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!

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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.

BirdLife South Africa Flock at Sea AGAIN! 2017 – part i (the boat)

A disclaimer up front: Tony and I are not bird people (we are more “anything that moves” people). While we are friends with several serious twitchers, we tend to get distracted by landscapes and the large beige beasts that birds sometimes sit on. Our decision to book a spot for ourselves on the BirdLife South Africa AGM trip, Flock at Sea AGAIN! 2017 may seem puzzling.

View of Table Mountain as we were leaving Cape Town
View of Table Mountain as we were leaving Cape Town

We had a few reasons for wanting to do the trip, which ran from Monday 24 until Friday 28 April. First, we wanted to figure out whether the two of us can handle cruise ship life (confined space, many people, forced entertainment, dancing girls) sufficiently well that long held dreams of a Hurtigruten trip, or a cruise along the Alaskan coastline, could one day be realised. This short, reasonably inexpensive trip seemed an ideal proving ground. A second reason was that the route the cruise would follow promised the opportunity to see some cool stuff (including birds), and to go to parts of the ocean we’re not likely to get to on our own.

MSC Sinfonia looking festive
MSC Sinfonia looking festive

We made the booking nearly two years in advance to assist BirdLife in getting enough passengers on board to secure permission from MSC to determine the route the cruise ship would take. This also meant that the price was seriously discounted, which was great. At the time, I felt ridiculous for planning a holiday so far in the future and couldn’t imagine being around to go on it, but here we are.

Route of Flock at Sea AGAIN! 2017
Route of Flock at Sea AGAIN! 2017

The cruise route was out along the edge of the continental shelf from Cape Town towards a few seamounts that lie more or less directly south of Cape Agulhas. There was birding, with bird guides who could identify a hummingbird at 300 metres with one eye blindfolded, on most of the decks of the ship during daylight hours. There was also a full lecture schedule, which was part of what appealed to me about the cruise. I listened to Peter Harrison, raconteur extraordinaire, bird guide author and artist, talk on penguins and albatrosses, and Prof Peter Ryan talk about Marion Island. The talks were held in the ship’s theatre, and were illustrated with magical pictures taken by the speakers. This was one of the highlights of the trip for me.

Attending a talk in the ship's theatre
Attending a talk in the ship’s theatre

I also attended a talk on Antarctica, and one on the Albatross Task Force. This is a project of BirdLife that works to reduce seabird bycatch in the fishing industry. This has been a very successful program to date, and has overseen significant reductions in albatross mortality on long lines.

The view of the Table Mountain range gets more complicated as one moves south alongside the peninsula
The view of the Table Mountain range gets more complicated as one moves south alongside the peninsula

Being on such a big ship was a new experience. The first night was a bit wild and windy, but I was more disturbed by the whistling of the wind through our balcony door (showing great mechanical aptitude, it took us 24 hours to figure out how the latch worked) than by particularly extreme movement of the ship. Some of the days were cloudy, but the air temperature was comfortable – mostly because we were travelling eastwards towards warmer water, even though we were moving south as well.

Having a room with a balcony meant that escape was always possible. In practice, however, the ship was so large that one could always find a quiet spot to contemplate if it was required. We ate our meals at the buffet restaurant because we enjoyed the flexibility (and the food), but for those who like to dress up and be waited upon there was a fancier restaurant with set times for sittings.

Takkies on the sun deck
Takkies on the sun deck

We had a great time, finding it extremely relaxing to be surrounded by the ocean with no option to engage in anything stress-inducing. In a couple of days I’ll share a bit more of what we saw while on board, but I’ll leave you with some of the views that we saw while on board, and on returning to harbour at the end of the trip.

Newsletter: Hello

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Sunday: Boat dives from Hout Bay at 9.30 am

Seagull saying hello at Melkbosstrand
Seagull saying hello at Melkbosstrand
It’s a weekend with conditions that make choosing between the Atlantic and False Bay a bit difficult. There is 20+ km/h south easterly wind on Friday and Saturday, with a lot less for Sunday. The Atlantic will be cleaner than False Bay, but the swell in the forecast, if it arrives and is 4 metres as predicted, will make it unpleasant on that side.

Despite these odds I think I will stick my neck out and plan for Hout Bay on Sunday at 9.30 am, and confirm the plans late on Saturday afternoon. Most likely sites will be Die Josie and either the Sentinel or the wreck of SS Maori. Let me know if you’re keen.

Demystifying Groundwater – a talk

On Tuesday 5 September there’s a talk at Kommetjie Primary School at 7.30pm. The speaker is Dr Ricky Murray, a hydrologist, and he will talk about all things related to groundwater. This issue should interest anyone who has a borehole, as well as others who have heard of the plans to drill into the Table Mountain aquifer as a last-minute half baked attempt to relieve the water crisis that Cape Town is experiencing. Entrance fee R50 (including a beverage).

