Fêted aerial and underwater photographer Jean Tresfon trains his focus on the City of Cape Town’s contamination of its coastal waters Flying over Cape Town in his light aircraft in 2014, marine conservation photographer Jean Tresfon noticed distinct “plumes” of strange-coloured water drifting off some of Cape Town’s favourite beaches. Long plumes of sewage stretched across the blue sea water, having entered the ocean off Camps Bay, Hout Bay and Green Point via underwater pipes called outfalls.
“I guess I’ve always known about the outfalls. I know we pump sewage into the sea,” Tresfon told Noseweek. “But, like everyone else, I always assumed it was treated first and that it was safe going into the sea.”
Shocked by the stark contrast between brown sewage and blue ocean, Tresfon posted the photographs on to his popular marine conservation page on Facebook. But to his surprise, none of his nearly 16,000 followers was outraged.
“I realised the two things missing were scale and context. So I went to take photographs on a day when it was really bad. The plume rises to the surface most days, but it varies. On some days it’s really bad and on others it’s not as horrendous.
“I took the standard tourist shot of Robben Island, with a 5km-long plume stretching out to sea. It showed exactly where it was and the scale of it. I posted it to social media and it went viral.
“In the post, I had said it was unbelievable that in this day and age we just dump raw poo into the sea, as it’s out of sight, out of mind. The issue ended up on the front page of most newspapers and in other media.”
|Jean Tresfon: photographer, pilot, diver…|
Tresfon then made it his business to find out what was actually happening in the City of Cape Town’s marine outfall programme – and he has continued his research into the subject for the past five years. In the process he has got to know several scientists working on this issue, including UWC water treatment expert Professor Leslie Petrik and water pollution fundi Professor Jo Barnes (nose245).
“The three outfalls – one in Hout Bay, another in Camps Bay and the third in Green Point – have a combined capacity of 55 million litres of untreated effluent per day that goes into the sea. I was horrified that 55 million litres of raw, untreated sewage and greywater is pumped into the ocean every day via the outfalls. I discovered, with the scientists’ input, what a disaster this is.
“Worldwide, there are different protocols for effluent treatment. Terms like primary treatment and secondary treatment have specific meanings in terms of what you do to that effluent. The City of Cape Town is very misleading when they talk about “treated effluent” being pumped out to sea. When pushed, they refer to ‘pre-treatment’, not ‘primary treatment’. It’s a play on words, but pre-treatment – what is that?
“What they actually do is pass the sewage through a series of screens. There is a 5ml or a 3ml screen to remove larger objects like nappies and sanitary towels. Whatever is left just gets pumped straight into the sea. No chemical treatment. Nothing to negate the bacteria. That’s not treatment, that’s just screening. There’s a big difference. It’s done on purpose because it’s the cheapest way to do it. It’s that out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality. Nobody sees it from the land as the different pipelines go out about a kilometre.
“The sewage goes through what is called a diffuser. It’s like having a sprinkler on the end of a hosepipe. It’s meant to break the flow up and let it mix. But the fresh water and the sea don’t mix for a long time.”
According to Tresfon, the City’s website used to say that the deep water outfalls occur far from shore so that the effluent is dispersed at the level of the sea floor, doesn’t reach the surface and is far from the shore.
“Even if you deem it acceptable that we are using the sea as a dumping ground, the fact is it doesn’t work that way. The effluent bubbles to the surface on a regular basis and often gets blown straight back to shore.
“On the Atlantic Seaboard, on any westerly wind – which is our prevailing winter wind – like a northwest or a west or a southwest – the effluent blows straight back to the shore. You walk along that Atlantic Seaboard and you smell it. Kayakers paddle though it and surfers get sick.”
He said he and scientists like Barnes, Petrik and others, have documented many cases of illness.
Barnes says of Tresfon: “He is a superhero – not only for what he does but for his persistence in the face of some unpleasant treatment at the hands of the authorities – like all of us he mentions. I can produce hard-drives full of data yet not equal the impact of one of his evocative photographs. He is both dedicated and extremely skilled at what he does.”
Previously sales director for a brick company, Tresfon has been diving in the Western Cape oceans for more than 30 years and working full-time as an underwater cameraman for the past ten years.
“I was one of the youngsters of my generation who was inspired by photographer/conservationist Jacques Cousteau. I was snorkelling at the age of 11, got my scuba ticket at 16 and I’ve never stopped diving.”
He learnt photography through trial and error and was soon winning awards, including Getaway Gallery Photographer of the Year in 2007.
|Visible pollution: sewage from the City Bowl is discharged into the sea from the Green Point marine outfall|
A decade ago, Tresfon, who is married with three children, started flying a light aircraft as a hobby and was soon taking wildlife and landscape photographs from the sky. Since then he’s taken footage that most photographers can’t even dream of. His Facebook page, Jean Tresfon – Marine Conservation Photographer, has over 15,000 followers. On the page, he describes himself as “a wildlife and landscape photographer specialising in underwater and aerial photographs, with a passion for showcasing his city and his country”.
“I always wanted to study marine biology but my dad wouldn’t let me,” Tresfon told Noseweek. “He had this theory that the world is full of starving scientists. He said, ‘go and get a real job and when you’ve made money, you can do what you like’.”
So Tresfon, who went to school at Bishops in Cape Town, studied commerce and then worked in “a real job” as a sales director at Cape Brick for years while doing his diving and photography on the side.
“Then, ten years ago, I started doing full-time photography. The photos I take are so varied. I’ve photographed dusky dolphins, common dolphins and bottle-nosed dolphins; whales mating – and whales with calves. I’ve taken photos of hundreds of fish species; the sardine run, the chokka spawning and squid mating season. I used to do the surveys for the shark spotters (before the white sharks started disappearing).”
His photographer role models are National Geographic Magazine photographer Paul Nicklin – “an amazing advocate for nature” – and local photographer Thomas Peshar. “They both told me to tell a story with my photos.”
For Tresfon, taking photographs from his aircraft was a game changer. He’s been flying once or twice a week for ten years. “It’s a fantastic way to see the marine environment. You start seeing patterns and you see when those patterns start to change.”
He has assisted the authorities by reporting poaching, pollution and illegal fishing and helps scientists with their work, by flying whale surveys for the whale unit and helping with other fisheries surveys.
He also did a lot of photography of Western Cape dams during the drought. “I kept track of water levels in all Cape Town’s six major dams.”
“It’s taken years, but today, I’m privileged to have a solid relationship with most of the marine scientists in the Cape. It’s an exchange. I offer my time, I fly them for their surveys, and in return, I get massive knowledge and education. It’s super interesting.”
Tresfon’s series of photos called The Abundance Series features photographs of shoals of yellowtail (“thousands of them boiling on the surface in spawning aggregations”). One of his photos features three different marine mammals in one photo – “whales playing with dolphins playing with seals.”
He also writes a weekly blog on his Facebook page. “I focus mostly on the bounty we have. I get to see things most people don’t dream exist. You have to see what I see to believe what we have under water. We have such an abundance of life and it’s so crucial to protect it. You can’t see what I’ve seen and sit by and do nothing about protecting our oceans, rather than waiting till they are empty.”
In November, 2015, Tresfon spotted something from his plane which astonished him: a humpback supergroup. This mysterious phenomenon, which is fairly new to South African whale scientists – sees up to 1,000 humpback whales gather to eat krill on the West Coast, between St Helena Bay and Cape Point.
When they first encountered the phenomenon, whale researchers said they’d never seen anything like this. Humpbacks, despite migrating, feeding and mating in groups, are normally known for being the loners of the sea. Most of their lives are spent in solitude, or in small groups of up to seven individuals for short lengths of time. But in recent years scientists have reported more than 22 cases where humpback “supergroups” – of 20 to 200 whales – have appeared off the southwest coast of South Africa.
Tresfon, who wrote movingly about his first supergroup encounter on his blog, was the first person to get an aerial photo of the phenomenon. “I took a photo with over 100 humpback whales tightly gathered in a dense aggregation that has never been seen in the world before. In fact, the scientists who wrote the paper on the supergroup phenomenon published a peer reviewed paper on it, using my photograph.
“I saw a disturbance offshore and went to check it out. At first I thought ‘wow, a lot of dolphins’, then I thought, ‘hold on, those are not dolphins, they are whales – 40 tonnes apiece. More than 100 animals. It was one of the most incredible sights I’ve seen.”
He was one of the first people to dive and film them feeding.
“It’s because of these beautiful sightings and my passion to protect our beautiful oceans that I have become an environmental activist. I’m doing this through necessity.”
Tresfon said that when he flies – about twice a week – to take photographs, he takes note of the plumes and takes photographs whenever they look particularly bad. He has five or six years of photographs of the plumes. Through the years, he said, the City’s response has varied. “Initially they denied it, to the point where they said the plumes I had photographed were from passing ships.
“When I pointed out that the plumes were at the exact coordinates of their own outfalls, the story changed to, ‘Okay, maybe it’s not a passing ship but its not harmful to the environment’. Then, two years later and after millions of rands were spent on a report that was too damning for them to release to the public, they changed tune to say, ‘Okay, it might be harmful to the environment but there are other sources of pollution, like stormwater drains and informal settlements.’
