Lecture: George Branch on evolution

The fourth in the Save Our Seas Shark Centre in Kalk Bay’s series of talks was presented by George Branch, who (in my eyes at least) has achieved near-legendary status as a marine biologist and author. He is one of the authors of Two Oceans, the invaluable reference guide to South African sea life, and also wrote the classic reference The Living Shores of Southern Africa in the 1980’s with his wife Margo. The topic of his talk was The Myths and Magic of Evolution, a subject that interests me enormously but until a couple of years ago it was not part of my education (formal or self-taught) at all. Unfortunately, at this stage in my life, I am so ignorant on the subject that I simply cannot judge where to start learning about it.

Enter the Save Our Seas Shark Centre! Prof Branch turned out to be a wise, patient (I asked several stupid questions) and fascinating teacher – clearly he is not only passionate about his areas of specialisation, but also about communicating the subject matter to others, at both beginner and expert level. Several times in his talk he indicated that he’d changed his mind and learned new things in the past two years – which impressed me enormously. I spent a good part of my young adulthood in the presence of frighteningly dogmatic individuals, to whom an idea such as the one espoused by John Maynard Keynes when he said, “When the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do, sir?” would be anathema. Fortunately Prof Branch is not dogmatic – he is gracious, curious, and thorough.

The subject of evolution is controversial in some circles, and Prof Branch started his talk by stating that no science is any use (in fact, I wouldn’t even call it science) if you can’t test the ideas. An untestable hypothesis is doomed to remain just that – a hypothesis, or a belief. Beliefs are only good for and useful to their holder. The talk was divided into five sections –

  1. The basics of evolution
  2. Tests of evolutionary theory
  3. New advances
  4. Controversy
  5. Guidelines

We found the basics of evolution, as set out by Charles Darwin helpful:

  • more individuals are born than survive to reproduce (this is obvious – I am one of those individuals)
  • variety exists among individuals of a species (also obvious – compare my freckles to Tony’s easily-tanned skin)
  • fitter individuals are more likely to reproduce (“survival of the fittest” – a runty little shark who can’t swim fast isn’t going to find himself a sharky girlfriend – and the definition of “fitter” will vary among species)
  • if characteristics are inherited, species slowly evolve, through either adaptation/microevolution (small changes), or speciation/macroevolution (splitting off into a new species)

The first two points listed above were obvious in Darwin’s time. According to Prof Branch, today we have evidence of all four processes.

It annoys and frustrates me that a discussion of science must mention religion, but unfortunately a lot of the objections to evolutionary studies have come from the religious right. One of the common difficulties is reconciling a seemingly random process (evolution) with the idea of a creator characterised by order. With this in mind, Prof Branch (who has spiritual convictions of his own and is apparently occasionally challenged about evolution at church by those less well versed in the sciences) pointed out that evolution is not a random process. The mutations that add variety to populations are random, but the selection process is not random.

The second part of the “basics” was an explanation of sexual selection, also observed by Darwin. To summarise it as far as one safely can, sexual selection occurs as one gender (I think usually the female of the species!) “likes” something in the other gender, that characteristic will be favoured (i.e. lead to more reproductive opportunities in those carrying it) EVEN if it’s a DARN NUISANCE. Just think about birds of paradise, or peacocks as an example.

There are as many as fourteen different tests or lines of evidence one can follow to test whether the predictions made by evolutionary theory are correct. Some of these are survival rates (clearly not every creature that has ever lived has survived to reproduce – if they had, the universe would be completely filled with bacteria, the population of which would be expanding outwards at the speed of light), and the evidence of the fossil record (increasing complexity diversity, and size in newer fossils, and also the existence of intermediate forms). Another line of evidence for evolution is the vestigial organs that occur in many creatures, such as the eye remnants in blind cave fish, the pelvis and femur remnants that exist in dolphins, and remnants in some microbes of the ability to photosynthesise. One can also observe “evolution in action”: speciation in plants, fast evolution of diseases such as flu and HIV, and many other examples.

I’m not going to go into the recent discoveries that Prof Branch covered, but suffice it to say there is enough material for several conferences. He also passed quickly over several new ideas that are being studied – we were running out of time!

