Newsletter: Huffin’ and puffin

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Saturday: Boat dives from False Bay Yacht Club

Puffins and a shearwater at Skomer Island in Wales
Puffins and a shearwater at Skomer Island in Wales

We had a good time meeting some North Atlantic wildlife last week, but it’s great to be back in False Bay. This week we’ve had pretty good dives, with 3-5 metre visibility at Photographer’s Reef yesterday, and 5-8 metre visibility at Ark Rock and SAS Pietermaritzburg today, with excellent surface conditions. I’m planning to launch in False Bay on Saturday; let me know if you want to be on board.

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

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Newsletter: Lend a hand

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Sunday: Shore or boat dives

Most forecasts predict a southerly swell tomorrow, which does not do good things for False Bay. If anything, Sunday will be the day to dive and we will make a decision on whether to launch or shore dive during the early afternoon on Saturday. Let me know if you need a dose of thalassotherapy and I’ll put you on the list.

Greater flamingos at Strandfontein
Greater flamingos at Strandfontein

Help a flamingo

Thousands of lesser flamingo chicks have been rescued from the parched Kamfers Dam near Kimberly, and are being hand-reared at facilities around South Africa. If you are in Cape Town and have some free time, consider volunteering at SANCCOB. More information here.

Meet a seal

If you haven’t already visited the southern elephant seal that is moulting on Fish Hoek beach, consider doing so this weekend. He’s a magnificent beast and it’s a real privilege – though perhaps not as rare as you might think – to see this type of seal on our shores. Read more about southern elephant seals here. regards

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

Diving is addictive!

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Stompneuspunt beacon

View of Stompneuspunt beacon from inside Shelly Point
View of Stompneuspunt beacon from inside Shelly Point

During the course of a West Coast road trip late last year, we stopped at the unmanned Stompneuspunt beacon. This striking, squat structure sits at the southern end of St Helena Bay. To get there, we had to drive through the eerie, deserted, badly laid out Shelley Point golf estate development (tell the guard at the gate that you want to visit the lighthouse). Persistence through the maze of narrow roads turning in upon each other is well rewarded.

Stompneuspunt beacon
Stompneuspunt beacon

The green-painted lantern house atop the structure looks like a minaret, and the whole building looks like an exotic transplant from the Middle East. The beacon is situated on a beach of coarse sand covered with thousands of empty mussel shells and inhabited by flocks of cormorants. The mussel shells wash up after winter storms and red tides, and because of predation by rock lobsters and other shellfish.

Stompneuspunt beacon
Stompneuspunt beacon

The beacon was commissioned in 1934, at which time it was a pyramid-shaped wooden structure. The present building was completed in 2001. The tower is 8 metres high, and the focal plane of the light is 12 metres above sea level. The intensity of the light is a modest 1,403 candelas, but this beacon doesn’t have to compete with much in the way of onshore light pollution. It’s visible from 10 nautical miles away.

Stompneuspunt beacon
Stompneuspunt beacon

Hit up Lighthouses of South Africa for more information on this charming light.

Cape Recife lighthouse

The road to Cape Recife lighthouse
The road to Cape Recife lighthouse

My favourite lighthouse in Port Elizabeth (the others are the Hill lighthouse and the Deal light) – and possibly anywhere in South Africa – is Cape Recife. It’s magnificently situated on a headland at the south end of Algoa Bay, surrounded by shifting sand dunes (which sometimes complicate road access after high winds) and rocky reefs. I visited it very early one morning, with only fishermen about.

Cape Recife lighthouse
Cape Recife lighthouse

Cape Recife lighthouse was commissioned in 1851, the fourth lighthouse to be commissioned in South Africa. Of those still operational, it is the third oldest (after Green Point and Cape Agulhas). It comprises an octagonal masonry tower. It was originally painted with bands of white and red; today (as you can see from the eleventy million pictures I took) it’s painted black and white. This change was made in 1929.

