Newsletter: Making a difference

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Monday (public holiday): Leaving from  Simons Town at 9.30am and 12.00pm for Atlantis and Photographer’s Reef

We are in  a week long period of practically windless days, not quite winter temperatures and not too much of the dreaded, huge winter swells. You could choose to dive on any of the three days this weekend, or all of them, and I have picked Monday. We will launch from Simons Town at 9.30am and 12.00pm for Atlantis and Photographer’s Reef. Let me know if you’re keen to get out on (and in) False Bay.

Brydes whale showing his head
Brydes whale showing his head

Whale entanglement

It’s been a horrible week. A beautiful Brydes whale became entangled in the ropes of the experimental octopus fishery in False Bay, and drowned. Read about it here (there are some disturbing photos, so take care). In response, there’s a petition to end octopus fishing in False Bay – please sign it.

Can I also encourage you to amplify this issue outside of your usual social networks, who are probably ocean-loving people or friends of ocean lovers, and know about this already. Write an email or call the Department of Environmental Affairs, contact the provincial government, talk to your elected representatives, write to the newspaper. There are some other contact details to be found in one of the links we provided in this newsletter from 2014 that may or may not be useful – sadly this is not a new issue at all.

Beach cleanups

There’s a beach clean up in Cape Town practically every weekend, and it’s fantastic. To find out when they are, follow The Beach Co-Op (facebook / website), and Cape Town Beach Cleanup (facebook / website) to start with. Luckily South Africans are used to doing things themselves, and while the amount of trash recovered is eye-watering, it’s wonderful to see how many people are getting involved with looking after their environment.


Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099

Diving is addictive!

To subscribe to receive this newsletter by email, use the form on this page!

A Day on the Bay: A Brydes whale for company

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

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

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

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

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

The whale comes to investigate
The whale comes to investigate

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

Brydes whale circling Seahorse
Brydes whale circling Seahorse

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

Brydes whale showing his head
Brydes whale showing his head

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

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

Brydes whale off the bow
Brydes whale off the bow

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

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

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

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

Bookshelf: Pain Forms the Character

Pain Forms the Character: Doc Bester, Cat Hunters & Sealers – Nico de Bruyn & Chris Oosthuizen

Marion Island is one of South Africa’s two sub-Antarctic Prince Edward Islands, technically part of the Western Cape province. The South African National Antarctic Programme runs a meteorological and biological station there, dedicated to research. The researchers study weather and climate, ecosystem studies, seals (southern elephant seals, and Antarctic and sub-Antarctic fur seals), killer whales and seabirds such as albatross, that nest on the island. Researchers usually spend either three or 15 months at a stretch on the island, whose rugged terrain, intimidating wildlife and challenging weather can be said to “form the character”!

Pain Forms the Character
Pain Forms the Character

Marion Island is also infested by rats, introduced from whaling ships in the 1800s. With no predators, they multiplied to the extent that they threatened seabird populations. Cats were introduced in 1949, and by the 1970s there were 3,400 cats on the island. The cats ate mice, of course, and seabirds. An ambitious eradication program – of which our incredible friend Andre was part – eliminated the last of the cats in the early 1990s. The rat problem has resurged since the cats were removed, but work is in progress to get rid of them, too.

The research programs that currently exist on Marion Island are the legacy of Dr Marthan “Doc” Bester’s 40 year career as a scientist and researcher, and this book is a tribute to him. For this book, authors compiled photographs and testimonies from Bester’s colleagues, former cat hunters, and students, and he is the thread that ties this beautifully produced volume together. The focus is less on the scientific findings (you can find those online), and more on what it’s like to live on Marion Island, with the text complemented by many, beautifully evocative photographs.

Get a copy of the book here.

Documentary (BBC): Arctic with Bruce Parry

1422966653_ARCTICfMuch of my recent Arctic obsession has been historical, with a related interest in the hostile environment that has stymied (and killed) so many explorers over the centuries. Bruce Parry is a British documentarian (didn’t know that was a thing, but it seems fun) who seems to be dearly loved and some kind of national institution to the Brits. After watching this five-episode BBC series on the Arctic and its people, we could understand his charm.

Parry visits people living in Siberia, Greenland, northern Canada, Alaska, and the far north of Norway. He throws himself into their activities – whether rounding up reindeer, hunting for seals on the ice, fishing in Alaska (I had some serious lifestyle envy at this point), or racing up mountains. He is sensitive and respectful, and seems to forge genuine bonds with the families he visits.

The common thread that marks the lives of many of the tribes and peoples’ that Parry visits is that climate change, and the encroaching changes wrought by the pace of modern life, are challenging their traditions and lifestyles. Having lived sustainably off the land for generations, these people’s movements, traditions and futures are now circumscribed by all sorts of interventions from modern society. Not least of these is a lack of understanding of and respect for how they live.

