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This epiphany came six years ago. Now 27 years old, Veronica, who was raised in Pongola, is in the final stretch of completing her doctorate in environmental sciences at the NWU, where she has been leaving quite an impression.


As assistant to Prof Henk Bouwman, she was part of a team of six researchers who visited the islands of Rodrigues, St Brandon’s Atoll and Agalega Island off the coast of Mauritius to study the effects of long-range plastic pollution on these remote destinations.


In 2017 she also helped to create the Coral Reef Ecology module for honours students in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences.


Sea salt in their veins


Veronica’s mom is a well-known law professor at the NWU, Elmarie van der Schyff, but it was dad Fanie – an avid scuba diver – who instilled a love of the ocean in her.


“He was always regaling me with stories of his scuba-diving expeditions,” she recalls excitedly.


Her own travels around the globe have shown her more than she could ever have imagined, but also made her realise the dangers our oceans and coral reefs face.


Why our coral reefs are dying


“The biggest concern is global warming. Our coral reefs are dying. They are under so much stress because of rising water temperatures. I don’t think we have reached the point of no return yet, but we are getting very close. Something needs to be done and quickly.


“Our second problem is plastic. A lot of research is being done about the effects of plastic and the long distances plastic is able to travel. The biggest problem regarding plastic is single-use products, but with the Covid-19 epidemic we don’t have another choice. It really is a terrible situation.”


“We have to make people aware of the damage we are doing to our natural resources and we have to inform them about what we are doing to our oceans and to our coral reefs. Just look at the reefs at Sodwana. They are some of the healthiest in the world, but our pollution inland is killing them,” says Veronica.


We all have to do our part


“It is sad. People in cities are oblivious to what is happening. Just because we are not in the Arctic or in the tropics it doesn’t mean our coastline isn’t being affected. Sooner or later we are going to start experiencing the consequences and it is not going to change if we don’t do something about it ourselves.”


Her passion is marine ecotoxicology, but there is also much more to this vibrant young woman. “I’m obsessed with anything in nature. I also love climbing through caves and I have a hopelessly overactive imagination. Oh, and I have started learning needlework during lockdown,” she says with a hearty laugh.


This is just the kind of irrepressible energy that is needed to turn the tide and restore the pristine, plastic-free beauty of our oceans.



Protecting our oceans is Veronica’s passion

Watching the tides of the Indian Ocean rise and fall, alumna Veronica van der Schyff could not help but feel sad; distressed even. She knew the beauty around her was failing at a rate faster than ever before.


She knew her kind was responsible for this. She knew she would never again be able to stand idly by as our natural wonders lose their magic.

This photograph of the research team was taken in 2014. They are from left Prof Henrik Kylin from Sweden, Veronica, Jovani Raffin from the island Rodrigues, Prof Henk Bouwman from the NWU (and leader of the expedition), and Karin Blom and Marinus du Preez who were NWU students at the time.


How plastic is killing our oceans


Plastic pollution can now be found on every beach in the world. From busy tourist beaches to uninhabited, tropical islands, nowhere is safe. In fact, scientists have recently discovered microplastics embedded deep in the Arctic ice.


Here are a few more, equally disturbing facts:


  • In 1950, the world’s population of 2,5 billion produced 1,5 million tons of plastic; in 2016, a global population of more than 7 billion people produced over 320 million tons of plastic. This is set to double by 2034.


  • Every day, approximately 8 million pieces of plastic pollution find their way into our oceans.


  • There may now be around 5,25 trillion macro and microplastic pieces floating in the open ocean, weighing up to 269 000 tonnes.


  • Plastics consistently make up 60% to 90% of all marine debris studied.


  • Approximately 5 000 items of marine plastic pollution have been found per mile of beach in the UK.


  • Recent studies have revealed marine plastic pollution in 100% of marine turtles, 59% of whales, 36% of seals and 40% of seabird species examined.


  • Each year, 100 000 marine mammals and turtles and 1 million sea birds are killed by marine plastic pollution.





Veronica van der Schyff did a course in oceanography aboard a German research ship, the RV Meteor, sailing from Cape Town to Rio de Janeiro. The picture was taken on entering the harbour of this Brazilian city.

Dad Fanie’s passion for scuba diving became an integral part of Veronica’s field of expertise.


Paying it forward on the Agalega Island: Veronica is as comfortable in the classroom as she is doing research out in the field.


Looking to the future


Veronica recently submitted her PhD thesis on pollution in marine biota (the animal and plant life of a particular region) on three Mascarene islands.


While waiting for her results, Pretoria-based Veronica is looking out for career opportunities, preferably at the coast.


In the meantime, she is an assistant to Prof Henk Bouwman for the academic module Coral Reef Ecology at the NWU.



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