Located at the southern edge of the world, off the coast of South Africa, is The Great African Kelp Forest of False Bay. I journeyed halfway around the world, all the way from my hometown right outside Washington D.C., to witness this magical underwater ecosystem. With Cape RADD (Cape Research and Diver Development), I have been lucky enough to learn about, explore, and apply marine research techniques in the bay almost every day. From classroom discussions to SCUBA diving excursions and free time to explore all South Africa has to offer, my experience in Simon’s Town and beyond has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I will never forget. Continue reading to hear all about my first two weeks in South Africa and my personal course description of the Marine Field Course with Cape RADD.
After a fourteen-hour flight, I arrived in Cape Town on a rainy Sunday night. My roommate welcomed me to our cosy apartment in Simon’s Town, about an hour outside Cape Town, and I settled in before my first day as a Marine Field Course student. On my first day, I was warmly greeted by the Cape RADD family and have felt like part of the team ever since.
We jumped right into it on day one with some introductory information about the False Bay area and marine research techniques. I learned about ocean currents and how they make this region a hotspot for biodiversity on macroscopic and microscopic levels. I also got introduced to some equipment (quadrats, transect belts, etc.) that I would be using very soon. The rest of my day was spent out and about in town. After a quick drive through Simon’s Town, a morning coffee shop run, lunch at Fran’s, and an afternoon trip to the grocery store I already knew my way around. It is such a charming place that I am happy to call home for the next three weeks.
Day two rolled around quickly and it was time for me to refresh my SCUBA skills in some of the most challenging conditions I had ever seen. At Windmill Beach, part of the team went diving and part of the team snorkelled, but we were both working on Cape RADD’s Finspotter Project: a research project focused on photographing and identifying the number of resident puffadder shysharks in the False Bay habitat. Luckily, it went swimmingly (pun intended), and I felt super safe and comfortable with my team. To supplement our morning attempt at finding puffadder sharks, we got an afternoon lecture about the sharks, the importance of the Finspotter Project, and how the identification process works.
On day three, the conditions were a little better and I got to practice more SCUBA safety and begin my marine research training at Long Beach. We practised using quadrats and transects to measure the density of species and biodiversity in the area. We saw a sea lion, a puffadder shark, and an octopus, among other things.
The next day, we took the dive boat out in the bay for more marine science fun. We wrapped up diving for the week with some more transect practice and a fish survey in the kelp forest. The surge of the underwater current was pretty strong that day, so it was difficult to keep relatively still to collect our data. However, part of learning to become a marine biologist is learning how to handle yourself in challenging conditions. Nevertheless, it was so beautiful and there were large schools of fish. We also met a few playful sea lions. I would call that a successful week of diving.
On Friday, we got to go out on the research yacht and try out some new experiments: we used a BRUV (Baited Remote Underwater Video) device to record and count the species attracted to the bait on the outskirts of the kelp forest, and we did a microplastic sample to test the concentration of microscopic pieces of plastic that have begun to turn up in the oceans all over the planet. It was an amazing way to end an amazing week.
In case you didn’t think that sounded busy enough, there was plenty to do in my free time at the end of each day and over the weekend as well. My roommate and I spent the week trying out the assortment of restaurants in town for lunch and dinner. We were not disappointed and we went to bed full every night. Some of our favourites are The Lighthouse Cafe, Cafe Pescado, Due South Bistro, Minari Korean Kitchen, and more. One afternoon, we also did a short walk/hike to the nearby waterfall. To top it all off we get beautiful sunsets and sunrises every morning and every night, and you get a great view from anywhere in town. I walk out of the apartment with a smile on my face every day.
Over the weekend, I visited Boulders Beach, a well-known tourist destination in Simon’s Town where you can see the African Penguins nesting in their protected sanctuary. I spent about an hour walking around there and got some great pictures to send to my family.
On Sunday, my roommate, one of our instructors, and I made the trek to Franschhoek to explore the fabulous wine country. We chose to do it via the Franschhoek Wine Tram. It was so much fun and everything was very affordable. How it works is you pick a line on the wine tram (we did the red line) and you hop on and off at the various wineries along the way. You can spend as long as you want at each winery, but, if you stay on schedule and spend about an hour at each place, you can hit almost all of them in one day. There were seven wineries on the red line and we made it to six out of the seven over about seven hours. It was a day filled with great wine, yummy food, fantastic views, and lots of laughs. I can’t wait to come back to South Africa with my family and do the wine tram again because they would love it.
