I have always loved wildlife, spending my free time looking for animals and learning as much as I could about them. However after a series of whale watching trips in the Azores when I was 14 I found my true calling, the ocean. Being on the water brought me so much joy and a sense of freedom and belonging, as if I had found my place in the world. This also sparked my passion for marine life; everything about the ocean and its inhabitants fascinates me. As a result, I decided that I would pursue a future in Marine Biology. Knowing how competitive it is to find jobs in this industry I searched for a way to get some experience in the field before going to university and I found the International Marine Volunteers (IMV).
After 8 months of exams and working, my time at the project finally began and after an 11 hour flight plus a night in Cape Town, I arrived at the project on the 22nd January 2018. The transfer over from Cape Town was very well organised and the driver was so friendly, so I arrived at the Great White House happy and ready to begin my experience. It was straight into the shark cage diving briefing so I could have my first trip out on the fabulous boat Slashfin as a client. Seeing the sharks up close and personal from below the water was an awesome feeling and looking them in the eye was just awe-inspiring!
Divers waiting in the cage for a shark to come closer
After my cage diving trip I was taken back to the volunteer lodge and shown my cottage where I would be living for the next 6 weeks. The cottage was light and airy and the main communal area of the lodge was great for hanging out with the other volunteers. I quickly settled in and the next night, after my first day volunteering on the boat, we had braai night (a barbecue). This was a very lovely evening as everyone was relaxed and we all socialised over drinks and great food. I was welcomed by everyone and within days I felt at home, as if I had been living there for weeks.
Over the next week I became acclimatised to both working on Slashfin and Dreamcatcher (the whale/eco-tour boat). I was trying to absorb as much information from the biologists and guides about the local wildlife, the area, and any common questions asked by clients. By the end of the week I had seen many different species and felt like I had started to build a solid foundation of local wildlife knowledge, so I decided to try to get even more involved with everything and asked what more I could do to help. I was offered the opportunity to help the biologists with humpback dolphin identification, using folders of dorsal fin ID’s, and managed to ID all the dolphins seen over the past couple of months. This became something I did regularly over my time at the IMV.
Slashfin in the mist
During the subsequent weeks, as well as identifying dolphins, I helped take dolphin dorsal photos and photos for the daily blogs. In addition, I often assisted in taking YSI data (the conditions in the water) on the boats. If I were to give some advice to anyone starting the trip it would be to always ask to get involved in things; if you don’t ask you can miss out on some really cool stuff. I became more and more used to life at the lodge and on the boats, answering questions about the animals, pointing out species and chatting with clients. There were plenty of trips and activities organised for evenings and no-sea days so we always had things to do. For example we had a trip into Hermanus for lunch and shopping, visited Panthera the big cat sanctuary, did some sunset fishing (unsuccessfully I might add), and often went out to local pubs or restaurants for a nice social evening. On one of the days I had hurt my back so couldn’t go on the boats but I asked if I could help doing data entry. I spent the day in the biologist office typing up the backlog of YSI and species sighting data into the system. I really appreciated how much everyone let me get involved as it really gave me a small taste of what it’s like to be a marine biologist, not just the glamorous boat trips, but the computer work too.
As my last week sprung upon me I came to the realisation that soon it would be time to head home and this honestly upset me; I didn’t want to be leaving, however I had already decided that I would definitely return. The braai night that week was fun as always but had a slight bittersweet feel to it for me as I knew it would be my last (until I came back of course). I had a great last week overall and even did some scuba diving! After a quick refresher session in the pool, it was out to a rocky area of coast called De Kelders. The dive was very challenging due to strong waves which shoved us around, the kelp forest that was like a maze, and the limited visibility. In spite of the challenges, I never felt in danger and seeing all the shysharks and catsharks was wonderful. I finished that day feeling much more confident in my diving abilities and with a sense of achievement that I had faced one of my fears… kelp (yes, kelp freaks me out more than sharks do, don’t ask me why). I had sworn that I wouldn’t dive in kelp forests yet on my third ocean dive I did it.
A flock of Cape cormorants
An African penguin on a beautiful wind-still day
A giant petrel having a bath
In what felt like far too short a time it was time to fly home. Looking back I am delighted with all that I saw, took part in, and achieved in my time with the International Marine Volunteers. I saw many amazing coastal and pelagic bird species such as the beautiful Cape gannet, the impressive giant petrel, many cormorants, terns, and of course the adorable African penguins. It took a few weeks for the great white sharks to show up in number, but while we were waiting for them the stunning copper sharks put on a good show and kept both clients and volunteers happy. Nonetheless nothing could have beaten the sheer joy of everyone on the boat when we had the first great white shark return, everyone was cheering and clapping! In my last couple of weeks there seemed to be plenty of them around, with notable ones being Mini Nemo and Anarchy. They really are breath-taking in their size, speed and beauty; a truly magnificent sight to see! Lastly, I was lucky enough to see 5 out of the 6 cetaceans seen in the area; the humpback dolphin, the bottlenose dolphin, the Bryde’s whale, the humpback whale, and the southern right whale. The latter was a marvellous surprise on my last full day as it is (March) completely out of season for them to be in the area and the mother and calf we saw were so relaxed, just slowly swimming around and spyhopping. I couldn’t have wished for a better last day!
A southern right whale showing its unique callosity pattern
Now that I’m back home I already miss life at the IMV lodge, I could have easily stayed for months on end. I made some great friends there and felt like I had found a place where I could truly be myself. It’s quite strange being stuck on land and everything seems rather dull now that I’m not going on boats every day and spending time with so many amazing people. I am already planning my next trip and keenly look forward to my return. Until then I will have to make do with following the daily blogs.
Thank you to everyone at International Marine Volunteers, Marine Dynamics, and Dyer Island Cruises for making this such an unbelievably amazing experience. I can’t wait to be back!
All photos and text by Emma Butterworth