I’m finally back in Brighton!

My footage isn’t amazing, but here are some highlights from my trip! Go to the full YouTube version for a description of each clip that corresponds with the timestamp.

In a few weeks, I will share my favorite photos and videos from other students as their material trickles in. Stay tuned!

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Wednesday, 17 April: We flew from Durban to Cape Town arriving at various times. My flight was delayed so I arrived a bit later than most people around 6PM. That night and during the day, I worked hard on my report so I could do some exploring on our “free” day.

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Thursday, 18 April: While everyone was locked inside doing their reports, mine was mostly done, so I got the chance to explore Cape Town. Although I would have liked to climb Table Mountain, the weather up there was horrendous and with the fog, you wouldn’t be able to see much anyway.

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Lewis’s body language with his head in his hands speaks for us all.

Instead, I walked from the hostel to the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. It was a nice marina with unique shops and intriguing street performers… and seals!

That night, I few of us went out for the best meal I had on my whole holiday at a vegan restaurant called The Hungry Herbivore. It warmed my heart to see how my fellow coursemates were starting to realize animals don’t have to suffer for a delicious meal. We all played roulette passing around our different orders for the others to try, my favorite being my loaded fries starter: sweet potato fries topped with onion, spicy mayo, cheese and bacon (all vegan, of course).

Friday, 19 April: We drove to Simon’s Town for a cape fur seal and shark dive. At the dive shop, we gave Bill a gift of a card everyone signed, wine and a shirt to show our appreciation for all the hard work he put into organizing this trip, keeping us all in line and mentoring us through this unique academic opportunity. My two favorite notes were from Pedro, who ended his note with, “If you have trouble reading this, wait until you see my dive log” and Jack, who preceded his with, “I know we don’t always see eye-to-eye… because you’re short.” I’ve come to really appreciate the student-supervisor relationship on this trip as I’ve never been on a field trip as an adult. This time around, they weren’t there to hold your hand like in middle school field trips but rather support you in your work and make sure you get the most out of the trip… and eventually take the piss out of you, which I secretly like because that means they like you.

Anyway, back to diving. My group was the first to head to the seals and although the water was freezing, the seals were amazing! Probably my favorite dive of the trip. They were so playful, spinning, playing with our bubbles, biting at our fins and hoods and playing with each other. They’re so precious! I will share videos of all my dives within the next few days.

Then, we headed for a catshark and cowshark dive in the kelp forest, which was quite different from all the reefs I’ve seen, but I don’t think it was my favorite dive in the world. It was fucking cold and although we saw lots of small catsharks, the cowsharks didn’t make an appearance. All in all, it was still a great day, but quite bitter sweet those were my last dives for a while.

Saturday, 20 April: Our final day was a hectic one. We left the hostel at 3:30AM for Gansbaai for a day of fun at sea.

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First, we went cage diving with great white sharks. After luring the sharks (and dozens of sea birds) in with chum, the crew set out seal decoys and bait to keep the sharks interested while we climbed into the cage. The cage was about 5 meters long, 3 meters deep and one meter wide. About eight of us at a time would climb into the cage and keep our head above water until the crew spotted the shark. At that time, we would go under and pull the bait or decoy closer to the cage so we can get a close view. The poor visibility made it so we couldn’t see the animal until it was right in front of our face, which made for a frightening, but very exciting experience. Again, please be patient as the videos are yet to come! I was in the first group and we got about four interactions with the sharks before we rotated. When you’re not in the cage, you get an almost equally exciting experience from the boat, watching at they close in on the bait. There was one shark that actually took the bait entirely after a battle with the crew member on the other end of the line. There was a lot of thrashing by the cage and although it was exciting from the boat, those in the cage just saw a bunch of bubbles until the fin slapped them in the face. Now that’s what I call a close encounter!

After that, we went on a marine safari to spot the marine big five: dolphins, sharks, penguins, whales and fur seals. Already having swam with seals, dolphins and sharks, they were old news… just kidding (kind of). It was amazing to see the massive colony of seals on Geyser Island and watch a cage dive from a different perspective, but nothing beats a face to face interaction!

Additionally, we saw some penguins in the water throughout the trip and Indian hunchback dolphin which was quite special! Unfortunately, no whales, though.

To end our day, we popped into the African Seabird and Penguin Sanctuary, where we got to see some critters and ask any questions about the nature and care of the birds.

For our last night, we went out for a group dinner at a fun restaurant with live music. We ate, drank and danced one last time together before we all went home or on to explore more of South Africa in our own time in the morning.

