Newsletter: Pedal pedal pedal

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

No diving This weekend we are hamstrung by the Cape Town Cycle Tour on Sunday – good luck if you are participating! I’m away in Port Elizabeth on Saturday, so I won’t be running dives even if it wasn’t going to be rather windy (it is). I’ll be diving with students during next week, so let me know if you want to tag along and I’ll keep you posted.
Sea star at Long Beach
Sea star at Long Beach

Ocean/Surf night at the Cape Town Adventure Film Festival

Film buff? Love the ocean? Think popcorn is a food group? This event on Friday, 12 April, may be right up your street. Get tickets here. regards Tony Lindeque 076 817 1099 www.learntodivetoday.co.za www.learntodivetoday.co.za/blog/ Diving is addictive! To subscribe to receive this newsletter by email, use the form on this page!

Newsletter: From the heart

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Saturday: Boat dives from Hout Bay or shore dives at Long Beach

Weekend conditions don’t look all that great. Saturday will most likely be best for launching from Hout Bay , or there may be a slight chance of shore dive from Long Beach for students. I will make this decision late tomorrow depending on sea conditions. Let me know if you’re keen to dive.

A heart for you on Valentines day
A heart for you on Valentines day

Sunday is the Cape Peninsula marathon, starting in Green Point and finishing in Simon’s Town, so expect some road closures.

Film screening on the beach

There’s a free screening of the documentary Tidal at St James beach on Thursday 7 March. Read about the film here, and RSVP on Quicket. There’s no charge.

Tony Lindeque

076 817 1099
www.learntodivetoday.co.za
www.learntodivetoday.co.za/blog/

Diving is addictive!

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Dive sites (Southern Mozambique): Checkers

There are a lot of reefs around Ponta do Ouro and Ponta Malongane, and it was great to dive two new ones (Checkers and Steve’s Ledge) on our visit there in June-July. I did this dive with Christo and Laurine. Esther and Tony were feeling a bit under the weather with mild colds, so they sat out the first dive of the day on the Thursday of our trip. Checkers is a short boat ride from the launch site at Ponta.

Giant cushion star
Giant cushion star

The first thing I noticed at Checkers was the abundance of plate coral, which is beautiful but requires divers’ buoyancy to be impeccable to avoid crunching it. (It is surprisingly strong, though – on two separate Sodwana trips, owing to poor buoyancy control and body awareness, I have witnessed divers reclining on huge plate corals like overdressed burlesque dancers in giant martini glasses, and the plate corals survived without breaking. The divers almost didn’t, though! Grr!) There are plate (or table) corals of all sizes, some of them growing across gaps in the reef. This provides excellent habitat for marine life.

Soldiers hiding under plate coral
Soldiers hiding under plate coral

The reef has more interesting topography than a place like Doodles, even though it is relatively close to Doodles with no other reef in between. It slopes quite dramatically in some places. Christo suggested swimming back and forth across it in both directions so as to be able to have maximum opportunity to see into all the crevices and under the overhangs. The reef is relatively small and round rather than long, meaning that it’s probably not ideal to dive in a strong current, because doubling back will be tricky.

A porcupinefish on the move
A porcupinefish on the move

There are sand channels running through the reef in places, and as we swam over one of these we were passed by a beautiful porcupinefish with sad eyes, making his way somewhere. He swam right between us without batting an eyelid. I spent quite a lot of time trying to photograph this juvenile batfish, but he was far too busy demarcating his personal space among clouds of other fish under an overhang to turn sideways to the camera.

A juvenile batfish under an overhang
A juvenile batfish under an overhang

This is a great dive site for spotting hidden, interesting animals. There is enough life in the form of schooling fish over the reef to keep divers who don’t like sticking their heads under overhangs busy too! Photographic opportunities abound (despite the evidence I have presented here), but it isn’t possible to get to everything in an ethical manner (i.e. without lying on the reef like a plonker) because of the delicate structure of the coral.

Dive date: 2 July 2015

Air temperature: 21 degrees

Water temperature:  23 degrees

Maximum depth:  16.8 metres

Visibility: 12-15 metres

Dive duration: 57 minutes

Article(s): Phenomena & The Verge on a sea star wasting virus

Our wedding starfish at Long Beach
Our wedding starfish at Long Beach… see, he is lying in a heart shape!

The starfish in this picture may or may not still be alive (my guess is not), but it looks very much like a starfish in the early stages of Sea Star Wasting Syndrome (SSWS), minus a few legs. (It isn’t sick – I photographed it at Long Beach a few years ago – and it is actually an invasive species on South Africa’s coast.) Sea stars on the Pacific coast of North America began sickening – suppurating and disintegrating – in mid-2013, and scientists have been scrambling to find the cause. Initially it was not clear what was causing the sea stars to die in such grisly ways: pollution, warming oceans, large storms and other possibilities were considered. The clue that told scientists that the cause was “microscopic and biological” (in the words of National Geographic Phenomena blogger Ed Yong, who covers the subject with admirable clarity) was that starfish in aquaria, who were bathed in water pumped from the ocean and filtered, were also dying.

Yong’s post explains how scientists isolated the virus (a process involving blending, filtering, and genetic sequencing), and what scientists are hoping to learn from the work they have done on this subject. Potential parallels between SSWS and viruses that periodically flare up in human populations (Ebola being a recent example) are interesting.

At The Verge, Elizabeth Lopatto writes in more detail about SSWS, its discovery, and consequences. She points out that sea stars are a “keystone species”, and that

Keystone species help maintain an ecosystem by eating quickly-reproducing prey species like urchins and mussels — keeping populations low. Without the sea stars, the urchin population explodes; bad news for the kelp forests and everything in them. Giant kelp can grow to 150 feet underwater at a speed of two feet a day, but their weaknesses are their holdfasts, which are sort of like tree roots. The holdfasts are home to brittle stars, prawns and snails, among other creatures. Urchins like to eat the kelp holdfasts. Without them, the rest of the kelp drifts off in the tides. In this way, urchins can devour forests, which, higher up, are also home to fish, including several types of commercially-important rockfish, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Lopatto’s article is an excellent read – find it here.

(As an aside, the ocean is full – full to the gills – of viruses. This was revealed to me by the Palumbis in The Extreme Life of the Sea.)

Christmas wishes

To those of you who celebrate Christmas, we wish a very happy day with family and friends. Please enjoy this small collection of sea stars.

A giant cushion star on a sandy area of the reef
A giant cushion star on a sandy area of the reef
Brooding cushion star on 13th Apostle reef
Brooding cushion star on 13th Apostle reef
Brooding cushion star on the Maori
Brooding cushion star on the Maori
Lonely sea star
Lonely sea star
Granular sea star
Granular sea star
A red sea star... count the legs!
A red sea star… count the legs!

Sodwana diving photos (April 2014) – part II

What is Kate doing on the sand?
What is Kate doing on the sand?

Here are a few more underwater photos from our late April trip to Sodwana. Not great – see my disclaimer in yesterday’s post, for what it’s worth – but there you are.

Happy Otti
Happy Otti

Some of the sites we visited on Two Mile Reef were noticeably more barren – with less coral and more sand and rock – than others. I wonder whether this is a seasonal (or annual, or multi-year) variation, or whether it’s a slow process of the reef becoming silted up. Sites towards the middle of Two Mile, such as Garden Route, were covered with coral and looked exceptionally healthy.

Sodwana sees a lot of divers doing a lot of dives, year-round. There are at least eight dive charters operating from the beach, and Two Mile in particular sees some heavy traffic – including Open Water divers (many from Johannesburg) doing their first sea dives. During a recent conversation, Gerard blamed the heavy boat traffic for what he perceives as a slow decline in the health and biomass of the reef life in Sodwana; I wonder if the fishing activity that somehow co-exists with the dive charters has anything to do with it. Or perhaps we are imagining things, and just happened to dive on a few parts of the reef that were having a quiet day.

Sea fan on the sand
Sea fan on the sand

Sodwana is a Marine Protected Area, but perhaps it is not getting the monitoring and policing it requires to be fully effective. This is a widespread problem in all of South Africa’s MPAs, as well as a concerning lack of scientific thinking in the government ministries that are supposed to be keeping an eye on these things.

Freckled hawkfish
Freckled hawkfish

Whether we are imagining the changes in the reefs in Sodwana or not, it’s still a very beautiful place to dive, and worthy (as are all wild places on this earth) of our protection. You should go there and see for yourself!

Dive sites: Roman Rock

I’m not sure why I haven’t written about Roman Rock before. I’ve actually done four dives on the main reef, the first in 2010. The pictures in this post are from more than one of the dives – I’ll group them together, and you’ll be able to see by the water colour which dive is which.

Reef life at Roman Rock
Reef life at Roman Rock

Roman Rock reef is a very large collection of boulders separated by sand patches, centred on the Roman Rock lighthouse. Nearby reefs include Castor RockLivingstone ReefRoman’s RestWonder Reef, and Tivoli Pinnacles. The reef is comprised of granite boulders, heavily encrusted with typical Cape Town reef life – feather stars, brittle stars, nudibranchs, sea stars, urchins, sea cucumbers and ascidians – varying with the depth. If the current is strong you will find a lot of fish here, mostly roman and hottentot, enjoying the tasty bounty brought by the tide.

