April 2013
Contents / home
This viral ad may be contagious
A new sea view
75 years of coelacanth research
Sell your science at FameLab
Young science communicators show their mettle
Brazil nuts, bees and orchids
Winning design powers aeroplane
Journalists and scientists meet
Brainstorming solutions for tomorrow
Meet Sibongile Mokoena
SAIAB at Scifest Africa
A world in one cubic foot
Biodiversity Youth Symposium
Daveyton now has an eye to the sky
In the news
Upcoming events
It's a fact!

A new sea view

  A curious sevengill shark eyes the baited remote underwater video (BRUV) camera.
  A seal floats by to investigate.
  A red roman approaches in flash of colour.
  Lauren brings the enchanting underwater world of the sea into the classroom.
  Lauren's work brings our marine heritage ashore to an audience who might never hold their breath long enough to meet a sevengill shark or feel salt-spray against their skin.
"Deep breath in ... deep breath out ... one last deep breath in and SWIM!"

The chaos of bubbles and rapidly disappearing sunshine makes for a heady mix. There's just time to acknowledge the sound of waves sloshing before we sink into a world of blue, deepening to a murky green as we enter a tangle of hypnotic kelp.

Pausing for one moment, I turn to look at my fellow divers and note their reddening faces, cheeks puffed out and eyes wide. I signal to them with my hands and mouth an excited "look over here!" With that, a biscuit skate shuffles itself from its hiding place in the sand and ghosts towards us. No longer able to contain their excitement, a diver momentarily loses concentration and gives a delighted shriek ...

Now, before we all panic about SCUBA safety, or the more obvious problems associated with opening your mouth to scream while freediving, allow me to clarify a little ... I'm standing in front of a group of wide-eyed seven year olds who have been obediently engaging their imaginations and holding their breath on this fantasy "dive", introducing them to the world beneath the waves.

The images I described? Well, they're video footage playing out on a screen. I don't have a bus to transport the learners to the beach, so I've made a plan to bring the ocean to them - or at least, the ocean as seen by BRUV. Now what, exactly, is BRUV you may well ask?

Bringing our oceans ashore

Baited remote underwater video (BRUV) surveys were developed in Australia, and are now used around the world for a variety of projects. By attracting fish into the field of view of a remotely controlled camera, the technique records diversity, abundance and behaviour of species.

As a non-extractive technique, it offers a low environmental impact way of understanding changes in fish numbers and diversity over time. For South Africa, the practicality of BRUVs extends beyond pure scientific interest to addressing the need for affordable, efficient monitoring of fish populations.

Our conservation arsenal comprises a variety of well-used and accepted traditional monitoring techniques. However, it is the logistical challenges they present that hamper their use in regular, sustained monitoring, rather than the scientific bias that may be inherent to each specific technique.

A challenging coastline makes finding suitable dive-days to achieve regular SCUBA surveys difficult. Divers are limited by the depths they can safely access, the time available for underwater data collection and by stringent safety and labour regulations.

Additionally, we rely on divers to have the requisite scientific SCUBA qualifications and fish identification skills. For marine protected areas (MPAs), certainly, finding non-extractive techniques to sample fish may be considered preferable to controlled angling surveys, where the post-release mortality rates of certain species may not be known.

The BRUV journey

South Africa's BRUV journey began in Tsitsikamma, where PhD student Anthony Bernard and his supervisor, Dr Albrecht Götz of the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON), embarked on several years' worth of design, testing, deployment (and no small amount of weather-cursing and logistical gymnastics). A year after Anthony's work finished, I took the rather unwieldy camera tripod that was our BRUV rig to the Stilbaai MPA. The rest, as the cliché goes, is BRUV history.

A return to the sea

Monitoring solutions that can best be incorporated into annual budgets, are less reliant on the availability of skilled labour and can be used into the future are what will perhaps make sustainable monitoring a more practical, long-term and standardised reality. Our contact with MPA managers and rangers had yielded one small snag - the BRUV rig was useful, but still well outside the budget of annual monitoring for conservation authorities along our coastline.

Fortunately, the development of affordable technology had become something of a global revolution. The advent of GoPro cameras had brought film-making out of the hands of the professionals and well within the capabilities of everyday amateurs.

So, in an extension of the work started in Tsitsikamma and Stilbaai, a collaborative research project this past year introduced BRUV surveys to a region with a long history of human utilisation and an interesting marine community.

The False Bay BRUV project introduced simple steel rigs with GoPro HD cameras attached to them, buoyed off at the surface and left to film independent of the boat for one hour on the seafloor. Reducing the manpower required for fieldwork, as well as the cost and complexity of the equipment and maximising the amount of data collected on any given day, hopefully means that the methodology can be replicated by conservationists along the coastline and used in standardised monitoring.

The project, led by Prof. Colin Attwood of the University of Cape Town (UCT) and conducted by Lauren De Vos of UCT and Dr Albrecht Götz of SAEON, is funded by the Save Our Seas Foundation (SOSF) and SAEON.

In the first year, a summer and winter fieldtrip have yielded over 200 hours of underwater footage recorded in multiple habitats across False Bay. This translates into some solid video-watching for the researchers on the project!

Sharing our sea

Increasingly, researchers are called on to communicate their work to an audience outside that which we reach in scientific journals. For marine scientists, bringing a class of giggling seven year olds on a research cruise, a SCUBA survey, or foreseeably any valuable (and expensive) sampling session, is ... shall we say, logistically challenging, to say the least?

As I sat each day sifting through hours of video data, I grew increasingly enchanted with the underwater world playing itself out in front of me. It occurred to me that I might not be the only one to delight in watching the ethereal whirring of a pipefish's fins, so I started editing interesting footage into short, educational films and uploading them to my research blog.

The initial reaction from the scientific community to my hypothesis had been lukewarm - that BRUV data might do more than provide statistics on our changing fish populations, but might actually go a long way to convey to an audience outside the scientific realm - perhaps more convincingly than graphs - exactly what lies beneath the waves.

However, within a few months, some underwater creatures (and their antics) had proved immensely popular, with a wily octopus garnering over 600 000 views on our Vimeo video channel ... and making news around the world via social media platforms and online news networks.

Inclusion and sharing have become oddly important words in my research vocabulary. It's an encouraging thought, too, that the funding and effort we invest in this kind of research not only addresses scientific questions and management objectives, but brings our marine heritage ashore to an audience who might never hold their breath long enough to meet a sevengill shark or feel salt-spray against their skin. An audience that, despite their apparent disconnect with our oceans, will play a leading role in determining its future.

So, until such time as I can find ways of getting more people to the seashore, a bit of imagination will suffice. As a short-tailed ray ripples its wings (a magic carpet to the gasping children) and a great white shark gives us a cursory glance (to a chorus of delighted squeals), I recall those well-worn words of Baba Dioum: "In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."

Dive in!

Follow the research and look out for regularly posted videos and stories from False Bay on the SOSF blog; False Bay on Film (Lauren De Vos) blog: www.africageographic.com; Twitter @lauren_de_vos; and GoPro World of Heroes ZA (@WOHZA).

By Lauren De Vos, Department of Biological Sciences & Marine Research Institute, University of Cape Town