Bookshelf: Beneath the Surface

Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, Seaworld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish – John Hargrove

Beneath the Surface
Beneath the Surface

As a counterpoint to orca scientist Dr Ingrid Visser’s memoir that we discussed earlier this week, John Hargrove’s Seaworld exposé describes the conflicted, thrilling life of an orca trainer working at a marine theme park. Hargrove appeared in the documentary Blackfish, but in this book he greatly expands on his experiences at the Seaworld parks in the United States, and at Marineland in the south of France.

Hargrove counts being close to the orca, and having opportunities to interact with them, as one of the great privileges of his life. Understandably, he grew to love the animals, and ultimately he says that it was his love for them that forced him to stop working as a trainer and to become an anti-captivity advocate. This decision clearly came after great internal struggle, and he has been subjected to vitriolic online attacks and character assassinations as a result of his new stance on keeping cetaceans captive. I have no doubt that there are aspects of the story he tells that it may be possible to re-tell with greater accuracy, but when so many elements of his story are corroborated by other sources, I feel it is nitpicking to take issue with what is, ultimately, Hargrove’s life story.

You can read reviews of the book here and here. If you’ve been as hypnotised as I have been by the unfolding train wreck that is the post-Blackfish Seaworld story, however, you will be completely absorbed by this memoir.

If you want to experience orca, whales or dolphins without buying a ticket to a marine park, may I suggest you read this article for suggestions, or book a ticket to South Africa between June and November (whale season), or visit Dolphin Encountours in Ponta do Ouro, or connect with a host of other responsible, licenced operators who will allow you to experience the animals in the wild without harassing or harming them.

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

Bookshelf: Swimming with Orca

Swimming with Orca: My Life with New Zealand’s Killer Whales – Dr Ingrid N Visser

Swimming with Orca
Swimming with Orca

Long before it was fashionable, Dr Ingrid Visser was studying orca. The New Zealand-born scientist (with Dutch ancestry, hence the familiar surname to South Africans) describes her early scientific career and work in this book, emphasising how difficult it was to strike out into what was a new field of study in New Zealand. Her struggles to obtain funding and equipment for her research were overcome with ingenuity and sheer persistence.

Visser does not hesitate to get into the water to observe the orca that she studies, and spends hours and hours out at sea looking for them. Through diligent public relations, she has built up a network of individuals around New Zealand who report orca sightings to her, enabling her to launch her rubber duck and go to find them as quickly as possible.

There is excellent advice in this book regarding dealing with stranded cetaceans. Visser now runs the Orca Research Foundation, and is outspoken regarding the inappropriateness of keeping orcas and other cetaceans in captivity. Her scientific research has been misappropriated and misrepresented by Seaworld on occasion, to her great ire!

I am always on the lookout for books that would have inspired me as a teenager, and this is one of them. It is simply written and suitable for (I am guessing) age 13 and above. I admire Dr Visser’s refusal to back down at the start of her career, when her lack of experience, her age and her gender were against her. There is perhaps less focus on the orca themselves, and more on academic challenges, than one might expect of a book with the title Swimming with Orca – but I hope that in time Dr Visser will author another volume focused solely on her study subjects.

For more on orca research, this time in the Pacific north west, and a stronger focus on the whales themselves, I recommend Listening to Whales.

Get a copy of the book here or here.

Bookshelf: Empire Antarctica

Empire Antarctica – Gavin Francis

Empire Antarctica
Empire Antarctica

The Antarctic is the only continent that has no indigenous human inhabitants. The only people who occupy this ice-covered continent are scientists, kept company by penguins, seals, and other birds and marine mammals. Medical doctor Gavin Francis spent 14 months there at the British Antarctic base called Halley Research Station. He was drawn to the post by the prospect of the solitude he would experience and by the “blankness” of Antarctica – without human inhabitants, it lacks a cultural and historical context in the sense that we experience culture when we travel to other destinations. He was also enamoured of the emperor penguins that breed on the continent, and desired greatly to see them.

This is a beautifully written book. Francis steeped himself in the writings of explorers who visited the continent before him, and in the scientific literature of emperor penguins (though he does not mention having watched March of the Penguins or Happy Feet – clearly a gap in his research!). He alternates between lyrical and scientific frames of mind, evocatively describing the exploration of an ice cavern and then, in detailed practical terms, the dissection of a baby penguin. He does not mention very much about his human companions at the base, and I was glad of this. It gives a good sense of how he experienced his year on the ice – there were some other people there, but he was largely wrapped up in his internal experience of the place.

