Help Shark Spotters create a free beach info smartphone app!

The signs and Shark Spotters flag at Glencairn
The signs and Shark Spotters flag at Glencairn

Shark Spotters have been keeping bathers and surfers safe, and providing groundbreaking research on Cape Town’s white sharks, for over 10 years. They are currently developing a smartphone app that will provide information on sightings of sharks and other marine life, sea conditions, and other information pertinent to the Shark Spotters program.

The app will be available free of charge, but there are some development costs that have to be raised before it can be launched.

Click here to donate – every bit helps!

Newsletter: Watching waves

Hi divers

Weekend plans

Saturday: Big wave surfing at Dungeons (we will watch, not surf)

Sunday: Boat dives in False Bay, from Simon’s Town jetty

A surfer is dwarfed by the wave
A surfer is dwarfed by the wave

The Bay has been on and off this week with some swell interfering with good diving. A 7 metre swell is expected tomorrow and this means that Dungeons may be worth a look early on Saturday. Odds are the swell doesn’t quite reach the forecast size, and Sunday diving in False Bay may pan out.

Text, whatsapp or email me if you want to be on either list and I will keep you posted… Saturday big wave watching or Sunday False Bay diving.

Things to do

The floating book shop Logos Hope is at the V&A Waterfront until 11 July.

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

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Newsletter: Swell weekend

Hi divers

Weekend plans

Saturday: Big wave surf viewing at Dungeons

Sunday: Boat dives in False Bay (conditions permitting)

We are set for the first real winter swell and the forecast is saying that we should expect 10 metres with a 20 second period by tomorrow evening. It tapers off thereafter and Sunday will be a lot more mellow.

I am really not sure what False Bay will look like by Sunday so will make an early call on launching. We will however launch out of Hout Bay on Saturday and watch some of Cape Town’s top surfers ride the monster high speed slopes that Dungeons will produce.

Dungeons in action
Dungeons in action

Let me know if you want to come on the boat on Saturday, and whether you’d like to be notified of any dives that may take place on Sunday if the conditions pan out.

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!

Whale carcass reporting in Cape Town

Whale skull near the Thomas T Tucker
Whale skull near the Thomas T Tucker

The Environmental Resource Management Department at the City of Cape Town needs your help:

We would like to try and get to whale carcasses well before they wash ashore on our coastline to deal with them more effectively and efficiently. As ocean users, if you come across a whale carcass floating anywhere in False Bay or from Cape Point north to Silwerstroom Strand we would be most grateful if you could call, whatsapp or sms 083 940 8143 (available 24/7) with an approximate location and time of sighting.

Please could I ask that you also forward/share this email to as many friends, colleagues or groups that you are aware of that use the ocean as we would like as large a network of people as possible that could report sightings.

Save that number in your cellphone contacts, and do your bit for beach safety and, hopefully, for the environment, by reporting sightings of deceased whales before they reach the beach.

Ideally (environmentally speaking) dead whales should be left out at sea to be scavenged upon by marine life and then sink to the bottom and return their nutrients to the ecosystem. Unfortunately the prevailing summer wind direction in Cape Town (south easterly) generally brings any such carcasses onto the beach in False Bay. This is a hazard to human safety because of the co-incident inshore presence of great white sharks during the summer months. A dead whale is a great feeding opportunity for sharks, and its accompanying oil slick will be evident from miles away, potentially bringing in more sharks to investigate. This is why the City wants the opportunity to deal with whale carcasses before they reach your local swimming beach.

It’s timely to remember that while some cetaceans die and end up on the beach because of reasons such as ship strikes, ingesting plastic or other pollutants, or acoustic disturbances related to human activity, some of these animals also die of natural causes or illness unrelated to man’s impact on earth. Many times, scientists will examine the dead animal and be able to state what most likely led to its demise. While it is distressing to see any dead animal, and particularly strange and discomfiting to see a whale on shore, this is not necessarily confirmation that “the ocean is dying” or that we are “killing False Bay.” Sometimes it’s just the circle of life. Dead whales were an important source of nutrients and building materials to Strandloper communities long before industrial shipping plied the world’s seas.

