25 January 2012

Catching up with the Aquarium’s seal rescue team

Stuart Dickinson
Before the dedicated seal platform was installed, Two Oceans Aquarium staff had to sneak up to seals in order to help them. Photo by Michelle Kirshenbaum

If you’re a regular visitor to Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront, you may have seen Cape fur seals entangled in plastic, fishing line or other waste, some of them severely wounded by pollution. Luckily, a helping hand (or hook, in this case) is never far away. Two Oceans Aquarium Assistant Technical Manager Vincent Calder, Assistant Curator Claire Taylor and the rest of the Two Oceans Aquarium seal rescue team are braving the frosty harbour water to help free these seals.

We caught up with Vincent to see how things were progressing with the initiative in 2012.

For those unfamiliar with the project, can you recap how it came about and what it involves?

There’s been an ongoing problem in the harbour where seals become entangled in fishing line, box bands, cord, plastic bags and other waste products. This waste is mainly from fisheries in the area, but also enters the harbour via rivers and storm water drains from the suburbs. Oceans to Coasts has been working on this project for a number of years now and has recently granted the Two Oceans Aquarium a permit to get involved.

The name of the game is to get close enough to the seal to cut the entanglement off without the animal jumping into the water. I made a device that consisted of a hook attached to a pole. Claire and I jump into the water and sneak up on the seals by swimming under the jetties that they lie on and cut away the cord. We’ve improved the design of the hook device, but because some of the box cords cut so deeply into the seals’ flesh, we had to look at other strategies. The only way to help these seals is to catch them in an enclosure.

Vincent (far right) explains how his seal-saving hook works, at the launch of the SAPPI Seal Platform in December 2010. With him is, from left: SAPPI Group Head: Corporate Affairs André Oberholzer, Two Oceans Aquarium Managing Director Dr Patrick Garratt and Assistant Curator Claire Taylor. Photo by Ingrid Sinclair

During a tour to South Africa, Peter Sarstedt offered to perform a concert at the Aquarium to raise awareness about this issue. SAPPI kindly came onboard as a sponsor and we were able to build a new seal platform in December 2010. The platform floats in the harbour, allowing seals to bask on it in the sun. There is a fence around it and when a seal in need of help arrives we are able to close the gate and take off the entanglement. This also allows us to tag the animal. Every time the team helps free a seal, we tag and monitor it and find that often the same seal will get caught more than once. Our record is taking 10 bands off one seal.

How serious is the problem of waste floating in and around the harbour, and the threat it poses to animal life?

Plastic pollution is a huge problem, not only in Cape Town harbour, but in all the oceans of the world. And unfortunately it’s ongoing. If used and disposed of irresponsibly, plastic can be a very dangerous item. Besides waste coming from the fisheries in the area, one must remember that all rivers and storm water drains pour into the ocean, so rubbish filters down to the waterfront from the city and depending on the material, the waste either floats or sinks, affecting animals above and below water.

What progress has the team made since the project began?

Since 2007, I would estimate we have freed about 195 seals. At the moment, we’re freeing roughly two a week.

A healthy seal is a happy seal! You can visit the SAPPI Seal Platform: it's right next to Shoreline Café. Photo by Ingrid Sinclair

What are the job’s big challenges?

The cold water, some seal urine on the head and having the patience to wait for the seal to be in the right position is the biggest challenge. But at the end of the day nothing beats the feeling of helping an animal in need.

What can Cape Town residents do to help?

Cape Town residents need to take responsibility for their waste and how they dispose of it. Being aware of what happens to an object when they throw it in the bin and understanding the path that it will take till the day it decomposes, is very important. The use of plastic in a household can be easily reduced, when a recycling facility is used. A simple habit should also be to cut any objects that form loops. This goes from the little plastic ring around the top of a milk bottle to a box band around a new package.

If you want to see a true horror story, just visit one of the dumps at the ocean – we’ve seen pelicans try to swallow whole plastic bags and other animals strangle themselves on rubbish. And these are the dumps that all Capetonians use.

What plans do you have to improve the project in the near future?

There are a few modifications that we would like to make to the SAPPI Seal platform. One is to move it into the sun in winter to make it more inviting to the seals. Other than that, we want to create more awareness of plastic and other pollutions that poses a threat to our sea life on a daily basis.



See also

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