How to help marine wildlife in distress


It’s not uncommon to come across marine wildlife – seabirds, seals, turtles – apparently in distress. This is not always the case, so before you mount a complex and dangerous rescue mission, or try to provide help where none is needed, it may be wise to get an expert on the telephone to help you determine whether it really is necessary. Fortunately there is a range of 24-hour wildlife hotlines to choose from, depending on what species you are dealing with.


Bull seal with plastic around his neck, in Hout Bay
Bull seal with plastic around his neck, in Hout Bay

Seals with plastic or fishing line around their necks should be reported to the Two Oceans Aquarium (if the seal was spotted around Cape Town harbour or the Waterfront), or, more generally to the SPCA Wildlife Unit on +27 (0) 21 700 4158/4159, or +27 (0) 83 326 1604 after hours and on weekends. Unfortunately the odds are your seal is probably not going to get the help it needs if it isn’t in the port of Cape Town or at the Waterfront; this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your darndest to advocate on its behalf.

You can help to deal with this problem at its source by retrieving any loops of plastic that you see floating in the water when you’re on a boat. Hout Bay harbour is a particular cesspit of plastic pollution, and with a nearby seal colony it’s a recipe for disaster. Cutting through any closed loops on plastic items (such as beer can holders) that you recycle or dispose of yourself also ensures that should the plastic end up in the wild, it won’t entangle an animal.

Seals found lying on the beach are usually not in trouble. Juvenile seals may rest for long periods – a couple of days at a time – on shore, and the most important thing to do is not to disturb them. They don’t need to be kept wet, they don’t need to be fed, and they can inflict a nasty bite. Encourage other members of the public to give the animal a wide berth, particularly if they have dogs. Lead by example. If the animal appears visibly unwell (fitting, for example) or is bleeding, then call the SPCA Wildlife Unit for a chat about what course of action is best.


Seabirds are most often found entangled in fishing line or plastic, pierced by fishing hooks, or, in the event of an oil spill, with oiled feathers. It is important to get help if possible, particularly for oiled birds.

SANCCOB has a 24 hour rescue centre which can be reached on +27 (0)21 557 6155 or +27 (0) 78 638 3731 (after hours & weekends). Their website provides the following advice to would-be seabird rescuers:

What to do when you have found an injured/sick/oiled seabird:

  • If you are unable to handle the seabird, SANCCOB will send out a unit to collect the bird.
  • If you approach any seabird, please approach with care. Some seabirds such as Cape Gannets and African Penguins have sharp beaks.
  • Have with you a towel, or blanket and wear protection over your hands and eyes. Use a towel/blanket to throw over the bird to catch it, ensuring that the bird is able to breathe.
  • If you have a large box ensure that there are holes for air before you place the injured/sick marine bird.

More information can be found here.


During the autumn and winter months, juvenile and sub-adult sea turtles sometimes strand on Western Cape beaches. These animals are often shocked by the cold and in poor shape – they do not typically occur in Cape waters but are washed down in eddies of the Agulhas current.

Do not put the turtle back in the sea or into water. It is probably weak, dehydrated and hypothermic, and is likely to drown. Keep it dry, and call the Two Oceans Aquarium for further instructions and assistance. The aquarium rehabilitates and releases the turtles in warmer water when they are healthy.

Here’s detailed information from the Two Oceans Aquarium on what to do if you find a stranded turtle. Do the right thing!

Whales and dolphins

The City of Cape Town would like ocean users to report whale carcasses before they end up on the beach. This is mostly for public safety and resource allocation purposes, but if we can do anything to keep a whale carcass out at sea (or on a secluded non-swimming beach), it serves a conservation purpose as well. There’s a phone number you can use to do this – read more here.

If you come across a current or imminent live whale or dolphin stranding, contact the NSRI on +27 (0) 21 449 3500 immediately. They will activate the relevant authorities. Try to bear in mind that these events often do not end well for the animals concerned, as they are often sick or disoriented and impossible to assist. Be a help, not a hindrance, and obey whatever instructions you are given by the NSRI, SanParks, or whoever comes to take charge.

