Monday, July 28, 2008

Adored Hippopotamus Gunned Down by South African Wildlife Authorities

The surfing hippopotamus, affectionately nicknamed Nkululeko (which means freedom in Zulu) and his charming story ends with a senseless, brutal tragedy on South Africa's South Coast.

In March 2008, residents of the KwaZulu-Natal Coast were delighted to find an adult hippopotamus, uncharacteristically frolicking in the water on the beaches. The lone hippo, who instantly captured the hearts of the community, is thought to have migrated from the northern St. Lucia along the coast.

Residents and visitors alike enjoyed Nkululeko's antics and quickly realized the hippo meant no harm to its neighbors of surfers, swimmers and paddle-boarders. However, it was reported Nkululeko began showing signs of stress from his numerous admirers.

The officials of the South African wildlife conservation department, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (EKZNW), who are responsible for protecting South Africa's floral and fauna, were contacted to assist the hippopotamus. However, EKZNW indicated that the hippo had no conservation value, and efforts to move the hippo, although committed to, were never executed, most likely due to the cost of the effort weighed against the perceived value of the creature. Sadly, in a country known for its wildlife, which drives considerable tourism dollars as well, a hippo is still considered "invaluable" and thus, not worthy of protection.

EKZNW reported in the beginning of July they intended to shoot the hippo, since they did not believe capture was an option. Although there was no evidence to support the claim, the Wildlife Department and the Municipality as well, alleged there was high risk of humans being harmed by the reportedly dangerous herbavoire.

On July 11th, due to the quick actions of animal rights activists, a court order was issued preventing the municipality and the wildlife department from killing the animal. Instead, conservationists were given until July 28th to capture and relocate the animal. Support was rallied from leading game capture experts all over the country, who were determined to protect Nkululeko with their experience and expertise.

Then four days later, and without proper cause or notice, Nkululeko was inhumanely hunted down and shot three times by rifle-toting EKZNW officials in the middle of the night. In an unbelievable string of events, reports miraculously surfaced that a man had been found dead and hippo tracks were nearby just mere days after the conservationists had been given permission to rescue the hippo. Suspicious given the timing, as well as the fact that no autopsy had been performed on the man – or is scheduled to be – for the next six month. The Wildlife Department acted on what appears to be based upon speculation and self-appointed "justice", killing an animal they are responsible for conserving.

The loss of Nkululeko is an international tragedy – and one that could have been easily prevented. What Is even more shocking is the fact that those responsible for protecting South Africa's treasured animals are themselves to blame for the death of the hippo.
Sadly, this incident seems characteristic of wildlife management in South Africa – a country whose environmental policies and protection, fueled by booming eco-tourism, should be setting precedence for the world. In a world in which we are racing through our natural resources at an unsustainable rate, destroying wild animals simply because we can is no longer acceptable. We are systematically destroying our precious planet and its inhabitants – critical to our very own sustainability – without compassion or care.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Raggies Return!!!

I recently crossed the Botswana border back into South Africa and got a new visa! I am fully legit until the beginning of November now. It was like Christmas morning for me.

As with any plans in Africa, everything has changed once again. Now I am headed off to stay near Aliwal Shoal (Durban) with Mark and Gail Addison in preparation for the Shark Angels premier on July 31st.

I am moving part-time to the Durban area as well… While I love Capetown, the brutal cold rains and overcast skies that are their winter are absolutely killing me. Here I sit, tanned and warm from days in Botswana and I simply cannot face going home. Plus, who are we kidding… a chance to hang out with and live with some of my favorite people (including their darling daughter who is 6 going on 36 named Ella), how can I possibly head back to Capetown now?

When Mark told me that the Raggies are back in full force, with numbers that are not to be believed, I was so excited. More than 1oo were in Cathedral, piled three and four sharks deep After years of staying away, the Ragged Tooth Sharks are finally back! (We call them Sand Tigers in the states.)

Before heading off to Sodwana, we did an amazing (and quite unusual) night dive with the Raggies. Usually skittish, at night, they literally brush up against you, seemingly desperate for contact. I couldn’t believe the change in behavior versus the dive I had done a few days prior, when I couldn’t get within five feet without them slapping their tails like a shot and bolting off. Raggies are one of my favorite sharks, graceful and misunderstood, with a mouth full of vicious looking, snaggled teeth, they are definitely more bark than bite. A little like a Shark Angel, I think…

So our first dive with the Raggies was a stunning experience. Imagine 100 - 200 aggregating like the hammerheads of Cocos. I was thrilled. Mark said he has never seen so many together - and after years of concern, they have returned in healthy full force. Today, I felt like I witnessed a little natural miracle, which came at such a perfect time, as I was haunted by a story from Shawn about the 12 longliners that are being chased off every dive site in Cocos. Seeing the sharks in such full force gave me the shot in the arm I needed to continue charging forward to save the sharks. Sometimes it seems like such a daunting task...