In closing, Prof Branch discussed what many perceive as the conflicting forces of religion and science. Science provides us with facts, and through testing of ideas and experiments, it tells us what is true. Religion tells us how to employ those facts in our lives. The example of the different spheres of influence held by science and religion that he gave was of the atomic bomb – a stunning use of science, but a wholesale failure of ethics.

Two of the myths about evolution that Prof Branch dispelled at the end of his talk were particularly interesting to me. First, evolution cannot explain the origin of life. It can explain how life developed and increased in complexity, but not how it started. Second (I knew this already but it’s a stupid and oft-repeated objection to evolution by people who are too intellectually lazy to come up with anything more cogent) evolution is not “just a theory”. I encourage you to look up theory in the dictionary. When scientists talk about the “theory of relativity”, “theory of gravity”, “atomic theory” and “theory of evolution”, they are meaning it in the first sense.

In closing, I’ll list the guidelines Prof Branch gave us for handling the subject:

  • Respect the views of others
  • Recognise the different goals and limits of science and religion – they can be complementary
  • Be frank about ignorance, both personal and scientific
  • Insist on the testability of ideas and opposing ideas

I’ll leave you with a quote from Billy Graham that Prof Branch used towards the end of his talk:

I don’t think that there’s any conflict at all between science today and the Scriptures. I think that we have misinterpreted the Scriptures many times and we’ve tried to make the Scriptures say things they weren’t meant to say, I think that we have made a mistake by thinking the Bible is a scientific book. The Bible is not a book of science. The Bible is a book of Redemption, and of course I accept the Creation story. I believe that God did create the universe. I believe that God created man, and whether it came by an evolutionary process and at a certain point He took this person or being and made him a living soul or not, does not change the fact that God did create man. … whichever way God did it makes no difference as to what man is and man’s relationship to God.

Billy Graham: Personal Thoughts of a Public Man, 1997. p. 72-74

I am sorry that religious discourse has to intrude on a discussion of science. Many of those objecting to the theory of evolution on the basis of their personal beliefs are unfamiliar with the scientific method, the peer review process, and the language of science. Hopefully if, like me, your ability to comprehend this material was (or is) impaired by religious dogma and pseudo-science, you will be able to read the mainstream scientific literature that discusses the subject and gain more factual information in order to make an informed judgment on the topic.

For further reading, you can try Darwin’s Origin of Species (may be a bit dense – I haven’t read it), The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins (be warned, he is an angry little man, but a good scientist), Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond (one of my most favourite books and authors), or The Structure of Evolutionary Theory by Stephen Jay Gould. Gould and Dawkins have both written a lot on the subject and may be a good place to start.

[Given my relative ignorance on this subject, if anything I’ve said here is inaccurate, you can be sure it was an error of transcription or comprehension on my part, and not an error of fact by Prof Branch!]

Dive sites: Tivoli Pinnacles

Tivoli Reef near Roman Rock
Tivoli Reef near Roman Rock

This is a recently discovered site near Roman Rock, named Tivoli Pinnacles because of its position east of Roman Rock (as Tivoli is east of Rome). It’s a very short boat ride straight out to sea from Long Beach, and the site is very close to the approach lanes for Simon’s Town Harbour.

The reef has a low, rocky relief
The reef has a low, rocky relief

We started our dive on top of one of the southern pinnacles, and drifted with the current, spending most of the dive at about 18-20 metres. The relief is quite flat away from the pinnacles, but there is a lot to see.

A smooth horsefish, trying not to be noticed
A smooth horsefish, trying not to be noticed

Tony found a horsefish, resting in a gap in the rocks, Andrew found an evil eye puffer fish for me to photograph, and I spotted a wide array of nudibranchs – mostly silvertip, crowned and gas flame.

This was a very easy dive in the conditions we did it in. There are ample opportunities to stop and examine the reef as you pass over it, and the depth is relatively constant. It was my second dive of the day and I actually went properly into deco… During the six minute deco/safety stop that my dive computer demanded a large and friendly seal frolicked around us. When we surfaced, he was leaping about next to the boat.

Grant had received a call that there was a large pod of dolphins off Kalk Bay harbour, probably feeding, so we followed the massive flock of cormorants north, and drove past the pod. There were maybe 500 long beaked common dolphins all together, including a lot of very tiny calves. It was beautiful.

