Newsletter: Guests from the south

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Sunday: Boat dives from False Bay Yacht Club

Sunday will most likely be the better diving day in False Bay despite the swell forecast. The Atlantic temperature has dropped 5 degrees in the last 24 hours so there is a chance that Oudekraal would work on Saturday if you need to get wet.

I will plan launching from Simons Town, early on Sunday and both dives will be in the vicinity of Roman Rock. Let me know if you’re keen.

Flagellar sea fan at Roman Rock (and very respectable visibility)
Flagellar sea fan at Roman Rock (and very respectable visibility)

Penguin at large

There’s a king penguin currently visiting Buffels Bay in the Cape Point Nature Reserve. These animals are found on the subantarctic islands and the Antarctic continent, so it’s a long way from home. This is a rare chance for you to see the second largest species of penguin.

They aren’t rare (there are 2-3 million of them in the world), but they are highly threatened by climate change, and we’re very lucky to see one in Africa. This bird has no fear of humans, so be cautious and respectful if you go and see it. SANParks is guarding the animal to make sure it’s kept safe.


Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099

Diving is addictive!

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Bookshelf: The Seabird’s Cry

The Seabird’s Cry: The Lives and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and Other Ocean Voyagers – Adam Nicolson

The Seabird's Cry
The Seabird’s Cry

This is such a wonderful book that I read it twice within the span of six months. In between my two readings, during the northern hemisphere spring, Tony and I visited Pembrokeshire in Wales. This is not the home of Mr Darcy, but rather the location of several islands on which seabirds breed. Seeing puffins, gannets and shearwaters in all their glorious breeding plumage animated Nicolson’s descriptions of their precarious lives. (I do plan to share some photos and details of that visit in future posts.)

Early in this book, Nicolson points out that seabirds are the only creatures on earth that are at home in the water, on land, and in the air. To most of us, albatross are perhaps the most familiar pelagic seabirds – Carl Safina’s Eye of the Albatross both introduced and immortalised these extraordinary ocean wanderers for a popular audience. Nicolson devotes a chapter to each of ten species of seabird, including albatross, and writes with such extraordinary lyricism that at at times it’s possible to mistake this book for something other than popular science.

This blurring of boundaries is quite intentional, and completely revelatory. Rather than sounding pretentious or foolish, as most of us would if we tried to channel Seamus Heaney while summarising scientific papers and interviewing researchers, Nicolson achieves a remarkable feat of science communication. He speaks of the wonder that comes not from ignorance, but from knowledge and understanding, and how powerful a thing it is to know the facts of these animals’ lives.

If the idea of trying to join the worlds of science and poetry (or literature, or culture) grabs you, you may enjoy this video of a conversation on the subject between Adam Nicolson and Tim Birkenhead, a professor of ornithology.


Seabirds are in trouble worldwide, more threatened than any other group of birds. They are facing – amongst others – challenges wrought by changing ecosystems as the climate warms and industrial fishing robs them of their prey. To help them, we need to act, and action comes after seeing and understanding. In this book Nicolson makes an appeal to a part of us other than the rational, fact-collecting, logical entity, and asks us to empathise with these strikingly “other” creatures. I urge you to read this book.

You can read rapturous reviews of this book on The Guardian’s website, on Literary Hub, and at the Financial Times.

Get a copy here (South Africa), or here. It is available for Kindle, but you’ll have to search for that one yourself!

Bookshelf: Into the Raging Sea

Into the Raging Sea: Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of El Faro – Rachel Slade

Into The Raging Sea
Into The Raging Sea

If the article I shared earlier this week made you want to learn more about the 2015 sinking of El Faro, an American cargo ship, this book is for you.

Using the 26 hours of voice recordings recovered from the ship’s deep water resting place after a prolonged search, Rachel Slade is able to reconstruct, in detail, the final voyage of El Faro. Slade also attended the hearings on the sinking held by the US Coast Guard, and interviewed the family and friends of El Faro‘s crew. The result is a detailed and illuminating investigative work that explains the disaster more comprehensively than simply to say that the ship sailed into a hurricane and sank. Slade also emphasises the humanity, connections and personalities of the captain and crew, who otherwise might be lost in the telling as statistics of loss.

The official explanations, and absence of any assumption of culpability for the tragedy, are enraging and frustrating, but illustrate the insidious pressure to take risks that commercial mariners may experience from ship owners and operators. This dynamic plays out at all scales. Even as a small business owner, Tony is sometimes asked to launch his boat in conditions that he deems unsafe. A client may put their own financial gain ahead of the safety of the divers, or of my husband. The risk of such a venture is entirely with the captain and others on the vessel, while the decision-maker (and financial beneficiary of the decision) sits ashore in safety like General Melchett sending his troops to their doom.