Francis structures his book around the passage of the seasons. This is a logical choice, as in Antarctica the cold and darkness of winter are magnified to the most extreme degree possible, only to be completely cast away by the endless days of the polar summer (not much warmer, however). There is enough information about the mundane details of his life on the base to satisfy one’s curiosity (for example, the modern outdoor clothing they used was so warm that even in a blizzard he could not feel the wind through his layers). But the focus is squarely on the continent itself, its beauty and inhospitable extremes. His descriptions of the emperor penguin colony close to the base, and the Adélie penguins found along the coast, are exuberant and moving.

The existential angst experienced by Francis as the end of his posting in the Antarctic draws nearer – should he return to civilisation? What should he do with his life? – is magnified by the lack of distractions on the ice. After a largely uneventful (yet fascinating to read about) year, he describes his subsequent life choices – marriage, three children – quickly, and glosses over what must have been a substantial period of adjustment to life in warmer, more populous climes. This is an incredible book that made me want to go to the ice, and stayed in my mind for some time after I finished reading it.

You can also read reviews from The Economist, the Telegraph and the Washington Times. Francis wrote for The Guardian about his experience at the end of the world – it’ll give you a good sense of his writing style.

You can get a copy here, here or – if you’re in South Africa – here.

If you’re as ice-obsessed as I am, also check out Endurance (for some historical context), and Ice Patrol.

Bookshelf: The Death and Life of Monterey Bay

The Death and Life of Monterey Bay
The Death and Life of Monterey Bay

I had high hopes for The Death and Life of Monterey Bay, for reasons that will be revealed (I hope) in the course of the next few years. Monterey Bay is in California, and opens onto the Pacific Ocean. It has approximately the same surface area as False Bay but is shallower and less square. Filled with diverse marine life, it was formerly bounded by a row of sardine canneries (setting for John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row) which were responsible for massive pollution in the area. Tons of stinking sardine guts fouled up the bay, which had been stripped of much of its marine life by aggressive fishing practices and cascading effects in the ecosystem.

In 1892 the Hopkins Marine Station was founded, a research laboratory of Stanford University. In 1931, the area of ocean in front of the lab was designated the Hopkins Marine Life Refuge (now Reserve). The bay’s populations of abalone, sea otters, killer whales, kelp forests, whales, and other life gradually recovered, and the sea urchin barrens were overgrown and once again supported a variety of life.

In this book Palumbi and Sotka trace the decline and recovery of the bay, lingering on colourful local characters such as Monterey mayor Julia Platt, whose no-nonsense attitude ensured access to the ocean for all the residents of the area. I expected the book to be more about marine biology, with information about how the various species recovered in the ecosystem once the polluting and overfishing forces were removed, but it is definitely more of a human history, with a strong focus on Platt, John Steinbeck, and his friend Ed Ricketts, with whom he travelled to the Sea of Cortez.

The establishment of the Monterey Bay Aquarium on Cannery Row effectively redeemed an area that was the source of seemingly limitless pollution. The aquarium was opened in 1984 after years of planning. It is a sister aquarium to Cape Town’s Two Oceans Aquarium, and also has the distinction of being the first aquarium to attempt to exhibit a (juvenile) great white shark, an enterprise that (fortunately) seems doomed to failure.

There’s an excellent article on Palumbi and the book here.

Here’s Stephen Palumbi giving a TEDx talk on how Monterey Bay came back to life:


You can get the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here.

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 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!


Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099

Diving is addictive!

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Documentary: Blackfish


Blackfish is an almost-Oscar nominated documentary about keeping orcas (killer whales) in captivity. It focuses on Tilikum, a killer whale who was captured off the coast of Iceland in 1983, and now lives at SeaWorld in Florida. Tilikum has killed or been implicated in the deaths of three people, two of whom were his trainers at SeaWorld. The most recent incident received widespread media coverage and was the subject of an excellent article by Tim Zimmermann (a producer of this movie), entitled Killer in the Pool.

