Sunday, May 24, 2009


The end of lectures means we have an unnecessarily large amount of free time. It's been great, especially because I am very much done with UCT.

On Thursday Aaron and I traversed into town (me in search of a whale skeleton, he I'm not so sure). After checking out an art museum in Company's Gardens (which, I might add, had no sign of any water-dwelling mammal), we went to the Natural History Museum. Here we stumbled into whale heaven, the WHALE WELL. There were Humpbacks, Orcas, Sperm Whales, and Right Whales hanging from the ceiling with whale songs blaring from the speakers. In the middle of the room were the jaw bones and spine of a blue whale. This wasn't even half whale and it took up the entire room. Sadly, this would be the closest I would get to seeing a whale in South Africa.

That night we had our final Interstudy gathering at Asoka with free food and an open bar. It was great to see everyone getting along, even though some inevitable divisions had grown throughout the semester. When I think about my choice to use Interstudy to come to Cape Town, it's hard to get past the incompetence. But the reality is this program gave me a chance to get close to a small group of people. It also gave us all the opportunity to explore Cape Town free of worry for two weeks. I wouldn't trade those days for anything. Sean, Phil, Will, and I also discovered an incredible spot on the roof of The Waiting Room. I wish we would have known about it sooner.

Friday Will, Jack, Moran, and I rented a car with the intention of going full circle. We had made a pointless trip to Hermanus earlier in the year and now we were to return, though this time we actually had a plan (shark diving). The drive along the coastal Whale Route was more stunning than last time because we caught part of the sunset. After arriving at Hermanus Backpackers, grabbing dinner nearby, and hanging out with the guys that worked there for a bit, we went to bed early (630 am wake up).

At 7 am we were on our way to Gansbaii, the sleepy coastal town that hosts the majority of Cape Town's shark diving companies. The one we were using was Great White Shark Ecoventures because we got a free night in the hostel along with the trip. The weather was better than I had expected; it was a little cloudy and chilly, but there was no fog as I had feared.

After eating a small breakfast and listening to a quick introduction from our guide, we drove down to the harbor and hopped onto the boat, which was reasonably small considering where we were going and what we were going to see. Twenty minutes off the coast of Gansbaii are Dyer Island and Seal Island, an area with around 40,000 seals on average and the highest concentration of great white sharks in the world. We anchored near the island and the crew began to throw fish blood and oil, along with a tuna head attached to a rope into the choppy green sea. While we were waiting, we learned a lot about the sharks. The ones that usually come up to the boats are juveniles, sharks that smell the fish blood and are curious enough to explore. They have incredible eyesight and senses of smell, and track the scene from kilometers away. They also hunt from deep below the surface in order to surprise their prey, so it is very uncommon to see the cliche shark fin darting across the water.

After two hours of sitting on top of the boat in a cold wetsuit staring at the fish head waiting for something to appear, I began to reevaluate my fear of great whites. We were sitting in the most highly concentrated shark area in the world, luring them with fish guts, and nothing happened. It shows you how rare shark attacks really are.

Just when we were beginning to accept that this was another pointless Hermanus trip (IT WAS SHARK SEASON AFTERALL COME ON)we heard our guide yelling and an enormous set of jaws emerged from the deep and snapped at the bait. Then it disappeared in the murky green. Everyone was so excited until we all realized that this shark wasn't coming back. One shark for 10 seconds? It was almost worse than seeing nothing at all. It was a shark tease.

After sitting for another hour in the cold, our guide told us they were going to make one last desperate move. They rode to where another boat was situated and reanchored, hoping to lure some of the sharks that the other groups had spotted earlier. Finally, an enormous shark appeared and chomped at the bait. This one was absolutely gargantuan (I later learned that they can grow to twice as big) with rows and rows of white daggers for teeth and black, black eyes.

Matt and I were the first ones to get into the cage just below the surface. It was really disorienting because the water was frigid and the visibility wasn't great. We would be sitting above the surface shivering and then the guide would scream LEFT. DOWN! and then we would hold our breaths and try to find the shark through the opening in the cage. Apparently the sharks have no idea that anything living is even in the cage, but it didn't matter. Being in this flimsy metal cage with this enormous beast was frightening no matter what.

I got a pretty good view of the shark as it swam by right in front of us, but most of my good shots were from the top of the boat as it circled us and snapped at the bait. The shark got a lot closer for Jack and Will and Matt when they were in the cage, and their reactions were hilarious to watch from above. After the shark (it turned out we saw 5 in all, so it could have been a different one) snagged the bait, it disappeared and that was it. We packed up and headed back to shore. I am so happy that our trip was worth it, because there is no way we would have been able to come back. I think I certainly learned to understand these creatures a lot more, but seeing them snapping and thrashing about did nothing to calm my fears. They really are killing machines. I don't care how you look at it.

After getting dressed we drove back to Hermanus and walked around a bit. The town was a lot more bustling than the last time we were here (whale season starts in a month or so). I bought some great whale souvenirs and we hung out on the rocks a bit, looking out at Walker Bay. I am a little upset that I will go these entire 5 months without having seen a whale, but visiting Hermanus was still worth it. You can see how much the community takes pride in the fact that the Southern Right migrates to its shores every year to calve. It is literally a town that is built around an appreciation and wonder for the whale, and even experiencing that for a little bit was worth it to me.

From a book I bought on the whales of Walker Bay: "Scientists tell us of our connected paths, and I feel this echo deep within my being."

The drive back along the whale route was the most stunning I have ever scene in my life. I cannot express in words how incredible this sunset was. So I will express it with pictures. It was just that mystifying.

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