Dive date: 5 June 2011

Air temperature: 23 degrees

Water temperature: 15 degrees

Maximum depth: 21.9 metres

Visibility: 10 metres

Dive duration: 42 minutes

Seal at the safety stop
Seal at the safety stop
Common long beaked dolphins on the surface
Common long beaked dolphins on the surface

Article: Wired on the journey to the bottom of the sea

Wired magazine, source of many things interesting, published an article breaking down the depths of the sea according to who – or what – can get there. Check it out here.

Unfortunately it’s in imperial units (feet). A useful converter can be found here. Otherwise Google will do it for you: search for “3937 feet in metres” (that’s the maximum diving depth of the leatherback sea turtle – 1.2 kilometres!).

Newsletter: Birds and dolphins

Hello everyone

This was the sight that we experienced at Long Beach while kitting up for a days diving.

Sunrise at Long Beach
Sunrise at Long Beach

Finally a weekend of diving!!!! We had really good weather this weekend and despite a rather large swell in the Bay the conditions were good. Saturday we spent the morning doing a Divemaster mapping project, the target: a concrete yacht that sank some years ago and that now lies 25 metres inshore of the north western yellow marker buoy at Long Beach. You can read all about it here.

Corne at the surface next to the buoy
Corne at the surface next to the buoy

Navigating our way out there  it suddenly seemed to get a little darker, more so than when  the clouds cover the sun and at the same time Corne surfaced to get a bearing only to find the surface covered with hundreds of cormorants. I was waiting at the bottom and was amazed at these birds’ ability to dive, stop suddenly, look around, then swim off.  I am not sure who got a bigger fright, them or me, but suddenly they seemed to be everywhere, perhaps our bubbles made them think there was a school of fish they could feast on, but instead they just found neoprene clad divers, way bigger than they could muster so they went off somewhere else. We saw them all again on Sunday, this time further out and from the surface.

Cormorants underwater at Long Beach
Cormorants underwater at Long Beach
Flocking cormorants in False Bay
Flocking cormorants in False Bay

Saturday afternoon five of us were back in the water and whilst swimming around the centre platform of the wreck these klipfish seemed keen on conveying some form of message to us  so they all lined up. I never did get to work out what they were trying to say… So much to learn in the ocean.

Row of klipfish
Row of klipfish

I can honestly say that I cannot remember a dive where I have not seen something new, or a creature I have seen before doing something new. We see warty pleurobranchs  ploughing their way over everything lately but on Saturday I saw a few doing acrobatic swimming and performing the most amazing somersaults… So much for me thinking they were like snowploughs… They seem more like circus animals!

Cavorting warty pleurobranchs
Cavorting warty pleurobranchs

Sunday we spent on the boat, the first dive was to Maidstone Rock. Andrew was completing his Advanced course and Gerard and Cecil were … well, only they know! The second launch took us to a new reef discovered by Grant and Peter Southwood called Tivoli Pinnacles, near Roman Rock. Being  a new dive site we were possibly the first to see a few amazing features and Clare discovered her first underwater treasure… a hand wheel from either a stem valve or a fuel valve, with a diameter of 120mm and made of brass. It has clearly been in the ocean for some time given the amount of corrosion on the material (a salt water corrosion resistant material). We will clean it up and see what it looks like.

Valve handle at Tivoli Pinnacles
Valve handle at Tivoli Pinnacles
Cuttlefish at Maidstone Rock
Cuttlefish at Maidstone Rock

There was also what seemed to be a huge brass ring almost a metre across so this will be a dive site worth exploring further.

Long beaked common dolphin in False Bay
Long beaked common dolphin in False Bay

Despite two amazing dives on a flat calm sea with great visibility, the good stuff was not yet over and when we surfaced  we were treated to the sight of a flock of I would guess at least a thousand cormorants and then Grant took us for a ride to a point just off the Kalk Bay harbour where we witnessed a pod of around 300–400 Dolphins. All in all a very pleasant day of diving.

This weekend

On Friday I will be doing Discover Scuba  Diving students at Long Beach all day, then on Saturday will continue with the Open Water course started last weekend and more DSD students. There are also two promising boat days looming.

