Bookshelf: Eye of the Shoal

Eye of the Shoal: A Fishwatcher’s Guide to Life, the Ocean and Everything – Helen Scales

Eye of the Shoal
Eye of the Shoal

This is an absolutely wonderful book about fish. Everything about fish. Helen Scales is a marine biologist and the accomplished author of marine-themed books (I previously wrote about Poseidon’s Steedher book about seahorses).

Here, Scales delves into the world of an animal whose variety seems almost without limit. Her book overflows with wonders, and interweaves science, adventure and mythology to shed light on the under-appreciated inhabitants of the underwater realm.

Unsolicited (this is almost always the case), I read half of this book to Tony while I was busy with it, and it delighted both of us. We learned about bioluminescent fish, poisonous fish, the sounds fish make, and the colours of their skin. We learned about fish that use tools, fish cognition, and about the state of the science regarding whether fish experience pain. We even learned about moray eels and grouper hunting co-operatively.

As a scuba diver, Scales relates tales of dives on which she observed the behaviours and phenomena she describes, and I was inspired to pay more attention to the activities of the fish we see on dives around Cape Town. They may (almost) all be the same colour, but there are certainly things that they do, and fascinating ways of being, that I am failing to appreciate.

Scales provides a bibliography on her website with links to the open access scientific papers that she used to research the book.

Get the book here (South Africa), here (US) or here (UK).

Hunting rockcod and moray eel in Sodwana

This is a really cool bit of behaviour that I filmed on a dive to Pinnacles on Two Mile reef while we were in Sodwana last September, and one of my favourite things of all that we saw. A malabar rockcod (Epinephelus malabaricus) – as identified by our dive guides – in dark hunting colours, patrols the reef ahead of a honeycomb moray (Gymnothorax favagineus). At the time I didn’t know what was happening – it looked as though the eel was stalking the grouper – but it turns out to be more complicated and more interesting than that. I had filmed a subset of a total pattern of behaviour, in which the moray and rockcod (from the family of fish also called grouper) were hunting co-operatively.

A researcher at a Swiss university discovered in 2006 that coral groupers seek out giant moray eels (both of these species live in the Red Sea), summoning the eels from their dens with a vigorous shaking of their bodies. The fish and the eel then swim together looking for prey , a deadly tag-team of hunters. The groupers are fast in open water, but the eel can get into crevices to flush out prey. It is this behaviour, executed by a different type of eel and a different type of grouper, that I saw in Sodwana.

The scientists reported that the groupers use a head-stand signal, combined with a shaking of their bodies, to indicate the location of hidden prey to the eels. When the eels see this, most of them swim towards the grouper, and flushed out the prey.

You can read more about the study that revealed the extent of this behaviour here, and the actual paper reporting the research here. The scientists also discovered two other species with complementary skills that hunt co-operatively, on the Great Barrier Reef this time: the coral trout, and octopus.

Moray eels look incredible when they swim freely across the reef. Here’s one doing just that, in the Red Sea.

A visit to the Blue Planet aquarium in Copenhagen

On our last day in Denmark, after a week-long family visit between Christmas 2015 and new year 2016, we went to Den Blå Planet, Denmark’s national aquarium. (Actually we were wrong about it being our last day in Denmark, but that’s another story involving Turkish Airlines, who seem to innovate in the field of disappointment.) The aquarium is situated in Kastrup, Copenhagen, quite close to the airport, and overlooks the narrow sound called the Øresund, which separates Denmark from Sweden.

The Blue Planet after the mist cleared
The Blue Planet after the mist cleared

We visited on 1 January, after (eventually) sleeping through the sounds of Copenhagen’s residents letting off five hundred metric tons of fireworks, starting at 5.00 pm the day before. We bought tickets online (a small saving in Danish krone that amounted to eleventy million ZAR) and arrived at opening time. The building is surrounded by a reflection pool, and is built in a spiral form inspired by the shape of a vortex. In the larger halls the high ceilings give a tremendous sense of space; at 10,000 square metres, the building is very large. The halls are generally wide and I imagine it could accommodate a very large number of people before feeling crowded.

