Cape Town’s visible shipwrecks: Commodore II finds a home

Commodore II by the Milnerton lagoon
Commodore II by the Milnerton lagoon

I am happy to report that the Commodore II has finally been paid the attention she deserves, and moved to a permanent position on the shore of Milnerton lagoon. SAHRA began a process in late 2016 (when the wreck still lay on the beach close to the lagoon mouth) that has finally concluded with the wreck being moved on Friday 23 November. There are some pictures of that endeavour here and here.

View towards Lagoon Beach hotel
View towards Lagoon Beach hotel

We first wrote about the Commodore II in 2015, and I was amazed that a wreck with such a fascinating and high-profile history could have practically disappeared into obscurity. There appeared to be no desire from the keepers of our maritime heritage to protect her, and when she washed up the Milnerton lagoon during a storm in late 2017, it seemed that she would be carted away piecemeal for firewood before anyone realised what was being lost.

View of the Commodore II
View of the Commodore II

Late last year, an enterprising local resident secured the wreck to the banks of the lagoon off Esplanade road, at his personal expense, to prevent it from washing around inside the lagoon and injuring paddlers or damaging the historic bridge further up. We wrote about his efforts here.

The Commodore II's sturdy construction
The Commodore II’s sturdy construction

The new, and hopefully final location of the wreck is just next to the small parking area outside the Lagoon Beach hotel and Wang Thai restaurant. It’s entirely accessible at all hours of the day and night, and there are promises of interpretive signage to share the wreck’s history with passers by.

Tube worms cover the lower portion of the wreck
Tube worms cover the lower portion of the wreck

I went to visit the wreck a week after she was moved. Dried pond weed still covers some of the planking, and thousands of tiny tube worms cover the lower part of the structure that was submerged (I can’t tell what kind – most likely Ficopomatus enigmatus, the estuarine tube worm that thrives in brackish water).

It’s great that the Commodore II is now firmly on the radar as one of Cape Town’s historic shipwrecks, worthy of preservation. I’ll be updating my ebook to reflect her new location before year-end. Meanwhile, read about her chequered history here.

City of Cape Town’s new protocol for cleaning tidal pools

Early in November I attended an information session at the Kalk Bay Community Centre, where the City of Cape Town announced that they will be trialling an environmentally friendly cleaning process on five of the 19 tidal pools on the 260 kilometres of Cape Town’s coastline managed by the City. This coast stretches from Silwerstroom on the West Coast to Kogel Bay on the eastern shores of False Bay.

St James tidal pool
St James tidal pool

The presentation was made by team members from the City’s Recreation and Parks department, which – among other things – is responsible for beaches, outdoor signage, ablutions, lifesaving, environmental education, and administration of Blue Flag status for the beaches and marinas that earn it. This department is also responsible for the tidal pools. (Incidentally the City’s assortment of safe seawater bathing facilities includes two of the largest tidal pools in the southern hemisphere, at Monwabisi and Strand.)

Until now, the City would use chlorine to clean the walls (top and sides) and steps in the tidal pools. The cleaning would be done after draining the pool completely. This year, a supply chain management issue meant that there was no cleaning of the tidal pools between July and November. During this time, regular swimmers (some of them members of the Sea-Change project) noticed that marine life flourished in the pools, and engaged with the City to try to find a way to keep the tidal pools safe but also to preserve the diversity of marine species that had been thriving in the pools during the cleaning hiatus. Safety, of course, is why they are cleaned: slippery, algae-covered steps are dangerous.

The tidal pool at Millers Point
The tidal pool at Millers Point

It was agreed that five of the pools – St James, Dalebrook, Wooley’s Pool, and the two pools at Kalk Bay station – would be subject to a trial of a new, environmentally friendly cleaning regimen. These pools are relatively close together in the north western corner of False Bay. The aim is still to ensure that the tops of the pool’s walls and steps are not slippery, and thus safe for bathers. But a second aim has been added by the City, which is to ensure the environmental integrity of the pools.

