The Save Our Seas Foundation (SOSF) Shark Education Centre is an attraction not to be missed. Located in Cape Town, South Africa, the building serves as an educational outreach center where young and old can come learn a little bit about the oceans that they call a neighbour.
You can't miss this white building with great white sharks adorning the building and a steady stream of visitors coming in and out. The Fins United Initiative recently reached out to SOSF's Shark Education Centre to see if they could tell us a little bit more... and we are excited that the centre's very own Education Centre Manager, Dr Eleanor Yeld Hutchings, gave us a little bit of her time to answer some questions! What follows is an amazing interview that will have you in awe... and wanting to visit this place for yourself!
The Fins United Initiative: What got you personally interested in marine science? What about elasmobranchs? Tell us a little bit about Eleanor!
Eleanor Yeld Hutchings: I grew up in the beautiful coastal city of Cape Town, South Africa, and I remember from early on learning how to catch small klip-fish in rock pools, which creatures to avoid (spiny chitons and sea urchins), to bodysurf the waves, and my first snorkelling experiences. I wasn’t immediately sold on marine science though, and during my undergraduate degree I became specifically interested in the field of parasitology. So when I registered for my first post-graduate research degree, I went looking for parasites.
TFUI: You don't say! Wow!
EYH: Any parasitic research would have done. Certainly I didn’t go out looking for a marine focus, although I had both enjoyed and been interested in the marine courses offered at undergraduate level. But coincidences do happen, and mine came in the guise of a postdoctoral research fellow working in the laboratory of one of the senior marine biology staff members. This researcher had just arrived, and it turned out that he studied none other than marine fish parasites. Even better, when I mentioned “sharks” hopefully (because, let’s face it, there just isn’t a sexier marine subject matter!), he perked up and looked very interested. Together we worked out a project that became my Honours thesis, and formed the basis of what I went on to do my doctoral research on… the parasites of four (4) endemic South African catshark species.
TFUI: That does sound interesting.
EYH: It was a topic we were both passionately interested in at the same time as being one that no-one else could understand the appeal of, at all! I kept trying to explain to everyone that although most people were interested in sharks biting us, I wanted to know what bites sharks. A bit later during the course of my PhD I was invited to screen test for the role of marine biology presenter for the documentary series Shoreline, which was a journey of discovery around the South African coast from the border with Namibia on the West Coast to the border with Mozambique on the East Coast. Who could say no to such an invitation?! Certainly not me, and to my delight I ended up being offered the role. To date, we have made 2 series of this show - it has travelled the whole coastline (twice), visited incredible, beautiful, remote, scary and fascinating places, exposed some ground-breaking research being done by scientists, won awards, and taught me more than I ever thought I would know about our coastal ecology. It also taught me that this was some of the most important work that we could be doing to further marine conservation in our country, but that even this wasn’t enough… we needed to be starting earlier and focusing all our efforts on education and awareness spreading.
TFUI: For those TFUI readers who don't know, what is the Save Our Seas Foundation Shark Education Centre and how did the idea come about for it? What sort of research and outreach does it support?
EYH: The Save Our Seas Foundation Shark Education Centre is a project of the Save Our Seas Foundation, a funding organisation based in Geneva, Switzerland, with the mission statement: “In the effort to protect our oceans, the Save Our Seas Foundation funds and supports research, conservation and education projects worldwide, focusing primarily on charismatic threatened wildlife and their habitats."
TFUI: For those interested, you can see the website here.
EYH: The Save Our Seas Shark Centre was set up in Kalk Bay in 2008. It was set up in a beautiful old heritage status building, situated directly across the road from the shores of False Bay and right on the doorstep of the beautiful Dalebrook Marine Protected Area (a no-take zone which is part of the greater Table Mountain National Park Marine Protected area). It had a number of objectives: it was a research hub, that housed resident scientists (and even had a laboratory) and was available for visiting scientists to use as a home base in Cape Town, South Africa; it provided accommodation and facilities for Save Our Seas Foundation staff and associates who were visiting (including guests suites and self-catering facilities); it was an event, meeting and conference hub for local science, research and conservation organisations to use; and it was an education facility for both public walk-in and organised school visits and outreach activities. Although all of these objectives were worthwhile, it became clear that narrowing the focus of the Centre and expanding on one or two areas of priority was going to be more effective in achieving real gains in marine conservation. And so a detailed exploration was done of the potential of the Shark Centre and where it could be best positioned to make a difference and to deliver benefits to both the Save Our Seas Foundation and to achieving conservation wins, with the resulting decision made to re-invent the Centre as the Save Our Seas Foundation’s Shark Education Centre, a Centre that focussed specifically on school-level education (although also including adults!). This was a great opportunity that came at just the right time to take the incredible potential of this fantastic location, the dedicated staff, and the support of the Save Our Seas Foundation and turn it into something truly wonderful. Mission: “To connect the public to the marine environment through experiential education programmes focussed on sharks and local marine ecosystems, in order to nurture ocean awareness and environmentally responsible actions.”
