I am stuck in the kelp.
A few meters ahead of me, marine biologist Mike Barron strides effortlessly through the thick fronds and onto the rocky shore, patiently waiting and encouraging me as I make my way toward him with far less grace. Belly surfing through kelp was definitely not a skill I had envisioned I would develop in the volunteer citizen science program at Cape RADD. But it turns out, it’s just one of a host of memorable experiences and new skillsets I was to acquire under Mike’s watchful eye.
But let’s rewind to the beginning of the day. Earlier that morning, we drove along the stunning coastal road past Simon’s Town to the remote dive site of Millers Point. Our mission: to photograph shy sharks for later identification by the research center’s shark identification algorithm and database.
On a hill overlooking modern beach houses that could rival the home of Tony Stark, we suited up by the Land Rover and carefully made our way down a narrow path and along the shoreline to the water’s edge. Wading in, the bracing water snaps you awake. In the thick wetsuit and hood, you gradually adjust to the temperature and then it’s quickly forgotten as you take in the sheer beauty of what lies before you.
Nothing prepares you for the otherworldly seascape of a kelp forest. It feels a bit solitary and even eerie to travel through the long bamboo-like stalks with golden brown fronds gently swaying in the milky blue water, like a misty, haunted forest.
We slowly fin past purple urchins, colourful orange, burgundy and green algae-encrusted rocks, plodding gumby-like sea hares on the ocean floor, inquisitive red Roman fish or spiky-crested super klipfish, delicate and showy gas flame nudibranchs, and a wary, well-camouflaged octopus staring up balefully from a den in the gravel. We press on, for that is not what we are here for. At last, we spy the brown stripes of a small puff adder shark resting on the sand, and Mike aims his Go Pro to snap diverse angles of the shark. We locate and photograph several more puff adder sharks as well as a dark shy shark, then gradually head back in to wade through the aforementioned kelp.
After returning to the research center for a leisurely lunch and a pastry at a cafe on the sleepy main street of Simon’s Town, we venture out for another dive at a nearby beach. This time, we are rewarded with the sight of several pyjama sharks under rocks or holed up in an unused drainpipe. Near the end of the dive, Mike captures footage of a large and rather curious octopus, who decides to play tug of war with him for the camera, a sight that’s quite entertaining and for a while, a tossup to see who would win. (Plot spoiler: Mike got his Go Pro back.)
Then we go back to the center for Mike and fellow marine biologist Dylan to match the shy sharks we found to ones in their database, and add new ones.
At the end of the day as I climb the steps back to the windswept cliffside apartment that is my new home base, I feel tired but satisfied, knowing I’ve contributed in a small way to the survey of this charismatic species. Making my awkward march through the kelp well worth the effort.