Shrimp news from False Bay

The University of Cape Town has announced that a further three new species of shrimp, all spotted close to shore near Millers Point in False Bay, have been described and named. All three belong to the same genus (Heteromysis), and look similar, with pale bodies marked by red spots and stripes. One of these new (to science) species lives inside octopus dens, and another lives inside the shell of certain types of hermit crab. These three shrimps join the stargazer shrimp that was discovered by and named for Guido Zsilavecz, citizen scientist and author of several books on False Bay’s marine wildlife.

Two of the new species were discovered by local film maker Craig Foster, founder of the Sea-Change project about which we read last week. These types of discoveries are very exciting and should be a great inspiration and encouragement to divers and other water users. Time in the water is rewarded. If you can’t identify something, send an email with its photo to SURG. It is possible to make significant contributions to science while holding down an entirely non-scientific day job!

Read all about the new shrimps here.

New shrimp species found in False Bay

Guido Zsilavecz is the author of two essential reference books on the marine life around the Cape Peninsula: Nudibranchs of the Cape Peninsula and False Bay, and Coastal Fishes of the Cape Peninsula and False Bay. He is also one of the founder members of SURG, the Southern Underwater Research Group, and monitors the questions at email address to which you can send pictures of all the creatures you can’t identify. Despite this prolific marine biology-related output, he is actually a computer scientist by day – photographing and researching marine life is a passion rather than a profession for him.

We were delighted to see an article on the front page of the Weekend Argus two weekends back, announcing Guido’s discovery of a new shrimp species in False Bay: the striking little stargazer shrimp, named Mysidopsis zsilaveczi after him! You can read another news report about it here.

Stargazer shrimp, photograph by Guido Zsilavecz
Stargazer shrimp, photograph by Guido Zsilavecz

Guido very generously answered a barrage of questions from me about the shrimp, and the process of scientific discovery, and agreed to let us publish his answer here (thank you Guido!). If you’re a citizen scientist in the making, or a regular diver who appreciates False Bay’s biodiversity, and you want to know how you can contribute to new discoveries, read on – it’s a fascinating and encouraging story:

The first photographic record I have of the stargazer shrimp is from Windmill – in 2002. That I took a photo shows that it was something that caught my eye and interest. Normally when I see something new and unusual I file it into the back of my mind, so I keep a casual look-out for it – as the key to any of these things is to be able to “target” it, i.e. find it consistently. A single sighting doesn’t really help, as there’s every chance the animal was there by accident as that it could be its habitat. So over the years I’ve photographed some here and there (including, by the way, the Atlantic side – that seems to have been lost in the article), generally when I was going slowly with macro. It was during dives where I was using super-macro (beyond 1-to-1) that I started finding it more often.

Crustacea, like shrimps and crabs, are often very hard to identify for non-experts – very often you need to look at minute physical characteristics in order to determine what it is. From its overall look I figured out it had to be a mysid, but beyond that, well, I don’t have the right equipment or reference material to figure that out. But, I also know from interactions with the scientific community that if you draw attention to them regarding something like this, that they struggle just as much with just photos as we do, and that they need a specimen just as much in order to identify it. So, unless you can actively target it, there’s actually usually little point in bringing it to their attention. So, when I was in such a position, I approached Prof. Charles Griffiths, with whom I had been working before, and asked him if he knew what it was. He said no, and asked for the requisite specimen. I got that to him, and even with that he couldn’t identify it, so he contacted Prof. Karl Wittmann, who is an expert. He concluded that it was indeed new, and Charles (Charlie) decided that after having helped with other things in the past, to have it named after me – which is of course quite an honour!

