Article: Phenomena on blue whale earwax

Ed Yong at Phenomena writes about the information that can be gleaned from a plug of blue whale earwax. Earplugs of blue whale wax look a bit like battered candles, and contain alternating layers of dark wax (from when the whale is migrating) and light wax (from when the whale is feeding). Counting rings of earwax provides a way to estimate the age of blue whales – there are two rings for each year of the whale’s life.

The wax also absorbs pollution from the whale’s environment, and contains some of the hormones that the whale’s body produced in life. Researchers at Baylor University analysed a plug of wax from a male blue whale that died as a result of a ship strike and washed up on a beach in California. From concentrations of testosterone and cortisol (a stress hormone) they were able to determine when the whale reached sexual maturity. They also found a disturbing array of pollutants including DDT and mercury. Sadly, the highest concentration of pollutants appear in the earwax from the first six months of the whale’s life, suggesting that they were passed along in its mother’s milk.

The scientists intend their study to be a “proof of concept” – they only analysed a single earplug, but these samples exist in museums around the world and should be kept and studied from future whale necropsies. Science at work!

Read the complete article here.

Newsletter: Cooked underwater

Hi divers

To say it was a busy week is an understatement. It started out with a test run of the worlds first underwater braai device at Miller’s Point, conceived and executed (with the help of a marine engineer) by Jan Braai. The tide was against us but we finally got the unit out to deep enough water and lowered it below the surface. There were a few teething problems that needed to be dealt with before the final attempt on Tuesday.

The underwater braai in all its glory, with Craig (far left) and Mark (far right) helping out
The underwater braai in all its glory, with Craig (far left) and Mark (far right) helping out

Meanwhile, back to regular diving and on Saturday we launched for a group of Russians who wanted to dive with the cowsharks. Besides the fact they are currently missing, the weather wasn’t the greatest so we decided on Photographer’s Reef and the Clan Stuart. Their disappointment at being told there were no cowsharks was soon eclipsed but the appearance of a great white shark, over three metres long, within minutes of the backward roll at the Clan Stuart. The shark did a few passes and then allowed them to gather their wits and swim for shore. Well done to Craig and Christo for excellent leadership.

There’s a short video taken by one of the Russian divers here. Starting on Saturday we will feature some more information about this event on our blog, so if you’re ever in a similar situation you can hopefully refer back to how others have handled it. If you’re impatient you can read the Scenic South article here. The divers all felt very fortunate to have had this experience, even if it made their hearts beat a bit faster for a while! The other dives for the day, Photographer’s Reef and Roman Rock, were not as exciting but the viz was good.

Craig and Mark wondering what Mark van Coller of Atlantic Edge Films is doing crouched on the slipway
Craig and Mark wondering what Mark van Coller of Atlantic Edge Films is doing crouched on the slipway

Back to the braai project we went, and on Tuesday we launched from Hout Bay, set anchors, buoys and a host of other gadgets including safety divers in preparation for the underwater braai. In calm and cool conditions we finally sank the unit to the required depth and the man Jan Braai, on scuba, lit the fire, waited for the wood to turn to charcoal, and cooked some boerewors. Once done we raised the unit, he removed the rear panel and ate a well prepared piece of meat. The show featuring this harebrained scheme will be broadcast on Kyknet on Friday 27 September. There’s some press coverage here and here, and a short video in Afrikaans here and an English one here.

Surfers looking like ants on the face of Dungeons
Surfers looking like ants on the face of Dungeons

Yesterday we launched from Hout Bay again, this time for a bit of big wave action at Dungeons. A couple of big lenses and a few surfers with even bigger bravado and huge skills entertained us to almost four hours of some of the best surfing I have ever watched. The swell was huge, the sound alone is mind blowing and the speed at which they come down the face of this wall of water is astonishing. If you have not been to watch it is definitely something to add to your bucket list. There are some photos on facebook, here.