Sunday looks good for shore entries and we will dive with the cowsharks if the swell is small or perhaps A Frame and or Sunny Cove.


…are also in order for Kate, who last year in October arrived in Cape Town wanting to learn to dive. By the end of November she had done OpenWater, Advanced, Nitrox specialty, Night Diving specialty and Wreck specialty as well as Rescue and Divemaster. Back in the UK for Christmas she did a Drysuit specialty and an Equipment specialty, and returned here in April to do a Deep specialty and then achieve the highest non professional qualification, Master Scuba Diver. It did not stop here and we dived as often as possible over the last few weeks to get her log book up to 100 dives and today she finished her Instructor course and Instructor Examination in Sodwana and is now officially an Open Water Scuba Instructor. Well done Kate! To achieve this much in such a short period of time takes determination, hard work and commitment.

DAN talks

We attended a DAN talk last week on ears at one of the local dive centres. It was run by DAN SA and we had a doctor talk us through what goes on in the ear and why whilst diving and the importance looking after those pink bits. We also received a free diving emergency booklet that has lots of info on handling diving related issues. These talks will be on a monthly basis and the next one will most likely be about lungs… So if you dive and have lungs… You should be there… It’s free and its very valuable knowledge to have.

If you wish to dive this weekend please text me sooner rather than later because the weather is good and the bookings will fill up.


Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099

Diving is addictive!

Sodwana 2011 trip report

We have recently returned from another successful dive trip to Sodwana Bay. For those that have not been there, it is a sheltered bay just south of the Mozambique border and is home to one of the top dive sites in the world. The coastline consists of approx. 12-15 kilometres of pristine reef with much of it at a depth of between 12 and 20 metres. There are deeper sites there too but for the vast majority of recreational divers, Two Mile, Five Mile and Nine Mile reef are diving destinations unparalleled in South Africa.

Swimming pool and dining area (on the right) at Coral Divers
Swimming pool and dining area (on the right) at Coral Divers

Sodwana Bay has a selection of 10-15 dive operators and they all have something special to offer. We chose Coral Divers on both the trips we have done for a host of reasons. The camp runs perfectly, the food is excellent, the dive planning and beach control is exceptional and they are very accommodating when it comes to divers chopping and changing sites and dives. The boats are in good condition and we had not a single reason to complain about anything. They transport you to and from the beach by means of a covered trailer with benches towed slowly by a tractor, they have gear crates, showers and baths for gear rinsing and adequate place to hang your gear to dry. Their camp is the closest to the beach of all the dive operators which makes things very quick and easy when you head out for your day’s dives.

The tractor (left) and gear rinsing and drying area
The tractor (left) and gear rinsing and drying area

They run a tight ship and everything runs on schedule. There seems to be adequate staff to ensure all this happens. The skipper we had (JERRY!) and the Divemaster (Darryl) allocated to our boat were superb, experienced and flexible. The group was a mixture of qualified divers and Open Water students and they ensured we dived safe sites that were suitable for all levels. You may find better service elsewhere in Sodwana but Coral Divers have ensured that both our trips were exceptional events so I can’t imagine trying someone else.

Naughty monkeys outside one of the cabins
Naughty monkeys outside one of the cabins

Accommodation options range from safari tents erected on wooden decking with corrugated roofing overhead (on special at the moment for R50 per person per night) to wooden cabins with no bathroom (you use the communal ablutions, which are spotless), a bathroom attached to the cabin but that must be accessed from outside, or a full en suite arrangement. Bedding and mosquito nets are provided in the cabins and everything is in good repair.

There is a large kitchen with self-catering facilities and tons of secure fridge space, or you can order from the restaurant. The food is hearty and there’s something to please everyone. A buffet is also available at breakfast and dinner. If you want a cheap holiday you can do it very comfortably here, but it’s also possible to have a fully luxurious stay where all your requirements are met.

The shady dive camp is home to large troupes of monkeys, mongooses, some cats and their kittens, squirrels, and even some small deer. Further away from the main building are camping and caravan sites. We’ve gone out of season both times we’ve visited because we prefer not to have to queue to get to the beach! It can get very busy over public holidays and at peak times.

