Dive into De Hoop
I’m sitting in the car watching as the town of Bredasdorp fades into the dust filled distance. It’s taken three hours of listening to bad radio stations playing Celine Dion and Bryan Adams on a torturous loop and touching the side of the window all I can feel is radiating heat of midday threatening to swallow me whole if I venture outside of the air-conditioned safety of the car. But what journey would not need a little bit of adventure, albeit with a bad soundtrack. Brown landscape slowly starts to give way to patching’s of green fynbos poking out over the hills of the Cape Agulhus and finally as we past a final huddle of sheep, it’s up over a ridge and right into the lap of the De Hoop Nature Reserve. Nothing is quite as refreshing as the feeling of being dust covered and having the crisp, cool ocean in immediate sight. De Hoop is quite a spectacular site from the top of the reserve; the Cape Floral kingdom layered out as far as you can see with a diversity of over 1 500 species. Two rivers gently merge into a vlei bordered by large golden sand dunes falling into a turquoise ocean complete the picture postcard. Our car is heaving with cameras and wetsuits and thanks to the summer sun it doesn’t take us long to head over to shoreline, ready to explore this unique Marine Protected Area.
Marine Protected Areas (MPA’s) are incredibly vital when it comes to protecting our ocean world. They are a refuge for exploited species, key breeding grounds and a safe harbor for migrating ocean life, a space where marine life can return to it’s pre-exploited state. In this day and age of overfishing and exploitation these reserves might be the only thing standing between certain ocean species demise. They also serve as a scientific marker for information on the differences form exploited ecosystems compared to ones left untouched. Our first MPA, Tsitsikamma, was declared in 1964, and since then we have gained 20 other MPA’s across the coastline, including De Hoop. When a MPA is working well it can serve as a great example of civil society, government and communities working together to preserve our natural heritage.
“The objectives of MPAs as described in the Marine Living Resources Act No. 18 of 1998 (MLRA) of South Africa are to protect the marine life, facilitate fisheries management and reduce user-conflict. The concept of “no take zones” is important in South African MPA management, in that “no take zones” affords complete protection of the MPA, it however also is the reason conflicts arise between traditional resource users and management authorities. In South Africa MPA’s often adopt a mixed management strategy, i.e. a portion of the area set aside as no-take, which fires up hot debates over community exclusion vs. species protection. According to WWF South Africa of the countries 21 MPAs only eight are completely “no take areas” which begs the question, is that enough?
Now lets face it, not all MPA’s are built the same. One of South Africa’s biggest challenges at the moment is how we go about enforcing the legislation that covers our MPA’s. According to Cape Nature, De Hoop MPA has the highest level of protection, meaning you are not allowed to remove a single thing and the impact of this is does not go unnoticed by the trained eye. Unfortunilty many of our other MPA”s are not as lucky as they are locasted alongside traditional resourse dependant communities. Argumanets over unjust allocation of MPA’s and “No-take zones” are highly politicle as communities have been marginalized from the process in creating the MPA’s in the past, and this has contributed to undermining the legitimacy of the MPA, which ultimately destabilizes its fundamental goal in protecting the marine life from complete destruction from a history of poor management. The fact that De Hoop has been in relative isolation and borders the South African Defence Force means that it has a natural buffer against human impact, soemthing that has allowed the marine life to live in a relatively undisturbed state for so long.
Around 12:00 the tides slowly starts to recede around Koppie Alleen, overlooking the vast ocean expanse Mike and I sit with camera gear at the ready. What once was a shoreline of blue slowly starts making way to rocky outcrops scattered underneath the limestone caves as far to our left and right as we can manage to see. De Hoop has a really spectacular coastline stretching 70km and 3 nautical miles out into the ocean. The reason we have come down here is to not just experience the natural beauty of the reserve incidentally one of the better places to do some up close southern right whale watching during calving season and is also an important nursery area for the depleted angling species, the Galjoen (our national fish incase you were not aware) We came to get stuck in to the underwater life of the area- and fortunately we had the most perfect weather one could ask for. The summer light illuminated all the little corners and crags as the crashing waves retreated into the horizon, giving the fish life a change to peek out into the sunlight streaming into the somewhat stilled water.
Rock pools are fascinating things, a microcosm of the wider ocean. Inside is a unique habitat filled with life that is dependent on tolerance and exposure to light and air. Filling up with salty seawater at low tide, the shore between the high tide and the low tide mark is a place for adventure not just for you but for the many organisms that have to survive in this space between sand and sea.
The underwater life was prolific and inspiring to see. From Two-Tone Finger fins to Blacktails and Streepies there was wonderment in every pool we dipped our heads into. It was the kind of fish life we would have seen all along the coastline any years ago. Mike was particularly encouraged to see that simple management in protecting an area can definitely lead to the recovery of various species of fish, especially as our home beach break of Betty’s Bay is sitting in a rather dire position when it comes to its biodiversity- mainly because we have very serious poaching issues and disregard for the law inside our home MPA. But it just goes to show, when something is working and when something is not in an MPA comparison the sights speak for themselves.
You don’t need any diving experience at all to be able to see what is inside a rock pool- just some booties for your feet and a mask really. The great thing about them is that you can never really predict what you might find nestled inside of them. The deeper the pool the more stable it will be, making it a great place for more bio diverse fish life, but don’t shy away from peeking into the smaller ones as well, it’s a great way to get young kids interested in our marine life.
A part of me never wanted to leave Melkvlei cottage. Spending the day driving around scouting for good photography spots with the best possible light, sitting with my camera on the beach while Mike jumps in and out of the rock pools with his underwater setup, scaring the odd tourist every now and then. The dusty road would see us bundled salty and satisfied back to our cottage on the lake, downloading the days work, setting up the fire and lighting hurricane lamps as dusk settled across the vlei. No television, no electricity, no distractions to get in the way of quality communication time. Way back when Mike and I were young and full of beans there honestly was nothing better than turning off from the outside world of influences, grabbing the nearest seat around the fire and telling stories with a cold beer in hand. Life, work and all that other grownup nonsense has meant that we often don’t get time to do just that, so when the opportunity arises for us these days I seldom say no to a good session of being disconnected from the outside world. There was even little to no cell reception on our river bank- the full unplugged experience was a little slice of heaven.
MPA’s in South Africa still don’t receive as much attention as their terrestrial counterparts, which is a pity, but I think that might be down to the fact that it can be harder to see the spectacular underwater bliss that is out there if you don’t get stuck in. And I mean that in a literal sense. Go and get a wetsuit, and if you are like me and need a little bit of buffering against the chilly cape waters get a thick one and go take a peek inside your nearest rock pool our very own shoreline of natural aquariums. The more we take ownership of our MPA’s , the more legitimacy they will have in protecting our marine life.
*Take care when you are in a rock pool to not do any damage to the beautiful organisms it houses. Try to be gentle and definitely don’t remove anything, souvenirs should just be lovely memories and some photos and nothing more. *
This year De Hoop is celebrating 30 years as a Marine Protected Area. Throughout the year they are hosting a whole load of different activities such as whale watching and music and intertidal workshops to name a few- visit the site here for more details
Thank you to the team at De Hoop Collection for Hosting Mike and I for a few days and giving us the space and freedom to explore at our own pace- it was such a pleasure to get into the water, we will be back.