Tony and I found much to discuss – for example, after the episode covering a traditional whale hunt in Alaska. Is there a difference between Japanese industrial whaling and an Inuit community’s subsistence hunting  for a couple of whales a year, done with reverence, prayers, and gratitude for the whale, whose bones will be scraped clean by polar bears after the entire carcass has been distributed in the village? Is it possible to kill an animal as large as a whale, humanely? Is all whaling wrong? These are difficult questions but it is worth grappling with them. As my friend Tami has exhorted me in the words of Rilke (in a different context, admittedly), “live the questions!

The series was filmed over the course of a summer, during which time much of the usual ice that marks the Arctic landscape was absent. The look of the landscape initially puzzled (and disappointed) me – without the icy covering, everything looks quite barren and gravelly!

You can get the dvd here (South Africa), otherwise here or here.

Bookshelf: Watching Whales & Dolphins in Southern Africa

Watching Whales & Dolphins in Southern Africa – Noel & Belinda Ashton

Watching Whales & Dolphins in Southern Africa
Watching Whales & Dolphins in Southern Africa

This is an enormously useful book for local whale watchers, and provides details on the life history and characteristics of the cetaceans found in Southern Africa’s waters. The text is illustrated by beautiful paintings and photographs showing the animals in full from various angles, including what you’d see if they were on the surface of the sea or about to sound.

Noel Ashton is an artist, sculptor and conservationist, whose sculptural work can be seen in the foyer of the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town. Nature writer and designer Belinda Ashton has co-authored several books with him.  The Ashtons also provided the whale and dolphin identification posters upstairs between the Predator Exhibit and the Kelp Forest tank. Their love for the natural world is evident in the beautiful illustrations and careful attention to detail in this book.

There is a history of whaling in South Africa, but fortunately there is now a yearly strong recovery in whale numbers and an appreciation of the economic value of whales alive rather than dead. There are incredible whale watching opportunities all around South Africa’s coast, including world-class shore-based viewing from Cape Town to De Hoop via Hermanus and De Kelders. There is boat-based whale watching out of Cape Town and from Gansbaai, Hermanus, Knysna, Plettenberg Bay, Durban, St Lucia, and other locations in between. For those who do not remember whaling, it is easy to become blasé about this embarrassment of cetacean riches, but it makes us, as South Africans, extremely privileged indeed.

For ocean lovers, this book is as indispensable as a bird book to a twitcher. It is highly recommended.

You can get a copy of the book here (South Africa) or here.

Article: New York Times on the health of the ocean

Humans began adjusting ecosystems on land thousands of years before they were able to do significant damage to the ocean, but in the last five hundred years or so we have been catching up in the marine environment. If you think that five hundred years of significant human impact on the oceans sounds too long and the number should be more like 50 years, read Callum Roberts’s book Ocean of Life – in fact, do that anyway.

In this vein, Carl Zimmer wrote for the New York Times about a recent paper (paywalled on Science) about extinctions and reduction in numbers of animals in the world’s oceans. The article received a large amount of attention and was featured prominently, which is great for science and for the ocean.

When writing about conservation issues it is a challenge to maintain an air of hopefulness, in order to spur the reader on to positive action rather than smothering them in despair. Many books about the health of the world’s oceans struggle to walk this line. Authors sometimes appear unnaturally chirpy about terrible subjects, or to change their minds three quarters of the way through the book, becoming a cheerleader after seven chapters of doom and gloom. Unusually, Zimmer’s article (and, by extension the paper it stems from) are genuinely hopeful, because the paper’s authors sincerely believe there is something that can be done.

(The timeline below is from the paper; click on the image to go to the original on the Science website.)

Timeline of animal loss
Timeline of animal loss

While the paper sounds a warning that “today’s low rates of marine extinction may be the prelude to a major extinction pulse, similar to that observed on land during the industrial revolution, as the footprint of human ocean use widens” and “the terrestrial experience and current trends in ocean use suggest that habitat destruction is likely to become an increasingly dominant threat to ocean wildlife over the next 150 years”, the authors are convinced that prompt and decisive action can make a significant difference. The action would need to be primarily in the form of massive marine protected areas, strategically located, as well as a decrease in carbon emissions.

Zimmer’s full article can be read here. One of the authors of the paper he reviews is Stephen Palumbi, whose Extreme Life of the Sea is an excellent introduction to the entire ocean ecosystem, written in bite sized chunks with the flair of the Guinness Book of Records (but more academic prowess, obviously).



Article (infographic): South China Morning Post on whaling

One of the data visualisation sites I follow alerted me to this infographic about Japanese Antarctic whaling, published in response to the International Court of Justice’s April 2014 ruling that Japanese whaling in the Antarctic is illegal. This is the whaling activity that is portrayed in the Whale Wars series.

It’s beautifully done and includes a huge amount of information. Surprisingly, it’s from the South China Morning Post, a newspaper I (perhaps not surprisingly) don’t read at all. Maybe Tamsyn is reading it while she’s in China!

South China Morning Post whaling infographic
South China Morning Post whaling infographic

View the full infographic here (can take a long while to load so be patient).

If you want an antidote to thoughts of whaling and cruelty, check out Beautiful Whale.

Article: Wired on using satellites to monitor illegal fishing

An article on reveals a bold plan to detect illegal fishing activity using satellite moitoring of AIS data of large ships at sea, and some clever algorithms to narrow down the data to ships (other than those registered as such) that are most likely fishing vessels. The project is called Global Fishing Watch, and has excellent potential as a tool provided that someone – anyone – will act on the information it provides. The project is a partnership between technology giant Google (via their Earth Outreach program), conservation organisation Oceana, and SkyTruth, which provides remote sensing technology for conservation purposes.


The perpetrators of a large amount of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing are developed nations – ships from Spain, Russia, Japan, and China are regular offenders. Much of the IUU fishing takes place in the waters of developing nations – because they are poorly patrolled and still contain fish to harvest. Monitoring activity on the high seas purely by means of patrol vessels is next to impossible, which is why a tool that is technology based is an exciting addition to conservationists’ arsenal. It is hoped that in the future the tool will be available via a web interface, to anyone who cares to view it.

Read the Wired article here, and find out more on the Global Fishing Watch website.

Bookshelf: Ocean of Life

Ocean of Life – Callum Roberts

Ocean of Life
Ocean of Life

This book is both deeply alarming and relentlessly optimistic. Its author, Callum Roberts, is a professor of marine conservation. He is able to see with clear eyes the damage that we have done to the world’s oceans, but also believes that science has the tools at hand to halt the decline. His optimism is not shared by all of his scientific colleagues, but it makes it bearable to read books like this and gives one a sense that it is still possible to be a positive force for the sea as a private individual. Despite the deliberate tone of optimism and hope, Ocean of Life is a very frightening book.

Roberts’s prior book was of The Unnatural History of the Sea, which explained the extent to which, over the last 1,000 years, humans have been modifying ocean ecosystems by harvesting marine life – to excess. I found it devastating. This book is concerned with other ways in which humans have been tinkering with the sea in addition to overfishing, including but not limited to climate change, industrial pollution, plastic debris, and noise from ships and from other human activities. Huge dead zones from fertiliser runoff and ocean acidification make some parts of the sea an outright hostile place to life.

Not only have we removed countless animals from the sea and added pollutants, but we have also adjusted ocean currents and moved species from one location to others – the lionfish invasion of the Atlantic is an example. Roberts lauds the efforts by recreational divers to control the invasion that are portrayed in Carl Safina’s Saving the Ocean series, but admits that they are ultimately futile except on individual reefs, and lionfish are in the Atlantic for the long haul.

Unlike Paul Greenberg, Roberts believes that initiatives such as SASSI, which encourage consumers to make sustainable seafood choices when shopping and eating out, have value, and he encourages the conservation-minded reader to explore them. He also provides a long list of excellent marine conservation organisations which one can support financially in order to make a difference to the decline of the oceans; he has worked with all of the ones he lists except for Sea Shepherd, and I’d suggest you support those. With the shambles of poseurs mixed in with legitimate conservation organisations, it is sometimes hard for the public to discern who’s a charlatan only interested in raising their own profile, and who’s actually spending the donated funds on conservation strategies that effect change. I’d love to see some guidance on this from a South African perspective – the ratio of fluff to substance here seems very high!

There are excellent reviews of Ocean of Life by the Telegraph, the Guardian, and the Independent. The Economist has an interview with Roberts online, too.

You can get a copy here and here (for overseas readers) or here and here (if you’re in South Africa). The book has appeared under the titles Ocean of Life (in the UK, I suspect) and The Ocean of Life (in the US).

Article: Wired on the age of whales

Wired published a thoughtful article recently that reminded me – indirectly – of something in Callum Roberts’s book The Unnatural History of the Sea. In that book, Roberts describes how early travellers to new parts of the planet described the unfamiliar species they encountered, and invariably followed that description with instructions on how to kill it, or how to prepare it for consumption and what it tasted like.

The Wired article describes how a bowhead whale – a wonderfully long-lived species that can possibly survive 200 years – was found with a 130 year old harpoon tip embedded in its neck. The harpoon tip was manufactured in the late 1800s in New Bedford, an American whaling centre from whence Ishmael set sail in search of Moby-Dick.

The article isn’t specifically about whales – the author is concerned with the connectedness of technology and biology, and with “long data”, but it’s a thought-provoking juxtaposition of strange bedfellows.

Read the full article here.