Under the new cleaning protocol, the following will be done:

  • the pools will be drained only when necessary, and only as far as is required to reach areas that are covered by water and in need of cleaning (for example, the steps at Dalebrook)
  • animals in harm’s way will be relocated
  • excess kelp and sea urchins will be removed from the pools
  • the tops of the walls and steps will be scraped to remove algae (the sides of the walls used to be scraped too, but this will no longer take place)
  • environmentally friendly chemicals will be used to remove the algal residue after scraping – no more chlorine and no more whitewashing!

All of the above means that the pools will be ready for use by the public immediately after cleaning, in contrast to the old protocol, which renders the pool unusable for a period after the cleaning crew has chlorined it.

I’ve asked the City for more information about the drainage procedure, and for more information about the earth-friendly chemicals that the cleaning contractor will use, but with no response so far. (If I get one I’ll obviously update this post.)

Buffels Bay tidal pool inside the Cape Point section of Table Mountain National Park
Buffels Bay tidal pool inside the Cape Point section of Table Mountain National Park

Many of the City of Cape Town’s tidal pools fall within the Table Mountain National Park Marine Protected Area, and it therefore makes perfect sense to aim to protect the animals living in them while maintaining public safety. Dr Maya Pfaff, another speaker at the information session, even suggested that some of the animals that may now thrive in the pools may actually help to keep the water clean. Mussels and feather duster worms filter the water and improve the clarity, algae take up nutrients, and limpets clean algae off the rocks.

Particularly over the festive season, the beaches and tidal pools around Cape Town are extremely busy. This is a wonderful opportunity for thousands of beach-goers to experience both safe swimming and a little bit more of what the ocean has to offer, instead of a sterile, salt-water pool devoid of healthy marine life. Bringing a snorkel and mask with you when next you go swimming will be well rewarded. To see some pictures of the amazing animals – from nudibranchs to a cuttlefish with eggs – in the St James tidal pool, check out Lisa’s instagram profile.

Do you swim regularly in any of the five pools in which the new cleaning regimen is being tested? What do you think about it? If you think that environmentally gentle cleaning of tidal pools is a good idea, what about letting the city know that you appreciate having tidal pools that are both safe and biodiverse. A short message on the City of Cape Town facebook page to say thank you and keep up the good work (and a request to extend it to the other tidal pools) is a good place to start!

You can read a news article about the new cleaning protocol here.

100th anniversary of the wreck of the Clan Stuart

Clan Stuart sticking out of a glossy sea
Clan Stuart sticking out of a glossy sea

Yesterday, 21 November 2014, marked 100 years since the SS Clan Stuart, a British turret steamer of 3 594 tons, ran aground in a south easterly gale off Glencairn at two o’clock in the morning. She was on her way from St Helena island with a cargo of coal, and dragged her anchor in the gale. Fittingly, the anniversary of her foundering was also marked by a strong south easterly wind!

The entire crew was rescued, but returned to the ship during efforts to refloat her. She was pumped out and pulled off the rocks by a tug from Table Bay, but permission for her to enter the dry dock at Simon’s Town was refused for fear that she sink and block the entrance to the harbour. Her captain was thus compelled to run her aground at Mackerel Bay, where she now lies, in order to prevent her from sinking.

The Clan Stuart today

She is now a well known landmark to drivers on their way along the coastal road between Simon’s Town and Glencairn, as well as being a popular shore dive site. We’ve had some great dives there, and here’s a round up of some of the material we’ve published about the wreck since starting this blog:

How to find the SS Clan Stuart by road (hint: it is not hard)

What does the Clan Stuart look like underwater?

Getting close to the engine block of the Clan Stuart

On the beach at Mackerel Bay

Marine life on the wreck of the Clan Stuart

The wreck is quite heavily encrusted and there’s usually a lot to see. We’ve seen cuttlefish, small schools of two tone fingerfin, and for some reason I always see a wide variety of worms there! There is kelp growing on and around the wreck, but not so much that it’s hard to move around. On the beach we sometimes see African oystercatchers with their striking red legs and bills, and black bodies. Cormorants and gulls often perch on top of the engine block, too, giving them a convenient platform from which to go fishing.

On our first night dive together (Tony’s first in Cape Town, and my first night dive ever) Tony took a video (grainy) of some seals that joned us on the dive – you can find it in our post about Cape fur seals.