Slade’s book is a gripping read, accurately and comprehensively reported, and will appeal to anyone with an interest in maritime drama. It is also of particular interest given that warming oceans will give rise to more storms like Jaoquin, and our ability to forecast their movements with accuracy will, to an increasing degree, impact captains’ ability to keep themselves, their crew and their cargo out of harm’s way.

Do not confuse this book with Into a Raging Sea, the excellent book about South Africa’s National Sea Rescue Institute.

Get Into The Raging Sea here (US), here (UK) or here (South Africa).

Christmas gift guide 2018

Chaps, Festivus (for those of you who find tinsel distracting) is around the corner. This year, as a principle, the gifts that I’m giving to the people I care about are skewed towards experiences, and when they are things, I’m trying to make them beautiful things that will enable my chums to live more sustainable lives.

Before I get going, however, can I point you to this excellent, far more comprehensive, far more inspired gifting guide over at twyg? Their first suggestion is “don’t gift at all”, and this is probably something well worth considering, if it won’t cause a domestic diplomatic incident.

Tinsel from the sea (Champia compressa)
Tinsel from the sea (Champia compressa)

Here’s a quick list of ideas in case you’re struggling.

An experience

A dive course or boat dive with Tony, a family photo shoot, a day out at Cape Point or up Table Mountain in the cable car, a digital magazine or streaming television subscription – use your imagination!

Something water wise

It’s likely that most of us will never, in good conscience, be able to resume watering our gardens the way we used to. For this reason, water wise plants are high on my list of excellent gifts for keen gardeners. For ideas of what plants to choose, your local nursery will help, or you and the avid coastal gardener in your life can consult this excellent book.

Something to minimise waste

  • A set of stainless steel or glass straws ( is one stockist), glass or copper straws (check out EbonyMoon for these), or a pack of paper or other biodegradeable straws to keep at home and/or carry around like a dork for use at restaurants.
  • A reusable coffee cup – Seattle Coffee Company sells beautiful Keep Cups, as do Vida e Caffe and many supermarkets. ecoffee cup sells beautiful bamboo cups, with a range of designs to choose from.
  • A reusable shopping bag – most supermarkets stock bags of some description, as does Faithful to Nature. 3friends has beautiful Shweshwe printed bags that are very special. We should all have a reusable shopping bag in our handbags, as well as several in the car.
  • A bokashi bin, which you can find at Builders Warehouse or at many nurseries. Don’t be grossed out – we have significantly improved the soil quality in our garden, and don’t put out any food waste or scraps with our garbage any more, thanks to diligent use of this nifty indoor composter!

Something to lift up someone else

Some deserving, marine-related recipients of a donation on your friend’s behalf are:

There are many more excellent non profits than just these three, and so much need, but do your research carefully. My rule of thumb is, if the founder’s face is plastered everywhere and it looks more like a personality cult than an NPO, it’s not a cause that I want to give my bucks to.

A donation of time is a way to do something great, and spend time with someone you care about. Promising to join a friend for a beach cleanup followed by a coffee (in your reusable cup, your treat) gives a gift to the planet, and the gift of time to someone you value. To find a local clean up, follow the Beach Co-Op (facebook) and Cape Town Beach Clean Up (facebook). The Two Oceans Aquarium also arranges periodic beach cleans. (Non-Capetonians, facebook and google search are your friend.)

Looking back

Previous years’ gift guides, which contain some good ideas – if I say so myself:

  • 2017 – for info on Wild Cards or My Green Cards, small specific gifts for divers and water people
  • 2015
  • 2014
  • 2013 – for info on gift ideas for readers
  • 2012
  • 2011
  • 2010

Be safe, be kind, be frugal, be wise! Thanks for reading.

Bookshelf: Antarctica

Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of the World’s Most Mysterious Continent – Gabrielle Walker

THIS is the book about the Antarctic that I have been looking for all of my life. It’s unlikely that this discovery will stop my obsessive consumption of polar-related literature and documentary material, but this is likely a book I will return to again.


The author, a science writer, has visited Antarctica several times, and is thus able to weave her personal experiences of  life on the driest continent with accounts of the science taking place there, and the scientists doing the work. Walker has had the sort of access to the scientists that most of us can only dream of, and makes reasonably good use of it.

Mixed in with stories of her Antarctic travels and meetings with researchers, Walker also briefly recounts the stories of some of the explorers of last century who opened up the interior of the continent. She is able to visit Western Antarctica, a part of the continent that very few people get to, and where the effects of climate change can be seen most clearly.

There’s a much more comprehensive review from The Guardian here. If you’re interested in the Antarctic, and the science that is being done there, you should read this book.

Get a copy here (South Africa), here or here.

Mythbusting solutions to Cape Town’s water crisis

Here’s an only half serious take on some of the suggestions I’ve heard to deal with Cape Town’s water crisis. These are solutions that I’ve seen proposed to magically, quickly save us from the catastrophic water shortage we are facing in Cape Town, usually by people reluctant to adjust their own water consumption to face the new normal. They are mostly ridiculous, and fun to mythbust using an extremely low-level bastardisation of Fermi estimation. (They’ve put me fondly in mind of Prof Hahn’s first year applied maths lecture in which he instructed us to estimate the volume of a cow by assuming – to make the maths easier – that it was spherical in shape.) I digress:

Can we tow an iceberg from Antarctica to melt for fresh water?

PhD student Neil Malan wrote a detailed explanation of why this is an infeasible (I’m being polite here) idea. Here’s a highlight…

Icebergs are large, and heavy. Therefore, in order to get a decent-sized (say 20 km long) iceberg it is estimated that some twenty large oceangoing tugs would be needed to move the iceberg the 6 000 odd kilometres from the Southern Ocean to Cape Town. This would be done at a speed of approximately one knot, thus making a journey of 250 days to reach the Cape and losing about 40% of its mass along the way.

… and here’s the whole article, which I urge you to read in order to get a sense of some of the scales (distance, volume, time) involved in such a proposal.

Does anyone sane and respectable think it can be done? Well, yes, actually – salvage master Nick Sloane (who righted the Costa Concordia, and who is a singularly impressive individual), thinks it is a feasible solution. Judge for yourself who is right – listen to his comments on Cape Talk radio and weigh them up against Neil Malan’s reservations.

Has it been done anywhere else? No, but some people in Dubai are talking about it, and expert consensus is that it’s pretty much impossible.

Theewaterskloof dam (Cape Town's primary water supply) in August 2017, 24% full
Theewaterskloof dam (Cape Town’s primary water supply) in August 2017, 24% full

Can we supply water to Cape Town using water tankers from other parts of South Africa?

Let’s do some maths. At current water usage rates, Cape Town is using more than 500 megalitres (million litres) of water per day. Let’s round it down to 500 for ease of calculation. If we divide 500,000,000 by 24 (to get usage per hour), and then by 60 (to get usage per minute), and again by 60 (to get usage per second), we arrive at a figure of 5,787 kilolitres per second. (Just pause on that for a moment – it’s a big number.)

If a tanker truck can carry 20,000 litres, it’ll take one of these trucks arriving about every three seconds, around the clock, to provide enough water for the city. Let’s generously assume that such a truck can be filled, drive to Cape Town, offload its water, and return to its point of origin (which would have to be somewhere far away that has spare water – an entirely mythical place in South Africa at present) in 24 hours. If we multiply 24 hours by 60 minutes by 60 seconds divided by three (we only need a truck every three seconds, remember), we’ll need 28,800 tanker trucks running continuously to provide Cape Town’s water.

I can tell you, with great certainty, that there aren’t that many tanker trucks in South Africa, let alone unused tanker trucks with nothing to do other than drive back and forth bringing water to the Cape. (Who’s going to pay for this? Where will the water come from? Where will they park? Another story.) One water tanker costs in the ballpark of R1.3 million. A few tens of them are usually procured at a time, not thousands.

Think I’m being greedy asking for 500 megalitres per day? Let’s halve our water usage; then we’ll only need 14,400 tankers on the road. Think we should also rather calculate using 40,000 litre trucks? Then we’ll only need 7,200 tankers. STILL TOO MANY.

Can we build a long pipe from the Orange River to Cape Town, to bring us water?

Assuming that there was spare water in the Orange River (there’s not – almost all of it is allocated to agriculture), could we build a pipeline to bring it to Cape Town? We’re talking a distance of 600-800 kilometres here.

Pipelines are expensive and it’s hard to pull numbers out of the air, so let’s look at a South African example. The Gariep pipeline, from the Gariep dam to Mangaung in the Free State, was proposed in 2015. It was to be 180 kilometres long and to cost R2 billion. It would transport 130 megalitres of water per day (about 20 percent of Cape Town’s current daily water usage).

By 2016, it was a “multi-billion Rand” project, hadn’t been started yet, and was projected to take more than five years to complete. The engineers’ website says it is to cost R4.5 billion.

If we multiply R4.5 billion by three, because our imaginary pipeline is at least three times the length of the Gariep pipeline, we arrive at a figure of 13.5 billion ZARs. For a mere 8.5 billion ZARs, we could build a desalination plant that would supply 450 megalitres per day. This is about two thirds of recent usage, and our actual target usage under level 6B water restrictions, using water that is definitely there (the sea) instead of water that isn’t (spare capacity in the Orange River). We could buy some chocolate with the R5 billion left over.

Could we build a 600 kilometre pipeline quickly enough to help our current situation? These things take a long time, and in South Africa we don’t have a track record of speedy project completions, corruption-free tender processes, and trouble-free execution of projects. We can look to this 40 kilometre pipeline near Durban for an idea of how long a big project like this could take; phase two of the project was commenced in 2012, and completion “was expected” by mid-2017. So for a 600 kilometre project, are we looking at 75 years to completion?

Can’t we dig the dams deeper so that they store more water?

Cumulative annual rainfall at our weather station in Sun Valley
Cumulative annual rainfall at our weather station in Sun Valley

The problem is not that the dams are not deep enough, it’s that there has not been enough rain to fill them. Here’s a helpful interview with the regional head for the Department of Water and Sanitation.

While we’re talking about this, when building a dam the engineers don’t typically go out and dig a big hole to fill with water. Dams are typically structures that block river valleys, allowing the river to flood the land behind the dam wall as the natural course of the water flow is obstructed. Whatever used to be on the land – farms, homes, wildlife – can’t be there any more.

A cubic metre of soil weighs at least 1.5 tons (obviously depends on the type of soil), and removing this would make space for one kilolitre of water. Theewaterskloof  Dam has a capacity of 480 million cubic metres (480 million kilolitres) of water.

What does this much water look like? Well, if we put our Fermi estimation hats on and approximate the dimensions of just the flat-topped part of Table Mountain by a right rectangular prism with dimensions of 1,000 metres (height), 1,000 metres (length) and 200 metres (width), we arrive at a volume for the iconic flat bit of Table Mountain – minus the skirt that sprawls towards Camps Bay, Rondebosch, and the City Bowl, and the Twelve Apostles and the rest of the chain that spreads down the peninsula – of 200 million cubic metres. We could thus hide Table Mountain twice over (broken into bits, obvs) in Theewaterskloof dam and it still wouldn’t be full.

Theewaterskloof dam was built at the head of a valley where farmers once grew grape vines. You can see the dead vines sticking out of the sand now, when you visit the dam. There isn’t one big river that runs into the dam, but numerous small streams as well as the general runoff from the catchment area around the dam, which is about 500 square kilometres in extent. If the total volume of the dam had to be excavated, rather than using a natural valley, you’d be left with at least 720 millon tons of earth to dispose of. A Table Mountain-sized problem.

But the United Nations says that water is one of my human rights, so the taps can’t run dry!

Ignoring the fact that if there is no water, then your “human right” can’t be catered for, it is instructive to read what the UN actually says about the right to water and sanitation. I refer you to this media brief (pdf), which sets it out in some detail, with examples.

The amount of water you are entitled to is not unlimited. Between the UN and South Africa’s Constitutional Court the recommended amount is somewhere between 25 and 50 litres, and it is not required to be free (it simply has to be “affordable”). Page 7 of the media brief corrects some of the common misconceptions around this human right.

Anyway – my view of human rights, particularly in a country as thoroughly damaged as South Africa, where I am emphatically not one of the most vulnerable or disadvantaged members of the population, is that my rights are to whatever I can provide for myself. There are far more needy and less able people than I, and in terms of state or municipal or welfare assistance, their needs have to come first.

Enough already

This is ridiculous, and I’m tired. Solutions to water crisis? Use less water. No, less than that. Practise radical personal responsibility. No one is coming to help, except perhaps – if you are extremely lucky – friends and neighbours. Collect rainwater in your personal capacity so that you rely less on municipal supply. Recycle water in your home (grey water for flushing, hand washing, gardening), and continue to do this even if things return to some semblance of the way they were three years ago. Think about how you will cope with Day Zero.

In my inexpert opinion the city should immediately start to build capacity to treat and re-use waste water. In the long term, solutions such as desalination on a medium to large scale, and (if carefully managed) tapping into the aquifers will become very important to ensure the city’s water resilience as the climate in the Western Cape becomes drier and windier. Desalination as a short term, small-scale, temporary solution is laughable. So is drilling into the aquifers without knowledge of their capacity, without proper plans to recharge them (fascinating witchcraft), and without a scientific understanding of how much water it is reasonable to abstract on an ongoing basis. Peace out.