A free-swimming but entangled whale should be immediately reported to the NSRI as well – they will activate the South African Whale Disentanglement Network. Do not attempt to assist the whale yourself – this could be fatal for you (not the whale) – rather make a note of the direction it is swimming, and its precise location, and whatever other helpful information you can provide. Whale entanglements seem to be increasing in frequency around False Bay in particular, as more experimental fisheries are approved. (If this worries you, you could write a letter to DAFF about it.)

Article: Outside on acoustic sanctuaries for whales

Departing dolphins, and Christo
Departing dolphins, and Christo

Whales and dolphins make extensive use of sound to communicate. Some of the purposes of this communication may be to organise during a hunt, to socialise or to co-ordinate group movement.

The predominance of long-distance shipping as a cost-effective and efficient way to transport goods around the world has increased the amount of anthropogenic noise in the ocean to the extent that, in some parts of the world, populations of wild cetaceans struggle to make themselves heard in order to communicate with each other.

Outside Online describes a recent paper that proposes “acoustic sanctuaries” to protect cetacean populations of marine mammals off the coast of British Columbia in Canada. This is a fascinating idea, and need not be difficult to implement:

These quiet areas could be pain-free places for governments to formally institute quiet zones, the paper argues. Ships wouldn’t have to be rerouted, the authors note, they would simply have to continue avoiding sensitive areas.

Read the full article here.

To read more about acoustic communication between cetaceans, try this article, the book Listening to Whales by marine mammal scientist Alexandra Morton, or (for a touch of eccentricity) the book Thousand Mile Song.

Whale carcass reporting in Cape Town

Whale skull near the Thomas T Tucker
Whale skull near the Thomas T Tucker

The Environmental Resource Management Department at the City of Cape Town needs your help:

We would like to try and get to whale carcasses well before they wash ashore on our coastline to deal with them more effectively and efficiently. As ocean users, if you come across a whale carcass floating anywhere in False Bay or from Cape Point north to Silwerstroom Strand we would be most grateful if you could call, whatsapp or sms 083 940 8143 (available 24/7) with an approximate location and time of sighting.

Please could I ask that you also forward/share this email to as many friends, colleagues or groups that you are aware of that use the ocean as we would like as large a network of people as possible that could report sightings.

Save that number in your cellphone contacts, and do your bit for beach safety and, hopefully, for the environment, by reporting sightings of deceased whales before they reach the beach.

Ideally (environmentally speaking) dead whales should be left out at sea to be scavenged upon by marine life and then sink to the bottom and return their nutrients to the ecosystem. Unfortunately the prevailing summer wind direction in Cape Town (south easterly) generally brings any such carcasses onto the beach in False Bay. This is a hazard to human safety because of the co-incident inshore presence of great white sharks during the summer months. A dead whale is a great feeding opportunity for sharks, and its accompanying oil slick will be evident from miles away, potentially bringing in more sharks to investigate. This is why the City wants the opportunity to deal with whale carcasses before they reach your local swimming beach.

It’s timely to remember that while some cetaceans die and end up on the beach because of reasons such as ship strikes, ingesting plastic or other pollutants, or acoustic disturbances related to human activity, some of these animals also die of natural causes or illness unrelated to man’s impact on earth. Many times, scientists will examine the dead animal and be able to state what most likely led to its demise. While it is distressing to see any dead animal, and particularly strange and discomfiting to see a whale on shore, this is not necessarily confirmation that “the ocean is dying” or that we are “killing False Bay.” Sometimes it’s just the circle of life. Dead whales were an important source of nutrients and building materials to Strandloper communities long before industrial shipping plied the world’s seas.

For more on what happens to whales that die at sea (hint: it’s magnificent), check out this video. For more on the collision of dead whales and the urban environment, there’s this post about a whale on the beach in Fish Hoek, this one about a whale on the road in Cape Town, and this one about a stranded whale in the United States.

But I digress. Save this phone number: 083 940 8143, and tell your ocean-loving paddler, surfer, sailor, boater and diver friends to do the same!

Newsletter: Think again

Hi divers

Weekend diving

No dives planned

Diving has been far from spectacular of late and the weekend looks marginal again. There is a wind window on Saturday morning, but it is under pressure from a chance of rain, and a 3 metre swell with a 15 second period. Sunday looks a little too windy (again).

I don’t think that it’s going to be worthwhile to plan anything. If you choose to dive on Saturday, take your time and check out a few different spots before you decide where to get in.

