Despite the rain we’ve had over the last few day,s South Africa, and especially the Western Cape, is seriously affected by drought brought on by climate change. Fresh water is therefore an extremely precious commodity. 

Kleinmond estuary Photo: Rob Fryer

Estuaries and lagoons

Estuaries are one of the most important features of the South African coastline; they are tranquil areas of high productivity and play a vital role in the life cycles of many plants and animals – especially as a nursery for fish.

The Klein River in Hermanus has an estuary, as do the Onrus River, the Bot River, the Kleinmond River and the Uilenkraals River. These water bodies are often referred to as ‘lagoons’. This may be fine for visitors, but in fact they are not lagoons, they are estuaries. So what is the difference?

An estuary is where a river meets the sea. Situated at the interface between fresh- and marine waters, estuaries are among the most biologically productive ecosystems in the world and are of great ecological and economic importance.

Estuaries form a transition zone, known as an ecotone, between river environments and maritime environments. Estuaries are subject both to marine influences – such as tides, waves, and the influx of saline water – and to riverine influences – such as flows of fresh water and sediment. The mixing of seawater and fresh water provides high levels of nutrients both in the water column and in sediment, making estuaries among the most productive natural habitats in the world.

Kleinrivier Estuary Photo: Giorgio Lombardi

Estuaries are important as the nurseries of the sea. Since their waters are protected from the weather, are rich in nutrients, are generally warmer than in the ocean, and are usually free of large predators, they’re ideal, safe environments in which the larvae and juveniles of many marine species can develop.

Many natural estuaries suffer degradation from a variety of factors including: excessive sedimentation from soil erosion, which arises from overgrazing and other poor farming practices; overfishing; drainage and filling of wetlands; excessive nutrients (known as eutrophication) from sewage and animal wastes; chemical pollutants; and damming for water diversion.

A lagoon is a shallow body of salt water separated from the deeper sea by a sandbank, coral reef, or similar feature. It is generally not associated with a river and has very little fresh water inflow. 

Lagoons with little or no interchange with the open ocean, little or no inflow of fresh water, and high evaporation rates, may become highly saline. Lake St Lucia is an example of such a salty lagoon.


A wetland with Wachendorfia

Wetlands were once considered valueless wastelands that needed to be converted to other uses in order to improve their usefulness to people. Many governments, including South Africa’s, were still providing farmers with incentives to convert their wetlands for agricultural purposes as recently as the 1970s.  It is believed that about 60% of South Africa’s wetlands have already been lost or severely degraded. 

There was once a beautiful wetland just behind the dunes bordering the grottos at Grotto Beach. This area behind Dutchies is now filled in and used as a picnic spot.

Most residents in the 1950s referred to it as the ‘swamp’. It occupied virtually all the space between the coastal dunes, where the road to the beach runs now, and the grottos. As more houses were built on top of the cliffs above the grottos, the streams feeding the wetland ceased to be clear and became polluted by inadequate sewage management. This introduced pollution into the wetland. An outcry resulted when it was found that the outflow of the ‘swamp’ onto the beach contained harmful bacteria.

The municipality reacted, but what followed was probably an over-reaction.

The Hermanus News of 10 August 1957 reported: The Hermanus town council has started work on the Grotto Beach improvement scheme, which it is hoped to complete before the summer season commences. The road leading down from the Main Road is being widened at the corner, and the rock blasted from the high embankment is being used to fill up a large portion of the marshy vlei behind the beach, and so provide additional parking space, which is very necessary at the height of the holiday season. 

The council has experienced some opposition from the public, however, in this matter, as some people dislike any modernisation scheme which may distract from the natural beauty of the area.

Sound familiar? The public opposed to harming the natural beauty of the area? Filling in a beautiful wetland where indigenous flora and fauna thrived? Draining a ‘swamp’ without understanding that a wetland is in fact the best natural water purifier? Note that destroying a wetland was, in those days, regarded as a “modernisation scheme”. 

We now understand that wetlands are our natural assets, providing a range of products, functions and services, free of charge. Despite being high-value ecosystems they make up only a small fraction of the country’s land surface. In a changing climate every wetland matters.

How did “Quark House” in Vogelgat get its name?

Quark House

Vogelgat Private Nature Reserve is a firm favourite with many locals. And it is a special privilege to spend a night at one of the superb cabins in the reserve, to wake up to the first light over the estuary and a view that makes the spirit soar. Kathie Buley told me the origin of the name of one of the cabins – “Quark House”. 

The study of the origin of words is an enjoyable pastime. While thinking of the origin of certain place names like “Lemoenkop”, here in Hermanus I was reminded of our family’s attempt to fathom the origin of “Quark House” in Vogelgat. 

In the 1980s this was a favourite spot and, together with friends, we would hike to and enjoy swimming in the clear cold water. On Christmas day we would have mince pies and just generally enjoy the privilege of being in the moment in this pristine place. The original Quark House was a tiny building and we all discussed the possible derivations of the name. Our final decision was that, because the cabin was so small, it must be named after quarks – the tiny elementary particles of atomic nuclei. 

We very proudly informed Ion Williams of what we thought an erudite decision and he roared with laughter and said “Didn’t you hear the frogs going quark, quark, quark….

About the Author

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Whale Coast Conservation passionately lives by its slogan “Caring for your environment”.

Its small staff and volunteers are dedicated to

  • raising community and visitor awareness of the unique, biodiverse natural resources of the Cape Whale Coast region and
  • to projects that convert awareness into practical actions that lead towards living sustainably.

WCC ensures expert representation in public participation processes that contribute to environmental and developmental policies and legislation.  We monitor regional development; and ensure compliance with legislation and guidelines.

WCC increases general public awareness of sustainability through environmental education, citizen-science research projects, community projects and campaigns.

WCC communicates with its audience through exhibitions, signage, technology demonstrations, workshops, talks, film shows, newsletters and articles.

WCC places emphasis on educating future generations through its Youth Environment Programme (YEP).  YEP is offered to 24 schools in its target area with a total of over 10,000 learners.

WCC facilitates schools’ participation in special events such as Earth Day, Walking for Water, Arbor Day and Coastal Clean-ups.

WCC facilitates educator development programmes to improve the capacity of educators to offer informed environmental content in their lessons across all learning streams.

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