Bookshelf: The Seabird’s Cry

The Seabird’s Cry: The Lives and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and Other Ocean Voyagers – Adam Nicolson

The Seabird's Cry
The Seabird’s Cry

This is such a wonderful book that I read it twice within the span of six months. In between my two readings, during the northern hemisphere spring, Tony and I visited Pembrokeshire in Wales. This is not the home of Mr Darcy, but rather the location of several islands on which seabirds breed. Seeing puffins, gannets and shearwaters in all their glorious breeding plumage animated Nicolson’s descriptions of their precarious lives. (I do plan to share some photos and details of that visit in future posts.)

Early in this book, Nicolson points out that seabirds are the only creatures on earth that are at home in the water, on land, and in the air. To most of us, albatross are perhaps the most familiar pelagic seabirds – Carl Safina’s Eye of the Albatross both introduced and immortalised these extraordinary ocean wanderers for a popular audience. Nicolson devotes a chapter to each of ten species of seabird, including albatross, and writes with such extraordinary lyricism that at at times it’s possible to mistake this book for something other than popular science.

This blurring of boundaries is quite intentional, and completely revelatory. Rather than sounding pretentious or foolish, as most of us would if we tried to channel Seamus Heaney while summarising scientific papers and interviewing researchers, Nicolson achieves a remarkable feat of science communication. He speaks of the wonder that comes not from ignorance, but from knowledge and understanding, and how powerful a thing it is to know the facts of these animals’ lives.

If the idea of trying to join the worlds of science and poetry (or literature, or culture) grabs you, you may enjoy this video of a conversation on the subject between Adam Nicolson and Tim Birkenhead, a professor of ornithology.

Seabirds are in trouble worldwide, more threatened than any other group of birds. They are facing – amongst others – challenges wrought by changing ecosystems as the climate warms and industrial fishing robs them of their prey. To help them, we need to act, and action comes after seeing and understanding. In this book Nicolson makes an appeal to a part of us other than the rational, fact-collecting, logical entity, and asks us to empathise with these strikingly “other” creatures. I urge you to read this book.

You can read rapturous reviews of this book on The Guardian’s website, on Literary Hub, and at the Financial Times.

Get a copy here (South Africa), or here. It is available for Kindle, but you’ll have to search for that one yourself!

Bookshelf: Manta

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

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

Manta
Manta

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

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

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

Bookshelf: 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.

Newsletter: Rinse and repeat

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Saturday & Sunday: Check conditions the day before, and make a call

Filling station for boats on Sandhamn
Filling station for boats on Sandhamn

As weekends go at this time of year, this one is a weirdo. There is meant to be a 6 metre swell tomorrow, so diving might not be good… But the predicted swell is very westerly so diving may be good. There might be little wind on Saturday with a lot of swell, and more wind on Sunday with less swell… Weather sites disagree violently.

The plan is to check conditions tomorrow afternoon and decide for Saturday, and rinse and repeat on Sunday. If you’re keen to dive, let me know and I’ll keep you posted!

Odds & ends

About this week’s photo: we continue with last week’s theme of marine filling stations. We saw this one on the island of Sandhamn in the Stockholm Archipelago.

On Wednesday 16 August (next week), a book about Nicole, the great white shark that was tagged off South Africa’s coast and swam all the way to Australia and back, will be launched at Kalk Bay Books. Sounds interesting. Event details here.

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

Newsletter: Filling up

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Sunday: Boat dives from Simon’s Town at 9.00 am and 11.30 am (maximum depth 18 metres)

Filing station on Vaxholm
Filing station on Vaxholm

We are back from a vacation and the one thing, of many, that stood out as something that we could really use in False Bay, was a filling station. Not one for cars – we have those – but a real marine filling station that boats can approach from the water. The one in the picture is on the island of Vaxholm in the Stockholm archipelago.

Word is that the visibility is in False Bay has been decent. Not much wind or swell are in the forecast for Sunday so that’s the day we plan to dive.

Both dives (at 9.00 am and 11.30 am) will be to a maximum depth of 18 metres and most likely around Roman Rock, as I have students to qualify. Let me know if you want to join us.

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

A Day on the Bay: Freedom Swim 2016

Maryna and Table Mountain
Maryna and Table Mountain

A day early in April was the date for the annual Freedom Swim, a 7.5 kilometre open ocean cold water swim from Murray’s Bay harbour on Robben Island to Big Bay near Blouberg. As we have in several previous years, we provided boat support for a swimmer.

This entails providing a straight course for the swimmer so as to minimise the distance swum, and keeping an eye on them to ensure that they don’t get too cold or show any other symptoms of hypothermia or distress. It requires communication with race control by radio, and a bit of boat and swimmer dodging in the early stages of the race when the water is thick with activity.

There was a 3.5 metre swell on the day, which made the ride out to the island a bit bumpy. As soon as we were in the shelter of the island, however, the sea was flattened as the swell diverted around the island. The water remained calm until we got quite close to shore, at which point the swell picked up. The final stretch from the rocks at Big Bay to the beach must have been very hairy for the swimmers!

Our swimmer, Maryna, swam in a wetsuit. She was part of the Lighthouse Swim relay team we supported last year. The water was relatively warm (13-16 degrees) clear at the island, and we could see kelp and quite far down into the sea. Great red streaks of water, probably an algae bloom, were filled with sea jellies (which stung Maryna, but she continued strongly). These were replaced by murky green water close to the shore, where the swell had lifted the sand particles into the water column.

It was a good day out, and always a pleasure to see Table Mountain in its majesty from the water.

Bookshelf: Frozen in Time

Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition -Owen Beattie & John Geiger

Frozen in Time
Frozen in Time

Depending on whether you’ve followed my advice (who am I kidding) and read Franklin’s Lost Ship or The Man Who Ate His Boots, this book could either be a spoiler or constitute a fairly neat wrapping up of the loose ends and methods used to discover the fate of Sir John Franklin’s vanished 1845 expedition to the Canadian Arctic to search for the Northwest Passage.

Owen Beattie is a Canadian forensic anthropologist (a real one) who exhumed the bodies of three members of Franklin’s expedition who died and were buried on King William Island in the Arctic. Beattie’s team visited the island in 1984 and 1986 to work on the exhumation, examination and reburial of the three men. Buried in the permafrost, the bodies were remarkably well preserved (that’s a picture of one of them on the book’s cover).

Frozen in Time describes Beattie’s search for evidence about what led to the death of the men on the expedition, as well as providing a historical context for their search. The rigors of working in the Arctic – even in summer – and the historical, biological and cultural insight that can be obtained from the examination of dead bodies makes this a gripping read. You can read it as a stand-alone account of the Franklin expedition and its grim ending – no prior knowledge is required. Canadian writer Margaret Atwood’s introduction provides a beautiful interface between history, science and the deeper truths about ourselves that are revealed by the imperative to explore the Arctic.

Not everyone agrees with Beattie and Geiger’s thesis about what killed the men – if you’re still reading my Arctic ramblings, check out the argument put forward here.

Get a copy here (South Africa), here or here.

Bookshelf: The Man Who Ate His Boots

The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage – Anthony Brandt

The Man Who Ate His Boots
The Man Who Ate His Boots

The Northwest Passage  is a sea route (routes, actually) running between Canada and Greenland, across the top of the North American continent through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, and through the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia. At its end is the Far East, for hundreds of years the destination of the thousands of sea voyages that made their way around the Cape of Good Hope, and later through the Suez Canal. Its existence was an enormously appealing idea to Europeans, because if the east could be reached by sailing along the top of the world, great savings of sailing time and expense would result.

For a long time the existence of the Northwest Passage was merely a hypothesis, and in the 1800s the British expended vast quantities of energy exploring the Canadian Arctic in search of a sea route. The passage was first traversed in 1850-54 by Robert McClure, by ship and sledge. Roald Amundsen traversed it entirely by ship in 1903-1906.  Until this century, the route was not navigable for most of the year owing to the presence of sea ice. Now, thanks (?) to climate change, there is far less ice to contend with.

