It’s only Wednesday and we have already accomplished and learnt so much in the last three days!
Eight trips on board beautiful Slashfin, seeing lots of copper sharks, or bronze whalers, as they are also known, plus seven trips on Dream Catcher, the whale watching and ecotour vessel that offers an amazing Marine Big 5™ experience…busybusy volunteers helping with every aspect of the operations!
The saddest part of the week so far?
Hearing about a great white shark that had been caught by a fisherman and died.
The most enlightening part of the week so far?
Having the unique opportunity to work alongside the Dyer Island Conservation Trust’s very knowledgeable marine biologists, participating in the measuring, dissection and sampling of this shark.
Quentin inspecting the great white shark during the dissection [Photo credit: Marié Botha]
The most gross…
Helping to collect a rotting whale skull that has been lying around on a deserted section of coast for months. Thank goodness for washing machines and fresh clothes in the cupboard!
Jan, Quentin, Kyle and Erik getting down and dirty with a rotten whale head! [Photo credit: Hennie Odendal]
The most amazing…
Seeing the complete skull and vertebral column of a tiny dolphin calf inside the stomach of the great white shark! Sad and exciting all at the same time.
The most exciting…
3-4 m viz and bronzies all around, plus 5 southern right whale cow-calf pairs in the bay!
Lovely viz and beautiful bronzies [Photo credit: Shaun van Tonder]
Besides for the work we also celebrated Chai’s birthday and had a braai (barbeque) outside in the lovely warm summer weather. Only a month to go until Christmas…our sleepy coastal village is filling up with people on vacation and we can feel the holiday spirit in the air!
Chill time at the end of another busy day…a welcoming braai for the incoming volunteers [Photo credit: Hennie Odendal]
The Dyer Island Conservation Trust (DICT) recently responded to a stranding of a humpback whale and the team at International Marine Volunteers was asked to assist.
The carcass was covered in many wounds from having washed in over the sharp rocks and much of the skin was missing. It came closer and closer to shore over the next few high tides and was eventually lodged on the high water mark, within a few meters of the road.
Volunteers assisted the DICT marine biologist by doing observations and data recording as well as taking measurements and samples. They were given an in-depth lesson on humpback whales and their biology and were amazed by the sheer size of the whale!
Volunteers comparing ratios of their own body measurements to those of the humpback whale
Some of them had seen this same whale swimming around the bay just a couple of days prior to the stranding. The identity was matched using photo ID of the dorsal fin. Humpback whales can also be matched by comparing photos of the underside of the flukes, but this animal only showed its flukes once and only a partial photo could be collected. The tail was also so damaged during stranding that the patterns would not have been comparable.
Volunteers dwarfed by the stranded humpback whale
It is heart-wrenching to witness such a large animal helpless in the surf but this is Mother Nature’s way and such stranding events have been happening for centuries. Stranded animals provide scientists with an opportunity to collect samples, like skin for genetics, baleen and parasites for museum collections and anatomical measurements for comparative studies. It is seldom that one can determine the cause of death but it does provide an incredible educational opportunity for all involved!
South Africa’s Atlantic coastline offers some extremely beautiful dives, but only if the Cape of Storms permits it. In order for us to be able to explore down in the kelp forest, we need a 5-star calm sea day, very little wind and some good visibility. Recently we got just what we were waiting for!
The day before the dive, Jan du Toit, our in-house scuba divemaster and instructor, and I, prepared all the gear. Our scuba diving gear is top notch and assures an easy and safe diving experience. Once we were all packed and ready to go we set a time to go down to the caves at De Kelders – 8am the next morning. The divers were all super excited about the unique diving that South Africa offers.
Upon arrival I handed out each diver’s kit, set up to their preference, and we got dressed into our suits. Just to give you an idea of where this dive site is, the parking lot where we set up is elevated well above the entry point (99 steps!), and it can be a little tricky walking down with all your gear, but it always pays off in the end!
