Out Of The Blue: Africa’s Water Warriors

Published 7 years ago

The mighty blue ocean is Africa’s next frontier and women will conquer it, said Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Chairperson of the African Union (AU) Commission and one of the most influential women on the continent, when FORBES WOMAN AFRICA first met her for a cover interview in July 2015. Spearheaded by the AU’s Agenda 2063, it is building Africa’s so-called Blue Economy – a self-sufficient economy run off the seas by Africans.

What it means is fishing, farming, mining and trading off the sea.

“Africa has actually neglected the fact that it’s almost like a big island with smaller islands – 32 of the 54 countries are either coastal or island states. In fact, our oceanic space is more than three times our land space. So it is a very important resource and we need to now develop the blue economy as part of the boarder economy. We have developed the first maritime strategy,” says Dlamini-Zuma.


On July 25, 2015, at its headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the AU launched its Decade of African Seas and Oceans. It noted, even though 90% of Africa’s imports and exports go by sea, the continent it not getting its fair share of the action.

“We do have cargo, we ship hundreds of millions of tonnes in and out, and yet it is transported by other people, giving other people jobs. In the whole value chain, whether it is transport, cruise ships, the insurance, nothing is in our hands. Even tourism, because we have very good coasts, and some of our places are still very pristine.”

At the forefront, or should we say foreshore, of these is a young vibrant generation of women, who are already getting their feet wet, from the chilly depths of False Bay (in South Africa’s Western Cape) where sharks lurk, to the abalone farms of Gansbaai.

FORBES WOMAN AFRICA highlights the South African entrepreneurs who have made the sea their business, their life. The stories of grit are many. Freediving champion Hanli Prinsloo speaks of the burgeoning business of sea tourism. Lesley Rochat reveals how a shark named Maxine convinced her to pursue a life of ocean conservation. Alison Kock has spent 10 years researching great white sharks off the shores of False Bay, south of Cape Town, to smash stereotypes surrounding these predators. We also talk with top wildlife photographer and environmentalist Fiona Ayerst, and Roushana Grey takes us to the tide pools of the Atlantic and offers up a seaweed lunch.


These women are changing the way Africans harness the sea, and in the pages that follow, FORBES WOMAN AFRICA’s Cape Town-based photojournalist Jay Caboz dives in, to unlock their secrets of the deep.

The Mermaid In Meditation

Hanli Prinsloo

When Hanli Prinsloo was little, she dreamt of being a mermaid. Her ‘ocean’ was the dam near her home on the outskirts of Johannesburg. These days, in the water, when she freedives, she is a mermaid; when she dives up to 65 meters, holding a single breath, on her feet is a mermaid-shaped fin.

“When you go underwater, you don’t talk, you look inwards and you just experience the ocean and the animal and plant life around you. For your mind, being underwater is a state of meditation,” says Prinsloo.


Now, Prinsloo has made the sea her living. She takes tourists to swim with manta rays, frolic with dolphins and look at shoals of fish swirling in the deep.

“It took a remarkably long time for the pennies to drop… People don’t want to travel to shop anymore, or buy things, people are more interested in renting an island than buying a Maserati. They want exceptional experiences. They want to know their money is spent in an unusual way.

“We teach freediving, yoga and ocean awareness always in conjunction with a hero animal.”

This is the brainchild of Prinsloo; leading the affluent from the boardroom to the bounties of the ocean.


“The people we work with are the decision-makers and influence-makers. We sometimes forget that whether it’s big corporations or governments it’s still people. I feel we need the big decision-makers to understand more than on a scientific level,” says Prinsloo.

Prinsloo’s only problem is that unspoiled beaches are rarer than pearls.

“What really terrifies me now is that while doing all this research for our trips, pristine locations available are becoming less and less. That’s really scary. My fear in our heavily over-exploited world is that the ocean becomes seen more and more as an extraction resource and not an experiential resource,” she says.

Prinsloo fell in love with the ocean through her diving. She has smashed records since 2003 and can hold her breath for up to six minutes.


“The more time I spent in the ocean the more I wanted to protect it. The first thing that unites us all is being in water.”

