Cape Town’s visible shipwrecks: Commodore II finds a home

Commodore II by the Milnerton lagoon
Commodore II by the Milnerton lagoon

I am happy to report that the Commodore II has finally been paid the attention she deserves, and moved to a permanent position on the shore of Milnerton lagoon. SAHRA began a process in late 2016 (when the wreck still lay on the beach close to the lagoon mouth) that has finally concluded with the wreck being moved on Friday 23 November. There are some pictures of that endeavour here and here.

View towards Lagoon Beach hotel
View towards Lagoon Beach hotel

We first wrote about the Commodore II in 2015, and I was amazed that a wreck with such a fascinating and high-profile history could have practically disappeared into obscurity. There appeared to be no desire from the keepers of our maritime heritage to protect her, and when she washed up the Milnerton lagoon during a storm in late 2017, it seemed that she would be carted away piecemeal for firewood before anyone realised what was being lost.

View of the Commodore II
View of the Commodore II

Late last year, an enterprising local resident secured the wreck to the banks of the lagoon off Esplanade road, at his personal expense, to prevent it from washing around inside the lagoon and injuring paddlers or damaging the historic bridge further up. We wrote about his efforts here.

The Commodore II's sturdy construction
The Commodore II’s sturdy construction

The new, and hopefully final location of the wreck is just next to the small parking area outside the Lagoon Beach hotel and Wang Thai restaurant. It’s entirely accessible at all hours of the day and night, and there are promises of interpretive signage to share the wreck’s history with passers by.

Tube worms cover the lower portion of the wreck
Tube worms cover the lower portion of the wreck

I went to visit the wreck a week after she was moved. Dried pond weed still covers some of the planking, and thousands of tiny tube worms cover the lower part of the structure that was submerged (I can’t tell what kind – most likely Ficopomatus enigmatus, the estuarine tube worm that thrives in brackish water).

It’s great that the Commodore II is now firmly on the radar as one of Cape Town’s historic shipwrecks, worthy of preservation. I’ll be updating my ebook to reflect her new location before year-end. Meanwhile, read about her chequered history here.

Newsletter: Better than nothing

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Saturday and/or Sunday: Boat dives in False Bay

The forecast today is a little better for the weekend than it was earlier this week. There is some wind and some odd swell and swell direction changes but I believe it should be worth diving both Saturday and Sunday. Sunday will most likely be a little better. I have students on the boat on both days so there is not much space, however, if you are quick you can reserve a spot!

Zandvlei Nature Reserve
Zandvlei Nature Reserve

Things to do

It’s not as if one needs to actively seek out extra commitments at this time of year, but in case you’re at a loose end check out Wavescape’s Slide Night happening on Monday (you need to book in advance for this). You can get some adult education at UCT’s annual Summer School in January, and there’s something for you whether your interest is sharks or shipwrecks.

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

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A visit to the Vasa museum in Stockholm

I never got around to sharing some of the maritime components of the trip Tony and I made to Sweden (for adventure) and Denmark (for family) in July-August of last year. I trust you will indulge me as I intersperse these recollections with our (not always so) regular programming.

When I do trip planning I tend to gravitate towards attractions and places that have something to do with maritime history and the marine environment – these subjects tend to make both of us happy. I became obsessed with visiting the Vasa Museum a few years ago, and when the opportunity arose to route our travels through Stockholm, I made it our first priority on our first full day in the city. If I had to provide a single reason for why we went to Stockholm, the Vasa might be it.

The Vasa museum
The Vasa museum

The Vasa was a Swedish warship that sank on her maiden voyage, within a stone’s throw of land and inside the collection of islands that makes up Stockholm, in the summer of 1628. She went down suddenly and quickly, and was lost until the 1950s, when the wreck was discovered in 32 metres of water in brackish Lake Malaren, just outside the harbour of Stockholm. The lake is connected to the sea, but the water is not salty enough to accommodate shipworms (Teredo navalis), and the absence of this wood-muncher contributed to Vasa‘s preservation. An extensive salvage effort culminated in 1961, and in 1988 the ship was moved to a dedicated museum on the island of Djurgården. The masts on the outside of the museum building aren’t original, but they show the height to which Vasa‘s actual masts would have reached.

Stern view of Vasa
Stern view of Vasa

Both the story of the Vasa‘s construction and sinking, and of her recovery and preservation, are remarkable. (I’ll leave you to discover why she sank.) I did a guided tour of the museum which provided some colour regarding the ship’s history before walking around on my own, but Tony preferred to explore independently from the beginning. The salvage process is well documented, as is life on board, characterised by some grim realities!

State of the art 1950s diving gear
State of the art 1950s diving gear

A team of engineers works constantly to preserve the ship, which is closely monitored for structural and chemical changes, and kept in a strictly climate-controlled environment. The fruits of their research have assisted in the preservation of other historical vessels such as the Mary Rose in Portsmouth, and the parts of the exhibit related to the preservation of Vasa are fascinating in and of themselves.

First view of Vasa
First view of Vasa

I can’t adequately convey what it was like to walk into the museum for the first time and see a full-sized 17th century wooden warship right in front of us. Vasa is colossal, and breathtaking. So much of what I know about what life was like centuries ago has to be supplemented by imaginative reconstruction of things I’ve never seen before (like a wooden warship), or ambitious mental deletions of the industrial and agrarian features of almost all the landscapes one interacts with in developed countries. Seeing the Vasa was like a smack in the face from the past. Most of my photos are no good, because you’re so close to the damn thing, and it’s so enormous, that cameras just don’t do it justice. But your eyes do. If you’re anywhere remotely near Stockholm, get thee to the Vasa Museum. I promise you won’t regret it.

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.

Bookshelf: The Annotated Old Fourlegs

The Annotated Old Fourlegs – Mike Bruton (and Prof J.L.B. Smith)

This is a beautifully designed and produced annotated version of Old Fourlegs, J.L.B. Smith’s account of the discovery and positive identification of a living coelacanth in 1938. Wide margins around the original text allow Mike Bruton to bring Old Fourlegs up to date with additional scientific information, as well as photographs, explanations, and other curiosities.

The Annotated Old Fourlegs
The Annotated Old Fourlegs

Old Fourlegs describes the months in 1938-1939 during which Smith confirmed the identity of the coelacanth with the essential assistance of Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer of the East London Museum. Ms Courtenay-Latimer acquired a fish specimen from a trawler captain, and, realising that it was an exceptional find, contacted Smith, an ichthyologist at Rhodes University. A rollercoaster of events – which involved the chartering of a South African Airforce plane and stretched all the way to then-Prime Minister D.F. Malan – was set in motion. Old Fourlegs is a surprisingly emotional, thrilling book by a man deeply invested in his work, and whose world was upended by the discovery of living coelacanths in the waters of the southern Indian Ocean.

It is also a book of its time, and today’s readers will find some parts by turns mystifying, and others offensive. The offensive bits – including lionising D.F. Malan, who, with his government, laid the foundations of the edifice of South Africa’s apartheid legislation – remain so, but Bruton’s annotated version provides context for readers unfamiliar with the history.

The book concludes with an examination of the cultural legacy of the coelacanth, which is disproportionately significant. The fish also has deep and wide links to South Africa and our research and diving community. If you have the appropriate (very deep diving) qualifications, you can dive with them in Jesser Canyon in Sodwana Bay. If you’ve never seen a video of one of these magical animals in motion, I encourage you to hit up youtube. Watch with the sound off for best effect.

Get the book here (South Africa), here or here. This is a volume you should read in hard copy, not as an ebook.

Bookshelf: Between the Tides

Between the Tides: In Search of Sea Turtles – George Hughes

I have been late in coming to this book, which was published about five years ago. George Hughes is a world-renowned, South African turtle scientist whose work has done much to ensure protection for sea turtles in the southern Indian Ocean. He was the guest speaker at an event held at the Two Oceans Aquarium to celebrate the release of Yoshi, the loggerhead turtle who spent over 20 years at the aquarium and is now powering along the Namibian coastline in rude health.

Between the Tides
Between the Tides

Dr Hughes was CEO of the Natal Parks Board and then Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, but Between the Tides relates his early career as a student looking for turtles along South Africa’s wild north east coast, in places that today support thriving dive and fishing charters. His legacy of turtle research continues.

Turtle surveys were conducted around Madagascar, the Comores, Reunion, the Seychelles, and on the Mozambique coast. The fact that the iSimangaliso Wetland Park now exists, offering a protected and well-regulated breeding environment for three species of turtles (loggerhead, leatherback and green – discovered there in 2014) is thanks to the early and persistent work of Dr Hughes and his colleagues. Turtles were first found nesting on this piece of coast in 1963, when it was still completely wild and mostly neglected by the authorities. In this book Dr Hughes recounts the development of the tagging program that he started, in which over 350,000 hatchlings were flipper tagged and/or marked over a period of 31 years.

Only about two out of every 1,000 hatchlings survive to return to the area in which they hatched, to breed. Female loggerheads are estimated to reach maturity around the age of 36 years, during which time they navigate an ocean of threats. This makes every surviving hatchling incredibly valuable.

The recovery of the number of loggerheads, in particular, has been quite spectacular, with more modest but noticeable gains in the leatherback population. More recently, as technology has allowed it, satellite tagging has shown their movements around the Indian ocean

If you find a baby sea turtle on the beach (this is the time of year when they start washing up), here is what you should do. The most important thing is to keep it dry, and to contact the aquarium as soon as possible.

Dr Hughes also discusses the sustainable use of sea turtles (for example, for food), something which I’d never thought about and which for that reason is fascinating – and very challenging to come at with an open mind, and appreciating the viewpoints of a scientist who has been steeped in turtle research for most of his life.  This is an excellent, proudly South African marine science book, written to be accessible even to those who aren’t turtle fanatics a priori. Highly recommended.

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

Cape Town’s visible shipwrecks: Update on the Commodore II

Until recently, the last time I specifically went looking for the wreck of the Commodore II was in December last year, when I went to Milnerton lagoon beach to show visiting family the beautiful view of Table Mountain. At that time tides and waves had moved the wreck further away from the lagoon mouth, and she was lying on the sand at a spot that would be partially submerged at high tide.

There has been some community discussion about the future of the wreck since late last year, but nothing changed until winter arrived.

Commodore II in December 2016
Commodore II in December 2016

Next time I went to look for the wreck, just after the Cape storm of 7 June this year, I couldn’t find it. A waiter at the Wang Thai restaurant on the beach told me he’d seen it all the way up at the old Wood Bridge at Woodbridge Island, and that people were removing pieces of the wreck and carrying them away. The storm surge had actually lodged the wreck partially under the old Wood Bridge (a sensitive National Monument constructed in 1901), and there was the potential for it to cause damage. There’s a picture of the wreck in this position on page 28 of this document (pdf).

Commodore II, secure for now
Commodore II, secure for now

A few weeks ago Gerhard Beukes, a Milnerton resident, messaged me to say that he had secured the wreck about half way down the lagoon. It had been winched free of the Wood Bridge by Koos Retief, Area Biodiversity Manager at Table Bay Nature Reserve, and had floated back down the lagoon to settle on a sandbank near Gerhard’s home.

Gerhard estimates that the wreck weighs about 25 tons, and with considerable personal effort and some financial outlay he has attached it to the lagoon bank, resting on the sandy bottom in shallow water, with chains and heavy lifting straps. The chain is secured to bolts attached to metal pipes sunk deep into the bank.

The Commodore II in Milnerton
The Commodore II in Milnerton

The arrangement will prevent the wreck from washing around inside the lagoon and potentially injuring kayakers and other water users. It will also prevent it from washing out into Table Bay and becoming a semi-submerged shipping hazard, potentially lethal to vessels (something like the Seli 1 is when her buoy goes missing).

View towards Woodbridge Island
View towards Woodbridge Island

It’s also quite visible: if you walk or drive down Esplanade Street in Milnerton with Lagoon Beach behind you, you’ll come across the remains of the Commodore II next to the bank of the lagoon on your left. The wreck is over 60 years old, which means that under South African law it is protected and removing pieces of it is an offence. I hope that having many local residents’ eyes on the wreck will ensure it some measure of safety, even in the absence of any enforcement of the relevant laws.

How can you help?

To make sure the wreck does not come loose next time a large volume of water washes down the river and into the lagoon after heavy rains, it needs some further reinforcing in its current location. This could be done with a further 5 metre length of heavy duty chain, or (preferably) two loading slings, 25mm steel cable with rings or eyes on both ends. The harness needs to be capable of holding 25 tons of wood in place even under strain, and are necessary to completely stabilise the wreck.

