Bookshelf: The Seabird’s Cry

The Seabird’s Cry: The Lives and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and Other Ocean Voyagers – Adam Nicolson

The Seabird's Cry
The Seabird’s Cry

This is such a wonderful book that I read it twice within the span of six months. In between my two readings, during the northern hemisphere spring, Tony and I visited Pembrokeshire in Wales. This is not the home of Mr Darcy, but rather the location of several islands on which seabirds breed. Seeing puffins, gannets and shearwaters in all their glorious breeding plumage animated Nicolson’s descriptions of their precarious lives. (I do plan to share some photos and details of that visit in future posts.)

Early in this book, Nicolson points out that seabirds are the only creatures on earth that are at home in the water, on land, and in the air. To most of us, albatross are perhaps the most familiar pelagic seabirds – Carl Safina’s Eye of the Albatross both introduced and immortalised these extraordinary ocean wanderers for a popular audience. Nicolson devotes a chapter to each of ten species of seabird, including albatross, and writes with such extraordinary lyricism that at at times it’s possible to mistake this book for something other than popular science.

This blurring of boundaries is quite intentional, and completely revelatory. Rather than sounding pretentious or foolish, as most of us would if we tried to channel Seamus Heaney while summarising scientific papers and interviewing researchers, Nicolson achieves a remarkable feat of science communication. He speaks of the wonder that comes not from ignorance, but from knowledge and understanding, and how powerful a thing it is to know the facts of these animals’ lives.

If the idea of trying to join the worlds of science and poetry (or literature, or culture) grabs you, you may enjoy this video of a conversation on the subject between Adam Nicolson and Tim Birkenhead, a professor of ornithology.

Seabirds are in trouble worldwide, more threatened than any other group of birds. They are facing – amongst others – challenges wrought by changing ecosystems as the climate warms and industrial fishing robs them of their prey. To help them, we need to act, and action comes after seeing and understanding. In this book Nicolson makes an appeal to a part of us other than the rational, fact-collecting, logical entity, and asks us to empathise with these strikingly “other” creatures. I urge you to read this book.

You can read rapturous reviews of this book on The Guardian’s website, on Literary Hub, and at the Financial Times.

Get a copy here (South Africa), or here. It is available for Kindle, but you’ll have to search for that one yourself!

Newsletter: Trawling

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

No diving

Fishing trawler at work
Fishing trawler at work

Saturday morning looks to be the best time this weekend for a spot of diving. We are heading offshore on a pelagic birding trip / hunt for fishing trawlers which means no inshore diving for us until next week.

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

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Shark Spotters in brief

The Shark Spotters centre at Muizenberg
The Shark Spotters centre at Muizenberg

I had to write a short article about Shark Spotters a while ago, for the quarterly magazine of the company I work for. It was fun to write within the constraints of quite a punitive word count, and to try and emphasise the aspects of the program that I think are poorly understood by the public. Here’s the article:

Shark Spotters developed into Cape Town’s primary shark safety strategy out of two similar, informal initiatives. At Muizenberg and Fish Hoek in 2004, surfers arranged with lifeguards, car guards and trek fishermen to warn them when sharks were sighted. Today, Shark Spotters is a NPO funded primarily by the City of Cape Town, Save Our Seas Foundation, and public donations. It operates year-round at four beaches and during summer at another four. These are beaches that have both many water users and relatively common shark sightings.

A team of 30 spotters equipped with binoculars, polarising sunglasses and all-weather gear watch from the mountainside, and when a shark is sighted they notify colleagues at the beach to sound a siren and raise the appropriate flag. The flags indicate the current or recent presence of a shark, that spotting conditions are poor, or that it is safe to swim.

The spotters, all drawn from local communities, are trained in safety, first aid and shark behaviour. A further 10 team members deploy and retrieve the shark exclusion net at Fish Hoek beach during summer. Unlike the gill nets protecting beaches in KwaZulu Natal, this net does not catch sharks. It provides a physical barrier between sharks and swimmers. It is designed to be retrieved at the end of the day, or, to prevent entanglement, when there are marine mammals nearby. The Fish Hoek shark exclusion net is unique worldwide as an environmentally friendly shark attack mitigation measure.

It is the combination of favourable topography and surface-swimming sharks that makes Shark Spotters’ work possible and effective. The land around many of Cape Town’s beaches slopes steeply towards the sea, providing raised vantage points from which to spot. The sharks which pose the primary danger to water users, because of their size and curious natures, are great white sharks. Fortunately these sharks spend much time swimming on the surface, and their distinctive swimming style is readily recognisable.

