Arriving in Gansbaai, South Africa I instantly noticed the idyllic mountains and ocean views; they were like nothing I had ever seen before. Everywhere you passed was celebrating the marine big five and showing you how much they cared and appreciated the marine life in the area they lived in.
I arrived at the international marine volunteer centre early Monday morning and met all the volunteers currently on the project. Everyone was really nice and welcoming and instantly wanted to know all about you, so many people from all over the world, I remember listening to all the accents and trying to learn their languages, sometimes my accent would change and I would even forget how I would say certain words back home! Learning about other volunteers cultures was very interesting and eye opening, I felt that in the space of two weeks I made some true friends that I will forever stay in touch with, we all had similar interests and loved sharks and all animals which opened some very interesting conversations.
Over my two week stay I worked on ‘Slashfin’ the shark cage diving vessel around eight to ten times this excluded the ‘no sea days’ which were too dangerous to go out to sea. I loved going on the boat and would even get the chance to go on more than one trip the same day! If the weather was really good and the swells were not too bad there would be around three trips a day allowing all the volunteers a chance to work on Slashfin. Working on Slashfin was special, yes you would have to help with some of the not so nice jobs like taking away full sea sick bags from clients, but being able to see the sharks and listen and help with the research carried out on board everyday was worth it. Volunteers would find out which launch they were on the night before, I was on a lot of morning and mid afternoon launches which I thought was great as I got to see the breathtaking sun rises whilst the boat was leaving the harbour.
A typical day on Slashfin would include preparing all the lifejackets, wetsuits, towels and food that would be onboard for your trip. I would then help put lifejackets on the clients and get to know them a little, I loved finding out where everyone was from and find out how excited they were to see their first white shark! We then walked the clients to the harbour where they would board slashfin and off we went to a location selected by the crew. A lot of our trips anchored at a place called ‘Money rock’ though some would be around ‘Geezer rock’ which was home for the Cape fur seal colony not too far from Dyer Island. These where prime locations for winter as the new cape fur seal pups were taking their first swim and many are returning from hunting in the morning which meant many, many white sharks!
Once we anchored, I would help the clients prepare for their dive and help them with any refreshments or information about the area, boat, crew or sharks. I would also help with sea sick clients and ensure they were okay and still managed to have a great experience. When we first arrived we had a briefing with the skipper about everything to do and not to do whilst on the boat including the best spots to help ease sea sickness, this meant we were able to help the clients who felt very sick even if some did not believe being at the front of the boat was the best place for you! As well as helping the clients I got to see lots of white sharks including some very big females ranging from 4-5 metres long! I also got to learn a lot of facts from the marine biologists on board, I also learnt about the daily research they do on board and got to help out identifying fins. The marine biologists were very informative and friendly; I even met Alison Towner who was recently on shark week! She was really nice and spoke to me about the sharks and the research they do on board, I thought that was pretty cool. I got to dive 3 times including one when I went out to sea as a client, all my dives were amazing and I got to see and experience some big active sharks whilst I was in the cage. It was a very weird but extraordinary feeling being in the water an arms reach away from a Great White Shark. I loved all my trips out to sea and would see up to 15 sharks a trip including some sting rays which were very cute though they scared the sharks away which I thought was quite odd. When we got back to the harbour we would unload the boat and wash all the wet suits back at the Great White House. All the clients were very nice and very thankful for all the help you would give them on their trip; I loved speaking to all the clients from around the world and would meet some really interesting people.
On the ‘no sea days’ the coordinators would organise trips for all of us which let us see how beautiful Gansbaai was, some of the trips we went on were wine and cheese tasting, seeing the southernmost point of Africa, horse riding in the mountains on my birthday and going to see a newly built big cat sanctuary called ‘Panthera’. I loved the sanctuary, the woman who owns it rescues big cats used for breeding and tourist interaction. These big cats would never be able to be released back into the wild due to their past, therefore they spend the rest of their lives in this sanctuary being provided with the best possible natural life with minimal to no human interaction. It was like a lovely retirement home for big cats. We also went and visited ‘stony point’ which was home to a huge colony of African penguins, it provides them with safety and shelter which helps the population grow. Clients who go on slashfin or the whale whisperer get the chance to purchase a penguin shelter which is then used at Stony Point. As well as trips out we would also help with road side clean ups and boat cleans, anything we did was a great experience and everyday was different.
On ‘no sea days’ and even the days I was on the boat I would go and help out at the African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary (APSS). The Dyer Island conservation trust recently built this sanctuary so that rescued penguins have a safe place to be rehabilitated and then returned to the wild. The penguins that were brought here were rescued from oil leaks, boat injuries and also from seal and shark bites. The people who work at APSS, the crew that help out and the work they do is amazing and I felt honoured to work and help these penguins. I fell in love with the place and the penguins and I would go to help as much as I could every day, I was even told that I was one of the first volunteers to help and spend so much time at the sanctuary and that they appreciated my help. I even got the honour of naming one of the newly rescued penguins, he was rescued from an oil leak, I called him Rex after my border collie back at home, they’re the same colour and even share similar spots on their chests. Some of the jobs that I would help with were cleaning the enclosure, cleaning equipment and materials they used, feeding, bathing, playing and putting all the penguins to bed at the end of the day. I remember one of the penguins called George didn’t really enjoy the water so after his dinner I would have to pick him up and pop him into the pool for a quick wash, this was important as they needed to wash all the oil and blood from the fish off their fur to help preserve their waterproofing. I loved APSS and I didn’t want to leave, I would stay there forever if I could. One day I helped put up penguin awareness signs on ‘pearly beach’ which informed locals and tourists who find injured penguins to get in touch with APSS who would then pick the penguins up and take them to the sanctuary for rehabilitation and release. It also provided information on what to do if you find an injured penguin; I enjoyed putting these signs up, I got to see a beautiful beach and also got more involved in helping the endangered African penguin.
Near the end of my two weeks I got to volunteer on ‘Whale whisperer’ this was the whale watching vessel which allows tourists to experience the ‘Big 5’ in South Africa. I enjoyed this trip a lot; we got to see the Cape fur seals, the Great White Shark and some very huge but beautiful Southern right whales. They were amazing and swam right under the boat! The crew on board were very friendly and informative; they made me feel a part of the team and shared some great information and stories with me.
I felt the highlights of my trip were that I saw so many sharks and other marine life; I made some great friends from all over the world and got to be a part of a very special and amazing team at the Dyer Island conservation trust and Marine Dynamics. I’ve learnt so much and have fallen in love even more with the Great White Shark and the endangered African penguin, two weeks was never enough and I can’t wait to go back and help out for longer! I recommend anyone thinking of doing this project to stop thinking and go and do it, you won’t regret it and it will be an amazing experience and one of the best things you will ever do in life. It was for me.