If you have such items lying around unused at home, or are sufficiently moved and interested by the wonderful history of the Commodore II to make a donation, please comment on this post or use the contact form here, and I’ll connect you with Gerhard, the current guardian of the Commodore II.

Are you interested in shipwrecks that you can visit without going underwater? Read more about Cape Town’s visible shipwrecks here.

Newsletter: Cocktail weather

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

No dives

We are in a phase of semi-decent weekday diving and dodgy weekends again. We had fairly good False Bay diving during the week, but the weekend forecast is not ideal for much beyond storm chasing. Strong winds and some significant swell topped off with a dash of rain are hardly a cocktail for diving. Northerly wind is not that great for False Bay and neither is a 5 metre swell, so best you pursue some other form of activity this weekend.

Sightings

One of the guys in the Underwater Cape Town facebook group reported a sighting of a john dory at A Frame this week. These fish are striking, solitary, and seldom seen. Bizarrely for such an exotic-looking fish, they are popularly served wrapped in newsprint with a side of chips. We were lucky to spot one at Long Beach a few years ago. (Go check out the video on Underwater Cape Town for a better idea of what they look like, and keep your eyes open next time you go diving!)

John Dory at Long Beach in January 2010
John Dory at Long Beach in January 2010

Talks talks talks

This Wednesday 17th is the nautical archaeology talk I mentioned in last week’s newsletter. There’s a talk on 23 August about the health of our fish stocks by scientists Colin Atwood and Jock Currie at Bellville Underwater Club – info on facebook. If you have a UCT staff or student card, you can listen to conservation photographer Thomas Peschak speaking on 21 September – info on facebook, too.

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

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

Newsletter: Testing 123

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Saturday: Two launches from False Bay Yacht Club, meeting at 8.00 am

A long period 3 metre swell arrives tomorrow, drops on Saturday and then builds again on Sunday. I am planning two launches early on Saturday morning as I have several students to certify. We will meet in the car park at False Bay Yacht Club at 8.00 am. Destination unknown and weather dependent. If you’re keen on a magical mystery tour, drop me an email, text or Whatsapp.

The boat from underwater
The boat from underwater

Keeping busy

In case you missed it on the blog this week, we tested one of our self-inflating life jackets in the pool, to see what would happen when it got wet. It works!

Maritime archaeologist John Gribble is speaking at the auditorium of the South African Astronomical Observatory on Wednesday 17 August, 4.30 for 5.00 pm. His talk is entitled “From Shipwrecks to Hand Axes: An Introduction to South Africa’s Maritime and Underwater Cultural Heritage” and is described as follows:

South Africa’s maritime and underwater cultural heritage is surprisingly diverse and extremely rich. Although shipwrecks are the most obvious elements of this rich heritage resource, there are a range of pre-colonial maritime heritage resources that are less well known. This talk will introduce South Africa’s maritime and underwater cultural heritage, highlight the archaeological importance of this resource, and touch on a few examples of interesting, local historical wrecks.

There is no need to book, the event is free to the public.

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

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

Bookshelf: Ice Blink

Ice Blink: The Tragic Fate of Sir John Franklin’s Lost Polar Expedition – Scott Cookman

Ice Blink
Ice Blink

In Ice Blink, Scott Cookman provides another account of the much-reported final expedition of Sir John Franklin to the Canadian Arctic, in search of a Northwest Passage. The story has been told many times, in many ways, and Cookman’s rendition is gripping.

Several theories have been advanced to account for the failure of any members of Franklin’s expedition to return. A few bodies have been found, and eyewitness accounts from Inuits in the areas that the Erebus and Terror were trapped in the ice provide some clues as to what happened. A conclusive explanation, however, has not been found.

Cookman advances the idea the the men were killed by botulinium toxin, introduced into their diets from poorly prepared tinned food.  He is dogmatic about this theory to the exclusion of all others, and at times makes it sound misleadingly certain that this was the cause of the disaster. In fact, experts fail to agree on what killed the men; other theories include lead poisoning (from the canned food), or simply just the cold and poor preparation.

I would recommend you read this book after you’ve familiarised yourself with some of the other literature about Arctic exploration and Sir John Franklin in particular, and are equipped to separate fact from hypothesis. If you’re interested in the subject, may I strongly recommend The Man Who Ate His Boots and Frozen in Time.

You can read the first chapter of the book here and a New York Times review here.

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