For the month of April 2014, National Geographic Pristine Seas expedition leader Paul Rose will lead a group of key scientists and filmmakers, together with National Geographic Emerging Explorer Andrea Marshall and the Marine Megafauna Foundation, to explore, survey, and record what they expect to be some of the healthiest reefs in East Africa, home to ocean giants like manta rays, dugongs, and more.
By Kike Ballesteros, Pristine Seas Algae Expert
Nine days ago I was sitting in the huge Boarding Hall at the Johannesburg airport. The LAM flight (Linhas Aereas Moçambique), that had to take me to the Inhambane Airport to join the Pristine Seas expedition, was delayed. I was looking around and suddenly realized that one of the walls of the hall showed two sentences in very big letters. The first read: “If you want to go fast, go alone.” The second: “If you want to go far, go together.” Wow, I thought, this is surprisingly true!
Nature has plenty of these contrasting situations. For example, most tropical seas harbor coral reefs in their shallow waters. The same places are occupied by kelp forests in temperate seas. In between, rocky subtropical areas are usually covered by communities that are algal-dominated but devoid of kelps (get facts and photos of the different kinds of algae).
Kelps grow fast and cannot thrive at the high temperatures and nutrient-depleted waters that seasonally affect these seas. On the contrary, corals that form reefs cannot survive the low temperatures and nutrient-rich waters that can be there. Thus you almost never encounter kelps and corals at the same place. They are usually separated by hundreds of kilometers.
However, contrasting situations are never clear cut. Kilian Jornet, the ski-mountaneering and sky runner world champion one of National Geographic’s 2014 Adventurers of the Year, goes far and fast, and he goes alone. And both kelps and corals thrive together in some places like southern Japan or along a small portion of the eastern coast of Australia. But they are exceptions to the norm, and because of this they are extremely interesting. Due to the current rates of temperature change in the ocean, it is predicted that these areas will experience fast changes.
Yesterday, Daniel van Duinkerken, a PhD student from the Marine Megafauna Foundation, showed me a short video of a surprising kelp forest, far north of kelp’s usual Southern-Hemisphere range, only ten miles from the coral-filled place we are: Zavora Point! I told Paul Rose, our expedition leader, that I had to dive that place, just had to! So, this morning, challenging the three-meter waves and the eighteen-knot winds, Alan (our fish expert), Phanor (our coral expert), and I were guided to Zavora Point by Daniel, Bara Gabzdylova (officer at the Zavora Lodge), and the dive master Mani, with one purpose: to dive the kelps.
Among the Kelps
After a one-hour navigation we were far offshore in the middle of nowhere, however the GPS told us that we were in position. The echosounder marked 34-meters depth. We put on our tanks and after a final approach with the boat we jumped all together into the water.
We went to the bottom as fast as we could. At 25-meters depth I already observed the movement of the kelps. When I reached the bottom I was astonished. The amber-colored kelps were not more than one meter tall but the understorey was completely covered by an amazing composition of colorful weeds. Awesome! (See Your Shot photo community pictures of #kelp and upload your own!)
I was oversaturated taking pictures, collecting the plants, and writing data on my underwater slate while following the line transect deployed by Alan. I was doing everything as fast as possible in order to take as much information as I could in the 20-minutes bottom time we had. All of my senses were at full power.
Suddenly, I felt that something big was passing through. I lifted my eyes and saw a four-meter-wide giant manta swimming close to me, followed by Daniel, trying to take pictures of it. Wonderful!
I smiled all the way up to the surface. This is probably the most northern kelp forest of the Indian Ocean and we dived it. And I collected interesting data on its species composition and abundances. Alan has obtained quantitative data on the fish and Phanor has quantified the coral abundance in the patches devoid of kelp. We have obtained biologically relevant data of a kelp forest that is critically endangered by climate change.
Will this amber forest survive at the increasing temperatures expected for the near future? We do not know, but the information obtained today will be extremely useful to track future shifts in the seascape. Useful for us and for marine biologist generations to come. One of the main points in exploration is to gather baseline data. And today, we excelled in it.
The Pristine Seas Mozambique expedition is sponsored by Blancpain and Davidoff Cool Water.