We also spotted a onefin electric ray on a dive on the wreck, whose electric personality seemed to interfere interestingly with Tony’s video camera.

On one memorable dive on the Clan Stuart (I think it was on 1 January one year, in the height of summer), we were surrounded by an agitated school of large white steenbras, who seemed to be trying to take cover behind us and on the wreck, repeatedly changing direction and swirling around us. Tony and I concluded independently that something large and toothy was chasing them, and exited the water by practically tunneling our way to the beach, trying to appear relaxed for the sake of the students accompanying us.

A few years later a group of Russian divers accompanied by two locals – diving off the boat this time – actually came face to face with a great white shark on the Clan Stuart – here is Tony’s story, Christo’s story, Craig’s story, and a short video of the shark taken by one of the Russian visitors. Undaunted by their experience they ended the dive on the beach, where I picked them up, drove them back to the jetty to get back on the boat, and they set out for another dive!

Diving the Clan Stuart

The best time to dive the wreck, in light of the above information and the typical movements of sharks in False Bay’s waters, is in winter. The visibility is likely to be better then, though it’s rarely exceptional (I would be ecstatic with 10 metres, and expect closer to six in the winter months). In summer you can expect 2-5 metre visibility. Don’t underestimate the waves on the beach, and keep your regulator in your mouth until you’re through. Save the chit chat for when you’re back on dry land!

Find out more

A team of film makers has been working on a project about the Clan Stuart for some time. Here’s some of their work so far:

You can read more about the Clan Stuart in Hard Aground, Shipwrecks of the Western Cape, and Shipwrecks and Salvage in South Africa.

Bookshelf: The Extreme Life of the Sea

The Extreme Life of the Sea – Stephen R. Palumbi & Anthony R. Palumbi

The Extreme Life of the Sea
The Extreme Life of the Sea

Father and son team Stephen and Anthony Palumbi tackle the ocean superlatives in this entertaining, easy to read volume. The Extreme Life of the Sea is riddled with pop culture references (many of which whizzed right over my head), but in between these the Palumbis conduct a tour of the most notable parts of the ocean food web. They pause at the creatures that are smallest, largest, oldest, most tolerant of heat and cold, fastest, strangest, first to evolve, and least changed since the dawn of time. The pace is rapid, but despite this the authors manage to be both interesting and detailed where necessary.

There is a recurring element of storytelling as the Palumbis introduce new creatures (they cover approximately 200 species in just over 200 pages), and I can imagine a relatively young reader with a scientific bent deriving great enjoyment from these interludes as well as from the rapid fire facts that follow each lyrical species introduction. Albatross, whales, sea jellies, worms, and giant squid line up one after the other, demonstrating their particular adaptations to the environment in which they live. Billions of microbes and viruses duke it out beyond the range of human vision. I was dazzled by how different all marine life is from humans, and how ridiculously varied.

The final chapter treats “future extremes” – the extremes we will be left with as global warming and our current fishing practices run their course. As the authors point out in concluding this chapter,

… over the long term the oceans don’t need saving. People need saving. people will need to live through the next hundreds or thousands of years when the oceans are no longer the pantry of the world, no longer safe to swim in or sail across, toxic and wracked by ever-stronger storms… The fate of the oceans has become our fate too, and we are out of easy ways to ensure that the future of the ocean is secure.

Reviews at the Washington PostThe IndependentThe Guardian, and Scientific American, if you crave more.

You can get a copy here or here. If you’re in South Africa, here.

Whale watching in False Bay – the scenery

Cape Point in the distance
Cape Point in the distance

It is ridiculously exciting to see whales up close on a whale watching trip. Doing the trip in False Bay, which I am ever more convinced is one of the most spectacular natural wonders on the face of God’s green earth, is the cherry on top (if you like cherries). False Bay is about 1000 square kilometres in extent, and supports a remarkable array of wildlife – from worms to whales, and everything in between.