Sir John Franklin was one of Britain’s most eminent Arctic explorers. He made several trips to the Arctic in search of the Northwest Passage. His final expedition, starting in 1845, ended in the disappearance of his two ships (HMS Erebus and HMS Terror), Franklin himself, and all 128 of the men with him.

The story of his expedition, and the searches for evidence of its fate (upwards of 30 expeditions were mounted to look for him), and the subsequent discovery of what had happened (no spoilers here – it was awful) is related in gripping detail in The Man Who Ate His Boots. Brandt also provides ample historical context, describing prior expeditions which serve to illuminate the British motivations behind their exploration of the Canadian Arctic.

There was a curious mixture of stoic heroism and wild arrogance at work during this period of British history. The rigors endured by early Arctic explorers cannot be overstated – the environment is almost entirely hostile to human survival. The British did not believe that there was anything to be learned from the Inuit, indigenous people who live widely spread across the area, and suffered as a result. As one of the Inuit pointed out when the awful lengths Franklin’s men had gone to in order to try to survive were revealed, his people “know how to starve.”

There is a strong thread throughout this book relating to the colonial attitude towards colonised peoples. A belief prevailed in Britain that, equipped with a shotgun and a good pair of shoes, an Englishman could survive anywhere, and that his Christian piety would serve to protect him and speed his endeavours. (On one of Franklin’s earlier expeditions, which was a complete fiasco largely owing to poor planning, the British officers survived whereas the mixed-race local fur traders – who were doing all the manual work and carrying the supplies – perished. This was attributed to the protective influence of the Christian beliefs of the British men.) It was further reckoned that there was nothing to be gained from studying the techinques of the Inuit. Eyewitness accounts from Inuit turned out to hold the key to the fate of Franklin’s party, although their account was not believed initially (they were dismissed as habitually lying “savages”).

Last year, one of Franklin’s ships, HMS Erebus, was discovered by Canadian archaeologists in Queen Maud gulf, where it sank after being trapped in the ice. They are still studying it (the area is only accessible a few months each summer), and I am watching this story with intense interest. There’s more on the discovery at National Geographic.

You can read reviews of The Man Who Ate His Boots at the New York Times, Washington Post, and The Guardian. If you enjoyed Endurance, then I recommend you investigate this book. In light of the developing findings of the excavation of HMS Erebus, the material has refreshed relevance today.

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

Want more Arctic? Check out True North. There’s also this article on what lives under the ice, and this one on what happens on top of it!

A Day on the Bay: Freedom Swim 2015

Powerful strokes
Powerful strokes

This year we were once again a support boat for the annual Freedom Swim, from Robben Island to Big Bay. This is a 7.5 kilometre route, held every year in April, this year on the 11th. The water is, as you can imagine, often quite cold, and this affects the number of swimmers who are able to complete the route.

Catherine keeps an eye on Ned
Catherine keeps an eye on Ned

This year we supported Ned Denison, an American swimmer who bases himself out of Cork in Ireland (for swimming purposes). I read about his Cork Distance Week – a terrifying bootcamp of open water swimming – a few years ago and was interested to meet him. He has done every open water distance swim you can imagine, including a swim across False Bay from Rooi Els to Miller’s Point.

The press boat filming Ned
The press boat filming Ned

Apart from a very misty start, the day was perfect with no wind and extremely calm seas. Tony kept a good line straight from Murray’s Bay harbour on Robben Island to Big Bay on the Table Bay coastline. Ned didn’t stop once, and finished the swim in under two hours. It was a great day to be out on the boat, and fantastic to watch such a renowned swimmer in action.

Tony watching Ned
Tony watching Ned

Bookshelf: The Control of Nature

Today and tomorrow I’ll tell you about two books I read recently: The Control of Nature, and The World Without Us. They both deal with man’s impact on the environment, but not in the same way as the conservation-related books that I am typically drawn to. They are not directly related to the ocean (although The World Without Us touches on it), but encouraged me to think in new ways about our impact on the planet, in terms a little bit broader than “We catch too much fish” or “We burn too much fossil fuel.”

