Visible shipwrecks: the barge Margaret

One of the most spectacular shipwrecks I’ve ever seen was that of the 100 metre long unmanned barge Margaret, which ran aground at Jacobsbaai on the West Coast on 24 June 2009. Margaret was carrying two halves of a floating dry dock and twelve river barges (positioned atop each other in side by side pairs, with two rows of three at the bottom). She was under tow by the tug Salvaliant from the Chinese shipyard where everything was manufactured, to Rotterdam. The barges were destined to transport cargo up and down the navigable rivers in Europe. During a winter storm, the tow parted, and Margaret and her cargo ran hard aground on the rocky reef just outside Jacobsbaai.

The eight storey pile of barges in December 2009
The eight storey pile of barges in December 2009

Salvaging the barges proved to be an almost intractable problem, so Margaret was still sitting firmly a couple of hundred metres off the beach when Tony and I visited six months after her grounding, in late December 2009. The stack of barges and two halves of a floating dry dock (the blue parts of the structure in the images) was clearly visible from a great distance. The sight was even more incongruous than that of the Eihatsu Maru aground on Clifton beach, which was  a wreck-lover’s dream (but unfortunately not a permanent arrangement).

View of the barge Margaret from atop the sand dunes at Jacobsbaai
View of the barge Margaret from atop the sand dunes at Jacobsbaai

I wish I’d taken a picture of what the wreck looked like as we drove down the hill into Jacobsbaai, but you can see one here if you scroll around a bit. It looked like an office block rising out of the ocean. The wreck was so large that it was visible from almost every point in the sleepy town, and the brain struggled to make sense of the sight. It’s clear from the images what a challenge it must have been to tow the barge in the wind, as the forty to fifty metre high, perfectly flat sides of the stack must have provided tremendous resistance in a gale.

Portion of the barge wreck at Jacobsbaai
Portion of the barge wreck at Jacobsbaai

The owner ran out of money to continue salvage in February 2010, and Margaret was becoming increasingly damaged and unstable as time passed. The risk of the upper barges coming loose during another storm, and drifting away to cause a hazard to other ships or coming ashore on the beach, was great. It was decided by SAMSA to persist with an attempt to reduce the wreck, at taxpayers’ expense. Any money obtained by selling off the salvageable barges would go towards defraying costs.

During the salvage work on the barge Margaret
During the salvage work on the barge Margaret

Salvage

Tony and I visited the wreck again in April 2010, after the demolition that freed six of the topmost barges. The seaward wall of the upper piece of floating dry dock, weighing 91 tonnes, had been cut away to allow the barges to slide off freely.

The remains of the barge Margaret in April 2010
The remains of the barge Margaret in April 2010

Over two tons of explosives were used in total.  Small (125 kilogram) explosive charges were set off one after the other to create a ripple effect that dislodged the top six barges. These were towed to Saldanha, and then sold.

The wreckage of Margaret and her cargo in April 2010
The wreckage of Margaret and her cargo in April 2010

If you like reading court judgments, here’s one in which the owners of the barges attempt to claim damages (massive ones) from the owners of the tug Salvaliant. There’s also a great collection of photos of the wreck in her various incarnations here.

The wreckage of Margaret in late April 2010
The wreckage of Margaret in late April 2010

In late April 2012, Tony snapped this lucky shot of two of the barges leaving Simons Town harbour under tow. They’d been moored against the harbour wall for at least a month, to the consternation and fascination of the local paddling community.

Two of the salvaged barges leaving Simons Town harbour in April 2012
Two of the salvaged barges leaving Simons Town harbour in April 2012

The remains of Margaret and her cargo were further demolished down to sea level and below, and now comprise an artificial reef. Fortunately there was no fuel or other pollutants in the stack of barges, which made the process significantly less polluting than it might otherwise have been.

The barge Margaret today

Tony and I visited Jacobsbaai to check out what remains of Margaret and her cargo in September 2018. The path to the wreck, which was formerly blocked off by hazard tape and “salvage in progress” signs, is wide and easily walkable. One can go right up to the rocks and view the wreckage from reasonably close up. Watch your foothold here, as it can be slippery and the rocks aren’t all firmly packed.

The remains of the barge Margaret and her cargo
The remains of the barge Margaret and her cargo

Look out for a small memorial to one of the salvors, who passed away in an accident on the wreck during the course of the salvage operation.

Sharp wreckage sticking out of the sea
Sharp wreckage sticking out of the sea

Parts of the wreck look like shark fins in the water, and it is possible that even more of it is visible at low tide.