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Diving with the Crocodiles... Reptile Angel

I have just returned from the most amazing place on earth… The Okavango Delta in Botswana. I headed to the Delta for a real bush adventure, with my dear and most incredibly adventurous friends Gail and Mark Addison. The goal? To dive with the infamous crocodiles of the delta, yes, free of any cages. I know what you are thinking… Shark Girl is now truly insane. Maybe I even thought that a bit, before heading on the trip. But, I have always been obsessed with the Delta – and crocodiles. Let’s be honest, they scare the crap out of me. So, I thought what better way to conquer that fear?

I became one of the first people to do just that. I met a group heading to Botswana from Johannesburg. An incredible group of Brits with a Scot mixed in for good measure. We drove from Johannesburg to Maun, Botswana, and then jumped on boats for the rest of our trek. The boat ride was gorgeous as we whisked through a snaking river flanked by tall reeds and grasses and often, elephants, hippos, impalas and countless birds awaiting us around a bend. Eight hours later, with our camping and dive gear in tow, we arrived at a little island that we would call home for the next week.

Sodwana certainly was a step in the right direction, but nothing could have truly prepared me for the way we were about to spend the week. After leaving all my electronics behind (quite hesitantly I might add – I have not left my cell phone or computer behind in the last 12 years), I discovered that we were truly old-school camping. I had a tent doled out to me, a small lantern, and a bed roll and was told to make my home. The toilet was a hole in the back of the camp with a seat placed precariously over it, and our water came from the frigid river. My eyes were wide when I began imagining the bugs that I was about to come in contact with – not to mention the animals. Turns out, as the flood waters raise the water levels, the animals become “trapped” on their islands. Our island had hippos in our backyard, elephants, lions, hyenas, and buffalo – not to mention crocs.

Now I have been on safari before, but typically, there is quite a bit separating you from the wildlife. Not here – and not on an adventure with the Addisons! Hippos walked past our tents at night, hyenas sat in our camp, and elephants meandered by. The first night was torture, me in my little tent by myself whimpering and shaking with every noise. I was convinced a lion was outside waiting to rip me to shreds… or a hippo preparing to charge… or a hungry hyena with ten of his friends… How could this possibly be safe?!?! There were roars of three different lion prides that night, deep bellows of angry hippos pissed that we were sleeping in their grazing areas, and the sounds of elephants splashing about, calling to each other so closely, I thought they were actually in my tent. I was amazed and horrified all at once! I learned to love the sounds of the bush after that, but it definitely took a bit of getting used to.

Diving the Okavango Delta was something I may never forget – or be able to describe. The flood waters were rising by the minute, so we were able to explore beautiful underwater cathedrals woven of reeds of every shape and size, fanning papyrus, water lilies and about 100 other species of beautiful underwater plants and grasses. Stripped, dotted and mottle fish of every shape and size darted through the reeds, which were sometimes a kilometer or two thick. The water was crystal clear and shallow enough that the red plants glistened brightly and vibrantly, offset by the beautiful, fine white sand, silver fish and green grasses. Even though it was frigid, we spent hours free-diving, completely captivated with the thought we were exploring a place so few people would dare to venture – and one that was truly a natural work of art.

Although we tried hard to find the crocodiles underwater, they were masters at camouflage. So, while I dove in waters full of ten to sixteen foot crocodiles, I never saw a single one underwater - but I knew they were there as they slunk into the water right before I got in. I did however, see something underwater that would make most Africans’ hearts stop. Hippos. We unintentionally dove so closely to them that we actually bumped into one, giving him quite a fright. Now, while hippos seem like huge cows, they are actually responsible for more deaths than crocodiles and sharks combined. They can be extremely territorial, unpredictable and vicious. So, the last thing we wanted to meet underwater was the animal we met on countless occasions.

At one point, I came to the surface to get my bearings – having recently lost the entire group by accidentally diverting down a narrow hippo path that opened into a huge hippo pool, determined to not make that mistake again – to find a boat full of tourists eagerly snapping my picture, amazed at the crazy girl diving in what are perceived as some of the most dangerous waters in the world. Most certainly I made at least five different trip albums, imagining the tales they would tell their friends about the horned creature that was defying all logic and reason!