In 2010, Prinsloo founded the I Am Water Trust, a non-profit organization (NPO) that takes children into the sea for the first time.

“Seeing that transformation happen, seeing that growth from a small person who didn’t think they were capable of certain things, to growing their self-belief is something valuable today.

“As we move more toward an urbanized world that is technology-driven, nature experiences have become so much harder to find in true wilderness. The ocean is our last true blue wilderness.”


Prinsloo claims she is the worst person in the world to be running an NPO, because she is bad at asking for money.

“The ocean conservation that is successful in South Africa is very science heavy, which is good. But, unless that research is translated for the broader Africa public it can’t have any impact.”

Whether it’s to explore or exploit, the South African government believes that the ocean can contribute R177 billion ($12.65 billion) to the GDP by 2033. Under the fast-track Operation Phakisa, an overhaul of the country’s ocean is well on its way. According to Prinsloo, conservation has seen some benefit, but not enough.

“On the one hand, we have to hurry up GDP growth, that’s the exploitation side. Then there is Operation Phakisa’s lesser-known side, the conservation. To go from 0.4% to 5% marine protection areas is great. But it’s a very small number.

“Even in California, where there is strong ocean awareness and community, I haven’t spent a day on the beach, even in some of their lesser-known marine protected areas beaches, where I haven’t gone home with my feet covered in oil because of all the offshore drilling.”

Technology has been a game-changer for the ocean. From massive satellite ocean mapping projects to underwater cameras people can explore the ocean at a fraction of cost.

Prinsloo has found that people on social media will be prepared to share an article, or like a post, but are unwilling to change their lifestyles.

“People will say they are doing great conservation work with millions of likes and followers, I don’t know how that impact translates. I don’t gauge our success through our reach; we don’t need people saying they supported ocean conservation by sharing a David Attenborough video and then they still eat tuna in their sushi. Those are for people sharing for their own personal well-being. Not for the ocean.

“People think ocean conservation is supporting the Sea Shepherd so that another whale doesn’t get killed. At the end of the day, whether the Shepherd sinks more whalers, that has less impact on our oceans than us using plastic all the time.”

For someone who spends most of her days in the ocean, like the mermaid of her childhood, this is a stern warning to the rest of us on land.


Swimming Naked With Sharks To Save Them

Lesley Rochat

Lesley Rochat’s house is called ‘Soulmate by the Sea’. If you look outside the back you can see why. From here you can see the deep waters of False Bay, where dolphins leap, seals bark and the great white shark lurks. This is where Rochat gave up the money as a financial advisor to pursue the adventurous life of a conservationist, photographer and journalist – all because she met a shark named Maxine at the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town.

“[Maxine] was the catalyst that made me change my life, she helped to set me free from the shallow world of finance,  to found the non-profit organization, AfriOceans Conservation Alliance, in 2003, and pursue my dream of helping to save our beautiful oceans and sharks,” says Rochat.

Since meeting Maxine, Rochat has spent 13 years fighting for ocean conservation. Through her projects, she has touched the lives of more than 30,000 children.

It doesn’t stop there. So determined is Rochat to project the seas that she didn’t need to think twice about swimming naked with sharks in a campaign against drum lines.

“I do not propose you should go out and try the same to strip naked and jump into an ocean of sharks. Changing the negative perception that people have of sharks is what I aim to achieve. The video reveals the very thing we promote; sharks are not monster man-eaters. If they were, I would not be here anymore – not whole anyway,” she says.

The campaign was sparked by a 2012 annual budget report by the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) Sharks Board. Here, Rochat read that they received R41.3 million (approx. $5 million at the time) from a government grant and a further R19.6 million ($2.4 million) from local municipalities to operate. Her frustration was most of the money was funneled into shark fishing and little to education, awareness or research.

“Ten years ago, when they were researching alternative beach safety devices, they told me insufficient funds as the reason for it having gone nowhere slowly.”

“AfriOceans works tirelessly to save sharks with a budget of less than half of the KZN Sharks Boards’ fuel and oil budget of R2 million ($245,000) for 2012, used no doubt by their boats that set and maintain nets and lines.