There are a few interesting things about this shrimp: the eyes are the first bit that stand out – those rings seem to be quite unique, although not all of them have those. Another feature is that very often there are two blue-and-orange semi-circles on the “shoulders” – again, not all of them have that. All the specimens I’ve collected are male, and were found on bare rock (sometimes on growth on rocks), individually (rather than in swarms, as many mysids are found), and they are not particularly skittish – they are not easy to spot, and you need to get your eye in, but going slowly over rocks does yield a few specimens. I’ve seen them from Castle to Windmill, and Oudekraal – places I dive commonly, but that means they should be everywhere, in depths from a few meters to 15m or so – more indicative of the dives you can do, rather than delineating environment.

The big question still is, where are the females? That we hope to find out sooner or later.

Whether something is a new species is done both via taxonomic (physical) comparisons, as well as DNA – both work well enough – in this case it was simply a taxonomic inspection – and Prof. Wittmann probably has all the relevant material to be able to determine this.

What does one do if one thinks one has something new? If you have exhausted your own resources (guide-books, for example), ask us! The reason we formed SURG is to be the link between research scientists and normal divers. Research scientists are busy, so the less one disturbs them with “trivial” stuff, the more they are inclined to help with the non-trivial stuff. Not to blow our own trumpets, but between ourselves the SURG team have vast experience and knowledge, so we’ll be able to quickly spot something that’s interesting vs. something that is common. Most of the time I get questions about things which are not unusual – and I’m perfectly happy answering those questions (SURG’s by-line for me is “conservation through education” – if you know what it is, you’re less likely to destroy it – and “trivial” questions with non-trivial answers is part of that!) – if we do find something unusual, we can then pick up on it and take it further. Of course, we don’t have all the answers – for example, I recently received a number of questions about sponges – they are impossible to ID visually, except for some few species, and you really need tissue samples to find out what they are – even passing photos on is mostly pointless, but these are more the exception than the rule.

Have contributors to SURG helped? Absolutely! By creating this forum where people can ask questions we get a big group of eyes and cameras looking – more so that the few of us can cover. So we’ve had many sightings of visitors, range extensions (if something is seen often enough and the reference guides say it isn’t found here – well, this shows it does, and one can re-draw boundaries), as well as new species – I think Carel van der Colff’s Sydney Opera House nudibranch is the most distinctive of new findings – but there are others.

So, what do we do when we get something very interesting? First of all I encourage that person to keep their eyes open in case they see it again, and to take pics. Very often I also try to find it myself after asking the person more detailed questions as to where, when, depth, environment, etc. I do some preliminary research, and if I then don’t find a reference, I contact a research scientist somewhere, and we take it from there.

Can one as a “garden variety” diver contribute to this? Absolutely – remember that, as such, I’m such a garden variety – I don’t do this for a living! It is all a question of being interested, following it up, reading up about it, and so on.

One thing worth remembering is that that scientists at places like UCT have a very focused job, whereas we garden variety divers go to have fun – that means we can look at everything – and that means that, collectively, we see more than the scientists do! And people like Prof. Griffiths really appreciate that, because they help him immensely as well!

Are we interested in anything specific? No, not really – we like everything! And largest group with undescribed species – yes, invertebrates – but that’s a huge group to start off with, so a bit unfair to say that. I think fish and nudibranchs are best known, followed by crustaceans, and then we go onto the much harder groups – and those are often the least studied, and hence more likely to have more new species.

Finding something new is a question of luck, definitely, but also building up an ability to distinguish the known from the unknown (to yourself), continuously reducing the latter list, until you maybe have something new! And, even though False Bay has been studied a lot, there’s still many new things that can be found, we are sure!

Bookshelf: Southern African Sea Life

Southern African Sea Life: A Guide for Young Explorers – Sophie von der Heyden

Southern African Sea Life
Southern African Sea Life

Marine biologist and geneticist Sophie von der Heyden has produced a beautiful, practical and useful book for young people wanting to know more about the life found in Southern African coastal waters. Von der Heyden provides information about the different species found on the coast, along with tips on how to spot them, and what gear to take along to the beach for a day of exploration. Care is taken to advise young fishermen how to handle fish (gently) and when to put them back in their rockpools (quickly).

