May 19, 2022

Oceans of Fantasy, Oceans of Reality

Swati Thiyagarajan

When I was a young girl, there was a Boney M song that I loved. The song was called “Oceans of Fantasy”. It spoke of a dreamscape underwater world filled with life and magic.

At the time, a lack of swimming skills and a fear of water after a near-drowning incident made it unlikely that I would ever experience the oceans myself. Years later, due to the call of the big blue, my work as a conservation journalist, my sea-bound partner, Craig Foster, and all of my watery friends in Cape Town, my fear turned to wonder.

There are lines in the song that say, “You will be surrounded by angel-like creatures, who tend to your dreams, deeper and deeper you fall in a trance, much more real than it seems”.

I now know exactly what those words mean, thanks to the kelp forests of False Bay, Cape Town. The Great African Seaforest with its hundreds of species, great and small, that call it their home, shelter and feeding ground. The cryptic, small creatures that you only start to see when the seaforest invites you into her secret world – like the tuberculate cuttlefish, nudibranchs, cloaked sponge crabs, feather stars, anemones, and limpets. The majestic bigger animals, like seals, giant stingrays, octopuses, sevengill sharks, gully sharks, endemic sharks like the pyjama shark and shyshark, and the occasional cape clawless otter.

I recently had an opportunity to experience more of this fantasy when I visited the Seychelles archipelago.

In Seychelles, the water was a cornucopia of blue and life. And the coral reefs in the places I dived were extensive. Even in the shallows, the explosion of life near the outer islands was unbelievable. I was so mesmerised during the snorkelling expeditions that I overcame another big fear and learned to scuba dive. In the kelp forests, I use the stipes to pull myself down and stay at the bottom, swimming through by pulling myself from stipe to stipe. In the azure waters of Seychelles, there was no way for me to do that, and my free-diving skills are minimal, so learning to scuba was one of the best ways to access the reefs in deeper waters. When I stepped off the boat, I felt like I had fallen through a portal and entered a land that time forgot.

Tropical water is vastly different from my beloved Atlantic Ocean on the tip of Africa. My ocean is a cold ocean. And my ecosystem, The Great African Seaforest, is a nutrient-dense one. This means many days when the visibility does not exceed 5 metres. Sometimes it’s just a gold-green soup. In the tropics, I had almost 20 metres of visibility on many days, which was quite disorientating. I often couldn’t tell where I was in the water column or how far I had floated away from my entry point.

It was a hailstorm of fish of every colour, variety and size. There were times when I felt like there were tornados of fish around me and I literally couldn’t see through the walls of scales. There were hawksbill and green turtles everywhere, some sleeping under ledges and resting in the seagrass, others swimming away or circling me. Lurking moray eels stuck their dragon-like heads out of holes while poisonous lionfish swam lazily around. The superbly camouflaged stonefish and day octopus made rare appearances. Meadows of seagrass glistened in the sun rays filtering through the water. Blacktip and grey reef sharks wound their way like thread, sleek and precise, appearing for moments and then vanishing into the deep.

When I was a child, an ocean documentary on television featured manta rays and they have been in my dreams ever since. I never thought I would be lucky enough to see them in the wild, let alone swim with them. They have the largest brains of any fish, and experiments with captive mantas have shown that they recognise themselves in mirrors, signalling a high intelligence and sentience. The few playful ones who let me swim alongside them ignited pure joy, exposing their white underbellies and coming close enough to touch me with their pectoral fins. The giant stingrays in the Great African Seaforest are equally exciting swimming companions, but because of the deadly barbs on their tails, I am warier. While the mantas remind me of water angels, the stingrays are like water elephants.

I learned about the conservation and protection of these animals and the reefs from Dr Chris Clarke and Dr James Lea, former and current CEOs, respectively, of the Save Our Seas Foundation, which funds shark and ray research and is doing amazing work with the Seychelles government to increase marine protection for the outer islands.

As wonderful and abundant as all of this was, being a conservation journalist, I couldn’t keep the bigger picture from intruding: oceans of reality are slowly replacing oceans of fantasy.

The hard truth is that what I saw and experienced in Seychelles is already diminished compared to what people would have experienced just two decades ago. If I had visited in the early 90s, I would have seen 10 times more life. This is a phenomenon called shifting baselines. It describes how our perception or assessment of an ecosystem is measured against reference points that themselves shift over time. This shifting means we lose track of just how much has changed, generation by generation.

On my dives, I noticed that vast swathes of the shallow coral reefs had been bleached and damaged.