“Our government’s priorities are horribly flawed. They provide exorbitant amounts of money for killing of marine life, supposedly in order to save a few human lives, but do not grant us any funding for the work we do in saving the environment upon which we depend.”

Rochat, who grew up in a family of eight girls and one boy, knew she would end up protecting the sea.

“When television came to South Africa, rather late due to the apartheid years, I was a little girl, and there were very few programs to watch. One special program, however, which I loved and would not miss a single episode of was Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. I thank [Cousteau] for introducing me to the magical world beneath the waves.”

Something that may get Rochat, called the Shark Warrior, up in arms is people talking about exploiting South Africa’s burgeoning Blue Economy. She believes that it has potential to grow the economy but needs a firm hand. This is why she is on the Global Ocean Commission to come up with solutions to ocean decline.

It’s going to be a hard list to tackle. The oceans face rising demand for resources, technological advances, decline of fish stocks, climate change, biodiversity and habitat loss, and weak high seas governance.

“Every species matters. Yet less than one per cent of the global ocean is fully protected and species extinction rates are at least 100 times those in pre-human times and expected to continue to accelerate into the future.

“We have entered the 6th Mass Extinction, this one human-induced. Money might buy much, but it cannot buy back an extinct species. Ignorance, short-sightedness, power, corruption, and greed prevail over and above the truth: all life is interconnected and humanity is slowly gnawing the world away while hammering nails, one by one, into our own coffin with each species we exterminate.”

Rochat never stops. With 20 years diving some of the world’s best destinations, she has added her photographic wildlife safaris to her mix; to share some of the special places, including Panama, she has been to.

And whatever happened to Maxine the shark? Well, Rochat played an important role in setting her free, after nine years swimming in circles in the aquarium.

“It’s nice to know that as a result of my work the aquarium has introduced a shark re-cycling policy whereby sharks no longer spend their lifetime in a tank but are released and replaced by other sharks,” says Rochat.

A life far from constraint for the Shark Warrior with a friend named Maxine.


Lawyer. Undersea Photographer. Diving Instructor

Fiona Ayerst

Ten years ago, Fiona Ayerst gave up the comfortable life of a litigation attorney in Johannesburg to move to Mossel Bay, a small harbor town with a population of under 60,000, to become an award-winning underwater photographer, director of the NGO Sharklife and a representative for SASSI (the South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative). She regularly holds talks on the state of our oceans and over-fishing; trying to urge people to become more conscious of their seafood choices.

That’s not all; on this day when we meet her, Ayerst had just come back off the peaks of the Himalayas where she had been photographing snow leopards. Happy to be home and relishing the sound of the surf, Ayerst gave a glimpse of life behind the lens beneath the sea.

“I have always been passionate about water and being immersed in it. I feel safe and happy in water. It is my ‘go-to’ place if I am ever stressed,” says Ayerst.

Born in land-locked Nairobi, Ayerst found her way into the Indian Ocean in Mombasa at an early age.

“My parents say I could swim before I could walk. I definitely preferred being in water from a very young age. I am the only person in my family emotionally connected to water, as far as I can tell,” she says.

Ayerst is in the water a lot more these days. The Scuba instructor stopped counting her dives after reaching 5,000. She counts the fresh water spring Bassas da India, an exposed atoll between Madagascar and central Mozambique, as the most remote place she has ever dived in and any disused mine with caves as her scariest.

“It really helped me to have been practicing as a lawyer for about 15 years beforehand. I was financially independent before I became a professional photographer.”

The life of a photographer isn’t always a breeze. Ayerst says with huge changes in the medium of photography over the past five years, maintaining a high standard for which clients have to pay for photos has become difficult competing with millions of enthusiasts with good cameras.

“I struggle with working out what time in my day is work and what is play. This may sound strange but being a wildlife photographer means that work and play morph into each other effortlessly. It is important to extricate yourself from both successfully and understand very clearly where one ends and the other begins.”

Ayerst knows the job also requires an open mind, and a rocky knoll for a bed.

“A person has to be flexible and prepared to travel in less than luxurious and sometimes downright dangerous situations.”

A far place to be for Ayerst who gave up the thrill of the corporate jungle.


