Historical wooden shipwreck material revealed after a storm surge event along the east coast (East London, South Africa).

The East London Museum has been documenting storm surge events for the past two decades at site localities both east and west of the city. The rich maritime history of the area is sometimes revealed after these events when the ocean bottom close to the shore is scoured by strong wave action and previously covered historical shipwreck artefacts and wooden pieces are carried shoreward. Most times finds are reported to the museum and under special circumstances material is collected (see post Nuovo Abele [1874] -7th August 2015).

The past two days (18th and 19th August 2020) have seen very high seas surge into estuarine and river systems and a lot of wave energy has been dissipated along the base of primary coastal dunes. This had caused dune slumping and has exposed the bedrock in some dune slacks.

The face of a primary dune system which has been carved back by powerful sea surges rushing in to an estuarine environment (19 August 2020)

Museum scientists Kevin and Mary Cole took the opportunity today to look for shipwreck material which may be exposed by the recent storm surge event. Combining a little knowledge of marine currents and the coastal topography of the particular area investigated a number of pieces of wooden shipwreck material were luckily discovered.

First to be found was a large heavy rectangular beam which had a square cavity which had previously housed an iron pin (illustrated below) . It had been deposited well above the average high tide line between two small dune mounds abutting a larger dune.

Rectangular beam of wooden material believed to be from a historical shipwreck. Photo: Mary Cole

The most significant finds were two very large beams which housed iron through-bolts and tree-pins of varying sizes. The construction and material used were consistent in each beam and an assumption is made that they were from the same ship.

Museum scientist Kevin Cole with two large beams of historical (older than 60 years) wooden shipwreck material exposed by a recent storm surge event. Photo: Mary Cole

The area where the beams were found has been well marked and GPS coordinates taken for further study. The museum will make an application to the SA Heritage Resources Agency to remove the beams for curation and research.

A close up inspection of the find reveals the detail of the through-bolts, iron pins and wooden pins (see below).

Photograph illustrating the through-bolts and wooden pins on the bulk beam from an historic shipwreck. Photo: Kevin Cole

This find is exciting as there has been a recent discovery of a possible underwater shipwreck site which may be the 1643 Santa Maria Madre de Deus. See a previous post in this regard.

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One of the largest humpback whales to strand in recent years washes out at Marshstrand (Haga-Haga)

Last Sunday morning (16 August 2020) the museum was alerted by a number of residents of Marshstrand and Haga-Haga that a large whale had come ashore on the rocks east of the bathing beach.

This alert came after the museum had tried to track a whale on Saturday reported to be lethargic and injured in Chintsa Bay. It was not seen by museum scientist Kevin Cole and Green Scorpion Head Div de Villiers who went out on site and traveled the coast looking for it.

Visiting Marshstrand this Monday (17 August 2020) one of the largest humpbacks to strand in years had washed up and was deposited over a rocky shore to a narrow beach by heavy seas. As the animal was lying on its belly its gender could not be determined. It was measured 13.7 m from the tip of the upper jaw to the deepest part of the notch in the tail.

The 13.7 m humpback whale which stranded at Marshstrand. Photo: East London Museum

The measurement exceeds the previous stranding of a humpback whale at Hamburg (August 2019) which was 10.27 m.

An examination of the Marshstrand humpback revealed that a possible ship strike to the back had injured the whale severely and the use of its right flipper was compromised. The animal would have died from this injury albeit not immediately. There were multiple shark bites all over the body which would have occurred after death. Noticeably here were a lot of bite marks on the tail. It would have been too dangerous to predate on the animal in this area had it been alive.

Illustrated are the shark bite marks on the tail of the humpback whale. Photo: Kevin Cole

A close examination of the skin, muscle, blubber and baleen indicated that the animal, albeit it mature, was in good health, though this assumption cannot be confirmed without further pathology. Last year two of the humpbacks which stranded close to East London were emaciated.

This is the third stranding this year covering the area between East London and Kei Mouth.

There is an increasing concern in the international community about the number of vessel collisions with marine mammals. This is born out of the increased number of recreational and commercial vessels operating in the world’s oceans. Globally registered large commercial ships increased from 11 108 to 94 000 between 1890 and 2018. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) prioritised the concern of vessel strikes on marine mammals by establishing the IWC Ship Strike Working Group.