TFUI: What has been the coolest encounter with a shark (or other Chondrichthyan) that you've had?
EYH: I’ve had a few elasmobranch encounters :) If I had to narrow it down, the top 3 would be:
• the huge short-tailed stingrays (Dasyatis brevicaudata) at Struisbaai harbour in the Southern Cape, South Africa, when we were filming them for Shoreline. They hang out in the fishing harbour there, picking up the scraps from all the fishers. They are also hand fed by tourists.
• The “shark bite” that I got on our little lobster fishing boat when I was a teenager. We often used to catch shy-sharks and cat-sharks in the lobster hoop nets (particularly the pyjama shark Poroderma africanum), and they would be curled tightly into circular balls. My father picked one up and threw it back into the sea… unfortunately as he threw it, it uncurled and vigorously shook its body, with the result that it landed on my arm, mouth open, and its sharp little teeth left a trail of tiny blood pinpricks. A “shark bite” that was definitely not as hardcore as it sounded!
• My 7 year old son’s recent encounter with a large spotted gully shark (Triakis megalopterus) of about 1.7 m near Cape Point. We were snorkelling in the kelp forest when a big grey shape passed underneath us - and to his credit, he immediately turned and swam as hard as he could, towards the shark, trying to keep up with it so he could watch it for longer.
TFUI: Why is your organization's work so important?
EYH: People tend to be fascinated by sharks, although they don’t always know much about them, and they often have entirely the wrong impression of them as scary, dangerous people-eating machines! One of the best things that we do here is to teach people more about sharks and also about how important they are in regulating the ocean ecosystems of planet earth. People are generally so unaware of conservation or how their daily actions affect the natural world, that the teaching of conservation via self-responsibility is vitally important. The education team really tries to convey that ultimately it’s the responsibility of humans to ensure the healthy functioning of the marine ecosystem through environmentally responsible actions. This is especially important given how little connection many of the children who visit even have to the ocean to start with - and this despite them living in a coastal city! Huge inequalities and gaps exists in South African schools education, and given the very fortunate position that the Shark Education Centre occupies both physically in being able to really immerse children in experientially focused educational activities, and financially in being able to accommodate those children and schools that are extremely disadvantaged, it really is able to make a huge difference in teaching and inspiring children to be little conservationists and giving them information they can use to pass on to their families and communities in turn.
TFUI: What are a few highlights from the Save Our Seas Foundation Shark Education Centre in recent years?
EYH: The big renovation and re-envision project, to develop a physical exhibit and building that matched its new mission statement as a dedicated Shark Education Centre.
TFUI: Any others?
EYH: The development of a brand new exhibit, the Shark Senses VR. Education is changing; it has moved on from being only books, pencils and pens, and our brand of environmental and marine education has to keep with these changes. Although the classroom will always have a role to play and experiential field learning will always be indispensable, more and more we are seeing that technology is opening up whole new pathways of learning that resonate with learners in a way that our traditional methods just can’t. Today’s generation of school-goers is both computer-literate and game-savvy and can interact intuitively with the exhibits. We need to take advantage of this and make sure that we are offering cutting-edge interactive displays that engage our visitors and also deliver our messaging. The pedagogies of constructivism and game-based learning show that children learn by doing or by being, and that game-based learning provides engagement and motivation as key factors. Virtual reality offers such a wonderful opportunity for this: there really is no better way to understand something than to experience it for yourself!
TFUI: So true! Virtual reality allows for anyone to submerse themselves under the waves.
