Our protocol for scuba diving (and snorkeling) with Cape fur seals

Tamsyn with the seals
Tamsyn with the seals

Scuba divers’ and snorkelers’ interactions with Cape fur seals have been in the spotlight recently in light of proposed legislation that would limit us to keeping a distance of more than 30 metres from any group of 50 or more seals. We wrote about the proposed legislation in detail, and one of the alternatives we suggested to an outright ban on approaching seal colonies and haul out spots was the introduction of a seal diving code of conduct.

We prepared something similar for scuba diving with broadnose sevengill cowsharks in False Bay. The idea is to draw up a set of guidelines that will ensure the well being of the species we’re diving with, and the safety and enjoyment of the divers.

Here’s our seal diving code of conduct. We’d love to hear your comments and suggestions. Is there anything we’ve left out?

  1. We are visiting the seals in order to see them in the water. Under no circumstances will we land on their colony, climb onto the rocks from the water, or otherwise harass them on land.
  2. We won’t try to chase the seals off their haul out spot or colony into the water by clapping, shouting, or otherwise creating a disturbance when we approach. If the seals want to get into the water to play (which they often do), they will.
  3. Seals will interact with us if and when they want to. We won’t use toys such as bits of rope to attract seals to us in the water so that we can photograph or examine them. This teaches seals to identify human-manufactured materials as playthings, and will lead to more entanglement of curious young animals in plastic waste.
  4. We won’t try to touch the seals, and nor will we encourage them to interact physically with us by offering them parts of our gear or other items to chew on. (We recognise that they may do this anyway, but we will not encourage it.)
  5. We use no bait or chum in the water around seal colonies (or anywhere else, unless we have a permit to do so). Apart from it being illegal, it could potentially modify the seals’ behaviour around humans, and may attract charismatic marine megafauna other than the species we’re visiting the area to dive with.
  6. We treat the area all around a seal colony as a no-wake zone. This means the boat engine speed when moving around there is just a little more than an idle, but enough to move forward. When approaching the area, we will slow down well in advance in case other operators have a buoy, divers and/or snorkelers in the water. We recognise that the ocean does not belong to us, and that others have as much right to be at any particular location as we do. This, and concern for vulnerable water users and seals on the surface, informs how we use our boat in the vicinity of a seal colony.

Diving and snorkeling with seals is great fun and a privilege that we have as water users. We’d like to see it appreciated as such, and hopefully this will inform how we interact with these puppy dogs of the ocean.

The shell midden at Miller’s Point

(An alternative title for this post could be: How I Got Really Excited About Walking Around on a Historical Garbage Dump.)

The secluded bay at Millers Point
The secluded bay at Millers Point

On the seaward side of the parking areas at Miller’s Point is a short string of beautiful, secluded coves demarcated by rounded granite boulders like the ones that shelter Windmill Beach, Fisherman’s Beach and Boulders Beach further north. This area is much beloved by free divers and snorkelers, and also by day trippers who make use of the braai area and massive tidal pool on weekends and during holiday seasons.

To get to these coves, and to the braai area (located on the site of a former whaling station) and tidal pool, one must walk past and over what looks like an overgrown sand dune. The truth is, it’s something a bit more special than that. For one thing, the dune vegetation is considered an excellent example of Coastal Duneveld, one of the last remaining undisturbed sites on the Cape Peninsula, for which reason you shouldn’t go trampling on it at will.

A path cut over the top of the midden
A path cut over the top of the midden

Furthermore (and the point of this post), the sand dune at Miller’s Point is actually a Late Stone Age shell midden, or ancient garbage heap. Early inhabitants of this stretch of coastline discarded the shells of the shellfish that they consumed in distinct areas, of which this is one. Embedded in the sand and between the roots of the dune vegetation are thousands and thousands of shell fragments, representing the highly nutritious marine diet of hunter gatherers who moved along the southern African coastline.

