Shark Spotters supporters program

We are proud to announce that we have signed on as official supporters of Shark Spotters. We are Silver partners, and for larger businesses there are higher levels of support on offer. (We are hoping to encourage some of the other dive centres to consider supporting Shark Spotters, too…) Individuals can also sign on to the supporters program, or donate in many different ways. Shark Spotters is part-funded by the City of Cape Town and the Save Our Seas Foundation, and the rest comes from public donations.

One of the Shark Spotters flags at Fish Hoek beachåç
One of the Shark Spotters flags at Fish Hoek beachåç

The Shark Spotters provide beach safety, a world-first environmentally friendly shark exclusion net at Fish Hoek beach, run educational programs at local schools, and conduct shark research in and around False Bay.

All of this work keeps both people and sharks safe, and this is at the heart of what Shark Spotters does.

The shark exclusion net has been around for about five years, and (unlike the gill nets in KZN) is specially designed not to pose a hazard to any marine life. It gets taken in every evening, to eliminate the risk of an animal becoming entangled at night when the spotters are not on duty. It is an extremely successful and popular feature of Fish Hoek beach, and is invariably packed with happy, safe swimmers during the summer months. If you’re curious about it, watch the video above to see what it looks like from underwater, and read more about it here, here and here.

The Shark Spotters info centre at Muizenberg
The Shark Spotters info centre at Muizenberg

Their research continues to illuminate the activities of white sharks in the bay, but is also in the process of shedding light on the interactions between white sharks, sevengill cowsharks and bronze whalers as they share the ecosystem. They have even published a recent paper (open access) on the predation of sevengill cowsharks by orcas in False Bay, which is well worth a read.

The Shark Spotters outpost at Caves (Kogel Bay)
The Shark Spotters outpost at Caves (Kogel Bay)

Currently, they’re partnering with a Swiss firm in a cutting-edge research project to determine how automated shark spotting, making use of cameras and machine learning algorithms, can augment the already impressive skills of the spotting team. By first training a sophisticated algorithm to distinguish between a shark, pieces of kelp, dolphins, wind chop, and all the other visual phenomena that a spotter comes across during the course of a day, it is hoped that a fixed camera system, with some software, could assist the spotters in their work. It is not intended to replace human spotters, but to augment and facilitate their work.

The Shark Spotters hut at Fish Hoek beach
The Shark Spotters hut at Fish Hoek beach

We’re happy to be contributing to the important work of Shark Spotters – if you’d like to as well, visit their website to find out how to lend your support, or drop me an email and I’ll connect you with the right people.

Newsletter: Batten down the hatches

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

No diving

The weather forecast predicts that we are soon to be lashed with 50 km/h winds, a 7 metre swell, and no small amount of rain. It seldom is as bad as the forecasts claim, however the swell size and direction will hammer False Bay. Despite Sunday’s weather looking peachy, I don’t think the ocean will be, so we will plan for a dry weekend… It is winter after all.

Shark Spotting at Fish Hoek beach
Shark Spotting at Fish Hoek beach

Shark Spotters supporters program

We are proud to announce that we have signed on as official supporters of Shark Spotters. We are Silver partners, and for larger businesses there are higher levels of support on offer. (We are hoping to encourage some of the other dive centres to consider supporting Shark Spotters, too…) Individuals can also sign on to the supporters program, or donate in many different ways.

Shark Spotters is part-funded by the City of Cape Town and the Save Our Seas Foundation, and the rest comes from public donations. The Shark Spotters provide beach safety, a world-first environmentally friendly shark exclusion net at Fish Hoek beach, conduct educational programs at local schools, and conduct shark research in and around False Bay.

We’ll write a blog post with more information soon – but in the mean time, we’re very happy to be contributing to the important work of Shark Spotters. If you’d like to as well, visit their website to find out how to lend your support, or drop me an email and I’ll connect you with the right people.

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: 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.

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: Whether the weather

Hi divers

We ventured out to Long Beach last weekend and found the conditions to be less than ideal: surgy, especially for a 10 year old student, and with 3-4 m visibility. Winter diving is around the corner and we look forward to improved conditions.