Here’s a link to the facebook event with all the details.

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

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New regulations about threatened and protected marine species

I’m back from an overly lengthy blogging hiatus (sorry) to resume a function that I’ve performed once or twice in the past. Fortunately I have had octopus on my mind and had already started posting again, and so we aren’t doing a standing start.

Humpback whale on the beach
Humpback whale on the beach

I have read some legislation so you don’t have to, will try to tell you what it means, and – if necessary and possible – I will tell you how to object to it. Someone has to do it, and my mathematician’s brain actually quite likes trying to follow the logic of these documents. (Previous efforts along these lines include this one on seals, this one on new MPAs, and this one on the Tsitsikamma MPA.)

The new legislation this time is actually two documents that were published in the Government Gazette on 30 May. Before we get into these two most recent documents, however, it may be instructive to look back at the original act that they refer to.

National Environmental Management Act: Biodiversity

The act in question is the National Environmental Management Act: Biodiversity, number 10 of 2004 (pdf full text). We will call it NEMBA for short. This act is a framework which provides for the management and conservation of South Africa’s biodiversity, as well as the protection of species that require or deserve it, the fair apportionment of benefits that may arise from the country’s biological resources, and the establishment of SANBI.

The important sections of this act for us, right now, are sections 56 and 57. Section 56 empowers the Minister of Environmental Affairs to publish in the Government Gazette, from time to time (at least every five years or more often than that), a list of critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable, and protected species. A species may be protected but not endangered; a case in point is the Cape fur seal.

Section 56 of NEMBA
Section 56 of NEMBA

I am not knowledgeable enough to state confidently that the extract above is using a set of widely accepted definitions here. However, this list of definitions from (critically) endangered to vulnerable does look a lot like the IUCN categories for classifying species at risk of extinction.

The next section talks about activities involving species that fall into one of the categories defined in section 56. Provision is made here for the Minister to define activities that are “restricted”, and section 57 specifies that if an activity is restricted, a permit is required in order to perform it. The definition of restricted may vary from species to species (but I am getting ahead of myself).

Section 57 of NEMBA
Section 57 of NEMBA

Finally, section 97 of NEMBA, which is on page 40 of the PDF file I linked to above, empowers the Minister to make regulations dealing with a large number of matters, mostly permits, and threat-minimisation for threatened ecosystems.

Marine Threatened or Protected Species regulations

With that preamble, let us turn to the most recent regulations, which were made in terms of section 97 of NEMBA and pertain to threatened or protected marine species. They come in two parts. The first (pdf – all page numbers below refer to this file) is a set of regulations, mostly related to permits. This sounds very boring, but there are some interesting bits, and an important definition. Definition first:

Definition of harassment
Definition of harassment

This is a very important definition (from page 10-11) as it essentially determines what is legal and what is not in terms of the act, and one that I think is perfectly reasonable. You can still take photos of and dive with seals, turtles and most sharks. Whale sharks and basking sharks are not to be bothered up close, though.

Notice also that we now have a definition for harassment of dolphins; it has been my understanding (perhaps incorrect) that until now there has been a loophole in that there has been no legal prohibition on approaching dolphins in a boat, whereas boats must stay at a distance of 300 metres away from whales. I can think of other things I have seen boats doing with dolphins – such as corralling them by speeding in a circle at full throttle – that also seem like harassment to me, but don’t quite fit this definition. But I think this is a start. Also, no swimming with dolphins – for profit or not.

Swimming with dolphins
Swimming with dolphins

The regulations go on to state that their purpose relates to the permit system provided for in NEMBA, to registration and legislation of facilities like wildlife breeders and rehabilitators, and to the regulation of activities defined as “restricted”. The regulations also provide some further stipulations regarding boat-based whale and dolphin watching, and white shark cage diving. It is specifically stated that the regulations are to be applied in conjunction with CITES, international regulations which circumscribe international trade in wildlife (and in this way achieve protection for some species).

Page 17-18 defines restricted activities (in other words, activities which you either cannot do at all, or for which you need a permit).

Restricted activities
Restricted activities

Page 18 further clarifies that a permit is required in order to carry out a restricted activity, and the regulations go on to define various types of permit in terms of their period of validity and other criteria.

Permits required for restricted activities
Permits required for restricted activities

There is a lot more on permits, the risk assessments required before they can be issued, and criteria to consider in permit applications. (Does the applicant have a record of offences under NEMBA? Are there objections to issue of the permit? And so on.)

Page 38 mentions that in the case of a captive breeding or exhibition facility, no whales, dolphins, seals, sea birds, white sharks, basking sharks or whale sharks may be introduced from the wild. If I read this correctly, this puts paid to the restocking of dolphinariums with wild-caught animals. Also a start. If you are interested in this aspect of the regulations, I would encourage you to go through the document yourself.

