The SA Agulhas II loomed over the dock of Cape Town Harbour. For eleven days this 134 meter cargo holder, icebreaker, and astounding research vessel was my classroom, and home. SEAmester (https://seamester.co.za/) is an annual course, run by Prof Isabelle Ansorge of the oceanography department of UCT and coordinated by Tahlia Henry, aiming to bring hands-on ship based experience to South African and international post-graduate students studying marine science.
We left Cape Town in the evening on July 1st and began our journey up the east coast of South Africa to then cross over the strong Agulhas current. Our days were filled with learning from some of the top researchers during lecture sessions and working with the fantastic onboard equipment during practical sessions. The ship is a floating laboratory and runs 24 hours a day, there is always sampling taking place like deployment of bongo-nets or the CTD (which measures conductivity, a proxy for salinity, temperature and depth of the water used on this trip to gain a better understanding of the Agulhas current). We gazed into the microscopic world of plankton and parasites, and witnessed the inner workings of how marine mammals are so good at living in this watery habitat. Some evenings the clouds parted and we were able to view the Milky Way as I have never seen it before.
Early morning sunrises were reserved for whale watching. Travelling through a highway of humpbacks, showing off their jumping skills by breaching every few minutes. One morning in particular I stood watching the waves and right beside the ship a great gush of water shooting into the air almost made me drop my camera. A whale had popped up and just like that disappeared below. We were followed by a number of seals hoping we were a fishing vessel and a free meal could be scored. Cape Gannets, Albatross’, and Petrels rode the winds beside us soaring along with ease. The first few days we were spoilt with glorious weather but of course, it’s never all smooth sailing, as two massive low-pressure systems were hot on our heels and eventually the cold front caught us. The ship had to navigate through 40 knot winds and 9 m swells. Although it was hard to stay upright we still managed to get through unscathed.
The trip ended far too quickly and we returned to Cape Town on the 11th of July and after being checked back into the country we all went to our separate corners of South Africa and the world. After a few days the rocking of the boat wore off, but the memories and incredible experience will never wash off.
Post written by Nina de Villiers