The forecast for the weekend is not that great. The visibility is reasonable, but there is currently a 17 second period swell in False Bay and that won’t do much to maintain the viz. Saturday looks to be the best option for boating, but an early start is needed as the wind picks up around midday. I will make the call late tomorrow afternoon as to whether we have launch weather or not. Text, email, call, or Whatsapp me if you want to dive.

Strepies at Long Beach
Strepies at Long Beach

Cowsharks

It’s been an exciting week at Shark Alley, unless you’re a cowshark. Several dead cowsharks have been found this week, and no live ones have been spotted. The dead cowsharks appear to have been skilfully predated upon by orcas! We observed a similar phenomenon exactly a year ago. There’s some more information and a photo of one of the sharks on the Spot the Sevengill Shark facebook page (and a further update on the dissection results here).

This is also a good opportunity to remember what a privilege it is to dive with the cowsharks by viewing a video Jerrel recently compiled from footage taken at the site just over a year ago. We have a cowshark diving protocol as a reminder of how we approach this amazing dive.

Dive gear sale

Monty of Scuba Culture is having a stock clearance sale, so if you’re in need of a hose, a cutting tool, or something else shiny or cool, contact him to find out what he’s got available.

MPA Permits

Please remember to bring your permit to dive in a marine protected area with you when you come for a dive. Ideally they should be on the boat with you when you come diving (as that’s where they’ll get checked). If you don’t have a permit, the post office can help. We also have temporary permits available, valid for a month, but not very cost effective.

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!

Article: Outside on acoustic sanctuaries for whales

Departing dolphins, and Christo
Departing dolphins, and Christo

Whales and dolphins make extensive use of sound to communicate. Some of the purposes of this communication may be to organise during a hunt, to socialise or to co-ordinate group movement.

The predominance of long-distance shipping as a cost-effective and efficient way to transport goods around the world has increased the amount of anthropogenic noise in the ocean to the extent that, in some parts of the world, populations of wild cetaceans struggle to make themselves heard in order to communicate with each other.

Outside Online describes a recent paper that proposes “acoustic sanctuaries” to protect cetacean populations of marine mammals off the coast of British Columbia in Canada. This is a fascinating idea, and need not be difficult to implement:

These quiet areas could be pain-free places for governments to formally institute quiet zones, the paper argues. Ships wouldn’t have to be rerouted, the authors note, they would simply have to continue avoiding sensitive areas.

Read the full article here.

To read more about acoustic communication between cetaceans, try this article, the book Listening to Whales by marine mammal scientist Alexandra Morton, or (for a touch of eccentricity) the book Thousand Mile Song.

Bookshelf: Voices in the Ocean

Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins – Susan Casey

Voices in the Ocean
Voices in the Ocean

It is clear from the first pages of Voices in the Ocean that Susan Casey is enchanted by dolphins, and her book does not shy away from the mysticism and wild attributions of almost supernatural powers that dog our toothed marine mammal friends. She is author of The Wave and The Devil’s Teeth, and favours an immersive and almost obsessive style of engagement with her subject. This makes for good reading.

Despite the persistent thread of woo running through the entire book, Casey manages to expose important and awful aspects of humans’ relationship with dolphins. Some of these are often overlooked. She visits dolphins in theme parks, goes to the cove at Taiji in Japan (location of a famous dolphin hunt), and – in what I view as the most important section of the book because the topic is so under-reported – the Solomon Islands.

The Solomon Islanders have a long history with dolphins, both slaughtering them for their teeth (as money), and capturing the animals to sell them to marine parks. The scale of the Solomon Islands’ involvement in dolphin killing and trade is massive and horrific. Some of the incidents are completely pointless, executed in order to hold conservation organisations to ransom. Casey visits the islands, meets some of the players, and tries to make sense of the chaos and menace she finds there.

Casey concludes with a study of the Minoan culture on Crete, a hopeful note after a trip into the hellish depths of depravity that seem to occur more often than not at the human-dolphin interface. You can read more about Voices in the Ocean at Outside Magazine, the Guardian, and the New York Times.

You can get a copy of the book here (South Africa), here or here.

Article(s): The Longform guide to sea creatures (some holiday reading!)

Here are some holiday reading recommendations – not too taxing, not entirely insubstantial – to enjoy while lounging under an umbrella by the pool or waiting for a flight to board. You will probably enjoy them because they’re about marine life, and I assume that if you didn’t have a passing interest in the ocean, you wouldn’t be reading this blog.

