Bookshelf (and article): The Hunt for MH370

The Hunt for MH370: The Mystery, The Cover-Up, The Truth – Ean Higgins

The Hunt for MH370
The Hunt for MH370

Perhaps I’m out of my lane sharing this book on a blog that is mostly, at least tangentially, about the ocean, but I read it very much as someone interested in everything about the ocean, including the subject of a multi-national deep sea search for an aircraft that apparently vanished without a trace in March 2014.

The story of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 is reasonably well known, but unresolved – pieces of wreckage from the plane have been found on Indian Ocean islands such as Reunion, but the crash site and black box of the flight has never been located. Millions of dollars have been spent looking for the plane, but there is no certainty about what happened.

Ean Higgins is an Australian journalist who covered the disappearance of MH370 from day one. In this book he presents several theories as to what occurred on the flight, with varying degrees of plausibility. He does share which theory he finds most likely, and it happens to coincide with the findings of William Langewiesche in a gripping long form article on MH370 that was published in The Atlantic earlier this month. According to Langewiesche,

Because the Malaysians withheld what they knew, the initial sea searches were concentrated in the wrong place—the South China Sea—and found no floating debris. Had the Malaysians told the truth right away, such debris might have been found and used to identify the airplane’s approximate location; the black boxes might have been recovered. The underwater search for them ultimately centered on a narrow swath of ocean thousands of miles away. But even a narrow swath of the ocean is a big place. It took two years to find the black boxes from Air France 447, which crashed into the Atlantic on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in 2009—and the searchers had known exactly where to look.

Higgins writes with compassion about the families and loved ones of the passengers on MH370. He makes it clear that the lack of resolution around the events of that evening in March 2014 has a human impact that those of us who have never had a loved one disappear without an explanation, cannot imagine.

I started reading this book with interest, but also holding a mildly pessimistic expectation that it would re-hash the little I knew about the missing flight, without any conclusions. Contrary to that expectation, I found it surprisingly satisfying, and while the mystery remains mysterious, it is clear from which quarter the truth must emerge. Whether it ever does so, remains to be seen

This is a gripping read that will engender an appreciation for the magnitude of the challenge presented by an underwater search far from shore. Read it, and read the William Langewiesche (author of The Outlaw Sea) article here.

Get a copy of the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here.

Bookshelf: Beachcombing in South Africa

Beachcombing in South Africa – Rudy van der Elst

Beachcombing in South Africa
Beachcombing in South Africa

Why so quiet? What have we been doing? Working, mostly. Trying to stay alive. And a bit of reading, and some beachcombing. Enter this is marvellous little book from fish fundi Rudy van der Elst (A Field Guide to the Common Sea Fishes of South Africa).

Chapter by chapter, van der Elst describes the types of debris that one might find on a beach. After a brief orientation chapter covering the ocean current regime around South Africa, relevant regulations, safety, beach ecology, tides, pollution and more, we launch into a tour of washed-up treasures.

Predictably, many of the items to be found are organic in nature – plants, invertebrates of various types, eggs and egg cases, fishes, birds, and shells. There are also items such as oceanographic devices, tags from marine animals, fishing equipment, cyalumes, buoys – some of these (such as tags) should be returned to their owners, and others should be removed from the vicinity of the ocean (such as discarded fishing nets and lines).

The chapter on marine animals (resting, nesting and stranded) is exceptionally useful and it is almost for this alone that I’d like to put a copy of this book in every home in every coastal town in the country. Seals, whales, turtles and seabirds can end up on the beach, sometimes in difficulty and at other times not. It can be hard to tell, and well-meaning members of the public can unwittingly cause great harm while trying to assist. A list of useful contacts in this regard appears at the end of the book, such as the Two Oceans Aquarium and the SPCA (region-specific).

The final two chapters cover miscellaneous “treasures” such as fossilised sharks teeth, sea glass, logs, and actual treasure, as well as beachcombing through the ages in South Africa. Here we learn about tidal fish traps, coastal caves, and other historical coastal dwellers who made their living from the sea.

We’ve found some awesome things on the beach, from shipwrecks to goose barnacles to rare crabs. Beachcombing is an accessible hobby that requires nothing but time, observation skills, curiosity, and a beach to stroll on.

This is a beautifully illustrated, comprehensive little volume that deserves to come with you on your beach holiday. It’ll prompt more careful examination of the flotsam and jetsam on your local beach, and, probably, more early morning low-tide visits to find the best pickings!

Wild Card magazine featured this book when it was published. Get it online here if you’re in South Africa, or here for your Kindle.