I did, however, have quite a fright when I woke up one day with my thigh throbbing. My lymph node was completely swollen. Turns out I had a rotting wound on the back of my heel, blood poisoning, and tick bite fever from Sodwana (I KNEW IT PAUL!). I received a good dose of bush medicine as the wound was cleaned and the flesh removed with a huge thorn from an Acacia tree while Gail (who I am so lucky to call my friend, especially now) held me down writhing in pain. Thank goodness someone had a strong dose of Cipro for me. I had wondered why I had splitting headaches and a fever for three days prior… but, that certainly didn’t keep me from diving.

Our time out of the water was just as magical. We would spend hours gliding through many different areas of the river, each with its own distinctive and equally beautiful vegetation. And, even better, we would stop at islands and hike, only feet away from the animals. Mother elephants and babies, giraffes, impalas, bush buck, hippos, buffalo, wart hogs, baboons… the list goes on and on. On foot, without any sort of protection other than our incredible guide, Eron, a river bushman who carried a spear that I was desperate for since my arrival at Maun, we were able to experience the true Africa only feet away – something I will always treasure. One day, we hiked with elephants, the next, we watched an impala leap for what seemed like hours through water deeper than his body in an incredible spectacle. Another day I was inches from a giraffe, another day was surrounded by a pack of warthogs, one of whom I had quite a tender moment with which involved kisses, and our final thrill? Tracking a pride of lions into a swampy marsh only to have the impressive and beautiful hungry, horny male lion charge us – an image burned into my mind forever. One minute he was roaring at us from 150 feet away, the next he was racing towards us only stopping at twenty feet with me in front, as I was capturing all the topside video this trip. A few lessons learned: never run when a lion charges even though it scares you to the bone. But if a hippo or elephant start charging, run like hell.

I began loving eating under the stars, falling asleep to the hippos calling to one another (probably strategizing how they would all surround my tent later and crush me to death), using the “bathroom” knowing an elephant was splashing feet away, and waking up to the screaming fish eagles. Oh, and being dirty. Yes, it was great to take some time away from washing, caring about the way I looked, using pesky hair dryers and makeup, or even looking in the mirror a single time for an entire week!

I am and will forever be Bush Barbie now. (See more pictures...)

Friday, July 11, 2008

A Dream Fulfilled

While on the Sardine Run, my new friend Paul Wildman and I hatched a plan to go to Sodwana, and since he was a camera man and I had a monthly piece due for the Underwater Channel, shoot my first segment in Sodwana. As a “face” of the newly launching broadband channel, once a month, I am responsible for delivering a captivating dive story.

But, I did not decide to go for the gorgeous lettuce coral, the amazing potato bass or the incredible macro life. No, I went for a chance of a lifetime for this shark girl. For the ability to do something that I have not been able to do in over 12 years of diving. I wanted to see a whale shark.

And it isn’t that easy… In Jacques Cousteau’s entire lifetime, he saw just two.

So, when Paul told me that a three whale sharks had been sighted during the past week only four hours away from where I was, I was desperate to take a chance, get into the water and try my luck once again. I know it is a long shot, but I had to try. I have been trying ever since I started diving to see the world’s largest and most magnificent fish…

The rest of our group on the Sards trip was extremely amused at the thought of Paul and I together in Sodwana, as unbeknownst to me, Paul’s existing plans were certainly not the type I had grown accustomed to, nor would even consider to be anything other than, well, punishment. Paul and I, were in fact, exact opposites when it came to our experiences and thus, resulting expectations of what is required for “enjoyable” travel experiences.

You see, Paul is a “bush kid”. He is one of those crazy South Africans who grew up literally eating bugs, making weapons out of things like string and sticks, and sleeping for days on end on the ground in the middle of a seething pit of snakes and bugs. When he was 12, his parents left him in the middle of the bush, miles away from anything and he not only had to fend for himself, he had to find his way home. (Personally, I think his parents may have just been trying to lose him.)

I grew up, well, surrounded by wildlife that consisted of squirrels and deer. Though I absolutely love the outdoors, I typically like to leave it behind after several hours in exchange for a hot shower and clean, cozy 400 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets. Thus, I would certainly never think of pooping in the woods as being an enjoyable experience – let alone sleeping in them. I camped quite a bit as a girl scout, but after about fourteen, I decided that I required a few minimal things: a door on my toilet (that of course flushes), hot water from a tap, lights with switches, a bug-free sleeping environment and a food supply that is free of infestation as well. As you get to know me, you realize quite quickly that this tough shark chick has a dreadful fear of two things: spiders and well, actually, most any other bug that isn’t cute (which pretty much means everything but praying mantis and butterflies.)

