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Articles by Grant Whitford


Beauty and the Beast

Scuba Diving in the Table Mountain National Park (TMNP) Marine Protected Area (MPA)

by Grant Whitford


OA MPA Diver 600-400

Beauty: This photo by Olivia Fraser really speaks for itself but here’s the back story.  It’s a Saturday morning and we’re out in False Bay diving at reef within the TMNP MPA. Dive conditions are near perfect and colourful marine life of every description abounds.  The underwater photographers are having a great time trying to get the perfect shot or video of schooling yellowtail.  Other divers are exploring this seldom dived spot, mapping the reef or removing plastic litter, old fishing boat anchor ropes and fishing line caught on the coral (if you look closely you can see that’s what the diver in the photo is doing). Nothing is removed from the reef, there is absolutely no damage done to the reef and we actually leave it in better condition than we found it.

The beast:  What the photo doesn’t show is up to a hundred hooks and lures from the 17 fishing boats catching the very same yellowtail the divers are photographing! That’s because fishing, which is not policed and a virtual free-for-all, is allowed in the vast majority of the MPA. Strangely enough scuba diving is prohibited in large parts of the MPA. What?  Also not shown in the photo is the damage done to the reef by fishing boat anchors (diving boats don’t anchor because we know how harmful it can be) and the trail of litter that leads from the places where fishing boats launch to the places they fish.

So perhaps now you think I’m just anti fishing and those poor fisher folk trying to feed their families. Well actually I’m not. They aren’t the real beasts in my story. The real beasts operate from offices in the southern suburbs and the Waterfront.  I’m referring to SANParks, the Department of the Environment (DEA) and the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF). But hold on,, those are the guys that are supposed to taking care of our MPA.

The fact is – they’re not.  To understand why not we have to go back almost 20 years to when our MPA’s were declared.

Back then it was “Marine and Coastal Management” (MCM), a branch of the then Department of the Environment and Tourism (DEAT), that imagined scuba diving to be a potentially huge source of revenue.  Because of this, they declared MPAs all around the country in specific areas where scuba diving took place and imposed permit fees on individual divers and dive operators for diving in these newly declared MPAs. Fishing in MPAs was hardly restricted at all because that would have been political suicide.  Highly harmful issues such as sewage and industrial effluent outfalls were side stepped by neatly excluding the outfalls from the MPA boundaries or just ignoring them.  Essentially they created what are known as “paper parks” with no real environmental benefit and extremely limited enforcement of regulations.  Looking back, I can hardly believe how ill conceived the whole thing was and how blatantly recreational scuba diving was targeted.  MCM soon discovered that the revenue source was much smaller than they had anticipated but kept trying to make it work and almost killed off the whole recreational scuba diving industry in the process!

Fortunately, (for them not us) something wonderful happened when the then Minister of DEAT, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, received world-wide acclaim and awards for having created MPAs. The public at large and the bunny hugging organisations issuing the awards and acclaim just didn’t get the paper parks memo.  So positively were the MPAs received that it motivated the current bumper crop of administrators to create even more MPAs (2018) and they are once again receiving high acclaim.  My mind boggles that the South African public are so blissfully unaware of how they are being mislead into believing that marine environmental conservation is being well managed.  I get a little steamed up when divers say how wonderful it is to be diving in an MPA with abundant marine life, when they have no experience of what it was like before the MPA existed. The simple truth is that is it would most likely be exactly the same.  That’s because the beauty of our reefs is mainly due to their own innate resilience and diversity, and nothing to do with being in an MPA.  If MPAs don’t have real physical positive actions associated with them they are meaningless and just distract us from the real issues that put our reefs and marine life in danger.

So what are those issues? I think of them as the Big 5;

1.     Poorly regulated, managed and policed commercial and recreational fisheries.

2.     Sewage: Up to 50 million litres of raw sewage is pumped into the TMNP MPA every day.

3.     Poaching: Abalone and Crayfish poaching are rampant.

4.     Pollution: Plastic litter and fishing line can be found throughout the TMNP MPA.

5.     Whale entrapment; Every year a few whales die from becoming trapped in ropes or nets within the TMNP MPA.

I could go into detail about each of these issues, or list several more but believe me they are bad, horrendously bad.  Even the most casual observer of marine activities in the TMNP MPA would have observed this stuff and they can be easily confirmed by marine professionals working around the Peninsula.

