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A young scientist is bringing the ocean ashore in False Bay

Posted by on December 5, 2013

It’s hard to believe that Lauren grew up so far from the ocean, in the city of Johannesburg. In fact, I would sooner have believed that she was brought up with mermaids and seals…

As Lauren began her talk at the Biodiversity South Africa Conference, organised by the University of Cape Town’s Department of Biological Sciences, I had the privelage of seeing the deep blue wilderness through her eyes, where even the most discreet of fish is noticed and admired. Lauren’s message is clear – we need to find research and management solutions that are sustainable and kinder to our planet and pockets. New methods of education and communication are key, especially for kids.

As a Save our Seas funded researcher at UCT’s Marine Research Institute, Lauren is currently conducting an innovative study of False Bay’s marine life using baited remote underwater cameras (called ‘BRUV’s). ‘BRUVing’ has been quite an adventure for Lauren!

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Baited remote underwater video (BRUV) surveys were developed in Australia, and are now being used around the world (and now, for the first time, in South Africa). Fish, attracted by bait, swim into the field of view of a remote-controlled video camera (Lauren uses GoPro’s). Over time, the BRUV video footage can be compared and analysed to understand the diversity, behaviour and abundance of the different fish species.

“Many of our marine species are in trouble, yet few are being monitored properly. The logistics and expenses usually associated with monitoring make these procedures unsustainable. Yet, understanding the behaviour and population of different fish species is paramount if we are to know how to protect them.” she says.

The method seems so simple, almost too good to be true – yet Lauren is opening is opening our eyes to how very real and effective this research method is. She has been working with BRUV’s for nearly three years now, and already seeing some patterns developing with some fish species more prevalent in certain seasons.

“Reef fish are still of enormous conservation concern in False bay, and many marine protected areas along our coastline”, says Lauren. She is particularly interested in species of conservation concern, such as the red steenbras and the red stump nose (both endemic to South Africa).

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 What really struck me during Lauren’s talk was the huge potential that her study has going into the future, especially in terms of its translatable value. “Having video footage to back up stats means that tangible evidence can be made available to the very people who use False Bay, and whose behavioural changes we are trying to induce.” she says. She’s absolutely right – unless people actually see with their own eyes what is going on down there, will they really care about protecting it?

Although fragile after a long history of fishing activity, False Bay is infinitely more beautiful than I had imagined! Looking at Lauren’s pictures and videos makes me feel proud to live so close to this corner of the ocean. It makes me want to just put on a mask and fins and get out there…

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“Capturing these sharks on camera is not about providing hair-raising entertainment, but about adding to the growing body of knowledge that allows us, through improved understanding and perspective, to better protect this magnificent species and indeed, live alongside it in adequate respective for its own existence right.”

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It takes a lot of dedication and patience to count all these fish!

Me: It must be quite an ordeal going through all that camera footage Lauren! I bet your eyes get really tired?

Lauren: [smiles] Actually, I remember having to spend all day identifying insects under a microscope, that was tiring! But this is different – it’s exciting, it brings me a thrilling sense of satisfaction! I can also listen to TED talks at the same time … my eyes are really well trained now.

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“False Bay is a good place to test out our BRUV method, most of the reef fish are territorial residents and present throughout the year.”

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“The cameras were showing us things that would make any fish nerd’s pulse quicken”

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As Lauren continues her work as a passionate scientist and ocean ambassador, there is one thing I know for sure – the world needs more Laurens in it! We need more young and passionate scientists eager to explore and communicate the wonders of our diverse ocean ecosystems in creative easily accessible ways, especially in Africa.  There is hope for our rich and colourful ocean ecosystems. 

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Photo by Steve Benjamin

Need any more convincing that False Bay is awesome? I love this little video that Lauren put together here and read more articles on her research in False Bay here

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