Roman Rock lighthouse
Roman Rock lighthouse

Please enjoy these photographs I took from the whale watching boat. They are mostly of the False Bay coastline, but there are also a few shots of some of the SA Navy’s military hardware thrown in for good measure. Look out for the SAS Mendi (F148) frigate, and one of our Heroine class submarines – not sure which of the three this is, but I’d be surprised if it was the SAS Charlotte Maxeke because I’m not sure if she’s been fixed after her 2012 collision with the seabed.

You can see the big swell in evidence around the base of Roman Rock lighthouse. But I digress. Here are some pretty pictures.

A few days in Knysna

Beaching the ferry in shallow water
Beaching the ferry in shallow water

We were very upset to hear that Lightley’s Houseboats, operating on the Knysna lagoon, went into liquidation last year. Fortunately the boats and licence to operate have been acquired by a lovely Dutch couple who are now operating under the name Knysna Houseboats. We took a short break in late April and spent four nights on a houseboat on the lagoon. The boats have been refurbished, standards have been raised, and the company has moved from the jetty at Belvidere to one in the Thesen Island harbour.

Entrance to the Knysna lagoon from the sea
Entrance to the Knysna lagoon from the sea

Houseboating is the most relaxing kind of holiday you can have; no unexpected visitors, no television (well, we don’t have one of those at home either), no computers (Tony forgot his and didn’t miss it at all), and nowhere particular to go. A skipper’s licence isn’t required to pilot the boats, but you have to go through a half hour course and write a short test before being issued with a temporary licence. The boats have a single 40 hp motor, and ours reached a roaring top speed of 10km/h heading downcurrent.

The last two occasions we’ve visited Knysna we dived in search of seahorses, beneath the Sanparks jetty on Thesen Island. The time to do this is half an hour before high tide, for a couple of reasons. One is that the tidal currents in the lagoon are something fierce; unless you want to do a drift dive out through the Heads, you have to dive near slack water. The other is that the rising tide brings clean seawater into the lagoon, increasing visibility. At low tide (we discovered last time we dived there) the visibility is so bad you can’t see a hand in front of your face. We found seahorses both times we dived in Knysna, but the second time (at low tide) more luck than skill was involved.

This time, high tide fell very early in the morning and in the evening. Because it’s close to winter, days are short, and we’d have had to have dived just before sunrise or just before sunset to coincide with the tide. This seemed like hard (and cold) work. We were on holiday, and lazy, so we left the dive gear at home this time. Hopefully next time we go to Knysna the tides will be in our favour, because I did miss seeing those little critters!

One thing we did do that caused us raucous enjoyment was to sit on the edge of our boat one evening as the tide was going out, with a torch and a plastic salad bowl. The most amazing creatures swam past on the outgoing tide, and with some judicious co-ordination of torch and bowl we were able to catch one or two of them, take their picture, ooh and aah, and then release them back into the lagoon. We saw flatworms, lots of baby sole, shrimps with incredible glowing eyes and almost transparent bodies, and even a small blue fish shaped like a needle that we weren’t quick enough to catch.

Seal beating an octopus

During the day we looked at birds, motored around the lagoon a little bit, read, napped (embarrassingly much), and enjoyed the view. On one occasion we beached the boat and Tony wandered up and down a sandbank, where we could hear the sounds of mudprawns and a host of other creatures living just under the mud exposed by the retreating tide.

Heron on a moored boat
Heron on a moored boat
Geese in formation
Geese in formation

There is currently no dive operator or shop in Knysna, but they seem to open and close frequently. There is an angling and diving club in Knysna, and they can probably refer you to a local diver who can guide you if you want to dive the wreck of the Paquita near the Heads, or one of the other reefs in the area outside the Heads.

Rowing boat on shore
Rowing boat on shore

Article: New York Times & Nature on trawling

The New York Times recently published a short editorial on what commercial trawling is doing to the sea floor. Nature had published a similar article a month or so earlier, describing how the results of trawling were initially mistaken for the aftermath of an underwater landslide. You can see images of its effects here and here, and the Nature article has a close up photograph of trawled seabed.