This whole experience, from travelling to a new country, doing research underwater, travelling in a group of 20+ people and seeing some amazing life both on land and on the reefs was something entirely new to me. It was challenging physically, mentally and emotionally but hell, we did it. Although I think I still prefer alone time, I’m glad I had the company and support of my fellow students and supervisors and especially thankful towards Bill who has done a beautiful job organizing and running this trip and also acted as a mentor for myself and my group. I’ve come to admire him quite a lot and it was a privilege to work under him.

I’m going home with more mosquito bites than I can count, a habit of giving the diving “okay” sign in conversation that will take me weeks to break and a bit fat smile on my face because I basically get to live this trip a few more times over when I share my experience and photos with my boyfriend and family.

Until next time, South Africa.

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Thursday, 12 April: As I mentioned in my Sodwana Bay post, we did two pleasure dives in the morning before taking showers and piling in the van south.

All but three students and one staff opted for the optional bush and boat safari, so we were placed in a hostel for the night to make the early start as easy as possible. We got to St. Lucia at about 4:30PM and relaxed for the evening.

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Friday, 13 April: We left the hostel at 4:30AM for our safari at Hluhluwe Imfolozi Park about half an hour from St. Lucia. It started so early because the animals are most active at dusk and dawn, a procedure I’m familiar with thanks to all the mornings I had with Arizona Game and Fish over summer. Just outside the gates of the park, we saw a small pack of African wild dogs. They escape the park by digging under the fence. They were right at the roadside and even our guide said it was a very special sighting, and I take it he’s seen a lot of amazing things.

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Once in the park, our first close sighting was a magnificent giraffe who stood tall above the brush against a painted background of the wilderness.

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Then, we saw some impalas, but we soon realized that they’re the McDonald’s of the reserve: there’s one (usually a dozen or more) around every corner.

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We also had a very good rhino day (according to our guide): we saw about ten!

We also saw wildebeest, lions (who were laying in the shade pretty much out of sight), baboons scurrying in the street, cape buffalo, tortoises and terrapins and plenty of endemic birds.

But the highlight of the trip was our close encounter with an elephant.

We spotted him from across the river and once he started to move, we met up with him near the road. He was bathing himself in dirt trying to keep cool and the guide said he was in musth, or especially aggressive characterized by his temporary increase in reproductive hormones. Basically, he was horny.

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He walked out from the bush into the street right in front of us. He slowly walked towards us, but our guide made sure we kept our distance. After idling in the road for a while, he completed his crossing and we moved on. As we started to drive off, he charged the vehicle and we had to move even quicker. It was quite scary but so thrilling. Looking back, we saw him knock over a tree with his mighty one tusk and wander off into the bush again.

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We saw a few more elephants on the trip: one from about 20 meters away and a small group in the valley. The elephants were certainly the highlight of the safari! Unfortunately, my pictures are quite shit, but I look forward to getting pictures from others on the safari and sharing them around! Mine don’t do these beautiful creatures justice.

After a quick lunch, we headed on a river cruise for spotting hippos and crocodile. It wasn’t “wow” as obviously we only saw a fraction of the critters from a distance as they were mostly submerged in the water. The highlight of the cruise was actually the African fish eagles and water deer.

Once the river cruise was over, we headed another few hours south to Umkomaas where we promptly went to bed to prepare for another early day of diving.

Saturday, 14 April: We left the hotel around 4:30AM to get a bus to Protea Banks at Shelly Beach about an hour away for two dives: one baited, one reef. After manually pushing the boat into the water from shore (very hard with half a dozen skinny to average women, one average man and… Bill) (just kidding, please don’t take off marks if you’re reading this, Bill).

The baited dive is just as it sounds: you put bait in the water to attract sharks. I was guzzling air on this first dive because I was a little scared. Can you blame me? In the end, only two oceanic blacktip sharks hung around for the last 2/3 of the dive. Relatively uneventful. I think the lack of visibility and not seeing the bottom scared me more than the presence of the sharks.

After that, we did a reef dive, where notable sights included potato bass and several round ribbontail rays.

All the Master’s students on this trip from left to right: supervisor Bill, myself, Jo, Emma, Torie (my fellow American), Samirah and Ph.D. student George in the back!

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Also, I was the first person from Arizona to dive with this company. Represent!

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As usual, after the dives, we worked on data and our presentations.

Monday, 15 April: Today, we dove from Ukomaas, where we are based, at Aliwal Shoal. The launch site was steps away from the hotel and we enjoyed two dives that morning.

First up was a reef dive, where we saw a honeycomb ray and a flying fish from the boat.

The second dive was a baited dive again, but this time we got up to twenty sharks, all oceanic black tips. It was incredible! However, my ears were having problems during the last part of the dive.