Paul’s version of Sodwana was staying at a “bush camp” for a week, which I found out only after already agreeing to the trip. I had been on safari in Tanzania… bush camps are really only a cute way of referring to little cottages in the woods. Right? Not so…

The bush camp was a series of shanties actually, with a communal “kitchen” which consisted of a burner and a few dirty wooden tables, one blunt knife and a few nasty pots. The bathroom, communal as well, was situated in a manner that allowed EVERYONE in the camp to hear your “business” and there was a single, sad light that illuminated the entire bath area and the entire kitchen. The huts were thatch with aluminum roofs – with dead bugs in the “window” sills and a hard, dirty cement floor. Each hut had two manky beds (if you can call a wooden slab with a piece of foam on it raised by bricks a bed) with linens I am not sure had been washed in weeks. The worst part about it was it was clear there was NO bug protection and anything that wanted to enter could easily crawl, slither, slink, fly, or buzz into my vicinity to embed itself painful into my skin at any time day or night.

My eyes were huge when I saw my “home” for six days. Paul’s were when he saw my three suitcases with things like suede boots, leather jackets and cashmere sweaters in them. (To be fair, I had NO IDEA when I came to Africa, I would be camping. I certainly would have packed a bit better otherwise.) Sadly, the nights were frigid, and I spent the first night freezing – and terrified of being attacked by some creepy crawly that would invariably give me some horrible, incurable disease which would result in the loss of at least two limbs.

But, we were there for the diving and the whale sharks, and what amazing diving it was. I quickly forgot about my accommodations when we arrived the first morning.

About 60 km south of Mozambique. Sodwana is famous for the Raggies (we call them Sand Tigers in the states), which come here during their gestation period by the hundreds in the summer. And, for its beautiful, pristine reefs that are alive with life.

Sodwana is like an undiscovered treasure – what diving probably was in places like Bonaire 40 years ago. Pristine beaches as far as the eye can see, and truly adventures South African diving from pangas and the beach. The reefs were gorgeous – and the biodiversity rivaled Indonesia. Beautiful corals, huge mantis shrimp, colorful nudibranchs, huge schools of fish… I could go on and on. Heaven.

With no whale sharks to be seen, we quickly decided to “amp” up our dives, and of course get more amazing footage, by bringing sardines on our dives with us - scratch that. By Julie bringing two tubs of sardines completely unprotected from the vicious vampire bass who followed her around like moths to a flame... moths with two inch long teeth. Bad idea for certain, but led to countless funny stories – most of which were caused by Paul’s bad advice. First, we found rays which Paul encouraged me to hand fed, only to find they were electric rays that shocked me with a piercing current. Then, we were discovered by a friendly Honeycomb Eel who began to search for us each dive we did. Paul tried to convince me to let the eel slither and rub itself affectionately on my mask, the way it was trying to do to him. I refused, so Paul showed me how it was done, only to be bitten square on the nose by the eel he told me wasn’t dangerous.

Ah, then there was Mr. Mog. Mr Mog was a Potato Bass whose mouth was as big as my head. The first time we saw Mr. Mog, I discovered him when Paul told me to swim through a sea of glass fish. I looked down and saw one HUGE eyeball looking back at me and refused to swim thru the cavern. Mr. Mog quickly discovered we had food for him, and then, he became like the golden retriever I had when I was growing up. He would beg for food, try and obtain it himself, coax us into giving it to him, then pretend to give up and dole out affection in the hopes of winning us over. However, as the days progressed, Mr. Mog became more and more territorial with the tub of sardines he brought, at one point, chasing me almost to the surface. Paul, in another moment of brilliance told me to bark at Mr. Mog. Once again, I refused, and when Paul did it, Mr. Mog became violent – swallowing Paul’s lense completely prior to an all out attack on him.

The fish followed us like we were pied pipers – and despite the drama, the experience was charged with adventure. At one point, I eagerly rushed to who I thought was my friendly eel, only to find its evil twin brother - an eel who had not eaten in days and began attacking me. Barely able to fight off its attack with my long fins, I thought the eel was going to follow me onto the boat! Paul was torn between getting the attack on tape and actually getting involved, but eventually, his good nature prevailed and he “rescued” me, only to become the eel’s prey!

We spent hours in the crystal blue waters discovering all that Sodwana had to offer, playing with our new friends, and exploring the reefs. And, scanning the blue for a glimpse at a whale shark.

