What? Three weeks volunteering at a great white shark cage diving company and conservation project
When? July/August 2018
Last summer I undertook my first solo venture across the globe to South Africa.
Now, it may seem like South Africa is a bit of an odd choice for a novice traveler like I was, but nevertheless I booked onto my adventure to Kleinbaai and Dyer Island.
Part celebration for completing my undergraduate degree, part wanting to gain marine conservation experience before my MSc and part just wanting to get out and explore the world, my personal desire to go to South Africa to study great whites had been pretty much lifelong.
Why Did I Choose This Project?
For as long as I can remember I have been in awe of sharks. They are perhaps one of the most misunderstood creatures residing within our oceans. Every summer we are bombarded with media reports of “shark attacks” and “menacing killers” lurking beneath the depths waiting to strike on a defenseless swimmer.
And you’d be forgiven if you’ve believed that sharks are ravenous monsters who seek out human flesh. Ever since the 1970s movie Jaws, sharks have had a pretty bad reputation – especially our friend the great white. Even Finding Nemo portrays the great white, Bruce, as becoming voracious at the smell of Dory’s cut flesh wafting through the ocean current. Can sharks smell blood? Yes. Will they turn into raging machines if they smell your blood in the ocean? Well, unless you’re a seal or a species of fish, probably not.
Here’s some facts for you:
A staggering 100 million sharks are estimated to be killed by commercial fisheries on an annual basis
More than 50% of shark and ray species have been fully assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as being Threatened or Near Threatened with extinction.
For the first time ever, last years Edge of Existence assessment includes sharks and rays, of which 50 were named.
Sharks are vital for the healthy functioning of a marine ecosystem. Not only do they predate on the weak and sick organisms within the food chain, but they also ensure a good species diversity balance. However, the mass attack on their populations globally heavily threatens their future existence – particularly as shark populations take a relatively long time to recover due to factors such as their low fecundity and late maturity.
Ecotourism experiences across the world are doing a fantastic job of introducing the public into the incredible lives of sharks. In fact, in recent years, multiple studies have demonstrated that by engaging the public with wildlife through ecotourism experiences, their likelihood to participate in conservation movements increases significantly. Just this year a study in South Australia argued that white shark cage-dive experiences can play a vital role in rallying public support for shark conservation campaigns.
As someone who is infatuated with our oceans, I’m incredibly passionate about protecting them and managing them as sustainably as possible. I chose this project not only because of my obsession for sharks and my wish to help their conservation efforts, but also to learn more about marine social science and science communications.
What Did I Do Daily?
Almost every morning we were up at 5am – yes, this was a massive shock to my system - to organise the wetsuits and help load the boat for the trips ahead. If there was space on the boat, which there usually was, we would join the boat trip. During our escapade, we would provide clients with wetsuits, answer any questions they may have and help them get into their diving gear. We also had the opportunity to learn about taking observational data on white sharks, particularly looking at the notches in their dorsal fins. There was usually space if you wanted to go cage diving too. Once back on shore, we would help to offload the boat and wash the wetsuits ahead of the next day.
On no sea days – those when the swell was too high, usually because of rough weather – additional excursions were organised for the volunteers, which was an awesome way of seeing the local area. We visited Hermanus, a great location for whale watching and home to the South African Shark Conservancy - who I am lucky enough to be interning with later in 2019. Other trips included seeing the African penguins at Bettys Bay, walking the dogs at the local shelter (BARK), wine tasting at Birkenhead and a crazy three-day trip to Mossel Bay – here I scuba dived with endemic catshark species and went on a Garden Route Game Lodge safari.
Back at the project we also had frequent lectures from the resident biologist and intern on shark biology and behaviour, as well as on threats facing our oceans with a heavy focus on plastic pollution and how we can implement changes in our lives to reduce our plastic consumption. It was also fascinating to hear about the recent headline story of two orcas predating on five great whites in 2017.
Why Should You Engage in Ecotourism Experiences?
My ecotourism and volunteering trip in 2018 led to me securing a three-month internship and research placement for my MSc studying great white sharks and public perceptions towards shark conservation, as well as opening doors for a string of other internships in the ten months that have since followed. Not only that, but it gave me many other skills and strengthened my independence as an individual; restoring my self-confidence, which has since enabled me to tackle challenges I didn’t think I could manage prior to the volunteer placement. Working in Kleinbaai has blessed me with friends across the globe too and secured my desire to dedicate my life to marine conservation and science communication.
All of this said, it is incredibly important that you do your research when planning an ecotourism or volunteer placement. Unfortunately, there are numerous bogus companies out there and your money may in reality be funding the very illicit activity that you are working so hard to reverse. In recent years it has come to light that parks in South Africa where tourists can take selfies with supposedly orphaned lions are nothing but breeding centres, fueling the trophy-hunting market and Asia’s desire for lion bones, for example.
Overall, travelling abroad for an ecotourism and/or volunteer placement, in my opinion, can offer fantastic opportunities for not only your future career, but also for your personal development. Yes, they do cost a lot of money in some incidences, but the opportunity can give you the chance to make a difference to a cause you care about, and for me, I would much rather spend both my money and my designated holiday hours doing that than sitting in a resort for a week.
Want to read more of my adventures in South Africa? Take a look at my interview with the African Penguin & Seabird Sanctuary or my re-telling of first encountering a white shark in the wild, which was shortlisted for a Terra-Incognita Wildlife Blogger of the Year 2018 Award.