Museum scientist Kevin Cole doesn’t think that a proper risk assessment of potential ship strikes on whales has been done in waters around East London considering this is an essential undertaking to mitigate against deaths such as this humpback at Marshstrand.

These assessments would require information on vessel positions in our waters against the backdrop that large numbers of whales have been sighted in recent weeks and more whales will be moving past close inshore in the coming months (migrating back to the circumpolar regions).

The probability of a collision between a vessel and marine animal increases with a higher vessel and/or animal density. Re-routing ship traffic further out to sea along our coast (considering the area has lots of whales at the moment) could reduce the risk of a collision significantly.

The humpback whale in question was most likely hit by a large vessel (one with a deep draft) considering the size of the strike zone (that part of the whale which was just beneath the surface when hit).

A deep gouge on the back of the humpback whale injured the animal and most likely compromised the use of the right flipper. Also note the random shark bite marks around the area and forward of the wound.Photo: Kevin Cole

A question which may be asked: Why did the whale not move out of the way of the ship? Whales can be distracted when foraging, resting, nursing and socialising and they potentially do not hear as well when near the surface if a vessel is approaching. Ship noise can form acoustic shadows which are similar or less than the ambient noise levels in the ocean and these sounds form ahead of a ship. Whales in the direct path of a ship (especially when at the surface) do not readily detect the approaching ship and can be hit.

Haga-Haga Conservancy Chairperson, Mrs Ingrid Preston, is thanked for assisting Kevin Cole to measure and document the whale. A number of other residents are also thanked for sending through information and photos. They are Mrs Connie Oosthuizen (Marshastrand), Mr Carl Wakeham (Haga-Haga), Mrs Betty-Lou Brown (Marshstrand) and Mrs Marion Meyer (Marshstrand).

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Could the shipwreck site of the 1643 Santa Maria Madre de Deus have been found?

The museum has records of shipwreck material being reported from Bonza Bay, East London. A small Portuguese vessel (naveta) was believed to have sunk in the area in 1643 while on a homeward bound journey from Goa in the east. She was carrying a cargo of Chinese porcelain, spices and silk.

Although many lives were lost a number of survivors managed to walk to Cape Correntes. The ship was under the command of Dom Luis de Castelbranco when it went down.

Maritime archaeologist John Gribble drafted the following:

At least thirteen Portuguese ships from the Age of Exploration, spanning approximately 200 years between the late 15th and 17th centuries, were wrecked along what is now the South African coast.

Since the early 1970s researchers, such as the late Graham Bell-Cross of the East London Museum, have worked to identify the location of the wrecks and together with discoveries by divers, most of the sites have now been located or the approximate place of their loss identified. Only the locations of the so-called “Soares” wreck (1505), possibly the earliest Portuguese loss in South African waters, and the Santa Maria Madre de Deus (1643) remain unconfirmed.

The Santa Maria Madre de Deus was a naveta, carrying at least 28 guns, and was lost on a return voyage from the East with a cargo of spice, Chinese porcelain and saltpetre, having departed Goa in early March 1643.

Bell-Cross suggested that there was a mid-17th century Portuguese wreck somewhere off Bonza Bay on the basis of porcelain shards, carnelian beads and other artefacts that have been collected near the mouth of the Qinira River in the past. The age and type of the wreck material found on the beach and the absence of any other known wreck from this period in the area led to the suggestion that this may be the wreck of the Santa Maria Madre de Deus.

This link is tantalising but tenuous. However, the cannon recently discovered off the Nahoon River have the potential to finally give a name to this unnamed wreck, and possibly pin down the location of the Santa Maria Madre de Deus.

Portuguese and Spanish ships of the 15th and 16th centuries were the original vehicles of expansion into the East and New World respectively during the European Age of Exploration, but our knowledge of these vessels of exploration and trade is limited and based almost entirely on a small body of written records, drawings and paintings.

In the absence of documentary records, the only other source of primary information about Portuguese ships during this period is the wrecks of these ships. To date, relatively few Portuguese India-route shipwreck sites have been found, and almost all were subject to modern salvage by their finders before archaeologists had access to the sites.

Of the Portuguese wrecks previously found in South African waters, none have been subject to proper archaeological investigation. Interventions in these sites have tended to be salvage-driven with the focus on the recovery of saleable objects and artefacts with little interest in the wider site, its meaning or archaeological value.

