In March 2019, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force (the “Task Force”) completed the fifth Important Marine Mammal Area workshop in Salalah, Oman.
The week-long workshop hosted 38 marine mammal scientists and observers from 15 countries to map the important habitats for 130 species of marine mammals in the western Indian Ocean and Arabian seas, namely cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises), pinnipeds, sirenians, otters and the polar bear — across the world oceans.
The delegates from South Africa were Dr Stephanie Plön (who heads the Ocean Health Unit at the Earth Stewardship Science Research Institute, Nelson Mandela University), Dr Vic Cockcroft (Nelson Mandela University) and Professor Ken Findlay (Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Cape Town).
“A record 55 candidate important marine mammal areas, or IMMAs, were identified,” said Plön. This includes five for South African waters, which encompass all of South African coastal and shelf waters, including:
The candidate IMMAs are currently being assessed through a rigorous scientific process. Once approved (towards the end of 2019), they will be placed on the IMMA e-Atlas and can be used for conservation planning.
“South Africa’s marine environment is a global biodiversity hotspot,” said Plön.
“Algoa Bay in Port Elizabeth, for example, has an abundance of dolphins and whales and is an ideal place for marine scientists to do research. It’s known as the ‘dolphin capital of the world’ as there are unusually large group sizes of common and bottlenose dolphins; we see groups ranging from 10 to 15 bottlenose dolphins to several hundred common dolphins, often associated with bait balls or large schools of sardines or red eyes (part of the herring family). Sometimes these bait balls are a kilometre in diameter.”
South Africa’s first boat-based whale-watching study
Over the past two decades boat-based whale-watching has developed into an important, growing tourist industry, with new and established operators in marine tourism hotspots such as False Bay, Hermanus, Gansbaai, Knysna, Plettenberg Bay and Port Elizabeth.
In partnership with the Nature’s Valley Trust, a WWF Nedbank Green Trust project is currently assessing the impact of South Africa’s boat-based whale-watching industry on the dolphins and whales, as well as the socioeconomic impact of the industry on the towns where the operators are based. Research started in September 2018 and the findings will be released in 2020.
“Using Plettenberg Bay for our case study, we are looking at the key areas the dolphins and whales use in the bay; where they rest, feed and socialise and where the whale-watching boats operate in these areas,” explained project leader Dr Gwenith Penry, a postdoctoral researcher at Nelson Mandela University’s Institute for Coastal and Marine Research, focusing on the “data deficient” Bryde’s whale.
“If there are too many operators in one area, the animals could leave. We need to safeguard the animals, develop a spatial plan, and offer feedback to the department of environmental affairs on which parts of the existing regulations need updating and the rate of transgressions in the industry, as there are ethical and less ethical operators.”
On the socioeconomic side the team is looking at the direct and indirect benefits of marine tourism activities for the communities and towns that offer these. They will also assess the contribution of marine tourism to employment and hospitality, such as how many accommodation establishments, restaurants and shops depend on it.
Chinese tour guides with Bottlenose dolphins at St Croix Island in Algoa Bay
Raggy Charters Whale-Watching
One of the most established whale-watching cruises is Raggy Charters in Algoa Bay, national winner of the 2018 Lilizela Tourism Award for Best Marine Adventures in South Africa. The founder and owner of Raggy Charters, Lloyd Edwards, led SANOCEAN participants on a cruise around Algoa Bay and St Croix Island, home to 22 000 breeding pairs of African Penguins, the largest breeding colony in Africa.
Algoa Bay is rich in marine wildlife, including bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins, humpback dolphins, Bryde’s whales, minke whales, humpback whales (June to December), southern right whales (July to September), Cape fur seals, various species of sharks, Cape gannets and various species of pelagic birds including terns, petrels, skuas, shearwaters and albatrosses.
Algoa Bay is the furthest place east where southern right whales give birth in large numbers. They nurse their calves in the sheltered waters of the bay. Common dolphins are found further offshore here in schools of between 1 000 and 3 000 individuals throughout the year.
Purity Khosa, a marine guide with Raggy Charters, accompanied the SANOCEAN cruise. She had never seen the sea until 2014, when she started her Diploma in Tourism Management at Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth.
“I’m from Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga, and if you want to go to the beach you had to go to Mozambique or Durban, but we just didn’t have the finances to do this,” she said. “When I first saw the sea I could not believe there could be such an expanse of water.”
She started working with Raggy Charters in 2017 for the experiential component required in her final year. “That was when I fell in love with the sea and in January 2019 I joined as a full-time staff member,” said Khosa, who is pursuing a marine guiding qualification with the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa.