In July 2004 I left a sun baked Terminal 4 at Heathrow to embark on a 6 week placement at the White Shark Trust in Gansbaai, South Africa. After meeting Michael and Tracey at Cape Town International airport, we set off for the ~200km drive for Gansbaai, which despite the cloud and rain, was still a breathtaking coastal route. Despite what you may have heard about the Swiss, what immediately struck me was Mike’s good humour and passion for sharks, which was to last throughout my time in Gaansbaai. Tracey, Mike’s wife, was also extremely good humoured and spirited, and their combined compassion and easy going attitude was integral to shaping my time at the Trust.
Although it was a bit of a shock to system swapping hemispheres to plunge into a South African winter, winter in the Cape is typically mild by British standards, and barring the odd storm, it is typically like early spring back home. Gansbaai itself, is somewhat like a ‘lego’ town with two main streets, and blocks of houses/shops in a grid system, and though it may not be in the running for any architectural awards, what it misses in man made beauty is more than adequately made up for in natural beauty with a beautiful sweeping bays fringed by Fynbos (basically bush, but with a south African twist) and low lying mountains.
The people are generally Afrikaans, and like any small town, Gansbaai didn’t seem short of its local characters, personalities and local politics (particularly concerning the cage diving industry). An advantage of such a small place is that after a few nights out and after a bit of time around town, you soon get to know a few locals, and of those I met, almost all were genuinely friendly and hospitable, only too willing to buy a round of beers and discuss the state of the Springbok rugby team. As for clubs, this is certainly not Ibiza, however I have yet to go to a venue quite like ‘Die Stall’. Think of the barn they filmed ‘Cotton Eye Joe’ add some visuals, v cheap alcohol and a lot of pissed Afrikaans fishermen and friends and your almost there. Mind you don’t let Tracey convince you to try the dance moves.
To summarise a typical day we would usually be woken by Mike at 7ish and quickly gobble down some breakfast, make some sandwiches for the boat and get our kit together for the boat. We would then help Mike load up the boat with assorted tuna segments and head out to the launch site about 10 minutes drive away. One thing you certainly learn very quickly is to get used to the smell of tuna. After launching and anchoring near Dyer Island, it is a case of helping to put the engine covers on the boat, putting in the boat and waiting. Everyone on the boat is assigned specific tasks (such as tower, drawing markings on the shark, bait line) when the sharks begin each gets on with his/her role however there is flexibility in what you do and we swapped tasks daily. The bait line is the most challenging role as it involves moving the bait at the last second from the advancing shark whilst allowing Mike to get some good shots of its dorsal for photo ID.
The sharks themselves need little introduction…just look at the website, and although going to South Africa in the winter means you do forfeit a sun tan, on the plus side the sharks are a lot better and I’d say we typically saw about 6-12 sharks a day but this did vary. With regards to time around the boat, the sharks generally had distinct patterns of behaviour with some examining the bait for quite some time whilst others were quickly spooked or lost interest. Obviously there is no way to predict when a shark will arrive thus good humour and conversation are essential whilst waiting and in this respect how you get on with the other assistants that are with you on the boat is crucial. We would typically spend around 7 hours on the water, and would be expected to help rinse down the boat when we got back. After this we were free to do as we pleased. We also went out on Barracuda, a shark cage operators boat, and although this meant there were often lots of clients on the boat and you were not quite as close to the sharks, it was a nice change from the ‘little’ boat and if clients didn’t want to go in the cage we sometimes got to go in which was unforgettable. The crew were also fantastic and throughout my time there we frequently visited the skippers house ('Frank se Gat')for pool and fun into the early hours.
All in all I had a really enjoyable and interesting time at the Trust and it was certainly and was something I have always wanted to do. One thing that should be mentioned is that due to the time of year storms can often prevent you from going on the water for a few days at a time, and though there are some really nice local walks, Gansbaai doesn’t have hundreds of things to do…thus make sure you do bring plenty of reading material or stuff to get on with when the weather turns as it can get frustrating watching and waiting for the waves to calm. It is also important to remember you do not spend time in a lab or doing data entry so if you are expecting to do some really hard science, though there is lots of shark behaviour to witness, this is probably not for you ('MCS: Well that is why it is called field research assistantship I guess').
I would definitely recommend the programme and Mike and Tracey as excellent hosts. The sharks need to be seen first hand as nothing can compare to seeing them in their natural environment and it was certainly a memorable summer.
Letter received January 2005