Preparing for (and coping with) Day Zero in Cape Town

There’s a good chance that Cape Town won’t be able to supply water to its citizens through their taps starting sometime in the next couple of months (the city says mid-April; Tony thinks much sooner than that). Tony and I don’t have any special or expert knowledge, but we’re both slightly paranoid weather nerds, and it was apparent that by the end of winter 2017  (thanks a lot to our home weather station) that Cape Town was in serious trouble. We have been working on our water resilience at home for well over a year, and have been preparing seriously for the possibility of Day Zero since August.

Not rain clouds near our house
Not rain clouds near our house

I find that Tony and I worry less about things when we can make plans, compile checklists, think through possible outcomes and try to prepare for them, even if it’s just mentally. This is what works for us, not necessarily for everyone. And maybe I force Tony to do this because it makes me feel better. Anyway – as a result, we’ve done a lot of thinking and talking over different options and issues related to water security, and coping well with the way things might be if the taps run dry.

I’ve prepared a very informally written document (channelling James Joyce in its style), with input from Tony and a lovely colleague, which we shared with the rest of our office to help people who perhaps haven’t thought much about how they’ll care for themselves and their families during the current intense water restrictions, and beyond. I’m sharing it  here, and you are welcome to use it to spark some ideas of your own, or to encourage friends and family to plan to the extent that you think is sensible. Obviously if you plan to trigger some enormous financial expenditure or dangerous stunt related to what we talk about in the document, I expect you to do your own research to confirm things for yourself. Knowledge is power and I’m sharing this document without assuming any liability for what you do with the contents. Download the document here (pdf).

I hope you won’t mind a few more blog posts about drought-related subjects over the next few weeks. It may not be all about scuba diving, but it will be about water, if that helps!

Article: The Atlantic on booming cephalopod populations

Let’s not quit our contemplation of the remarkable octopus just yet. For The Atlantic, the wonderful Ed Yong reports on a long-term (since the 1960s) trend of increasing cephalopod populations in the world’s oceans. Cephalopods are octopus, squid, and cuttlefish. The first paragraph of Yong’s article describes cuttlefish in Australian waters that are “the size and weight of a corgi”. I’m hooked (and slightly alarmed).

Octopus at Long Beach
Octopus at Long Beach

Scientists have found that, while there are short-term fluctuations, the overall trend in all kinds of cephalopod populations is up. The populations for which data was collected – largely from fisheries – live in all parts of the ocean, in both hemispheres, suggesting that a global phenomenon is affecting their breeding and survival success rates. Climate change and our overfishing of the ocean’s other inhabitants, as Yong points out, are obvious potential candidates here.

This issue is particularly relevant given the presence of an octopus fishery in False Bay, but unfortunately no one knows how successful that fishery has been (and I don’t buy anecdotal evidence on this – give me data).

Read the full article here.

Newsletter: Copy Cat

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Sunday: Boat dives (max depth 18 metres) from Hout Bay

The weekend forecast is pretty much a copy of last weekend, and the one before. Saturday has strong south easterly wind and some swell, and Sunday is almost windless with a swell of less than 2 metres. This all points to Hout Bay as being the best option.

So Hout Bay it is, meeting on Sunday at 8.30 on the slipway. Both dives will be to a maximum depth of 18 metres, so suitable for Open Water divers. Let me know if you want to come diving.

Fudge and Blue
Fudge and Blue

Earth Hour

Don’t forget Earth Hour on Saturday, from 8.30-9.30 pm in whatever your local timezone is… Have a candlelight dinner and contemplate how you can be a better steward of the earth’s resources. This year’s focus is climate change. Want to learn more about it? We recommend this book by a team of South African scientists.


Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099

Diving is addictive!

To subscribe to receive this newsletter by email, use the form on this page!

Monitoring the Oceans from Space MOOC

As your self-appointed education officer and fellow perpetual student, it is my duty to inform you of an upcoming MOOC on the Futurelearn platform, entitled “Monitoring the Oceans from Space“. In the five weeks of the course,  which starts on 24 October, you will learn about using satellite data to monitor the health of the oceans. You will also learn how to access some of the ocean monitoring data that is collected every day about weather phenomena, icebergs, sea levels, ocean temperature, and more. If you’re into creating your own visualisations or crunching numbers yourself, this should appeal.

The course is presented by EUMETSAT and was developed by Imperative Space in partnership with Plymouth Marine Laboratory, the National Oceanography Centre (Southampton), CLS France and NASA JPL.

Read more about the MOOC here, and register here.

Here’s a trailer:


Regular service on this blog should resume in the forseeable future; it’s been a heck of a year, so forgive us!