Hello, Smith’s swimming crab!

One of the things I love about False Bay, and about Long Beach in particular, is the tendency for creatures from all over South Africa’s coastline to end up here, often tropical marine life that got caught in the warm Agulhas current, and then within the circulation of False Bay, ending up just behind the Simons Town harbour wall.

Smith's swimming crab (Charybdis smithii) Smith’s swimming crab (Charybdis smithii)

Thus it was, early in March, that we discovered several adult specimens of Smith’s swimming crab (Charybdis smithii) at Long Beach when we went for a dive. One or two were already dead, and the rest were struggling either on the sand, or in the shallows, looking unhealthy. The water temperature at the time was about 17 degrees.

The first hint that this unusual and rarely-seen visitor had arrived on our shores was a series of social media posts, from January, in one or two of the fishing groups I follow on facebook. (These are excellent places to keep tabs on what’s happening in parts of the ocean I might not routinely visit, and there’s a wealth of knowledge and experience among the members.) Here’s a conversation between local fishermen about seeing large numbers of adult Smith’s swimming crabs just off Cape Point (also facebook). You can also see some photos of one of the crabs from Sea-Change here (facebook), taken on 22 January in False Bay.

Smith's swimming crab (Charybdis smithii) Smith’s swimming crab (Charybdis smithii)

At the same time as these social media posts, there was an influx of small, red crabs on the other side of the Cape Peninsula, at Long Beach in Kommetjie. (But more on that in another post.) Two Oceans says that Smith’s swimming crabs were first described in False Bay in 1838, and then again in 1978, 1983, and 1993. This facebook thread suggests that they may have been last seen off Muizenberg around 2005-2006.

Smith's swimming crab (Charybdis smithii) Smith’s swimming crab (Charybdis smithii)

I read more about Smith’s swimming crab in two papers: this one (Romanov et al), from 2009, and this one (Van Couwelaar et al) from 1997. The more recent paper updates many of the findings of the earlier one. Both teams of scientists behind these papers used trawl data from pelagic cruises to learn about the distribution and life history of these crabs.

Smith’s swimming crab is a pelagic crab that spends the vast majority of its one year, monsoon-driven life cycle in the water column. They are endemic to the western Indian ocean, and are usually found in the area bounded by the Arabian sea (which is west of India) and the latitude of Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania (about 7 degrees south of the equator), and from the east African coast, across east to the Maldives. They may congregate in huge patches, larger than tens of square kilometres, and may reach a biomass of more than 130 kilograms per square kilometre. These swarms are densest between June and September. During July, their concentration can peak at more than 15,000 individuals per square kilometre.

Smith's swimming crab (Charybdis smithii) Smith’s swimming crab (Charybdis smithii)

The crabs congregate on the seafloor of the continental shelf during the months of September to December, mating late in the year. No adult crabs are usually seen between April and June (Van Couwelaar et al speculate that the adults die after breeding), at which time, after metamorphosis, the swarms again become apparent in the western Indian ocean. The crabs grow to about 7.5 centimetres carapace width.

The crabs seem to perform a diel migration, moving deeper in the water column during the day (down to 350 metres’ depth), and returning to the surface at night. They swim continuously and are voracious predators in order to support the high metabolic demand created by this constant activity. They are able to regenerate all their limbs except for their swimming legs (Van Couwelaar et al deduced this in much the same way as Abraham Wald decided which parts of World War II bombers to reinforce – no crabs with partially grown swimming legs were caught in their trawls).

These crabs are important prey for yellowtail, as for other pelagic fish species such as blue sharks, yellowfin tuna and bigeye tuna. The fishermen of False Bay observed that they made excellent bait.

Smith's swimming crab (Charybdis smithii) Smith’s swimming crab (Charybdis smithii)

So what brings Smith’s swimming crab this far south? False Bay is way out of their range. This paper (Chapman, 1988) suggests that prior arrivals of these crabs on our shores have co-incided with weaker than usual summer south easterly winds (which has definitely been a feature of late 2018 and the start of 2019 – we had a gloriously wind-still summer for the most part) and the westward movement of warm water containing the crabs. We did have a spell of unusual westerly wind just prior to these crabs’ arrival.

