Dolphins ‘Popping’ in Ponta do Ouro, Mozambique…

Dolphins ‘Popping’ in Ponta do Ouro, Mozambique…

One of the most fascinating things about my work with the wild #dolphinsofponta  is being able to create a safe space were humans are able to observe this special species in their own environment.

Over the past couple of years I have filmed numerous events of a vocalisation I called tok, toking….Popping, a term coined by Richard C. Connor and Rachel A. Smolker in their article entitled ‘Pop’ goes the Dolphin, is of of those vocalisations that normally stops me mid swim! It’s done by the big boys and is sometimes followed by aggressive behaviours such as mock charges and open jaws!

In the coastal shallows of Shark Bay W.Australia three adult males were observed between 1987-88 in the company of one single female at a time. Over the period the female was seen to turn in towards the males and the authors concluded that popping is a threat vocalisation telling the female to stay close.

The series of low frequency pulse sounds are very distinctive and always accompanied by a series of bubbles. Through our in-water recordings in the Ponta do Ouro Partial Marine Reserve in Mozambique we are able to associate the popping with the bubbles and the individuals – and guess what – they are all males too!

Since 2008 we have recorded some 30 events of popping. Interestingly enough though, most of our events included large nursery pods with adult male escorts. It seems that popping is also used on this side of the globe to keep the girls together.

On the 27th September I filmed an event with RemmyBoy and two other same age males together with a juvenile male who were in pursuit of Maria a young female.  It did look like the young boy was getting a lesson in popping and herding – with Maria being the consort this time! The adult males however this time slowed for a bit of circle swimming and conscious interaction with me before heading off in pursuit of Maria once more.

The #dolphinsofponta are part of a longterm monitoring project that was started in 1997 by DolphinCareAfrica; the research & conservation arm of the Dolphin Encountours Research Center in Ponta do Ouro, Mozambique.

 

Reference: Connor, Richard & Smolker, Rachel. (1996). ‘Pop’ Goes the Dolphin: a Vocalization Male Bottlenose Dolphins Produce During Consortships. Behaviour. 133. 643-662. 10.1163/156853996X00404. 

From Shark Bait to Shark Warrior: Lesley Rochat Empowers the Youth

From Shark Bait to Shark Warrior: Lesley Rochat Empowers the Youth

It was the first day on the Wildlife Conservation Photojournalism internship with Lesley Rochat, which I was attending. Five other students joined me as we sat around a table in her beautifully hand-constructed house, perched high up on the side of a mountain, with windows circling us so that we could see the ocean roaring outside. It was some of the most spectacular views I had ever witnessed.

Lesley having fun with and empowering a group of young ladies – the future of our oceans!

Lesley positioned herself in front of us all as if she were going to give a presentation, but to our surprise, she began narrating a colorful and animated story of a little girl who ran off to the beach with her dog without permission. The story was about a little girl who thought she was fiercer and mightier than nature, who jumped into the ocean, and amidst all of this, reality struck, and she almost drowned. That little girl was her. Lesley went on with the story, telling us of how she conquered her fear of water but not before escaping yet another near-drowning experience, this time in a public swimming pool. She then began SCUBA diving only to discover yet another fear; the fear of sharks. “So extreme was my fear of sharks that my dive buddies nicknamed me ‘shark bait’,” she told us laughing.

The true inspiration of the story, however, started revealing itself when she explained that while real fear is a response to external threats to one’s life or wellbeing, the fear of sharks she was suffering from was nothing more than anxiety, emotions that arise from one’s own thoughts, not from external reality.

I anticipate, upon getting to know Lesley on a personal level, that this concept of fear and overcoming it has motivated a lot of her work and education initiatives, including her amazing shark conservation campaigns like ‘Rethink the Shark’, and her groundbreaking documentaries that cover the sad truth behind shark finning. Through defeating her fear, she went from being dubbed Shark Bait to Shark Warrior, defending those who cannot speak.

A group of children having fun while learning what lies beneath the surface of our oceans

Lesley’s passion to make a difference put her on the path of packing up her well-paying corporate career to found AfriOceans Conservation Alliance, a non-profit organization located in Cape Town, South Africa. AfriOceans has been involved in a number of exciting scientific research project, environmental awareness and educational initiatives that aim to empower the youth to become the voice of our oceans. Lesley’s inspiration to empower the next generation stems from her beliefs. She believes that handing over her skills in order to empower the next generation of Earth’s guardians is one of her main life’s purposes. She told me once, “The train of human destruction is steaming ahead, but if there are enough of us pulling in the opposite direction, we can, and we will slow it down.” She believes that what she is fighting for is much larger than herself, adding: “I want to help others become Shark Warriors by helping them develop the same skills, which have helped me to be successful in conservation. The more I can do that, the more chance we have at slowing down the deterioration of our environment.”

One education initiative that is particularly influential is her Swim like a Shark program. Most underprivileged children around South Africa do not know how to swim, despite them living within walking distance to the ocean. Additionally, a majority of these children are afraid of the ocean. When Lesley and I sat down to talk about this initiative and why she started it, I was reminded of that little girl who nearly drowned in the ocean that day. This program teaches basic swimming skills and helps saves lives while at the same time gives these young learners and opportunity to catch sight of the wonders that lie beneath the surface of the water. Lesley says, “The joy, excitement, and appreciation from these children speaks for itself. We’ve had children do the course who have wanted to come back again and again.” She laughs, adding, “We even had kids that were afraid of the kelp, thinking it would bite them, it was so cute. But after doing the course it was hard to get them out of the water!”

Myself and the group of ladies that attended the Wildlife Conservation Photojournalism internship with Lesley Rochat in December 2016

The program has managed to teach a handful of children but unfortunately, like with any non-profit, the challenge is always funding. Lesley mentions, “They [environmental education and awareness] are still quite low down on the list of priorities, in particular in Africa where they believe there are more important issues, such as AIDS and unemployment. So, the environment comes last, and looking for funding for it has become more challenging.” Faced with this challenge, Lesley recently kicked off a sustainable self-funding initiative called Shark Warrior Adventures, a responsible tourism initiative that offers watersports such as snorkeling safaris, sea-kayaking and stand up paddling guided tours. The aim is that Shark Warrior Adventures generates the funding needed to continue the Swim like a Shark program, which holds tremendous potential. It not only teaches the youth how to swim, but it empowers an admiration for the ocean, and opens up opportunities for children interested in ocean related careers.

Practicing photography skills that Lesley Rochat passes along to aspiring conservationists!

Over and above the watersports division of Shark Warrior Adventures is the photographic diving expeditions which Lesley leads to numerous destinations worldwide, as well as the internship courses she runs such as the one I attended. She has already extended her educational internships to the East Coast of the United States, empowering me and five other young ladies, all of whom are students at Coastal Carolina University. By working closely with Lesley on the Wildlife Conservation Photojournalism internship, she is helping us become leaders in enriching the public in understanding environmental issues. The course is truly unique in that we are learning from a leading conservationist and globally respected, award-winning photographer and filmmaker. Some of her awards include Africa’s Most Influential Women in Business and Government Awards, Global Oceans Society, Women Divers Hall of Fame, International League of Conservation Photographers, and she was also 1 of 16 women chosen internationally for ‘Women of Authentic Power’ in Oprah Magazine.

Lesley is handing her knowledge and skills that she has gained over twenty years of being a conservationist over to us, and that is candidly something that you cannot receive anywhere else. She sees long-term goals for the courses, saying, “My aim for these courses is to grow my own army of warriors, and students like yourselves are going to be the next generation to make a difference. You are already on your paths to your careers, and if I can guide you and help you gain broader skills, then that is an accomplishment.” Through multiple articles, blogs, and posts on social media platforms, I have already seen my work having an impact. The Wildlife Conservation Photojournalism course has encouraged me to do more, and keep working as an environmental photojournalist. Lesley has equipped me with the necessary skills to join her army of warriors, and I stand tall, fighting beside her, for those who cannot speak.

