Bookshelf: A Field Guide to the Marine Animals of the Cape Peninsula

A Field Guide to the Marine Animals of the Cape Peninsula – Georgina Jones

A Field Guide to the Marine Animals of the Cape Peninsula
A Field Guide to the Marine Animals of the Cape Peninsula

This is the first (and can hold its own as the only) marine life book that I would recommend that a scuba diver in Cape Town purchases for their library of diving books.  It’s focused on the marine animals you’ll find in False Bay and on the Atlantic coast of the Cape Peninsula – a fairly small geographic region, but one with upwards of 150 dive sites and with incredible biological diversity. (The second book I recommend to local divers is Two Oceans, which has a far broader geographical focus and is thus less useful to Capetonian divers.)

The author, Georgina Jones, is a diver herself, and a member of the Southern Under Water Research Group (SURG), which published this book. SURG aims to bridge the gap between recreational divers and the scientific community, and apart from several fantastic book publications, their website provides a forum for divers to submit photographs of marine life for the experts to identify. Sightings of strange and exotic creatures (many of them at Tony’s favourite Long Beach hangout) are listed, too – often creatures from warmer waters up north get washed into False Bay and are then spotted by lucky divers.

The book has a photograph of each organism, and a brief description of its size, habitat, behaviour and feeding habits. The creatures are photographed in their natural environments, so the colours are representative and the creatures are alive (I didn’t realise how important this was until I used Rudy van der Elst’s book).

Two Oceans covers sea plants, and devotes more space to crabs, molluscs and the like than this book does, but particularly for beginner divers this isn’t an issue at all. It takes quite a few hours in the water before one discovers the joy of hydroids!

You can purchase this book from SURG – there are order details on their website and they will post it to you directly. Otherwise it’s available in good dive shops in Cape Town.

Diving at the Two Oceans Aquarium

For Tony’s birthday in June we spent a Sunday morning at the Two Oceans Aquarium at the Waterfront, diving in the I&J Predator Exhibit and in the Kelp Forest Exhibit. These were two of the best dives I’ve ever done. You need an Open Water or equivalent qualification for the predator tank, though I think you can do a (expensive?) DSD there too. For the kelp forest you need an Advanced qualification, as even though it’s only 6 metres deep, it’s very surgy.

On both these dives, you are on view to the public. It’s fun to wave at the kids through the windows of the displays. They are very excited to see real live SCUBA DIVERS in the water with all the fish. Needless to say, the scuba divers were very excited to be there!

Youtube videos for both dives can be found here.

Kelp Forest Exhibit

We started in the kelp forest – you wind your way up to the roof of the aquarium and drop into the water off a small wooden platform. This exhibit completely is open to the air, since it’s comprised of vegetation and sea creatures found in Cape waters, and because kelp loves sunlight. Kelp also likes water movement, so there are a variety of devices to keep the water moving – dump buckets, a plunger, and some pumps. This makes it quite choppy on the surface and quite surgy below. (Fascinating fact: since kelp cleans the waste products – such as ammonia – out of the seawater by filtering it, a lot of the aquarium’s water is passed through the kelp tank on its way to other exhibits.)

The exhibit has live kelp that is actually growing, which is quite an achievement, but you’re not supposed to hang onto it the way I sometimes do in the open ocean! The tank is packed to the brim with white steenbras (my absolute favourite), red stumpnose, galjoen, zebra, roman, shysharks, fransmadam, and even a gully shark if you can spot him. The fish are huge, many of them much larger than any I’ve seen in the ocean. I was extremely fortunate to be allowed to feed them – I was given a small bag of squid pieces and sardines, and the fish gathered around me as I knelt on the bottom. It was wonderful, so busy and colourful. They weren’t shy, bumping into my legs and BCD once they’d realised I had lunch with me. There’s a hilarious finger-biting episode at around 2:45 minutes in this video:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kePTwljhsyo&w=540]

The water is cold, and the tank isn’t actually very big. There are nice swim throughs between the rocks (made of fibreglass) and the kelp. The visibility isn’t perfect as the water is so highly aerated, and there are little bubbles of air everywhere. But it’s a thrilling dive and a very rare opportunity to get so close to so many beautiful fish.

