Monday, May 30, 2011

And Today I Smell Like Chum

So, how do the shark diving boats lure the sharks close to the cage for prime viewing? First things first, you need to know where the sharks hang out. In our case just a 15 minute boat ride off shore from Kleinbaai in "Shark Alley".  This infamously name channel runs between Dyer Island (a huge bird colony) and Geyser (ghee-ser) Rock, where 50-60 thousand Cape Fur Seals reside.  That is the makings of shark heaven.

Next you need a chum line that the sharks can't resist.

Ours started with a big trash can to which we added slightly frozen tuna tails, bigger portions of a local fish called snook, and the magic ingredient, a rust colored thick anchovy oil. Yum! Then using a small flat shovel, we chopped and mixed it all up, adding sea water to complete the smelly concoction.  When the mix is ready, the key is to make a trail so that the sharks can trace and investigate the source - being our cage.  The current takes it away and curiosity brings the sharks!

Then once the sharks are near the boat, a tuna head is tied on a rope and tossed out in front of the cage which acts as a visual target for the sharks. Keep in mind that there are a lot of rules and regulations around the cage diving trips. These help make sure the boats are having as little impact on the shark behavior as possible. Regulations such as what ingredients can and can't be in the chum line, ie no blood, and other regulations that outline how many tuna heads can be lost on a given trip. The latter is controlled because shark viewing can get a bit more interesting if the sharks get the bait (eg. thrashing, splashing, etc).  But this also impacts on long term shark behavior. The boats are not in the business of feeding sharks, just viewing.

Once out to the dive spot, the captain will yell to start the chum line. From the back of the boat, using a old motor oil container as a scoop, you reach into the foul mixture and start poring the mixture into the water. As the current takes it away from the boat, you add more and more to make a trail in the water. This cycle repeats as you maintain the chum bucket by adding more water, chopping with the shovel to get pieces of fish stirred up and occasionally adding the anchovy oil. You have to be careful to not spill the oil because you just can NOT get the smell out of your clothes.

Back at the garage, they buy and keep this in a huge plastic bin the size of a hot tub.  Whoa, that's a serious amount of oil!  It comes from the local anchovy plant just in case you were curious.

I know it sounds crazy but I didn't mind this job, well until the sharks started getting interested! Usually feeder fish and birds would gather, both taking the bigger chunks of fish out of the chum line which was entertaining. However, the best part was that the sharks literally swam inches away from your feet, fins breaking the top of the water as they cruised by. Being at the back of the boat there really wasn't much of a barrier between you and the water, unlike the sides on the rest of the boat. There was an engine on each side and a track between, open to the water where the diving cage was moved on and off. Without a wall you were always looking right at sea level and it was so much more evident how close you are to the water and the sharks!

Usually I would get the chum line started but once the sharks started interacting with the cage, I'd hand back the chumming duties to the normal boat hand who would continue the magic chum line. With me on chum duty, we were never without sharks!  I'm taking credit for that...

One day sticks out in my mind at sea.  It was an extremely rough day at sea and the boat was rocking big time because the swell was huge. Up, down, back and forth.  The wind was gusty and a light rain was coming down. The entire boat, outside of the crew, was eventually sick. Anyway, as usual, I happily volunteered to start the chum line.  Normally I could do so comfortably by just leaning up against one of the rails at the back of the boat allowing me to use both hands to get the process started. However, today I had to actually hang on for dear life.  So with one arm wrapped around a ladder rung, I started making the chum mixture. With the other arm I started chopping the tails, then adding sea water and oil. This went on for a few minutes and I eventually got the chum line going, but it was hard work and a slow process. Plus, I was of course quickly covered in the stinky mixture as it sloshed out of the trash can all over me every time the swell surged.  I was a stinky mess!

Before I knew it, the sharks appeared and as usual they circled near the chum line at the back.  They would investigate the cage then circle around the back. Ordinarily I would have just been amazed by their presence but with the boat thrashing around, I quickly forgot about the chum line and focused on not being bait in the chum line. At times I'd look down as the boat surged to a 45 degree angle, the back even slightly submerging under water, just as a shark cruised past! It only took a couple of those for me to be ready to give up chumming for the day. So I handed my duties over finding a more suitable role...taking photos!

The trip ended prematurely with the few that could stomach it having a turn in the cage. Back on shore, washing down the boat was an adventure thanks to all of the clients who had "contributed" to our chum line. Stinking of chum, it was finally my turn to get clean but the chum smell just wouldn't go away.  I ended up leaving my clothes outside. There's just no going back after that anchovy oil hits your clothes.

Here's another shark photo for good measure.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The First White Sharks (cue cold chills!)

As we dropped anchor, Julia, our volunteer leader starting telling everyone about the day and the area.  To our left was Dyer island, a small island home to a bird sanctuary with numerous species of rare birds.  To our right was Geyser rock, home to 50-60 thousand Cape Fur Seals and one of the few seal islands in the area.  Between the islands was a narrow passage of water about 5 boat lengths across called Shark Alley. As the name implies, its where the sharks cruise for a meal.  One thing to note is that this area isn't home to any resident white sharks who are by nature nomadic.  All of the sharks we'd be seeing are technically just passing through.