According to the City of Cape Town’s local development framework for Miller’s Point, a 2004 document, at least the top and/or edges of this midden probably date from the early 1700s:

Early pre-colonial references to the use of the site are contained in a shell midden associated with the large dune immediately west of the tidal pool recreation area. A shell midden is an accumulation of shellfish, bone and stone artefacts, which mark places where people stayed or prepared food. The presence however of early 18th Century colonial artefacts mixed in with the shell deposits suggests that part of the midden was deposited fairly recently. The preservation of this midden is important for a number of reasons, one of which is that the presence of colonial artefacts may represent evidence of contact between indigenous groups and early colonists.

Midden’s are distinguishable from random piles of shells by the fact that they contain a uniformity of species (this one is mostly the shells of abalone and limpets with some little whelks, as far as I can tell) of a size that would make them worthwhile to collect for food (i.e. not too small), as well as the remains of bones, tools and charcoal.

Steep slope of the shell midden
Steep slope of the shell midden

It goes without saying that as a historical site, which should be signposted and boardwalked to protect the vegetation and shell midden remains, you shouldn’t remove anything from the area, or be too free and easy wandering off the sandy paths, many of which have been cut straight through the midden. Hopefully SAHRA and the City of Cape Town will one day be able to protect and preserve this site. But these things take time and money, both of which are in short supply, so in the mean time let us be responsible citizens: excited about our nearby midden, but respectful and mindful of its cultural and historical value.

To further your education about shell middens, should you wish to, I recommend Shorelines, Strandlopers and Shell Middens – there is much to be discovered and investigated along this coastline of ours. For an interpretation of how our local history may have looked, you could also investigate the Sea-Change exhibition while it’s still on the Sea Point Promenade.

Bookshelf: Four Fish

Four Fish – Paul Greenberg

Four Fish
Four Fish

This is a big idea book – perhaps best to compare it to a TED talk, only more substantial. It is structured around four types of fish: salmon, tuna, sea bass and cod. The history of humans’ engagement with these archetypal families of fish enables Paul Greenberg to plot the trajectory of the possible futures we face, feeding ourselves from the ocean.

All four fish – salmon, tuna, sea bass and cod – have been fished to within a hair’s breadth of extinction. The story of cod is perhaps best known, from its original exploitation in the North Atlantic – beginning 1,000 years ago – to the catastrophic failure of the fisheries on the eastern seaboard of North America in the last several decades of the 20th century. Greenberg repeatedly cites and pays homage to Mark Kurlansky’s deceptively slim volume on the subject of cod (Cod), and to some extent this book capitalises on Cod‘s popularity.

Greenberg’s interest, however, is not primarily with the failure of the cod, tuna and salmon fisheries (largely as a result of failing to follow scientific advice in setting quotas – read: rampant greed). He is concerned more with the possibility of farming fish in a commercially viable, sustainable manner. There are lots of problems with fish farming, such as parasites and diseases spread from farmed fish to their wild counterparts, and Greenberg visits a number of aquaculture operations to discover whether sustainable practices that do not harm wild fish are possible.

Ultimately, Greenberg urges us to view fish as wildlife. As scuba divers we are accustomed to thinking about fish this way. We venture into their territory in order to experience them in the wild, and many of us feel outrage when certain types of fish (I have in mind sharks and perhaps tuna) are caught – albeit in perfectly legal fisheries. Greenberg wants us to extend this outrage, or at least recognition that fish are perhaps “the last wild food”, to all kinds of fish. The implications of thinking about fish this way would be that we eat less wild fish, saving it for special occasions, or do not eat it at all. (Perhaps, like Sylvia Earle, those of us who have the luxury of choice in the matter should stop eating fish entirely.) We have managed to execute this mind shift with whales in the last 100 years. The challenge is to extend it to the rest of the ocean’s finned inhabitants.

Greenberg suggests that the sustainable way for fisheries to continue into the future is for fishermen to assume the role of herders – custodians as well as harvesters of the fish. He further contends that we should not try to domesticate (farm) tuna, salmon and most other species that are already considered food fish. These fish have such a high feed conversion ratio (the number of kilograms of food – mostly comprising smaller fish – they need to eat to produce one kilogram of body weight) that farming them results in a net loss to the fish biomass in the ocean. Similarly, tuna ranching (capturing young tuna and raising them to maturity in pens) is also not a viable “farming” technique, as not only are wild fish being removed from the ocean, but they are denied the opportunity to breed. We need to start considering compliant, easily cultivated fish such as tilapia, kona kampachi (Almaco jack) and barramundi as menu options.