Training

We are busy with SDI and PADI Open Water and Advanced courses, Craig is about to step into the world of Divemasters, and summer is on its way.

The weekend and public holiday

Well, Saturday is World Oceans Day and an underwater cleanup event will happen in the yacht basin at False Bay Yacht Club in Simon’s Town. If you have always wondered what it looks like under the yachts moored there, sign up here.

I had planned to launch after the cleanup but sadly I doubt the conditions will be all that good, so I’ll do pool work in the afternoon. Sunday on the other hand does look good and we will launch, from the False Bay Yacht Club. I have a navigation dive with a few students so we will do this at Pyramid Rock and see if the cowsharks are back yet.

On Monday we will most likely do shore dives at either A-Frame or Long Beach (they’ve had several whale sightings at boring old Long Beach lately!) and will launch again on Tuesday. I think Tuesday’s swell and wind will make for a great opportunity to dive Batsata Maze and Atlantis.

If you want to dive, let me know by text message or email!

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

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Article: Harper’s on a spill of rubber ducks

Yesterday’s review of Moby-Duck may have deterred you from seeking out the book for your own reading pleasure. You may, however, enjoy a literary approach to the topic of spilled bath toys more than I did… And for this reason I bring you an extended excerpt (possibly adapted) from the early parts of the book, by author Donovan Hohn, published at Harpers in 2007.

We know that twelve of the colorful containers stacked above deck snapped loose from their moorings and tumbled overboard. We can safely assume that the subsequent splash was terrific, like the splash a train would make were you to drive it off a seaside cliff. We know that each container measured forty feet long and eight feet wide and may have weighed as much as 58,000 pounds, depending on the cargo, and that at least one of them—perhaps when it careened into another container, perhaps when it struck the ship’s stays, perhaps as it descended to high-pressure depths—burst open. We know that when it left port, this ill-fated container had contained 7,200 little packages; that, as the water gushed in and the steel box sank, all or most of these packages came floating to the surface; that every package comprised a plastic shell and a cardboard back; that every shell housed four hollow plastic animals—a red beaver, a blue turtle, a green frog, and a yellow duck—each about three inches long; and that printed on the cardboard in multicolored lettering were the following words: FLOATEES. THE FIRST YEARS. FROM 6 MONTHS. EXPERT DEVELOPED ? PARENT PREFERRED. 100% DISHWASHER SAFE.

Read the article here.

Newsletter: Getting it wrong

Hi divers

We spent a really great day in on and under the water working on a film shoot today without traveling more than 100 metres from Millers Point. The water was clean, the sun was out and about and the wind not too hectic. I could use about 6 such days a week, thanks.

Seahorse at the Miller's Point jetty
Seahorse at the Miller’s Point jetty

There hasn’t been a lot of diving otherwise this week, and the weatherman has been getting it wrong quite regularly, much to my annoyance. We did dive students last weekend, and while we were navigating the boiling pea soup at Shark Alley (no cowsharks at the moment – they’re on their annual hiatus) a radio controlled plane with a wingspan of about three metres crashed into the kelp near the boat. Brian did some heroic swimming, towed the plane to the boat, and we loaded it on board and delivered it to its owner at the Miller’s Point slipway. There were some tense moments when the electronics started smoking while it was on the boat!

Brian passes his swim test with flying colours
Brian passes his swim test with flying colours

Weekend dives

Deciding on whether or not to dive on weekends has been a little difficult of late as the forecasts are so often way off the mark. It’s almost a requirement to go out and take a look every evening and early every morning. Yesterday the Atlantic – well, Hout Bay – looked appalling and False Bay looked marginal. Today it’s a different story and False Bay was clean.

Never mind, this weekend we have swell, wind, perhaps rain and maybe even sun. Tomorrow early looks good, and Saturday will be OK but really surgy, Sunday will be howling… If the forecast is right. I have students, tourists and local divers so I will dive somewhere at some point if the weather looks good enough… Totally confused? Good, so am I. If you want to try for a dive, let me know and I’ll notify you if and when we hit the water.

