Getting to know your study subject is a touchy subject in science…
The very word ‘anthropomorphising’ will send shudders of horror down the spine of many an objective, pipette-toting lover of all that is rational and measurable. Staying immune, however, is often easier said than done. Take for instance Dr Jane Goodall, a scientist who was for years criticised for her decision to name and habituate her chimpanzee subjects.
Opinions on whether Dr Goodall was right or wrong aside, what I love about marine biology is that I can ostensibly flout lab-coat-wearing convention by blithely declaring (with certainty, you’ll note) that my research vessel is female. Maritime history is steeped in strange lore that, like it or not, becomes increasingly familiar to you whether you are a superstitious fisherman or a rational marine biologist. No redheads on the boat (well, I’ve ruled that one out, having gone to sea with one or two distinctly coppery-headed assistants in my time), no women on the boat (I’ve definitely debunked that myth!) absolutely no bananas on board (the jury’s still out on that one)… My point is that while you may come to marine research with many ideas about the ocean as your static subject of study, it only takes one or two voyages on the broiling back of a choppy sea before your head too is filled with ideas of the ocean as a distinct character…
Taking my tongue firmly back out of my cheek, it’s undeniable that my data collection, analysis, interpretation and write-up must still remain objective. Describing a seahorse as ‘shimmying’ up to the bait canister, or delighting in a roman’s ‘bolshy’ defence of its territory, wouldn’t exactly cut it in a scientific journal – and quite rightly so. However, my experience of our oceans as a researcher is multifaceted: while measuring variables and observing potential trends remain an impartial business in order to ensure the integrity of the work I produce and the implications it will have further down the line, there is another side to my work that leaves me hopelessly charmed by the ocean and her shifting moods.
That I have long been in love with False Bay, as a surfer and as a diver, is no secret to most who know me. Declaring my passion for her enchanting blue reaches as a scientist is quite another matter… However, these past few months have kept me fixated with this iconic region. ‘It’s for my work, of course,’ I’d mutter defensively after waxing a little too lyrical about a day out on False Bay’s waters to friends. Isn’t that how many great love stories start, though? Soon, I’d catch myself grinning foolishly each time I spoke about the red steenbras that hides out in one of the marine protected areas we survey, and I’d giggle enthusiastically with anyone who was unsuspecting enough to show enthusiasm for my BRUV footage.
A good friend and fellow ocean-lover recognised the symptoms immediately, suggesting gently that I’d become a fish nerd (I, of course, flushed an interesting shade of beetroot and mumbled something incoherent about science and degrees). As it is with love stories and that end part where the main character awakens to their predicament, my friend was accurate in her diagnosis – to an extent. A fish nerd? Perhaps. Someone utterly floored by the beauty that the ocean provides on our doorstep? Absolutely.
I do have another opportunity to express this ‘other side’ to my experiences as a researcher and that lies in the realm of public awareness – in establishing a connection between human – beings and the other species that share our planet. One of my greatest fears as a conservation biologist is that the majority of South Africans will never get to experience our wild places like I do. That’s probably why I worry so about communicating what it is that I do, and why it is that I do it – to have people as enchanted with our natural world as I am.
So, for a day, I left my maps and statistics at home and ventured out to capture what it was that got me into science in the first place. Together with my great friend and fellow biologist, Otto Whitehead, I decided to put my BRUV footage in the context of the incredible environment it is so much a part of. Put on a good pair of headphones and celebrate our inheritance, this doorstep wilderness we call home. And in doing so, my wish is for you to fall for False Bay (if you have not done so already) as deeply as I have.