A heatwave due to El Niño from 2014 to 2017 significantly damaged reefs around the world. They had already been hit by El Niño in the late 90s, and a warming ocean, along with ocean acidification (caused by carbon dissolving in the sea), continues to put pressure on them. It’s a one-two punch that is fast knocking out coral reefs. Between 2008 and 2019, the world lost 14% of its corals.

Excessive warming stresses corals causing them to eject the life- and colour-giving organisms with which they have a mutualistic relationship: photosynthetic algae called zooxanthellae. Corals that expel their zooxanthellae turn white – this is called coral bleaching. An estimated 4% of coral is vulnerable to bleaching annually. When the warming is continuous, bleached coral can turn brittle and die. When coral colonies die, the fish and other marine animals that depend on them die too. This, in turn, affects the other creatures that predate on them and so on, causing a chain reaction of biodiversity loss.

In the Great African Seaforest, the kelp habitat itself is relatively healthy, while major anthropogenic pressures like overfishing, pollution and poaching have taken their toll on the creatures that live there. Our reef fish populations have vastly diminished. In a healthy seaforest, we should see galjoen, red roman, steenbras, stumpnose, kob, even cape salmon and others. Now, we mostly see klipvis and seabream. In protected areas some of the reef fish have survived giving us an idea of what the ecosystem could look like. This is our shifting baseline – what we think is a magical forest today would have been teeming with big fish a few decades ago.

Seychelles has committed to protecting close to 30% of its ocean, and intends to protect 100% of their remaining mangroves and seagrass meadows by 2030. A debt-for-nature deal is allowing Seychelles to restructure its sovereign debt and raise money to help create marine protected areas (MPAs). While there are logistical challenges in fine-tuning the rules and notifications, the fact that many key spots are being protected, and have been protected, from big industrial fishing and corporate exploitation has made a huge difference.

Our challenges in South Africa are very different.

Seychelles has a population of fewer than 100,000 people; we are edging towards 60 million. Of course, our land mass dwarfs the Seychelles thousands of times over, but here in South Africa, we have barely protected 5% of our marine environment. As a signatory to several international biodiversity deals, South Africa has to do more to fulfil its commitments.

Fisheries and tourism are the foundation of Seychelles’ economy, and key MPAs are encouraging tourists while the regeneration of these areas is creating spillover that helps the fishing industry.

When an area becomes a no-take zone, it allows for the recovery of life. Fish numbers grow. The habitat stays intact or recovers thereby inviting more fish. There is sanctuary and food for the young animals, making it easier for them to survive. As their numbers increase within the protective boundaries, a natural dispersal of the excess fish and other marine creatures occurs. This is the spillover that allows fisheries to access the benefits of MPAs.

Protection might sound like exclusion, especially in the South African context where apartheid brutally separated people from the oceans, and recovery post-apartheid has still ignored marginalised artisanal and traditional fishing communities. However, one can think of these areas as marine regeneration spaces that allow for greater abundance in the ocean, benefiting all people.

Our oceans are at a tipping point. Creative and scientific finesse is required to reverse this while still catering to the needs of coastal and fishing communities.

Areas that have been put under marine protection can, in under a decade, show vast improvement. The importance of seagrass meadows and mangroves has finally been understood by policymakers, and their rates of attrition have almost halted. Efforts are in place to regrow and regenerate these crucial ecosystems. The same needs to be done for kelp forests around the world. We don’t have to wait until seaforests are adversely impacted before we put long-term regeneration policies in place.

For me, seeing the bleached coral in the vast and remote Indian Ocean waters was a huge, in-my-face flash-bang of the inexorable effects of climate change. Knowing that kelp forests are the second most vulnerable ecosystems to warming after corals was a sobering thought. But I also saw coral recovery and, even though the baseline had shifted, I experienced incredible marine biodiversity. It filled me with the hope that good science, strong policy, and committed people and organisations can make a huge difference.

We still have a window of time to reverse the damage, to hand over a more healed planet with a better baseline to our children. That window is today.

For us at The Sea Change Project, the long-term conservation of the Great African Seaforest is our ultimate goal. We don’t want to wait until our habitat gets further degraded to take and inspire action. Our inspiration is forging a heart-connection with nature as we believe that is key to bringing about organic change. Being in the waters of Seychelles, where I could see evidence of unbridled life even in the face of challenges, gave me so much hope, and I know we can recreate that here in our seaforests.

“My world is filled with oceans. Oceans of fantasy. The never never land of emotions, come down and follow me.”


Photos by Craig Foster, Pippa Ehrlich, Faine Loubser and Swati Thiyagarajan.

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