Layout of The Blue Planet
Layout of The Blue Planet

The aquarium is divided into three sections. The first is focused on the life found in the lakes and ocean of Denmark and northern Europe. I particularly enjoyed this first part of the aquarium. The animals are adapted to the cold water, so some of them were very similar what we find around Cape Town, and the displays were creative and interesting. There was also the obligatory “anchor with fish” tank, which was (as always) mesmerising. One of the pictures in the gallery below is of Tony checking it out.

Two sea otters live at the aquarium, having been rescued as infants and raised by hand. The male and female otters were found in Alaska when they were four months old with a broken jaw and wounds after a boat strike, and as a 1.5 kg abandoned one day old respectively. As usual, seeing such an intelligent animal in captivity stirs up all sorts of conflicting feelings. That said, you are a stronger person than I am if you could have left these two baby otters to their natural fate (that is, death). The otters spend a lot of time (up to six hours per day) grooming, and in between keep very busy, requiring a lot of enrichment from their four keepers. It was magical to see them.

Also in the northern seas and lakes section is the puffin exhibit, mimicking the cliffs of the Faroe Islands, a Danish territory. Here, also, we found a touch pool (which the Danes call a sensing-aquarium), and a terrifying ambulatory mascot.

The second section of the building is devoted to tropical lakes and rivers, with incredible freshwater exhibits. We saw piranhas, terrapins, frogs, little black rays the size of pancakes, with white polka-dots, and electric eels. The rainforest exhibit is kept at a temperature and humidity level that are impressive in the Scandinavian winter, and I can imagine that this part of the aquarium is popular with expats from warmer climates!

The third part of the aquarium is for the rest of the ocean, and although it’s a big ask to cover (or summarise) so much in the remaining space, it does a fabulous job. The Ocean tank holds four million litres of water, and is home to rays and hammerhead sharks, and other warm water fish. Amongst many other things, there are seahorses, leafy seadragons and coral reef fish to see.

Feeding time in the Ocean tank
Feeding time in the Ocean tank

We watched feeding time for a while, which was quite funny – the aquarists row out onto the water in a small inflatable boat, and administer the snacks from on board. Standing in the tunnel, we could see the boat from below, with the oars working frantically against what I imagine was a bit of surface current.

One of the things that Den Blå Planet does really well is to integrate multimedia, virtual reality and interactive technology into the aquarium experience. This reduces the number of animals required to be on display, and – for the most part – probably takes care of itself, requiring no cleaning and feeding. My favourite such exhibit was the bouncy plankton wall in the ocean section of the aquarium. The photo below is pretty terrible because the display moves all the time, but I put a video on instagram which shows how the plankton clear a space for you when you walk along the wall.

Plankton multimedia display
Plankton multimedia display

We finished off our visit with a flæskesteg sandwich at ØST, the restaurant at the back of the aquarium. It was still a bit misty, but the large windows looking out over the sound let in a lot of light. There is a play area outside, and despite the midwinter temperatures, children in snow suits were making the most of it.

The restaurant at the aquarium, ØST
The restaurant at the aquarium, ØST

I did not get the same strong conservation message from my visit to The Blue Planet that I think the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town works so hard to propagate. This could be because of different cultural approaches to living a “green” lifestyle; in Scandinavia the government does a lot of the work for you, providing renewable energy, prioritising  pedestrian and bicycle traffic, and making it ridiculously easy to recycle, for example. In South Africa it is more of a conscious personal choice and effort to reduce one’s environmental footprint, and there is there is thus perhaps more of a requirement for direct conservation messaging.

Anyway, if you’re in Copenhagen, visit! Next time we’re in Denmark, we’ll check out the little Øresund Aquarium at Helsingor, which is entirely focused on local fauna.

Bookshelf: The Story of Sushi

The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice – Trevor Corson

The Story of Sushi
The Story of Sushi

I didn’t really know what to expect from this book – I admit that I tried it out because it had a fish on the cover, and because I’d previously enjoyed Trevor Corson’s The Secret Life of Lobsters. I was pleasantly surprised. Showing the same narrative flair as he exhibits in his lobster book, Corson interweaves science and history with a present-day story with novel-like characteristics.

Formerly titled The Zen of FishThe Story of Sushi takes place at the California Sushi Academy, tracing a (real and) diverse group of students as they spend several months learning to be sushi chefs. The principal character, the weakest student in the class, is squeamish about handling raw fish, and scared of her sushi knives – one wonders if she had done any research about what being a sushi chef entails. Despite this drag on the overall mood of the classroom scenes (one can only read about someone being berated for their incompetence, or deliberately shirking tasks that they find unappealing, so many times) Corson manages to invest the reader in the lives of the chefs and students that he profiles. As the students learn about sushi, so do we.

The history parts of the book deal with the development of sushi as a cultural and culinary phenomenon, first in Japan and then spreading to the rest of the world. Corson also delves into food science, explaining why things taste the way they do, and the microbial processes that give us vinegar and other fermented foods (essential in the development and preparation of sushi), and marine biology. Make no mistake – bluefin tuna, abalone, urchins, eels and octopus play only bit parts in this book, and appear more frequently as sushi toppings than as vibrant life forms populating the world’s oceans. Corson talks about the biology of the animals only insofar as it enables development of his main – food related – themes.

I found this a surprisingly good read, and a helpful informer on the subject of an aspect of Japanese culture other than their well known penchant for whale hunting and general disingenuousness around ethical fishing practices. It has made me a more informed sushi consumer but not as regards what fish are best to eat (use SASSI for that). There is hardly a mention of whether one can ethically consume all sushi toppings with gay abandon, or whether the environmentally conscious consumer should think twice about eating certain seafoods. I do feel that I have more understanding of the construction and serving of sushi, and am able to watch the chefs at my local sushi bar with a bit more awareness.

There’s a New York Times review (and another book recommendation).

You can get a copy of the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here.

Video footage of the Chrisoula K (Sha’ab Abu Nuhas, Red Sea)

This is the first sight we had of the wreck of the Chrisoula K, on her starboard side. She was a Greek freighter, and was wrecked at Sha’ab Abu Nuhas in 1981, carrying a cargo of tiles.

Here are some beautiful batfish chilling next to a toppled mast on the Chrisoula K.

We watched this moray eel swim down the wreck and make its way into a hole near the bottom on the port side:

Tony explored a companionway while Veronica swam alongside, outside the wreck’s starboard side.

Finally, towards the end of the dive, we hung out on the top deck of the wreck. This is what we could see…

Dive sites (Red Sea): Chrisoula K (Sha’ab Abu Nuhas)

Christo arrives on the wreck
Christo arrives on the wreck

The Chrisoula K was a German-built vessel that was wrecked at Sha’ab Abu Nuhas in 1981 while under Greek ownership. She had a cargo of Italian floor tiles on board. (We are sure that if we combined the cargoes of the Jolanda and the Chrisoula K we could do a complete bathroom makeover.) There is some controversy about whether the wreck we dived is actually the Chrisoula K (some contend that it is another tile-carrying vessel called the Markos – which Ned Middleton contends is actually the nearby Giannis D – or even that it is actually the Kimon M, while the real Chrisoula K is in very deep water), but our dive guides brushed this off as a storm in a teacup, and seemed pretty certain that the wreck we dived, which lies in about 25 metres of water, is the Chrisoula K.