The Water Baby Hooked By A Flying Shark

Alison Kock

“We’ve also found once sharks hit that maturity stage where they switch from sub-adult to adult they spend little time coming back here. We think Cape Town is a maturing white shark area, about two per cent of our females are mature and about ten per cent are males.

“The estimates have big errors, but as accurately as we can tell, over the last 10 years we have estimated that the population that has visited this site is 700. If you compare this with other whole shark aggregation sites around the world, it’s more than double,” says Kock.

What is interesting about Kock’s research is that females drift closer to the shore and the people swim in it during summer. It goes a long way to keep the Shark Spotters program running since 2005. They operate watch beacons, look out points on the cliffs overlooking the beaches of Muisenberg and use a flag system to notify surfers and swimmers if there are sharks in the water.

“Humans might not like the whites, but they love the other marine life. A lot of people are against lethal methods, 10 years ago, this wouldn’t have been the case. There has been a real change in the way people view sharks.”

In 2015, a record high of 98 people were bitten by sharks and six were killed. In the same year, there were 12 people who died taking selfies. Still, the knock-on effect of a shark attack can be lethal to business. Shark Spotters found that for up to three months, there are fewer people in the water.

“When you are in warmer water you can put that energy into growing; it’s one of the reasons we think the females are coming inshore,” says Kock.

Shark Spotters researcher Alison Kock uses a foam seal to attract and tag Great White sharks off Seal Island in False Bay, Cape Town, part of her 12-year project to smash stereotypes surrounding these predators (Photo by Jay Caboz)

There are still many other mysteries surrounding the great white.

“Sharks are smarter than people assume. They adapt their hunting patterns to their environment. You’ve got some sharks that will come to Seal Island every year, and never go to Gansbaai. You’ve got other sharks that will pop between the two. Even though they are the same size and the same sex they have individual behaviors, which makes our life difficult in finding a pattern,” says Kock.

Great whites are also versatile. They are capable of massive migration and travel from South Africa to Australia.

“We have very strong data to show a relationship between water temperature and white shark presence in False Bay. When the water is 18 degrees and more, we have our peak in white shark sightings inshore. We think it’s probably more related to the coming to their prey that has narrower temperature tolerances,” says Kock.

Interesting but deadly; Kock says most attacks are over in a minute. If you get to a kill quick enough you can smell it. Watching these sharks in all their power and strategy is one of the wonders of Africa all should see.


Seaweed For Lunch?

Roushana Grey

We stand on the edge of a rock pool at low tide. The water is crystal-clear, the seagulls are cawing and the seaweed is fresh – the last place you would expect to grab a bite to eat. For Roushana Grey, the coastal forager in a giant floppy hat, a new moon and the low tide means lunch.

“People always have these preconceived ideas that seaweed is slimy and revolting and how can you possibly think of eating it? It’s nice to change their minds a bit,” she says.

This is one reason why the Cape Town-born Grey stands with a group of nursing students in the rock pools of Scarborough beach, 47 kilometers from Cape Town. Grey is here to teach them about the pantry our ancestors used since the Ice Age.

“It’s no good showing people it in the ocean, you have to cook and eat it for them to feel like they can do it again. Because people are so new to it you have to introduce them with something they are familiar with. Introduce it slowly.”

Today’s menu is signature seaweed.

“We are going to be using the kelp and the seaweed, instead of mussels because of the red tide we are only going to use the kelp, the young fresh ones. Slice them up into strips and make tagliatelle with them.”

Grey is no stranger to foraging. She has been living off the land for 10 years since she moved here with her husband to run the family nursery selling African plants.

“I started learning about fynbos growing around me, specifically indigenous edible plants and their medicinal properties and how one can use them in cooking… A lot of the food that we find in the wild is quite bitter. Our palate has evolved over the years. It’s become sweet, especially with all the sugar we eat. If you had to go out into the wild and collect a whole bunch of things, modern-day man is not necessarily going to like the taste anymore.”

It took a chance meeting with a Japanese forager, traveling the world by bike, for her to catch on to the fruits of the sea. Hiromu Jimbo has cycled 90,000 kilometers since 2009; in 2013 he came across Grey in Scarborough to the south of Cape Town.

