Our second forest, under the sea…

By Staff Writer: Jess Meniere

Photograph by Jess Meniere. Cape Point nature reserve. April 2021.

Our oceans breathe, her breath swelling to a rise and fall as she traces the contours of our coastline. Her tireless ebb and flow snakes along the West Coast, swimming down to Cape Agulhas, where our two oceans meet – crashing into one. It’s here where the icy chill of the Atlantic’s Benguela quarrels against the comfort and warmth of the Agulhas Current, the Indian Ocean. The mixing of these two opposing seas, seasonal winds and the topography of our shoreline create ideal conditions for the flourishing and abundant Great African Sea Forest. Our kelp forests – which frame shorelines from the west coast, past Cape Point, eastwardly to its edge, at Cape Agulhas – bury their holdfasts deep into rocky bottoms and redbait-floors. This fast-growing marine algae, which thrives in subpolar regions, finds home in our South African waters; one of very few countries in the world. 

This forest is dense, dynamic, and full of dramatic unfolding wildlife. Amidst the thicket of kelp, beneath her long muddy green arms that stretch out and sway in the changing tides – is an ecosystem teeming with life. The canopies of this forest create a tree-top army, camouflaged in seaweed green; changing the alluring ocean blues into the unwelcoming muddy hues of brown. Yet, beneath this facade, life is showered in sunlight and rinsed in a motley of colour; anemones dance, feather-dusters shake their pom-poms, while urchins creep and inch themselves slowly across the oceans’ floor. It’s here, hidden beneath the protection of green, that the coral clings decoratively to inclines, swim-throughs and drop-offs, where sea fans are shaped by the water around them, growing large and full in the shallow waters that house them. 

While a murky stillness is portrayed from above, the watery undergrowth of our sea forest beats noisily; from the predatory pulse of pyjama-sharks, that sends its prey scuttling into dusty holes, or the spine-crunching crack of a sea otter’s sea urchin meal – it’s a constant wrestle of survival that keeps the kelp forest’s ecosystem in-check, sustaining and sheltering a variety of species in its home. From small-life filter-feeders to crayfish, nudibranchs, to the many fish species, our African Jackass penguins, sharks dressed in varied sizes, shapes and (placoid) scales, single-fin rays, and even our Southern-right and humpback whales.

It is this coexistence between species and habitat that creates a unique ecology. One which is recognised as the most productive ecosystems in the world.

While the cold waters fend off many sea-goers, there is a legion of swimmers, a community of snorkelers, freedivers and scuba divers who find themselves at peace, at wonder and wholeness in the tranquillity of this underwater world. This forest is alive; calling out, beckoning you to her depths, to explore its teeming ocean floor. With each weather, wind or seasonal change comes a different forest to discover; sometimes wild and hazy with growing waves that lash and frenzy the kelp, other times frozen, still and clear with streaming sunlight illuminating the underwater blades of the forest. 

It’s the salt that sticks to your skin – itching – which calls you back to the cold waters to be rinsed off once more. A dehydrating thirst for thrill into these kelp-forested waters; which, as we explore through each breath-taken, we recognise the beauty of our ocean and our resolve to protect it.