Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Shark Project 29th Sep - 13th Oct

My third volunteer placement in S. Africa was on a shark cage diving boat. I was initially apprehensive about doing the volunteering. Not because I am afraid of sharks but because I wasn't sure just how eco friendly such an operation would be. I thought I am not sure if I agree with shark cage diving, but the only way to be sure is to actually do it..

I arrived at 7 in the morning and was immediately asked if I wanted to go straight out on one of the cage dives. I thought 'Does the pope shit in the woods? Is a bear Catholic?'. So I quickly got everything I needed and within half an hour we were scooting out to the sharks.

I had been told that the shark diving was great by people who I had met along the garden route but the sharks were slightly smaller than they expected - about 2 metres. I was also told that you may have to wait around a while before the sharks come. When we anchored it took about 5 minutes before a 3m shark came along - these things are big!

After taking lots of crap photos with my camera of sharks biting bait and the seal decoy it was my turn to go into the cage. I got changed and put on one of the wetsuits provided which was like getting into a combination straight-jacket/corset (not that I have done either!) I then put on boots, mask and a weight belt. Contrary to what people think, shark cage diving does not involve going down in full scuba gear 50 ft below the water. The cage is on the top of the surface and you just sit in it on above the water until a shark comes close, at which point you hold your breath and duck down into the water.

I struggled into the cage and sat there trying not to drown alongside 4 other people. Then the first shark came along and the crew shouted 'divers down at the front'. So down I went - only I did it too late to see the shark. For the next 10 mins everytime I was told to get down I did it too late: 'Down at the front', down I went - gone. 'Divers down left', down, gone. 'Divers down at the right' down, gone.

I was just about to give up entirely when I finally went down at the right moment and there it was passing the cage about 2 metres away. It was a fantastic view but for that particular dive it was about the only one I got. The visibility in the water meant that it was very hard to see sharks underwater. I got out of the cage and soon we were back on dry land.

That was over a week ago now but it seems like a lifetime. I have been out on the boat everyday except one as a volunteer crew hand. Its tough work but we have gotten great views of sharks every day and I have been down in the cage 2 more times. I am still trying to get that ultimate photo of the shark coming out of the water and I still haven't gotten a better view then the first day in the cage but I have 5 more days and a lot more boat trips before I leave.

This is what could happen when I am in the cage.

Cool eh!

Volunteer tasks:

As well as helping prepare the boat for each voyage and cleaning it down afterwards (which is quite tedious and exhausting) a volunteer gets to do some of the following tasks on the voyage:

Data collection which basically means taking photos of any distinguishing features of the fish and noting down size, sex etc. Usually reserved for long term volunteers (ie Kevin).

Helping people put on and take off their wet suits. The advantage of this is that you get to help some rather cute ladies on with their equipment. The disadvantage is that for every nice BBB you get to do you get 2 GGG's

Chumming: Not a weird sexual act but what you do to attract sharks to the boat. It involves mashing up large pieces of fish in a large plastic bin so that bits fall into the water. To do this you have to be right at the back of the boat on a platform that regularly gets submerged. You also have to get buckets of water from the sea to mix with the mashed fish so that it leaks out the side. Oh - one other thing you have to do when chumming is push away any sharks that decide to start biting the back of the boat!

Other tasks include: Helping put the cage into the water and helping retrieve it. Helping weigh anchor and Cutting up bait.

If after all that there is a chance to get in the cage you pop on a wetsuit and in ya go!

One other task that a volunteer has to do is go out and drink! I had thought that as you were having to work on a boat you would just be expected to sit in each night. Not on your nelly! I've been out just about every night to Gansbaai drinking in one establishment or the other. The days we haven't been out at bars we have been at peoples houses for braais. You still have to get up at 7 the next morning, go prepare the boat and then go out in 10 feet high swells so its not for people with a weak disposition!

Glossary Update:

Adjective: Really good, Fantastic Awesome is a word that seems to be used by Americans to describe anything from a nice sandwich to the Grand Canyon. The word should be reserved for things such as Shark Cage diving, swimming with dolphins, Skydiving or 3 in the bed sex with two super models. I've done one - only 3 to go!

Things I have learnt:

If you are going to throw up at sea ensure that you remove your false teeth first. Something one of the clients failed to do on one of the trips. His false teeth are probably being used by one of the sharks right now.

Always remember to put sunscreen on BEFORE you handle the shark bait and not after! Eau de fish.

Throwing a bucket of chum at somebody requires a technique which I obviously have not mastered - as the chum ended up all over me!

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