#04 2023

Of crustaceans, culture and culinary delights

By Arno Botha, PhD Student, University of Cape Town and SAEON Egagasini Node

In May 2023, I was invited to present at the 10th International Crustacean Congress (ICC10) held at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington, New Zealand. The ICC10 is the largest conference in the world on crustacean-related research, and global experts in a wide range of crustacean science were in attendance. 

For a South African to get to Wellington is no easy feat. It requires patience, plenty of help from colleagues and administrative staff and most importantly, funding. I was fortunate to have received all of these. Once you arrive in Wellington, things get a lot easier and the beauty of the city, along with a welcoming reception from the locals, make you feel right at home.

On day 1 of the conference, delegates were met with a friendly ‘Kia ora’ followed by a Pōwhiri (a Māori welcoming reception), which involved several steps conducted by the local ‘iwi’ (tribe) that ultimately welcomed us (and our ancestors) onto Māori lands and blessed our journey onwards. This set the tone for the conference, which was much more than a gathering to discuss scientific topics, but also celebrated the local culture.

This trend continued into the evening where a local iwi performed a Kapa Haka (see image 2). Then local craft breweries were tasked by the conference organisers to create a beer specifically for the conference. Delegates could taste the creations and vote for their favourite. The winning beer would of course have a crustacean species named after the brewery (because what else would the prize be?)

The next two days saw plenty of interesting talks and posters presented by researchers from all over the world, that led to interesting discussions and great opportunities for networking. Such discussions with the ‘squat lobster-philes’ were particularly beneficial for me as squat lobsters are my group of interest. These discussions built up to the Thursday when all the squat lobster-philes (myself included, see image 1) presented their research in the same session. Nerves were at an all-time high, but luckily under control and my talk went smoothly. Fortunately, I was not aware that the New Zealand National News team were filming my talk and only found out afterwards that it has been broadcast on national television.

One afternoon the conference ended a little early and we had some free time to explore Wellington. I had one thing on my mind – find a Lord of the Rings film location. Sure enough, just 15 minutes’ walk from my accommodation was the exact location where the filming took place of the Nazgûl that almost caught Frodo and his three hobbit friends, Samwise Gamgee, Merry Brandybuck and Pippin Took. Here, Samwise (Frodo’s best friend) points out that it is the furthest away from home he has ever been (see Image 3), emphasising the length that he’s willing to go to for his friend.

That Thursday night a conference dinner was hosted at the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum, a fancy affair that saw local New Zealand food produce in the limelight. There were Clevedon coast oysters, New Zealand lobster on a Kawakawa crostini (my personal favourite) and Abel Tasman scallop risotto, among other culinary delights. During the conference dinner conversations continued and collaborations are sure to follow as everyone got excited when South African material was mentioned.

Field trip

As part of the conference, a field trip to the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) was organised, where delegates could visit the invertebrate collection and have a look at their favourite groups. I scuttled off to the squat lobster collection, of course. In the collection are some of the most amazing animals, many collected from hydrothermal vents and trenches around New Zealand. For me, the highlight was certainly seeing some of the yeti crab (Kiwa spp.) specimens in person.

We were also able to take a trip to Kapiti Island, a conservation area dedicated to the conservation and recovery of native bird species whose populations were decimated by rats, cats and stoats (all introduced). After a short ferry trip across to the island, we did a four-hour round trip hike to the summit and saw fascinating and rare birds along the way, the highlight of which certainly was the takahē, a flightless swamphen whose global population is around 500. Unfortunately, no kiwis were spotted, but plenty other beautiful birds made the day.

Attending the ICC10 was an incredibly memorable experience (and extremely valuable as I am an early-career scientist) and certainly one I would not soon forget. It was an amazing opportunity to meet global experts and network with names that I have so often cited.

This experience certainly would not have been possible without the funding I received from the National Research Foundation (NRF) Knowledge, Interchange and Collaboration grant, the Crustacean Society student travel award as well as the University of Cape Town travel grant. Moreover, without the help and guidance from our node staff, Dr Lara Atkinson, Professor Juliet Hermes and Ms Simoné Louw, all this would not have been possible.

Arno presenting his research at the ICC10 on the additions to the squat lobster fauna of South Africa (Photo: Kareen Schnabel)

A local ‘iwi’ performing a Kapa Haka for conference delegates (Photo: Janet Matheson)

One of many Lord of the Rings film locations in New Zealand. This is at the start of their journey where Samwise Gamgee said: ”If I take one more step, it will be the furthest away from home I’ve ever been.”