Monthly Archives: March 2012

Sharks, sharks, and more sharks

So focused was I on regaining my breath after the shock of the freezing water that for the first two minutes I was in the ocean I couldn’t even register what was swimming just outside the metal bars that separated me from one of the greatest predators alive.  Here I was in Gansbaai, South Africa, subjecting myself to seasickness and hypothermia-inducing waters to catch a glimpse of the legendary Great White Shark on its turf.

How did I get here?

I recently had my first guest to South Africa, my wonderful cousin, so I got to plan my first itinerary for someone else.  Part of that included the sort of mandatory shark dive, which I have mixed emotions about on a conservation level, but LOVE on a purely adrenalin-based level.  I am utterly fascinated by sharks, in particular Great Whites, and have been since seeing Jaws at the ripe old age of 5.  That probably explains a lot about me.  Also, since Jaws is based on a series of attacks that happened at the beaches where I grew up, it holds an oddly special place in my heart.  Anything that can eat me spellbinds me, and sharks, because their environment is so foreign to humans, have their own unique place in the echelon of sharp-toothed predators I love.  I dreamed of seeing them in their natural element, but from a position where I wasn’t in danger of being dinner.  Enter the shark dive.

People come from all over the world to dive in the waters off Gansbaai, the reputed shark capital of the world. Dyer Island, just (and I mean just) off the coast, is home to a breeding colony of anywhere from 40,000 to 60,000 Cape fur seals, a feeding bonanza for great whites.  If you’re in the market to see a great white, there isn’t a better place in the world where you’re practically guaranteed to see at least one puttering merrily along.

I’m a conservationist at heart, and the concept of shark diving – luring the animal in and teasing it with decoys and a piece of bait forever out of reach – doesn’t sit well with my ethics.  Yet this was one case where I was willing to bend my ethical compass.  How else could I possibly see these animals in their element if not shoved like a sardine with five complete strangers in a small cage tied to the side of a boat and dunking myself under the surface every time a shark spotter yelled ‘DIVE’?  I chose a tour company that practiced environmentally friendly dives and contributed to the conservation, not the desecration, of these incredible animals. I would have to simply get over the fact that they bribed the sharks to get them to us.

Joined by my cousin, her friend, and my fiancé, I was glad to have people around me I knew would appreciate the experience, especially since my cousin and I both suffer for horrible motion sickness.  Kind of a cruel joke for people like us who grew up on the water in some form of floating vessel or another.  At least I knew if I decided to do my own brand of chumming (half-digested eggs and toast, li’l sharkies?), I would likely have some company.

As days go, it was a spectacular one.  Calm seas, brilliant blue skies, light wind and warm sun. Visibility from the boat was stellar, so I was shocked and initially spooked by how murky the water was below the surface.  Each time the crew spotted a shark and told me and my five fellow shark enthusiasts to go below, I frantically pushed myself beneath the surface and searched the milky green water to spot anywhere from three to four meters of fish.  What I saw, and only periodically at that, was a massive dark shadow gliding past, an impressionistic ghost of a fish.  Each eerie passing made every hair on my body tremble, though that might have also been the water temperature.  But I’m sure the adrenalin of it all pushed those fuzzy puppies to attention just as much as the cold did.

I fumbled with my underwater camera, desperate to get at least one photo of the sharks, but each time one supposedly passed, I couldn’t see it through the lens.  Later, after I uploaded the files to my computer, I found I had in fact captured a few shots, then realized somewhat uncomfortably that I was looking right at the animals at the time and hadn’t even seen them.  It made me wonder how many times I’d swum past one in my life without knowing it.

Back onboard, while I waited a good hour for my heart to slow to a normal beat, I watched the sharks circle the boat, mesmerized by the gentle rhythm of their bodies, the effortlessness of their movements, the sheer size of their torpedo-like shapes.  If I ever had any doubt as to where humans rank on the food chain in terms of natural ability to defend ourselves against other predators, it was erased in minutes. I’m starting to think even a guppy could best us in the right environment. We are useless against the rest of the natural world without our man-made tools.  And sometimes I think we all need to remind ourselves of that when we as a species try to play God and lord over all the other animals on our little blue and green ball of fun.

For the next hour or so, while I waited to find out if I would be able to go back in the water for a second dive, I sat shivering, willing my body to stave off the seasickness that was creeping under my skin.  My cousin, poor thing, didn’t fair as well on that front.  When I caught up with her on the upper deck of the boat, she was wrapped in towels and wiping any residual breakfast that had resurfaced from her mouth. Luckily for me, I was so distracted by the several dozen emotions vying for top spot in my consciousness, I was completely distracted from potentially losing my breakfast.

Humbled, elated at being one of the privileged few to see a great white in its natural habitat, excited to finally meet this creature ‘in the flesh’, overwhelmed. I’m sure there were more but I just couldn’t quite wrap my head around them all, and I eventually gave up trying.  What I did comprehend quite clearly was that there is nothing in this world that compares to living it.  No amount of books, photos or articles; no countless documentaries can take the place of a single moment actually swimming with these creatures.

I’ve heard that the mind, once expanded, never goes back to its original size.  Each time I see  these creatures in real life, my mind is further blown to all new dimensions.

All rights reserved. ©2011 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

From sand to sea, South African style

Yes, I realize there is sand IN the sea, and usually sand backs up TO the sea as well, but in this case, I’m referring to going from the sandy soil of our camp in Limpopo to the southern seas around Cape Town. I’ve spent the last week down south in the Western Cape, escaping the heat and oppressive humidity that has come to settle in our canvas home up country. Unfortunately, I haven’t fully escaped the mosquitoes, though there are infinitely fewer here than there. I will admit, though, that I killed a mosquito the other night here that had enough blood in her system to start a small blood bank. It was disturbing, really.  The splatter of blood that shot out of her abdomen made the tile floor look a bit like a crime scene, albeit a tiny one.