Some of the cargo of tiles
Some of the cargo of tiles

We dropped in on the starboard side of the wreck, which is mostly standing upright on the sand with her bow embedded in the reef slope. There are booms and masts sticking out over the side of the wreck, and just underneath one of them we found a small school of longfin batfish, who eyed us balefully as we swam by but made little effort to avoid us. On the sand beneath were the traces of a large number of garden eels, whose presence was evidenced by the small sand piles they left as they vanished with the approach of the first group of divers from our boat.

Longfin batfish
Longfin batfish

The stern of the wreck is twisted ninety degrees from the horizontal, which looks confusing. Apparently it started leaning to starboard, and has gradually completed a full twist. The propellor is intact and present. The port side of the ship lies quite close to the reef, and one can swim down the passage between it and the reef, or explore the top of the wreck. Some of the cargo of tiles is visible in a hold, and we found a lovely porcupinefish hiding near some tiles, too.

Booms and masts overhanging the seabed
Booms and masts overhanging the seabed

It is possible to penetrate the wreck, apparently, but I’m not into that stuff so I gave it a skip. We finished off the dive with a safety stop and then ascended to where our Zodiac was moored on top of the superstructure. When there were enough divers to fill the boat, and then a few more, we set off back to our liveaboard.

Moray eel under the Chrisoula K
Moray eel under the Chrisoula K

There’s some nice detail about the wreck from Red Sea wreck diving expert Ned Middleton, here.

Dive date: 23 October 2013

Air temperature: 25 degrees

Water temperature:  27 degrees

Maximum depth: 20.2 metres

Visibility: 30 metres

Dive duration:  43 minutes

Safety stopping divers on the Chrisoula K
Safety stopping divers on the Chrisoula K

Dive sites (Red Sea): Barge wreck (Bluff Point, Big Gubal Island)

The barge wreck by day
The barge wreck by day

There is a barge wreck at Bluff Point on Big Gubal Island in the Red sea, where we did an amazing, fast drift dive along the side of the lagoon. During that dive we did stop in briefly at the barge wreck (its origin and identity is unknown), but it was on a night dive the previous evening that we actually spent a significant amount of time exploring the barge.

Divers exploring the barge at night
Divers exploring the barge at night

It’s supposed to be one of the best night dive sites in the Red Sea, and we were amazed by the amount of life on and around the wreckage. We saw multiple large moray eels, huge basket stars, enormous urchins, and a crazy variety of other life. We jumped off the back of our liveaboard, swam under a neighbouring liveaboard, and found the barge wreck just off its starboard side. It was teeming with divers from our boat and the other liveaboard, but there was so much to see over such a spread out area that it didn’t matter too much.

Giant basket star
Giant basket star

My favourite thing was the basket stars, of which there were many. We saw some huge ones, with diameter nearly as big as my arm span, and some small, palm-sized ones. They are not the lovely blue-grey colour of the ones we see in Cape Town, but the intricate design of their many arms is the same.

We also saw a number of moray eels. Our dive guide told us that two big ones live on the barge wreck, named George and Georgina. The ones I saw and photographed were extremely large. As with the night dive we did at the Alternatives, the water was very still and very clear, so torch light actually shone an appreciable distance. This kind of night diving is so easy and wonderful that I think it might have spoiled me for night diving in Cape Town!

Moray eels under the barge wreck
Moray eels under the barge wreck

Dive date: 21 October 2013

Air temperature: 24 degrees

Water temperature:  26 degrees

Maximum depth: 11.2 metres

Visibility:  30 metres

Dive duration: 50 minutes

Freckled hawkfish on some coral
Freckled hawkfish on some coral

Video footage of Bluff Point (Big Gubal Island, Red Sea)

So apparently I took a lot of videos on our Bluff Point dive on our Red Sea trip. It was an exhilarating drift dive along the outside of the lagoon wall, and as we came around the corner under the lighthouse we were flung out over water hundreds of metres deep. Let’s start with my favourite video, about which I am expecting a call from National Geographic any day now. Here’s a moray eel swimming down the outer lagoon wall in the sunlight, finding a hole in the coral, and going inside.

Here are my fellow divers: Tony, Christo, Kate and Veronica.

This shows you how fast the current was moving. I didn’t fin at all while taking this video (or, indeed, for much of the dive).

Here is some of the coral that we saw. It’s very dense and colourful here.

Finally, here’s a little panorama taken while we were still against the outer lagoon wall.

Dive sites (Red Sea): The Alternatives

Coral and fans at the Alternatives
Coral and fans at the Alternatives

Despite their unromantic name, the Alternatives are an extremely appealing dive site. So-called because they offer a sheltered alternative to diving SS Thistlegorm when conditions are poor, the Alternatives are a series of about fifteen coral pinnacles just around the corner from the Ras Mohammed National Park. We dived the furthest one along (closest to the Park), doing both a day and a night dive there.

Giant sea fan
Giant sea fan

After giant striding off the back of the boat, we headed towards a series of small pinnacles and coral heads surrounding a large pinnacle that split in two from about half way up. I was amazed by the sea fans – we saw one enormous one completely filling the space between two pinnacles. I took a photo of it, but it was backlit by the sun, so it’s not very good. We made our way around the large pinnacle, and headed slowly back to the boat.

Clearfin lionfish
Clearfin lionfish

The night dive we did here I enjoyed more than any other night dive I’ve ever done. It was warm, still, and clear, and there was so much to see! I found it helpful that we’d done a dive at the same site hours earlier – without that, I might have found the many small pinnacles confusing and disorienting. There were flashing strobes tied to a weighted line and flag under our boat, for navigation purposes, but some people did need fetching when they surfaced away from the liveaboard. That’s what Zodiacs are for!

Dive date: 19 October 2013

Air temperature: 26 degrees

Water temperature: 27 degrees

Maximum depth: 12.1 metres

Visibility: 25 metres

Dive duration: 57 minutes

Moray eel at the Alternatives
Moray eel at the Alternatives

Dive sites (Durban): Birthday Ledges

On the boat waiting to get in at Birthday Ledges
On the boat waiting to get in at Birthday Ledges

After the mask trouble I experienced on Bikini Reef on the morning of 19 June, I was tempted to lie queasily on the beach in my wetsuit (very like a whale) and feel sorry for myself. The rational part of my brain quietly suggested that I should get back in the saddle immediately, and I’m glad I did. The second dive of the day was to Birthday Ledges, which was appropriate given that one of us was celebrating his birthday…

The birthday Batman
The birthday Batman

The boat ride out to the reef is fairly long compared to what we’re used to in Cape Town (it takes around half an hour to get to the SAS Fleur, and that’s as far out as most operators go) and Sodwana. After crossing the harbour entrance (completely thrilling!), we headed south along the Bluff, past the old whaling station – now a police shooting range and out of bounds to the public. Birthday Ledges is at the southern end of the Blood Reef complex in Durban, and is so named because it always throws up some sort of surprise. (Or, because it was discovered on someone’s birthday… Take your pick!)

Raggy scorpionfish
Raggy scorpionfish

We enjoyed a fantastic dive, with lots to look at and wonderful visibility. The reef is quite raised, with the ledge pointing out to sea, and there are many places to look under and into. This high profile provides a lot of habitat for the very territorial tropical fish, and hence much joy to the visiting diver. We saw two large frogfish, resting less than a metre away from each other. I spotted nudibranchs, scorpionfish, moray eels, and trumpetfish.

There was some weird rubbish on the reef, including a huge sheet of yellow and red fabric that our Divemaster tried to untangle from the rocks, unsuccessfully. The Blood Reef system is not far offshore and just around the corner from Durban Harbour, and I think a lot of debris makes its way out there where it gets caught on the reef.

Baby raggy scorpionfish
Baby raggy scorpionfish

Dive date: 19 June 2013

Air temperature: 23 degrees

Water temperature:  22 degrees

Maximum depth: 19.3 metres

Visibility: 20 metres

Dive duration: 46 minutes

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