Sunday, May 30, 2010

New tiger shark photographs - you could also say: "Seen them before"....

I agree - however, you still might want to take a look at them.

Let me explain why I didn't bring home more photographs this time. Since I planned to stay four and a half weeks in Scottburgh, I had some 50 rolls of film with me, calculating that I would shoot some 50 images per day / dive (which was a rather modest intention when compared to the 'digital' colleagues who would normally fire 200-300 shots per dive).

I ended up using just 12 rolls of film during my ent
ire vacation in South Africa... The weather conditions were unusually bad this year: Murky waters, big waves, "wrong" winds, and "crazy" currents. What was striking, and most disappointing, however, was that the fact that we saw far less tigers than two, three years ago.

Big tiger babe with a puny wolf at play - back in 2008.
Photo: Rob Allen

Click on image to enlarge

I won't speculate why, but of all the reasons I heard - temperatures, too many black tip sharks that scare off the tigers, bait drums being placed too deeply by the shark operators - the only one that I would have found plausible is that many tigers sharks are being killed by the infamous sharks nets in the Aliwal Shoal area.

Right before I arrived in South Africa, six tiger sharks were caught on one single day (!), and killed, in the nets. So, that considerably dampened my expectations, and even though I was quite shocked, there was nothing I could do about it.

At times I even thought about cutting short my stay in Scottburg but I was afraid of taking a wrong decision. Being a 'semi-professional' schlimazel*), I would have most likely left just when the over-all conditions changed for the better... Indeed, one day before I went back home as scheduled, I had the best imaginable dive with four tigers that stayed and played with the divers.

Anyway - I have learned to be stoic: Never worry about things you cannot control or change; you can only control your mind, nothing else. Read Epitectus, and become a stoic - stoicism is a most useful and pragmatic school of philosophy.

*) Yiddish for a person who is habitually, at least chronically, unlucky.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

It's not every day you find yourself face to face with a tiger shark.

All Nick could do was read during the bad weather...

Guest post by Nick Ashley-Cooper who was with us last year at Tiger Beach:

The opportunity to meet these amazing animals arose when Wolfgang invited my girlfriend Dinah (his niece) and I to join Felix and him and a small crew of people on board a boat to Tiger Beach in the Bahamas in November ‘09. This was going to be a 7-day shark intensive trip – with opportunities to observe and interact with tigers as well as lemons and any other sharks who happened to be close by.

Initially, my reaction had been one of genuine excitement and eagerness. A chance to see sharks up close does not come around too often and I found myself captivated by the idea. However, that excitement was soon dampened by the wiki page on tiger sharks which describes them as the 2nd most deadly shark after the great white, (in terms of attacks on humans) – it all got a bit serious.  

However, you soon realize the Internet is full of terror stories about sharks and their attacks. I knew, seeing videos of Wolfgang swimming freely amongst them, that there was a way you could behave around sharks that they tolerated. After a calming chat with Felix, the nerves were back under control and the trip was underway.

There is something mysterious and intensely captivating about sharks. Years of evolution has produced an animal that is supremely adapted to its environment. They move gracefully through the water and never seemed to be bothered by our presence.

Initially, we were with the lemons who seemed far less shy and allowed us to get our confidence going. It wasn’t until the third dive that the first few tigers came along. It was an awesome experience to see them. They moved much slower than the lemons and kept their distance initially, but were much bigger. We just sat there transfixed, turning and moving with the shark to keep its gaze. It was a remarkable experience, unlike anything I have felt.

Every so often I looked over our shoulders to check we were not going to get any surprises. I remember thinking the air was going down pretty fast on my tank, so I presumed my breathing and adrenalin had been pumping. However, the irony is, under the water the world is so calm and peaceful. Once you get more adapted to the animals and the situation you feel you can stay down there all day.

The trip was hit by bad weather and we spent much of the final days on the boat. However, the initial dives had been enough to satisfy us and we both felt we had had an experience of a lifetime. My feelings towards the animals have changed dramatically since the trip. In a way, I see them much more as threatened rather than threatening. Seeing them first hand you can really appreciate what wonderful animals they are.

I feel we were in safe hands on this trip and we respected the sharks and their environment. It doesn’t take much to go wrong before you are in serious trouble, so that is a constant theme when diving with these animals, but if you respect them and learn how to approach them, then you can have a truly unforgettable experience.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Blue Wilderness - not just the Addisons...

Everybody who has been out with Blue Wilderness to dive the Aliwal Shoal tigers will acknowledge that they are a good shark dive operation.

Being busy business people, the Addisons have to rely on their on-the-spot assistants who effectively run the day-to-day dive operation to make Blue Wilderness a profitable enterprise.

I am talking about Marros "Marcus" Bafana Msanii and Muzi "James" Zikhali - Blue Wilderness' moving spirits, so to speak.