Octopus at Pyramid Rock
Octopus at Pyramid Rock

Longform is a website that provides reading recommendations – usually (as the name suggests) long form stories, not restricted to a particular range of topics. I am a subscriber to the Longform newsletter, and lately a user of their iPad app.

The Longform guide to sea creatures is a short list of juicy long articles whose common thread is that they focus on marine animals. I’ve shared some of them with you already – Killer in the Pool and Moby Duck being the most notable. Others are about giant squid, octopus, tuna, whales, and the Loch Ness monster. It’s a page worth bookmarking, should you anticipate requiring a couple of hours of thoughtful, fact-checked, well researched reading on the subject of marine life.

You can find the list of Longform sea creature articles here, and a mostly overlapping but slightly different version on Slate.com, here. (The advantage of the Slate list is that you can send the articles to your Kindle, to read later.)

 

Newsletter: Smoke on the water

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Sunday: Boat or shore dives, conditions dependent!

We have had terrific conditions all week and have been taking full advantage. False Bay is cleanish and warmish. Visibility has varied from site to site but the bay is full of life. On Tueday we spent our surface interval time photographing sea swallows at Batsata Maze. Wednesday’s surface interval was spent filming giant short tail sting rays at Millers Point, and today we were fortunate enough to have two orcas swim by close inshore whilst the divers were on the SAS Pietermaritzburg this morning. Who knows what we will see tomorrow!

Giant short tailed sting ray behind the boat at Millers Point
Giant short tailed sting ray behind the boat at Millers Point

Sadly the diving today was somewhat overshadowed by the raging fire that descended on Simon’s Town with the westerly wind, despite the best efforts of many firefighters. Watching from the water you could see the speed at which the fire traveled and I doubt anything other than a thundershower was going to slow it down. On the run back into Simon’s Town we went through really thick smoke.

Simon's Town fire
Simon’s Town fire

The weekend, however, does not look too rosy. At cowsharks this afternoon the swell was quite noticeable and although it stays at 3 metres for most of tomorrow, the forecast is for 5-6 metres on Saturday. It seldom reaches the height in the forecast but even at 4-5 metres diving becomes less than great. Surge and low viz are on the cards. I think there will be a better than good chance that Sunday will be semi-decent so I will provisionally schedule diving, either from the boat or perhaps a shore dive or two… Text me if you want to join and I’ll keep you posted.

Diarise

Don’t forget the Shark Spotters fundraiser on Sunday – should be fun!

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: Watching Whales & Dolphins in Southern Africa

Watching Whales & Dolphins in Southern Africa – Noel & Belinda Ashton

Watching Whales & Dolphins in Southern Africa
Watching Whales & Dolphins in Southern Africa

This is an enormously useful book for local whale watchers, and provides details on the life history and characteristics of the cetaceans found in Southern Africa’s waters. The text is illustrated by beautiful paintings and photographs showing the animals in full from various angles, including what you’d see if they were on the surface of the sea or about to sound.

Noel Ashton is an artist, sculptor and conservationist, whose sculptural work can be seen in the foyer of the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town. Nature writer and designer Belinda Ashton has co-authored several books with him.  The Ashtons also provided the whale and dolphin identification posters upstairs between the Predator Exhibit and the Kelp Forest tank. Their love for the natural world is evident in the beautiful illustrations and careful attention to detail in this book.

There is a history of whaling in South Africa, but fortunately there is now a yearly strong recovery in whale numbers and an appreciation of the economic value of whales alive rather than dead. There are incredible whale watching opportunities all around South Africa’s coast, including world-class shore-based viewing from Cape Town to De Hoop via Hermanus and De Kelders. There is boat-based whale watching out of Cape Town and from Gansbaai, Hermanus, Knysna, Plettenberg Bay, Durban, St Lucia, and other locations in between. For those who do not remember whaling, it is easy to become blasé about this embarrassment of cetacean riches, but it makes us, as South Africans, extremely privileged indeed.

For ocean lovers, this book is as indispensable as a bird book to a twitcher. It is highly recommended.

You can get a copy of the book here (South Africa) or here.