The question is, what treasures of the sea are beachcombers searching for in this digital age?  The answer is simple: anything and everything that can be turned into data describing the state of health of our coastal environment. 

Monitoring all aspects of the marine and coastal eco-system from Vermont to De Kelders is the task given to 31 Hermanus Varsity students for their course internship. It’s a responsibility they take seriously, but that doesn’t preclude them from having fun. At a local tidal pool, from left: Prince Munemo, Simbonile Mhlomi, Lydia Tom and Sindisiwe Mhathuna.

At least, that is what 31 smartly-turned-out young interns from Hermanus Varsity (HV) will be doing for the next two months.  You may come across them somewhere between Vermont and De Kelders in small teams of six any day of the week. 

They have just completed a gruelling year-long theoretical course in Criminal Law Enforcement in the Marine Environment, presented by Nelson Mandela University. Since the course comprises a mix of face-to-face lectures, online input and tutorials, the experience during lockdown has been particularly stressful for the young students, most of them straight from school. Now the time has come for them to put some of their newly-acquired knowledge to work and they are fired up with enthusiasm. 

Kitted out with smart new hats, jackets, shoes and masks, they will be patrolling a stretch of coast approximately 40 km in length and are already finding the going tougher than they expected. Although they are all local youngsters from Hawston, Zwelihle and Masikhane and familiar with the area, they are discovering that walking long distances along the beach is no joke. (Just ask the Lighthouse 2 Lighthouse Ladies!) One thing is for sure, by the end of November, they’ll be a whole lot fitter than they were at the start.

As it is, the exercise involves a lot more than just a pleasant walk on the beach. Each member of each small team has a specific role to play in collecting, processing and analysing the information they gather along the way. This includes noting beach strandings, pollution, the movements of birds, fishing activity and the content of catches. They will be talking to fishers, tracking changing patterns in the local marine ecology and measuring and describing fish and other marine animals like starfish and octopus. 

Proudly displaying their new kit, these Hermanus Varsity students prepare to begin the internship for their Criminal Law Enforcement in a Marine Environment course. For the next two months they will be patrolling the coast from Vermont to De Kelders collecting data on the status of local marine and coastal eco-systems.

According to Kirsten Neke, Co-ordinator for the School of Environmental Studies at HV, this will be the first time such an intensive study of our coastline has been undertaken and as such, the data gathered will be of immense importance in shaping future conservation planning. 

“The emphasis of the course is on coastal protection as a whole, which means that the students need to be aware of the legal framework within which it takes place. As we know, poaching is rife in our area and it is not our intention to expose the students to any danger, but they need to filter their findings through an understanding of the law enforcement provisions currently available.”

After only a few days on the job, Johann Kruger, HV’s Communications Co-ordinator says he can already see which students are the true environmentalists. “They are the ones who are picking up the differences between old birds and young ones, who are seeing the details and asking the right questions. But it’s not just the eco-system they’re learning more about, it’s themselves as well. They’ll be different people at the end of it.”

CapeNature is playing a supervisory role in the internship and HV is planning to make a documentary of the process. At its conclusion, they will organise an experiential debriefing, allowing the students to express themselves through role play, art and storytelling.

“We believe these youngsters will be eminently employable at the end of their course,” says Delana Finlayson, CEO of the HVT. They could be appointed as peace officers in a number of environmental contexts, or, indeed, as coastal rangers or guides. In fact, we’re hoping that the Overstrand Municipality will be able to appoint some of them, at least during high season, to patrol the cliff paths and answer visitors’ questions about the coastal ecology. 

“We have already seen how much their language skills improved and how their self-confidence grew as the course progressed; the internship will provide the extra polish to round it off. They have knowledge of the local birds, fish, animals and plants and they are bursting with enthusiasm – what better PR could you want for our region?”

In fact, the Varsity’s School of Environmental Studies is itself planning all sorts of exciting activities for the December holidays with its students, including guided coastal walks, outdoor movies with an environmental focus, a Wine and Whales Evening and storytelling sessions for children. 

In the meantime, plans for next year’s School of Environmental Studies courses are well advanced. It is to be hoped that WWF will be in a position to fund the same Marine Law Enforcement course next year and the School will be introducing an aquaculture course from Stellenbosch University, as well as one on agro-ecology (sustainable farming) and a Marine Tourist Guide Course.  

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