Dive date: 6 June 2010

Air temperature: 18 degrees

Water temperature: 14 degrees

Maximum depth: 5.7 metres

Visibility: 10 metres

Dive duration: 27 minutes

I&J Predator Exhibit

The second dive we did was in the predator tank, which is a lot warmer than the kelp forest. On this dive, the Divemaster was armed with a piece of broomstick to “guide” the sharks away if they were to bother us. There are five ragged toothed sharks in the exhibit, none more than two and a half metres long. I think they’re all female. They cruise round and round in circles, looking completely awesome. I spent a long time just sitting on the floor of the tank watching them.

The other magnificent inhabitants of this tank are the sting rays. There’s Olive, a giant (and I mean GIANT) short-tailed sting ray like we see at Long Beach and Miller’s Point in summer, and a whole host of small (the sort of size that makes you want to take them home as pets) devil rays. Tony spent a significant part of the dive (while I was sitting watching sharks) chasing tiny rays around with his camera set on video.

In the corner of the tank we met the loggerhead turtle. She was lying next to a water vent, with her head in the corner. I was allowed to touch her on her neck (it felt really soft, and I felt lucky). I wasn’t convinced that she was a happy girl – she looked kind of depressed. Our DM said she gets more active when the water temperature increases, and sure enough I saw her swimming happily past the glass in the predator tank two weeks ago, when I went for my Saturday morning training at the aquarium.

The tank also contains musselcrackers, garrick, yellowtail, and (at the moment, but not when we dived in it) the remains of a sardine baitball.

The only moment when I got a bit of a fright was when we were surfacing against the rocks in the middle of the tank, and I omitted to look where I was going: straight into the path of a raggie. And sharks don’t generally get out of the way! Fortunately our DM had seen me behaving like a space cadet and “guided” the shark off to the side (since I wasn’t able to interrupt my ascent quickly enough).

Dive date: 6 June 2010

Air temperature: 16 degrees

Water temperature: 18 degrees

Maximum depth: 5 metres

Visibility: 25  metres

Dive duration: 35 minutes

Bookshelf: Two Oceans

Two Oceans: A Guide to the Marine Life of Southern Africa – George & Margo Branch et al

Two Oceans (original edition)
The original edition of G & M Branch's Two Oceans

Two Oceans is one of the better known guides to South African marine life, and rightly so. Tony is on his second copy – the first is so dog-eared that the covers have fallen off and the spine has split in multiple places. That’s the sign of a much-loved and well-used book!

It is extremely comprehensive and illustrated with photographs of the creatures and plants in their natural habitats, which is how you’d see them as a diver.

I’ve used the book after dives, but also as part of the volunteer training course I’m doing at the Two Oceans Aquarium, to identify sea plants and animals in rock pools and in the aquarium exhibits. It’s useful for the whole family, even if you’re not all divers, because it covers shore creatures as well as those found only at depth.

Two Oceans (updated edition)
Two Oceans (updated edition)

The book has been through several editions. The latest one (see the cover below) is greatly expanded, with more user-friendly contents pages (it’s arranged a lot like bird books, with colour-coded pages).

I use this book a lot; I would recommend it as a first or second purchase for a local diver. It covers the entire coast of southern Africa, so you may not find as much regional detail as you need, but that’s where the SURG publications step in and fill the gap! (More on those later.)

You can buy the book here if you’re in South Africa. Otherwise go here.