For more on what happens to whales that die at sea (hint: it’s magnificent), check out this video. For more on the collision of dead whales and the urban environment, there’s this post about a whale on the beach in Fish Hoek, this one about a whale on the road in Cape Town, and this one about a stranded whale in the United States.

But I digress. Save this phone number: 083 940 8143, and tell your ocean-loving paddler, surfer, sailor, boater and diver friends to do the same!

Newsletter: The right thing

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Saturday: Boat dives from Hout Bay / shore dives at Long Beach

It would seem from the forecast that it is a open and shut case of where to go and what to do this weekend. To be honest I am not too sure of the right thing to do! Both the Atlantic and False Bay are a colour that does not exactly inspire one to throw on a wetsuit.

Peace and quiet in Hout Bay
Peace and quiet in Hout Bay

The wind has blown more easterly and north easterly today than was expected, so it will not have done much for the visibility on either side. Sunday is out of the question as the forecast is for humping south easter, so that leaves Saturday.

I am launching from Hout Bay tomorrow afternoon and will have a better idea of whether it is clean enough for Saturday. The other option is shore diving at Long Beach. I reckon that there is about a strong chance that the water won’t be clean enough for any diving at all, though.

Privileges and responsibilities

We are very privileged to be able to dive with some beautiful and charismatic marine life around the Cape Peninsula, but with that privilege comes responsibility. Here are reminders of our best practices for diving with seals and with the sevengill cowsharks.

Happy snaps

There are some super photos on facebook, taken by local photographer Mark Harley, from when Dungeons was pumping last week – check them out here.

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

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Newsletter: Surfers’ paradise

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

No launches planned

Today we took a load of surfers out to Dungeons. Amongst them were a few first timers at Dungeons and the happy cheers and bear hugs when they caught their first serious Dungeons roller was a sight worth seeing.  Dungeons is a spectacular sight so if you haven’t been there do so at least once in your life.

A surfer at Dungeons
A surfer at Dungeons

Back to diving… We dived the Atlantic last weekend. Maori Bay was cold and clean-ish. Visibility was around 10 metres but then  the temperature was also in the single digits. Die Josie was a lot cleaner and just as cold.

Returning to the jetty in Simons Town
Returning to the jetty in Simons Town

On Sunday we dived in False Bay – doing Search and Recovery for an Advanced course in 2 m visibility makes it a little more realistic!

This weekend

Well… There is swell and wind in the forecast. The swell was not all that noticeable in False Bay today but was very surf-worthy at Dungeons and Muizenberg today. The wind is forecast at around 30 km/h for both days and for students doing their first boat dives I think it’s not that good an idea. So I have no launches planned for this weekend.

You can still visit the Titanic exhibition and the Wildlife Photographer of the Year at the Waterfront, though!

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!

The origins of the KwaZulu Natal Sharks Board

This is the second post in a series of three about the KZN Sharks Board.

With increased use of Durban and South Coast beaches after the Second World War – numbers of swimmers and surfers increased exponentially – the incidence of shark attacks rose to the extent that, already in the 1940s, newspaper articles discussed possible “anti-shark” measures. Four shark attacks occurred in December 1957 (known as “Black December” by Durbanites), and by April 1958 a further three had occurred. Five of the seven attacks were fatal, and they occurred at the beach during summer – a crowded, public space. In the same way that the early 21st century shark incidents at Fish Hoek beach could be described as a “public trauma”, these attacks traumatised both Durban locals and holidaymakers from South Africa’s inland provinces.

The history of anti-shark measures and shark research in KwaZulu Natal is traced in detail in this Masters thesis by Melissa van Oordt, which, if you have an interest in the subject, I recommend you download and read. Van Oordt argues that myths about sharks, developed in the minds of the public following shark bite incidents along the Natal coast and fuelled by the media, drove the formation of the Sharks Board and the installation of the bather safety gear along the KZN coast. Sharks were characterised as “rogue”, “man eater” and “brute” – and the language used to describe them shaped the response.

The first nets were deployed in 1952 off Durban’s beaches by an organisation called the Durban Beach Committee, following the lead of  New South Wales in Australia (nets were set there in 1937). After 1964 the beaches on the South Coast were also netted. Other measures, such as helicopter patrols and setting off depth charges, were experimented with, but were found to be ineffective, too expensive and/or too destructive to other marine life.

(It is also worth mentioning that already in 1958 measures such as electrical and chemical shark repellents and mechanical barriers were under discussion. In 1968 -69 development of an electrical shark barrier had made such good progress that full-scale testing at a Natal beach was anticipated “in the near future” [van Oordt page 113]. It has taken over half a century for these ideas to begin to come to fruition, and there is still some way to go.)

Establishment of the Natal Anti-Shark Measures Board

In 1964 the Natal Anti-Shark Measures Board was legally constituted by Natal Provincial Ordinance No. 10, which is freely available from the National Library (this is where I got my copy). The board was formed as a body corporate, which meant among other things that it could “sue and be sued.” Its functions and duties included:

  • taking advice from, considering findings of, consulting with and calling upon scientific and technical research bodies or individuals on the subject of “bather protection against shark attacks”; and
  • considering existing and proposed bather protection schemes to determine their effectiveness, and improving or supplementing them where necessary.

Local government authorities would provide the Anti-Shark Measures Board with estimated expenditure figures for anti-shark measures, as well as plans for any “actual or proposed anti-shark scheme” to which the expenditure figures related. The Sharks Board would vet the schemes proposed by the municipalities, suggest improvements, and approve expenditure for the anti-shark measures. Approved bather protection schemes would be subsidised by the board by at least ten percent of the municipal expenditure.

The Sharks Board was also authorised in the 1964 ordinance to install bather protection schemes on parts of the coast that were not under the jurisdiction of a local authority, and where agreement could not be reached with a local authority regarding the nature of a bather protection scheme, the board was able to go ahead and install shark safety gear, and recover some or all of the costs of doing so from the municipality concerned. This is quite a significant power – I would be curious to know whether it has ever been exercised.

The Sharks Board’s source of funding was declared to be “donations and bequests received by it”, as well as funds “appropriated by the Provincial Council for the purpose” – in other words, funds distributed to the Sharks Board by the Natal provincial government.

The Sharks Board was thus established legally, with most of its funding coming from the Natal provincial government. It had fairly broad powers in terms of installing bather protection gear along the Natal coastline, and no particular prohibitions on what it could and could not engage in.

Changing attitudes

White shark making another pass
White shark in False Bay

Van Oordt describes how, in the 1980s, the Sharks Board began releasing live sharks caught in the nets, reflecting a changing view of sharks, and the environment in general, that had begun to emerge among scientists and the general public. In 1991, in a further concrete indication of changing attitudes to sharks, great white sharks were legally protected in South African waters, making it illegal to catch or kill them unless authorised by the Department of Environmental Affairs.

Until fairly recently (at least until 1998 and possibly 2003) it was the case that:

The NSB sells certain shark products to defray expenses. Income from such sales is small relative to total expenditures. Products sold from the Board’s curio shop include shark teeth – sold either loose or with a jump ring for attachment to a jewellery chain – and entire jaw preparations. In addition, dried fins are stockpiled and sold, usually annually. Initially sales of fins were to local exporters by a tender process but the NSB is now investigating direct export. Fins and teeth from great white sharks Carcharodon carcharias are not sold because the species is locally protected. The meat from netted sharks is generally not sufficiently fresh for human consumption. Experimental inclusion of the meat in animal feed has been unsuccessful. [Source]

As we will see in the following post, such sales of shark products were forbidden by an act of 2008 which superseded the 1964 ordinance that established the Sharks Board. This, too, could be an indication of changing attitudes towards sharks and shark conservation in South Africa.

