International Marine Volunteers is based in such a beautiful part of the world, where the Agulhas and Benguela oceans mix around the southernmost tip of Africa. The ocean here is productive and diverse and, while we spend most of our time offshore in search of great white sharks, whales, dolphins, seals and penguins, just on the other side of the rocks along our shore lies a secret world of beautiful creatures and plants just waiting to be discovered!
Kelp beds in less than 10m of water are a rich and exciting habitat for all sorts of creatures. Kelp is also known as sea bamboo, or Ecklonia maxima, and these underwater plants play an integral role in the nearshore environment. The forest of kelp fronds provide some protection from predators and the sun and is an excellent habitat for both fish and invertebrate species, like abalone, a highly-prized (and unfortunately intensively poached) mollusc.
Kelp is harvested at sea and collected along the beaches in South Africa and is used as feed for farmed abalone, fish and other animals, liquid fertiliser, alginate, a compost booster, moisture-retainer for agriculture and even as a dietary supplement for humans.
After a good day’s work, when time and weather allows, we head on down to De Kelders, a picturesque stretch of coast on the eastern shore of Walker Bay. Donning wetsuits, masks, weight belts and fins we gather at the water’s edge and slide into the cool water with great excitement, and in some cases, a lot of nerves!
“I was a little bit nervous at first” said one of the volunteers, because there some sharks around, “but I soon realised that they weren’t going to mess with us and I felt like I was swimming through an underwater jungle!”
Soon everyone was enchanted by the brown-green kelp forest swaying in the swells, the many different fish sheltering amongst the fronds and the wide array of other species below us.
We see lots of species whilst down there, but the most regularly seen are the wildeperde, or white and black zebra fish, blacktail, yellow-striped sea bream (which are apparently hallucinogenic if eaten!), rockfish, sea urchins, anemones, cushion stars and other starfish, abalone and alikreukel, also known as the giant turban snail.
Many of us are of course shark lovers so the pyjama shark, shy shark, spotted gully shark and raggies often steal the show!
“It was so much fun, and such a cool spot,” said another one of the volunteers excitedly, “I learnt lots about different species of marine life and also how to get through kelp with a weight belt and flippers!”
“It was kind of eerie in the kelp forest, but I enjoyed it never-the-less!”
“It was really pretty and so peaceful!”
And most importantly…“When can we go again?!”
Wow…how lucky we are to have such a nice opportunity, right on our doorstep, to pop our heads underwater and learn all about a whole other world! At International Marine Volunteers our coordinators are passionate about the coastline, love the marine environment and welcome every opportunity to share their knowledge with our volunteers.
by Meredith Thornton: IMV Manager