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Protecting South Africa’s oceans calls for a widespread movement of awareness and education

World Oceans Day, Saturday, June 8th, highlights how oceans support all life on earth. Their vital role is threatened by climate change, pollution, overfishing and habitat destruction, but we can still act now to protect our marine heritage. 

Ocean health is critical to mitigating climate change, growing our economies, and sustaining life on the planet. Our oceans produce 70% of the Earth’s oxygen, absorb 25% of carbon dioxide emissions, and capture 90% of the excess heat that those emissions generate. They drive our planet’s weather systems, feed over a billion people, and are a major attraction for tourism. In South Africa, coastal goods and services are estimated to contribute 35% to our GDP

Our oceans support all life on Earth and are essential for mitigating climate change

And while our terrestrial wildlife in South Africa is world-famous, our marine life deserves just as much credit: we’re home to the ocean’s own Big Five in the southern right whale, great white shark, Cape fur seal, bottlenose dolphin, and African penguin. We enjoy one of the longest coastlines on the continent, bordering two oceans, and with habitats ranging from coral reefs to kelp forests. These diverse and unique habitats are, in turn, home to diverse and unique marine life. In fact, about 33% of the country’s marine species are endemic, meaning that they cannot be found anywhere else in the world. 

Peter Knights, Wild Africa CEO, notes that this natural heritage is under serious threat. “Of the 77 species of fish whose numbers are known, 26 are considered depleted or heavily depleted. The African penguin, having lost 97% of its population, is down to just 10,000 breeding pairs and could be extinct by 2035 if we don’t change course. The great white shark, a globally vulnerable species, used to be an iconic tourist attraction for tourists to SA, yet today they’re rarely sighted.”

Some of South Africa’s most iconic marine species, like the African penguin, are facing extinction

Given both the importance of our oceans to all life and the gravity of the threats they face, it’s clear that widespread action is needed. Going far beyond scientists and politicians, protecting our oceans is everybody’s business. Engaging the wider public in the task at hand is going to take education, awareness and advocacy – and some are already leading the way.

Zandi Ndhlovu, ‘The Black Mermaid’, is one such individual. South Africa’s first black female freediving instructor, she’s an advocate for Africa’s oceans, speaking regularly on the heritage we have to protect, the threats our marine life faces and issues of ocean access. Her book, entitled ‘Zandi’s Song’, brings awareness to these themes, unpacking critical environmental lessons. Her global engagements, including appearing on the Kelly Clarkson Show, are amplifying awareness and creating a movement for change – particularly among younger generations.

Zandi Ndhlovu, South Africa’s first black female freediving instructor, is raising awareness and driving a movement for change

“How do we bring about the next generation of ocean guardians?” she prompts. “One, we change the narrative and two, we create access to this incredible ocean space. I run the Black Mermaid Foundation where we take kids out on ocean excursions, focusing on kids from black and brown communities. Why? Because how do you care for something you’ve never seen before?” 

Specifically, Zandi is speaking out about the issue of ocean plastic, and calling all to conscious consumer choices. “Plastic pollution is a massive problem in our oceans, I could speak endlessly about it. But for me, it starts with intentionality. We know we need to create change, we know that there’s no thriving humanity without thriving oceans, and so how do we become more intentional with our own consumption?” 

Watch: Zandi’s African Penguin Day appeal

The Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town has been a champion for ocean awareness for decades; granting access to an undersea world otherwise not accessible to many, and with a focus on engaging schools, reaching thousands of young people each year. Their Turtle Conservation Centre works in rescue, rehabilitation, release and research, supporting the conservation of endangered turtle species, while their Marine Wildlife Management Programme facilitates the peaceful coexistence of humans and marine wildlife along Cape Town’s shores.

Two Oceans Aquarium is a leading force in ocean awareness and endangered turtle conservation in South Africa

Heather Wares, Communications Manager at the Two Oceans Aquarium, explains further, “Education is critical to what we do, as we believe that ocean awareness will lead to a future grounded in effective behaviour change. As people develop their individual knowledge about the value of a healthy ocean, they can start to make decisions in their everyday lives which will contribute to best practice for ocean health.”

Watch: Penguin conservation at the Two Oceans Aquarium

Wild Africa works with Zandi, Two Oceans Aquarium and many other ambassadors and organisations to highlight conservation challenges, promote solutions and inspire the public support and political will to protect Africa’s wildlife and wild spaces – forever. Their campaigns span social media, national TV broadcasters and leading streaming services, radio stations, news media and billboards across the continent. Working in South Africa as well as countries like Nigeria and Namibia, they’re turning the volume up on ocean conservation themes, through initiatives such as Dr Mark’s Animal Show, public service announcements with well-known celebrities, their Music for Wildlife concert series and a mini-documentary series called Unsung Heroes. Specifically, they’re calling attention to the plight of turtles, fish, dolphins, sharks and penguins and tackling issues like plastic pollution, overfishing and poaching. 

“Our oceans are our life support system and people and wildlife can only survive and thrive together. On World Oceans Day we should commit to do what we can to cut our carbon footprint, reduce plastic use, ensure litter is disposed of properly and make sustainable seafood choices ,” concludes Wild Africa’s Peter Knights.