Monitoring the Oceans from Space MOOC

As your self-appointed education officer and fellow perpetual student, it is my duty to inform you of an upcoming MOOC on the Futurelearn platform, entitled “Monitoring the Oceans from Space“. In the five weeks of the course,  which starts on 24 October, you will learn about using satellite data to monitor the health of the oceans. You will also learn how to access some of the ocean monitoring data that is collected every day about weather phenomena, icebergs, sea levels, ocean temperature, and more. If you’re into creating your own visualisations or crunching numbers yourself, this should appeal.

The course is presented by EUMETSAT and was developed by Imperative Space in partnership with Plymouth Marine Laboratory, the National Oceanography Centre (Southampton), CLS France and NASA JPL.

Read more about the MOOC here, and register here.

Here’s a trailer:


Regular service on this blog should resume in the forseeable future; it’s been a heck of a year, so forgive us!

A new ocean MOOC starting on Monday!

Online learning with SDI
Online learning

This one snuck up on me. Starting on Monday 25 April (yes, this Monday), a massive open online course (MOOC – remember those?) about science-based solutions to challenges facing the world’s oceans becomes available to the curious. It’s a collaboration between Kiel University in Germany, its GEOMAR Hemholtz Centre for Ocean Research and “cluster of excellence” (I don’t know!) The Future Ocean, and the International Ocean Institute.

The course syllabus is comprehensive and spans 10 weeks of online study. You will cover topics from oceanography, marine biology, and geology. The aspects of the course related to humans include ocean governance, human-ocean interactions, changes happening along our coastline, and – most importantly – solutions from marine spatial planning to ecosystem management.

It looks very comprehensive and unmissable if you’re a marine freak. Go to to learn more and sign up. For your own privacy, protection and future access (and this applies to every website that offers you the option, not just this one) don’t sign in with your facebook, linkedin or other credentials. Make a new account using your email address, and create a new password.

Get to it.

Colour fronts in False Bay

Colour front seen from Sunny Cove on 27 November 2015
Colour front seen from Sunny Cove on 27 November 2015

Perhaps you have wondered what causes the patterns of strange coloured water in False Bay during the summer months. Perhaps you have dived in it, and wondered why sometimes you can’t see your hand in front of your face! Wonder no more – I am here to help.

Colour fronts

Frequent visitors to and residents of the shores of False Bay will observe that at certain times of the year, the ocean is marked by bands and arcs of sharply contrasting coloured water. This phenomenon is known as a colour front. In oceanography, a front is the interface or boundary between two separate masses of water. In this case, the water masses are easy to discern, because they are of different colours. There are usually other characteristics of the water on each side of the front that differ, too. Fronts are either convergent (the water masses are moving towards each other) or divergent. The presence of marine debris (like pieces of kelp) at the front boundary suggests that it is convergent.

Causes of colour fronts in False Bay

Prior to 2005, there was much conjecture about the causes of these fronts (including the usual pollution bugbear), but little evidence to support any of the theories. By sampling, the fronts were found not to be caused by pollution, or by plankton blooms in the surf zone. It was known that a colour front was most likely to occur in False Bay after a period of southerly or south easterly wind lasting a few days. October and November seem to be prime months for the phenomenon.

When a large, obvious colour front arose near Simon’s Town in November 2005 with milky green water on one side, and darker blue-green water on the other, researchers from UCT and IMT sprang into action, sampling the water on each side of the boundary so that they could measure its characteristics. Speed is of the essence in these situations; colour fronts can disappear quickly. The one in the picture below is busy decaying – notice the smudged boundary.

Colour front in north western False Bay on 13 November 2014
Colour front in north western False Bay on 13 November 2014

Measurements revealed that the milky green water overlaid the clearer, bluer water, down to a depth of 11-12 metres (this will vary from front to front). The milky water did not extend to the ocean floor.  Scuba divers around the Cape Peninsula will be familiar with the experience of diving through two or more layers of water, with varying turbidity (clarity) and temperature! (Here is picture of Tony and Christo diving near Oudekraal in the Atlantic that shows what the boundary between two layers of water can look like.)

The researchers found that the milky coloured greenish water was full of fine, almost neutrally buoyant particles of calcium-rich sediment. The green-blue water contained much less calcium, but relatively more silicon, which would suggest the presence of diatoms (a kind of phytoplankton – you can think of them as teeny tiny plant-like organisms) or sand in the water. The origins of the calcium-enriched sediment in the milky water are interesting: one source is from the shallows (less than 30 metres deep) of north western corner of False Bay, where the ocean floor is made up of rocks that are rich in calcium carbonate (such calcrete and limestone), some areas covered by a thin layer of sand.

Milky-white water near Swartklip on 29 November 2014
Milky-white water near Swartklip on 29 November 2014

The second probable origin for the particles of calcium-rich material is the interface between the sea and the land at the northern end of False Bay. The cliffs at Wolfgat/Swartklip at the head of the bay are made of calcrete, and at Swartklip the beach narrows to the extent that the cliffs erode directly into the water when the sea is high. Strong southerly winds create a wide (of the order of one kilometre) surf zone at Muizenberg and Strandfontein; a spring tide also adds to ideal conditions for the generation of a colour front.

The temperature of the milky water was found to be slightly (0.4 degrees Celcius) higher than the green-blue water. This measurement will also vary from front to front. The researchers speculate that the temperature difference could be because the milky water originated in the surf zone, which is shallower and therefore warmer, or because the high concentration of suspended particles in the milky water caused greater absorption of heat from the sun.

Colour front at Smitswinkel Bay on 24 October 2014
Colour front at Smitswinkel Bay on 24 October 2014


Here’s the tl;dr: strong southerly and/or south easterly winds, perhaps coupled with spring tide conditions, set up a very wide surf zone along the northern end of False Bay, which disturbs the sediment on the ocean bottom and drives the waves further up the beach than usual. Particles of buoyant calcium carbonate from the sea floor and eroded from the cliffs at Swartklip are lifted up into the water column, changing its colour to a milky-green shade. Wind-driven circulation patterns in the bay push the front from its original location in a southerly direction, towards Simon’s Town.

What to do?

Contrary to what your friends on social media may claim, not all colour changes in the ocean around Cape Town can be attributed to a giant sewerage plume. Hardly any of them can, in fact. In summer, the reason for the ocean looking green, red or even brown is likely to do with a plankton bloom of some description, or related to suspended sediments (as in this case) or other naturally arising material in the water. Instead of using this as an opportunity to become hysterical on the internet, how about celebrating the incredibly dynamic system that we can observe, living near the ocean? Drive up a mountain next to the ocean and take in the spectacle from on high. Dip your face in the water and see what it does to the viz. Take some pictures for posterity. And – if you don’t know what’s causing it – try to find and question someone who does know, like a scientist, or consult a good non-fiction book, to find out some facts.

If you’d like to read more about colour fronts in False Bay, take a look at this scientific paper (pdf), which I used as source material for most of this post. The paper is called A Prominent Colour Front in False Bay: Cross-frontal structure, composition and origin

Article: Wired on rising sea levels

An article on reveals the strange – and frankly terrifying – progress of sea level rise on planet earth. Summarising a scientific paper in Geophysical Research Letters (which makes this post a meta-meta analysis), the article describes how historical patterns of sea level rise and fall have decoupled. Typically, sea level rises in one oceanic basin and sink in an adjacent one, but since 2000 sea levels in the southern hemisphere have increased across the board. The change seems linked to changing wind patterns, which are related to climate change.

Does this kind of change in the environment interest you? Check out Ocean of Life for some more scary changes happening to our oceans. And read the article here.

Article: Wired on giant ocean eddies

Scientists have discovered giant eddies, 100 kilometres across, making their leisurely way across the world’s oceans. The rotational effect extends up to a kilometre below the ocean’s surface. They are quite beautiful when visualised (if you were in one you probably wouldn’t notice – they move very slowly). covered this discovery in an article last year.

Read the Wired article here. Bear in mind that the colours in the maps represent height of the ocean surface, not temperature!

If ocean circulation interests you, I cannot recommend Flotsametrics highly enough. You should also check out NASA’s Perpetual Ocean, and their global sea surface temperature and currents map. The Gulf Stream is also quite informative.

Bookshelf: Flotsametrics

Flotsametrics and the Floating World- Curtis Ebbesmeyer & Eric Scigliano


I found Flotsametrics to be a profound and moving memoir slash ocean science book. Curtis Ebbesmeyer is an oceanographer who cut his teeth in the oil industry, and later moved to private consulting. His late-life interest in beachcombing, and reading the debris he finds in order to chart the paths of ocean currents, was sparked by a question his mother asked him upon reading about a shipment of Nike shoes that had burst out of its container and floated all over the world.

The chapters of Flotsametrics are organised chronologically and by theme, and Ebbesmeyer mingles his life story with revelations about the oceanographic discoveries and projects he was part of at each stage. Cadavers, bath toys, messages in bottles (lots of these), drifting Japanese junks (seriously fascinating!), hockey gloves, sneakers, sea beans, and plain old garbage give up secrets of ocean circulation.

