Big, small and deep: meet all the ambassadors of the ocean
While many visitors to South Africa are familiar with the ‘Big 5’ of the African bush, few are aware of the many important underwater ambassadors that inhabit the coastal waters.
To celebrate MPA Day on Monday August 1st, it’s time to meet these interesting and ecologically important residents of South Africa’s Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).
“Marine protected areas are our ‘game reserves of the sea’ and, like our game reserves, there are many interesting and exciting animals to keep an eye on,” explained Dr Judy Mann, head of strategic projects at the Two Oceans Aquarium Foundation.
This MPA day, she said they wanted to introduce people to the Big 5, Tiny 5 and Deep 5-15, incredibly unique and vitally important ocean ambassadors living along the coast.
Meet the Big 5 MPAs
Much like their game reserve counterparts, the Big 5 are some of the most captivating animals to see in real life, and it’s certainly an unforgettable experience. Many Big 5 move through several MPAs in South Africa.
These iconic birds are loved for their comical waddling and the bonds they form with a lifelong partner. They are also sentinels for the environment – and today African penguins are telling us that something is wrong with our oceans. African penguin numbers are declining at a rapid rate as their food sources are depleted. Our MPAs can protect penguins, but they really need more fish in the sea to survive.
Sea bass are graceful and charismatic fish. Their odd shape and huge size make them perfect ocean ambassadors, sparking interest and intrigue. They are very varied and visit many of our MPAs, especially those around the Western Cape.
These huge ocean wanderers nest on the beaches of iSimangaliso MPA. Dragging their huge bodies on the beach, the females carefully dig a nest in which they lay their precious eggs. After two to three months, the tiny turtle hatchlings emerge from the nests and rush to the beach to begin their slow and dangerous journey to adulthood.
These whales are unmistakable with their huge fins, deep throats and tiny dorsal fins. They delight people with their spectacular jumps when they cruise the South African coast between May and November every year. Humpback whales head to warm tropical waters to calve in the winter before heading back down to feed in the plankton-rich Southern Ocean during the summer.
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Whale sharks are the largest fish in the ocean, reaching lengths of over 14m. These huge fish eat plankton and are found in most tropical and subtropical waters. They can cover vast distances across ocean basins and will sometimes undertake dives to great depths. These gentle giants are threatened with many deaths due to collisions with ships in busy shipping lanes.
Discover the MPA Tiny 5
On the other side of the scale are the Tiny 5s – but don’t be fooled by their size! These little ocean creatures are just as important as all the other ocean ambassadors. And the good news is that many of them are easy to find in coastal MPAs.
These unusual fish have a strange style of reproduction – the males have a pouch in which the female lays her eggs, and when hatched, the male “gives birth” to the young. The Knysna seahorse is now very rare, residing in only three estuaries in the Western Cape.
Anemones are predatory flowers that look like pretty flowers and are often found in intertidal rock pools. The tentacles, armed with stinging cells, sting their prey, which is then moved to the mouth and swallowed. Anemones are related to corals.
Each bluefly is actually a colony of highly specialized animals. One individual forms the float, others are for food and others for reproduction. No individual can live without the rest of the colony. The stinging cells of the tentacles can inflict a painful sting.
Sea urchins have a body enclosed in a round outer shell made of calcium carbonate. For defense, sea urchins have many sharp spines covering their shells. Sea urchins graze on algae covering rocks using chisel-like mouthparts.
These busy little shrimp are busy removing parasites and infected bacterial growths from larger fish. Their bright colors signal to fish that they should not be eaten – they are there to help.
Discover the MPA Deep 5
Going deeper into the marine protected areas of South Africa, there is a whole world to discover! Here’s a look at some of the interesting residents found in our deep oceans.
Often called living fossils, coelacanths were thought to be extinct until one was discovered in 1938. In recent years, scientists using special submersibles for deep diving have found many individuals living in the deep canyons of the ocean. AMP from iSimangaliso.
Volcanic Sponge (Pheronema) First observed in 2002 by scientists in a submersible, Pheronema sponges live in canyons at depths of 130-160m off the east coast of South Africa. Home to fish such as pineapple fish, bigeye tuna and swallowtails, these enormous sponges filter large volumes of water.
Although considered a delicacy on the plate, the kingklip is not an attractive fish. It is mottled with pinkish brown and has a long body that tapers to a point. They live far offshore at depths of 50-100m and are caught by both bottom trawlers and demersal longliners.
ORI Spider Crab This unusual crab was named after the Durban Oceanographic Research Institute to honor the Institute’s 70-year research history. Spider crabs have relatively small bodies and 10 long legs. This species lives in the deep waters off the East African coast.
With a large black dot on each side of an oval-shaped body, it’s a strange fish. They live between 50 and 400 m deep where they like to feed on small fish, crustaceans and squid. Bottom trawls often catch these popular food fish.
BIOBLITZ iNaturalist weekend:
The study of the natural world and scientific research that informs conservation policy is not exclusive to experts working behind closed doors – the public can help greatly by becoming citizen scientists and sharing images and information that could have an impact directly on important studies.
iNaturalist is a platform where anyone can share photos of organisms they observe, from birds and insects to plants and pests. And you don’t have to be able to identify the organisms because the naturalist community will work together to do so!
Citizen science platforms like iNaturalist are important for knowing where species are found, their abundance, and even discovering new species! Launching a South African MPA project on iNaturalist creates a collaborative space where scuba divers, beachgoers, fishers, and even families visiting rock pools can get involved in studying the country’s unique MPAs .
It is a space for both citizen science and appreciation of the thousands of incredible species found here.
This MPA day, you can discover your own Tiny 5 and help science at the same time. For those who enjoy diving, snorkeling, or simply exploring rocky shores with a camera, MPA Day 2022 and iNaturalist are hosting a BIOBLITZ on the weekend of July 30-31.
Check out the link- https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/south-african-marine-protected-areas-mpas- to learn more about South Africa’s MPAs, how your photos can contribute to the scientific research that protects them.