There are some more good provisos aimed at the regulation of wildlife sanctuaries, but that isn’t my main area of interest here.

You may have picked up that some of the activities defined as restricted may be required actions in the event of a whale stranding, for example, or the entanglement of a seabird or turtle in fishing lines. What to do?

One must still act within the law when a stranding occurs
One must still act within the law when a stranding occurs

The regulations make specific provision for the cases in which one might need to handle, move, or even kill an animal listed as threatened or protected. Only those individuals or organisations which are in possession of a permit may perform any of these restricted activists; this largely precludes members of the public from assisting in any significant way at whale stranding, for example. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing.

Exceptional circumstances
Exceptional circumstances

Finally the regulations turn to white shark cage diving, and boat-based whale and dolphin watching. I am not sufficiently familiar with the existing regulations of these two industries to comment on what is different or new here, but it is interesting to read through the provisions for each. They seem well regulated. Free diving with white sharks is specifically forbidden. Additionally, as item (e) below states, even if an operator is in possession of a cage diving permit, this does not permit them to chum (“provision” or “attract” sharks) anywhere else.

Cage diving conditions
Cage diving conditions

List of Threatened or Protected Marine Species

The second part of the Government Gazette publication on 30 May is a list of threatened and protected animals. This list mentions fish, whales, seabirds, turtles, and even hard corals. This document (pdf – page numbers below refer to this file) has a very particular tabular layout.

How the list of species works
How the list of species works

Column 2 defines the restricted activities that are prohibited in terms of section 57 of NEMBA (see above). Column 3 provides the exceptions to that rule. [This column of the table mentions section 57(4) of NEMBA – you’ll see my extract above only goes up to (3). I suspect there’s an amendment to the act that I haven’t found that includes this item.]

There is very little variation in the list of restricted activities (column 2) across all the animals and birds; whales have the most interesting list of exempt activities (column 3), which is why we will look at them as an example. This table is from pages 138-139. Click to enlarge.

Whales (page 138-139)
Whales (page 138-139)

Column 2 of the table above defines all the things you can’t do to whales – the “restricted activities”. Column 3 lists a whole lot of terrible-sounding things that can be performed under certain exceptional conditions, in the event of a whale stranding itself on the beach, for example.

This is a good time to practise using the definitions. Notice that column 3 allows “harassing [of the stranded whale] by any Departmental official.” This does not mean that someone from Environmental Affairs is allowed to go and prod a stranded whale with a stick, or throw sand at it. We are talking about harassment in terms of the legal definition above, and this may include “disturbing” the whale, or approaching closer than 300 metres on a boat, for example.

If you’re interested to go and look, the pages of the species list pertaining to seals and their relatives is on pages 141-144. There are no special provisions to worry responsible water users, and the definition of seal harassment as shown above (approaching a colony closer than 15 metres in a boat or 5 metres as a human) is I think entirely reasonable.

Finally, here’s an extract from the permit application form. I include this to show you that all the restricted activities for which permits are required are pretty extreme, and not things that your average recreational diver would reasonably want to do.

Restricted activities permit application form extract
Restricted activities permit application form extract

This has been long, but I hope helpful. The regulations aren’t open to comment (I think I may have missed that earlier this year or last year… oops), they are final.

Energy and advocacy is best directed towards things that the diving community can have an impact on as a collective voice, and in ways that will have a chance of success. In other words, perform actions out in the real world, and align yourself with organisations that do real, scientifically informed conservation work.

I’m sure you all can think of other ideas, but I do have one suggestion regarding a species that isn’t listed here. The sevengill cowsharks that we see at Millers Point aren’t protected (they are “data deficient” on IUCN Red List). If you feel strongly about them, can I suggest as an easy first step, writing some letters (the letter in that link is out of date due to ministerial shufflings, and shark finning in South African waters is banned but this is poorly enforced – but you get the idea).

Once again here’s a link to the regulations, and here’s a link to the species list. Both are pdf files, hosted on this site in case the Government Gazette links above break one day.

 

Newsletter: Snack time

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Sunday: Boat dives from Simon’s Town harbour, suitable for Open Water divers

Cormorant eating a pipefish
Cormorant eating a pipefish

It is a long weekend, however not one suited to three solid days of diving. As we speak, the swell has just reached 7 metres on the the CSIR buoy off Cape Point. The swell climbs and drops during the weekend, as does the wind.

All things considered, I think Sunday will be the only decent option. The water should be clean and the swell has more of a westerly tendency than it has today.

We were out last last Friday just after the storm swell and the surge was heavy. It was also by far the most trying conditions I have ever had to launch and retrieve the boat in. There were huge kelp islands and much foam all over False Bay. This week was a lot better and yesterday the visibility was 6 metres plus, and the surge manageable. It is that time of year where we have storms and swell and they often disappear as fast as they arrive.

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

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