I can’t quite remember exactly when it was that I came to fall in love with our oceans.
Rather than experiencing a lightning-bolt flash of recognition, a moment where I thought, ‘This is where I want to be. This is what I want to do with my life,’ the ocean has been a loyal but discreet presence in my life, biding its time, waiting for me to acknowledge that it has played a definitive role in shaping my passion for our wild places.
Mine was a childhood rich in memories of seaside holidays and now I struggle to imagine my life without South Africa’s coastline somehow melded into my daily routine. So it is always a challenge for me to step out of my own consciousness and recognise what it is to not know our oceans. What it is to remain indifferent to her charms – not necessarily by choice but by circumstance.
I recently spoke to a group of children between the ages of 8 and 16 about sharks. I’d arranged for several colleagues at UCT to join me, and together we planned to introduce this group to our oceans. Within the first five minutes, however, we realised that these children had never so much as dipped their toes in the sea … so how on earth were we going to explain the relevance of the game we’d devised for them to explain WWF-SASSI ratings? Sharks were a foreign, frightening concept – and creatures such as pipefish or hagfish appeared more a figment of my imagination to them than a part of our wildlife inheritance.
I am the first to delight in the thought that we, as South Africans, are the custodians of a rather phenomenal wilderness heritage. However, as a conservation biologist I have also to recognise that the majority of our citizens will never experience this inheritance. Often prohibitive entrance fees and a breakdown in communication bar many South Africans from the thrill of an encounter with a herd of elephants (other than angered clashes beyond the boundary of reserve fences) or the gentle peace that a sunset over undeveloped land brings.
If the likelihood of a visit to the Kgalagadi or Kruger is low, even lower still is the chance that most of our countrymen will ever dive the rich waters of Pondoland and grow to learn that it looks different from Langebaan, which protects life different to iSimangaliso, which is also different from Dwesa-Cebe… By this I don’t mean that we don’t utilize our coastline – our oceans play host to resources vital for our economy and livelihoods, and form an integral part of the diverse histories and cultures that make us uniquely South African.
However, for a country where a large proportion of the population is located inland, our oceans will forever remain an intangible realm to those who cannot hold their breath long enough to meet a seal and who will never inhale from a scuba tank to prolong an encounter with a nudibranch. My point? The ocean’s inhabitants are often (when not served up with a dash of tartare sauce and a wedge of lemon) incorporeal creatures of an alien world, more familiar to us in an I&J box than at home on a reef.
I have to believe that, sometimes, a strong basis for garnering support for conservation strategies lies in first establishing a connection. In this sense, the marine world sits at an uncomfortable disadvantage. Arranging to meet the ocean’s creatures is not quite as simple as organising a school bus for a daytrip into a reserve … or is it?
A large component of my work lies in utilizing the footage that I gather as a scientist outside the scientific community. While I am of the firm opinion that many challenges we face in conservation should not be trivialised, I also think that sometimes it is constructive to be able to convey messages that come from a place of inspiration, rather than desperation. For this, my thinking returns to my child-audiences, whose sense of wonderment is not yet diluted by a world where information bombards and desensitises them. That same sense of wonderment also exists in the adults I have spoken to. Sometimes, it takes recognising that this was what drew me to our oceans in the first place, and that our oceans inspire just that – a sense of wonder.