There’s a New York Times review of Four Fish here, and a Huffington Post review here. A Time Magazine story on fish also borrows heavily from Greenberg’s work.

You can get a copy of the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here. If you have a SASSI card in your wallet or even the slightest concern about food security, personal ethics and ocean conservation, you ought to read this book.

Article: M&G on perlemoen poaching in Hout Bay

The NSRI recently assisted the occupants of a 5.5 metre rubber duck (for scale, almost a metre shorter than Seahorse, which is rated for seven passengers and a skipper) when their single engine failed off Gansbaai. There were eleven divers on the boat, and it was 11.30 pm when they were rescued. The NSRI report of the incident specifically states that the divers were “recreational”, but it is highly likely that they were poachers, illegally harvesting abalone or possibly rock lobster.

The NSRI report was shared on a number of facebook pages maintained by members of the local scuba diving community (including ours). One comment thread in particular, in one of the groups where the report was shared, made me very sad. Multiple commenters suggested that the NSRI should have left the poachers out at sea to be eaten by sharks, and there was even distasteful speculation about the race of the men who were rescued. It’s very easy, on the Internet, to write that you think someone should be abandoned to die, or that they deserve it – but that doesn’t make it a right sentiment. The speed at which we get updates on social media make it easy for us to fail to engage with the nuances of events and situations, and rather to pass swift judgments and wish death on some mother’s child.

This is what the NSRI says about themselves:

Sea Rescue is the charity that saves lives on South African waters. Our crews put their lives at risk in order to save the life of a stranger.  They will voluntarily go to sea in the worst conditions, to help anyone in need.

Nothing there suggests that they will first pass judgment on the activity you’re engaged in, or on how wise you were to go out in such bad sea conditions, and then decide whether to assist or not!

This abalone is several years old
This abalone is several years old

Fisheries management in South Africa has been performed with aggressive incompetence for the past five or more years, with a focus – by the authorities – on personal enrichment and the fruits of corruption. (If you want to learn more about this, I suggest you read the whole of the Feike Management blog, and then start making serious plans to get off the grid, given that the former minister of fisheries is now brokering nuclear deals with that global pariah, Russia.) Management of our abalone stocks has been done on the basis of wishful thinking and illegality.

The communities whose young men choose poaching as a career are poverty-stricken and in many cases beneficiaries of laughably small quotas to catch stocks of fish that no longer exist. It is an economic choice for them, borne of desperation, and often the men who harvest the resource only get a fraction of the ultimate monetary value of the product. An article in the Mail & Guardian by Kimon de Greef, who studied abalone poaching for a Masters degree in conservation biology, explains the economics of the process:

He explained his poaching work as we sat amid the plants and the Rasta, whose name was John, continued preparing his spliff. David told me he skippered a boat for a white diver who had relocated to Hout Bay to target reefs on the Cape Peninsula. Another local diver – whom by chance I’d already interviewed – worked with them, as well as a bootsman, or deck assistant.

The divers paid David R20 a kilogram of perlemoen they harvested; the bootsman earned half as much. The divers also hired carriers to run their catch to middlemen in the community, who paid prices of between R200 and R250 a kilogram. These middlemen sold the product on to buyers from larger criminal syndicates, who ultimately controlled the illicit trade to the Far East.

On a good night, after expenses, the two divers could earn R10 000 each, with David taking home R4  000.

As scuba divers, we tend to see this issue quite simply: someone is illegally taking beautiful, unique creatures out of the ocean! We forget that the communities engaged in these activities are far less privileged than we are, and that this is a complicated, historically fraught issue that won’t be solved by leaving a boatload of poachers to be swept out to sea in the dark of night.

I suggest you read de Greef’s article. It humanises the poachers – puts faces on them – and helps to tease out some of the more complex issues at play regarding this valuable marine resource. Johnny Steinberg did a comprehensive and more detailed review of the illicit abalone trade some years ago, which is a longer read if you’ve got time.

Read the M&G article here.

