Throughout The Wild Ones television series on M-Net 101 on Sundays at 16:00, viewers are being introduced to Aquarium characters - animal and human alike. Vincent Calder, Specialist Technician here at the Two Oceans Aquarium is one such a character. I chatted to him about his work with the seals in the harbour, and in true Vincent-style, his answers were humble, with a good dose of honesty, passion and sense of purpose. Vincent has a talent for telling beautifully rich stories and effortlessly takes the listener right to the time and place that he is remembering. He also has a love and passion for the ocean and its inhabitants that radiates throughout his tales. I sat back and listened to the stories that “the old man of the sea” had to tell…
Vince’s Aquarium story started long before the Aquarium opened. His heart was in the sea and the sea was in his heart. He had spent years working in various industries, but eventually ended up being one of the 12 original aquarists that helped build the Aquarium. From there, he started building up the Aquarium’s Technical team, because Vince is many things, including incredibly handy and really brilliant at the technical aspects required to keep fish healthy, such as life support systems, and general aquarium maintenance. Soon, the newly opened Aquarium was no longer hiring contractors to do the work, because Vince was capable of doing the job himself. Today, the Aquarium’s Technical team has grown from Vince and one other technician to 12 people working fulltime and two working part-time. Vince has moved back into the Curatorial department where he is mentoring and training people.
"If they need me, I am here to help," said Vince about his training of staff.
Vince says that he owes his current involvement with the seals in the harbour, to his previous employment at the Department of Sea Fisheries. Since the early '80s Sea Fisheries (now Oceans and Coasts) personnel had been catching and cutting nooses off of the seals in the harbour. Knowing Vince, they started asking him for help. Vince helped where he could and many years later he started involving Claire Taylor (Two Oceans Aquarium Curator of Exhibits) too. Between the two of them, they developed equipment as well as a technique that made getting the nooses off the seals, easier and more effective. In 2007 the Aquarium was awarded a permit to permanently, and legally, work with the seals in the harbour.
“There are a number of seals that I have gotten to know on sight. They don’t have tags on them, but I can tell them apart, and they know me. Like Rocky, Rocky 1 and Rocky 2, old Big Nose, …”, Vince chuckles.
But it is “Lucy Seal”, one of the few female seals that has hauled out in the harbour over the years, that he refers to with the most fondness and that he admits might be his favourite seal - if he had to choose. Lucy became so accustomed to Vince that she would acknowledge his presence with a low growl and long yawn whenever she saw him. When she had entanglements on her, she would avoid Vince at all costs. One year, Lucy had an entanglement around her neck for months. Vince tried to cut it off, but Lucy would have nothing of it. Vince noticed that Lucy was losing weight and condition. A couple of days before his annual leave, Vince made one last attempt at getting Lucy’s entanglement off. He thought he had missed and Lucy swam away before he could check.
“My whole leave I thought about that seal and I just hoped that I had gotten the band off, because if I hadn’t, she would be dead by the time I got back to work.”
A week later, Vince returned to work and Lucy was nowhere to be found. He feared the worse. A couple of months later, Vince’s perseverance was rewarded when Lucy reappeared. Vince was relieved to see that her entanglement was off and that she had fattened up and was looking healthy. “She looked really good and the last time we saw her, we thought that she might be pregnant.”
I asked Vince about the longest period he had spent observing a seal before having the opportunity to cut the nooses off. “Once, I spent more than nine months tracking a seal to cut the nooses off. I managed in the end, but it was a long nine months,” said Vince with satisfaction in his voice.
On the question about when they tend to see the most entanglements, Vince’s answer was something that I had known, but it was really only when he said it out loud, that it sunk in…
“There are always entanglements throughout the year, but when the first rains come, we know we’ll get a lot of box band entanglements. This is because the rains wash the box bands down from the City and into the harbour. What we do on land affects the ocean.”
Then there are also the returning culprits to take into account: “The most nooses we’ve cut off a seal’s neck are 11. Later, we had to cut another five off of him. He has more on him again…We are keeping an eye open for him.”
Vince’s voice becomes rich with memories when he speaks about the harbour and his fascination with its operation and the boats that frequent this area. As a child, his family would holiday in Mossel Bay and he fondly remembers spending most of his time sitting on the harbour wall, watching the tugboats manoeuvring other boats around, or fishing off the wall. He has the same love for the harbour here in Cape Town. For him, the colours in the harbour are magical and the smells are comforting and bring back amazing memories. He has become a well-known face around here and is greeted by V&A regulars and staff as he does his morning monitoring of the seals.
“What is really sad for me is the conflict between the boat owners and the seals. The seals have been here for years and years. Back in the '80s, down at Bertie’s Landing, there used to be 60 seals lying there. The Waterfront is perfect for the seals. There is a good food supply, places for them to haul out. I just find that people who live in cities, a lot of them, just decide that animals, wildlife, is something that you go and visit behind fences and pay to see. I, on the other hand, think we are blessed to have the seals right here.”
Vince continues to go out on a regular basis to check on the seals, but he now has a whole team that supports this effort. The public and harbour visitors play a very important role as they are the people who usually report entangled seals to us. If you see a seal with entanglements around its neck here in the Cape Town Harbour, please contact the Aquarium on 021 418 3823, and we will send someone out to see how we can assist.