EAST AFRICA SEEMS TO HAVE DRAWN the short straw in the weather stakes. As Mozambique mops up after the deluge that swamped the country in February, the famine-struck Horn of Africa is tightening its belt once more and praying for rain. The monsoon of the southern Indian Ocean is the system responsible for dealing this unfair climatic hand. Early each year, low-pressure storms loaded with moisture line up for their southwesterly march across the ocean towards the continent. Sometimes they release their watery loads in torrential downpours on the ocean’s islands, flattening crops and ripping coconuts from the twisting, bent palm trees of Mauritius and Rodrigues. Other times, they pass over the Mascarene lands and push on west, to rapidly fill the parched rivers and reservoirs of East Africa’s coastal countries. The monsoon season is a tense time. While meteorologists can predict in the short term where these annual winds will unleash their power, their long-term predictions can be little more than educated guesses.
This is where Shoals of Capricorn, an interdisciplinary, international marine science and education programme, hopes to make a difference. Shoals is a Royal Geographical Society-backed project with modest means but big aims. One of its theories about mother nature’s two-faced approach in the Indian Ocean is that a vast underwater mountain range, the Mascarene Ridge, works in combination with fluctuations in ocean water temperatures to affect the region’s weather. As large as the Himalaya and lying northeast of Madagascar, this volcanic ridge stretches for 115,000 kilometres but only raises its head above the surface to form the scattering of tropical islands that are the Seychelles and Mauritius. In the past year, Shoals has set up three field bases on islands along the ridge so scientists can visit and study all aspects of its marine environment. “Ultimately we want to set up an early-warning system for weather in East Africa,” says Shoals director, Iain Watt.
Long range forecasting is very difficult at present because there is simply not enough data available for the Indian Ocean region. In recent years, scientists have scrutinised the antics of the world’s playful water baby El Nino, shedding some light on shifts in global weather patterns linked to ocean current cycles. However, their attention has focused on the Pacific Ocean, which pounds against wealthy American shores. Much less attention has been paid to El Nino’s effects on ocean temperatures and currents in the Indian Ocean, which is bounded by poorer, less developed African nations. These countries have paid scant attention to the complex interactions of ocean and atmosphere, having barely enough money to feed their populations. Ironically, a better understanding of these relationships could alleviate some of the conditions associated with Africa’s extreme weather events. If Mozambique had received flood warnings well in advance, it could have evacuated people earlier, arranged food drops more effectively and possibly saved lives.
In a first step towards their goal, Shoals field staff have begun gathering vital data on ocean temperatures, currents, marine life and the general health of the Mascarene’s coral reefs. Each day, science coordinator Martin Callow steps from the whitewashed building that is the Shoals Seychelles residence on St Anne island, crosses beneath the coconut palms that overshadow the pens of lumbering giant tortoises, passes the offices of the Seychelles Marine Parks Authority (MPA), and heads for the end of the jetty. Assisted by rangers from the MPA he records the sea temperature and salinity at depth intervals of one metre, and the visibility of the water using a tool called a `secchi disk’. Meteorological data such as rainfall, wind speed, temperature, humidity and cloud cover, is also gathered. The scientists carry their samples and figures a short walk back to the Shoals laboratory and add them to the data from other sites. “We have ten monitoring sites within a five by three kilometre area,” explains Martin. “We take weekly readings of sediments and currents. We’ve got a year-and-a-half’s worth of data so far.”
THE WIDER PICTURE
A short boat ride across the turquoise waters from St Anne is Mahe, the Seychelles’ main island. High on a cliff above the capital, Victoria, are two giant white spheres which glow orange in the setting tropical sun. Previously used for a USA satellite cleansing system, the site may soon house a ground receiving station for SeaWiFS satellite data. The SeaWiFS instrument lies aboard the SeaStar (OrbView-2) satellite, which circles the Earth 14 times a day, casting a remote eye over great swathes of ocean. The images it generates would enable the team to identify areas rich in plankton, the microscopic plants and animals that lie at the bottom of the food chain. Plankton float freely and can yield information on fish stocks and ocean currents. Having the satellite images at their fingertips would help the Shoals scientists gather information on vast areas very quickly.
