Going out to sea for the first time is exciting. Working with marine scientists on a research vessel using under water cameras to study life at ocean depths never surveyed before, is an opportunity of a lifetime, says 20-year-old Thamsanqa Nkosi.
Nkosi is among 17 marine biology students from various universities in South Africa who have been enrolled on the 2017 Ocean Stewards programme – a marine research initiative convened by Wildlands and Grindrod Bank.
The 2017 programme includes a 30-day expedition on board the research vessel, the Angra Pequena. The objective of the expedition is to map offshore biodiversity and identify areas where conservation is needed most.
In taking part in the research, students will help deploy BRUVS (Baited Remote Underwater Video Stations) and ROVs (remotely operated underwater vehicles). Associated state-of-the-art technology enables high-definition video footage of ocean life on the seafloor and coral reefs to be live-streamed from depths of 80 – 150 metres to monitors on board the 72-foot yacht.
“Most people only get the opportunity to view such footage on TV channels like National Geographic,” said Wildlands strategic director, Mark Gerrard. “You get see it live,” said Gerrard, in welcoming the new intake of Ocean Stewards.
Gerrard said when most people looked out at the sea from land, they desperately wanted to know what is happening out there.
“This your chance to discover this. Through the Ocean Stewards programme, you are going to get the opportunity to explore, research, understand and question what is happening in the oceans, and to share,” said Gerrard.
“And this year, we will be going deeper than ever before,” said Dr Jean Harris, head of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife scientific services division and the skipper of the Angra Pequena. “We are taking you with us,” said Harris. “We will engage with you, mentor you and impart skills, but also rely on you to become part of the team, getting real important science done.”
Harris said the marine environment up to 30 metres in depth had been well described. “People scuba dive in these waters, going out in boats for half a day, so we know what is happening close onshore. Deeper offshore it’s another story altogether – pretty much unchartered territory,” said Harris.
The Ocean Stewards programme started in 2015 and has already seen more than 32 marine science students from across the country taking part in expeditions on board the Angra Pequena.
Giving students a glimpse into what this year’s research work will entail, Harris showed a series of slides of unique fish species and coral trees discovered on earlier expeditions.
“Take a look at this huge coral tree. It takes years to grow. Imagine a prawn trawler going over this. It will be gone forever,” said Harris.
Harris said students would also assist with plankton (fish larvae) and fish sampling, sediments grabs and oceanographic surveys. This will enable scientists to determine, among things the varying ocean depths, shape and composition of the sea floor, as well as the salinity and temperatures of the water along a pre-determined sampling grid.
“If the environment is different, the biology will be different,” said Harris. “We want to build up a greater understanding of what is contained in the different biodiversity areas, and where we should protect, and how much should be protected.”
Nkosi, who grew up in a small township outside Pietermaritzburg, is now particularly excited about the prospects of educating his own family about life in the oceans.
“I always have trouble trying to explain to my parents what I am studying. After taking part in this expedition and taking pictures, I’ll be able to better explain what my career is,” laughed Nkosi.
Fellow Ocean Steward, Njabulo Mdluli, who grew up in Hambrook village in Bergville, shares similar enthusiasm.
“I will finally be able to show young people in my village that the sea is not just blue water and salt, and that there is so much we can learn from the ocean,” said Mdluli.
For Rebecca Reddy, her selection to become an Ocean Steward is the realisation of a dream.
She said a trip to uShaka SeaWorld when she was 9-years-old sparked her interest in the ocean.
“Ever since, I have always dreamed of going out to sea with no land in sight, experiencing the open ocean in all its power and glory,” said Reddy.
Her sentiments are echoed by Amy Shurety (23) whose encounters with sea turtles as a deep sea diver from Richards Bay inspired her to become a marine scientist.
“The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever,” said Shurety, quoting Jacques Yves Cousteau, a former French naval officer turned explorer, conservationist, filmmaker, photographer, author and pioneer of marine science. – Fred Kockott and Zamo Phungula
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