The blaasop

There is a gorgeous star blaasop living in the Lagoon tank at uShaka Marine World where Tony and I dived last month. We saw him a year ago when we visited, and he’s grown a lot since then. Same as last year, we found him hanging out at the window looking into the Open Ocean tank – perhaps dreaming of growing up to be a shark one day.

The blaasop makes his appearance
The blaasop makes his appearance

He’s very friendly, and swam with me for quite a distance, occasionally making alarming forays towards my camera (which made for some great photo opportunities). I love his compact little body and the way his fins move back and forth at his sides – they seem far too small to propel his girth anywhere significant!

The blaasop emerges from the gloom
The blaasop emerges from the gloom
Passing by
Passing by
Coming in for a closer look
Coming in for a closer look
Oops! Too close!
Oops! Too close!

Here’s a short clip Tony took of the blaasop. Initially he was hiding in a packing pallette – during this part of the clip there’s an oil spot on the camera lens. Subsequently you see him investigating me. My hand is in a fist because I’d already been nibbled on by our cheeklined wrasse friend – looks like I am winding up for a punch but it was just a precautionary measure to protect my fingers.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8AshMxrl7pE&w=540]

Beautiful batfish

Longfin batfish on the move
Longfin batfish on the move

We had a beautiful dive in the Lagoon Tank at uShaka Marine World earlier this month on our way home from Sodwana. The longfin batfish are some of Tony’s favourite fish (he’s also very fond of Moorish idols). They are robust, and these particular specimens (most of them) are in such good shape that they look as though they are made of plastic. When Tony used to teach confined water skills in the Lagoon, the batfish would occasionally take umbrage at his mask strap or a piece of his gear, and come and bite him on the head.

Longfin batfish
Longfin batfish

They swim by in a school, very leisurely, but are capable of extraordinary bursts of speed – they seem to know when you’re trying to take a photograph.

Injured batfish
Injured batfish

One of the batfish has a wound on his head at the moment – perhaps from a snorkeler’s fin, or a stray weight dropped carelessly into the tank. Or, a gunfight. One never knows. Whatever the cause, he didn’t seem sluggish or to be struggling to keep up with the rest of the school.

Injured batfish
Injured batfish

Here they are, briefly, in motion. Magnificent!

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m7Bnmvck_II&w=540]

Sea life: Giant short tailed sting ray

This morning Tony had students at Long Beach and I tagged along. We swam out for depth, and in about 7.5 metres of water – brittlestar country – we found this absolute beauty resting on the sand. Can you see what it is?

Giant short tailed sting ray
Giant short tailed sting ray

Tony and Kate have seen two rays so far this week – one in the wreckage on the Clan Stuart, and another near the yellow buoy at Long Beach. This one was further north, in fairly deep water. It let me film it for a while, and then got annoyed at my heavy (somewhat excited) breathing and left.

Giant short tailed sting ray
Too big to get all in one picture!

We generally see the rays starting in late October to early November – basking in the sand at Long Beach, and even hanging about in the shallow water near the slipway at Miller’s Point. It’s a fantastic experience to spot one.

Spiny tail
Spiny tail

According to Georgina’s book, these rays give birth to live young, about 40 centimetres across, and grow to about 2 metres across. The specimen we saw was at least 1.5 metres across. The young are born folded up like crepes, and unfold their wings as they enter the water. Short tail sting rays are thought to feed on sand-dwelling invertebrates, grinding up shells to get at the creatures inside. It must take a LOT of eating to keep a body that size going!

Raymond the ray
Raymond the ray

When our ray left, he stirred up a huge cloud of sand and then swam so low over Kate’s head that she had to lift her hand up to fend him off. I guess we can add rays to the list of creatures who don’t give way to divers!

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yGQmoTXLlG8]

The Two Oceans Aquarium housed a gorgeous giant short tailed sting ray called Olive, who passed away recently. She was magnificent, and loved to swim up the glass in the I&J Predator Exhibit where she was housed.

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

The biter

The Biter was a cheeklined wrasse whom we encountered while diving in the Lagoon Tank at uShaka Marine World in Durban earlier in October. He caused great amusement to both me and Tony because of his persistent camera-hogging activities, suspicious-looking face, and willingness to nibble on exposed body parts.

The Biter
The Biter makes an appearance

He actually reminded me very much of the Number Two Cat (so-called for her place in the hierarchy of Tony’s neighbour’s 17 cats), who likes to stick her nose in your face at every opportunity to make sure that she’s still centre of attention.

Hello Number Two Cat!
Hello Number Two Cat!

But the Biter is a fish…

Being checked out by his red eye
Being checked out by his red eye
Making investigations
Making preliminary investigations
Coming closer...
Coming closer...
Open wide!
Open wide!

Here’s a rough edit of some of the clips Tony took of him. Notice how he tries to bite my finger (at this point Tony laughs through his regulator), and how he picks up a rock the size of a cherry from the tank floor, and appears to swallow it (I didnt see it come out, and I was watching). During parts of the clip he was so close to the lens that the camera couldn’t focus! The other sounds you can hear on the clip are bubbles, and the autofocus of Tony’s camera.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vr&w=540l-Xtyh_JY]

Diving in the Lagoon Tank at uShaka Marine World

Lagoon tank at uShaka Marine World
One's first view of the inside of the Lagoon tank at uShaka Marine World

On the first of our two days in Durban after the Sodwana trip, Tony and I did one of our most favourite things: we went for a dive in the aquarium at uShaka Marine World. Tony used to work at Calypso Dive and Adventure Centre, based at uShaka, and it is in this idyllic location – known as the Avis Snorkel Lagoon – that all the confined water skills were taught. How awesome is that?

Longfin batfish in the foreground, hound shark in the background
Longfin batfish in the foreground, hound shark in the background

Tony and I wanted to go somewhere calm and pretty where we could lie on the bottom and play with different camera settings, and a sunny, shallow dive (3 metres maximum) in limitless visibility surrounded by 1,500 tropical fish and hound sharks (only five of those, fortunately) was just the ticket.

Hound shark
Hound shark passing in front of the aquarium window
Resting hound shark
Resting hound shark

It is a magnificent dive. Not challenging by any stretch of the imagination, but that is one of its charms. It’s an open air tank accessed by walking into Marine World with a Calypso Divemaster (you can’t do the dive without someone from Calypso accompanying you, even if you’re qualified). There’s an area to kit up, and then you stroll (or waddle, or slide) down some gently sloping rubber mats in shallow water to the drop-off into the tank proper.

Tony filming fish
Tony filming fish

The tank has windows looking onto the aquarium (or, the aquarium has windows looking onto it, if you prefer), and a large window looking into the Open Ocean tank, which contains sharks and rays. Most of the tank, however, is your own private paradise, as the windows only cover a fraction of the one side. On the day we went, there were no snorkelers in the water (it gets really busy on weekends and holidays – last time we dived there it was hilarious and somewhat unnerving to look up and see countless pairs of legs in board shorts hanging above us).

Tony in the undercover portion of the Lagoon tank
Tony in the undercover portion of the Lagoon tank

There is a section of the tank that’s covered over (including the window onto the shark tank), and in this area is a submerged jeep (with licence plates still attached) and some other bits of atmospheric debris such as ropes, crates and wooden packing pallets. It’s a bit dark in there, and I prefer the sunny bits, but it’s really lovely to lie in front of the window to the shark tank (where it IS sunny) and watch the big predators on the other side of the glass. Some of the fish seem to like it, too.

Clown triggerfish
A clown triggerfish emerging from the covered portion of the tank

There are half hour time slots that can be booked with Calypso – either as a Discover Scuba Diving experience if you haven’t dived before (and I think this will spoil you for diving anywhere else!) or for an accompanied dive if you’re qualified. We took the one at 1.45pm and the half hour immediately following it, so we had a blissful hour in the 24 degree water.

Tony and some fish playing with his camera
Tony and some fish playing with his camera

I took hundreds of photos, and Tony took some fantastic video footage (for another post). The thing that delighted me the most was that many of the fish interact with you – the old woman angelfish and the boxfish in particular are totally unafraid.

Old woman angelfish
An old woman angelfish comes to visit me

There was also a toothy fish who alternated between harrassing me and Tony, and appears in nearly every frame of Tony’s video as he kept passing by the camera to remind us of his toothy presence.  This fish and several of the others deserve their own posts, since they were such large personalities!

Boxy comes to investigate
Boxy comes to investigate

Many of the fish were fascinated by the video camera lens – perhaps they could see a reflection or movement in the glass – and came really close to inspect and even head butt it. You can get really close to them either by lying or kneeling on the floor of the tank and waiting for curious visitors, or by sneaking up very slowly and quietly while they’re eating.

Emperor angelfish
Emperor angelfish feeding
Lagoon tank at uShaka
Terracotta vases and fish in the lagoon tank

If you’re visiting Durban, this is a wonderful way to pass a couple of hours. If you don’t dive, it’s the most perfect setting in which to try it, and if you do – don’t scoff at how shallow it is and that it’s confined – just go and relax, marvel and enjoy the spectacle. It’s incredibly reasonably priced and afterwards you can do some water rides, chill out on the beach, enjoy an ice cream, or stroll around the retail space at uShaka.

Feeding time
Feeding time

Who to follow

twitter

So I am sick in bed today while Tony enjoys the sea and southeaster with students. In the absence of my diving fix, I have to rely on the Internet to feed my currently short attention span. Enter Twitter.

To me, Twitter incorporates my favourite feature of Facebook – constant stream of bite-sized news and views – and leaves out all the other guff (Farmville, Zombie Vampire Slayers, Are You Feeling Hot Today?).

It’s not all about socialising and keeping up with your online friends… It’s also useful for news, activism, and informative updates from individuals and organisations whose work interests you. If you want to beef up the list of users you’re following, check out our “followees”!

Diving

Learn to Dive Today: @learn2divetoday (of course!)

PADI: @PADI

South Africa

SANCCOB – the organisation that rescues, cleans and protects our coastal birds: @SANCCOB

Two Oceans Aquarium, Cape Town: @2oceansaquarium

Shark Spotters for reports of shark activity in False Bay: @SharkSpotters

World Wildlife Foundation South Africa: @WWFSouthAfrica

Conservation & Agencies

NOAA’s National Ocean Service: @usoceangov

NOAA’s Ocean Explorer educational program: @oceanexplorer

Project Aware – conservation agency by divers: @projectaware

Save Our Seas: @saveourseas

World Wildlife Foundation: @WWF

Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society: @whales_org

NASA (they do ocean exploration too!): @NASA

Ocean Information Center (OCEANIC) at the University of Delaware College of Earth, Ocean and Environment: @oceandata

The Smithsonian Institute: @smithsonian

Smithsonian Ocean Portal: @oceanportal

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (because everyone can do with a bit of radical extremism to spice things up now and then!): @seashepherd

Ocean Conservancy: @OurOcean

Ocean Institute: @oceaninstitute

Oceana: @oceana

Photography

Bonica Snapper video cameras (the manufacturers of Tony’s newish toy): @bonicahddv

Fiona Ayerst, underwater photographer who offers courses: @Fayerst

Orms (more awesome camera equipment, knowledgeable sales staff and a top-notch D&P facility): @OrmsdDirect

SA Camera (very reasonably priced photographic equipment, including underwater housings): @SAcamera

Scott Kelby, author of fantastic photography books: @scottkelby

Writing & Television

National Geographic: @NatGeoSociety

Urban Times Oceans: @UT_Oceans

The Guardian Environment section: @guardianeco

PBS NOVA will keep you up to date with science news and cool gadgets: @novapbs

Diving at the Two Oceans Aquarium

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

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

Youtube videos for both dives can be found here.

Kelp Forest Exhibit

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

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

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

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

Dive date: 6 June 2010

Air temperature: 18 degrees

Water temperature: 14 degrees

Maximum depth: 5.7 metres

Visibility: 10 metres

Dive duration: 27 minutes

I&J Predator Exhibit

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

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

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

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

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

Dive date: 6 June 2010

Air temperature: 16 degrees

Water temperature: 18 degrees

Maximum depth: 5 metres

Visibility: 25  metres

Dive duration: 35 minutes

Bookshelf: Two Oceans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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