Bookshelf: Whales and Dolphins in Question

Whales & Dolphins in Question: The Smithsonian Answer Book – James G. Mead & Joy P. Gold

Whales and Dolphins in Question
Whales and Dolphins in Question

Bernita brought us this book as a gift from her travels in America early this year. It’s published by the Smithsonian Institution, which is an American conglomerate of museums and research institutions. (If you’ve watched Bones, think of the Jeffersonian – which is fictional but based on the Smithsonian – and you’ve got a good idea of what it’s like. I digress.) The book is arranged in question and answer format. The questions are drawn from the thousands of letters, emails and phone calls received from members of the public by the Smithsonian each year.

Every aspect of cetacean science is covered here. I appreciated the fact that where there is uncertainty or gaps in our knowledge, the authors said so. Science helps us to know things, but equally important is to recognise what we don’t know. Because they live so long, dive so deep and swim so far in such a big ocean, it is hard to learn some things about whales, but with diligent work and intelligent study design, we can still infer much.

The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs by National Geographic photographer Flip Nicklin. It’s beautiful to page through, if you don’t feel up to the demands of reading words, and also easy to dip into because of how it is divided up. I was a whale-obsessed seven year old; I think this book would be a great help to parents of similarly curious children whose every sentence is a question! That is not to say that it is aimed at kids – you might need to do a bit of interpretation if reading with a primary school child. There are extensive references at the back of the book, should you wish to track down the original papers from which the

There is another book in the series called Sharks in Question, which has one author in common with Whales in Question, and if this book is anything to go by, should be a wonderful read.

You can get a copy of Whales in Question here (South Africa), or here. Thank you Bernita!

Article: Nautilus on conserving ugly species

Hagfish on deck of the MV Aster
Hagfish on deck of the MV Aster

Here’s something close to my heart: the question of which animal species we choose to get all riled up about saving, and which ones we conveniently overlook! Conservationists and “activists” building their brands on charismatic megafauna such as dolphins, sharks (lately) and whales (latterly) frequently invoke our admiration for the beauty and majesty of these creatures while attempting to justify why they should be saved from extinction.

An article (focused on mammals rather than marine life) from Nautilus magazine reveals that our conservation choices are heavily influenced by aesthetics:

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), there are over 1,200 threatened mammalian species in the world, and over 300 are near threatened. But only 80 species are used by conservation organizations to raise funds and nearly all of them can be described as large, furry, and cute, according to a 2012 analysis by Bob Smith at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom.

It turns out that we can’t actually help ourselves from being drawn to cute-looking creatures – it’s wired into our brains. But challenging our thinking on the issue can do no harm. I’ve pondered the question of why we should save sharks before, and found it refreshing.

Ready to be challenged? Read the Nautilus article here.

(Hagfish aren’t in any danger of extinction, I don’t think, but they are probably the poster child for ugly marine species, hence my choice of featured photo!)

Newsletter: Humpback winds

Hi divers

Planned dives

Saturday: No dives planned

Sunday: Boat dives from OPBC or Hout Bay if conditions permit

Midweek launch: From OPBC to see the Volvo Ocean Race yachts arriving in Table Bay

Dive conditions

The wind is forecast to do some real south easterly blowing over the next few days, so False Bay is messy but the Atlantic is a bit cleaner. There is too much wind on Saturday for any kind of pleasant diving or boating, but Sunday has less wind (according to some of the wildly contradictory weather forecasts) and I think the odds are good that Table Bay will be a better option than Hout Bay, if the water cleans up enough to make dives worthwhile. It is difficult to say for certain where would be best but we will make that call on Saturday afternoon. The plan will be to dive North and South Paw if conditions permit. Let me know if you’d like to be on the watchlist!

