CONSERVATION OP-ED: Telling biodiversity’s story – 1,001 magnificent species of the seaforest (2023)

In the emerald gloom of an underwater cave, a torch light illuminates a strange creature. Its delicate black and white arms resemble a fern, stretching out in fractal branches. As the ring of light meanders along the cave wall, it reveals other magnificent plant and animal life – each a unique feature of the Great African Seaforest.

This fractal “basket star” is set in a textured, technicolour tapestry – bright-purple sea urchins bristle their spines, sunshine-yellow sponges suck at the sea water, vivid blue anemones filter their fill of plankton, and fish, seals and sharks appear in flashes between gently swaying ribbons of kelp.

It is this rich diversity of life that the torchbearers, marine biologist Dr Jannes Landschoff and naturalist and filmmaker Craig Foster, from the Sea Change Project – along with emeritus professor of marine biology, Charles Griffiths – seek to illuminate in a new project, “1001 Seaforest Species”, in partnership with the Save Our Seas Foundation.

The new project follows the widely acclaimed My Octopus Teacher, a documentary about Foster’s bond with a Cape peninsula cephalopod which earned an Oscar and focused global attention on South African kelp forests and the life among its fronds.

With 1001, the Cape Town-based not-for-profit Sea Change is widening its lens beyond profiling a single animal, to capture the kelp forest holistically.

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The project’s goals are to scientifically document and to chronicle the stories of more of its distinctive species: one-thousand-and-one of them. Their unique repository of marine knowledge will generate scientific publications and inspire natural history books and films.

Although one-thousand-and-one is a drop in the ocean compared with the abundance of species existing in South African kelp forests, the number is a reference to One Thousand and One Nights, the Middle Eastern fables in which a newlywed princess softens the heart of a murderous king through her captivating storytelling.

Similarly, the team hopes to entrance us with stories of the kelp forest, winning us over to protect this precious ecosystem and its inhabitants.

1001 seeks to reveal the inhabitants of the kelp forest – its “biodiversity”. This scientific term is a ubiquitous buzzword in policy circles and increasingly prevalent in the public consciousness.

Governments, business leaders, environmentalists, scientists and youth and indigenous community representatives will gather for COP15 – the 15th UN Biodiversity Conference – in Montreal, Canada, this month (7 to 19 December) to keep biodiversity and its conservation firmly on the global agenda.

Read in Daily Maverick: “More awareness needed of biodiversity crisis, especially among young people, says SA ecologist

Biodiversity – the variety of life – is the backbone of the life-supporting “ecosystem services” that nature provides, and it underpins the existence of all life.

Headlines warn of biodiversity loss as one of the greatest modern environmental crises, but lay people don’t always have a real understanding of or emotional connection with the idea of biodiversity.

“We talk about biodiversity so much, but we don’t really have a visual concept,” says Landschoff.

Landschoff conceptualised the 1001 project to tell the stories of creatures like the basket star, introduce us to the seaforest’s biodiversity and, through this connection, deepen our understanding of the mystery, wonder and fragility of this ecosystem.

“What if we find 1,001 animals on our doorstep and put them onto a big canvas so that we can say, ‘Look, these are all the incredible animals that live here. If we lose this place, this is what’s at stake’?” says Landschoff.

Science and storytelling

The Sea Change team is well aware of the power an intimate connection with the ocean holds, and applies this through“underwater tracking”, a technique that binds the science and storytelling components of the project.

According to Landschoff, underwater tracking is “an observational skill, a listening in and taking notice of the natural world”. It is a clue to past happenings and a window to predictions of animal behaviour. The impressions left by animals in the sand and the debris they discard as they eke out an existence in their liquid environment is the key to unravelling their life stories.

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After filming a documentary in the Kalahari Desert, Foster began applying San tracking techniques to the marine environment while finding solace in the kelp forest.

At the same time, then as a master’s student and supervisor respectively at the University of Cape Town, Landschoff and Griffiths were also spending time in the water, trailing sea creatures while conducting scientific field work.

“We were doing underwater tracking all the time without even knowing it,” reflects Landschoff.

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Underwater tracking is the conceptual meeting point at which the project’s scientific rigor coalesces with its natural history storytelling.

“It was what brought us together,” says Landschoff.

A dive a day is Sea Change’s recipe to learning the hidden habits of this underwater world. Details emerge only when immersed in the ocean over time. Eventually, a diver will enter the kelp forest not as a stranger, but as one returning to a familiar space with understanding.

Sea Change approaches the kelp forest with openness to what it reveals. According to Landschoff, this “exploratory science” is a technique that, in contrast to the structure of hypothesis-driven science, creates opportunities to discover mysteries previously unknown, through presence, observation and connection.

He explains that entering the seaforest with a binary hypothesis to prove or disprove, prevents the noticing of a treasure trove of possibility in an infinitely diverse, infinitely complex natural space:

“[If] you’re always asking a question, ‘Do I get A or B?’, you’re missing out on other opportunities for outcomes. There might be a whole alphabet of A to Z, or even more – but because you’re asking such a specific question, you’re never open to finding these out.”

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Once an interesting candidate is observed, hypothesis-based science steps in to guide the arduous species identification process. Species are photographed, examined under the microscope, sampled for genetic testing, and the results are compared to existing taxonomic knowledge before being packed off to a museum for future research.

Landschoff estimates the team has catalogued 300 seaforest species so far. They frequently uncover species new to science, and stand to make a real contribution to biodiversity knowledge of South African kelp forests and how to protect them.

Read in Daily Maverick: “A closer look at the richness of South Africa’s biodiversity

“Knowing what biodiversity we have and where it is situated is critical to designing an effective network of conservation areas, and in convincing the public and politicians that we have something of immense value to conserve,” says Griffiths.

Landschoff hopes 1001 can inspire the return of a natural history approach, grounded in connection with nature, into marine biology academia, and serve as a reminder to local and international decision-makers of what’s at stake.

1001 seeks to bridge the worlds of academic science and natural history storytelling, the ex situ of the lab and in situ of the kelp forest, ways of doing science and ways of being human. It is also a personal tribute.

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“I owe the seaforest and the ocean so much. It’s the greatest inspiration of my life… 1001 is an expression of myself; of how to live and how to give back to nature,” says Landschoff. He hopes to inspire others to develop their own reciprocal relationship with nature.

As COP15 delegates assemble to determine how to transform society’s relationship with biodiversity, Sea Change will be beneath the waves with creatures like the basket star, working to make that biodiversity tangible. DM

Tatjana Baleta is a conservationist and science communicator and was commissioned to write this article by the Sea Change Project.

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