Saturday, May 31, 2008

Shark Angel

Can you imagine Julie Andersen more angelical than she looks here?

Well, I could - give her aquatic wings and a monofin. She normally dives with tanks - and looks like all scuba divers look in the liquid element - awkward.

Some people convinced Julie during her recent trip to South Africa to go, rather swim, freely. She has not done badly as you can see. All she needs know is some expert training in freediving.

I could see tons of guys out there, freediving world champs included, just dying to teach Julie the art of breath-hold diving. What you can't see in this pic is that Julie looks as hot as a 'real' angel... :-)

The only person I could think of teaching Julie how to freedive well and without any sort of distraction (hahaha!!) is Hanli Prinsloo, a passionate South African freediving champ who is a fully qualified instructor.

More about Hanli soon in this blogspot.

Monday, May 26, 2008

In videography there are the many and the few - Mark Harding is one of the few.

Mark Harding videographing a Tiger Shark in Aliwal Shoal

Click on image to enlarge

The videos you normally see in the internet (YouTube) are, well, how should I put it nicely? - OK, they are made by amateurs who think that quality does not matter as long as people have something to watch.

I'd say 98% percent of the clips you see in YouTube are that kind of amateur videos. Very, very rarely does one come across a clip that is outstanding.

I found such a jewel. I will not say what it is about. Let me just tell you what my reaction was when I saw the video. I was glued to the screen, and was mesmerized by the cinematography, the sound track, and by the haunting images, some tender, some gruesome.

Above all it was the sincerity of the message that captivated me. Nothing about the man behind the camera. You don't know who he is, yet he guides you in such a way that you feel he is actually next to you showing you what he sees.

My young buddy Mark Harding made the clip. Mark is a videographer, and he loves wildlife. His passions are sharks and mantas. Conserving them has become an obsession for him.

This guy is one of a kind: He is modest, sensitive, genuine, without any ego issues whatsoever. Mark is a committed, unpretentious professional. And he has the type of humor I like best: He'd rather laugh at himself than at others.

Enjoy the clip, and read Mark's blogs. They will tell you a lot about him.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Shark Diving at Blue Wilderness goes Free

Record freediver William Winram dancing Paso Doble with a striped beauty

(Photograph by Felix Leander, 2008)

Mark Addison pioneered Tiger Shark diving in South Africa some 25 years ago, and has since become one of the most experienced and respected shark dive operators world-wide.

Those who have seen Mark in last year's Shark Week program ("Deadly Stripes")* will perhaps recall that he normally freedives with his gentle striped pets. He does so because he has long ago found out that only freedivers can interact with sharks in a truly non-obstructive and close way.

This year, Mark and his charming wife Gail will introduce free-diving courses at their base. Blue Wilderness will thus be the first shark operation on the globe to formally teach scuba divers how to freedive with sharks.

Congratulations, Gail and Mark: That will be yet another pioneering step forward in shark diving!!

Now, the teacher won't be just anyone - the Addisons are lucky to have a world-class freediver to run the courses: Hanli Prinsloo, South African freediving champion.

Not unlike Tanya Streeter, a former world champion, Hanli is a petite, almost fragile looking young woman. But make no mistake: This lady is extremely disciplined and has a will of iron. I have seen her diving once, and could only marvel at her - Hanli is a true mermaid, she moves, rather flows, with a grace and lightness that defies description.

Who should take freediving lessons? Everybody who loves the ocean. All you need is to be in good shape.

I will take a course with Hanli next year, as I am sure she will be able to teach me how to improve my freediving skills by at least 30%, if not more, in no time.

As we say in German: "Man lernt nie aus" (= You never stop learning).

*) I can't hold back: What a completely misleading, utterly sensationalistic title for a documentary about tigers sharks!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Unusual dinner

So we usually hear stories about sharks attacking humans in Australia - what about crocodiles attacking sharks? Turns out this croc decided to have a shark for dinner - and not just the fins. Crocodiles usually drown their prey, seems like this one was smart enough to suffocate his.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Shark Diving - "Up Close and Personal"

Steven Benjamin, Marine Biologist and Shark Guide at Blue Wilderness, South Africa

Pierre Frolla, four times Freediving World Champion.

If that is what you want then you should freedive / snorkel. Just look at the photographs - need I say more?

Most sharks will come up to the surface. Sure, you have to use bait to attract them, so what? Baiting does not hurt the sharks, and if you have been told that it makes them more aggressive toward divers as they would associate food with people - don't believe it. It's a myth, to put it nicely.