Both Marcus and James are Zulus - dependable, open, genuinely friendly, and extremely hard working individuals.

During the high season for tiger sharks (December through June) these two guys hardly ever have a day off - tourists, especially th
e local ones, go to dive with Blue Wilderness on weekends and public holidays. Contrary to that famous Greek film Venus of the sixties, Blue Wilderness cannot say: "Never on Sundays", and close the shop..... :-)

Marcus - never smiles when he is being photographed, not even when he sits next to Jifa!...
Photo: Wolfgang Leander

Marcus has been with the Addisons for more than half his life - 18 years, to be precise. Marcus knows just about everything that is needed to ensure that on every day-trip to Aliwal Shoal the guests will get the very best the place has to offer in a safe and enjoyable manner.

While I have never seen Marcus in the water (some people claim that he can't swim), I know that he has completed a PADI dive course.

Marcus is the skipper of the dive boat most of the time, helps the divers to get in and out of the water, sees to it that there is always enough bait to keep the sharks happy and close to the boat, and will drive the passengers to the right place.

Since the "right place" is not static, a GPS won't be of any use - Marcus' trusted navigation 'instrument' is that sixth sense that he has acquired by pra
ctice and much experience.

I am always amazed to hear Marcus eloquently interpret the ever changing weather conditions: Winds, currents, clarity of the water - or the lack if it - which can be told by its color from on-board, even from shore. Most of the times Marcus is right, and will hit the sharky spots - but if he doesn't he will grin and apologetically admit to me that "it's probably better in the Bahamas"... :-).

Marcus is not just an employee of Blue Wilderness - in a very concrete way he is, and helped to buid what has become, Blue Wilderness.

James joined Blue Wilderness a little over two years ago. He was already a certified dive master, one of the few black South African professional divers, and is in charge in supervising the actual dive activities.

Prior to each trip James briefs the guest divers meticulously, and tells those who have never been with the Aliwal Shoals sharks what to do when being surrounded by 30 to 40 black tip sharks, and how to position themselves when they get to see the more elusive tigers.

Dive guide James
Photo: Jean-Francois Avenier

The dive guides of Blue Wilderness prefer to do their supervising job while free-diving which makes a lot of sense: As they are normally at the surface, they have a much better overall view of all the scuba divers, and can go down to direct them if necessary.

I have been able to watch James doing his job, and was impressed right away by his free-diving ability. He moves gracefully under water, goes deep, and has an amazing breath hold capacity. James can easily stay down for two minutes. You don't think two minutes is a lot? - well, just try to hold your breath for one minute while reading this, and you'll see...

James romancing a beautiful tiger girl...
Photo: Allen Walker

Astonishingly, James is the only qualified black free-diver in South Africa but when you know that he has been trained by master free-diving instructor Hanli Prinsloo, you won't be surprised about his outstanding apnea skills.

I have never seen dive assistants as hard working as Marcus and James.

James, for instance, has to leave his home at around 4:00 am in order to be at work at 7:00 am. Getting back home takes him another three hours which he has to walk due to the lack of public transportation. Where in the world will you find people with that kind of dedication to their jobs??

So, if you think that New Yorkers who spend two hours a day commuting to work, sitting comfortably in a train are to be pitied, imagine James walking to his place of work before dawn on pitch dark roads...

Hardly anyone who goes diving with Blue Wilderness will know this, often out of sheer lack of interest in the members of the crew. At best, Marcus and James are being taken for granted. But then again, one just has to open mind and heart to discover that there are always incredible stories behind all human beings...

To me, Marcus and James are the unsung heros of this South African shark dive operation. They are two unassuming, responsible, efficient, and always helpful professionals who truly deserve a big, big applause!!

Click on images to enlarge

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Am I insatiable or what??

I got back recently from South Africa where the "tiger action" was sub-standard, unfortunately: Rough seas, winds, relatively low water temperatures, very poor visibility, few tigers, and those who showed up didn't stay, were not 'players' as the local shark operators say - it just was not what I expected.

About a week before I arrived in Cape Town, I was informed that six tiger sharks were killed when they got entangled in the infamous shark nets of Scottburgh - not a good foreboding at all...

My very last day at Aliwal Shoal, however, was fantastic: 25 m viz (the best I ever experienced in Aliwal Shoal), four tigers - plus the usual bonus of 30-40 black tips sharks. They are beautiful, 'sharky' sharks, between 1.5 and 2 meters, and their behavior always reminds me that sharks are being called 'pesce cane' (dog fish) in vernacular Italian. The black tips are like a bunch of lovely, completely non-aggressive dogs, especially when they 'infest' the waters!

Yet the underrated black tips pale, indeed become almost irrelevant when the first tiger shark arrives at the scene, attracted by the chum and bait. I am not being a shark racist but that's just the way it is - for me and most other folks. Tigers simply spoil you.

