ORI researchers head to Madagascar for Project Suitcase

The coast of Madagascar will form the research location

While visiting south-east Madagascar in 2008 following research in the Mozambique channel, the Oceanographic Research Institute's (ORI) Dr Sean Fennessy was struck by how similar the coastal environment appeared to the coast of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). He also observed marine species believed to be endemic to South Africa’s KZN coast and wondered how such links had been established and whether they were being maintained.

Project Suitcase research head Dr Sean Fennessy

Together with physical oceanographer Dr Mike Roberts from the Department of Environmental Affairs, they established “Project Suitcase”. The name was chosen in reference to the possibility that larvae of marine species from south-east Madagascar are “packed into a suitcase” and transported by currents and eddies across the Mozambique channel to KZN. On arrival in KZN, they surmise that the “suitcase” is unpacked and the larvae released to colonise this part of the South African coastline.

To test these assumptions, Sean and senior ORI scientist Fiona Mackay will undertake Project Suitcase research, which requires careful preparation, including a reconnaissance trip in mid-October ahead of a full-scale sampling trip in 2013. They will be visiting the Fort Dauphin/Tolagnaro region in October 2012 to reconnoitre coastal lagoons and intertidal rocky shores suitable for research, in addition to gathering information about inshore reefs for diving purposes.

Project Suitcase researcher Fiona Mackay

Although beautiful, the Madagascan east coast is wild and undeveloped, and characterised by rough seas, cyclones, heavy rain and extreme heat during the course of the year.

The team will also meet with local Malgache who may be able to assist with some of the challenges presented by the project. Getting to Madagascar is a challenge in itself. Although closer to KZN than Cape Town, flights via Johannesburg to the capital, Antananarivo, take about a day.

Sean and Fiona will feed back to the ORI news site on their return.