Esti, Brian and I ready to dive at Shark Alley
Esti, Brian and I ready to dive at Shark Alley

Courses

I am currently running Open Water, Advanced and Divemaster courses, and we are getting ready to run a Research Diver Specialty course using the wreck of the Brunswick as a case study. This is a site you can dive even in a southeaster!

Coastal Cleanup

21 September is International Coastal Cleanup day, and we will be joining OMSAC and FBUC at False Bay Yacht Club, a venue with which those of you who’ve boat dived with me will be well familiar. The event details are here; if you plan to come along, you must sign up as instructed. There may be a registration fee to participate. It’s a lot of fun – we’ve cleaned at Robben Island and Hout Bay Harbour in the past – and a very good cause to get involved in. Encourage your non-diving friends to join a local beach cleanup.

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

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Underwater fashion show

A fashionable scarf
A fashionable scarf

Tony may not thank me for posting these photos on the internet. On the last dive we did in Durban, to Doug’s Cave and surrounds on the Blood Reef complex, we found a large piece of fabric wrapped quite tightly around the reef. We first saw it when we dived  Birthday Ledges (Ferdi, our divemaster on that dive, tried to get it off the reef, without success), and then on this particular dive we ended up at Birthday Ledges at the end of a nice drift with the current. Patrick, our Divemaster from Calypso, managed to remove it, and it was confiscated by Tony to play with at the safety stop.

It turns out there’s a lot of ways you can style bold, bright prints in autumnal hues combined with a wetsuit and a Batman hoodie.

Saluting in a skirt
Saluting in a skirt

Dive sites (Durban): Birthday Ledges

On the boat waiting to get in at Birthday Ledges
On the boat waiting to get in at Birthday Ledges

After the mask trouble I experienced on Bikini Reef on the morning of 19 June, I was tempted to lie queasily on the beach in my wetsuit (very like a whale) and feel sorry for myself. The rational part of my brain quietly suggested that I should get back in the saddle immediately, and I’m glad I did. The second dive of the day was to Birthday Ledges, which was appropriate given that one of us was celebrating his birthday…

The birthday Batman
The birthday Batman

The boat ride out to the reef is fairly long compared to what we’re used to in Cape Town (it takes around half an hour to get to the SAS Fleur, and that’s as far out as most operators go) and Sodwana. After crossing the harbour entrance (completely thrilling!), we headed south along the Bluff, past the old whaling station – now a police shooting range and out of bounds to the public. Birthday Ledges is at the southern end of the Blood Reef complex in Durban, and is so named because it always throws up some sort of surprise. (Or, because it was discovered on someone’s birthday… Take your pick!)

Raggy scorpionfish
Raggy scorpionfish

We enjoyed a fantastic dive, with lots to look at and wonderful visibility. The reef is quite raised, with the ledge pointing out to sea, and there are many places to look under and into. This high profile provides a lot of habitat for the very territorial tropical fish, and hence much joy to the visiting diver. We saw two large frogfish, resting less than a metre away from each other. I spotted nudibranchs, scorpionfish, moray eels, and trumpetfish.

There was some weird rubbish on the reef, including a huge sheet of yellow and red fabric that our Divemaster tried to untangle from the rocks, unsuccessfully. The Blood Reef system is not far offshore and just around the corner from Durban Harbour, and I think a lot of debris makes its way out there where it gets caught on the reef.

Baby raggy scorpionfish
Baby raggy scorpionfish

Dive date: 19 June 2013

Air temperature: 23 degrees

Water temperature:  22 degrees

Maximum depth: 19.3 metres

Visibility: 20 metres

Dive duration: 46 minutes

 If you’re reading this post in an email, or via an RSS reader, I don’t think the galleries of photos will display properly. If you want to appreciate my (ahem) photographic genius in all its glory, click on the title of the post to view it on the Learn to Dive Today website. A whole new world will be revealed.