To learn more about supporting Lesley Rochat, Swim like a Shark, the Wildlife Conservation Photojournalism course, and other courses coming up soon, visit http://sharkwarrior.com/, http://www.aoca.org.za/ and http://www.lesleyrochat.com/ .

Whalesharks of Mafia Island

Whalesharks of Mafia Island

 

The average human (data culled from various signs in lifts) weighs 70 kilos and (empirical evidence) is less than 2m tall. Also, we’re terrestrial. So it’s quite something to be floating in 25m of warm blue water being approached by an animal which, as an adult, weighs an average of 9 tonnes (that’s 9 000 kilos in case there was any doubt) and is close to 10m in length. Plus, it’s leading with its cavernous 1.5m wide mouth. And the animal which owns the mouth is actively feeding. At 2m away and closing, there’s a certain sense of drama.

That’s a really big animal getting really close. And that’s presumably why they’re not called hamstersharks.

Luckily for me, the whaleshark, for that’s what it was, ignored my feeble attempts to evade it, effortlessly flicked its enormous tail and submerged. And circled back and repeated the feeding lunge, this time not quite so close to me. The plankton must have moved. Whalesharks, of course, are not interested in feeding on humans, though an unintended whack from a tail could certainly do some damage; worth considering when in the water and trying to photograph one.

This was offshore of Mafia Island, off the Tanzanian coast. We’d gone there specifically for just this experience. Here, from September to March, congregations of whalesharks move inshore to feed on the plankton blooms which are generated by river outflow.

As many as fifty whalesharks can be seen gaping their rectangular mouths open, sucking vast gulps of plankton into their maws and flaring their gills. It’s got to take a lot of tiny shrimps to keep 9 tonnes on the go. Whalesharks, indeed, will also eat small schooling fishes and sometimes small tuna or squid. This must make life exciting for the juvenile golden kingfishes we frequently saw swimming just in front of the whalesharks, mouths opening in time to the whaleshark’s.

They’re presumably there because the whaleshark is better at finding plankton blooms than they are. Or maybe they like living dangerously.

The whalesharks of Mafia are mostly sub-adults, so they’re usually only around 8m in total length (i.e. not that big, for a whaleshark), and mysteriously, are predominantly male. Getting to see them and snorkel with them as they feed is awe-inspiring. Waking in the morning, hastily eating breakfast and splashing through the jellyfish-dotted shallows to the dinghy is just the beginning. Then there’s the outward journey searching for the leviathans, in a hand-carved dhow, powered by a 9.9 horsepower engine, driven with dashing flair by the boat captain’s foot. It’s a bit like being back in the days when whalers stood in the bows of their tiny ships and shouted out, ‘Thar she blows!’, except here the sign is the enormous dorsal fin of the whaleshark and its smaller tail fin which breaks the surface in the distance.

Or it might be the surface wave that trails their great heads as they rise to the surface to feed. Or their enormous muscular backs glinting in the tropical light. The captain’s foot does its work and the snorkellers bail overboard searching for signs of the beast. A lot of the time it’s empty ocean but then suddenly and with a weird inevitability, there’s a spotty reef in the water, as though it’s always been there. Sometimes they don’t come near, but often the feeding urge is upon them and it’s close encounter with huge animal time.

Whalesharks have beautiful blue dorsal skin crisscrossed with a chequerboard of pale stripes and spots. They may look like this because they have evolved from bottom-dwelling sharks, though no-one is really sure. They have the aforementioned huge mouths which contain 300-350 tiny teeth: not used for feeding and probably also an evolutionary legacy. To feed they open their mouths, suck in a mouthful of prey and water, then close their mouths and open their gills. The slight delay between closing their mouths and opening their gills results in any particles bigger than 2 or 3mm being trapped either against the filter pads in their mouths or pushed directly back to their throats. This form of suction feeding is so efficient that only water is emitted from their gills. They are sometimes seen ‘coughing’, which is probably to rid their gills of any unwanted food buildup.

They are open ocean animals, known from the tropics and subtropics, which makes it interesting that the first whaleshark seen by Western scientists was found in Cape Town’s Table Bay back in 1829. It had probably come inshore following an unusual meander of an Agulhas gyre. They like warm surface water, but tagging data has shown that they dive to 700m and spend time down there in 10 degree water. No-one is really sure what they’re doing there.

And when it comes to mysteries, it’s astonishing just how many secrets swirl around those huge slow-moving animals. No-one has ever seen them mating, and it was only in 1995 that a pregnant female was caught with 300 embryos inside her. Today it is known that whalesharks are ovoviviparous, which is to say, the females carry eggs within their two uteri and the embryos grow inside the eggs inside the mother, finally being birthed at about 60cm long. It is thought that females carry many embryos at varying stages of development, probably mate only a few times and may store sperm, fertilising their eggs at different times.

But back to being in the water with whalesharks. They’re huge, a fact which can hardly be overstated, and though they look like they’re moving slowly, they far outpace even the fastest human swimmer. Best to aim ahead of their apparent feeding direction and hope for the open mouth shot.

Finally, around lunch-time, the plankton swarm has dissipated (or been swallowed by the whalesharks) and the snorkellers return to the dhow. If the wind is right, it’s a creaking smooth sail homewards to Mafia to eat, process images and scheme for the next days’ possible encounters.

Project Humpback Whale

Project Humpback Whale

A new project out of Ponta do Ouro is creating a baseline of data on the humpback whales that migrate north into the Indian Ocean along the of Mozambique and South Africa. On the tail end of the annual winter migration, Clare Keating Daly caught up with the project’s founder, Jenny Stromvoll.

By Clare Keating Daly

“The moment a book doesn’t satisfy my need to answer questions, I feel like I need to go find the answer out myself,” says Jenny Stromvoll of Ponta do Ouro. Jenny has lots of questions. Recently, her questions have focused on the humpback whales that migrate up and down the eastern coast of southern Africa during the winter months. What feeding grounds do they come from? How many pass through the PPMR? And what’s happening in terms of group dynamics, songs and behaviour as the whales move north and southbound?

“I read up a little bit and realised there is no on going humpback whale research happening here so that makes me feel like, well, I can do something,” she says. Jenny is Swedish born but moved to Ponta do Ouro in 2010 and is co-owner of Back to Basics Adventures, a dive charter. “I have realised that within the oceans there are so many things unknown and there are very few people that are fortunate enough to work with the ocean everyday, like myself, so I feel like I can contribute to various conservation efforts and research by simply sharing and collecting data.”


“It’s easy to write things down and store them in a box, but we want to get the information out there, in papers, on the web,” Jenny says. In a recent interview, and with follow-ups over email, Jenny shared the fundamentals and passion that form the new project:Jenny, along with researcher and fellow Ponta do Ouro resident Diana Rocha, recently started Project Humpback Whale within the Ponta do Ouro Partial Marine Reserve (PPMR) in southern Mozambique to do just that. The two are hoping to create a lasting project that contributes to the world of humpback whale research.

What is the inspiration behind Project Humpback Whale?

You know that feeling, of always wanting to know more? It started there. My friend Yara Tibiriçá [President of the Association of Coastal Conservation of Mozambiuqe and founder of the Zavora Marine Lab] was visiting, looking at the nudibranchs. We did a lot of nudibranch diving, but then we had a dwarf minke whale on our deco stop. That’s where the conversations started. Yara’s passion is nudibranchs, but she also keeps a whale catalogue because no one else does up in Zavora. She asked why I didn’t just collect data here [in the PPMR] and said I could share my data with her. So then I started thinking, what is actually done here? I started reading up, getting articles, online and from Yara. But I wanted to do it right. Yara helped me with the original proposal for the project. Very basic.

So where did the proposal go from there?