Getting wetsuits on and all our gear ready [Photo credit: Hennie Odendal]
I gathered all the divers on the edge of the road where you can see the dive site as well as the beautiful panoramic view of Walker Bay Nature Reserve, from Die Plaat to Hermanus and all the way past Betty’s Bay to Cape Hangklip. A southern right whale close to our dive site was playing and showing off for us, emphasising just how lucky we were to be there, at just the right moment! I was acting as dive leader, so with all the divers gathered, I briefed them regarding the site, our dive route and emergency procedures. We created a dive buddy system and went through all our hand signals. Then we were almost ready to head down to the water but first each dive buddy did final checks on their partner – air open, octo works, purge, weights, 200 bar etc. Check, check, check, always remembering that safety comes first…and then we were ready to take the stairway down to the water’s edge.
A shy shark [Photo credit: Zhu Pigolate]
Going out in the kelp is a bit tricky because it wraps around you, your fins, cylinder, everywhere (!) but we all stuck together and helped one another. Out we swam and found a nice open patch to do our descent. I asked if everyone was okay and ready and then off we went, descending into the unknown underwater world.
Nudibranch [Photo credit: Wade Lowe]
Wow, what a unique dive, it truly felt like we were in an underwater forest. The sun’s rays shone through the openings between the kelp, making it extremely magical. There was loads of life down there, as we explored along our route we encountered west coast rock lobster, black breams, crabs, sponges, ferns, fans, abalone, alikreukels or giant turban snails, also known fondly as ollycrocks.
Shark eggs or mermaid’s purses [Photo credit: Zhu Pigolate]
Purple sea urchin [Photo credit: Zhu Pigolate]
My personal favourites on dives like these are the nudibranch species, amazing psychedelic colours, an underwater photographer’s dream! Oh wait, how can I forget… two very curious Cape fur seals joined us all along the way and were intrigued with what we were doing. They gave us quite a show, making me think of sea ballerinas! We took some frozen sardines with us and towards the end of our dive Jan decided it was time to use them. We crushed them a bit to see if we could attract some shy sharks and before long we had seven or eight of them around us. We even saw some mating behaviour – biting just behind the gills and upwards swimming!
Unfortunately we aren’t fish, even though I’d like to be (!), and our cylinder pressure was running low, so it was time to call an end to the dive. We slowly ascended back to the surface together as a group. What a bunch of happy faces, chatting and laughing while we battled through the kelp back to shore. It truly was an amazing dive with an awesome group of people. And so we bid the Mother-of-the-Underwater-World farewell…and embarked on our 99 steps back up the cliff with gravity-filled feet again!
At International Marine Volunteers (IMV) when we hear the word TIGER we immediately think about the majestic tiger shark… a nocturnal predator with a blue-grey body and dark stripes resembling the coat pattern of a terrestrial tiger. This beautiful shark is also known as the Sea Tiger and eats a large variety of prey. This time around, however, when we spoke about tigers it was all about the terrestrial species instead.
The IMV programme is all about sharks, whales, dolphins, seabirds and the conservation of the ocean but we do love all sorts of animals too, so we recently got involved in helping to raise funds for Arabella and Raise, two tigers rescued by Panthera Africa, a big cat sanctuary situated nearby that we often visit if the weather is too rough for us to go out to sea.
These two tigers were rescued from a bone trade farm where they would have had an untimely death and their bones sold to markets in Asia to make potions and aphrodisiacs. Panthera’s aim is to give these tigers the love and respect they deserve and to live out the rest of their lives in a peaceful, enriched enclosure where they are free to run and play at will. Arabella has already had a much-needed eye operation and the funds raised will help to construct a large platform and a dam as tigers just love to swim! Remaining funds will be used towards buying a huge freezer to store meat for all the animals at the center and, as these cats also need to be kept busy, some funds will also be used to buy enrichment toys.
Raise, so-named in order to raise awareness for tigers [Photo credit – Panthera Africa]
The fund raising event was called “TEA FOR TIGERS”, and people from all over the world hosted tea parties on this day to raise funds. At IMV we sold some speciality cupcakes at our local shopping centre and held a raffle with awesome prices. 1st prize was a whale-watching trip for two with our sister company Dyer Island Cruises, 2nd prize was an educational trip for two to Panthera Africa and the 3rd prize was a behind-the-scenes tour at our African Penguin and Seabird Centre, where IMV volunteers help out every day.
We even had our own little mascot, and with help from him we also managed to secure a donation of a cow (!) and a smaller freezer to keep store meat for the jackals at the sanctuary.
