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SEAmester 2019: Two perspectives

By Jennifa Mohale and Tarryn Swartbooi, SAEON Elwandle Coastal Node
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SEAmester, South Africa’s Class Afloat, introduces marine science to students as an applied and cross-disciplinary field.

The long‐term vision of the programme is to build capacity within the marine sciences by coordinating cross‐disciplinary research projects through an innovative programme.

The strength of SEAmester is that postgraduate students combine theoretical classroom learning with the application of this knowledge through ship-based and hands-on research.

From 1–11 July 2019 the SA Agulhas II research vessel undertook a trip from Cape Town harbour to Hamburg in the Eastern Cape. The 2019 SEAmester cruise sampled at various stations along the Agulhas System Climate Array (ASCA) line by using a variety of ocean instruments.

Enter Tarryn and Jennifa…

Tarryn Swartbooi (a land-based chemistry technician) and Jennifa Mohale (a marine field technician intern) from SAEON’s Elwandle Node knew they wanted to work on the SA Agulhas II when they first saw a presentation on the Weddell sea expedition given by node manager Tommy Bornman.

After learning more about SEAmester at Scifest Africa 2019, they informed their line managers of their interest in working as scientific crew on a SEAmester expedition to gain first-hand experience in deep-ocean sampling and the science fields and oceanography equipment involved. The opportunity was unique in that Tarryn’s and Jennifa’s work at the node is restricted to shallow marine and coastal sites.

They were delighted to be afforded the opportunity and learnt how to prepare for a scientific cruise, complete with sampling protocols and reporting. They were also approached by Tommy Bornman, who asked them to sample for chl-a, phytoplankton and nutrients for the node.

Read Tarryn's and Jennifa's reports on their participation in the ASCA-SEAmester IV expedition below:

From the land-based chemistry technician’s perspective  

Every day the Biogeochemistry lab at SAEON’s Elwandle Node receives samples from interesting locations all over South Africa. As a land-based chemistry technician I am responsible for analysing most of these samples. I was yet to experience this activity as a land-based chemistry technician on board a research vessel.

Going out to sea for the first time all I wanted was to experience a beautiful storm and witness how a vessel manoeuvres in rough waters; all of this with the scientific crew still functioning in their labs and a bit of extra leg control and random “whoops” and “save the sample” chants here and there while going through big swells and ending up with bruises in the shape of the ASCA line.

The first thing I wanted to see on the vessel were the labs, and of course I got excited when I spotted a similar piece of equipment to what we have in the “land lab”. Being out on the ocean soon taught me that everything smells terrible when you are being shaken like a milkshake, especially the preservative used for plankton, Glutaraldehyde.

I was in awe with the way the crew worked together like a cog in a clock without saying a word to each other. One apparent thing was that this expedition, and any other scientific cruises, would not exist without these hardworking people who hardly notice the importance of their careers because they see the ocean as a way of life and not as a job.

The hard work and constant curiosity of the crew during the night shift kept us all awake and on our toes. Their narratives of ocean adventures, safety checks and stories of “strange science people that sometimes have the most bizarre requests” kept us all laughing. Another interesting aspect was the crew’s fascination with the small plankton net and the type of life forms it brought up.

The main thing I have learned with the night shift is that the crew you are assigned to become your pseudo family. The sleep-deprived science crew transform into highly productive people with a language that hardly resembles English, or any other language, but consists of pure technical jargon interspersed with giggles, hot malty beverages and toast.

During night shift the ship is silent, the passengers are asleep, and all you can hear is the hum of the CTD being lowered into the ocean, waves hitting against the ship, and random objects knocking and rolling around. These sounds are calming and comforting in their own way. It felt like an island in the middle of the ocean populated with the most interesting equipment and people.

When the noise dies down, and in the absence of distractions, you learn a new side to the crew you have been assigned to, including each person’s unique role in sample collection, preparation, analysis, research and first person perspectives into fields ranging from oceanography, parasites and plastics to instrumentation.

The rule of the ship was “one hand for the ship and one for yourself”. But working and experiencing this type of life in stormy conditions all I could think was “one heart for the ship and one for myself”. During this expedition I have been exposed to hardworking people and the most rewarding science, and I am truly looking forward to being part of this scientific (albeit sleep-deprived) learning experience again and again.

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Land-based chemistry technician Tarryn Swartbooi learned more about sample collection, preparation, analysis and research into fields ranging from oceanography, parasites and plastics to instrumentation

Marine field technician intern Jennifa Mohale’s main duties on board included collection of plankton using a drift net and collection of nutrients, together with chlorophyll-a, through a filtration process

The CTD, an oceanography instrument used to measure the conductivity, temperature and pressure of seawater, is lowered into the ocean at sunrise                                               

Marine field technician’s account  

One way for the youth to learn and practice what they are taught is being given a lifetime opportunity. As an intern, I was delighted to be the recipient of an amazing opportunity to join the ASCA science team responsible for collecting biological samples on board the SA Agulhas II. My main duties on board included collection of plankton using a drift net and collection of nutrients, together with chlorophyll-a, through a filtration process.

It was my second voyage on the ship; the first was as part of the 2017 winter cruise. Learning experiences on the trip included fieldwork, the use of various instruments, working in a team of individuals from different backgrounds, witnessing different ways of collecting samples for diverse research purposes, such as identification of parasites in living species (dredge), footage of benthic invertebrates (Ski-Monkey), micro-plastic (neuston net) and micro-zooplankton (bongo net).

Furthermore, there were late evening lectures covering topics ranging from life at sea, the book of Genesis, photography at sea, the South African National Antarctic Expedition and geomagnetic storms to presentations on previous SEAmester cruises.

The most exciting part was providing students with samples for their assignments, giving them the opportunity to assist the science team to prepare samples in the laboratory, sharing knowledge of what we do at SAEON’s Elwandle Node, engaging with scientists about their academics and demonstrating to students how to retrieve water from the CTD during sampling.

I have been exposed to numerous methods of collecting data samples and various research studies at sea. From my personal experience, SEAmester gave me a good insight into existing and new research studies that amounted to a novel learning experience for me.

Auguste Rodin said, “Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely”. Being part of SEAmester 2019 has opened doors to relevant learning experiences that will help me flourish in my future studies and in the workplace.

This trip made me aware of how important ocean literacy is, not only to the scientific community but also to society. I came to realise the importance of communicating science to the public and transferring marine educational skills through learning new instrumentation and exchanging ideas.

I would like to thank SAEON’s Elwandle Node for choosing me to be part of this significant research cruise and I’m looking forward to participating in many more cruises in the future. I would like to conclude with a powerful quote by Warren Buffet: “The more you learn, the more you earn”.

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