South Africa Marine Field Course: Preview

As I mentioned in passing, I’m going to South Africa for a marine field course in April for two weeks! My course offered several different field courses (Ecuador, Egypt, Portugal and South Africa) with most expenses paid except flights so I thought it would be silly not to.

I’ve been interested in marine biology since I was young, but never got the chance to explore the topic in detail going to a university in a landlocked state. I chose the South African marine course over the Egyptian marine field course so I would have more time to prepare and choose a project I’m really interested in. However, those on the Egypt field course had such a blast scuba diving, my jealousy part contributed to booking my own LiveAboard trip there over Christmas.

For this (and the Red Sea) trips, students like myself had to get scuba certified if they weren’t already. I got my open water diving certification with fellow students Samira and Peter at a local dive shop and went a step further and got my advanced open water certification on holiday in Egypt.

I didn’t know anything about the course except the dates until this week, where we got our syllabus and had a briefing. This trip was originally booked for Durban and Cape Town, but with the water crisis in Cape Town, we will now be based a few hours south in Hermanus but will still have the chance to visit Cape Town.

The learning outcomes of the field course are as follows:

“By the end of the module, a successful student will be able to:

1. Research, synthesise and utilise the primary scientific literature to generate zoological research hypotheses and identify appropriate scientific methods to test these hypotheses.

2. Select and apply appropriate scientific methods to collect and analyse field data to address specific research questions in African zoology.

3. Present and critically analyse zoological research findings.

The module will also develop your transferable skills in analysis and problem solving, numeracy and data analysis, written communication, oral communication, organisation and time management, motivation and independent learning, information technology, and teamwork.”

After the briefing, we were instructed to sort ourselves into buddy pairs and choose our project from four possibilities:

1. Butterflies on the reef: Categorize the foraging biology and coral associations of the different butterfly fish species in the community.

2. Predator-prey behavior: Use field observations of predators and prey on the coral reefs to identify predator-prey associations, determine foraging time-budgets for predators, and quantify the behavioral effects of predators on prey species.

3. Coral reef niches: Investigate the occurrence and health of different coral taxa and other sessile organisms at a series of different reef sites, and examine how these relate to exposure, depth and other environmental factors.

4. Homes in the reef: This project will disentangle the influence of different factors on the composition of coral reef fish communities. It will combine transect surveys of fish diversity with observations of fish locations and activity, for multiple reef sites in Sodwana Bay that differ in environmental parameters.

My preference is the fourth project, but they all seem interesting! I currently do not have a buddy, but I’m sure I will be paired with someone as equally excited for my first project choice. The team of four students compromising of two buddy pairs with two different projects (one ecological and one behavioral) will be assessed based on a group seminar on the trip about our project (30%) and a project report (70%).

In October, we were given parameters to book our flights and some useful tips. The information also included possible flight routes and costs. Our flights must:

  • Arrive in Durban midday on 7 April
  • Depart Durban for Cape Town no earlier than 14:00 on 16 April

Since I figured two weeks of field course would wear me out and drain my money, I will be promptly returning back to the U.K. once the course is over, as I suspect most of the other students will, too. We will be arriving back in the U.K. on 22 April.

Our travel and activity plans are as follows:

  • Day 1: Fly to Durban
  • Day 2: Transfer to Reef Teach, Sodwana Bay, the most southerly coral reef in the world
  • Day 3: Diving Sodwana Bay (check dives and orientation)
  • Day 4: Diving Sodwana Bay (reef survey)
  • Day 5: Diving Sodwana Bay (project dives)
  • Day 6: Diving Sodwana Bay (project dives)
  • Day 7:  Diving Sodwana Bay (project dives), transfer to Umkomaas
  • Day 8: Optional bush and boat safari
  • Day 9: Diving Aliwal Shoal or Protea Banks. Ecological transition zone in reefs with corals and algae with shark sightings (oceanic blacktip, blue and tiger sharks) and close encounters range from possible to almost certain.
  • Day 10: Diving Aliwal Shoal or Protea Banks
  • Day 11: Diving Aliwal Shoal or Protea Banks, project presentations
  • Day 12: Travel to Cape Town, transfer to Hermanus
  • Day 13: White shark cage-diving trip, marine safari trip, visit to African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary
  • Day 14: Optional sevengill cowshark and catsharks dive in kelp forest, cape fur seal
  • Day 15: Optional blue and mako shark dive, submit project report
  • Day 16: Free day, fly back to London

As you can tell, the dives take place in a range of environments such as reef, kelp forest and shark dives. The water temperature ranges from 12-24°C (54-75°F) with 5-10 meters (16-32 feet) visibility. We are advised to look out for sea urchins, moray eels and jellyfish on our dive as wildlife hazards. “What about the sharks?!” I was thinking. Now might be the time to share with you all that my biggest (and only) phobia is sharks. Like many people who try to put my fear into perspective, the lecturers assured us that sharks aren’t that dangerous, but that doesn’t make their presence any less intimidating to me, especially when close encounters are almost guaranteed.

As I mentioned, most expenses are paid for this trip. We have to pay for flights (already done), lunch, some dinners, food in transit and optional excursions, which are £90 for the bush and boat safari and £240 for the blue and mako shark dive. I will probably do the bush and boat safari as I don’t want to drop £240 when sightings aren’t entirely guaranteed and will give me the chance to explore Cape Town.

Now, all this all sounds thrilling, but we’re constantly given reminders that this is not a holiday and we are expected to work really hard. My diving holiday was way more tiring than I could have imagined and on this trip, my brain will be working just as hard as my body.

I’m getting really excited for this trip and can’t believe it’s less than two months away now! I’m glad I’m on a course I love that can provide such opportunities and look forward to both the work and a bit of sight seeing.



  1. Don Cox
    February 23, 2018 / 12:43 pm

    Sounds like a lot of work but for you fun work!!!

  2. February 25, 2018 / 5:17 pm

    Omg so cool!! Have you been in South Africa before? Hermanus is beautiful! Love it there! Hope you’ll have a good time! Xx

    • rachelwuest
      February 28, 2018 / 7:38 am

      I have not! I’m so excited!

  3. March 6, 2018 / 6:29 pm

    This looks so amazing! I’m fascinated with the ocean too!

  4. March 18, 2018 / 7:08 am

    This looks absolutely fantastic! I can’t imagine how amazing the trip would be! Please do share about the trip with extensive posts and photographs. I wanted to be a marine biologist as a child but now I’m studying medicine instead. It’s a great field but there’s a certain charm in traveling and the ocean 🙂
    Kanra Khan

    twitter || instagram || facebook

Leave a Reply