Tag Archives: Africa

20 unexpected things about South Africa

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!

Yeah baby, you can work it like this too!

Etosha Salt pans, Namibia

#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!

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#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!

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#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!

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#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.

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#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…

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#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!

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Western Washington University students and I at Addo National Park- my final leg of the journey!

GO TO SOUTH AFRICA- ITS AMAZING!

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Into the realms of Giants- Whale watching in South Africa

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.

South Africa, DURBAN, Sperm Whale Caught, WHALING (1910s)

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 Sir David Attenborough 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.

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The boat names Fat Boy, after the local name for the Southern Right Whales

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on boat

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.

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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.

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Above is Roberg, a fantastic place to hike and below the seal colony is visible as well as the whales and sharks!

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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.

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Yes that is a helicopter drone you can see above the spray, they are being used now to take samples of the animals and take aerial photos- top class!

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.

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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…

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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!

Shark Week- Malevolent misconceptions

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“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…”

US and CANADA rights only

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!

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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 Kwells as 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.

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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It’s simply a matter of probabilities and stats- the more surfers there are in the ocean = greater chance 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.

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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 Africa means 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.

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Loss of Apex Predators

News & Views

Loss of Apex Predators in Dual-Apex Systems

By Tania Esteban, Samuel Ross, Jessica Rushall, & Louise Shuttleworth

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Apex predators are in global decline. The description of possible complex interactions between apices in dual-apex systems calls for further research.

Apex predators occupy the highest trophic level of an ecosystem, thus do not have natural predators themselves. They are capable of affecting ecosystem functioning through consumer-control and strong trophic interactions. There are currently unknown interactions between apex predators and mega-herbivores in systems where both are present. Because of this, the loss of apex predators from a ‘dual-apex system’ could affect communities in a highly complex manner. The decline of apex predators should be considered in systems with both mega-herbivores and apex predators. Tambling et al., (2013) explored this concept in an African ecosystem where lions (apex predators) and elephants (mega-herbivores) co-exist. In this article we discuss the potential effects of apex predator loss in this ecosystem.

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Mega-herbivores perform important functional roles in ecosystems. For example, elephants alter plant community architecture through trampling and overgrazing1. Direct aggressive interactions between elephants and other animal species also occur in these systems2, highlighting the key role of mega-herbivores in influencing species dynamics. Elephants also have indirect impacts on other herbivores through exploitation competition over resources, and depending  on the  system,  are sometimes able to outcompete smaller herbivores1.

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Figure 1. Weighted trophic interactions between species in the presence of apex predators: (a) with; and (b) without mega-herbivores. Interaction strengths are depicted by line thickness.

Lions are important apex predators in African ecosystems. They exert consumer-control, through predation on small and medium/large sized ungulate species, such as duiker and kudu respectively1. Like elephants, lions are classed as a flagship species because they are globally renowned, captivating, and of conservation concern. Lions are classed as vulnerable3, and are in decline because of hunting and persecution; diseases including CDV; and habitat loss due to agriculture and urbanisation4. If lion numbers continue to fall, large detrimental impacts on these ecosystems might be seen.

In multiple apex systems, interactions between apices are likely. Despite a lack of literature on the topic, there are potentially undescribed interactions between species occupying these apex roles.

Apex predators are likely to interact indirectly with other ‘apex consumers’ including mega-herbivores5. One of these indirect interactions can be facilitation by one apex on another; for example facilitation of predatory success of apex predators by mega-herbivores through environmental modification1. Another of these indirect interactions between apices would be the loss of one apex from the system. It is widely recognised that the loss of consumer-control has widespread effects, with the impacts of this loss propagating through the ecosystem. On a larger scale, trophic downgrading is a global threat, as systems are driven towards simplicity when consumer-control by apex predators is lost5.

In an African thicket ecosystem, Tambling et al., (2013) studied the interaction between lions (apex predators) and elephants (mega-herbivores). In this system elephants facilitate predatory success of lions through overgrazing and trampling of dense thicket vegetation. This allows access into the dense vegetation, which lions utilize because they are sit-and-wait predators. Lions will preferentially select for foraging habitats that maximise cover, over abundance or value of prey6. Therefore, modification by elephants facilitates an increase in encounter rates between lions and their smaller ungulate prey, as these  species predominantly inhabit this thicket vegetation1. In the absence of mega-herbivore facilitation, lions predominantly feed on larger prey species, as they do not have access into the dense thicket vegetation in which the smaller species reside [see figure 1].

As briefly discussed by Tambling et al., (2013), loss of apex predators in these systems could lead to multi-directional trophic cascades. Compared to unidirectional trophic cascades, impacts of predator loss can radiate through the system in a nonlinear manner. For example, apex loss could propagate down through trophic levels and ‘rebound’ back up towards the second apex (mega-herbivore) through changes in populations of smaller herbivores.

