Driving from Cape Town to Hermanus to begin my internship at the South African Shark Conservancy (SASC), gave me my first glimpse of what was to be a life changing experience. As you rose up then descended into each valley, the landscape and climate was dramatically different every time. The diversity was so apparent you lost yourself until that became the norm. But South Africa never disappointed in this observation for the rest of my three month stay.
Going into the internship, I knew it involved catching sharks and collecting numerous data on a few local endemic species. I was also expecting the opportunity to observe and monitor the migrating Southern Right whale population. But the variety of research projects I was involved in gave me an insight into the huge demand for conservational efforts at this moment in time. From recording micro plastics and litter on beaches, collecting isotope and gastric lavage samples, to observing shifts and changes in species distribution, it opened up my eyes to the extremely large field not just marine but all environmental conservation is.
The waters off the coast of Hermanus contain kelp forest habitats. Within which inhabit three species of shark which are endemic to South Africa, Poroderma africanum (pyjama catshark), Poroderma pantherinum (leopard catshark) and Haploblepharus pictus (dark shyshark). These species feed mainly on small fish and crustaceans, they are benthic dwelling and lay shark egg cases which they tie to the kelp and leave to hatch. With research largely focused on more charismatic species, it is important to recognise and learn about smaller but still incredibly significant sharks, which are hugely affected by anthropogenic impacts.
Our methods for catching and observing the sharks varied from rod and reel to using a baited underwater camera. But the most “hands on” system was for the team to snorkel into the kelp and drop a bait box of mackerel or sardine. Within a couple of minutes, the bait attracts the sharks and the team dives down and catches the shark. The shark is then swam back and the measurements taken and the shark is tagged and released. Having the opportunity to handle the sharks and develop animal husbandry skills with the few we kept in tanks was very rewarding. But it was all handed over to us interns, we made the calls, decided if the swell was manageable, if the visibility was good enough, we chose the level of the challenge. The freedom we had on the projects allowed me to truly immerse myself into the research and get a full grasp of what needed to be done. Forcing myself to be original and think how a scientist and conservationist needs to.
It was stood on the steps of the Old Harbour in Hermanus, on the first day of the Whale Festival, when I saw my first whale. It literally waved. A pectoral fin a metre and a half long rose up out of the sea and took a royal salute. Having studied whales mostly in my free time, a fascination had grown from my sheer amazement at how something so large can live so mysteriously. To then have the opportunity to work on the whale watching boat, to be seeing first hand their natural behaviours was truly inspiring.
One occasion will always stay in my mind, and whether, like you do when you’re a child, I have exaggerated the memory, I will never forget it. Standing at Khaal Rock fishing for sharks, a baby southern right whale approached the rocks. It must have been deep, because this baby was at a push fifteen metres from where we stood. Then about eighty metres from the rocks, we saw the mother surface. The mother rolled over, and out came her majestic pectoral fin. The fin, rising up in the air came down with a slap twice as fast as it had appeared. Once, twice… then three times. On the third time, the baby, previously heading towards us, banked around and headed for mum. We had watched natures version of “I’m going to count to three and if you aren’t here, there will be consequences..” Nothing can prepare you for that. Nothing can teach you that, no lecture or seminar can fully show nature’s work. You have to be out there, in amongst it, to understand that every species shares two things, life and the ability to live.
It was SASC that also introduced me to the importance of education and outreach with local communities in conservational practices. South Africa, being a developing country, has a huge demand for outreach projects with not just local children, but adults too. Everyday people came to the office to be shown around and see the sharks. So one task us interns were given was to conduct these tours. The faces of the children when they touched a shark for the first time, or saw the embryos of baby sharks growing in egg cases, is that of sheer amazement. Why more people do not want to share knowledge and show nature’s wonders to those previously unaware does baffle me sometimes. Education is not for everyone I know that, but it is crucial. Ninety percent of the children that arrived at the office, previously had a fear of sharks, could only name the infamous white shark and thought sharks to have us on their menu. When we showed them our sharks, they were blown away, they were desperate to know more. They just needed to be shown.
From my time in South Africa I took away with me an increased passion for the outdoors. To be outside, with no shoes on (just watch out for half inch thorns, you don’t always have a brawny professional angler with you to pull it out), amongst nature, in the sea, in the field, is a place that I can find peace. It comes with a price, the more I see, the more I am desperate to protect it, South Africa definitely showed me how vulnerable our planet is and how easily we as a species can destroy. But on the plus side, it showed me it’s worth protecting and called me to action.