#02 2024

Unveiling hidden treasures: Exploring the West Coast marine invertebrates

By Sisipho Njokweni, Intern, Egagasini Node, NRF-SAEON

Embarking on my first sea expedition as an intern was an unforgettable experience, made even more memorable by the Africana, the marine research vessel that carried us through the waves. 

On 21 February, we embarked on our journey to survey the continental shelf between the border of Namibia and the south of Cape Agulhas, eager to explore the depths of the ocean and contribute to scientific research in South Africa. The research team on the vessel consisted of scientists from the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) who focused on fish, and scientists from SAEON (myself and Safiyya Sedick) focusing on marine invertebrates.

Our primary goal for this survey was to collect data for the SeaMap project led by offshore marine scientist Dr Lara Atkinson and hosted at the SAEON Egagasini Node. The SeaMap project aims to deliver South Africa’s first data-driven marine ecosystem map derived from associated species occurrence and barcode records.

Setting sail for discovery

As I stepped aboard the research vessel for my first sea trip, I felt a mixture of excitement, anticipation and a hint of nervousness. As an intern, I knew this experience would be invaluable for my future career aspirations, little did I know then just how transformative and eye-opening this journey would be.

The RV Africana at port in Cape Town.

Sisipho (right) collecting Sympagurus dimorphus (dimorphic hermit crabs) on deck.

Diving into research

The first day was spent familiarising ourselves with the R/V Africana, a pleasant break before the real work began. The following day we started trawling. As the net was cast into the ocean, I could not help but feel a sense of awe and anticipation. What wonders lay hidden beneath the surface, waiting to be uncovered?

It did not take long for the ocean to start revealing its secrets. With each haul, we pulled up a diverse array of marine life, from tiny colourful starfish to graceful molluscs, offering a glimpse into the rich biodiversity of South Africa’s West Coast. As we moved to deeper stations, we retrieved even greater diversity of marine invertebrates and I found myself in awe of the ocean’s beauty.

As a member of the invertebrate team, I had the opportunity to immerse myself in every aspect of the research process, from collecting invertebrates on deck, sorting and weighing the specimens we retrieved to recording data. Every task felt like a step forward in unravelling the mysteries of the ocean. Furthermore, learning from seasoned scientists about the complexities of marine ecosystems added more layers of depth to my understanding.

The SAMSA crew team hard at work to open the fishing net.

Intern Sisipho Njokweni wears a smile as she prepares to collect invertebrates on deck.

Some of the most memorable moments of the expedition were spent witnessing the sheer abundance of life thriving in these waters – from the tiniest molluscs to the grandest hake fish, the ocean pulsed with activity and vitality. It was a humbling reminder of the interconnectedness of all living things and the urgency of preserving our marine ecosystems.

Navigating challenges at sea 

Of course, life at sea presented its challenges. The rhythm of the waves and the constant motion of the vessel took some getting used to, and there were moments when seasickness threatened to dampen my spirit. Yet, amidst the occasional discomfort, a sense of dedication buoyed inside me, and fuelled my determination to contribute to the mission at hand.

We welcomed the occasional break provided by bad weather days, enjoying the chance to rest and recharge. However, after resting for two days, the downtime became tedious and I found myself longing to return to the active work on deck.

Expressing gratitude  

I am immensely grateful for the guidance and mentorship provided by the crew and fellow scientists. Their generosity and enthusiasm fostered a sense of belonging and propelled me forward on this journey of discovery.

As the R/V Africana carried us back to port on 10 March, I could not help but reflect on the profound impact this experience had on me. It was more than just a sea voyage, it was a journey of discovery, of the ocean’s wonders and of myself.

The memories made aboard the R/V Africana will stay with me forever, serving as a reminder of the importance of scientific exploration and environmental stewardship. I extend my heartfelt thanks to Dr Lara Atkinson and my supervisor, Ms Nicole du Plessis, for this incredible opportunity.

Diverse array of marine invertebrates collected on deck.