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A voyage of discovery

WWF South Africa’s communications team is endlessly curious so when The Ocean Mapping Expedition yacht docked in Cape Town, we couldn’t resist an invitation to visit – particularly as we’d heard that they were sampling microplastics in the ocean.

Fleur de Passion
© WWF South Africa Ruan Wolfaardt
The expedition vessel is a 33m former German minesweeper from World War II that has been converted into a silent and non-polluting sailboat called Fleur de Passion. It’s the largest sailboat under the Swiss flag – and is now devoted to peaceful activities for the common good.
The expedition

The modern-day Ocean Mapping Expedition has been following the same route that Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan took some 500 years ago. Although only one of the original five vessels in the Magellan Expedition returned to Seville, Spain (and the famous explorer did not survive to see it through) it remains a major human achievement. The expedition is looking into four key issues – undersea noise pollution, microplastic pollution, coral reefs and greenhouse gases on the surface of the ocean. 

© WWF South Africa Ruan Wolfaardt
A sample taken off the coast of Corsica had high concentrations of microplastics mixed in with plankton.
Monitoring microplastics

We were particularly interested in the microplastic story, and our hosts Samuel Gardaz of Fondation Pacifique and Pascal Hagmann from Oceaneye wasted no time in explaining what this was all about. The crew have been using a special net and pouch to take surface water samples to measure microplastic pollutants (from 0.3 to 5mm in size). Among them are samples from the Mozambique Channel and the South African coast which have been packaged and sent to the Oceaneye Association in Switzerland for analysis and further study.

Sample microplastics sifted
© WWF South Africa Ruan Wolfaardt
Back in Switzerland, the microplastics are separated by type and size into fragments, threads, foam and pellets (or nurdles).
Learning our lessons

After our brief lesson on deck, we joined Pascal in the cosy galley area where the crew and passengers have their meals. He quickly ran us through some slides to illustrate the scale of the problem – notably that the bulk of plastic remains on land and that poor waste management is a major issue. A sobering graph for us South Africans was that our country ranks 11th on a list of the top 20 countries mismanaging plastic waste (one ahead of India!). 

By the end of our visit, we were all tempted to sign up for a stint aboard (maybe next time…) and better informed about the nature of this scientific research. And we wish the crew and passengers fair winds and a following sea as they set off on the last leg of their journey back to Spain!

Fleur de Passion visit
© WWF South Africa Ruan Wolfaardt
Aboard the Fleur de Passion, from left, are the expedition’s scientific coordinator Yaiza Santana, Dimpho Lephaila (WWF-SA), Samuel Gardaz (Fondation Pacifique which put the expedition together), Pascal Hagmann (Oceaneye Association) and Andrea Weiss (WWF-SA)
Visit the vessel

The Fleur de Passion will be moored in Quay 6 at the V&A Waterfront (in front of the Table Bay Hotel) until 24 January. Members of the public are welcome to visit between 10am and 6pm (lunch time excluded from 1pm to 2pm). Large groups should pre-book on the website.

Andrea Weiss Photo
Andrea Weiss, Media Manager

When Andrea Weiss grows up she wants to sail the Seven Seas.