Fact finding about the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board

The KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board (KZNSB) is frequently discussed, and often vilified, among ocean-loving South Africans. Rumour abounds; whole websites, devoted entirely to inaccurate speculation, exist. When the Sharks Board tested a shark repellent cable in the waters of Cape Town, starting in late 2014, I was frustrated by my lack of knowledge about how the KZNSB is structured, who funds it, and who mandates it to do what it does. Understanding these aspects of the Sharks Board’s operations could surely assist with moving towards a future where, if the Sharks Board still exists, it uses primarily non-lethal shark mitigation measures. (Unfortunately, no scalable measures suitable for the KZN coastline exist yet.)

Many people are concerned by declining shark populations, but many people are also concerned about their safety when they go for a surf or a swim. These groups overlap, but not wholly. The ideal shark mitigation measure combines bather safety with shark conservation. Examples exist, but they are rare. Cape Town’s Shark Spotters do an excellent job of striking a balance between safety and conservation, but what many commentators – who advocate deploying shark spotters at sharky beaches the world over – do not admit (or realise) is that Shark Spotters works because in Cape Town we have elevated ground close to the ocean, and great white sharks that spend a lot of time swimming on the surface when they are inshore. Take away one of those two crucial elements, and an already tricky job becomes exponentially more challenging.

What the KZNSB does

The KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board protects bathers in KZN with what are essentially fishing measures: 23.7 kilometres of gill nets and 79 drum lines are installed along 38 beaches in the province. These nets and drum lines catch sharks and other marine creatures. The nets are checked by Sharks Board employees, and live sharks (and other animals) are released. Sharks that don’t survive are used for a variety of research – the Southern African Shark and Ray Symposium in September featured at least six presentations based on samples and data obtained from the Sharks Board.

While it is legal (read carefully – I am not condoning the practice) for the Sharks Board to remove sharks from the ocean, it is no longer considered ethical for scientists who wish to study sharks to use lethal sampling methods – to go out and shoot a shark so that they can study its stomach contents, for example. This practice would also be illegal for sharks that are protected, such as great whites in South Africa (the Sharks Board is permitted to catch them, however). There is much about shark biology that can be learned from a dead shark – for example an understanding of its reproductive systems, its position in the food web, its diet, samples to determine genetic inter-relatedness of populations, and age and growth data can all be gleaned from a necropsy. Perversely, much of the scientific output obtained from these avenues of research is useful for shark conservation and management planning. This is why, when a shark washes up dead or is accidentally caught in the Western Cape, scientists are keen to learn as much as possible from a dissection.

The website of the KZNSB describes a number of measures that the Sharks Board has taken to reduce its catches of species other than sharks. In particular, entanglement of cetaceans such as dolphins and baby whales is (apart from the environmental impact and sheer wastefulness) a highly emotive issue and a public relations nightmare for the Sharks Board and they actively seek to mitigate this kind of by-catch. In 2014, only about 40% of “non-target species” caught in the nets were released alive (no whales were killed).

How does the KSNZB, an organisation whose activities have a potentially significant impact on shark populations, fit in with broader initiatives to take better care of South Africa’s sharks?

Shark Biodiversity Management Plan

Puffadder shyshark at Long Beach
Puffadder shyshark at Long Beach

In March of this year, South Africa’s Shark Biodiversity Management Plan was published by the Department of Environmental Affairs. It is a remarkable document and represents the culmination (and the beginning) of a great deal of work by a great many people. It deserves (and will hopefully get) a more detailed examination than this, but I have isolated the sections that pertain to the KZNSB because they shed light on how the KZNSB is characterised by the government, and on the pressures it is under.

In the South African Shark Biodiversity Management Plan on pages 13-14, the KZNSB is listed as an organisation that “actively support[s] the management and conservation of sharks”.

On page 29 the KZNSB is listed as a responsible party under part of the Biodiversity Management Action Plan, with things to do in order to effect conservation of sharks in South African waters. The KZNSB is to “research and implement methods mitigating by-catch (e.g. drum lines)”, high priority, to start within a year of March 2015 and to be completed within five years; and to “investigate alternatives to shark fishing systems”, with the same priority and timeline. We know that the KZNSB has been actively testing alternatives to nets and drum lines – their shark repellent cable test in Cape Town’s waters is a case in point.