That was under the water. Topside was a different story. After six days of living in complete terror of having some sort of bug on me, I was literally on the edge. Every night, at least five times a night, I would wake up hearing some sort of scurrying, forcing Paul to get up out of his bed and investigate the sound's origin. The panic grew, as I began reacting to anything that brushed my leg during the day, squealing like a pig, running around like I was on fire, and as Paul would say "getting totally girlie"...

It all came to a head one of the last days… I was exhausted after a long day of filming, and I collapsed at nine pm. At about eleven, I opened my eyes and to my horror, there was a wasp the size of a hummingbird right in front of my face. Half asleep, I tried to scramble out of bed, which was incredibly difficult because my legs were in a sleeping bag. So, as I leapt up screaming bloody murder, my legs were entangled, and it quickly turned into a face forward dive onto the concrete floor, about one and a half meters below (the beds were high probably intentionally high to keep all the creepy crawlies out.) Halfway to the floor I woke up, realizing I was caught in a nightmare but now, was somehow headed for disaster. Unfortunately, my face broke my fall although I also managed to crack the side of my head on the side of my bed on the way down. When I hit, my head and neck snapped backwards and I could hear myself groaning as the wave of nausea and then searing pain washed over me. Paul, meanwhile shot straight out of his bed yelling "Holy Shit, holy shit what is going on???" He looks down at me in a crumpled heap and then to my bed, where he told me he was convinced he would find a black mamba. He's screaming about the snake and stomping on my bed, I am screaming about the wasp and writhing on the floor, and then, he starts screaming at me when he realizes not only did I imagine the whole thing and practically broke my neck in an unnecessary manifested panic, but also that I had put him thru such torment and interrupted his sleep for the 937 time in the last week. I told him that if I lived through the night, this would be very funny in the morning. It wasn't when I looked like the victim of domestic abuse and had a splitting headache for three days.

On one of our last dives, I had forgotten my computer, so had no indication of air supply (naughty I know.) When Paul discovered we were nearly out, we decided to head to our safety stop having given up on the notion of sighting a whale shark. Then, in the distance, I saw the flash of what I thought were Jacks only to find a whale shark off in the distance waiting for me to discover it. I couldn’t believe it!!! As I raced towards it though, I couldn’t determine if I was just breathing heavily or running out of air. Turns out it was the latter, and as I reached the shark, I was literally completely out. However, I did have the composure to NOT visibly run out of air on camera as I was after all supposed to be a diving expert, giving Paul an unconventional “holy shit I need air” sign (translates into me wildly pointing at my reg with two index fingers) – which of course he didn’t understand. We lost the whale shark as I violently wrenched his regulator (where the heck was your octopus for your buddy Paul?!?) from his mouth much to his surprise.

But we both shared in a life-changing first… Our first whale shark. I finally discovered the magnificence and beauty of this graceful, spotted giant firsthand and at the same time, couldn’t help but recall painfully how much people pay for their hacked off tails and fins. It brought a tear to my eye when I thought about how many of these gorgeous creatures are slaughtered each year.

On a much more encouraging note, I also discovered Paul, who will definitely be a cherished friend for life. He was just the right mix of patience and “just quit your bitching, being a girl and do it”. A kind, caring soul with a rough "bush" exterior. And, the experiences we had as well as the time we spent together has definitely bonded us. I cannot wait for our next adventure. I just hope it includes more sharks and less camping.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Shark Barbie

My nickname is Shark Barbie. Most people call me that behind my back, but a few have made the mistake of calling me that to my face. My friend Roger Horrocks gave me the nickname, and I think he must smile his broad, mischievous smile every time I squirm in discomfort when I hear the term, knowing the annoyance he has caused.

It is amazing how a nickname can stick – particularly one you dislike. People who have just met me already seem to know it… like it is a private joke everyone is in on… but me. I have a new strategy though. From now on, instead of fighting it, I have decided to openly embrace it. Perhaps if I don’t protest so much, it won’t be as fun to tease me with and it will quickly fall by the wayside…

Funny thing is, my mom NEVER let me play with dolls (with Barbie a particularly banned toy) when I was a kid. Male-created, unrealistic, gender-based stereotypes of women as the buxom blondes who are just supposed to look good and prance around in gold lame evening dresses from the horse stables, to their pink convertibles, to daily weddings with Ken to then return to the dream house and play wife, I guess, wasn’t what my mom wanted me to aspire to. How about an adventurous blonde chick who has created and owned her own destiny, is completely independent, and is just as comfortable mashing dead sardines between her fingers to feed to sharks as she is dressing up for a fun evening with the girls on the town? Yes , I guess I am Shark Barbie. But don’t you dare say it to my face… Or my mom’s…