Newsletter: Guests from the south

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Sunday: Boat dives from False Bay Yacht Club

Sunday will most likely be the better diving day in False Bay despite the swell forecast. The Atlantic temperature has dropped 5 degrees in the last 24 hours so there is a chance that Oudekraal would work on Saturday if you need to get wet.

I will plan launching from Simons Town, early on Sunday and both dives will be in the vicinity of Roman Rock. Let me know if you’re keen.

Flagellar sea fan at Roman Rock (and very respectable visibility)
Flagellar sea fan at Roman Rock (and very respectable visibility)

Penguin at large

There’s a king penguin currently visiting Buffels Bay in the Cape Point Nature Reserve. These animals are found on the subantarctic islands and the Antarctic continent, so it’s a long way from home. This is a rare chance for you to see the second largest species of penguin.

They aren’t rare (there are 2-3 million of them in the world), but they are highly threatened by climate change, and we’re very lucky to see one in Africa. This bird has no fear of humans, so be cautious and respectful if you go and see it. SANParks is guarding the animal to make sure it’s kept safe.

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: Antarctica

Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of the World’s Most Mysterious Continent – Gabrielle Walker

THIS is the book about the Antarctic that I have been looking for all of my life. It’s unlikely that this discovery will stop my obsessive consumption of polar-related literature and documentary material, but this is likely a book I will return to again.

Antarctica
Antarctica

The author, a science writer, has visited Antarctica several times, and is thus able to weave her personal experiences of  life on the driest continent with accounts of the science taking place there, and the scientists doing the work. Walker has had the sort of access to the scientists that most of us can only dream of, and makes reasonably good use of it.

Mixed in with stories of her Antarctic travels and meetings with researchers, Walker also briefly recounts the stories of some of the explorers of last century who opened up the interior of the continent. She is able to visit Western Antarctica, a part of the continent that very few people get to, and where the effects of climate change can be seen most clearly.

There’s a much more comprehensive review from The Guardian here. If you’re interested in the Antarctic, and the science that is being done there, you should read this book.

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

Newsletter: Happy Blue Year

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Saturday: Launching from False Bay Yacht Club at 8am for a Smitswinkel Bay wreck / at 10.30 am for cowsharks

African penguin at Boulders
African penguin at Boulders

I’m launching early on Saturday for a student dive to one of the Smitswinkel Bay wrecks, and at 10.30 am for (most likely) cowsharks. They’ve been spotted by a couple of reliable witnesses this week!

The boat is already almost full, but if you’d like a spot let me know as soon as possible. We may also be able to go out on Sunday – let me know if you’d like to dive.

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!

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: A raft of penguins

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

SaturdayLaunching from Simon’s Town jetty at 9.00 am for Roman Rock and at 12.00 for Photographer’s Reef or the wreck of SAS Pietermaritzburg

Sunday: Shore dive at Long Beach or A Frame at 9.30 am

Penguins near Boulders Beach
Penguins near Boulders Beach

Conditions in False Bay have been great this week, and I am sure they will be pretty good for the weekend. Some swell arrives tomorrow, so Saturday will be better for boating and Sunday for shore dives. Let me know if you want to get in the water.

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!

How to help marine wildlife in distress

 

It’s not uncommon to come across marine wildlife – seabirds, seals, turtles – apparently in distress. This is not always the case, so before you mount a complex and dangerous rescue mission, or try to provide help where none is needed, it may be wise to get an expert on the telephone to help you determine whether it really is necessary. Fortunately there is a range of 24-hour wildlife hotlines to choose from, depending on what species you are dealing with.

Seals

Bull seal with plastic around his neck, in Hout Bay
Bull seal with plastic around his neck, in Hout Bay

Seals with plastic or fishing line around their necks should be reported to the Two Oceans Aquarium (if the seal was spotted around Cape Town harbour or the Waterfront), or, more generally to the SPCA Wildlife Unit on +27 (0) 21 700 4158/4159, or +27 (0) 83 326 1604 after hours and on weekends. Unfortunately the odds are your seal is probably not going to get the help it needs if it isn’t in the port of Cape Town or at the Waterfront; this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your darndest to advocate on its behalf.

You can help to deal with this problem at its source by retrieving any loops of plastic that you see floating in the water when you’re on a boat. Hout Bay harbour is a particular cesspit of plastic pollution, and with a nearby seal colony it’s a recipe for disaster. Cutting through any closed loops on plastic items (such as beer can holders) that you recycle or dispose of yourself also ensures that should the plastic end up in the wild, it won’t entangle an animal.

Seals found lying on the beach are usually not in trouble. Juvenile seals may rest for long periods – a couple of days at a time – on shore, and the most important thing to do is not to disturb them. They don’t need to be kept wet, they don’t need to be fed, and they can inflict a nasty bite. Encourage other members of the public to give the animal a wide berth, particularly if they have dogs. Lead by example. If the animal appears visibly unwell (fitting, for example) or is bleeding, then call the SPCA Wildlife Unit for a chat about what course of action is best.

Seabirds

Seabirds are most often found entangled in fishing line or plastic, pierced by fishing hooks, or, in the event of an oil spill, with oiled feathers. It is important to get help if possible, particularly for oiled birds.

