It has often been said that SAAMBR is one of Durban’s best kept secrets. Not many people know what SAAMBR stands for – the South African Association for Marine Biological Research.
We were originally situated on the Lower Marine Parade before moving to our current premises at uShaka Marine World in 2004.
As SAAMBR prepares to celebrate 70 years of Marine Conservation, Research and Education we are proud of our milestones and achievements. As the build up to our 70th Anniversary on 30 January 2021, we share our stories about some of the characters and creatures who made SAAMBR what it is today!
SAAMBR's journey began under a milkwood tree in Tongaland in 1947 and 1948 when Dr George Campbell from the Natal Society for the Preservation of Wildlife and Resorts organized two expeditions for people who were interested in wildlife.
Up until that point, the Indian Ocean was relatively unexplored and very little was known about it. As the coast became more populated, people were relying more on the sea for their source of protein.
The discussion under the milkwood tree by the fireside gravitated towards the need for research into the long term sustainable use of the bounty from the sea.
With that, the idea of a marine research station somewhere along the coast was born.
In 1948 after many meetings, the Durban City Council agreed to lease a two acre site (0.8ha) at the bottom end of the Lower Marine Parade for 1 shilling (10 cents) per annum for a period of 30 years to SAAMBR. Can you believe it – that was less than 1 cent per month!
This site was to be the home of SAAMBR for 45 years until it moved to uShaka Marine World in 2004.
After all the toing and froing with meetings between the City Council and the Wildlife Society it was down to business to raise money to build the new aquarium. Although money was granted by the City Council, there was a shortfall that had to be raised by the 700 members.
Can you imagine? Under the leadership of the Honorary Treasurer, a round of dinner dances, movies about the sea, a regatta in the harbour (blown out by a gale) and a Sea Fair (which was rained out) ensued.
The pickings were slim because people were more inclined to support the Red Cross, Anti-TB cause and Cancer Research.
But the members persevered and construction started on the aquarium in 1957 when the foundation stone was laid.
SAAMBR is eternally grateful to the men and women who persevered under trying conditions to get the new marine research station off the ground.
One of those men was Len Chiazzari who was an architect. He was one of the original stalwarts who planned and plotted under the milkwood tree in Tongaland in 1947. He drew up the first plans for the aquarium and presented them to the newly formed South African Association for Marine Biological Research which was registered in 1951. Len was a familiar face at SAAMBR up until his death in 2016. Our SAAMBR boardroom is named after him to honour his lifetime of service to our organization.
The Natal coastline was plagued by a number of shark attacks in the years leading up to the formation of the Oceanographic Research Institute in 1951.
It was only natural that the newly formed ORI concentrated their efforts on these occurrences because the public wanted answers and they wanted them as quickly as possible. While shark research dominated their efforts, the scientists became involved in other projects in the Indian Ocean.
ORI was granted a 99 year lease at the old Pavilion site further along North Beach. The Pavilion Hotel which resembled the glass pavilion in Brighton had burnt down a few years earlier and the site was vacant – it is vacant to this day.
Somehow, the scientists never left “the mother ship” and ORI is still based at the main SAAMBR complex today.
The first Investigational Report on a shark attack on a fishing boat was published in 1961. Since then many thousands of papers, books, popular articles and theses have placed ORI at the forefront of marine research in the southern hemisphere.
1959 was an exciting year in the history of SAAMBR. The aquarium was nearing completion and due to open in June of 1959. Dr. David Davies, a South African marine scientist working at the Scripps Institute in California returned home to head up the newly formed SAAMBR.
Professor JLB Smith from Rhodes University in Grahamstown visited the new facility and was impressed. He stated that this could be the biggest and best aquarium in the southern hemisphere.
1959 was Durban’s Centenary year and with great fanfare, the new Centenary Aquarium was opened by the Mayor Mr. W.E. Shaw on 22 June 1959. Visitors flocked to see the new attraction on the Durban Beachfront for their first glimpse of life under the waves.
With the Centenary Aquarium scheduled to open its doors to the public in June 1959, the one and only Main Tank had to be stocked with fish.
Today we have a dedicated Collection Team for this purpose but back in 1959, the popular local beach seine netters with their two boats and 25 fishermen were hired to bring in what they could catch, alive and in good condition.
The tank soon held 1 000 specimens representing 100 species found off the Durban beachfront. These first inhabitants consumed a whopping 14-18 kilograms of fish a day.
Sadly, there were no sharks, but amazingly and just in the nick of time, four Dusky sharks were brought in for opening day.
The exhibit was complete, much to the delight of the staff and the excited guests.
