Hello everyone! It’s been a while since I wrote a single word on this blog as these past 6 months have been hectic- editing away for A Lion’s Tale, doing work experience on the One Show, BBC Wildcats, attending Wildscreen – and recently my own film premiere at the Everyman theatre! Now I’m officially a graduate MA Wildlife Filmmaker; time has flown and can’t actually believe the course is over now. I also managed to get some very exciting work at the BBC as a researcher for NHU digital, on Planet Earth II and Oceansdigital projects – a dream come true (!) So much can happen in the space of a few weeks, Bristol is such an incredible city full of passionate creatives…
More of that later, but today I’m here to share my experience with the greatly anticipated Panasonic GH5, which has NOW been released today...
At the beggning of February I got the amazing opportunity to try out the pre production GH5 model, which I was especially excited about. I had been reading different hybrid mirrorless camera specs, including the GH4 and A7S II. But the I came across the GH5; and if I could write a specs list as a wildlife photographer and filmmaker – this camera would tick them all! And whilst there are many of you out there shooting incredible films with FS7’s or RED One’s, this article is targeted towards those with much smaller budgets and the need to travelling light. I principally wanted my choice of camera to provide me with all the features that allow me to have stabilized, sharp images, 4K at 10 bit, variable frame rates to shoot in high speed and capture high quality,blue-chip style footage… and here it was! Not to mention the improved low light performance and compact body…
Here’s the tech specs for you to drool over:
20.3MP Digital Live MOS Sensor
Venus Engine Image Processor
UHD 4K 60p Video with No Crop!
Internal 4:2:2 10-Bit 4K Video at 24/30p
4:2:2 10-bit (DCI and UHD up to 30p + HD 60p) Firmware update summer/April
400mbps All-intra (DCI and UHD up to 30p) Firmware update summer/April
Variable frame rate (up to 180fps in 1080p HD: )
5-Axis Sensor Stabilization; Dual I.S. 2
0.76x 3.68m-Dot OLED Viewfinder
3.2″ 1.62m-Dot Free-Angle Touchscreen
Advanced DFD AF System; 6K & 4K PHOTO
ISO 25600 and 12 fps Continuous Shooting
Dual UHS-II SD card Slots;
Wi-Fi & Bluetooth
Improved low light
Hybrid Log Gamma (for HDR video)
Waveform and Vector monitors (for all you graders out there!)
Price: £1699.00 (body only, UK)
So enough of me gabbling on; here are some stills I took at Bristol Zoo and around the city, using the 100-400mm f/4-6.3 and the 15mm Summilux f1.7 Leica lenses:
Ducks galore. 1/650 sec, f/6.3 with the 400mm Leica lens. 6K stills mode.
Lions lair. Shot handheld through a fence 1/650 sec, f/6.3, ISO 1600 with the 400mm Leica lens. Cloudy/dark conditions so had to increase the ISO as the min aperture was 4.
400mm Leica lens at 1/400 sec, f/6.3, 1600 ISO, manual
15mm Leica lens at 1/1020 sec, f/1.8, 200 ISO, manual
15mm Leica lens at 1/3200 sec, f/1.7, 200 ISO, manual
15mm Leica lens at 0.6 sec, f/1.7, 200 ISO, manual
15mm Leica lens at 0.6 sec, f/1.7, 200 ISO, manual15mm Leica lens at 0.5 sec, f/1.7, 200 ISO, manual15mm Leica lens at 0.5 sec, f/1.7, 200 ISO, manual
So here’s my short little summary breakdown of the pros and cons (so far):
Incredible image quality. Both stills and video
Fast focus, cont focus very good with fast moving subjects (with a whopping 225 autofocus points compared to the GH4 which had just 49 of them!)
Dual IS was brilliant; everything was shot handheld!
Colours were vivid and realistic
Variety of functions and control
Viewfinder superb contrast and easy to use in combination with the screen
Screen: incredible quality and sensitive to touch screen capabilities
Solid feel, nice grip
Sound stereo actually good
6K photo function
Ability to stabilise on a drone and shoot 4k 60fps
Price: Nearly $1500 cheaper than the A7S Ii, you can afford to splash out on a decent lens and not struggle
Compact: You get through customs without questions, as a ‘tourist’ and not draw attention with a large FS7 or FS700 without compromising on quality…
You can use this on a Movi for additional stabilisation
Ability to attach mics – interface with Panasonic’s optional hot-shoe powered DMW-XLR1 microphone adapter (for amazing sounding interviews!)
High speed grain. Quite noisy at 180fps, better at 120 when light conditions were good. An try and avoid using 1080 120 100mbps with a telephoto lens (if you’re using the 15mm 1.7 you’ll be fine as this is a nice wide, fast lens that gives you plenty of light).
100-400mm manual focus not as smooth or intuitive as some of the Canon L glass (but you can get a speedbooster and mount for your Canon lenses)
Battery life; constant 4K shooting 3 hours and 15 minutes. Not mega efficient! But can get 2 and lasts longer than A7S.
Poorer performance at 3200 in low light, not good in darker conditions with telephoto, but superb with the 15
Well, there’s a few things that I personally want to film with this revelatory new piece of camera technology. Exquisitely designed in terms of ergonomics and with the operator in mind – this is certainly one to watch for indie wildlife filmmakers who not only want to shoot stunning stills, but also enter film festivals by shooting short films – all within budget. (Then you’ve got more to cash to splash on going out on location to exciting places!)
More soon with video footage samples in 4K and variable frame rates, as well as a more extensive guide on what each of the features allows you to do – but in the meantime, get down to your local camera store and try it out!
Happy Birthday Sir David Attenborough! As I am sure we all know, last week marked this great mans’s 90th; a person who has more than anyone changed our relationship with the natural world, enthusing countless generations to appreciate the variety of life on our planet. His dedication, passion, relentless enthusiasm has undoubtedly inspired more people in our world to care and want to make a difference. I certainly am on this pathway because of him as well as other incredible individuals (including my mum!).
SO what makes him our natural treasure?
1# His enthusiasm
From collecting fossils as a child in Leicester, to loving creatures big and small, ugly and beautiful, his appreciation for all animals is why we love him so. He even says he is no animal lover, much to the bewilderment of many. However he is the ultimate curious intellect and shares a fascination for all of nature, and not the gushy anthropomorphic rantings of a bunny hugger…
2# His knowledge
Not only has he racked up 32 honorary degrees from Universities across the country (more than anyone else), but having studied natural sciences at Cambridge then Anthropology later…his knowledge of all living creatures and the biological, chemical, physical process that govern them is second to none. Go on, ask him a question!
3# THAT voice.
His dulcet, hushed tones, as well as powerful vocals mix into just about the most recognizable natural history narration voice of all time. David = Nature God. His warmth and clarity both hooks and fascinated you. I think I’ve spent most of my waking life listening to his voice either through the television or radio podcasts. I’m even starting a petition for a David Attenborough Tom Tom guide…
“..And here, we have the Lyre bird…”
4# Humble by nature
Despite his numerous awards, degrees, honours..he still remains a humble and grateful being…he loves economy class and never forgets to greet or thank you…
5# He’s been there for you: in B&W, Colour, HD, 4K, 3D and 360 baby
He is the only person to have produced television in B&W, Colour, HD, 4K, 3D and more recently with his VR dinosaur 360 video clip. He’s so with it even us youngsters have to keep up with him. I reckon a holographic projection David will be available soon…
Sir David Attenborough joined the BBC as a trainee in 1952, and his early career included the highly different television debate programme, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? But his audaciaous and determined nature meant that he wanted to show audiences new ways of making films and a life outside the television studio. The result was the hit series ‘Zoo Quest,‘ which combined live studio presentation with footage shot on location for the first time. He made us CARE about the natural world through education and entertainment.
7# He’s SO quotable
A master of verbal carpentry, his written scripts result in some memorable quotes, here are my personal faves;
“A hundred years ago, there were one and a half billion people on Earth. Now, over six billion crowd our fragile planet. But even so, there are still places barely touched by humanity.”
“Our planet may be home to 30 million different kinds of animals and plants. Each individual locked in its own life-long fight for survival.”
GO on, give us another…
8# His wicked sense of humour
We’re no stranger to his witty, whimsical and wicked sense of humour. He’s been asked onto several major chat shows more than twice and his gentleman like attire and charm is irresistible. Even Cameroon Diaz can’t get enough of our David! More recently during an interview on BBC Radio One, Sir David was asked to narrate the video for Adele’s new song. He even gave it the trademark Attenborough voice-over.
“Like all pop stars, she needs to hunt to survive,” he begins. “The lesser spotted Adele is about to be everywhere again.”
9# He’s travelled more than anyone in history
Since his television career back in the 1950’s he started travelling around the world, and is now the most travelled person in the HISTORY of mankind...that’s some impressive migrating. It seems his life has been perfectly timed where he saw the world in its former pristine self… And so he’s not only just seen more wildlife, people and places than anyone else but also witness the greatest amount of change than anybody who has ever lived.
10# He’s simply the best #WishYouWereMyGrandad
All that said, we simply love him because he is our natural treasure and we all want him to be our grandad…he started the beginning of natural history filmmaking, and still is an amazing filmmaker and producer in his own right…love you Dave’s XOXOX
Here I write about my own encounter with the lesser spotted David, over 2 years ago…..
It was 6am, Spanish time. And yes, it was the summer, BUT Sir David Attenboroughtickets were on sale for his lecture on Alfred Russell Wallace in Cardiff New Theatre! I was poised with my mouse cursor ready to buy a ticket after refreshing the page… then to utter dismay all the tickets had sold out after 2 minutes of pending. I was overwrought. It happened by coincidence that I had a week long field trip to Dale Fort, in Pembrokeshire on the 18th September, and the very same day that David was giving his lecture, and so I had to book a ticket! So I put my self on wait list and hoped for the best. After a week, forgetting that I had even applied, I received an email saying I had 2 places to book tickets-result! Booked them instantly….then I thought about actually getting there.
So bunked off the uni bus journey to go and see my hero- and the reason why all zoologists study their degree… so a pretty good excuse! It took 7 hours in total to get to Cardiff Central, with various stop-offs. Wasn’t cheap getting there but I had worked as a student ambassador to get the money. Went with a friend, and we went for a coffee opposite the theatre at 6pm to await the arrival of the greatest wildlife broadcaster to have ever lived…That hot chocolate tasted so good! I was positively jubilant! I could not contain my excitement as soon as I had received the lecture brochure and meticulously read through the talk. Then we walked out of the coffee shop, and at the same time a dark Mercedes tinted windowed car pulled up alongside the entrance, where he stepped out…I almost fainted on the spot then and there… He had entered the building!
When we got our seats, which were at the very back, (so we could go out and catch the train we had booked to go to Milford Haven, then to our field trip location) and then as Sir David entered there was a sudden gasp from the audience, followed by a rapturous applause! It was a fascinating lecture all about the great Alfred Wallace, and his humble beginnings and shear enthusiasm for adventure really. Some really hilarious clips and gestures by David, absolutely brilliant, wish all lectures were like this! Before I knew it, it was question time, I was the first to put up my hand, but sadly, at the back I wasn’t noticed until the end when they ran out of question time. They even handed me a microphone, at which point my legs had turned to jelly. After that, we had to rush out to get our bags and then run for the train, only just made it! Onwards to Dale Fort for our own adventures (and a lot of hard stats and collecting data from the field!). However, I did send him a long letter including the question I so wanted to ask, which was,
“Out of Darwin, Gregor Mendel and Wallace, who do you believe has contributed the most to society.”
He answered back too! His letter takes pride of place on my windowsill, (next to my fossil Archaeopteryx). I think its wonderful that a man who is so busy would even take up his time to read his fans letter, he truly is a remarkable, special man, and I am honoured to have seen him at his lecture and be alive during his lifetime- Thank you David- and may you long keep making Natural History programmes!
Saturday was the International Ocean Film Festival UK Tour at the rather splendorous Victoria Rooms- a regular concert hall for the students of Bristol University. What a fitting venue to showcase some of the worlds most inspirational ocean based films, from the icy expanses of the Arctic, the colossal depths of the pelagic Southern African oceans to the rip-roaring undulations of waves off the coast of Hawaii- this 2 hour plunge into the ocean will literally leave you gasping for air…
I chose to go to this rather than the opening of the Encounters Festival as I feel assessing your own response and emotions towards the films is far more valuable in terms of learning a great deal about what works within this industry. That and wanting to watch some epic shots of surfers, photographers and divers!
First up was the hugely gob-smackingly courageous and gutsy “The Fisherman’s son” filmed by Chris Malloy, about Chilean born surfer pro, Ramon Navarro– a son of a subsistence fisherman off the once sleepy shores of Punta de Lobo. His entire life path was shaped by the random kindness of a visiting surfer who had given him one of his old surf boards to practice on. So Ramon would head out onto the rough swells of the Pacific Ocean- the largest in the world… where his passion and connection with the Ocean fueled a gritty determination to explore the world. The journey of this gentle fisherman was captured with an assorted collection of local interviews as well as with his good pro surfer friends.The lighting during these was actually quite ethereal and intimate; capturing that sense of mystery about this once unknown fisherman.
He now has such a huge following that he uses this power to campaign against the development of his hometown- something which I hugely admire with any “celebrity.” I think the ability to use your voice as a vehicle to influence others when you have such a following is almost a duty, but more importantly it should be something that comes naturally, the want to make a difference in the world. ALL of the sequences of Ramos and his chums tearing down the jaw-droppingly immense waves are as remarkable as they sound… the elegance with which Ramos executed the anglelings, kick outs, aerials (dude yes, I’m down with the lingo), was exhilarating. The man would never fall off! He glided seemingly endlessly across the water, and with such ease that its a surprise that he hasn’t the nickname Jesus de Chile. Check out the film here:
Next up was a rather quirky short with a very talented sand artist, depicting the unseen problems and ignorant relationship we have with the ocean. He dashes his sand across his glass, and in an almost hypnotic way in rhythm to the music, where he then moves his fingers across to paint the picture. The destruction of our oceans through dredging, pollution and over fishing are just some the highlights of this short but powerful film.
The next film was a rather remarkable journey of a South African surfer who rose above a physical and mental tragedy of losing his ability to walk. It was the Ocean where he sought to take his own life, and yet the very place where by an inevitable twist of fate that he found it once more. He describes his difficulty in accepting his condition, and then this almost leading to his “collapse into the abyss”. And yet feeling the “strength” and “spiritual power” of the ocean is what led to him living a full and adventurous life, sailing his own boat solo across the Indian Ocean, meeting fascinating people and places. DevOcean is a real reminder of how EVERY individual has a powerful journey to make and its how their attitude towards life can be shaped by the natural world around us. Top short film.
After a short break – with the light-hearted topic of contemplating the meaning life with a fellow course mate and friend, we returned to watch another repertoire of unbelievable stories created by indie filmmakers. Arctic Swell, although a short film, shows the incredible photographic talents and remarkable endurance of Chris Burkard and a team of surfers up by the freezing sub-zero temperatures of Norway. Nevermore so has the preconception of a typical blonde surfer with a bronzed tan and generally not wearing much been so overruled… deep within the Arctic circle, with wind chill and waves that carry seemingly endless pancakes of cobalt-blue icebergs are the team of dedicated explorers- keen to capture the majesty and beauty of this raw landscape. The colours are some of the most awe-inspiring I’ve seen, and the contrasts between the hues and tones makes his photography truly magical. Check out some of his incredible work: http://www.chrisburkard.com/
The next one was rather unusual and quirky, The Fox of Bloody Woman Islandwas about the unusual life of one Nordic traditional Viking boat builder- Ulf. Another short, this was certainly the weakest of the cohort, but nevertheless fun to watch the hilarious antiques of this solitary wild man of the woods. He certainly was a very talented wood worker, and incredible audaciously bold to skinny dip every day in the sharp, cold dark waters of the Nordic Fjords. A true Viking at heart! The next small short was quite extraordinary, the remarkable talents of young 6 year old Quincy Symonds, known as the Flying Squirrel. Growing up with health complications and yet being able to surf with extreme accuracy and flair really made for an inspirational story. I mean what were we all doing aged 6- starting to ride a bike? A hear-warming tale of the families journey through her health problems and overcoming them together…Little surferwas all very Disney like.
Finally we come to the last film about Hanli Prinsloo, an ex-pro free diver, from Johannesburg. She certainly took our breath away with her outstanding ability to dive deep into the depths of the ocean, all the while gliding with eloquent grace like the marine beauties she so ardently seeks to film. Having had many years as a successful Pro Diver in the World Championships, she decided that taking a larger conservation role and enjoying the beauty and thrilling experiences that the oceans has offer was far more rewarding. Be prepared to see her diving with some of the worlds most incredible marine species- Mako, Blacktips, Blue sharks and dolphins! Ocean Minded was a fantastic way to end the stream of awe-inspiring films.
Here’s a short clip of her reason for her love of the Ocean and her work with the Ocean Conservation trust.
All films had a remarkable inspirational and motivational message to get across, which was most fitting as my course friends and I are about to embark on our own journeys into the world of Wildlife Filmmaking. I really do feel so blessed and fortunate to be able to have this opportunity, not only personally to pursue a childhood passion, but hopefully to be able to make a difference to this most beautiful blue planet of ours.I hope you can join all of us on this exciting adventure and be prepared to see some incredible, staggeringly beautiful people, places and nature around the world!
Help support the ocean and go on a 2 minute beach clean!
This year in June I flew to South Africa to pursue a childhood dream and volunteer as a wildlife filmmaking intern in Monkeyland, Birds of Eden and Jukani– 3 wildlife sanctuaries located in The Crags, Western Cape, TitsikammaNational park. I never thought it would be possible until I began doing my own research- without the costly fees of a company doing it for me. I’m a scientist by nature, research is what I love to do! So I set about by looking at the organisations which didn’t charge an arm and a leg to simply volunteer. Its infuriating when such companies around the world will voraciously take advantage of students wanting to give up their time to a good cause, and have a trip of a lifetime; travelling whilst it’s still possible without being tied down to jobs and life.
So I’m creating these following posts to help YOU VOLUNTEER ON A STUDENT BUDGET, WITHOUT COMPANY FEES! WHY? Because I was in the SAME SITUATION as YOU, and wanted to experience Africa at my own pace, see and do incredible things and meet amazing people.
Above is a little video clip of one of the many species I filmed there. Many of these individual Capuchins have been rehabilitated and evidently the methods have worked, as they display remarkably natural behaviour and social interactions.
So here’s what I did and how you can also do something similar for a budget price.
I worked as a student volunteer at the South African Animal Sanctuary Allianceparks, Plettenberg Bay to work as a ranger tour guide and photographer/filmmaker in the Monkeyland, Birds of Eden and Jukani wildlife sanctuaries. They fund themselves through revenues from tourists who take educational tours of the sanctuaries, and multi-lingual tour guides are much needed to continue to bring in funds. A detailed catalogue of all the SAASA species has not yet been made of the primates, birds and apex cats, and so I wanted to help compile this information, along with taking photographs and film footage (for YouTube) of individual primates as an important part of the project.
Having studied zoology at the University of Leeds for 3 years, I felt the need to travel and experience different cultures, sights and wildlife encounters before I go on to study for my Master this coming September at Bristol (for a MA in Wildlife Filmmaking). Not only did I feel I would grow as a person, but also gain further insight and build upon my current portfolio which will prove to be very useful when applying for jobs as a freelance camera woman.
It has been a life-long ambition to visit South Africa, I missed out on an opportunity field trip last summer due to my research project that was to be conducted in the UK on bat foraging distributions. I can tell you it has far surpassed my expectations… it’s really was life changing and incredible, fascinating, awe-inspiring, revelatory, amazing, stunning and… yes this is why you should GO FOR IT!
On the SASSA website they advertise the jobs that need doing and how you can get involved, and the possible accommodation that’s nearby where you can backpack and be drive to and fro; take a look:
1# Getting the volunteering internship
SO sort out what your role will be doing with Vivjer and Laura via email or telephone. Then you can start thinking about where you want to live these next few weeks…
This requires you to get in contact with them which is very easy nowadays- a simple email telling them what you do and want to achieve through volunteering there, what experience you have to offer, CV, website, ect. You’re pretty much in unless you’re going through a well-known organisation and a company is booking you through (such as Conservation experience Africa, or the Born Free Foundation). Having said that, Monkeyland which opened it’s doors in 1998 is actually an enormous 13 hectares, where 11 monkey species are allowed to roam free in stunning natural Afro-montane forest. Nothing is simulated, the forests were here originally before the project was started, and endemic Vervet monkeys use to roam the forests. It far supersedes anything I have seen in Europe…and is truly a sustainable, long-term project with many modern concepts and ideas being implemented by Laura Mostert and the team. In fact it’s even won the Tourism Sustainability awards (2014).
Monkeys that were previously kept as pets, ex-circus performers and abused zoo monkeys are rescued by Monkeyland, and placed into special monkey homes to rehabilitate before being released back into the forest sanctuary. This is known as the “Eden syndrome effect,” which when implemented; nobody is allowed to touch, pet or feed the monkeys…and minimal contact is made other than during feeding. When released, guest must also adhere to these rules, keeping a distance of 2m and NO SELFIE sticks are permitted.
