Documentary: Diving into the Unknown

Having recently dived into the 21st century (with a Netflix subscription), I looked up this Finnish documentary as soon as it became available. It covers events that took place early in 2014, when a group of Finnish cave diving friends started a traverse of a massive, deep cave system in Norway. Two did not surface from the dive.

Diving into the Unknown
Diving into the Unknown

The Norwegian police, advised by Rick Stanton, a well-regarded British cave diver, closed the cave and announced that it was too dangerous to attempt to retrieve the men’s bodies. Their dive buddies, who had pioneered exploration of the more than 100 metre deep system and felt they knew it like the back of their hands, disagreed. They also felt a duty toward their friends, and therefore planned a mission (illegally) to retrieve their bodies.

Their dives were filmed for this documentary, which features interviews with the surviving divers and another of their friends who trained some of them as cave divers, and accompanied them on their mission. Whether events mirrored those that took place at Boesmansgat in 2005, or whether the ending was quite different, I’ll leave you to find out.

Unless… you read this excellent article from the BBC, before watching the documentary. It will reveal the outcome of the body retrieval dives, but it may also enhance your enjoyment of the film. A chance to study a map of the cave system, which featured in the film but was introduced too late for it to be truly helpful, and a chance to familiarise oneself with the difficult Finnish names, may be of benefit.

This is hardcore diving, to incredible depths, on rebreathers, in overhead environments, and under ice (to start the dive, the men cut a hole in the ice covering a lake surrounded by snowy hills and bare trees). Most of us will never do anything like it. The scenes filmed inside the cave range from serene clarity to heart-stopping moments of claustrophobic intensity as the divers work through obstructions and labour to free their friends’ bodies. Even though this is likely not aspirational for many of us, the questions raised by the men’s mission, especially whether it was wise to go back into the cave at all, make for some interesting discussion.

See the documentary on Netflix, or get the DVD here (South Africa) or here. Here’s the official trailer:

A visit to the Blue Planet aquarium in Copenhagen

On our last day in Denmark, after a week-long family visit between Christmas 2015 and new year 2016, we went to Den Blå Planet, Denmark’s national aquarium. (Actually we were wrong about it being our last day in Denmark, but that’s another story involving Turkish Airlines, who seem to innovate in the field of disappointment.) The aquarium is situated in Kastrup, Copenhagen, quite close to the airport, and overlooks the narrow sound called the Øresund, which separates Denmark from Sweden.

The Blue Planet after the mist cleared
The Blue Planet after the mist cleared

We visited on 1 January, after (eventually) sleeping through the sounds of Copenhagen’s residents letting off five hundred metric tons of fireworks, starting at 5.00 pm the day before. We bought tickets online (a small saving in Danish krone that amounted to eleventy million ZAR) and arrived at opening time. The building is surrounded by a reflection pool, and is built in a spiral form inspired by the shape of a vortex. In the larger halls the high ceilings give a tremendous sense of space; at 10,000 square metres, the building is very large. The halls are generally wide and I imagine it could accommodate a very large number of people before feeling crowded.

Layout of The Blue Planet
Layout of The Blue Planet

The aquarium is divided into three sections. The first is focused on the life found in the lakes and ocean of Denmark and northern Europe. I particularly enjoyed this first part of the aquarium. The animals are adapted to the cold water, so some of them were very similar what we find around Cape Town, and the displays were creative and interesting. There was also the obligatory “anchor with fish” tank, which was (as always) mesmerising. One of the pictures in the gallery below is of Tony checking it out.

Two sea otters live at the aquarium, having been rescued as infants and raised by hand. The male and female otters were found in Alaska when they were four months old with a broken jaw and wounds after a boat strike, and as a 1.5 kg abandoned one day old respectively. As usual, seeing such an intelligent animal in captivity stirs up all sorts of conflicting feelings. That said, you are a stronger person than I am if you could have left these two baby otters to their natural fate (that is, death). The otters spend a lot of time (up to six hours per day) grooming, and in between keep very busy, requiring a lot of enrichment from their four keepers. It was magical to see them.

Also in the northern seas and lakes section is the puffin exhibit, mimicking the cliffs of the Faroe Islands, a Danish territory. Here, also, we found a touch pool (which the Danes call a sensing-aquarium), and a terrifying ambulatory mascot.

The second section of the building is devoted to tropical lakes and rivers, with incredible freshwater exhibits. We saw piranhas, terrapins, frogs, little black rays the size of pancakes, with white polka-dots, and electric eels. The rainforest exhibit is kept at a temperature and humidity level that are impressive in the Scandinavian winter, and I can imagine that this part of the aquarium is popular with expats from warmer climates!

The third part of the aquarium is for the rest of the ocean, and although it’s a big ask to cover (or summarise) so much in the remaining space, it does a fabulous job. The Ocean tank holds four million litres of water, and is home to rays and hammerhead sharks, and other warm water fish. Amongst many other things, there are seahorses, leafy seadragons and coral reef fish to see.

Feeding time in the Ocean tank
Feeding time in the Ocean tank

We watched feeding time for a while, which was quite funny – the aquarists row out onto the water in a small inflatable boat, and administer the snacks from on board. Standing in the tunnel, we could see the boat from below, with the oars working frantically against what I imagine was a bit of surface current.

One of the things that Den Blå Planet does really well is to integrate multimedia, virtual reality and interactive technology into the aquarium experience. This reduces the number of animals required to be on display, and – for the most part – probably takes care of itself, requiring no cleaning and feeding. My favourite such exhibit was the bouncy plankton wall in the ocean section of the aquarium. The photo below is pretty terrible because the display moves all the time, but I put a video on instagram which shows how the plankton clear a space for you when you walk along the wall.

Plankton multimedia display
Plankton multimedia display

We finished off our visit with a flæskesteg sandwich at ØST, the restaurant at the back of the aquarium. It was still a bit misty, but the large windows looking out over the sound let in a lot of light. There is a play area outside, and despite the midwinter temperatures, children in snow suits were making the most of it.

The restaurant at the aquarium, ØST
The restaurant at the aquarium, ØST

I did not get the same strong conservation message from my visit to The Blue Planet that I think the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town works so hard to propagate. This could be because of different cultural approaches to living a “green” lifestyle; in Scandinavia the government does a lot of the work for you, providing renewable energy, prioritising  pedestrian and bicycle traffic, and making it ridiculously easy to recycle, for example. In South Africa it is more of a conscious personal choice and effort to reduce one’s environmental footprint, and there is there is thus perhaps more of a requirement for direct conservation messaging.

Anyway, if you’re in Copenhagen, visit! Next time we’re in Denmark, we’ll check out the little Øresund Aquarium at Helsingor, which is entirely focused on local fauna.

Bookshelf: People of the Sturgeon

People of the Sturgeon – Kathleen Schmitt Kline et al

People of the Sturgeon
People of the Sturgeon

Sturgeon are perhaps best known for their eggs, which are expensively consumed as caviar. There are sturgeon populations in various locations in the northern hemisphere – perhaps the Russian sturgeon are the best known. A population is also found in Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin, which is the focus of this book.

Sturgeon fishing is a popular pastime in the area, where the fish are speared through holes in the ice during the winter months. People of the Sturgeon is a cultural history of the fish, describing its biology (the fish grow to great sizes and can live for over 100 years) but also placing it in the proper historical and cultural context. The Menominee Indians inhabiting the area attach great significance to the fish, consuming them on feast days and passing on fishing techniques from generation to generation.

A conservation organisation called Sturgeon for Tomorrow works specifically for the preservation of lake sturgeon in Wisconsin. It was formed by local spear fishermen who realised that they needed to act in order to ensure that there would still be a population of sturgeon to spear in future years. Spear fishing for sturgeon is well regulated, with strict opening hours, prohibition of the use of lights to attract fish, and fishing methods right down to the dimensions of the holes that may be cut in the lake’s ice. Residents do “sturgeon patrol” in order to prevent poaching of the fish out of season and in locations other than the designated fishing areas. Each sturgeon that is caught during the season is logged, which provides high quality data for management of the fishery.

