“I went to South Africa for sharks, but i came back with life experience and knowledge that no text book could ever teach”
31st October 2015,
I embarked on a journey and life changing experience to Gansbaii,South Africa, the Great White Shark capital of the world. I went to South Africa to volunteer with these majestic yet for some nightmare feeding creatures, in a bid to learn as much as I could about these truly misunderstood creatures.
From an early age, I’ve been fascinated by sharks, whether it was documentaries, films or books i’ve always had my head and nose stuck into one. So at the ripe age of 22 I decided to give up my job as a UX consultant (website researcher and analyst) and go do my so called ‘Shark thing’. I’d visited South Africa in February 2015 and I actually did my first cage dive with a company called Marine Dynamics, so I researched their volunteering programme and signed up to it through an Agency called Oyster Worldwide. In the space of a week my flights were booked and in 6 weeks i’d be off to South Africa for 6 weeks to work as a volunteer on a Great White shark cage diving vessel or so I thought…
I’m not someone to have expectations for things that are to happen in life because I believe that sets you up for a fall. I had zero expectations of how my trip to South Africa would be and i’m so glad I went with the open that I did because it was more than anything I could have expected.
Here are some of things that made it a life changing and unforgettable experience.
Firstly the views…
I’ve never experienced appreciation for how captivating and wonderful nature can really be before South Africa, getting up at 4:30 am to start prepping the boat for the first cage diving trip seemed worth it when you got to see the sun take its first breath above the ocean.
When I got to my volunteering accommodation there was about 15 to 20 other volunteers already there. As three cage diving trips were run each day and 4 volunteers were needed on each boat, I tended to get on at least 2 trips a day which usually meant a 4 am start and 5 pm finish, which for some may seem like hell but for me there was nothing more refreshing and awakening than sea breeze on your face and watching great white sharks all day. My role as a volunteer was mostly helping co-ordinate Shark cage dives on the boat (e.g helping with wetsuits, sea sick clients and giving out food) which to some of the volunteers wasn’t quite the extreme great white shark experience they were expecting but despite this, on most trips volunteers got the opportunity to cage dive.
For someone who had zero expectations of the trip I seized every opportunity I was given and this is why my experience was so great. I feel I put in 100% to every boat I volunteered on, educating guests on the conservation of great white sharks and other shark species, also talking about the conservation of some of the other Marine big 5 ( Whales, Penguins, Seals, Dolphins and Sharks). The more I put in definitely meant the the more I got out, I was lucky enough to go on the research boat and track some of the sharks that had been recently tagged by Alison Towner, one of Gansbaii most renowned Marine Biologists with an impressive track record of published Shark research.
In summary I got to dive with sharks more than 20 times over the 6 weeks I was there and I made some genuine connections with the crew and staff at Marine Dynamics. We were given presentations on the marine biology of sharks, dolphins and whales and also got to witness and take part in dissections. I came back with such a broad knowledge of the marine ecosystem of South Africa and my passion for the conservation of these ecosystems has grown immensely.
The pictures really just speak for them selves.
Other beautiful experiences…
Before arriving to my volunteer accommodation I was unaware that there was an African Penguin and Seabird sanctuary across the way. We were encouraged to get involved with some doing some volunteering there too so I did. This was such an amazing added experience to the trip, because you got to get hands on experience with some of the endangered wildlife, something that you couldn’t really do with the Sharks (well you could but may lose a limb or two). Typical day volunteering with the penguins included cleaning their enclosure for around an hour in the morning and then preparing their frozen fish for feeding and also preparing the medicated fish for some of the sick Penguins. After this it was time to feed those penguins, I got bitten a few times and I know you may think penguins are cute but they have some razor sharp teeth! Once feeding was done, we would help the keepers dress and give medication to some of the penguins who were so severely injured or unwell that they were kept in the hospital part of the sanctuary. One of the most rewarding things about volunteering with the penguins, was being there when one injured penguin who had broken its leg due to a shark or seal bite and was rehabilitated enough by the sanctuary that it was able to be released back into the wild. This really showed the impact and positive effect the sanctuary had on the conservation of these African Penguins.
The bigger picture..
South Africa showed me what it meant to appreciate the little things, to appreciate the beauty in nature and appreciate spending quality time star gazing and laughing with people without technical distractions (because the wifi was too slow or non existent to stream Facebook and Instagram all day long) . I also learnt a lot about gratitude, something that for a long time has taught me is so important in finding happiness. On several occasions we delivered wood to the local communities so that they could ‘Braai’ (think BBQ with wood and fire not gas). Who knew something so easily available to western culture would bring such joy,gratitude and togetherness to these communities. It really hammered home that being grateful for the simple things in life is truly the way to live.