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.

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