Guest Blog: The Cliche
Dr. Eleanor Yeld Hutchings works as a specialist marine biologist with a deep connection and passion for the marine environment. If she has learned one thing in all her work, it is that people need to be inspired- in this story she shows us one moment that has inspired her.
“Hey! Wake up!” “Come on guys, I’m serious… it’s 3 hours before low tide, we’re only here once, GET UP!”
The loud knocking on my door, and the strident voice shouting from the other room, break into my sleep. I sleepily roll over and pull the pillow over my head. Reluctance to move seeps through every pore. “I’m not joking – get up or I’ll get you up”. That kind of threat, especially coming from the large, ebullient Xoli who usually means what he says, is eventually enough to penetrate the haze and I shout back at him “Ok, ok, I’m up, don’t panic”, and pull myself out of bed.
As I slouch through into the kitchen to join the rest of the crew (who, I am pleased to note, all look as sleepy as I feel), I’m handed a cup of coffee and a rusk – what I’ve come to regard as Shoreline manna. I look around at the others. Everyone bears the stigmata left by 9 months of being on the road. We’re all a little worn around the edges: our shoes are battered, our clothes faded and dusty, and there are some new wrinkles in the tanned faces as a result of all the squinting into the sun. But this has become my family; together, we have travelled nearly three thousand kilometres in an over-suspended Landcruiser, a smoke-filled Quantum, and a series of self-catering accommodation cottages that blend into a continuum of crocheted toilet roll holders, frilled polyester kitchen curtains, bedside bibles and Imbuia couches, indistinguishable from each other with their shell motif lamps and imitation Tretchikoff prints.
But here we are, in Sodwana Bay near the Mozambique border. We’re on our very last leg of the journey, and already the freelancers are muttering into their cellphones, lining up their next jobs, letting it be known throughout the industry that they are available for hire. It hasn’t been easy… amongst our small group of 7 there have been casualties – parents dying, marriages dissolving, PhD theses not getting done. But what we have achieved we are not yet sure of. We get the odd indication that we have done something worthwhile. The odd moment captured on film – a sound, a creature, an instant forever etched in digital – and we have an inkling that this may have all been worth it, yet after 9 months, and at 11.30 pm, blinking in a fluorescent kitchen, it’s hard to realize.
“The cars are here, let’s go let’s go let’s GO”. The rangers have arrived to pick us up. We had gone to bed early to try and get a few hours sleep before heading out, and now the adrenalin surges. Our well-used equipment is packed and ready, we grab our gear and pile into the vehicles. “Let’s head south; there are fewer people and the tracks have been seen there most recently” Jeff is a softly spoken, self-effacing ranger, probably the most experienced in the whole park, and behind his natural reticence is a calm authority, and a passion for what he does.
We drive south along the water’s edge, skirting the soft sand, as the waves slowly recede. Jeff shines a torch into the dunes occasionally, but mostly we use the headlights to search for tracks. The adrenalin starts to tail off, as kilometre after kilometre of beach slips past under the wheels and nothing hoves into sight except the myriad pale ghost crabs skittering across the surf zone. In our wake, we leave hundreds of small crunchy corpses. “This hasn’t been a good season” says Ronel, the researcher who has come to guide us. She has been working here in the park with Jeff for years. “In fact, there hasn’t been a good season for a long time”. “Why is that?” I ask, already trying to order my thoughts… after all, they hold the knowledge, the experience, all the qualifications, and yet it’s my responsibility to make sure that their message is clearly and accurately communicated. They’re depending on me to get their research out there to the public. “Ag, you know, it could be anything. Bad nesting seasons, conditions not right, eggs being stolen, adults being caught in fishing gear, climate change…anything”.
This is not what I want to hear: it’s depressing, it’s not specific, and it’s not the kind of thing you can inspire people with. Especially if the message is given against a backdrop of empty beach.
If there’s one thing I have learned through this epic journey of discovery, it’s that people need to be inspired. They need to be see something that makes them feel “wow”, feel awestruck, and that only then can you give them an idea that sinks in, a kind of “yes, isn’t it amazing? It’s also in trouble, this is why, and this is what YOU can do”. And as stark a message as a beach empty of tracks is, it just isn’t going to cut it. We need to find our wow moment.
“We’re turning around; time to head north”. By this time I am slumped against the side of the bakkie’s door, half asleep again. The smooth ride over the sand, and the hypnotic play of the lights over the dunes, have lulled me. I see the light of the sound-man’s cigarette coming from the car following us, and I know that they too are struggling to stay awake. We’re all tired now, all the time. But we need this, as a finale to both the series and to our own journey, as an inspiration and a confirmation that what we have done is worth it. And so we retrace our steps, back to our starting point and then even further north.
The tide is nearly at its low point. We are riding on flat hard sand, travelling fast, with an edge of desperation creeping in. Ronel and Jeff are silent, but watchful. And then it happens. “Tracks, tracks, tracks!” calls Jeff, and pulls to a halt. With renewed energy we all tumble out of the car, fully awake. Yes, there they are – clear tracks heading up the beach towards the dunes. But before we all start to move in our frantic but well-rehearsed pattern, getting ready to film, Ronel spots the second set of tracks next to the first. Heading back down to the sea. We’re not going to be lucky this time. We get back into the vehicles and continue, all wide awake now, but with a jumble of emotions. Positivity, because we have seen tracks and so we have hope of finding what we seek, and apprehension because what if we wasted all our time going south, and we are too late? We drive on, northbound, well past the witching hour.
