Exploring our Oceans goes to South Africa

Earlier this year a couple of the project team visited Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, as part of a collaborative effort to build links between NMU and the University of Southampton. Myself (Sarah Fielding, course project manager and Learning Designer) and Sofy Bazzini (film-maker and multimedia developer) went on a whirlwind tour lasting less than a week. We went to talk to part of the academic team in the Africa Earth Observatory Network (AEON) about planning, creating and delivering online courses like Exploring our Oceans. Whilst we were there we made the most of the opportunity to capture some great new content for our ‘Oceans’ learners. Here’s a little about what we got up to….

Our first sunset in Port Elizabeth.

Having left the UK on Monday evening, we arrived in Port Elizabeth on Tuesday lunchtime. The time difference of only one hour meant that we didn’t have to cope with jet lag; which was just as well because we had a little time to get our bearings, meet our contact from NMU, and take a short road trip to scope out the local geology, before a working dinner to discuss earth sciences education in South African universities, and what part technology might have to play in that in future…

On Wednesday morning we got to meet some of the AEON team for breakfast and planning our itinerary/filming schedule. AEON’s Science Director, Maarten De Wit has participated in a previous run of Exploring our Oceans; he and the team made us feel very welcome. It proved to be a very international trip; we would be working with a French geologist (Dr Bastien Linol), a German biologist (Dr Stephanie Ploen), and an architecture lecturer who was Italian (Dr Magda Minguzzi). NMU Masters student Nadia van der Walt was our local drone operator (the drone footage is fantastic by the way!). After a great discussion about their specialisms, potential locations, and mild cramp from writing notes at speed, we were on our way for a full day in the field with Bastien.

Filming on location at Grassridge fossil locality.

We visited a fossil locality which is 250m above sea level. Bastien’s research is investigating whether the sea level has risen (and fallen) 250 metres in the last few thousand years, or whether the land has been moved upwards relative to sea level.

You can find out more about it in the course in Step 2.15 ‘A puzzle from the past’. After a very hot couple of hours by a roadside we were very glad to move on to the Sundays River Estuary; the modern day equivalent to the fossil locality we had just left, and also home to the spectacular Alexandria Dunes system.  Although the dunes don’t feature directly in the course, keep an eye out on the blog as we will have an interactive 360 image to share with you later!

Sofy Bazzini preparing for the next round of filming at the Sundays River Estuary.

Thursday started bright and early; we had moved on from geology and were about to record some fascinating stories for Week 3 (Biology). Interest in this subject is usually what attracts learners to the course, and we now had an opportunity to include some great research on some of the oceans’ most loved inhabitants, whales and dolphins. Although it hasn’t made it into the course, we also spent a lovely couple of hours with the penguins and staff at a Sanccob bird rehabilitation centre; watch out for a follow up blog post about this organisation and the work that they do. We then filmed Stephanie Ploen at Bayworld, a leading tourist attraction in Port Elizabeth which includes a museum and oceanarium.

An adult Southern Right whale skeleton at Bayworld.

Filming in the museum galleries was challenging since we didn’t have extra lighting equipment and the museum was open to the public, so occasionally we were interrupted by noise from other visitors. The backdrop to Stephanie’s video about her research was spectacular; the skeleton of a Southern Right Whale. We also filmed Stephanie talking about recent research by another international team which revealed something surprising about elusive Humpback Dolphins. You will find out about these in Steps 3.3, 3.4. and 3.9 in the course.

After Bayworld we went across the main coastal road in Port Elizabeth to film the beach and views of the new port development. I counted 14 container ships traversing through our field of view at one point! Stephanie’s research is particularly interesting because she is using a very large collection of skeleton specimens in the Bayworld museum alongside data from live whale and dolphin populations in Algoa Bay.

Sofy and I used Thursday evening as a chance to check through what footage we already had in the bag and double-check our to-do lists as, all too quickly, we were heading into our last day with the team. Friday arrived with an impressive sunrise and we found ourselves at Cape Recife, a nature reserve right on the coast. We spent some time filming Magda Minguzzi, who showed us some of the earliest human-made structures in South Africa; fish traps constructed by nomadic native peoples. As well as being an Architecture lecturer, Magda is the Director and Coordinator of a 2017 global arts performance called ‘The Way of the Water’. The materials aren’t directly in Exploring our Oceans, but you can read more about the performances on the project website and in the video below. The different perspectives on what the ocean means to different people are interesting, and we ask our learners to consider what the ocean means to them in Weeks 1 and 4 of the course.

Filming on location at Cape Recife: (left to right) Sarah Fielding, Magda Minguzzi, Nadia Van der Walt, Sofy Bazzini, Stephanie Ploen.

Our final afternoon was spent on campus at Nelson Mandela University. Once all of our precious footage was backed up on hard drives, we caught up with Bastien again to film the other half of his video. He cut some fossil specimens in the petrology lab before we scurried over to the very impressive Centre for High Resolution Transmission Electron Microscopy (or CHR-TEM for short) so that he could explain more about the analysis that will be done on the specimens. Inside info: the microscope that Bastien uses in the video is actually the least expensive (and powerful) in the facility, although it is quite sufficient for his purposes!

In the blink of an eye, we were packing on Saturday morning, ready for our lunchtime departure. We grabbed a lovely brunch with Maarten, AEON Director, to debrief about our trip and plan ahead for future collaborations. By Sunday lunchtime we were back home in the UK, tired but inspired!

We hope you enjoy these new stories in the course and associated materials and would love to hear from you about how the course might be developed further in future!

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