Attracting graduates:  Thousands of people went to Port Elizabeth harbour to have a look at the SA Agulhas II. The research vessel offers SEAmester, a floating academic initiative. Picture: SARAH WILD
Attracting graduates: Thousands of people went to Port Elizabeth harbour to have a look at the SA Agulhas II. The research vessel offers SEAmester, a floating academic initiative. Picture: SARAH WILD

Tumelo Mathe, a doctoral candidate at the University of Fort Hare, had never been on a ship. For most PhD students, this wouldn’t be a problem, but Mathe was studying ocean science. "Being a PhD at a previously disadvantaged institution, we do not have equipment used in oceanography studies", he says.

Even beyond the equipment, most institutions in SA do not have the funds to send students to sea, a major impediment for those studying oceanography.

SA has earmarked the oceans as a vital area for economic growth. Operation Phakisa has been touted as a way to bring R2bn to the economy by 2033.

But marine research continues to be underfunded and it is difficult to fund students and their training.

According to the latest National Survey of Research and Experimental Development, in 2014-15 marine science received R74.9m, up from the R51.1m it received in 2005-06, but not enough to keep ahead of inflation and rising input costs. In 2014-15, marine science accounted for 0.3% of R29bn the country spent on research.

To meet the human capital demands of a well developed ocean economy, SA needs ocean, marine and atmospheric scientists. SEAmester, a floating academic initiative on board SA’s research vessel, the SA Agulhas II, is a floating classroom, which exposes students to ocean science.

Previously disadvantaged institutions, such as the University of Fort Hare, are not the only ones that struggle to expose their students to hands-on techniques and experience needed in ocean science.

Oceanography and marine science are offered at a number of inland institutions that do not have access to the coast.

"The idea behind SEAmester is to bring everyone together from diverse backgrounds, students who wouldn’t have an opportunity to go to sea," says Katherine Hutchinson, an alumnus of the programme and now a co-organiser.

"We want to give students a better understanding of the oceans and more connections. We hope this will increase collaboration between the universities, aquariums and museums," she says.

The 10-day voyage is full of seminars and training and is funded by the Department of Science and Technology. The department has a R10m budget dedicated to research cruises.

"I think students will be inspired to stay in marine science and inspired to protect our oceans," Hutchinson says.

Mathe, in the final year of his PhD, says a 10-day voyage in 2016 helped him procure the data he needed. "SEAmester provides students from backgrounds like mine to be able to use oceanographic instruments, and get some training," he says. Mathe’s research involves using remote sensing techniques to map ocean surface temperature and the concentration of chlorophyll — a pigment found in bacteria that absorbs the sun’s energy.

It "was an incredible success and a real feel-good story about bringing students from 15 universities and such diverse backgrounds together under a common goal," says Prof Isabelle Ansorge, head of the University of Cape Town’s oceanography department and a major driver of the SEAmester programme.

In 2016, 40 students from 15 institutions attended the first floating class, along with 15 researchers from fields as diverse as chemistry and fine art. In 2017, students will also have a challenging academic curriculum, with practicals each afternoon and science communication seminars in the evenings. From oceanography and marine biodiversity through to pollution control, they will be given a crash course in a number of fields relating to SA’s oceans.

But SEAmester is not only about the students. The voyage is tacked onto necessary research cruises. In 2017, the SA Agulhas II will refurbish sensors that are measuring temperature exchanges in the southern Atlantic ocean. SA, along with Brazil, is part of the South Atlantic Meridional overturning circulation basin-wide array, known as Samba. It is the system of ocean currents, and while this has been well studied in the north Atlantic, there is less research about it in the south. They are considered an important metric in determining how weather and climate patterns will change.

Samba involves a series of instruments that measure how the heat changes between different currents. This is important when trying to understand how the ocean system works and how it will change as temperatures increase globally.

"We need to go in and refurb[ish] instruments: pull them up, download the data, clean them off and then redeploy them. It’s going to be very busy. The students are not going to have time to get up to high jinks," says Hutchinson.

Mathe thinks postgraduates shouldn’t be the only ones to benefit. "SEAmester should also involve students at matric level — Grade 11 and 12. This is the age group where career paths need to be mapped and thus encouraging more students to study oceanography at varsity," he says.

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