|A LITTLE WHITE SHARK TALE
by Michael BARKER and Vera SCHLUESSEL
Well, what can I say we are honoured to rank among the few brave shark scientists who have been able to work alongside the world renowned, soon to be, White Shark Doctor Mr. Mike Scholl, and see quite a few of the wonderfully lovable sharks he works with everyday. We (Vera and Michael) will now go on to explain to you how we came to stay with Mike and his lovely super friendly wife Tracey, in sunny Gansbaai.
It all started sometime in November, when we both realised that if we were really snappy we could sneak over to South Africa to live out both our dreams of working with big sharks. Our window of opportunity for this venture was smaller than we might have liked, with work and university commitments tying us down, but we sent in our application form expressing an extreme desire to work in January and to our overwhelming delight - we were in luck!. After jumping around all over the place and screaming a lot, we knew we were super lucky to have been chosen to work with Michael, and we couldn’t wait to get out there. Our flight left snowy Germany on the 31st January and we arrived a long time later to the melting South African sweaty pants weather.
After a tiring 20 hour journey (on which we celebrated New Years Eve 10 miles up in the air somewhere over Spain or North Africa) we had an enjoyable journey to Michael’s and Tracey’s home in Gansbaai. Their house was perfect, with lovely views of the bay (I always expect volunteer accommodation to be less than inhabitable, but this is better than five star). And already after the first exciting poikie experience that same day, both of us knew that we would have an amazing month, specifically as Mike and Tracey were both totally approachable and friendly. Now for the sharks
As ever there is nothing that can prepare you for seeing a white shark up close (except that is by watching hundreds of shark videos, like us) but when you get out there on the first day and get the chum in, you really just don’t know what to expect. In fact, I didn’t really expect to see one of our teethy friends for a long long while. (Well, I did! Otherwise I would have pushed one of the too many Mikes overboared to refine the menue..) But with super luck (again) and stinky bait (not including the Mikes) we, or rather they found us, or to be more precise the stinky bait. They are certainly big fellows and lasses and one of the first sharks we saw was big, like 4m big. It was sooo fat (well muscular really) that it seemed to dwarf our boat, and it was a real struggle in the first week or so to stop those nifty fish from making off with our bait, as we frantically tried to tease it from their snatching jaws. Most of the time when we saw the great white sharks, they’d just be ambling along in the water, lazily circling the boat hardly showing a fleeting interest in the bait; only making slow deliberate attempted chomps on the bait as we drew it away. But then, whenever we thought they had gone away for sure all of a sudden one would appear from no-where right below the bait and try to make off with an easy snack (which is when having polarised glasses is most essential otherwise you lose the bait).
While all this was happening, photos were taken of the dorsal fin (and sometimes a mouth) while someone else always kept an eye on how long they’d (the shark) had hung out around the boat (so we could decide which ones liked us the most); and for part of the time when we were there, we recorded behavioural observations of the hungry ones as they jostled for food around our boat. The long hours spent at sea were very enjoyable, even if the sometimes very long swell got the better of our stomachs occasionally.
Swimming (rather floating in a cage) in the chilly water with our new found friends (not Mike and Tracey but the great white sharkies) was quite eeirie, as it was really hard to see anything till they were really close. This led to me getting a bit of a neck ache, as I spent my time constantly scanning the water (murk) around the cage, but I was lucky enough to see a little baby shark and a big daddy one, while Vera didn’t see much as her stomach (and the rest of her body) was suffering as a result of the high seas swell (Vera: Ironically enough I only got sick twice during the whole month but of course it had to happen on that day!! I only had been waiting to be in that cage for the past 20 years
On land as we said before the accommodation was excellent, but the food was even better. Tracey was a super cook and always made scrumptious dinners, which had to be the best way to end a perfect day on the water. Every day was perfect, as you might imagine as even if we saw no sharks for most of the day, just being their in the first place was the best, and of course you never knew what you were going to see next, maybe a breaching shark (which we never saw but were constantly waiting and looking for) or a flying mullet. Anyway, out of all the feeding (but not that frenzied) sharks we saw, I am sure that I (Michael Barker) approached my meal times (and devoured my meals) far more rapidly than the great white fish we studied to do justice to the excellent food; but as you might imagine I do have slightly better table manners than our marine friends and I always chewed my food before swallowing.
Our time spent in Gansbaai was certainly the highlight of our shark encounters so far and definitely one of the most enjoyable times either one of us has ever had, and it was all over so (too) quickly (not because we lost all that months bait, but because we had a flight to catch)! We were very sad to say goodbye to our new friends Mike, Tracey and all the sharks who had hung out around Dyer Island in January 2002, but we know we will be back one day, so no need for tears yet, and I am sure that all prospective brave (well you don’t really have to be brave) scientists or shark lovers will have as nice a time with Mike and Tracey and chums as we did.