Saturday, June 1, 2013

Shark Diving and other South Africa thoughts

So...shark diving. Yesterday.
Internet has been entirely sketchy, intermittent, and unreliable. This is the first chance I've had to write a blog post of any length.

Biology is not my strength, but Africa wildlife could inspire anyone to become a naturalist, biologist, or other related ologist.  Watching animal life is one of the sheer delights of traveling here.

I didn't realize, though I should have understood the idea, that this was not diving with caged sharks in a staged environment. This was a good-sized boat that carried us perhaps two miles out into the ocean (Atlantic since, as you saw in the pictures if you looked on Flickr, we are now east of the confluence of the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic).

Shark Lady company hauled along a six foot by three foot by maybe twelve to fifteen foot  steel cage. We donned wet suits, and were allowed to enter this cage five at a time, with instructions where and how to hang on, so as not to allow fingers and toes outside the cage. We had just enough room for our heads above the water line, wore weighted belts, and held our breath (wearing goggles), pulled ourselves under water, hooked our toes under a rope to keep from floating to the surface, and watched from under water.

We could float or bob up and down until the dive master yelled something like "shark down left!" Or "shark high right" land. At that. we dropped down into the tank, hooked our toes, and breathed slowly out or held our collective breath to watch a shark swim within touching distance (and that was oh, so tempting, but strictly forbidden upon threat of being removed from the cage instantly). It took me a few tries to calm my breathing. At first, I hated having my nose shut off and nearly hyperventilated, but I calmed myself down, got the hang of it, and could have stayed there all day were it not for a slowly lowering body temperature.

The dive master guys had tuna heads at the end of a forty-foot rope, which they used to lure in the sharks. That, of course, also attracted masses of sea gulls. We saw a very rare Oyster Cracker-- all black bird with a brilliant, nearly neon orange-red beak on the shore when we pulled closer.

The shark cage was only a small percentage of the joy. We sat on the deck or roof of the vessel while others took their turns. The waves smashing against a rocky island nearby rose and fell dozens of feet.
The swells that carried us gave us a view of a small mountain (I exaggerate but only slightly). Exactly eight of the sixteen of us got seasick. I seem to have a stomach for the sea, and have always, always loved any excursion on the ocean. I loved every second, and soaked it in. I did spend the last hour in our anchored spot basically cuddling three very seasick girls (who will remain nameless unless they want to fess up here in the comments:) and thoroughly enjoying the sights and sounds.

The island where all the waves were crashing was is called Geyser Island if I am hearing the accent correctly, and it is fitting, based on the way the waves smash into the rocks and explode dozens of feet in the air.  Most amazing, however, was that the island is inhabited by some 20,000 sea lions! We could hear them clearly from time to time. I asked if any of the crew had binoculars, which they supplied. I thought the island was capped with all black rocks, but every rock turned out to grayish in color, topped with a sea lion!  They cavorted in the water, and traipsed around the rocks. Spectacular.

A kid who had just graduated from University of Connecticut was on board-- the resident researcher and marine biology expert named Chris Perkins (Sorry to call you a kid, Chris)--who had just told me about the Oyster Cracker and how lucky he had been able to see some on his excursions, and then we spotted one! Very exciting and satisfying. Stranger still, when he said he graduated from UConn, I said I had a friend who taught physics there; he asked who; he started laughing because he was a physics tutor for many of Moshe Gai's students during his time at UConn. Moshe's wife Helen Hart-Gai was a dear friend of mine for years but we lost touch. Now I must reconnect somehow.
What a small world.

The research Chris is doing, by the way, concerns dorsal fin recognition of the sharks. He said that the fins are as unique as our faces, and photographs put into an immense international database can track sharks' migratory travels without ever touching a shark. The software recognizes a fin that has already been entered into the database, and if you do this, you can get all sorts of information about where the animal has been in the world! And if we as simply interested citizens of the world ever snap a Photo of a shark, we can put on this organization 's website and be privy to all the sightings of said shark. I found that fascinating...and I vow to be on the lookout anytime I am on any ocean!

On our way home, we were privy to the most spectacular sunset I think I have ever seen in my life. The photo on flickr is sunset over Hawston Township. For those of you who aren't familiar with the lingo, a Township in South Africa is a shantytown where blacks were herded and forced to live during apartheid. The legacy goes on, with poverty and huge townships connected to most cities.

The juxtaposition of the sunset beauty over the abject poverty is heartbreaking. I hope this link works. I'll get it on flicker as soon as the iPad is recharged.

Much of this country is heartbreaking...heartbreaking beauty, heartbreaking stories and tragedies, heartbreaking resilience, strength, love, and hope.

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