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Tsitsikamma On the Rocks: Fieldcourse Exchange with The University of Johannesburg

September 15, 2011

Whilst many images of South Africa involve the Big Five, terrestrial-dwelling megafauna, few people appreciate the incredibly diverse and rich communities found beneath the waves on its southern coast. Here, the Tsitsikamma National Park stretches over 80 km of the coastline, making it one of the largest coastal marine reserves in the world.  With a 5 km blanket of protection, the resulting pristine marine environment is an excellent environment for studying marine biodiversity and it is here that the University of Johannesburg (UJ) holds its annual marine ecology field course.  BSc and MSc students camp out at the field site and examine the intertidal environment,identifying every species they encounter, from the conspicuous bands of limpets, barnacles and littorinids, to the tiny, rather unobtrusive worms and isopods.  

Thanks to a collaborative exchange between the Swire Institute of Marine Science, The University of Hong Kong and UJ we had the rare opportunity to visit South Africa and attend this course. The link between the universities has been running for the past two years and this year Ackley Lane, Kathy Li and Karen Villarta visited the Tsitsikamma National Park from 29 March to 15 April 2011.  During the trip, apart from being demonstrators and assisting UJ undergraduate students in the field, we joined the UJ MSc course on the functions and structures of estuaries and the near-shore marine environment.  This was a great opportunity to meet and collaborate with students and staff from UJand experience ecology work the South African way.  

The South African staff and students were eager to interact with us, either to learn what we know about the intertidal zone, or make sure that we had had plenty to eat and drink. Being very proud of their natural resources, they reveled in the comparisons we made between the South African coast and those of Hong Kong. Their rocky coast is beaten by waves larger than any in Hong Kong (excepting typhoons), and the rich diversity ofmarine life clearly demonstrates the high nutrient supply needed to supportthis system. During the camp we witnessed offshore feeding frenzies with dozens of Humpback whales pushing fish to the surface while thousands of gannets flew in to take advantage of the easy meal.  The effects of the high nutrient supply, and cooler more consistent weather conditions, are obvious in the intertidal zone as well, where animals are larger and longer lived as copmpared to Hong Kong shores where the high turn-over rates caused by harsh environments favour small animals with short life cycles. The trip to South Africa exposed us to nature that we would otherwise never have experienced and we are all grateful for this unforgettable opportunity. 

The exchange was made possible through the generous support from the Department of Zoology, the University of Johannesburg, the Faculty of Science and assistance from SWIMS, HKU.  In October, staff and postgraduates from UJ will join HKU students at the School of Biological Sciences fieldcourse, which focuses on the ecology of Hong Kong, to continue this rewarding academic and cultural exchange.

  • HKU’s own.  <br> From left: Prof. Gray Williams, Kathy Li, Karen Villarta, Ackley Lane

    HKU’s own.
    From left: Prof. Gray Williams, Kathy Li, Karen Villarta, Ackley Lane

  • No gorgeous hotel rooms in Tsitsikamma National Park, but luxurious camping tents with magnificent scenery.

    No gorgeous hotel rooms in Tsitsikamma National Park, but luxurious camping tents with magnificent scenery.

  • Our hard rock working site (see the arrow).

    Our hard rock working site (see the arrow).

  • 'It is escaping, escaping, escaping…', getting so excited observing limpet escape responses.  <br> From left: Kathy Li, Karen Villarta, Prof. Gray Williams.

    'It is escaping, escaping, escaping…', getting so excited observing limpet escape responses.
    From left: Kathy Li, Karen Villarta, Prof. Gray Williams.

  • Smiles from the faces after working for hard rock fieldwork at Tsitsikamma.  <br> Far left: Ackley Lane and Kathy Li. Fourth from left: Prof. Gray Williams. Far right: Karen Villarta.

    Smiles from the faces after working for hard rock fieldwork at Tsitsikamma.
    Far left: Ackley Lane and Kathy Li. Fourth from left: Prof. Gray Williams. Far right: Karen Villarta.

  • Who was there with us on the hard rock? Otter!

    Who was there with us on the hard rock? Otter!