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

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The SA Agulhas II travels up South Africa's east coast on the Second International Indian Ocean Expedition.
The SA Agulhas II travels up South Africa's east coast on the Second International Indian Ocean Expedition.

Aletta Harrison, News24

Cape Town - The bright red metal behemoth heaves slowly, but steadily, through the water. Around her, whales periodically pop up for a breath of air before disappearing into the warm waves off South Africa's east coast. The vessel is a stranger here. Built to weather freezing temperatures, she usually sticks to the southernmost reaches of the planet.

But the SA Agulhas II is on a very different mission today. Instead of ferrying food and supplies to remote outposts in the Antarctic, the ice breaker is heading north towards the equator for the first time since the start of her tenure as South Africa's flagship research vessel in 2012.

It's also her first voyage for the IIOE2 - or second international Indian Ocean Expedition; the first installment having taken place more than 50 years ago when the Indian Ocean was described as "the largest unknown" ocean. Since then, precious little modern research has been undertaken to provide an updated picture of the health of its ecosystems – something the IIOE2 aims to change.

The goal is ambitious - to criss-cross the western Indian Ocean over five years and collect as much data as possible about the status of our seas. It is hoped the information gathered over the course of the expedition will contribute to better management of marine resources, and help develop marine science on the continent.

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Technicians lower a dredge off the SA Agulhas II to scrape samples off the sea bed near Port St Johns. Picture: Aletta Harrison, News24

Playing its part on the fourth SA-led IIOE2 research cruise, the SA Agulhas II will carry on board 67 scientists, technicians and interns from countries including Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa for a five-week voyage from Durban to Dar es Salaam, via Mozambique and back. 

Research projects include biodiversity assessments along the east coast, research on top predators and water sampling to establish salinity and pollution levels.

Cruise leader Mthuthuzeli Gulekana explains that, although the original International Indian Ocean Expedition - which ran from 1959 to 1965 - had some admirable results, there were few tangible benefits for Africa. This was, in part, due to the fact that South Africa was the only country on the continent which participated.

He says an important element of the IIOE2 is, therefore, the experience it offers young African marine scientists.

"Some of them will be on board for the first time on a research cruise. And although they're marine scientists, they haven’t had much practice or hands-on practical application of equipment and how the data is collected. 

"So this is a very unique opportunity and it's going to be big. Eventually when we finish with the cruise and we have done our publication, I think people will see for themselves," he added.

The IIOE2 concludes in 2020, when it is hoped the legacy will include a new generation of African researchers, inspired and better equipped to tackle the issues off the continent's eastern shores.

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Plankton gathered in a water sample off South Africa's east coast is viewed through a microscope aboard the SA Agulhas II. Picture: Aletta Harrison, News24

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