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GAP YEAR | VOLUNTEER ABROAD | WORK EXPERIENCE OVERSEAS

 

Volunteers' Stories

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ANDREW BURGE
New Zealander

White Shark Project in Gansbaai, South Africa
         

Life in Gansbaai is going well. There are two new volunteers living in the house with me, a couple from Florida. They're staying for a month. We've also had 3 other volunteers staying with us but only for a week. They leave today and tomorrow. So, has been nice to have some company.

Craig, the founder of the Project, has also been staying with us for the past week. He's given us a few lectures on the white shark. We have learnt a lot from him. It's not the relentless killing machine as it's made out to be in JAWS. Rather, it's highly intelligent and shies away from confrontation. Obviously, when it does attack, it does it very well. But worldwide, there are only about 100 shark attacks a year, of which only 20-30 are fatal. Supposedly, more people die from falling coconuts!

Have been out on the water 5 times now. Am still finding my sea legs. Sea has been pretty rough, so I'm hoping for some calmer days. The sharks have been awesome. The largest one I've seen so far was a 3.5m shark nicknamed "Slashfin" because her dorsal fin is cut. She looks a lot bigger up close, I can tell you! Got to see a "predation" as well - a shark take out a seal. Was all over in a matter of minutes, just a pool of blood on the surface to tell the tale. Also saw a Southern Right whale out on the water which was pretty cool.

Yesterday and today the water has been too rough to go out. Yesterday we all went to Cape Aghulas, the southern most point in Africa. Today, I am planning on going for a bike ride along the beach in the afternoon. Have been in the cage twice so far. As amazing as it is to see them from the boat, it's awesome to view them in the water, in their own domain. First time I went in the cage, a shark took the bait and came thrashing up against the cage. Its pectoral fin actually came inside the cage. I could have shaken hands with him!

Yesterday I went in again and got a close up look at a 3.8 meter great white. Looked to be the size of a bus! She was huge! The visibility wasn't so good, so the shark would appear out of nowhere and glide slowly past, eying me up. Was amazing! The biggest shark we've had around the boat so far was 4.5m. At one point it took the bait, which was tied to the boat, and it actually pulled the boat! Everyone grabbed hold of the rail and looked around nervously, thinking of the movie JAWS. Can't imagine how massive a 5 or 6m shark must be. Hopefully will get to see one while I'm here.

Today was good. Only saw 3 sharks, but a couple of them hung around the cage for a while, took the bait at one point and put on a bit of a show, thrashing against the cage. Also saw six Southern Right whales up close, including a mother and her calf. They were so huge. Amazing to think such amazing creatures are swimming around our ocean.

What do you feel you gained?

Practical experience: working on a small boat, working in a small team environment, dealing with the public/customers on a daily basis. Intrinsic Experience: Seeing the great white shark up close which was incredible. Beautiful, awesome creatures. Learnt lots from the WSP staff.

What was the best thing about your placement?

Getting to go in the cage and see the Great White in its own environment. It was awesome to see them appear out of nowhere and glide by the cage, eying me up.

Would you recommend this placement to anyone else?

Yes, for those with an interest in sharks.

What type of person do you think this placement would suit?

Hard working. Involves early starts and physical work. Personable, good social skills – dealing with the public and working with the small WSP team. Independent – if you are living on your own, you need to enjoy your own company. Nights can be quiet.

Can you describe a typical day?

 Two hours before launch (which is usually between 8 am and 12 pm) we load the pick up truck with everything we need on the boat (wetsuits, fuel, bait, etc.) and drive down to the harbour (3 minutes walk) and transfer everything to the boat. After getting the boat ready, we come back to the lodge, the skipper briefs the clients, then we walk them to the boat to launch.

On the boat I have various duties: helping clients into wetsuits, recording data on the sharks we see, laying anchor and bringing it up, getting the cage in and out of the water, other help around the boat. We’re usually on the water for 4 – 5 hours. After we get back to the harbour, we have to unload the boat. I usually take turns with another crew member in washing the boat or rinsing out wetsuits. I am usually free 1 – 1.5 hours after getting back to the harbour. The rest of the day is yours.

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