Shark Spotters also conducts research on sharks to improve safety measures and provide management and conservation recommendations. As a result, the movements of great white sharks in False Bay are well understood. Sharks visit the beaches year-round, but with a distinct seasonal pattern. During winter the sharks congregate at Seal Island to feed on juvenile seals. During summer, sharks head for the backline of Cape Town’s beaches – probably to feed on the fish species found in False Bay at this time, and to rest in the highly oxygenated water close to shore. This is when they pose the greatest risk to water users.

Why support Shark Spotters?

I love the fact that Shark Spotters combines care for people with concern for the environment. The program takes a scientific stance backed by research, and has attracted worldwide recognition. It also provides training and employment for 40 residents of some of Cape Town’s most impoverished communities. I sit on the non-executive committee as a representative of Cape Town’s scuba diving community, and it’s a privilege to work with fellow water users and ocean lovers, and hopefully to provide a benefit to the greater community through our small contribution.

For more information, visit www.sharkspotters.org.za.

(Of course, lately white shark movements in False Bay are slightly less well understood than they have been, probably thanks to a pair of orcas whose irregular visits to Seal Island and Millers Point to hunt white sharks and sevengills seem to clear out the neighbourhood a bit! Fear not, Shark Spotters’ research is aiming to understand these changes, too.)

Newsletter: Wait and see

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Sunday: Shore dives in False Bay

Cape fur seals at Kalk Bay harbour
Cape fur seals at Kalk Bay harbour

There is a fair amount of swell around right now, combined with strong winds. Although False Bay looks a little scrappy, the water colour remains good. Sunday looks like the best, or only, option for diving, but we will most likely shore dive. I will wait until Saturday mid afternoon to make the call. Get in touch if you wish to join.

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

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Bookshelf: Beachcombing in South Africa

Beachcombing in South Africa – Rudy van der Elst

Beachcombing in South Africa
Beachcombing in South Africa

Why so quiet? What have we been doing? Working, mostly. Trying to stay alive. And a bit of reading, and some beachcombing. Enter this is marvellous little book from fish fundi Rudy van der Elst (A Field Guide to the Common Sea Fishes of South Africa).

Chapter by chapter, van der Elst describes the types of debris that one might find on a beach. After a brief orientation chapter covering the ocean current regime around South Africa, relevant regulations, safety, beach ecology, tides, pollution and more, we launch into a tour of washed-up treasures.

Predictably, many of the items to be found are organic in nature – plants, invertebrates of various types, eggs and egg cases, fishes, birds, and shells. There are also items such as oceanographic devices, tags from marine animals, fishing equipment, cyalumes, buoys – some of these (such as tags) should be returned to their owners, and others should be removed from the vicinity of the ocean (such as discarded fishing nets and lines).

The chapter on marine animals (resting, nesting and stranded) is exceptionally useful and it is almost for this alone that I’d like to put a copy of this book in every home in every coastal town in the country. Seals, whales, turtles and seabirds can end up on the beach, sometimes in difficulty and at other times not. It can be hard to tell, and well-meaning members of the public can unwittingly cause great harm while trying to assist. A list of useful contacts in this regard appears at the end of the book, such as the Two Oceans Aquarium and the SPCA (region-specific).

The final two chapters cover miscellaneous “treasures” such as fossilised sharks teeth, sea glass, logs, and actual treasure, as well as beachcombing through the ages in South Africa. Here we learn about tidal fish traps, coastal caves, and other historical coastal dwellers who made their living from the sea.

We’ve found some awesome things on the beach, from shipwrecks to goose barnacles to rare crabs. Beachcombing is an accessible hobby that requires nothing but time, observation skills, curiosity, and a beach to stroll on.

This is a beautifully illustrated, comprehensive little volume that deserves to come with you on your beach holiday. It’ll prompt more careful examination of the flotsam and jetsam on your local beach, and, probably, more early morning low-tide visits to find the best pickings!

Wild Card magazine featured this book when it was published. Get it online here if you’re in South Africa, or here for your Kindle.

Newsletter: Just swell

Hi divers

Weekend diving

No dives planned  

Anemone at the Two Oceans Aquarium
Anemone at the Two Oceans Aquarium

Given the time of year, the large swells we are having are not all that unusual. Neither is the odd day or two of south easterly wind. Friday and Saturday feature both these gremlins, so conditions won’t really be great. Sunday’s forecast is a little rosier, however I doubt the visibility will have recovered and the surge will still be a lingering factor. This weekend my choice is to stay home.