Ironically, just as Julia was finishing her introduction with,  "We can't guarantee we will see white sharks today but…", our first white shark swam by to investigate at the back of the boat.  Awesome!  That might have been the single coolest animal sighting we've ever experienced (so far!). 

Luckily the sun was shining because although the water was calm, it was a chilly 40 degrees.  Having just finished her speech, and sighting the first shark, Julia asked who would like to be the first 5 to get in the cage.  Four clients quickly raised their hands and then there was a wave of hesitation.  Steph jumped on it and quickly raised her hand to be the 5th!  With the cage secured to the side of the boat, wet suit on, mask spit in and secured, she climbed in the cage to get up close and personal with the Great White Sharks!

Of course, I eagerly jumped at being in the next group of five - Steph was just too quick on the draw for me!  

Our cage was a 5 person cage, about 2 arm lengths wide, and 8 feet tall.  It sits about foot out of the water with a lid that opens and closes to allow divers in and out.  While in the cage you are free diving - no snorkel or scuba equipment - and it goes something like this:  Sitting on the edge of the boat you swing your legs out over the cage where the lid is raised and put your feet in the water (inside the cage!).  Then you put your feet on the front bars of the cage and walk down the bars, like a ladder, until you are in shoulders deep.  Your feet remain on the outer bars, holding you above water with your back against the back of the cage.  Once a shark is spotted, the crew yells "down, down, down!" which is the cue to take a deep breath and pull yourself under.  There is a red bar which you grab to hold yourself under allowing you watch the shark until it disappears into the deep blue abyss.  You must grab the red bar, which is not surprisingly inset about 6 inches from the outer bars, or else you may lose your fingers!  If you don't remember to only grab the red bar the crew will quickly remind you with loud yelling until you comply!

The sharks make numerous passes, sometimes circling the boat for hours, which is why this method is so successful.  You don't need to be down for hours, just 15 seconds or so at a time.  Up and down you go, taking breaths when you can.  Its somewhat frantic due to the raw energy and excitement, but the viewing is excellent!

Oh and remember that 40 degree water, well its the last thing on your mind after climbing in and seeing the sharks.  The only really nerve racking few seconds is getting in or out with a shark swimming past. We both could have stayed in for hours!

Some of the sharks are just curious, swimming casually past the cage barely taking notice.  Others are more interested, swimming right past the bars just inches from you.  Whilst others are more aggressive and go after the bait fish, sometimes taking it and crashing into the cage.   Then there are the rare ones that attack the bait fish with intent, breaching the surface.  Intense!

Back on the boat the experience hits you.  These animals are amazing and seeing them up close is absolutely unbelievable.  They have such raw power but yet such grace.  And the teeth, right in your face, is crazy!

After drying off, we grabbed a sandwich and headed up top to the viewing deck to let our adrenaline ease and watch the show.  From up there you really get a feel for the size of the sharks.

And the best part of it all, we get to do this for a week!  What a morning!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Off To See The Sharks

Awake around 4:30, we were dazed but excited for the upcoming week.  Climbing in the van for the 2 hour ride from Cape Town to Gansbaai (Haunz-by), we made friends with Rudy our driver, who drives for White Shark Projects, the company we'd be working with.  This is actually his normal routine, carting clients back and forth any day the boat goes to sea.  Before we set off though, we had to make a quick stop for him to get some breakfast at a gas station which suited us fine because we didn't have much either.

As you probably know security is a big concern in South Africa.  (the ADT armed response signs per square mile must be an amazing statistic!) This particular gas station had separate entry and exit doors, both guarded by security, aiming to try and control who goes in and out.  This was a good thing because even at this time of the morning there was a lot of riff raff hanging around outside.

Looking around the store in a sleepy fog, I was struggling to figure out what to grab for breakfast.  All of the sudden I hear loud noises followed by a huge commotion at the exit door.  Looking up, I see some guy reaching his arm in as the door is trying to shut.  With a jerk he ripped it off its track, breaking it open.  Squeezing through the door he started yelling and screaming, holding his arms and hands to the cameras like some kind of rain dance.  Soon enough there was a crowd of people around him, including the security guards, trying to calm him down.  He continued running around the store yelling which I gathered was an attempt to plead his innocence to something.  Then as the group gathered around him once again, he tried to evade them but instead crashed into a big metal rack of candy bars, knocking it over, spilling candy bars everywhere. 

At this point, I'm standing there starting to get a little nervous (ok, a lot nervous) not knowing what to do, still holding a bottle of water and some muffins.  The entrance door was closed and a big chaotic crowd was gathered around the exit.  Funny enough, I do remember seeing a horde of arms reaching through the ajar door, grabbing as many candy bars as they could off the floor.  Anyway, the tension was increasing as more and more people continued to try and subdue this man with more of the crowd getting into the store.   I dropped my water and muffins and headed towards the exit to fight the crowd.  Luckily I saw Rudy, wedged in the door, waving me over where he gave the door a big push which helped me squeeze out.  Through the crowd, we made our way back to the the van.  My adrenaline was on high alert for sure.

