22. Oct, 2015

Animals First

The Big Land and Marine 5 Hunters

Link to photos of all our encounters with wildlife https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10208239900903326&type=1&l=e489145e6a

In Africa, the big five game animals are the African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and White/Black rhinoceros.The term big five game (sometimes capitalized or quoted as "Big Five") was coined by big-game hunters and refers to the five most difficult animals in Africa to hunt on foot. Subsequently the term was adopted by safari tour operators for marketing purposes.The term is used in most tourist and wildlife guides that discuss African wildlife safaris. The members of the Big Five were chosen for the difficulty in hunting them and the degree of danger involved, rather than their size.

The big five are among the most dangerous, yet most popular species for big game hunters to hunt.

Most people travel to South Africa and further on the continent to see the Big 5. The land based Big 5, that is. But becoming more and more popular are the Marine 5. They include whales, sharks, seals, penguins and dolphins, ocean creatures particularly popular at the southern tip of Africa.

We travelled to the other side of the bay to find Hermanus Bay where we would encounter many of the marine 5 - penguins, Dolphins, sharks, whales and seals. John decided that he would do the watching from the safe haven of the land leaving me to go out to sea on my tod! 

I grabbed my life jacket and zipped it up and excitedly boarded to take a seat at the top of the boat. 

5 tips to avoid being sea sick and these waves were likely to induce sickness owing to the long anchoring process and the choppy waves.

  1. Don't eat food with acid -  i.e. tomatoes
  2. Don't drink too alcohol on the day or the night before
  3. Look out onto the horizon and stay up top whilst the boat s moving or anchored 
  4. Stay as still as possible - prevent movement by sitting down
  5. Sip ice cold water or even better ginger ale 

The day was glorious. Sunscreen was needed as the heat beat down on my face and leg.  My fellow passengers were a mixture of nations including Chinese,  Dutch, German, South African and some were to prove as much entertainment as the marine 5 

We set off to firstly see black African children playing off the quayside. They loved the water on their backs, head and in their faces as they jumped from the low walls into the cold water. I didn't worry when I saw them playing as I knew the waters were safe, unlike when I saw the children in Tortugeuro in Costa Rica playing in the shallow water: I knew crocodiles and caimans presided there and it wasn't unusual for a native child to be eaten or half eaten by them!

Off we sped. The boat rocked from side throwing the panic stricken Chinese from one side to the other as they were determined to stand. Meanwhile a sun-glassed Chinese girl became hysterical and developed a strange attention seeking behaviour for the duration of the visit, much to horror of her fellows. 

We slowed down and within 15 minutes the passengers started to glance at their watches. Patience please peeps. Wildlife has its own agenda and we are their guests, they are not there to serve us. 

It was sometimes the behaviour of fellow tourists that would frustrate John and I. The way they sometimes spoke to the waiter or bell boy or the check in staff was appalling and embarrassing or the obsessive use of selfie sticks so that no-one else could get a peek, or the focus on getting that photo as opposed to enjoying the actual experience. Travelling isn't about getting that photo. It should be a shared and respectful experience that you enjoy and fully immerse yourself in. 

Photos mean nothing if they have no story behind them. We often saw people go to a place, take a photo and move on within seconds with no regard for the space or place or fellow tourist. It is a bit like when in a gallery reading the writing but not looking and really observing the depths of the painting or sculpture. I know sometimes when I have travelled somewhere and I haven't enjoyed it was much as I thought I would, but  it was my mindset and my thoughts that let the experience down. We can all find beauty in being with a friend, opening up a kind and unexpected email or seeing a rainbow, you don't have to travel 6k miles to get a photo to have really special experiences. So, in my opinion, if you do travel miles for that one special view or experience make sure you are prepared to enjoy it and you respect the place, the space and your fellows. 

