Underwater tracking technique puts Cape kelp forests on the map
“When I opened my eyes, the world was pristine. It had just been born and I was seeing it for the very first time. I walked around in wonderment, licking shells, staring at algae on the rocks and laughing like a fool. Hours went by. It started to rain and that was wonderful.” Ross Frylinck.
A group of scientists, storytellers, journalists and filmmakers have uncovered some truly mind-blowing wonders in the undersea forests of the Cape Peninsula. The group of “wetsuitless” divers are mostly volunteers who have formed the Sea-Change Trust.
Through a unique underwater tracking technique, they’ve made biological discoveries that have attracted some of the biggest names in ocean conservation and marine biology circles across the globe. Their book entitled Sea Change: Primal Joy and the art of underwater tracking, published by Quivertree Publications, will launch in mid-October 2018, showcasing these discoveries for the very first time. Nowhere in the world has underwater tracking been documented in this way before.
Heading up the team is Craig Foster, co-founder of the Sea-Change Trust and one of the world’s leading natural history filmmakers; and Ross Frylinck, founding director, published author and journalist. Over the past eight years and hundreds of hours of underwater exploration in these kelp forests, using no wetsuits or SCUBA gear, Foster and Frylinck have come to understand the uniqueness of these forests and the life force and community of creatures that live within them. Through diving in cold water every day, their bodies have adapted and they have been transformed by the powerful physical and neurological effects of cold water immersion.
Accompanied by powerful imagery of life underwater, the story of Sea Change is told through a moving personal narrative and crosses the divide between “art book”’ and “natural history”. It’s been described as a “Castaneda wisdom quest” and a “groundbreaking piece of work”. Not only does the book document the scientific findings of the kelp forest and the creatures within it, but also captures both Foster and Frylinck’s journey of self-discovery, and their own deep connection to nature. Throughout the story and after every dive, they are changed by the ocean. Their relationships with the sea creatures they describe also undergo a transformation, as these often alien-like creatures begin to reveal their secrets. Ultimately, Sea Change reminds us that we are all connected and illustrates the profound fulfilment and joy that human beings can experience through an intentional relationship with the natural world.
“Sea Change is a gripping, personal story about friendship, fathers and sons, and the healing power of wilderness.”
Carina Frankal, chairperson and executive producer at Sea-Change Trust says: “We are hoping that the book is the first stage in getting the African kelp forest, home to over 14,000 documented species, on the map as one of the great natural wonders in the world. Currently only 0.4 per cent of South Africa’s oceans is protected and 98% of the ocean territory surrounding our coast has been earmarked for mining. We need to make it known just how important it is to protect our marine habitats, so that ecosystems like the kelp forest will continue to thrive for centuries to come.”
Foster is an award-winning documentary filmmaker. He spent much of his early career tracking and hunting with the original masters of animal tracking, the San Bushmen of the Central Kalahari. Taking this skill to the ocean was no easy feat. It took three years of diving in the cold every day, alongside Frylinck, before Foster found a way to actually track the animals underwater. After years of decoding the kelp forest on his own, he met UCT’s Professor Charles Griffiths, a master marine tracker and elder of marine science whom he describes as a “gracious and patient” teacher. In the years that have followed, they’ve spent hours exploring intertidal rock pools together. Griffiths collected specimens while Foster observed and learnt from him.
Foster describes tracking as “the language of the wild” and views it as the very first language our ancestors learned to speak. On land, tracking is not just about following hoof marks in the sand; it’s an extremely complex sensory process dominated by sound and smell, micro-habitats and wind, claw and beak marks – a web of deep knowing. Essentially, underwater and intertidal tracking is the same, but the detailed signs are different and the visual sense becomes dominant.
He says: “The supreme teachers of tracking underwater have been the animals themselves: the octopus, the clingfish, the helmet shell, the urchin, the cuttlefish, the otter, and the pyjama catshark. It’s their marine tracks that are the strings and keys that make up the musical instruments of the wild, instruments that eventually allow the tracker to tap into the symphony that is our original dance with nature.”
The team’s discoveries have also led to a groundbreaking octopus/shark sequence in the BBC’s Blue Planet II TV series and an outdoor photography exhibition seen by an estimated 1 million people. At least 7 new species and over 40 new animal behaviours have been discovered through Foster’s tracking methods, including a shrimp that has been named after him: Heteromysis Fosteri.
The Sea-Change Trust has a number of initiatives lined up after the book is launched. These include a series of exhibitions, field courses, an ongoing outreach campaign and a feature documentary film co-directed by Foster and fellow diver Pippa Ehrlich who also edited the book. The film is entitled My Octopus Teacher, and chronicles his relationship with a wild octopus in the kelp forest. These projects are aimed at creating awareness to inspire people to live in a way that supports a healthy planet and also deepen their connection to the wild. The Sea-Change Trust works alongside partners such as WWF-SASSI and the Mission Blue: Sylvia Earle Alliance to change the laws and ultimately promote marine protected areas.
Sea Change will be available at all leading book stores from mid-October and directly from the Sea-Change Trust. To order your copy online or for more information about the Sea-Change Trust go to www.seachangeproject.com or contact Carina Frankal on firstname.lastname@example.org