Day tripping with International Marine Volunteers

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!

Meredith Thornton: IMV Manager

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Every Bit Counts with the Fishing Line Bin Project

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!

Meredith Thornton: IMV Manager

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Kelp diving with International Marine Volunteers

International Marine Volunteers is based in such a beautiful part of the world, where the Agulhas and Benguela oceans mix around the southernmost tip of Africa.  The ocean here is productive and diverse and, while we spend most of our time offshore in search of great white sharks, whales, dolphins, seals and penguins, just on the other side of the rocks along our shore lies a secret world of beautiful creatures and plants just waiting to be discovered!

Beautiful views along the De Kelders’ coastline [photo credit: Hennie Odendal]

Kelp beds in less than 10m of water are a rich and exciting habitat for all sorts of creatures.  Kelp is also known as sea bamboo, or Ecklonia maxima, and these underwater plants play an integral role in the nearshore environment.  The forest of kelp fronds provide some protection from predators and the sun and is an excellent habitat for both fish and invertebrate species, like abalone, a highly-prized (and unfortunately intensively poached) mollusc.

Kelp is harvested at sea and collected along the beaches in South Africa and is used as feed for farmed abalone, fish and other animals, liquid fertiliser, alginate, a compost booster, moisture-retainer for agriculture and even as a dietary supplement for humans.

After a good day’s work, when time and weather allows, we head on down to De Kelders, a picturesque stretch of coast on the eastern shore of Walker Bay.  Donning wetsuits, masks, weight belts and fins we gather at the water’s edge and slide into the cool water with great excitement, and in some cases, a lot of nerves!

“I was a little bit nervous at first” said one of the volunteers, because there some sharks around, “but I soon realised that they weren’t going to mess with us and I felt like I was swimming through an underwater jungle!”

Soon everyone was enchanted by the brown-green kelp forest swaying in the swells, the many different fish sheltering amongst the fronds and the wide array of other species below us.

We see lots of species whilst down there, but the most regularly seen are the wildeperde, or  white and black zebra fish, blacktail, yellow-striped sea bream (which are apparently hallucinogenic if eaten!), rockfish, sea urchins, anemones, cushion stars and other starfish, abalone and alikreukel, also known as the giant turban snail.

Many of us are of course shark lovers so the pyjama shark, shy shark, spotted gully shark and raggies often steal the show!

“It was so much fun, and such a cool spot,” said another one of the volunteers excitedly, “I learnt lots about different species of marine life and also how to get through kelp with a weight belt and flippers!”

“It was kind of eerie in the kelp forest, but I enjoyed it never-the-less!”

“It was really pretty and so peaceful!”

And most importantly…“When can we go again?!”

Ring bubbles! [photo credit: Sandra Hoerbst]

Wow…how lucky we are to have such a nice opportunity, right on our doorstep, to pop our heads underwater and learn all about a whole other world!  At International Marine Volunteers our coordinators are passionate about the coastline, love the marine environment and welcome every opportunity to share their knowledge with our volunteers.

by Meredith Thornton: IMV Manager

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Marine Volunteering: Reaping the Rewards

At International Marine Volunteers (IMV) we have been fortunate enough to spend several months over the last couple of years living and working alongside Angus Ellsmore.  His enthusiasm, energy, dedication and willingness to assist wherever he can, are infectious.  He is a prime example of how spending long periods volunteering and proving your mettle reap in the rewards.  Angus is responsible and hard-working and he quickly became a senior volunteer, even helping with security, training and giving presentations to his newly-arrived teammates.  We suggest spending a minimum of a month with the programme, but highly recommend joining us for several months in order to gain the best possible experience.  As with all aspects of life – the more you put in the, the more you are likely to get out!

Angus shared with us some of his experiences and feelings from his time at IMV:

My name is Angus Ellsmore, I’m from a town called Picton in the state of New South Wales, Australia. I first did the International Marine Volunteer programme in the months of September, October and November, 2015 and then came back in June, July, August 2016 because I loved it so much! I wanted to do this programme because I was always fascinated about the great white shark and I wanted to see one up close in real life. I loved everything about the programme, working on the beautiful Western Cape of South Africa with the Marine Big 5 and making friends all around the world that I still catch up with today. When I came to Marine Dynamics, I learnt so much more about the great white shark!  The marine biologists and all the staff were amazing with how much knowledge they have about the great white shark and most importantly how we need to protect them as they play a major role within the ecosystem for other life in the ocean.