I stopped and re-read several parts of the book, particularly in the chapters that dealt with the death of Ebbesmeyer’s friends and family members. His meditations on releasing his loved ones’ ashes into the ocean gyres are quite beautiful and profound, notwithstanding an alcohol-fuelled incident in which he and a group of friends flush another friend’s ashes down a toilet in Seattle!

Thanks to Rochelle, I came across this article about a shipment of nautical-themed Lego that spilled out of a container 17 years ago, and is washing up (still) in Cornwall. Ebbesmeyer is lending his expertise here, as well. There is a New York Times review of Flotsametrics here, and one from The Guardian here. If you have to choose between Flotsametrics  and Moby Duck, which deals with some overlapping themes, I would recommend Flotsametrics a thousand times over. The author actually has something (many things) to say!

Get the book here (South Africa) or here or here.

Bookshelf: The Fluid Envelope of Our Planet

The Fluid Envelope of Our Planet: How the Study of Ocean Currents Became a Science – Eric L. Mills

The Fluid Envelope of Our Planet
The Fluid Envelope of Our Planet

This beautifully-titled book is a slow moving history of physical oceanography, tracing the contributions and occasional theoretical dead ends that, over the decades, have led us to our current understanding of ocean circulation. Eric Mills has a special interest in the history of the marine sciences, and – rather than get bogged down in too much explanation of the underlying processes – focuses here on the history and development of the science. His account is not normative in the sense that I sometimes didn’t know why a particular scientist’s ideas were wrong (not being a particularly hardcore student of physical oceanography), and he concentrates on providing a historical account.

The arrangement of the book traces the history of oceanography around the globe, from Canada to Berlin to Monaco to Scandinavia, and finally to the United States. I didn’t realise just how mathematical the field is. Mills makes clear the immense challenges in doing empirical oceanographic studies of the deep sea, which may be a contributing factor to the rate of development of the theoretical side of the science.

Mills provides interesting detail of the protagonists in his story, lifting them out of history as the often quirky individuals that they were (much as Trevor Norton does in Stars Beneath the Sea – although this is a more serious historical work). I enjoyed the fact that Columbus Iselin, Director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, complained in 1939 that:

The main difficulty with oceanography is that the Lord made the ocean too big and this is the chief obstacle, which we must use our collective ingenuity to overcome.

Mills’s writing is detailed and a pleasure to read. There are comprehensive references as well as a list of the canonical textbooks in the field, at the end of the book. I’d recommend this book to you if you have a special interest in the history of science.

You can get a copy of this book here or here. South Africans can find it here.

Bookshelf: Mapping the Deep

Mapping the Deep: The Extraordinary Story of Ocean Science – Robert Kunzig

Mapping the Deep
Mapping the Deep

Robert Kunzig won the Aventis Science Book of the Year award in 2001 for this book (the 2011 winner was The Wavewatcher’s Companion!). It is an absolutely fantastic piece of science writing, charting the state of the art in ocean science as well as the historical processes that led us to where we are today (or were in 2000).

Kunzig mostly used scientific papers and interviews with the scientists themselves as his primary sources, making complex mechanisms understandable without loss of information in the transmission.

The first few chapters of the book deal with the challenges of finding out what the ocean floor looks like, and of representing it in a useful way. Those beautiful maps of the ocean floor that I pored over in the atlas as a child, or in Sylvia Earle and Linda Glover’s wonderful Ocean: An Illustrated Atlas aren’t as precise as you may think they are – we often repeat the aphorism about how little of the ocean we have explored – but conveniently forget that this also precludes us from making detailed maps of it. The United States Navy probably has the most comprehensive sea floor maps, but they aren’t sharing.

Kunzig devotes several chapters to the type of life found in the ocean – he is not so much concerned with coastal as pelagic life forms, and devotes many fascinating pages to hydrothermal vent communities without once mentioning Robert Ballard. I experienced serious job envy reading about the blue water diving that Bill Hamner did to collect and study pelagic marine organisms such as jellies and plankton.

The influence of humans on the ocean’s environment is the subject of the next few chapters. There is a terrible, compulsively readable chapter about the New England cod fishery that was so convincingly destroyed, even with the assistance of government scientists. The final sections of the book deal with climate change and the ocean.

You can read other reviews of the book here and here. Here’s some of Kunzig’s writing, to give you a taste of what this book is like.

If you’re in South Africa, get a copy of the book here, otherwise try here or here. This is an updated edition of The Restless Sea, so don’t buy that one!