Exploring the Cape Kelp forest on one breath

Zo beschermen Zuid-Afrikaanse duikers de oceaan

Redacteur: Elena van Doorn / Gepubliceerd op OneWorld.nl op 27-04-2019

– Scroll down for English translation –

Het Kaapse marine ecosysteem: het Kelpbos / Foto credit: Faine Loubser (@fainepearl)

Langs de kant aan een kustweggetje, zo’n 20 kilometer ten zuiden van Kaapstad, staan vier auto’s geparkeerd. Op het oog een vreemde plek, want er is hier niets. Geen huizen, geen winkels, geen restaurants. Alleen een steile berg aan de ene kant van de weg en een turquoise zee aan de andere. Die laatste is kalm vandaag. De zon straalt en aan de oppervlakte van het water dobberen zeewierkoppen. Grote keien steken uit het water. Toch is hier iets gaande.

Lees het hele artikel op OneWorld.nl: Ademloos in het Kaapse  onderzeebos


English translation

Exploring the Cape Kelp forest on one breath

How South African freedivers are protecting the ocean using their passion

Text by Elena van Doorn / Published on OneWorld.nl on 27 April 2019
The Cape’s marine ecosystem; the kelp forest / Photo credit: Faine Loubser (@fainepearl)

Four cars are parked on the side of a coastal road, some 20 kilometers south of Cape Town. At first sight, it seems like a strange place to park your car, as seemingly, there is nothing to be found here. No houses, restaurants or shops. Only a steep mountain on the one side of the road and a turquoise sea on the other. The latter is calm today. The sun is shining and seaweed heads are floating on the surface of the water. Large boulders stick out of the sea. Yet something is going on here.

Occasionally a head protrudes from the water between the kelp, a thick seaweed, covered in synthetic rubber neoprene and with a diving mask. We are at a well-known diving spot in Simon’s Town, a fishing village on the Cape Peninsula. These divers do not carry heavy oxygen bottles or a mouthpiece; they dive with very few gear, using only their breath to dive, a water sport known as freediving. It is seen as a purer form of diving, without the help of heavy oxygen tanks. One with nature.

The ocean floor here is about twenty meters deep and because the kelp protects from big swell and from larger predators, it attracts a lot of marine life. One of the divers today is Shamier Magmoet. He has only been diving for a year or two, but is completely “hooked”. “What makes freediving so special is the feeling that I get when I lay on the surface and take my last few breaths. My heart beats ever more slowly and the sound of the outside world fades. When I dive down using one last breath, I feel the pressure of the water increasing. Here I feel at one with the ocean and life below. As soon as you go under, it becomes quiet around you. You see the beauty around you. There is so much plant and animal life down there, that you don’t see when you’re above.”

Threats to the kelp forest

These South African divers live for the sport and for this marine ecosystem, typical of the Cape Peninsula where two oceans meet: the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean, which bring a warm and a cold current. These two currents enable the existence of the kelp forest, a submerged forest of lush seaweed growing from the bottom. Kelp forests are considered to be one of the most vibrant and fertile ecosystems in the world. However, in recent years the divers have seen their beloved kelp forest change. Plastic and sewage pollution, oil drilling, illegal fishing and a warming ocean disrupt the natural state of affairs. With underwater photography, knowledge sharing and the organization of clean-ups, freedivers try to spread awareness regarding the importance of protecting this ecosystem.

A nudibranch / Photo credit: Faine Loubser (@fainepearl)
1. Mike Barron Cape RADD
Mike Barron in het kelpbos / Photo credit: Cape RADD
An octopus / Photo credit: Faine Loubser (@fainepearl)

One of the first clean-ups was organized by Trail Freedivers, an initiative by diver Sharon Lee Martin. “Trail Freedivers was created because freediving cannot be done alone. You always need a “dive buddy” and this is how the Facebook group was created.” The purpose of the group has since changed; from just finding a buddy to protecting unique underwater life. It resulted in a close-knit network of divers who regularly meet for coast and ocean clean-up events. “I feel that we inspire people and therefore inspire new initiatives. In this way we develop a tribe of people who help care for the ocean.”