A family visit to the Centenary Aquarium on the Durban Beachfront was indeed a special outing for the whole family that was planned well ahead of time. It involved getting dressed up and putting on your Sunday best for the family outing. You will notice that the gentleman is wearing a suit and the lady is wearing white gloves for the outing.
For sure, if the children behaved, they would have been promised an ice cream cone or a packet of chips from the chippie on the corner of West Street and Point Road next to the horse drinking trough – a relic of days gone by!
When the Durban Centenary Aquarium opened its doors to visitors for the first time in 1959, a visit to the aquarium to see underwater creatures for the first time in their natural environment was a must see for every holiday maker who came to Durban.
The prices although they seem cheap to us now added up to make it quite an expensive outing for a family. Two and a half cents or a tickey for school children – no wonder they flocked in their droves to this new attraction on the Durban Beachfront.
The initial aim of the new aquarium on Durban’s popular Marine Parade was to fund research into high protein food sources from the sea to feed the growing numbers of people who lived along our coastline.
The research wing of SAAMBR was formed in 1959 and was named The Oceanographic Research Institute (ORI). While the initial research centered on sharks and the reasons for shark attacks, the scientists soon began diversifying their projects to fulfill the aims of the founding fathers.
Seventy-four, phytoplankton, swimming prawns, marine turtles, bays and estuaries and the East coast rock lobster soon occupied the scientists’ time. The data collected back in the early 1960s still serves as a valuable baseline for ongoing research today!
While the Centenary Aquarium proved to be a “must see” attraction when holidaymakers flocked to the Durban Beachfront, ORI scientists were busy with research and valuable data collection.
The ever popular Shark Tank, which was originally constructed for “bubble barrier” research, was opened to the public in time for Easter 1962. The public could now view these large marine predators up close from two viewing galleries. The chance to see sharks alive was transformative for many people. For the first time people were able to see sharks as animals perfectly adapted to their environment, not as ‘man eaters’. These opportunities laid the foundation for a greater understanding of shark’s role in the marine environment.
In those early days education, which is one of the cornerstones of the SAAMBR mission, consisted of pre- and post-graduate studies at the University, supervised by the scientists. If the public wanted to know more about the fish – they had a purchase a Guide Book which proved to be very popular. Scientists were often called away from their work to do guided tours for VIP’s – a task which they did not enjoy!
In 1959 when SAAMBR opened its doors there were 10 staff, by 1969, the staff complement had grown to 42. Today, SAAMBR employs 266 staff and volunteers – my how we have grown in the last 69 years!
With many shark attacks along our coastline, sharks were very much in the public eye and the public wanted to see sharks up close in the Aquarium. Initially there were only four small Dusky sharks on display.
Two months after opening, a fisherman hooked a large Zambezi shark weighing 91kg and 1.8m long at the Umgeni River mouth. He secured it and sent word to the aquarium to come and fetch it. With the help of the local rickshaw drivers outside the aquarium, the shark was carried in and placed in the tank.
Although “Willie”, who turned out to be a female, was initially not keen to eat, her first meal was rather dramatic as she devoured a 45kg stingray. Willie then proceeded to eat her way through her fellow tank dwellers and even started showing a very keen interest in the divers!
Sadly, Willie died, despite the best efforts of the staff to keep her alive. Her time in the aquarium, however, helped them to learn an enormous amount about these amazing animals. And the visitors who saw her were able to appreciate the beauty and grace of sharks. A critical breakthrough at a time when sharks were only thought of as ‘man-eaters’.
Did you know that SAAMBR was once the proud owner of their own seagoing vessel for offshore research?
In 1966, SAAMBR with the help of Irvin and Johnson and the Anti-Shark Measures Board acquired the RV David Davies which had been built in 1943 and had operated as a stern trawler. Formerly called the MV Keurbooms, she was refitted for longer sea going expeditions for research into sharks, rays and prawns.
With a Captain, an Engineer and six crew she could accommodate three scientists who slept in a “wooden box” like cabin on the deck. For the more technically minded amongst us, she was 20.72 metres long, weighed 73 tons had a 24hp engine and could reach speeds of 8.8 knots and 9.5 knots at a push (and creaked like an old lady – so I’m told!).
Equipped with a “Fishograph” echo sounder, she could locate fish and with the “Elac” unit, could record water depth and bottom topography.
As you can imagine, this was an amazing acquisition to assist the scientists with their valuable research into sharks, rays and prawns.
Sadly after two years SAAMBR had to sell her. They could not afford the upkeep of the vessel and wages for the crew. The research into sharks had also come to an end with the advent of the Natal Sharks Board.
SAAMBR has never since owned their own sea going vessel but have had many opportunities to join other expeditions for the collection of valuable specimens.
A visit to Durban in the early 1960s would most definitely have included a visit to the Durban Centenary Aquarium, which opened its doors to the public in June 1959.
For two shillings (20c) per adult and sixpence (5c) for children, people flocked to see the wonders of the deep up close and personal for the first time. The Guide Book produced in 1960 sold out in no time.
Two years after opening, the one millionth visitor passed through the doors and with great fanfare, she was presented with JLB Smith’s Sea Fishes of Southern Africa, a very sought after book at the time.
A visit to the Durban Beachfront would not have been complete without a ride on the cable car or the dodgems at the amusement park close to the aquarium. If the children had behaved well – they would surely have been treated to an ice cream cone from the Model Dairy next to the aquarium.
Over the years SAAMBR has had its fair share of characters both animal and human. Sally was one of these that will be remembered fondly by many staff and visitors.
“Sally the Sawfish” was caught in the shark nets by the meshing boat, the Sea Hound, at South Beach in December 1962. Divers secured her carefully and called the aquarium. She was gently brought ashore, placed on a truck and brought to the yard at the back of the aquarium where the staff cut away all the remnants of the net, which was entangled in her saw. She was cautiously hoisted up and placed in the Shark Tank where she swiped at the lesser inhabitants with great enthusiasm, the larger ones giving her a wide berth. She settled down and eventually the diver, Lofty Roets was able to feed her by hand, making sure he avoided her lethal saw. This proved to be a popular attraction at feeding times.
At one time angelfish were introduced to the exhibit to help Sally get rid of some parasites. They got busy soon after their introduction to the exhibit and did their work to rid Sally of the parasites. Sally was a great attraction and many visitors were fascinated by ungainly movement as she negotiated her way around the exhibit. After a number of years Sally sadly died. However, the staff will always remember her and the incredible amount they learnt about this unique cartilaginous fish. Moving to the present, it is of interest that the last sawfish known from KZN waters was seen in 1999. Research suggests that sawfish no longer occur in KZN waters, while globally largetooth sawfish are Critically Endangered.
Not many of our followers will remember the days when a telegram arrived at your house. It meant one of two things – a birth or a death in the family.
But for the Postmaster at Lupatana on the Transkei Coast it was a different story! He was flummoxed every year in the first week of June when he had to send a telegram to Dr George Campbell in Durban that simply said, “The cow has calved!” Why would this cow calve every year in June? Why would it be of interest to Dr Campbell? Perhaps he was a veterinarian?
Being a shad fishing enthusiast, Dr George eagerly awaited this telegram from his contact on the beach at Lupatana in the Transkei every year. It meant that the shad had arrived.
There was a great oiling of reels, buying of bait and Dr George took off in his old dilapidated jeep for a week of hectic fishing on the Transkei Coast. Those were the days!
Sadly as time went by, the numbers of shad decreased – that’s a story for another day!
The African penguin is not commonly found along the KwaZulu-Natal coastline, but as we all know, these little fellows in their smart back and white tuxedos sometimes lose their way and find themselves on our doorstep.
SAAMBR never planned to house penguins, it appears that the penguins found SAAMBR rather than the other way around.
The first recorded penguin arrived in a rather sorry state after washing up at Ifafa Beach in July 1961. Aptly named ORI, he had the freedom to run around the whole site. His favourite spot was the fish cutting table where he ate his fill every morning. Twice a day, he reported to the Main Tank during Feed Time where he “performed amazing swimming and diving feats” which enthralled the visitors.
ORI was the first of many penguins who found their way to SAAMBR over the years.
Today, uShaka Sea World has 58 penguins in a dedicated rookery. In May 2005, the African penguin was classified as Endangered on the CITES list.
In 1974 the six cubic meters of sand in the shark tank had to be removed when new filters were installed. This sand had not been moved since 1968 and as it was sieved it revealed:
6 699 coins to the value of R136.61 (a windfall indeed!)
Lens covers, golf balls, a distributor rotor arm, amethysts, gold rings, bullets, ear-rings and a bracelet (value not declared!)
5 500 Zambezi shark teeth
2 900 ragged-tooth shark teeth
At the same time the pay telescope on the roof at the main tank jammed and an English gold half sovereign worth R140.00 was found to be the culprit.
Who knows whether the coins fell in or were thrown in for good luck but we are sure that many a guest was devastated when her precious gold ring disappeared under the water in the shark tank!
Dr George Hughes is a well known and well respected authority on turtles worldwide.
Few people know that he arrived as a penniless, impoverished junior scientist at ORI’s door in 1969. There was no office space and he was offered a semi circular telephone table in the middle of the library which he called home. Equipped with a grant from the South African Nature Foundation and lots of enthusiasm, he had no wheels to get to the turtle nesting beaches in northern Zululand.