The book’s many photographs were mostly provided by Guido Zsilavecz of SURG, author of two of our favourite nudibranch and local fish identification books. There are images of the marine life as well as the habitats in which it is found, both large and fine scale. The book’s design and layout are varied and colourful, which makes it a pleasure to page through and a source of inspiration for rockpool exploration.

I appreciated the book’s fair treatment of our entire coastline. It is tempting to view the coral reefs of Sodwana and Durban as more romantic and visually striking than the dense carpet of invertebrate life that characterises the Cape’s waters, but the interested explorer is rewarded in both areas. Children’s books about coral reefs are not unusual, but a book that teaches appreciation of the abundance of life along the south western Cape coast is a rare thing indeed.

You can get a copy of this book here. In a couple of years’ time it’ll be on my niece and nephew’s Christmas list!

Newsletter: Paws for thought

Hi divers

Weekend diving

Saturday: No diving planned – why not join the coastal cleanup at Hout Bay harbour?

Sunday: 10.30 am and 1.00 pm to North/South Paw and Justin’s Caves, from Oceana Powerboat Club (very much dependent on wind strength on Saturday)

Monday: Seal rock at Partridge PointShark Alley, double tank dive launching at 10.00 am from Simon’s Town jetty

Recent dives

Last weekend we took the boat down to Buffels Bay in the Cape Point Nature Reserve to join OMSAC for a day of snorkeling, diving and braai-ing.. The conditions were terrific and both the shore divers and those on the boat had great viz. We took the boat to Batsata Maze and to an unnamed site just on the outside of the exclusion zone around the reserve. We were very fortunate to have a whale cruising by during the safety stop, fascinated by the divers’ SMB, and then hanging around as the divers surfaced.  It is a stunning setting for a day out and even the tidal pool was filled with interesting creatures.

There are some photos on facebook, and a nifty little time lapse video of us putting the boat onto the trailer at the slipway. I usually wind the winch much faster than in the video, though – I must have been having an off day on Saturday…

Waiting to put the boat on the trailer at Buffels Bay
Waiting to put the boat on the trailer at Buffels Bay

On Monday we enjoyed fantastic visibility at Partridge Point, where we snorkeled with seals, and at Shark Alley. There are still a lot of cowsharks around – the time of year when they usually disappear is approaching, so we are watching with interest.

This weekend

A southerly swell rolls into False Bay in time for the weekend. The Kalk Bay Shootout surf competition participants are all excited. When surfers are excited, divers are not. We share the ocean… Just not always at the same time. There is also the False Bay Yacht Club spring regatta taking place on Saturday and Sunday – more info here.

I doubt there will be anywhere pleasant to dive in False Bay. The south easter only starts blowing on Saturday so I doubt that the viz out of Hout Bay will improve enough for good diving. That leaves the Atlantic seaboard. Twenty four hours of strong south easter might clean the water close inshore enough for good diving.

I reckon the best options will be North and South Paw or Justin’s Caves and surroundings, so that’s the plan for Sunday. If the south easter makes it over the top of Table Mountain, and cleans the water sufficiently, we will launching from OPBC at 10.30 am and 1.00 pm. If you’re keen to dive let me know and I’ll contact you on Saturday afternoon to let you know if conditions are good enough.

Early morning at Cape Point Nature Reserve
Early morning at Cape Point Nature Reserve

If you are at a loose end on Saturday, an excellent way to spend your time is at the coastal cleanup dive in Hout Bay harbour. We attended a few years ago, and it is great fun and good for the environment. Just wear a kilogram or two extra of weight if your weighting is usually marginal – the water is not very deep!

Cape Town International Boat Show

In three weeks’ time the CTICC comes alive with the Cape Town International Boat Show. This year there will be a new addition in the form of a “dive village”. Collectively a bunch of local dive centres and operators have come together to make this happen with the goal of showcasing the incredible diversity of diving we have to offer in Cape Town. The village will have a pool in the centre and we will offer non-divers an opportunity to breathe underwater and hopefully come to enjoy the ocean as much as we all do.