Ode to the logbook

I am a numbers person. I love to record things, analyse trends, draw graphs, and notice patterns in data. For this reason, I’m totally obsessive about filling in my dive logbook. Apart from making me happy to record all that information, and filling a wonderful hour or two after each dive looking up what I’ve just seen in the pile of books on sea life that Tony and I have amassed between us, it has had some other, unexpected benefits:

  • I’ve been able to track my progress as a diver with respect to air consumption. When I look back at early dives, I feel proud about how much longer I can stay down with the experience I’ve built.
  • I can track my progress as a diver with respect to buoyancy and lack thereof – when I started diving, the dive centre loaded me with 12 kilograms of weight, including cylinder weights. I sank like a lead cannonball. With Tony’s help, we’ve reduced my weight to somewhere between six and nine kilograms (depending on how many wetsuits I am wearing and how much custard has been consumed in the recent past).
  • I can look back on different gear configurations, and see what worked in order to reproduce successful ones: how much weight I wore and where (on my weight belt or as integrated weights or as cylinder weights), how many layers of neoprene were donned, how large my cylinder was, and so on.
  • Regional information is useful. When planning our annual houseboating trip this year, I was able to look back on the water temperature from when we dived in Knysna in 2009, and decide how many layers of wetsuit I would need.
  • Seasonal information on fish life (what appears when – for example, giant short-tailed sting rays visit Long Beach in summer), water temperatures and general conditions is useful and interesting. Now that I’ve been diving for over a year, I’m delighted to start noticing the different patterns of life… what time of year we see lots of juvenile fish, when there are lots of egg ribbons at Long Beach, how visibility correlates with water temperature, when the shaggy sea hares are out in force, and more.
  • We like exploring, and have on occasion dived forgotten sites or even places that aren’t recognised dive sites as such, but we’re curious to see what’s there. Recording dive information and what we saw makes it easy to tell others about these sites, and to assist when we decide whether they’re worth visiting again.
  • The bucket list aspect is also fun. Tony and I want to try and dive as many of the dive sites listed on Peter Southwood’s Wikivoyage site for the Cape Peninsula and False Bay as possible. Recording the dives in my logbook is like ticking the places off on a list!
The Number Two Cat understands the importance of keeping a logbook
The Number Two Cat understands the importance of keeping a logbook

Many people start a logbook as students on their Open Water course, and then lose interest. Don’t give it up – aside from these personal benefits, your logbook will be useful in at least two other situations involving other people:

  • If you go diving or want to rent gear somewhere other than where you learned to dive, or with new people (for example a club), you may be asked for your logbook (as well as your certification card). The club or dive centre may want to verify that you have the experience to handle the dives you have signed up for. If you’re certified with a lesser-known agency, your logbook can also help persuade the dive centre that you know what you’re doing.
  • For certain PADI courses you need a minimum number of logged dives (for example, 60 for Divemaster and 100 for Instructor). If you don’t have a record of the dives you’ve done, it complicates matters somewhat!

Shark tale follow-up

After his shark sighting at Long Beach last week, Tony emailed local guru Georgina Jones of SURG – more on SURG (Southern Underwater Research Group), and Georgina’s work in particular, will follow in another post (probably a book review). Tony wanted to find out whether his observation that there was no visible marine life, no fish and no movement at Long Beach on the day he saw the shark had anything to do with the presence of the creature, or whether it was uncorrelated. Georgina passed Tony’s email on to Alison Kock at Save Our Seas, a veteran white shark researcher based in Cape Town.

Alison’s reply – which is filled with fascinating nuggets of information about shark monitoring in Cape Town and great whites in general – is reproduced below:

Thank-you very much for forwarding this encounter. I keep a database of all white shark-human encounters in Cape waters and with your permission would like to add this encounter and your name, Tony and contact numbers to this database. Interestingly another sighting in the same area was recorded on the 23 August, and there were two white shark sightings at Fish Hoek on the 25 Aug, and one on the 24 and one on the 20th (sharkspotters.org.za has sightings recorded at shark spotter beaches).

Tony, regards your observation one would certainly expect that larger fish and seals would be absent from an area temporarily where a white shark is patrolling. However, it’s also conceivable that smaller marine animals could perceive the shark as a threat. A huge misconception is that white sharks only eat these larger animals, but various smaller fish and invertebrates (bivalves, cuttlefish, squids, octopus, pilchards etc) have also been recorded in white shark stomach contents, particularly smaller sharks (Geremy Cliff data). Thus, these animals may also respond to an immediate presence of a white shark if perceived as a threat. However, I wouldn’t expect this behaviour to persist for long periods of time.