A fairy godfather appeared in the form of the nephew of a wealthy airline heiress. He promised to sponsor George a sparkling, brand new, custom fitted Land Rover. On delivery (and payment!) day, it was discovered that the glib nephew had not only caught the first plane home, but he had also duped the Alhambra Theatre and the Durban Teachers’ Training College!
George finally got his Land Rover and his research work with turtles is recognized worldwide, making him a true legend of our times!
Dr Allan Heydorn was the Director of SAAMBR for ten years from the late 1960s. He saw SAAMBR through some of its most exciting developments and expansions, but one story about him always brings a smile to our faces!
Dr Heydorn had a little dog called Kolletjie. Just like you do on Sunday, he took his dog for a walk along the Lower Marine Parade. When he got to the aquarium, he picked Kolletjie up and put him under his arm so that Kolletjie could see the fish in the tanks. Kolletjie loved this treat and his tail wagged with glee.
When they got to the Shark Tank – it was a different story – a very large, ominous Brindlebass came from the deep and peered back at Kolletjie. Suddenly Kolletjie stiffened, his tail was dead still, and Dr Heydorn felt a warm wet patch running down under his arm!
Every organisation has its fair share of stories which form part of their history.
John Ballard, who is still with us today, joined SAAMBR in 1968 as Curator. With a staff of one, he was in charge of animal management, tank maintenance, exhibit development, animal collections, water chemistry and annotations. He didn’t have much time to sleep!
Up until his appointment, collections for the aquarium were quite ad hoc. Seine fishermen and local anglers were asked to bring in anything from their catches that was alive and in good condition.
In 1972 the first dedicated collection expedition took place. Months of planning took place and loaded to the hilt with everything that they needed (including their own camping gear) they went to Sodwana Bay. Sadly, the local monkeys and mongooses raided the camp and ate all their eggs, jam, bread and bananas.
With the financial outlay to replace essential supplies, it is no wonder that John Ballard set up the Ballard’s Bush Aquarium for a nominal charge. This photo has earned its place as one of our fondest in SAAMBR’s history!
SAAMBR has its fair share of legends and Freddy is one of them. Freddy washed up on the beach in Umkomaas in July 1973. Somewhat oiled and dishevelled, he was cleaned and eventually taken to the aquarium.
He settled in fairly quickly, but being the inquisitive fellow that he was, he saw an open door one day and took a stroll along the Lower Marine Parade until a crowd of followers returned him safely to the aquarium. While swimming in the Main Tank one day, he got swallowed by a large Brindle bass who promptly spat him out.
Eventually Freddy fell in love with one of the chicks called Spooky. Sadly Spooky rejected his advances. Freddy however, decided to follow a career in show business and with five of his friends, with little black bow ties around their necks – they performed the most amazing feats by jumping over sticks at different heights above the water at feed times every day.
Freddy and Spooky have earned their place in SAAMBR’s history as characters who will fondly be remembered!
In the 1970s the animals at the Durban Aquarium were causing great attention in the movie-making world (and SAAMBR was sitting on an untapped goldmine). Seal-a-Tainer plastic containers wanted to make an advert with a seal balancing a series of boxes. Sacha was chosen for the movie debut and the contract was duly signed and her training commenced. This involved getting her used to a vehicle and going for longer rides every day to get accustomed to going to the film studio at the University of Durban-Westville. With regard to balancing the containers – Sacha was an accomplished balancer – but the boxes were tied together just in case.
On the appointed day – the star was driven to the set. A porta pool had been set up for Sacha. She took one look at the strange set up, dived into the pool and refused to emerge. The filming commenced with the other role players on the first day. After the crew had left for the day, the carers decided to drain the pool to get Sacha to emerge. This was not as easy as it sounds because buckets had to be used – with Sacha attacking at every dip of the bucket.
The following day, Sacha’s performance was exemplary during rehearsal and it appeared that all was not lost. However, when crunch time came and the cameras started rolling, Sacha would not rise to the occasion. Our reputation was at stake! The atmosphere in the studio was very tense and everyone put on a brave front by feigning optimism.
A chance remark by the comedian saved the day – he suggested that applause from onlookers might help. Sacha had been used to applause for the past thirteen years. The clapping produced the desired result - two hours of impeccable, non-stop star performance. The clapping was the exact stimulus that she needed to feel at home. She sat through one take after another, even unperturbed when strange people on ladders dropped large numbers of plastic containers all around her.
Five kilograms of fish later, the movie star lay on her stand, bloated, satisfied and ready to go home!
And so, Sacha paved the way for many of the animals who would become movie stars in the future.
The Centenary Aquarium opened its doors in 1959. Later on it became known as the Durban Aquarium.