Visiting scientists from Imperial College, London, are also pioneering a type of remote sensing where the data is gathered using side-scan sonar. A tool that looks like a big fish is tied to the back of a boat, and the scientists traverse an area of interest. As they do so, the scanner pulses out regular sonar signals. “How the signal is distorted as it is reflected back to receiving equipment on the boat illustrates how deep the water is,” explains Martin. “Like the satellite imagery, it may help scientists differentiate between habitat types or live and dead reef. It’s ground-breaking science. We can bring a sample of a particular habitat into the lab and then map a huge area very effectively. It’s remote sensing but from the back of a boat.”
Over two thousand kilometres south of St Anne, a three-hour flight away, lies Mauritius. A second Shoals base is located at Pereybere in the north of the island, close to where director lain Watt has recently relocated from London. He is hoping to also use remote sensing for environmental research at the southern end of the Mascarene Ridge. In the air-conditioned cool of the Mauritius Remote Sensing Center, Iain is discussing acquiring some images for use by the Shoals team. Turning to one of the detailed aerial views of Mauritius that decorate the walls, Suren Lutchmeea, the officer in charge of the centre, points out how the coral reef on the east of the island appears as a sharp white boundary against the deep blue of the sea, while on the western side, the boundary is more gradual. He believes the coral to the west may be dying, while that to the east is healthier. But little work has been carried out using remote sensing to monitor marine environments in the region. A lively discussion ensues as to whether the difference does indeed reflect the corals’ health or whether it simply shows up the varying gradients of the two boundaries.
The debate highlights how important it is for scientists to be able to sink beneath the surface of the ocean surface and study the reefs and marine creatures at first hand. One reason why there has been so little research carried out by scientists living in the Indian Ocean is because very few local people can swim, let alone dive. Oddly enough, many of these island dwellers live surrounded by warm, tempting tropical seas and yet never enter the water Swimming doesn’t come naturally, and water sports have never featured on school curricula.
Underlying the Shoals programme is the concept that it should become a self-sustaining project, run by local people rather than Westerners. With this in mind, the permanent staff at the three bases have begun the lengthy process of passing on their expertise to local people. John Nortcliffe, the programme’s sandy-haired chief diving officer has so far taught 97 islanders to dive and a further 35 first aid. Among them have been rangers from the Seychelles Marine Parks Authority and local adults and children. “The ultimate aim is to train up enough people of a high calibre so that they can become instructors and then there’ll be no need for me,” he says. “To reach that point is going to take time. We’re trying to educate the youths. It can take generations but if you teach from the top down rather than the bottom up it doesn’t really work.”
It’s not just diving that the islands’ children are learning. On Rodrigues, an island owned by Mauritius but lying 650 kilometres northeast of it, it is half term. Instead of being at home getting bored, many of Rodrigues’ schoolchildren have chosen to head for the Shoals of Capricorn classroom to learn about the creatures that live in the waters around their island. Inside the specially converted classroom and laboratory, some are cutting out butterfly fish and sharks from pieces of cardboard, while others slosh brightly coloured paint onto what will become a backdrop for a play they plan to perform. Among them is 15-year-old Norbert Frangois who has been coming to Shoals workshops after school since January. “The play starts on market day in the sea and there are plenty of fish and coral,” he explains. “Then one day, there’s a storm and a tanker gets wrecked on the reef and the oil from it makes the corals die. The butterfly fish are normally afraid of the sharks but the slick makes them realise that they must work together to find a new home.”
Norbert is keen to learn about the marine environment as his father is a fisherman. Stepping outside the classroom, he goes to the `touch-tank’, a shallow concrete tank filled with seawater into which Charlotte Howard, Tom Hooper and Tara Lynch, the Rodrigues field staff, have placed a variety of sea animals for the children to learn about. Picking up a slimy black tube, with nobbles running along its back, Norbert identifies it as a sea cucumber. “And this is a hermit crab living in stolen shell,” he explains, lifting a spiky white shell out of the tank. As he does so a red hairy leg appears, then another and another and finally the crab pops its head out and peers out with black pinhead eyes. “When my father brings home a weird fish, I can help him identify it,” says Norbert. “I can tell him which are the dangerous corals and animals to avoid.”
