July 30, 2023

Celebrate South Africa’s Marine Protected Areas With Us

Pippa Ehrlich & Swati Thiyagarajan

One of the most exhilarating things about exploring the ocean is the wonder of the unexpected. The Great African Seaforest is home to thousands of species, some that have not yet even been scientifically named (our 1001 Species Project aims to help with this) and every time you set foot in the kelp forest you are opening yourself up for an experience that you cannot predict. You might find yourself eye to eye with a curious otter or seal or surrounded by a silvery shiver of spotted gully sharks, or witnessing an octopus in the midst of some ingenious act that you never imagined possible. These encounters can be deeply life affirming, but are impossible to plan.

Then there are those special pockets of the kelp forest that offer a different kind of experience: an opportunity to travel back in time to glimpse what the kelp forest might have been like when our seas were more abundant and home to not just many more fish, but to a far greater diversity of species. These time capsules make up South Africa’s network of marine protected areas and they have become biological savings accounts for our marine heritage: a vast coastline exceptionally rich in endemism and biodiversity.

Here are some of our favourite MPA residents:

Photo by Craig Foster

1. Red Steenbras (Petrus rupestris)

Finding red steenbras underwater is a bit like running into an endangered big cat on land. As our largest endemic seabream, they were once a dominant and territorial predator of the GASF, but these fish are now in the most precarious state of all the reef fishes. Old photographs show 50-kilogram red steenbras being hooked out of False Bay in the 1920s, but now even small specimens are rare (juveniles require the shallow waters of the reef) and only found in inaccessible and protected pockets of the GASF. These critically endangered fish live for more than 30 years and have been reduced to less than 5% of their historical population
Photo by Craig Foster

2. Tuberculate cuttlefish (Sepia tuberculata)

The earliest cephalopods appeared on our planet nearly 400 million years ago. This expansive time period has given them the opportunity to develop evolutionary strategies that allow them to take up niches in every part of the ocean from the darkest depths, to tiny rock pools. This little tuberculate cuttlefish is endemic to the south-west coast of South Africa, often found hiding under wet rocks in the shallow intertidal zone. The tuberculate becomes a fast favourite for anyone who gets to encounter one. Although tiny in size (80mm) , these guys have huge personalities and ingenious survival strategies from mimicking whelks and rock fishes, to forming deceptive spikes that make a potential predator think twice.
Photo by Craig Foster

3. Pore-bellied cuttlefish (Sepia typica)

The pore-bellied cuttlefish is a highly specialised cephalopod that we have only ever found within the safety of an MPA: the shallows of a lagoon in the West Coast National Park, but it is impressively adaptable and can survive at depths of 290m and ranges from Saldhana Bay to southern Mozambique.
Photo by Craig Foster

4. Kynsna seahorse (Hippocampus capensis)

The Knysna seahorse is the only known seahorse to live only in estuaries. These critically endangered creatures are notoriously hard to find. They can be spotted with their tails wrapped around the shallow seagrass, but have also learned to survive in habitats created by humans like underwater wire and stone gabions which provide a good anchor for their tails. Uniquely, the male carries and gives birth to live young.
Photo by Craig Foster

5. Brown shyshark (Haploblepharus fuscus)

Brown shysharks are a bit bigger than the dark shysharks commonly spotted within the GASF, but they exhibit very similar behaviours, such as sleeping in the safety of a rocky overhang and making a donut shape by putting their tail over their eyes when they feel threatened. Endemic to our shallow waters, we have been lucky enough to spot them in the De Hoop Marine Protected Area.
Photo by Jannes Landschoff

6. Cape knifejaw (Oplegnathus conway)

It took many years of diving in the GASF before we saw our first Cape knifejaw. These beautiful and bold reef fish have an eye-mask like Zorro and are only found in very remote and protected places. They have a parrot-like beak and are also known as the beaked galjeon.
Photo by Pippa Ehrlich

7. Black musselcracker (Cymatoceps nasutus)

Most of us have only ever seen adult black musselcrackers at the aquarium, but sometimes we are lucky enough to see their stripey babies inside MPAs. Jannes spent many months getting to know this individual who lived on a specific reef at a dive site near his house. These fish have also been heavily harvested and because of their slow growth rates and late sexual maturity, their populations take a long time to recover.
Photo by Craig Foster

8. Abalone or perlemoen (Haliotis midae)

The abalone, also known locally as perlemoen, is a humble sea snail that finds itself at the centre of a massive global fishery and poaching crisis. Practically down to the last remnants of their population, the gentle abalone is unfortunately one of South Africa’s most trafficked animals and even within marine protected areas they have found little to no protection.
Photo by Swati Thiyagarajan

9. African penguin (Spheniscus demersus)

African penguins are almost certainly South Africa's best dressed endemics. Their most stable colony lies at Boulders on the shores of the GASF and we have watched them raise their babies in the coastal foliage just above the intertidal zone. Feeding mostly in the pelagic, they do use the shallow waters to groom themselves, which presents a rare opportunity to catch one on camera underwater. African penguin parents have to travel further and further to find fish to feed their young and a suggested fishing ban within 20km of their nesting grounds could mean the difference between life and death for their chicks.
Photo by Pippa Ehrlich

10. Humans (Homo sapiens)

While we are certainly not endemic, human beings have been part of this ecosystem for more than 100 000 years. Having a connection to the natural world is every human’s birthright, but in an unequal and urbanized world, there are many barriers to entry. Those of us who are able to explore and experience the magic of the GASF and other MPAs are deeply privileged and it is our responsibility to behave respectfully within these spaces and obey the rules, because these special, protected places are savings accounts for the future of South Africa’s marine heritage.
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