“Now we’re at the stage where they are saying, ‘Okay, it’s harmful but what choice do we have?”
In the past, said Tresfon, he has, been invited to meetings of the City’s Water and Sanitation committee – “I assume to shut me up”.
“The bottom line, as per the people in charge, is budget. They say there isn’t the money to build a treatment plant.”
While Tresfon concedes it is a huge problem for the City to deal with, he believes there are a number of measures that should be taken.
|Spotted from the air: the ‘mysterious phenomenon’ of a supergroup of humpback whales feeding on krill on the West Coast|
“I am a realist. I know they have a practical problem to deal with. Obviously it would be better if they didn’t put anything into the sea, but that’s not a reality. So I believe they need to build a sewage plant to treat the sewage to secondary level before pumping it into the sea. The treatment won’t do anything about the bacteria and chemicals going into the sea, but one problem at a time.
“There are other things that are important here, such as the fact that if you treat sewage to a secondary level, you can recover at least 50% of the water that came down the sewer line. So, assuming you have got a capacity of 55m litres a day, you have 25-odd million litres of water a day that you are saving.
“Yet the City tried to build a desalination plant to save 2 million litres!
“Added to that, the methane and solids you recover from the treatment plant are a potential fuel source so there would be a lot of benefit in treating the sewage other than just helping the environment. There are a lot of other benefits to doing it properly.
"The City say their main objection is cost and availability of land. They say there is no land available and it costs too much. I find that amusing because when we wanted a stadium we could suddenly make a couple of billion available, build a stadium in a year and have a piece of land available but something as important as City sewage, we can’t do.
“Also the DA is hellbent at the moment on selling off that Maiden’s Cove piece of land in Camps Bay and having it developed into shops, hotels and restaurants, but it is the last available piece of land and it is the perfect spot for a sewage plant.
"You don’t have to have the old-fashioned sewage plant that’s an open water source that smells. That’s technology of 40 years ago. You can build an underground plant. It doesn’t have to be smelly, or invasive or an eyesore. These things can be done if there is a will.
“They say it is all about money, but the rates paid by the Camps Bay or Atlantic Seaboard ratepayers’ associations, for example – who are very anti what’s going on – are some of the highest in the country. They pay three or four times more for sewage removal than other people and yet the sewage literally goes down a pipe and gets pumped into the sea.
“And don’t even get me started on the Camps Bay’s Blue Flag status as it’s such a cheat. Only half the beach is a Blue Flag beach. They don’t tell you that. Testing is done only three months a year when the prevailing wind is southeast and offshore. The testing is once every two weeks or something like that. It’s a total cheat, and it doesn’t reflect the fact that Camps Bay itself has a pipeline that comes out near Maiden’s Cove. And very often the sewage goes straight back into the bay that acts as a retention zone. So you are basically swimming and surfing in raw sewage – yet it’s a Blue Flag beach. So this whole thing is a joke.
Tresfon said second prize, if no plant is built, would be to cap the output at current levels. He explains: “The three main outfalls have a capacity of 55 million litres a day, and the sewage obviously increases at a corresponding rate to the population, which doubles every seven to ten years, so there comes a point when the sea cannot cope with the amount of sewage being dumped into it “I think we are already at that point but if you accept we are not there yet, we need to start planning now for an alternative. The City has done nothing in the five years I’ve been hammering home the message. Not a single thing. In fact, it’s got worse.”
Tresfon referred to a report from the CSIR, commissioned by the City (“but which was not independent because the City insisted on doing a lot of its own testing”) which concluded that there is not an imminent ecological disaster from dumping raw sewage into the ocean.
“But, in the conclusion, the CSIR scientists still distanced themselves from that and said the practice is frowned upon, has to be changed and that there are significant areas along our coast where people can be at risk of getting seriously ill.
“When the report was released, the City did not release the publicly funded report to the public. Instead they issued a press release referring to the report, and it said that the report absolves the City from any wrong and shows there is nothing wrong with the sea and it’s all fine to swim there. That’s not what the report said at all. So there’s been a lot of sneakiness along the way from the City.
“On top of this, the City used to have a coastal waters discharge permit to discharge the sewage into the sea. But in 2003, most of our Cape Coast was declared a Marine Protected Area. The National Environment Management Act and the Marine Living Resources Act both prohibit the dumping of waste into a marine protected area without permission.”
Jean Tresfon will continue taking photographs and being an activist for the Western Cape’s waters. “As my wife put it, I’ve become the poster boy for shit in the water in Cape Town!
“I never wanted that. I don’t want to fight with the City. I don’t need the recognition, fame, or notoriety. I am not looking for attention.
“What I want is for the City of Cape Town to just do their job.”
Copyright © 2021 www.noseweek.co.za