'Hey!' a passenger shouted as he spotted a huge whale. Bobbing in the distance about 200m away was a clearly visible Southern Rights Whale. What a sight! It glided up and down blowing fresh seawater from its blowhole. It's beauty and size struck you first while you held your hand over and mouth to prevent you screaming,; maybe the hysterical Chinese girl, who could be heard all the way to Rio, should try this muffling technique! It's barnacled nose rose up as it showed its size to us again and again. Getting closer and closer the boat began to rock from side to side. Visions of Moby Dick flashed through my head as it disappeared for several minutes. Where was it? Under the boat? They cover huge distances in minutes owing to their size. The rest of the 90 minutes of whale spotting at sea didn't disappoint. Whales, both Southern Wrights and humpbacks, with huge horn like bumps mid way on their backs, breached, greeted us and glided around the boat. Glorious. The only time we got wet was when the boat went top speed among the Penguins, Dolphins and seal lions who were minute in comparison to their whale neighbours, back to the harbour. 

Back on shore we headed to meet those who were land whale watching and had lunch. The bay was a popular hang out Cape Townians at the weekend. The views are amazing and have been clearly drawing in the crowds for many years. An established hub exchanging fun, laughter and frustrations. 

A white woman stands back as she watches her son aged about 7, bounce up and down on a high catapulting trampoline in Hout Bay. He winces each time he is catapulted 60 ft into the air and at one point tears stream down his face. His mother stands there defiant, her arms are crossed gesturing to him to move his head backwards and face the sky as he is catapulted again and again. I look around thinking is anyone else's watching this? It was painful to see, it was like watching a defenceless lamb being taken to the slaughter but in this case the mother was getting some sort of gratification from watching her son go through some sort of gruelling initiation into boyhood. Bloody cruel, I thought. As a foreigner I felt really torn between doing nothing and going up to her and telling her that there are many many ways to teach him courage and this is not one of them.  However, I know I would have done similar things to my children, but when you know better you do better. No? Experience which leads to wisdom is a wonderful thing, hence the need for grandparents and great uncles and aunts. 

Shark cage diving. Really? Me? Never? I looked up incidents involving shark cave diving and was horrified to see that a shark had managed to enter the cage, but left the people unharmed. Again I considered if my safety was going to be compromised. I had come this far and knew there would be some challenges but death or a chewed ear by a shark wasn't one I was prepared for! 

When I read the blurb about the trip by Marine Dynamics I was tempted, the fact that you could watch the Sharks from above the sea enticed me in and that their practices were green, conservative and harmless to the Sharks made me comfortable. It was keŷ that we were to pay attention to the top 5 dos for avoiding sea sickness if we were to enjoy the experience. Having heard that sharks preferred warmer water which in SA is often choppier than the seas around Hermanus we would be prepared for a bumpy ride. John on the other hand had no intention of following those rules and so stocked up on latte, eggs, tomato, ham and was determined to look at the Sharks rather than the horizon. So it was no surprise that within an hour the stock up was chucked out, all over the deck and he has since developed an aversion to eggs! 

This time we didn't have to wait very long for the Sharks, who were drawn in by the bait and chump, to join us. I changed into my wetsuit and was keen to get in the cage as long as I wasn't in the first cohort. It wasn't long before  I was called and I hotfooted it down the ladder and was first into the cage. Being short I couldn't reach the floor so I used the bars to pull myself to the end. See photo of being at the end. It was clear that being at the end had its advantages. You would not only get a frontal view but also a sideways one too. The water was warmer than I had anticipated at 17 degrees; Bath University's 50m pool is 18 degrees and most sports centres are 26. We were given instructions on what to do and I practised before the Sharks visited us. The skippers or 'shark lookers' would shout 'down, down, down left or right or forwards', to let you know to go under the water to view the Sharks swimming past you or, on some occasions, terrifyingly towards you. OMG! Towards me. It was a thrill a minute. I went under the water on the second call and came face to face with a shark. Stunned I came up for air immediately, disbelieving that I had come face to face with one of the seas most incredible creatures and only a thin bit of wire separated us. Like with most new things, once I relaxed and practised going underwater I grew in confidence and loved watching these huge, majestic and finely engineered creatures zipping or gliding towards me in their natural habitat. 

You always knew there was a shark close by as the shoal of 100+ fish scattered in less than a second. It was magical to see this. There were several things I hadn't been prepared for while in the cage and one was the push and pull of the current.  Once under I had to hold on tight to the internal bars making sure that my fingers stayed inside the cage as the current pushed and pulled me. I would nearly land on top of my fellow passengers, not the best thing to do in close proximity but it was so difficult to stay still. It really was a fantastic experience that again I loved. 

We saw 11 sharks in all, one giant stingray and again several whales; a spectacular sight. I saw a breaching whale and a shark which dove fully out of the water. I didn't take any photos other than with my waterproof camera, but shared the ones from my fellow passengers. 

Report from Marine Dynamics during our visit:

Another early morning launch that was well worth the lack of sleep. The sharks were out in high numbers today! Both trips of the day didn't have long to wait until numerous sharks arrived. Our first trip had a great start with a shark arriving within 10 minutes of anchoring. This shark was a 3.2 meter female with a fiesty side. She made numerous attempts at the bait and decoy lines. She was followed up by 4 sharks that we know well. One is a 2.9 meter female that we call "Claudia." She's very noticable as her dorsal fin has 3 notches taken out of it, and she also has several scars on her snout and above her head. Another shark that we know is "Caroline," a playful 3 meter female with a distinct scar on her side that resembles a handlebar mustache. The third shark that was know is "Scarlette," a beautiful 3.8 meter female who is covered head to fin in scars. Lastly was a shark we call "Pieter," after one of our skippers. He's a young male measuring at 2.5 meters but is very rambunctious and loves to tease our bait handler. Fortunately for our second trip, 3 of these 4 sharks we know decided to stay in the area. Upon arriving at the dive site, there was a mere 5 minute wait for our first shark to appear. It made a couple of passes and then took off, but less than 10 minutes later another shark appeared who was quickly followed by one more. Both were beautiful young sharks that measured 2.5 meters and 2.6 meters. These 2 were followed up by sweet "Caroline," one of the sharks from out first trip, who has also been with us a lot this week. We also saw "Mini-Nemo" for a brief period. He's named "Mini-Nemo" due to his small right pectoral fin that had been injured. Forunately for "Mini-Nemo" he doesn't let his gimpy fin hold him back. He put on a great show, doing a full breach right in front of the cage, then he took off. This is likely due to being startled by the 3.8 meter female who showed up 10 minutes after "Mini-Nemo" had arrived. She was quite a sight to see.. In the distance, several of our clients were able to see a Southern Right Whale and her calf splashing about in the surf. They slowly made their way towards the boat, passing us within 10 meters as divers were in the water. Several divers in mentioned hearing the whale sing before they actually saw it! Whales are not guaranteed to see on our shark trips, so to see these 2 playing so freely was an amazing sight for us and all of our clients.. "Pieter" and "Scarlette both made return appearances before we left the dive site, being their usual selves. "Pieter" continued to tease Alfred, our bait handler, while "Scarlette" did numerous slow passes in front of the cage, before dissapearing, only to return and suprise attack the decoy. It was another great day at sea for everyone on board Slashfin!

Back, pack to travel to our new 7 night hotel, well 1 night, then Safari in the east direction of SA and then we would return. With over 29 check ins under our belt we knew a good one when we saw one. This was ok! But anyone who has to visit or ring reception 3 times in 20 minutes is either very disorganised or the check in was inadequate. We were due to rise early the next morning ready for our safari which was in the Western Cape about 270 miles away. 

800m above sea level was Oudtshoorn aka Little Peru and we could see why. Huge mountain ranges covered in green vegetation enveloping each other. We were to drive through Route 62 and cover approximately 600 miles that weekend and would encounter many of the Big 5 on several occasions and many other wild creatures in a habitat that suited them. Breathtaking vistas mixed with beautiful beasts  and great company, again unforgettable. I don't know what I thought was the best experience but what I do know was that I felt very privileged and content! 

The safari truck was a bumpy ride as we rose up steep steep hills which had you believe you were about to roll over at 200m above the starting point. We drove slowly around the park in search of the Big 5. We learned so much about conservation projects, animal habitats, behaviours and Eco systems. Fascinating. 

