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/ .

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.

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