Baby basket star by Georgina Jones
Baby basket star by Georgina Jones

Last weekend we dived out of Hout Bay, visiting the BOS 400, Star Walls and then Tafelberg Reef. The water was less clean than expected: 8-10 metre viz and a very cold 9 degrees. Thanks to Georgina for this picture of an itsy bitsy basket star! On Monday I was out along the Atlantic seaboard for a film charter and despite the fog we found dolphins, a sunfish, a whale, hundreds of seals, and incredible bird life once we were far offshore. There’s an album of photos on facebook.

Volvo Ocean Race

The Volvo Ocean Race first leg comes to an end next week and the yachts are expected to arrive at the V&A Waterfront from Tuesday onwards. There is currently less than 9 nautical miles between the top four after several thousand miles of open ocean racing. The finish will be really exciting and we plan to launch as many days as possible next week to hopefully catch a glimpse as they race by… And perhaps a photo or two. Let me know if you think you’ll be able to take a midweek day of leave to go out on the boat.

Diversnight

Diversnight is an international night diving event that we try to participate in each year, just because. This coming Thursday, 6 November we will meet at Long Beach in Simon’s Town at 7.30 pm with the aim of starting the dive at 8.00 pm. We must be in the water at 14 minutes past eight to “count” and the aim is to set a new world record. There are currently 16 countries participating in this event. You can RSVP to the event on facebook, and read more about Diversnight here. There is no charge apart from any gear you may need.

If you need to rent gear, please let me know by Wednesday morning. You don’t necessarily need to be an Advanced diver to do a night dive, so give me a call or send me a mail to talk about it if you’re unsure. If you’ve been thinking about an Advanced course, though, this is a good time to get started.

regards

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

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False Bay photo cruise

First light in the yacht basin
First light in the yacht basin

When diving conditions aren’t great, but it’s nice enough to be on the boat (and occasionally when it’s not!), a tour of False Bay is just the ticket. This particular winter’s day, bundled up in our warmest clothes, we set off at first light from Simon’s Town jetty to get to Seal Island nice and early. We were distracted by the sunrise beauty of Roman Rock lighthouse, and a pod of dolphins on the way out to the island. The dolphins checked us out briefly but didn’t want to stick around, so we left them alone.

Roman Rock at dawn
Roman Rock at dawn

Once we got to the island we were able to witness a couple of breaches of great white sharks chasing seals, as well as one on the decoy towed by Stef of Shark Explorers. He promised us a breach, and delivered! Witnessing these events is so much a matter of luck – you have to be looking in the right direction at the right time, because the sharks don’t give any visible warning of where they’re going to strike. Keeping an eye on small groups of seals returning to the island is the best way to improve your chances of seeing a jumping shark.

Sunrise across False Bay
Sunrise across False Bay

After a while at the island we headed north towards Macassar and Muizenberg. There is a huge, shallow plateau here that stretches far out from shore at a fairly constant depth of 5-7 metres. It was here that we saw quite a bit of whale action on last year’s whale watching trip with Simon’s Town Boat Company. Following the coastline from Muizenberg we admired the quaint old buildings of St James and the colourful beach huts there, and then popped into Kalk Bay harbour to see the fishing boats.

Ashley slip streaming behind the boat
Ashley slip streaming behind the boat

After leaving Kalk Bay we headed towards Fish Hoek, where we encountered our next door neighbour Ashley, out on his paddle ski. He wanted to catch up with his buddies, so we motored slowly out of the bay with him riding in our wake until the gap was closed. We meandered back past Glencairn, the quarry, and the Clan Stuart, finishing up back at Simon’s Town jetty.

Glencairn quarry
Glencairn quarry

These trips are ideal for photographers (or adventurers) who want to see the beautiful coastline of False Bay from a different angle. There is also the opportunity to see some of the marine wildlife that inhabits our bay between the mountains – birds, whales (when in season, and from a distance), dolphins, sharks (if lucky), sunfish (if lucky!), seals, and penguins. If you’d like to be informed about future False Bay photo cruises, get in touch or subscribe to our newsletter for advance notice.

Video (TED): Stephen Palumbi on the hidden toxins in the fish we eat

In this TED talk  marine biologist Stephen Palumbi  explains how putting things into the bottom of the food chain – mercury from burning coal, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl – a molecule widely used in industrial applications that causes cancer in humans and animals), lead and dioxins – causes repercussions felt all the way to the top. Palumbi is the author of The Extreme Life of the Sea, reviewed yesterday.

PCBs accumulate in plankton, which are eaten by small fish (or directly by whales). Small fish are eaten by bigger fish, and so on – with PCBs building up at each step. This is called bioaccumulation.

Whales, dolphins, and bluefin tuna, for example, build up heavy metals and PCBs in their flesh which is toxic and often unsuitable for human consumption (hello, Japan). Carl Safina gives a personal example of this on his blog. The same is true of shark meat. Indigenous people in the Arctic, feeding off seals and whales, also build up these chemicals in their bodies and pass it on to their babies in breastmilk. Palumbi gives an example of a dolphin population in a bay off Texas, swimming in a sea of PCBs. Their mothers’ milk is so toxic that 60-80% of the firstborn calves die as a result of being fed by their mothers and having most of her chemical load transmitted this way.

This is a disturbing look at how – to put it delicately – polluting the ocean comes back to bite us on the backside, with direct and measurable impacts to human health.

[ted id=899]

Dolphins in Sodwana

Right at the end of one of our very first dives in Sodwana this year, we spotted dolphins below us, swimming away over the sand. Here’s a very short and not terribly brilliant video of them.

[youtube=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A5SkE1DAB6g&w=540″]

Newsletter: Exploring False Bay

Hi divers

Weekend plans

Sunday: False Bay photo cruise, meet at 7.15 am on Simon’s Town jetty

Sunrise in Simon's Town yacht basin
Sunrise in Simon’s Town yacht basin

Dive conditions

We have had really good conditions for a few weeks now with visibility between 10 and 20 metres depending on where in the bay you are diving.

This weekend is however more like one of those hard to call weekends we have so often in summer. There is a lot of rain in the next two days, a 5.5 metre swell and gale force winds but that is mostly gone by Sunday. The question is where will the dirty rain water run off end up, and how much surge will remain from the south westerly swell? Not to mention the day time temperature will max out at 12 degrees.

Sunrise at Roman Rock
Sunrise at Roman Rock

I think the best weekend option is to cover the tank rack with the bench on Sunday and have an early morning meeting time (7.15 am on the Simon’s Town jetty) and do another trip to Seal Island, Muizenberg, Fish Hoek and Kalk Bay… or head south to Rocky Bank Whittle Rock and Cape Point. On last weekend’s trip we saw a breaching great white shark at Seal Island, a small pod of dolphins, and the most beautiful sunrise. There are some photos on facebook from last Sunday’s trip.

Text or email me if you want to join us on Sunday to explore False Bay, and remember to dress warmly!

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

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Newsletter: Eyes in the sky

Hi divers

Weekend plans

Saturday: 09.30 Batsata Maze / 11.30 Outer Photographer’s Reef

Sunday: False Bay photo cruise

Big swell breaking at Roman Rock lighthouse
Big swell breaking at Roman Rock lighthouse

Conditions report

We have had great conditions for several weeks now, and had around 15 m visibility all of this week. The conditions are set to remain good for the weekend so best you come and dive while you can.

This weekend is going to be a little different and on Saturday we will dive Batsata Maze and Outer Photographer’s Reef. Sunday will be the something different day, and we will do a False Bay photo cruise. I have a bench that fits over the tank rack and makes for comfortable, dry seating and we will head off early and go to Seal Island, Strandfontein, Kalk Bay and Fish Hoek. We will look for dolphins, whales and sea birds and anything else interesting to photograph. If the weather is as good as predicted we may venture as far as Cape Point. For more details email, Whatsapp or text me.

What's that in the sky?
What’s that in the sky?