The documentary is primarily built around interviews with several former SeaWorld trainers, and uses news reports, home videos, interviews with other players, and other footage to fill in the details of how the orcas are captured, kept and trained. There is a disturbing interview with a man who was involved in the capture of baby killer whales for sale to marine parks – this is no longer done in the United States as a result of a backlash against the practice from the general public, but Russia has no reservations about continuing to do so.

The documentary has had an impact on SeaWorld’s profits and popularity – not as much as I’d like, but it’s noticeable. Several musicians have refused to perform at the parks, citing new awareness following Blackfish as the reason. The documentary exposes the factual errors that SeaWorld staff persist in repeating to the public – an example is their claim that the lifespan of captive orcas is as long or longer than orcas in the wild because they get such good veterinary care, and they aren’t exposed to the dangers of the open ocean. Captive orcas actually have significantly shorter lifespans (and more miserable lives) than their wild counterparts.

This is an upsetting film, but not only for the reasons I expected. While it is harrowing to watch a five ton animal dragging a human being underwater, I actually found it more upsetting to watch the five ton animal simply leaping and swimming around in its tank. I don’t think it’s suitable for children, but you should watch it.

For further reading on this subject I recommend Death at Seaworld, and this article at Southern Fried Science by Naomi Rose, who was heavily featured in the same book. CNN has shown the documentary several times, and there are some clips and a short article about it here. Producer Tim Zimmermann’s website has updates on various subjects related to SeaWorld, cetaceans in captivity, and (if that’s your thing) veganism.

For the other side of the argument, there is (for example) this advertorial-style article at CNN, in which the author claims that marine parks make valuable contributions to science, research and conservation, and offers the solution that because the orcas’ natural habitat is being polluted, they should be kept in tanks for their own safety. Someone should tell the author that it is possible to manage marine mammal strandings (in South Africa, for example) without the help of theme parks.

You can get a copy of the dvd here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here.

Bookshelf: Listening to Whales

Listening to Whales: What the Orcas have Taught Us – Alexandra Morton

Listening to Whales
Listening to Whales

Listening to Whales is marine biologist Alexandra Hubbard’s memoir of the thirty-odd years she spent studying wild killer whales, as well as other cetacean species. Morton was born in the United States, the daughter of a famous artist, but discovered her passion for cetaceans while working for eccentric dolphin researcher John C. Lilly. Her orca research took her into Canada’s remote Broughton Archipelago, where she and her husband (who passed away during the research in a solo rebreather diving accident) lived a romantic, itinerant, lonely, and very challenging life following pods of wild orca around and studying their communication.

Morton also spent time in oceanariums and theme parks, observing and working with captive orcas and dolphins. Her insights into the trauma that these unnatural environments inflict on the animals held there are illuminating, and dovetail with the observations made in articles such as The Killer in the Pool and Blood in the Waterand Death at Seaworld.

When the orcas disappeared from British Colombia’s remote waters, Morton wanted to find out why. She soon discovered the reason for their absence: there was a growing number of salmon farms, which started proliferating in earnest in the late 1980s, in the archipelago. The salmon farms used Acoustic Harassment Devices (AHDs) to chase away seals that preyed on the captive salmon. Since sound is of vital importance to orcas for hunting, echo location, and communication, the whales found the noisy environment unliveable and intolerable, and left the area. Morton’s persistence (she wrote over 10,000 letters) led to the withdrawal of the AHDs starting in the early 2000s.

The salmon farms have affected the area in ways other than noise pollution. They generate massive amounts of physical pollutants (from excess food pellets, waste products, and antibiotics used to treat the farmed fish), reducing the water quality. The salmon are also prone to infestation by parasites. Because the farmed fish are kept in such close quarters, there is unchecked spread of diseases and this can spill over to wild populations. There are also potentially serious consequences if farmed salmon escape and breed with wild salmon populations. The fish farming industry is growing rapidly in both size and vogue, and there is massive financial incentive for companies (and government bodies) to cover up the shortcomings and failures of mariculture. Morton’s work uncovering the abuses occurring in Canadian (and other) salmon farming continues to this day. She is a hero.

