13 July 2018

South Africa: On Board the SA Agulhas 2 - Farewell to 5m Swells As Young Scientists Finally Stretch Their Sea Legs

Join Melanie Gosling as she writes from on board South Africa's state-of-the-art marine research ship, the SA Agulhas II.

In the pre-dawn hours, the crashing and rolling of the ship stopped and there was silence.

And no movement. A peep out of the porthole showed the lights of Cape Town. We were anchored in Table Bay, out of the 5m swells driven by the cold front, waiting to come into Cape Town harbour.

There were still a couple of hours to catch up on storm-disturbed sleep - and no need to cling onto the duvet tucked tight into the bunk to prevent possibly rolling out of bed.

There was an air of excitement at the breakfast tables as Department of Environment Affairs staff readied themselves for returning home after the five-week research cruise up the east coast to Tanzania and the Comores.

"I wonder if my dog will remember me," said one.

There was a queue outside the purser's office as people waited to pay the tabs they had run up in the bar over the trip. Crew are not permitted to drink alcohol, but the research staff are allowed a tipple in the evenings.

There were not as many people in the pub last night as usual, as the ship's pitching and rolling took its toll on the passengers.

There was also an air of satisfaction among the research staff who set out on this research cruise, not just to do scientific work for South Africa, but to give a leg up to young scientists in African and Indian Ocean island countries who did not have access to hi-tech research vessels like the SA Agulhas 2. The cruise formed part of the UN's second International Indian Ocean Expedition, which aims to encourage countries to expand and deepen scientific endeavor in the Indian Ocean, the least studied and so least understood of all the oceans.

'Did we effect change?'

Keshnee Pillay, the department's chief scientist, was blown away by the enthusiasm and hard work of the 44 young graduates from east Africa and the Comores who joined the ship as trainee scientists on this cruise.

"It was about building capacity in the region, and everyone learned everything about research at sea, how to operate the research gear, analytical and data techniques, how to analyse samples and how to use the software programmes," she said.

The programme was government to government: the DEA asked governments of the east African countries what they would like done in their marine research, and this helped the department select candidates from those countries to take part in the research cruise. Each had to get a letter of support from the institutions where they worked.

"Now they have left the ship, the questions we have to look at is: did we build capacity? When we step away, did we effect change?" Pillay said.

Time will tell, but so far she says the signs are good. The group of young scientists have established a communications network, and already some from Tanzania are putting their training into practice setting up training schedules for other young marine scientists in the country.

Ashley Johnson, the Department of Environment's director of research and leader of the cruise, said apart from South Africa and Kenya, there were no other deep-sea environmental research vessels on the east African coast.

"They have small vessels, which can do a coastal research work, but the non-existence of research infrastructure and laboratories is a limiting factor to scientific development. Ocean science is expensive. This cruise gave us the opportunity for regional collaboration. What we hope to achieve long-term is to establish regional centres of competence," Johnson said.

'We need funding from elsewhere'

Each group in the different research areas, from deep-sea geology to seabirds, or plankton to ocean chemistry, will meet to prepare for publication of the research, probably in a special edition of a scientific journal in 2020. The SA team will visit the groups and establish a common methodology, and also set up programmes for a follow-up cruise in 2019.

The department is looking at getting international funders to pay for the establishment of centres of competence in Indian Ocean marine science, and has had interest from Belgium and South Korea in what will be a multi-million dollar venture.

"South Africa has already ploughed a lot into the region in terms of sea time on the SA Agulhas. We need funding from elsewhere, and in the meantime it is incumbent on us to ensure the momentum for this regional collaboration with young scientists keeps going," Johnson said.

There are bundles of used bed linen in the ship's corridors, and the ship's dining room door is firmly closed. Crew will get a weekend breather, but then it's back to sea for the SA Agulhas 2, as she heads off to her next research trip, this time just for South African scientists offshore of Cape Agulhas.

Most of the researchers on this cruise will not take part in the next, but Deon Kotze will be one who will be back on board on Monday.

"But this weekend is with the family. I had my birthday on board and they are now waiting to celebrate my birthday at home."

* Melanie Gosling has spent three days on board the research vessel. This is the final installment of life on board the ship.

Source: News24

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