Sunday, June 29, 2008


The primary reason I initially decided to come back to Africa – though it has clearly been pulling me back for months – has finally arrived! It is SARDINE RUN time! Once a year, the Sardines move down the coast of South Africa as the water temperatures change, and with them comes an amazing display of predators and action. Diving gannets, humpback and bride whales, dolphins by the thousands, sharks by the hundreds and of course shoals and shoals of glistening sardines.

The past few years, the sardines haven’t "run", and the diving has been lackluster at best. But this year, early reports indicate the sardines will be plentiful and the run promises to be an incredible display.

Unfortunately, as it always seems to happen when I am in South Africa, I managed to plan a trip during a time in which they have a weather first. A few months ago when diving with the white sharks, it was winds and swells like they had never seen before. This time around, it was a flash flood. As luck would have it, the day we were set to arrive in Durban, they received an unpredicted downpour that resulted in rivers overflowing and destroying bridges and consuming highways, houses sliding down hills into the oceans, and even a plane sliding off the runway.

Now, I am a relatively tough chick and am happy (or at least begrudging at best) to dive in the rain. But what this did was far worse then a bit of inconvenience on the boat for our first few days on the run. It turned the water into a murky, mixed up chocolate syrup with no visibility and the massive amount of debris in the water combined with the destruction closed launch sites for days. But as always, we made the most of it.

Jamie and I were diving with my dear friends, Mark and Gail Addison, who run Blue Wilderness. Mark and Gail are incredibly passionate and committed to conservation, and protecting all things cherished about this planet. They are some of the most kind, generous people I have ever met, and the most knowledgeable operators - I mean, they started Sardine Run.

And, much to our delight, Jamie and I were also with a wonderful group of people. First, there was Pam, our skipper and the sweetest person you could ever hope to meet. What’s more, this was a rugged and brilliant chick, who ran her own dive tour operation while getting her Marine Biology degree. She is the type of person I wished I had grown up to become! Then, there was Mark and Sophia – a delightful couple whose passion for each other was just as strong as their passion for adventure. She had been a news photographer for years, frequently finding herself in the middle of riots and shootings. Mark is a surfer that makes boards and a professional photographer in his own right. The two of them were so funny and such a joy to be around, I just simply couldn’t get enough of them. And as luck would have it, they are best friends with my new housemate Renier, so I am going to have a chance to spend much time with them in my days to come in Capetown. They are the type of couple that gives me hope - and the type that everyone just wants to be around.

Then, there was Paul, who ran a production company in Malaysia and was soon to become my first shooter for my gig with the Underwater channel. Paul and I instantly gravitated towards one another, I suppose because we both were in similar sibling situations growing up. Paul took care of both Jamie and I, while at the same time, tormented me with all sorts of brotherly antics – which of course I loved. Finally, there was Mike, a freediver and another cinematographer/production company owner from South Africa, who was there doing a piece for Japanese television. Mike is one of those guys you used to invent when you were an 11 year old girl dreaming of the boyfriend you would invariably have when you were 20 and of course also famous and rich beyond your wildest dreams at that point... handsome, tall, athletic, funny, smart, successful, and kind. But, more importantly, (and really all that mattered to me...) Mike and I were cut out of the same cloth; we even both run Shark Conservation organizations. So, of course I couldn’t get enough of him, spending hours talking about sharks… (and yes just a few other things as well!)

The first few days, we were not able to launch, so we explored an aquarium, went horseback riding on the beach (I am the typical chick who grew up LOVING horses), discovered Port Edward and had a ball getting to know each other. Then, finally, it came time to do what we were there for – find some Sardine action!
The Sardine Run is like no other dive adventure I have been on. You literally spend hours looking for action, suited up in your wet suit on a small panga zooming around the ocean with a microlite above cluing you in on the action. It was brief and few and far in between, but when you got action, it made it all worthwhile. One day, we spent the day dropping in and freediving with pods of common nose and spinner dolphins who numbered in the thousands. It was such an amazing site to hang at fifteen feet and have dolphins whiz by you as far as the eye could see, like walking through Grand Central Station during rush hour… Another day we found the Humpbacks and I had a magical experience when two headed straight for me and I got up close and personal with some of the most majestic creatures on the planet. I was so close, I was pulled into the current they created with their enormous, barnacled bodies that glided effortlessly by.

The diving gannets were a sight to see. Beautiful above water, they turned into monstrous looking things as they pierced the surface and dove down twenty feet for a sardine. One took a liking to Jamie’s wetsuit and began incessantly attacking her arm. I nearly drowned laughing so hard.

