Newsletter: Is that rain?

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

No diving

Whalebones on Sixteen Mile beach in the West Coast National Park
Whalebones on Sixteen Mile beach in the West Coast National Park
The weather forecasts that I watch the most have cycled through a series of odd updates that have shown alternately shown lots of rain on Saturday and Sunday, and none at all. I have students in the pool on Sunday so I won’t venture out into the ocean, but if you do, be aware they may or may not be surge, rain, or sunshine… Depends on your favourite forecast.
 

regards

Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099
www.learntodivetoday.co.za
www.learntodivetoday.co.za/blog/

Diving is addictive!

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Muizenberg’s marine street art

Public art is one of the things that can define a community’s ethos. In the seaside suburb of Muizenberg, there’s a lot on which to feast the eye. What follows is a small tour of some of the most prominent marine-themed artworks I’ve noticed around Muizenberg. I’m ignorant, but I know what I like to look at, and here’s some of it.

Rhodesia road whale pair

Whales on Rhodesia Road
Whales on Rhodesia Road

This humpback whale mother and calf pair feature prominently along the wall of a residential home in Rhodesia road. They were created by Sergio Rinquist (Serge One of the One Love Studio).

Killarney Road fish

Fish on Killarney Road
Fish on Killarney Road

You might have seen these five colourful fish peeking out of Killarney road, visible on your right as you drive along Atlantic Road towards the Main Road. They blend true-to-life forms with colour and playful designs, and are worth closer examination.

Fish on Killarney Road
Fish on Killarney Road

They are also the work of Serge One – the One Love studio is responsible for a lot of the beautification of Muizenberg through their vibrant murals. See his instagram page here.

Rustenburg Pharmacy whale

Humpback whale by Chris Auret
Humpback whale by Chris Auret

It’s definitely worth popping into Rustenburg Pharmacy at 52 Beach Road to check out the massive humpback whale mural by Chris Auret. He calls it Health and “Whaleness” on his website!

If you want to find any of these murals on Google maps, search for the road name and the suburb. None of the roads are very long so you shouldn’t have to look hard to find the artworks. There are also many more incredible public artworks in and on buildings in the Muizenberg area.

If you go exploring on foot, the usual disclaimers associated with movement in a big city in South Africa apply: be aware of your surroundings, don’t flash your valuables around, go in the daytime, and take along a friend or two if possible.

A Day on the Bay: A Brydes whale for company

On a beautiful, calm day in early June this year, shortly after dropping my divers in the water, I was visited by a friendly Brydes whale. A Brydes whale – I suspect the same one – had been showing a strong interest in boats in western False Bay over the last couple of weeks.

The whale makes its presence known
The whale makes its presence known

I knew it was a Brydes whale because of the small, sickle-shaped dorsal fin far back on its spine. This one circled the boat a few times, and then headed straight for me like a submarine on the surface. It pushed a small wave of water ahead of it as it came.

The Brydes whale near the boat
The Brydes whale near the boat

It was a slightly intimidating sight as it ploughed through the water. It was an extremely calm day, so the boat’s motors were switched off. I waited with some anxiety to see what the whale would do.

The whale comes to investigate
The whale comes to investigate

After a close pass by the boat, the whale circled Seahorse several times, blowing lustily. It came back to the boat repeatedly over a period of at least half an hour. I kept the engines off, and made sure my life jacket was fastened. I hoped the divers might also be able to see what was happening! The whale was not hostile in the least, but an exuberant animal weighing between 12 and 20 tons, moving at speed, could accidentally tip me into the water in a heartbeat.

Brydes whale circling Seahorse
Brydes whale circling Seahorse

The whale lifted its head out of the water a few times, showing me the three rostral ridges on top of its head and the grooves under its throat, which also help with confirming its identification as a Brydes whale. Our whale book says that these whales often have small, circular cookie cutter shark scars, specially if they’ve been in tropical waters, but I couldn’t see any.

Brydes whale showing his head
Brydes whale showing his head

I find Brydes whales a little mysterious, because they can be seen year round in False Bay and somehow lack the predictability of the Southern right whales and humpbacks whose rowdy presence is apparent close to shore in False Bay between June and November. If you see a whale in the first half of the year in False Bay, it’s almost certainly a Brydes whale.

These whales calve year-round, because they don’t ever go into really cold water (False Bay is at the southern end of their range). This preference for warmer water is probably related to their relatively thin layer of blubber. They eat schooling fish and plankton.

Brydes whale off the bow
Brydes whale off the bow

Their blows are low and bushy, as you can see from my photos. They don’t aggregate in big groups like other whales seen along South Africa’s coastline, and you’ll see at most two animals together at a time, if that. These whales are still caught by the Japanese as part of their “scientific” whaling program.

