Friday poem: The Bluefish

Menhaden are a fish that fill a vital part of the food web in many parts of the world, specially the western Atlantic Ocean. Bluefish (called shad locally) are a popular gamefish (i.e. people fish them for sport – ugh!) and very aggressive hunters of other fish (such as menhaden).

The Bluefish – Isaac McLellan

(Pomatomus saltatrix.)

It is a brave, a royal sport,
Trolling for bluefish o’er the seas;
Fair skies and soaring gulls above,
A steady blowing breeze;
A shapely yacht whose foaming prow
The billowy plain divides,
That like a gallant courser speeds
Far, free o’er ocean tides.

First from West India seas they came,
Haunting the Cuban coast,
Cruel as Spanish buccaneers,
A fierce, rapacious host.
But now by Northern seaboard shores
Their murderous way they take,
From Mexic Gulf to Labrador,
Wherever billows break.
The weaker tenants of the main
Flee from their rage in vain,
The vast menhaden multitudes
They massacre o’er the flood;
With lashing tail, with snapping teeth
They stain the tides with blood.

Rakish are they, like pirate craft,
All matchless to assail,
With graceful, shapely, rounded sides
And the sharp, forked tail;
And when the angler’s hook is fixed
They fight, they struggling bleed,
Now leaping high, now plunging deep,
Darting with lightning speed.

And yet these sea marauders,
These tyrants of the main,
By fiercer, mightier ruffians
Are hunted, conquered, slain;
The tumbling porpoise hunts them,
Dorado fierce pursues,
And when the shark assaileth,
Blood-stains the waves suffuse.

Protection of wrecks in South Africa

The issue of protection for local shipwrecks has come to the fore in the last two weeks when it became apparent that huge quantities (18 tonnes of steel this week, much brass last week) of metal have been removed from the wreck of the SAS Pietermaritzburg which lies just a kilometre from Miller’s Point. Divers are up in arms at the destruction of one of Cape Town’s most popular wreck dives, as are some who feel that because of the ship’s history, it should be left alone.

Metal salvaged from the SAS Pietermaritzburg on the jetty at Simon's Town
Metal salvaged from the SAS Pietermaritzburg on the jetty at Simon’s Town

Shipwrecks in South Africa are protected under the National Heritage Resources Act (NHRA) of 1999. The act protects wrecks as archaeological sites, but only wrecks that are more than 60 years old. This would include a wreck like the SS Maori, but not a wreck as recent as the BOS 400 or any of the Smitswinkel Bay wrecks – or, unfortunately, the SAS Pietermaritzburg (the wreck is under 20 years old, even though the ship itself is over 60).

Pieces of the SAS Pietermaritzburg on the jetty
Pieces of the SAS Pietermaritzburg on the jetty

The crucial definition (found in that section of the NHRA) relating to shipwrecks is this one:

archaeological” means: wrecks, being any vessel or aircraft, or any part thereof, which was wrecked in South Africa, whether on land, in the internal waters, the territorial waters or in the maritime culture zone of the Republic, as defined respectively in sections 3, 4 and 6 of the Maritime Zones Act, 1994 (Act No. 15 of 1994), and any cargo, debris or artefacts found or associated therewith, which is older than 60 years or which SAHRA considers to be worthy of conservation;

The act thus defines shipwrecks older than 60 years, and associated debris, as archaeological sites, which are to be administered and conserved by SAHRA (The South African Heritage Resource Agency). The regulations pertaining to treatment of archaeological sites are enumerated in Part 2, Section 35 item 4 of the NHRA, which states that no person may, without the relevant permits,

a) destroy, damage, excavate, alter, deface or otherwise disturb any archaeological or palaeontological site or any meteorite;

b) destroy, damage, excavate, remove from its original position, collect or own any archaeological or palaeontological material or object or any meteorite;

c) trade in, sell for private gain, export or attempt to export from the Republic any category of archaeological or palaeontological material or object, or any meteorite; or

d) bring onto or use at an archaeological or palaeontological site any excavation equipment or any equipment which assist in the detection or recovery of metals or archaeological and palaeontological material or objects, or use such equipment for the recovery of meteorites.

The wikivoyage site on diving in South Africa has a useful summary.

How does this apply to the Pietermaritzburg?

The SAS Pietermaritzburg was scuttled in 1994, and is thus nowhere near 60 years old. These legal protections do not apply to it. This means that you will not face a fine or prison term for removing artefacts or other items from the vessel. I imagine that some kind of permit is required to perform the salvage that is currently taking place on the wreck, but unfortunately it looks as though this permit has been issued which allows the work to go ahead.

