Durban’ flagship marine research and tourism centre came about as a result of visionaries chatting under a milkwood tree, 70 years ago. This picture, from the South African Association for Marine Biological Research archives, does not identify the people planning the future around the campfire.
Durban’ flagship marine research and tourism centre came about as a result of visionaries chatting under a milkwood tree, 70 years ago. This picture, from the South African Association for Marine Biological Research archives, does not identify the people planning the future around the campfire.

Born under a tree, Saambr celebrates 70 years

By Duncan Guy Time of article published Feb 6, 2021

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Durban - Durban’s flagship marine research and tourism centre came about as a result of visionaries chatting under a Milkwood tree 70 years ago this year.

Two prominent marine characters that have pitched up at the South African Association for Marine Biological Research (Saambr) during its 70-year history are now a lot less common in the world’s oceans.

In fact, the likes of “Sally the Sawfish” are now critically endangered.

“Sally the Sawfish” was caught in the shark nets by the meshing boat, the Sea Hound, at South Beach in December 1962, according to the organisation.

“Divers secured her carefully and called the aquarium. She was gently brought ashore, placed on a truck and brought to the yard at the back of the aquarium where the staff cut away all the remnants of the net entangled in her saw,” a Saambr document reads

“She was cautiously hoisted up and placed in the Shark Tank (at the old aquarium on Lower Marine Parade) where she swiped at the lesser inhabitants with great enthusiasm – the larger ones giving her a wide berth.

“She settled down and eventually the diver, Lofty Roets, was able to feed her by hand, making sure he avoided her lethal saw. This proved to be a popular attraction at feeding times.

“At one time angelfish were introduced to the exhibit to help Sally get rid of some parasites. They got busy soon after their introduction to the exhibit and did their work to rid Sally of the parasites.

“Sally was a great attraction and many visitors were fascinated by her ungainly movement as she negotiated her way around the exhibit.

“After a number of years Sally died. However, the staff will always remember her and the incredible amount they learnt about this unique cartilaginous fish.”

The last sawfish known from KZN waters was seen in 1999 and research suggests that sawfish no longer occur in KZN waters, while globally largetooth sawfish are critically endangered.

Saambr's first aquarium, which opened in 1959 on the Lower Marine Parade.

Then there was ORI the penguin, named after Saambr’s research unit - the Oceanographic Research Institute.

“The African penguin is not commonly found along the KwaZulu-Natal coastline, but as we all know, these little fellows in their smart black and white tuxedos sometimes lose their way and find themselves on our doorstep,” said the orgainisation.

“Saambr never planned to house penguins; it appears the penguins found Saambr rather than the other way around.

“The first recorded penguin arrived in a rather sorry state after washing up at Ifafa Beach in July 1961. Aptly named ORI, he had the freedom to run around the whole site. His favourite spot was the fish cutting table where he ate his fill every morning.

Twice a day, he reported to the Main Tank during feeding time where he “performed amazing swimming and diving feats” which enthralled visitors. ORI was the first of many penguins who found their way to Saambr over the years.

“Today, uShaka Sea World has 58 penguins in a dedicated rookery.”

In May 2005, the African penguin was classified as endangered on the Cites list.

Education has been a key part of the association's work both now and in 1972 when guide Sylvia Jacobs spread the message of marine conservation.

While it may be unfortunate that the number of these species has declined, along with many others in the ocean, the establishment of Saambr back in 1941 could have prompted much damage control.

It would have been visionary back in 1941 to be concerned about the conservation of the ocean, said Judy Mann, the conservation strategist at the organisation.

“People thought the ocean was a vast place where they could pump rubbish, pollute and extract food from forever,” she said.

About this time in 1941, a party of prominent Durban citizens, among them from the Natal Society for the Preservation of Wildlife and Resorts, George Campbell, came up with the idea that research was needed into the long-term sustainable use of the bounty from the sea.

It all began at their campsite in the far north of the province, under a Milkwood tree. Seven years and much fund-raising later, the Durban City Council agreed to lease two acres on Lower Marine Parade at a shilling a year, for 30 years.

Research back in the day as scientists Dr David Davies and Jeanette d'Aubrey study a shark in 1959.

Research, education and tourism happened at the Durban Centenary Aquarium, as it was called. It received its millionth visitor two years after its 1959 opening.

Sharks were the focus of much of the early research by the Oceanographic Research Institute because of the high number of shark attacks along the province’s coastline in the 1950s.

However, scientists soon began diversifying their projects to fulfil the aims of the founding fathers. Seventy-four, phytoplankton, swimming prawns, marine turtles, bays and estuaries and the East Coast rock lobster soon occupied the scientists’ time. The data collected in the early 1960s still serves as a valuable baseline for research today.

Education played an important role, which Mann credits for much of the local awareness of marine conservation. She also praised the many volunteers who helped.

The Independent on Saturday

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