After a while the whale seemed to lose interest, and left me to my thoughts as I waited for the divers (who were gloriously oblivious, it turns out) to surface. While it’s an incredible experience to have an animal like this approach you so close and with such confidence, I am glad it left. Ship and boat strikes are a very real danger to whales, and a whale that is so curious about boats could get itself into trouble in the busy boating areas close to shore in False Bay.

The whale disappears into the Bay
The whale disappears into the Bay

Regulations state that unless you’re in possession of a whale watching permit (and there’s only one operator in False Bay who has one of those), you are not to approach a whale closer than 300 metres, anywhere in South African waters. If a whale approaches you, move away if you can do so safely. If there are divers in the water, your responsibility is to stay close to the divers, so turn off your engines and enjoy the moment!

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.

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.

Newsletter: Close call

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

To be confirmed – let me know if you want to stay in the loop!

The weather forecast, and what’s actually happening, is extremely difficult to call at the moment. I’d like to do boat and/or shore dives this weekend, but it remains to be seen whether the wind will allow it. If you’d like to dive and have a little bit of flexibility, please message me and I’ll keep you informed. I’ll make a call this afternoon on plans for tomorrow.

Festive whale at the airport
Festive whale at the airport

Desalination talk

On Tuesday 5 December at 7.00pm, Dr Ken Hutchings will give a talk on desalination: how it works, and what its effect might be on the marine environment. This is an extremely topical subject given that many of the City of Cape Town’s alleged water crisis relief plans depend on the implementation of small-scale desalination plants around the peninsula, which will discharge salty brine (a byproduct of the reverse osmosis process) back into the ocean. Is this a big problem? Come and bathe your mind in some facts. The facebook event with more detail is here.

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: Still waiting

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Sunday: Possible launches out of OPBC in Granger Bay

We are still waiting for the non stop south easter to stop blowing, or to at least ease up. False Bay is grumpy to say the least, but the Atlantic is clean and cold, around 9 degrees celsius.

Dwarf sperm whale at the V&A Waterfront
Dwarf sperm whale at the V&A Waterfront

Sadly the wind does not really ease off until late on Monday so I am unable to commit to launching this weekend just yet. On Saturday afternoon we will make a final call as to whether we can dive on Sunday but it would most likely be Table Bay, most likely North and South Paw. If we can go to Hout Bay then we may visit the Aster and the Katsu Maru as there may be some respite from the wind inside the bay.

Text or email me if you want to be on the list.

regards

Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099
www.learntodivetoday.co.za
www.learntodivetoday.co.za/blog/

Diving is addictive!

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Newsletter: Warmer and warmer

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Friday: Shore diving at Long Beach at 10.00 am

Saturday: Launching from False Bay Yacht Club at 7.00 am for a double tank dive

The days are getting longer and the daytime temperatures are slowly creeping upwards… Well, on some days. Saturday looks like a better bet for False Bay with Hout Bay being an option on Sunday. The water colour off Dungeons has improved slightly today.

Tomorrow I am shore diving students at Long Beach at 10.00 am. On Saturday we will do an early False Bay double tank dive at 7.00 am. Let me know if you’d like to get wet.

 

DAFF octopus fishing gear
DAFF octopus fishing gear

Here’s a little bit of reading on the octopus fishery in False Bay (courtesy of Yvette!). This NSRI blog post, and the comments, are also required reading.

Coming up

As part of First Thursdays, you can attend the opening of the Birdlife Oceans of Life photographic exhibition at the South African Museum on the evening of Thursday 6 October. There’s information here (facebook) – this year’s exhibition includes a retrospective of the last few years’ best images.

Diversnight is on Saturday 7 November, so start charging your torches!

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: The New York Times Magazine on animal tagging

Staying with our informal theme of the last few weeks’ (admittedly sporadic) posts, let’s look at a recent article from the New York Times Magazine. Not solely focused on marine animal studies, the article explains how technology has enabled even the general public to directly observe and learn about the migrations of birds, sharks and other animals. The utility of this kind of information is obvious:

By discovering the precise routes animals take during migration, scientists can assess the threats they face, like environments altered by habitat loss and overhunting.

A white shark with a satellite tag
A white shark with a satellite tag

The article’s author is brilliant nature writer Helen MacDonald, who wrote H is for Hawk, and she goes on to muse about the meaning of the relatively few individually tagged and named animals which become icons of their species as they appear to transverse a simplified, borderless planet in solitude. (The OCEARCH sharks on their satellite map refer!) It is easy to lose sight of the rigours of the environments they move through, but easy to become invested in the future of particular individuals.

Erik Vance’s article on great white sharks for National Geographic covers tagging, and he elaborates on his blog about how tags can facilitate population estimates. You can also read about whale tagging, tuna tagging, and the tagging study taking place on False Bay’s cowsharks.

What a time to be alive. Read the full New York Times Magazine article here.