Finally, Mother Nature delivered our bait ball. A swarming mass of sardines, encircled by dozens of bronze whaler and black tip sharks that were darting in and out of the school, flanked by dolphins whose piercing calls I could hear through my hood. Everywhere I turned there was action – even gannets diving in from above. It was hectic – and even a bit disconcerting when I found myself in the middle of it all. Sharks with their open mouths brushing my legs and zooming past my mask – spending much of their time hidden closely next to me in my blind spot. I remembered my friend Shawn’s words of caution but rather than moving away from the action, in typical Julie style, I was drawn to the middle of it! It was quite singularly one of the most incredible things I have ever experienced. I am desperate to return. And to see all my new friends again, who on this trip, all turned into family.

(Thanks to Pam, Jamie and Sophia for the great pictures...)

More photos of the African adventure.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Jamie and Julie's South African Adventure

My dear friend and fellow Shark Saver director, Jamie, has arrived in South Africa and our new adventures have begun!

They all started with me deciding to take on one of the most daunting tasks, I think I have ever taken on. I was so nervous about it, I couldn’t sleep for days… Yes, I decided to DRIVE in South Africa. Which, by the way is no easy task for someone from the states. First of all, they drive on the wrong side of the road here. Add in the fact I have NO IDEA where I am going, and that seemingly, all traffic signals, rules and speed limits seem to be just suggestions here, and you have a totally stressed out Julie. Constantly repeating the matra “You can do anything”, I decided to suck it up and rent a car. I figured I was going to have to do it sooner or later, so best reduce the factors that cause issues, and do it with an automatic transmission (who the heck can shift with their left hand???), a GPS, and a Jamie to constantly remind me what lane to be in and squeal when I got too close to cars on her side. Three hours later without any help whatsoever from my GPS who kept instructing me to turn right on a cliff and a small accident in which I lost the passenger’s side mirror, I had managed to travel the short 40 km to the hotel Jamie was staying at, so stressed out I had to sit down for a few hours and compose myself. Fortunately, things became easier as I quickly settled into my new driving style.

Jamie and I had a great time exploring Capetown – which was absolutely stunning. Think San Fransisco then multiply its beauty by ten, Then, we headed to Gansbaai again, as Jamie was desperate to get into the water with White Sharks and spend the day with the Sharkman, Mike. We only had one opportunity, given the weather, to head out to sea. Jamie was sooo excited and I was thrilled to be able to share it with her – her enthusiasm is even more contagious than mine. Unfortunately, the swells were huge and I literally felt as if I was diving in a washing machine. We had some great white shark interactions – with at least six sharks in the water – so the bruises and battered fingers were a small price to pay! The trip home was so rough Jamie managed to nearly knock herself unconscious walking into a doorway, but all in all, well worth it. Actually, Jamie’s head took a beating this trip as two days later I slammed Jamie’s head in the trunk and in the midst of drama, was actually so proud of myself for knowing to use the word boot instead of trunk when I went screaming into the hotel lobby for some ice. She wasn’t the least bit amused with my new South African vocabulary.

Then, we headed to, what I think might be the most beautiful place in the world. Franschook – the wine region – about an hour North of Capetown. Even though it is winter here, it was still lush, green and absolutely stunning. Napa and Santa Barbara cannot compete. Making the journey even more delightful was the fact we were staying with Herbert Henrich at his beautiful guest house, La Balloon Rouge. We felt like princesses in the huge suite and luxurious bathroom larger than my apartment in New York City. Paul had arranged it, since Herbert runs Sea Shepherd here in South Africa. Lazy days tasting wine and eating more than I thought humanly possible of fresh cheeses, olives (I ate the cured ones only after witnessing Jamie eat a fresh one off the tree which she swears is the grossest thing she has ever eaten – and she eats pickled herring) and bread combined with wonderful dinners with Herbert discussion the state of sharks, whales, seals and Africa. My appetite was endless, as my biggest weakness in the world is olives, cheese and oh yes, cured meats. HEAVEN.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

An African Angel...

The first week of my South African adventure has been spent primarily in Capetown and Gansbaai with my fellow Shark Angel, Alison. I am staying with Alison, her fiancĂ© Mourne, and two petulantly delightful Staffordshire terriers – Blue and Bruno. I have missed Alison so. As soon as we met last year, it was like we were all sisters who had grown up together forever, the three angels. With her so far away, it has been difficult to stay in touch, so we spent days catching up – chatting over endless cups of coffee and biscuits perched in her loft with the dogs snoozing between us.

