Meet the next generation of deep-sea researchers: Leila Nefdt

Leila Nefdt, MSc student
Department of Biological Sciences, University of Cape Town, South Africa
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What has been your personal journey into the deep-sea? (Did you always know this is what you wanted to do, or start out on a completely different path?) In other words, what unique journey led you to where you are now?

From a young age, I have always been fascinated and curious about what was found beyond the coastline. I always dreamed of travelling the world and discovering the mysteries of the underworld while finding new species, as well as learning how to conserve marine life. My love and curiosity for the ocean has led me to become a marine biologist. I completed my BSc undergraduate and BSc Honours degree in Biodiversity and Conservation Biology at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa. My Honours research project focused on marine intertidal biological invasions.

After that, I spent a year completing a DSTNRF* Internship through the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON), specifically at the Egagasini Node in Cape Town where we worked closely with the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF), South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and the Iziko Museum. Our work at SAEON, specifically looked at observing and understanding marine offshore systems and this is where my passion for offshore benthic ecosystems came into existence. This led me to my current MSc studies.  The internship was a huge steppingstone for me and created a platform for me to learn, network and discover what I am truly passionate about.

I am both passionate about taking care of our oceans and empowering the youth by giving back what I have learnt through my studies and experiences over the last few years. This has led me to become involved through volunteering at the Two Oceans Aquarium, through various beach clean ups, education outreach activities run by various institutions and ocean initiatives. My most recent and current involvement is with Sea the Bigger Picture (#STBP, NPO), where I am volunteering my time through clean ups and their Defenders of the Blue programme. We aim to uplift and encourage the younger generation by teaching them to take care of the ocean by learning to understand and respect it and in doing so, we hope that they can pass on the knowledge and share their experiences with the rest of their communities.

My very first time at sea, participating in the SEAmester cruise (South Africa’s Class Afloat) on board the RV SA Agulhas II, in June-July 2016 (during my internship) where I learnt about Oceanography – specifically looking at oceans in a changing climate, the usage of various sampling equipment and had the opportunity to network with various scientists and students from across South Africa.

What is your current research question and why are you interested in this topic?

I am currently pursuing a Masters in Biological Sciences at the University of Cape Town, focusing on offshore marine benthic ecology. My research focuses on using underwater imagery taken from the Deep Secrets Cruise in September-October 2016 (run by the African Coelacanth Ecosystem Programme) to 1) classify marine offshore benthic ecosystems along the continental shelf edge and slope off the south coast of southern Africa and 2) set conservation targets for these ecosystems. In doing so, we aim to increase offshore marine research capacity, our knowledge base and understanding of our offshore environment so that we can better inform management practices as well as protect these areas.

What have been some challenges in your work or in studying the deep sea in general? Has your research turned out how you expected?

There are many challenges in terms of deep-sea sampling, especially for the work that needs to be done in South Africa’s offshore region. We have found that benthic imagery is a great way to observe in-situ benthic biodiversity, however the natural conditions of the sea is not always favourable and this was clearly evident in most of the imagery taken along the Deep Secrets cruise. A number of challenges presented itself during my Masters, for example, it was my very first time analysing benthic imagery and using the TransectMeasure© (SeaGIS) software to process the imagery (I am one of a few that has made use of this software in South Africa). A few other issues came up while processing and analysing the data, but with a little patience and perseverance I managed to get through those hiccups.

Why is this work important to you and society as a whole?

I love what I do, it excites me because this is the first time that the continental shelf and edge of southern Africa has been explored like this; providing new insights into South Africa’s poorly studied deep-sea ecosystems. Knowing that there will be more information to turn to and having a better understanding of our deep-sea ecosystems will aid us in moving forward with South Africa’s National Biodiversity Assessment (NBA) and improving our marine management as well as contributing toward South Africa’s emerging Marine Spatial Planning processes.

Because we are such an international organization, can you describe what the deep-sea science community is like in your region?

South Africa is a major maritime nation. We look to the sea for many reasons, being food, jobs, energy, transport, recreation, and tourism. The whole of South Africa’s coast has a lot to offer – from the coral reefs of the Indian Ocean to the rich kelp forests of the Atlantic, it is one of the richest and most biologically diverse marine environments on Earth. However very little is known of or has been explored offshore. The deep-sea science community in South Africa is still small but active. Deep-sea research is very much in its infancy; however, we are slowly growing as we aim to increase offshore marine research capacity and our knowledge base of our offshore marine environment.

First deep deployment of our Marine Remote Imagery Platform’s (Mar-RIP) new Bathyl-BRUV to 363m on board the RV Ellen Khuzwayo during the West Coast Visual Survey Cruise in January 2019.

What is your current position (student, researcher, government, non-profit etc) and what do you like about your current role in deep-sea science?

I am currently an MSc student in the Biological Sciences Department at the University of Cape Town. I enjoy being a part of the pioneering stages of deep-sea science in South Africa!

What advice could you offer to aspiring deep-sea biologists?

The deep-sea is the world’s biggest playground – go for it! No matter what comes your way, let passion drive your profession, and never forget to have fun while doing it.

What is the biggest challenge or project you look forward to addressing in the future? 

I am passionate about working with local communities and bringing about awareness of marine science and the importance of our oceans. I would have to say that one of the biggest challenges that I would like to tackle, is to communicate the importance of what we are doing in marine science to the general public, to bring about an understanding but also getting the general public more involved with the decision making of the implementation of marine legislation and protected areas.

Another challenge is to broaden the deep-sea community by encouraging a more diverse group of people (especially people of colour and women) to take on deep-sea science as a career option. Perhaps this could be done through community outreach training and motivational workshops – this can be achieved successfully if we work together!

I am really passionate about science communication and outreach. Here I am educating scholars about marine science and biodiversity at SciFest in Grahamstown, South Africa in March 2017 (left) and teaching a local youth group about the ‘Scientific method’ in the Defenders of the Blue Programme through #SeaTheBiggerPicture Ocean Initiative in 2020 (right).

What is your favourite thing about the deep sea?

My favourite thing about the deep-sea is the uncertainty of it all; knowing that there is still so much to explore and learn about in the deep-sea really excites me. I look forward to seeing what else is out there!

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