A fascinating 1984 paper by George Branch describes a temperature anomaly during the summer of 1982-83. This particular Cape summer was characterised by very little of the typical south easterly winds, leading to reduced upwelling, and relatively high sea temperatures (Duffy et al, Effects of the 1982-3 Warm Water Event on the Breeding of South African Seabirds, 1984). The exceptionally warm water on the south and west coasts of South Africa caused mass strandings of some tropical animals (such as portuguese man ‘o war), mortalities of others (such as black mussels), changes in abundance of some species, and extensions of some species’ geographic range. For example, an exceptional number of juvenile turtles washed up on the beaches of False Bay, several months before the usual start of the usual turtle stranding season (which is, very loosely speaking, March-July). Prof Branch records that large numbers of healthy, adult Smith’s swimming crab washed up at Cape Hangklip, and smaller numbers at Boulders Beach, Strand, Milnerton and Blouberg. About 62% of the crabs were female, and many of them survived in aquaria for some time after stranding.

In short, it seems that we had our own little temperature anomlay, however brief, in early 2019, and the pulse of warm water brought with it these rarely seen (in Cape Town) crabs. What luck to spot this unusual visitor!

There are some lovely pictures of Smith’s swimming crab, healthy and in mid water, taken off Tanzania, here.

Bookshelf: Eye of the Shoal

Eye of the Shoal: A Fishwatcher’s Guide to Life, the Ocean and Everything – Helen Scales

Eye of the Shoal
Eye of the Shoal

This is an absolutely wonderful book about fish. Everything about fish. Helen Scales is a marine biologist and the accomplished author of marine-themed books (I previously wrote about Poseidon’s Steedher book about seahorses).

Here, Scales delves into the world of an animal whose variety seems almost without limit. Her book overflows with wonders, and interweaves science, adventure and mythology to shed light on the under-appreciated inhabitants of the underwater realm.

Unsolicited (this is almost always the case), I read half of this book to Tony while I was busy with it, and it delighted both of us. We learned about bioluminescent fish, poisonous fish, the sounds fish make, and the colours of their skin. We learned about fish that use tools, fish cognition, and about the state of the science regarding whether fish experience pain. We even learned about moray eels and grouper hunting co-operatively.

As a scuba diver, Scales relates tales of dives on which she observed the behaviours and phenomena she describes, and I was inspired to pay more attention to the activities of the fish we see on dives around Cape Town. They may (almost) all be the same colour, but there are certainly things that they do, and fascinating ways of being, that I am failing to appreciate.

Scales provides a bibliography on her website with links to the open access scientific papers that she used to research the book.

Get the book here (South Africa), here (US) or here (UK).

Article: The Atlantic on how much of the sea is fished

The proportion of the world’s oceans that are fished has recently been the subject of two papers in Science, both of which used the same data set to reach different conclusions. One study concluded that 55% of the ocean is affected by fishing, while a follow up (using the original data set, but at finer resolution) concluded that the number is closer to 4%.

A janbruin emerges from a school of fish at Atlantis
A janbruin emerges from a school of fish at Atlantis

Ed Yong of The Atlantic sets out the disagreement, and explains the subtleties and the points of view on each side of the debate. Far from being an insoluble  scientific crisis, the divergent findings show the iterative nature of the scientific process and the manner in which back and forth between scientists leads to progress. It brings to light important questions worth considering, ones that are more important than simply asking the original question of how much of the ocean is fished.

Instead, you have to ask different and more refined questions. How much of that fishing is sustainable? Which species are being targeted? How are they faring? Can they bounce back?

Read the full article here.

Bookshelf: Shark

Shark – Brian Skerry

Brian Skerry is a National Geographic photojournalist, with whose TED Talk you may be familiar. This book is a collection of articles – about sharks – that appeared in National Geographic magazine, accompanied by one magnificent shark photograph after another. Each chapter’s text is reasonably short. Here, the photos are the primary focus.