Bookshelf: The Outlaw Sea

The Outlaw Sea – William Langewiesche

The Outlaw Sea
The Outlaw Sea

William Langewiesche is an American journalist (and pilot). He has written on a variety of subjects. This is the only one of his books I’ve read. I looked for it after reading an excerpt from its first chapter in The Penguin Book of the Ocean.

Langewiesche’s interest here is the wild, unregulated nature of the majority of the planet’s oceans (which, indeed, comprises the majority of the planet, covering 75% of the earth’s surface). Some measure of control – and even this is illusory – may be exercised by governments within their own territorial waters and close to shore. The size and privacy offered by the expanse of waters lying just over the horizon, however, is conducive to unchecked piracy, unregulated shipping activities (near-derelict vessels flying flags of convenience, transporting unexamined cargoes) and an atmosphere of lawlessness reminiscent of America’s Wild West.

Published in 2004, at a time when terrorism was front and centre in the minds of Americans in particular, the book also deals with the possibility of a ship-borne terrorist attack at one of the world’s harbours. The impossibility of scrutinising every container’s contents on the massive container ships that move from harbour to harbour across the globe means that this is a very plausible threat.

Much of the book is taken up with descriptions of vessels foundering, most notably a nondescript cargo vessel called the Kristal and the passenger ferry called the Estonia. These sections are absolutely gripping. Langewiesche’s command of language and ability to explain sequences of events using the testimony of witnesses – whose recollections are coloured by the highly stressful nature of a shipwreck – is supreme. Very little further motivation is required, in addition to these narratives, to convince one of the lawless and unregulated nature of worldwide marine transportation activities.

The final chapter of the book is about Alang, an Indian town in the state of Gujarat that is home to a shipbreaking operation of incredible proportions. Enormous vessels are driven up the beach at high tide, and once lodged on the sand they are systematically stripped and dismantled by thousands of workers. More than half the vessels scrapped worldwide are broken down at Alang. There is almost no regulation of activities there, and there is heavy criticism of the western nations that send derelict vessels across the world to pollute a distant Indian coast, and to sicken underpaid, desperately poor workers with their toxic effluents and fumes. This article and this one describe what happens at Alang. For a visual sense of what Alang is like, you can look at these, these or these photos. Langewiesche’s description of a ship being run aground at Alang is haunting, as is his description of a stripped vessel’s interior as being like a cathedral to modern industry. For an idea of what working conditions are like in these shipbreaking yards, this article has some amazing photographs.

The Outlaw Sea grew out of two articles Langewiesche wrote for The Atlantic. The first one concerns the sinking of the ferry Estonia in the Baltic sea (now chapter four of The Outlaw Sea), and the other deals with shipbreaking in Alang (this particular article is now the sixth and final chapter of The Outlaw Sea). I’d suggest you bookmark both articles and read them; they are fascinating, give a good idea of Langewiesche’s readable and clear style, and will probably make you want to read the remainder of this book.

You can buy a copy here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here.

Newsletter: Cannon ball run

Hi divers

The seasons’ change has had us diving in mixed conditions, clean one day and dirty the next. Last weekend we dived Hout Bay on Saturday (the Maori and Die Josie) and had mediocre viz, but on Sunday diving in False Bay was far better. We visited the cowsharks and seals at Partridge Point.

At three metres my visibility testing tool is all but invisible
At three metres my visibility testing tool is all but invisible

This weekend is again a mixed bag as the water colour and temperature are not promising. Hout Bay has green water and the temperature there today was 15 degrees. The temperature in False Bay today was 17 degrees and I went from Simon’s Town to Cape Point and back as well as far out into the centre of the bay (looking for the orcas) and did not find any clean water anywhere. The picture above is of my visibility testing tool (patent pending) three metres underwater near Atlantis Reef. It’s almost invisible.

