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The jungle beneath the ocean
Do you ever gaze at the waters of the ocean, watching waves bashing onto the shore or admiring its calmness and beauty as you look further out? I do that whenever I go near the ocean, but what stands out for me is the splendour of the forest hidden beneath this blue blanket of water.
It blows my mind to know that some of the things we consume in our daily lives contain kelp. This type of seaweed has become a central focus in my current research, but the story goes way back. Let’s rewind a bit…
I am a child of the forest
It’s not just as a grown up that I have learnt about the gigantic kelp forests along the coast of South Africa, I grew up with an understanding of a forest as a place on land that is dominated by trees, with various types of plants and animals of all sizes. I know this well because my home village is situated on the edge of a beautiful forest.
You may have watched or heard of a popular 90s television drama series that was based on and named after an influential isiXhosa novel called Ityala lamawele (The case of twins). This series was filmed around my home village of Nqabarha in Willowvale, in the Eastern Cape.
The village is named after a nearby river of the same name, which runs all the way past the popular Dwesa Nature Reserve on the Wild Coast. My village is surrounded by an indigenous forest which is so close to the houses that I literally walk 15m from my house and disappear into the trees.
Even though I left my rural home when I was four years old to live in Khayelitsha, the largest township in Cape Town, I make it a point to visit Nqabarha almost every year.
My connection to nature
Unlike Nqabarha that has trees and other local wildlife, there are not many things that represent nature in Khayelitsha. There are few trees, and a wetland that many don’t even know exists because of the amount of litter in it. There is no life or water in it any more.
After I learnt this, I wanted to find out more about wetlands in general and about other sources of water and how we can manage them better. This led me to studying Environmental and Water Science at the University of Western Cape, for both my undergraduate and Honours degrees. Through my studies my knowledge and understanding of the connection between people and nature was broadened, and my passion to contribute to a healthier environment grew stronger. Since then I’ve also committed to taking part in environmental campaigns like river and beach clean-ups every year.
Underwater images that stole my heart
Even though I was playing my small part in ensuring a healthier environment, I was not satisfied. I wanted to contribute to the body of knowledge that could help in the conservation of natural resources. I wished to do a Master’s degree but was not sure which area I should focus on, until I came across underwater images that stole my heart.
While working as a Research Assistant intern at the South African National Biodiversity Institute in 2016, part of my job was to manage a database of undersea images. As I was going through the photos one day, I came across pictures of a kelp forest taken on the west coast of South Africa. I was blown away, not just by the beauty of this underwater forest, but its mere existence was beyond my wildest imaginations. This fuelled my curiosity to find out about the distribution of kelp in South Africa and around the world, its purpose in nature and how abundant it is.
What inspired me even more was a team of Marine Biologists that I worked with. Their passion for marine life was so contagious it motivated me to want to learn more.
A thesis was born
A Master’s degree in Biological Sciences was the only boat available to take me on my journey of discovery. Consequently, in 2017, I enrolled at the University of Cape Town (UCT) where my exploration began.
During my first year of Master’s study I found out about the WWF Research Fellowship through an email that was circulated amongst organisations in the conservation sector. I applied and waited for a response. In 2018, WWF South Africa supported me through the journey by funding part of my research. This covered my extensive travel expenses as I had to gather data from various coastal areas around South Africa, including Sodwana Bay in KwaZulu-Natal, Port Nolloth in the Northern Cape and Saldanha Bay in the Western Cape. And I was able to buy my own snorkelling gear!
Apart from having to learn to swim and snorkel, I had to learn about Marine Ecology from scratch as I did not have any educational background on it. This came not as a challenge but an opportunity for me. To develop my knowledge, I read a lot of books and articles. I also tagged along with UCT’s Marine Biology class when they went on field trips, as well as the Seaweed Unit for its kelp biomass estimation.
These really helped in building my understanding of the habitats and how kelp fits into the ocean ecosystem. I learnt that if they were to be removed from the marine system, thousands of marine organisms would be without shelter, food and nursing grounds.
Learning new things
As my knowledge about kelp expanded, I learnt that it is not a plant but a type of brown macro algae! I also discovered that what I used to think were dead plant leaves floating close to the shore are actually the top parts of the kelp which are known as fronds (what we would refer to as leaves in plants). I learnt that they are not found only in deep sea as I had imagined when I first saw the images that captured my heart, but these towering kelp structures are also found close to shore. They grow by attaching themselves onto hard substrate like rocky outcrops on the sea floor.
When kelp dies as a result of heavy storms, waves, overgrazing by sea urchins, cut by humans during kelp harvesting, heatwaves and even cut by boat propellers in some regions, it usually washes up on the beach. This is what you and I would find lying on the beach sand in long snake-like branches.
The pile of dead kelp that washes out extends the benefits of the kelp ecosystem onto the beach as tiny organisms like amphipods feed on their decaying matter. Even baboons help themselves to the snails, mussels and limpets found amongst the pile.
There are four species of kelp in South Africa, namely, bladder kelp, spined kelp, split kelp and sea bamboo kelp –with the latter being the largest of the four species, reaching a height of about 12 metres. I remember members of the UCT Seaweed Unit telling me about once measuring a sea bamboo that was about 15 meters long, which was much more than its usual height of 12 metres. This was astonishing for us! But then again, we were not too surprised because a species of bladder kelp in California grows to hieghts of more than 60 meters.
Comparing different species is one of my favourite activities when walking on the beach.
Many people, like me before I conducted this research, may not be aware that a lot of things that we consume actually have kelp in them – including ice cream, tooth paste and jelly amongst others.
Also, like a forest on land that provides shelter for plants and animals, a kelp forest is home to many species of plants and animals including fish, abalone and rock lobster. This amazing tree-like natural resource also acts as a carbon sink as trees do on land, absorbing some of the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide.
Studying kelp has been an amazing journey for me. I am now only a few months away from completing my Master’s degree which will provide answers to the questions I have about kelp: from its abundance and distribution in South Africa, to its purpose and how it is used. I am excited to share my discoveries and I hope that it will contribute immensely to the body of knowledge and to the conservation of kelp in South Africa.
Next time you visit the coast you might think differently about the role of those washed up individual pieces of kelp as a powerful food-providing, carbon-absorbing jungle beneath the waves.