Cape Recife lighthouse
Cape Recife lighthouse

The tower is 24 metres high, with focal plane 28 metres above sea level. The light’s intensity is 4,000,000 candelas (compare the Deal light’s 592,000 candelas) and is visible from 29 nautical miles away.

Lantern house of Cape Recife lighthouse
Lantern house of Cape Recife lighthouse

The Cape Recife light has the only large lens in South Africa that rotates on a steel track, resting on brass and steel rollers. The other large lenses (for example at Slangkop) float on a bath of mercury, an arrangement which has the advantage of being virtually frictionless. This allows for much faster and smoother rotation, with no wear and tear on the component parts. Unfortunately frequent exposure to mercury entails serious health hazards.

Tower of Cape Recife lighthouse
Tower of Cape Recife lighthouse

The lighthouse is situated next to the Cape Recife nature reserve, which has excellent bird watching. A small fee to enter the area is required – permits obtainable at Pine Lodge Resort (or possibly at the gate). Check before visiting. No diving is allowed in the area, and you will be fined if you are found with dive gear in your vehicle. SANCCOB (formerly SAMREC) runs a seabird rescue centre on the way to the lighthouse. If you visit SANCCOB, and get your entry ticket stamped to prove it, the permit fee is waived.

Cape Recife lighthouse
Cape Recife lighthouse

It’s possible to go inside the lighthouse on weekdays, by calling ahead to make an appointment. The number on the sign outside was (041) 507 2484. If dialling from outside South Africa, replace the (041) with +27 41.

Footsteps on the sand outside Cape Recife lighthouse
Footsteps on the sand outside Cape Recife lighthouse

Lighthouses of South Africa has a lot more information about this gorgeous lighthouse, along with extensive pictures of its interior.

Newsletter: Playing the odds

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Sunday: Boat dives, location TBC

The odds are good that diving will be sort of okay on both sides of the peninsula, on both days of the weekend. We had 3-4 metre visibility yesterday in False Bay with lots of red tide patches. Strong south easterly winds tomorrow should push the red tide a little further into the bay.

The weekend has very little swell and although the wind does fool around a little, I think Sunday will be the best option. Hout Bay or False Bay I cannot say but will decide that on Saturday. If you’re up for a dive, get in touch.

Gannets at Bird Island in Lamberts Bay
Gannets at Bird Island in Lamberts Bay

Diversnight

Next Saturday, 3 November, we’re night diving at Long Beach. If you’re keen to participate in Diversnight, we’d love to see you. If you are going to need gear, let me know sooner rather than later.

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

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Bookshelf: Antarctica

Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of the World’s Most Mysterious Continent – Gabrielle Walker

THIS is the book about the Antarctic that I have been looking for all of my life. It’s unlikely that this discovery will stop my obsessive consumption of polar-related literature and documentary material, but this is likely a book I will return to again.

Antarctica
Antarctica

The author, a science writer, has visited Antarctica several times, and is thus able to weave her personal experiences of  life on the driest continent with accounts of the science taking place there, and the scientists doing the work. Walker has had the sort of access to the scientists that most of us can only dream of, and makes reasonably good use of it.

Mixed in with stories of her Antarctic travels and meetings with researchers, Walker also briefly recounts the stories of some of the explorers of last century who opened up the interior of the continent. She is able to visit Western Antarctica, a part of the continent that very few people get to, and where the effects of climate change can be seen most clearly.

There’s a much more comprehensive review from The Guardian here. If you’re interested in the Antarctic, and the science that is being done there, you should read this book.

Get a copy here (South Africa), here or here.