A shark called Submarine, and other lies

We’ve been getting visits to our blog from people wanting to find out about an incident involving a capsized whale watching boat and a monster shark called Submarine, that supposedly took place at Shark Alley off Gansbaai in South Africa. The reason for these queries is a misleading pack of lies broadcast under the title Shark of Darkness as part of Shark Week 2014.

To clear up any confusion you may have as to what is true and what is not about Shark of Darkness, I urge you to read Michelle Wcisel’s post on the subject at Southern Fried Science, and this post by Andrew Ingram of the National Sea Rescue Institute, distancing the organisation from the documentary. Michelle’s post points out how utterly distasteful and inappropriate it is for Discovery to exploit a real event, in which two people died, for ratings, while spinning a web of lies around the real circumstances of the incident.

But since you’re here, and may have arrived here searching on a query like “whale watching boat capsizes in shark alley with passengers” looking for sensational news capitalising on the death of two people, let me clear up some things.

  • A whale watching boat called Miroshga did capsize in Cape Town, off Hout Bay. It went out in a storm, was overloaded, had its bilge pump installed upside down, and was generally a blight on the South African maritime safety record.
  • There are a few locations called Shark Alley in South Africa. The most famous one is at Dyer Island near Gansbaai (a two hour drive from Cape Town) where a seal colony attracts great white sharks to aggregate. White shark cage diving trips are held there, and whale watching trips.
  • No whale watching boat capsized at Shark Alley next to Dyer Island.
  • No great white shark – least of all a fictional monster called Submarine – harrassed passengers of the capsized Miroshga in Hout Bay.
  • Dyer Island is not in Hout Bay.
  • Two passengers on Miroshga died, but not because of marine life. A few passengers spent a couple of hours underwater inside the air pocket of the ship’s hull, but were rescued by the heroes of the NSRI (South Africa’s version of the Coastguard, funded by the public) in appalling conditions.

I even made you a helpful map (click to embiggen):

Helpful map for Shark Week: Shark of Darkness fake documentary
Helpful map for Shark Week: Shark of Darkness fake documentary

In short, Dyer Island, and white sharks, are not in Hout Bay, where the whale watching boat capsized. See how far apart the red stars are on the map? There is also no white shark called Submarine.

If you’d like to learn something proper about sharks and be a force for good in the world, go read Demon Fish or Sharks and People.


We don’t have a television, and I’m not even sure if Shark Week gets broadcast in South Africa, so I haven’t seen this show. But from the discussions I’ve had the misfortune to witness on facebook and other social media, it seems that Shark Week is becoming an annual opportunity to swill ignorance and sensationalism around the trough for a public that is ill equipped to distinguish fact from fiction. Sadly, attempts by scientists and science communicators to provide corrections and factual information to counter Discovery Channel’s deliberate misinformation only serve to generate more publicity for the spectacle, and ultimately, it seems, to benefit Discovery and their bottom line most of all.

Bookshelf: The Story of Sushi

The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice – Trevor Corson

The Story of Sushi
The Story of Sushi

I didn’t really know what to expect from this book – I admit that I tried it out because it had a fish on the cover, and because I’d previously enjoyed Trevor Corson’s The Secret Life of Lobsters. I was pleasantly surprised. Showing the same narrative flair as he exhibits in his lobster book, Corson interweaves science and history with a present-day story with novel-like characteristics.

Formerly titled The Zen of FishThe Story of Sushi takes place at the California Sushi Academy, tracing a (real and) diverse group of students as they spend several months learning to be sushi chefs. The principal character, the weakest student in the class, is squeamish about handling raw fish, and scared of her sushi knives – one wonders if she had done any research about what being a sushi chef entails. Despite this drag on the overall mood of the classroom scenes (one can only read about someone being berated for their incompetence, or deliberately shirking tasks that they find unappealing, so many times) Corson manages to invest the reader in the lives of the chefs and students that he profiles. As the students learn about sushi, so do we.

The history parts of the book deal with the development of sushi as a cultural and culinary phenomenon, first in Japan and then spreading to the rest of the world. Corson also delves into food science, explaining why things taste the way they do, and the microbial processes that give us vinegar and other fermented foods (essential in the development and preparation of sushi), and marine biology. Make no mistake – bluefin tuna, abalone, urchins, eels and octopus play only bit parts in this book, and appear more frequently as sushi toppings than as vibrant life forms populating the world’s oceans. Corson talks about the biology of the animals only insofar as it enables development of his main – food related – themes.