Our heart-melting mascot, Zayne <3
The volunteers held their own “Tea Party” at the IMV Center and had a lot of fun! We had some prizes sponsored from our local community and they were raffled for the volunteers. We had pizza’s, t-shirts, a handbag, ladies watch, and a horse riding excursion.
All-in-all this was a great day and an awesome way of showing people that we care about more than just the marine environment!
‘May the choices you make today be forever in Earth’s favour.’ –SBCCQ
Three generations of animal-lovers – Marié Botha from IMV and her daughter and grandson, Liezel and Zayne Middleton
Kate Cameron has volunteered with us twice already, as has her Dad, Craig and her friend Kristie. Kate’s enthusiasm is contagious and her happy laugh and kind demeanour are missed by us all. She is a true example of an ambassador for the marine environment! Her blog follows:
“Every year an insane number of sharks are killed by people. Although some sharks are caught by fishermen within the law and used appropriately, the majority of shark deaths are from shark finning, fisherman’s bycatch, slaughtered out of fear or sport or otherwise by people regardless of laws. Shark finning is common in Asian countries (specifically China) due to the social status of the dish, shark fin soup. During the process of shark finning, sharks are caught, their fins are removed and the rest of the body is discarded. Bycatch occurs when Fishermen are fishing for sustainable fish and sharks and other unwanted marine life are caught in nets or traps. Although fishermen probably do not want these animals, they are usually dead before the nets are even hauled up.
Beeeeeeeooootiful Blue <3
Subsequently, after the movie Jaws and many other films following it, fear set into humans that sharks are terrifying and brutal people-eaters. This is not the case but unfortunately people were spurred to go out and kill sharks, drastically damaging the ecosystem. Additionally, ecotourism has become wildly popular. Although it is great to get up close and personal with sharks (speaking from experience) it is important to consider who you are doing your ecotours with. There are laws in place for both your safety and the shark’s safety. These laws will include if companies are allowed to feed or bait the sharks, chumming restrictions, cage restrictions, shark handling and among many other important diving factors. Researching your ecotourism company before going out with them to make sure they are known for following rules and regulations will ensure that your trip is as enjoyable as possible while keeping the sharks as safe and without disrupting the environment. Ecotourism companies who do not follow the laws risk endangering the shark, by physically hurting the animal or changing feeding patterns etc. Remember, the goal of shark dives is to see the grace in these animals rather than harm them.
I have just returned from South Africa where I spent my second summer volunteering with Marine Dynamics and Dyer Island Cruises through the International Marine Volunteers (IMV). This program has given me the opportunity to dive and research White Sharks as well as the Blues, Makos and a Bronze Whaler in addition to penguins, Cape fur seals and a variety of whale and dolphin species. The company has several on staff marine biologists that provide presentations on the marine life in the area as well as accompany ecotourism trips to answer questions. I have learned so much about the marine ecosystem in the program; I was even able to help dissect a 4.1 meter Great White Shark! What more could I ask for?
Kate in her element
Well, after helping out with ecotourism trips, IMV supports various social activities among the volunteers including visiting local restaurants and other establishments in order to cultivate lasting relationships. If you are looking for more than just one or two days of diving with sharks and are wanting to learn more about the Great White Shark, perhaps you should consider volunteering with IMV too!
IMV, where lifelong friends are made…Amy, Kate and Kristie
If you only want to go see the sharks but are unsure or need help finding a reliable ecotourism company, check out sustainablesharksiving.com, a website that is designed to help! Sustainablesharkdiving.com is devoted to finding shark ecotourism companies based on educational, in-water safety, animal treatment, environmental sustainability, and conservation ethic objectives. This site takes into consideration professional and tourist reviews (so after your dive, go on and review the company!). The website is easy to navigate, search different ecotourism companies by type of shark, by company, or by country you want to dive in. For example you could search “Great White Sharks,” “Marine Dynamics” or “South Africa.” Additionally, if you do not know what the shark diving and ecotourism laws are in the country you are planning to dive in the website explains rules and regulations in countries that have shark ecotourism.
Sharks do a major part in keeping the ecosystem healthy in every ocean (and some rivers). Let’s do our best to protect these magnificent creatures.”
Tracking a Great White Shark
by Halle Gray Carlson, International Marine Volunteer
A few of us from the International Marine Volunteer team were recently given the opportunity to join the Dyer Island Conservation Trust team on Lwazi to tag and track a Great White Shark! We launched early in the morning and began looking for a good shark to tag. After about an hour at sea a large male was tagged as it calmly swam past the boat. Once the tag was on, the tracking portion of the trip began.
Gray and Henrik attracting the shark [Photo credit: Harry Stone]
The great white shark swimming serenely by [Photo credit: Halle Gray Carson]
To track a shark using acoustic tags, you stick a hydrophone (underwater microphone) in the water and listen for a “ping” sound from a connected transmitter. If you are close to the shark, the ping is loud and very clear. However, if the shark begins to swim away, it’s harder to hear the ping.
Alison tracking and Gray in charge of data recording [Photo credit: Harry Stone]
Alison Towner, the biologist on board, let us all take a turn at using the hydrophone to track our shark (which was later named Brian, after one of my co-volunteers). I was kind of nervous to try it at first because I didn’t want to be the one to lose the shark, but Alison was super helpful and told us exactly what to do. Basically, you want to point the hydrophone in the direction of the shark while following the sound of the pings. Every 60 seconds, another person records GPS coordinates, water temperature and depth of the animal.
Henrik and Brian using the hydrophone and collecting data
Over the course of 2 hours, we found that Brian made a tour of the shallows and stopped at a couple of cage diving boats. It was cool to be able to see what a great white shark does during a typical day, and hopefully we’ll get to go out on Lwazi again soon so that we can see what he’s up to now!
Further Comment by Alison Towner, Dyer Island Conservation Trust marine biologist:
This aspect of white shark research for me in the most fascinating. Many may find active tracking tedious as it involves extensive hours at sea, essentially puttering around after a ping…however ultimately that ping represents an acoustic signal on one of the oceans top predators. It never gets old homing in on our shark and then tracking its movements. It is almost as if we are in the mind of the shark as it goes about its daily thing which is fascinating to me. Whether the shark we track is foraging for a seal for breakfast at Dyer Island or cruising the beautiful stretch of beach inshore near Kleinbaai, we are literally entering the sharks’ world every time we track. Each individual has its own personality and hunting behaviour. That sort of research experience really allows you to get an understanding of this species and beats any day stuck behind a computer crunching numbers!
Alison training Gray on how to use the tracking equipment [Photo credit: Harry Stone]
I particularly enjoy it when the volunteers, after training with me, start to get confident on the tracking machine. Every time we take new volunteers out there, at first they are a little nervous of losing the shark but after some hours we are able to teach them how to ‘listen’ to where the shark is. It involves real team work, co-ordination and focus. While one person takes data another watches the time and scribes data. At the end of a track, with hours of data having been collected, heading back into the sunset while leaving the shark to carry on in its world, I often turn and look at the vols faces. I don’t need to say a thing, their expressions are of sheer accomplishment and satisfaction – because we just spend hours in the natural daily life of the great white shark and what an exclusive privilege that is!
One of the most rewarding things for us at International Marine Volunteers is when volunteers come back to join us, time and again. Brian Whyte, from Ontario, is one such returning volunteer, he first joined us last year for 2 weeks and booked again this year for three weeks with us, extending by another week once he got here!
Working in the culinary trade back home in his normal daily life, Brian is actually qualified with an Hons in Biology. When he joins us here in South Africa he helps wherever and whenever he can with boat operations, data collection and ecotourism activities. He is a senior volunteer, happily taking on added responsibility, and assists by giving boat briefings and taking care of some communication and security. He is one of the most helpful, capable and affable volunteers we have ever had!
Brian was lucky enough to be invited to join one of our tagging trips recently and he had the following to say about it:
The other day at International Marine Volunteers I was fortunate enough to be one of four volunteers to go on our research vessel, Lwazi, on a shark tagging trip. Lwazi is a small vessel, roughly 8 meters long, with low gunnels. While this makes tagging easier, it also means that the boat is very weather dependent. Large swells and strong winds don’t make skipping Lwazi easy, which meant it was beautiful day on the water when we launched!