Sharks go after food, not after divers - but they come closer to you when there is some food in the water. The good thing is that YOU won't smell the stinky carcasses that lure in the sharks... :-)

Years ago I felt that as a freediver I didn't belong into today's high-tech diving world anymore. If people decide to take up diving lessons, it would not even occur to them to become freedivers. However, I find it gratifying to see that more and more ocean lovers discover the joy of freediving - the purest way to dive.

I have met more freedivers than scubadivers in South Africa recently, and the few scubadivers like Georgia Hayes and Julie Andersen who were with us freedivers quickly discovered that that there really is no diving like freediving, especially when it comes to shark diving.

So, gals 'n guys, forget the tanks, and trust the power of your lungs!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Have you kissed a shark?

Samuel Gruber does not need any introductions - he is pretty much synonymous with sharks. And while the Doc has been researching sharks for over 40 years, he has also developed a very deep relationship with these animals. I think the sequence above sums up his love for sharks.

The photos were taken by Tristan Guttridge
. Says the Doc: "This mama gave birth to 14 pups, all filmed by National Geo. We took each one to the mangroves, measured, weighted and released after taking a small fin clip for DNA."

I believe it was just Samuel's birthday - two days ago - HAPPY BIRTHDAY.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Jifa and Mathilda - the tiger shark girl who loves to collect cameras

Photograph: Wolfgang Leander
Click to enlarge

Jifa (left) explaining to Wolf how to fend off a 4m tiger shark with a burning cigarette.
Photograph: Felix Leander
Click to enlarge

Jifa is old school French (down to earth, elegant, "foenny" - verrrry French, much like Yves Montand or Jacques-Yves Cousteau) and lives in South Africa, in Hermanus, to be precise. Why South Africa? Ahhhhh, bon alors.... let me make a VERRRRRY long story VERRRRRRY short:

Jifa loves great white sharks, and his friend Andre Hartmann suggested that he should move to White Shark country, which is what Jifa did about six years ago.

I have known Jifa virtually through a shark-list, and after exchanging a few private mails and seeing how combative and critical Jifa is, I thought I should get to know this interesting European guy.

Jifa knew about my plans to go back to South Africa in March 2008, so we decided to meet. That happened about two months ago at the airport in Cape Town. We recognized each other right away, both greying old farts, both rather slim, both wearing sharky T-shirts, and we greeted each other as good old friends do - with a big hug and a kiss!

You can think whatever you want: We are not .... OK? :-)

Anyway. Jifa joined me about three weeks later in Tiger Shark country (Umkomaas / Scottburgh). He had never dived with tigers, and was probably - how should I put it? - a bit apprehensive of the alleged danger "man-eating" tiger sharks pose according to all those shark experts who have never dived with these gentle beasts.

Our first joint dive was rather unusual. Jifa had to fix a new and extremely complicated mask with earflaps, and meticulously check his old camera, a venerable Nikonos V, on the inflatable rubber boat which took him about 40 (forty!!) minutes.

He should have done all that at the hotel, right? He didn't. You have to know that Jifa is: 1) a perfectly chaotic person, and 2) at the same time a completely chaotic perfectionist - difficult to understand??? Well, I do as I am just like him in those respects, and in some others, too...

Back to our first joint dive: I was in the water playing with, and photographing, the tigers girls long before Jifa finally felt that he was ready to join everybody else, armed with his flashy orange colored camera.

I don't think I have ever seen a shorter dive in my whole life - Jifa cautiously slipped into the water, looked down on his camera, doing something, probably re-checking the pre-set focus, and the next thing I saw was good olf Jifa fending off a 4 m tiger shark who wanted to grab his Nikonos. He then rushed back to the boat with an almost invisible thread of blood trailing behind him! This all happened in a matter of maybe 45 seconds.

For the sake of authenticity, here is Jifa's own account of that memorable tiger shark encounter:

Right back from Umkomaas where I had the utmost pleasure to dive with Tiger sharks, our Wolfgang and his son Felix (yes, all together!) on Aliwal Shoal, I believe it is my duty to inform members of this group about a shark "attack" which oddly enough came unnoticed to 'The Sun'. Which is a shame, even a scandal, especially because the victim was no other one than me (well, mainly my Nikonos camera, but anyway... ).

And so, on my very first day of diving, I was the very last one to
enter the water after an awfully long preparation and checking (and double-checking and triple-checking) of a new mask supposed to protect my right ear-drum, three times perforated over the last nine years and thus quite fragile.

