By Kalimukwa Manyando
In July this year (2022), I was fortunate enough to be offered an internship by Namibia’s rays and sharks (NaRaS) project team. This is a project of the Namibia Nature Foundation (NNF), the first of its kind in Namibia. Its objectives are to learn more about the many species of rays, skates, sharks, and chimaeras found in Namibia’s ocean ecosystems: the habitats they use, the threats they face, and to communicate the importance of these animals for the health of our ocean. Some of the project’s research activities are focused in the Namibian Islands Marine Protected Area (NIMPA), situated along the southwestern coast of Namibia, occupying an area of almost 10 000 km2 of incredible marine biodiversity, islands, and islets.
On July the 30th, I stepped on a bus headed to a small town on the southern coast of Namibia called Lüderitz and upon arrival, I was welcomed by the fieldwork team members. I felt a sense of belonging as we chatted around a dinner table at one of the local restaurants. As each member gave a brief introduction of themselves, I knew then that I was in the right place, at the right time, and with the right people. So many things fuelled my excitement and I couldn’t wait to get started.
Despite my excitement for our first day at sea, bad weather kept us on land, so we dedicated the first two days to training. The training focused on Baited Remote Underwater Video (BRUV) systems: two GoPro cameras and light, mounted on a steel frame, with a bait canister attached which gets filled with mashed fish. BRUVs collect video footage of the underwater life in an area, especially animals attracted to the bait (which often includes sharks and rays). This provides researchers with information on which species use which area and also whether those species are relatively common or rare in each area. BRUVs were a completely new monitoring method to me and I think this innovative approach is a game-changer because so much useful information can be obtained from the data collected.
On the third day, the weather was good enough for us to go out to sea and put to practice what we learned in training. We got onto a boat just before sunrise and headed to our very first sampling site, an area off the coast of Diaz Point over a rocky reef. One of the things I found challenging was the swell and movement of a small boat since it had been a long time since I had worked at sea and my body needed to reaccustom itself to that motion. I eventually got seasick and started to “feed the fish”, if you know what I mean! I felt useless and sat in the corner of the boat trying to recover while everyone was engaged in hands-on work. The next day I took some sea sickness tablets and this really helped me a lot because I could focus on the duties assigned to me and be a part of the team again. I learned techniques such as how to prepare the bait, maintenance, and deployment of the stereo BRUV system at different depths, and how to enter information on the datasheet, among other things. Some of the areas we sampled included Halifax Island and areas both to the north and south of Lüderitz, all of which are within the boundary of the NIMPA. Traveling from one sampling site to another and being at sea the whole day was exhausting. When the video footage was reviewed after our second day at sea, we realized that one of the BRUV systems had captured images of a broadnose sevengill shark (Notorhynchus cepedianus, also locally called a cowshark). Watching the footage of the shark investigating the BRUV, the excitement within the team was overwhelming. The footage even allowed us to see that the shark was a male and was over 1.2 meters in length.
Although this is just the first step, the NaRaS project will continue this research to find out which types of sharks and rays live where in the NIMPA, and what roles they play in keeping the marine ecosystem healthy. This data will also indicate which threats these species face and in essence, this information will contribute to better protection and management of this Marine Protected Area, now and for future generations.
This was an experience of a lifetime, and one I will remember and cherish because not only did it enhance my research skills like data entry and analysis, but it also boosted my teamwork skills. My fascination with the marine world has grown significantly because I realize that very little is known about these species, especially in Namibian waters. Being part of such a great team made the work and learning process much easier.
Dr. Ruth H. Leeney, Mr. Angus Van Wyk, Ms. Ndamononghenda Mateus, and skipper Mr. Stefan Metzger: thank you so much for having patience with me and guiding me through this short journey. Thank you also to NNF for offering these types of internship positions, and may you continue to support and expand the experiences of more young graduates.
The BRUV component of the NaRaS project is being conducted in collaboration with the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity. We are grateful to Dr. Anthony Bernard, Angus Van Wyk, and the rest of SAIAB’s Marine Remote Imaging Platform team. The NaRaS project is funded by the Shark Conservation Fund.
For detailed inquiries about the NaRaS project, kindly email Dr. Ruth H Leeney