Well, I went to Miguel [the manager of the PPMR] and asked him what was going on here and how I could get involved. Then I started chatting with Diana [Rocha] over a braai and asking her about the whales because she’s done a lot with the dolphins [with Dolphin Encountours]. I said, this is that I want to do: I don’t have anything else but my drive but I can see clearly that this needs to be done here. She was really inspired and we decided to take the project on together and do the formal proposal. And you know, Miguel was really supportive of research on the area, research that’s valuable for the region. So we got the research permit and started data collection in August.

That’s great. So tell me a little about what’s already known about humpbacks. Are they endangered?

Humpback whales were one of the easiest whales to catch during the whaling years because they move close to shore and are easy to spot with their aerial surface behaviour. In the southern hemisphere, many baleen whales were driven close to extinction [during whaling years]. As far as I know, around 47,000 individual humpback whales were taken between Gabon to the west and Mozambique to the east. To put it in perspective, it is suggested that there were only 340 individual humpback whales left in the southwest Indian Ocean. In 1996, humpback whales were listed as endangered on the IUCN list but today they are listed as a least concern species. I have read in a paper that it’s estimated that the Southern Hemisphere humpback whales [population] are increasing around [the biological maximum rate of] 10% a year and this is great.

They’re cruising our coasts in winter, where are they in the summer?

Humpback whales undertake an extensive migration between their high latitude summer feeding grounds and tropical low latitude winter mating and calving grounds. So the southern hemisphere whales are feeding around 55° south, Antarctica, and winter grounds are around 20° south.

So what are the key questions of this project, in basic terms?

The main aim of this study is, on an annual or seasonal basis, to collect data on the humpback whale population that migrates to its breeding grounds north from the PPMR region. The specific questions are; one, what’s the abundance of humpback whales that pass by here during their migration and is there any rate increase; two, what is the distribution, behaviour, the sounds and group composition of the migrating population and is it different for the north and southbound journeys; three, what breeding stock do the whales passing by here come from and is there any breeding stock exchange; and four, what is the occurrence, prevalence and population distribution of a specific skin lesion observed frequently on the humpback whales passing through?

A skin lesion?

It’s not something I’ve observed myself but I’ve heard of it being seen on humpbacks in the area, kind of a scarring on their dorsal fins and always in about the same place on different individuals. One explanation is poor water quality or poor health of the individuals. We want to find out more about it.

That’s really interesting. How are you collecting the data on all of this?

We’re using land-based surveys and boat-based surveys along with ocean fix location and boat based transects. At each sighting at sea, when possible, we try to approach the individuals by boat at a steady reduced speed to obtain photo IDs and whatever detailed information we can. For all three different methodologies, the same data collection module is applied and a standard log sheet is filled in. Then once data is recorded, the boat goes back to the fixed point, or a commercial dolphin boat track or the track line of a transect and starts over. We’re keeping a photographic data catalogue with both dorsal fins, left and right sides, and flukes also.

Photographic data, does that mean that visitors in the PPMR and help with your project?

Anybody with a camera can contribute by taking photos that in turn helps us identify individual whales. The best way is to capture a photo of the whale’s fluke, their tail fin. The underside of the fluke has unique markings and what we do is build a library of the different whales passing us. It is not easy to capture a whale fluke, the best chance you have is when they dive for a longer period of time when they tend to arch their backs and show their flukes, or when they are tail slapping. And to give a good example of how citizens can help, there was a case in Madagascar where a Norwegian tourist took a photo of a whale fluke. Years later, the photo was posted on Flickr and a citizen scientist found the photo and matched the fluke to a whale that was seen off the shore of Brazil. This was an amazing discovery as it showed that one individual, thought only to migrate past Brazil, had changed his migratory route and came past east Africa. So everybody can make a difference and contribute to science and our knowledge of the ocean, humpback whales included.

Keep up with Project Humpback Whale at www.pontahumpbackwhales.com, the portal to sharing their research with the public and maintaining a meaningful and transparent project.

Elena Salim Haubold

Elena Salim Haubold

“My dream is that the future generations are able to enjoy swimming with sharks the same way I do it today. For me sharks are the most beautiful, powerful and mysterious living organism on Earth and, as their populations are been decimated over the past years, they need our help.  I am sponsored for one year to travel around the world, living unbelievable underwater experiences and documenting through articles, pictures and videos about each one of them. Thanks to the Rolex Scholarship, I am living the dream and learning from the best people in the world, in order to achieve my goal: work towards shark conservation through ecotourism”

Elena Salim Haubold

Sharkoholic, Biologist, Entrepreneur

European Rolex Scholar-2014

Elena is a German/Venezuelan biologist who is extremely passionate about marine megafauna, especially sharks. Her dream is to work towards the long-term conservation of these predators using ecotourism.

Although a part of her family comes from Germany, she had the privilege of growing up in Venezuela: a beautiful tropical country with the longest coast along the Caribbean Sea, where she was strongly in contact with nature. Her favorite activities were swimming in the ocean and rivers, traveling around the exotic national parks and interacting with all kinds of species in their natural habitat. At a young age she realized that being surrounded by animals was her purpose and biggest motivation in life. She studied biology in the Simon Bolivar University (Caracas, Venezuela) where she received appropriate guidance to get into the scientific world. Meanwhile, she got certified as a scuba diver to gain a strong foothold in her job as a researcher of marine life. Elena also undertook a freediving course to be able to swim closer to the aquatic fauna without scaring them away with the bubbles from the scuba diving system.

Elena interacting with an adult lemon shark (Negaprion brevirostris) removing remoras from its body.  Picture by Johnny Gaskell – Tiger Beach, The Bahamas 

In the third year of her career she went to the multicultural city of Granada (Spain) for one year as an exchange student. There she had the chance to learn about social behavior and animal physiology through research projects at the university and discovered her other passion: travelling! Her experiences around Andalucia, East Europe, Morocco and Scandinavia gave her a holistic understanding of how different cultures live and use their natural resources. At this point she was unaware of how useful this knowledge would be in helping her achieve the goal of protecting marine life throughout the involvement of local communities.

Swimming with her favourite species! The lemon sharks (Negaprion brevirostris).  Picture by Gerardo del Villar – Tiger Beach, The Bahamas

She was sure that she wanted to work with marine fauna but she was in a dilemma when it came to deciding the species she liked the most. It was at this point that, just by chance, she watched a video of the world famous shark feeder Cristina Zenato on a television program. Elena was awestruck by the sight of big, majestic sharks surrounding this woman while she was touching them like they were her pets! Elena was so fascinated by it that decided to write a letter to Cristina without expecting that her answer will change her life! After that, her doubts vanished and then she decided to work with, and for the sharks. Following Cristina’s advise, she decided to get involved in shark research spending seven months at the Bimini Biological Field Station (The Shark Lab). Her research was about the effects of coastal development on the spatial ecology of the lemon shark (Negaprion brevirostris) population of this small and pristine island. She was finally able to see sharks in their natural environment and found it extremely fascinating.

Swimming with the biggest fish on the ocean, the whale shark (Rhincodon typus).  Picture by Armando Gasse – Isla Mujeres, Mexico

She got an honored mention from the university for her research findings (University of Granada) and couldn’t wait to follow the path of a shark biologist. Like any other top predator, sharks are fundamental in their ecosystem. They play a key role in maintaining the ecological balance. It was her dream to become a specialist in the tiger shark predatory behavior and its effect on the prey population. Her belief was that by taking this path she would be able to contribute towards shark conservation, but it dawned on her that the outside world is completely different from the academic environment. Her opinion is that what really determines the vulnerability status of any marine species is commercial fishery and perception of the general public regarding the danger faced by marine species.

Elena surrounded by sharks.  Picture by Johnny Gaskell.  Tiger Beach, The Bahamas

Elena’s goal of Marine Conservation using Sustainable Tourism required sound business knowledge of the tourism industry and so she decided to pursue a Master’s degree in Business Administration in the field of Tourism Industry from European University, Munich. She got her dive master certification with the pioneers in bull shark diving with Phantom Divers in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, where she worked for two months. This experience coupled with her stint at the MBA gave her both, the theoretical and practical knowledge required to get started with her endeavor in the sustainable tourism industry.

