Up the KwaZulu-Natal North Coast, the intertidal zone is stunningly diverse. Andrea Abbott takes a deep breath and heads off on snorkel safari.
Pictures: Andrea Abbott and Supplied
There is a little fish, called the cleaner wrasse, that is quite the astute entrepreneur. As its name implies, this pretty little fish makes its living eating ectoparasites off other fish. Such symbiotic relationships are commonly seen in Nature – the Red-billed Oxpecker immediately springs to mind – but the cleaner wrasse takes things a step further, employing some useful business techniques.
“A pair sets up shop among a heap of rocks,” says Michy Morris, expert critter spotter and founder of Tidal Tao Snorkelling Safaris in Salt Rock and Ballito on the KwaZulu-Natal North Coast. “Their conspicuous neon colouring advertises their service.” Other fish, many much bigger than the wrasse, then start queuing for a grooming session. “The male runs the business,” says Michy. “He supervises the female who does the cleaning” (typical). “If she nips a fish, the male chases her away then fusses around the customer to placate it.” Damage control.
This is one of many stories of the ocean you might hear during a snorkel trip with the ever-enthusiastic Michy who, with her partner, environmentalist and underwater photographer, Duncan Pritchard, started Tidal Tao (tao is Chinese for ‘stories’) two years ago. “We wanted to promote clean oceans and put a stop to cruelty along the coastline.”
Such practices include discarding plastic that sea birds, turtles and fish mistake for food, often with fatal results. Fishing line litter is also lethal as it can entangle birds and other wildlife, leading to a slow, painful death. Then there’s the removal of fish and other species for hobby fish tanks. The cleaner wrasse is especially sought-after. But, as Michy points out, most home aquaria cannot properly replicate the natural marine habitat. Kept captive in those unnatural conditions, sea creatures have a poor chance of survival. And when the plundering is on a large scale, marine ecosystems are compromised. For example, a paucity of cleaner wrasse means a huge parasite burden for other fish. “There’s very little control over any of this,” says Michy. And so she set out to change attitudes by taking people on low-impact trips to meet the creatures in their natural environment.
Now anyone who can swim can don mask, snorkel and flippers and explore the underwater world alone. But unless you’re clued up on the intertidal zone and its inhabitants, and are familiar with the best snorkelling spots, you’re not going to get the full picture.
Eager to meet our fishy neighbours, my husband John and I joined Michy on two snorkel safaris in the Ballito and Salt Rock area. The first was a daytime exploration of a tidal pool and the second a night expedition to a different tidal pool. Each trip begins with a safety briefing and, for novices (me), a lesson on how to use the snorkel gear. Michy also discusses the animals – she refers to them as ‘little guys’ – that you’re likely to see. These include a curious family called nudibranchs – sea slugs to the ordinary person, and fondly referred to as nudis. Even though I grew up on the North Coast, I’d neither seen nor heard of nudis. But on that first snorkel trip, I encountered one between some rocks. Colourful spots camouflaged its pudgy little white body and on its back, a veined rosette expanded and contracted rhythmically, like a set of lungs inhaling and exhaling.
Later, Michy told me the rosette is in fact a set of gills. I learnt too that my slug – magnificently named Jorunna funebris and, more commonly, Dotty Dorid – is just one of more than 3 000 recorded nudibranch species. Michy and Duncan have found at least ten others yet unknown to science. “There’s exceptional biodiversity along this coast,” says Michy. “All our outings are also research trips so that we can ultimately establish what’s here.”
That daytime snorkel yielded many other treasures including the hard-working cleaner wrasse and its relative, the parrotfish, that, by eating algae, plays a central role in keeping coral colonies healthy. North Coast tidal pools have exquisite coral, the groups in Salt Rock and Ballito believed to be the most southerly occurring shallow-water coral in the world.
Swimming among these living colonies (beware of scraping or standing on them or you’ll damage them and end up scratched yourself) we came across a myriad other ‘little guys’ such as crabs, butterflyfish, sergeant majors, angelfish, eels, urchins and even a couple of octopuses. “Incredibly intelligent animals,” Michy says of the eight-legged characters. “Their ability to learn, and their complex communication mechanisms, make them at least as clever as cats and dogs.” Yet there are people who callously hook them from their rocky homes and turn them inside out to suffocate. “One of my dreams is to get people to change from being hunters to being beach guides,” says Michy.
“Worldwide, tourism that promotes wildlife viewing and photography is more sustainable and more lucrative than hunting.” Indeed, in terms of photography, thanks to modern cameras, the underwater world presents exciting opportunities to capture magical scenes, even at night if you’re armed with a torch.
Initially our night foray was to be in a gully where the focus is on spotting invertebrates and fascinating plants, but poor visibility sent us to Salt Rock tidal pool. As happens with terrestrial animals, night brings out marine critters seldom spotted by day. In that pool, we saw diurnal species fast asleep (yes, fish do sleep) and watched the nightlife limber up for their nocturnal dance, all dressed in their best camouflage. “In the sea, everyone wants to eat everyone else,” quipped Michy.
Initially, we didn’t spot much, but with Michy’s expert guidance we began noticing octopuses unfold their limbs and edge out from nooks and crannies in the pool wall. Soon, our eyes attuned, it was all go: eels undulated past, a metre-long flute mouth John first mistook for a plank made a beeline for him (it’s hard to reverse when you’re wearing flippers), a devil firefish flitted into the beam of my torch, then, like an ember extinguishing, vanished. A bluefin gurnard revealed its true colours by spreading its brightly patterned wing-like fins before darting out of sight. And so it went until, an hour or two later, the cold made us beat a retreat.
A night-snorkel safari is a memorable occasion but eclipsing it in popularity are Tidal Tao’s recently introduced night walks. These are held once a month at full moon and usually at low tide. Leading them is environmental education specialist, André Steenkamp whose knowledge of the ocean, Michy says, is exhaustive.
“My role,” she adds, “is as the backstop so no one gets left behind.” A portion of funds raised goes to the Specialised Rescue Unit, a group of local volunteers who stand by during a night walk in case someone falls or is injured. The remainder of the proceeds supports Tidal Tao’s Environmental Education programme. “We give talks in schools, and also get school groups onto the beach,” says Michy. “For some of the children from underprivileged schools, it’s the first time they’ve ever seen the sea,” Michy says. “When they get into the water and start snorkelling, they’re blown away.”
And, really, in the end, it’s all about the children, and about their children too. On my last meeting with Michy, I learnt that she was expecting her first child. We sat enjoying cappuccinos on the terrace at Salt Rock Hotel and looked down at the tidal pool. “I want all of this to still be here for my child, and for my grandchildren to enjoy too,” she said. “I want the cleaner wrasse to still be in business then too.”
Meet the Nudi Family
New species of these beautifully coloured and patterned sea slugs are constantly being recorded. As gastropods they do have a shell but shed it when larval, and as such are considered shell-less moluscs. On their back many have a pair of retractable tentacles, and a tiny rosette that is the gills. Nudibranchs (from the Latin nudus or naked and Greek brankhia or gills) range from 3-4mm to 30cm in size, and the larger species can weigh as much as 1.5kg.
Tidal Tao offers a variety of snorkel safaris and guided walks, and has also established two community and conservation projects – environmental education for schoolchildren, and the Tidal Warriors responsible for cleaning and monitoring beaches, and collecting research data.
079 307 0608, www.tidaltao.com