Da dum. Da dum. Da dum da dum da dum.
The author asks herself, "is it possible to start a blog on Great White watching without doing the theme song?" I'm sure it's possible but I just can't help myself.
Where did we leave off? Yes, foggy Cape Town where we said good-bye to James, the original handler of the oryx horn. Funny, the minute we left James was the same minute the fog started to clear. Seriously. We made our way out of Cape Town via the Cape Point route and it was clear skies as far as the eye can see. If this was a chapter out of the Time Life Books Mysteries of the Unknown we'd have to dismiss this as coincidence. But it's not so I can fully blame James for the bad weather luck in CT. Sorry James, I told you not to move that horn.
The Cape Point route brought us, surprisingly, to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope (for all you fans of the explorers). It was hauntingly like being at the Cliffs of Moher only less rainy (for those wedding goers) and less dangerous. They actually took measures to make sure you didn't plunge to your death. Oddly enough, this entire trip on the southern coast has been extremely reminiscent of our trip in Ireland (minus the getting married and having all our friends/family there.) Rolling green hills, steep rocky cliffs plunging into the ocean, warm and welcoming people and the topper - Enrique Inglesias. It seems Col and I can't drive through these countries without hearing Enrique numerous times on the one radio station they have to offer. Odd. I wonder if there is some sort of interesting correlation. (Note to Alison who is going to Scotland, please continue to investigate this phenomenon).
After rounding the point we made our way to Boulder Beach, home of the ridiculously cute African Penguins. Every time we go to see these coastal colonies its very easy to pretend you are at Sea World. It just looks man-made. For instance, you know those fake boulders that you see in penguin exhibits? Well, when you see the real deal you just think, "hey, cool fake boulders." Hard to mentally go the other way. We stayed for a half hour to observe these little guys doing whatever it is that penguins do (which isn't a whole lot) and continued on to Hermanus.
Hermanus is a town on the coast that is famous for its whale watching in the SA winter. Its also a popular stop for folks like Colin and I who wanted to take the plunge into the ocean to see great white sharks up close and personal. We were advised to go with a company run by a guy named Brian McFarland because he is a) a shark enthusiast and b) a conservationist. Some of these shark viewing companies aren't the most ecologically ethical and we wanted to make sure we were in no way harming the environment or the sharks. You know Col and I - poster children for not doing anything ecologically endangering. Kinda. Maybe? Anyway, we didn't want to go with some shadey company and end up as shark bait. Always better to go with the professionals in these large predator situations.
We had heard a few raves about the whole shark cage thing and admittedly I was pretty stoked to get in that cage. Given our luck of late I was hoping that we might encounter one or two sharks and have the chance to see them up close and underwater. Col wasn't as hopeful but he was willing to go in a small cage to view sharks 6 meters long with me and for this I will always be grateful.
The day was absolutely beautiful. We set out on Brian's boat, the Apex Predator I, with a marine biologist and several marine biology students who were studying shark behavior in the area. The "area", for you Discovery channel buffs, was Dryer Island - home to a large cape fur seal colony and therefore a large number of great white sharks. In fact, we passed Brian's other boat, the Apex Predator II, which had a handful of crew from the Discovery channel who were in the middle of filming the next installment of Shark Week. A very good sign!
On our way out to the island area we were fortunate to see a "super pod" of dolphins swimming, jumping and frolicking next to the boat. A super pod consists of over 100 dolphins so you can just imagine how amazing this was to see. A real bonus on the ole shark trip.
As the dolphins passed we noticed a small cage floating in the ocean. We saddled up to the cage and the crew attached it to our boat. It was time. Now sharks won't just come up to a catamaran unless there is a good reason. Large tune heads on a long rope is good enough reason. This is what the crew uses to "bait" the shark. According to the marine biologist, a shark will only visit the area we were in for 3-4 weeks. This is not enough time to associate humans or boats with food. Likewise they don't actually let the sharks take the bait. The guy throws it out and gently tugs it closer and closer to the cage (one time it actually landed on Colin's head). The shark senses the tuna head and makes a grab for it while the crew member pulls it back on the boat. It's quite a site to see the shark head come out of the water and grab for the tuna as its being pulled back onto the boat.
Once the first tuna head went in it was a matter of moments before the first shark arrived. The visability from the boat was amazing. We could see 7 meters below the surface. Sharks swim at about 3 meters below surface so we had an incredible view just from the side of the boat. But what fun is it to watch from the side of the boat if you can get in a small cage and see them up close? Exactly. Col and I donned our full body wet suits (a hot look) and jumped into the cage. Admittedly I was a little nervous as the cage fits 5 people comfortably but is approximately the width of one person. Its also floating in the choppy, freezing Atlantic Ocean...and there are sharks in there. You could say there was legit reason to be a tad nervous.
This all changed the first time I looked at a shark underwater. I was awestruck. It's an absolutely beautiful creature. And one that will humble the strongest man the first time it stares right at you and opens its mouth. On one of the shark "passes" I had come up quickly for a breath of water before ducking down again. When I did I was literally a food away from a shark barreling down on the cage with it's full set of choppers on display. I was so stunned I actually screamed underwater and was frozen to the bar that I was hanging on. I looked to my right and saw Colin and the guy standing next to him fly to the back of the cage. It was unreal. I feel really bad for those seals on the island because they don't stand a chance.
We were lucky enough (thank you off-season) to have a relatively small group of people on the boat so we were able to go into the cage for a second run. By this time we had roughly 14 sharks in the area and circling the boat. According to the biologist this was the largest number of sharks she had seen near the boat in the past two years. This could only mean one thing - the curse is over. Our luck had officially changed for the better.
On the second run in the cage the crew was having a lot more fun given the sheer amount of sharks near the boat. And the sharks were no longer out for a slow Wednesday stroll. On our first run they'd slowly come towards to the bait. On the second run they'd sip out from now where and attack that thing full throttle. One managed to pull the tuna head off the line and Colin and I watched from below and is thrashed about trying to rip it apart. You could actually hear the thrashing from underwater. On several occasions the sharks would be thrashing so much they'd ram into the cage and shake the whole thing until I could swear they were going to have Gildea for lunch. It was the most spectacular show of strength and agility I've ever seen. I will definitely be watching Shark Week from now on.
We ended this perfect trip by heading back into Hermanus for a good night's sleep at our B&B. I mention this B&B because in my short but illustrious career of traveling I have to hand the prize of "Best B&B" to 138 Marine Dr. Guest house. What a fab place to stay. It hit on all the B&B cylinders: great atmosphere, great breakfast and wonderful, wonderful hosts. Their location, right at the waters edge, might be enough for some but I loved the interior design of the house so much that the hostess gave me one of their dvds they use to promote the house to travel agents. If you are in the area you MUST stay here. And that is my 30 second plug for 138 Marine. Go, go 138!
High on life after the shark dive, Col and I had a dinner of traditional South African cuisine (yay babotie, boo ostrich neck) and continued on the next day for the famous South African Garden Route. The garden route is named so because of it's lush vegetation and "Garden of Eden" like setting along the coast. I can see that. It's quite lovely and reminded me not only of Ireland but South Haven, Michigan. It has that "summer resort/ice-cream by the water/sea shell art" kind of vibe.
The highlight of our time on the Garden Route was a 5 hour hike along Robberg Pennisula in Plettenburg Bay. We had read that it was a "nice coastal walk" and we are always up for a little coastal hike. I know I've used words like "amazing" and "fantastic" and "spectacular" so often in the blog that you might think everything couldn't possibly so awesome. Well folks, this was that awesome. We walked by seal colonies feeding on the bay side and had lunch while dolphins swam by on the Indian Ocean side. The hike went down to the rocky shoreline and up to the sandy dunes and high fynbos laden peaks. A beautiful walk. And the icing on the cake? We saw a pod of three whales right below one of our lookout points. There they were, a mom and baby, just splashing about while the third did his/her thing a little farther out. The whales aren't supposed to arrive for another month or so which made the sighting an extra-special bonus. Penguins, sharks, seals, dolphins and now whales. Who knew we'd have such aquadic encounters in South Africa?
We ended our time on the Garden Route with a little canopy tour in Tsitsikamma National Park - the Seattle-y part of the area. The canopy tour allowed us to zip from tree top to tree top to view the trees from 90 meters above the ground. Not a bad way to kill a Saturday afternoon.
We had to leave the forest today because we have a very special lunch date this afternoon with our friend Hendrick and his family. You may know Hendrick by his other name in the blog....Skanky. That's right (Peter you'll love this) we are headed off in a few minutes to the family farm in Jeffrey's Bay. Skank has invited Col and I to spend the afternoon having a huge lunch/dinner with his mom/dad/grandma/girlfriend/brother/sister-in-law-to-be on the farm and then to spend the night there before we leave for Addo Elephant park in the morning. I really can't wait. There is destined to be a blog in there somewhere. Stay tuned.
And with that I sign off on the blog for now. Unfortunately we leave Africa on Tuesday so I won't be able to get another one written before I get home. I promise to update with the Skanky Family Dinner and final days in Africa once I get back. We are ending our trip with one last game drive the morning we fly from Port Elizabeth. A fitting way to go. Well, it was great having you along. I guess this is so long from the Dark Continent. See you when we return! Oh, before I forget...
Some of you may be wondering where the infamous "ride on an ostrich" went. Well, given our lack of time in South Africa we had to make a heartbreaking decision between ostrich and sharks. You know who won. I can only say it gives us yet another reason to return someday.