Elena understands the importance of involving the society in the ecotourism industry. „I strongly believe that the contribution of local communities is a powerful catalyst in the conservation process. The realization of people that they are the real owners of nature and that it can be a viable source of high income, encourage them to protect it“.

Playing with cape fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus) while freediving.  Picture by Jean Tresfon – Tsitsikamma National Park, South Africa

Recently Elena won the prestigious Rolex Scholarship which is giving her the right platform to implement her ideas in order to guaranty long term marine conservation. The scholarship provides young passionate divers brand new diving equipment and travels around the world to visit, work and learn from the top leaders of the underwater industry. For Elena this program is the perfect opportunity to enrich her ideas. She is having the chance of meeting scientists, tour operators, photographers, conservationists, business people, scuba and freediver instructors, journalists and many others top leaders of the world who generously host her and teach her all she need to know to start in her future a successful business model focused on marine conservation.

Holding a 3 meters female tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) after taking measurements and before releasing it. Picture by Sean Williams – Bimini Shark Lab, The Bahamas

The three Rolex Scholars 2014 selected by Our World Underwater Scholarship Society. From left to right: Courtney Rayes (Australasian Rolex Scholar 2014), Elena Salim Haubold (European Rolex Scholar 2014) and Ana Sofia Guerra (North American Rolex Scholar 2014)

Picture by Jayne Jenkins – New York, U.S.A. (May 2014)

Pelagic Magic

Pelagic Magic

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Diving with the denizens of the deep Divers in Cape Town are truly blessed. Not only do we have the luxury of having two coastlines to choose from (ensuring almost year round dive-able conditions) but we also have the option of venturing offshore foriving with the denizens of the deep Divers in Cape Town are truly a mind-blowing blue water experience. This is an almost unknown part of the Cape Town dive experience, probably more due to the option not being well known, than anything else.

Text and images by Jean Tresfon

Unlike the frigid waters of the Atlantic, or even the temperate waters of False Bay, the pelagic waters offshore of Cape Point are usually warm and clean. And for the Cape Town locals I don’t mean 14ºC and 5m visibility!

We’re talking about 22ºC plus and 30m visibility. Most of the diving is done in the area known as the canyon (named after the sea floor geological structure) which is approximately 22 nautical miles south west of Cape Point and lies smack in the heart of the tuna fishing grounds. The sea floor here lies at 600m deep so bottom times are fairly limited! Most diving is done on snorkel, and in certain instances tanks can be used but all of the diving is done in no more than the top 10m of water. The trip out takes about 2 to 3 hours depending on the weather and the departure site. It is possible to leave from Simonstown, Miller’s Point or Hout Bay. The sea can get fairly rough out there so it’s best to make sure that motion sickness tablets are taken prior to departure. Target species are mainly the blue sharks and the mako sharks, but yellowfin tuna and longfin tuna sightings are fairly common and we’ve even seen sperm whales and killer whales out there! The blue sharks are the most widely distributed animal in the world and are found in deep waters from the surface to 350m down. They grow to a maximum length of just under 4m and a maximum weight of about 200kg, but most of the local sightings are of much smaller individuals. The mako sharks are obviously also found in deep waters from the surface down to 150m. They grow to a maximum length of 3.5m and 450kg, but once again most local sightings are of smaller individuals. The mako is one of the fastest fish in the sea and has been known to leap clear of the water. Both of these shark species are stunningly beautiful when seen in their natural environment.

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Diving with these animals is completely safe as long as certain protocols are followed and common sense prevails. Gloves are definitely recommended as bare hands closely resemble prey items. All shiny objects attract a nibble from the sharks and should be kept to a minimum. Gaps between wet suit pants and booties should be avoided or covered and flailing of arms and hands is definitely a no.  Hands should stay on the camera or arms should be folded if not taking pictures. Photographers should be aware that the sharks find the strobes very interesting, especially when the capacitor is recharging after a shot has been taken. It is a good idea to always keep an eye on what is happening around you. Photographers in particular should not keep their eyes glued to the viewfinder; rather they should take frequent looks behind, below and above. The sharks are masters at sneaking up unseen from behind and seem to always know which way you are looking. Divers should be cognisant of the fact that these are wild animals and you are a long way offshore and far from any medical facilities. The point is to have a fun and safe interaction. If at any stage you feel uncomfortable then by far the best idea is to leave the water, rather than allowing the situation to escalate.

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People viewing the photos often comment on how brave or crazy we are to swim with sharks. The reality is that if done properly there is very little danger. The animals are beautiful and it is a privilege to be able to share their space. Once a suitable area has been found, normal procedure is for the operator to lay a chum line of chopped sardines in the water. The sharks work their way up the line towards the source of the scent trail. It is not uncommon to have five or more blue sharks in the water at one time along with a mako or two. Opportunities abound for great interactions and this type of diving is a photographers dream. The sharks are fairly bold and swim right up to the divers allowing for stunning image making. Obviously there are no guarantees in nature and it is also possible to spend a whole day out with no sharks.

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My first trip out to the deep was with veteran operator Chris Fallows of Apex Shark Expeditions. Chris has been doing this for a long time and really knows his stuff. With many divers on board he prefers to use a cage, less for protection from shark bite and more for keeping the divers close to the boat in the current and being able to put the sharks right in front of the divers. On this occasion the tuna and sharks were plentiful and we all had about half an hour each in the cage. Although this is without a doubt the safest way to conduct these dives I found the cage to be quite limiting from a photographic perspective. You cannot move around to change the angle of the sun and arrange all elements of the composition to your satisfaction. I did however get some good results, and Chris and his assistant Poena have an incredible knowledge of their subject.

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My second trip out to the tuna grounds was with Steve Benjamin of Animal Ocean. Steve is a qualified ichthyologist, and probably the most enthusiastic guy you will ever meet. This was not my best ever trip, through no fault of Steve’s. I did not take any motion sickness tablets and the sea was particularly rough on the day. I spent several hours lying in the bottom of the boat wishing that I could just die quickly. Steve just never gives up, and ordered me into the water with all my excuses falling on deaf ears. There were five blue sharks and two makos under the boat and he would not let me go home without a photograph. Steve does not use a cage but always has a safety diver (usually himself) in the water to watch his clients’ backs and to get them out of the water if the sharks behaviour changes. Steve is a really experienced guide having worked the sardine run with Mark Addison of Blue Wilderness for many years, and it really shows.

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My latest pelagic trip was on the inaugural charter to the deep run by Grant Whitford of Blueflash Charters. This was probably also my best trip in terms of shark interactions, but it is possible to have too much of a good thing and some valuable lessons were learnt that day. We ended up with just two divers in the water with seven blue sharks and a mako, and took some stunning shots. Both the mako and two of the blues seen on this trip had fish hooks stuck in the corner of their mouths and were trailing strands of fishing line. Just another stark reminder of the over-fishing of our oceans, were another reminder needed.

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For those wanting some tips from a photographic perspective:

1. Use a high shutter speed to freeze movement.
2. Use a wide angle lens and get close. 3.If possible use a strobe(s) to light up the sharks from below.
3. Try using a motor drive and take bursts of several shots as the animals approach.
4. Use other divers to lend scale to the photos.

One thing is for certain… you will come back with a changed perspective on what the media continually labels as mindless man-eaters.
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Cape Catsharks – curiouser & curiouser

Cape Catsharks – curiouser & curiouser

A pyjama party: catsharks are social animals and sleep in piles under convenient overhangs (Jean Tresfon)

Mention Cape Town diving and the conversation turns inevitably to sharks. By ‘sharks’ people usually mean the big toothy brutes which are firmly, if irrationally, believed to spend their days cruising in search of a feast of tender human flesh.  These same people are also usually slightly incredulous to discover that though there are many sharks seen around the Cape Peninsula by scuba divers, the sight of them is extremely rarely traumatogenic.

