Oil company Shell has decided to start looking for oil and gas along an unspoiled stretch of coastline in South Africa's Eastern Cape. The survey, along the Wild Coast between Morgan Bay and Port St. Johns – an area containing some fantastic surf, with many uncrowded pointbreaks – began proposed on December 1 and is due to last for five months. The method they are using is a seismic survey, based on high-intensity sound signals.
An operation like this has immediate effects on the local environment. The boat operated by Shell will drag 48 air guns through the ocean, firing shockwaves that will penetrate several kilometres into the Earth’s crust below the sea floor. The sound will also carry through the ocean, up to hundreds of kilometres. The shockwaves will be fired every ten secs throughout the entire five-month period.
The Wild Coast is an area of high biodiversity and high ecological sensitivity, and contains several Marine Protected Areas. It is the location of the famous annual sardine run, consisting of the largest shoal of fish in the world, and is also directly on the migration route for several species of whales and dolphins. In addition, there is an abundance of sharks, seals, penguins and many other marine creatures.
Inevitably, the seismic survey will cause major damage to the wildlife. Dr Kevin Cole, the Principal Natural Scientist at the East London Museum, is an expert on the subject: “A continuous underwater noise, day and night for months will impact negatively on marine life evolved to rely on sound as a primary sense in the dark oceanic environment.
"Marine fish and mammals depend on sound for communicating with group members and young, food-finding, reproduction, avoiding predators and hazards, navigation and sensing their environment.”
He also points out that the noise will cause behavioural changes, particularly in dolphins and whales: this includes the animals having to cover larger distances to get away from the noise; calves being separated from their mothers, and death due to barotrauma as a result of surfacing too quickly.
In a time when we should be doing everything we can to put the brakes on climate change and planetary destruction, why are Shell still digging for fossil fuels?
In a famous 2012 article (HERE), climate scientist Bill Mckibben referred to a simple mathematical exercise. If we burn more than 20 per cent of the existing fossil fuel reserves, global warming will shoot above 2°C above pre-industrial levels, which means irreversible climate catastrophe.
In the nine years since that article was published, things haven’t improved. At the time of writing, we are already on about 1.1°C and racing towards 2°C or higher. Meanwhile, companies like Shell are still looking for new and more risky places to squeeze that last drop of oil out of the ground. There is no mention anywhere of stopping at 20 per cent. In the words of Mckibben: “The fossil-fuel industry has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization.”
So, what can you do to help stop Shell’s seismic testing along the Wild Coast, and help to save the marine ecosystem from needless damage? First of all, please have a read about the issue HERE and (assuming you disapprove of course) make a public comment. There is also another petition on change.org that you can sign (HERE), which shouldn’t take you more than a minute.
And finally, if you are wondering why you should care at all, because the surveys won’t directly affect the waves for surfing, think again. I personally would prefer to surf in a pristine, unspoilt environment with whales, dolphins, turtles, seals (and even sharks) in their natural habitat, rather than in the middle of a battlefield with shots going off every ten secs and not one marine creature in sight.
I’ve said this before but I’ll say it again. As surfers, we are on the environmental front-line, and are naturally aware of environmental problems before most of the rest of the population. Therefore, we ought to be environmental ‘influencers’; we ought to be showing the rest of the world how we can help to preserve our life-support systems for our children and grandchildren. One way to do this is to keep unnecessary use of fossil fuels out of our surfing. Or at least try to do so. And if you can’t resist the temptation to bring fossil-fuel burning activities into the ocean with you, don’t brag about it.