Hole-in-the-Wall, a scenic spot along the Wild Coast off which Shell plans to explore for oil and gas.
Hole-in-the-Wall, a scenic spot along the Wild Coast off which Shell plans to explore for oil and gas.

Making waves over oil exploration on pristine Wild Coast

By Duncan Guy, Tanya Waterworth Time of article published Nov 20, 2021

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Protesters are expected to air their anger at gas and oil exploration that could pose a major threat to sound-sensitive marine life off South Africa’s coast.

Oil company Shell is scheduled to start exploration on December 1 off the Wild Coast, between Morgan’s Bay and Port St John’s.

In Durban, protests are set for Vetch’s Beach this morning, spearheaded by the Breathe Conservation reef clean-up team, and in Hillcrest by the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA).

The SDCEA will then hold protests in coastal towns, including in the Eastern Cape, especially on behalf of the subsistence fishing community.

In Cape Town at noon tomorrow, protesters will walk from Muizenberg to Kalk Bay beaches, according to the Oceans Not Oil organisation.

South African ultra-swimmer and Breathe Conservation founder Sarah Ferguson has slammed the proposed seismic survey, describing it as "immoral”.

“When I first heard about this two weeks ago, it was devastating. It’s tragic to even consider doing something like this, it’s horrific.

“But it is encouraging to see the number of people coming out and opposing it,” she said.

Yesterday Ferguson, who is based in Durban, confirmed that Breathe Conservation’s reef clean-up team planned to protest at Vetch’s Beach this morning.

“We are also going to be making a stand. I can’t believe the audacity - it is one of the most pristine parts of the South African coastline which will be destroyed,” she said.

Ferguson holds the Guinness World Record for her non-stop swim around Easter Island in 2019 and on World Oceans Day in June, she announced her plans to do a 1 500km swim from Durban to Cape Town, starting early next year. A committed conservationist, her organisation raises awareness around ocean conservation, particularly the problem of plastic pollution.

Durban activist Desmond d’Sa called for a boycott of Shell and for the oil giant to leave South Africa.

A petition is circulating to demand that Environment Minister Barbara Creecy withdraw the approval for the company’s application to do the exploration and to get people to register as interested parties against offshore fossil fuel exploration.

Durban activist and Oceans not Oil co-founder Janet Solomon noted that the application “cropped up straight after COP26”.

Solomon said another application to explore off the coast between Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth) and Plettenberg Bay remained open for public participation only until November 29.

Her organisation has launched the petition against the exercise which would involve a vessel dragging multiple airgun arrays that emit thousands of high-decibel explosive impulses to map the seafloor and rock strata.

“The vessel operated by Shell Exploration and Production SA’s hirelings, Shearwater GeoServices, will for five months, drag up to 48 guns methodically through 6 011 square kilometres of ocean surface, firing extremely loud shock-wave emissions that penetrate through 3km of water and 40km into the Earth’s crust below the seabed,” says the petition.

“The ship will work around the clock, firing the air guns every 10 seconds.

“At a time when world leaders are making promises and decisions to step away from fossil fuels because climate science has shown we cannot burn our existing reserves, let alone drill for more, offshore oil and gas, Operation Phakisa is pushing ever harder to get its hands on a local supply of gas.

“Shell must answer for how the harm done during this survey and any exploration done hereafter are part of its energy transition plan to control global warming.”

Judy Mann, a conservation strategist at the South African Association for Marine Biological Research (Saambr), said that internationally, seismic surveys had demonstrated negative impacts on a range of marine organisms, from smaller creatures which live in sediments or as plankton, to larger animals such as fish and marine mammals.

“Marine mammals, in particular, appear to be the most impacted by seismic surveys because of their reliance on sound for communication, to find food and to navigate.”

She said many of the marine and coastal habitats off the South African east coast were unique and supported a high ecological diversity, much of which is not found elsewhere.

Mann said that the Agulhas Current, which flows past the Wild Coast, was one of the fastest-flowing and most powerful in the world, and meandered up to 100km wide in places.

“The power of the current is such that attempts to contain any accidental spillage or normal operational spillage would likely be unsuccessful.

“While internationally, the risk of a catastrophic blowout (a large-scale oil spill) is rated as very low by environmental impact assessments, this does not consider the increased risks posed by the harsh, unique, physical environment found off the Wild Coast,” Mann said, adding that it was not called the Wild Coast for nothing.

“Importantly, the potential impacts of developing and running shore-based facilities for the processing and transport of oil and gas, should they be found in viable quantities, have not yet even been considered.”

Mann said that the proposed survey area included four unique marine protected areas (MPAs) - Amathole Offshore MPA; Dwesa-Cwebe MPA; Hluleka MPA and Pondoland MPA.

“Each of these MPAs protects unique marine biodiversity with a high number of endemic species, found nowhere else in the world.”

Despite numerous request for comment, neither Shell nor the Ministry of Environment had responded by the time of publishing.

The Independent on Saturday

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