|My Experience with White Sharks
by Paul Kemp
Upon arriving in Gansbaai to commence a two-week stay as a research assistant for the ‘White Shark Trust’ my initial impression was one of warmth. This was for two reasons. First, after a very wet Scottish winter (wetter than usual, and usual is pretty wet!) it was great to feel the heat of the African sun on my face. The second reason was due to the warmth of the welcome extended to me by Michael and Tracey Scholl, and Jenna Cains (a true Scottish researcher also escaping the rain) who had arrived in Gansbaai two weeks earlier.
The ‘White Shark Trust’ is essentially based upon conducting good science in a warm and friendly atmosphere. The two research assistants, each usually staying for one month, live in a self-contained apartment overlooking Gansbaai harbour. The sunsets will never be forgotten. Michael Scholl (the project leader), his wife Tracey, and their dog Billy live directly downstairs, a set-up that contributes to a friendly, family atmosphere when on land. When at sea, on the research vessel Lamindae, it is teamwork that is the name of the game. Each person has his or her role to play when the sharks come.
With some imagination enhanced by the "larger-than-life" personalities among the tour operators and scientists alike, you can easily feel as if you are somehow part of a movie once you leave Kleinbaai harbour and go to sea. Indeed, a great deal of talk revolves around the imminent arrival of the next natural history film crew and how the acquisition of novel film footage might be achieved. However, it is the Great Whites that are the real stars. It is hard to express in words the feelings associated with seeing a very large Carcharadon carcharias up close for the first time. The fish may nonchalantly swim past the stern of the boat, giving the impression that it is you that it is staring directly at with its large black eyes that will role back into its skull as it attempts to take the tethered bait. It is an awesome fish, yet despite its fearsome and much maligned reputation, I never felt any malicious intent on its part. That was lucky for me. Occasionally, the shark will take the bait that has been used to tempt it close enough to the boat to take the "all important" photos of its dorsal fin. On such occasions a struggle ensues between the bait handler, who is often affectionately referred to as the "master-baiter", and the large chunk of meat (usually tuna or cow shark) that has been tethered to the boat by a length of rope. Sometimes the bait is retrieved. Sometimes the shark gets its reward. The role of bait handler is pivotal at such times as it can be an expensive business if too many large pieces of fish are lost to sharks. I usually lost the bait.
During my visit I was also lucky enough to get close up to a Great White whilst in its own domain from the comfort of a cage. Again, my words can not do justice to this experience, but the memory will stay with me for the rest of my life. The Great White is a truly fantastic animal. The grotesque images of the landed specimens caught as trophies that adorn the pages of the multitude of books written about this fish mask its real beauty apparent only when it is alive and in its own environment. Only then do the adaptations of an extremely efficient hunter that can attack and kill highly mobile prey become obvious. A more apt description of this fish can be seen on the backs of people who frequent Kleinbaai harbour, bearing the logo ‘White Shark 7,000,000 years of ocean balance’.
When asked by Michael to write a short passage describing my stay at Gansbaai, I was originally somewhat reluctant. Not, as is usual due to my laziness, but because I knew it would be difficult to transform into words the feeling and memories I have for Gansbaai, the people, and the sharks. I was surprised that after only two weeks a place could have had such a profound effect. I loved it. One day I hope to return and see my friends and the Great Whites of Gansbaai.
Thank you, Michael, Tracey, Jenna, and the Rutzen clan. See you soon.
Rooinek (Paul Kemp: Feb 16 March 02, 2002).
Various quotes from my two week stay (although you probably had to be there at the time for any of them to make sense!):
- "You’re going to need a bigger boat". Most appropriate piece of plagiarism from the film, Jaws.
- "Sorry, but my wife says I’m not allowed to talk to you". With reference to meeting the "Legend", Andrae Hartman.
- "Oops, I did it again". And other Britney Spears lyrics!
- "Help me! Help me! Help me!" cried Jenna in an attempt to get attention!
- "Does anyone know any more jokes?" After several hours at sea.
- "Where are the sexual organs of a shark?"
- "Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah". Has to be done in a high pitched, slightly oriental manner whilst attempting to perform extreme acts of karate.