On our day of arrival we were met by a friendly bunch of people of all different nationalities but with a common interest, the conservation and public awareness of marine life. To be honest before arriving in Mossel Bay I thought that we would pretty much only be doing Great White Shark research, which is the primary reason I signed up to be an intern with Oceans Research. However the first couple of days were too windy and were not conducive for going out and chumming for the white sharks. This was followed by a few boat engine problems which resulted in us not being able to go out on the boat for the day. It quickly becomes apparent that research in the marine environment and indeed any research in general is susceptible to last minute decisions whereby changes to the planned schedule is inevitable. This makes it interesting as plans can change at any time and you need to be prepared to adapt to new challenges.
Instead of going out on the boat, the fist few days involved doing Dolphin surveys from land at 6 sites around the Mossel Bay coastline. Edith is the Cetacean Queen here at Mossel Bay and her enthusiasm for cetaceans and dolphins in particular is awesome. The days can get a bit long when you don’t see any dolphins for several hours on end, but again this teaches you another vital attribute of any researcher, patience! After all patience is a virtue.. However it is rewarding on the days when you get to see a pod of about 40-50 dolphins moving synchronously en mass and tracking them around the bay.
On one of the first few days we were also introduced to the Shark Lab where a variety of interesting and ground-breaking research is taking place. We were fortunate enough to get involved with a study involving tonic immobility in sharks, namely the Puff-Adder Shy Sharks and Leopard Catsharks. This is when the sharks are turned upside-down and go into a trance-like state. At first when you turn them over they struggle profusely but then they eventually start to relax and you can literally feel when they slip into tonic. They lie there motionless and one would almost think they are dead as they don’t move at all except for their gills as they continue to breathe. However they suddenly slip out of tonic and start to struggle again at which point you release them and let them be. Theories differ on why sharks go into tonic immobility such as it could be an anti-predator defence mechanism by playing dead or it could help with shark copulation as the male will turn the female over whereby she wont struggle and he can get on with things. But again the research is helping to better understand why this mechanism is inherent in shark species and is aiming to identify if all sharks are capable of going into tonic as well as the main reason for this unusual phenomenon. Adam is in charge of the Shark Lab and also runs the aquarium which aims to undertake ground-breaking research while at the same time allowing the public to come and observe what is going on. Often new discoveries in science are kept among the scientists of the world, but Enrico (one of the Oceans Research Directors) explained to us that it is important to translate what happens in science into a simpler format which can be understood by the general public. This is also important as it generates public awareness which enables the public to understand why scientists do research in the first place and will ultimately lead to the more successful conservation of marine species.
About a week into our stay here we were finally able to go out on the boat looking for Great Whites. Our two intern leaders, Rob (the humorous South African-Kiwi) and Jeremy (the Californian gnarly surfer dude) took us out for the day and showed us the ropes of what to do on the boat and how to attract sharks. We started chumming and waited about 3 hours for any sharks to appear. These 3 hours were filled by Rob trying to get us to reveal things we never new about each other as well as other funny stories of past events and life in general. Just as we were about to run out of conversation 3 great whites came hurtling in towards the boat and we got our first taste of the Great White experience. It was amazing to see how graceful they are in the water, immediately putting to rest any doubt that these are mindless man-eating killers.. They pass by the bait rope with a graceful calm that you would not expect from one of the oceans apex predators, a truly humbling experience.
Our final mission before writing this blog was a seal survey whereby we anchored just off seal island and observed the movement of seals both incoming and outgoing from the island. Being out on the boat all day is an awesome experience. It’s just you and your new buddies out on the ocean observing things which people in general never see or simply take for granted.
One quickly realizes how all things in nature are interconnected and how researching various organisms enables us to better understand these interconnections and ultimately how we can enable their conservation. From just a week here the life of a research scientist seems very appealing. It’s hard work and long hours, however the work you do is very rewarding. It’s awesome to be able to contribute to something larger than yourself, and being an Oceans intern gives you the opportunity to do just that.
David van Beuningen