The show is on from 10-12 October at the Convention Centre. Come down and visit the representatives of your local dive operator and bring a friend who needs convincing that diving is the best thing ever, and amongst everyone in the dive village we will do our best to get them in the water. SURG will also be there showcasing some of the best photos taken in and around Cape Town’s waters. There are also bound to be a bunch of interesting course options, gear sales, camera displays and the like. Plus the rest of the boat show, which is well worth a look!


Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099

Diving is addictive!

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Get involved with the SeaKeys project

SeaKeys launch
SeaKeys launch

Last week we attended the launch of SeaKeys, a massive collaboration between a wide range of organisations (including DAFF, the Department of Environmental Affairs, and SURG, the Southern Underwater Research Group that has spawned such classics as A Field Guide to the Marine Animals of the Cape Peninsula, Nudibranchs of the Cape Peninsula and False Bay, and Coastal Fishes of the Cape Peninsula and False Bay). I digress. SeaKeys is designed to increase and collect together information about the marine biodiversity of South Africa. There’s a lot of information out there, but it isn’t centralised and the people who are making discoveries (such as South African dive operator Peter Timm at Triton Dive Lodge in Sodwana!) haven’t all been plugged into  the same network.

This is a citizen science project in the best sense. Four web-based atlases, each focusing on a particular type of marine life, are being established, with contributions from researchers, students, and people like you and me – mostly recreational divers, who get to see firsthand what lives underwater. The four atlases are:

The primary platforms on which these observations will be collected are iSpot (we reported our Western leopard toads there when we moved to the South Peninsula in 2012), SAJellyWatch, and EchinoMap.

There is also a section of the database for historical photographs of fishing activities prior to 1970. This will assist in establishing a baseline from which changes (that we have wrought, mostly) in the abundance and distribution of fish species can be measured. This part of the project is called FisHistory, and even if you don’t have any old photos of your dad holding a two metre long tuna and wearing a mullet and satin hotpants, you can still take a look at the contributions from others.

Starting the conversation in the Whale Well
Starting the conversation in the Whale Well

As was pointed out several times during the evening, the aim of the initiative is to “start a conversation” between the widely disparate users of our oceans in order to get a better picture of what’s down there, how it is threatened, and how it is changing. It’s really exciting that recreational divers can assist with this project, and make ourselves useful.

I am excited to see that iSpot is already buzzing with activity from OMSAC members! iSpot is probably the best place for you to get going, submitting your underwater photos of marine life. You need to provide the location at which the photo was taken (which can be hidden if it’s your super secret reef with a super secret waypoint), and take a stab at identifying the creature – but you don’t have to know what it is. If you don’t know what your creature is, other users of the system will help with identification. If you’re not into photography but are interested in species identification, you can also contribute by identifying other users’ contributions. For more about how iSpot works, visit their help pages.

Are you keen to do more citizen science in Cape Town? Check out Spot the Sevengill Cowshark on facebook.

Sea life: Red sponge nudibranch

Two red sponge nudibranchs at Spaniard Rock
Two red sponge nudibranchs at Spaniard Rock

Last year I did a dive at Spaniard Rock in False Bay. Tami was my buddy, and Georgina Jones of SURG was with us. Georgina is the author of the invaluable Field Guide to the Marine Animals of the Cape Peninsula, and it was during an interlude when Tami had gotten lost that she found and showed me a red sponge nudibranch (Rostanga elandsia). These animals are remarkably well camouflaged – they feed on reddish orange sponges, and get their colouration from the sponge.

I went off hunting after that, and found and photographed another red sponge nudibranch (above) that upon closer examination turned out to be two: there is one just above the top shell near the middle of the photo, and another on the right hand side pointing downwards. You can just see that there are small, darker spots on their bodies.