It is impossible to get used to the sensation you feel when the tigers swim by intensely looking at you. I simply refuse to believe that they do so to check you out as potential prey; such observation is sheer non-sense, uttered by people who don't know.

Tiger sharks look at you, and approach you, calmly, because they are just as curious as you are when you see other creatures. No other reason. Or do you perhaps think of a succulent dish when you get to see a pig in a barn or in the wild? No, you most likely don't, even if you weren't Jewish...

Tigers are the most majestic sharks: Gentle, sure of themselves, inquisitive, yet cautious, and if judged by their dark, large eyes they look highly intelligent. All tiger sharks look intelligent which is not what can be said about many (most?) humans... :-)

So, anyway, here I am back in Bolivia, already looking forward to my next tiger shark adventure later this year - not in South Africa but in the incredibly clear waters of the Bahamas, and as if my good friend Der Playbird, aka Paul Spielvogel, could have sensed my joyful anticipation, he sent me some very sharp photographs today, to "brighten my day" as he put it.

"Brighten my day"? Boy, yes, alter Playbird, you could say THAT!!!

When I look at these images that were taken back in 2008, I KNOW what happiness means to me - there is nothing that could make me happier than swimming with tigers, touching them gently, marvelling at them, just being in their realm for hours and hours in a row, not getting tired, let alone bored.

Ohmygosh, I wrote more than I wanted to... Sorry! I tend to babble...Now have a look at the Spielvogel photographs, and enjoy them:

Tigers are just so very responsive - they are simply the coolest sharks x far!

No!! I am not trying to ride her. Just comfortable being so close to her - she must have felt likewise, otherwise she would not have put on that smile on her face!! :-)

I know, I know - some people disapprove of touching wild animals - well, I don't. What can I do?... I love it, and I know I don't hurt them.

Hmmmm - this babe just didn't want me to get too close to her - happens, especially with guys my age.... Hehehehehehe!!

When I lived in the Bahamas (1974 - 1980) the Ministry of Tourism came out with a new catchy slogan: "It's better in the Bahamas" - definitely not an exaggeration as you can see...

Click on images to enlarge

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Oil Spill...

I have been following the oil spill but have not written about it on this blog because there are so many great resources online.  Definitely not going to use this post to get into the politics / public relations / impact of this disaster – I believe that those directly and indirectly responsible and affected will come up with a solution…hopefully a speedy one.

There are a few resources and tools that I have been using to stay informed aside from the news.  Patric (Shark Divers) has been diligently covering the topic and has dedicated a part of his blog to the spill.  The other resource that can be used by people to help is Gulf Coast Spill.  Several options to report sightings on the coast that will be beneficial to officials… 

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Amazing shot, Felix!

Photo: Felix Leander

Click to enlarge

Clean, minimalistic, essential.

What else can I say? Not more than this: Keep practising - you're definitely getting there!!

Deep love - the husky way.

Photo: Jean-Francois Avenier

Click to enlarge

I love huskies, and I believe they love me - at least that is what I can say about the two huskies I know: Lupi, my dog, and Machin, Jifa's dog.

While Lupi is comparatively mature, well, sort of, Machin is still a kid, and has yet to learn that love bites are not supposed to go deep, as it were. Apart from that, cute and basically very gentle Machin could not know that I bleed easily as I am on blood thinners.

Machin expressed his affection for his distant relative twice, and gave me love bites on each forearm which needed appropriate first aid: Dressings - and some licking!!! :-)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Spearing a nurse shark?

Ken Navaroli - owner of Boca Dive shop with Nurse Shark

Posted on ScubaBoard was a long discussion about the dive shop Boca Dive and particularly a photo (see above) that was on the shop's website under the spearfishing section.  It depicts the owner with a small nurse shark - apparently wounded from a spear - this is illegal in Florida waters.  

The photo has since been removed from the website, however, the threads are still there for you to read (here and here) so you can make up your own opinion...

I definitely do not condemn spearfishing (I have done it, and still do it occasionally). However, it should be done responsibly - but the above is really just unacceptable... 

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Second choice -

Reflecting on Tiger Beach
Photo: Wolfgang Leander
November 2009
Click to enlarge

... or so I thought when I looked at this negative for the first time.

Today, I scrutinized it again, and now I don't think it is such a bad image.

Actually, I like it enough to share it with you, dear reader.

Just looking at it makes me want to be back with my striped friends. Gotta be a bit patient, though...

My next trips to Tiger Beach will be in November of this year.

I am planning to do at least two back-to back trips, probably three.

Would you like to join me? Here are the details:

My diving method at Tiger Beach is "FILO" (= first in, last out). I normally dive there 8 hours non-stop, and if you asked me what I'd do when I have to pee, well, then I would tell you that there are two types of divers: Those who pee in their wetsuits and those who lie about it... :-)