Brian and one of co-volunteers chumming to attract a great white shark for tagging [Photo credit: Harry Stone]
The other volunteers and I were joined by skipper Dickie Chivell and marine biologist and Ph.D candidate Alison Towner, who is researching the relationship of cage diving and great white shark behaviour in the area. After heading out of the harbour for about 15 minutes, we anchored and began chumming the water to attract a shark to tag. Tagging proved to be a somewhat tricky process as there are a few things to take into account when placing the tag.
The shark needs to be very close to the boat when tagging to ensure proper placement. While a correctly placed tag won’t do any harm to the shark, if the tag were to be misapplied the shark could be injured. Also, the tags are an expensive piece of equipment and if not deployed properly it could mean they would fall off the shark and are lost. Taking this into account, skipper Dickie held the tagging pole over the side of the boat waiting for a shark to get close, while us volunteers shark-spotted and continued chumming.
Dickie Chivell successfully placing a tag into the shark [Photo credit: Harry Stone]
After some anxious close passes, patience paid off when a 3.8 meter male with a sickle-shaped dorsal fin appeared. He approached the back of the boat and swam to the port side, right underneath the tagging pole. One quick motion and a split second later – the shark was tagged perfectly and was ready to be tracked!
I have volunteered for nearly two months with Marine Dynamics and the tagging and tracking trip was far and away one of my favourite days! It was an amazing time being on the research boat, collecting scientific data that will be used to help uncover some of the mysteries of the great white shark. Being able to contribute to this important conservation project was an experience that I won’t soon forget.
We are really looking forward to having Brian join the IMV team again – there are just a handful of volunteers of his calibre, so it’s no wonder the research team named the tagged shark after him! Here’s wishing both Brians happy, safe travels, wherever they may go 🙂
Watch this space for part 2 of the tagging excursion…
Every now and again, when the time allows, we are able to fit in a fully exclusive cage-diving trip for our hard-working volunteers. It is usually very early in the morning, which adds to all the excitement. Wetsuits, booties and towels were all prepared the night before and the passenger list for the boat was compiled in readiness for the next day. Early the next morning a group of yawning, sleepy faces all piled into the minibus and headed down to the harbour for a beautiful sunrise and a fun time out on the water!
Our volunteers have coordinators with them from early morning until night-time, so we usually make sure that they all go aboard together. It is an amazing experience for everyone! Instead of their usual task of educating and taking care of ecotourism clients, the crew and volunteers get to just relaaaax and fully enjoy the cage-diving experience.
There is a lot of fun, laughter and joking around, and a really good vibe on board Slashfin, the Marine Dynamics’ vessel. Our volunteers all get rewarded with some well-deserved time off doing exactly what they are deeply passionate about!
Gray helping one of her teammates out with a nice dry towel
The volunteers said that they found the whole experience really good for bonding with their teammates, coordinators and the boat crew.
Staff and volunteers working together as a team
Volunteers helping to retrieve and stow the anchor away
This time around they were really lucky and got some fantastic great white shark sightings and were able to spend a long time in the cage. They said that they enjoyed the fact that they knew everyone diving in the cage alongside them, so they felt comfortable and could chat and joke with one another at will.
Ettiene Roets, one of our volunteer coordinators, said that exclusive volunteer dives are “a nice bonding experience for both coordinators and volunteers alike…the exclusives are uniquely fun trips, almost like playing at work”.
When the swell’s up or the wind is blowing strongly then the boats can’t go to sea, and volunteers and crew alike get a well-deserved day off! So in times like these, what is there for a marine volunteer to do?
Firstly we usually take advantage of the opportunity to sleep a little later than normal 😉 but then it’s breakfast time and off we go…road tripping time!
On our most recent trip we started off with a visit to Struisbaai Harbour to check out the local stingrays and the colourful fishing vessels.
A short-tailed stingray at Struisbaai Harbour [Photo credit: Hennie Odendal]
Then we hopped back in the minibus and headed off to L’Gulhas, the southern-most town in Africa! We visited the spot where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans are said to meet…well, in reality they do mix in this area but, depending on the oceanographic conditions the actual meeting spot fluctuates geographically – but at least we can say “been there done that”!