Balloon offshore of Hout Bay
Balloon offshore of Hout Bay

If you’ve ever considered releasing balloons into the air at a party (or a wedding) because it looks pretty, please think again. We found this balloon far offshore near Tafelberg Reef outside Hout Bay. Unsuspecting marine life could have eaten it, or gotten tangled in the ribbon tied to it.


Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099

Diving is addictive!

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Bookshelf: 50 Ways to Save the Ocean

50 Ways to Save the Ocean – David Helvarg

50 Ways to Save the Ocean
50 Ways to Save the Ocean

Effective pro-ocean activism is something that everyone who cares about the marine environment can engage in. This is the strong message of the most recent of David Helvarg’s books, Saved by the Sea, and of this short volume, too. It is illustrated by Jim Toomey, creator of Sherman’s Lagoon.

Rather than being overwhelmed by ocean-related doom and gloom, there are very simple actions that we can incorporate as part of our everyday lives that have a direct impact on the health of the marine environment. The Two Oceans Aquarium does a great job of speaking about this aspect of responsible citizenship on their blog and on Twitter – you should follow them if this is important to you.

Some suggestions for simple actions that can make a difference include:

  • Don’t use single-use plastic bags
  • Say no to straws and balloons
  • Drink only tap, not bottled, water
  • Put cigarette butts in the bin
  • Cut all loops of plastic and other non-biodegradable materials before throwing them away (this prevents entanglement by seals and other marine life if/when the material ends up in the ocean)

Many of the actions that Helvarg suggests entail simply enjoying the marine environment, and this is a profound but familiar idea. When we care about something, we will protect it, and by enjoying the sea through diving, visiting the beach, or riding on a boat, we will come to care about it and its inhabitants. The emphasis in many of the sections is also on safe enjoyment of the ocean. Helvarg does not explain his focus on safety, but one reason I can think of for encouraging careful and safe enjoyment ocean-related activities is to ensure that these activities will remain available to everyone. Bad publicity after marine accidents can drive people away from the beach!

50 Ways to Save the Ocean connects patriotism and pride with care for the environment, which is an excellent approach for robustly patriotic people like Americans. For South Africans, whose feelings towards their country are – for historical reasons – often a little less straightforward than those of your average flag-waving American, this approach may not be the best one. Helvarg also provides the contact details of a large number of US-based organisations that espouse the values he advocates and engage in the kinds of conservation activities he describes. Someone needs to write a version of this book for South Africans!

This is the kind of book you could go through with a relatively young child, and decide together which actions you’re going to implement together. The reading level isn’t complex.

Get the book here, here or here (if you’re in South Africa).

Bookshelf: Saved by the Sea

Saved by the Sea: A Love Story with Fish – David Helvarg

Saved by the Sea
Saved by the Sea

I think this book belongs to the same broad genre – one for which I have a lot of time – as Tim Ecott’s Neutral Buoyancy. If I had to describe the authors of this genre, I would call them “thinking scuba divers” (as opposed to the unthinking kind). David Helvarg is a former war journalist turned environmental activist. In this beautiful, heart-wrenching book he chronicles his own life as it has touched upon the world’s oceans.

Helvarg is founder of the Blue Frontier Campaign, and, as he explains in this book, he encourages and facilitates environmental activism. Helvarg’s idea of activism does not seem to be topless protests about vague global issues, but rather entails groups of concerned citizens becoming involved in intensely local issues: a Seaweed Rebellion. The feeling of helplessness and doom which sometimes threatens to overwhelm those with a concern for the ocean’s future can be fruitfully channeled into unglamorous but entirely useful small acts of advocacy and change. The kind of activism that Helvarg encourages in Saved by the Sea comprises small, cumulative actions, like writing letters to government representatives on subjects that concern you; participating in coastal clean ups; getting involved in citizen science projects in your area. He lists fifty ways to save the ocean (and has written a book on that subject) – print them out and do your bit. The key is to do something, where you can (and that is usually right on your doorstep).

I would recommend the book purely for the activist spirit that Helvarg espouses (he explains why he formed Blue Frontier in the prior link), but in addition to this his book is wonderfully written and affirming of the variety and beauty of the ocean. He describes scuba dives in some of the world’s most pristine areas, surfing trips in South America, travels to the Antarctic. Interwoven with these encounters with the natural world is Helvarg’s own life, and love, story. He does not shy away from difficult feelings and experiences. This is an autobiography, and one you’ll be richer for having read.