Next time I spot one I’m interested to see whether they leave marks in the sponge where they’ve been feeding. They are very hard to spot, though!

Movie: Dark Tide

Dark Tide
Dark Tide

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that this is the worst movie ever made. I don’t think a worse movie could be made; I’m willing to make this prediction even if the human race continues making movies in their current form until the end of civilisation. The fact that this is an appalling film shouldn’t put you off seeing it if you live in Cape Town, however. If you’re a Halle Berry fan, you will probably also be interested in this offering, and your enjoyment will probably be enhanced by viewing the film with the sound turned off. The movie was filmed a couple of years ago in Simon’s Town (False Bay Yacht Club, Bertha’s restaurant, and the jetty outside Bertha’s all feature) and False Bay. There is brief footage at (I think – it’s dark) Miller’s Point, Boulders Beach, and a fair amount shot at Seal Island. The underwater footage looked like it was shot in a kelp forest off Duiker Island in Hout Bay. Lots of seals. There was a lot of kelp – more than I remember there being at Seal Rock near Partridge Point. It could also have been shot at Seal Island (where it purports to be) in summer, but the water is quite clean which makes me unsure. There are about six characters, most of whom are played by local actors. We are treated to a variety of accents, sometimes several different ones from a single individual. There is a lot of supposedly endearing and humourous banter between Berry and her local staff members, which I just found patronising and offensive. Halle Berry’s character, Kate, freedives with white sharks. After causing the death of her safety diver (he was eaten), she retires from shark diving and takes people on boat tours to Boulders Beach to look at penguins and to Seal Island to look at seals. She can do this all in one short trip because Boulders is on the way to Seal Island when you sail out of Simon’s Town. Right? Right! (Another interesting fact I didn’t know about the geography of False Bay is that Seal Island is a 20 minute surface swim from Miller’s Point. The abalone poachers apparently do it often, but have a “less than 50% chance” of making it back.) It was fun to see Simon’s Town on film, and to identify that Kate’s office is actually the clubhouse for the kids’ dabchick sailing school at FBYC. A wealthy man of indeterminate nationality wants to swim with white sharks outside a cage. Kate is tricked (sort of) into taking him to do so. At seal island they see a couple of sharks, but the millionaire cannot follow instructions (“stay in the cage”) and Kate discovers that her boyfriend promised him a cageless dive without consulting her. After an INORDINATE amount of shouting and screaming on the boat, Kate loses her rag and decides to take the millionaire “around the point” to “Shark Alley” where the really big great white sharks can be found, to teach him a lesson. (Readers unfamiliar with Cape Town should know that there is a place here called Shark Alley, but it’s inside False Bay and no white sharks are found there… Only sevengill cowsharks.) Despite the worsening weather they make the trip, and at this point the movie becomes a cross between The Perfect Storm and Jaws. There is a lot more shouting on the boat. Lots of people get eaten by sharks. No doubt the NSRI is called. Not many of the characters make it home. To sum up, several people die in extremely violent and gory shark attacks. The blame for all of the deaths can be laid at Berry’s character Kate’s feet. She is immature, has a bad temper, and is incapable of assessing risk. Unfortunately she survives. Some of the shark footage is nice. An alternative title for the film could be “Shouting on a Boat” or “Halle Berry in Small and/or Tight Clothing”. If either of those appeal, by all means, be my guest. I hope the Department of Environmental Affairs, FBYC and STADCO made some nice money out of issuing permits and renting facilities for this film (really). It’s great that local venues are benefiting from the international film industry. SharkLife apparently sponsored a lot of the clothing worn in the film. Their logo was everywhere. I watched the credits with greater attentiveness than I did the rest of the movie, looking for familiar names among the stunt divers, skippers, cameramen and extras who featured. I found some! You can buy the DVD here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here.

