Bookshelf: Watching Whales & Dolphins in Southern Africa

Watching Whales & Dolphins in Southern Africa – Noel & Belinda Ashton

Watching Whales & Dolphins in Southern Africa
Watching Whales & Dolphins in Southern Africa

This is an enormously useful book for local whale watchers, and provides details on the life history and characteristics of the cetaceans found in Southern Africa’s waters. The text is illustrated by beautiful paintings and photographs showing the animals in full from various angles, including what you’d see if they were on the surface of the sea or about to sound.

Noel Ashton is an artist, sculptor and conservationist, whose sculptural work can be seen in the foyer of the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town. Nature writer and designer Belinda Ashton has co-authored several books with him.  The Ashtons also provided the whale and dolphin identification posters upstairs between the Predator Exhibit and the Kelp Forest tank. Their love for the natural world is evident in the beautiful illustrations and careful attention to detail in this book.

There is a history of whaling in South Africa, but fortunately there is now a yearly strong recovery in whale numbers and an appreciation of the economic value of whales alive rather than dead. There are incredible whale watching opportunities all around South Africa’s coast, including world-class shore-based viewing from Cape Town to De Hoop via Hermanus and De Kelders. There is boat-based whale watching out of Cape Town and from Gansbaai, Hermanus, Knysna, Plettenberg Bay, Durban, St Lucia, and other locations in between. For those who do not remember whaling, it is easy to become blasé about this embarrassment of cetacean riches, but it makes us, as South Africans, extremely privileged indeed.

For ocean lovers, this book is as indispensable as a bird book to a twitcher. It is highly recommended.

You can get a copy of the book here (South Africa) or here.

Southern African Shark & Ray Symposium 2015 – welcome evening & public events

Bluebird Garage
Bluebird Garage

The organisers of the 2015 Southern African Shark and Ray Symposium made an effort to include the public in the celebration of False Bay, the marvelous ecosystem on our doorstep.

#LoveFalseBay speaker evening

The first event to do this was a free speaker evening, held at the Bluebird Garage in Muizenberg on Monday 7 September. Hundreds of people attended; I took the photo above before the room got so full that no one could move!

Eleven speakers presented short talks about False Bay. We heard about the whales, sharks, orcas, and invertebrates and how they are being studied; about transformative social work taking place in the waves; and about what we can do to care for the bay.

Photographic exhibition

Also taking place starting during the week of the symposium and continuing all summer, is a free public photographic exhibition of Joris van Alphen and Mac Stone’s images of False Bay, taken last summer. You can visit the exhibition along the catwalk between Muizenberg and St James. It’s in the same spirit as the Sea-Change exhibition that was up in Sea Point last summer, and I am excited that it will allow non-diving residents of Cape Town to see some of what goes on under the surface!

Welcome evening

Shark & Ray Symposium welcome evening
Shark & Ray Symposium welcome evening

Storify, which I originally used to curate the tweets about this evening, is dead. However you can access the story as a pdf by clicking this link.

Video (TED): Camille Seaman on photographing icebergs

In this very short talk, Camille Seaman, photographer and author of Melting Away, talks about her approach to iceberg photography, and shows some of her pictures.

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Saeaman also photographs storm clouds; she started storm chasing in 2008. Depicting these clouds is another way for her to illustrated how everything in nature is connected.

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Bookshelf: Melting Away

Melting Away – Camille Seaman

Melting Away
Melting Away

I first saw Camille Seaman’s photography in a feature on Wired.com. She is thinks about photographing icebergs the way one would photograph a person of advanced age: with respect and reverence.

Melting Away is a book of magnificent photographs taken in the Antarctic and the Arctic. Seaman worked as a resident photographer on cruise vessels taking passengers to each end of the earth, and over a ten year period was able to take portraits of icebergs, each of which has its own character, and to observe the changes that are taking place at the poles as a result of climate change.

A feature on Seaman in the New York Times explains how her Native American heritage influenced her connection to nature and her ability to observe it closely. Her grandfather taught her to recognise trees as one would a person, and to be consciously quiet and observant in the natural world.

The text interspersed between the photographs is surprisingly personal and autobiographical. Seaman writes about her childhood, her aspirations, and the formative experiences that have brought her to where she is: a world-renowned photographer with a unique perspective on the impact humans are having on our planet. I found this part of the book to be fascinating, and would recommend it particularly to young women, especially those who might feel they don’t fit or conform, who are needing hope that somewhere in their future they will find their calling.

