A Day on the Bay: Racing at sea

Sunrise behind Simon's Town Yacht Club
Sunrise behind Simon’s Town Yacht Club

Clare is not good at early mornings, but I love to see the sun rise, and one beautiful Saturday just before Christmas – when visibility was unfortunately too poor to take divers out – I took Seahorse to False Bay Yacht Club at first light. The day turned out to be quite hectic for other ocean users, but I was able to calmly observe the action.

I started with a quiet tour to Ark Rock and past Roman Rock lighthouse. I spotted a lone baby penguin heading home to Boulders Beach. He was making quite a lot of noise, telling me where he was going.

Abandoned rubber duck off Cape Point

NSRI Simon's Town rescue boat Spirit of Safmarine
NSRI Simon’s Town rescue boat Spirit of Safmarine

The NSRI were out and about for a surfski race (see below), but their rescue boat was called away owing to reports of an abandoned rubber duck, found 4 nautical miles off Cape Point by fishermen. The tiny duck was towed (at high speed) back to base, where several sets of dive gear were found on board. The boat was handed over to the police, and it’s a mystery whether or not they located the owner.

The rubber duck under tow
The rubber duck under tow

Cape Point Challenge

Once they had towed the rubber duck, the NSRI went back to monitoring the Cape Point Challenge surfski race. This race involved a paddle from Scarborough, around Cape Point, into False Bay and up to Fish Hoek. I spotted Gary, our neighbour and Divemaster candidate, looking strong.

Gary working his paddle!
Gary working his paddle!

Governor’s Cup

Yachting in False Bay
Yachting in False Bay

When I decided to call it a day and return to the Yacht Club I was faced with a small challenge. 22 December happened also to be the starting date for the Governor’s Cup yacht race from Simon’s Town to St Helena island, several thousand kilometres away. There was a lot ofboat traffic, and I had to queue for the slipway for quite a while. There were the race participants, as well as a large number of smaller sailing and motor vessels seeing them off.

The Governor's Cup yacht race started from Simon's Town
The Governor’s Cup yacht race started from Simon’s Town

Sophie, our diving buddy who has travelled with us to Sodwana before, happened to be on one of the yachts. Fortunately it was such a beautiful day I didn’t mind waiting.

Movie: March of the Penguins

March of the Penguins
March of the Penguins

French cinematographers spent a full year in Antarctica filming the life cycle of the emperor penguin for La Marche de l’Empereur, or March of the Penguins. Emperor penguins lead remarkable, complex lives marked by apparent touches of compassion, fidelity and stoicism in the face of hardship (it may seem thus because of their fixed facial expressions) that gives their story particular popular appeal. Happy Feet depicted a little of the habits of these birds, but while watching it I was constantly wishing for the unvarnished realism of this documentary feature.

Emperor penguins breed at the same place each year, a location that is over 100 kilometres from the sea by the beginning of winter (in summer the ice recedes). The eggs are incubated by the males, who rest the eggs on top of their feet, while the females return to the ocean to feed. There is little that is easy about being an emperor penguin: extended periods without food for both sexes, the males huddle together for warmth during the long, dark, cold Antarctic winter, and the females’ make long journeys to the ocean in search of sustenance.

When the female penguins return, they recognise their mate by their call, and for the remainder of the summer the parents shuttle back and forth to the sea in order to fish. The chicks are threatened by starvation and predators, and if one of their parents die their odds of survival are slim, but the persistence of these birds in the face of incredible hardships is remarkable.

I watched the film in its original French, with subtitles. While the sound of the language is beautiful, the dialogue may seem a little strange – it’s narrated in the first person by a male and female voice actor, with a child for the chick’s voice. The music is atmospheric and quite beautiful. The American release uses a more conventional third person narrative by Morgan Freeman. I’d suggest that whichever version you choose, you watch the extra material on the DVD about the filming of the documentary. The penguins endured months of darkness and howling wind as they incubated their eggs, and the film makers did likewise (minus the eggs)!

You can buy the DVD here (if you’re in South Africa) otherwise here or here.

Movie: Happy Feet

Happy Feet
Happy Feet

We watched Happy Feet during a time of stress (preparing to move house!), and found it (mostly) calming and funny. There were some quite serious, emotionally wracking moments, but – as one expects from animated movies aimed primarily at children – everything works out in the end. I must admit I dragged my feet over seeing it, because the idea of singing penguins just didn’t grab me. I adore adore adore the laconic penguins in the Madagascar movies – they (and Sacha Baron Cohen) are the primary reason I sat through any of them – but singing and dancing as well as speaking just seemed too much.

They are quite charming, though, and the music is a very enjoyable component of this film. Robin Williams is a treat and I wished his characters had more screen time. The penguins also dance (not at first), and my heart did melt a little at the sight of a tap dancing little fluffball.