I was induced to read these two books, one after the other, by an apocalyptic frame of mind (which we might be able to blame on intermittent power outages and some of the other challenges we’re experiencing in South Africa at the moment). Even if you don’t feel as though the sky is about to fall on your head, they are still both highly recommended.

The Control of Nature – John McPhee

The Control of Nature
The Control of Nature

It is a discredit to my literary general knowledge that this is the first book I have read by American author John McPhee. He is a prolific and well regarded non-fiction author whose other work I will be hunting down post haste. The Control of Nature comprises three long essays, each detailing an attempt by man to modify and contain his natural environment. They read like engineering thrillers (which puts me in mind of my brother in law – maybe he needs this book in his life, too). McPhee explains complex engineering concepts in terms that anyone can grasp.

The first essay, entitled Atchafalayadeals with the Mississippi River, which is cannibalised by its distributary the Atchafalaya River in Louisiana, near its mouth. A complex structure called the Old River Control Structure determines how much of the Mississippi is allowed into the Atchafalaya. Left uncontrolled, the Mississippi would change course entirely, with dire economic and sociological consequences for New Orleans and surrounds. The history and workings of the Old River Control Structure alone are fascinating enough to sell the book – check out the Wikipedia entry for a taste of it.

The second essay describes the surprisingly successful attempts by Icelandic islanders from Heimaey to redirect a flow of volcanic lava that was threatening their fishing harbour (of major economic importance – notice a trend here) during an eruption of the volcano Eldfell in 1973. The task was Herculean. Islanders pumped seawater out onto the lava, and worked in conditions so steamy (from evaporating water) and hot that their boots melted and they couldn’t see more than a few metres in front of them. Part of the town was destroyed – preserved like Pompeii – but the size of the island was increased and the harbour is now better protected than it was before the eruption, thanks to lava outflows and rocks shielding it from the prevailing winds. Heimaey is beautiful – there’s a short article about the place here, with photos sourced from here.

 Finally, McPhee deals with Los Angeles, a city which seems ubiquitous in a certain type of news media, but for reasons entirely other than the ones McPhee writes about. It turns out that the San Gabriel mountains above Los Angeles have some striking similarities to the fynbos-covered slopes around Cape Town. The climate is also Mediterranean – hot, dry summers and wet winters. The vegetation in the San Gabriel mountains is called chaparral, and like fynbos it needs to burn every decade or so for germination of new plants and removal of the overstory of growth. Volatile oils in the leaves of these plants mean that they burn hot and fast, and sometimes gases released from the plants explode in the air as they burn. After a fire, the steep slopes are vulnerable to landslides, comprising rock, gravel and mud. Debris basins – essentially giant empty reservoirs – are built to collect the debris from these massively destructive floods before it reaches the expensive homes high in the mountains. When the debris does reach an area of human habitation, the effects are swift and disastrous.

All three the enterprises McPhee describes are (or were) very costly. Two of them – the government-led control of the Mississippi and of the Los Angeles mudslides – are ongoing and will always be as long as populations inhabit the areas concerned or wish to continue with commerce as it currently is. Iceland is in a volcanic region and it is entirely conceivable that another eruption may threaten property and economics of a region in the future, and that another attempt will be made to drive back a metres-thick flow of boiling magma. I was exhausted after reading this book, and wished that everyone could just down tools and go away. I was also amazed by the scale of the efforts that go on every day to make our world habitable, wherever we choose to set down roots. I wondered what sort of similar activities, frenetic attempts to subdue and hold back earth and water, happen around me that I am not aware of.

A New York Times review of the book can be found here.

 You can get a copy of the book here (South Africa) otherwise here or here. I also discovered that the New Yorker published lengthy extracts from this book – you can read them online. For all I know it may even be the whole thing!