Page 25 states that the KZNSB is “cognisant of the need to minimise the environmental impact on biodiversity, while striving to improve/evaluate methods that have a lower environmental cost.”

The piece of legislation (more on this later) that establishes the Sharks Board mandates the sharks board to consider alternative mitigation methods, to reduce environmental impact, and “enhance the survival of caught sharks and other marine animals.” The particular section of the act defining the Sharks Board’s mandate is quoted in the KZNSB 2014 Annual Report (pdf). The report also suggests (on page 23) that pressure from environmental groups is providing an additional impetus to the development of other bather protection strategies.

All this underscores the fact that the Sharks Board is expected to find alternative (non-lethal) shark mitigation methods, and is legally mandated to attempt to do so.

National Plan of Action for Sharks

The South African National Plan of Action for Sharks (NPOA) sets goals for the implementation of measures towards ecologically and economically sustainable shark fisheries, and aims to improve conservation and management of sharks found in South African waters. The KZNSB is mentioned on page 13 of the NPOA document, as a “directed shark fishery”, with a reminder that

In terms of the provincial KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board Act, 2008 (Act 5 of 2008), the KZNSB is required to endeavour to introduce schemes that will reduce negative impact on all biodiversity. In addressing biodiversity issues the KZNSB has already reduced the number of nets, introduced drum lines, and has removed shark fishing gear during the annual winter sardine run.

The Sharks Board is thus recognised in its capacity as a shark fishery in the NPOA document and mandated to conduct itself as described above (a broad requirement), as well as a potentially important player in the conservation of South Africa’s sharks in the Shark Biodiversity Management Plan.

Concerns

On page 23 of the KZNSB 2014 Annual Report (pdf), it is noted that one of the “challenges” facing the Sharks Board is that “other organisations are also developing environmentally-sensitive shark repellent technologies which may compete with that being developed by KZNSB.” I don’t know how exactly to read this, but it seems that the Sharks Board is concerned that if another entity were to develop a shark mitigation technology that doesn’t kill sharks, this would be a bad thing for the KZNSB. I can only infer that this refers either to potential lost profits from licencing a KZNSB-developed product, or to costs that the KZNSB would potentially incur should they be forced to implement an environmentally friendly shark mitigation technolgy developed by someone else.

Either way, it establishes a strong financial motive – at least at top management level – behind efforts to develop non-lethal shark repellent strategies. While this impurity of motive may not warm your environmentalist’s heart, a quick scan of the KZNSB annual reports should convince you that it is more analogous to a corporation than to an environmental organisation or charity and it should be expected to operate as such. Individual motivations of staff and researchers within the Sharks Board may well be related to shark conservation, but the organisation as a whole must remain financially viable.

A news report in November 2014, to which I have not been able to find a follow up, quoted the KZNSB CEO as suggesting that the Sharks Board be able to sell shark meat, fins, and other curios manufactured from shark products (such as teeth) in order to raise funds. The difficulty with this suggestion – which is expressly forbidden in the 2008 KwaZulu Natal Sharks Board Act – is that it could create an incentive not to release live sharks caught in the nets, or for the Sharks Board to deliberately harvest sharks in order to turn a profit.

In summary

What I hope I have provided is an overview of some facts about the Sharks Board that can be obtained from publicly available sources, all of which I have linked to in the text. I will do two follow up posts in which I will look at the origins of the Sharks Board and the legislation (from 1964 and 2008) that gives it its mandate and legal structure. Do ways exist in which concerned, rational, ocean loving citizens can work to create a future in which the South African coastline is free of nets and drum lines? What kind of things should we support in order to make the whole of South Africa – and not just Cape Town – a world leader in shark mitigation techniques?

At the very least an understanding of the entity that is the Sharks Board may assist in determining whether a particular form of activism or protest about its activities is likely to have any effect. And if a form of protest is not going to be ineffective, regardless of the passion and enthusiasm behind it, those energies could be better spent on one of the many other threats to the marine environment.