JT Green Point Poo 300-200
The Green Point Sewage Outfall
JT HB Poo 300-200
The Hout Bay Sewage Outfall
The Camps Bay Sewage Outfall
The Camps Bay Sewage Outfall
Hout Bay crayfish poachers operating in broad daylight
Hout Bay crayfish poachers operating in broad daylight
A Hout Bay perlemoen poacher displays his catch
A Hout Bay perlemoen poacher displays his catch
Litter from harbors and rivers that ends up in the sea
Litter from harbours and rivers that ends up in the sea
A Cape Fur seal at Partridge Point entangled in fishing line and destined to die a slow painful death
A Cape fur seal at Partridge Point entangled in fishing line and destined to die a slow painful death
A whale trapped in rope from crayfish traps
A southern right whale trapped in rope from crayfish traps


The responsibility to manage the MPA, and one would assume to deal with these issues, goes to the Department of the Environment (DEA) who formally delegate it’s management to SANParks. And right there the pawpaw hits the fan: DEA and SANParks weasel out of accepting responsibility by just claiming that it’s the other ones responsibility.  The buck never stops anywhere.  It also becomes the City of Cape Town’s problem, or the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries’ problem.  Lack of resources is also a popular cry, or, my personal favourite, it’s not actually a problem after all – so don’t worry.

Earlier this year (2018) I sat in a meeting between representatives of the local recreational dive industry and SANParks in Tokai.  We had hoped to get some action underway to start to address the Big 5 issues.  Sadly, what we got was Mr Gavin Bell (TMNP manager) telling us that scuba diving in the MPA was not really as environmentally friendly as we thought it was because our outboard motors polluted the air.  He also said that they had many other issues to be concerned about such as dust particles blown in on the wind from as far away as North America, that contain micro-pollutants that settle over the whole area.  I kid you not!  When the park manager equates the infinitesimally minute amount of pollution from North American dust or a wisp of outboard motor smoke with 50 MILLION LITRES of RAW SEWAGE per day,  you just know he doesn’t comprehend what’s going on at all.  This is terribly concerning for our those of us who care deeply about the environment.

SANParks were, however, keen to discuss the permitting of divers and dive operators.  They confirmed my long held belief that they see divers purely as a source of revenue.  Permitting and permit fees are their game.  Just ask the guys from the local film industry. You can’t sneeze in the TMNP without an expensive permit!

And DEA?  Eish, don’t even go there!  If you can find someone who actually knows we have an MPA to answer a phone or an e-mail, you’d be doing brilliantly. And then they would just refer you back to SANParks.

So what’s an ocean loving diver to do?  Well I’ve been involved in Cape Town’s recreational scuba diving industry for almost 30 years and I honestly feel it’s time to take the fight for a real MPA with real environmental protection to the next level.  The authorities are immune to criticism and bad press – so why do it?  The time for writing articles, taking photos and having meetings is over – we need direct corrective action, Sea Shepherd style.  When Paul Watson wanted to stop the killing of whales in the Southern Ocean he didn’t write to the Japanese fishing authorities to try and convince them to stop.  He didn’t write articles for the Japanese media to try and convince the Japanese public that their own people were up to no good.  No, the got his own ship, went down to the southern ocean and got right in the faces of the people actually killing whales.  That got results.  And with results came support and that allowed for more direct action, more ships, proper media coverage and with consistent direct action Sea Shepherd prevented the killing of an estimated 6 500 whales and turned the tide against Japanese whaling in the southern ocean.

To do that here in Cape Town and take on the perpetrators of our Big 5 issues is surely the next step. It’s going to be an epic battle,, who’s with me?


Finding the Cape Matapan

by Grant Whitford

Exploring wrecks has been a passion of mine for many years and together with a team of like-minded Blueflash divers, our ongoing search for little known or totally undiscovered wrecks was recently rewarded!   After a dry spell of almost a year, we found the Matapan!

A spark was ignited about 10 years ago when I noticed a wreck on the Table Bay navigation chart 1 nautical mile off Mouille Point.  Further investigation at the navy Hydrographic Office revealed little more than it’s name: “Matapan 1960”.  I went for a dive on the charted co-ordinates but found nothing.  This was not surprising as charted wreck positions are notoriously inaccurate!  The next step was to pull a magnetometer over the area as this is by far the easiest way to find wrecks.  My friend Jean Tresfon has a mag but when he tried the area he found the magnetic anomalies in the rocks made magnetic wreck searches impossible.  We did a few other mag searches further into the Bay with more success, but the Matapan eluded us.

At the start of the Atlantic diving season last year, I decided to try again.  If we couldn’t find the Matapan with a mag then a grid search or a towed diver search would have to do. For towed diver searches we use a wooden board or sled with the tow line attached to the boat.  At full speed (about 3 knots) the diver needs to be secured to the board as the drag force is very strong and one can only hold on for a few seconds. A quick release clip can be activated if anything goes wrong or if wreckage is seen. The diver’s DV (demand valve) also needs to be covered to prevent it free-flowing. It takes quite a lot of practice and constant adjustments to get it working efficiently. In the past we had only used it in shallow water and we soon discovered that getting it deeper than about 15m was a problem because the long tow rope had too much friction with the water so it just pulled up to the surface. With me as skipper and Peter Southwood and Mauro Introna as shark bait sled divers we worked out that we needed a very thin cord as the tow line and with a bit of extra streamlining of the rigging and dive gear we could get it down to 25m. We were ready for the Matapan search.

Before we set off I found the following text on one of wreck lists on the internet:

“On April 20 1960 the Irvine & Johnson 321 ton trawler Cape Matapan sank in Table Bay after being in a collision with the Bulby, another of the company’s vessels. The collision occurred in heavy fog at about noon and the trawler is reported to have gone down in just over ten minutes. The crew transshipped to the Bulby without injury or loss of life.  The Cape Matapan was built in 1925 by Cochrane and Sons of Selby (UK). She had an overall length of 150 feet and breadth of 24 feet.”

I contacted I&J to see if they had any info on her they just requested us to submit a written request for info from their archives. I wrote the request but nothing came of it at the time.

In search of more detailed information I got my friend Anton Borruso to spend a few hours at the Cape Town archives. He found newspaper articles, 2 from the Cape Argus and 1 from the Cape Times, reporting the sinking. The articles confirmed the internet text. There were also graphic personal accounts of the collision and sinking.  Unfortunately there were no clues to indicate a more accurate position for her.  With the resultant huge search area of well over a square mile I realized that it might take many diving days to find her.  But being the first to find a wreck is worth it so we decided to go for it.

On the 31st October 2010 we set off for our first search dives. The sea was dead-flat with no wind and the viz was about 15m – perfect conditions. We started with 4 buddy pairs of divers swimming in straight lines from set points. The idea was to get a good idea of the depth of the whole area as well as the nature of the sea-bed. The divers found the depth to be from 26m to 24m with a low rocky bottom. That gave me confidence that a sled search might be the way to go because had the bottom had rocks standing up over about a meter it would be difficult for a towed diver to discern between wreckage and rocks.  The flat nature of the bottom in the area improved our chances of success significantly.  We deployed the sled with Peter Southwood the first to go for a ride.  After less than 5 minutes Peter detached from the sled and put up his surface marker buoy (SMB). We figured there had to be some problem so we recovered the sled and waited for him to surface.  As soon as his head popped out he shouted to us if we had got the position of his SMB? He had found some scattered wreckage but we hadn’t taken the position immediately and by then he had drifted well away.  All we could do is estimate the direction he had drifted and where that line would cross the towed path of the sled. I put a shot line down in that position and 3 divers went in to see if they could refine the position.  Unfortunately they were all the same divers who had just completed the first search dives and they didn’t have much bottom time left at 25m, even with nitrox. They did manage to find wreckage and get a better position but it was nothing that would indicate we had found the Matapan.  We would have to come back another day.

At that time the I&J archives guy let me know that he had found a photo negative of the Matapan but nothing else. There was no report on her sinking or any record of her being salvaged. I had the photo developed and for the first time saw the ship we were looking for. A piece of Cape Town’s all but forgotten history.

A week later we were back at the search site.  This time there was a 30 knot south-easter blowing over the area and an exceptionally choppy sea. Six divers dropped in to find the viz was once again excellent. Within a few minutes they had marked the position of a huge boiler and as they came up with descriptions of what they saw it became clear that this was the wreckage of a significant vessel.  After that dive we were able to compare features of the vessel from the I&J photo with photos taken by the divers.  I was sure it was the Matapan but why was she so broken up?

The answer to that question was revealed on the next dive when we found her propeller boss with the propeller blades missing.  She had been salvaged with explosives. The use of explosives, together with her old age had resulted in the wreck being reduced to a scattered pile of debris with only her large Scotch boiler remaining intact. Her bell was also missing which was quite a disappointment. Unfortunately she had gone the way of just about all the Cape wrecks – unable to survive the pounding of our winter storms or the hasty efforts of our early salvers to remove bronze propellers.

We have dived the Matapan a few times after that and the site has now been accurately mapped by Peter Southwood. It’s a great dive for anyone interested in Cape wreck diving with numerous photo opportunities in good viz.  As for the BlueFlash wreck diving regulars, well we have a brand new sonar fitted to our boat and with so many wrecks around the Cape coast still to be found I’m hoping to discover many more.