As a possibly untouched 17th century Portuguese shipwreck, the Nahoon River Wreck is thus potentially very significant: both to our national underwater cultural heritage and in terms of what this wreck, if carefully, archaeologically investigated can add to the international body of knowledge about the ships of the Age of Exploration, the era which arguably kick started the process of globalisation which continues today.

A comprehensive drawing of timber shipwreck material exposed at Bonza Bay in 1993 was documented by retired museum maritime conservator Deon Smit (illustrated below).

This 1993 photograph illustrates now retired museum maritime conservator Deon Smit measuring up the wreck material at Bonza Bay. Photo credit: Gary Horlor

Some aspects of the project design going forward to work on the site with a permit issued by the SA Heritage Resources Agency are detailed below (listed by John Gribble, Project Leader):

  • An evaluation of previous and preliminary studies;
  • A statement of project aims and objectives;
  • A description of the methodology to be applied in pursuing the project aim and objectives;
  • The anticipated sources of funding for the proposed work;
  • An expected timetable for completion of the proposed work;
  • The composition of the project team including their qualifications, responsibilities and experience;
  • Plans for post-fieldwork analysis and other activities;
  • A conservation programme for any artefacts recovered from the site and details of the agreement and arrangements with the East London Museum as the nominated repository;
  • A project documentation, archiving and reporting policy; and
  • A programme for publication and public awareness engagement.

Members of the public that have collected heritage material from Bonza Bay or the Nahoon Beach are encouraged to contact the museum.

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Neonate humpback whale stranding at Kei Mouth

A very bloated baby female humpback whale was investigated today at Kei Mouth. Information received from a local resident, Monica Maroun, indicated that the animal was seen at least 10 days ago.

The tongue has been exposed due to bloating in this newborn humpback whale stranding at Kei Mouth. Photo: Kevin Cole

This is the first whale stranding for the region reported to the museum. During the month of June 2020 a female Indo-Pacific bottelnose dolphin washed ashore at Bonza Bay (the first marine mammal stranding this year).

The neonate humpback whale measured 3.81 m which is slightly less than the research data suggests as a minimum birth length for the species in our waters at 3.97 m.

No physical trauma was noted except for a puzzling incision on the left flank – bloating had caused some of the intestines to protrude through the cut. The latter was not consistent with that of a propeller and may have been made post mortem by a passer-by using a knife.

Top down view of the baby female humpback whale showing the incision to the body. Photo: Kevin Cole

Lactation lasts 10.5 – 11 months and weaning occurs at a body length of 8 – 10 m. It will take 4-5 years for both females and males of the species to reach puberty. They can live up to 50 years.

A number of humpback mother calf pairs have been reported passing East London in recent weeks. Humpback whales were also noted out to sea today from the Morgan Bay cliffs.

This female humpback was identified by a grape-fruit like lobe behind the genital slit. Skin and blubber samples were taken should there be a call for DNA analysis.

Monica Maroun pictured below also assisted with the measurement of the animal and is thanked for reporting the stranding to the museum.

Monica Maroun chats to Kevin Cole before work was undertaken on the carcass. Photo: Mary Cole


Whales and Dolphins of the Southern African Subregion by Peter B. Best

Whales, Dolphins and Seals. A field guide to the marine mammals of the world by Hadoram Shirihai and Brett Jarrett

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Unusual sighting of a group of bushbuck grazing in a coastal nature reserve

The lockdown period has given some of the natural flora and fauna a reprieve from constant human disturbance. In this regard reports have been sent through to the museum of a number of unusual sightings.

Below is a photograph of six bushbuck peacefully feeding. Though primarily browsers they do seek out tender grasses as part of their feeding regime. Bushbuck are normally solitary so a grouping of six individuals is a special record. Cover is also an essential part of their habitat and the coastal nature reserve (west of East London) where these animals were seen has a number of small thickets in which the animals can find refuge.

Bushbuck breed throughout the year with births peeking in autumn and spring. After a gestation period of 180 days a single young is born and they remain with the mother until the next offspring arrives.

In traditional culture the bushbuck is the only antelope which is differentiated according to sex – in Zulu, Xhosa and SeSwati the female is called an imbabala and the male inkonka.


The complete book of southern African mammals compiled by Gus Mills and Lex Hes

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Rare pale coloured humpback whale calf sighting at Wavecrest, Wild Coast

A very rare marine mammal record for South African waters was filmed off the Wild Coast at Wavecrest by Sean Pike on Sunday 19 July 2020.

