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Lauren De Vos abandoned the land-locked Highveld to pursue a career exploring South Africa’s seas. It’s proving to be quite a journey. She shares its surfaces and depths.

Mixed shoal, Laren De Vos, Africa Geographic Blog

It’s quite a distance from the dusty Highveld of my childhood to the emergence of a research career in the stormy seas that make the Cape coast infamous. A less surprising journey, perhaps, if you include our family pilgrimages to the coast in the true Vaalie tradition. Leaving my sunbathing peers reclining on the sand, I’d submerge my head in rockpools, lungs filled to bursting and hair swirling around my borrowed goggles – it was inevitable, really, that an almost manic obsession with going barefoot and rooting around for hermit crabs would evolve into a career that considered a wetsuit suitable office-wear.

Still deeply in love with the bushveld, but tempted by the pull of the ocean’s tides, I moved to the coast six years ago. As a zoology student, I discovered the fulfilment of studying our coastline under the guidance of researchers who’ve dedicated their careers to the ocean. Somewhere in the time that elapsed between my first bumbling attempt at surfing and a wide-eyed encounter with a sevengill shark while freediving, I fell in love with the exploration and conservation of this strange world. It was no surprise that, some years later, my first job would land me squarely in False Bay.

I first learned to love the bay for its surf-friendly waves (as a Vaalie, I’ve long been restricted to Muizenberg’s forgiving breaks), but soon came to prefer dipping beneath its surface in search of new thrills. Home to 38 species of sharks, rays and skates (not to mention the diversity of reef fish and invertebrates), False Bay is fascinating not only for a girl who studied fish for her MSc, but for the ocean users who call this their local haunt. The underlying geology of the bay is varied, from regions of sand to shale, granite and sandstone reefs. Of course, this diversity in habitat is mirrored in the rich fish, invertebrate and plant life. Perfection, if you’re into SCUBA or freediving.

The background to my research this year is outlined in ‘The Life Aquatic’, in the August 2012 edition of Africa Geographic, but why use underwater cameras in False Bay? From a scientific point of view, my underwater camera research aims to assess the diversity and abundance of fish species here. As a site long utilised by human beings, the bay’s history of fishing is rich and important. The consequence of this, of course, is that fish numbers in the region have been pressured for decades. Understanding their current conservation status is essential if we are to make a reasonable assessment of which species to better protect, and how best to do this.

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From a conservation management perspective, we’re developing and testing a cost-effective, time-efficient technique for the long-term monitoring of our coastline. Why? Well, if we’re to make monitoring truly sustainable, it has to be practical for conservation managers to conduct on a regular basis, which means lower costs and labour requirements.

Stereotypes aside, there is nothing to say that scientists don’t like stepping outside the box. In fact, I believe that in conservation science, this is almost a prerequisite. So I do have another purpose for this project that is rooted in the understanding that our marine realm is perhaps the most intangible of all our wilderness regions to the majority of South Africans. An incorporeal concept is least likely to be supported, and while wildlife experiences on land still lie out of reach of many South Africans, an encounter with the ocean’s creatures is even more unlikely.

So the responsibility really lies with those of us who can hold our breath long enough to watch the sevengills cruise through the kelp and who relish salt spray in our faces as our boat is buffeted by waves to bring images and stories ashore to share. With our underwater cameras, I can now extend my scientific assessment of the sea and invite South Africans on an armchair-exploration of this world.

By way of a teaser, I include a link to a little video that my colleague Otto Whitehead and I put together to celebrate the end of my first sampling period in False Bay. For more images and stories from the False Bay project, visit my research blog on the Save Our Seas Foundation website. Plug in a good pair of headphones and hold your breath – welcome to False Bay.

False Bay, Uncovered. from Lauren De Vos on Vimeo. Soundtrack: All is Well (Goodbye, Goodbye) off the album The Family Tree: The Roots (2011) by Radical Face, a first solo project by the talented Ben Cooper. You can check out his music here: myspace.com/radicalface or like his page “Radical Face” on Facebook.

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Lauren De Vos

I figured out early on that two things would dictate how I lived my life. I love to learn, and I’d be absolutely delighted if I never had to be indoors again. My parents and professors managed to curb the latter tendency long enough for me to complete my MSc in Conservation Biology at the University of Cape Town, South Africa (an academic path that actively encouraged my tree-climbing tendencies!). My research has placed me in unique situations – scaling termite mounds in the Kruger National Park, hurtling after chacma baboons up Cape mountains, spending salt-encrusted days at sea, facing stand-offs with buffaloes in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park in KwaZulu-Natal and spending afternoons submerged in the Mutale River’s crocodilian waters … mine is a life lived in love with Africa’s wildest spaces. I am currently an assistant researcher at UCT’s Marine Research Institute, conducting the first underwater camera survey of False Bay. A deep reverence for our natural world keeps me driven to find conservation solutions. 'll be sharing my research and experiences with you on a regular basis. Look out for me – I'm the one surrounded by sea!