SA Agulhas II open day

If you are staying on land and dry on Saturday, a good way to spend the day would be a visit to the open day on the SA Agulhas II. We went to take a look on the last open day and she is a very impressive piece of equipment. Well worth a visit.

Safe travel

Wishing Tamsyn a safe and awesome trip to teach in China for a year, and Christo and friends a good trip to the Red Sea… It brings back great memories!

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

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Why should we protect sharks?

In the ocean-interested community that I move in (loosely defined by facebook interest groups and pages, twitter feeds, encounters at public talks and on dive boats, and chance meetings on the jetty), we’re all exposed to an enormous amount of rhetoric about sharks and the need to protect them and the marine environment. Unfortunately, much of it is just empty posturing, or designed for maximum shock value, low on content. None of this – to my mind – counts as a conservation effort by any of us. Marine conservation does not entail sharing a picture on social media to a group of people who already understand the need to conserve the marine environment, or writing articles that get published on a website only visited by scuba divers. (Case in point… I am not doing marine conservation right now; I am just writing a blog post.)

Sadly, even conservation efforts that appear to be (slightly) more legitimate than hashtag activism fall short. The channels of thought that people fall into when they are asked why it’s important to take care of the ocean and its toothy inhabitants (assuming they do think it’s important in the first place) are well-worn and – sadly – have been revisited so often as to have become almost devoid of utility. Like the repeated sharing of a  picture of a finned shark within a tiny community that already cares about the ocean and is already outraged, endlessly repeating the same early vintage justifications for preserving sharks is a tactic that achieves very little, if anything at all.

Most people, including my mother, who has less than zero interest in the marine world, can probably trot out the standard arsenal of arguments usually supplied in defence of sharks. We are told (often using the following exact phrases) that sharks are misunderstood, that they are not mindless killers, and that humans aren’t on their menu. Taken to an extreme, this line of reasoning leads us to a caricature of sharks as non-threatening, innately friendly animals whose intentions are tragically misconstrued by ignorant humans. Humans are, it is claimed, driven into a shark-murdering frenzy by sensational media reporting that wrongly emphasises sharks’ dangerous nature.

This exaggerated description holds a grain of truth about sharks and a grain of truth about humans, but overall it is a dangerous caricature to broadcast. Sharks are not friendly, and the larger species (the ones that leap to mind when someone mentions sharks – as opposed to shysharks, say) are apex predators, brilliantly adapted to rule their environment. They are fast, intelligent, and dangerous by virtue of their many, sharp teeth and acute senses. If you are in their realm, you are at a disadvantage. Sometimes sharks bite people, and when they do, shark advocates (I hate that expression) who have built their platform on the innate benignity of sharks will be wrong-footed and face a possible loss of credibility. The general public may not be aware of (or care about) any subtleties related to the reasons why a shark has bitten a person, and trying to justify shark protection measures after an event in which someone has lost their life (or limbs) is very difficult if all one has to fall back on is that “it was a misunderstanding.”

3.5 metre female great white shark
3.5 metre female great white shark

Sharks do not merit protection from humans because they’re beautiful, or because they are vital for the healthy functioning of ocean ecosystems, or because they don’t breed fast enough to immunise themselves against the modern industrial fishing complex, or because they are misunderstood. All of those things are absolutely true. But the ultimate reason that sharks – and all living creatures – deserve our protection, is that they exist (despite us), and they are different from us. They are with us on earth, and they have a place here.

Henry Beston, in The Outermost House in 1928, wrote this about animals in general, and I think it speaks beautifully about the nature of sharks:

In a world older and more complete than ours, they are more finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other Nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time.

Juliet Eilperin, whose book Demon Fish first showed me the Henry Beston quote above, puts it wonderfully in the introduction to her book:

Often we value things in the natural world because we see ourselves in their reflection: in how they sing, raise their babies, or travel across the countryside. On rarer occasions – when we marvel at the improbable journey of the albatross or the way male lions live apart from females – we prize them because we define ourselves by how different they are from us. But sharks matter because they exist apart from us, not because of how they stand in relation to us.