Illegal poaching

Currently only a half percent of South African waters are protected. Ocean conservationists were delighted by an announcement by government of the expansion of marine protected areas (MPA) to 5 per cent. This might not seem like much, but an expansion of 4,5 per cent comprises of an area of about 50,000 km2, an area larger than the Netherlands and twice the size of the South African Kruger National Park.

This offers hope, however the divers know only too well that maintaining these marine protected areas leaves something to be desired. Lee Martin: “We sometimes come across illegal poaching activities on our dives. The authorities do not have the manpower or the financial means to prevent this. We always report suspicious behaviour, but staff and funds are missing. That is why it is up to us to contribute to the protection of the kelp forest.”

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4. Sharon Lee Martin credit Justin Parkfelt
Sharon Lee Martin op een duikspot genaamd A-frame / photo credit: Justin Parkfelt

Mike Barron, originally from the United Kingdom, started a fieldwork course for aspiring marine biologists under the name Cape RADD. “Freediving is part of our program, because you are able to reach places faster and quieter than with SCUBA. There is less chance of influencing the natural behavior of marine life that you study. I think it is important that my students experience the difference between the behavior of fish with SCUBA and when free diving.”

Ambassadors of the sea

Shamier Magmoet was inspired by Sharon Lee Martin. After seeing beautiful photos of the kelp forest, he wanted to see it with his own eyes. The Trail Freedivers took him on a dive and introduced him to the sport. Magmoet was so impressed by what he saw that he felt called to take the children from his neighborhood on the Cape Flats, a disadvantaged area in Cape Town, and introduce them to freediving. This is how his Sea The Bigger Picture initiative came about.

“I wanted to show the children this underwater world. The ocean feels so calm and safe for me. A welcome change from the crowds and sometimes frightening situations on the Cape Flats. We then offer these children educational programs in which the most passionate students are trained to be ocean ambassadors.” In addition, Magmoet regularly gives lectures at schools, in collaboration with Cape Research and Diver Development (RADD), an organisation of marine biologists who collect data for research into ocean threats.

7. Shamier Magmoet credit Sea The Bigger Picture
Shamier Magmoet geeft les over de oceaan aan jongeren / Photo credit: Sea The Bigger Picture (@sea_the_bigger_picture)

“Our goal is to make the kelp forest a UNESCO World Heritage Site” – Faine Loubser

One of the underwater photographers that inspires many ocean lovers is Faine Loubser. She shares special photos of her dives on social media. “For me, diving is like walking through a nature reserve, with predators and prey all around me. To be able to enter such a wild space and to be part of nature in its most primitive form is what makes it so special.” Loubser works for Sea Change Project, a collaboration for filmmakers, scientists and journalists who are dedicated to exploring and documenting the kelp forest of southern Africa. “Our ultimate mission is to make the kelp forest a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so that it receives global status aligned with the likes of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the Amazon forest.”

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Diving with cape fur seals / Photo credit: Faine Loubser (@fainepearl)

When the divers emerge from the water, they get together to discuss their findings . “The visability was eight meters!” “Have you seen those compass jellyfish?” An octopus hidden under a rock is the highlight of the dive today. The passion for the ocean goes deep with these divers. And although the threats facing the oceans and also the kelp forest could make someone feel hopeless, the freedivers remain optimistic. “Every bit that we can contribute to make a difference helps. Creating awareness by sharing our experiences with other people and interest groups does our ocean,” says Sharon Lee Martin.

“As soon as you love something, you want to protect it with every fiber in your body” – Shamier Magmoet

The freedivers of South Africa seem to be a strong unity, by bringing people together during clean-ups, educating new generations and at the same time collecting the necessary scientific data. Mike Barron: “We want to create a community that cares for their environment and is aware of the impact we have on it. These threats affect us all.” For Magmoet, there is no way back. “As soon as you love something, you want to protect it with every fiber in your body.”

Originally published for OneWorld as: Ademloos in het Kaapse onderzeebos

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  1. Great article!! I hope they manage to get the kelp forests as a UNESCO world heritage site!


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