Sea life: Black nudibranch

The black nudibranch (Tambja capensis) is only found in South Africa, and is often not black. These nudibranchs occur in brown (below) to reddish morphs, with some even appearing olive green. The turquoise stripes down their flanks are characteristic.

Two black nudibranchs making friends
Two black nudibranchs making friends

These nudibranchs can grow quite large – apart from a few gas flame nudibranchs the size of boerewors rolls that I’ve spotted on more isolated dive sites, black nudibranchs seem to be among the largest variety of local nudibranch. They feed on bryzoans (moss animals) and lay spiral-shaped egg ribbons which are coloured yellow to orange.

Black nudibranch at Partridge Point
Black nudibranch at Partridge Point

They are one of the nudibranchs I see relatively frequently. Their large size helps with spotting them, as well as the fact that they often sit on colourful surfaces. I’ve seen them at Pie Rock, Partridge Point, A Frame and other False Bay sites, and at North Paw in the Atlantic.

You can find out about all kinds of nudibranchs in in Nudibranchs of the Cape Peninsula and False Bay by Guido Zsilavecz of SURG.

Sea life: Orange-lined crowned nudibranch

Orange-lined crowned nudibranch at Roman Rock
Orange-lined crowned nudibranch at Roman Rock

The orange-lined crowned nudibranch is similar to its relative the crowned nudibranch (Polycera capensis), but lacks the black lines that characterise this species. Instead it has orange lines along its body, and mostly white gills (the exposed fluffy bits half way down its back). There is a yellow line down the tail, clearly visible in the photograph above.

Orange-lined crowned nudibranch at Roman Rock
Orange-lined crowned nudibranch at Roman Rock

This nudibranch doesn’t have its own scientific name yet, as it’s not yet certain whether it merits one, or whether it’s a pale variant of another species. It is believed to eat bryzoans. There is some more information here, here and here on the SURG website, and in Nudibranchs of the Cape Peninsula and False Bay by Guido Zsilavecz.

Cape Town Dive Festival (day one)

Cape Town Dive Festival
Cape Town Dive Festival

The Cape Town Dive Festival was held on the weekend of 8 and 9 September, at the Cape Boat and Ski Boat Club at Miller’s Point. My role was mostly to take bookings, which in most cases was a pleasant experience. By the time the festival rolled around I felt as though I had a whole bunch of new diving acquaintances, and it was a pleasure to meet them at registration where they collected a t shirt and lanyard with a lucky draw number on it.

Loading the BlueFlash boat onto its trailer after a dive
Loading the BlueFlash boat onto its trailer after a dive

The format of the festival was similar to the Port Elizabeth dive festival. Eight dive boats, two hundred and something divers, 45 boat launches and four shore dives to Shark Alley in total over the two days… The festival sponsors donated a range of fabulous prizes, and with a variety of competitions and lucky draws everyone stood a chance to win something. The participating dive operators, clubs and sponsors all had gazebos on the lawn around the clubhouse, and a festive atmosphere was ensured by Matt and Monty, who handled the music and announcements throughout the day. OMSAC provided catering from the club kitchen, keeping us all well fed on boerewors rolls and other treats.

Dive briefing
Dive briefing

The weather on the Saturday was picture-perfect, and visibility was excellent (but, strangely, not at the deeper sites). After the boats returned from their third launch, a cannon race was held just off the slipway, which provided much entertainment. The race, arranged by False Bay Underwater Club, required teams of five participants (two on scuba) to lift a concrete “cannon” using a lift bag, and swim it around a buoy and back to its starting position. An element of gruesomeness was added to proceedings by some snoek fishermen who washed their boat on the slipway, sending clouds of fish guts and blood into the water.

Sponsor and participant gazebos
Sponsor and participant gazebos

Throughout the day SURG ran a species identification competition, in which participants had to photograph as wide a range of marine animals as possible. Peter Southwood and Georgina Jones headed up a small but diligent team of fish-ID experts who combed through the photographs and reference books to judge the entries.

Here are some more of the photos I took on the day…