05 Jun 2014

Visitors to Durban Marina may have noticed the coming and going of a marine research vessel over the last few weeks and wondered what the busy crew was up to.  Craig Oostingh’s curiousity also got the better of him (especially as this 13m craft was moored right outside Boating World’s office every evening) and he finally went down to investigate.

He met marine technician Ryan Palmer of the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB), which serves as a major scientific resource for knowledge and understanding the biodiversity and functioning of globally aquatic ecosystems.

SAIAB runs the African Coelacanth Ecosystem Programme (ACEP) and hosts the Elwandle Node (coastal and inshore areas) of the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON). 

Ryan explained that through funding from the Department of Science and Technology (DST) marine scientists can sample the entire coastal ecosystem (physical oceanography, marine geology, phytoplankton, zooplankton, fauna, fish, marine mammals and birds) from near-shore to past the continental shelf.

They play a vital role in protecting our invaluable marine resources, monitoring and documenting climate change and the increasing pressures of human population growth and development on fresh and ocean waters. During field trips like this one, months are spent gathering data, visuals and sample collections for laboratory analysis, recording and safekeeping.

He and a research team are involved in a two-month Conservation Planning project for East KZN Wildlife called Seaplan, covering 30 sites from Aliwal Shoal to Richards Bay.  A core group of about six researchers and a couple of students leave the harbour at around 5.30am each day to reach the sites, some of which are 40 – 50 miles offshore.

Once there the Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) is put to work in deep-water Benthic surveys of the ocean floor and taking “Grabs” or samples for further study.  The ROV is equipped with the most sophisticated cameras, lighting, sonar and tracking systems and five-function manipulator arm – ideal for surveys, exploration and limited benthic invertebrate collections.

This is the first time visuals have been recorded at depths of between 60 – 100m during surveys of this part of the coast – backing up previous work done. Using a Baited Underwater Video Remote - a specially housed GoPro camera with an extended arm carries bait to attract fish - the team has captured pictures and videos which allow a whole new dimension of study.

On their return around 5pm, time is spent downloading footage and checking the precious data.

Craig was fascinated to see the specialized equipment on both the ROV and the research boat uKwabelana which also boasts a Lowrance unit which is mainly used for navigation purposes. Fully equipped for overnight trips it can carry up to 11 scientists and sleep up to five.

To find out more about using uKwabelana please contact Ryan Palmer on or 046 603 5872.