70 years of helping people to care for our ocean

Memories of a SAAMBR Legend Dr Antonio Jorge de Freitas 1933-2022

By: Rudy van der Elst and Judy Mann

Dr Tony de Freitas has been an integral part of the SAAMBR family since the 1970s, when he was employed as a researcher at the Oceanographic Research Institute (ORI), while completing his PhD research on the prawns of southeast African waters. He became ORI’s Principal Research Officer in 1979 and was recognised as a Professor by the University of Natal in 1980.  He was appointed as SAAMBR’s Executive Director in 1990, a position he held until retirement in 2004. On retirement, Tony continued to serve the Association as an active member of the SAAMBR Council, and was elected President of the Association in 2015; a position he held until he retired from the Council in 2018.  

Tony grew up in Johannesburg, where he attended Marist Brothers School and Wits University, graduating with an MSc on insects. He applied for, and (to his surprise!) was offered an entomological position in Mozambique, initially based on Inhaca Island. The marine environment had its influence, and Tony moved to a marine biological position, eventually becoming the Director of Fisheries for the Mozambique government.

Tony was a generous host, and many SAAMBR researchers visiting Mozambique enjoyed his hospitality. Others who benefitted from his open-arms policy were the Witwatersrand University students supervised by Bill Macnae, who was the inspiration behind the Marine Biology Research Station on Inhaca Island.  Each year a group of Wits students would visit the station as part of their practical assignments. Tony would assist by taking a group through the muddy mangroves to study mudskippers. In one group of students he noticed an attractive, fashionable girl wearing snow white tackies. He gallantly offered to help her through the mud – but instead of falling in the mud, he fell in love with this Johannesburg beauty named Cathy. They got married and for many years the de Freitas’s were one of the ‘to know’ couples in Lourenco Marques society. His love for Cathy was obvious; deep and enduring.

Tony’s local status was enormous, by virtue of his authority over the awarding of prawn quotas, Mozambique’s major export product. As the director he did a great job in managing the Mozambique fisheries, but with increasing political instability Tony and his family moved to South Africa in the 1970s. Tony ended up at ORI,   where he completed his PhD under Allan Heydorn and Bill Macnae. He participated in the first international  Indian Ocean Cruise and subsequently played an important role in developing marine invertebrate research at ORI. He published widely and gave presentations at many conferences.

Although a scientist at heart, as SAAMBR’s Executive Director Tony realised that the organisation was more than just ORI and he fully supported Sea World. He was an active member of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), and a founding member of the African Association of Zoos and Aquaria (PAAZA). He drew up the PAAZA constitution and ensured that the PAAZA Executive Committee stayed on the ‘straight and narrow’. He Chaired the PAAZA Executive Committee for several years and was instrumental in the growth of the organisation. He was always prepared for meetings and was fondly known as ‘The Portuguese Man of War’, as he argued a point. And usually won – he knew the constitution better than any of us. Tony loved PAAZA conferences and especially the final dinners. He liked nothing more than to dance – when the DJ eventually played proper music – rock-and-roll was a favourite. To ensure that SAAMBR stayed innovative he attended conferences around the world, even attending the International Marine Animal Trainers Association (IMATA) conference, so that he could support the mammal team more effectively.

Tony was passionate about marine education, and it was thanks to him that the Sea World Education Centre became the third ‘leg’ of SAAMBR’s three-legged pot. He said yes to almost every initiative we approached him with – always with the caveat – ‘You can do it, if you find the money.’ His support enabled the Education Centre to grow from a staff of one and a half, to one of the leading marine education centres in Africa. He loved the volunteers and always had time for a chat with them.

It was his vision and drive that led Durban to build the new aquarium at the Point, that ultimately became uShaka Marine World. He initiated the move from the old Sea World premises at the end of West Street to the new uShaka Marine World complex. Tony is the reason we have an uShaka Sea World, in fact, he is the reason that SAAMBR still exists, as the old aquarium at the bottom end of West Street, after over 40 years of service, was really falling apart.

Tony’s titles and positions only tell us about his career – what they do not tell us about is his humanity. Tony was far more than a boss – he was a friend and a mentor to so many of us, he led us and guided us, he cared for us as people. He gave us advice, which was not always what we wanted to hear, but usually needed to be said. He had one of the clearest moral compasses of anyone we know; he knew right from wrong. His integrity was without compromise, and he led SAAMBR with that integrity.  Tony was able to help us to see the big picture, he reminded us of why we do what we do. He was committed to SAAMBR and completely believed in what the Association stands for.

As a scientist who was also a staunch Catholic, Tony’s principles and beliefs were strong. Well-read, he loved engaging in debates ranging from the philosophy of ethics to fossils and early homo sapiens.  His ‘Evolution and Religion’ talk helped many a disturbed Christian reconcile their knowledge and faith.

After his retirement Tony played an important role in the church, devoting much of his time to his fellow parishioners as a deacon of the Blessed Sacrament Church in Durban North. Nevertheless, his commitment to SAAMBR never wavered, and Tony was always on hand when needed.

Tony had no fear of death, firmly believing that his beloved Cathy was waiting patiently for him on the other side. We will forever be grateful to Tony for all he was to SAAMBR, and to so many of us individually.