We have deployed small animal-borne cameras on white sharks over the years and have been able to get a sharks POV of what happens on a reef when the shark swims over it. Some smaller fish which you wouldn’t think to be on the menu do react by swimming out of harms way. However, the behaviour is usually instantaneous with ‘normal’ behaviour by the fish resuming almost as soon as the shark’s head has moved past. When we observe white sharks around the research boat, we record similar behaviour, the chumming often attracts large groups of various species of ‘bait fish’, these fish almost always respond to the approaching shark by moving out the way temporarily.

Thanks Alison!

Bookshelf: Coastal Fishes of Southern Africa

Coastal Fishes of Southern Africa – Phil & Elaine Heemstra

Coastal Fishes of Southern AfricaThis is a useful book with a lot of good information about the species described. As I’ve used the book I’ve gotten more and more familiar with the different shapes that characterise the different kinds of fish. The contents page usefully categorises the fish by physical attributes.

It’s tricky to use as a fish identification guide sometimes, because the colours of the fish are drawn and painted (no photos) as you’d see them on the surface, or in very little water – not as at 20 metres. So the reds are brighter than you’d expect. I’ve found this book invaluable, despite having to get used to not skipping over fish that look “too bright” in my quest to figure out what I’ve seen on a dive.

There’s a lot of good information about the behaviour of the different species, so it’s a very useful source of information after you’ve identified what you’ve seen. I tend to use Two Oceans or A Field Guide to the Marine Animals of the Cape Peninsula (reviews to follow) for a first-pass idenfitication, and then this book to get a better idea of how the animal behaves, breeds and feeds.

Get your copy here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise click here.

Shark tale

As a freelance instructor I dive at Long Beach behind Simon’s Town railway station several times a week. Long Beach is an ideal training site as it offers protection from the weather under most conditions, visibility is almost always 5 metres plus and it is one of the easiest shore entry dive sites around the Cape Peninsula.

On Wednesday 25 August I was on a training dive with three students. I briefed them as usual and off we went. The visibility was around 6–8 metres and I was surprised to find nothing to show them. Around the barge, over the fishing boat, down the inner pipeline, nothing to be seen. I was starting to feel the place was barren, and it was very strange. Suddenly a klipfish came racing across the sand faster than I believed they could swim and I half expected a seal to be close behind as I had seen one on the surface before we started the dive, but nothing. I honestly couldn’t find anything, no shysharks, no pipefish, no crabs, no octopus and I can almost guarantee I will find these creatures there on any dive. Not even the hundreds of busy little hermit crabs were scurrying around and I could not find any movement. I started to think that perhaps the water had been poisoned by some ship or something weird and all signs of life had moved off somewhere else.

We were just reaching the western end of the outer pipeline, about 60 metres offshore and at a depth of around 5 metres when I looked up and less than five metres away was a 2-3 metre great white shark. She was just cruising very, very slowly and must have seen us long before we saw her. I was most awestruck by the shark’s graceful poise and her girth. The other impressive feature was the length of the pectoral fins. She circled slowly around us and them slowly swam away, close above two other divers in the water not too far from us, and disappeared.

What to do when you see a shark?

Well, we all have our own theory and during briefings we always tell divers what we will do and how we will react. But will we react the way we think we will, and how will we deal with divers that panic?

I always brief divers as to what I will do and what they should do, and this is what we did. We all dropped to the sand, me first as I saw it first. I pulled my buddy, the most jumpy student, down and deflated his BC well before he saw it, I then pulled the other pair closer and dumped their air. It was a family and the youngster was 13 years old. He saw the shark but did not know what he was looking at. We then swam slowly back to shore without seeing the shark again. The first thing they said was ”I thought you said you never see great whites here!” so I had egg on my face as I had just said that – honestly – as I had never seen a great white there before! Oh well…  I will need to modify my dive briefing slightly now!