In 1983, at great cost, SAAMBR appointed a marketing company to rebrand the aquarium. After much head scratching (and clearly little creativity), it was decided to rename the aquarium Sea World, forever to be confused with Seaworld in the United States and a local fishmonger in Durban called Seaworld. Many a receptionist had to deal with calls from people wanting to order fresh fish.
Not only did the logo change but the marketing company designed smart new uniforms which, had they ever been worn, would have made the ladies look more like air hostesses. It was at this time that George Buckland made the two iconic dolphins that graced the outside of the aquarium and are still with us today!
Up until 1975 there were no guided tours in the aquarium. Visitors used a very comprehensive Guide Book and annotations at the exhibits to help them learn more about the fish on display.
There was a marked increase in the numbers of school groups visiting the aquarium and a group of 15 volunteers was recruited to conduct guided tours, which also provided an added source of income for the aquarium. Up until this time, if a guided tour was needed, the aquarists or scientists were taken away from their routine work to perform this task.
Today we have over 50 Education Volunteer Guides who are an integral part of the SAAMBR family!
In the days before drones, I imagine that the photographer who took this photo had to climb to the top of The Beach Hotel to get this rare shot. In the 14 years since opening, SAAMBR had grown. The admin block, the lecture hall, scientists’ laboratories and the restaurants had all been added to the complex.
It is quite interesting to note however, there is no traffic, there are no car guards. There are also very few people around – it must have been a very quiet day on the Durban Beachfront. I should imagine too that all the cars belonged to the staff at SAAMBR. Also missing are the rickshaws and the curio sellers that mushroomed in later years.
The pier at the end of West Street was also a great place for fishermen where young boys, to earn a bit of pocket money used to swim the fishermen's bait out for sixpence – if they were lucky to get paid.
Have a good look at this picture and let’s see if you can see something that we have missed!
One morning in 1996, the aquarists arrived at work to find several large fish in the Main Tank with broken traces trailing from their mouths. An oxeye tarpon that had been there for ten years was also missing. It was soon discovered that the big open Main Tank had become the most popular fishing spot in Durban. Why stand out in the cold and the wind on the beach when you have hungry fish swimming right in front of you?
It was also rumoured at the time that the main dare at one of the local drinking spots was a swim across the Shark Tank. Since no human remains clutching a beer bottle were ever found – this could not be proved!
To put a stop to the errant fishermen, shade cloth was put across the top of both tanks and night security guards were employed! Never a dull moment at Sea World!
John Ballard, who started at SAAMBR in 1968, is still a familiar figure at SAAMBR. With 52 years of service to the organization he is a treasure trove of anecdotes about the past.
While talking about the past he recalled his worst nightmare as curator! While on duty on Friday 11 April 1997, one of the 38mm thick windows on the lower level of the Main Tank in the old aquarium at the bottom end of West Street burst, releasing 700 000 litres of sea water into the lower gallery and onto the Lower Marine Parade. Fortunately the guests were at a Dolphin Presentation and the gallery was empty.
The fish gushed out with the water, soon flooding nearby offices and plant rooms. Approximately five hundred fish found themselves high and dry and at the mercy of the rescuers. Everyone downed tools (and pens) and rushed to help with buckets and anything that could carry fish! Even the Technical Team, who had just settled down to have their ritual morning tea (never to be disturbed), rushed to help. As fish flopped around in the water, they were taken to pools in the courtyard and the bigger pompano were released into the sea! The water soon settled to a depth of 60cm and the remaining fish, sand sharks and turtles flopped about in the shallow water.
By that afternoon, mopping up operations were in full swing! The window was replaced with a steel plate and the tank was refilled with fresh seawater.
Large turtles, sand sharks and stingrays miraculously survived the experience and were none the worse for wear! At the end of the day, only five fish were not accounted for. People were obviously so busy saving the fish on that day that nobody took a photo, and cell phone cameras were still in the far distant future.
In 1984 at great cost, expert contractors and design specialists were brought in to redesign and manufacture the tanks in the foyer at the old Sea World. They installed laminated glass while the aquarists installed new sub-sand filters and elaborate rock work to create eye catching exhibits.
John Ballard who was the Curator at the time told us that the tanks were beautiful and much admired until six weeks after the contractors left - the window in one tank cracked and started leaking. In quick succession another three cracked and started leaking.
I am told that the when the last of the four tanks cracked and wept – so did the Curator!
On the 23 June 2000, tragedy struck when a fully laden bulk ore carrier, the MV Treasure, sank just off Cape Town. The fuel oil that leaked into the sea threatened 41 000 penguins close by in their rookeries off Dassen Island and Robben Island. A huge rescue mission was launched to remove oiled birds and relocate 20 000 non-oiled birds to prevent their contamination. With the removal of the adults, many chicks were left unattended in their nests.
