Activists fear gas study threatens SA's Wild Coast

Shell recently announced plans to start exploration over an area spanning more than 6,000 square kilometres in the Indian ocean.

The Wild Coast is situated along the coast of the Eastern Cape. Picture: wildcoast.co.za

JOHANNESBURG - A planned seismic oil and gas exploration project by energy giant Shell off South Africa's Wild Coast region, poses a danger to marine wildlife, environmentalists say.

The Anglo-Dutch firm recently announced plans to start exploration over an area spanning more than 6,000 square kilometres in the Indian ocean.

The exploration is expected to last between four and five months.

"Many sea creatures will be affected, from whales, dolphins, seals, penguins to tiny plankton that will be blasted," Janet Solomon, of the environmental group Oceans Not Oil, said.

The Wild Coast is a 300km stretch of unspoiled natural beauty along the Indian Ocean, dotted with marine and nature reserves.

Shell's exploration project is slated to start 1 December.

"That means one extremely loud shock wave every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day, for five months at a time," Solomon said on a petition that gathered nearly 85,000 signatures.

But a Shell representative told AFP "we take great care to prevent or minimise impacts on fish, marine mammals and other wildlife".

"Shell has long experience in collecting offshore seismic data and the welfare of wildlife is a major factor in the stringent controls we use."

The survey will be "strictly following the international guidelines" of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, a UK government adviser on nature conservation.

"These are based on decades of global scientific research."

The area being surveyed lies 20km off the coast, in waters that are 700 to 3,000 metres deep.

Shell said there will be an exclusion zone of 500 metres around the sound source that will be constantly monitored round the clock by onboard independent marine mammal observers.

Survey operations will be immediately suspended if any animal enters the exclusion zone, it said.

On start-up, the sound is increased slowly to let animals in the vicinity gradually move away from the sound source, according to Shell.

The survey will create a 3D model of possible offshore energy reserves, using sound waves created by blasts of compressed air. The sound waves reflect off the ocean floor in ways that allow scientists to decode what lies underneath.

Environmentalists say the explosions will disrupt the feeding and migration of sea life, especially whales and other animals that rely on their own sound waves to navigate the ocean.