Jean Tresfon is an award-winning wildlife and landscape photographer specialising in underwater and aerial images. He lives in Cape Town and his passion lies in showcasing both his city and his country as a superb photographic destination for capturing alluring and unusual wildlife images.
His skill behind the lens has seen him interact and work with marine specialists across the country. Trefson’s dedication to the conservation of wildlife has contributed significantly in spreading awareness, educating and assisting in research projects.
Following several requests from researchers, he surveyed the shoreline for dead Cape fur seals in certain areas after masses of seal bodies began washing up on beaches. He was joined by marine mammal scientist Dr. Simon Elwen from Sea Search. The issue is still ongoing.
Read also: The devastating cause behind mass seal deaths revealed
Now, Tresfon is weighing in on Shell and CGG’s seismic surveys which are set to begin in December — an oil and gas exploration that has many South Africans up in arms.
There are major concerns that this will cause irreversible damage to a region of South Africa renowned for its pristine coastline. Adding salt to the wound: the project is scheduled to take place during peak whale migration season.
Read also: WATCH: Video of protests against Shell blasting the Wild Coast raises hairs
In a powerful statement, Trefson questions if the blasting is hysterical hypocrisy or environmental catastrophe:
By now most people are aware that the survey involves a towed array of multiple air cannons that will fire bursts of sound somewhere in the region of 220dB into the water at 10 second intervals for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for up to 4 or 5 months.
One of the main concerns of people objecting to the survey lies around the issue of harm caused to marine mammals such as whales and dolphins, which use sound as their primary sensing tool.
Shell has said that, “there is no indication that seismic surveys are linked to whale and dolphin strandings.”
Environmental columnist, Ivo Vegter, in his contrary opinion piece has said that, “people mistakenly believe that seismic surveying is catastrophically dangerous to marine life”.
Meanwhile others such as cetacean scientist, Simon Elwen, has said that, “A good few studies have shown behavioural impacts like changes in singing (frequency of sounds, how often they sing, loudness), multiple studies have shown behavioural changes like movement away from the sound source, but none to my knowledge have ever shown a clear link between seismic surveys and cetacean strandings.”
And then we have Dr. Judy Mann, a conservation strategist for SAAMBR who states, “Just because we don’t see the immediate evidence doesn’t mean there isn’t an impact.”
Personally I cannot fathom how this survey could fail to impact animals so dependent on sound for navigation, sourcing food, communicating and pretty much everything else they do. The burden of proof should be on Shell to show that the sound does NOT affect the marine wildlife.
Vegter argues that, “underwater decibel levels don’t compare one for one to sound intensity in air”. I think he’s right, just not in the way he believes! Water is more than 800 times denser than air and sound travels much further and faster through water than it does in air. He says that many sounds in nature are as loud as the seismic air cannons, including whale breaches and lightning strikes. But this is completely disingenuous as he is well aware that these events do not occur every 10 seconds, all day, every day, for months on end in a concentrated area. He suggests that the animals will simply hear the ship coming and move out of the way, even going so far as to label animals that don’t do this as “obstinate”.
A much bigger concern lies around what happens if oil or gas is found.
Quite apart from our continued reliance on fossil fuels, the area is not called the Wild Coast for nothing. Having spent thousands of hours at sea documenting the marine wildlife in the area, I can attest to both the abundance of wildlife and the tempestuous nature of the weather and sea conditions. This really is not a place to be drilling for oil or gas.
Even if you believe, as Vegter does, that the effects of the survey will be minimal, there are major concerns around the issuing of the prospecting license in the first instance, and the around the motivation of the issuing authority.
The original prospecting license issued to Impact Africa in 2014 was granted as part of the ANC government’s Operation Phakisa, which has the goal of “fast-tracking the unlocking of the ocean economy. Strangely enough the license was granted by the Department of Minerals, Resources and Energy and apparently the then Department of Environment, Forests and Fisheries was not mandated to consult or decided on the matter. How that is even legally possible is something I don’t profess to understand. Neither was there was a proper public participation process.
And then we still need to ask who stands to benefit from the granting of the prospecting license.
It turns out that the ANC’s investment arm, the Batho Batho Trust owns a 47% stake in the Thebe Investment Corporation, which in turn owns 28% of Shell Downstream SA. Conflict of interests, perhaps? But then again the ANC has never been bothered by such trivial inconveniences before now.
So while the ANC quietly grants the license without proper environmental authorisation and Shell denies any wrongdoing or causing any harm to marine wildlife, it seems that many people disagree.
Almost 300,000 people have signed a petition calling for a ban on the survey. There have been public demonstrations and protests with many more planned. Formal objections have been sent to Shell’s environmental consultants. And following pressure from their customers at least one fuel supplier to 35 different fuel stations has stopped using shell products and branding.
It seems not everyone is convinced that the survey is a good idea, and you can add my name to that list!
The deadline for comments and objections is only a few days away on 29 November. If you share these concerns about the impacts of this survey then please object by sending an email to Eloise Costandius, SLR Consulting (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd.