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Whales, Sharks, and Penguins: Biogeography Field Class in South Africa



Communications Coordinator
Mar 26, 2019

Education, Science

Whales, Sharks, and Penguins: Biogeography Field Class in South Africa

Safaris are often synonymous with travel in South Africa, as flocks of visitors come to spot the iconic Big Five. But did you know that there is also a Marine Big Five? The lesser known, but no less important, marine ecosystems that surround South Africa’s cape serve as a vital source for travelers hoping to get a glimpse at rarely seen marine life like sharks and whales.

Spring 2019 Voyagers enrolled in Biogeography spent a day in Hermanus, South Africa, learning about three of the Marine Big Five—the African penguin, the Southern Right Whale and the Great White Shark—as part of their field class.

Professor Troy Burnett of Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada explained the purpose of the field class. “For our various ports, I ask students to write species reports about the different species of flora and fauna they encounter. South Africa should be full of interesting species to report! This is one of the biodiversity hot spots of the world with thousands of endemic plants and animals to talk about. My goal with this class is to expose students to unique species they might not be familiar with.”

The day started with a drive along the stunning southern coastline of South Africa’s Western Cape to Hermanus, a popular city for whale and shark viewing, thanks to its advantageous location on one of the most important bays in this region. Hermanus is home to the Stony Point Nature Reserve, which has a permanent penguin colony on its shores.

Accompanied by an ornithologist specializing in penguins, students walked through Stony Point observing the penguins in their natural habitat. The African Penguin is the most endangered of South Africa’s sea birds, with only about 10% of the population still remaining. They witnessed penguins nesting, molting, mating, and diving in the water during their hour-long visit.

Diana Musco of SUNY College—Geneseo said “We have been learning a lot on this voyage about the oceans and biodiversity, so it was really interesting to get up close to sharks and penguins today. I feel like I learned so much in these few hours about the various species that are endemic to South Africa.”

After Stony Point, the group proceeded to the South African Shark Conservancy (SASC) where students heard presentations from marine biologists about the health of the oceans around South Africa and how species like the Great White Shark are adapting to shifts in the marine environment. The major threats facing Great White Sharks, but also the larger shark population, are fishing, bycatch (unwanted fish caught during commercial fishing), shark finning, habitat destruction, and climate change.

Kent State University student Alicia Waddell said “I’ve been wanting to see sharks this whole voyage since learning about them, so this was a cool experience. I realized just how threatened the oceans are and how intense the issues with plastics are.”

There is very little funding in the Western Cape for shark conservation, which makes studying these animals difficult, but the South Africa Shark Conservancy is committed to researching sharks as a means of conserving them. Their work includes shark tagging and tracking, species surveys, and behavioral observation, which students got to see firsthand at their marine lab. The SASC currently has three rarely studied species of shark in their tanks that they are observing and monitoring before releasing them back into the wild.

After learning about these specific species of shark, students had the opportunity to hold and them. Josie Meyer of Boise State University said “This was my best field class yet! I loved being able to learn from experts and get out in the field to see wildlife. I don’t live by an ocean so this was a great way to experience marine life that I wouldn’t normally be able to.”


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