This is to keep the monkeys as wild as possible and behaving naturally, which in my experience is most certainly the case. I got some brilliant behaviour when filming across all the species. Of course not all the species would be mixed together in the wild, but this doesn’t seem to affect intraspecies communication (between the same species). We feed them a variety of fruits and vegetables, all of which come from locally sourced farmers, so not only fresh but also benefitting the local communities. I’m not going to lie, the monkeys ate better than us! I’ll be writing more specifically about “A day in the life of a Monkeyland volunteer” soon.
2#Accommodation- backpacking all the way
Now the concept of backpacking is one that I had never come across. I had heard of hostels and camping sites, but it never really occurred to me that it could be a place to stay at a reasonable price and allow you to spend your hard earned cash elsewhere on incredible activities, trips, safaris, ect. I stayed at Rocky Road Backpackers, a quaint little place wedged in between the valleys with large open grounds.
Now I had an amazing time there, but unfortunately a problematic situation arose between a member of staff which caused problems for all the guests (a tale for another day!) and so this was unnerving…but other than that, the food was great and the transport was reasonable. But for me it was the incredible people I met there. I met 14 students from Western Washington University on their incredible journey to help the locals in Mosassami and Kurtland village– township communities in need of teaching, building, counselling and community project funding. I can say now I have made friends for life here and I spent all my evenings and weekend trips with these amazing people- having the time of my life!
So I was paying the equivalent of £17 a day for transport, 3 meals and accommodation. I got a small shared room with a single bed, you can save a go for a tent which does come with electricity. But be warned, its COLD in winter! That’s pretty darn good, compared to hotels which can cost double the amount not including food or transport. But of course in South Africa with the strength of the pound to the rand…you can get more bang for your buck. According to a recent Post Office study, a Briton buying £500 in local currency can get 22.3% more for their money, or an additional £91.03, compared with one year ago. The current exchange rates from £ to rand are: £1=20.7 South African rand. I mean that’s remarkably weak…
Having said that, in the past if was far weaker, only now are South Africans able to benefit from tourism. You can get your regular shop for less than a fiver, go out on a safari for £13, get a taxi for £5, fine-dining for £5, accommodation for £10 or less. Hence why there is such a draw to places such as Cape Town and Plett, the strength of the pound in particular means it’s hugely attractive for students too, looking to enjoy their student finance money!
Another fantastic place is Stephanie’s Homestay, located right next to the Beach in Plett. It’s very central unlike Rocky Road, and you can get all your food shop, souvenirs without needing to ask people to drive you there which is great. You also get lifts to Monkeyland, ect as well as DISCOUNTS FOR EVRYTHING…I’m not even kidding…mention Stephanie’s name and everyone knows her. She’s sort of like your South African mama, so if a homestay backpackers is more your cup of tea, stay here.
There is a THIRD option…of which is FREE. Yes you hear me…FREE ACCOMODATION. Impossible I hear you say? Not so, Monkeyland have limited volunteer homes right next to them, a friend of mine who =volunteered here stayed here for the entire month without paying a single rand. The only snag is that it’s a bit of a …well, dump. Its not the safest of places, I’m not going to lie, but if you’re a guy or happen to be with one, its worth going. Two of my friends (both girls) stayed here and were totally fine, but you’re limited in terms of food and transport unless you rent a car. I’ll come onto that, but this is not particularly the best way to spend your hols, it’s nicer to meet other backpackers. SO unless you’re a bit of a loner, this isn’t the best option, but certainly the cheapest.
Right so you have somewhere to stay now. Actually getting there is the next big thing! I looked through Skysanner.com, which kept sending me the best offers for the dates I was looking for. You can go via STA but sometimes it can be cheaper doing it yourself. Since I was going to Plettenberg Bay, not via Cape Town, but through Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth, it worked out cheaper through this website. I paid £660 return flight with British Airways, flying from Manchester to London Heathrow, London to Johannesburg and then finally to Port Elizabeth.
I then got a £80 taxi to my backpackers (I know…ouch!) after an exhausting 21 hours of travelling! I booked in April to avoid the summer hike costs, I have friends that paid £800-£1000…so book EARLY! BA were brilliant too, the service was excellent as usual, and the food pretty decent too. I must POINT OUT though, DO LEAVE TIME between transfers…I almost missed my connection return flight from Joho to London because of a delay! Also watch it in Johannesburg, it can be quite dodgy over there. But other than that, enjoy your flight!
4# Packing- What to take?
Right, I wish I could have read this before I went! Our summer is their winter…I can’t express more lucidly how South African winters are the SAME as European ones…that just because its Africa doesn’t mean that short shorts are an option! Its rather similar to a Spanish summer, not quite as bitterly cold as the UK. So do take many different layered clothes, such as thin long sleeved t-shirts, jackets, fleeces and scarves. Socks are a must too, the thick walking boot types, and bring X2 the numbers of pairs you think you’ll need…you’re going to lose half of them I promise! Also the same goes for underwear. There are few places that own a tumble drier annoyingly so be prepared to reuse (sorry), and smell like a monkey for a bit… that’s how it rolls here in Africa! Also bring a sturdy pair of thick boots for hiking in and for the muddy terrain, you’ll definitely thank me for this one. Sunglasses for those sunny days are advisable, sun cream not really. A good rugged and waterproof rucksack will keep all of this kit together nicely…DO get a decent one, I got through 2!
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Products and tablets
Mosquitoes aren’t out yet, too cold, but ticks most certainly are- bring some tweezers! I got many whilst in the forests. Kwells seas sickness tablets work a treat for boat trips, especially the notoriously known choppy seas of South Africa…Immodium for those loose bowels of yours, the food can be too rich for the delicate intestinal linings of us Europeans, so this one will be of great help to stop you from living on the toilet at the most embarrassing of times. Never get caught out on safari! A water bottle bag is very useful too, as well as electrolytes in case of diarrhoea. This is to replenish lost bodily salts which are vital to your bodily functions. Echinacea tablets work a treat if you’re in contact with people…so many of the American students fell ill with cold bless them, these tablets keep all that away.
I skimped a little on this…you shouldn’t but I was desperate to buy a GoPro and decided to spend my £140 on one instead of the 3 courses of Rabies. But YOU SHOULD if you’re working with wildlife! Also get your polio, tetanus, Hep A/B, and Typhoid re done if you haven’t. There’s no Malaria here so no need to splash out on the expensive tablets. All of the mentioned is free expect the rabies. Get them 2 months in advance before your trip and go and see your nearest travel clinic.
My favourite part! Okay, PLEASE BUY A GOPRO your life would be incomplete without one!! Trust me, I used it on all my trips; the hikes, safari’s, swimming, surfing, cage diving especially, kayaking, canoeing, running, rock climbing, ect. It’s such a hardy little camera (waterproof 30m, shockproof) that it won’t bust on you, and it makes everything look amazing with its 180 degree wide view shots. Have a look at some top tips on creating your own videos here from my last post. I own a GoPro Hero which I bought for £90 on amazon. Plus et the extras like the selfie sticks, head strap mount, ect for those awkward moments where your hands are required.
Of course I would say take a SLR camera, I myself have the Canon 600D with a zoom lens (another key bit of kit for close ups of wildlife and birds), with the flip screen to shoot video.
I had the Tamron 70-300mm lens as well as the Manfrotto MH01 to shoot at night and film. Amazing what you can get from kit under £300. Here are some of my results.
Extra batteries for your camera are a must. You wont get much opportunity to charge everything at the same time. Also take extra harddrives (Samsung 1TB), SD cards, Micro SD cards (for your phone and GoPro), recording microphone for the amazing sounds, lens wipes and universal plug for your gear.
