Nomadic Conservation: A South African Filmmaker’s Journey across the Seas to Inspire a Conservation Movement

It is a frosty morning as a man heavily swathed in thermal gear welcomes the weak warmth of a low-slung sun, watching as the large triangular dorsal fins of a couple of male killer whales (Orcinus orca) cut through the frigid sub-Antarctic waters swirling around the volcanic rock of Marion Island. Having spent another freezing night bundled up in one of the cramped old field huts dotting the landscape and crunching on a questionable Marie biscuit/condensed milk concoction, it is good to be back out in the fresh air to complete the last leg of the 72 km island circumnavigation. Surviving in the, often harsh, wilderness is nothing new for Zach Vincent, a South African filmmaker bred on exploring the wilds of the South African interior. And so, ears assaulted by the cacophony rising from the beach below as king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) hustle through their morning routines, Zach and his Masters supervisor, Prof Peter Ryan, begin their final trudge back to base. The duo is on the South African island during the annual take-over to give Zach field experience to accompany the mathematical modelling of the data collected and used for his MSc thesis; The Survival and Reproduction in a Biennially Breeding Seabird, the Wandering Albatross. Weekly checks are carried out on the nests of the wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans) colonies and the birds’ progress throughout the breeding season is closely monitored. Marion Island forms part of the 180 633 km2 Prince Edward Islands Marine Protected Area (MPA), declared in 2013 and the first offshore MPA for South Africa. Lying at the heart of the infamous Roaring Forties and approximately 2 000 km south-east of Cape Town, this island group is a global biodiversity hotspot supporting 28 seabird and 3 seal species. Killer whales cruise the island’s surrounding waters, which are also home to stocks of Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) and dense stands of an endemic kelp species (Macrocystis laevis). Zach describes Marion Island as a jewel of the Southern Ocean; an incredible vista of wild sub-Antarctic seas, black volcanic beaches, towering rugged cliffs, and mossy green hillocks. With a stormy disposition, a mean annual temperature of only 4.4 °C and strong prevailing westerlies bringing heavy rain and snow; the harsh environment of this isolated research outpost is not for the faint of heart.

Zach - Marion Island

Zach setting up a shot during his time on Marion Island

King Penguins and Southern Elephant Seals

 Hauled out southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonina), a beach master with his harem of females and their pups, surrounded by King penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) on Marion Island. 

Zach and Crozet Shags

Zach with nesting Crozet shags (Phalacrocorax melanogenis) on Marion Island

Marion Island Landscape

Zach trudging across the rugged Marion Island landscape

Port Elizabeth born Vincent cut his teeth on harsh environments, such as the vast arid Karoo, while tagging along with his filmmaker parents. One particularly vivid childhood memory, never far from his mind, is that of a giant black eagle (Aquila verreauxii) gliding inches above his head while on location near Steytlerville. Against the backdrop of South Africa’s breath-taking natural beauty, Zach’s parents exposed him to wildlife and conservation issues at an early age; providing him with a strong foundation on which to grow his love of nature and his passion for conserving the environment. Weekends spent peering into the colourful and species diverse rockpools along the coast of “Schoenies”, a small seaside community south-west of Port Elizabeth, continued to fuel Zach’s fascination for nature and ignited his love for the ocean. Hours were spent marvelling as peculiar-looking spotted sea hares (Aplysia oculifera) slowly munched their way across the sandy beds, observing as shy hermit crabs scurryed from the safety of one rocky refuge to another and watching as the mauve-tipped tentacles of aggressively territorial false plum anemones (Pseudactinia flagellifera) gently swayed with the pull of the tides. After high school, Zach naturally progressed to include zoology as one of his majors while studying at the then University of Port Elizabeth (now Nelson Mandela University). The unique location of the Zoology Department; in the nature reserve of the university’s South Campus, in close proximity to a number of beaches and world-class dive sites, and an approximate 40-minute drive from the Addo Elephant National Park; provided this budding naturalist with an awesome environment in which to build his knowledge base and study nature. When viewing his collection of impressive wildlife documentaries and series and listening to him describe the projects with which he has been involved, it becomes very clear that Zach’s love for all things natural is still burning strong.