… 

Sharks are worth understanding in their own right, a source of revelations about a foreign world that abuts ours.

This thinking rescues us from trying to paint sharks as something they’re not, and from trying to find a “selling point” or special aspect of virtue for them. They aren’t as cute as panda bears, or as easy to interact with as dolphins, or as accessible – through the lens of domestic cats – as snow leopards. None of this matters, however, when we acknowledge that their mere presence in our oceans entitles them to guardianship from us.

Here’s hoping for some dialogue about sharks that grows beyond the trite and oft-repeated catchphrases that reduce them to the marine equivalent of sulky teenaged boys – “so misunderstood” – into something thoughtful and nuanced that gives them, and us, our rightful places in the environment. Sharks won’t be the only beneficiaries of such an expanded philosophy.

Newsletter: The whales are coming

Hi divers

Weekend diving

Saturday: boat dives – 09.00 Atlantis / 11.30 Batsata Maze

Sunday: pool training with students

Dive conditions

So much bad weather for so long – too little diving and not enough sun. That’s my complaint for the week.

This weekend, Saturday is really the only option for diving. There is very little swell and not much wind, but it picks up in the afternoon. False Bay, however, has been hammered for the last few days by big swell, strong winds and lots of rain. The wind direction has been good for water clarity, but the swell stirs up everything and all the murky rain water ends up close to shore.

I drove the coast this morning to take a look. The Clan Stuart was a little murky from the swell, and Long Beach was clean, but from Ark Rock and down to Shark Alley the water was really dirty. A huge mudslide just north of Miller’s Point has also contributed to this. South of Millers towards the point the water looks clean and blue, so we will head off to Atlantis and Batsata Maze. If you are keen to dive, text me. We will meet at the Simon’s Town Jetty at 9.00 and 11.30.

The Clan Stuart this morning
The Clan Stuart this morning

There is a lot going on right now:

Whale entanglement

Yesterday I saw what I thought was a whale entangled in an octopus trap but lost sight of it after a while as the sea was extremely rough. Fortunately it was found again today and thanks to the the SA Whale Disentanglement Network it was freed. It has some serious cuts from the rope but they heal relatively quickly. There are octopus traps as well as whelk traps in False Bay between Glencairn and Kalk Bay, and in 2012 a 4.3 metre female white shark was caught in the ropes attached to the whelk traps and drowned.

We have been concerned about whale entanglement in these fisheries since they were announced; it appears our concerns were well founded. If you would like to ask some pertinent questions about the whelk and octopus fisheries, and raise an objection, I suggest you contact Dr C. J. Augustyn, Chief Directorate, Fisheries Research and Development at DAFF, by email at  JohannAU@daff.gov.za or by mail at 5th Floor, Foretrust Building, Cape Town, 8000.

Brain food

Orca and dolphin talk

Simon Elwen and Ryan Reisinger are giving a talk on the Marion Island Killer Whale Project (on facebook here) and the Namibian Dolphin Project and soon to be Sea Search Africa in False Bay in a single evening. The talk is on Monday 16 June (a public holiday), at Bertha’s in Simon’s Town, at (about) 7pm. There is a cover charge of R25. Please rsvp on facebook! All are welcome.

Shark conference

There is a major shark conference taking place in Durban, out of which a constant stream of incredibly interesting information comes all day long thanks to a number of scientists live-tweeting the talks as they happen. Follow the tweets here.

Shark talk

Victoria Vásquez, a shark scientist at the Ocean Research Foundation and the Pacific Shark Research Centre in the United States, is giving a talk on shark conservation at OMSAC in Pinelands next Thursday evening, 12 June, at 7pm. If you would like to attend, rsvp here. She has been attending the Sharks International Symposium in Durban this week, so it’s a great opportunity to hear about the very latest shark research.

Finally, if you want to know how our own Department of Environmental Affairs plans to manage our marine resources, check out the recently published white paper here.

See you all soon!

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

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