Spotlight on underwater forest

Exploring a sun-shafted underwater world with no barrier between your skin and the creatures of the kelp forest.

A film-maker and naturalist wants to put our underwater forest on the world map.

The kelp forest – which is 100m wide in places and has fronds up to 17m high – stretches around our coastline.
Craig Foster’s journey into this aquatic wonderland started some 10 years ago.

Memories of happy childhood days in the ocean inspired him to dive like our ancestors, without a wetsuit or scuba gear, using the kelp to pull himself down to the ocean floor.

Craig spoke last week at the launch of the book, Sea Change, which tells of his experiences diving the kelp forest along with co-author, surfer, and founder of Wavescape Ocean Festival Ross Frylinck, of City Bowl, and conservation journalist Pippa Ehrlich, of Kalk Bay, who also edited the book.

Craig says it took one year of diving every day, building up brown adipose tissue (or brown fat) – a substance found in small pockets in the body that acts like natural heaters – before he stopped shivering.

And after three years of daily diving, he says, his chronic chest infections, colds and flu disappeared, and he started playing squash again after having stopped 10 years previously.

But it was adapting what he had learned both from indigenous people and scientists that enabled him, he says, to create a unique way to track sea creatures.

Craig says nowhere in the world has underwater tracking been documented in the way he and Ross have been doing.

“It’s normally done using modern technology, focusing on one technique, involving capture, tag, release it back into the wild. For the San Bushmen of the Central Kalahari, the wind and the insects are the timekeepers for tracking. In the sea, it’s the molluscs and the swell,” says Craig.

Over the past eight years and hundreds of hours of underwater exploration, they have also made biological discoveries, including 40 new animal behaviours and seven new species of shrimp, one of them named after Craig, Heteromysis Fosteri.

They also founded SeaChange Trust, working alongside WWF-SA Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI) and the Mission Blue: Sylvia Earle Alliance to change the laws and ultimately promote marine-protected areas.

Craig says only 0.4% of South Africa’s oceans are protected, falling well short of the country’s required goal of 10%.

Their underwater tracking technique has attracted interest from ocean conservation and marine biology circles from around the world including UCT’s Professor Charles Griffiths who attended the book launch, at the Clifton Surf Lifesaving Club.

Craig describes this master marine tracker, who has spent years decoding the kelp forest on his own, as a “gracious and patient” teacher.

The underwater story is told through double-spread pictures and experiences that combine indigenous knowledge, marine biology and Paleo-science.

But, more importantly, it tells the story of how they build relationships with some of the sea creatures they meet on these regular dives, including Craig’s experiences of being wrapped in a stingray’s embrace.

At first Ross was sceptical of Craig’s experiences until he began having them himself.

Sea Change also chronicles how the divers have undergone a transformation as they patiently watched and recorded the secrets of these often alien-like creatures.

And there is also the story of letting go of fear and the relationship between fathers and sons.

Craig taught his son, Tom, how to dive the same way his father taught him – piggyback style. Tom’s initiation to becoming a teenager was a ride on the back of a three-metre-long shark.

Sea Change is the start of a number of initiatives for the trust that includes exhibitions, field courses, an outreach campaign and a documentary, My Octopus Teacher.

This records Craig’s relationship with a wild octopus he named Superstar, which, he says, became the greatest inspiration in his life.

In September 2017, Craig gave a talk in Parliament about how this animal’s wisdom translates to conservation and science.

“These animals are incredibly intelligent. Every time I dive, there are fewer and fewer of them, with 30 000 animals taken out each year, not to mention the by-catch from long lines attached to drop pots attached on a kilometre long rope. They’re not only catching octopus, they’re entangling whales,” says Craig.

“This is an inhumane way to catch thousands of incredibly intelligent, wild creatures, trapped inside tiny plastic boxes for days, terrified, waiting, slowly starving only to be killed by a blow to the head. It’s torture for a creature with a mind that rivals high-intelligence mammals,” says Craig.

He adds that it is illegal in Europe to carry out scientific studies on octopuses without sedating them. With Superstar, he built a relationship of trust, going on hunting forays and eventually being allowed to put a small camera in the creature’s den.

This led to him becoming scientific adviser to BBC’s Blue Planet 2 and shooting a film highlighting the uniqueness of octopuses.

Pippa stresses the massive threats to the kelp forest, from climate change, pollution, overfishing, poaching, and that 98% of the ocean territory surrounding our coast has been earmarked for mining for gas and oil. All these threats impact on the kelp forest ecosystem.

Sea Change: Primal joy and the art of underwater tracking, is published by Quivertree Publications.

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