What to do?

Attend the meeting advertised below (it’s next week), write letters to the newspaper and to the Simon’s Town Civic Association (they will forward them to the relevant authorities), and make your opinions heard! We’ll be at the meeting, and will report back on the proceedings:

It has been brought to the attention of the Society and the Civic Association that a salvor has been cutting and recovering steel from the wreck of the SAS Pietermaritzburg. This ship was scuttled off Miller’s Point to act as an artificial reef. Apart from serving the South African Navy for many years the Pietermaritzburg, originally named HMS Pelorus, led the D-Day Invasion fleet on the 6th June 1944. Many feel that in the light of this ship’s history it should be left as is.

In order for a provisional protection order to be placed on the wreck it requires a meeting to be held at which the public must express their desire in this respect. A meeting will therefore be held at the Simon’s Town Museum on Monday 30th July at 17h30 to which all interested parties are invited.

Series: Whale Wars

Whale Wars
Whale Wars

Whale Wars is an Animal Planet series that follows Captain Paul Watson and the crew of the Steve Irwin, a Sea Shepherd Conservation Society vessel, as they attempt to interfere with the activities of Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean. Sea Shepherd is described in the series as a “rival conservation agency” (kind of like a rival shark conservationist… bleugh!) to Greenpeace, of which Paul Watson was one of the founders (according to himself, but not according to Greenpeace – you be the judge). He was later expelled from Greenpeace after disagreements on tactics.

While Greenpeace are described by one of the Sea Shepherd crew as engaging in “ocean posturing” – getting themselves photographed, and taking pictures of whales and “raising awareness” – Sea Shepherd are aggressive and confrontational, using physical means (nonviolent, but the definition of violence is fluid) to prevent the Japanese whalers from continuing with their activities. They throw smelly and slippery chemicals at the whaling vessels, attempt to foul their propellers with ropes (Tony was desperate to see this succeed – four failed attempts later and he’s still hoping).

The seven episodes of Whale Wars season 1 follow two voyages of several months by the Steve Irwin. Her crew is largely made up of untrained (and pretty clueless, by the looks of things) volunteers – of the nearly 40 people on board, only five seemed to know anything about ships, strategy, planning and life at sea. They don’t really know each other, either, making teamwork tricky and outright dangerous. The hazard of this is immediately apparent. In one early episode, while launching a rubber duck off the side of the Steve Irwin using a crane, one of the supposedly very experienced crew allows the nose of the boat to drift out at an angle while it was in the water next to the main ship, instead of keeping it perpendicular to the direction of motion (and the swells). Almost immediately the rubber duck is swamped and overturned, dumping its four crew into the freezing water. Turning the ship and rescuing them is a mammoth task. During this fiasco another crew member gets over-enthusiastic and damages a rotor blade of the Sea Shepherd helicopter, which is used to track the whalers at a distance. Later in the series the rubber duck crew set off at dusk without any communication equipment, in the wrong direction. The man in charge (Captain Watson was asleep) vacillates and ums and aahs, refusing to initiate a search. He feels vindicated when the crew of the RIB returns safely, but it is a classic case of evaluating a probabilistic decision on its outcome rather than on the thought process behind it.

Captain Watson doesn’t issue many orders. It’s often repeated that the hierarchical structure on board the ship means that he can devote his energy to strategising rather than giving commands. That said, I did not like his leadership style at all. In one instance, he wants his crew to launch the RIB at night and go on a risky mission to harrass a Japanese spy ship that has been tailing the Steve Irwin. He refuses, however, to issue an order to that effect, saying the crew must decide. When they decide not to, he humiliates them and ultimately manipulates them into going. In the event that the mission had gone wrong (a broken crane stopped it in the early stages), he would have been able to abdicate responsibility for the poor outcome because he hadn’t ordered it directly.

While much of the series documents the crew injuring themselves and each other and damaging their equipment, it concludes with a very satisfying pursuit of the factory ship where dead whales are processed and packaged for shipment to Japan. This enormous vessel exudes menace and has daunting dimensions, meaning that instead of using the RIBs, the Steve Irwin must approach her directly in order to harrass her.

Captain Watson plays the media like a violin, calling them every time the Japanese do anything and making sure to put his own spin on every incident. In the final episode of the season he finds a bullet in the bullet proof vest he was wearing, but seemed to play this down after initially claiming he was shot at by someone on the Japanese ship. The absence of entry marks on the clothing he was wearing above the vest was a little suspicious, to my mind.

