All in a day’s work for marine unit

Honorary ranger Paul van Helden.

The SANParks honorary rangers from the Table Mountain region christened some new lifejackets last week.

Light rain did not deter about eight honorary rangers from Tokai and Kirstenhof on Saturday May 27 after they were invited to go on patrol with SANParks marine unit. Honorary rangers go out in all types of weather, patrolling, collecting seeds, mopping up after fires and also fund-raising.

Honorary ranger Diane Brooks says each national park has a wish list from which the recent donation of equipment for the marine unit emanated. The money was raised by sales of the book Cape Aflame – Cape Town’s Dance with Fire, an initiative led by a small, determined group of residents.

Funds from the book were handed over at Newlands fire base last year.

On Saturday, setting off at high speed from Miller’s Point, Richard* deftly steered the 8.5 foot, twin engine Gemini, skimming across two-metre high swell heading for Cape Point. He is one of the unit’s four licensed skippers and has worked for SANparks for 14 years.

With the upper lighthouse perched above, Ms Brooks said they clean graffiti from its walls, at the crack of dawn, before the gates are opened to visitors. “Because we make a terrible mess, often scrubbing in high wind, carrying water up all those steps,” she said.

Rounding the Cape of Storms, bouncing around as if in a washing machine complete with suds, honorary ranger Michael McSweeney pointed to Dias beach. It’s a steep hike down. “Imagine climbing back up carrying bags of litter collected from the shore,” he said.

Looking out to sea, his eye is caught by two adult shy albatross and a juvenile. “Look how they effortlessly skim the surface,” he said.

This sighting was followed by a group of curious white chinned petrels, and juvenile kelp gulls following the dinghy.

Time to return, hugging the coastline, checking a drum floating in the water, apparently an octopus trap.

Continuing along the coast, David’s* keen eyes picked out someone walking along the shore.

It was a ranger patrolling among ostriches and baboons probably unaware that above him on the steep slope was a solitary eland.

Further along the coast, past Buffels Bay, we saw a herd of bontebok and a solitary diver. “He isn’t acting like a poacher,” said David. He described how difficult it is to get convictions as smugglers are sophisticated and know the rangers’ every movement, their schedule and loopholes within the law. He says having video footage, particularly in cases with violent behaviour, will tell the story better than a statement.

Rangers patrol unarmed, on foot, in vehicles and by boat.

David has been working for SANParks since 2012 and loves his job even though it’s dangerous. Smugglers know him, they know where he lives, they see him shopping and greet him.

Passing Smitswinkel Bay, he recalls a time when they chased three men up the steep, zigzag path. They dropped the bags, heavy with 2 700 perlemoen. “They prefer full moon and low tide,” he said.

As Richard negotiated granite boulders at Partridge Point, covered with waiting cormorants, three divers called him over. Their engine would not fire, they wanted a tow. It’s all part of the job.

After dropping them off at Miller’s Point, we once again sped off, this time towards Simon’s Town. Richard had received a report of divers off Rocklands Point. Pulling up to the small boat, David asked them for their diving permit to which one of three men said he had been scuba diving there for 20 years without being asked for one.

David told them that anyone diving within a marine protected area needed a permit. The divers asked how far this marine protected area stretched and David told them eight kilometres offshore, and from Muizenberg to Mouille Point. He gave directions to the nearest post office and told them to buy a permit from the post office in Simon’s Town, at a cost of R65, against a fine (next time if they do not have one) of about R2 500.

SANparks Marine Unit is based in Kommetjie and has 10 members and four licensed skippers who are faced with the challenge of combating poaching and educating the fishing communities around sustainable use.

Poaching is the biggest threat to South Africa’s marine environment and has resulted in strict regulations and bans on some recreational activities. Law enforcement officers patrol by boat, vehicle and foot. Apart from checking octupus traps, rescuing fishermen and checking diving permits, rangers also check fishing, rock lobster, abalone, bait as well as commercial and subsistence permits and catches. If you can help with thermal night vision and protective wear for vessel patrols and glasses, contact Diane Brooks on dianebrooks.hr@gmail.com or 083 419 4107. Report poaching on 021 783 0234.

The real names of the rangers have not been used to protect their identity.