I throw the grid down over the kelp on the beach and look up. Antonietta, my marine biologist guide, smiles encouragingly and says, “That’s it.”
We count the squares with kelp in it, including fronds, stipe and holdfast, look for signs of encrustation on the kelp, and note any microplastics in the grid. We record it all and move on to count the next random sample on the beach.
Kelp surveys are just one of the many activities in the citizen scientist programme at Cape RADD. On this particular day, we survey kelp at two beaches, before my reward for the morning’s work: going by to see the African penguins! These cute but timid birds are the most famous residents of Simon’s Town and the stars of Penguin Town. And every time we see them, they never fail to charm.
On other days, we head out to one of the many scenic beaches nearby on the Cape Peninsula to dive and survey shy sharks. Diving the kelp forest is my favourite part of the week, mainly owing to the incredible marine life of the kelp ecosystem: shoals of silvery roundherrings, the occasional large and docile Red Roman fish, klipfish, feisty rock lobster, timid crabs, brittle stars and sea stars, orange and burgundy anemones, gorgeous nudibranchs, octopus, cuttlefish, and of course the four main shy sharks here: the puffer adder shark, the dark shy shark, the pyjama shark, and the more elusive leopard shark.
After the morning’s dive or two, we head back to the research centre to enter our photos of shy sharks into the database and try to ID or match the sharks we’ve found with others previously found, or enter them as new finds. We also trace the outline of the sharks for the photo ID algorithm, so it will eventually learn to recognize sharks on its own. At least, that’s the plan.
Any new sharks found are given names and linked to the citizen scientist who found them and submitted them to Finspottter, Cape RADD’s shark ID platform on their site.
We might also head out on stand-up paddle boards to survey the size and health of the kelp beds, and run citizen science snorkel adventures for groups from the city and Cape area. It’s a total delight to see the wonder and absolute joy on their faces as they learn about the Cape biodiversity, then hunt for marine life on the rocky reef. As we bid them goodbye and send them on their way afterward, we hope we’ve succeeded in our mission to create an army of future finspotters and citizen science ambassadors to spread the word about the unique ecosystem of the Cape.
As my time as a citizen science volunteer draws to a close, I’ve gained a much better understanding of the contribution that citizen science can make to help scientists collect valuable data and process it, while raising awareness of the impact and key role in our world played by marine science.
And on a personal level, I’m filled with a new sense of the importance of staying connected to the natural world in our everyday life, and I’m deeply grateful for the time I’ve spent reconnecting with nature’s matrix at Cape RADD. It’s been life changing, and a feeling I’ll carry with me for years to come.