I think that if I’d had more access to women who were working as scientists when I was a child, my career might have panned out a little differently from the way it has. This is why I am very enthusiastic to discover memoirs by women who are respected in their chosen field, particularly when pursuing that particular field of study would seem to preclude some of the things that some people want, such as a stable family life. Whale scientist Elin Kelsey’s book Watching Giants also falls into this category. Morton’s life story is one of a wandering, resourceful, curious person who has managed to combine significant scientific output with a fulfilling life that has included raising two children, one of whom now works at NASA. Part of her son’s childhood was spent curled up in the bow of the Zodiac his parents were using to track pods of orca!

I’d strongly recommend this book to girls considering a career in the natural sciences, and to anyone else who is interested in the ocean, killer whales, fish farming, or just in interesting lives well lived. You can get a copy here or here.

Series: Underwater Universe

Underwater Universe
Underwater Universe

The four episodes of this History Channel series cover waves, tides and currents, predators, and pressure – all powerful features of the ocean that can be sensationalised (some more easily than others) and presented for shock value and as imminent threats to human life. Full advantage is taken of this fact.

This very American offering doesn’t boast the measured, mellifluous tones of Benedict Cumberbatch or Steve Toussaint as narrator, but the line-up of (mostly in-studio) guest narrators is quite impressive. Bruce Parker (The Power of the Sea), Susan Casey (The Devil’s Teeth and The Wave), David Gallo (scientist presenter of the TED Talk I mentioned here), Scott Cassell (student of the Humboldt squid), Richard Ellis (writer of a number of ocean history, art and science books), and Neil Hammerschlag (shark scientist) were familiar to me, as was big wave surfer Ken Bradshaw, from this article. The strange, uncomfortable way in which the studio narrators were filmed, with silent close ups interspersed with talking, was very annoying and must have been incredibly embarrassing to shoot. Or perhaps the cameraman took the footage when the narrators didn’t realise they were being filmed.

Unlike BBC documentaries, which tend to rely purely on incredible photography and fluent narrative to convey information, the History Channel favours a CGI-heavy approach that we encountered in Treasure Quest, Deep Sea Salvage, and also in the National Geographic Shark Men series. For the subject matter of this series – particularly the sections on waves, tides and currents – it was very appropriate and informative. The first episode, devoted to tsunamis, rogue waves and “monster waves”, made good use of CGI to illustrate the concepts as they were explained. The series was produced shortly before the Japanese tsunami of 2011 (there is a hastily tacked on “thoughts and prayers” disclaimer) and features interviews with a survivor of a tsunami in Samoa. I am fascinated by rogue waves – the whole episode could have been devoted to them but they don’t make for good television – we only have indirect evidence of their existence. Also, I could have done with more footage of giant ships battling storms, but that’s what youtube is for…

The least interesting and most irritating episode was the one devoted to the ocean’s top predators, which suggested that orcas are a serious threat to humans. As evidence, the cases of captive killer whales drowning and injuring their trainers at marine theme parks were cited. No mention was made of the psychosis that these whales suffer from as a result of confinement in a small, barren, completely unnatural environment. An incident in which orcas inexplicably rammed and sank a yacht in the Pacific Ocean is also described and re-enacted. Whether the orcas did what they did because they wanted to kill the people on board is highly debatable. There is also a half-hearted attempt to paint whales as potentially vicious killers, recounting incidents when sperm whales rammed whaling boats in the 19th century. More power to the sperm whales, I say.

The other dangerous predators were (predictably) white sharks, Humboldt squid, saltwater crocodiles and Australian box jellyfish. There was a small environmental message at the end of this episode, mentioning that squid will probably end up the top predators in our oceans if current trends – fishing out large predatory fish and global warming in particular – continue.

The third episode, on the immense pressures that objects in the deep ocean are subjected to, was very interesting to Tony and me as divers. A confusing interview with a diver whose brother got DCS on a wreck dive leaves (I suspect) much out. Were they even qualified divers? Why was he surprised that his brother felt unwell and confused as to the cause after he popped to the surface from 30 metres after a 30 minute dive?

The bulk of the third episode, however, recounts a 1981 experiment called Atlantis III in which three volunteers were taken in a saturation system to a simulated depth of 686 metres while breathing Trimix 10 (70% helium, 20% nitrogen and 10% oxygen). It took 31 days for them to decompress. The chief of the experiment, Peter Bennett, was the founder and former CEO of DAN. There’s a more information about the project here – worth a read (download the pdf slowly), and a briefer account here.

