Two oceans, and towns, collide


CAPE POINT, South Africa - Every day thousands of tourists trek to this spit of land that hangs like an apostrophe from the southwestern tip of the African continent to witness the meeting of the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean.

They stand at the edge of spectacular cliffs plunging down to the sea and focus their cameras on the colliding oceans splashing against the jagged rocks below.

At the gift shop, they buy coffee mugs, T-shirts, collector spoons and bottles of ocean water - all emblazoned with the slogan, "Cape Point, South Africa: Where Two Oceans Meet."

As awe-inspiring as the visit might be, there's one problem.

It's a lie.

So say outraged residents of Cape Agulhas, about 90 miles to the east. The Atlantic and Indian oceans, they claim, merge in the waters off the coast of their sleepy town, a flat, wind-swept collection of seaside cottages largely overlooked by tourists.

Yet as the summer holiday season goes on in the Southern Hemisphere, busloads of visitors will once again be misled, Agulhas residents insist, by shop owners and others profiting from the false belief that Cape Point is the place where two oceans come together.

"They are stealing bread from the mouth of a baby," says Riaan Pienaar, who is leading the fight for Agulhas to claim exclusive rights to this geographic distinction.

Official boundary

For all practical purposes, the good people of Agulhas are correct. More than a half-century ago, a Monaco-based institution known as the International Hydrographic Organization, which standardizes nautical charts, drew a line at 20 degrees east longitude from Antarctica to Cape Agulhas to mark the division of the two oceans. The dividing line is recognized by oceanographers, mariners and the South African navy.

And yet, that's not the end of the story. The naming and identification of oceans are, after all, actions of humans. Any given ocean exists on maps as a matter of convenience to separate what in the end is one very large continuous body of water. And what's convenient for Cape Agulhas and what's convenient for Cape Point are not the same.

The roots of the debate go back to the 15th century, when European explorers rounded Cape Point in search of a sea route to the East and noted a change in the temperature of the water and a difference in marine life.

On the western side of the peninsula, the water is chilly, making it a fine home for African penguins, seals and kelp. On the eastern side, the water is warm, supporting crabs and coral life and making swimming pleasant.

Because of these sharp changes, sailors came to believe they were passing from the Atlantic to the Indian oceans. What they really experienced were the two powerful currents at work off South Africa's coast.

On the east coast of Africa, the Agulhas Current from the Indian Ocean carries warm water from the subtropics. From the west, the Atlantic Ocean's Benguela Current delivers chillier water because the wind blows the surface water offshore, forcing cold water up from the deep.

The currents wander and never meet at a fixed point. But from time to time the warm Agulhas current does drift as far as Cape Point, which is responsible for the mistaken, although popular, belief that Cape Point is the dividing line between the oceans.

Business owners, tour books and ill-informed guides have perpetuated this myth, perhaps because what is true is not always what people want to believe. Nor is it profitable.

"Does the Loch Ness monster exist?" asks Eric de Jager, owner of the Cape Point gift shop. "Scientists say it doesn't, but there are thousands of tourists who quite enjoy believing it."

No one is more responsible for keeping the myth alive than de Jager and his vast collection of mementos. But he makes no apologies.

"No one is trying to deceive tourists," he says. "No one can lay claim to where the oceans meet. Oceans do their own thing." But the people of Agulhas prefer to live in a world of absolutes, of right and wrong, of oceans cleanly divided.

"One may dismiss it as a trivial thing. They may think, 'Why bother about it?' But for this community it is extremely important to get back its unique selling point," Pienaar says.

One-man campaign

To that end, Pienaar is dedicated to ridding the world of references to Cape Point as the place two oceans meet. So far his one-man campaign has corrected dozens of tour books, Web sites and tourist brochures and stopped misleading advertising for a wine named Two Oceans.

He also challenged a television quiz show that recently awarded points to a contestant for claiming that Cape Point was the place where the oceans come together.

But his efforts have just as often ended in frustration. He failed to get organizers of the Two Oceans Marathon, which follows a route from one side of Cape Peninsula to the other, to rethink the name of their race.

Nor has he gained any ground in his long-standing battle with de Jager's gift shop. Last year, Pienaar lodged a complaint against the gift shop with the consumer affairs committee of South Africa. But nothing came of it, he says.

Pienaar might sound like the kind of guy who spends his days correcting strangers' grammar or making sure shoppers don't have more than 10 items in the supermarket express line, a person to be avoided at parties. But his intentions are admirable.

Agulhas, which also has the distinction of being the southernmost point in Africa, draws a trickle of tourists, a fraction of the estimated 800,000 people who travel to Cape Point each year.

There is no way to know how many people go to Cape Point on the assumption that they are seeing two oceans merge. But Pienaar calculates that if Agulhas could attract just 10 percent of Cape Point's visitors, the town's struggling economy would stand to gain about $500,000 per year.

Even if Pienaar is successful in his quest to set the record straight, it's hard to imagine it would draw away visitors from Cape Point or encourage many more people to visit Cape Agulhas.

Standing in Cape Agulhas might reward tourists with a sense of self-satisfaction, even smugness, that they were smart enough to visit the authentic meeting point. But the experience can hardly compare to visiting Cape Point.

Agulhas has a 12 million-candlepower lighthouse towering over a flat, rocky stretch of land that disappears into the ocean. A simple bronze plaque just above the waterline marks the southernmost point on the continent.

Below it are two concrete street signs: one pointing east to the Atlantic Ocean and the other indicating the Indian Ocean lies to the west. The trickle of tourists who journey to this remote point each day usually have their pictures taken leaning against the plaque or straddling the dividing line. Then, with little else to stir the imagination, it's time to go.

But to stand at Cape Point is an experience like stepping to the edge of the Grand Canyon. There is almost too much for the eye to take in. Visitors tend to pause before reaching for their cameras, in awe of all that is before them: the dramatic cliffs, the sea looking as if it's coming to a boil below, the seabirds riding the wind, in the distance the southern right whales peeking above the waves.

From this height, the debate over whether they are looking at one ocean or two doesn't seem to matter.

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