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Beneath the waves with conservationist Craig Foster

Beneath the waves with conservationist Craig Foster

“Careful, you’ve just put your camera bag down on a whole lot of animals.” Hypervigilant of the whereabouts and well-being of all sea creatures, Craig Foster – naturalist, ocean champion and co-founder of the Sea-Change Trust – points to a cluster of almost invisible littorina sea snails camouflaged on a rock. He has committed himself to diving 365 days a year, a regime he has followed for close on eight years, and we are with him on today’s dive.

marine conservationist
Cycling down to the beach from his Simon’s Town home, this gentle giant is in the right headspace for today’s dive into the ‘golden’ kelp forest off the tip of Africa, in what, at 17 degrees, he describes as Caribbean temperatures. Diving always wetsuit-free, he’s more used to temperatures closer to ten. The short ride along the coast, he says, gives him time to look at and connect to the ocean.

Once at the beach he stretches to relax the body even more before entering the water. “In this environment you can’t be tense, the animals can feel it – I’ve learned from them to move gently and slowly underwater so they’re not frightened away from me. They get used to me day after day, and gradually allow me into their intimate lives.”

Craig says, “I start my daily routine by looking at the tides, the wind, the swell and when the ocean is going to let me in to see things. It takes a good few hours, so if I’ve a lot to do, it can mean getting up at three or four in the morning.”

We arrive at his house early enough to share tea and a pre-brief on the wooded deck overlooking the deceptively still sea, which he describes as “the last wild place on Earth, the only place where humans aren’t living”, but harbouring, as we are to discover, an infinity
of wonder.

With his kit packed – mask, fins, lead-weighted belt, underwater camera, torch, towel and small net bag for plastic and dead shells – he’s on his bicycle and off down the hill. We follow at a respectful distance. Once there (he prefers to leave the exact location unnamed), what I haven’t bargained on is the extraordinary amount of acquired, eye-opening information to be found just on the shore, never mind underwater.

“Here’s the Ecklonia maxima that makes up most of the kelp forest. The main stipe is filled with gas, which makes it float. And this is sargassum weed from the lower forest.”

He brushes back an armful of washed-up kelp to reveal a cloud of feeding amphipods or beach hoppers. “They provide food for the birds and the fish as the tide washes some of them away. It’s a beautiful nutrient cycle.

“And here’s a shark’s egg. See the tendril threads attaching it to the kelp, and the giveaway predation mark where probably a whelk has pierced it and eaten the contents. Had it lived, after about six to eight months the little embryo bent double in his casing would have hatched, pushing out with scales that stand up like prickly teeth.”

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Moving on, eyes to the ground like a marine Sherlock Holmes, he cracks open the remains of an australis cuttlebone to show me the tiny chambers inside filled with air and water to maintain perfect buoyancy. “See the tiny hook at the end there? What it’s for is one of a number of mysteries I’m trying to solve.”

Craig’s quest to understand how and why the sea’s social system works knows no end, as does the life at our feet. “There are about 150 000 meiofauna (microscopic invertebrates) per square metre of sand.” As we move towards the water’s edge, I tread more carefully.

Finally, with his mask, fins, and weighted belt to keep buoyancy neutral, he stride-glides into the bay like a watchful wading bird, noiselessly breaking the surface, and disappears.

Anxiously I wonder if he’s safe, having heard his stories of rays the size of cars, and conscious of stings and teeth and tentacles. But Craig surely knows what he’s doing, so I dip into the shallows myself and enjoy the frisson of the chill.

craig foster, marine

Craig with his wife Swati and cat Leon. The temperament and intellect of cats and octopuses, he says, are similar. “A balance of fear and curiosity.”

The effect of repeated diving in cold waters, Craig says, “has improved my health and immune system dramatically. The colder the water, the harder the body has to work to heat up. There’s also a tremendous release of dopamine and other chemicals into the brain giving a wonderful high that lasts for hours.

It’s quite addictive in a good way, and you almost crave the cold. Without a wetsuit you’re free. Your body is far more sensitive, you can feel the kelp, and every slight temperature change in the water.”

He dismisses my safety concerns, “In many ways it’s safer in water than on land, and the only danger is when it’s very rough. I’ve been smashed against rocks, trapped in a cave and, yes, you can get stung by jellyfish but my immune system has built up. In fact it’s quite a healing environment.”