Sturgeon for Tomorrow is a detailed look at a very small geographic area and the profound significance that its people attach to a remarkable fish. It is a reminder that conservation may not exist successfully without a cultural context, and how successful a conservation effort can be when it originates from and involves the community that uses the resource.

You can get a copy of the book here or here. The audiobook contains additional rich content including music and interviews with fishermen, craftsmen and others involved with sturgeon conservation. Here’s a documentary based on the book:

Article: Nautilus on sea lamprey

Nautilus ran an article earlier this year about lampreys, fish that look like something out of the X Files. They are probably close relatives of hagfish; like hagfish, lampreys are jawless. They attach their round mouths to other fish and feed on their bodily fluids. They do not have a reputation as civilised dinner conversationalists.

While hagfish are marine animals, lampreys are anadromous: they return to fresh water (usually rivers) to spawn, in the same way that salmon do. When they’ve spawned, they die, fertilising the rivers and surrounding land with the nutrients from their bodies (in the same way as salmon do, but on a smaller scale).

Rehabilitation of North American rivers, along with the removal of dams, opens the way for fish such as salmon and alewives to return. Lampreys have returned too. Until recently they were viewed as invasive pests:

… the conventional American wisdom on sea lampreys was conceived following the late-19th- and early-20th-century collapse of world-renowned trout populations. The lampreys were invasive, having infiltrated the region through shipping canals; Great Lakes fish could not adapt to their ravages. Historical records describe the ease with which nets could be lowered to lake bottoms, then pulled back up with a cargo of sea lamprey-holed carcasses.

More recent research suggests that lampreys are native to at least Lake Ontario and several other lakes in the region, and were only able to colonise the rest of the Great Lakes when their native fish populations were all but destroyed by removing too many fish and modifying the ecosystem through damming, logging and agriculture.

Although they aren’t pretty, lampreys may be less of an invasive parasite and more of an essential participant in a balanced ecosystem than they were once thought to be. Read the Nautilus article here.

Article: Wired on keeping the Netherlands dry

When we travelled to Europe last year, Tony and I flew to Amsterdam and then drove through the Netherlands and Germany into Denmark. We purposely chose a route that was interesting (to us) – our first priority being to see how the entrepid people of the Netherlands keep their country from being overrun by the ocean. About a fifth of the country’s land lies below sea level, so ingenuity is required.

In the picture below, you can see part of the North Sea called the Waddenzee on the right, and (just) the IJsselmeer on the left.  The IJsselmeer is a shallow, man-made lake of fresh water, only 5-6 metres deep. The road shown is the A7/E22 on this map. It is a causeway called the Afsluitdijk, which is about 30 kilometres long, keeping the North Sea out and the IJsselmeer in (if the capitalisation of IJ annoys you, read this).

A sea wall in the Netherlands
A sea wall in the Netherlands

At each end of the causeway are discharge gates to allow freshwater to be released from the IJsselmeer, which has no other outlet and is continually fed by rivers including the Rhine. At low tide, the level of the lake is higher than that of the sea, so gravity can drain the water from behind the causeway. If sea levels rise, this won’t be the case any more.

I found an article on Wired.com from a few years back that explains how the Dutch are planning for the future -200 years ahead – by embarking on a $1.5 billion per year (for the next 100 years) project of strengthening, extending and constructing sea walls, sluices and other defences against rising sea levels.  It’s a fascinating read about how a small (but wealthy) country is tackling its peculiar challenges head on, long before they arise. There are many lessons here (specially for climate-change denialists).

An interesting aside is that the Dutch political model, so-called polder politics, may have derived its name and nature from the need to protect the sea walls at all costs, leading to consensus-based politics that started with the crucial issue of protecting the polders (areas of land enclosed by dykes) and extended to broader issues too.

Read the full article here.