Tuesday, 16 April: After going through the rigmarole of waking up early, kitting up and going to the dive site, my ear got blocked 15 minutes into the first dive. It was kind of a bummer sitting out the second dive, but after the divers surfaced, we encountered dolphins from the boat, at which most everyone jumped overboard to get a glimpse. It wasn’t a close encounter, but seeing dolphins is always amazing. Not to mention it was a pod of about 35, larger than what I saw in Egypt!

That evening, we gave our project presentations. I feel our groups, and all the groups for that matter, did well and I feel confident in my work. We celebrated over a drink (or 6) and had a night to cut loose before we leave for Cape Town at 10AM tomorrow for the final stretch of our trip for more dives and report writing.

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Warning: the contents of this post may be disturbing for some viewers.

On the first day at Sodwana Bay, something happened that left the staff overwhelmed and students distressed. I didn’t want to include it in my original post as to not upset anyone who was looking for a chipper update on my time here.

For the test dives (and the rest of the dives over the next few days), we divided into two groups for the week to stagger the dive times and sites. I was in the first group, so we got back from our test dives a bit earlier. After I went to the toilet, I sat in a chair facing the south to watch for the second group coming in about 100 meters from the dive shop shelter.

When the second group was pulling in, they thought they saw a turtle in the surf. While the divers were getting off the boat, I saw a staff based on shore rush into the water with all her clothes on when she saw the true silhouette through the wave. She called out for another worker and they pulled a dark figure from the water.

At first, I thought it was a shark, but then I realized it was a person; a limp body of a local, or at first we assumed. They waved for help and as I was facing the beach the whole time, I passed along the message of help to the first-aid trained university staff.

First on the scene were Bill and George. George started C.P.R. while the rest of the students watched helplessly from a distance. After a few minutes, Bill did C.P.R. for a while until we realized it was futile. The casualty was just that.

Although a few men in uniform were on the scene, I’m not sure what their role was in helping. Not to mention there are limited emergency services nearby, if any. So even if the casualty wasn’t dead, we would have had to continue C.P.R. until the emergency services arrived, which could have been hours.

Accepting that we could do nothing more, we covered the body in a towel and left it in the hands of the authorities.

After a few days, we put a few more pieces together:

  • He was a young, lone tourist from Mozambique. He left his clothes in the car of a local, who gave us the little information we found out about him.
  • He had nothing in his clothes of value: no ID, no money, nothing.
  • He smelled quite strongly of alcohol when he was pulled from the water.
  • They reckon he was dead for quite some time before we pulled him from the water as when you drown, first you sink, then your body takes a few hours to release all sorts of gasses as it starts to decompose, then you float.
  • The matter of finding the family is now in the hands of the Mozambique police.

All the students seem okay, but some of the staff seems quite shaken. I wish we had an open conversation about it rather than just pretending it never happened, but I guess that’s just the British way.

Personally, it was quite distressing in the moment and I’m sweating as I write this… but that could also be from the heat of the stuffy hotel. Anyway, I’m fine and I hope anyone effected is willing and able to talk about any troubles they may be experiencing.

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Saturday 7 April: I left my house around 2PM on Friday to fly from Gatwick to Durban via Istanbul and Johannesburg. Surprisingly, I slept quite well on the long flight (9.5 hours) and before I knew it, I was in Durban.

There were six of us on my flight and we were the last to meet up with our university group of 20 total people: four staff, five Master’s students and about ten undergraduates. We piled into a sweaty shuttle-van and headed to Sodwana Bay four hours away.

My first impressions of South Africa were humid, sunny and green. It was interesting to pass small villages on our way out of the city to our hotel. We also passed a game reserve and saw zebras and giraffes from the bus!

I had no idea what to expect with our accommodation Reefteach, but it blew me out of the water (pun intended). It was amazing. I shared a room with Tori and Emma, two other graduate students. In the main room, there were three beds, a few night tables, a desk and a wardrobe. Through a small hall, there was a tub, shower, toilet and sink. It was quite spacious and to my understanding a lot of the other students got a similar treatment!

After we moved our luggage into our rooms, we had a short briefing from the hotel staff, who also loaned us our scuba gear. We had an incredible dinner and dessert and that’s when I confirmed we would be well taken care of here.

Sunday, 8 April: Today began with a false start. I woke up to my alarm, accepted my fate and got dressed. We were meant to leave the hotel at 7AM, so at 6:30AM I woke up my other two roommates for them to say, “We still have another hour.” I then realized my clock, thus my alarm, had not changed with the change in time zone from Istanbul and I was an hour ahead. After changing my clock and another hour of sleep, we left the hotel at 7AM to get to the beach for a bit before 7:30AM.

When we got our first views of Sodwana Bay, it was complete silence among the group. I’ve never seen a coastline so pristine and unexploited but still so rich in underwater wildlife. And terrestrial wildlife too for that matter, we saw so many monkeys and mongoose.

We got comfortable at the modest ramada for our dive hotel, got kitted up and had breakfast on the beach. While we gave our sizes last night, this was the first time we tried anything on and it took quite a while for all 20 of us to find the right wetsuit and kit.

Today’s dives were just meant to get comfortable with the kits, boat procedures and the environment before diving into (pun intended) (if you haven’t noticed, I make a lot of bad puns) our research projects. We were put in two groups of ten for the zodiac specialized for scuba divers. The zodiac took us from the shore, through the choppy surf and to the dive sites at 2 Mile Reef.

My dive buddy for the two test dives was course convenor and my project supervisor Bill, although when things went wrong with a student diver, I was paired with someone else, Eddie, while Bill sorted the other student. Eddie was a great partner and had an eye for spotting honeycomb moray eels. Other species of note were the blue-spotted ray and nudibranchs, which I also saw on my Egypt trip.

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We returned to the hotel for a quick shower and lecture from dive leader and hotelier Brian about the uniqueness of Sodwana Bay.

Over dinner and dessert, we squabbled over our dive log books and project proposals trying to get everything in order for the first “real” dives the following morning. At 9PM, it was lights out for me after an exhausting day.

 

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Monday, 9 April: We started early to get a jump on project dives, we were in the water by 8AM. My project partners were Isabella and Edona, my supervisor was Bill, who would often join us on dives, and our dive leader was called Ed, who would give us a short briefing of the dive site and help us in the water find what we needed for our projects.

Here is some background on our methods:

  • Find predatory grouper fish and record their behaviour
  • Another person takes videos of the surrounding environment where we find the grouper
  • The third person records all hawkfish found on the dive
  • Compare data across different environmental conditions

For the first dive of the day, Isabella, Edona and myself all dove and took data. The first dive was rocky as we were still trying to get the routine down. We all have different tasks: I record grouper fish behavior, Isalbella takes videos and mental notes of the surrounding habitat and Edona searches for hawkfish, another reef predator.

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After breakfast, on the second dive, we got decent data and saw a giant guitarfish!

I was feeling a little bit nauseous after the second dive so as a preventative measure, I sat out the third dive so at least one of us would be fresh for the final dive of the day.

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For the fourth dive of the day (my third), Bill said we didn’t have to take data, so Isabella and Edona called it a day and Bill and I just had a pleasure dive. We even saw a whitetip reef shark!

That night, we were so tired and a lot of people fell ill to either seasickness or decompression sickness. Most everyone headed for bed immediately after dinner, lecture and project meetings, which puts us in bed around 8PM after over 12 hours of non-stop work.

Tuesday, 10 April: The next day, we had a similar start times, but only three dives. After Bill asserted to the groups that we would lose marks if he didn’t see us actively trying to prevent getting ill, nobody experienced any issues today.

We thought we would implement a dive rota so that there would always be someone on the bench ready to bat if someone else in our group got tired or ill. The three of us did the first dive and although we were all feeling fine, I took one for the team and sat the second dive out. During the second dive, I reviewed my observations from the last few dives and take a power nap.

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Sure enough, Isabella had to sit out after the second dive so I swooped in to join Edona and Bill for the third dive. We didn’t get amazing data, but we saw another shark: a grey reef shark. Note: all shark encounters have been from a great distance, usually they’re barely more than a silhouette.

The wind was picking up so the last dive of the day was cancelled and we returned to the hotel early. We had the evening to hit the shop, mull over data and observations, catch up on log books and have a drink. Even though this was our “short” day, we still didn’t finish academic work until about 7:30PM. Another full day.

Wednesday, 11 April: We got to sleep in until 8AM as the diving for the day had been blown out. However, we still had a very full day of data analyses and report and presentation writing. On the bright side, we did have a very delicious lunch at a fun and friendly pub in “town.”

Thursday, 12 April: We had another early start, but today was just for pleasure dives. On the first dive, we saw a green sea turtle and dolphins on the boat ride back in. It was magnificent!

I was feeling less than amazing after the first dive so I sat out the second one. Sure enough, after the boat launched, I felt even worse, so I’m glad I stayed back.

We are now back at the hotel in Sodwana Bay fixing to leave for St. Lucia for a safari tomorrow before going on to Umkomaas and Cape Town. It’s been so hectic but a really amazing experience!

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