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Exploring marine science


Amy Weeber (right) assists marine biologists from DEA on a sandy beach sampling field trip to the Goukamma Nature Reserve


Amy sifts beach sand to enable Dr Maya Pfaff from DEA to determine the extent of the damage caused by the oil spill on 9 August last year

By Amy Weeber, former DST/NRF Intern at the SAEON Egagasini Node

What does an oceanographer do? Where do they work? What is the job market like?

Since starting my postgraduate studies in oceanography at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in 2008 I have been asked these questions many times and, after completing my MSc in ocean and atmospheric science in March last year, I still was not sure of the answers!

I had been studying science for the past five years and the only oceanographers that I knew were those in the oceanography department at UCT and at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

I learned about SAEON and the internships they offer from the manager of SAEON’s Egagasini Node, Dr Juliet Hermes in April 2013. With no real plans for the rest of the year ahead, I started an internship with the Node the following month. I hoped that the internship would be an opportunity to explore the world of marine science in South Africa outside the comforts of UCT - and that is exactly what it has been!

The SAEON Egagasini Node is based at the Foretrust building in Cape Town where marine scientists from both the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) and the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) also have offices. In my first few days at SAEON I was encouraged to interact with everyone in the environmental sciences and to find out what work they did; and if I was interested to get involved. This was great because even though I had thoroughly enjoyed my MSc project on Ocean Acidification in Antarctica, I was keen to learn about other aspects of marine science.

Environmental education outreach

I met Thomas Mtontsi, the Egagasini Node’s education officer, and began assisting him with his visits to schools in Masiphumelele, Ocean View and Hout Bay. Thomas does amazing work, inspiring school kids to choose subjects like science and mathematics and helping them to see science as a tool to understanding many processes in life rather than just as a boring school subject.

Exploring fisheries ecology

I met Dr Carl van der Lingen (DAFF) whose enthusiasm for fisheries ecology rubbed off on me and soon I was helping him sort through piles of sardine and anchovy isotope data. This was interesting as I learned about how isotopes can be used to understand the trophic structure of an ecosystem. Carl is using isotope data to try to answer the question of what causes the fluctuations in the sardine and anchovy populations along our coastlines.

Ecosystem modelling

In June 2013 I participated in a marine ecosystem modelling course at UCT. This was very interesting and I learned how ecosystem models work and how complex it is to model biological interactions. Although I can appreciate the power of modelling, I decided that it is definitely not for me.

I also began to help my mentor, Juliet, with a project on False Bay that she started earlier last year. The project involves marine scientists from many organisations around the Western Cape who are collaborating to increase the collaborative research around False Bay. False Bay is such a valuable natural resource to Cape Town and it is severely under-studied. My job was to interview scientists and stakeholders that work on False Bay and find out what is known about the bay, as well as what the burning science questions are with regard to the Bay. As an oceanographer and an avid Muizies surfer, this was an excellent project for me. I have always been asked about the brown 'dirty' water at surfer's corner, the shark monitoring and the current sea life condition in the bay. I also spent some time searching for published and grey literature on False Bay and created a data base of this.

Gauging the effects of oil spill

During the last two weeks of my internship I was lucky enough to have an opportunity to assist some marine biologists from DEA on a sandy beach sampling field trip to the Goukamma Nature Reserve. We spent three sunny days sifting beach sand and photographing the different rocky shore zones. The purpose of the sampling was to enable Dr Maya Pfaff from DEA to determine the extent of the damage caused by the oil spill on 9 August last year. From our observations the coastline seems to have recovered quite well, but from the lack of sandy beach fauna and the fact that we sampled three months after the oil spill, it looks like it may be difficult to gauge the effects of the oil on the species diversity of this pristine ecosystem.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my time at SAEON. I am very grateful to Juliet for introducing me to many inspiring scientists, and for assisting me with my paper writing and all other projects that I worked on during my internship. A big thank you to the NRF for this great experience!

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