In all reality the shark had been watching us for a while, possibly thinking “man, they make a noise.” According to the Introduction to Sharks course offered by SharkLife (it’s free and fantastic – do it now!), sharks are highly sensory creatures. Sharks have eyes on either side of their heads, which means they have a nearly 360 degree visual field (compare that to the approximate 120 degree width of your visual field when wearing a scuba mask). They have a small blind spot directly in front of their snouts – too small for you to hide in! – and another one just behind their heads. They can focus their eyes at a range of distances, and have excellent vision even in low light conditions. Sharks also have excellent hearing, augmented by a “lateral line” which extends along their bodies and provides additional sensory information.  Their sense of smell is likewise highly developed. In a great white shark, 18 percent of its brain mass (largest percentage of all sharks) is devoted to the processing of olfactory (smell) information. As if this arsenal of highly developed sensory organs is not enough, sharks also have electroreceptive cells called Ampullae of Lorenzini located around their snout and head area. These cells can detect tiny bioelectrical impulses given off by muscle movement of potential prey (which is why it’s a bad idea, as a spearfisherman, to swim along with dying fish attached to your belt). The Ampullae are sensitive to temperature, and are also used in navigation.

Anyway… the shark swam a circle wondering what on earth we were looking for, and then swam off looking for something to eat. Clearly she did not find our presence worthy of investigating or for that matter munching. This just shows that divers that are slowly swimming along with good buoyancy, looking at the marine life in the ocean are just not on a sharks’ to do list.

Great white shark in Mozambique
A great white shark I photographed in Mozambique

Divers seldom get to see great whites. I have been diving for 18 years and have only seen three on a dive. I have done over 100 dives at Long Beach in the last year without seeing one and numerous dives at other dive sites in Cape Town, including at Sunny Cove where I was sure I would see one. Without a single sighting. So remember: stay calm, stay together and enjoy the moment because it is not something you get to experience too often.

If you want to chat about this, please email me!

FAQ: If I bleed in the water, will I attract sharks?

Hollywood has a lot to answer for!

For the girls

Ladies
Ladies

I get asked this question quite often by girls who are worried about diving while menstruating. The short answer, which should make you breathe a sigh of relief, is no – regardless of what feminine hygiene products you prefer to use. (While we’re on the subject – forgive me boys – but tampons are perfectly safe to use while scuba diving and nothing strange or frightening happens to them inside your body on a dive. If you’re really worried, and there’s no reason to be, use a Mooncup – get one at Wellness Warehouse.)

DAN has a useful answer to this question on their international website. The research that has been done indicates that menstruating women are at no greater risk of shark attacks than men, or women who aren’t on their period.

What you should be aware of is that if you’re a woman, you’re more susceptible to dehydration during your period, which in turn increases the risk of decompression sickness. There is also research that indicates that the use of oral contraceptives may marginally increase a woman’s risk of DCS. So be sure to stay hydrated, do your safety stops, dive conservatively – and enjoy your diving!

For the boys (and the girls who are still reading)

Gents
Gents

Sharks are not interested in human (mammal) blood – they prefer fish! And what’s more, unless you’ve experienced massive trauma (in which case I doubt scuba diving will be the first thing on your mind), only miniscule quantities of blood will be leaking out into the water – whether it’s because you’ve got a cut or scratch on your body, or (if you’re a girl) you’re menstruating.

(To clarify, in case you’re puzzled: I took these photos of the signs on the restroom doors at the Southern Sun Grayston hotel in Johannesburg with my dodgy cellphone camera while I was there for a conference in June. I’ve been itching to use them since, and frankly didn’t have time to organise a photo shoot of a woman in white trousers frolicking alone on a beach!)

Exploring: Fisherman’s Beach

We’ve driven past Fisherman’s Beach countless times on our way to stalk the baboons at Miller’s Point, and it’s been on the to do list to dive for a while. We’d heard that it was an easy dive akin to Long Beach, and a good training venue. Also, the little wave breaking on the bright white sand makes it look almost tropical – very inviting.