Rudy van der Elst, casually walked into Ann Kunz’ office one day and asked her if Sea World could handle five hundred rescued penguin chicks. Ann sprang into action and by the next day it was decided to accommodate the chicks at SAAMBR’s boathouse at Vetch’s Pier. Fencing, food, porta pools, sprinkler systems, water pumps and hospital care facilities were donated by generous supporters and once again Durbanites rallied to the cause. Volunteers and veterinary help poured in and in no time at all – penguin chicks started to arrive in batches by air from Cape Town, usually the last flight of the day! With SAAMBR’s track record and experience in raising penguin chicks and the rehabilitation of stranded birds, SAAMBR’s help was much appreciated by the Department of Marine and Coastal Management.
The task of dealing with the chicks as they arrived was co-ordinated and each bird was numbered and given a thorough veterinary examination. A large number of the birds were infected with fleas and several were severely dehydrated. Each bird was tagged and weighed and immediately rehydrated. Medical records were kept for each bird and the birds were categorised for husbandry purposes. This also involved the training of the volunteers to cope with and meet the husbandry standards required by Sea World. The penguins were divided into six groups according to the care that they needed. Although extensive use was made of volunteers, the Sea World staff undertook most of the bird handling to facilitate feeding and minimise stress. Two students were employed to handle the data capturing for a record of each bird and this served to alert the staff to the special needs or deterioration of a particular bird.
Some 250 kilograms of sardines were consumed each day by these chicks and the Sea World staff and volunteers forfeited much free time over the weeks and weekends that it took for the chicks to fledge. And while they may look soft and cuddly, penguin beaks are serious weapons as many careless helping hands can attest!
Hygiene control was stringent and all equipment had to be thoroughly washed and disinfected every day. It was a busy time indeed – and with the help of Addington Hospital and generous donations from the public it was most encouraging indeed to see how the people of Durban opened their hearts to these orphaned chicks. A generous donation by the Green Trust allowed Sea World to cope with all the additional costs.
The rescue effort further enhanced Sea World’s ability to deal with the rescue and rehabilitation of penguins in the long term with a view to rehabilitation and breeding in order to return birds to the wild.
Slowly but surely, the chicks were returned in batches to Cape Town for release. Who will ever forget the images of the volunteers with cardboard boxes, releasing the rehabilitated birds with pink spots on their chests as they waddled back into the sea?
In 1999 at the Old Sea World, the aquarists built a beautiful Mangrove Exhibit in the foyer, where all the other small tanks were situated. Complete with crabs and mudskippers, the exhibit proved to be very popular with the public. It was open at the top so that the mangrove trees could receive natural sunlight.
However, the word got around in the bird world and in no time at all a Mangrove kingfisher found the small opening at the top of the exhibit and made regular appearances to steal the crabs in the exhibit. Whenever this happened it caused great excitement amongst the visitors and Leanna Botha, who worked at the ticketing desk nearby, remembers that it was the highlight of their day whenever this beautiful bird came for his tasty snack!
SAAMBR has always been very mindful of what the visitors think after a visit to the Aquarium. Surveys conducted over the years have revealed what the public has to say – sometimes the comments are of a more serious nature while others appear to be lighthearted – or were they being serious?
These were some of the comments from a survey done in 1979:
1. Make the entrance fee cheaper.
2. Killer whales please.
3. R9.00 total for Mum, Dad and two kids is too steep.
4. You should clean the tiles around the pool.
5. It’s not too crowded in there is it?
6. Add a few bikinis.
The lighter side of SAAMBR – it made us smile and I hope it made you smile too!
The shad or elf is a fierce little gamefish that provides good sport fishing for thousands of shore fishermen in KZN every year. A serious decline in catches in the 1960s and 1970s caused widespread reaction. By 1975 the catch had decreased by 60%.
Rudy van der Elst, a young ORI scientist, undertook to study linefish biology with shad as the main species. He soon discovered that the shad were being fished out faster than they could breed. After much research he proposed a closed season, a bag limit and no sale of the species to allow them to recover. This was unheard of and a very unpopular proposal.
The local fishermen were very angry because many of them relied on shad to feed their families. They took to protesting on the beaches and employing devious means to hide their catch from the beady eyed Parks Board. These included burying their catches in the sand or hiding them in the ice cream vendor’s cooler box.
A commission of enquiry was set up and the conservation measures were supported. By this time it was evident to some fishermen that the regulations were working. The catches of shad improved significantly and the regulations were eased up a little.
ORI became a household name!
An important part of research is the field trips undertaken by the scientists. Most field trips go off without a hitch but one such field trip almost ended in disaster.