Because of the necessity of getting
used to this mask, I had decided to start with free-diving rather than scuba, as initially planned. Immediatly, I was under the charm of tens and tens of Blacktips (Carcharhinus limbatus) graciously "balleting" through a crystal clear (and deliciously lukewarm) water, and having not seen sharks "live" since a hell of a long time (for frustrating but unavoidable business reasons, I have unfortunately been spending much more time in front on my computer screen than underwater these last years), I started to photograph them.

One shot, then re-arming (for those not
in the knowledge, the Nikonos V is a non-reflex non-digital camera, and you need to re-arm after each shot), a second shot, then re- arming... and impossible to bring the viewfinder to my eye! Considering that the camera was probably 30 cm/1 foot from my face, all I could see was a wide white stripe above the camera, that I successfuly managed to push away with my left hand without having to apply a huge strength.

The camera was back to its legal owner, but
the white stripe was still there and I pushed it again, and it disappeared. I believe I was smiling around my snorkel as it was reminding me of a young dog jumping at a sandwich just before you bring it to your mouth (my old husky was simply brilliant at this game when he was a teenager).

Somewhere in the very bottom of the spongious thing which
is my brain, a sensor had registered that, for a Blacktip, the lower part of this snout was weirdly not pointed, and amazingly wide. But, as my main concern was to get my camera back, it remained some kind of unnoticed by the main unit... And I went my way, ready to take a breath and go down a little bit, when I felt a little pricking on my right third finger.

This time, my
brain was fast, as I had the time to think "Oh sh...t!" before even looking at it. It was bleeding, and quite profusely. OK, I know that the story of human blood attracting sharks is nowadays almost unanimously considered as a legend, but I decided that I had a slight problem with the "almost", that, at this very moment, I didn't feel like contributing to the dispelling of this myth, and that, considering my trip to Umkomaas, 36 hours earlier, had ended with an exploded tyre and two hours of waiting at night in a quite "touchy" area (some humans are far more dangerous than sharks), my private luck tank was possibly in need of a small refilling, and I made it back to the boat.

Overall duration of this first "dive": probably one minute, and I
hadn't seen one single Tiger.

Thank you Mathilda!

Mathilda? Of course I had seen a Tiger, and really close. It is only
when Wolf came back on the boat for reloading his own Nikonos that I learnt the author of this savage aggression was a 4 metre female Tiger shark, as he had witnessed everything! She was right under the surface when I entered the water, and I only looked under myself. Then she came to me from behind and then underneath, so I never saw her (but her snout... ).

Wolfgang was not 100% positive, it might
also have been Dartboard (a nickname earned through numberless taggings), but Mathilda had already stolen two cameras within the previous two weeks, so it is quite difficult not to suspect her first... Maybe she decided to start a private collection, or she doesn't like to be photographed or filmed? The truth is most likely that she's very investigative and is attracted to sun reflections on lenses.

It finally happened that, despite being quite deep, the cut didn't
need any stitches, and I was of course back in the water the day after, with a surgical plastic glove under the normal underwater one - still this thing about blood.

I'm not afraid of sharks, but some
old ideas are hard to completely chase away, sorry :-). It seems I will finally keep a small scar. But I'm afraid it will not be very helpful for my macho ego, as nobody will believe that a hardly 1 cm/half an inch one is the result of a 4M/13ft Tiger shark "bite"...

The truth is of course that I cut myself on a tooth rather than have
been bitten, and the most amazing point is the gentleness and accuracy of this bite, which was actually an investigative mouthing. The slight scratches on my Nikonos body (not on the lens, thankfully : a 15 mm is quite expensive!) are extremely superficial, and it is only because my hand was on it that it got "bitten".

I have checked that you don't get a substantial premium when
declaring an unprovoked shark attack, and I feel too lazy to write to 'The Sun' (pity, because I'm pretty sure they would have made me worldwide famous!), so the story of this horrendous shark attack will remain between us.

Last but not least, to all shark interested people : do go and dive
in Aliwal Shoal, by all means. Free or/and scuba diving, never mind. If you're not already, you will come back in love with Tigers. With Blacktips as well, but it's very unfair to them, as they're beautiful and not that small sharks (around 2M/7ft) : as soon as you see your first Tiger, you don't even notice them anymore!

Jifa (= Jean-Francois Avenier)

Why don't such breath-taking shark 'incidents' ever happen to me??? That's not fair!! :-)

Another friend of mine, Folkart, a Teutonic 2m giant with hardly any shark diving experience, once had the rare pleasure of having been mouthed rather lovingly by a female tiger shark double his body size.