Using a drone approximately 1.5 km offshore from the Nxaxo River mouth clear visuals show an adult female humpback whale moving slowly with a pale coloured humpback calf. The latter showed good vitality and looked to be in excellent condition as it buoyed along on its mother’s right hand side.

Photo credit: Sean Pike of the Wavecrest Hotel, Wild Coast

The East London Museum has no previous records of pale or light coloured humpback whales and Dr Greg Hofmeyr (Marine Mammal Curator at Bayworld) had also not recorded such a sighting for the region.

Humpback whales in southern African waters are distinctly dark above in colouration with variable amounts of white pigmentation on the underside. The flukes can be entirely black to white on the underside and the flippers are normally dark above and white beneath.

The humpback whale calf documented at Wavecrest appears consistently paler across its entire body with very white upper flukes and flippers.

Photo credit: Sean Pike

A light coloured juvenile southern right whale was recorded swimming with an adult female in Bonza Bay in July 2017. Records of southern right whale calves being born almost completely white have been recorded in South Africa. They usually darken (become brindled) with age and are mostly males.  So this first record of a pale humpback whale calf in our waters has added a new perspective on the species colouration at birth and poses a question as to whether the paler colour will persist into adulthood.

There is a record in Australian waters of a famous adult white humpback whale called Migaloo. First sighted in 1991 he was believed to have been born in 1986. To date there are only 3 (possibly 4) records of other white humpback whales in the world.

The gestation period for humpback whales is 11-12 months and calves are weaned at 6-12 months (associating with their mother’s for 1-2 years). Humpback whales have a lifespan of up to 50 years.

Good humpback whale sightings have been reported to the museum this past week with records of groups of whales being sighted at Marshstrand, Kwelera Point, Gonubie and Winterstrand. A number of these sightings were mother calf pairs.

Encouraging too is that there have been very few whale stranding this year as compared to the previous years. Though is must be noted that observer effort was less due to the lock-down.

At the time of writing this it was hoped the mother calf pair would be spotted again on the return journey if they pass close to East London en route back to their feeding grounds in the Antarctic region. To much delight David Niedeberger sent through some great drone footage taken at Nahoon Point yesterday of a humpback whale mother calf pair. Surprisingly, the calf also presented very pale to white. Museum scientist Kevin Cole was unable to determine whether it is the Wavecrest pair – high resolution photos will be needed to identify body markings and the wavy trailing edges of the flukes of the adult whales to make a determination.

Humpback whale – mother and pale coloured calf at Nahoon Point 21 July 2020. Photo credit David Niedeberger
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Shark Awareness Day 14 July 2020

Although the shark finning industry is well known as contributing to the demise of shark species an even bigger threat is emerging – recreational fishermen targeting sharks and rays. Research published in 2014 estimated about 900 000 tons of fish was extracted from the oceans by recreational fishermen worldwide (in the 1950’s the estimate was about 280 000 tons).

Of the 900 000 tons about 54 000 tons comprised of cartilaginous fish species like sharks and rays (6% of the annual catch by recreational fishermen).

In recent years the plight of sharks being caught in our area has also been noticed with the most recent being a 2.1 m female great white shark hauled in at Glengarriff, East London on the 14th June 2020.

Sharks and rays are already compromised by having very slow growth rates and late maturity which results in reduced numbers of offspring during their life span. Great white sharks, such as the one illustrated, only mature at between 3 – 4 m so the specimen caught at Glengarriff had not produced any young yet. It is estimated that there are about 3 500 great white sharks world wide and as the apex fish predator in the oceans they are considered a vulnerable species.

Although this catch may not have been intentional the animal was probably too tired and stressed to survive after being released. A number of other incidents of sharks being caught have been reported to the museum over the past years.

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Subantarctic fur seal record from Gulu, South Africa

An unusual siting was noted of a vagrant Subantarctic fur seal which has travelled hundreds of kilometres (if not thousands – depending from which island in the southern ocean it originated from) to be on our shores. It was reported (30 June 2020) basking on an isolated beach west of the city center. This species of seal, Arctocephalus tropicalis, breeds on the islands of Tristan da Cunha, Gough and Marion to name a few and sitings though, not regular, are reported from all parts of the South African coast.

