Diving "White Death"

Great White Shark Diving

Sharks have always fascinated me and none more so than the infamous great white. Since first watching David Attenborough’s Wildlife on One, I’d envisioned one day experiencing a close up encounter with the most notorious of beasts that lurk the deep blue. Feared by most who step foot into the water, great white sharks have unjustifiably earned themselves a bad reputation through exaggerated media stories and, most notably, the blockbuster film Jaws

The great white shark is listed as a vulnerable species on the IUCN red list, however, estimations made by leading shark biologists state there are fewer than 3,500 individuals, making them more vulnerable to extinction than the tiger. Some sources claim that their population is growing while others argue it is declining. In light of this, I felt it was high time I realised my dream of coming face-to-face with the sharks before it might be too late.

It was during my spell in South Africa that the time had come to bring my long awaited meeting with Carcharodon carcharias to fruitionI had been travelling along the picturesque Garden Route and chose to spend a few days in Hermanus, a quaint little town situated on a mountainous bay and one of the world’s hotspots for whale watching. Between May and September, southern right whales annually migrate from the Antarctic to give birth to their young in the warmer waters of South Africa’s coastline. The town is also situated about a 40-minute drive away from one of the most famous great white shark hotspots in the world, Gansbaai.

I entrusted White Shark Ecoventures to ensure that there would be no chance of disappointment. After a quick breakfast and an induction informing us on all of the safety regulations, we set off out to sea. My initial excitement quickly turned to apprehension as the realisation set in that I would soon be plunging into the water with a one-and-a-half-tonne fish that some call “White Death”. I began to play out disastrous scenarios in my head, asking myself questions such as “What if the cage detaches itself from the boat and we sink toward the seabed?”, and “What if the shark breaks through the cage and gobbles me up?”

Before I knew it, we had arrived at Shark Alley and the boat engines came to a halt. A pair of tuna heads coupled with a bucket full of chum were tossed into the surrounding water and then the wait began. Around half an hour of gazing into the grey/blue void had passed before a large silhouette emerged from the depths of the murky sea. I suspiciously squinted my eyes to block out the glare reflecting off the shimmering surface, and then I was certain. “Shark! shark!”, I excitedly called to the boat captain as the ten-foot-long adolescent male menacingly glided closer toward the starboard side of the boat. Without a moment’s hesitation, we were instructed to put on our snorkels and climb down into the steel cage. Still nervous about all of the potentially catastrophic situations that had been running through my mind, I cautiously lowered myself into the only thing that would separate me from the three sharks that were already circling the boat. Strangely, all of my worries filtered away and were replaced with serenity the moment I entered the water. There was something so tranquil about being alone with my thoughts beneath the ocean swell.

As the first shark gradually appeared from out of the shadows, I remember feeling completely at peace, entirely without fear as the apex predator gracefully edged closer. As he quietly swam by, I couldn’t help but stare intensely into his almost extraterrestrial jet black eyes. Though virtually impossible to distinguish exactly where a great white is directing its gaze, somehow I knew that he was looking at me, sussing me out.

Soon after, two more sharks began to encircle the boat and I found myself surrounded from all angles. I never felt threatened, not once. Sharing a few moments in the cold South African winter waters with the great whites helped me to understand that they had absolutely no interest in causing me any harm, despite a few heavy bumps against the cage. Each shark was only interested in the bait that had lured them into our vicinity in the first place.

It was only when the sharks surged for the glum looking tuna heads that I was reminded of the immense power and killer instinct that great whites possess. With the ability to accelerate from a leisurely swim to incredible speeds in the blink of an eye, each shark would dart toward the bait with eyes rolled back and jaws wide open. On a few occasions, some of the sharks would actually breach, thrashing their streamlined bodies around as they cleared the water surface entirely.

After spending around an hour in complete euphoria in the water, it was finally time to call it a day and we reluctantly headed back to the harbour. I spent the next few days totally in awe of the brief encounter I’d had with one of the greatest forces of nature to inhabit our planet.

Shark populations have been decimated over the past 100 years due to overfishing, trophy hunting, culling and finning. There are some that firmly believe that these atrocities are beneficial to mankind and that due to unprovoked attacks on humans, we would be better off in a world without them. I’d argue that stepping out of our natural environment and into theirs is to provoke a naturally curious animal and that as apex predators, sharks are undoubtedly essential for maintaining healthy ecosystems that we and many other species depend on. Furthermore, attacks on humans are extremely rare and are often a consequence of mistaken identity.

Since that significant day I spent in Shark Alley, thoughts have stirred in my mind about what it would be like to live in a world without great white sharks and how many more species would soon follow them into extinction. As custodians of our beautiful planet, I believe that it is our moral obligation to ensure that this very real possibility does not become a tragic reality.

Into the Mist

Mountain Gorilla

During the past 18 months, I have been on an incredible journey throughout the Asian and African continents that has included many wonderful encounters with wildlife. From experiencing my first safari to diving with great white sharks, I have been very lucky. One might think that such a lifestyle would eventually grow wearisome, however, my desire to witness wild animals in their natural habitat grows stronger with every experience. Fortunately, I was able to further indulge my passion when I relocated to the small east African country of Rwanda last December. Aptly named “The land of a thousand hills”, Rwanda boasts a wide array of flora and fauna to be marvelled at. It is best-known among wildlife enthusiasts and conservationists for its high concentration of colourful birds and endangered primates.