As with most (all) films of this genre, there is a strong message. In Happy Feet the message is about being yourself, not conforming because others say you should, and that if you are patient you will find friends who appreciate you for your uniqueness. For grown ups (and perhaps some perceptive youngsters) there’s quite a weird, sinister plotline involving the ancient religion of the penguins, with creepy elder penguins pronouncing judgments on nonconformists and invoking all sorts of religious terminology that I thought muddied the waters somewhat. I thought the “be true to yourself” message was enough, and that children don’t necessarily need to think about the fact that it could lead to ostracism by your spiritual community, or that their spiritual community could perhaps be deluded by powerful leaders and tradition. I suppose a religious studies class could develop this analysis to whatever level their hearts desired!

I digress. The scientific/marine plotline addresses overfishing, which has depleted the food of the emperor penguins. Mumble, the (different) main character, and a motley cast of helpers, manage to alert the humans to the problem, and the film ends (sorry) with a rapprochement between the humans and penguins and the establishment of a Marine Protected Area in Antarctic waters. Along the way Mumble spends time in captivity in an aquarium, and those scenes were heartbreaking.

The life cycle of the emperor penguin is illustrated beautifully, with the males incubating the eggs during the gruelling winter months while the females head to the ocean to forage for food. Footage of leopard seals and orcas is beautifully done, but (as with all films of this type) they are anthropomorphised as bloodthirsty villains. Also exposing children to positive portrayals of these creatures would be wise. March of the Penguins is a good accompaniment to this movie.

You can purchase the DVD here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here.

Seal Island in False Bay

I took this (shaky) video on a visit to Seal Island in False Bay in late July 2012 on the Shark Spotters research boat. The island is a granite outcropping of rock about 800 metres long and 50 metres wide, and is about 6 kilometres from Macassar Beach, and fifteen kilometres (my google maps estimate) from Simon’s Town.

It is the main breeding colony for Cape fur seals in this region. Up to 70,000 seals can be found on the island at peak times of year; when I took this video (during winter), there were probably 40-50,000 seals present.When downwind of the island, one can almost taste the seals on the air. It’s pungent – eye-wateringly so.

The island has no soil or plants, but at one stage there was enough guano and African penguin eggs to support a thriving industry harvesting them. Today up to 80 pairs of African penguins breed on Seal Island – a small population compared to the seals, but significant for this at-risk seabird. The highest point on the island is about six metres above the high tide level. Quite a few other species of birds breed at the island and can be seen there.

Remains of human activity include bits of an old radio mast and some huts and other structures from the guano collection days. In the water around the island, great white sharks can be seen during the winter months, predating on young, newly-weaned seals. During the summer months the sharks move inshore and the seals make far more extensive use of the water around the island.

Three cage diving operators have a licence to bring guests to the island.

Dive sites: Photographer’s Reef

The top of the reef
The top of the reef

I’ve dived Photographer’s Reef twice now. The first time was at the ScubaPro Day, and conditions were marginal (read: pea soup with a howling current). I took photos then, but certainly not the kind that one would use to recommend a dive site to others. We dived this reef again recently, off the new(ish) Learn to Dive Today boat, Seahorse. The conditions were much better – calm on the surface, with about 6 metre visibility. When we turned the corner of the reef towards the seaward side, however, things got a bit greenish!

Photographer’s Reef (known as JJM Reef by old-school local divers) is located offshore from the Boulder’s Beach penguin colony, and one of the pleasures of diving here is seeing small groups of penguins passing by on the surface as they head out to forage for food. We didn’t see any underwater – that’s very unusual – but Tony, who stayed on the boat, said that one group that swam past kept sticking their heads underwater to check out our bubbles.

The reef is compact and shallow – the top is about 3-5 metres deep, and the sand is at perhaps 12 metres. This means you can have a very long dive here, and it’s the kind of place you want to spend time at. (We didn’t stay very long – it was the second dive of the day and the wind was freezing, so we were all coolish when we got in!) The indefatigable Peter Southwood suggests that this can be done as a shore dive, if you’re fit and have good navigation skills.

Sea fan in a swim through
Sea fan in a swim through

There are a number of swim throughs and caverns on this reef, which is made up of a jumble of giant boulders. We didn’t visit all of them, but they make for a very varied dive. There are gullies and overhangs to explore, and the site is aptly named as it is a photographer’s dream. (I’m sorry I didn’t do it justice!)

The site is inside a restricted area, and it was lovely to see numerous small roman defending their patches of reef. I saw a couple of abalone, but since reading Currents of Contrast by Thomas Peschak I’ve realised that we never, ever see abalone in the kind of abundance (and by that I mean wall-to-wall shells, so that their broadcast spawning technique can be effective) that nature intended and accommodated before most of these creatures were stolen from the ocean.

A cuttlefish hides in a crack in the rocks
A cuttlefish hides in a crack in the rocks

Christo found a cuttlefish inside one of the cracks in the side of the reef, and there were many nudibranchs to choose from. There’s an abundance of invertebrate life here.

Dive date: 26 May 2012

Air temperature: 19 degrees

Water temperature: 15 degrees

Maximum depth: 10.9 metres

Visibility: 3-6 metres

Dive duration: 39 minutes