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

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Bookshelf: Seaweed Chronicles

Seaweed Chronicles: A World at the Water’s Edge – Susan Hand Shetterly

Seaweed Chronicles
Seaweed Chronicles

This is one of the best kinds of popular science book. It reads so easily that by the time you’ve absorbed enough material to attain a diploma in phycology (the study of seaweed), you also feel as though you’ve met and befriended a varied cast of individuals whose lives revolve – in various ways – around slippery marine algae.

It’s written by an American author, and the book centres squarely on the coast of Maine in the United States, obviously much loved by the author. It’s not clear initially that the geographical focus of the book is so narrow; some readers may want to know this in advance. While reading, I was grateful for the perspective that a Veld and Sea seaweed foraging course gave me on our local seaweeds.

Vignettes of seaweed-centred lives, from foragers turned businesspeople, to scientists, to shepherds whose flocks feast on seaweed during their coastal sojourns, introduce us to a cast of characters illustrating the many uses and commercial possibilities of seaweed, as well as the management and conservation challenges associated with its harvest. Seaweeds are pivotal in coastal ecosystems, providing vital habitat and sustenance. This isn’t just a science book (which some may find frustrating). It’s as much about the people as about the seaweed – but you will learn some science from it!

There’s a good review here at the New York Journal of Books.

Get the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here.

 

Bookshelf: Poacher

Poacher: Confessions from the Abalone Underworld – Kimon de Greef and Shuhood Abader

Poacher
Poacher

Abalone (perlemoen to locals) are inoffensive, slow moving marine snails, with frilly grey bodies covered by a knobbly shell that doesn’t look like anything special until you find an empty one on the beach and see the mother of pearl interior, polished for years by the body of the now-dead snail. Some people like to eat them; in Asia, many people like to eat them, and they are seen as a status symbol. They are farmed, at enormous expense and for staggering profits, at several locations along South Africa’s coast. When we visited an abalone farm in Hermanus several years ago, the tour guide told us that the demand for abalone from the east is essentially “limitless”. You can imagine, if you don’t know already, the financial temptation that such a creature might present.

Kimon de Greef is a South African journalist with a longstanding interest in perlemoen poaching and other forms of illicit trade. His reporting on abalone poaching has been longstanding, nuanced and detailed – one example here, and another here. A 2014 report (pdf) he wrote for Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network, is also worth a read. The second author of Poacher, Shuhood Abader (not his real name), is a former abalone poacher, and this book is his story.

Rather than a focus on statistics and an analysis of the scale of the abalone poaching problem in South Africa and how to fix it, Poacher comes at the issue in a deeply personal way, thus forcing us out of our righteous outrage and into the uncomfortable space of empathy with someone whose actions we disapprove of. We hear Abader’s story in his own words, with context provided by de Greef’s reporting and analysis.

Being a South African today is complicated. Our history gives none of us a free pass to relax into ignorant bliss, simple judgments or two dimensional interpretations of where we find ourselves and where we are going as people and a country. Yes, it might seem tiring for those of us whose privilege is showing, but the last several hundred years of our history demands a reckoning and we ought to show up for that, no matter what it requires. This reckoning extends beyond hard conversations and simple matters of ensuring everyone access to healthcare, education, property, jobs, credit, public spaces, and the like. It extends even to nature reserves and marine protected areas, those spaces that we view as sacred and untouchable. (I remind you of this discussion we had on the Tsitsikamma MPA – similar complexities exist for many, if not all the wild spaces in South Africa.)

Marine poachers are fairly visible to the scuba diving community. (Recreational divers are even mistaken for them on occasion.) The ISS has published two in depth reports (Steinberg and Goga) on the subject, some years apart. Abalone poaching is one of those issues that seems to cause particular outrage among scuba divers and the ocean-loving community, and this is, to some extent, understandable. Poacher, however, asks us to set aside that outrage and to learn another side to the story. This may disturb your equilibrium – the more the idea of there even being “another side” troubles or enrages you, the more strongly I recommend you read this book.

When Poacher was released there was excellent media coverage, which you should check out to get a flavour of the topic, and the two authors. Examples are this Daily Maverick article, detailed coverage by The Guardian, and an interview with one of the authors here. You can even read extracts from the book at the Johannesburg Review of Books, on News24, at Wits University’s Africa-China reporting project, and at the Daily Maverick. There’s a radio interview with de Greef here.

Please read this book. Get a copy at your local bookstore, online in South Africa here, or on Amazon.

If you read this in time, Kimon de Greef is discussing the book on the evening Thursday 4 July 2019 at Kalk Bay Books – phone them for details and to RSVP (essential).

Newsletter: Enough is enough

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

No diving

There is a week of strong north westerly wind planned for us… Added to this is a fair amount of swell. As a rule wind from this direction will turn False Bay in to a viz wonderland. Once the swell fades, of course! I have no dives planned for this weekend, but I expect conditions next week to be very good.

Diving humpback whale
Diving humpback whale

Octopus fishermen strike again

UNBELIEVABLY, the octopus fishery in False Bay caught and killed another whale this week. If you haven’t signed the petition yet, please do.

Please also send an email to our new minster of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, Minister Barbara Creecy. She has solicited suggestions for environmental policies that will shape the future of South Africa to the email address DEAMedia@environment.gov.za, and I reckon this is a good place to start.

The City of Cape Town put out an outstanding press release this afternoon calling for an immediate moratorium on the whale – sorry, octopus – fishery, which I encourage you to read. It pulls no punches: “We cannot expect ratepayers to keep on subsidising the bycatch of whales.”

I suggest letting your ward councillors know that this is unacceptable, even more so in a marine protected area, and that you are behind the City’s call to the government to put a stop to the whaling.

You could also send a letter to Herman Oosthuizen, South Africa’s representative (“commissioner“) on the International Whaling Commission. Dig around here for his contact details (a postal address), or try the email address listed on this paper – click on Author Information just under the list of authors’ names. It goes without saying that you need to be polite, reasonable and respectful when you contact people, no matter how emotional this issue makes you.

Abalone poaching – read all about it

Kimon de Greef, author of the outstanding book Poacher along with Shuhood Abader (the pen name of a former perlemoen poacher), will be discussing the subject next Thursday evening, 4 July, at Kalk Bay books. It’s bound to be a very popular event and rsvp is essential. Details here. (We’re reviewing the book on the blog on Monday.)

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!

Shark Spotters supporters program

We are proud to announce that we have signed on as official supporters of Shark Spotters. We are Silver partners, and for larger businesses there are higher levels of support on offer. (We are hoping to encourage some of the other dive centres to consider supporting Shark Spotters, too…) Individuals can also sign on to the supporters program, or donate in many different ways. Shark Spotters is part-funded by the City of Cape Town and the Save Our Seas Foundation, and the rest comes from public donations.

One of the Shark Spotters flags at Fish Hoek beachåç
One of the Shark Spotters flags at Fish Hoek beachåç

The Shark Spotters provide beach safety, a world-first environmentally friendly shark exclusion net at Fish Hoek beach, run educational programs at local schools, and conduct shark research in and around False Bay.

All of this work keeps both people and sharks safe, and this is at the heart of what Shark Spotters does.

The shark exclusion net has been around for about five years, and (unlike the gill nets in KZN) is specially designed not to pose a hazard to any marine life. It gets taken in every evening, to eliminate the risk of an animal becoming entangled at night when the spotters are not on duty. It is an extremely successful and popular feature of Fish Hoek beach, and is invariably packed with happy, safe swimmers during the summer months. If you’re curious about it, watch the video above to see what it looks like from underwater, and read more about it here, here and here.

The Shark Spotters info centre at Muizenberg
The Shark Spotters info centre at Muizenberg

Their research continues to illuminate the activities of white sharks in the bay, but is also in the process of shedding light on the interactions between white sharks, sevengill cowsharks and bronze whalers as they share the ecosystem. They have even published a recent paper (open access) on the predation of sevengill cowsharks by orcas in False Bay, which is well worth a read.

The Shark Spotters outpost at Caves (Kogel Bay)
The Shark Spotters outpost at Caves (Kogel Bay)

Currently, they’re partnering with a Swiss firm in a cutting-edge research project to determine how automated shark spotting, making use of cameras and machine learning algorithms, can augment the already impressive skills of the spotting team. By first training a sophisticated algorithm to distinguish between a shark, pieces of kelp, dolphins, wind chop, and all the other visual phenomena that a spotter comes across during the course of a day, it is hoped that a fixed camera system, with some software, could assist the spotters in their work. It is not intended to replace human spotters, but to augment and facilitate their work.

The Shark Spotters hut at Fish Hoek beach
The Shark Spotters hut at Fish Hoek beach

We’re happy to be contributing to the important work of Shark Spotters – if you’d like to as well, visit their website to find out how to lend your support, or drop me an email and I’ll connect you with the right people.