The remains of the barge Margaret in 2018
The remains of the barge Margaret in 2018

You can find the wreck by turning off the R399 towards Jacobsbaai, and continuing towards the coast until the road becomes gravel. Carry on this road, and when you reach a T junction take a right turn to circle around the tiny, sheltered bay in front of you. When you can’t drive any more – there will be a small housing development in front of you – park the car and either walk up the steps on the dune to get onto the beach, or, preferably, through the houses. The paved area will give way to a wide gravel path that the salvors used to access the wreck. Continue straight along it and you’ll soon spot the wreckage on the rocks ahead and to your right. Co-ordinates are approximately -32.964140, 17.881612.

Path to what remains of the barge Margaret
Path to what remains of the barge Margaret

If you’re interested in visible shipwrecks, check out my ebook Cape Town’s Visible Shipwrecks, and this post.

Cape Columbine lighthouse

The lighthouse at Columbine Nature Reserve
The lighthouse at Columbine Nature Reserve

The Cape Columbine Nature Reserve is just outside the small fishing town of Paternoster on the West Coast. It’s the reserve that contains Tietiesbaai campsite, and is a popular camping location during crayfishing season. Tony and I camped there several years ago, and enjoyed the space and the ability to set up anywhere we wanted to.

Cape Columbine lighthouse
Cape Columbine lighthouse

Inside the reserve is the Cape Columbine lighthouse, which has an art deco feel to it. Built on top of a rocky outcrop called Castle Rock, it was commissioned in 1936. The lighthouse is a 15 metre high masonry tower topped by a 5,040,000 candela light with a range of 30 nautical miles. It covers a particularly treacherous coast, prone to fog and gales, and with many hidden reefs.

Cape Columbine lighthouse
Cape Columbine lighthouse

Cape Columbine lighthouse is manned, and can be visited by the public on weekdays between 10.00 and 15.00.Cape Columbine was the last manned lighthouse to be constructed in South Africa. We haven’t passed by on a weekday yet, so I haven’t been inside.

As of late 2018, the Cape Columbine lighthouse needs a coat of paint!
As of late 2018, the Cape Columbine lighthouse needs a coat of paint!

When we camped at Columbine Nature Reserve in 2009, the lighthouse was in much better shape. I took the picture below on that trip. If you drive around the lighthouse, you may see a small green tower inside a fenced off area that houses a fog detector, and a fog signal that sounds when fog is detected. This apparatus used to be housed at the lighthouse, but in 1995 the opportunity was taken to move both sets of devices (detector and signaller) closer to the sea.

Cape Columbine lighthouse
Cape Columbine lighthouse

Learn more about South Africa’s lighthouses from Lighthouses of South Africa.

Hunting rockcod and moray eel in Sodwana

This is a really cool bit of behaviour that I filmed on a dive to Pinnacles on Two Mile reef while we were in Sodwana last September, and one of my favourite things of all that we saw. A malabar rockcod (Epinephelus malabaricus) – as identified by our dive guides – in dark hunting colours, patrols the reef ahead of a honeycomb moray (Gymnothorax favagineus). At the time I didn’t know what was happening – it looked as though the eel was stalking the grouper – but it turns out to be more complicated and more interesting than that. I had filmed a subset of a total pattern of behaviour, in which the moray and rockcod (from the family of fish also called grouper) were hunting co-operatively.

A researcher at a Swiss university discovered in 2006 that coral groupers seek out giant moray eels (both of these species live in the Red Sea), summoning the eels from their dens with a vigorous shaking of their bodies. The fish and the eel then swim together looking for prey , a deadly tag-team of hunters. The groupers are fast in open water, but the eel can get into crevices to flush out prey. It is this behaviour, executed by a different type of eel and a different type of grouper, that I saw in Sodwana.

The scientists reported that the groupers use a head-stand signal, combined with a shaking of their bodies, to indicate the location of hidden prey to the eels. When the eels see this, most of them swim towards the grouper, and flushed out the prey.

You can read more about the study that revealed the extent of this behaviour here, and the actual paper reporting the research here. The scientists also discovered two other species with complementary skills that hunt co-operatively, on the Great Barrier Reef this time: the coral trout, and octopus.

Moray eels look incredible when they swim freely across the reef. Here’s one doing just that, in the Red Sea.

On the reef in Sodwana

We wrap up the videos from Sodwana with a couple of clips showing everyday life on the reef. Both these videos were filmed on a beautiful dive on Pinnacles, Two Mile Reef, which was strangely not marred by an absolute circus of an Open Water course that was being conducted in the vicinity. (Pinnacles is a popular training site.) Despite antics which included two people’s weight belts coming loose at the same time, we were able to stay away from that chaos and to enjoy some incredible reef life. (Perhaps I will share some footage of the weight belt fiasco when a suitable amount of time has passed.)