The experiences I had working with the marine volunteer programme are something that will stay with me forever. Not many people in the world could say they get up in the morning to dive with great white sharks or see southern right whales migrating up the coastline, it is truly breathtaking! I was truly thankful when I got to work on the research boat with the wonderful marine biologists to do acoustic tagging of great white sharks and I even worked with film crews from Discovery Channel that were filming Shark Week. These opportunities were offered to me because I was there for several months.

Some of my favourite moments in Gansbaai, South Africa were when I was lucky enough to see orcas passing Dyer Island and when I was working on the boat with Discovery Channel we decided to do to a breaching tour as it was late afternoon and prime condition for a good breaching of a great white to happen, we set up the seal decoy and our positions on the boats with our cameras, I was so excited when the shark breached with the sunset and Danger Point lighthouse in the background, it was just so majestic to see. Diving with great white sharks is something I’ll always love, my favourite day was when I dived with my friend Ben from USA and the visibility was crystal clear that we could see the bottom of the ocean and the sharks swimming on the sea floor and then they would come up to the surface and swim peacefully right in front of us, it was a fantastic experience. Last but not least, the friendships forged with people from the company from South Africa and the volunteers who joined us from all around the world.

Doing the International Marine Volunteer programme has been the best experience of my life! To anyone out there around the world that is interested in travelling, loves sharks or any marine life and wants to have the time of their life, then I highly recommend this programme with Marine Dynamics, Dyer Island Cruises and the Dyer Island Conservation Trust because “Life is adventure to be lived, not a problem to be solved”.

 Meredith Thornton, IMV Manager

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Kayleigh’s Story

The African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary

Nearly a year ago to the day, I arrived in Gansbaai South Africa. For the next 5 weeks I was going to be helping out on the Great White Shark cage diving vessel, SlashFin, with Marine Dynamics and International Marine Volunteers. I didn’t know at the time that for the first time ever, the Great White Sharks would disappear for a prolonged period of time and that I would actually end up spending my time at the African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary.

APSS as it is known takes in sick/injured birds and abandoned chicks and helps rehabilitate them back into the wild. (African Penguins are endangered and experts do believe that if nothing is done, they will be extinct in the wild by 2030.) It’s also a really important place to me and helping out there is what started a new found love for penguins and birds, it also made me realise that working with birds is what I wanted to do with my life. A day at APSS would involve cleaning, cutting fish tails and fillets, laundry and feeding. When I returned back to England I continued to volunteer with birds at Birdworld in Farnham, yet really wanted to get more hands on experience back in South Africa… I left my job and returned. Yet this time I wanted to give back to the place that taught me so much, APSS.


I decided I was going to raise money for APSS. I let my work friends decide how I would go about doing this. They decided that I would get blown of the side of a mountain, yes paragliding – I can honestly say now that I will never do this again! The most terrifying part was when the guy told me that if I needed to run to gain air then I would have to run off the side of the mountain! The incline that you are on is enough to terrify anyone that has a fear of heights, no matter how small. All in the name of fundraising.

My target was £300 and as the days and months rolled by the total kept creeping up. I actually managed to triple my target and raise £940!!! Again I would like to thank every single person that donated, plus family and friends. Without their kindness it wouldn’t have been possible! I didn’t do anything really, it was down to everyone else. I was able to give back to the place that changed everything for me and I will be forever grateful.

This is me back in action in Kleinbaai, Gansbaai at a recent penguin release – for more information regarding penguin rehabilitation and conservation visit the Dyer Island Conservation Trust website.

Kayleigh Hawkins
International Marine Volunteer

 

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Kayleigh’s Penguin Fundraiser

Kayleigh Hawkins, a returning International Marine Volunteers, started a GoFundMe fundraiser seven months ago to help our penguins in peril at the African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary.

Her goal was to raise £300 (approximately R5000). She is back in Gansbaai for 12 weeks and has raised a total amount of £940 (R16239) of which she is also donating an amount of R1700 to the Dyer Island Conservation Trust‘s DEEP programme.

Thanks for efforts Kayleigh Hawkins! Our penguins will definitely enjoy their lunch!

Stay tuned for her story…

Hennie Odendal

IMV Coordinator

 

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Dissection day!

Shark dissection time!  As the day progressed so did the excitement of the volunteers, constant questions of “Can’t wait, when we going to start?” become the order of the day. As we start the setup of all the dissection and measuring equipment, I could see all eyes firmly focused on the defrosted male vaalhaai, or soupfin shark, that was wrapped in black plastic bags.

Before we could start with the actual cutting open of the shark, we needed to do external measurements. This is a lengthy process but as I explained to the volunteers that this is a very important part of the scientific process.  The volunteers quickly jumped at the opportunity and listened carefully to the instructions given. I gave one as the volunteers, Jaime, the opportunity to lead with the measuring, since he had a degree in marine biology and this could really help him to gain some hands-on experience. I explained the basics of measurements and guidelines, and then very quickly they started to taking accurate measurements of the shark with my supervision.

