Swimming with the Sharks... Literally

“Down!” our guide yells, I thrust my body under the water, hook my feet under the yellow pole, and grab the handle on the cage just in time to see a great white shark swimming like a torpedo directly at me. For a moment I am paralyzed with fear—the shark is mere feet from my face! It angles right and disappears from view. I come up for air and give a yelp, fear now replaced with excitement, and I prepare for the sharks next pass.

I am in Gansbaai South Africa. Here, hundreds of sharks search the cold waters for their favorite food: seals. You may not have heard of Gansbaai, but it is famous. It has one of the highest concentrations of great white sharks in the world, and is not far from Seal Island where many famous, incredible shots of sharks jumping out of the water were taken. Gansbaii is conveniently located near Cape Town if you find yourself needing something to do maybe cage shark diving could be it.

Cage shark diving is not without its controversy. I have always been torn as to whether cage shark diving was ethical. In essence you lure an animal to you with food. Something I generally hate and avoid in any other eco-tour context. Additionally some argue that cage shark diving allows sharks to associate boats and people with food. Although there have been more shark attacks in the area in recent years this explanation is unlikely. Finally cage shark diving arguably generates a lot of income and creates an economic incentive to protect sharks and their habitat. With all this in mind I decided I would give cage shark diving a go.     

If you are staying in Cape Town, many of the cage shark operators will come and collect you early in the morning. I was however, staying in nearby in Hermanus, a place famous for it’s wine and whales. I woke up early and headed across the bay to the small town of Gansbaai. The town itself seems like a small coastal fishing village—imagine Cape Cod-meets-South Africa. I pull up to the harbor and park in front of Shark Lady, the cage shark tour operator I selected from the half dozen that work the area. Inside, I am welcomed with some breakfast and an orientation to cage shark diving.

I had imagined cage shark diving would entail putting on scuba gear, being thrust into a cage and dumped into the sea waiting for sharks to try and tear open the cage and consume me. I was wholly unprepared for that, since I have never scuba dived in my life and wasn’t keen to learn under those conditions. Luckily, cage shark diving in Gansbaai is a more pedestrian affair. I was put in a cage, yes, but the cage was at the surface of the water and was firmly secured to the side of the boat. No scuba gear was necessary because it was easy to pull your head out of the water to take a breath. Kind of like snorkeling, but you don’t swim.

The weather wasn’t particularly good and so I had considered cancelling, but I only had this day to see great whites and I didn’t know when the opportunity would strike again. The waters were choppy, making visibility poor. The boat plied through the bay, while the tour operators “chummed” the water to attract sharks. As the name suggests, chum is a disgusting mix of fish parts and blood. Someone at the back of the boat was pouring liberal amounts of it in the water making a “chumline.” A shark would hopefully hit the “line” and then start to follow it to the source—us! The water off the coast of Gansbaai is cold. Imagine San Fransisco and the Bay area cold! Me and the other guests were all in full body wet suits sitting on the deck looking for any signs of sharks.

A shark spotter used his keen eye to spot the first shark of the day. I missed seeing it, and was disappointed, but others on the boat saw it and a few suddenly realized that in mere minutes we would be in the water with one of these. The shark spotter threw a black paddleboard cut into the shape of a seal out in the water. We learned earlier that sharks see the silhouette and will strike from below. And it turns out this was not an exaggeration! Seconds after the board hit the water, a small 8-foot shark lunged out of the water attempting to devour the paddle-board. However, our shark spotter was quick and managed to pull the board free. He worked the shark for a few minutes as the first group prepared to get into the cage. We all exchanged glances—everyone was starting to look a little nervous.

Soon it was my turn. Getting in and out of the cage is simple and there is room for about 4 people shoulder-to-shoulder. I found it comforting that I wasn’t alone. The water was freezing cold, but the adrenaline had started to flow, which helped me forget the cold. The shark spotter worked his magic, coaxing a shark too and fro, trying to bring it closer to the boat. Did I mention the visibility was poor? This meant that we actually couldn’t see the sharks very well under water, but it also added a layer of intrigue because we didn’t know where the shark was until the last second. A few times, a great white barreled toward us, and for a brief moment we all watched in awe and fear of this powerful beauty.  Every time I thought the shark would ram the cage and try to tear me out of the cage, but it didn’t. That is, until the last pass.  On the last pass, the shark came a half foot closer to the cage, opened its incredible jaws, and made moves to bite the cage right in front of the person beside me! At the last second the shark’s mouth snapped shut, just missing the steel bars of the cage and the seal decoy it was chasing.

Whew!

Out of the water and back on the boat I exchanged a few high fives with the others that were in the cage with me. Although I am a solo traveller, on this voyage we all bonded over this powerful experience. Even though the weather wasn’t great and visibility was poor, we actually saw six different sharks, and we all got up close and personal with the most feared predator in the world. I had always loved and respected sharks, and this trip helped solidify those feelings.

 

 

A Trip to Ankarafantsika National Park


Ankarafantsika National Park, Madagascar -- "With their white hair and their black faces, they look like little old men wearing masks," says primate-researcher Keriann McGoogan. "When they're clinging to a tree and staring back at you, they are so cute! But then you see them move . . . and wow!"

She gestures towards a group of lemurs leaping, twisting and bounding across an open space in Madagascar's largest national park. About ten sifaka lemurs, an animal that can be found nowhere else in the world, are bouncing around an area that serves as a parking lot, looking for a place to rest or feed. "They look like kangaroos practicing kung fu," says McGoogan, a PhD researcher from the University of Toronto. "But if they want, they will be gone in a flash. And just try to follow them in the forest. There, they can really move."

 Group of Coquerel's sifaka. Photo by Travis Steffens

Group of Coquerel's sifaka. Photo by Travis Steffens

Welcome to northwestern Madagascar, home to some of the most extraordinary creatures in the world. Here you can find colour-changing chameleons, spiky tenrecs, birds sporting Mohawk haircuts, and eight species of lemurs, among them the Coquerel’s sifaka that McGoogan is studying.


She is spending a year in the park, which is essentially a tropical dry forest extending over 1300 square kilometres. Most visitors come for two or three days -- just enough time to see dozens of birds, most of the lemur species, and the always entertaining chameleons.

 Crested drongo. Photo by Travis Steffens

Crested drongo. Photo by Travis Steffens



The typical tour begins near the parking lot at reception, where visitors can find Malagasy guides, whom speak French and English. They lead the way past the leaping lemurs and birds that will put you in mind of 1985. The Madagascar hoopoe, for example, has a colour scheme similar to that of a Bengal tiger and shows off a massive Mohawk of feathers that would make any punk rocker proud; while the crested drongo, a robin-sized black bird with a forked tail, has bangs that would embarrass Cindy Lauper.

An encounter with a chameleon might evoke a scene in a pub back home in Canada. Picture this: a large male panther chameleon, entirely black, walks with a robot-like gait -- and rather quickly, for a chameleon -- toward a much smaller female. Normally, males are brownish in colour, but when on the prowl for a female they put on their black suit.

If interested, the female will show off some bright, come-hither colours – or else, as in this situation, change colour rapidly from a bright green to a more subdued green with huge white splotches, indicating her lack of interest in this male's intentions.

Like many guys at a bar, the male chameleon is undeterred and keeps coming, probably thinking that if he is able to reach her and buy her a drink, she will change her mind. As the male approaches, the female leaves – and so begins the slowest high-speed chase in the world. In this instance, the male realizes that he has been snubbed and gives up, turning elsewhere in search of another potential mate.

From the parking lot, the guide will take you into the forest, where you will probably be greeted by another group of sifakas. These lemurs are named after the sound they utter when excitement is at hand – something like "shee fawk!" If you hear this call, look around, because maybe a group of common brown lemurs is near. These are easily found as they make a lot of noise barking and screaming, and they wag their tails to warn their fellows that you are nearby. Probably they will come down from the canopy to look you over, and leave you wondering wonder who is watching whom.

Another bizarre creature found in the forest is the common tenrec, a spiny creature that resembles a fat hedgehog. During the wet season (December to March), literally hundreds of these tenrecs rustle around in the forest, with many moms taking thirty-odd kids out for a snort through the leaf-litter in search of tasty insects. Fortunately for those keen on observing them, tenrecs have poor eyesight and, well, a certain lack of wit. If you stay quiet and still, a tenrec may walk right into you. According to McGoogan, "they sometimes run into my boot when I am trying to watch the lemurs."

A stroll through the park at night is a must. The sounds of the forest will make you feel like a kid going out for your first Halloween. This is when you will understand why lemurs are named after Roman "spirits of the dead," as their haunting yells fill the air.

 Lake Ravelobe. Photo by Travis Steffens

Lake Ravelobe. Photo by Travis Steffens

There is a boat tour on the sacred Lake Ravelobe which allows visitors to see even more birds and numerous crocodiles, and then there is a stroll to some beautiful baobab trees, or to a beautiful canyon. Not to be missed.

HOW AND WHEN TO GO:

Ankarafantsika National Park protects one of the last remaining patches of tropical dry forest in Madagascar. It is situated on a main highway (Rue de National 4) that allows easy access from either the capital city, Antananarivo, or nearby Mahajunga, which also has an airport.

The park is open year round for ecotourism. Within the park, there are well-constructed cabins, tent platforms, a restaurant, washroom facilities, and a fantastic network of trails.

Permits and guides are required to visit the park, but these can be purchased and hired on location. If you are interested in spotting birds, the best time to visit is October to December, when bird life is at its most active. The heaviest rains come from December through March. After March there are fewer visitors, the forest is much greener, and you may have the park largely to yourself. From Toronto, return airfare to Madagascar (usually via Paris) starts at around $2,200.

Travis Steffens leads active-travel tours for Backroads Inc. through Belize, Costa Rica, South Africa and Botswana, as well as in the Canadian Rockies and with Civilized Adventures in Madagascar. Travis is married to Keriann McGoogan. 

Originally published in the Nashwaak Review Vol. 22-23; Reposted from http://www.planetmadagascar.com/blog/2013/2/5/a-trip-to-ankarafantsika-national-park-madagascar