Pat Garratt, who joined ORI in 1979, undertook to study the biology of the Slinger – a local sparid (seabream). One weekend, while in Richards Bay, he had the opportunity to go out with a local fisherman during a fishing competition. On seeing the boat he was not happy about the cracks in the deck but he was assured that the boat was seaworthy!
After a wonderful morning of great catches with the north easterly spraying over them, they did not notice that the water was seeping through the deck. When they tried to start the motors and the petrol was flooded with water. A wave capsized the boat and they clung on for dear life. Pat drew the short straw and there was no life jacket for him. They eventually saw rescue helicopters and a passing ship but nobody saw them.
Pat spent the night in the water between the two hulls. Luckily for him, Rudy van der Elst calculated, with the aid of weather charts, where they might be found and the following morning they were picked up 32 nautical miles off Umdloti after being in the water for 22 hours.
This was not the end of Pat’s fishing career – he was back on a boat within ten days of his ordeal!
If you think that the life of an ORI scientist means long hours in an office sitting behind a computer capturing and interpreting data, you are right – but not all the time. They have to collect all that data and that means a field trip, often with days and sometimes weeks away from home. This month I will tell you some of the stories from our more “hairy” field trips.
In November 1998, Bruce Mann and Peter Fielding undertook a field trip to Somalia to investigate the lobster fishery and make recommendations to the IUCN on how to improve the sustainability of the fishery.
This was easier said than done. Under primitive and often grueling conditions in 40 degree temperatures, they not only met with fierce opposition from the local community but were shot at with AK47’s and robbed at gunpoint. After fleeing from the attackers they hot footed it across the desert and took refuge in a Red Cross station until things calmed down and they could resume their research.
Meals were also sparse and they lived on spaghetti with a tin of tomato paste slapped on top and if they were lucky, a bit of goat meat. And Somali style, they all had to crouch around the bowl and eat with their hands.
Never were two scientists so happy to finally get home. The biggest joy was to have something other than spaghetti, tomato paste and goat’s meat for supper.
Photo: Dr Peter Fielding sitting outside the ‘luxury’ accommodation they shared on part of the trip.
One of the highlights of the month in KwaZulu Natal in July is the Sardine Run. This annual migration of these small silver fish that migrate up the coast with accompanying game fish and birds has always been the topic of much conversation amongst the locals and fishermen and the highlight of the angling year. Speculation about their early arrival or late arrival or dwindling numbers has been thrashed out over a pint in many a local watering hole up and down the coast.
Years ago it was a free for all with there being plenty for everyone but as time has gone by –the silver shoals have dwindled and the catches are now jealously guarded as they fetch high prices at the local markets.
Is it climate change causing this – who knows – time will tell?
In 1959 SAAMBR opened its doors with 10 staff – many of whom had to do two or three jobs. By 1978 there were 79 and by1989 the staff had mushroomed to 98! We currently employ almost 200 staff members.
Let’s have a bit of fun today – have a look at this staff photograph.
Can you see yourself sitting there or are there people in the photo that you recognise? Although this was many years ago, believe it or not, there are people in this photo who are still part SAAMBR today!
Most of our volunteers are women who join our team when they retire or when their children have flown the nest. These passionate women spend hundreds of hours every year sharing their love of the ocean with visitors and children.
Our longest serving volunteer with 40 years’ service is Sylvia Jacobs. It was SAAMBR’s lucky day in 1980 when Sylvia Jacobs became a Sea World Voluntary Guide. Sylvia, in her quiet unassuming manner, threw herself into every aspect of volunteering to become a key member of the Education Department and a much loved part of the Sea World family.
Sylvia had a gift for art and her larger than life paintings have graced the walls of both the new and the old Sea World.
After 40 years of voluntary service, Sylvia reminds everyone that hard work, commitment and perseverance is rewarded not financially but in a wealth of amazing experiences, opportunities and the chance to learn and grow as an individual every day!
During the twenty year war in Mozambique, ORI had occasional contact with our northern neighbours through contacts set up by Dr Tony de Freitas, who had been Director of Fisheries in Mozambique. When the borders opened up, Sean Fenessey and his team had the opportunity to go to Inhaca Island to see what linefish were found in the waters off Southern Mozambique.
All went well (many fish were tagged and many Laurentinas were consumed) and the research proceeded at a cracking pace until it was time to come home. When the team left Inhaca Island they discovered that the road was closed because the army was in revolt because they had not been paid. Hearing bullet shots and seeing puffs of smoke did not boost their confidence. They hastily retreated to Maputo.