Get yourself a car if you want more freedom. If you cash in with some friends it worth getting a car so you have the freedom to come and go as you please. There’s nothing worse than having to rely on others and wait hours to bunk in with people heading your way. I got caught out several times and was left in dangerous situations alone… You DON’T want this to happen! Also it’s really cheap if you get it for the month, and petrol is also inexpensive. Will cost you about £200 for the month to rent, and less than £170 for petrol…but it of course depends where you go. Make sure you have an international driving licence, or something in your passport to say you’re a tourist visiting for a month….we got pulled over by the police for this!
Here was the car we rented for the week to go on the trips, not the most reliable of thing! We nicknamed him Freedom…
So now you’re ready to go to South Africa to the volunteering holiday of your dreams…And be prepared to have a rollercoaster of a time- Africa truly leaves a mark on your heart, and gives you the travel bug! More updates on what to expect in the volunteer sanctuaries as well as some amazing trips you can get up to too!
I was very fortunate to visit this staggeringly beautiful country and it’s been the most incredible, thrilling, awe-inspiring experience of my life. I feel so blessed to have seen magical places and animals, and meet such inspirational people along the way. It really has been a dream come true, but here are some of the MOST unexpected things I came across during my travels:
#1 Everyone has a braai
Virtually every Friday people have a braai- typically the same as a barbecue with PLENTY of unusual meats. On the menu is a wide variety, including kudu, ostrich, crocodile and the famous Biltong. Accompanied by much drinking, smoking, dancing, star gazing and laughs. And I thought people in Spain liked a fiesta…
#2 Everyone can speak at least 11 languages
You literally walk off the stuffy 10 hour flight from London Heathrow to Joho and hear a myriad of clicking sounds, trills, calls, hi’s, shouts of seemingly unconnected languages. People here are remarkably talented when it comes to speaking different languages, and makes me feel incredibly derisible to only speak a mere two. There are eleven official languages of South Africa: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu. Pheww! Dutch and English were the first official languages of South Africa from 1910 to 1925. Afrikaans was added as a part of Dutch in 1925, although in practice, Afrikaans effectively replaced Dutch, which was then no longer spoken. Thanks Wikipedia.
#3 How salty the sea is
This is an odd one- but having swallowed a bucket load during cage diving, sea kayaking, whale watching and surfing… the water is unusually salty compared to the Uk’s Atlantic. This is because the Agulhas Current which passes along the coast is, like the Gulf Stream, one of the strongest currents in the world ocean. It carries warm and salty water from the tropical Indian Ocean along South Africa’s east coast. South-west of Cape Town it makes an abrupt turn back into the Indian Ocean. In this process huge rings of water with diameters of hundreds of kilometre are cut off at intervals of 3 to 4 months. These so-called “Agulhas Rings” carry extra heat and salt into the South Atlantic, making this a key region for the whole Atlantic Ocean. Just take a look at the Etosha salt pans in Namibia, covering an area of approximately 1,900 square miles (4,800 square km). So get your surfers salt sea spray hair-do in South Africa!
#4 Monkeys will raid your kitchen
Okay so we all know animals like to pinch your food. In the UK its usually seagulls at the coast and foxes raiding your bins at night. But when you see a 50kg Baboon legging it out of your kitchen bearing its HUGE canine teeth…then its rather grotesque bottom to you, you KNOW you’re in Africa. Vervet monkeys, although a lot smaller will also try their hand at pick pocketing. Having said that, within Europe it is possible to see a precocious primate pinch your picnic…Gibraltar in Spain is home to Europe’s only ape (other than ourselves), the Barbary ape. They’re notoriously known for stealing tourists’ food, so even at home you’re not safe!
#5 People smoke like there’s no tomorrow
I thought Spain was bad…but in South Africa, the cheap price of cigarettes (roughly £1.50, or €2 for the best quality makes) means people smoke as if they need it to breathe! The air is consistently filled with smoke, it’s seemingly unreal. SO if you’re a non-smoker like me, a strong Oust spray or perfume is required when you travel, otherwise you end up smelling like a chimney! In addition, the amount of cooking fires people have just about anywhere means you literally walk around smelling like a smoked salmon…yummy if you’re a brown bear. Thank goodness you’re in South Africa then.
#6 How bright the stars are…the wrong way round
When you look up at African skies- you’re instantly taken aback by the shear clarity and detail of our most beautiful galaxy. Billions of stars scattered across the vast expanse of the universe, like eternal diamonds, glinting and constant…but wait a minute, isn’t the Big Dipper supposed to be over there? So this this is to do with the rotation of the Sky. Because the earth is rotating the sky appears to rotate. Viewed from above the north pole, the earth is rotating counter-clockwise. For an observer on the earth, objects move from east to west (this is true for both northern and southern hemispheres). More accurately put, when looking north, objects in the sky move counter-clockwise. Though all objects rotate in the sky, the observed path stars make in the sky depend on the observer’s latitude. Some are always in the observer’s sky, some of the time, and others are never observable. SO don’t get your stars in a twist! Astrophotography is especially remarkable here, so remember to bring a tripod, I was lucky enough to witness a Blue moon too, as well as the crossing of Jupiter and Venus!
#7 Number of cows and quantity of meat you eat
Agriculture is HUGE in South Africa. In terms of cattle, in the UK there’s now 1.84 million dairy cows in the UK dairy herd, whilst approximately 80 % of agricultural land in South Africa is mainly suitable for extensive livestock farming… that’s a LOT OF COWS. South Africa produces 85% of its meat requirements, with 15% imported from Namibia, Botswana, Swaziland, Australia, New Zealand and the EU. Local demand generally outstrips production, even though there are untapped reserves in the communal farming areas. SO THAT’S WHY they have a lot of Braai’s. Of course it doesn’t stop at cows, you can also chomp on Zebra, Springbok, Kudu, Crocodile and the famous Ostrich. If you head over to Oudtshoorn, not only can you ride ostrich and have a selfie..but have a leather bag and burger to go with that. Not my cup of tea but hey!
#8 How cheap things are
Clutching shopping bags, glugging wine, and lounging on pristine beaches: South Africa’s weak rand is drawing few complaints from foreign tourists getting more bang for their buck. According to a recent Post Office study, a Briton buying £500 in local currency can get 22.3% more for their money, or an additional £91.03, compared with one year ago. The current exchange rates from £ to rand are: £1=20.7 South African rand. I mean that’s remarkably weak…having said that, in the past if was far weaker, only now are South Africans able to benefit from tourism. You can get your regular shop for less than a fiver, go out on a safari for £13, get a taxi for £5, fine-dining for £5, accommodation for £10 or less. Hence why there is such a draw to places such as Cape Town and Plett, the strength of the pound in particular means it’s hugely attractive for students too, looking to enjoy their student finance money!
#9 How little locals actually travel
A sad fact that reflects the state of poverty amongst many white and black South Africans. The strength of others currency against the rand and low wages means locals rarely have the spare cash to experience the delights of SA themselves. The median hourly wage in Pounds in the UK (net) is £5.90 versus £1.05 in South Africa. This is something that should definitely be addressed in terms of local discounts, but it’s encouraging to see that in National Parks residents pay half the price. SO we can consider ourselves very lucky!