SANCCOB has a 24 hour rescue centre which can be reached on +27 (0)21 557 6155 or +27 (0) 78 638 3731 (after hours & weekends). Their website provides the following advice to would-be seabird rescuers:

What to do when you have found an injured/sick/oiled seabird:

  • If you are unable to handle the seabird, SANCCOB will send out a unit to collect the bird.
  • If you approach any seabird, please approach with care. Some seabirds such as Cape Gannets and African Penguins have sharp beaks.
  • Have with you a towel, or blanket and wear protection over your hands and eyes. Use a towel/blanket to throw over the bird to catch it, ensuring that the bird is able to breathe.
  • If you have a large box ensure that there are holes for air before you place the injured/sick marine bird.

More information can be found here.

Turtles

During the autumn and winter months, juvenile and sub-adult sea turtles sometimes strand on Western Cape beaches. These animals are often shocked by the cold and in poor shape – they do not typically occur in Cape waters but are washed down in eddies of the Agulhas current.

Do not put the turtle back in the sea or into water. It is probably weak, dehydrated and hypothermic, and is likely to drown. Keep it dry, and call the Two Oceans Aquarium for further instructions and assistance. The aquarium rehabilitates and releases the turtles in warmer water when they are healthy.

Here’s detailed information from the Two Oceans Aquarium on what to do if you find a stranded turtle. Do the right thing!

Whales and dolphins

The City of Cape Town would like ocean users to report whale carcasses before they end up on the beach. This is mostly for public safety and resource allocation purposes, but if we can do anything to keep a whale carcass out at sea (or on a secluded non-swimming beach), it serves a conservation purpose as well. There’s a phone number you can use to do this – read more here.

If you come across a current or imminent live whale or dolphin stranding, contact the NSRI on +27 (0) 21 449 3500 immediately. They will activate the relevant authorities. Try to bear in mind that these events often do not end well for the animals concerned, as they are often sick or disoriented and impossible to assist. Be a help, not a hindrance, and obey whatever instructions you are given by the NSRI, SanParks, or whoever comes to take charge.

A free-swimming but entangled whale should be immediately reported to the NSRI as well – they will activate the South African Whale Disentanglement Network. Do not attempt to assist the whale yourself – this could be fatal for you (not the whale) – rather make a note of the direction it is swimming, and its precise location, and whatever other helpful information you can provide. Whale entanglements seem to be increasing in frequency around False Bay in particular, as more experimental fisheries are approved. (If this worries you, you could write a letter to DAFF about it.)

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: Endurance

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage – Alfred Lansing

Endurance
Endurance

Sir Ernest Shackleton was a British explorer who mounted an expedition to the Antarctic in 1914. The intention was for a group of men to traverse the Antarctic continent from sea to sea: the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. The expedition did not go as planned; before landing on the continent the expedition’s ship, Endurance, became trapped between ice floes and could not be moved. I’m going to tell you practically the entire story here, but since it’s a historical event it’s not as if I’m spoilering it. Furthermore, if you read one book this year, you should read Endurance. Even foreknowledge of the events it recounts won’t dim your enjoyment.

The men spent six months on board their ship as she drifted with the ice, and when it became apparent that it was about to be completely destroyed by the ice, they decamped – along with their sled dogs – to an ice floe. The floe drifted still further, and when it in turn started to break up – after about five months had passed – the men took to the small boats that they had brought with them from Endurance, and headed for the closest attainable land. Their voyage to uninhabited Elephant Island took a week, during which time the men did not sleep and had very little to eat. They were exposed to the full force of the Southern Ocean, but managed to land on the island and establish a camp.

Shackleton selected a small subgroup of the men, and in the James Caird, a 6.85 metre wooden boat (for scale, just a bit longer than our rubber duck) they set out on the 1,300 kilometre trip to South Georgia Island, where there was a whaling station and contact with civilisation. This voyage took two weeks of herculean effort. Shackleton and his men then crossed South Georgia Island on foot – scaling incredible elevations with no appropriate mountaineering tools and clothing that was threadbare and unsuitable for the environment by dint of its prior length of service as part of their wardrobes. After wrangling to obtain a vessel and attempts thwarted by ice and weather, a boat was able to rescue the remainder of the crew, who had been waiting on Elephant Island for over three months, eating seals and penguins.

I spoke so incessantly about this book while I was reading (actually listening to) it, and afterwards, that it must have driven Tony mad. The courage and resourcefulness of the expedition members astonished me. They entered a hostile environment, one hundred years ago (compare modern preparations for a trip across the Antarctic), and existed in harmony together, in a range of bitterly perilous situations, without loss of good temper or – incredibly – of life. They took photographs and many of the crew kept meticulous diaries, enabling a detailed reconstruction of the events. I suspect that a large part of my enjoyment was related to the fact that I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by Simon Prebble, who has a beautiful, expressive voice and was able to bring the diary entries of the crew to life using their various accents.

You can get a copy of the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.

There’s a magnificent photo essay about the Endurance (with the expedition photographer Frank Hurley’s original pictures) here.

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.

Humboldt penguins at Copenhagen Zoo

While we were in Denmark between Christmas and New Year we visited the Copenhagen Zoo. I was specially enchanted by the Humboldt penguins (they look a lot like African penguins, but originate in Peru and Chile). Their exhibit was set up so that you could see them swimming underwater. Even though it was very cold, they seemed quite happy and well insulated.

We occasionally see penguins while boating around False Bay, but I’ve never had a chance to swim with one on a dive. I think they’re shy that way.