The spot where the two oceans meet [Photo credit: Hennie Odendal]
While we were there we climbed to the top of the Cape Agulhas lighthouse. This lighthouse was renovated recently and is looking lovely both inside and out! It was quite a hectic climb up ladders and stairs but the view and the wind in our hair was definitely worth the effort! It was an amazing view and we could even see the stone fishtraps that were built by South Africa’s first people – the Strandlopers, or beach walkers, known as the KhoiKhoi. They were nomadic people who foraged and lived in the coastal zone thousands of years ago.
At the top of the the Cape Agulhas lighthouse – check out the huge prisms for the light that keeps our ships safe at night [Photo credit: Hennie Odendal]
Leaving the southernmost tip of Africa behind us, we headed eastwards towards a picturesque little town called Arniston. Here we hiked along the beach to visit a huge and beautiful cave called Waenhuiskrans, which means Wagon House Cliff, after the fact that the cave was big enough to park a wagon and a span of oxen in it!
Waenhuiskrans [Photo credit: Hennie Odendal]
We even donned our fins and swam in the Indian Ocean, while back home at the International Marine Volunteer Center when we go kelp diving we actually swim in the Atlantic Ocean 🙂 Kinda fun to know, and for those people who like to tick off lists of cool things they have done, this is definitely one of them!
Fishing line bins are simply, yet cleverly designed bins that are erected on poles along the coastline at popular fishing spots in order to make it simple for members of the public to dispose of any fishing line that they may need to discard or that they have picked up along the beach.
When you join the International Marine Volunteer programme you will also become involved in this conservation project by assembling fishing line bins or helping to patrol the coastline, participating in our beach pollution clean-up and monitoring project, emptying fishing line bins along the way. We separate the fishing line from all the bits of kelp, stones and other rubbish so that its weight can be properly recorded and it is then stored for recycling.
There are several environmental, educational and aesthetic reasons why we initiated this important project:
By removing plastics from the environment, and thus from the food chain where they are consumed by animals unwittingly believing them to be food, we prevent a situation where toxins are released from the plastic and stored in the animals’ bodies, becoming increasingly concentrated as they move up through the food chain. These toxins affect the immune system resulting in long term declines in body condition and increased susceptibility to illnesses. In some cases an agonising death occurs due to the ingestion of a toxic cocktail from the mother’s milk in the case of the first offspring for marine mammals.
Removing fishing line also helps to prevent the entanglement of animals like birds, seals, dolphins, sharks and even some terrestrial animals that frequent the coastal zone. Entanglements seldom come loose, usually tightening over time and resulting in loss of limbs, strangulation and death.
The physical presence of fishing line bins along our coastline contributes to education efforts to raise awareness about the importance of our project amongst locals and visitors using the coastal and harbour areas. Fortunately most recreational and commercial fishermen know about the local bins and use them regularly.
The Dyer Island Conservation Trust has an educational display and gives presentations about the project, and all the ecotourists and volunteers who come through our doors are exposed to the fishing line bin project. Simply seeing the bins or hearing about them in presentations makes people think twice before they throw that little sweet wrapper on the ground, or walk past fishing line lying on the beach.
An often overlooked reason to pick up fishing line is an aesthetic one – man has a right to a clean natural environment and fishing line bins are an avenue to remove unsightly line from the beaches.
We don’t only make fishing line bins for our local area, our project partner John Kieser from Plastics SA is doing regular trips to distribute them in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu Natal and to all the Blue Flag beaches along our coastline. He has been instrumental in arranging DPI Plastics to donate the material for us to use. For this support we are extremely grateful!
At International Marine Volunteers we have a Samil 20, which is a 4-wheel drive vehicle, that allows us access to remote sections of the coast where our help is really needed to remove litter from the beaches, attend strandings of dead animals and search for creatures in distress, such as injured or oiled penguins.
Our intrepid Samil, taking us on marine warrior expeditions! [Photo credit: Hennie Odendal]
Some people may feel that projects like these are only a drop in the ocean considering what needs to be done to reverse the damage that man as a species has done to the planet. However, we are of the firm belief that that EVERY BIT COUNTS and that, even if we weren’t involved in polluting the environment ourselves, every single one of us has a responsibility to help save the planet for future generations!