External morphometrics

External morphometrics

Finally when we were done with the 3-page external measurements, it was time to cut open the 17.5kg shark. To add to the atmosphere the perfect sunny spring day turned into ominous cloudy windy weather, it’s almost if Mother Nature knew how to set the scene. As I started making the first cut, I noticed some of the volunteer’s faces pulled in all different directions as the dead shark smell  filled their nostrils, especially when squeezing out the stomach contents to weigh. As the chorus of “ewwh’s” and “ahh’s” rained down, the fascination and interest remained as no-one moved an inch.

We opened up the shark, removing the liver, stomach, intestine and reproductive organs, all for internal measurements. The longer the dissection went on the more questions of genuine interest followed, ” How does the shark stay afloat?” was one of the volunteer questions. So sharks do not have a swim bladder like other fish for buoyancy but instead they have a liver filled with oil called squaline. I happily showed them by cutting a piece of liver and throwing it into a bucket of water, and as predicted it floated! It’s these types of practical demonstrations that have the biggest impact and can only be shown to people at an educational dissection.

After the organs from the body cavity were removed, I went on to show them the brain, eyes and heart, at this stage they were amazed how tiny the heart was in comparison to the body, and where it was located, in the upper throat section, “Talking about heart in your throat stuff” was one of the comments that had the group laughing. After all was cut open and measured, we then took some genetic samples and fin clips to finish off the dissection.

The group were all smiling and showed genuine interest throughout the dissection, for some this was first time they had ever been a part of a dissection, let alone a shark dissection! The group left with a newfound respect for these amazing ocean predators, and a comment by one of the volunteers to end of the day saying: ”This was one awesome experience, that I’ll probably never forget”!

Ettiene Roets (IMV Coordinator)

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A tribute to International Marine Volunteer alumna, Elly Warren.

It’s a sombre time in the International Marine Volunteers’ Center as we process the news that sweet, beautiful, vivacious Elly Warren has passed away.

Elly was just crazy about the sharks, simply head-over-heels in love with Trevor-the-dog and a wonderfully crazy, happy, smart and loving young woman.  She was easy-going, fitted in wherever she went, full of positive energy and a very open-minded individual.  We are privileged at IMV to have met her and to spend so many happy moments with her.  Elly was one of the most beautiful people I have ever met!

The planet has been robbed of an amazing ocean advocate… passionate, helpful, hard-working and enthusiastic – a young woman so rich in potential that my heart breaks to think that we won’t have the opportunity to watch her career progress and hear her happy laughter filling the IMV Center!

To Elly’s family and friends – we are so sorry for your loss!  From all of us at IMV, here’s wishing you peace in this tremendously difficult time <3

Elly and Trevor

Marie (IMV Administrator): When I think of Elly I remember a beautiful girl, barefoot and always smiling, sitting on the office floor and chatting away.  She told me about all the places she has visited before, all her plans for the rest of the year, and her love for animals.  I still found it quite interesting that such a young girl seemed to have her whole life sorted and knew exactly what she wanted to do.  Just as she was busy telling me about her pets back home our big volunteer dog, Trevor, came strolling into the office and just fell on her lap!  She hugged and kissed him, as if they have been friends for year, and this is when I took the photo that was on our Facebook page. 

 

Francois (IMV Volunteer Coordinator): I remember the first night Elly came to us as a volunteer and curled up with Trevor on his mattress inside the IMV lounge next to the sliding door going to the braai area. She loved Trevor so very much and called him her boyfriend!   She loved the beach and asked if she could do a beach walk to collect sea urchin shells. I dropped her off at Franskraal and she walked back to Kleinbaai along the coast. She arrived at the Great White House with all these urchin shells and I asked her how is going to get it all back to Australia and with a big smile she said she was going to fill her shoes with them and if possible if I could keep her any Pringles(the crisps) containers so that she can stash some in them too. She loved horse riding and I took her up too Grootbos to go horse riding and we got lost looking for the stables… which we thought was very funny. We eventually found the horse stables and she immediately wandered off to go and greet the other animals that were residing close to the stables. Elly was a very energetic and caring person with a lot of care and admiration for animals. She was the fun girl and every minute spent with her she had us all laughing and entertained with her spontaneous and humorous personality. I’m shocked that this awesome person who became part of our family was taken away from the world when she had so many good things and adventures lined up for her. You are truly going to be missed dear Elly and thank you for giving us the opportunity to get to know you and spend some time with you, laughing and enjoying every day you were around. Rest in peace our dear friend.

