The School of Life Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg campus, is grieving the loss of Alex Whitehead, who was studying for a MSc and was on track to submit at the end of 2021. His untimely death comes as a shock to all those who worked with him in Prof Downs’ Research Group.

Alex was devoted to aquatic ecosystems, which he built into his career. He completed his BSc in Ichthyology and Entomology (2004) and went on to complete his Honours in Fisheries (2005) at Rhode’s University in Makhanda (Grahamstown). Both of which he completed with distinction.

After his studies, he went on to work for Sustainable Development Projects cc (SDP Ecological and Environmental Services) and contributed to their estuarine and freshwater projects. During this period, he contributed greatly to work in aquatic ecosystems and published several papers in peer-reviewed journals. On several occasions, he assisted in sharing his data with the Downs – O’Brien Research Groups, contributing to the much needed biological and ecological information on important ecological indicator species such as African Eels. This further demonstrated his passion and dedication for aquatic ecosystem that extended beyond the work place.

In 2020 his desire to study further lead him to enroll as an MSc student with the Downs Research Group and Dr Gordon O’Brien. This saw him start to unpack the role of river connectivity in understanding economically important fisheries in the upper Mooi River, KwaZulu-Natal. Here he was in the process of evaluating whether a fish barrier that had been erected was adequate to separate two highly competitive angling fish species Brown Trout and Small-Mouth Bass. Although his cancer reappeared in 2020, he continued with fieldwork and was determined to complete his studies.

His industry experience, field knowledge, writing skills and overall eagerness to assist will be a great loss to the Downs Research Group. He will be remembered for his thorough and systematic approach to fieldwork and his hard work ethic that shone through when around him; this made him a good researcher and could also be seen in his writing. In discussing why he was doing his MSc, he would say, “I want to contribute more than I already have to the aquatic field and feel an MSc is a step in that direction”. He was one of the few people that juggled consulting with research application well, a rare trait in the aquatic ecosystem industry.

Although his loss to our Research Group is great, we can only imagine the enormous loss to his family. Alex leaves behind a wife and daughter. Our condolences to both and his extended family. We hope that they find a pillar of strength in this time of loss, knowing that we grieve with them.

Compiled by Matthew Burnett, Colleen Downs, Gordon O’Brien and Céline Hanzen

Key publications :

Carrasco, N.K., Perissinotto, R. and Whitehead, A., 2013. Agricultural impact on the pelagic ecosystem of the small temporarily open/closed Seteni Estuary, South Africa. Marine and freshwater research, 64(10), pp.938-950.

Whitehead, A., Weyl, O.L.F. and Bills, I.R., 2007. Reproductive and feeding biology of the endangered fiery redfin, Pseudobarbus phlegethon (Barnard 1938)(Teleostei: Cyprinidae), in the Noordhoeks River, South Africa. African Journal of Aquatic Science, 32(3), pp.281-290.

Kaiser, H., Brill, G., Cahill, J., Collett, P., Czypionka, K., Green, A., Orr, K., Pattrick, P., Scheepers, R., Stonier, T. and Whitehead, M.A., 2006. Testing clove oil as an anaesthetic for long‐distance transport of live fish: the case of the Lake Victoria cichlid Haplochromis obliquidens. Journal of Applied Ichthyology, 22(6), pp.510-514.

Find Alex on ResearchGate.