Our Big Blue Heart

Hope spots are the ultimate call for citizens to engage with the ocean, to care for it, to make it our own. South Africa has six spots. We visited some of them.

When oceanographer Dr Sylvia Earle sleeps, I like to imagine she dreams in pale blues and greens, teals, turquoises, cobalts, indigos, sapphire, silvers, and royal and midnight blues so rich they’re almost black. She’s been diving since the age of 16. She’s now 81. Every year, even now, Dr Earle travels up to 480000 kilometres to dive in research sites around the world. She has spent more than 7000 hours underwater. She was dubbed Her Deepness’ by The New Yorker.

Her Deepness says she is often asked this question: Where’s the best place to go diving?

‘Almost anywhere,’ she replies, pausing. ‘Fifty years ago.’

She would know, but there’s evidence to support her view; coral reefs are dying, we’ve eaten 90 per cent of the big sea fish, plastic is contaminating our oceans, and and and… Yet, there is still hope, says Dr Earle. And so, in 2009, she launched the Hope Spot concept.

Dr. Sylvia Earle

In South Africa, our seas are off-the-charts beautiful. We have 24 Marine Protected (MPAs), and in 2014 six Hope Spots were declared. These are special conversation areas critical to the ocean’s health, often close to MPAs but not necessarily part of them. According to the Sustainable Seas Trust (SST), less than three percent of the sea is protected compared to the land, where 12 percent is safeguarded in the form of national parks or heritage sites. Hope Spots are another driver in the fight to create that equivalent in the ocean. They are still, to some degree, an ephemeral concept, existing primarily by name, their borders demarcated, but there’s not much beyond this to protect them. However, in South Africa, to our great credit in my opinion, after two years they’re being shaped into something more concrete, more robust, more suited to our unique situation.

South Africa’s go-to Hope Spot man is Dr Tony Ribbink, resident of Kenton-on-Sea and head of SST, which coordinates the Hope Spot project here. Our six spots are Algoa Bay, Plettenberg Bay, Aliwal Shoal, on the KZN coast, the Cape Whale Coast, False Bay and Knysna. Around the world, HopeSpots are nominated by citizens; they’re vetted and approved by Mission Blue, the organisation set up by Dr Earle. But in SA, the process was more rigorous, involving committees and strict criteria.

Dr Tony Ribbink

What sets our Hope Spots apart is that, unlike those in other countries, SA’s are always close to human settlements. The reason for this is that people are fundamental to the ocean’s survival, says Dr Ribbink, and so we should be encouraged to engage with these beautiful marine areas, not warned off them.

‘The real issue is that people are encouraged to play a positive role. Hope Spots provide that opportunity in the hope that they’ll ignite support through personal involvement,’ he explains.

In SA, the issues are also more complex because there are systemic societal issues economic and social justice, for instance that need to be addressed if we want to foster conservation ethics.

If you’re unemployed and have no job, then you have no self-esteem and you don’t care what’s around you,’ says Dr Ribbink. The long-term goal is that, by making Hope Spots a recognised brand and getting operators and tourism bodies to come on board, they can boost ‘blue’ tourism. The aim is now to employ someone to put that into action. Beautiful areas attract tourists, who will be able to choose accommodation, service providers and tours that are Hope Spot registered. These will provide much-needed revenue, while inviting locals to engage in their coast­lines and shores more intimately may make them, to put it simply, fall in love and want to protect these precious resources. The key, though, is connection with the ocean.

The first time I met an octopus was in a Hope Spot. He/she was introduced to me by Hope Spot ambassador Craig Foster, a well-known documentary maker who has been swimming in the False Bay Hope Spot every day for three years. An octopus is an uncanny creature. It doesn’t live for very long, and is recognised by biologists as a sentient being. It settled firmly but softly onto my leg and took a good long look at me with goatlike eyes. It was probably trying to figure out how to unscrew my head – they’re very good at undoing bottle tops-but its focus impressed me nonetheless. Seeing a creature in its environment, its home, and learning about it, is a powerful experience, one that settles in deep.

Of course, those who’ve been diving knew this long ago, but not all of us dive. However, it’s easy to engage with sea life along our shores. Anyone can do it. And this is the point of Hope Spots.

What’s amazing about Algoa Bay, remarks  Dr Ribbink, is that according to tour operators, more people outside of Port Elizabeth know about the incredible natural riches the area has to offer than locals do. In fact, it’s so rich that Nelson Mandela University (NMU) is becoming a hub for maritime research of all kinds.

Algoa Bay – South Africa

In Plettenberg Bay we visited Robberg Nature Reserve, just one of the many options to explore in this Hope Spot. It was drizzling when we started our hike, and the plants sparkled like crystals. We stopped above the seal colony and watched them splay out, on the rocks, some toppling into the green water, while mousebirds flitted in the vegetation below.

We have an amazing life here,’ agrees Dr Gwen Penry, a marine mammal scientist currently doing post-doctoral research at NMU. She heads up the committee for the Plett Hope Spot.

At this stage, she says, in each spot conservationists make of it what they can. In Plettenberg Bay, they work on making sure the marine environment is kept in the public eye through a public lecture series, where researchers share their findings.

The whole concept of Hope Spots is that it’s self-generated, driven by the individual,’ she says. ‘It should be coming from within the community that we should be protecting this valuable resource, but we need to let people know why it’s important.’

Plettenberg Bay – South Africa

Recently, a coastal corridor was declared from Robberg to Kranshoek, which means that caracal and leopard – yes, leopard – are able to move along the coast through these areas. As Dr Penry works through a list of life in this stretch of land and sea she paints a picture of incredible environmental richness: caracal, leopard, 7000 Cape cormorants, the largest kelp gull breeding colony in the country, African penguins, southern right whales, humpback and Bryde’s whales, bottle­nosed and humpback and common dolphins, and then birds too many to name. As a visitor, I have seen only a fraction of what she’s described. In Algoa Bay it was the same, as in the False Bay Hope Spot. There is so much wilderness for us to tap into.

Back home, I buy a young friend a gift of a snorkel and mask for his birthday, and make a date with him to go to the False Bay Hope Spot. I hope that there he might see colourful sea anemones, perhaps even an octopus. I hope we’ll have fun and, like me, he’ll fall in love with, as Dr Earle calls it, the big blue heart of our planet, and that he’ll be moved to care for it. Because that’s the point of this Hope Spot movement, after all: what happens to our ocean is up to us.

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