“Then Jimbo arrived. We had been foraging for fish, mussels and maybe some sea lettuce, without being aware of the diverse edible seaweed available. He came down and didn’t know what species was down here, he just knew it was good. He couldn’t understand why no one was down at the shoreline.”

From Jimbo, Grey learned to appreciate seaweed and it’s Umami, what the Japanese define as a pleasant savory taste.

“Food has played a huge part of my life. I do wild food catering and pop up events. I like to include at least one ingredient that is an edible plant or seaweed in my meals.”

With little knowledge to go on, Grey tastes plants with caution. Finding an edible plant has its risks.

The worst thing she has had was a really bad stomachache.

“I like to fact check before I eat anything new. You take it, rub it against your skin, and then wait a few hours. Then you put it on the tip of your tongue and wait a few hours. If everything is fine and you haven’t thrown up or passed out you take a small bite and see how it goes.”

So if you are on the hunt for a new culinary experience maybe you should look at the rocks at low tide.


Protector Of The Deep

Meaghen McCord

It’s small enough to fit in your big pocket, but big enough for the job. They call it Baited Remote Underwater Video (BRUV). In short, it’s a camera tied to a bait ball and thrown into the sea. With this small, cheap device, Meaghen McCord, founder of South Africa Shark Conservancy (SASC), is showing thousands there is more to the ocean floor than seaweed and sand.

“Kids can’t get in the ocean. So they can’t really see what is beyond their reaches. If you can’t see something you are less inclined to protect it. Even adults are flabbergasted by what they see. These types of organisms are here right on their doorstep. It looks like a dirty brown sea from above, but under there is so much happening,” says McCord.

McCord’s research facility is a small rock building on the rocks, the former home of the first abalone farm in South Africa in Hermanus, 120 kilometers southeast of Cape Town.

Here, McCord has spent 17 years working on various aspects of shark biology, ecology and management. The Canadian-born McCord grew up closer to nature than most having lived in a tree house in Ottawa.

“I think it was a long-lasting deep connection to the natural world. My dad was a hippie and brought me up to be connected,” says McCord.

The first step to becoming founder of the SASC was traveling to South Africa on a whim to study fishery science at Rhodes University in 2003. She fell in love with Africa and never left.

“We founded the SASC in 2007 to study exploited shark species, because there was no one conducting any research at the time, even within the government where coastal management fell into their portfolio, there was very little research being done. It was an area of low economic value compared to high-valued fish species. It was about studying commercially fished sharks,” she says.

The people who come here to these sea-sprayed doors are more concerned with whales. This is the heart of the whale capital of Africa, where thousands of tourists flock to see hundreds of southern right whales in winter.

Despite this interest, McCord, the energetic researcher of the deep, paints a bleak picture of the ocean.

“Blue fin tuna, there is only two per cent of their viable population left on the planet. Big sharks – we’re facing a big level mass extinction event in the next 40 years in the oceans. The problem with that is we don’t know how that is going to affect us. It’s a tipping point and we’re there,” she says.

Danger lurks where you can’t see. McCord is overseeing research into microplastics – that is plastic that has ground away to less than 0.5 of a millimeter. The study, which is still to be completed, compares microplastic in beach core samples of blue flag beaches, which is clean beaches, compared to non-blue flag.

“That’s the thing with plastic, it never disappears. It just gets smaller and smaller until you can’t see it with the naked eye. But it’s there. Microplastics accumulate micro-toxins. People don’t realize that these are being ingested by mollusks and fish, which in turn you eat and then poisons you. In the United States, they have found microplastics attract and absorb Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane).”

According to the World Health Organization, POPs are highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.

For a continent that has been pegged as a frontier Blue Economy, McCord fears sharks won’t survive.

“Historically, we have a long history with the ocean but it’s been mismanaged to the point where most of our line fish have collapsed and declared in a state of emergency. As a result of that and a lack of fish in the ocean, fishermen are having to change their target species to sharks.”

McCord also notes the Blue Economy has potential but is underutilized. Education is key.

From over-fishing to climate change, McCord is concerned any action might be too little too late.

“Sometimes, it feels that what you are doing is like a drop in the ocean, it’s very difficult to feel like you are making a difference. Research is good for the scientists. But, it’s translating the science into meaningful outcomes for communities here who are going to make a difference and drive change.”

It all leads back to the small cottage on the rocks where a researcher uses a camera to change the way people see the ocean floor.


‘Not Your Typical Fish Aquaculture Crazy’

It started 20 years ago, not far from the crashing waves of the sea. The day farmers from a small seaside town in Africa took a snail-like crustacean, slithering through the swaying kelp forests under the ocean, and tried to farm it on land. They grew this small town idea into a thriving R529 million ($38 million) aquaculture business. This is the story of abalone in Africa, reared on the shores of Hermanus and Gansbaai, 120 kilometers southeast of Cape Town, and ends up on dinner plates in Hong Kong.

“It’s like having cows in a field, but you have to provide them with the air that they breathe. That’s why aquaculture is so much more stressful than normal agriculture.”

So says Louise Vosloo, General Manager of abalone farm Aqunion, who has been a mother to abalone for 15 years as a zoologist.

“I’m not your typical fish aquaculture crazy. I love the production aspect. I love the miracle of science; watching the abalone through the lens of a microscope and seeing the eggs being fertilized. That is what has made me aquaculture crazy.”

The abalone farm Vosloo works at could have come straight out of a scene from a science fiction movie. From within a darkened warehouse, Vosloo takes us into Aqunion’s hatchery where millions of abalone are grown – it looks like Mad Scientist’s clone laboratory.

Hanging on lit racks is where Vosloo’s interest lies, the science. Row upon row of packets filled with abalone larvae are pumped with sea water, on a never-ending drip.

It has to be dark; the abalone are nocturnal. The larvae grow faster in these conditions than in harsh daylight. They believe keeping the abalone in packets mimics the conditions of the sea, yet in a safer environment. The reason why you would want to ensure they are in pristine condition is that abalone has proven to be a lucrative long-term investment.

“The classic size is 100g and takes three to four years to grow from eggs,” says Vosloo.

The latest data released in the Aquaculture Yearbook 2014 by The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) showed businesses on the sea are on the rise. In 2013, the value of the aquaculture sector, based on sales of products, grew by 38.1% to R696 million ($69 million), abalone accounted for 76% of R529 million ($52 million). It’s a drop in the ocean when compared with South Africa’s gross value of agricultural production which is almost R187 billion ($18.5 billion) in 2013.

There is plenty of room for farms to grow. South Africa accounts for 1% of the 120,000 tonnes of abalone produced in the world a year; of this, Aqunion produces 200 tonnes.

To live, millions of liters of sea water need to be pumped through their tanks every hour. A blocked sump could spell disaster in a matter of 10 minutes.

“We are so dependent on what happens in the sea. You can’t just switch off recirculation. Red tides can affect your hatchery larvae, that’s our little baby pipeline. It’s been associated with fish kills, toxins, mussels. We check the sea water every day.”

Vosloo keeps a detailed Excel spreadsheet on her computer of all the nasty critters she has come across, just in case she comes across them again.

“I think women do quite well in these positions, because we can multitask. We can prioritize and make decisions. Our brains are wired to look after the baby, cook the food, clean the house and look after the husband. They say behind every man is a strong woman. With abalone there is this nurturing component. You are looking after this living organism; it’s not a production line. But, the guys on the farm also refer to [abalone] as their babies,” she says.

Vosloo describes what’s so appealing about eating this crustacean.

“I prefer biltong. Abalone’s got a nice niche taste and I respect why people love it. It’s a huge culture steeped in tradition. The biggest thing about it is it’s a status symbol. Family members will buy it for one another as a sign of respect.

“Sometimes the government thinks abalone farming could be a solution to the poaching, but this is not subsistence farming, or catching your fish in your backyard to feed your family. It’s got huge cost, with massive risk. If you do one thing wrong, that is it,” says Vosloo.

The small crustacean in the kelp forest is going to become an even bigger money maker. By 2020, South Africa will produce 3,000 tonnes a year, says Vosloo. It seems the dinner plates of Hong Kong can’t get enough.