Safer seas for Port Elizabeth’s marine life

[Image] The humpback dolphin is named for the
conspicuous raised part of its back.
(Image: Whale and Dolphin Conservation

Dr Stephanie Plön
  Marine mammal scientist, Bayworld
  +27 41 5840650

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The Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality (NMBM) in the Eastern Cape is working on improving safety for all beach users and, in doing so, creating a safer environment for the elusive, shore-loving humpback dolphin.

The Beachfront Aquatic Safety Zones proposed by the city’s Department of Public Health are geared to creating dedicated, formalised play zones for personal watercraft such as jet skis and rubber ducks.

Because the craft pose safety threats to swimmers and other sea users their use has, up to now, been limited to certain areas, but the arrangement has been informal and, largely, seasonal. The new regulations will enforce the limitations at all times.

It is not only humans who are under threat from noisy sea vehicles. Studies have found that the high pitch of the engines of motorised craft disturbs marine wildlife, particularly whales and dolphins.

While the municipality confirmed that it will re-examine the feasibility of creating a dedicated marine sanctuary in Algoa Bay, a suggestion that has been made in the past, it is unlikely to take such a decision any time soon.

Instead, it will limit the use of motorised watercraft in certain areas and, in so doing, enhance the environment for marine wildlife. The municipality hopes that in time strict management will create a safe sanctuary not only for the many swimmers, surfers and paddle skiers who make use of the bay, but also for vulnerable species.

The proposal will be put to the council at the end of March, after which it will go through the obligatory public participation process, before being formalised.

The proposed motorised watercraft areas are at King’s Beach, north of the power craft launch point and south of the surfing area known as The Fence; the area between Hobie Beach and Barneys; and the area at Millers Beach, provided there are no surfers there.

Protecting marine wildlife

Pods of dolphins – both the more common bottlenose (found in bigger groups) and the rarer Indian humpback (in very small groups), who use the shallow water around the reef areas of Algoa Bay for social interaction and feeding – are a common sight in the bay and can be observed easily as they often feed and play close to land, says Dr Stephanie Plön, marine mammal scientist based at Bayworld Museum in Port Elizabeth.

Another attraction is the rare and equally vulnerable African penguin – St Croix Island near Port Elizabeth is home to the biggest colony of these birds.

Research on the humpback, undertaken by one of Plön’s students, has revealed recent behavioural changes in the dolphins and a decrease in the size of their groups.

“Humpbacks are very rare and very prone to human disturbance. Where before groups of seven members were common, this has now halved, and these dolphins also appear to be feeding less and traveling more,” says Plön.

Similar behavioural changes, observed by scientists studying the African penguin, are the result of a lack of food.

Humpback dolphin trail

A little more than a year ago the NMBM completed the construction of a dedicated humpback dolphin trail running from Pollock Beach in the northwest to Flat Rock to the south.

The beautiful raised walkway, constructed from hardy recycled plastic, runs along the edge of the beach, with the natural dune habitat kept intact.

Offering an easy 2.3 km walk in one direction, the development also includes a cycle or skateboard track and is well lit at night.

Public information boards with colourful depictions of common species to look out for can be seen along the way.