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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.
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.
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.