Manager of the SOSF Shark Education Centre Eleanor Yeld Hutchings tells us about her colourful South African upbringing and why she chose to pursue a career dedicated to communicating marine science to the public.
I was born in Cape Town, into a family with ties to the sea on both sides. My father grew up in Fish Hoek on the False Bay coast near Cape Town, surfing, snorkelling and playing on the beaches. My mother hailed from KwaZulu-Natal on South Africa’s east coast, with a family history of fishing and boating on the shores and estuaries of the Eastern Cape. For me this meant a childhood of holidays spent at various points along the coastline, from Fish Hoek beach in the west through Sandbaai (near Hermanus) and the Tsitsikamma National Park to Kenton-on-Sea in the east. I remember my first snorkelling experiences from the catwalk in Fish Hoek and learning early on how to catch small klipfish in rock pools, which creatures to avoid (spiny chitons and sea urchins) and how to bodysurf the waves. But it wasn’t just about the sea; we were also very lucky to be taken around southern Africa by our parents, exploring nature reserves and game parks and being exposed to the terrestrial splendour of our country.
Despite this exposure to all things wild and wonderful, I did the usual flip-flops of children and adolescents as they contemplate what they want to be when they grow up. My choices were to be a figure-skater, a mathematician (that didn’t last long!) or a paediatric psychologist. Then I wanted to be a writer, or maybe an illustrator. Eventually the lure of biology grew stronger and stronger and after finishing school and wandering around the world for a time, I ended up at the University of Cape Town enrolled for a degree in the life sciences. In my very first year, an inspirational lecturer stood up and started talking about parasitology. Bam! I was hooked – and on parasites, of all things.
My reaction stirred a memory of spending a holiday in Namibia when I was in my teens and meeting researchers there who were working on anthrax in wildebeest populations. This was the first inkling I had that a single incident of exposure to the natural world, be it formal or informal, can play a pivotal role in how you are inspired and where your life leads you. Although it may be difficult to look back and say that one specific event led to a career path in natural science, I am coming more and more to believe in the power of experiential learning, whether it is articulated as such or is no more than informal happenstance.
With my newfound focus I continued my studies, which included, almost incidentally, some marine ecology courses. For my BSc Honours degree I had my first opportunity to choose a real research project so, of course, parasites were at the top of my list. Any research on parasites would have done; I certainly didn’t go looking for a marine focus, although I had both enjoyed and been interested in the marine courses offered at undergraduate level. But coincidences do happen and mine came in the guise of a postdoctoral research fellow who was working in the laboratory of one of the senior marine biology staff members. This researcher had just arrived and it turned out that his subject of study was nothing other than marine fish parasites! Even better, when I hopefully mentioned sharks (because, let’s face it, there’s no sexier marine subject matter!) he perked up and looked very interested.
Together we worked out a project that became my Honours thesis and formed the basis of what I went on to do for my doctoral research: the parasites of four endemic South African catshark species. It was a topic we were both passionately interested in and, at the same time, one that no-one else could understand the appeal of – at all! When asked, I tried to explain that most people are interested in sharks biting us; I, however, wanted to find out what bites sharks.
One of the results of my research was that over the next four years I spent a large amount of time diving, boating and fishing in and around False Bay. Through this I got to know a whole lot better an area that I had always taken for granted. I realised what an amazing and special place False Bay is and what a privilege it had been to grow up alongside it and now to be able to do my research there.
Ideally situated at the edge of False Bay in Cape Town, South Africa, the Save Our Seas Shark Education Centre overlooks the ocean and is right on the doorstep of the incredible Dalebrook Marine Protected Area. This unique location enables us to immerse children in experientially focused educational activities.
The SOSF Shark Education Centre is an attraction not to be missed. It boasts a carefully selected collection of state-of-the-art exhibits that ensures that children and adults are able to learn through play and exploration, with each of their different senses engaged. This facilitates a truly immersive and stimulating educational experience while they are having fun.
The Shark Education Centre focuses mostly on sharks, from their diversity and anatomy to their habitats and their role in the ocean. However, there is also a strong emphasis on the unique and special marine ecosystem found in and around False Bay – and sharks are used as a key to unlock more general marine knowledge.
Groups of schoolchildren come through the centre and leave feeling inspired to care about sharks and their ocean habitats. But the centre does not only cater for visiting schools; there are outreach events, holiday clubs, marine awareness camps, marine explorers clubs and many other activities.
The Shark Education Centre also invites the general public to explore its displays. Ultimately, our goal is to ensure that our marine education and conservation messages are spread far and wide.