About an hour later, I’m absorbed in the rock pools and Craig emerges as noiselessly as he entered, rising from the water like a later-day Neptune, a broad smile on his face. How was it?

“Well there’s definitely been some predation in the night. A big octopus has been digging, a huge starfish was in the final throes of killing an urchin, and I had an amazing encounter with a tuberculate cuttlefish.” He made a large, dark ring around his eye to make himself look fiercer, and blasted a fish with ink when it came too close.

“There were three, large pyjama sharks sleeping in a cave, folded over one another, and a white sea catfish came right up to me, with these long sensory barbels under its chin. An octopus had just killed and eaten Venus verrucosa – a warty bivalve – and another octopus I know well had a nice abalone snack in the night. Here,
I took some pictures to show you.”

marine conservationist, craig foster
On a small Olympus he scrolls through an astonishing range of images of the events described, illuminating them by bouncing his torch beam off a rock. I remind myself that this man is known to be one of the world’s leading natural-history filmmakers, and feel humbled.

I also hear that he once had a similar camera taken from him by an octopus who secreted it away in her den. Being the person he is, he made no attempt to steal it back. No ordinary octopus this, she is in fact the one he came to know intimately over a period of time, and who has become the star of the documentary film, My Octopus Teacher that’s been five years in the making.

It was apparently during one particular encounter that he discovered a new species of shrimp inhabiting urchin and gastropod shells that has since been named after him, Heteromysis fosteri. As physical evidence of what today’s dive turned up, from his small net bag he takes a warty venus with a tiny hole drilled in its shell by the octopus, into which the venom is injected that opens it up. “It’s all a bit like watching a daily soapie,” I suggest. “Yes, but more interesting,” he replies.

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There’s so much to see and clearly much more to know – but precious time is slipping by. As we follow him home by car I see that the return cycle ride back up the hill is a little tougher, but his house is a living entity in itself, landscaped inside and out with graded pebbles, shells, driftwood and a thousand beach finds. It’s like coming in to shore. Adding to the warmth of the welcome is Swati, Craig’s wife, conservation journalist and valued part
of the Sea-Change Trust team.

Over more tea, I have to ask – why? “Years back,” he replies, “I had this extraordinary experience in the central Kalahari, living and hunting with some of the greatest trackers on the planet. And even though I’d spent most of my life in nature, I knew next to nothing compared to the San people.

“They had this understanding, this wild language, and so I came back to the place where I spent my entire childhood, where I did my first dive at the age of three, in the ocean kelp intertidal forest. I realised if I was to learn to track underwater like the San tracked the land, I had to commit to going in every day 365 days a year. If I miss a day, I go in twice the next.

“I feel that I work for the ocean. For eight years it has allowed me to get to know its animals intimately – it’s been a huge transformation to see them giving birth, witness their extraordinary life cycles – nature becomes the teacher. Our wildest science fiction can’t come close to the way they live – it’s remarkable, fascinating. Slowly I’m building up knowledge around thousands of subtle little signs.”

As we finally, and reluctantly, take our leave, it feels as if a door into another world, a water world, has opened wide, but for Craig Foster it’s just another remarkable day in the life of the sea.

For the Great African Sea Forest

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‘In the last 50 years, about 40 per cent of all kelp forest across the world has been lost, largely due to global warming. Pollution, overfishing, poaching, mining are also enormous threats. But amazingly we still have this enormous, intact eco-system right here on our doorstep. The great golden African Sea Forest off the southwest tip of the continent is one of the best kept secret wonders of the world. The best way to protect it is to let people know of its existence – that way they are more likely to put pressure on all those responsible for looking after it.’

This in part is the motivation for the Sea-Change Trust, an NPO Craig Foster founded together with journalist Ross Frylinck. The larger team includes local and international marine biologists, environmental scientists, storytellers, journalists and filmmakers dedicated to exploring and conserving the ocean.

Among them is conservation journalist and spokesperson Swati Thiyagarajan. “We want the great African Sea Forest to be recognised as a global icon,” she says, “on a par with the Great Barrier Reef or the Serengeti. On land there is the Big Five, but here underwater we have the Magic Five – the helmet shell, rock sucker, pyjama shark, tuberculate cuttlefish and, of course, our extraordinary mascot and protagonist – the octopus.

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