The 4m girl actually had Folkart's torso in her huge mouth - and only left her teeth marks without even biting through his 5mm wetsuit. *) A neoprene dive suit is not really an effective shield against tiger shark bites when you consider that these creatures can shred turtles into pieces with their powerful jaws.

I dive with these large sharks 'up close and personal' - and I mean really 'up close', like kissing their heads, but they hardly react to my affectionately fondling them. It is as if I would not exist for them. I don't even get a threatening posture from the striped beauties.

As I always say, indifference hurts more than aggression...... :-(

Greetings, Jifa, mon bon ami, I am looking forward to sharing some more unique shark dive adventures with you in the future!!

*) I don't know whether Folkart bought a new wetsuit - probably not. Folkart is a relatively well-to-do guy, but he is also a Swabian, and Swabians are known to be the German version of Scots - obsessively austere and thrifty folks, to put it nicely. So, if you ever meet Folkart diving somewhere, chances are that you will see the souvenir of that remarkable tiger love bite on his worn wetsuit....

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Riedenschild Dark Diver Pro Watch

James Newell

I am really excited - I just received my new dive watch, the Dark Diver Pro 3rd Edition from Riedenschild. While in South Africa, I met James Newell, a former Special Forces operative turned "watchmaker" - he is the owner of several watch brands including Riedenschild (based in Germany). James actually lives in Germany now, he has even become a German. He also loves to dive and has become good friends with Fred Buyle and the rest of the freediving crew - who was filming a special on freediving and sharks for French television.

The watch is all in black and comes with two straps (stainless steel and rubber). The yellow on the dial is a great touch and the two screwed crown caps with security links make the watch look all the more rugged
. I also love the fact the the logo is that of a shark. Definitely check out their line - the watches are priced very competitively for the quality and craftsmanship - from what I hear the prices will be going up.

Upcoming projects:
Together with Fred Buyle, Riedenschild are developing the "Ultimate Diver" limited edition. James, Will, Fred, and Pierre have also formed a new group called "The Watermen" - really curious as to what that will be.

Get one while they last...

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Felix did it!!

After Felix flooded his video camera, I gave him, full of compassion, one of my Nikonos V so he would have something to do underwater. I thought, OK, a beginner - what can you expect? Let him just play with the toy and have some fun.

Felix photographed sharks for the first time in his life - and look what came out!! Not only did he take some excellent shots such as the ones featured here but two of his pics have already been printed in a rather traditional London newspaper ("The Jewish Chronicle").

It took me decades before my shark photographs were good enough to be regarded as acceptable - and here comes my little boy, grabs a camera, shoots big tiger shark mamas on film - and gets published. Damn!!!

Well, some have to work hard, others are - what should I say? - lucky? talented? I guess Felix is a talented lucky duck. Whatever - I am mighty proud of him.... :-)

Friday, May 02, 2008

Pierre Frolla - the Michael Schumacher of Freediving

Pierre flirting with "Ella"
Photo: Wolfgang Leander (2008)
Click on image

Pierre Frolla was not seven times world champion, only four. That in itself is most remarkable as competitive freediving has got to be one of the toughest disciplines, and largely depends on exceptional physical and mental fitness.

We met Pierre and his buddies (Fred Buyle, William Winram, Jerome Espla and his wife, and Christophe Vyncke) in South Africa recently where they were doing a documentary for the French TV.

I loved being around these guys, very down to earth, very refreshing, very European. Pierre has no inhibitions innocently exhibiting his
loulou (= family jewels) in front of girls - I did that, too, in my prime years.... The young man is gregarious and loves to entertain large groups of people, he likes to rigoler, and is just 'foen' to be with.

'Foen'? Well, that is how Pierre, and all Frenchmen, pronounce 'fun'. Now you know how it sounds when Pierre uses the very common and widely known English four letter word --- hahahaha!

Pierre fell in love with the tigers right away, as did all the others.
Un coup de foudre - love at first sight. Verry passionate and ssedoective seesse Frrench loevers, just as they are supposed to be. Just look how graceful Pierre moves in front of Ella, our huge tiger Lady, as if to tempt her...

Indeed, Pierre impressed Ella so much that she let him hold on to her dorsal fin once long enough to take him down to 32 m.

Another world record!!
Incredible!!! A breath-hold diver reaches a depth of 32 m attached to the fin of a 4,5 m Tiger shark!!

I have seen it - well, not all the trip as in about 15 m Ella and Pierre disappeared into the murky abyss of Aliwal Shoal.

I know that tiger sharks don't eat people - still, I was kinda relieved to see Pierre surfacing after about a minute or so.... :-)