Clown triggerfish having a munch
Clown triggerfish having a munch

First up, a clown triggerfish (Balistoides conspiccillum) going about his business on the reef. These fish are fantastic looking, and if you ask Sophie nicely, she will show you the hand signal for them, which requires both hands to be free.

Here’s pair of barred filefish (Cantherhines dumerilii) at Pinnacles:

Schooling in Sodwana

In addition to lots of bluebanded snapper, we saw other schools of fish while we were diving in Sodwana. A calm approach with minimal body movement allows one to get quite close to them. Here, a school of lunar fuslier (Caesio lunaris) are led by a lone yellowback fusilier (Caesio xanthonota), filmed on Two Mile reef.

We also saw this school of handsome humpback snapper (Lutjanus gibbus) over Pinnacles on Two Mile Reef.

Reef life on Seven Mile in Sodwana

While we were in Sodwana in September, one of the dives I did was to Seven Mile Reef, which is further out and less busy than Two Mile. The dive was also slightly deeper than the Two Mile dives we did, which meant there was less surge and conditions were a bit easier all round.

We saw some lovely fish behaviour, and I’ll share two short videos taken with a new camera (more on that another time) to illustrate it. First, a redfang triggerfish (Odonus niger) slides its body into a crevice in the reef as I approach, to hide. This is typical behaviour when these fish are nervous.

Here’s a semicirle angelfish (Pomacanthus semicirculatus) concentrating very hard on feeding. These fish look like nothing so much as gorgeously decorated sheets of A4 paper with fins and a snout!

Snapper in Sodwana

Snapper are one of my favourite coral reef fish to dive with, because sometimes they’ll allow you into, or very close to, the dense schools they form over the reef. This must be what it feels like to be a fish, albeit one that breathes loudly and blows bubbles!

We saw these bluebanded snappers (Lutjanis kasmira) on a dive at Seven Mile Reef in Sodwana, last September. Notice the pair of Moorish idols (Zanclus cornutus) at the start of the video.

 Here’s another school of snapper we came across shortly after the first one. There are often other kinds of fish, including other types of snapper, in the school.

The Reef Guide is a good place to learn more about, and identify, the fish you see on dives off South Africa’s south and east coasts.

Map puffer in Sodwana

This handsome, uncommonly seen map puffer (Mappa puffer – honestly) swam towards me on Seven Mile Reef in Sodwana, and hung out for a minute or two while I took his picture. His patterns look a bit like a circuit board, don’t you think? These fish are solitary and quite shy, usually staying near overhangs in the reef.

The Reef Guide is a good place to learn more about, and identify, the fish you see on dives off South Africa’s south and east coasts.

Cleaning stations in Sodwana

A barred rubberlips at Pinnacles
A barred rubberlips at Pinnacles

A barred rubberlip (also known as a red-lined sweetlip, Plectorhinchus plagiodesmus) at a cleaning station on the reef at Pinnacles on Two Mile reef in Sodwana. It was a surgy day, but if you look closely you can see the bluestreak cleaner wrasses (Labroides dimidiatus), with grey, black and blue stripes, swimming in and around the rubberlip’s gills. The rubberlip opens his gill slits so that the wrasses can eat parasites and remove excess mucous, maintaining good health for the fish.

We also saw this yellowfin surgeonfish (Acanthurus xanthopterus) at a different cleaning station, on Seven Mile Reef, also being serviced by bluestreak cleaner wrasses. These fish are usually blue-grey or even brownish, but at cleaning stations they often change colour to a light blue-grey (as this fish has).

Here’s a busier cleaning station, on another dive at Pinnacles. There are two yellowfin surgeonfish, one of whom seems to get a bit cranky with the cleaner wrasses at the end of the video, as well as a crescent tail bigeye (Priacanthus hamrur) at the beginning. The spotted unicornfish (Naso brevirostris) should be easy to spot; their colouration here is much darker than in my fish ID book.

The Reef Guide is a good place to learn more about, and identify, the fish you see on dives off South Africa’s south and east coasts.

Old woman angelfish in Sodwana

Old woman angelfish (Pomacanthus rhomboides) are curious, friendly fish, and this one spent a long time with our group of divers in Sodwana Bay while we explored Pinnacles on Two Mile Reef. (S)he was biting our bubbles and swimming among us like one of the gang. You can see the first part of her visit in this video.

I especially enjoy being visited by one of them on the safety stop, as they are good companions and provide some entertainment during what is usually an uneventful time.

The Reef Guide is a good place to learn more about, and identify, the fish you see on dives off South Africa’s south and east coasts.