As far as the dives went, Clare will write some posts about them. Suffice it to say that while it was slightly surgy, the visibility ranged from 10 to 25 metres, water temperatures were never lower than 23 degrees, and we saw fish, coral, turtles, rays, dolphins, and tropical marine life in abundance!

Documentary: Oceans

Oceans from Disney
Oceans from Disney

This is a French film by Jaques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud. There is a Disney version that is 20 minutes shorter, narrated by Pierce Brosnan, and aimed at young American audiences. Tony and I watched with the French narration and English subtitles.

The narration is sparse, nonsensical, and hard to follow. Fortunately it probably amounts to a page or two of text, and is scattered between large sequences of footage with only the sounds of the sea or a light musical accompaniment. Unlike the BBC Blue Planet documentary, none of the animals on screen are idenfied, nor is their behaviour explained.

Tony and I spent a lot of time wondering how some of the underwater sequences were filmed. State of the art cameras and filming techniques were used, and it shows.

There is incredible footage of marine iguanas, whales of multiple varieties, battling (or mating?) spider crabs, dancing dolphins, schools of gorgeous jellyfish, and a hilarious night sequence involving a grumpy mantis shrimp. I was amazed to see a huge whale swimming over a sandy bottom with only a foot or two to spare under his belly – imagine having such a big body, AND knowing where all of it is at one time! I love the manatee vacuuming the ocean floor, and the cuddling sea lions. There’s a breathtaking sequence showing a diver in scuba swimming along right next to a 4 metre great white shark. The clarity of the water hints that it wasn’t filmed here…

I loved the sequence towards the end of the film, showing various ships engaged in battling colossal waves. The power of the waves is very apparent. The narrative arc, such as it is, is very mixed and patchy, but the images are so compelling this hardly matters.

The film touches on the damage done by purse seine fishing, long-lining and shark finning – that footage in particular is horribly upsetting. From what I can understand from the credits (French) and my googling, this footage was staged and no animals were actually harmed, but this doesn’t detract from how awful it is.

You can order the DVD here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise on Amazon.com.

Bookshelf: Dolphin Island

Dolphin Island – Arthur C. Clarke

I loved this book so much that at the age of twelve, I named my cat, a magnificent ginger and white giant, “Clarke” after the author. Yes, I was a little nerd. I was given the book for Christmas by my parents in 1989, when I was eleven years old. The following year I did a book report on it for school – I found the cue cards inside the book when I opened it to re-read for this review.

My cue cards for my book report
My cue cards for my book report

Arthur C. Clarke is best known for his science fiction books for adults, most notably 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was filmed, and Rendezvous with Rama. He was a keen diver and futurist, and spent much time diving off Australia and Ceylon (where he later made his home) during his lifetime.

Dolphin Island
Dolphin Island

Dolphin Island is a children’s book, set in 2010 (which, at the time of publication in 1963, seemed quite far in the future but not so far that life would be impossibly different from the way it is now). It was written during Clarke’s convalescence from a near-fatal accident, and he states in the afterword that he wrote the book “as a conscious farewell to the sea” – which fortunately turned out to be premature, as he did much more diving after his recovery.

The novel concerns the sixteen year old Johnny Clinton, who stows away on a hovership (an amphibious cargo vehicle of the future) and ends up – through the assistance of a pod of dolphins – on an island off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. There he meets Professor Kazan and his research team, who are engaged in research of dolphin language and communication. He befriends Mick, an island boy who teaches him to skin dive on the reef surrounding the island. After some time living among the islanders and assisting with dolphin research, hurricane forces Johnny to use his resourcefulness and courage to save his friend the professor’s life.

Unfortunately the book has been out of print for ages and I can’t find an active link for the book for online purchase, but you can find a used copy on Amazon.

Bookshelf: Novels and children’s books

It’s never too early to introduce kids to the ocean and its wonders. Find a novel, a fish identification book, or a gripping account of scientific research in this list of books suitable for young people.

Books about marine life suitable for children and young adults:

Willard Price’s Hal and Roger Hunt adventure series:

A rare children’s offering from Arthur C Clarke:

Ocean-related novels:

If you have children (or nieces and nephews, or grandchildren) you should read: