Baboons on the beach

Baboon on the beach Baboon on the beach

A recent low tide visit to the beach at Platboom near Cape Point, on the Atlantic coast of the peninsula, enabled us to watch a troop of Chacma baboons (Papio ursinus)  foraging for limpets, mussels and other marine snacks on the rocks at low tide. The baboons bite the tops off the limpets with their formidable incisors, or pry them from the rocks intact to get at the protein-rich flesh. They also eat mussels.

Baboons foraging for seafood at Platboom Baboons foraging for seafood at Platboom

This foraging behaviour is extremely rare among primates. In baboons, it is only observed on the Cape Peninsula and in one other species in Somalia. Matthew Lewis studied this troop of baboons as they foraged around the Cape Point nature reserve, and his thesis makes for fascinating reading. (Wild Card Magazine also featured Matthew’s research.)

Baboon on the beach Baboon on the beach

The amount of time the baboons are able to spend foraging on the shore is largely determined by the height of the tide, and by weather conditions. As a result, the amount of time the baboons spend seeking marine food sources is small compared with the time they spend looking for roots, bulbs, insects, berries, and small animals.

Low tide at Platboom Low tide at Platboom

These baboons are part of the Kanonkop troop which ranges freely in the Cape of Good Hope section of Table Mountain National Park and whose home range does not bring them into conflict with humans (or, as a rule, allow them access to any anthropogenic food sources). They were completely uninterested in us and our vehicle, unlike the baboons we see further up the peninsula around Millers Point, for example.

Concentrating baboon Concentrating baboon

A Day on the Bay: A Brydes whale for company

On a beautiful, calm day in early June this year, shortly after dropping my divers in the water, I was visited by a friendly Brydes whale. A Brydes whale – I suspect the same one – had been showing a strong interest in boats in western False Bay over the last couple of weeks.

The whale makes its presence known
The whale makes its presence known

I knew it was a Brydes whale because of the small, sickle-shaped dorsal fin far back on its spine. This one circled the boat a few times, and then headed straight for me like a submarine on the surface. It pushed a small wave of water ahead of it as it came.

The Brydes whale near the boat
The Brydes whale near the boat

It was a slightly intimidating sight as it ploughed through the water. It was an extremely calm day, so the boat’s motors were switched off. I waited with some anxiety to see what the whale would do.

The whale comes to investigate
The whale comes to investigate

After a close pass by the boat, the whale circled Seahorse several times, blowing lustily. It came back to the boat repeatedly over a period of at least half an hour. I kept the engines off, and made sure my life jacket was fastened. I hoped the divers might also be able to see what was happening! The whale was not hostile in the least, but an exuberant animal weighing between 12 and 20 tons, moving at speed, could accidentally tip me into the water in a heartbeat.

Brydes whale circling Seahorse
Brydes whale circling Seahorse

The whale lifted its head out of the water a few times, showing me the three rostral ridges on top of its head and the grooves under its throat, which also help with confirming its identification as a Brydes whale. Our whale book says that these whales often have small, circular cookie cutter shark scars, specially if they’ve been in tropical waters, but I couldn’t see any.

Brydes whale showing his head
Brydes whale showing his head

I find Brydes whales a little mysterious, because they can be seen year round in False Bay and somehow lack the predictability of the Southern right whales and humpbacks whose rowdy presence is apparent close to shore in False Bay between June and November. If you see a whale in the first half of the year in False Bay, it’s almost certainly a Brydes whale.

These whales calve year-round, because they don’t ever go into really cold water (False Bay is at the southern end of their range). This preference for warmer water is probably related to their relatively thin layer of blubber. They eat schooling fish and plankton.

Brydes whale off the bow
Brydes whale off the bow

Their blows are low and bushy, as you can see from my photos. They don’t aggregate in big groups like other whales seen along South Africa’s coastline, and you’ll see at most two animals together at a time, if that. These whales are still caught by the Japanese as part of their “scientific” whaling program.

After a while the whale seemed to lose interest, and left me to my thoughts as I waited for the divers (who were gloriously oblivious, it turns out) to surface. While it’s an incredible experience to have an animal like this approach you so close and with such confidence, I am glad it left. Ship and boat strikes are a very real danger to whales, and a whale that is so curious about boats could get itself into trouble in the busy boating areas close to shore in False Bay.

The whale disappears into the Bay
The whale disappears into the Bay

Regulations state that unless you’re in possession of a whale watching permit (and there’s only one operator in False Bay who has one of those), you are not to approach a whale closer than 300 metres, anywhere in South African waters. If a whale approaches you, move away if you can do so safely. If there are divers in the water, your responsibility is to stay close to the divers, so turn off your engines and enjoy the moment!

Bookshelf: Shark

Shark – Brian Skerry

Brian Skerry is a National Geographic photojournalist, with whose TED Talk you may be familiar. This book is a collection of articles – about sharks – that appeared in National Geographic magazine, accompanied by one magnificent shark photograph after another. Each chapter’s text is reasonably short. Here, the photos are the primary focus.

Shark
Shark

The chapters focus on four species of shark: great white, white tip, tiger sharks, and mako sharks. Additional text is contributed by several National Geographic writers, and experiencing the familiar editorial quality and stylistic approach of the magazine is like settling down for a chat with an old friend.

The final chapter of the book, written by Skerry, is an appeal for increased understanding of sharks and their vital place in ecosystems, and increased protection for them – in the form of marine reserves, and less fishing, for example. The photographs selected for this chapter makes it clear that in Skerry’s view, science (especially tagging studies) is vital to the endeavour of better understanding sharks, and protecting them.

Get a copy of the book here (South Africa), here or here.

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.

Christmas gift guide 2017

I wondered when I’d need a picture of a glass of champagne next to some dive gear; this post feels like as good a time as any to use it. I feel obligated to explain that the champagne was being consumed on our pool deck during the course of a late afternoon fool around in and next to the pool with some of my friends. The dive gear was still lying there from a class Tony had led that morning. The juxtaposition was too much to resist.

Don't drink and dive
Don’t drink and dive

That said, it’s time to think about Christmas, Hanukkah, and time off with the family. Some may even celebrate Festivus. I salute you. Regardless, it’s a good time to give gifts to the people you care about. Some suggestions follow below.

First, here are the obligatory links to previous years’ editions of this guide: 20102011201220132014, 2015. Unfortunately, 2016 was an annus horribilis best left undiscussed. As usual, this year’s guide owes much to previous versions. There’s nothing new under the sun.

Donations

For the person who has everything, or because you’re feeling grateful, consider a donation on behalf of your friend or loved one:

Experiences

Don’t forget to add a memory card for the lucky recipient’s camera if you plan to gift any of these! Contact Tony for prices.

For the non diver, you could inspire a love for our oceans with one of these:

As usual our Wild Card was an absolute blessing this year. It has been used for multiple park visits and also gets us a discount on our toll fee on Chapmans Peak Drive‘s frequent user program. The full card is a bit pricey, but there’s a great alternative called My Green Card, that costs R145 and gives twelve entries to any of the paid sections of Table Mountain National Park (so, Cape Point, Boulders, Silvermine, Oudekraal, and a few braai areas). Read the fine print carefully though – if you use it up quickly, you have to wait for the 12 months to pass before you can purchase another one. But I think you can also share the 12 clips with friends, whereas a regular Wild Card is tied to your identity. You will have to go to the SANParks office in Tokai to get a My Green Card.

SanParks is introducing differential pricing for Table Mountain National Park, with significantly lower prices for locals, starting next November, so some mathematics will be required this time next year to determine whether a Wild Card is still worth the expense.

Something to read

Everything you need to know about finding a book related to the ocean can be discovered in our list of most recommended books, and our guide to finding the book you need (on this blog, at least!). There are a couple of children’s books there, too.

A magazine subscription is also a fairly reasonably-priced gift idea. I can’t tell you which of the dive magazines are worth reading these days – our current subscriptions are Maritime Review (which is free, so that’s perhaps cheating) and CAR magazine…

Something beautiful

Clip Clop designs and prints beautiful tide charts for Cape Town and Durban and moon phase charts for the year. You can order online or usually find them at Exclusive Books or Noordhoek Farm Village (just browse the shops there, one of them has the tide charts right at the door).

You could also print and frame a photo, or create a photo book. Most camera stores can assist with a range of printing media.

Dive gear and water-related stuff

Some excellent water-related gifts I’ve received over the years include:

 

  • WetSac (seriously, check it out) – order online
  • A hooded towel – surf shops often stock them, try the strip at Surfers Corner in Muizenberg
  • A stand up paddle boarding lesson
  • A reel and/or a surface marker buoy – make sure it’s one of the ones that isn’t negatively buoyant

Otherwise, just think a little bit about what might be useful before or after a dive…

  • Sunscreen, conditioner, cleansing shampoo, detangling spray
  • A reusable metal water bottle (glass is a bad idea for the boat)
  • A mini dry bag to keep phones and keys safe
  • A beanie for cold days on the boat or a cap for the sun, or a buff for hair management or neck protection (the Aquarium sometimes sells turtle ones to fundraise for their turtle rehab)
Be safe, be kind, be lekker. Thank you for your friendship and for the dives!

Article: Exploring False Bay’s kelp forests

Kelp forest in Sandy Cove
Kelp forest in Sandy Cove

Environmental journalist Pippa Ehrlich writes beautifully for Safarious of diving in the kelp forests of False Bay with Sea-Change founder Craig Foster. You might be familiar with Sea-Change from an exhibition at the Sea Point promenade a couple of years ago.

The idea of getting into this freezing world every day without a wetsuit was daunting. We did some stretching and breathing to warm up. The sky was grey and my feet had gone numb in the shallow water we’d had to walk through. I was not looking forward to being fully submersed in it.

Ehrlich and Foster (and others from the Sea-Change team) dive daily in False Bay, sans wetsuits. It is their mental (spiritual?) approach to the marine environment, however, that sets the project apart. It’s a mindset that may be unfamiliar to many divers, especially those of us who favour scuba, but it is worthy of serious consideration. The article reads like a story of love and healing.

The accompanying photos are beautiful, too. Read it.

BirdLife South Africa Flock at Sea AGAIN! 2017 – part ii (the birds)

We were surprised by the intensity of the birding that took place on Flock At Sea AGAIN! 2017. In retrospect we shouldn’t have been, but being around 2,000 serious twitchers was, at turns, overwhelming and hilarious. Tony and I spent quite a lot of time on deck 4 of MSC Sinfonia, bothering our friend Ian. An enduring memory of this time was turning around from the rail to see a wall of K-Way clad birders charging towards us like buffalo, heading for the stern of the ship, where something special had just been spotted.

Annoying Ian
Annoying Ian

There was serious camera hardware on board. Tony’s modest 200-500mm Sigma lens sometimes gets admiring glances from the uninitiated, but on this cruise it left something to be desired (as you can see in comparison to Ian’s rig in the photo above).

The gun show
The gun show

It is known by anyone who’s been on a boat that taking photos on the ocean is difficult, especially of a fast moving, distant subject such as a bird. Tony had a go at some bird photos, with reasonable success. Trying to identify what we’d seen afterwards was fun. We were definitely not the people who were calling the name of the bird before photographing it! Once we came across a large aggregation of birds feeding on something on the surface, and once some dolphins, but there were fewer marine mammal sightings than we’d hoped.

An older wandering albatross
An older wandering albatross

I loved seeing the albatross, and because of their great size and confidence in approaching the ship, I found them easiest to identify. Both Peter Harrison’s talk  and Carl Safina’s brilliant Eye of the Albatross emphasised the extraordinary longevity and fidelity of these birds, and the loneliness of their lives in between visits to the breeding islands. In addition to the ones pictured above, we also saw Indian yellow-nosed albatross, which I’d previously seen sitting on the surface of the ocean above the wreck of the Fontao in Durban, waiting for snacks from the fishermen there.

There were plenty of places to watch the sea all around the ship. Deck four ran along both sides of the vessel close to the ocean, and the triangular viewing platforms that protrude at the stern were a popular sunset location. Around the central area on the top deck that contains the swimming areas, a raised wrap-around deck also provided good viewing opportunities, but it was too high up for proper bird watching.

The light varied a lot depending on the time of day (duh!) and the degree of cloud cover. It was windy almost all the time. I was surprised by the speed of the ship; when we were moving between birding locations we cruised at up to 25 knots. Only on one of the days was the sea rough enough to splash onto the lower decks.

Wind protection
Wind protection

We saw some things we’d never seen before, like an extravagant double rainbow just before sunset. It was wonderful to be completely surrounded by ocean, and to watch how the colour of the sea changed through the day. We were travelling over deep water, and the profound blue of the ocean when the bottom is hundreds of metres below is something special. Look at the wake in the rainbow picture for an example.

Double rainbow
Double rainbow

We saw a few other ships, but not as many as I’d expected. There was some tooth-gnashing among the twitchers when, on the last full day of the cruise as we headed back towards Cape Town, some fishing trawlers were seen in the distance. It was fascinating to watch the trawlers turn on a dime and mow back and forth, but the clouds of seabirds behind the ship remained just out of proper sight.

Fishing trawler at work
Fishing trawler at work

There’s an album of photos (including some of the ones I’ve included here) on facebook, if you’re interested! And if you’re interested in seabirds, I can’t think of a better place to start than Carl Safina’s Eye of the Albatross.