PE Spotted Seahare

Spotted sea hare (Aplysia oculifera) in one of Port Elizabeth’s many rockpools (Sally Sivewright)

PE Hermit

Scurrying hermit crabs provide endless entertainment for the curious beachcomber (Sally Sivewright)

PE Anemone

False plum anemones (Pseudactinia flagellifera) are aggressively territorial, attacking unrelated anemones thought to be encroaching on their patch (Sally Sivewright)

Over the past thirty years 50/50 has become an institution, an integral part of the childhood of many South African kids with a keen interest in the environment. Growing up watching this wildlife program was, and still is, a Sunday evening ritual in many households across the country and now Zach’s documentaries have frequented their line-up. Reading the extensive list of his past projects is like reading David Attenborough’s itinerary for his Blue Planet series. From documenting the translocation of lion from the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in the Kalahari to the Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape to forging deep into the Okavango Delta to reveal the magic of southern Africa’s last remaining true wilderness in an awesome three-part series. From following research teams investigating the behaviour and ecology of Africa’s smallest dolphin species, the Heaviside’s dolphin (Cephalorhynchus heavisidii), to exploring the mist belt of the KwaZulu-Natal montane grasslands in search of the tiny blue swallow (Hirundo atrocaerulea), an intra-African migrant whose breeding habitat is in desperate need of protection. The dependence of the swallow on the presence of aardvark (Orycteropus afer) holes, in which to build their nests, and the preference of a very specific habitat type highlights the importance of ecosystem-wide conservation. Between habitat destruction and the hunting of aardvark for the bushmeat trade, along with the possibility that increased air pollution is impacting the wettability of the birds’ plumage and lowering nesting success, the probability of extinction of the blue swallow in South Africa is a desolate reality. Several of Zach’s projects encompass the theme of animals attempting to survive along hostile urban fringes and bring attention to the ongoing human/wildlife conflict so prevalent in many areas while also highlighting valiant conservation efforts being initiated across the country. Some such projects include “Toads in the Road”, showcasing the obstacles faced by the endangered western leopard toads (Amietophrynus pantherinus) attempting to breed in their radically transformed habitat and “Cape Parrots”, following the conservation efforts to save South Africa’s only endemic parrot species from extinction.

Black Mamba

Zach filming a black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) for National Geographic’s “Safari Brothers”

Sekgweng, meaning “in the wilderness” in Tswana, is a bush show that Zach created and produced at the request of 50/50 back in 2012 and has now run for 25 episodes. The segments follow experienced rangers and field guides as they explore the South African bush, talking about the ecology of these wilderness areas and explaining various aspects of animal behaviour. A number of these episodes take place in the Shamwari Game Reserve, located 75 km north-east of Port Elizabeth, a privately-owned wilderness refuge of 25 000 hectares. “CSI Shamwari”, “The Floods”, “The Lions of Shamwari” and “Walking with Elephants” are just a few examples of the topics covered during the shows filmed at Shamwari. During “Tortoise and Terrapin” the host, Johann Lombard, explains how to age and sex leopard tortoises (Stigmochelys pardalis) and anatomically differentiate these cumbersome giants from terrapins, their partially freshwater-dwelling counterparts. Following a herd of African elephants (Loxodonta africana) as they move through the dense subtropical thicket of the reserve, Johann talks about their foraging behaviours and how they pass on this information to younger generations. He explains such behaviours as ear flapping (thermodynamics in this instance), musth and the low-frequency communication exhibited by these majestic creatures. Combining his skills in film and animation and tapping into his broad scientific knowledge base, Zach has successfully produced an informative and aesthetically appealing programme; showcasing a number of the beautiful terrestrial biomes that South Africa has to offer.

Zach and Johann Lombard filming in Shamwari

Zach and safari guide, Johann Lombard, filming scenes in Shamwari for Sekgweng

Lion - Shamwari

One of Shamwari’s regal male lions (Panthera leo)

Lionesses and Cubs - Shamwari

A pair of lionesses and their cubs at Shamwari Game Reserve

One of Zach’s most recent creations is Wild Warrior, a series following Arnold Slabbert on his mission to not only rescue animals in distress and protect indigenous biodiversity but to prevent the unnecessary situations that result from inhumane pest control. Shadowing Slabbert for three months allowed Zach to publicise the remarkable work and initiatives established by this ecowarrior and highlight the plight of so many species struggling to survive in the face of urban sprawl and human encroachment on their dwindling habitats. By setting up the Urban Raptor Project and a rescue hotline, Wildline, Arnold Slabbert continues his quest to achieve a harmonious coexistence between humans and the animals with which we share this world. This is an ongoing project for Zach and one that he would like to see reach a wider international audience.