It was investigated by museum scientist Kevin Cole and showed no signs of physical trauma. Seals often haul out just to rest up before continuing their travels and thankfully this animal has survived a long journey away from home uninjured. This is a male Subantarctic seal with it characteristic tuft of raised hair on the head is also identified by its paler foreface and underbody. Our endemic Cape fur seals, Arctocephalus pusillus, have a uniform body colouring (usually dark greyish-black to greyish-brown).

Subantarctic fur seals feed on squid, fish and krill and are also known to predate on penguins. They can dive to a depth of around 200 m and a remain underwater for up to 6.5 minutes. Most of the population of Subantarctic seals, approximately 200 000 of a total approximate population of 350 000, are from Gough Island (3 422 km’s away). They can live up to 25 years.

Members of the public which may encounter any live marine mammal are asked not to approach the animals too closely and to take charge of their pets. Although seals look harmless they can react aggressively when threatened and move very quickly to defend their space. It is best to leave them be and to report the siting to the museum or the aquarium. Chris Hetem and Karen Jansen (both residents of Kidd’s Beach) are thanked for bringing this record to our attention. Glenda Williams-Wynn is also thanked for updating the museum on the 1 July when the seal had moved west of Kidd’s Beach. A visit out to the site revealed that the animal had moved off. The information has been forwarded to Dr Greg Hofmeyr, a seal scientist at Bayworld (PE). He will log this record in his seal data base.

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Umtiza update – Daily Dispatch 1 July 2020

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Sad destruction of the Umtiza Forest, East London

Some cities are blessed more than others with a lot of natural capital. In this instance East London has a jewel of indigenous scarp forest called the Umtiza after a very special and endemic tree called the Umtiza listeriana. Found nowhere else in South Africa and the world (there are a few vagrant clumps in the Border region – Centani and King William’s Town). This tree grows in a species rich area of approximately 758 ha of forest.

The Umtiza forest has a protected section of just more than 500 ha managed by the Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency (ECPTA). This is known as the Umtiza Nature Reserve. There are trails in this section that are very seldom used due to safety concerns – a great loss for ecotourism.

In recent years and more so over the past few months illegal land grabs have seen pockets of the forest destroyed and burnt for illegal housing. This has cut to the very core of biodiversity conservation. A number of concerned conservationists like Div de Villiers (Head of the Green Scorpions), Robert Stegmann (environmental manager with Environmental Affairs) and museum scientist Kevin Cole are deeply disturbed by the lack of political will to solve the issue which spreads across a number of government entities. These include land-owners such as the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure, the Agricultural Research Council and the SA Tuberculosis Association. The adjacent custodian of the large portion of the forest, ECPTA, have remained relatively silent as the forest has burnt.

Green Scorpion Head, Div de Villiers (pictured) has tried to reason with folk who are illegally destroying the Umtiza Forest.

Even the SA Police Services stand by while mature Umtiza trees, milkwoods and other species are chopped and burnt. Admittedly any action on the part of the authorities is met with an angry response. Nonetheless, a driving force championing the integrity of conservation remains within the Eastern Cape Green Scorpions.

Of equal concern is the loss of habitat of a very special and shy monkey species – the Samango monkey. Also known as Syke’s monkey. It is aboreal and relies on a few scattered forest patches extending from Umtiza to KwaZulu-Natal and into Mocambique and Zimbabwe. We are privileged to have these monkeys in the BCM Metro yet we watch as their habitat is destroyed. Even if there is an argument for land for the people a less biodiverse area can be selected and amicably settled rather than destroying a forest which has existed for thousand of years in our part of the world. Rehabilitation will never bring back the species richness that is being cut down and burnt.

Young Samango monkey eating fruit. Photo: Kevin Cole

The Samango monkey has not been properly studied in the Umtiza Forest and secrets as to the extent of their groupings and troops has not been documented. They are nocturnal and spend most of their time sleeping in dense entanglements of vegetation and sometimes in self-constructed nests.

Samango monkey. Photo Kevin Cole

Not many citizens in East London even know of the existence of these special creatures and the danger they are facing in the near future. A group has a fixed home range of several hectares and although they rest in groups (2-6) they usually forage alone.

Adult Samango monkey foraging for fruit. Photo Kevin Cole

It is sincerely hoped that the national Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) will issue compliance notices to the relevant land-owners to stop the illegal land grabs. But it will take a huge effort to collectively bring about a change of heart to the people involved that what is being destroyed is precious and it is not only about providing a roof over their heads but a home for other creatures that share the planet with us. This story will be updated.

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