I spend my time talking to Ronel now. I realise that if we find what we are looking for, our time is going to be limited and it’s up to me to make the most of it. To be honest, I don’t know nearly enough. In fact, I’m woefully underprepared; irresponsibly so, given my job and my experience. The truth is that I am prejudiced, and have always been a bit jaded about this. I’ve spent my time at university surrounded by the myth that marine biology is a glamorous profession, one full of super yachts and tropical destinations, scuba diving on coral reefs, and studying whales, sharks, dolphins and, yes, turtles. I’ve fought against that, as have my classmates, who know the real truth: marine biology is about ecosystems, interactions, lab-work, complicated quantitative statistical analyses and of course, hours and hours behind a computer. A desk job with a smidgeon of field-work, in other words. So when we came up to do our final story, the supposedly ultimate experience of our coastline, and we were to do it on the great turtles nesting on the beaches of Sodwana Bay – it just didn’t resonate with me and I wasn’t prepared to do it justice. Although I am swiftly realising my mistake: it’s not about me, or what I think is the best story, but it is me and my face on the screen, and will be my reputation and integrity that suffer if I don’t know what I’m talking about. So we talk, and I question, and she answers, and we converse, until
“Holy crap! The jackpot!” and the car slews to a stop in the sand. Once again we pile and out there is no mistaking it this time… the massive, one-way tracks heading up towards the dunes, without a second set leading down. A flurry of activity erupts: “Quickly guys, get it together” “I need to infra-red, where’s the infra-red camera?” “Sound check, checking levels” “Eleanortjie, hier’s jou poeier; maak reg jou hare netjies” “Where’s my monitor?” “props, props – get the lanterns and the tagging clippers”.
“Ready? Rolling… and… ACTION”
I straddle the massive tracks in the sand, look up at the camera, and feel that familiar surge of adrenalin. The personality that my husband calls “publicity E” comes out, and the words bubble out of me. The excitement doesn’t need to be forced – the tracks are really there in the sand beneath me, they are HUGE, and the long search has laid the groundwork of suspense for which this is the reward. We make our way up the tracks towards the dunes, by the dim light of the moon, filming on infra-red so as not to disturb what we hope to find.
And there she is. A vast, dark shape hunched against the pale sand. Enormous. Immense. A female leatherback turtle, digging her nest in the sand. There’s a moment of almost reverent silence, a hushed awe. But filming, time and tide wait for no turtle; we are not here for this experience ourselves, we are here to share this experience with the public. And so we turn the lights on, run film, I talk, Ronel is interviewed, we carry out the work she has come to do. We read tags, insert new tags, measure (a whopping size: her shell is the same length as I am!), fill in information sheets, and generally talk turtle. The cameraman gets some wonderful shots. The sound-man catches the harsh, laboured sound of her breathing. With surprising speed, she finished laying her eggs, covers them up, tries to disguise the exact nesting site, and begins to head back down to the sea.
At this point we switch back to infra-red, to allow her to use the moon, stars and faint horizon to navigate. I follow her down the beach, so the crew can get some good “end-shots”. It’s then that I get the time to reflect, and to empathise. Something in the gentle, slow, dignified, exhausting, unrewarding effort of that turtle suddenly resonates with me. I think of what she has done, and of what it has cost her. I think of the fact that she will never, ever know whether all her efforts have had any results. I think of the fact that she returns here, to the beach of her own birth, to continue a cycle that she has no control over. I think of the fact that she isn’t thinking about it at all. And despite my best attempt to be that rational, serious scientist, I can’t help my eyes filling with tears.
It’s a fitting end to my journey. What I approached with a cynical attitude has moved me more than anything else I’ve experienced, and quite against my will. And what I hope more than anything is that we have managed to translate that through the camera, so that the people who watch it will themselves be moved. Because if people can experience this – it will have the power to inspire them, to force them to care. And what more can I ask from our own Shoreline journey, than that it has caused people to care about what they have, along our magical coastline?
We don’t say much as we climb into the vehicles and drive back to our cottage. Of course, it is late, and we’re exhausted. But that’s not it, this time. It’s a deeply personal moment, shared but not shared, and in it I read the realisation within us all, of the power of what we have done.
And I am satisfied.
Eleanor is the specialist marine biologist presenter for the award-winning SABC television documentary series ‘Shoreline”, which explores the coast of South Africa and has just completed its second successful season. She received her PhD at the Marine Biology Research Centre, University of Cape Town.
Her research was on the parasites of a number of endemic South African shark species, focusing on the discovery and description of several species new to science, the ecology of parasite communities with potential for application in fisheries stock assessment, and the transmission of blood parasites.
Eleanor has managed a specialist marine biology tour company, holds a tourist guide certificate for marine and coastal tourism, and has taken guided tours of the marine environment. She is a qualified SCUBA diver, both commercial and PADI Rescue level, a dive/boat skipper,and is kept level-headed by triathlon-trainingand trail-running in the Table Mountain National Park.She lives with her husband and their son in the seaside village of Kommetjie.