Sharks have always been a passion of mine, so when I finished my degree I figured it was about time that I saw a shark for real in the wild. So, at the end of September I packed my bags and headed to South Africa to work for three months with the White Shark Trust. Arriving in Cape Town I was a bit nervous to what this Swiss shark researcher would really be like. One of the worries when going off to work with unfamiliar people is always: will I get along with them! As it turned out, there was nothing to worry about…
The Swiss shark researcher didn’t turn out to be a grumpy old scientist as expected. Mike is very serious about the work he does and the data collected is very good science. Having said that, Michael is an extremely nice guy, very, very funny, and by God does he know his white sharks! I learned more about white sharks in the 3 months I worked with Mike than I would have spending a year reading about them! Tracey definitely also deserves a mention. Tracey is a party animal and there is never a dull moment when she is around, except for maybe the morning after! On top of that Tracey is very good humoured and genuinely friendly, as well as an amazing cook (her baked potatoes are legendary!!!).
For somebody who has watched all the documentaries, seen all the pictures, and read all the books, if expected that there would be very few surprises, although I was excited at the prospect of seeing the animal was hoping to spend a large part of my life studying. Nothing could have prepared me for my first encounter with Carcharodon carcharias, the great white shark. After anchoring we started chumming and looking endlessly into the water for our first glimpse of the sharks. It is strange when you have never seen one before, although it sounds stupid, you don’t really know what to look for. Do you look for the stereotypical dorsal fin cutting through the water? Will you see it coming from miles away? But then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a large dark grey shape materialises out of nowhere. The shark cruises by, on the side, looking up at you and the other people on the boat. You stand there ready with you camera, the perfect shot is right there, and then the shark has passed. Only then did I realize that I completely forgot to even lift my camera and take my first picture. And, believe me, it won’t be the last time. Even after three months I would still catch myself forgetting to take a picture, because I was just admiring the grace and the beauty of these incredibly powerful animals.
As far as the wildlife is concerned, we were pretty spoiled in Gansbaai. Not only did we have the coolest sharks around, but during the spring we also had the southern right whales, which can be seen breaching in Ganbaai and Die Kelders, and when chumming for the sharks it is not unusual at all to see both bottlenose- and humpback dolphins! On land the fauna is equally rich, with numerous different species of raptors, gazelles, ostriches, and if one looks around, one may even be lucky enough to see walking sticks!
Though we tried to go to sea everyday, we still had the opportunity to visit some of the country. We took 5 days up the Garden Route to Jeffrey’s Bay, surfers paradise, and also visited Addo Elephant National Park. The road trip was good fun and nice little break after seven long days at sea. However, though we got around, South Africa is so big that I will have to come back and spend at least as much time to just travel around! But even when you are away on a road trip, after a couple of days the talk goes back to the sharks, and everybody starts to long to go out to sea.
One thing is for sure: working with white sharks never gets old. Everyday I felt the same anticipation whilst waiting for the first shark of the day to turn up. They are all so different in their shape, their size and the behaviour. You very often catch yourself wishing for a particular shark you had a few days ago, which was particularly cool. And, I was lucky on a few occasions to see white sharks do full breaches somewhere in the bay where we work. I don’t think I will ever see a more awesome thing in my life. And though it has been said so many times, there is just no way of adequately describing these amazing animals.
I think the saddest day of 2004 was the day I had to say goodbye to Tracey and Michael and all the friends I had made in Gansbaai. As soon as the plane took off from Cape Town and headed back towards good old Europe, I was already planning my next trip back. The three months I was in South Africa will never be forgotten that is for sure.
Letter received in January 2005