Text by by Georgina Jones

This is because most of the sharks seen around Cape Town are small and more likely to inspire the ‘oh cute’ reflex than a mental replay of the soundtrack from ‘Jaws’. They are part of a big group known as catsharks, the Scyliorhinidae. About 100 species are found worldwide in tropical and temperate waters, although catsharks are usually found in very deep water. We are fortunate around South Africa not only to have 16 species in our area, 11 of them endemic to the region, but also, that several of them are inshore sharks so that, as divers, we have the pleasure of seeing them bustling about the reefs and wrecks on their business.  Around the Cape Peninsula, four species are commonly seen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A pair of pyjamas (Jean Tresfon)

The biggest of the four is the distinctive pyjama catshark (Poroderma africanum), growing up to a metre in total length. As one might guess from the name, the pyjama catshark is striped. Its close cousin is the leopard catshark (Poroderma pantherinum), and unsurprisingly, it has leopard-like rosettes and spots arranged in stripes on its body. Rather like its namesake, the leopard catshark is very much a creature of the night and is only rarely seen during the day, preferring to while away the daylight hours sleeping under overhangs or in caves before setting forth to hunt for its prey.

A pyjama catshark at ease (Jean Tresfon)

Their smaller cousins are the puffadder shyshark (Haploblepharus edwardsii), a lovely golden-brown creature marked with several white-spotted saddles; and the dark shyshark (Haploblepharus pictus), which is more often seen on the Atlantic side of the peninsula. This is a stockier animal, having dark saddles which may have yellowish spots.  These sharks are all oviparous, which is to say their young develop in egg cases, which the females lay in pairs. Mating is a vigorous affair, with the male biting the female on her pectoral fins to hold her in position so that he can insert his claspers. Though the females often show signs of skin damage post mating, they seem untroubled, swimming off afterwards without hesitation. It is the males who come off the worst, with older males showing signs of scarring and calcification on their claspers. Clearly male catsharks are made of stern stuff.

 

A puffadder shyshark going about its business on a Cape reef (Geoff Spiby)

In due course the female will lay a pair of eggs in cases known as mermaid’s purses. Females can sometimes be seen with tendrils trailing from their bodies. These are part of the egg cases and after while, they seem to irritate the female, which goes in search of an upright support such as a sea fan and begins to swim around it. This causes the strings to catch on the support and the circular swimming helps to gradually pull the egg case out. The yolks are easy to see through the surface of the egg case, and occasionally the embryonic shark can be seen wriggling inside as well. The egg cases are a potential feast for carnivorous snails, octopus and other sharks. The lucky occupants which avoid the attention of predators emerge after 3-6 months, biting their way out of the egg cases and setting off to seek their own prey. They are very small at this stage, all of them smaller than 15cm, and frequently become another predator’s dinner. If they manage to escape from the many hungry mouths on the reefs, they feed on small bony fishes, crustaceans and octopus and may live for over twenty years.

 

A puffadder shyshark peers out from a dense forest of feather stars (Geoff Spiby)

This group is also known as shysharks because of its members’ habit of curling up into a ball with their tail or pectoral fin over their eyes when threatened. It is possible that the purpose of this action is to produce a bigger shape which is more difficult for a predator to swallow. Given that the total diamater of the ball is often not much over 20cm, this probably doesn’t discourage
many predators other than the smaller ones. It does raise their cuteness factor though. So yes, Cape Town diving, sharks, lots of them. But scary sharks? No.

 

Head over heels – snorkling with seals

Head over heels – snorkling with seals

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With their sleek streamlined bodies, sinuously flexible spines and frenetic flipper action, Cape Fur Seals (Arctocephalus pusillus pusillus) are one of nature’s most gifted swimmers. Like playful puppies they frolic in the Cape’s kelp beds and around the abundant reefs but hunt in deeper water. Curious, even mischievous, by nature they investigate everything that floats or swims in the Cape’s waters.

Text and images by STEVE BENJAMIN of ANIMAL OCEAN

Duiker Island is a protected island in the Atlantic Ocean, off Hout Bay near Cape Town. It is roughly 77 by 95 metres in size, covering an area of about 0.4 hectare and is home to a variety of sea birds and up to 15 000 Cape Fur Seals. It is also the perfect spot for photographers, divers and people interested in getting close to marine life to interact with these eccentric and fun-loving seals.

Duiker Island as seen from the air
Duiker Island as seen from the air

Animal Ocean, owned by zoologist, marine guide, skipper and scientific commercial diver, Steve Benjamin has been leading focused seal snorkeling trips to Duiker Island for the past 4 years. His is the only company to focus solely on this activity. This means that on any given summer day you can find the Animal Ocean team heading off to the island. It also means that Steve and his team know it better than anyone else.

Snorkeling with the seals is unlike any other activity you can do in South Africa. This is a chance to interact and get nose-to-mask with a large marine mammal that WANTS to play with you. Steve often thinks that this activity is more for the seal’s entertainment than the guests.

The regular and non-interactive way to see the seals
The regular and non-interactive way to see the seals

There’s no training requirement and (unlike shark diving) no baiting. It is a completely natural interactive wildlife experience in which the wildlife comes to play with you, because it wants to.

Seal snorkeling trips run from October to the end of April. The rest of the year it is too rough and too cold — the seals are civilized and don’t like to swim unless its a nice warm day, unfortunately, for them warm water is 14C! During the months of November and December, when the males are mating and the females giving birth, is when the most seals are found at Duiker Island.

Regular tourists visiting the seals from the various vessels that provide non-interactive viewing
Regular tourists visiting the seals from the various vessels that provide non-interactive viewing

Cape Fur seals are different from true seals in that they have small ears and propel themselves with their front flippers — we don’t have true seals in South Africa. Cape Fur Seals eat fish; mainly pilchards and anchovies but they will opportunistically eat octopus, crayfish, reef fish and even small sharks. They are adaptable and intelligent. Fortunately they won’t eat snorkelers, but they may playfully nibble your fins.

The seal pups leave the safety of the island and enter the water during March and April, after being born in December. The pups are incredible to snorkel with and often interact with and play with snorkelers. It is an underwater photographer’s dream assignment.

The trip to Duiker Island from Hout bay harbour is 3 km’s and takes about 5 minutes by boat. Duiker Island is named after the cormorants that used to cover the island before the seals took over about 30 years ago. It is a low-lying island that can get waves washing over it during winter. The areas where the snorkeling takes place is shallow (maximum depth of 5m) and surrounded by a kelp forest. The island offers great protection from the prevailing strong summer wind (the southeast) but is susceptible to swell brought in from the open ocean. Trips are sometimes cancelled because of the swell and resulting wave action on the island.

A curious seal spy-hops to observe
A curious seal spy-hops to observe

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Seals crowd the island shore

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Seals in their kelp environment

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A seal leaps clean out the water

Duiker Island is not known for shark activity and the Animal Ocean team have never seen any around the island. The main reason that the Atlantic coastline is low in shark numbers is because it is so cold. While sharks can handle cool waters they prefer the warmer temperatures of South Africa’s east coast (the Indian Ocean).

If you’re an underwater photographer then this is the ultimate close-encounter-low-gear marine experience. If you’re a naturalist in love with marine life then you will love being in the water with these amazing creatures.

Animal Ocean provides all the equipment you will need to get in the water. They provide 5mm wetsuits with hoods, gloves, booties, fins and masks. The Atlantic Ocean water is cold at 10C – 15C, so be ready for a shock when you hit the water. However, your amazement at seeing the seals will quickly take over and you’ll forget about the cold water. Rest assured though, when you return to the boat you’ll be given hot chocolate and warm water down your wetsuit.

Animal Ocean respect the seal’s space and do not go close to the island, which is protected, and tell guests not to touch the seals (although they will choose to come close to you). Each trip is managed with two guides in the water with you and the location to snorkel is marked by a big red buoy. The seal snorkeling normally takes about 40 minutes, when the cold water forces a return to the boat. The whole trip takes about 2,5 hours including initial meeting, getting equipment, the boat ride, getting in the water and returning.