We started the week with my favourite dive yet. A-Frame: a dive site with a few swim-through passages, huge boulders with walls full of reef and sea life, and part of the kelp forest surrounding it. Despite the enticing and beautiful megafauna in False Bay (sharks, whales, dolphins, penguins, and fish), we were on the hunt for something a bit on the smaller side: nudibranchs. If you don’t know what those are… they are basically pretty sea slugs. Before our dive, we were briefed on the different types of nudibranchs in False Bay and our job was to try to photograph as many types of nudibranchs as we could find. We had an awesome dive and found four types of nudibranchs. By recording which nudibranchs we found, we can keep track of the health of the nudibranch populations in the area.
We spent the afternoon looking through our pictures and uploading them to iNaturalist. On Tuesday, we had a freediving workshop. We learned all about freediving, freediving safety, and how we can use free diving to go along with marine science research. We spent the afternoon practising our breathing and learning helpful techniques to be successful freedivers.
The next morning, we got a lecture about kelp and the kelp projects Cape RADD is running. In the afternoon we went to Seaforth Beach and collected data on the amount of kelp to determine what the future of the kelp forest might look like.
The kelp forest in False Bay is actually very healthy compared to other kelp forests around the world. Some of it is simply due to its location and the ocean currents around False Bay, and some of it is due to conservation efforts. Regardless, we have to continue to protect the kelp forest. Threats to the kelp include harvesting, climate change, and overgrazing. Instead of plastics, kelp is becoming a useful alternative for cosmetics. However, we don’t know the limit on a healthy amount of kelp that can be harvested because this is still relatively new.
Also, overgrazing from kelp predators like sea urchins is becoming a problem. The population of one sea urchin predator, the west coast rock lobster, has been heavily diminished due to overfishing. As a result, urchin populations are growing and are a potential threat to kelp, so one of Cape RADD’s kelp projects looks into this relationship.
Thursday was another day on the dive boat. We went out in the morning and were gearing up to dive at Ark Rock, right around the corner from the marina, when a whale surfaced just 10 meters away from our boat. After our morning surprise, we hopped in the water for two dives.
We spent the afternoon analyzing and recording the data from our transects and fish survey. On Friday, we took the boat out again. It was an eerie and foggy morning, so you couldn’t see a thing out in the bay. The fog began to lift as we geared up for a dive at a new dive site called Atlantis. Atlantis was one of my favourite dives. We had good visibility and got to explore a beautiful reef that stretched all across a huge pinnacle jutting up from the sea floor. There were lots of fish, and we spotted a few nudibranchs and some dark shysharks as well.
My last dive of the week was a Photographer’s Reef. A few minutes into our dive it was apparent how the reef got its name. It was an incredibly beautiful dive site. There were corals, sea stars, urchins, and kelp galore. There were caverns, caves, and valleys. Every corner we turned it just kept getting prettier. Definitely one of the highlights of my trip so far. To conclude another fantastic week we had a farewell barbeque for my roommate, I explored the Kalk Bay shops and restaurants, and even ventured into Cape Town to hike Lion’s Head Mountain. On a clear day, you get the most fantastic views at the top. I could have stayed up there forever.
As you can see, my time with Cape RADD has been extremely special. Not only from an educational standpoint but also in terms of life experiences. I have already learned so much, met so many amazing people, and done some incredible things in just two weeks. I can’t wait for all the exciting new things I will learn and do next week. If you enjoyed reading this blog, and are interested in marine biology, travel, or both, consider coming to South Africa and visiting False Bay with Cape RADD.
They offer citizen science programs along with their marine field courses, so you don’t even have to be a scientist to participate and join the fun. As a citizen scientist, you can help with initiatives like the Finspotter Project, various kelp studies, or even biodiversity surveys, with no prior experience. If you care about our oceans and enjoy learning about the underwater world, check out Cape RADD and you won’t regret it.