#10 The squeaky sound of the sand
The stunning sands of Plettenberg bay, Mossel bay and Knysna actually squeak! When Marco Polo heard them in the Gobi Desert, he believed they were spirit voices. Ancient Chinese literature describes ritual celebrations of their divine power. After generations of mystical interpretations, researchers are finally closing in on a scientific explanation for the acoustics of sand. They now agree that the phenomenon of noisemaking sand is made possible by the action of displacement, which produces musical instrument-like vibrations in sand grains. The exact recipe for noisy sands is still only wholly known in Mother Nature’s kitchen, so next time you walk on a squeaky beach, know that there’s even an equation that science provides to explain why (there’s even a book on squeaky sand…I’m not kidding!
#10 The light
Probably one of the most magical things about Africa in general is the ephemeral light during dawn and sunset. When I recently visited, the sun rose 7am, painting the myriad of trees and mountains in golden, pink, burnt umber and orange shades. It brings about such a powerful feeling of belonging and inspiration– along with the equally magical chorus of bird song. At night, when sadly we have to see the sun slip away into the darkness, the hues and intense saturation truly makes you feel alive… casting sharp, vivid colours and creating immense silhouettes; a painters and photographers dream. But then as soon as the sun began to set, it seemingly disappears, as if someone has switched a light switch off, to then reveal a vast sky with scattered diamond-like stars winking at you from the distance. Small Cape river frogs will sing you to sleep with their sweet chirpings, as well as the amorous male crickets… (Anyone for “can you feel the love tonight?”) If you’re lucky you can see Venus and Jupiter in the distance, as well as the Milky way, Southern Cross, Dipper, but of course all in reverse in the Southern hemisphere!
#11 The variety of birds
South Africa is world renowned for being a birdwatchers paradise, from the stunning iridescent plumage of the Orange-breasted Sunbird, to the cryptically coloured knysna warbler- it is most certainly a top-class spot for any avid twitcher. Of the 850 or so species that have been recorded in South Africa, about 725, (85%) are resident or annual visitors, and about 50 of these are endemic or near- endemic to South Africa, and can only be seen in the country. You can literally be walking in your back garden and spot a beautiful Golden Oriole, or hear the rather raucous calls of the Egyptian Geese. But if you’re not feeling adventurous and want to find the birds for yourself, head over to Birds Of Eden in the Crags- the world’s largest free-flight bird aviary- it truly is a class above the ones in Europe. Having volunteered there myself, the sustainability of the project is exceptional and the species you see are truly stunning.
#10 Lack of desserts
I’m no foodie, but even I will indulge in a fruit salad or yogurt after dinner to cleanse the pallet. It seems here your daily food routine is: Breakfast: Granola, rusks or toast, Lunch: jam sandwich, Dinner: Meat and MORE MEAT…veg if you’re lucky! Also people eat REALLY LATE here: between 8-9pm. In Spain I must say it’s quite similar but I think an earlier 7pm dinner suits many of us better so we don’t all feel like an obese lion and have to literally roll to bed with all that meat in your belly. And during winter when the sun goes down by 5pm, you often feel like a torpid bat by 8pm. Slurp it all down with some Rooibos tea if you can, it’s excellent for digesting food!
#13 How empty houses are
Okay, so no, I didn’t break in like my monkey friends so often do to pinch a bag of apples. But the ghost-time quality of the more luxurious houses and overgrown weeds hinted the lack of human inhabitation. Also locals have told us how many Europeans and westerners will buy such homes as holiday get-always and visit during the summer to escape the increasingly wetter winters at home. So Plett is indeed a playground for the rich!
#14 Berg winds
A week after arriving I experienced an intense hot-blow drier wind which was truly glorious, despite it being winter. It’s one of Plettenberg Bay’s unusual weather phenomenon’s, where squally anticyclonic wind blowing off the interior plateau at 90 degrees to the coast will produce a hot dry outflow of air across the coast. It’s a welcoming change from the sharp cold air that dominates during the mornings and evenings, where the berg winds are especially frequent off the west coast and can raise temperatures to 25-35 °C. Humidity can also drop from 100% to 30% or less- a perfect night to go out and enjoy the stars with the clear dry air, or if you fancy a dance, heading into town with no need for straighteners to control that frizz girls… Berg-brilliant!
#15 The frequency with which you have to tip
I have NO problem at all with tipping- it feels good and people deserve it if they are giving you a service. However, so many people are willing to do things for you, as a student you soon run out of money! Literally everywhere: petrol stations, restaurants, EVERYWHERE YOU PARK YOUR CAR, attractions, even toilets! SO carry some spare change with you where you go!
#16 Surfing when sharks are about
Surfers are crazy- I will say this outright. But then again so are most extreme sports people; cavers who risk their lights busting mid ascent, climbers who play with the forces of gravity, and surfers who like to skim on shark infested waters..! But I really admire them; the way they glide over the water, moving their body in rhythm to the waves, tilted their body…waiting for the right moment to execute a move. And also the fact that they’re not in the slightest way deterred if a shark has been spotted. I recently photographed a surfer in Plettenberg Bay who insisted that a small shark close to the shore would pose no threat if he surfed correctly… Needless to say I gave up the offer of a lesson in return for taking photos! Maybe in Australia…
#17 How many surfers actually inhabit Jeffery’s Bay
Okay so yes it’s the Surfing capital. But still, it feels like a student town but with surfers. It’s an amazing place to be, with such a cool al-fresco feel about it. We visited when it was raining, but they all seem to be very proud of this most ancient of sports, with a buzz in the air even after the International surfing competitions. We just arrived after the infamous Mick Fanning shark attack which was on everyone’s lips. No surfing today then!
#18 The number of activities you can do
It’s incredible the shear range of activities you can get up to here. In the 6 weeks I visited, I literally only had a single day where I didn’t do much, just because of the shear range of places to visit and get up all sorts of adventurous fun! Plettenberg Bay’s position in the Western Cape means it is perfectly situated to enable tourists to lounge and walk along their stunning white beaches, dine like a king (or queen) in many of its finest restaurants for less than £5, launch yourself of the world’s largest bungee, go on horseback ride safari’s, swim with seals, paraglide, skydive, rock climb, surf, see monkeys, big cats, falconry, craft markets, whale watching……The list is endless! The hikes are especially rewarding and offer the most spectacular scenery. Keep checking here for updates on how to do it on a student budget!
#19 How cold their winters actually are
JUST because its Africa doesn’t mean it doesn’t get cold! I initially thought this; perhaps it just me being foolish or hopeful, but I really did expect it to be warmer! My poncho was a lifesaver which I fashioned into a hiking rain jacket, beach towel, pillow and fashion throw… Do take one on your trip as well as waterproof hiking boots, socks, umbrella, rain jacket, warm jumpers and jackets to peel off. It will get warm all of a sudden when the sun comes out, but in the shade it can get to a chilly 10 or 2 at night!
#20 The Kindness of strangers
This isn’t unexpected I must point out, but its more of a beautiful fact… All my life I’ve been told how dangerous South Africa is; that everyone looking at you is simply there to steal, mug or kidnap you. And don’t get me wrong…I’ve had some pretty close shaves since being there which were unpleasant! As well as being stolen from. But the kindness of strangers is something that stands out the most for me: from locals helping 3 distressed girls on a busy motorway with a bust car (yep that happened to us!), to people offering their smiles, inspiration, laughter and reassurance… and now I can proudly say that many of them are now my friends!
