On board the SA Agulhas 2: Hi-tech labs, little white dogs and potential stowaways

2018-07-10 18:02
SA Agulhas II in Cape Town Harbour. (Kelly Anderson, News24)

SA Agulhas II in Cape Town Harbour. (Kelly Anderson, News24)

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WATCH: Uncovering the mysteries of the Indian Ocean aboard the SA Agulhas II

2017-10-19 11:38

Step aboard the SA Agulhas II as it set sail on a South Africa-led research expedition to uncover the Indian Ocean's secrets. The voyage forms part of the second International Indian Ocean Expedition. Watch.WATCH

Join Melanie Gosling as she writes for News24 from on board South Africa’s state-of-the-art marine research ship, the SA Agulhas II.


We’re on board South Africa’s state-of-the-art marine research ship, the SA Agulhas 2, waiting to set sail, and the quay is full of activity.

Most of it is what one would expect before a vessel departs on a sea voyage – except for a bakkie and trailer with six little dogs that pulls up alongside.

A man wearing a hi-viz bib opens the cages and hauls out the little white dogs – one looks just like Tintin’s dog Snowy – which speed off for a run-around and a pee.

"What are those dogs doing here?" I ask a crew member.

"They’ve got to search the ship."

"Bombs? Drugs?"

"No, people. People from other countries jump onto ships and hide away and then, when they get to another port, they get off and get onto another ship, even if they don’t know where it is going."

Where the ship is going is home to Cape Town, the tail end of a month-long research trip up the African east coast to Tanzania and the Comores.

The Department of Environment invited a group of journalists to join the end of the trip to see something of what the scientists and the department have been doing on its research cruise.

'We got all the stars aligned'

And they have been doing a lot: ocean currents, sea temperatures, carbon content and chemistry; top predators like whales and sharks; climate variability, pollution, coral reefs, seabirds and geology of the ocean floor.

There are any number of marine research ships in the world, but what makes this Agulhas 2 research cruise special is that it is not only South African scientists doing research for South Africa.

The Department of the Environment has made the hi-tech laboratories on board available for marine scientists from other African countries that do not have the money to own and run ships like the Agulhas 2.

Ashley Johnson, director of ocean research at the Department of Environment and leader of this research voyage, said the UN Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) had recognised that there was a lack of basic, long-term environmental information in the Indian Ocean, particularly from countries surrounding this ocean.

So the IOC declared the International Indian Ocean Expedition II – 50 years after the first one back in the 1960s.

But declaring the UN venture, and making it happen, are two different animals.

"The department went to Cabinet and said: 'Let us take leadership here, not only for ourselves, but for Africa also.' And we got all the stars aligned," Johnson said.

'The aim is to get baseline data'

The cruise is designed to build scientific capacity in the region – and for some marine scientists from other African countries, it was the first time they had been to sea.

"We put out a call through various international organisations and universities, and asked those east African countries: 'What are your marine research priorities, what does your country want to achieve?' We got over 300 applicants, and could take only 50."

The DEA scientists did training on the cruise too.

"The aim is to get baseline data. Everyone is talking about exploiting the economic potential of the oceans, but you can’t make an informed decision on what you’re going to do in the oceans unless you know what you have," Johnson said.

The east African scientists have left now, but the DEA will continue working with them on the research coming out of this cruise.

Well, sailing time of 14:00 has come and gone – and so have the little searcher dogs. They were scurrying down the corridors with their handlers a few minutes ago.

"Did you find anything?"

"No," replies one of the handlers. "If we had, we would have had a problem."

* Melanie Gosling will be filing a series of environmental articles from on board the research vessel.

Read more on:    green  |  sa agulhas 2  |  environment
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