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

Newsletter: Scouting mission

Hi divers

We had fairly good conditions in False Bay on Tuesday and were lucky enough to have a whale breach less than 50 metres from the boat. I wish they would warn me when they do this so I could get the camera out and get some whale in the picture instead of just splash.

Tail end of a breaching whale
Tail end of a breaching whale

The weather ahead for the next few days is a little odd but Sunday looks like the better day and the Atlantic looks like the ocean to dive. Gordon’s Bay may also be a good option – contact Deon at Indigo to find out what your options are. Saturday is International Coastal Cleanup day, so you could also join a cleanup dive or head out to your local beach to participate in a cleanup effort. The Two Oceans Aquarium is hosting a cleanup at Melkbos Beach, and if you play your cards right you could enjoy a free trip on the Ocean Adventurer after participating in the cleanup. More info on that here.

We are not launching this weekend as we are headed to the De Hoop Nature Reserve on an exploration expedition… Hopefully the end product of this will be a future dive trip to that part of the coast.


Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099

Diving is addictive!

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Cape Town’s visible shipwrecks: Winton and Hermes

Being (in midlife) a creature of the south peninsula, I tend to focus my attentions on False Bay and the Atlantic coast from Hout Bay southwards. But there are rewards for the shipwreck hunter who ventures further north, and even for the shipwreck hunter who doesn’t necessarily want to get their feet wet. A visit to Milnerton beach, and a walk north from Milnerton lighthouse, reveals two shipwrecks in the surf zone. Milnerton beach is surpassingly filthy, but while I was there a beach cleanup was making some headway on the mounds of rubbish tossed off ships in Table Bay that ends up on the beach. The view of the lighthouse from the beach is also far more fetching than the view from the car park, if you can overlook the garbage.

Milnerton lighthouse
Milnerton lighthouse

About one kilometre north of the lighthouse, where the beach is cleaner and pebbles roll euphoniously in the waves, you will come across the massive boilers of the Hermes in the surf. The NSRI gets calls every year from concerned locals worried that a whale is stranded near the beach; the sea spray sometimes pushes through holes in the top of the wreck creating an illusion of a whale’s blow. The Hermes was a liner, built in 1899, on her way to Cape Town with a large cargo of livestock, forage and a few passengers. When she arrived in May 1901 the harbour was full, and she was forced to drop anchor for the night. A north westerly gale came up, she dragged her anchors, and when the captain ordered her engines started, they failed.

Hermes (front) and Winton (back)
Hermes (front) and Winton (back)

Seawards and to the north of Hermes, the engine block of the Winton is visible, in much the same way as the SS Clan Stuart can be seen at Glencairn in False Bay. The Winton came aground in July 1934, carrying a cargo of wheat from Port Lincoln in Australia to Liverpool, England. Her captain was unfamiliar with Table Bay and had mistook the red lights on top of the radio mast at the Klipheuwel Wireless Telegraph Station near Milnerton for the harbour lights. Attempts were made to pull her off the beach and some of her cargo was salvaged, but the wheat ignited and efforts to refloat her were to no avail.

On a calm day, an aerial view of the site reveals the full outline of both vessels surrounding the parts that protrude from the water. When I visited, it was rough after a large swell, but the tide was low. At high tide the view will be considerably less impressive.

The boilers of the Hermes in front of Table Mountain
The boilers of the Hermes in front of Table Mountain

It is possible to scuba dive this site, and Underwater Explorers dives the Winton every year during their summer Table Bay wreck diving jamboree. Obviously very calm, low swell conditions are required because the wreck is so shallow and so close to the beach.

If you’re interested in visible shipwrecks, check out my ebook Cape Town’s Visible Shipwrecks: A Guide for Explorers!

Bookshelf: The World Without Us

Today we continue the theme begun yesterday: our impact on the planet. Instead of thinking about things on the scale of the individual, this book forces us to think on a far larger one.