Leaving Simon's Town harbour with a navy patrol boat escort
Leaving Simon’s Town harbour with a navy patrol boat escort

The orcas were most likely terrified by the naval canon firing… I know I was! The navy patrol boats escorted us past the vessel that was firing. Just before taking the boat out of the water I cruised slowly north of Long Beach and when the sonar read 2.5 metres I could barely see the bottom. There is/has been a plankton bloom of some sort and I think that has been a big factor. There is also a surprising amount of garbage in the water. There is a 3-4 metre swell predicted for the weekend.

Having said that its likely to be a good weather weekend as there is little wind and lots of warm sunshine. Luckily I will not have to put my forecasting skills to the test as we are off to Knysna for a spell of houseboating and seahorse hunting (the little ones that live in the lagoon).

Christo holding the reel while Craig adjusts his weight belt on the SS Maori
Christo holding the reel while Craig adjusts his weight belt on the SS Maori

Training

We have both SDI and PADI Open Water courses running, as well as PADI Advanced, SDI Nitrox and PADI Rescue.

Our training pool is in and full, not quite crystal clean yet but will be soon and we will run a Discover Scuba Diving special during May so if you have a friend that needs to experience scuba get in touch.

Almost finished swimming pool at home
Almost finished swimming pool at home

Travel

We’re off to Durban in June for three days of wreck diving with Calypso at uShaka Marine World. Durban has warm water like Sodwana, a well known balmy climate, and all the coral reef critters as well as some spectacular shipwrecks. Plus there’s lots to do if the weather doesn’t pan out every day. We’re going in the week of 17 June (a Monday, and a public holiday). If you’re interested let me know and I’ll forward the details.

Our Red Sea trip still seems frustratingly far away, but October creeps closer. The Red Sea is a must visit destination for any scuba diver, and what better way to do it with some non-threatening semi-nice people like us? As Gob from Arrested Development would say, come on!

regards

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

Diving is addictive!

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Article: Wired on shipping pollution

An article on Wired.com led me to this striking composite image created from measurements taken by NASA’s Aura satellite. The satellite measured the amount of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which is a pollutant created by various forms of human industry (that’s why the coastal areas are so dark) and by ships’ engines. You can see a distinct line between Singapore and Sri Lanka, site of a major shipping lane. There’s more from NASA on the subject here.

Nitrogen dioxide pollution (darker is worse)
Nitrogen dioxide pollution (darker is worse)

Ships’ tracks are also visible at an atmospheric level, as particles from their exhausts float up into the atmosphere and create what looks like the contrails that form behind aeroplanes. There is an explanation of the process, and an image of those kinds of tracks, here (image reproduced below).

Ship tracks visible in the atmosphere
Ship tracks visible in the atmosphere

The image of these trails is actually a stereo one and if you have a pair of 3D glasses… they won’t help at all!

It’s quite sobering. Our fingerprints are all over this planet.

Read the Wired article here.

Article: Randall Munroe (xkcd) on swimming with spent nuclear fuel rods

Randall Munroe, the man behind the xkcd cartoons that light up my world, blogs about ridiculous and unlikely scenarios at What If? He uses his physics knowledge and some wide-ranging research to answer hypothetical questions that couldn’t be answered with an experiment or by direct inference from actual events.

Scenario 29 answers the question:

What if I took a swim in a typical spent nuclear fuel pool? Would I need to dive to actually experience a fatal amount of radiation? How long could I stay safely at the surface?

It turns out that, as long as you stayed far enough away from the fuel rods while in the pool, you’d probably experience a lower dose of radiation than you would walking around outside the pool. The amount of radiation in the water halves with every seven centimetre increment away from its source. Divers are actually employed to perform tasks and service the equipment in these pools, so it can’t be that dangerous. There is a description of an accident, however, and it makes fascinating reading (follow the link too).

Read the scenario here.