I found this a surprisingly good read, and a helpful informer on the subject of an aspect of Japanese culture other than their well known penchant for whale hunting and general disingenuousness around ethical fishing practices. It has made me a more informed sushi consumer but not as regards what fish are best to eat (use SASSI for that). There is hardly a mention of whether one can ethically consume all sushi toppings with gay abandon, or whether the environmentally conscious consumer should think twice about eating certain seafoods. I do feel that I have more understanding of the construction and serving of sushi, and am able to watch the chefs at my local sushi bar with a bit more awareness.

There’s a New York Times review (and another book recommendation).

You can get a copy of the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here.

Our protocol for scuba diving with cowsharks

Curious cowshark
Curious cowshark

Shark Alley is a special and unusual dive site just south of Millers Point. It is an aggregation site for broadnose sevengill cowsharks, predators who feed on seals and a variety of other animals. They can grow to three metres in length. These sharks seem to use this site as a resting area (though we aren’t sure – research is ongoing) and their behaviour is typically docile and relaxed. For this reason it is a great place to dive, as the sharks come close enough to get a good look at them but do not behave in a threatening manner.

There has never been a serious incident involving a diver and a shark at this site, but there have been a few incidents. Clare has had her pillar valve gnawed on by a feisty young male shark while on a dive here a few years back, and early in May a diver was bitten on the arm by one of the sharks. That latter bite made the newspaper (the shark drew blood and the NSRI was summoned), but I am sure that there have been other more minor incidents here that didn’t get reported.

Young cowshark
Young cowshark

This got me thinking about a protocol for diving with these animals. Shark dives all over the world are governed by safety protocols and guidelines, usually put in place by dive operators themselves (examples here and here). We do have a set of standards that we adhere to when visiting this site and mention in dive briefings, but I’ve never written them down all together before. I am a firm believer in self regulation, whereby the industry regulates itself so that we don’t end up with a bureaucrat in an office telling us we can’t dive with cowsharks without (for example) a special permit, or (heaven forbid) ever again!

Cowshark passing a diver
Cowshark passing a diver

So here’s our protocol – how we choose to regulate ourselves when diving this site. It’s not a set of hard and fast rules that everyone has to follow, but it’s how we choose to approach dives at Shark Alley, a little bit like Underwater Africa’s diver code of conduct, but for cowshark diving. You are welcome to use these principles yourself, and I’d like to hear any suggestions you have to improve them or for points I may not have thought of.

  1. Do a positive entry (i.e. with your BCD fully inflated) if you are diving off the boat, so you do not risk landing on a shark in mid water. If there is a thermocline, the sharks typically swim above it, and may be shallower than you expect.
  2. Descend slowly in a controlled manner, looking below you at all times. Ensure that you are carrying sufficient weight (you should be able to kneel on the sand if necessary).
  3. Do not make any physical contact with the sharks. Do not try and stroke them as they swim by, and do not hang on their tails or dorsal fins.
  4. Do not feed the sharks. Don’t carry anything edible (sardines, for example) in your BCD, and do not chum from the boat. This includes washing the deck off at the dive site if you’ve just been fishing or on a baited shark dive. Chumming is both illegal (you need a permit) and unsafe, especially if there are divers in the water.
  5. If you have students in the water, perform skills away from the sharks (if possible, avoid conducting skills at this site).
  6. Some sharks will show a keen interest in your camera and flash or strobes. Do not antagonise them by putting a camera directly in their face. If a shark is showing undue interest in your photographic equipment, hold off taking pictures for a moment while it swims away.
  7. Move out of the sharks’ way if they swim towards you. (Here’s a video of Tami doing just that.) Cowsharks are confident and curious, and often won’t give way to divers. Respect their space and move far enough away that they won’t rub against you or bump you as they swim by.
  8. Be alert for any strange behaviour by an individual shark or the sharks around you. Be aware of your surroundings and don’t become absorbed with fiddling with your camera or gear. If a shark does become overly familiar (bumping or biting), gather the divers together in a close group and abort the dive in a controlled manner.
  9. Do not dive at this site at night or in low light. This is probably when cowsharks feed (though we aren’t sure), and as ambush predators their behaviour is likely to be quite different in dark water when they’re in hunting mode.
  10. Do not dive at this site alone. When diving in a group, stay with the group and close to your buddy.