In a classic trophic cascade, apex predator loss results in increases in herbivore populations7. The extent of population responses to predatory release depends on ecosystem structure. In the African thicket ecosystem where mega-herbivores facilitate lion predatory success on small ungulates, if lions were lost from this system, the resulting population changes of small herbivores would be greater than in the absence of facilitation by elephants. Where elephants are not present, lions mostly cannot access small prey species that frequent dense thicket vegetation so they predominantly prey on larger ungulate species1, resulting in greater proportional population increases in larger ungulates if predatory release were to occur.

Following the exploitation ecosystem hypothesis, if consumer-control is lost, systems are limited purely by primary productivity so the extent of primary production determines trophic complexity8. If lions were lost from a dual-apex system, the ‘second apex’ would likely be affected, as mega-herbivores would face increased competition due to predatory release of other herbivores [See Fig. 2a]. Systems that support mega-herbivores face increased herbivory initially, so when apex predators in these ecosystems are lost, mega-herbivore populations are at greatest risk of collapse due to competitive exclusion of these species with low rates of secondary production9.

Although Tambling et al. (2013) studied facilitation in dual-apex systems, as far as we are aware there is no current research into the effects of apex predator loss in these ecosystems. The African thicket ecosystem should be used as a model for future studies into dual-apex interactions, as exploration of connections in this novel system was valuable. As briefly  outlined, complex multi-directional trophic cascades have not been widely recognised and described. If we are to gain valuable insight into the impacts of apex predator loss, we must research this area further, in different dual-apex systems, as currently little is known about the consequences of apex predator declines. Equally, the role of consumer control in structuring ecosystems is not widely recognised5. This further highlights the need to consider the effects of apex predator loss in ecosystems globally, and the importance of preserving all types of apex consumers in an increasingly downgraded world.

References

  1. Tambling CJ et al. (2013) Basic and Applied Ecology 14, 694-701.
  2. Slotow R, & van Dyk G. (2001) Koedoe 44, 85-94.
  3. Bauer H et al. (2012) Panthera leo: The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. (available at www.iucnredlist.org). Updated 2014 (Accessed 01 December 2014).
  4. Snyman A et al. (2014) Oryx, 1-7.
  5. Estes JA et al. (2011) Science 333, 301-306.
  6. Hopcraft JGC et al. (2005) Journal of Animal Ecology 74, 559–566
  7. Pace ML et al. (1999) Trends in ecology & evolution 14, 483-488.Oksanen L, & Oksanen T. (2000) The American Naturalist 155, 703-723

Travel Talk Show feature: Chad Newton climbs Kilimanjaro!

Jambo!

This week’s theme on the Travel Talk Show is Kenya! This incredible country is so diverse and rich in culture, wildlife, food, history and secrets– Join me as I take you on the ultimate guide to this stunning part of the world. Our special guest Chad Newton spoke to us all about his amazing trip through Tanzania and Kenya to raise money for the charity Moving Mountains as part of the RAG expedition at Leeds University. Here are just some of the amazing photographs of his trip! 10815457_814885265241753_689316957_o

The Ngorongoro Crater is the best place in Tanzania to see the ‘Big Five’ and is an absolutely beautiful place to be on safari. 10816169_814886281908318_855496394_n Up close an personal with a giraffe! Chad trying to not look like Prof Brian Cox taking a swob from a Camel….10716085_814884985241781_1965195653_n

He was also incredibly fortunate to take a trip along the stunning coastline of Zanzibar.

“I noticed when we were snorkelling off the coast of Zanzibar, which is meant to have some good reefs, is that there had definitely been some coral bleaching, and the abundance of jellyfish probably indicated that the ocean ecosystem wasn’t 100% healthy I’d assume.”

As a student studying for a Broadcast Journalism degree, he is ever curious about the reality of any story- and especially keen to investigate the true state of the ecosystem rather than the seemingly pristine one portrayed many a time by natural history documentaries.

“My kinda thing is when travel is merged with journalism issues, e.g. like on Simon Reeve’s shows where it’s not just “look heres a cute orang-utan in borneo” its “here’s some cute orang-utans in borneo, but their becoming more and more rare because of these palm oil plantations, that are being used to make cheap western food.”

And finally a giraffe! 10811622_814887811908165_2111377865_n

Summit from the second to last camp on the way up… 10815917_814886388574974_2068317279_n 10807095_814886441908302_492172625_n Chad a the TOP! An amazing achievement for any young student! If you want to get involved with any of the RAG challenges, or simply want to find out more, head over to the RAG website or I am certain Chad wouldn’t mind helping to answer any of your questions about the trip:https://www.facebook.com/LeedsRagKili?fref=ts or tweet @ChadJNewton. Of course if you want to donate to the cause, they would be very grateful indeed, a fabulous charity: http://movingmountainstrust.org/ The upload of the podcast with Chad’s interview is now here so check it out! As well as a guide to what YOU can get up to in Kenya! Asante sana.- thanks for reading! Next week tune in and join me to listen to an Australian special where I will be chatting to three students who have been abroad and two are currently there, so see you down under soon!

