dive, in the first two metres of water off the beach, I spotted two tiny long-siphoned whelks, clearly juveniles. One was hitching a ride on the back of a hermit crab!

Baby long-siphoned whelk riding a hermit crab
Baby long-siphoned whelk riding a hermit crab

Returning the favour, here’s a close-up of part of the shell of a simply enormous long-siphoned whelk (probably over 30 centimetres long) at Partridge Point. He’s got a variety of creatures on his shell, most noticeably a bright red-chested sea cucumber!

Whelk with red chested sea cucumbers hitching a ride
Whelk with red chested sea cucumbers hitching a ride

Many of the brittle stars I’ve seen lately have been covered with very photogenic little crustaceans called ornate amphipods, looking a bit like wood lice in full party dress. They are common, but not often seen by divers as we tend to focus on the big stuff! They are scavengers and feed on whatever they can find as they travel over reefs (and, in this case, other marine life)!

Ornate amphipods riding on a brittle star
Ornate amphipods riding on a brittle star

Even though sea squirts don’t have thoughts or emotions as such, I was amused by this cluster of red bait that I saw at Long Beach. It’s been covered by another kind of colonial ascidian (the greyish blue mass with white siphons), leaving just the large siphons of the red bait visible.

Red bait under a colonial ascidian
Red bait under a colonial ascidian

Something similar has happened here:

Encrusted red bait
Encrusted red bait

Some of the hitch hikers we see aren’t entirely benign. I’ve already posted a picture of a puffadder shyshark with a copepod parasite sticking out of his gill covers – these parasites don’t cause the fish any noticeable discomfort, but they’re not without impact. Here’s another unfortunate shyshark we found at Long Beach early in February.

Shyshark with parasite in its gill cover
Shyshark with parasite in its gill cover

Fish lice tend to attach themselves just above the eye of fransmadam, hottentot and similar fish. The lice essentially drink the blood of their host fish – they’re horrible creatures and we’ve noticed that many of the fish affected by them tend to hang around divers and to swim very sluggishly. Guido of SURG has pulled off a louse before, from a very docile fish, and there was a big seeping hole in the fish’s head underneath where the louse was attached.

Fransmadam with fish louse at Fisherman's Beach
Fransmadam with fish louse at Fisherman's Beach

Tony and I have seen very small fish with lice attached, almost a quarter of their size, and fish with more than one fish louse in residence. Here’s a maasbanker, one of a school that followed us around for a couple of dives at Long Beach in March.

Juvenile maasbanker with fish louse
Juvenile maasbanker with fish louse

In the picture below, the fish second from left towards the top of the photo has a large louse on his head.

Hottentot at Sunny Cove
Hottentot at Sunny Cove

After all that depressing parasite stuff, here’s a picture I find absolutely hilarious. The starfish isn’t going anywhere fast, but looks as though he’s reclining in a plushy couch formed by his fellow marine creatures. He is begging to have a smile photoshopped on!

Happy starfish at Partridge Point
Happy starfish at Partridge Point