The entire time Steph was watching from the van seeing the man running across the parking lot being chased by a pack of people.  She saw him crash into the door, break its track and squeeze in.  As a large crowd of angry and yelling people developed she didn't know what to do and was glad the windows were fairly tinted. 

Driving out of the of the parking lot, Rudy explained that there was an night club just across the parking lot which was most likely where the crowd had come from.  What a wake up call, gees, the sun wasn't even up yet!  Later on we were able to laugh about it, but that was sure unexpected!  Fortunately, the remainder of the drive was completely uneventful!

The sun was just about up as we pulled into the parking lot.  When we signed up for the project it wasn't 100% clear what we'd be doing, but we did know that we'd be on a sharking diving boat aimed at tourists see sharks from a cage.  What we didn't know was that for day-one of our volunteering activities, we'd be treated like clients to learn how the trip felt from the other side.  And with that short notice, we frantically dug our swimsuits out of our bags and Steph quickly popped her sea-sick tablet (which had a suggested 2 hour lead time!). 

We were ushered into the breakfast room with the other clients and I topped up with bacon and eggs and a cup of coffee.  Steph, on the other hand, having had a bad experience the last time she was on a small boat on the sea opted not to have breakfast (other than the muffin she previously ate).

We signed the customary waiver form and the captain came in to give his safety briefing.  We then were fitted with life jackets, before making our way down to the dock where the boat was loaded and waiting to take us to sea.

Throughout the entire week the members of White Shark Projects made it extremely clear - the Jaws phenomenon isn't reality and actually is a partial reason why sharks worldwide are in decline.  However, walking down the hill to the dock, in the picture above, was an eerie feeling.   Luckily, it was just Hollywood playing with my fears because it was nothing like the movies.

Off To Sea!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The View From Steph's Office

Check out the view from the top of Steph's new office building in London.  I'd say its a good one!

Her company just recently moved and today had a family day open house, so she could take me and show it off.  The building itself seems like a great place to work with lots of open collaboration spaces, full of soft comfy chairs, and plenty of outside views looking out over the city.  Its also a very eco friendly building complete with a green roof.

Looking closer at the photo, the building in the foreground is the London Mayor's office.  As well, you can no doubt see Tower Bridge along with Canary Wharf in the background.  Oh and they call the little hole in the ground, "The Scoop".

Continuing with our eco theme, the barges in view are cleaning up the river. The closest one is full of bottles and cans all pulled out of the river by a contraption just out of view.  Its basically a big net, for lack of better description, which pulls out what it can.  There are a few of them in various places along the river which can't hurt.

Anyway, the weather was good so we just took it easy by the river and waited for a scheduled opening of Tower Bridge.  This allowed us to do some prime people watching and snap the below photo of The Tower of London.  That's about it for today, just a low key Sunday afternoon.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Cape Town Views

So before we get to all the shark diving goodness, we had a day in Cape Town to help us settle into South Africa. For some reason most flights from London to Cape Town are over night which gives you a few extra hours on the ground, that is, if you can sleep on a plane. Landing early in the morning, we didn't really have a plan but since it was a clear day full of glorious sunshine, we decided to go see the city from atop the infamous Table Mountain.

Getting to the top is surprisingly easy thanks to a cable car! The recently refurbished Swiss style cable car takes you up nearly 2400 feet to the top in a scorching 4 minutes. It also rotates so everybody gets a 360 degree view which adds an interesting dynamic of climbing up and rotating which is strange at first.

The top of Table Mountain has been declared a nature reserve and is a fun place to explore. Besides the impressive views of Cape Town and the surrounding areas below, there are all sorts of plant life and wildlife to find via the many paths winding around the rocky surface. We had a good time climbing on all the boulders looking for new views, finding a few fun ones.

Speaking of wildlife, meet this creature called a Dassie (pronounced "Dussy"). They are found all over Southern Africa. Besides looking surprisingly like a rat with no tail they are the elephant's closest living relative. Seriously!?

As the sunset approached, we decided to get a new vantage point opting to head down to a place called Signal Hill because numerous people recommended it for sunset. We arrived just in time to catch some good views overlooking the World Cup stadium.

With darkness setting we headed back to the backpackers lodge to officially check in and get ready for dinner on the V&A water front. Our choice of restaurant was a highly recommended steak house (Balthazar) with supposedly one of the biggest wine-by-the-glass menus in the world. Well it didn't lie. Sitting down at the table we were handed what felt like a Sunday paper for a wine list. It came on huge wooden scroll!  It was overwhelming so we opted to use the services of the in-house sommelier who helped us find a couple of amazing glasses of wine to go with our huge steaks. Yum!

It was a fantastic evening on the waterfront but we had to cut it short. Tomorrow we are off to see sharks and our ride to Gansbaai ( pronounced: haunz - by ) was scheduled to pick us up at 5:00am. Sweet dreams... well sort of, full of sharks that is...

Cape Town Photos