This travel journal dives deep into conservation, life decisions and friendship.
Photo credits by myself and my good friend Jake.
Enjoy the ride! - Detlef
October 30th 2016 is when I found myself entering a plane to Cape Town, South Africa. It was cloudy, dreary weather and already pretty late in Amsterdam when I waved my parents and siblings goodbye. I felt scared and excited at the same time. As I was boarding and sitting down in my seat surrounded by strangers, I was wondering if I had made the right call. That alien feeling. The lack of safety and familiarity was crushing me.
It had been a rough year so far. I was forced to break with the stable life I had and ended up hurt and anxious about my future. Transitioning from one life into another, I was searching for an event that would critically change the direction I was heading. I needed something that would bring me home, where each decision I took felt good and important. One thing I was sure about is that it would involve animals and trying to help them. And so, I took an old boy’s dream to heart and went for it; to do white shark conservation in South Africa. This trip was for me the tipping point I needed to know what I wanted to do in life, and why. I left not only with a large amount of inspiration and sense of direction, but also my current partner and a few very genuine friendships across the world.
Part 1 - Arriving
I spent the first two days acclimatizing in Cape Town. My accommodation was a hostel near the Waterfront district, a pretty well-known and safe area. I intentionally booked a room in a dorm to meet new people and hear their stories. After two days I would get picked up by a staff member from White Shark Projects, one of eight eco-tourism operators in Kleinbaai that take in volunteers to help crew on the boat and collect data on sharks.
Each tour operator is audited on an annual basis by the government to identify if all social, ecological and economic conditions regarding the business are met. If they fail the audit, they lose their certification to operate and are put out of business to make room for a new operator. A pretty good system. Regardless, sharks are seen less and less each year due to a variety of reasons and all operators are at risk to go out of business in the long term.
I talked to a marine biologist from one of the big tour operators, and he told me it’s frustrating to see there’s limited action possible to reverse these declining numbers. Law enforcement on the terrain is not effective enough and poaching is flourishing. Other than that, there are some research stations such as the South-African Shark Conservancy Centre (SASC) that are collecting population data effectively, but not all shark species are equally covered in the surveys.
The overall impression I got during my stay is that shark conservation research around the Western Cape region is scattered but definitely present, illegal poaching is still a significant issue and ecotourism is generating a decent amount of income and conservation awareness but is having an increasingly hard time to cope with shark population declines. It is in this environment that I wanted to see where I could best make a difference.
Great white gently approaching the boat
Sting ray close encounter
November 1st 2016
After a great evening walk at Lion’s Head mountain, I returned to the hostel and bumped into my first roommate Jake, a heart-warming American. After a quick chat, I found out he was also heading to Kleinbaai to work on the same project! This was going to be a blast. In the years after, me and Jake built up a genuine relationship despite living in different parts of the world.
On the third day, at the first light, we were picked up and drove about 120 kilometers East towards Kleinbaai, a small fishermen's village known as the Mekka of shark cage diving. We crossed beautiful mountain slopes, estuaries, lagoons, flower fields, beaches and townships. We took a quick stop in Hermanus to grab some food.
Hermanus is world-known for Walker Bay because of the high whales densities year-round. I’ve visited this town multiple times, and I always managed to see multiple Humpback, Southern Right and Bryde’s whales very close to shore.
After 4 hours, we arrived in Kleinbaai, where we were welcomed by the project staff and shown to our accommodation. We met with Tom, a marine biologist working on the ship educating clients about sharks. Being a biologist, marine wildlife has always spoken to my imagination. It is such a curious and undiscovered world. It strikes me that these two ecosystems, the land and the ocean, exist on the same planet whilst to each of them, the other system remains a mystery. Getting a chance to peek into this unknown, vast ecosystem felt like a privilege.
Kleinbaai - Geelbekstraat
The atmosphere in the village was purifying. A salty sea breeze was blowing through the streets, gulls and oystercatchers were flying over, the smell of a south African ‘braai’ was filling the air and nature was all around us.
Our beds for the next weeks
At the central volunteer house, we met up with our volunteer coordinator Alexandra who later became my girlfriend. It’s funny to think we lived only 400 kms apart in Europe, but we had to travel to the other side of the world to meet each other!
