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The McDermott Scholars Award covers all expenses of a superb four-year academic education at The University of Texas at Dallas, in concert with a diverse array of intensive extracurricular experiences, including internships, travel, and cultural enrichment.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Swimming with Sharks

I have been in South Africa for almost 4 weeks, most of which have been spent working with great white sharks. I was in Cape Town for the first week, exploring the city and adjusting to the country, and then traveled to Gansbaai, where I have been for the past three weeks. So far I’ve done everything from watching the sunset from Table Mountain to visiting the point where two oceans meet to hand feeding giant bull rays to cage diving with great whites. Overall, my time in South Africa has been great. In fact, I’m already planning when I’m coming back. I’m hoping to go cage diving again next summer (the South African winter), which is when the shark activity is the best. There’s also a lot in Cape Town and the surrounding area that I didn’t get to do because I ran out of time.

South Africa is very different from what I imagined it to be but not in a bad way. The atmosphere in the Western Cape is very laidback, especially in the small fishing villages. Things have to get done, but there’s not the extreme pressure you find in the States. Ever since I arrived in Gansbaai, I’ve practically lived without a schedule. The only time commitments I’ve had are preparing the boat and launching. Otherwise, I can’t tell you what day or time it is. If I get back to the house in the afternoon and decide I’m tired, I take a nap. Yet, I don’t set an alarm; I just wake up when I feel like it. To be fair, though, I do have to get up at 5:30 every morning, including weekends.

However, I would get up at any time of day if it meant being out on the boat with the sharks. They’re such amazing creatures. Whatever myths have been created over the years, whether from the movie JAWS or the media, are so far from the truth, it’s ridiculous. My very first day on the boat, I could already tell they weren’t the mindless killers most people believe them to be. In fact, they’re extremely intelligent and graceful, and each has its own personality. Some will cautiously circle the boat and then disappear, showing absolutely no interest in the bait or cage. Others are very curious, coming right up to the boat, and will pop their heads out of the water to look at the people onboard or bite the cage and motors to try to determine what they are. And when the shark looks you in the eye, you can tell it sees you. There was one particular time where I was sitting at the back of the boat, leaning over the side, when a small great white stuck its head out and looked me straight in the eye. I was so memorized by it that I completely forgot about my camera in my pocket. Besides them poking out their heads, the other way to get that personal interaction is to get into the cage. At first, I was a bit apprehensive about getting in. Like everyone else, I’ve seen the videos of the sharks breaking the cage, and you can’t watch something like that and not have a bit of fear in the back of your mind. But, once I got over my apprehension, I absolutely loved being in it. Seeing the sharks swimming in their natural environment and knowing that at any point you can literally be surrounded by great whites is exhilarating. When they swim by the cage, you see them looking at you, trying to decipher what you are. Occasionally, they do bump and bite the cage, but it’s not an attack, more like an investigation. They really are quite fascinating!

Unfortunately, not everyone sees the beauty of these creatures. Most focus on the negative aspects, particularly the media. A few weeks ago there was a fatal shark attack in Fish Hoek, a small village about 30 minutes from Cape Town. I happened to have been there that day, but I left before the attack occurred. While I was there, though, I stopped to talk with one of the shark spotters, and mid-conversation he received a call saying a 4-5 meter shark had been seen in the area. It is believed that same shark later killed and devoured a swimmer in chest deep water. I’m not saying that the attack was a good thing; on the contrary, I wish the attack hadn’t happened. However, it was the media’s response that was brutal. At first, they focused on the facts, stating how the attack occurred and what responses were executed. Yet, papers weren’t selling as much as was preferred, so they began exaggerating the attack, claiming it was a coldblooded, 5 ton, dinosaur-size killer who launched the man up in the air before dragging him down to his death. For starters, great whites don’t weigh more than 2 tons and they definitely aren’t dinosaur-size. Moreover, if the man was chest deep in the water, it’s not physically possible for the shark to have launched him in the air. That only happens when they breach, and the sharks have to be in much deeper water to do that. Yet, the media doesn’t care; they’re more concerned with obtaining attention grabbing headlines than presenting the facts. As a result, the already damaged reputation of the great white shark and all sharks in general, faces the possibility of even more destruction.

Sadly, I only have two days left in Gansbaai; I leave for Nice, France on Saturday. If I could do my study abroad planning all over again, I would spend at least another month here, maybe two. I really enjoy being with the sharks, and my time here has been well above my expectations. Yet, I still have one goal left…touch a great white shark. Guess I have two more days to try!

Gansbaai, South Africa
Thursday, February 04, 2010

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