A few short days later, we set out for Gansbaai to meet up with her fiancĂ© Mourne and his uncle, Mike Rutzen. I was so excited to see both – and more importantly, have the opportunity of a lifetime: the ability to get into the water and free dive with the whites. I had been begging Mike incessantly for months like a child desperate for some candy…

The weather, unfortunately, as it always seems to do in South Africa when I visit, did not cooperate, and a trip to sea resulted in nothing more than Alison and I becoming pounded unnecessarily by the brutal South African seas. Visibility was just not good enough to get into the water as Mike and Mourne understandably, take no chances. I must admit though, based on how cold I was, getting into the 14 degree water was not too appealing at that point anyway!

We made the best of the next three days, which we all spent together in Gansbaai. The four of us made dinners including my new South African favorite “Beer can chicken” (don’t ask where the beer goes), went offroading driving precariously up mountainsides to discover beautiful lakes and valleys, and of course in the true South African spirit, consuming quite a bit of the spirits. It was great fun. The stormy seas and the howling winds were actually quite enjoyable… under my feather duvet in a snuggly bed at the Rutzens – the world’s most generous hosts!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A new beginning

Reality has set in. I have just spent the last two weeks closing out what will from this point forward be known as my “old life.” Here I sit on a plane bound for South Africa and a direction that I cannot course.

It all happened so quickly and fell so perfectly into place. In one week’s time, I decided to put all my worldly possessions into storage, give up my life in New York and set out for South Africa to live in Capetown with my new landlord Renier. What was once going to be a trip to launch me into my new lifestyle has literally become that very lifestyle!

I am so excited to see what the next several months will bring. Always scripted and well-planned, my life has become something that I have given up control over. And in doing so, already I can see amazing things happen. Following your passion, I think, results in the manifestation of what it is you are truly meant to do and more importantly, the person you are meant to be. Wonderful people and unbelievable opportunities are already starting to reveal themselves as I begin to open myself up to… well anything!

Everything is possible as my mindset has shifted. I never knew I could be so happy… or at peace.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Chasing Sharks Towards Extinction

As shark populations plummet worldwide with many species rapidly facing extinction within the next two decades, Australia, a country often known for its environmental rigor, has made a shocking move. The Queensland, Australia government is legalizing shark fishing in the Great Barrier Reef.

A historical first, the Queensland, Australia government is creating a dedicated shark fishery in a World Heritage Area. The measures, which protect only 4 shark species, will allow fishing of 24 endangered or threatened species in critically vital and currently protected shark habitats. Additionally, the proposal offers no firm catch limit to the number of sharks that can be fished, foreshadowing a long-term population collapse of many species of sharks in the Great Barrier Reef – as well as the collapse of the reef ecosystem itself.

This new legislation could not have come at a worse time for sharks. Desired for their fins, estimates indicate over 100,000,000 sharks are killed each year and more than 90% of many regional shark species are almost extinct. Sharks are highly vulnerable to over-fishing and take decades to repopulate, if at all. No worldwide protection for sharks exist and even the few marine reserves that serve as sanctuaries such as Cocos and the Galapagos Islands have fallen prey to illegal shark fisheries. Sharkfinning is big business, driven by greed and a sky-rocketing demand for shark fin soup in Asia.

The disappearance of sharks from our world’s largest and most critical ecosystem is a frightening thought. Research has repeatedly proven sharks, as an apex predator, play a vital role keeping our oceans healthy and in balance. When sharks are removed or diminished in number, severe problems cascade down the highly interconnected food chain. Other species are pressured and often eliminated - species that are either important foods for humans or upon which the health of the reefs themselves is dependent. Without sharks, the oceans - our very life support system – may be destroyed.

Sadly, the threats facing sharks, a mal-aligned and misunderstood species, are largely unknown or ignored. The public’s general apathy or even disdain for sharks frequently leads to their demise.

At a time when many of the environmental challenges we face seem insurmountable, a hope exists for sharks: an immediate moratorium on shark fishing worldwide. Instead, the Australian government has chosen to move decades backwards, legalizing shark fishing in a delicate, already threatened ecosystem and one of the world’s most important marine protected areas. In doing so, Australia stands to lose its precious shark population, jeopardize its lucrative tourism industry, and forever tarnish its reputation as an environmental leader.

International pressure is needed to stop these measures. Australia must be urged to ban all shark fishing immediately throughout the entire Great Barrier Reef area, vigorously enforcing these policies. Instead of contributing to the issue, Australia should be encouraged to set a world-wide example, leading the fight to protect sharks, our oceans and our planet.

We simply cannot afford to lose one of the world’s most treasured ecosystems and one of the key species that keeps it healthy.

Nor can we afford to ruthlessly and unnecessarily kill one more shark.

Shark Savers is currently collecting signatures on a petition protesting these measures –