Animal Ocean is a Trip Advisor award winning operation and guests have written some wonderful comments.

Brian Hope, South African – I’m born and bred in Cape Town and this was honestly one of the best experiences I have ever had in the Mother City

Natasha Ruscheinski, Holland – This was one of the most awesome snorkeling experiences I’ve had.

Monique S, Belgium – What a great experience! The crew was very nice and relaxed, although safety first … so everything was explained very well, before we plunged into the water.

Booking can be done through the online booking form on the website www.sealsnorkeling.com where further information is also available.

Introducing Helen Garner Weaver

Introducing Helen Garner Weaver

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Freedivers are an independent minded bunch of people. They dive to great depths, alone (although there is a safety buddy lurking). They achieve their goals alone, and reach their greatest achievements from their own ability to disengage and go within themselves. They dive in silence; there’s no crowd urging them on, no atmosphere to lift their spirits.

Freedivers reach their greatest moments in relative obscurity and without the televised fame that most sports lay claim to. It truly is a non-spectator sport. Yet as a sport it has something else, a different kind of appeal; freedivers are independent, self-knowledgeable, inspirational and deserving of deep respect. For it is only once they are out of the water and you get to know them that you discover just how “together” and fragile they really are.

Helen Garner Weaver is a yoga teacher and world-class freediver and KwaZulu Natal’s best-kept freediving secret. She’s dived with the best of them, broken records, travelled the world pursuing her passions for yoga and freediving and has surrounded herself with a loving and understanding family.

We caught up with Helen recently and she gave freely of her time to inspire and educate us on the art of freediving and the disciplines of yoga and how the two create a powerful force when merged together.

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Helen will be going back to the Red Sea this year after a hiatus spent nurturing a family. She’s going back to competition, with herself and to see how far she can go in her sport.

Here then, is Helen’s story, philosophy and inspiration in her own words.

Your career thus far has been well documented and recognised, but what were the factors that led you to taking up free diving as a sport and competitively?

I was living in Cape Town and teaching yoga and the alternate activity I was doing was swimming, as I had been a competitive swimmer in my youth.  I remember swimming one day, up and down, and thinking “yoga and swimming… what could be better?” And then I suddenly thought “FREEDIVING”.  I didn’t know much about it, other than The Big Blue (from which I also ascertained that Jacques Mayol was dreamy) and I tried with no luck to find out more about it here in South Africa.  I eventually googled “yoga” and “freediving” and my first site was a dive centre in Dahab, South Sinai, Egypt called Desert Divers.  I mailed them and said that I was a yoga instructor who had a hunch I might be good at freediving and could I come and teach yoga for them in exchange for freediving?  They mailed back the same day and said “please come immediately”.  I am a person who believes that when things are right and meant to be, things “click” and this was a “click” situation.  Seemed too easy, so it had to be where I had to go!  So I said I would pack up and get there a.s.a.p.  I left early January 2006 and had to be back for a friend’s wedding in April.  I figured if I sucked at diving, the worst that could happen was that I had an adventure for a few months in Egypt, and how many people are lucky enough for that?  The resident freediver at Desert Divers ended up becoming my best friend and is one of the best divers in the world, so I was extremely lucky to learn and mix with the best of the best from day one, and I started breaking records in my third week of diving.  So that was me … hook line and sinker!

Do you think free diving is an extreme sport? 

That is a yes and a no answer.  I think that if you were to qualify what “extreme” was, you might find that it was … yes there is risk attached and we have to be extremely vigilant and responsible, so maybe if one was to think of extreme sports in that regard, it is.  For me, I don’t think it is extreme as I have a perception of extreme sports as having a very “masculine” energy.  That is to say, if I am going to jump out of an airplane or BASE jump or repel, I would be very hyped up and feel powerful and strong.  When I dive, I am in a very “feminine” energy.  I am quiet, I am gentle, I am centred.  I go under the water with limited fuss and splash and adrenalin.  My heart rate is the slowest I can get it.  So in that respect, I feel that freediving is very different from all the other classical extreme sports.

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Do you think free diving is growing in popularity, or is it stable?

I think that freediving is gaining in popularity.  I think people are slowly becoming more aware of what it is and what we do.  The more courses we (as instructors) can do the better.  We need to make sure that people are educated in what actually takes place when you decide to hold your breath and go under the water.  It’s an exciting and fascinating physiological phenomenon, and people just don’t know enough. Knowledge is power. The challenge, in my opinion, in South Africa, is that we are all pretty proficient swimmers and have been swimming since childhood.  All people need is a wetsuit and they start diving, without knowing the dangers and the warning signs.  And South Africa, with its gorgeous coast line, has an abundance of spear fishermen.  So if you were to include spearos with this question, I think it is huge and ever growing.  The goal for us is to make sure that the spearos are informed and cautioned about safety procedures and how to recognize a potentially bad situation, and how to recover an unconscious diver and resuscitate them.

It’s interesting, the group of people that I taught when I lived and worked in Egypt, were scuba divers who came to Dahab on holiday to dive, and used to check us freedivers out and figured it would be a fun day to find out what the fuss was about. So I was assured that these students could at least equalize!  In Cape Town, I taught mainly yogis who were curious of their hidden potential and the ability to withdraw their senses and achieve stillness.  And now in KZN I am finding that the majority of my courses are spearos, who don’t have any mystical idea of depth and silence, but rather would like to find out what is actually taking place when they are diving and to finesse their techniques (breath hold and finning)

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What are your views on the lack of organised free diving in South Africa?

We did attempt to start a freediving organization a few years ago here in South Africa but at the time I was living in Egypt and was not part of the organizational team.  Unfortunately, due to certain personalities, it didn’t succeed as the organization suffered and came second (or third or fourth) a great deal of the time and people were not able to compete and break the records they were hoping to, thus stagnating the sport and disempowering the organisation.  The good news is that there is a new organization currently being created here in South Africa, with courses and competitions and with judges being trained and ready willing and available, and it’s going to make our sport a lot more competitive and a lot more visible.  And this is how we create awareness and grow.  So this is a very exciting time for freediving in South Africa.  The organization is called PURE APNEA and it will be dedicated to growing the sport of freediving, and freediving will be the hero and the focus, and not any specific individual trying to further their own career.

What advice do you have for aspirant free divers and particularly women who are interested in the sport?

My advice to anyone wanting to find out more about freediving is to find a legitimate instructor.  There are a few of us out there!  And come and try it out.  I always say that if a person comes to me, I pretty much know that they will be ok in the water.  A person who will freak and feel claustrophobic is not even going to enquire about a course.  So if there is a part of you that is curious about what it’s all about, and about checking out your potential, they try finding out a bit more on it.  For women, don’t be put off by the male dominated side of it, the guys are such good fun and the type of person (male or female) that wants to be out there in nature is generally a good one.  Of course there are some egos out there that are best avoided, but that goes for all walks of life.  My most important message that I can’t repeat enough, is that knowledge is power.  Get the information, do the course and stay safe!

Is free diving gender neutral or is it more challenging (and less rewarding financially) for women?

I would say that freediving is gender neutral, but there are definitely more guys out there.  As I said earlier, there are a lot of spear fishermen out here in South Africa (a Russian diver once told me that he thought the best divers in the world came from South Africa but they were too busy catching fish to compete for depth) and that is a very male dominated aspect of freediving.  On the aspect of “challenging” the truly great thing about freediving is that you cannot dive anyone else’s dive.  I cannot compare myself to another man as they physiologically can dive deeper (stronger and greater lung capacity).  But I cannot compete against another female’s dive either.  I have to dive into myself and against myself.  So the challenges lie in my mental strength, to avoid thinking about anyone else and avoid indulging in the ego at all.  It’s about doing what I can, preparing what I know and then doing the dive and trusting.  If I was to become egotistical, and worry about how I would look to the divers on the surface if I turned early, or that I had an expectation on myself to be under the water for a certain amount of time, then the dangers and the risk arise.  I would no longer be authentic, but trying to fulfill another diver’s potential and ability.  And that is where ego and arrogance becomes the freediver’s mortal enemy.

Financially, there is not a lot of money involved in freediving, with regard to prize money and competitions.  The best that we can hope for is to find a sponsor that aligns with our own particular ethos and spirit and way of diving, and have a mutually beneficial relationship.

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Are there specific risks for women free divers or are the risks gender neutral?

The “bad press” that freediving gets, comes from basically 3 aspects of freediving.  That is (1) spearfishing, (2) training in a pool on your own and (3) no limit freediving (this is a freediving discipline where the diver reaches immense depths with use of weights, usually a sled, and then comes back up with assistance and no weights, usually a lift bag or balloon.  No Limits takes the diver below 100m most of the time (Herbert Nitsch reached -250m in June 2012).
The common denominator in these 3 aspects is that the diver is pretty much alone.  And that is a risk.  To be completely honest (and generalize slightly) most of the participants in the above 3 aspects, are men.  So I would say that its more risky for men to dive, just in that they have the tendency to lean towards spearfishing and that they have the physiological capacity to reach much greater depths than women (for No Limits)

But if you dive out of your capabilities and limits, and if you get greedy for depth and go down before your body is ready, then you will suffer the consequences.  If you allow your ego to guide your dive, then you are taking a risk.  This is true for men and for women.

Is sponsorship difficult to find? And if so, why?

Yes!  Sponsorship is very difficult to find.  For me at least.  I am a freediver because of the purity of it.  In the water I find stillness, and in stillness all conflict must end.  For this, I love the silence, I love the peace and I love to immerse myself and be so deep down that I look up at the vast blue roof of water and know that I am free.

For these reasons, I find it very difficult to throw myself into the media and shout about a lot of things and blow my trumpet, which seems to come easily to some.  This is the game you have to play when you want and need sponsorship.  At the end of the day, sponsors need exposure, sponsors want visibility.  There is not a lot of visibility 60m under the water, so it makes it a very difficult spectator sport.  Sponsors also want the Natal Sharks!  I am aware that we live in a rugby mad world, and that is a great thing, but it makes it hard to try to sell your very different style of sport.  At the end of the day, when it comes to freediving, it’s not (in my opinion) the time spent at the competitions that the sponsor will benefit, but rather the time spent back home training and teaching and mentoring that is the key to the relationship.

The fact is we need sponsorship far more than the mainstream sports do, and the challenge is to start thinking out of the box and creatively on how to be a mutually beneficially relationship with a sponsor or a corporate, be it with courses on freediving, breathing and yoga, and team building benefits but we need to find a way to enhance the exposure for both parties.

You’ve not competed for a while now. What has motivated you to return to competition and what challenges have you faced returning to training etc.

I took the time off my diving when I moved to Salt Rock (KZN) I was busy setting up my yoga studio here on the north coast and I was naively sure that I could “do it all”.  I ended up teaching all the yoga classes, planning a wedding and having no time off to even walk my dogs and then, just to really add to my list, I fell pregnant with my daughter Freyja!  So the past few years have been an attempt to find balance in my life and a really good lesson for me.  I have 2 awesome little kids and I have closed my yoga studio and teach my classes in someone else’s studio, so that I can be a bit of everything.  A mom, a yogi and a freediver.  And also walk my dogs!

Regarding the “getting back in water” part… I am me when I am in water, I am happy when I am under.  It doesn’t feel like a choice really.  My mum always told me I never played with dolls or any other toy.  I just swam from the age of 2.  And my sports coach always moaned that she wished I had the grace I had in water, when I was on land.  I just make more sense in water.

The challenges that I am facing in training are the boring ones.  Health and time!  And I ended up getting sick from my 9 month old last year for about 3 months too, which meant that holding my breath was about as attractive to me as gargling wasps for a while there!  So I have to make sure that I get enough sleep (with toddlers) and stay healthy and stop saying yes to everything else and make the time to do the training.

Another challenge is finding a freediving buddy. It’s not advised (read: not allowed) to ever freedive alone, and just because you are in a pool with a max depth of 1.8m (if you are lucky) does not mean this is not incredibly dangerous.  I have really had a hard time finding a buddy to watch me so I can do my underwater training and this has definitely made it hard for me to keep momentum.  But, we adapt and we find a way if it is important.  So I am swim training at the moment really hard with a bunch of people and throwing in a bit of apnea into the equation when I can.

They always say that the scuba diver dives into the ocean but the freediver dives into himself. And because freediving is such a mental sport,   I have to be confident that my body is strong enough to take me down and get me back up.  I have to believe that this is possible.  And then the dive can be done.  So I train.  And I get strong.  And I believe!

What are your short-term and medium-term free diving goals?

My goals for freediving are to try to educate as many people as are willing to learn and grow the sport and try to keep as many people as safe as possible.  It’s about responsible diving and it’s about knowing more about yourself.  I truly believe that yoga can help with this too and is the mechanism by which to begin exploring your own possibilities.  Do you feel up for the dives on that particular day?  Are you physically mentally and emotionally in the right place to trust the process?  I believe it’s really important to start encouraging people to take responsibility for themselves and to be able to share the love of the ocean and its inhabitants.  It’s not a bad way to be.

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I am also training at the moment to head back up to Egypt for a few weeks in May and see if I still have the joy and the happiness under the water.  I know that the years off have been hugely rewarding – I have such a cute and happy little family – and I have grown and learnt massively on a personal level too – so I am hoping that these factors combined will help me to find even more depth.  But time will tell …

What are the personal challenges you faced in your free diving career?

Living in the Sinai desert for 2 years was challenging at times.  I loved living in the desert and I loved all the freedom that came with it but being a single white female in a strictly Arabic culture was very hard at times.  I remember sitting on my sitting room floor (there were no couches!) crying and thinking how badly I wanted to come home to a place that I understood … but when I considered what I would be giving up … freediving … I found that I could suck it up and keep picking myself up again and again.  Where I was, was an incredibly poor town.  The best way that I can describe the locals’ side of Dahab is comparing it to a very poor township.  No roads, just dirt pathways up and down, no street names and houses put up wherever they choose.  Very, very, very poor.  But rather than this being a challenge for me, this was liberty and freedom.  It was the most freeing thing to not worry about material things.  I had nothing that matched in my house and I had the basics and what more did I need?  My mum would call and ask if I needed cutlery and I would think “why,  I have a knife and a fork?” It was an incredible lesson for me, that nothing is really important at the end of the day, except what you love and who you love.  Culturally things were very different however and having to learn a new language and the ways in which to interact in this new culture was a challenge.  But hugely rewarding – to be able to be accepted and treated kindly and fairly in a very male dominated society and learning a new language, it was an incredible feeling of achievement.  I loved the Middle East so much and became part of the Bedouin tapestry and find myself very homesick for Dahab and miss the ease of the desert very much.

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Where is your favourite free diving venue?

The Blue Hole, Dahab, South Sinai, Egypt.  It’s my happy place.  It’s an amazing natural phenomenon.  There are a handful of blue holes in the world (mainly found in the Bahamas) and they were formed during past ice ages through erosion from rain and chemical weathering (common in all limestone rich terrains). At this time sea levels were as much as 100 – 120 metres lower than at present and at the end of the ice age, they were submerged into the sea.

Blue holes are roughly circular, steep-walled depressions, and so named for the dramatic contrast between the dark blue, deep waters of their depths and the lighter blue of the shallows around them.

The Egypt Blue Hole is a small one relative to the Bahamian ones, and is a 92m swimming pool.  It’s breathtakingly beautiful – from the view down into it, and the view up from its depths.

And the conditions make it the mecca of freediving … no current, no predators (they are 800m down), visibility of up to 40m vertical and 20m horizontal and warm water (28-30 degrees in summer).

Our challenge is that the tour buses come in their droves; filled with Italian and Russian tourists (a lot of whom do not know how to swim) and they arrive in their high heels and bikinis.  Our 92m swimming pool can become a very crowded public pool sometimes and we have even had to life save a few of the non-swimmers who see our freediving buoy as life rafts.

Can you describe your best free dive (in competition) and your most rewarding free dive (in competition or otherwise).

My best competition freedive was at the 2007 World Champs.  I did my record dive and when I got to the white tag at the bottom plate, I turned and looked up and all I could see what the biggest blue ceiling I have ever seen in my life.  It felt like it went on for miles and miles.  I am very used to diving in the Blue Hole, which is a tin can of a reef going down to 92m so I usually see a wall of reef when I turn and it limits the expanse of the sea and sky.  I can still remember hanging at the bottom plate with the tag, looking up and smiling with pure joy … and staring and staring and staring up in wonder at the most fluid roof of blue I had ever seen, until I suddenly thought “hmm … I am 60m deep … I better get back up”.  I will never forget that feeling of weightless wonder though, and total freedom.

My most rewarding freedive was when I was diving with my very good mates Lotta Ericcson (ex Swedish champ and ex world champ) and Linda Paganelli (Italian champion) at The Blue Hole and we were just training and mucking about and it was my last dive of the day.  I had been struggling with my ears and getting frustrated so I just said that I wanted to dive until I felt the need to turn and have no expectation … and so I took my deepest breath and went down.  I was sleeping on the way down (eyes closed and equalizing) when suddenly I felt light in my face and I was scrunching up my eyes from the brightness.  I opened my eyes and saw the most beautiful sight I have ever seen in my life.  The Arch!  At 52m in the blue hole there is a gap in the reef that goes all the way to the other side into the open ocean.  This narrow tunnel is 26m long to the open ocean but it lets in the light from the sea into the Blue Hole.  The Arch is named for the archway shape it makes and the light is so bright it appears almost biblical.  It was an incredible and surprising moment for me.  I have never been so excited to get back up and tell everyone the joyous news.  I was shouting and laughing when I got up to the buoy and Lotta and Linda were yelling at me to “breathe Helen!  Breathe!”  and all I could do was whoop for joy and scream that I had seen The Arch! I can still remember walking home across the desert that afternoon, jumping up and down and laughing with un-abandoned joy at what I had seen and experienced.  So so lucky!

Can you describe your most challenging free dive?

My most challenging (and terrifying) dive was when I went out training with an Australian guy one day in the bay (Masbat Bay in Dahab).

He had been in and out of the dive centre a lot over the past week asking me to dive with him and there was something stopping me from agreeing.  Eventually he made me feel really uncomfortable and bad for always making an excuse, so I went ahead and agreed to train with him.  I know that I should never have agreed, and I should always trust my instincts – this is what freediving, and yoga has taught me, but I felt I had been impolite to refuse.

Anyway it was a gorgeous day and we went out to the 25m line so not very deep at all and I was going to work on my entries and turns.  I did my usual 3 warm ups and was very surprised to see that the first time he went down, it was for an actual “deep” dive.  I rushed down to safety him and when he came up I asked him why he had not bothered to do the recommended warm up dives to kick start the dive reflex, and also to brief me as to what he was doing so that I could correctly safety dive him.  He then told me he would continue to do No Fins.

On his 3rd dive, I went down to wait for him at 15m and didn’t see him, so went a bit deeper.  I waited quite a long time and eventually saw him coming, but with huge stress on his face and panic in his eyes.  I dove back up with him as close as I could get to him so that I could pick him up when he blacked up and brought him back to the surface as fast as possible.

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This was my first blackout on a dive, and I was all alone with someone I didn’t know.  We were far out (50m out in the bay) and no one would have heard me yell for help, and no one could have gotten to me fast enough to help anyway.  I knew that I was alone and that I had to rescue him if he was going to survive.  He was very heavy (he was a grown man and had no more oxygen in his body so there was zero buoyancy) I knew that if I dropped him I would not be strong enough to pick him back up and he would go all the way back to the bottom.  It was honestly the single most terrifying moment in my life.  I have had an inordinate amount of adventures in my life, and been in some scary situations, but they were always mine and mine alone and I was responsible for myself and the outcome.  This was the first time that I was responsible for someone else’s life and I knew what happened that afternoon could affect the rest of my life.  I decided to swim under him and push him up as hard as I could (so that he floated almost out of the water) and I came back up fast, jumped on him and closed his nose and blew as hard as I could on his mouth to forcefully open his trachea.  He came to almost immediately.  He was totally confused about what was going on – and had no recollection of the blackout.

I was so lucky, and so was he, to have had a happy ending to that training session, as it could have easily have gone so wrong.  I still go cold when I think of that day, and will never ever dive when I get a bad feeling and I will always trust my instincts.  I also learnt that it doesn’t only matter about me and my diving.  I naively thought it would be all right as I would adjust my own dives so as not to require any real safety from my buddy (whom I did not know, or trust) – but it depends on the responsibility of your dive buddy too.  If your buddy puts himself (and therefore you at risk … as he had … without warming up adequately, going down for dives without informing me of his intentions, and diving well beyond his capabilities), you will be in just as much danger, if not more.

Has yoga helped you with your free diving?

Absolutely yoga has helped with my freediving.  I firmly believe that I could not be the diver that I am in the water without my yogic background.  The strength training, the flexibility for my rib cage to compress for depth, the shoulders and the hips … all of that has made me physically the diver that I am.  And the mental ability to withdraw my senses and “observe” the dive helps with the fact that sometimes I am nowhere near a breath of air.  It teaches me to stay calm in a stressful situation and not resort to the luxury of panic and tantrums.  It teaches me to find the meditation in motion.  And emotionally, I absolutely feel like I achieve “bliss” in my dives.  Yoga helps us to face ourselves and even better, yoga helps us to accept ourselves.  For me, yoga is the tool to live to be a better me.  The attitude of gratitude is the highest yoga, and how can I be anything but eternally grateful for my life, abilities, opportunities and adventures?

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Where did you learn/study yoga?

I found yoga when I suffered from a chronic and painful illness (I had glandular fever that manifested into chronic fatigue).  I started needing it on a physical level – and the really great thing about yoga – it doesn’t just give you what you ask for – it gives you the whole deal.  So mentally and emotionally I started connecting with myself again and facing what needed to be faced and ultimately dealing with the illness and coming to terms and beating it.

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“Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured.” ~ B.K.S. Iyengar.

I then went off to India to Yoga Vidya Dham  – an ashram just out of Mumbai in a mountain village called Nasik (if you are going to do something, do it properly and go to the source, right) – where I did my teacher training in Classic Ashtanga for 6 weeks.  I then came back and studied more styles and qualified in teaching more disciplines and taught and taught and taught at all the top studios in Cape Town.

I am now living and working on the KZN North Coast and teaching yoga at Sugardance Studio in Ballito.  Its also a goal of mine to give back and help as much as I am able to, and I am trying to connect with the high schools in the area, to offer yoga to teenagers who need to learn to deal with their stress in a more positive and productive manner.  And to become stronger in their bodies as well as their minds.  Yoga gives us stress, in the shape of demanding poses, and then asks us to breathe and hold the poses with calm bodies and calm minds.  Yoga asks us to choose to breathe rather than find a distraction or rush out of the pose in a panic.  We are taught to react in an alternative manner towards stress, to stay focused and calm and to wait it out with deep breathing.  And if we can learn this in on our mats, imagine if we could translate this into our everyday lives.

Follow Helen on FaceBook at http://www.facebook.com/www.liquidyoga.co.za for more info http://www.liquidyoga.co.za/Turtle%20Cove%20yoga%20freediving%20doc.pdf

Or contact Helen on helen@liquidyoga.co.za

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