Elly Warren and biologistsAlison (Marine Biologist): My sincere condolences go out to Elly’s family at this difficult time. Elly was a character I will always remember, a true free spirit who brought laughter and light to all around her. While I only knew her for a few weeks as she volunteered with us at Marine Dynamics, the two of us bonded immediately over our shared passion for diving and marine life. Any chance Elly got to don a wetsuit and jump in the cage with the white sharks she was there- enthusiastic and ready- even if the water was cold and visibility bad. The crew all warmed to her, and even on the slowest shark days she would keep us entertained with her humour and stories. She was so excited to head to Mozambique and meet the mantas and whale sharks. The last contact I had from Elly was a messenger post gushing with excitement to tell me about how beautiful Mozambique was and how happy she was to be there. Even though her life was taken far too soon, perhaps we can hold some solace in the fact that she was doing something that made her truly happy and she utterly loved. Rest in peace dear Elly, you will be sorely missed by many xxxxxxxx

Meredith Thornton (IMV Manager)

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Fair Trade Tourism Certification for International Marine Volunteers!

Team IMV is very excited and proud that we have been Fair Trade Tourism (FTT) certified! The certification process is based on strict criteria relating to:

  • Fair wages and working conditions
  • Fair operations, purchasing and distribution of benefits
  • Ethical business practice
  • Respect for human rights, culture and the environment

The aim of FTT is ‘to make tourism more sustainable by ensuring that the people who contribute their land, resources, labour and knowledge to tourism are the ones who reap the benefits.’ It is based upon 6 principles which you can read about here:

The six principles of Fair Trade Tourism

IMV FTT -1a

The IMV programme is primarily based on volunteering experiences within marine ecotourism, focusing on the Marine Big 5™.  Most volunteers who join the programme assist ecotourists aboard our shark cage-diving vessel and even dive fairly often themselves!  They can also assist on the whale-watching and ecotour vessel and become involved in activities at the Dyer Island Conservation Trust’s African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary (DICT/APSS), a world-class rehabilitation facility housed on the IMV property.  Other activities that volunteers participate in with the DICT are assembly of fishing line bins, beach clean ups and monitoring, assisting biologists with data collection and entry etc.  The DICT has produced eighteen scientific publications, is actively involved in marine pollution efforts, marine animal rescues and has an environmental education programme for a dedicated group of learners from the local community. At the IMV Center we also grow organic vegetables and have a very successful recycling and composting system in place.

fairtradelogo

At International Marine Volunteers we manage our operation, staff and volunteers holistically, striving for a gold standard in voluntourism.  Our mission is to inspire our volunteers to make a difference in the world around them by providing them with life-changing opportunities and experiences, and creating awareness that ecotourism, conservation, community, research and education can all dovetail into a sustainable and mutually beneficial relationship.

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Marine Volunteering is not just about the sea!

Our volunteers recently had the opportunity to help the Tortoise Sanctuary in Gansbaai. This is a non-profit rescue centre and our volunteers worked hard to make sure that all tortoises big and small, will be safe in their new enclosure. They built a new fence for them and once everything was ready they relocated the tortoises and it seems as if they are very happy in their new home!

The sanctuary aims to protect all species of tortoises. They offer permanent sanctuary to abandoned tortoises for the remainder of their lives. Tortoises are one of the oldest reptile species, they even survived the mighty dinosaur era! Just like so many other species, these little guys are also being threatened by human activity. They lose their habitat when we build new roads and other infrastructure, destroy ecosystems for mining and so the list goes on and on. Many tortoises die on our roads, and the illegal animal trade plays a huge role. Tortoises can get very old. The reason they have survived for so long is that they are well-adapted and can eat almost any plants, even poisonous ones. This is how they survive, even in water restricted areas. Tortoises do not have teeth, and they swallow whatever piece of plant they can bite off whole. These funny little creatures, who carry their homes on their backs, are so important for the ecosystem… they eat seeds, flowers, roots and leaves of all sorts of plants, depositing seeds elsewhere in a nice ball of dung, thus helping with seed dispersal and doing their bit to make sure that the different plant species do not end up on the endangered list too.

tortoises

According to the law in our country, no tortoises may be kept as pets, you are not allowed to sell them, and they are also not supposed to be imported or exported. The only time this are allowed is if you have a special permit from your nature conservation department. Next time you see one of these special little guys crossing the road…don’t just feel sorry for it and drive past, stop briefly to pick it up (but don’t lift it more than 20 cm off the ground) and put it on the side of the road where it was heading to in the first place, and wave it goodbye!

Marié Botha and Helena Schoonwinkel (IMV & Tortoise Sanctuary)

 

 

 

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