SEAmester – South Africa’s Class Afloat in association with the Agulhas System Climate Array (ASCA)

June 2023 saw the success of the 6th SEAmester expedition, a programme aimed at accelerating marine science as an applied and cross-disciplinary field to postgraduate students all over South Africa. Forty-seven science students from institutions across the country made it through the programme and participated in the SEAmester ten-day at-sea practical training course aboard the flagship South African research vessel, S.A. Agulhas II. The programme was led by Prof. Isabelle Ansorge, head of the Department for Oceanography at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and initiator of the programme; and coordinated by Tahlia Henry.

SEAmester is a programme initiated to meet the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) objectives of creating platforms to “attract young researchers to the region and retain them by exciting their interest in aspects of global change”. SEAmester introduces marine science as an applied and cross-disciplinary field to students. The strength of SEAmester is that postgraduate students combine theoretical classroom learning with the application of this knowledge through ship-based and hands-on research.

SEAmester was undertaken in collaboration with ASCA, a science project spearheaded by DSI and the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON), Egagasini Node. ASCA is a multi-institutional, international collaboration, whose objectives are to determine how the Agulhas Current and its role in the global conveyor belt varies over time by providing the first long-term observations of Agulhas Current volume, heat and salt transport and its variability through seasonal to interannual timescales. To read more about ASCA click here.

Since ASCA provides a large, international programme performing ground-breaking science, and is also being used as a training platform for students, interns and junior staff, teaming SEAmester with ASCA makes an excellent match, one that has worked successfully for all SEAmester expeditions to date.

Students taking photos and soaking in the views as they bid farewell to Cape Town en route to the expedition.

Setting sail

The S.A .Agulhas II voyaged from East Pier, Cape Town on 20 June 2023 to the Agulhas Current, off East London, and docked back in Cape Town on 29 June 2023. The expedition involves running a transect across the core of the Agulhas Current off Port St Johns. The SEAmester VI expedition encompassed a group of forty-three postgraduate students from various Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) across the country (both inland and along the coast), including, two high school learners from the Northwest School, and two junior scientists from Anchor Environmental Consultants, as part of expending its network and reach.

The first two days of the voyage en route to the ASCA transect gave all on board a chance to settle in and combat their seasickness. Among the bird, mammal and weather observations along the way, the students managed to get further acquainted with life at sea.

SEAmester VI Activities

The students were divided into two module steams, “Tools of the Trade” and “Oceans in a Changing Climate”. Oceans in a Changing Climate focuses on the biological aspect of the ocean, the role of the ocean as a carbon source and carbon sink, the interconnectivity of the ocean with the atmosphere and how it affects life in the sea. Tools of the Trade focuses on various methods of measuring the physical properties of the ocean, using an assortment of instrumentation each comprising highly expensive sensors.

Learning comprised of daily class-room lectures, daily assignments and deck work – running in parallel to the ASCA programme. Students from both streams provided research support to specialist scientists and obtained daily hands-on deck training, data collection, sampling and data analysis. Each student gained experience working with the full suite of oceanographic, atmospheric and biological ship-based instrumentation such as CTD, underway measurements and autonomous devices such as Argo, SVP drifters, as well as experience on biological net tows. Training on data analysis following each dedicated SEAmester CTD station was provided, as well as technical and electronic experience in calibrating and modifying each instrument. In addition, a third stream is offered to all students which is the “Art” stream, this allows students to be creative in tasks such as tiled mosaics, photography, and documenting their cruise through journals and film-making. The students also had to work on a specific scientific mini-project related to their area of interest and the scientific research underway.

The spectrum of lectures included Introduction to Physical Oceanography, Microbiology and DNA, Benthic Environment, Oxygen and Nutrients, Molluscs, Seals and Dissections, Micro-plastics, Blue Economy, Oil spills, Maritime Archaeology, Hydrography, GIS Mapping, Film, Photography, Astronomy, Engineering, Acoustics, and Phytoplankton; presented by highly skilled lecturers and professionals from South Africa’s HEIs and organisations alike.

SEAmester VI Takeaways

The jam-packed SEAmester and ASCA operations ran smoothly with no issues to report for the entire expedition. The students were dedicated and rose to the challenge and completed their projects timeously. The programme came to an end on the morning of the 29th of June after the students showcased their SEAmester movies about their journey and received their completion of the programme certificates. The students were then treated to a cake by the SA Agulhas II crew. An art exhibition and farewell gathering was held the night before, where students reflected on their journey and the expedition, expressing that SEAmester has been rewarding both educationally and in terms of the network and connections they made. A social braai and themed party were held on one of the last nights, during this time, all the students and staff came together to unwind after all the tasks had been submitted.

With that said, the biggest success of SEAmester remains to be its ability to break down social, cultural, economical, and racial barriers between students and in doing so build the next generation of integrated marine scientists in South Africa.

SEAmester-South Africa’s Floating University is a NRF-SANAP funded project. Click on the link below to view all the current NRF-SANAP funded projects.  

NRF-SANAP funded projects


Featured Image credit: Associate Professor Svea Josephy, Fine Art (photography) at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town.

Images: Rabia Mathakutha, South African Polar Research Infrastructure; Megan Maroen, Stellenbosch University.

Rabia Mathakutha, South African Polar Research Infrastructure, 26 July 2023. 

© South African National Antarctic Programme • Managed and administered by Antarctic Legacy of South Africa • Photo Credits
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