The series concludes with an episode on tides and currents, including rip currents. The massive tidal range of Morecambe Bay in the United Kingdom,  is discussed at length. At low tide, up to 300 square kilometres of mudflats is exposed, and flooded again when the tide comes in. The guides who escort people out onto the mudflats when the tide is out seem like charming individuals – it is recommended not to wander around at low tide without local guidance. In 2004, the rising tide trapped and drowned 23 Chinese immigrants who were working the cockle beds – with such a large expanse of land to cover, the rising tide comes in at great speed. There is also a harrowing re-enactment of a father and his two sons getting washed out to sea in a rip current in Kauai that should make you think twice about swimming at beaches with warning signs on them.

You can get the DVDs here if you’re in South Africa. Foreigners, go here or here.

Article: Wired on a fin whale necropsy

An article at reports on the necropsy of a fin whale that was stranded on a beach north of San Francisco, and subsequently died. A necropsy is like an autopsy, for animals. Opportunities to study freshly deceased cetaceans are relatively rare. Usually, when a whale carcass is available to scientists, it’s been dead for some time – have a look at this whale that washed ashore near Muizenberg. The thick layer of blubber that whales have means that the carcass retains its internal temperature for a long time, speeding up decomposition and providing only a very narrow window for useful science.

Fin whales are the second largest whales (after blue whales), and are very fast swimmers. They are endangered. Their only predator is the orca.  Collisions with ships are a real threat to this species, and it seems that the whale described in the article was struck by a small ship. Apart from a lesion on the underside of its body, the whale appeared in good health, with ample abdominal fat.

When the researchers were finished with their analysis, the whale was buried on the beach. This is a good way to dispose of a whale carcass, as the years of nutrients it has consumed are returned to the ecosystem as it decomposes in the sand. Unfortunately we can’t in good conscience bury whales near swimming beaches in South Africa, because we have sharks who will be attracted to the beach by the mini chum-slick that the decomposing whale’s bodily fluids will generate.

Read the full article here. There are some fascinating photographs. If you are squeamish, easily upset, a delicate flower, or just don’t want to see close ups of a whale dissection, DO NOT CLICK ON THE LINK.

Documentary: Wild Caribbean

Wild Caribbean
Wild Caribbean

In the tradition of the BBC’s Great Barrier Reef and South Pacific documentaries we watched last year and earlier this year, Wild Caribbean transports one to a series of exotic destinations and – with the outstanding production values one expects from the BBC – introduces their micro- and macro- flora and fauna, as well as the physical characteristics of the location.

Narrated in mellifluous tones by Steve Toussaint, with a wonderful musical score, Wild Caribbean transported us out of rainy Cape Town to the warm, shallow (and very deep) seas of the Caribbean, the thousands of perfect palm tree covered islands, the mangrove forests, and the magnificent coral reefs. There are four episodes, and we enjoyed the middle two – Wrecks and Reefs and Hurricane Hell – the most. In the episode about the abundant shipwrecks and reefs in this part of the ocean, we saw footage of the Kirk Pride, lying in nearly 300 metres of water on the Cayman wall.

The area is prone to hurricanes, and these events will only increase in severity and frequency as the planet warms up. The episode devoted to hurricanes is both terrifying (with some amazing footage of storm surges) and comforting – in most cases, the coral reefs, forests and animals are able to recover and thrive after these severe storms have passed.

I was also thrilled to get a glimpse, in the fourth and final episode, of the cenotes of the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico, haunt of cave divers and redolent with history and spiritual significance to the people who lived there. Aerial footage (which is used extensively) of the Great Blue Hole of Belize was also alluring.

Chance of being murdered aside, the Lesser Antilles islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao struck me as very promising diving destinations – particularly Bonaire. It is an extremely arid place with very little runoff due to erosion and rainfall, so the coral reefs surrounding it and Curacao are washed by crystal clear water and bathed in abundant sunlight. For divers, there is also magnificent footage of whale shark aggregations off the island of Utila, and of massing stingrays at “stingray city” at Grand Cayman, where one can stand in waist deep water and feed stingrays by hand. Humpback whales, orca and turtles also pass through these waters, which boast an almost dizzying array of macrofauna in addition to the coral reefs and tropical fish.

This is a wonderful production and we enjoyed it immensely. There is a companion book that looks beautiful, too.

You can buy the DVD here (South Africa) otherwise here.