Science is not always done at the office – Life in a South African Aquarium

  • Snorkeling at uShaka, photo by Amanda
By Theodora Sam,

Secondment, secondment, a time to move away from the comfort of my office at The University of Tromsø, Norway to live and work in a non-academic institution, The South African Association of Marine Biological Research (SAAMBR). On 3rd November 2017, I began my travel from Tromsø to Durban, South Africa. It was quite a distance between Tromsø and Durban, a total of 15.40 hours in flights. I made stops in Oslo, Frankfurt, and Johannesburg. I arrived in Durban at 13:30 and took the local airport shuttle to an apartment called “MonteZuma” at Snell Parade, just opposite the sea. Wow, it felt just like a coastal town I grew up in Ghana. The only element missing is that I could not go directly to the fishers and buy their catch. My hair suffered from the flight humidity and tangled badly. Thus, upon arrival, I looked for a salon and booked an appointment to relax my hair on the next day since now it was already late. I then looked for a supermarket to buy grocery and went to bed; I was too tired to cook. I prepared food on the next day, went to the saloon, and relaxed my hair. I was ready and prepared for Monday to start my working life outside academia with uShaka Sea World (SAAMBR) in Durban for 30 days.

Why uShaka Sea World and Durban?

In my PhD research, I focus on eliciting people’s mental models about fisheries as social-ecological systems (SESs). Being a social scientist, interacting with people is a vital tool. Thus, the work done at SAAMBR is a good training ground for my personal development and my research needs. As part of my research objectives, I have to develop an instrument that can be used to elicit the mental models that the public has about fisheries as SESs. I had just finished developing the instrument and I needed a place to validate it. The visitors of uShaka Sea World offered a good public audience for the start of my instrument validation process. The aquarium at uShaka is among the top 10 aquaria in the world and luckily for me, the institute is a partner organization in my PhD project and has the capacity to assist with my research needs.

Why Durban? Well, uShaka Sea World is situated in Durban. I found some skeptics in South Africa, including residents from Durban, who told me Durban is not the place to do a study about fisheries. Durban is situated along the narrow shaft of the South African coastal waters and according to the Durbanites “people do not know anything about fisheries”, I was told. However, I found just at the entrance of the arrival hall of King Shaka International Airport in Durban an artwork on display with a marine resource, ´fish´.

A display at the arrival hall of King Shaka International Airport. Photo by Theodora.

I subsequently found a fish sculpture displayed on a window at the hair salon I visited. ´Fish´ is one of the elements of fisheries, so why does the Durbanites say they do not know anything about fisheries. Hmm! could my observations mean people know something about fisheries but perhaps they do not associate what they know as elements of fisheries. Out of curiosity, I would have wished to know why but luckily, this falls right in my research objective, to explore the mental models of the public about fisheries so I have the opportunity to know why people say so. At the back of my mind while going into this search, I was hoping to prove the skeptics (I will call them) wrong, but in research, the researcher can only hope because the results have the final say.

I spent a month at SAAMBR where I conducted a survey with the visitors’ aged 18+ at the aquarium. I began my elicitation journey on 9th November at about 10:15 am and I managed to successfully obtain 14 responses by 3:45 pm. Almost all items were answered, so indeed the people know something about fisheries.

With all thanks to Colette (SAAMBR staff), here is a photo from when performing the survey.

With all thanks to Colette (SAAMBR staff), here is a photo from when performing the survey.

In addition, I learned about the work and activities undertaken by the various departments and SAAMBR as a whole. Under the care of SAAMBR´s Conservation Strategist Judy Mann-Lang, I was offered a great opportunity to participate in numerous organizational activities. Just to list a few here, on 8th November, I participated in the monthly “muffin” meetings where almost all the staff from the different departments come together and share their various undertakings during the month and upcoming organizational activities. At this meeting, I learned more about the storm that hit the country on 10th October and resulted in a nurdles spill in South African waters and, how the staffs from SAAMBR were actively involved in the collection and cleaning of the nurdles from the shores. The issue of marine plastic pollution still at large, the meeting ended with a call from Larry for everyone to reduce and try to eliminate the use of plastics. I had the opportunity to join the organization´s 64th general annual meeting where I learned about how the organization started, the challenges, successes, and upcoming organizations changes towards an image rebranding of SAAMBR. I also joined the organization´s symposium, which was a whole day event organized for various presentations by the staff, research work from Master’s students and PhD candidates affiliated to SAAMBR. At the symposium, there were presentations on work done in all the various department of SAAMBR including studies that have been presented at conferences and other outreach events, simply because this is a day of knowledge sharing and learning. At this event, I had my own encounter, a meeting, and interaction with a creature (a rescued snake) from the Dangerous Creatures Center of SAAMBR. Thank you, Lesley, at the center, for helping me develop a new attitude towards creatures like those found in the center

All the staff from education, administration, IT, and the library were all very helpful and always willing to help me through my day-to-day activities. To the staff at Treasure Chest I appreciate that you encouraged me to learn your names and I am grateful to you all that you made the name learning process less stressful; such as Mbali said just call me flower (actually Mbali means flower). I learned about SAAMBR in a unique way that offered me the opportunity to understand the valuable work done at SAAMBR. I was introduced into the daily activities at SAAMBR from the booking section to the various amazing exhibitions.

Being in South Africa was not all about learning and working at SAAMBR I learned how to swim and snorkel and being that close to fish species was quite an experience, one that is unforgettable.

A photo from KwaZulu Natal Conservation Center taken by Judy.

A photo from KwaZulu Natal Conservation Center taken by Judy.

Not only did Judy offer me organizational training but she went beyond and exposed me to nature conservation and how important wildlife sustainability is to South Africa as a whole.

Being in a foreign land can be lonely especially with restricted movement due to safety concerns, I, therefore, want to use this opportunity to say thank you to Judy and Bruce and their families, as well as Michelle and Andries. I have met many wonderful and kind people through this journey just to share a few names here, Colette you were always there to listen to me when I experience unpleasant encounters. Denise always checking up on me to ensure that I was OK. Shonay and Paul for trying so hard to help me find Internet signal and helping me with other IT needs. Kim and Nikita for sharing workspace with me so I did not feel lonely. Musa for being there to help. Kathy for offering me a ride at my point of need. Blessing and Michelle for making my water friendly.

Swimming at uShaka, photo by Michelle.

Swimming at uShaka, photo by Michelle.

To Jone, Heidi, Ruru, Love, Ann, and all the staff at the Education Department for helping me with information and support towards the grade 9 textbooks and the survey. To Amanda, I would not have purchased my textbooks without your help. To all the staff and volunteers at the “Treasure Chest” just to mention a few names here: Zama, Sena, Mbali, Sue, and especially Kwanda and Jose who offered me a turtle feeding experience. To Gayle from whom I learned a quick way to say, “I am fine, thank you, and you”, a common way of greeting among the staff of SAAMBR. To my fellow PhD candidates at SAAMBR, although we did not get to spend much time together I appreciate my interactions with some of you and I wish you all the best of luck in your research and life after PhD. Thank you, Larry (CEO of SAAMBR), without your approval for my secondment none of these would have been a part of my lifetime experiences in Durban, South Africa. To all the staff of SAAMBR I say Ngiyabonga, Thank you. To all, I truly appreciate all our times together and I will be forever grateful.

The content of this blog does not reflect the official opinion of the SAF21 project or of European Union. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in this blog lies entirely with the author(s).
2018-05-02T17:56:13+00:00February 15th, 2018|

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