Since moving to Rwanda, I have taken advantage of the many wildlife watching opportunities that this great land has to offer, visiting Akagera National Park and also travelling to the beautiful Nyungwe Forest to trek chimpanzees. There really is no other way to observe such spectacular animals than in their natural environment, as their behaviour and interactions with one another are in stark contrast to that when behind bars in a zoo. They were both truly amazing days that I will never forget. However, the magnitude of these experiences was overwhelmingly dwarfed by that of last weekend’s gorilla trekking.

Rwanda is one of three countries that are home to the critically endangered mountain gorilla. Surprisingly, it was as late as 1902 when these graceful beasts were first discovered by scientists, and since that day, mountain gorilla populations have been under serious threat of extinction. Poaching, habitat loss, disease and warfare have all contributed toward their decline and in 1981, it was estimated that as little as 254 mountain gorillas remained. Perhaps most horrifying of all, silverbacks were killed for their heads and hands which were sold to collectors. In addition, many protective parents were killed when their babies were taken away to be exhibited in zoos all over the world. Thankfully, recent years have seen large conservation efforts which have helped to ensure that these creatures have not become mere museum memories. It is now believed that there are at least 880 individuals wandering the hills of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

A large contributing factor toward the recovery of the mountain gorilla population has been through ecotourism. Wildlife enthusiasts from all corners of the globe travel to eastern Africa to witness the glorious spectacle of the great apes roaming freely in their natural habitat. Visitors must book permits weeks in advance, as the number of people allowed to view the gorillas each day is very limited. Encounters with our primate cousins are also restricted to a single one-hour session per day, and so the $750 fee per permit may seem astronomical to some. In hindsight, I cannot put into words how insignificant the cost turned out to be.

I left the comforts of my hotel room at around six o’clock on a misty Sunday morning and shortly after I arrived at the base camp where I was to learn which gorilla family I would be trekking. My guide announced that we had been assigned to the Ntambara (fighters) group – a band of 16 individuals. I met with the six other trekkers who had been assigned to the same group and we all briefly introduced ourselves to one another. Soon after, we excitedly jumped into a jeep and headed off toward the foot of the mountain of which the Ntambara group were located. Around half an hour later we arrived at our destination, climbed out of the jeep and began our ascent up into the mist.

During the relatively effortless hike toward the national park, we made a few stops where our guide taught us about some of the flora in the area. It was interesting to learn about the local vegetation and it helped to make the 45 minutes it took to reach the border of the national park go by quickly. Before crossing through the park’s perimeter, our guide gave us instructions on how to behave when we came across the gorillas and ways in which to react to different situations that may occur. Shortly after, he received confirmation on his two-way radio that the trackers had located the Ntambara group. They continuously updated him on the location of the gorillas and it became clear to all in the group that he knew exactly how far they were positioned from us. My fellow trekkers and I were keen to learn how long we would be hiking before we found the gorillas to which our guide teasingly responded “less than five hours”.

As we climbed over the cobblestone wall which separated the surrounding farmland from the forest, it became very apparent that this was going to be an arduous trek. It had rained continuously throughout the past few days and we all found ourselves ankle deep in the thick sodden soil. We hiked for around half an hour on the main trail before we met with one of the trackers and veered off onto a completely new route. I began to grow excited as it became obvious that we were in close proximity to the Ntambara group.

We continued through the thick lush green forest for around 15 minutes before happening upon two other trackers who instructed us to stop. Within seconds I heard a noise that sounded very similar to that of bongo drums and instantly I recognised that it was the sound of a gorilla beating its chest. I could feel my eyes growing wider and an adrenaline rush like I had never felt before as the realisation set in that we were about to be acquainted with one of the greatest animals to roam the planet.

As we approached the area from which we had heard the chest-beating, a large and imposing silverback emerged from a nearby bush and slowly moved his way toward us. Members of our group began frantically throwing themselves off the trail to allow him the space to pass through. I had not imagined that I could have been within a metre or so of a wild animal with such immense power and lived to tell the tale. As he unhurriedly distanced himself from us, everybody breathed a sigh of relief as if they had believed that a strictly herbivorous creature had recently acquired a taste for human flesh. We continued on to discover more members of the Ntambara group which included two females, a juvenile and an even larger Silverback feeding in a small opening.

We spent the next hour almost entirely in silence as we observed the gorillas moving in all directions around us. As we gradually moved our way around the tranquil forest, we managed to locate other members of the Ntambara group including a few amusing adolescents. Unoriginal as it may be, though, the toddler provided the most enjoyment for me personally. Before encountering the gorillas we had been instructed that should any of the infants approach us, we should make every effort to back away in order to ensure that no complications would arise with their extremely protective parents. One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do was distance myself from the juvenile that seemed intrigued by a fellow trekker and I. Nevertheless, I felt incredibly privileged to have been within a few feet of the curious little chap.

The enhanced elation I felt in contrast to my previous encounters with wildlife was undoubtedly down to the fact that I had spent less time behind the camera lens and more time simply observing. From previous experiences I have learnt that photographs are no substitution for enjoying the moment as it happens.

I honestly cannot find the words to express the wonder of sharing a short moment in time alongside such immensely powerful and magnificently intelligent animals. Magical perhaps, but the only way that one can really understand the euphoria surrounding even the briefest encounter with such glorious beings is to experience it for themselves.