Love of the sea runs deep
everywhere. There are these mosaics, gardens of sponges, groves of sea fans, fields of sea pens. It’s so mysterious.
“That’s part of our work, making the invisible visible. There are all these wonders in the deep sea. Yes, a healthy ocean underpins our food security, job security and healthy climate, but it’s also just amazing.”
She cites the barriers to deep sea exploration – scientists say the global map of the ocean floor is less detailed than maps of Mars, or Venus – because of the high costs of boats working offshore and technology that is still developing for visual surveys.
“For 150 years we put nets down or used machines to take bites out of the seabed. This work we are doing is about shining light on ecosystems. If you had to sample a forest from a helicopter, you would drag a basket through a forest; you wouldn’t get much of a picture of the forest and maybe catch some birds and insects.
“Now with the camera systems we have you can walk in that forest and see it for all the complexity and details and understand it.”
In all, she and her team emerged with more than 3 000 seabed images, gigabytes of video footage and at least 600 biodiversity samples.
Discoveries included a steep coral encrusted rocky ridge on the slope of Port Elizabeth, submarine canyons in the Amathole area and coral habitats at Browns Bank.
Future research includes prob- ing the effects of climate change on deep-water coral habitats and the impact of demersal trawling on deep-sea ecosystems.
Sink’s work focuses on expanding South Africa’s marine-protected areas (MPAs) “to protect offshore ecosystems, species and the processes that sustain them” and she hopes that their expedition will support the creation and expansion of these last “refuges” for marine ecosystems.
Consider that MPAs encompass less than half of 1% of South Africa’s waters with more than 98% of its waters under petroleum and mining leases.
In February last year, the government proposed 21 new MPAs.
But there is hope says Sink, with Operation Phakisa committing to protect 5% of our marine waters this year. “Now we’re advancing protection into the offshore arena where activities are diversifying and expanding into deep water.”
Sink and her team traversed seven of the proposed MPAs, most of which have never been viewed before. “One of the project’s goals is to understand what different habitat types we have and what their sensitivities are because we’re expanding activities into the ocean environment all the time.
“It used to be ships and fishing, now we’re increasing oil and gas, and diversifying our mineral interests. We can use small parts of the seabed as reference areas so we can understand what habitats look like in healthy conditions and put the appropriate management plans in place.”
South Africa’s MPAs, Sink explains, conserve habitats and species found nowhere else on earth, support the recovery of overexploited and endemic linefish and can support a growing tourism economy.
MPAs can help protect nursery and spawning areas to ensure valuable ecosystem services such as fisheries can continue in an increasingly industrialised ocean, she says.
MPAs can act as insurance against management failure and “this is particularly important in the deep sea where we still have so much to learn”.
Sink’s love for the sea runs deep. “The ocean is so relevant to us – every second breath we take is delivered by the ocean – the healthy plankton in the ocean gives us oxygen and is more important to us than the Amazon.
“There are ocean ingredients in our toothpaste. Open the medicine cabinet and it’s full of ocean ingredients.”
Research is under way to probe how sea slugs, found only in South Africa, are believed to have compounds that have found effective to combat oesophageal cancer, prevalent in the Eastern Cape.
“We’re finding interesting chemistry in these deep-sea environments. Many of these deep sea species could have important cures or solutions we haven’t anticipated,” Sink enthuses.