I was very worried that we’d see a lot of dead and dying whales in this show. Fortunately the only actual whaling one sees is part of a clip that is played in the opening credits illustrating what the Japanese whalers do and how they claim that their activities are for research. Their whaling boats have RESEARCH written on them in large letters (in English). When the Sea Shepherd crew are doing what they come to Antarctica to do, no whaling takes place.

It’s wildly entertaining television that also left us thinking afterwards. I found it hard to form firm opinions on what the Sea Shepherd activists were doing, because I wasn’t sure whether they were demonstrating admirably strong convictions, or whether they had moved into a realm of fanaticism, beyond logic. I couldn’t decide whether risking their lives (often simply as a result of poor planning, poor training and disorganisation) on behalf of whales was noble, or reckless stupidity. Not everyone on board the Steve Irwin was there for the same reason – some love whales and believe that every single cetacean life is sacred, while others simply want an adventure.

Here’s a critical perspective on the show. It’s fascinatingly polarising, even if you do love whales and don’t want to see them killed under the pretext of scientific research.

You can buy the DVD set here or here.

Bookshelf: Lawrence G. Green

I grew up loaning dusty hardcover Lawrence G. Green books from Vredehoek library, where the librarians must have thought I was either faking it or had no hobbies whatsoever apart from reading, given how frequently I visited them. The truth was, in fact, the latter.

Table Mountain from Blouberg
Table Mountain from Blouberg

Green was a journalist and author, who lived from 1900 to 1972. He was a prolific author and wrote in an anecdotal, entertaining manner without any pretensions. He recounted legends, ghost stories, and the sort of tantalising local stories that your grandfather might tell you over and over, lending great colour to the South African historical landscape. His books don’t contain any bibliography or sources, but as folk histories serve an important purpose in keeping alive much of the oral history that has existed in South Africa during the past couple of centuries.

I loved his books on the Skeleton Coast and the shipwrecks of the Cape. I wouldn’t be surprised if wreck hunters still reference his books for clues as to where treasure can be found in the waters of the Cape. Many of his books recount sea battles and tales of daring rescues through storm-tossed waters – this is one of the things I loved about them as a child.

He is sometimes alarmingly racist and misogynist, in that casual way of colonialists of the last century. I choose to laugh uproariously at this and dismiss it as ignorance; others may choose to take offence.

Only one of his books is still in print (Cape Town: Tavern of the Seas, from Galago Publishing). The others can be found by lucky people who browse secondhand book stores!

Stugeron for seasickness

I’ve been deeply reluctant to take any western medicines in my minor struggle with seasickness. Not because I am opposed to western medicine – indeed, I ingest a veritable cocktail of drugs of varying scheduling status every morning before getting out of bed – but because I didn’t want to add another chemical dependency to my life! Before our recent trip to Gansbaai for some shark cage diving (or “shark cave diving”, as my sister repeatedly refers to it), however, I decided that the length of the trip (four hours at sea in winter) and the cost (not insignificant) were compelling arguments in favour of some strong drugs.


Following the advice of the cage diving operator we originally booked with, I took one Stugeron tablet the night before our trip, and one again about an hour before we climbed on the boat. Stugeron is also known as Cinnarizine and is safe for scuba divers to use, and is available over the counter at the pharmacy.

The only side effect that was noticeable was intense grumpiness, apparently worse than my usual morning funk – according to Tony. I don’t remember feeling specially drowsy (aside from the normal sleepiness associated with it being 0530 – a full two hours before I usually wake up).

I didn’t have any problems with seasickness in Gansbaai at all. I was acutely aware that the circumstances were such that I’d usually have gotten sick – large swells, stationary boat with the engines running, and often no clear horizon to look at because of the number of people standing around looking for sharks- but I was fine. Even the deathly gurglings and litres of vomit produced (in neat little white paper bags) by the only other South African on board, a gentleman from Durban who was almost paralytic for the entire trip, did not set me off.

I took Stugeron again two weekends ago, in preparation for the long boat ride out to the SS Lusitania off Cape Point. It definitely enhanced my feelings of grumpiness, but this was resolved as soon as I got into the water. Clearly this is a side effect to bear in mind.

I’m quite pleased about this development in my attempts to appear a normal human being (and maybe one day a proper pirate) whilst on the water. I’ve been reluctant to try Stugeron and other drugs of its ilk, hoping that apples, crackers, ginger and positive thinking will make future trips to Sodwana less physically taxing, but now that I have tested it (twice) with success I’m willing to try it again.

Series: Treasure Quest

Treasure Quest
Treasure Quest

Odyssey Marine Exploration is a listed company (Nasdaq: OMEX) that conducts deep-sea salvage operations on shipwrecks believed to be valuable (in money terms). They use side scan sonar to map the sea floor, expert eyes to identify potential targets, and tethered ROVs to examine those targets and decide whether they’re worth salvaging. The Wired magazine article I posted about here describes their activities. As I mentioned in that post, some are critical of the company for being treasure hunters and failing to preserve the archaeological remains of the ships they plunder. They’ve also run afoul of several governments for a variety of reasons relating to salvage rights.

Treasure Quest (only one season on DVD so far) documents a season of wreck hunting in the English Channel. We are frequently told it costs over $30,000 per day to keep the operation running, and it’s clear from the awesome ships and gadgets used by the crew that this is a big money operation. There seems to be a job for every single kind of person: computer techs, general handymen, project managers, archaeologists and historians, photographers, sailors, and those skilled at Playstation (they drive the ROVs using joysticks from the surface).

The vessels explored ranged from merchant to pirate ships, navy vessels to submarines – of various eras. Their most exciting find in this series was the wreck of the HMS Victory (one of the six ships that bore the name), an 18th century British warship believed to have been carrying a lot of treasure. Not all the episodes involved a successful outcome, but the variety of the activities recorded, along with the total romance and drama of being at sea looking for pirate treasure with the finest modern technology, ensured that we kept watching.

Two of the episodes in the middle of the series are purely archaeology and marine history focused. Keen to show they’re not just treasure hunters (they are) the Odyssey team checked out four German U-boats in the English channel. This was quite a moving episode – not because of the ramblings of the member of Odyssey’s crew who spent years as a submariner and seemed to have forgotten that sixty five years ago the German submariners were the sworn and heartfelt enemies of his Allied brethren, but because of the extremely funny (inadvertently) yet sincere German U-boat historian whose expertise assisted the Odyssey team members in identifying which sub was which. When I see those submarines on the ocean floor – whether intact (indicating that the men inside died slowly, knowing what was coming) or ripped to shreds (indicating a mercifully quick death) – I am filled with respect for those who would agree to spend weeks in a confined space, out of sight of daylight, facing constant threats of danger.

Another episode entails a visit to the wreck of the RMS Lusitania, off the Irish coast. This wreck was purchased many years ago by a wealthy entrepreneur who chartered the Odyssey vessel to conduct dives on the wreck over a period of about a week, in order to photograph the vessel and to try and determine why she sank so rapidly.

The final episode is an account of the greatest succcess Odyssey has had to date, the discovery of a wreck they call The Black Swan (and the source of much of the diplomatic controversy that the company has experienced). Seventeen tons of gold and silver coins were recovered from this site but owing to a lengthy legal process, they are in limbo and cannot be disposed of as yet.

Tony and I devoured this series, both of us contemplating selling our worldly possessions and buying a ship to hunt treasure with! After reading Robert Ballard’s book on using submersibles to explore depths beyond those which a human on scuba could penetrate – The Eternal Darkness – seeing the tools he describes being used first-hand was fabulous. There’s a lot of  computer animation depicting the ships being explored, their sinking, the layout of the Odyssey vessel, the layout of the wreck sites, and just about everything else that could be useful to illustrate what’s being sought and how the search is conducted.

The box set is available here. It comes highly recommended if you aren’t offended by for-profit archaeology, or if you’re interested in shipwrecks, technology with marine applications, or anything related.

Found objects

It’s every child’s dream to find treasure, and this wish isn’t something I’ve grown out of. Movies like Fool’s Gold, Into the Blue and the rest of that genre tend to encourage me in my belief that given the right circumstances, the right setting and a bit of luck, I’ll find something really awesome.

That said, the wrong setting and a sharp eye have led to one or two interesting finds for us in Cape Town. Tony found a Blackberry at Long Beach some time ago, looking perfectly functional until he turned it over and saw that the back was open and (unsurprisingly) completely corroded. In late January he found this poor little camera…

Long Beach camera find
Long Beach camera find

We were both geared up to do some detective work and find the owner based on the faces in the photographs, but although both our computers recognised the presence of the camera’s memory card when we put it into our card readers, the (clearly lengthy) immersion in salt water had made it unreadable. I have confidence, however, that Angela from Bones would be able to work some magic with it.

I was thrilled (OK, not so much) to find an item for Tony’s winter wardrobe the other day in the shallows.

Stripy sock at Long Beach
Stripy sock at Long Beach

The other thing we find a lot of at Long Beach is golf balls. We are planning to open a driving range when we both get too old to dive!

Tony shows me a golf ball found at Long Beach
Tony shows me a golf ball found at Long Beach

The recent extreme winds – several months of gale-force southeasters – have changed the topography of some of our favourite shore entries.  Tony found enough crockery to put together a tea set (with the aid of some superglue) one morning near Simon’s Town, and the following weekend I picked up handfuls of smoothed glass chips – my favourite thing that the ocean spits up.

We’re not quite sure what’s modern (except in some cases where the crockery is clearly machine-made) and what’s not, but Tony has been reading about different types of glass and manufacturing techniques so we can make some fairly reasonable guesses. I’ll do a separate post about our crockery hoard!

Friday poem: The Tarry Buccaneer

Oh we love pirates! More from John Masefield.

The Tarry Buccaneer – John Masefield

I’m going to be a pirate with a bright brass pivot-gun,
And an island in the Spanish Main beyond the setting sun,
And a silver flagon full of red wine to drink when work is done,
Like a fine old salt-sea scavenger, like a tarry Buccaneer.

With a sandy creek to careen in, and a pig-tailed Spanish mate,
And under my main-hatches a sparkling merry freight
Of doubloons and double moidores and pieces of eight,
Like a fine old salt-sea scavenger, like a tarry Buccaneer.

With a taste for Spanish wine-shops and for spending my doubloons,
And a crew of swart mulattoes and black-eyed octoroons,
And a thoughtful way with mutineers of making them maroons,
Like a fine old salt-sea scavenger, like a tarry Buccaneer.

With a sash of crimson velvet and a diamond-hiked sword,
And a silver whistle about my neck secured to a golden cord,
And a habit of taking captives and walking them along a board,
Like a fine old salt-sea scavenger, like a tarry Buccaneer.

With a spy-glass tucked beneath my arm and a cocked hat cocked askew,
And a long low rakish schooner a-cutting of the waves in two,
And a flag of skull and cross-bones the wickedest that ever flew,
Like a fine old salt-sea scavenger, like a tarry Buccaneer.

Wedding photos

Our wonderful wedding photographer, Catherine Mac, has almost finished the final work on our wedding pictures. She’s put some up on her blog, here. If you want to know what we look like out of our wetsuits, now’s your chance. Catherine is a genius – she took two of the most reluctant photographic subjects on earth, and made us look presentable!

Rings (and freckles)
Rings (and freckles)

Did I mention that Tony’s ring is one he found at the bottom of the sea while diving, and then had re-sized and polished up to look good as new? Pirate treasure…

Friday poem: A Ballad of John Silver

Arrr! Me hearties! Here be a pirate poem this fine Friday! Some more John Masefield to tickle your fancy.

A Ballad of John Silver – John Masefield

We were schooner-rigged and rakish,
with a long and lissome hull,
And we flew the pretty colours of the crossbones and the skull;
We’d a big black Jolly Roger flapping grimly at the fore,
And we sailed the Spanish Water in the happy days of yore.

We’d a long brass gun amidships, like a well-conducted ship,
We had each a brace of pistols and a cutlass at the hip;
It’s a point which tells against us, and a fact to be deplored,
But we chased the goodly merchant-men and laid their ships aboard.

Then the dead men fouled the scuppers and the wounded filled the chains,
And the paint-work all was spatter dashed with other peoples brains,
She was boarded, she was looted, she was scuttled till she sank.
And the pale survivors left us by the medium of the plank.

O! then it was (while standing by the taffrail on the poop)
We could hear the drowning folk lament the absent chicken coop;
Then, having washed the blood away, we’d little else to do
Than to dance a quiet hornpipe as the old salts taught us to.

O! the fiddle on the fo’c’sle, and the slapping naked soles,
And the genial “Down the middle, Jake, and curtsey when she rolls!”
With the silver seas around us and the pale moon overhead,
And the look-out not a-looking and his pipe-bowl glowing red.

Ah! the pig-tailed, quidding pirates and the pretty pranks we played,
All have since been put a stop to by the naughty Board of Trade;
The schooners and the merry crews are laid away to rest,
A little south the sunset in the islands of the Blest.