 

Bookshelf: Saved by the Sea

Saved by the Sea: A Love Story with Fish – David Helvarg

Saved by the Sea
Saved by the Sea

I think this book belongs to the same broad genre – one for which I have a lot of time – as Tim Ecott’s Neutral Buoyancy. If I had to describe the authors of this genre, I would call them “thinking scuba divers” (as opposed to the unthinking kind). David Helvarg is a former war journalist turned environmental activist. In this beautiful, heart-wrenching book he chronicles his own life as it has touched upon the world’s oceans.

Helvarg is founder of the Blue Frontier Campaign, and, as he explains in this book, he encourages and facilitates environmental activism. Helvarg’s idea of activism does not seem to be topless protests about vague global issues, but rather entails groups of concerned citizens becoming involved in intensely local issues: a Seaweed Rebellion. The feeling of helplessness and doom which sometimes threatens to overwhelm those with a concern for the ocean’s future can be fruitfully channeled into unglamorous but entirely useful small acts of advocacy and change. The kind of activism that Helvarg encourages in Saved by the Sea comprises small, cumulative actions, like writing letters to government representatives on subjects that concern you; participating in coastal clean ups; getting involved in citizen science projects in your area. He lists fifty ways to save the ocean (and has written a book on that subject) – print them out and do your bit. The key is to do something, where you can (and that is usually right on your doorstep).

I would recommend the book purely for the activist spirit that Helvarg espouses (he explains why he formed Blue Frontier in the prior link), but in addition to this his book is wonderfully written and affirming of the variety and beauty of the ocean. He describes scuba dives in some of the world’s most pristine areas, surfing trips in South America, travels to the Antarctic. Interwoven with these encounters with the natural world is Helvarg’s own life, and love, story. He does not shy away from difficult feelings and experiences. This is an autobiography, and one you’ll be richer for having read.

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

Documentary: Shark (BBC)

BBC Shark
BBC Shark

There is not much to say about this BBC Earth production, other than that it is excellent, contains shark and ray footage unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, and you must watch it. The DVD is now available in South Africa (and of course in the rest of the known world), so you have no excuse.

It was filmed over two years, and from the thousands of hours of footage, three episodes were distilled. The focus is on elasmobranchs, which is slightly broader than the title suggests (but Shark is more catchy). There is a fourth episode devoted entirely to how the series was filmed, including interviews with the camera operators, which was fascinating. I enjoyed seeing the gear they used – as a scuba diver – as much as I did getting an insight into how they framed their shots and told the stories of the different species. A repeated realisation I had watching this episode was how close one has to get to the animals to obtain the kind of footage required for a broadcast-quality production!

I admit that I was frustrated by the brevity of the series – just when I got into it, it seemed to end – but I understand the desire to show only the very best material, to hold viewers’ attention, and to stay focused on the message (which is essentially that sharks are misunderstood and more important, complex and interesting than you may have thought). The series has a strong scientific bent, explaining how scientists’ work assists with conservation and management measures, and how it illuminates the lives of sharks beyond them simply being a potential threat to beach goers. Individual scientists are interviewed in the field, and are shown taking samples, tagging and observing the animals they study. Not all of those scientists were men, ensuring that the program will inspire a new generation of shark scientists of both genders. Thank you, BBC.

The series does a good job of showing sharks other than (in addition to, really) the large, charismatic ones that we’re familiar with as South Africans. Sarah Fowler, co-author of Sharks of the World, said in a talk we attended some years ago that the “average shark” is not a five metre long behemoth with a multitude of sharp teeth. The vast majority of shark species are smaller – say half a metre long – and very unassuming. The catsharks, pyjama sharks and shysharks are the everyday, many times more numerous sharks who get far less press, good or bad, than their larger compadres.

The BBC’s Shark was apparently a welcome addition to Discovery’s Shark Week 2015 – a complete departure from the made-up, mendacious fluff that has been served up on that channel in previous years. Long may it last!

Get the DVD here (South Africa) otherwise here or here.