If you’ve spent any time on the sand at one of Cape Town’s dive sites you’ll know that not only does the surface of the sand provide habitat for all sorts of creatures, but just under the surface live numerous others that may only venture out at night, or not at all. Imagine smoothing over that top layer, and dislodging the anemones, starfish, sea cucumbers, beaked sandfish, rays, worms, bivalves and their friends. Then imagine doing it again, within days, before any of the creatures could re-establish themselves.

In addition to removing all the fish from the ocean, our activities are apparently reshaping the ocean floor. That’s embarrassing, to say the least.

Read the NYT article here and the Nature one here.

Sea life: Tangleworms

Tangleworms and fanworms on the Clan Stuart
Tangleworms and fanworms on the Clan Stuart

Tangleworms are among the most appealing (if that’s possible) of the worms, chiefly because one doesn’t have to look at their bodies too much. They reside in tubes made of mucous, decorated with sand and pieces of shell and other debris. Their tentacles – the eponymous tangle – obscure their heads and extend from the top of the tube. The worm’s gills lie behind the tentacles. Each tentacle has a groove running down it, to channel food to the worm’s mouth, which lies at the tentacles’ base.

Tangleworm at Long Beach
Tangleworm at Long Beach

I have often mistaken orange thread-gilled worms (see below) for tangleworms. Orange thread-gilled worms are segmented worms that – should you dig one out from its hiding place – have soft bodies not covered by a tube of any kind. They are often found lurking among mussels.

Orange thread-gilled worm among sea cucumbers
Orange thread-gilled worm among sea cucumbers

 

Newsletter: Atlantic Ocean and rock lobsters

Hi divers

Anemone at Long Beach
Anemone at Long Beach

Summer is on its way as can be seen by the southeasterly winds that are prevalent during the next few months. The plus side of this is it keeps the colder rainy days away and sends us diving on the Atlantic coast far more often than the False Bay coast. Today the visibility on the Atlantic side is reportedly top to bottom whilst False Bay has between 4-5 metres, less in some places. The downside to Atlantic diving is the temperature, a good few degrees lower than False Bay but with the cold water almost always comes stunning visibility. The boats tend to favour Hout Bay and OPBC for launching during these months.

Fanworm at Long Beach
Fanworm at Long Beach

Rock lobster season is open  (or crayfish as they are often called) which means the water will be filled with people trying to catch them for dinner. Due to the limits on numbers and sizes each person may take in a day the authorities are also all over the place watching and checking anyone that has been in the water almost daily. Whilst taking of rock lobster on scuba is illegal some people do and this is the reason they will pay you a visit as soon as you exit the water. The first question will be “Do you have lobster?’’ and the next one will be “Where is your diving permit?” Diving in a Marine Protected Area (MPA) has required a permit for several years now. Its obtainable at the post office, costs around R98 and is valid for ONE year only. Please check your permit and make sure you have it with you when you arrive for a dive with us. You may be denied a dive or denied access to a boat without it as the stories of “arrested for no permit’’… “gear confiscated”…  “boat confiscated’’… etcetera are rife. How much truth is there in these stories? I have no clue, but it is not worth taking the chance.

What we have been up to

We did not dive much last weekend as I made a poor decision based on my interpretation of the weather – wrong call, as Grant had 15 metre visibility  on the Lusitania. We did however spend some time in the pool with new students, and did one dive at Long Beach on Sunday. Still diving in my book.

Pipefish at Long Beach
Pipefish at Long Beach

The week days have been better with diving on Monday and Tuesday delivering 6-8 metres at Long Beach and 8 metres on the wreck of the Clan Stuart. We will shore dive the Atlantic tomorrow and see if the visibility is as good as the claimed top to bottom.

This weekend

Grant will launch from OPBC and I have booked places on the first launch. Grant will do several launches on both Saturday and Sunday but many people love the clean cold Atlantic water so the boat will fill quickly. Don’t wait until Friday night to try and book. Please note that as of 1 November, prices for boat dives have increased to R220 per person per launch.

Divers descending on the BOS 400 wreck
Divers descending on the BOS 400 wreck

I’ve included some pictures from last summer’s Atlantic diving to whet your appetite. We are doing the first launch to look for some depth for an Advanced course and then will do a few shore dives at Oudekraal.