The only way to head south to the border was to bundu bash over uncharted roads. A local doctor and his wife who knew the way needed a lift. They all crammed into the already overcrowded ORI vehicle and bounced their way through rock throwing ambushes to the border. In a move of desperation, Sean hid all his metacais under his cap. On arrival at the border post which was a rickety old caravan parked in the middle of nowhere, Sean took off his cap to take his shirt off because it was hot. Metacais rained down around his feet. Luckily for him, the gun toting soldiers had been paid that day and they returned the money to Sean with a smile.
Interestingly, three of the Spanish mackerel tagged on that trip have since turned up in South African waters.
In November 1994, four ORI scientists set out to do a survey along the Transkei Coast to establish the best use of fisheries for the local communities.
On the appointed day, the team left Durban, with two rather large dogs. It turned out that the owner could not find a dog sitter. He also pointed out that they were very good guard dogs and their main task was to keep ORI property safe.
The team stayed in campsites, rondavels and borrowed verandahs as they made their way along the coast. The first night in a campsite, the dogs barked incessantly and it was discovered in the morning that the neighbours had been robbed but the ORI bakkie was safe. The dogs had redeemed themselves.
On the final night, while camping at Mgazana in the rain, the dogs were allowed to sleep in the tent. Everyone including the dogs slept soundly until they awoke at one thirty to find that they had been robbed. Although the dogs were then put on guard, the robbers returned and took a suitcase full of clothes – the dogs slept through it. So much for the “brave” guard dogs!
Who remembers the story about the RV David Davies, the research vessel that ORI acquired in the late 1960s for research? We didn’t have it long because we could not afford the upkeep on it. It made its reappearance in 2008, 40 years later as the TB Davies when a group of ORI scientists along with students from the University of Natal embarked on a week-long cruise along the north coast of Natal to collect benthic samples and water samples.
Armed with hundreds of sample bottles, benthic grabs and plenty of passion (of the research kind!), they set sail for a week of fun in the sun.
The arrival of Cyclone Jokwe put a sudden end to all ideas of a week of fun in the sun. The mere idea of the advancing cyclone sent several scientists to their cabins with sea sickness. The north easter made it increasingly difficult to complete their task as the scientists scuttled around on the deck, drifting off station and avoiding the swinging vertical plankton net haulers.
Cyclone Jokwe arrived with its full force, and even bigger swells from a south westerly wind caused much staggering and stumbling around on deck on all fours. Finally with safety being the main concern, the captain abandoned the cruise and headed for the safety of Durban Harbour.
With wet feet, a tinge of green from sea sickness and great relief, the Benthic Babes as they soon became known, were most relieved to return to the calm waters of Durban Harbour. So much for a week long fun in the sun cruise!
If you are lucky enough to stroll around alongside uShaka Marine World, you will see a canal which has been a charming addition to the ever growing flatland in that area.
The Point Waterfront Canal gets seawater from the uShaka Sea World outflow. In 2003 soon after the canal was filled, the uShaka Sea World staff introduced various fish into the canal to keep it clear of undesirable algal growth.
There are currently over 50 species of fish in the canal, the most colourful of which are the wrasse and butterflyfish. A wide range of fish food occurs in the canal. Different types of algae grow on the walls and in the bottom substrate, naturally occurring crustaceans such as shrimps, marine worms, molluscs and bivalves are found. A wide range of microscopic organisms also occur.
Grunter 'turn over' the bottom substrate in their search for food which prevents it from becoming anoxic and the surgeonfish who continually graze the walls keep the algae at acceptable levels. These fish play an important role in ensuring that the marine environment and water quality of the canal remains healthy.
The uShaka Sea World staff feed the fish in the canal each day with the leftover aquarium fish food like sardine, mackerel and squid. The grunters have come to recognize the staff and they lie in wait at the same place every day for their daily feed.
If you walk along the canal on a sunny day, don’t forget to enjoy watching the fish as they bustle backwards and forwards to go about their business of keeping the canal in a clean and healthy state.
In 1993, that SAAMBR decided to raise funds by holding a dolphin themed Christmas Show. Not only did it boost the coffers of SAAMBR by bringing in over R1 million with the added sale of calendars, but it has become an annual event on the Durban Festive Season Calendar.
The early shows were produced in-house and featured lots of carol singing with slowly melting candles – the dolphins were the highlight.
Since SAAMBR’s move to uShaka Marine World, the annual Dolphins by Starlight has become an event that Durbanites look forward to each year.
Over the years, our animals have featured in numerous special Christmas messages. These photo shoots have always been great fun for the staff and for the photographers who hoped to get that iconic shot.
Many photos come to mind as we remember our beloved Gambit who featured prominently in our Christmas pictures over the years.
Pictures of our divers dressed as Santa feeding the rays in Open Ocean Exhibit graced the front pages of many newspapers around the world on Christmas day.