It is only when, for the first time, that you see one of these COLOSSAL creatures in their element do you realise how small species we are – and yet able to cause so much damage to the world’s greatest biome that the Great whales live in.
These great whales are frequently found along the coasts of South Africa as the currents that pass through the Indian Ocean bring up-welling’s of nutrients and food to feed these 20 tonne giants. This is where the fresh, cooler waters from Antarctica meet with the warmer currents of the Pacific. However the main reason for the presence of the whales is to mate– this is literally a clubbing lek for whales wanting to find love, and also for mothers to give birth to their calves. Many locals have told me about remarkable sightings of females being pursued by amorous males for many kilometres on end, what sight that must be!
Their numbers are slightly increasing since the 1970’s ban imposed by the Whaling Union in Durban, and the dreadful practice of killing these magnificent mammals has halted. Most people now see the whales as being more valuable alive than dead which is huge plus. The whaling industry was hugely prolific back in the 1950s, from the shores of Argentina and South Georgia, (in particular during the Falklands war). South African whaling stations along the coast were also being established along False Bay where the meat was processed, where you can see remnants of the place today. Namibia also had a large station as well as Durban and Cape Town as well as in New Zealand and South Australia.
Thankfully, there are dedicated researchers setting off into the blue in all weathers to study different species and populations around the entire coast of South Africa. This is principally conducted by aerial photography, isotopic DNA analysis from samples as well as fin photography. Through identifying individuals, the researchers are able to determine the return of philopatric individuals, where previous calves were born and returned to their birth place to mate and give birth themselves. Humpack whales in particular are attuned to this cycle. They will take 3 years to recover from giving birth, as it’s a very energetic process. I’m pretty sure if I was that big and gave birth to a 4m, 1.5 tonne baby I’d be in no hurry for more…
To see whales in their natural environment has always again been a life-long ambition. Watching SirDavidAttenborough documentaries, and seeing incredible camera operators such as the multi-talented and hardy Doug Allen and Diddie made me want to come into contact with these gentle giants myself. Ocean Safari’s made this possible with their coastal tours of Plettenberg Bay, they are the oldest whale watching tour guides on this part of the coast and offer discounts to volunteer students (was 800 rand, now to 500 rand which is around £25-27) for 3 hours of whale watching. You have different excursion times from 9:00am, 12:00 and 2:00pm daily throughout the whole week (weather dependent). So you should always call up if you want to have a tour and book it.
The different species of whales you can see include Southern Right, Humpack whale, Brydes whales, and bottle nose dolphins, common dolphin, sharks, cape seals and Orca! The possibilities are endless. The Captain of the Ocean Dafir’s was Marvin, who was an expert sailor- and I asked him how long he’d been sailing this particular vessel- and his response of 15 years assured me that we would be in good company and able to see and spot the whales. Our guide was equally qualified and friendly to us all. We had a quick safety briefing as usual and then headed off to the Plett central beach bay with our life jackets.
We were ready to set sail!
Thrash! We speed off towards the sea and jet stetted off towards the headland of Roberg where the Cape Seal colony resides. The weather had improved significantly compared to the previous day, although clouds did loom ominously in the distance. I had taken my trusty sea sickness tablet, Kwells, which I would recommend taking even if you “don’t get sea sick,” just because it give you that reassurance. I warn you, you WILL GET WET.
Do take a rain jacket if the company you go with doesn’t provide you with one. The sea salt will leave you looking like a shipwrecked drugged up model with sea salted hair but don’t let that put you off! It was glorious bouncing along the Indian Ocean, and being kissed by the spray peppering our face. As we approached the seal colony everyone grabbed their cameras and gasped at the extent of the Seals climbing abilities. These were apparently the highest climbing seal colonies in South Africa, some at least 40m above the progressively swelling sea that thrashed against the rocks, sending a jet of white foam into the air like flecks of white paint.
Above is Roberg, a fantastic place to hike and below the seal colony is visible as well as the whales and sharks!
Posing for the camera! Cape Seals on the rocks. There’s a fantastic opportunity to “Swim with seals” which is run by the same company.
I’m not going to lie, I was a little perturbed by the size and progressive onset of swells that efficaciously emerged from the seemingly endless ocean- this was my first experience on a boat on a choppy day. I have previously been on a dolphin safari in Spain, but the waters were tame compared to this. As we bounced along the sea, we kept focusing on the sea horizon, and the reassuring words of our friendly guide who assured us we would see Whales, and to keep looking out for the spouts of spray. The humpbacks and Southern Right whales have the two blow holes from which they breathe when they surface.
The sound they make as they breach is a characteristic “ptfffffffff” which is seemingly imperceptible amongst the sound of the waves and wind resonating through the hull of the boat. Everything seemed to be a Whale, every wave! After 30 minutes even I was beginning to lose hope and wish the trip was over as my stomach began to churn…but then I saw the cool waters break and an immense grey dark shape emerged from the depths and glided across the surface effortlessly, the afternoon light reflecting profusely along its streamlined body- it was a Humpack!
“Over there!” I gasped in awe.
The captain and guide then followed my hand signal to my surprise, was it a whale or did I imagine it? Nevertheless we sped on, and then there it was again, the spouting and the appearance of the whales back, this time accompanied by a miniature version of itself- a calf! This was a female travelling with its mother, perhaps one that had been born there and now off to feed. They did indeed seem to be hungry and moved with remarkable speed. I had no time at all to take photos, and so filmed everything on the GoPro. I would recommend the same. The water and spray could really damage your camera, and the Gopro on the selfie stick works wonders as a stabiliser.
We followed them towards the north and Roberg, and then were surprised to see yet another whale join us at the side, and fluked with its broad and knarred tail, slipping once more into the deep dark depths of the ocean. It’s truly was magical. Then to top it all off, one of the males breached and its immense body left the waters for seconds, water streaming down its muscular and colossal body, and then landed with an all mighty splash. Wow! We saw a few more sightings of the mother and calf, and I believe we saw up to 4 individuals all busy on their way to feed or mate…
And then all of a sudden as soon as it had started, it was all over, and the skipper had already extended our trip to get further views, and so we headed back past the seal colonies. I spoke to our guide about any BBC film crews that had shot in these waters, and apparently Dolphin Army was filmed off these waters! I mentioned my plans to film in South Africa as part of my final film project next year, and he said that they would be more than happy to accommodate students! Score!
So who knows, I may return to film some of these remarkable marine species in more detail the following year. But if you’re around Plett or South Africa in general, I can’t recommend a Whale Safari more highly, it’s one of those experiences that never leaves you, and it’s now made more aware of what we’re putting into our oceans. As part of the #BigBlueLive filming that will shortly hitting our screens on the BBC, I think it’s vital that we get behind our gentle giants of the oceans and keep putting pressure on our governments to create more marine reserves around our waters in the UK and worldwide. Happy Whale watching!