BirdLife South Africa Flock at Sea AGAIN! 2017 – part i (the boat)

A disclaimer up front: Tony and I are not bird people (we are more “anything that moves” people). While we are friends with several serious twitchers, we tend to get distracted by landscapes and the large beige beasts that birds sometimes sit on. Our decision to book a spot for ourselves on the BirdLife South Africa AGM trip, Flock at Sea AGAIN! 2017 may seem puzzling.

View of Table Mountain as we were leaving Cape Town
View of Table Mountain as we were leaving Cape Town

We had a few reasons for wanting to do the trip, which ran from Monday 24 until Friday 28 April. First, we wanted to figure out whether the two of us can handle cruise ship life (confined space, many people, forced entertainment, dancing girls) sufficiently well that long held dreams of a Hurtigruten trip, or a cruise along the Alaskan coastline, could one day be realised. This short, reasonably inexpensive trip seemed an ideal proving ground. A second reason was that the route the cruise would follow promised the opportunity to see some cool stuff (including birds), and to go to parts of the ocean we’re not likely to get to on our own.

MSC Sinfonia looking festive
MSC Sinfonia looking festive

We made the booking nearly two years in advance to assist BirdLife in getting enough passengers on board to secure permission from MSC to determine the route the cruise ship would take. This also meant that the price was seriously discounted, which was great. At the time, I felt ridiculous for planning a holiday so far in the future and couldn’t imagine being around to go on it, but here we are.

Route of Flock at Sea AGAIN! 2017
Route of Flock at Sea AGAIN! 2017

The cruise route was out along the edge of the continental shelf from Cape Town towards a few seamounts that lie more or less directly south of Cape Agulhas. There was birding, with bird guides who could identify a hummingbird at 300 metres with one eye blindfolded, on most of the decks of the ship during daylight hours. There was also a full lecture schedule, which was part of what appealed to me about the cruise. I listened to Peter Harrison, raconteur extraordinaire, bird guide author and artist, talk on penguins and albatrosses, and Prof Peter Ryan talk about Marion Island. The talks were held in the ship’s theatre, and were illustrated with magical pictures taken by the speakers. This was one of the highlights of the trip for me.

Attending a talk in the ship's theatre
Attending a talk in the ship’s theatre

I also attended a talk on Antarctica, and one on the Albatross Task Force. This is a project of BirdLife that works to reduce seabird bycatch in the fishing industry. This has been a very successful program to date, and has overseen significant reductions in albatross mortality on long lines.

The view of the Table Mountain range gets more complicated as one moves south alongside the peninsula
The view of the Table Mountain range gets more complicated as one moves south alongside the peninsula

Being on such a big ship was a new experience. The first night was a bit wild and windy, but I was more disturbed by the whistling of the wind through our balcony door (showing great mechanical aptitude, it took us 24 hours to figure out how the latch worked) than by particularly extreme movement of the ship. Some of the days were cloudy, but the air temperature was comfortable – mostly because we were travelling eastwards towards warmer water, even though we were moving south as well.

Having a room with a balcony meant that escape was always possible. In practice, however, the ship was so large that one could always find a quiet spot to contemplate if it was required. We ate our meals at the buffet restaurant because we enjoyed the flexibility (and the food), but for those who like to dress up and be waited upon there was a fancier restaurant with set times for sittings.

Takkies on the sun deck
Takkies on the sun deck

We had a great time, finding it extremely relaxing to be surrounded by the ocean with no option to engage in anything stress-inducing. In a couple of days I’ll share a bit more of what we saw while on board, but I’ll leave you with some of the views that we saw while on board, and on returning to harbour at the end of the trip.

Newsletter: Purple crayons

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Sunday: Possible dives out of Hout Bay if the wind and swell give us a break!

It seems the forecaster at WindGURU found the box of purple crayons and has been liberal with them. Other than a slight lull in the wind forecast for Sunday, it’s purple all of next week too. I very much doubt we will get out on Sunday as there is currently a 4 metre swell flexing its muscles. The Atlantic water colour and temperature show signs of great visibility so if the wind is acceptable on Sunday we will launch from Hout Bay. Text, mail or Whatsapp if you want to be on the list.

Diversnight 2016 at the Simon's Town jetty
Diversnight 2016 at the Simon’s Town jetty

Diversnight 2016 took place last weekend. We dived off the Simon’s Town jetty in a chilly wind. Luckily the visibility was excellent and the fishermen only arrived towards the end of our dive. There are a few photos on facebook.

regards

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

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