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From 'underwater volcano' to 'satanic event': Public perceptions about the red tide

By Nozipiwo Hambaze, Education Officer, SAEON Elwandle Node

 

A major red tide event in the coastal areas between East London and Wilderness caught the attention of scientists as well as the general public during the past three months. People came from afar to witness the largest, and most persistent, red tide in the region in recorded history.

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The Elwandle Node’s education officer, Nozi Hambaze (2nd from left) and research intern, Athi Mfikili (right) with recreational fishermen in Algoa Bay (Picture: Mfundo Bizani)

The red tide was preceded by abnormal conditions for this part of the coast. The first of these was the absence of the strong easterly winds that normally buffet the coast in December and early January. It is these onshore winds that can send visitors from up country packing.

Instead the weather was balmy, with unusually warm seas. It is the first time ever that the South African Weather Service recorded sea surface temperatures above 22 degrees Celsius in Algoa Bay for such an extended period.

Measuring public perception

A team from the SAEON Elwandle Node, consisting of education officer Nozi Hambaze and research interns Athi Mfikili and Mfundo Bizani, conducted a survey to gain insight into public perceptions about the incident. They spoke to bait collectors, fishermen, dive shop attendants and members of the general public.

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Nozi (centre) and Athi (left) with Swartkops River bait collectors (Picture: Mfundo Bizani)

Some people who saw a red tide for the first time did not know what it was. When asked why the red tide occurred, their answers as to the causes ranged from “a satanic event” and an underwater volcano to dead whales and pollution from the factories.

Some people who knew that it was a red tide said they were amazed that it lasted so long. Not many people thought that it was caused by global warming and climate change; many respondents said it was a natural phenomenon.

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People came from afar to witness the largest, and most persistent, red tide in the region in recorded history.

Effects

Bait collectors felt the economic impact of the red tide - the incident put an end to fishing, and the bait did not keep as long as it normally does. Recreational fishermen had to find an alternative social sport. Dive schools were unable to conduct lessons as they were not getting any bookings.

The phenomenon attracted scores of people to Eastern Cape beaches every night to experience and photograph the red tide that glows in the dark when it is stirred up by waves. As one of the tourists said: “When you walk or run on the wet sand it ignites beneath your feet … and if you kick the water it lights up … spectacular!”

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