Bookshelf: Pain Forms the Character

Pain Forms the Character: Doc Bester, Cat Hunters & Sealers – Nico de Bruyn & Chris Oosthuizen

Marion Island is one of South Africa’s two sub-Antarctic Prince Edward Islands, technically part of the Western Cape province. The South African National Antarctic Programme runs a meteorological and biological station there, dedicated to research. The researchers study weather and climate, ecosystem studies, seals (southern elephant seals, and Antarctic and sub-Antarctic fur seals), killer whales and seabirds such as albatross, that nest on the island. Researchers usually spend either three or 15 months at a stretch on the island, whose rugged terrain, intimidating wildlife and challenging weather can be said to “form the character”!

Pain Forms the Character
Pain Forms the Character

Marion Island is also infested by rats, introduced from whaling ships in the 1800s. With no predators, they multiplied to the extent that they threatened seabird populations. Cats were introduced in 1949, and by the 1970s there were 3,400 cats on the island. The cats ate mice, of course, and seabirds. An ambitious eradication program – of which our incredible friend Andre was part – eliminated the last of the cats in the early 1990s. The rat problem has resurged since the cats were removed, but work is in progress to get rid of them, too.

The research programs that currently exist on Marion Island are the legacy of Dr Marthan “Doc” Bester’s 40 year career as a scientist and researcher, and this book is a tribute to him. For this book, authors compiled photographs and testimonies from Bester’s colleagues, former cat hunters, and students, and he is the thread that ties this beautifully produced volume together. The focus is less on the scientific findings (you can find those online), and more on what it’s like to live on Marion Island, with the text complemented by many, beautifully evocative photographs.

Get a copy of the book here.

Newsletter: Conflicting signs

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Saturday: Boat dives at 10am

The forecasts are conflicted as to whether the weekend’s wind will be manageable or hectic. Saturday looks like the better option and it is too early to rule out the Atlantic. Currently it is green off Long Beach in Noordhoek and the CSIR buoy shows the temperature climbing – not good prospects – but if the south easter picks up it will change.

Heron in the Simon's Town yacht basin
Heron in the Simon’s Town yacht basin

My plan is to launch early on Saturday as I have a Junior Open Water diver who needs to get a handle on backward rolls before vacation time. I will most likely hide in the yacht basin for that. Thereafter we can go anywhere we choose… If the weather permits. So, if you are on the list you will get an update from me at around 7.30am on Saturday, and if its a go, we will leave from the Jetty at 10.00am. Want to get on the list? Let me know!

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!

Bookshelf: Guide to Seabirds of Southern Africa

Guide to Seabirds of Southern Africa – Peter Ryan

Guide to Seabirds of Southern Africa
Guide to Seabirds of Southern Africa

An indispensable companion on Flock at Sea AGAIN! was this book by Peter Ryan, director of the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town. It’s a slim volume that made seabird identification much easier for us (novices) by virtue of its focus. We were at no point able to venture speculatively into the nocturnal birds of prey or the exotic parrot section of the book, as often happens when you put a bird book covering all of southern Africa’s birds into my paws.

The introductory sections of the book explain the ocean environment and the life history of seabirds, with sidebars on specific physiological phenomena that differentiate seabirds from other birds. These sections also provide information on conservation challenges facing seabirds, and some tips on how to watch them. The geographic range covered by the book includes the sub-Antarctic islands (Marion, Tristan da Cunha, Prince Edward, Gough, Crozet, Bouvet, South Sandwich, South Georgia).

Several photographs of each bird are provided, alongside a distribution map, the bird’s measurements, and an identification guide that covers the bird’s appearance as well as call and characteristic flying style. Conservation status and an Afrikaans common name are also mentioned.

Identifying seabirds is difficult, even if you get a good record photo or have enough time to study the bird carefully. There are often subtle variants that differentiate (or don’t!) between different types of very similar-looking birds. For example, there was furious debate during and after the cruise as to whether a Tristan albatross had been seen and photographed, or whether it was just another wandering albatross. The differences between these two types of albatross are almost impossible for the amateur to discern. Similarly, the prions are so similar (to my untrained eye) that the only way to distinguish one from another would be to line up a specimen of each type of prion, and measure their bills.

