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Best of five: Listing boats and 35 mm slides

By Charles von der Meden, Postdoctoral Researcher
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The very first sampling with the Skimonkey camera was done off the Prince Edward Islands in the Southern Ocean in April 2013. Although Charles and the camera (foreground) experienced some rough seas, this initial trip managed to complete re-sampling of historical benthic survey stations.

Having ended my time at SAEON in May this year, I count the last five years as some of my most fortunate and rewarding.

As a postdoctoral researcher at the Egagasini Node from 2012, I began my work supported by a Professional Development Programme (PDP*) grant, working with Dr Lara Atkinson.

I had the pleasure (and some pain) of setting up a project to look at monitoring seafloor assemblages off Port Elizabeth using the then brand new, untested and untried, Skimonkey III deep-sea camera.

In science as in life, things didn’t quite go according to plan. Sudden issues surrounding research vessels at the time meant there was no access to these ships that year or the next.

Since the new camera was a beast of a thing, at over 400 kg, it could only be utilised from a full-size research ship. Thus ensued several, shall we call them ‘idealistic’, alternative plans.

The main idea was to rig a system of floats to deploy only the camera unit (without its sled-type frame) from a small coastal vessel – ACEP’s uKwabelana. Testing proceeded in Simon’s Town harbour, with the enthusiastic help of Pieter Truter (University of Cape Town dive unit) and Rick Harding (Department of Environmental Affairs); and later in the Kowie River with the excellent teams from SAEON’s Elwandle Node and the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB) in Grahamstown.

To cut a long story short, hoisting the camera unit up by the swing-arm on the uKwabelana resulted in the entire boat listing precariously to one side, accompanied by the slight groan of fiberglass and much shaking of heads, most vigorously the skipper’s – Koos Smith. And when Koos shakes his usually brave head, it means it’s not going to work.

Enter fortune…

During my visit to Grahamstown, a conversation with Prof. Christopher McQuaid at Rhodes University resulted in a box (let’s call it a dusty box for effect) of 35 mm photographic slides. These were an amazing set of benthic survey images taken at the Prince Edward Islands by a team headed by Prof. George Branch (University of Cape Town - UCT) in the mid-1980s.

Thinking about these old slides I came up with the idea of re-surveying these sites to look at long-term change. Prof. Isabelle Ansorge, also at UCT, was enthusiastic and allowed me to submit the project for inclusion in her team’s upcoming SANAP (South African National Antarctic Programme) Relief voyage to the island in 2013 aboard the newly commissioned S.A. Agulhas II.

From there the logistics, excitement and nerves of the cruise and deploying the Skimonkey camera for the first time took over. But as I wrote in the newsletter article following the cruise, it was a complete success and, most importantly, the camera was not left on the sub-Antarctic seafloor.

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The science team and crew of the RV Ellen Khuzwayo after the exciting and very successful maiden research cruise of the Benthic Trawl Experiment in 2014.

Working with Lara, the research using the Skimonkey camera has gone from strength to strength, playing a central role in important projects such as the Benthic Trawl Experiment (BTE) and the Deep Secrets ACEP** project, both of which are stories in themselves. By 2016 all the sites originally planned in 2012 were sampled, partly during the ‘Deep Secrets’ cruise and together with the hard work of Koos, Ryan Palmer (SAIAB), Anthony Bernard, Elodie Heyns and Shaun Deysel (Elwandle Node), as well as Hannah Raven (Egagasini MSc student).

Solid science

Over these five years we have innovated, plotted and schemed, and have ended up with some solid science (two publications thus far, one MSc graduated, two more writing their theses), and many hard drives full of unique benthic images. Most importantly, this work is continuing with Grant van der Heever, who has worked alongside me during both the BTE and ACEP cruises, and who has successfully led the camera work aboard the 2017 SANAP relief voyage to the Prince Edward Islands. Following from the sampling in 2013 and 2015, this Prince Edward Island work sets a good baseline for possible long-term monitoring in this important region.

Scientifically, I have been stretched and given the freedom to develop exciting projects that tackle genuinely interesting questions within deep-sea research and conservation. I have been extremely fortunate to have worked with Lara, Juliet (Hermes), Thomas (Mtontsi) and Shari (Mento) of the Egagasini Node, and so many others.

I would especially like to thank Beate Hölscher at SAEON National Office for her huge efforts, as well as the finance team and of course Johan Pauw, SAEON’s Managing Director. I have also been supported by excellent funding through both the PDP and an NRF Innovation grant.

Although physically removed from life on land, generating knowledge about the offshore areas that underpin our food security and oceans economy is increasingly important, and I wish SAEON the best in continuing to lead in this field of research in South Africa.

The Professional Development Programme of the Department of Science and Technology and the National Research Foundation aims to accelerate the development of scientists and research professionals in key research areas.

** ACEP is a flagship research programme of the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB), which also hosts the SAEON Elwandle Node. The programme focuses on the marine environment off the east coast of South Africa. SAEON provides the management system under which the second phase of ACEP is run.

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