|I have finally taken the time to sit down to write a small memoir of my time in Gansbaai with the White Shark Trust. I should have done it weeks ago but planning my imminent departure to Thailand next week has made me lose focus a little bit (well that's my excuse anyway).
First of all I'd like to state that I'm not a university graduate who was looking for something to do to pass the time after graduation or during a gap-year. I'd been working for the same company ever since leaving school and had been working as an auditor for most of the last 15 years. I have however been fascinated in sharks (to the point of obsession some would say) for at least 26 or so of my 32 years and over the last few years I'd really been starting to wonder why I hadn't gone down the road of marine biology so that I could now be doing something I'd always wished I could do.
Being a fairly recent addition to the internet community a couple of years ago I began tapping into a whole new resource of information regarding sharks and it was at that point I started looking at the possibilities of research work. Due to my lack of a biology based degree I have to admit I thought I'd be limited to one of the "eco-tourism" trips that are being touted around on the net for ridiculous amounts of money but as that seemed to be my only option I decided that maybe I should start saving hard and take my holidays in the next couple of years to do one of these trips.
I was just at the point of looking no further after a couple of months of searching that I came across the White Shark Trust website and after reading the prerequisites for assistants included "shark enthusiasts" I just had to apply immediately.
Not long after I applied I received the reply that I could come for as long as I wanted, with the minimum being 1 month. This was much more than I could have imagined as the "eco-trips" offered around 12-14 days for more than double the monthly board and lodging rate offered by the White Shark Trust. The only problem was that I could never expect to be given a full month off work to fulfil this ambition so a decision had to be made. My options were, put aside this whole crazy idea as something that would have been nice to do if I had no job but lots of money (not a likely scenario)or, seriously consider quitting my job to allow me the free time and also the funds. I think it only really took me a couple of hours to have it in my mind what I was going to do.....
6 weeks or so later, I handed in my resignation and was lucky enough to have this coinciding with another request by the company for volunteers to go as part of a long term down-sizing strategy. I walked through the gates for the final time on December 22nd 2002 after a total of 15 and a half years in the company, with 1 years wages in the bank and some serious planning to do.
After spending 3 months scuba diving in Thailand between June and August it was back to Scotland for a brief 4 days (just long enough to con my mum into doing a pile of laundry) and then off again to Cape Town.
I met up with Michael Scholl at the "Whale Capital of the World", Hermanus and we chatted as we drove the hour or so back to Gansbaai. Of course the conversation centred mainly on sharks and it was fantastic to finally be able to speak to someone who shared my own life-long passion for these animals. We discussed recent documentaries and even some of the latest behavioural theories, I was in my element.
Arriving at the house I met Michael's wife Tracey and was given time to unpack and settle in. The house is fantastic and the view out over the bay is something I could certainly live with. Now we just needed the weather to break and the new arrivals to appear the next day and anticipate the first day on Lamnidae.
The first day was something I'll never forget. When you've dreamt of this for as long as I had it's difficult to describe the sense of anticipation in the whole operation. From packing the boat back at the house to launching at Kleinbaai and heading out over the choppy sea, every moment was to be savoured. Finally at anchor after the 20 minute boat journey, the wait began (I can almost re-live the tension I felt just writing about this).
TJ (the only assistant left from the previous incumbents) was on the bait line whilst I stayed out of the way on the look-out tower, scanning the chum slick for the first sign of a dorsal fin. I don't know how long we waited, not long probably but I'd lost all sense of time at this point, when the cry of "shark" was given it felt like something from a film, myself and the two other new assistants getting flustered in our excitement and inexperience whilst TJ and Michael swung into action. My very first live encounter with a white shark is something that will never leave me.
The shark slowly swam in the chum slick without showing any real sense of aggression, it eyed the bait and made a few passes without getting too excited. It was as if it knew there were new guys onboard and it seemed to swim around with a kind of arrogance, just to dispel any preconceptions there might have been that it was going to charge the bait, thrashing water into the air as many would expect. This wasn't the biggest shark we would see by a long way, probably around 220 - 250cm but like they say, size doesn't matter(!!), it was just so impressive. When one of the big guys does put in an appearance it is just awesome!!
The days at sea were always different, as unlikely as that may sound when you're confined to a 7 metre boat. Some days would be quiet whilst on others you could see upwards of 10 different individuals. I'm proud to say that I never had a single day during my 3 month stay where at least one shark wasn't spotted, although I'll be eternally grateful to the shark that saved that record just as we were lifting anchor at the end what was looking like our first "zero shark day". He just showed up for a few minutes and then left as quickly as he had arrived but my 100% record was intact!!
As for the individual sharks, after a while there are some old favourites that you learn to recognise. I emailed Michael a couple of weeks ago and told him that whilst looking through the hundreds of pictures I took on my digital camera, it amazed me to see sharks from the first few weeks that, at the time appeared to be no more recognisable to me than the next one. However, when I got to the pictures from later in my stay I noticed that there were repeated sightings of these individuals, and certain individuals are even fondly remembered by their apparent behavioural characteristics. No one who encounters "Stoney" is likely to forget her in a long time, you are just as well to pull in the bait and grab the chance to get some great pictures because this is one shark that seems far more interested in having a look at her guests in the boat. Nothing even hinting at aggression when we saw her, just a comical curiosity as she spyhops at the back of the boat and looks you in the eye. Good old Stoney.........
Anyone with the preconception of white sharks as the mindless killers we see in the media should spend an hour in the company of Stoney, she would be a great ambassador for the species!!
Although the sharks are obviously the main attraction and invariably the reason why anyone would join Michael in his studies, there are so many other fascinating aspects of the wildlife in this part of the world. I'm a little ashamed to admit I was very blasé towards the whales we encountered by the end of my trip. I've had an general interest in whales (as I have with almost all wildlife for that matter) for a long time but they are so plentiful around the Cape that I ended up taking them for granted. I'd never imagine that I'd ever end up not being completely thrilled every time I saw one. That's not meant in a bad way, it only goes to highlight that there are animals there, and in numbers that you could never imagine if you'd never ventured to a place like South Africa, it must be difficult for the "locals" not to just take it all for granted. My real passion above all else though was for the sharks and I was just intent on savouring every single moment that I was in their environment. At times I felt sorry for the cage-diving tourists we saw on a daily basis, they came out on boats and got possibly the biggest thrill of their lives and then they headed back to shore, for most this would have been their one and only encounter with the white shark and it could just as easily have been a bad day as a spectacular one. We on the other hand, were there on so many occasions that we could relax and savour the moment in the knowledge we would be back there again, perhaps the next day and the next......
So now I've mentioned the star attractions I think it is only fair to say a few words on my hosts for the adventure, Michael and Tracey Scholl. It goes without saying that a trip like this, and for a lengthy stay such as mine, can either be the time of your life or a miserable experience and that is very dependant on the people you are closest to during your stay, those who put everything in place for you whilst you are far from home. Michael and Tracey were two of the most fantastic people you could hope to stay with and I'd like to consider them very close personal friends after my time with them. Michael is the "serious" one with the workload he has to get through and the whole logistical task of running the trust. He claims to be Swiss but I left with serious suspicions that he is actually French. This is something he took great pride in as I'm sure he secretly wishes he was French, although with his strange concoction of accents I doubt if anyone would be able to fathom out his true origins!! (Note from Michael: "I think I will open the hidden password protected section of the web site to everyone to see some pictures of Alan in not so proud situations...")
Michael must have the patience of a saint at times, especially when the "novices" have a habit of losing his expensive tuna baits. He runs everything efficiently and is just a great guy to be around. Be warned however that he has a terrible habit of subjecting his assistants to his Monty Python impressions (the knights that say "Nee.." being his particular favourite), I thought he would tire of them by the 873rd rendition but no, he was still going strong (and still not quite getting the script right!!). Never mind, it all added to the fun........ (Note from Michael: "We are the knights who say Ni! We want a shrubbery!...")
He's also not quite the expert "master-baiter" he would have everyone believe, I'll always fondly remember the day he lost 3 (remember Michael, THREE!!!) pieces of tuna in the space of around 30 minutes (I'll never accept his excuse of "I was just giving them a chance!!"). Never mind, Polly and myself had great fun at his expense making a home movie of his exploits later that day with some props!! (Note from Michael: "It happens to everyone, it depends on the Shark - I was unlucky to have a very difficult Shark whereas I left you with the easy ones... hehehe...)
And now a mention of the "entertainments manager", Michael's lovely, shy and retiring wife Tracey. When I first met Tracey I thought she was going to be a bit quiet, the dutiful wife in the background........
A few weeks later and after being trapped in her lair (the braai room) for yet another all-nighter, my perception of her was changing rapidly!! Tracey is a real star, even if she cheats like hell at her own games and drinks wine as if it were water. After I'd been snared by her for a few weeks I had to force myself on a self-imposed drying-out period, during this time Tracey kept going strong and showed her displeasure at my detox by calling me Uncle Alan if I dared to suggest I was tired before 2am (of course my argument that I would be on the boat all the next day while she lay in bed until 2pm never diminished her criticism of me!!). (Note from Tracey: "Michael, I indeed think that you should open that password protected section of the web site for the world to see who and what Alan really is...")
Thanks to Tracey I am now a very accomplished ballroom dancer after her expert tuition at the Dystal (no idea how to spell it) nite-spot on Saturday nights. I can now gracefully bang into more couples on a dance floor per hour than I could ever have thought possible!!
There are so many other things to write about my time with Michael and Tracey but since this "small memoir" is turning into an epic I suppose I'd be best just to sign off by advising anyone contemplating applying for the assistantship to go for it. I quit my career and I've now spent all of my "year's wages" but I've absolutely no regrets, in fact I really wish an opportunity like this one had come up years ago. I'm heading off to Thailand exactly one week from today on a one-way ticket to complete my scuba Instructor course and I'm assured I already have a job there. I'll be 33 in 3 weeks time but age is no barrier to anyone joining Michael's project. Rick, a Canadian guy joined us for a month and he celebrated his 50th birthday with us in Gansbaai, he was an absolute gentleman and there's no doubt he enhanced what was already a great group of people.
Now that I am preparing to leave my home again I have had the chance to look over a great year and I can say without any hesitation that my 3 months with the White Shark Trust were by far the best 3 months of my life and I doubt if anything will surpass those memories for a long time. On our emotional farewell on my last night in Pringle Bay (after 2 weeks on a baboon project, more on that another day) I promised Michael and Tracey that I would definitely be back to do it all again. I'm sure many people do say that when they leave but then circumstances change, however, I will most definitely be back, and with a much bigger memory card in my camera. I suppose size does matter after all.......!!!