There wasn’t enough time for us to become expert seabird spotters before we went away, but this book enabled me to make several identifications, including of juvenile and adult birds of the same species. This was pleasing. When it comes to the prions, I am satisfied to know the genus; the species is for those with more time and knowledge than I. I anticipate that it will be of future use in naming and learning about the birds we see in False Bay, and if we ever do a pelagic birding trip – which is on the to do list – it’ll be of great use there, too.

There’s an excellent review, from a real birder, over here.

You can get a copy of the book here. If you’re outside South Africa, get it here or here.

BirdLife South Africa Flock at Sea AGAIN! 2017 – part ii (the birds)

We were surprised by the intensity of the birding that took place on Flock At Sea AGAIN! 2017. In retrospect we shouldn’t have been, but being around 2,000 serious twitchers was, at turns, overwhelming and hilarious. Tony and I spent quite a lot of time on deck 4 of MSC Sinfonia, bothering our friend Ian. An enduring memory of this time was turning around from the rail to see a wall of K-Way clad birders charging towards us like buffalo, heading for the stern of the ship, where something special had just been spotted.

Annoying Ian
Annoying Ian

There was serious camera hardware on board. Tony’s modest 200-500mm Sigma lens sometimes gets admiring glances from the uninitiated, but on this cruise it left something to be desired (as you can see in comparison to Ian’s rig in the photo above).

The gun show
The gun show

It is known by anyone who’s been on a boat that taking photos on the ocean is difficult, especially of a fast moving, distant subject such as a bird. Tony had a go at some bird photos, with reasonable success. Trying to identify what we’d seen afterwards was fun. We were definitely not the people who were calling the name of the bird before photographing it! Once we came across a large aggregation of birds feeding on something on the surface, and once some dolphins, but there were fewer marine mammal sightings than we’d hoped.

An older wandering albatross
An older wandering albatross

I loved seeing the albatross, and because of their great size and confidence in approaching the ship, I found them easiest to identify. Both Peter Harrison’s talk  and Carl Safina’s brilliant Eye of the Albatross emphasised the extraordinary longevity and fidelity of these birds, and the loneliness of their lives in between visits to the breeding islands. In addition to the ones pictured above, we also saw Indian yellow-nosed albatross, which I’d previously seen sitting on the surface of the ocean above the wreck of the Fontao in Durban, waiting for snacks from the fishermen there.

There were plenty of places to watch the sea all around the ship. Deck four ran along both sides of the vessel close to the ocean, and the triangular viewing platforms that protrude at the stern were a popular sunset location. Around the central area on the top deck that contains the swimming areas, a raised wrap-around deck also provided good viewing opportunities, but it was too high up for proper bird watching.

The light varied a lot depending on the time of day (duh!) and the degree of cloud cover. It was windy almost all the time. I was surprised by the speed of the ship; when we were moving between birding locations we cruised at up to 25 knots. Only on one of the days was the sea rough enough to splash onto the lower decks.

Wind protection
Wind protection

We saw some things we’d never seen before, like an extravagant double rainbow just before sunset. It was wonderful to be completely surrounded by ocean, and to watch how the colour of the sea changed through the day. We were travelling over deep water, and the profound blue of the ocean when the bottom is hundreds of metres below is something special. Look at the wake in the rainbow picture for an example.

Double rainbow
Double rainbow

We saw a few other ships, but not as many as I’d expected. There was some tooth-gnashing among the twitchers when, on the last full day of the cruise as we headed back towards Cape Town, some fishing trawlers were seen in the distance. It was fascinating to watch the trawlers turn on a dime and mow back and forth, but the clouds of seabirds behind the ship remained just out of proper sight.

Fishing trawler at work
Fishing trawler at work

There’s an album of photos (including some of the ones I’ve included here) on facebook, if you’re interested! And if you’re interested in seabirds, I can’t think of a better place to start than Carl Safina’s Eye of the Albatross.