We ended up diving it the same day as we checked out Sunny Cove. It’s very pretty, with low rocky reefs on either side of the beach, and a wide strip of sand across the middle. There’s lots to explore, and it certainly isn’t as busy as Long Beach. It’s a short hop down the coast to A Frame, and the marine life is thus very similar. There’s a little bit of kelp, but it’s not dense and because of the layout of the site one tends to swim around rather than through it.

Tony’s camera misted up a bit in the warm car between dives, so he didn’t take many photos, but the invertebrate life poses very nicely and there is a lot of colour and light owing to the shallowness of the site.

Fisherman’s Beach is quite exposed, far more so than Long Beach, and we’ve seen that the wave on the beach can get angry in a big swell. Also, there’s a lot of fine sand in between the rocks, and I’d imagine this can get stirred up and decrease visibility quite a lot in inclement conditions. Even some of my careless fin kicks enveloped me in a cloud of particles – so this is perhaps a good place to take more advanced students (for dives three and four of an Open Water Course, for example).

There is parking across the road, and space to kit up on the pavement or on the grass above the beach. There is an easy staircase down to the sand, and although there is more wave activity than Long Beach most of the time, it’s not as intimidating as the Clan Stuart can be.

Fisherman's Beach
Fisherman’s Beach – walk down the beach and into the sea

Verdict: Potentially a good training site, well suited for macro photography, and an easy equipment testing location for when Long Beach is too busy or too familiar.

Dive date: 4 July 2010

Air temperature: 24 degrees

Water temperature: 13 degrees

Maximum depth: 8 metres

Visibility: 12 metres

Dive duration: 37 minutes

Exploring: Sunny Cove

Tony has been wanting to dive Sunny Cove practically since he first set foot in Cape Town, having read in an old book on South African dive spots (The Dive Sites of South Africa – Anton Koornhof) that seahorses had been found there in the sea grass. Tony loves seahorses.

I put my foot down, repeatedly, until it was the dead of winter and the Sharkspotters website told me that not a single great white had been seen patrolling the coast for a couple of months. Sunny Cove is at the end of Jagger Walk, the catwalk that runs along the western edge of Fish Hoek Bay. It’s the site of at least one fatal munching by a great white, and I didn’t want to take any chances.

Sunny Cove railway station
View from the bridge over the railway line towards the dive site

It’s a shore entry, and we parked on the road at the bottom of the steps over the railway line. It’s quite a strenuous walk over the bridge with all your kit on. We spent a while figuring out where to get in – you have to clamber over some rocks, and make your way through dense kelp before getting to a clear spot. Once we decided where to get in, we were glad to be wearing thick wetsuits, otherwise we would have been scraped and scratched quite liberally! There is a huge submerged concrete block just where we got in – at first I tried to swim over it, but realised it was in only a few centimetres of water, and made my way around it. (Fortunately there was no one on the shore with a camera!) Cape Town shore diving is hard on your kit.

Sunny Cove
Our entry point is on the far left, almost out of the photo, where the straight piece of rock sticks out.

The actual dive site is aptly named. The sun streams in through the kelp, and the sea floor looks a lot like Shark Alley near Pyramid Rock – lots and lots of urchins, with pink-encrusted rock formations. We saw a little bit of sea grass, and spent a lot of time examining it for signs of life, but didn’t even find a pipe fish, let alone seahorses! There’s a lot of invertebrate life on the rocks – feather stars, brittle stars, abalone – and we saw quite a few fish.

We did see the deep channel that the sharks probably use to get in and out of Fish Hoek Bay. We were hoping to spot the beacon that records movements by tagged sharks past Sunny Cove, but no luck there. We did not explore much to the south of our entry point – that’s on the to do list (along with more sea horse hunting) for another shark-free day.

Verdict: Shallow, easy dive but a fairly tricky entry and exit. Infrequently dived, so rather more lush and unspoiled than busier sites. Videos of our dive are here and here.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DaxvdFG4Fdg&w=540]

Dive date: 4 July 2010

Air temperature: 21 degrees

Water temperature: 13 degrees

Maximum depth: 10 metres

Visibility: 6 metres

Dive duration: 32 minutes