Arnold Slabbert and Boomslang

Arnold Slabbert, Wild Warrior, rescuing a boomslang (Dispholidus typus)

The works of Zach Vincent are not only limited to the wilds of southern Africa and her rugged islands. A scholarship from the prestigious Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute landed Zach in Cape Cod, USA, from where he has followed projects across the globe, documenting research and putting the spotlight on important wildlife issues. “Whale Sharks of West Papua” is a beautifully crafted piece of videography that Zach filmed and produced for Georgia Aquarium in celebration of the 2017 International Whale Shark Day. Spending two weeks aboard a Lamba Pinisi (sleek sailing vessel with the air of a bygone era) filming the work of the research team, Zach reveals the incredible biodiversity and captures the stunning natural scenery that acts as the backdrop against which the first “in the wild” health assessment of these striking creatures is carried out. The aquarium’s Japanese colleagues have developed a method of drawing blood underwater and this, together with the presence of fishing nets suspended from bagans (traditional Indonesian floating fishing platforms), allowed the team to successfully collect a suite of important measurements from 23 individuals. Georgia Aquarium has collaborated with the Georgia Institute of Technology to study the chemistry of the sharks’ blood while also studying its DNA to produce the first ever complete shark genome with Emory University.

Whale Shark - Indonesia

Using the bagans’ fishing nets to carry out the first health assessment of whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) in the wild

Whale Shark and Zach

Zach filming the release of the shark after researchers had carried out their measurements

When watching the West Papua video (even for the fifth time), it’s not hard to see why Zach counts this experience as one of his most awesome. Bristol Bay, Alaska, a stark contrast to the clear tropical waters of Indonesia, provides the setting for yet another epic adventure as Zach documents the aquarium’s research on beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas). The studies initially focussed on the distribution and movement of these peculiar cetaceans in the Nashagak River (a tributary of Bristol Bay), moving on to assess the diet and pollution exposure relative to the endangered population of Cook Inlet and later attaching satellite tags to monitor movements and assess their health status. In 2014 foraging techniques were added to the scope of study when experts recorded the vocalisations and echolocation of individual whales locating and consuming prey. Between 2014 and 2016, Zach filmed and produced “Ocean Mysteries” with Jeff Corwin, another one of Georgia Aquarium’s productions, which received four Emmy nominations and had an average weekly audience of approximately 2 million people making it one of the most watched wildlife shows in the USA. The research projects of Georgia Aquarium have also taken Zach to St Helena and Florida and now, among the many exciting new projects he has under development, Zach is hoping to be heading off to the Galapagos Islands to work on a project covering the research team’s study of the whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) in this fascinating region.

Blackstone Glacier

Zach and team on location in Blackstone Bay to film various pieces on giant Pacific octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini), Pacific halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis) and bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)

Blackstone Glacier - Alaska

Blackstone Glacier, one of Alaska’s many beautiful glaciers

Zach in Alaska

Zach in Blackstone Bay, Alaska

Walrus Island

Documenting walrus conservation and ecology at Walrus Island, Alaska

Tiger Sharks in Hawaii

Filming the movement of tiger sharks (Galeocerdo cuvier) around the Waikiki region of Hawaii as part of the Ocean Mysteries programme

Tiger Shark - Tonic Immobility

A tiger shark in tonic immobility as scientists from the University of Hawaii take measurements

By capturing a region’s natural beauty while still asking the tough questions that put the spotlight on key global environmental issues, it is Zach’s quest to connect the public with our collective conscience and keep the wellbeing of the environment at the forefront of this movement. “Never stop exploring and learning, always follow your passion and grab every opportunity that you get, no matter how small.” It becomes apparent, when listening to him describe his vision for the future, that Zach truly encompasses these philosophies and that his films will continue to inspire many generations of naturalists to come. We have definitely not seen the last of Zach Vincent and I for one cannot wait to see what future projects capture the imagination of this conservation nomad.

Zach and Siku

Zach and Siku, a walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) who was orphaned as a pup in Alaska and recovered by the United States Fish and Wildlife Services

Explore. Dream. Discover.

***All photos provided by Zach Vincent, unless otherwise credited***

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