joel

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It’s been my life’s dream to explore to the ocean. At age 12 my parents signed me up for scuba lessons and literally the day before they started the class was cancelled. There’s few places I feel as alive other than down at 90 feet below the ocean. Even above the surface I can stare out into the endless blue dreaming of spotting a whale or shark.

Diving with whale sharks in the Philippines.


Diving trips have also seem to bookmark key moments in my life. We popped over to Thailand to do our open water course after learning I’d been offered a new job. We did our advanced course in Egypt during the time I quit my role at Automattic. Before starting my new role I took a trip to Cyprus and did my first wreck dive. Since then, 2 years passed since we’d been diving. Two masters degrees for Annchen and a wild couple years for me yielded zero dives. There was more going on behind the scenes though.

Panic

In my first 6 months at my new role I experienced my first ever panic attack while in Canada. The experience triggered a month of learning a ton about dealing with anxiety and panic. Perhaps it was always there. Perhaps behind the scenes the life was getting to me. The result was some level of claustrophobia and sudden feelings of shortness of breath. London, particularly the underground, is not an ideal setting for someone experiencing claustrophobia. 

This experience taught me so much about myself. The power of our thoughts and the importance of our mental health. The manifestation of a panic attack made me think back and connect panic attacks to other times of anxiety throughout my life. It made me think and talk through traumas from my past. Thinking back, I realized I didn’t have the vocabulary to understand these things earlier in life. I overcame my anxiety and thankfully have not experienced a panic attack since that time in 2016. But one unfortunate connection I drew from this time was that the thought of diving now freaked me out a little. 

Origins of dive anxiety

Back in 2016 before my first panic attack I do recall a time where I experienced some anxiety in our first deep dive. 90 feet under the water is not an ideal place to experience anxiety. When scuba diving it really just takes one misplaced thought. A seed of doubt if you will. This seed can grow into a dangerous irrationality that you are not safe even though all other evidence is contrary. On this particular dive I tapped our instructor on the back and signaled that I was struggling with breathing. He grabbed me, looked me deep in my eyes and had me breath with him. I instantly felt safe. That connection under water and calmness from him gave me the assurance that I was in fact, fine. The truth was I needed him to know I was struggling. He had me switch from my normal regulator to my backup which in some weird way made me feel better. The good news is that I overcame that moment and went on to dive more on that trip without incident. 


The story doesn’t stop there though. I think once you’ve experienced anxiety under the water it’s something that can realistically rear it’s head again. In Cyprus it was my first time diving without my wife and it was my first time doing a wreck dive. The whole thing kind of freaked me out. It probably doesn’t help that the Zenobia dive has a bit of a bad rep. Half way through the first dive I had a fin fall off, it was quickly retrieved by the dive leader. A few moments later I found myself trying to overcome a racing heart and couldn’t quite get it under control. I tapped the dive instructor and he turned around and almost immediately I was fine. Dive 2 I was fine. 
Some time after this I started a new role and experienced said panic attack, on land. Two years went by like a flash. I thought about diving from time to time but somehow the experiences that could be marked by triumph built up into a tiny fear that I can no longer dive. 

Getting back in the water

It had been 2 years since we’d been diving and it was time to get back out there. I was so afraid that I’d freak out under the water. The nights leading up to our dives in the Philippines I had trouble sleeping. This fear was mainly built on the notion that if I experience more intense anxiety under the water than I won’t be able to dive anymore. Strategically I planned that we do a shallow shore dive. We opted to do this rather than a full on refresher course. About 15 minutes in I experienced some anxiety but was able to put to practice breathing techniques and positive self talk to overcome. What followed was euphoria knowing I am stronger than I use to be. Since this time my wife and I have done about 20 dives in 5 countries. While I do experience anxiety at times, I’ve learned a ton of helpful lessons about how to handle the situation that help me. 

Know your limits

One thing that’s helped me is reading about dive sites before embarking on dive trips. If you aren’t comfortable with depths, night dives or wrecks then don’t do them. Most dive companies are going to ease every diver into their sites by doing easier dives to kick off your trip but this isn’t always true. If you aren’t comfortable going sub 20 meters (60 feet) be sure to let your dive company know you want to do some shallow dives to start your trip. Some dive destinations cater for this better than others, do your homework.

Talk about your fear

I roped my wife into diving and yet I’m the one that experiences more anxiety than her. How ironic. She tends to assume I’m always fine when sometimes I’m not. I’ve had to let her know pre-dive that I need an extra dose of interaction with her. Simple underwater jokes and code language makes me feel so much better under the water. You can dive in the biggest groups yet it’s still very much an individual experience under the water. Having someone under there that is looking after you helps.

Get to know you dive instructor

If I am able to laugh and joke with my instructor this really makes me more at ease in the water. Take some extra time to get to know your instructor and build some rapport with them. If you aren’t comfortable with your instructor consider switching. 

Develop a pre-dive routine

I’ve learned that I am so much more confident in the water and enjoy it so much more when I take some time to prep in the morning. I also go out of my way to skip drinking coffee and I eat a lighter breakfast. When I’ve been a little nervous recently I wrote myself a little note telling myself what I love about diving. Sounds a little weird but I often think we forget to give ourselves credit. Be kind to yourself.

More whale sharks!

Visualization

Imagine yourself having the most amazing time flying through the water. Seeing unspeakable beauty, in a world that few people get to experience. See yourself doing this. Experience yourself descending down, smiling. These are the moments we all dream of. Imagine breathing the cleanest air you’ve breathed in a long time.

Postive Self Talk

I could write an entire blog post just on this topic. It’s a huge deal. We have so much more power to influence our experience with our minds than we realize. Focus on the beauty below. Tell yourself how incredible it is. Tell yourself how wonderful it is that you’re doing this activity in this moment. If you need to write down some mantras about diving or about yourself that help you feel more confident. I sometimes have music lyrics in my head. Most recently it was Jack Johnson’s Holes to Heaven. But Bob Marley tunes work well. I often tell myself that I can’t wait to dive with my young nephews some day and think about them. Goofy movie quotes are also on play in my head. My favorite is definitely from the movie Cool Runnings. Smile as you amuse yourself and experience the best activity on the planet.

Bliss.

During the Dive

Don’t let conditions, the lack of fish or pre-dive blunders get in your head. If they do just remember you are fine. Focus on positive self talk and remember your dive instructor is all for you letting them know you need a break. It’s incredible how good they are at helping you relax. So don’t buy into the false idea that anything is wrong. You’re healthy (if you aren’t, don’t dive), you’re capable, you love this and if anything goes wrong you’ve got your buddy to help you out.

Have you experienced divers anxiety? Have you overcome a fear? Feel free to share below. 

Jumping Off Point

Have you ever felt like you are drawing from an empty well? The past six years I’d hit my stride career wise and it felt so incredible. I’d laugh when looking back on the years I waffled around in my early 20s. That was until I started feeling like I wasn’t in the right place at 34. All the plans we had made were falling apart. Somewhere between Annchen’s (my wife) visa troubles and me feeling like a cog in a big wheel, we knew the winds of change were blowing. And there we were in Berlin knowing the future for us was not going to be in Berlin. It was unsettling and unnerving for me to realize that I needed to make a change. It was already decided that our home would be in Cape Town where Annchen would pursue her Phd and I going to step into the world of working for myself. But that all could wait. In the midst of excitement and uncertainty we decided to take a time out to fully indulge into the world of travel. I want to take you through some of our travels and share some takeaways from taking time off. If you are looking for travel tips you’ve come to the wrong place. Read our recent post that’s far more useful.

Austria & Germany: Family Euro Trip

It was hard to imagine my sister, brother in law, nephew and niece walking through security and into our world in Berlin. Over the years we’ve managed to maintain a closeness while living far away but there’s been only a few moments of my family visiting my world for me to wrap my head around. Having them come see Berlin and being able to show them around Europe for the first time was a thrill. Traveling with my 9 and 11 year old niece/nephew was so much more rewarding than I could’ve imagined and gave me a glimpse into what it would be like to have kids. They were intrigued and blown away by the small things like riding in the train, walking into shops and beautiful road side stops. It was so fun to experience the world with them. We covered a lot of ground and a lot of McDonalds in just 8 days but it was easily the greatest thrill of our travels to have this time with family in Europe.

Mcdonalds #5 in Zell Am See, Austria

Singapore: I’m gonna be an Instafamous.

Landing at Singapore Airport it was already clear to me just how dialed in this city is with it’s beautiful architecture, design and art. Being in Singapore is easy. People speak english, the food is insanely good and frankly for a city in Asia it feels strangely familiar to this American. What stands out to me the most about our 3 days in Singapore to kick off our travels is how much sharing we did on Instagram. I was dead set on getting something out of traveling and I’m not talking about memories. I sadly have to admit that I was aiming for that 5K/10K follower status. Why? I don’t know… free hotels and stuff.

Bali: What else do you want?