That water bucks run into water to keep themselves safe from their predators and they taste disgusting because they have much oil which is released from their liver to help keep them healthy. 

Ok so we didn't get to see all of the big five, lions, elephants, buffalo and rhinos were spotted and we walked with lions in Africa. We actually walked with lions metres away from us in Africa. It was an amazing sight and feeling. We know that humans are always trying to push the boundaries, go faster, be stronger, be safer, be more content. So walking with lions was just another part of our desires to do something out of the ordinary; you never know what tomorrow brings. To rival the experiences with the Sharks or the public bus rides from Quito to Banos, the river taxi incident, the boat trip on top of the waterfalls was going to be a challenge. 

We chose a reputable company that had sound principles and were more about conservation than profit making etc. These  were the safety rules, stay in a line close to ranger, no bags- only the Rangers were allowed bags as this was where the food came from, stay in the group, don't call the lions, don't crouch down. If there are any problems we had to trust that the guides would sort them out, but they only had sticks! No stun guns, nothing other than their confidence and a stick. It wasn't too late to back out. All of this advice coming from a man who had huge scars around his face and neck, we would never find out how he got those scars, but as a man who had worked with lions for 15 years I could only imagine. As we walked into the enclosure we confidently walked down to a grassy patch of land to be faced with 2 huge lionesses one called Keisha and the other called Blanco. Words failed me as John and I held our walking sticks and we walked with lions in Africa. All of the lions in the safari were rescue lions and were unable to fend for themselves in the wild. They appeared well looked after, not dopey at all, but responded as you would expect lions to. We were told that the only animal the ranger would consider putting near humans were lions because they are sociable animals who live in family groups and you can train them to see humans as part of their pride and they are relatively safe. Unless they spot fear, then they will oust you out sharply, hence the rules. The other big cats are solitary souls  and only come together during the the mating season. 

Naturally there was a fight amongst us as we endeavoured to not be at the back of the pack of 6 brave adventures. No one is allowed in the enclosure if they are shorter than 1.5m so being the shortest I was keen to not be at the back. We joked, but soon relaxed when we saw the lions parade around and feel the special bond between the lion keepers and the lions. The lionesses gnarled their teeth occasionally, but it was just ascertaining the hierarchy between man and beast and I was firmly at the bottom as lionesses told me by again gnarling their teeth at me as I approached them. 

An unforgettable experience. 

Turtle egg laying watching, shark cage diving, whale watching and now walking with lions,  they were all unforgettable experiences and the legislation around keeping these endangered animals safe was to be recognised as a good thing. Humans are, without a doubt, killing this planet and yet there are so many, including the conservationist we had met with, who are  trying to turn the tide. I don't think it will ever be enough as we are destructive, intelligent and powerful beasts. Did you know that 200 lions are hunted and killed each year in legal culling kills? Shoots set up for hunters who want that high. Cue Minnesota dentist story. Many, particularly Rangers, see these shoots as a necessary thing in South Africa, but many outside or those in wildlife parks see it as cruel. One ranger reported that the dentist is among thousands that come to SA to hunt and kill animals, it was just that he was misinformed and therefore shot the wrong lion, hence the publicity. We have strong feelings about killing anything, but then we don't live in SA. 

As I look back on my photos of the riding on and feeding elephants and walking with the lions I feel very privileged to have done this. Not just because it was a brave thing to do but because I truly believed I was working with teams who were not just about getting that shot of you with these majestic beauties but because they truly love their job and they are conserving the animals and their next generations in a humble way. The animals looked peaceful and well looked after and no tools were used to move them just food bags and walking sticks. It is a very different story in some Asian countries. Africa is big on conservation as was Costa Rica. I know many have strong feelings about using animals and humans together but our world has changed so much because of human behaviours. Are there any animals roaming about and migrating in the wild as they used to? Not in Africa. They are all studied, documented and penned in, even if that pen is 1000 sq miles, hence the need for the conservation work of national parks and safari parks to continue.