The World Without Us – Alan Weisman

The World Without Us
The World Without Us

The World Without Us is a three hundred page Gedanken or thought experiment in which the author imagines what would happen on earth if all human beings disappeared. The means of the disappearance is not important, but obviously if humans disappeared because the entire earth was annihilated, the thought experiment would be entirely pointless. So Weisman assumes that earth is left pretty much the way it is now, just without people.

This is an entirely speculative work, as we have very little to go on when trying to figure out how an ecosystem will recover or how an urban metropolis will decay in the complete absence of human intervention. I found most interesting the information about the properties of materials and structures – how long they will last, what causes them to break down, and so on – as well as the often obscure case studies that Weisman unearths in order to illustrate a point, and the fragments of pristine environments that he writes about (like the Białowieża Forest in Poland).

Weisman moves from ecosystem to ecosystem, considering forests, farmland, cities, and the ocean. He finds experts in fields you don’t even know exist. He speaks to archaeologists, zoologist, everyone in between. It’s tricky to explain how the book is written; it is not a series of abstract imaginings, but rather a series of vignettes and interviews that Weisman pulls together to make a point. It’s easy to read short sections at a time, but hard to put down. In the ocean chapter, he writes about Kingman Reef, which is our best guess at what an untouched coral reef ecosystem should look like (spoiler: LOTS of sharks). Some things, such as plastic in the ocean, are unfortunately forever.

Despite the apparently gloomy subject matter, I found the book hopeful. It appealed to me as someone who cares about the environment (and if you think that people care too much about the environment, then this book will probably enrage you). I enjoyed imagining my office building with trees growing from the windows on the upper stories, and the parking areas filling with water. After a few good nights’ sleep, I find it hopeful less because it enabled me to imagine my corporate workplace being absorbed by nature, and more because it describes the resilience of the planet. Some environmental disasters, such as the destruction of most coral reef ecosystems as the ocean warms and acidifies, are most likely a foregone conclusion unless an incident of the type upon which this book is predicated takes place and prevents us from adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by destroying humanity entirely. Other predicted environmental catastrophes, however, are not a shoo-in, and can still be avoided or recovered from with some decisive action.

The book seems to have stirred a bit of controversy among reviewers, some of whom were disturbed by the absence of a human perspective or gaze by which to orient the narrative. This bothered me not at all, and I didn’t try and extract anything profoundly philosophical from that aspect of it. I quite enjoy imagining what the Cape Peninsula looked like when it was pristine, before we built the three Disa Park towers on it – one of my favourite photographs is this one, of mist covering Cape Town below Table Mountain. I like to imagine that this is how it looked (minus the boats) before there were any people here.

A blanket of mist below Table Mountain
A blanket of mist below Table Mountain

Reviews of the book from the Washington Post, New York Times (also here) and the Guardian may assist your decision on whether to read this book. I hope you will read it. 

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

Article: Nautilus on sea lamprey

Nautilus ran an article earlier this year about lampreys, fish that look like something out of the X Files. They are probably close relatives of hagfish; like hagfish, lampreys are jawless. They attach their round mouths to other fish and feed on their bodily fluids. They do not have a reputation as civilised dinner conversationalists.

While hagfish are marine animals, lampreys are anadromous: they return to fresh water (usually rivers) to spawn, in the same way that salmon do. When they’ve spawned, they die, fertilising the rivers and surrounding land with the nutrients from their bodies (in the same way as salmon do, but on a smaller scale).

Rehabilitation of North American rivers, along with the removal of dams, opens the way for fish such as salmon and alewives to return. Lampreys have returned too. Until recently they were viewed as invasive pests:

… the conventional American wisdom on sea lampreys was conceived following the late-19th- and early-20th-century collapse of world-renowned trout populations. The lampreys were invasive, having infiltrated the region through shipping canals; Great Lakes fish could not adapt to their ravages. Historical records describe the ease with which nets could be lowered to lake bottoms, then pulled back up with a cargo of sea lamprey-holed carcasses.

More recent research suggests that lampreys are native to at least Lake Ontario and several other lakes in the region, and were only able to colonise the rest of the Great Lakes when their native fish populations were all but destroyed by removing too many fish and modifying the ecosystem through damming, logging and agriculture.

Although they aren’t pretty, lampreys may be less of an invasive parasite and more of an essential participant in a balanced ecosystem than they were once thought to be. Read the Nautilus article here.