By the way, I say ‘her’ because it is only the females who bite. Just as an fyi. The males are pleasantly content to mill around the flower patch. I’m sure many people could come up with pithy one-liners about how females are often the deadlier of all the species. And you know what? I think I’d be inclined to agree. Females of all species seem to kick ass across the board, whether it be in small, microscopic levels as in mosquitoes (who, by the way, are also the biggest pawner of malaria and lots of other fun little parasites, once again proving that size doesn’t really matter), or massive levels (elephant breeding herd, which are led by equally massive matriarchs).

But back to the sand and the sea.  My life in the reserve can be compared to a primal storm of heat, humidity and dirt, lacking in all creature comforts and akin, in many ways, to quicksand in its ability to swallow you whole.  Getting back to nature in the reserve isn’t all that great, to be honest, and this is coming from someone who loves nature in all its forms (sorry, all forms but mosquitoes).  Life by the sea has more of a nurturing, tranquil, soul-saving element to it, though it can be equally difficult and violent.  So if you have a choice, do I go down in quicksand, or will it be in rough waters?  This is the predicament I face in South Africa.  I can quite literally sink or swim.  And if I swim, am I swimming in the right waters, or am I wasting my energy in the wrong pond?

When I moved to South Africa, I was met with much trepidation from my family, and much excitement from my friends, who insist they live vicariously through me.  Which is probably best for them, as I can’t imagine too many of them would be happy living in the conditions I’ve subjected myself to by uprooting to the other side of the world.  Sure, it’s cool to wake up to a gazillion birds tweeting away as opposed to a gazillion self-obsessed people tweeting away, but still, I prefer to not be woken up at 4am, and that’s the bird population’s fave time to croon.  When your walls are so thin you could push through them, the sound is a force, not just a lovely, muted plethora of white noise.  Sometimes the birds even come into the house and perch up on the rafters.  I should let them know there are mambas that frequent those heights, but as of yet, I haven’t learned to speak bird.  And they don’t understand Spanglish.  I know.  I’ve tried communicating in it.  They do, however, speak broom, and unhappily vacate the premises when I show them business end of the latest model of household sweepers.

For the record, I don’t make a habit of beating the animals out here.  In fact, I’m thus far only responsible for a few understandable casualties.  The majority are mosquitoes; one is a squirrel.  Yes, I know.  Squirrels are cute and fuzzy.  They also eat through everything, leave a mess wherever they go, and attract many a venomous snake.  They aren’t allowed to stay.  I defend my turf just like they defend theirs.  Other than that, I leave the wilderness intact.  I do give it a boost  to relocate sometimes, though, when it starts leaving trails of poo on my clothes.  Hence me ushering the birds out with the broom.  The frogs and geckos stay.  They eat the bugs, they earn their keep.  Bargains can be struck in any situation, I’ve found.

So after a bit of digression, I’m back to why I started this post – appreciating the differences in life, and accepting when it’s time to make a change.  I came to Africa because I was the cliche.  I needed a change of pace, a new headspace, and a way to get back to my creative roots.  I honestly believed it was a good idea to uproot my life and move it 13,000 miles away with no set job or home.  And I knew all of five people.  Nice odds for an easy transition, right?  But to me, it was important to get out of my comfort zone (which people who know me would laugh to hear, since when have I lived in any comfort zone in the last ten years?).

To me, the definition of ‘comfort zone’ is not simply the safety net of financial security, familial security, or the security of being somewhere (mentally, emotionally, physically) you know.  To me, the definition of ‘comfort zone’ is being in a space where you are no longer challenged on any level.   I need to constantly be learning, pushing myself physically, mentally and emotionally.  Ok, well maybe not emotionally.  I think I’ve pushed that far enough.  Definitely the other two, though.  I spent many years on the road as a touring singer/songwriter.  I know what it’s like to spend lots of time alone, introspectively ‘learning about myself.’  I’ve pushed myself on so many levels, and hit a plateau.  Not only that, but I found that while there is always room to grow, I wasn’t interested in growing in the directions available, which meant I needed to change direction and head down a new path.  There’s always Africa, right?  The continent has a (well-founded) reputation of being behind the rest of the world, and whether the people here want to hear it or not, South Africa still has a lot of work to do.  Plenty of natural resources and money, but not enough structure or accountability.  To call it frustrating for someone who grew up in a highly developed country would be the understatement of the year.

The challenges I thought I would face are a bit different to the ones I’m actually facing, leaving me to wonder every day that I’m here if perhaps I made a mistake.  Not because I don’t love it here.  I do. Well, I have a love-hate thing with the place, yet I am drawn to it, to its irrefutable beauty and its rawness, and to its inherent possibilities and opportunities.  So here I am, floating in a sea of wonder, unsure of how to keep afloat and whether the life raft I’ve tied on to is really a life raft or yet another safety net.  Each day I tell myself that the universe conspires to help you, to give you what you need at the time that you need it.  I question that incessantly, and yet still firmly believe in it.  I have to, or I will sink, and do so thousands of miles from my family, my friends, and my comfort zone.   It’s certainly a growth opportunity, and definitely one I promise my friends and family would not trade their comfortable lives for.  I have to admit, however, that I always feel alive.  Every day I am aware, aware of my surroundings, of my senses and emotions, and of my abilities (and lack thereof in some cases).  Never does a day go by where my mind is not buzzing, and you know what?  I wouldn’t want it any other way.  South Africa, I love you.  Well, most of the time…

All rights reserved. ©2010 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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