Childhood love of the ocean flows into current discovery
● After school Juliano Ramanantsoa would throw down his school bag and head straight to the ocean, where he would play until dark.
Today the University of Cape Town PhD student’s research into those same waters on the west coast of Madagascar, where he grew up, have led to one of the most significant oceanography breakthroughs in decades.
In January Ramanantsoa, 33, celebrated the publication in the prestigious journal Geophysical Research Letters of his discovery of a previously unknown coastal current off the coast of his homeland.
The discovery has received international acclaim and was selected as a “research highlight” by the website Earth and Space Science News.
Born in the small fishing village of Toliara on Madagascar’s west coast, Ramanantsoa was always drawn to the ocean and says he “grew up” in it.
“My father was a fisherman and my mom was affiliated with the fishing ministry,” he told the Sunday Times.
“I used to go fishing in a canoe with my dad and uncles. I couldn’t imagine during that time that this child fishing with his father would eventually combine traditional knowledge and oceanography to publish this discovery in the 21st century. It’s really wonderful.”
With the help of research from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the University of Western Brittany in France and the French Institute for Research and Development, Ramanantsoa was able to prove the existence of the newly named Southwest Madagascar Coastal Current. Shallow and narrow, it flows towards the South Pole.
Ramanantsoa said he first postulated the existence of the current while trying to explain the presence of an extremely fertile ocean region off the south coast of the Indian Ocean island.
“When we tried to find the force creating this ocean event we found a defined current which influenced that fertilisation at the south of Madagascar.”
Using satellite images, data collected by ships and number crunching, Ramanantsoa was able to confirm his discovery.
His thesis supervisor at UCT, Marjolaine Krug, said the discovery was important for a number of reasons and would help scientists understand the movement of fish in the region and contribute to climate knowledge.
“On a global scale the oceans are the greatest mitigators for the planet’s climate because they transport heat from the equator to the poles,” she said.
“So knowledge of how this water is moving from the equator to the poles and how the heat balance of the planet is regulated is really important.
“There’s a connectivity between the Mozambique channel, Madagascar and South Africa because there are species which migrate between these regions, so having a better understanding of the circulation there helps in understanding the connectivity.”
Krug said it was difficult to establish the existence of previously unreported ocean currents, and the reason the discovery had not been made sooner was probably due to “poor sampling” of the region.
That was partly why Ramanantsoa took up marine science after school, because he saw a need in Madagascar for ocean research.
Juliet Hermes, an ocean scientist at the South African Environmental Observation Network, said the current was important to South Africa because it flowed into local coastal currents.
“It influences downstream so this current flows into the Agulhas current around South Africa,” she said.
“[The Madagascar current] carries nutrient-rich water and will help us understand other currents better.”
I couldn’t imagine this child fishing with his father would . . . publish this discovery
Juliano Ramanantsoa, left