Saturday looks really good for a night dive, the swell is small, very little wind and there is still some moon. I will do a night dive at A Frame or the Clan Stuart if there is enough interest.

Seals on Klein Tafelberg Reef
Seals on Klein Tafelberg Reef

Sunday we will move back to False bay for Open Water students doing dives 1&2.

Pelagic trips and baited diving

A trip out to the tuna fishing grounds to dive with sharks and see amazing bird life has its special place in my style of diving. The whole cage diving and baited shark diving issue is a very contentious one and both sides have good strong arguments yet neither the yeah- or the naysayers have much in the way of scientific evidence. This is largely due to the fact that there is very little funding for such research. But never mind the science, as a diver it is far easier to make a judgment call on such a topic once you have experienced such an event. As with cage diving, baited dives need to be conducted in a safe and animal friendly manor to avoid injury to the sharks. Operators do exist that have respect for the ocean and its inhabitants and take care to ensure no harm can come to the animals.

I want to plan a few trips to the open ocean to photograph and experience these creatures in their own environment. They take some planning and preparation as it’s a long boat ride and the conditions need to be perfect. If you are interested in these trips please mail me so I can start planning a few trips.

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

Dive sites: MFV Orotava

View across the MFV Orotava
View across the MFV Orotava

The MFV Orotava was part of the I&J fishing fleet, and was scuttled in Smitswinkel Bay in 1983. She lies alongside the SAS Transvaal, and within a few hundred metres of the SAS Good Hope, the MV Rockeater, and the MFV Princess Elizabeth. She is a steel trawler, 50 metres long and just over 9 metres wide. It’s possible to see the entire wreck in a single dive; she rests on the sand at 34 metres, leaning at a slight angle, and the top of her superstructure is at about 23 metres.

We dived this wreck two weekends in a row. The first time we had very good visibility, and to me the ship looked as though it was festooned with flowers. There are lots of steel pipes and other bits sticking up, with arches and door frames and other framing devices that make for wonderful photographic opportunities. The wreck is overgrown with feather stars, sea fans, soft corals, and other invertebrate life.

A masked crab evades my flash on the sand
A masked crab evades my flash on the sand
Walking anemone
Walking anemone

Most notable to me was the presence of multiple frilled nudibranchs. I saw these for the first time on the MV Rockeater, also in Smitswinkel Bay, but the profusion of these beautiful little creatures on the Orotava has to be seen to be believed. I probably photographed 20 unique specimens on each dive, whilst swimming over several others (with regret).

A gathering of frilled nudibranchs
A gathering of frilled nudibranchs

The interior of the wreck is small, tight and not really suitable for penetration. The next two photos are horrible and have no artistic merit whatsoever (even by my standards), but they are of a hole in the deck. There are vertical steel plates visibile inside the hole that were moving several feet back and forth with each wash of the surge – you can see them in two distinct positions in the pictures. Take care.

Dive date: 27 August 2011

Air temperature: 17 degrees

Water temperature: 14 degrees

Maximum depth: 30.3 metres

Visibility: 12 metres

Dive duration: 33 minutes

Close up of the bow railings
Close up of the bow railings

We returned to the MFV Orotava the following week to look for a GoPro camera lost by one of the other divers on the boat the previous week. No luck finding it, unfortunately!

Tiny basket star on a sea fan
Tiny basket star on a sea fan

On our second visit to the wreck, Tony was below me on the sand with a student doing skills for a Deep Specialty course. I hung about near the top of the hull, trying to take shelter from the surge, which was particularly violent that day. Next to me, on some small sea fans, were two baby basket stars. This is the first time I’ve seen them in False Bay (I think they are found at several of the deeper reefs towards the southern end of the bay, such as Rocky Bank) – we usually see them on deep Atlantic dives such as on Klein Tafelberg Reef.

Baby basket star
Baby basket star

I thought the Orotava was a very pretty wreck, and look forward to returning there. Anywhere I can see my frilled nudibranchs or basket stars (!!!!) is a happy place for me.

Dive date: 4 September 2011

Air temperature: 15 degrees

Water temperature: 14 degrees

Maximum depth: 32.9 metres

Visibility: 5 metres

Dive duration: 36 minutes