I am not writing this protocol down to make people afraid of diving with cowsharks in Cape Town. But I do think it’s important to remember that this is a dive that needs to be taken seriously, with safety as a priority. Because we can visit this site whenever we want to, it’s tempting to become blasé about what an amazing experience it is, and also about the fact that these are sharks that need to be respected.

In conclusion! Unlike great white sharks, cowsharks (and blue sharks, and mako sharks, and and and…) are not protected in South Africa, so it’s not illegal to fish for them in permitted fishing areas (i.e. outside no take zones, etc). One of the cage diving operators in Gansbaai even used to use cowshark livers in his chum… If you want to make a difference in the lives of cowsharks and ensure they’re still here for us to dive with in future decades, consider writing a letter to the relevant government minister (make sure it’s the current one, in the new cabinet) and also to the shadow minister from the opposition party, requesting protection for more shark species in South African waters.

Article: Aeon on sailfish and other marine encounters

Tim Ecott, author of much beloved (by me, Tony, and the many friends we’ve lent it to) diving book Neutral Buoyancy, writes for Aeon Magazine about sailfish. Or, he seems to. What he has really written is a beautiful description of encounters with marine life, and how these meetings often seem imbued with great significance – something more than “human meets fish”. For me, Ecott’s writing best captures what it feels like to dive, and if you have someone close to you who longs to understand your attachment to the underwater world, I’d let them read something like this.

Ecott experiences being underwater – the place where by his own admission he is happiest – as catharsis, and it has helped him to deal with the deaths of both his parents, for example.

For me, it is a release from anxiety. It is also an opportunity (arrogantly, I sometimes think) to be truly seen – once every few tens of dives – by a stranger, another living creature that has no obligation to pay any attention to me, and whose natural instinct in many cases would be to flee. These experiences keep me thinking for months afterwards. The first time I felt as though I’d been “seen” by a fish was at Long Beach in Simon’s Town, while Tony did some Open Water skills with a student. It must have been my thirtieth or fortieth dive since I’d qualified. I hovered on the sand, and met a green klipfish (pictured – he was awesome) who was fascinated by my fingers wiggling in my gloves.

Super klipfish in the sea lettuce likes to be tickled
Super klipfish in the sea lettuce likes to be tickled

Ecott writes:

In my experience, the connection that I make with marine life is something other, with just a thin thread of recognition. It certainly, on occasion, goes beyond the normal confines of a wildlife encounter. The very term ‘encounter’ smacks of pseudoscience, or the affected dispassion of the wildlife filmmaker. There are times when I feel strongly that these meetings underwater carry all the implied wariness, negotiation and unfulfilled, unknowable expectations that we have when we meet human strangers.

In this description there’s no hint of the pretentious foisting of human upon shark, dolphin, manta or turtle that goes on in many of the more highly publicised encounters between humans and marine animals. It doesn’t matter if no one was around with a camera to document the event – it still happened, and is probably all the more significant for it.

Read the full article here. And look at that magnificent sailfish in the accompanying photograph…

Article: Aeon on dolphins as healers (Dolphin Assisted Therapy)

Dusky dolphins in Maori Bay
Dusky dolphins in Maori Bay

Every second day someone has a new inspiration as to how the ancient wisdom and psychic powers of dolphins can make the world a better place. The latest popular idea is that dolphins can heal people with developmental disorders and psychological wounds via “dolphin assisted therapy” (DAT). I found this article about it by neuroscientists Lori Marino, via a write up by Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic, which probably does it more justice than I’m about to.

Marino explains the reasons for the mystique attached to dolphins thusly:

Much of our attraction to these creatures derives from their appealing combination of intelligence and communicativeness, and the mystery associated with the fact that they inhabit a hidden underwater environment. Dolphins are the Other we’ve always wanted to commune with. And their ‘smile’, which is not a smile at all, but an anatomical illusion arising from the physical configuration of their jaws, has led to the illusion that dolphins are always jovial and contented, compounding mythological beliefs that they hold the key to the secret of happiness.