EYH: This specific exhibit was commissioned to enable the user to understand at first hand what it feels like to be a shark in search of its prey and to use all the senses that sharks deploy in their hunts, which are different and more powerful than the senses that people use every day. From the start we wanted to be able to position the user inside a shark head model, and allow them to see through the eyes of the shark. So far, the feedback we have been getting on the Shark Senses VR Exhibit has been wonderful. The exhibit is very different from anything else on offer, anywhere in the world, and this, together with the immersive user experience with its amazing attention to detail, has really impressed everyone who has used it. It has been awarded an internationally acclaimed 2016 Red Dot Award for Communication Design. We are extremely proud of our one-of-a-kind, cutting edge interactive!
Our wonderful team working together as a cohesive, ocean-saving dynamo. Education Coordinator Paul Millar, Assistant Educator Zanele Mayiya, Facilities Manager Claire Metcalf, and Housekeeper Lillian Ngotshane.
TFUI: Do you think people are becoming more aware of the elasmobranchs and the science around them because of the work the Save Our Seas Foundation Shark Education Centre supports/does? If so, what do you hope comes from their awareness?
EYH: The Save Our Seas Foundation Shark Education Centre runs a fantastic program that covers a whole range of educational activities including; school visits, holiday clubs, environmental camps and in-water experiences for children from informal settlements. The program aims to instill a love and respect for the ocean and its inhabitants and to teach children how to take better care of their marine environment.
TFUI: It's a worthy cause!
EYH: This type of interactive education is important and will encourage young people to learn and understand more of the magic of the marine ecosystem. A model for community-based environmental education, this program instils a passion, provides tools, develops skills, inspires youth to actively participate in environmental protection and promotes individual understanding of the complex and intricate relationship between humans and the marine environment. Environmental education is a life long task, but with more education centres and dedicated teams like those in the Shark Centre, we will create more marine ambassadors for the future.
TFUI: In your opinion, what could be the best thing to happen (conservation, protection or policy-wise) to elasmobranchs in your neck of the woods?
EYH: A few things spring to mind. Firstly, continuation of the Shark Spotters programme, with continued funding and support. This really is a fantastic, ground-breaking programme with such environmental, conservation, people and shark benefits. Stepped-up enforcement of our (generally good) fishing regulations, both commercial and recreational, and increased support for and compliance with these regulations. I guess that would mean understanding them first, though… which is itself an education project! More funding and support for ecosystem-based elasmobranch research that includes conservation applications that are far broader than purely large charismatic single-species biology.
TFUI: Where do you see the Save Our Seas Foundation Shark Education Centre in five years?
EYH: Hopefully going from strength to strength with a reputation as a “must-see” as part of a Cape Town visit (along with the Two Oceans Aquarium, V&A Waterfront, etc. Providing hands-on, experiential education to thousands of school children across the region, and inspiring the next generation of ocean ambassadors.
TFUI: What do you hope 2018 has in store for the Save Our Seas Foundation Shark Education Centre?
EYH: Rain, and lots of it!! Cape Town is going through an extreme and critical drought, and the city is in danger of running out of water entirely. We at the Centre have put all sorts of mitigation measures in place, but what we really need is rain… the Western Cape’s rainy season is winter, so by May/June we should hopefully start receiving some precipitation to fill our tanks.
TFUI: Crossing our fingers and toes for you all!
EYH: We’ve also put a new “Treasure Hunt” app in place to ensure that the children (and others) visiting the Centre really engage with every aspect of the new exhibits and signage, and that they connected the storyline theming that links each area of the exhibits to each other. This utilises Augmented Reality, and leads players around the Centre with mandatory explorations of every exhibit - from the signage to the detailed information within the exhibit itself - in order to earn a “reward”. We’re incorporating this into our programming for 2018 so this should be an exciting addition.
TFUI: What is one piece of advice you wish you had been told in the very beginning of your marine science career journey?
EYH: Marine science, and with an elasmobranch focus in particular, attracts lots of people because of its interest factor. This leads to loads of passionate people willing to work for nothing (or even pay to volunteer). It’s a tiny field and if you go far along down the path of academic specialisation then you end up not being particularly employable. Everyone wants to work with charismatic megafauna… so there are loads of people and not that many career opportunities.
TFUI: We love that advice!
THE FINS UNITED INITIATIVE WOULD LIKE TO THANK eleanor FOR HER TIME AND
TFUI Founder Melissa C. Marquez is author of all animal bios and "Behind the Fins" segments.
SEE MELISSA'S TEDx TALK HERE:
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