You can follow Seaman on instagram for photographs of her travels, and check out a slideshow of her images on The Telegraph website. An interview with Seaman can be found here; she talks quite a lot about her upbringing.

Get a copy of Melting Away here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here.

A Day on the Bay: Looking for whales

Date: 27 October 2014

Ready to roll on the slipway
Ready to roll on the slipway

One day in October last year (there are no acceptable excuses for the delay posting this, so we’ll just leave it at that), Seahorse and her skipper were chartered by a multi-disciplinary team who are working on a project called Sea-Change. If you’ve visited the Sea Point promenade recently, you might have seen a beautiful array of mini-billboards featuring photographs of sevengill cowsharks, kelp forests, and other marine life, including recreations of how early humans may have interacted with the marine environment in the Cape.

Misty morning
Misty morning

The Sea-Change team wanted to find a co-operative whale to swim with and film, being in possession of the necessary permits (many pages of paperwork). It was late in the season for whales in False Bay, and we spent a morning looking for them without any luck. Reports of whales on the Atlantic seaboard led us to Hout Bay about a week later.

Leaping seals
Leaping seals

It was a misty day, and we went as far north as Clifton without seeing any whales. We did see a large sunfish and lots of seabirds (including rows of terns perching on pieces of kelp), and we spent some time at the seal colony at Duiker Island, where the team spent over an hour in the water… without wetsuits! Just as we were about to call it a day we spotted a whale at the entrance to Hout Bay – it may have been there the whole time but the mist was too thick for it to be seen. Unfortunately it didn’t want its picture taken, so we had to call off the search for another day.

Check out the Sea-Change website for more information on the project. There’s also a just-published feature about the project in Africa Geographic that I highly recommend you check out.

The Sea-Change exhibition in Sea Point

A view of the Sea-Change exhibition from  a distance
A view of the Sea-Change exhibition from a distance

We’ve been slow to draw your attention to this (unless you follow us on instagram), but there’s a wonderful photographic exhibition at Sea Point that you should check out, rather than a ridiculous giant pair of sunglassses. The Sea-Change exhibition is the brainchild of a multi-disciplinary team of artists, scientists and multi media experts, with the aim of telling the story of humanity’s earliest days and our ancient relationship with the sea.

The Sea-Change project
The Sea-Change project

The exhibition can be found along the promenade near the ox wagon park, opposite the SABC building in Sea Point. It’s coming down soon, so make haste!

There’s more information on the Sea-Change website, and a lot of gorgeous photos.

Standby diver

The Standby Diver on the jetty in Simon's Town
The Standby Diver on the jetty in Simon’s Town

Our Sunday afternoon trips down to the jetty in Simon’s Town, ice cream in hand, have become more interesting since the unveiling of a beautiful bronze statue of a navy standby diver. For about a week before the big day, the statue was concealed by a huge wooden box, leading to much speculation!

The statue was unveiled just before Christmas 2014, and was sculpted by Otto du Plessis. Its design, fundraising to pay for it, and eventual unveiling to the general public was a lengthy process that was pursued by a group of dedicated volunteers, drawn from the fraternity of ex SA Navy divers.

A tour of the SA Navy diving facility in Simon’s Town at a DAN day in 2013 showed us just what a high standard of training these divers receive. They are a credit to South Africa and to the navy. You can read more about the statue here. It’s already a very popular landmark, and groups of divers and passers-by often pose for photographs with the stoic, bronze gentleman keeping watch at the end of the jetty.

Underwater alphabet

The finished alphabet
The finished alphabet

My sister and brother in law announced to us in September 2010 that they were expecting a baby boy. Asher was born on 9 March 2011, and his first Christmas present from me and Tony was an alphabet poster that we put together from (mostly) underwater photographs that we’ve taken (mostly) in Cape Town, Sodwana and Malta. When it was still a work in progress, I blogged about it here, here, here and here.

I am not a particularly arty or crafty person, and eschew the slightest digital manipulation of my pictures after I’ve taken them (I will crop at a push, but there’s nothing worse than seeing a picture taken in False Bay with a mysteriously metallic blue hue to it that you know has never been seen in real life). Also, I’m lazy. Putting the poster together, then, was a fairly (for me) mammoth undertaking.