While educating youngsters is a large part of the Rodrigues team’s work, Charlotte is also teaching a group of older Creole octopus fisherwomen. On Wednesday afternoons, she sits with ten of them beneath a shady tree and teaches them in French about the fish and corals they may encounter while fishing. The fisherwomen earn their keep by wading across the reef in wellington boots and using long poles to hook out octopuses from their coral hideyholes. Charlotte is teaching the women how not to damage the fragile coral as they work; the reef is vital for protecting the island from the crashing breakers that are whipped up by the monsoon storms.
After a 15-minute lesson, it’s time for the ladies to practise their floating and swimming skills in the water. Wearing an odd mixture of underwear, multicolour T-shirts, cycling shorts and headscarves, the plump 40-somethings splash and giggle their way into the murky water. For an hour, Charlotte battles to teach the shrieking, ample-bosomed group to swim and be generally more aware of the dangers that lurk in the sea. Meanwhile, a cluster of bemused looking men gather on the cliff, while the young son of one of the women wails from the other side of the lagoon where he’s been temporarily abandoned. They’re not ideal teaching conditions, but after several weeks of lessons Charlotte’s perseverance is paying off; some of the women are now able to float quite happily and are less concerned about putting their face in the water. Soon they will all be taking their first strokes. “The lagoon inside the reef is being overfished, so the government is trying to encourage the fishers to seek their catch outside the reef,” she says. “But the boats they use are small and have very little draught, so it’s easy for them to be flipped over. That’s why it’s so important that the fisherwomen and men can swim.”
She admits that the team have faced some suspicion from the locals about the motives of the Shoals team. Rodrigues has been at the receiving end of several failed European initiatives, so its inhabitants have reason to be sceptical. On the steep, boulder-strewn, grassy hillsides are faint grid patterns, the legacy of an agricultural project that never worked out. A few kilometres away beside the potholed, tarmac road which winds around the edge of the 240 square-kilometre lagoon, paint peels from white walls of an abandoned octopus canning factory. “There have been lots of failed projects that have originated in Europe,” explain” Shoals field scientist Tara Lynch. “People have come over, brought in money and left without training any local people to carry the work on. We have to make sure we don’t do that.”
With this in mind, all three Shoals teams have begun employing local people to carry on their work once they have left. Eric Blais, a large, smiling Rodriguan, Sabruna Meinier, a pretty, petite school-leaver, and boatman Antonio Jolicoeur are now working alongside Tom, Tara and Charlotte in Rodrigues, while Marcelle Geffroy and Omi Adjodah have joined the Mauritius team. In the Seychelles, the rangers of MPA are improving their diving skills and carrying out monitoring work, and staff from the local coastguard, BirdLife Seychelles and the Seychelles Islands Foundation have all received some training. With the blessing of the relevant governments, there are plans to involve other local organisations, such as ministries, fisheries departments and meteorological offices.
As the heat of the tropical day wanes and the fiery orange sun sinks beneath horizon, Agathe Salou begins the night watch at Rodrigues’ Meteorological Office beside the Shoals “residence. Looking out at the clear skies, across field of crops which are beginning to turn brown, he shakes his head. “It is a problem that there hasn’t been enough research,” he says. “We’ve noticed that the rainfall is decreasing on the island. It has been for four to five years, but why?”
It is questions such as this that the Shoals of Capricorn programme is seeking to answer. If its scientists can begin to understand how the strands of the ocean environment work together; how varying water temperatures affect currents and coral health; how the currents distribute plankton and affect fish stocks; and ultimately how the ocean and atmosphere interact to affect climate, the people of the Indian Ocean’s islands and coastal countries may be better prepared for mother nature’s climatic quirks, be they downpours or dry spells.