Our oceans are under threat. Be it pollution, destruction of ecosystems, overfishing, ocean warming and acidification, humankind has been damaging the seas. These women know what needs to be done to clean up the mess

Hanli Prinsloo

Hanli is a freediver and the founder of I AM WATER which focuses on education, awareness and advocacy around ocean conversation and wilderness connection.

Why do you freedive? 

I fell in love with freediving for the total and utter silence and solitude you can experience below the surface on one breath… It truly is like a deep meditation and I feel completely connected to wilderness and to the ocean when I freedive.

Describe the most beautiful diving experience you’ve had

I have had so many jaw-dropping magical experiences in the ocean. From diving with the floating grace of a 7m giant manta ray to diving with the quiet beauty of a whale-shark with her spotted back below me. For me it is always the mammals I return to – whales and the curious playful dolphins circling and whistling and clicking around me.

A couple of years ago I had the privilege of being in the water with a very large pod of sperm whales when a young one left the group to circle me, inviting me to play. We dove down together, eye to eye, a special dance of fins and flukes before heading back to breathe and down again for more. It was a day I’ll never forget.

Why do you love the ocean? 

For me the ocean is our one true last wilderness on earth. It is both incredible vast and unbelievably intimate. I don’t feel as content, happy and connected anywhere else. From deep expanses with huge singing whales suspended in the blue, to fairytale kelp forests home to prehistoric sharks, vibrant coral reefs and chattering dolphins… the ocean offers the most incredible opportunities to fully immerse oneself in nature.

How does your diving draw attention to conserving the sea? 

The skills I learnt as a competitive freediver I now use to explore the ocean and her inhabitants. Through photos, films and talks I hope to raise awareness for the challenges facing our oceans and what can be done to save this incredible heritage.

What concerns you?

I have seen corals bleached by changing temperatures, I have dived through heaps and heaps of plastic trash in remote ocean areas I expected to be pristine, I have swum alongside a trawler net and seen all the bycatch of commercial fishing firsthand and I have returned to places to once again see the animals there that I love, only to find the oceans empty. Yes, I have seen the destruction of our oceans but I know that we can turn the tide, and it’s this hope that keeps me actively working to change perceptions and encourage others to live more sustainably. We are the greatest challenge but also the only solution. _ hanliprinsloo.com

Lynne Shannon

As a marine ecologist and oceanographer at the University of Cape Town, Lynne explores practical ways in which ecosystem considerations might be incorporated into fisheries management in marine ecosystems off South Africa. Lynne says the Cape, where she lives, “has the most magnificent coastline in all the world.”

What drew you to the sea?

The ocean is in my blood! My grandfather was a sailor; my father is a well-respected physical oceanographer (now retired). And along came me… I was inspired by our regular family camping trips to Miller’s Point in False Bay, where we’d spend days on end exploring rock pools and swimming with the fish. So it was natural for me to slip comfortably into following a marine biology degree at UCT, and to go on to work at what was then Sea Fisheries Research Institute. I started my scientific career going to sea regularly, on research cruises to measure ocean currents.

What is the biggest challenge facing the ocean?

The detrimental effects of humans on the ocean through overfishing, pollution, degradation of ocean habitat through mining… Human greed, our ignorance and lack of foresight – these are our biggest challenges. We can only solve these if humans are part of the solution.

How much damage has been done?

In short, way too much damage has been done. Close to 90% of the world’s fish stocks are either over-exploited (29%) or at least fully exploited (61%)! This means there is simply no room for further expansion in what we take from the sea. And, some marine ecosystems have been permanently changed.

What can we do to save the sea?

We can each start in our own small way. From the fish we choose to eat to taking part in organised beach clean-ups. From being more environmentally-conscious in general (recycling, not throwing plastic into the general sewer system, avoiding body washes with “tiny scrubbing balls” that end up in our ocean, etc) to supporting various marine charities and charity work. Big differences can be made and successes achieved if each one of us just does a few little things to help.

Liesl Benjamin 

Liesl works for Shark Spotters in False Bay, Cape Town, the only program of its kind in the world. The organization, which was initiated by the Muizenberg community, is now funded by the City of Cape Town has a two-fold function. It offers a warning system for people who surf and swim in the area, and it assists with the conservation of the great white shark population.

When and how did you start shark spotting?

I’m originally from Beaufort West in the Karoo. I now live in Lavender Hill and in 2006 responded to an advertisement for this job. I had been working in security before. The only requirement for this job was good eyesight.

Describe your work

It’s very interesting: People don’t know much about sharks. They refer often to the movie Jaws and believe that sharks are out to get us. Encounters do happen but sharks are not out to hunt and kill people. Sharks are very important in the food chain. As a shark spotter, I have the opportunity to inform people about sharks.

How does your work help the conservation of sharks?

While we are on the lookout for sharks we collect data, which contributes to research on this protected species. Researchers use the information we gather to draw up graphs to see what sharks are doing in False Bay. If we see a shark we have to fill in all the details in a sheet. The date, the time and what the weather and visibility were like. We indicate where exactly we saw a shark on a map, and where it went. There are seasonal patterns to when and where we see sharks. They come closer to the coastline during summer months and during winter when seals are having their pups, they prefer to be near the seal islands where they feed off the pups.

When do you blow the horn?

It varies. We don’t always clear the beach when there is a shark. We don’t want to scare people. We are careful the way we talk about sharks – we call them sightings. When we alert people depends on the direction the shark is taking. Sometimes we don’t see the shark. It depends on the visibility and weather conditions. We look out for the shadows. We very seldom see a fin like in Jaws. We see the shape of the shark.

Why are sharks important in the ocean?

Great White Sharks are the apex predators of the ocean. (They are at the top of the food chain.) A decrease in the shark population affects the food chain – they maintain a balance in the ocean. They feed on seals, which feed on fish. Without sharks eating seals, the fish population would be depleted faster than it is. –  Sharkspotters.org.za

Five ways you can help

  • Download the WWF’s Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI) app as a guide to the right fish to buy. It classifies fish into green, orange or red status according to the health of the fish stock, the effects of the fishing method on the environment and ecosystem, and the effectiveness of the management in place to take care of the fish stock. See wwww.wwf.org.za/sassi
  • Learn more about the ocean and conservation by reading, watching films, attending lectures, or visiting aquariums and museums.
  • Reduce “household pollution.” Try non-toxic products, such as baking soda or vinegar, instead of hazardous chemicals for cleaning.
  • Recycle or dispose of all your rubbish properly. Never flush non-degradable products, such as disposable diapers or plastic tampon applications, down the toilet. These products can damage the sewage treatment process and end up littering beaches and waters. Pick up litter and avoid using disposable products if at all possible.
  • Be considerate of ocean wildlife. Never dispose of fishing line or nets in the water. They could entangle, maim, injure or kill unsuspecting animals. Don’t release helium balloons outside. They could end up in the ocean and harm animals that mistake them for food. Minimize your use of Styrofoam, which degrades into smaller pellets that also resemble food. Cut open plastic six-pack rings; they can entangle ocean life.

Source: Savethesea.org

Photo credit: Helen Walne. Follow Helen on Instagram at Helen_Walne