The chapters focus on four species of shark: great white, white tip, tiger sharks, and mako sharks. Additional text is contributed by several National Geographic writers, and experiencing the familiar editorial quality and stylistic approach of the magazine is like settling down for a chat with an old friend.

The final chapter of the book, written by Skerry, is an appeal for increased understanding of sharks and their vital place in ecosystems, and increased protection for them – in the form of marine reserves, and less fishing, for example. The photographs selected for this chapter makes it clear that in Skerry’s view, science (especially tagging studies) is vital to the endeavour of better understanding sharks, and protecting them.

Get a copy of the book here (South Africa), here or here.

Bookshelf: Manta

Manta: Secret Life of Devil Rays – Guy Stevens & Thomas Peschak

I found this book to fill a significant gap in my manta ray knowledge, which was (to be honest) virtually nonexistent. Author Guy Stevens is founder of the Manta Trust and a Save Our Seas project leader, and has spent 15 years in the Maldives studying these enormous, charismatic elasmobranchs. The Manta Trust co-ordinates global manta research efforts, with the aim of protecting and conserving mantas and their relatives.


The photographs in this book are by Thomas Peschak, co-founder of the Manta Trust, with whose extraordinary work you should be familiar. (If not, look here, here and here.)

Everything you might want to know about mantas is here, without being glib about the fact that there is still much we do not understand about these animals. The text covers their biology, life histories, threats to their survival, an identification guide, and numerous accounts by field scientists who study mantas and devil rays. (It was hard not to be envious reading some of the day-in-the-life bits!)

This is a beautiful, substantial book. Get it here.

Bookshelf: Between the Tides

Between the Tides: In Search of Sea Turtles – George Hughes

I have been late in coming to this book, which was published about five years ago. George Hughes is a world-renowned, South African turtle scientist whose work has done much to ensure protection for sea turtles in the southern Indian Ocean. He was the guest speaker at an event held at the Two Oceans Aquarium to celebrate the release of Yoshi, the loggerhead turtle who spent over 20 years at the aquarium and is now powering along the Namibian coastline in rude health.

Between the Tides
Between the Tides

Dr Hughes was CEO of the Natal Parks Board and then Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, but Between the Tides relates his early career as a student looking for turtles along South Africa’s wild north east coast, in places that today support thriving dive and fishing charters. His legacy of turtle research continues.

Turtle surveys were conducted around Madagascar, the Comores, Reunion, the Seychelles, and on the Mozambique coast. The fact that the iSimangaliso Wetland Park now exists, offering a protected and well-regulated breeding environment for three species of turtles (loggerhead, leatherback and green – discovered there in 2014) is thanks to the early and persistent work of Dr Hughes and his colleagues. Turtles were first found nesting on this piece of coast in 1963, when it was still completely wild and mostly neglected by the authorities. In this book Dr Hughes recounts the development of the tagging program that he started, in which over 350,000 hatchlings were flipper tagged and/or marked over a period of 31 years.

Only about two out of every 1,000 hatchlings survive to return to the area in which they hatched, to breed. Female loggerheads are estimated to reach maturity around the age of 36 years, during which time they navigate an ocean of threats. This makes every surviving hatchling incredibly valuable.

The recovery of the number of loggerheads, in particular, has been quite spectacular, with more modest but noticeable gains in the leatherback population. More recently, as technology has allowed it, satellite tagging has shown their movements around the Indian ocean

If you find a baby sea turtle on the beach (this is the time of year when they start washing up), here is what you should do. The most important thing is to keep it dry, and to contact the aquarium as soon as possible.

Dr Hughes also discusses the sustainable use of sea turtles (for example, for food), something which I’d never thought about and which for that reason is fascinating – and very challenging to come at with an open mind, and appreciating the viewpoints of a scientist who has been steeped in turtle research for most of his life.  This is an excellent, proudly South African marine science book, written to be accessible even to those who aren’t turtle fanatics a priori. Highly recommended.

Get a copy of the book here (South Africa), here or here.

More stingrays under the boat

We spent quite a bit of time with the short tailed stingrays (Dasyatis brevicaudata) between dives this past summer. Here’s another short video of one under the boat in shallow water.

These rays can grow to over two metres in diameter and weigh a few hundred kilograms at their maximum. They are a popular target for fishermen.

Bookshelf: Life’s a Beach

Life’s a Beach: Your Round-The-Coast Guide To South African Beaches – Ann Gadd

Compliments of the season. If you’re contemplating which beach to head to for tomorrow’s traditional Boxing Day beach outing, a venerable South African institution, I have just the book for you. The product of a mammoth investment of time (which couldn’t have been all bad) and distance travelled, Life’s a Beach is a handy guide to (possibly, probably, almost) every single beach along South Africa’s coastline.

Life's a Beach
Life’s a Beach

Each pair of facing pages covers a stretch of coast, and beaches are rated for surfing, alongside information about swimming, kiteboarding, wake boarding, kayaking and canoeing, diving, fishing and hiking. The scuba diving information for the sites around the Cape Peninsula, with which I am familiar, is reasonable, but of necessity very abbreviated owing to the book’s format and primary focus. It goes without saying that you should seek out some local knowledge before diving in an area you haven’t visited before.

Unique experiences and best kept secrets (no longer – haha!) are highlighted, as well as the presence of braai and picnic facilities. Tips on where to go for sundowners are also included. Child friendly activities are mentioned where applicable, too.

Access tips, as well as warnings about rips, pollution, sharks (thank you Shark Spotters!) and whether a beach has Blue Flag status round off the comprehensive information that is provided in a handily concise manner. This book will be extremely useful when you’re visiting an unfamiliar stretch of South Africa’s coastline, and particularly invaluable when it’s a little known and less popular beach.

Get a copy of the book here, or here if you’re outside South Africa.

And if you’re going to the beach in Cape Town tomorrow, make sure you’ve downloaded the free Shark Spotters smartphone app. Get it here for your iPhone, and here for Android.

Biscuit skate on a night dive

We came across this small biscuit skate (Raja straeleni) while doing a night dive at the jetty in Simon’s Town, on the occasion of Diversnight 2017. They are found in the eastern Atlantic ocean all the way down to 700 metres depth, grow really slowly, and are frequent bycatch from hake trawling operations off the South African coastline. SASSI says don’t buy it. The species is data deficient on the IUCN Red List.

These skates have thorn-like stings along part of their tails, and this one seems to have a whole lot else going on in the tail region which looks as though it would help him camouflage among seaweed. (None of the biscuit skates pictured in our fish identification books have quite such fancy tail-gear.) Also watch how he flicks sand over himself for additional disguise when he stops moving.

Also, they can jump – perhaps a little known talent… Once, while Clare was on duty at the aquarium, a small one leaped right out of the shallow ray pool that used to be next to the touch pool, and landed on the floor. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon. A quick manhandle and he was replaced in his pool (and that exhibit was moved soon after)!

Article: Buzzfeed on what to do with a giant squid

I can’t remember how this story crossed my path – I usually only visit Buzzfeed when someone sends me a link containing cat pictures – but it’s definitely worth your time. I thought I’d share it now, before we (hopefully eventually) move on from the cephalopod obsession that I have been nurturing for a while.

The article describes how the curator of molluscs (cool job) at London’s Natural History Museum came into possession of a giant squid, accidentally caught by fishermen in the Falkland Islands, and what it took to preserve it.

She measures 8.62 metres in length and remains the largest wet specimen the Natural History Museum of London has ever preserved. No one has ever captured and preserved a giant squid as complete as this one. That said, she’s missing part of a leg – but it’s not her fault. The fact that she was so fresh meant a section of one of her tentacles could be immediately frozen for DNA research before decay set in.

You, too, can see a giant squid, if you do a behind the scenes tour at London’s Natural History Museum. If you’d like to remind yourself what a giant squid looks like in real life, this talk is a good place to start. Read about giant squid here.

Read the full article here – the accompanying photos are probably even more gripping than the text