20 June 2005

See the beautiful side of South African marine life

Marine biologist Thomas Peschak is the principal author of a beautiful coffee-table book packed with exquisite photographs and scientifically accurate (readable) text explaining why the southern African coastline is one of the most exciting and diverse marine environments in the world.

When marine biologist Thomas P Peschak stepped off a plane in Cape Town in January 1999 to start a doctoral thesis, his first words to his University of Cape Town supervisor George Branch were: "Does this PhD come with a bulletproof jacket?"

It was said only half in jest, because Peschak, 29, was about to study the ecological impacts of perlemoen poaching on the kelp forests off the south-west Cape coast and his work would put him in direct contact with poachers.

"In the first years of my thesis, I learned as much about guns, anti-poaching and Mafia syndicates as I did about abalone ecology," he says.

Peschak is the principal author of Currents of Contrast, a beautiful coffee-table book packed with exquisite photographs. Its scientifically accurate but readable text explains why the southern African coastline is one of the most exciting and diverse marine environments in the world: because it's the merging place of
two "ocean giants" the Atlantic Ocean's cold Benguela current and the Indian Ocean's warm Agulhas current.

Co-author Claudio Velàsquez Rojas is also a marine biologist, although his contribution is limited to some of the photographs. Peschak was born in Hamburg, Germany, but "grew up all over the place".

His first underwater excursions with a mask and snorkel started when he was about 10. He began scuba diving a few years later. "I knew I wanted to be a marine biologist from about 14. "I was a marine junky, obsessed with the ocean, and when other kids my age were playing computer games I was learning the scientific names of reef fish, making check-lists of species and reading everything marine-related I could get my hands on."

He became a dive instructor and, in his late teens, started assisting marine biologists. A degree in marine biology from the University of Plymouth in England was followed by an honours year in Honduras, Central America, studying the biodiversity of tropical seagrass communities.

His first African experience was in the mid-1990s as a scientific diver in northern Mozambique, carrying out marine biodiversity surveys on the coral reefs of the remote Quirimba islands.

One of the scientists on that expedition had two books with him: The Living Shores of Southern Africa and Two Oceans, both written or co-written by Branch, professor of marine biology at UCT and a world expert in his field. "These books that awoke my appetite for the southern Africa's marine environment," says Peschak.

He contacted Professor Branch and eventually found himself on an aircraft to begin a PhD. Peschak started selling photographs to magazines and books nine years ago, but became seriously interested in photography and filmmaking only after arriving in South Africa.

Now, he's official photographer for the marine programme of WWF-SA (World Wide Fund for Nature ­ South Africa) and has also started a production company (Currents of Contrast Productions) that focuses on creating images, telling stories and carrying out research that "celebrate, reveal and preserve Africa's last great wilderness the oceans".

"After about two years of fulltime research on my PhD I began to realise that while the science was exciting and enthralling, my interests went far beyond abalone and kelp forests they ranged from white sharks, to coral reefs, to baboons and otters and much more.

"So for the past four years I've found myself dividing my time between marine biology research and wildlife/underwater photography, writing and film-making.

"And when I finish my PhD later this year, I'll keep one foot firmly rooted in marine science and the other in popular natural history media."

Scientifically, the most interesting stretch of the southern African coastline for Peschak is the temperate zone, especially the kelp forests and reefs between Cape Hangklip and Cape Agulhas.

"The enormous productivity, bountiful marine invertebrate life and the presence of predators such as otters, seals and great white sharks make this boiling cauldron of life an exquisite and exciting research arena for me."

But he also has several "non-scientific" favourite places. "For a true coastal wilderness experience, nothing can beat the northern reaches of Namibia's Skeleton Coast National Park between Moewe Bay and the Kunene River mouth.

"The most awe-inspiring places I've ever visited are along the Pondoland coast especially Waterfall bluff where a 110m-high waterfall plunges straight into the Indian Ocean.

"And the wetland wilderness of Kosi Bay also holds a special place in my heart, but mainly because of the people who live there, the Tembe-Thonga.

"They've given me a unique insight into a society where the ocean still plays a central, life-giving role. At Kosi Bay, seawater still seems to flow through the arteries and veins of everyone."

Closer to Cape Town, the seas around Dyer Island (near Gansbaai) are a magnet, being home to a prolific population of great white sharks that have become one of his favourite photographic subjects.

"I now dedicate several months a year to capturing images of the ocean's most evocative yet misunderstood resident," he says. Peschak's mission is inspired by quotes, which are in his book.

Source: www.iol.co.za


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