Alex showed us around and left us to unpack and settle in. Later that evening we would all go for diner in a town nearby. It’s on this first evening diner that I really noticed our group was blending really well. We had people on the table of all ages, which enhanced the experience. After diner we sat in our house with a beer, chatted some more and went to bed. Tomorrow would be our first day on the boat.
November 2nd 2016
A typical day at sea working for a shark diving tour operator starts very early, even before the first daylight. We usually woke up at 4.30 am to prepare all the wet suits for the clients and get the ‘chum’ out of the freezer. These and some additional gear were loaded in the truck and brought down to the harbor to equip the boat. Boxes containing lunch and snacks for the clients were also dropped off.
The company’s driver is bringing in the clients for other locations like Cape Town (imagine how early they must get up!) since they are mostly only here for one shark tour and don’t stay in Kleinbaai. They are welcomed in the central office on main street with breakfast and a general training from one of the staff members before walking down to the harbor. Everybody is welcomed on the boat and some operators like ours have their own marine biologist to educate clients on white shark behaviour, conservation and misconceptions. This really adds value compared to agencies that are merely focused on the experience of cage diving. I learnt for example that shark attacks happen around 50-80 times a year, whilst the annual kills of sharks by humans are well above 100 MILLION!
Since we are dealing with wild animals it is important all staff ensure clients are safe at any time, and are monitored closely when they suffer from sea sickness. With regards to the tour operator I was working for (White Shark Projects) this was taken seriously.
Trips would last anywhere between 2.5 to 3.5 h depending on weather conditions and sighting frequencies. During the trip, apart from being blown away by massive shark encounters (I assure you - my first white shark being 4.5m in length - I was stunned), all crew had specific tasks assigned so there’s never really a dead moment. Some examples were handling the cage and the clients, chumming to lure sharks and collecting population data. After the trip, we would unload everything and clean the wetsuits in the backyard of the central crew house. This is repeated up to three times a day, weather permitting. It’s heavy but very rewarding work. In the afternoon, we get to do what we want. Usually we'd enjoy our time together outside, on the front porch reading or by going out to a nearby bar or club. A great routine in an amazing coastal environment.
Chumming - a strictly regulated action to lure sharks
Crew members on the boat in the morning light
November 3rd - 23rd 2016
In the weeks that followed only half of the days were actually spent at sea. The season I was there was known to having pretty rough sea days and high wind speeds often didn’t allow us to head out of the harbour. It was on those days we would get lectures on marine biology, insert data on our computers and go out to do activities together like visiting a vineyard. On some nights we did a traditional 'braai' (a sort of barbecue) with a view on the ocean. Me and Jake would sometimes go for a swim in the harbour to refresh. The days were a nice variation of work and leisure.
Cape fur seals resting on a big rock in False Bay
In retrospect, although I had one of the most important experiences of my life, I wasn’t fully satisfied from a conservation perspective. The data we collected seemed important, but I never really felt they could be used in an appropriate way. Having different volunteers fill in the data sheets creates high uncertainty in the collected data, but after some research I found out the data were used by some Msc and PhD students so that's good. What it primarily provided me with is an excellent insight in the advantages of ecotourism, and a basis for my next trip to South Africa (in 2018) which would be more focused on scientific projects.
Another important aspect of the trip was that we learned a lot about shark conservation. We discussed subjects like physiology, behaviour and population ecology. If you want to know more about this, I highly recommend watching Shark Water Extinction, a Rob Stewart documentary exposing the global sharks finning industry, and Troubled Waters by Matthew Judge & Robert Drane, addressing global overfishing.
Leaving Africa after 1 month left me thinking. I had just lived the life I always wanted. It felt amazing to be close to nature, so returning to the concrete jungle of Belgium meant that it had be more meaningful to keep my mind at peace. This would later evolve into the non-profit project you are seeing today, but I also promised myself I would return to South Africa to continue my journey.
Me and my partner Alex the day I left South Africa
If you want to read more about my travels in South Africa, be sure to check out my other blog 'The Shark - Bushveld Cocktail'.