Part of the dive is along high walls that are reminiscent of Atlantis Reef, further south. There are deep dead-end passages in between the rocks, wide enough to swim through (or drive a car through), and the rippled sand looks like a white carpet or a runway. In the middle of nowhere you will come across a ladder; it’s been there since the first time I dived Roman Rock in 2010. Your guess is as good as mine.

Ladder in the middle of nowhere
Ladder in the middle of nowhere
Redbait at Roman Rock
Redbait at Roman Rock

The site is suitable for Open Water divers, as the maximum depth one can attain while staying adjacent to the reef is about 18 metres. There are several pinnacles and shallower plateaus that are suitable for deeper safety stops. It goes without saying that each diver must have a surface marker buoy – the site is a relatively short boat ride from False Bay Yacht Club, but offshore nonetheless and there may be boat traffic, depending on where the current takes you.

Dive date: 3 August 2013

Air temperature: 22 degrees

Water temperature: 14 degrees

Maximum depth: 16.5 metres

Visibility: 10 metres

Dive duration: 38 minutes

Dive sites: Brunswick

Tony and students on the surface over the wreck of the Brunswick
Tony and students on the surface over the wreck of the Brunswick

The Brunswick is a historical wooden shipwreck that lies a few hundred metres off the northern end of Long Beach in Simon’s Town, directly opposite the northern end of the white apartment buildings overlooking the Main Road. Like HNMS Bato, she is infrequently dived. Having lain underwater since 1805, she is heavily overgrown and much of her decking and hull is covered by sand. She used to be a shore entry (with a precipitous climb over the railway line), but in recent years a large number of boulders have been added as a breakwater between the ocean and the railway line, and climbing over in dive gear is no longer possible. For this reason we do the dive from the boat. Close to shore and in shallow water, the Brunswick is an ideal site to get used to boat diving.

Extensive field of wooden decking
Extensive field of wooden decking

The Brunswick was a British East Indiaman, which means she carried men and goods between Britain and the East Indies – (south)east Asia and India. She was carrying a cargo of cotton and sandalwood from China back to Britain when she was captured by some French vessels off Sri Lanka, and brought to Simon’s Bay. In September 1805 her anchor rope parted, and she ran aground during a south easterly gale. Most of her cargo was salvaged, as she lies in shallow (less than six metres deep) water.

We found the dive site to be similar to HNMS Bato, which was also a sturdily built wooden ship of similar vintage. The Brunswick was 1,200 tons, and her wreckage is spread out quite extensively. There are many thick, wooden planks, laid out as they would have been to form her decks, as well as much evidence of the bronze bolts that secured parts of the ship together. There are also many copper bolts, rivets and what could be small amounts of rolled up copper sheathing in evidence on the site.

Anemone among feather stars and papery burnupena
Anemone among feather stars and papery burnupena

The highests parts of the wreck are covered with feather stars, anemones, sea cucumbers, and kelp. There are many octopus, and peering under the wreckage with a torch yielded a couple of very large pyjama catsharks. We were lucky to dive the site most recently on a day with lovely visibility, and the shallowness of the water means that there’s a lot of light penetration which improves things enormously.

The highest parts of the Brunswick wreck
The highest parts of the Brunswick wreck

Before diving this site, you should call the SA Navy Ops Room on 021 787 3818, to ask for permission and to tell them how long you’ll be. Same procedure as at Long Beach.

Dive date: 13 July 2013

Air temperature: 19 degrees

Water temperature: 15 degrees

Maximum depth: 5.4 metres

Visibility: 10 metres

Dive duration: 42 minutes

Mark helps Christo at the boat after the dive
Mark helps Christo at the boat after the dive

Article: New York Times & Nature on trawling

The New York Times recently published a short editorial on what commercial trawling is doing to the sea floor. Nature had published a similar article a month or so earlier, describing how the results of trawling were initially mistaken for the aftermath of an underwater landslide. You can see images of its effects here and here, and the Nature article has a close up photograph of trawled seabed.

If you’ve spent any time on the sand at one of Cape Town’s dive sites you’ll know that not only does the surface of the sand provide habitat for all sorts of creatures, but just under the surface live numerous others that may only venture out at night, or not at all. Imagine smoothing over that top layer, and dislodging the anemones, starfish, sea cucumbers, beaked sandfish, rays, worms, bivalves and their friends. Then imagine doing it again, within days, before any of the creatures could re-establish themselves.

In addition to removing all the fish from the ocean, our activities are apparently reshaping the ocean floor. That’s embarrassing, to say the least.

Read the NYT article here and the Nature one here.

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.