Interview with Simon Reeve

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Interview with Simon Reeve!
​December 15th, 2013
I got the incredible opportunity to chat to Simon Reeve about his brilliant new series on BBC one, Pilgrimage, where he takes us on a fascinating journey through Norfolk, Lincoln, Spain (Santiago de Compostella), Italy, France and Jerusalem to find out about our ancestors’ urge to go on fugacious pilgrimages.
Throughout the 3 part series, he meets modern-day pilgrims to ask them about their motivation behind their “adventures” as he calls them, meeting some rather captivating people along the way. Take the utterly dedicated 61-year old Lindsey, carrying his 25kg cross to send out the message of Christ’s suffering. Simon admits he’s not a man of religion, but was really eager to meet people and find out how these people lived and travelled. It really was another brilliant series, he has such an ease with people and a likeability that makes you want to make the journey with him.
I was personally excited about episode two, where he travelled through Northern Spain where my Spanish family live! Very proud that it has become one of the most popular Pilgrimage walks, which can take up to anything from a few weeks to a month. The remains of St James are said to have been found in the Cathedral in Santiago. Never knew it held so many secrets…
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Luckily he has another series on the way! The tea trail shows Simon heading to east Africa to uncover the stories behind the nation’s favourite drink. While we drink millions of cups of the stuff each day, how many of us know where our tea actually comes from? The surprising answer is that most of the leaves that go into our everyday teabags do not come from India or China but are bought from an auction in the coastal city of Mombasa in Kenya, and as a tea lover myself I was actually very surprised!
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From Mobassa, Simon traverses through the awe-inspiring Kenyan and Ugandan landscape, meeting several of the millions of people who pick, prepare, package and export our tea to the world. There are some darker tails to be told, however, about prostitution and child labour, so he really does explore every aspect of this particular trail.
He then follows up with the coffee trail and Simon heads to Vietnam to uncover the stories behind the energy boosting morning up-lifting drink. Again rather surprisingly it is not Brazil, Colombia or Jamaica where most of it comes from, but Vietnam! 80% of the coffee that us British drink is the instant, cheaper coffee bean, (not the more expensive one found in Starbucks!) We see how in Hanoi, after the war nearly 40 years ago, there was a massive surge in coffee growing across the dishevelled landscape as the demand increased and people took the opportunity to earn a little more. But, as we shall see, this has had a great impact once again on the landscape, and some experts think that it’s a matter of time before the quality of the soil will be simply too poor for anything to grow at all.
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It really was incredible talking to someone who is so well travelled and has such a respect for people and the environment, such a gentleman, so thank you Simon and good luck with all your travels! He has got another program coming on soon called Sacred Rivers so keep your eyes peeled for that! Check out my interview with him!

Interview with Dr George Mc Gavin

Dr George McGavin interview about new BBC series, Monkey Planet!

​February 15th, 2014

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I had a very special guest interview with entomologist, lecturer writer, presenter and intrepid explorer Dr George McGavin! Was so excited to be able to speak to him as a huge fan of all his”Lost Land Series,” The Dark and Prehistoric autopsy. I had a bit of a hiccup when calling him via skype, as our sound system wasnt working and we couldn´t hear him! Thankfully our station manager saved the day and fixed the problem! We chatted about his two new series coming out soon, one next week about dissection on BBC 4 where we can “get up close and personal” with the human body and a very exciting 3 part series on Primates called Monkey planet that he was particularly excited about. He tells me about dissected and the incredibly talented Tom Yendell who paints with his feet and the incredible dexterity of the human hand in climbers. It´s rather good timing too as in animal physiology class I had to dissect a chicken the day after! I admit, it is pretty gory at first, but when you see how remarkble the internal organs, capilliaries, veins, muscle, bones and brain are, you begin to appreciate how complex life is. For his incredible Monkey Planet series, he travelled to Japan, to the Jigokundani Yaen-Koen monkey park to meet some rather precocious and pampered primatesand then to Thailand to meet another group who become particularly fond of his hair! He takes a look at the remarkable lives of primates (the prosimians and simians). Make sure you tune in to watch Monkey Planet on BBC one airing in April, its got some remarkable behaviour that has never been filmed before which is unbelievably exciting so we will keep everyone in Leeds posted on our website that and your fascinating two part series on Dissection starts next week so make sure you watch it!