The idea of dolphins as healers, or having magical powers and somehow being more than they are (sea dwelling mammals with sharp teeth and apparently smiley faces) is not new – it is thousands of years old. Many cultures have ascribed special powers and significance to dolphins (and to cats, but I don’t see anyone charging for Cat Assisted Therapy or CAT). Most recently, the work of neuroscientist slash psychoanalyst John C. Lilly served to cement dolphins’ status as what Marino calls the “ultimate New Age icon[s]”. Initially his research remained rooted in the scientific method, but his dolphin studies (including feeding them LSD and some other unsavoury details that Marino alludes to) increasingly incorporated more and more quasi-spirituality and mumbo jumbo.

Dolphin assisted therapy is big business in a number of countries worldwide. Practitioners are not accredited in any way, and charge huge amounts of money to desperate families hoping to witness a miraculous improvement in the health of their sometimes severely disabled children. Marino is blunt about the exploitative nature of these programs, and the lack of evidence supporting their effectiveness (long quote, sorry, but excellent – emphasis mine):

Meanwhile, many of the parents featured in the enthusiastic testimonials return home to renewed disappointment. Their children fall back into their regular routine, and fall silent again. At first, cognitive dissonance will not allow these parents to consider the possibility that they’ve wasted their money. But later they recognise that nothing has changed, and that the initial improvement was due to the excitement of the trip, and all the personal attention their child received. Many families visit DAT facilities and end up gaining little more than they would have done from interacting with a puppy.

Equally sad are the lives of the dolphins. Hidden behind their smile, and therefore largely invisible to patients and vacationers, captive dolphins spend their lives under tremendous stress as they struggle to adapt to an environment that, physically, socially and psychologically, is drastically different from the wild. The results are devastating. Stress leads to immune system dysfunction. Often they die from gastric ulcers, infections and other stress and immune-related diseases, not helped by their sometimes being given laxatives and antidepressants that are delivered in their food.

The worst of it, perhaps, is that there is absolutely no evidence for DAT’s therapeutic effectiveness. At best, there might be short-term gains attributable to the feel-good effects of being in a novel environment and the placebo boost of having positive expectations. Nothing more. Any apparent improvement in children with autism, people with depression, and others is as much an illusion as the ‘smile’ of the dolphin.

Studies purporting to prove that DAT is beneficial fail to account for the fact that interacting with an animal makes most people feel good, and for the fact that treatments often work because people believe that they will (the placebo effect). I can testify to how lovely it is to be near dolphins – in my case, wild ones. Dolphins are large predators with sharp teeth, and some DAT encounters have resulted in injuries and near drownings. Dolphins can be sexually aggressive, even towards humans (eek!), which I ‘d imagine would turn a DAT session sour in moments. They are also wild animals that don’t belong in captivity, and are stressed and traumatised by the experience. Marino concludes

I understand that desperate people will continue to visit DAT facilities for help with their own illnesses. Sadly, they may never realise that the dolphins they seek help from are likely to be as psychologically and physically traumatised as they are.

Read the full article here. I urge you to check it out – it’s fascinating. Leave your crystals at home.

Kidnapping a baby dolphin to save a pod – an ethical dilemma? Or not?

Staying on the subject of marine mammal strandings, here’s an interesting series of events that took place at the Two Peoples Bay Nature Reserve in Western Australia. Initial reports on 2 February this year indicated that between 100 and 150 pantropical spotted dolphins were milling about in knee deep water. One of the dolphins was dead.

In order to herd the pod out into deeper water, and avert a potential mass stranding, officials removed a baby dolphin from the pod and transported it into deeper water. Its distress cries attracted the attention of the remainder of the pod, who then swam out into deeper water to where the calf was, joined it, and subsequently out to sea. They were not seen again.

I think this is a fascinating and incredibly innovative solution to what is usually a very upsetting problem and one that rarely has good outcomes. Do you think the end (saving up to 150 dolphins from stranding on a beach) justified the means (causing temporary distress to a young dolphin, its mother, and the rest of the pod)?

Media releases from Western Australia’s Department of Environment and Conservation: