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Cape Town - Not only are we blessed with an abundance of natural beauty here in the Mother City, and more biodiversity than you can shake a stick at, but we also have ample opportunity to visit nature, embrace it, learn from and about it.
For most of us the natural world is but minutes from home or office – there are national parks, conservation areas and a plethora of parks and beaches where we can commune with the outdoor world.
What you may not know is that there are also incredibly complex and fertile marine areas right under our noses of which most of us remain entirely unaware.
We are virtually surrounded by water, and lapping at our shores are two oceans and complex currents where the cold Benguela and warm Atlantic waters mix, producing a unique marine habitat that provides a home to numerous fascinating animals.
I was blessed recently to be able to take a guided boat tour over one such area sitting just off Mouillie Point, by kind invitation of the operators of Ocean Adventurer a magnificent eco-friendly catamaran which, with the Two Oceans Aquarium, runs marine eco-tours each day around the Atlantic Shoreline.
Viewing the natural world ashore requires little more than a pair of hiking boots and some sturdy legs, but it isn’t always so easy to visit the marine world. Ocean Adventurer brings that world into view, and what a view it turned out to be.
Setting sail from the Robben Island Ferry jetty we headed out of the harbour while tour guide Amir provided a background to the amazing food web that maintains all manner of marine animals just outside the windows of the high-rises along the Atlantic Seaboard, one suspects mostly unnoticed by the inhabitants of the urban sprawl.
We learned that those freezing waters, which numb your feet should you decide on a dip in the ocean off Camps Bay beach, provide essential deep ocean nutrients to the surface waters, the frigid upwelling being the result of a complex of circumstances including the prevailing south-easterly winds and the rotation of the Earth.
That apparently simple, and some might venture rather annoying, cold water provides the basis for a food chain that leads from humble phytoplankton to massive apex predators such as great white sharks, dolphins and seals. The entire lot are dependent upon frigid nutrient-rich water and a dash of good old summer sunshine.
The combination of nutrients and bright sunny summer days leads to a spectacular bloom of algae which feeds zooplankton, fish and jelly fish, who themselves provide sustenance to numerous seabirds, dolphins, sharks and, in turn, even killer whales.
The tour obviously varies depending on what is actually happening out there on the water but I was amazed at how much life there was to be seen just off shore. The crew can collect samples and show them to you up close under a microscope if necessary, but on this occasion there was more than enough to look at without going to such lengths.
With the Cape Town Stadium in clear view on the shore, we passed schools of dusky and heavyside dolphins, the duskies apparently feeding on fish, driving them to the surface and providing the opportunity of a meal to the terns which darted overhead, diving over and over into the water to grab a titbit. We passed hundreds of Cape cormorants drying their wings after their morning fishing session and learned, courtesy of Amir, how the birds use the wetness of their feathers to assist in buoyancy regulation when diving.
We passed baby seals who were cooling off on the surface by waving their flippers in the air. I had up until this point always imagined that they were warming up but apparently the reverse is true. We watched box, blue bottle and compass jellyfish float by in the current, their numbers a by-product of the algal bloom providing good feeding for the numerous sunfish wallowing near the surface and, unlike the seals, more than likely trying to warm up a bit.
The sunfish are the oddest of species, massive in size and entirely lacking in speed and agility, but then neither of those is particularly critical if you live on jellyfish which themselves aren’t notoriously nippy.
All in all it proved to be an absolutely fascinating insight into the marine life that inhabits our oceans and the complex interaction of animals that live out their daily lives within spitting distance of our city.
I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I was almost oblivious to their presence but I find myself exceptionally pleased to know that they are there.
If you would like to find out more about the biology and biodiversity of the waters around the Cape you are recommended to take this trip. It is an education in more ways than one, a delightful break from the madding crowd and a revelation to find this wonderful web of life, mostly unseen, right under our noses.
Many thanks to guide Amir and Captain Ben for a wonderful introduction to the ecology of Table Bay.
l The Ocean Adventurer leaves the waterfront daily at 11am, 2pm and 4pm. Tours cost R180 for adults and R90 for children. They also cater for school groups and corporate entities can gain BEE points through sponsorships for less privileged learners.
For more information go to the marine eco tours page at www.ocean_adventurer.com - Sunday Argus