The Cruse scanner at Artlab in action
The Cruse scanner at Artlab in action

It took more than a little while to sort through 16,000 underwater images and try to choose the best ones for the poster. I used BorderFX to overlay text on the photos, printed them, laid out the poster, scanned it at ArtLab, and then took it to Stephen at Art Assist for printing. Plastic Sandwich laminated it, and it was presented to Asher (now a bouncy 11 month old) on Christmas eve.

The upshot of this is that because I now have the poster in extremely, frighteningly high resolution digital form, I’m able to produce copies up to A0 size. I wouldn’t recommend the A0 version – it’s large and striking, but almost prohibitively expensive for what it is. Sizes between A1 and A0 work quite well, and can be reasonably cost-effective.

If you would like a copy of Asher’s Alphabet, send me an email.

Bookshelf: Archaeological Oceanography

Archaeological Oceanography – Robert D. Ballard (editor)

Archaeological Oceanography
Archaeological Oceanography - edited by Robert D. Ballard

Robert D. Ballard is the man behind the discovery of (amongst other shipwrecks in the deep) the Titanic where she lies in her final resting place. He’s the author of several books I’ve reviewed here, most of them aimed at a lay audience.

This is a more scholarly, textbook type work, with contributions from a number of his colleagues at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and from elsewhere. Ballard acts as editor, advisor, and author of a couple of chapters.

The book deals with discovery, archaeological study, and – to a lesser extent – preservation of shipwrecks, ancient and modern, in the deep ocean. Ballard has worked extensively in the North Atlantic, Mediterranean, Pacific Ocean and Baltic Sea and the chapters in this book draw on specific projects from these locales. There are ample illustrations (my favourite part!) showing everything from sonar search patterns, the tethered ROVs in action, to photomosaics of wreck sites, to paintings of massive shipwrecks as they now look (a photograph showing the entire Titanic, lying as it does in the darkness at 4000 metres, is impossible). The artist for most of these is Ken Marschall, and if I could find an entire book of his work – eerie, awe-inspiring and accurate – I’d buy ten copies!

This isn’t a light read, but as a reference for anyone who is particularly interested in underwater oceanography, ROV and submersible technology, or the intersection of oceanography and archaeology it is invaluable.

The book is available here and here.

Dive sites (Malta): Statue of Christ

Tony hovers behind the statue for scale
Tony hovers behind the statue for scale

The people of Malta are predominantly Catholic, and the islands are full of visual reminders of their faith. One we particularly liked was a magnificent statue of Jesus Christ, purposely placed in the ocean as an attraction for scuba divers.

The statue stands in a natural amphitheatre of rock
The statue stands in a natural amphitheatre of rock

The three metre tall, 13 ton statue by Maltese sculptor Alfred Camilleri Cauchi, made of concrete-covered fiberglass, was commissioned to commemorate the 1990 visit of Pope John Paul II to Malta. After being blessed by His Holiness, the statue was placed on the seabed near St Paul’s Islands as an attraction for divers.

Christ's face is upturned towards the surface (or heaven, if you prefer)
Christ's face is upturned towards the surface (or heaven, if you prefer)

Ten years later the statue was moved to its current location about two kilometres offshore (off Qawra Point) near the (deliberately scuttled) wreck of the Imperial Eagle. The Imperial Eagle is a ferry that used to travel between Malta and Gozo, and was scuttled in July 1999. The statue was moved because the water clarity in its original location had deteriorated to the extent that it was no longer being dived. Explanations for this include increased boat traffic in the area (and possible dumping of waste from the vessels), and the nearby fish farms.

The statue is to scale, and three metres tall
The statue is to scale, and three metres tall

It’s a tranquil and serene environment, and we found the statue, which is somewhat encrusted with sea plants and algae (but not nearly as much as it would be if it were in the waters of Cape Town!) quite beautiful and compelling.

Tony hovers behind the statue for scale
Tony hovers behind the statue for scale

The statue stands on white sand in a natural circular amphitheatre, at a depth of about 28 metres. It is a short swim from the statue to the nearby Imperial Eagle. Dive details shown below are for a boat dive we did on both sites.

The large plinth rests on white sand
The large plinth rests on white sand

Dive date: 3 August 2011

Air temperature: 31 degrees

Water temperature: 18 degrees

Maximum depth: 37.0 metres

Visibility: 30 metres

Dive duration: 35 minutes

Tony swims off towards the Imperial Eagle shipwreck
Tony swims off towards the Imperial Eagle shipwreck