“The white nictitating membrane rolls, the 6 inch teeth glean and the grey sleek tail cuts through the water with astonishing speed- the Great White Shark approaches in all its power and terrifying instinct towards the cage…”
It’s always been a lifelong ambition to go cage diving with these remarkable evolutionary powerhouses of the stunning coasts of Southern Africa. Ever since watching Blue Planet as a child, the images of these great fish, perfectly adapted to their environments with their colossal 6m size, 1.1 tonnes in weight and 300 blade like teeth, it naturally appealed to me as a passionate zoologist as I am certain it does you if you’re reading this. This week is the International Shark Week by a happy coincidence, and I happened to be in the right place at the right time to be able to have the incredible opportunity to see these superlative predators of the ocean in Mossel Bay, one of the Great White hotspots of South Africa. I joined 3 other volunteer students at Monekyland, Tsisikama National Park, on a 3 hour drive from Plettenberg Bay to the “White Shark Africa” ocean extreme experience diving and viewing these magnificent species. We rented a car from Euro car at a reasonable price of 500 rand (£33) a day split between us travelling along the scenic route of the N2 motorway through the resplendent lagoon town of Kysna (30 minute drive from Plettenberg Bay), George and finally Mossel Bay. It was one heck of a last minute arrival faff trying to find the place but eventually we found it in time!
We had arranged to get there for the 12pm slot where the 1st group of people would be returning from their trip and where we would be getting ready to go to Seal Island at 1pm. The last cohort had mixed facial expressions, some with a hint of fear, others with a perpetual smile on their face. The cost of the trip isn’t cheap at £70, although relatively less expensive than some other tour operators in Cape Town (£120). We got a discount to 1250 rand (£60) for being volunteers at Monkeyland, usually being 1350 rand.
And so as soon as we signed away a form agreeing to the conditions of the possibility of being cleaved in half by a Carcharodon carcharias, we were offered a mini buffet of assorted food which I managed to get down after a sea sickness tablets. I would highly recommend the Kwellsas you only need to take them 30 minutes earlier rather than the usual day before ones. Dan our instructor gave us a snappy (pardon the pun) talk with regards to the species and what was happening, and a rather overzealous depiction of his favourite individual, Black Gill. Apparently he was the more aggressive one and we were to look out for him. So we were primed and ready to head down to the bay to set sail on the “Shark Warrior,” their 11 m long vessel complete with shark cage. And so off we went towards the rather adeptly named Seal Island, and off into the misty murky waters we went…The boat itself felt rather stable and robust as we hummed along the Indian Ocean and pivoted around Seal Island, with the 2500 Cape Fur Seals nonchalantly sunning themselves in the winter sun, blissfully unaware of the predatory fish beneath them in the dark, deep waters.
Everyone was feeling nervous and excited at the prospect of coming face-to-face with a Great White, and the possibility of some incredible photos. We eventually anchored and it was time. We were asked whether we wanted the first dive, we replied with a confident why not. We zipped up the dry suit having changed on deck to the crew’s amusement, whilst I struggled to contain my hair within the head section as it budged out rather prominently!
Other research students from the University of Melbourne and several other South African Universities were also on board and helpful and friendly. They had the hard job of monitoring the Great White’s populations and laser pointing them to determine the measurements. What a research dissertation!
So we were all ready to get in. We listened intently to our instructor as he gestured for us to pull over our leg onto what then all of a sudden seemed a very fragile cage. The water was being chummed with a delectable concoction of fish oils and guts…it smelt repulsive. It then seemed like the most unnatural thing to then lift our leg and lower down into the cage having just seen a 4m shadow lurking in the depths- we were in.
We adjusted our masks and waited for the sharks to approach us. Note that you DO NOT need SCUBA DIVING experience, when they see the sharks above, the crew will tell you to “get below” and you can hold your breath and take a dive to see them as they pass.
It seemed an age before the first shark was sighted with the tuna bait on the rope consistently being tossed about in front of us. Then all of a sudden, a dark shadow appeared from the murky depths, with the distinctive shape of the Great White; its immense size only then became apparent to me, an even more so as it headed straight towards the cage, teeth bare, gills flashing, eyes rolling… it was Black Gill– at an astonishing 4.3m.
The white nictitating membrane was rolling, the 6 inch teeth gleaning and the grey sleek tail cutting through the water with astonishing speed, and simply its presence was enough to render us SENSELESS- such a potent force of nature was before us. It truly was one of the most THRILLING and exciting experiences in my life, I never thought I would have the opportunity to get so close to such an incredible animal. The sightings then began to increase as we continued to float closer to Seal Island, closer to their true prey.
This is one of the biggest misconceptions about sharks- that they deliberately attack humans to eat them. Seals are the Sharks natural prey, and they have evolved to process such species and enable them to survive and reproduce successfully for over 50 million years. Humans are bony and contain little fat content, both of which the sharks are not fond of. It is ALWAYS a case of MISTAKEN IDENTITY. Surfers are frequently attacked as they resemble the seals on the surf boards and can often cause the shark to breach and attempt an attack.
Unfortunately there were 2 attacks in the past 3 weeks at Plettenberg Bay on surfers attacked by great whites, and many argue that it’s the cage diving activities that is causing such attacks, sue to them associating humans with the chum and food bait placed out for them. It’s actually illegal to feed them, but tempting them near to the cages is obviously the main way to attract the species to the cage. I still believe however that cage diving doesn’t have such an effect, as surely the negative reinforcement of no food reward with the chum and mouthful of metal cage doesn’t exactly results in more sharks wanting humans as food.
It’s simply a matter of probabilities and stats- the more surfersthere are in the ocean = greaterchance of being bitten. All of these victims have survived fortunately, but many people are now blaming such touristic activities on this behaviour. This YouTube video below shows a Great White “attacking” the very cage I dived in with the same boat at Mossel Bay, approximately 3 days earlier!
I spoke to the crew leader and shark scientist Dan, who assured me that the shark was in fact “mouthing the cage” as this is very common behaviour. Hence the shark was not attacking the cage, but in fact testing it out in terms of edibility.
The number of sharks that are killed every year is far more numerous than human attacks, of just 16 in the US compared to the 200 million sharks being killed for the notorious shark fin soup. They will cut all the fins off and let them sink to the bottom of the ocean to die. This is why I believe shark conservation needs to pour money into further safeguarding the oceans and creating more protected areas, that will not only keep the sharks safe, but all the other species in the ecosystem.
Again this will have cascading effects along the food chain, as recent research papers discussing the “seascape of fear” whereby the presence of the shark will have impacts on the mesopredators such as dolphins which will avoid them in the area. This in turn will increase the smaller predators or numbers of fish in the area, which then can either graze more, or filter out more plankton, alterning the baseline primary producer output- effecting the whole ecosystem. If we remove sharks, this interferes with the entire community of species.
The fantastic news is that recently UNESCO’s decision to recognise both the Gouritz Cluster Biosphere Reserve and the Magaliesberg Biosphere following their nomination for biosphere reserve status by the Government of South Africameans that under law these beautiful animals are even more protected and so can ward off potential hunters In California. Hopefully such organisations can help push shark conservation, but I am still dubious that it’s a fair game that we are teasing these animals to get viewings of them. Perhaps we could adopt a more natural approach to viewing sharks and simply wait to see if we can get such viewings, reduce the price of the trip and lower our expectations of seeing them- the simple excitement and possibility of seeing these creatures out of their own accord is far more magical and awe-inspiring than tempting them in.
Happy Shark week! Updates about Monkeyland and how YOU can volunteer on a student budget soon.