We spent nearly a month in Bali. We chilled very hard in Ubud. Took a cooking class. Dodged some wild monkeys. Hiked, biked, swam and it was fantastic. Balinese people are some of the gentlest and kindest people I’ve met in this planet. A couple weeks in and I have to say that I was really considering staying. Why not? But with all that love for Bali I started to see another side of it. The side that is latent with digital nomads and Instaglam. Where girls are chased by drone filled sunsets and their boyfriends armed with cameras. Look maybe I’m a little jealous, I do not have the six pack or looks to fit in. But I am 100% sure I want nothing to do with a western enclave world in the middle of Bali. 

Us getting sassy for staged photos.

Malaysia: It’s always amazing to connect.

We landed in Kuala Lumpur with little to no knowledge of what to expect. We were visiting family so we put very little work into researching. We spent the week eating such an incredible variety of food. Annchen’s cousin and his girlfriend spoiled us with their time. It was a reminder to me of just how wonderful it is to connect with people. I left feeling so close to Annchen’s cousin that it was almost odd that he wasn’t going to join us in our further travels. It’s special to form that kind of camaraderie.

I thought my cousin was overselling how good these coconut milk shakes would be. No one could ever do that. Pure deliciousness.

Philippines: Doing what you love can be difficult.

The Philippines was a weird last minute part of our time in Asia. We knew it was going to be a gamble weather wise and we dreaded what we thought would be a super turbulent flight. While the Philippines was the least glamorous place we travelled to it was filled with an unfathomable amount of natural beauty.

I had my heart set on one thing in Philippines, scuba diving. I’ve had this strange relationship with scuba diving. We did our open water course as I learned that I got the job at Shopify. We did our advanced course as I quit my job at WooCommerce (a few months later). And now following the most recent transition we would finally get back into diving again more than two years later. I’ve been obsessed with the ocean since I was small child. Diving in Thailand, Egypt and Cyprus was amazing but had a few moments of underwater anxiety which I overcame. In the past few years I’ve become more aware of my thought life and learned a lot about managing anxiety. Something I think I’ve experienced my whole life but didn’t understand. With this two year gap in diving I was particularly nervous about diving. One really doesn’t know how they will feel until you do something. I spent the night before our dive in Moalboal meditating, reading about underwater anxiety and trying to stay positive. If you ask Annchen she might just say I was quieter than normal, she’s always cool as a cucumber. The dives went great and we did another 3 days of diving in Oslob and Bohol. I still have a healthy dose of fear when I dive, I’d say it’s almost become my routine. Perhaps the pre-dive fear gives way to excitement when I actually realize that I’m fine and not only fine but incredibly happy. It feels good to survive. It’s just odd to me that I can love and fear something so much and perhaps that’s part of the fear. Knowing that if I let fear in and have a bad experience it could mean that diving represents too big a risk for me. I hope that is never the case. When I face my fears it’s strength to strength. This is a reminder that spills into other areas of my life and brings me great hope.

Whale shark diving in Oslob, Philippines.

Turkey: Once special always special.

We love everything about Turkey and Istanbul. In a time where we don’t have a ton of close friends it was so nice to spend a few days with our dear friend Dilan. With her we saw a very different side of Istanbul and of course, a ton of cats. We ate entirely too much breakfast and rolled entirely too many cigarettes. This is what you do when you are in Istanbul. Our first travel love and forever favorite city (besides Cape Town of course).

Standard procedure in Istanbul.

Egypt: All that I hate.

We scored a sweet deal at the Hilton in Sharm El Shiekh which was our biggest splurge ($70 a night) in our travels. The diving never disappoints in Sharm although the town is pretty depressing. It’s a shell of what it was (in it’s hay day) but apparently that’s been good for the ocean :). My experiences with tour operators in Egypt sadly has been horrible. We did a day trip down to Cairo and it’s safe to say I will never return. Pyramids check, Nile River check, been nice to know you. The swindlers, scams and sales people are all just too much for me. All the wonder that exists is driven to the ground by people harassing you non-stop. This includes the people we hired to show us around. I wish I had nicer things to say but I can’t say I’ve had a worse travel experience in my life.

Those are the smiles of frustrated tourists.

Oman: Sun, time, sunsets and stars.

Walking the stunning beaches or deserts of Oman you can truly feel like you are the only person alive. Only Oman and Iceland have left me with that feeling in all our travels. Peace and serenity mixed with all little bit of sleepy villages. We had the chance to visit Oman for 4 days in early 2018 and decided we would spend nearly a month there in October. In this month we camped about a dozen nights. We’d drive and just pull over and camp, for free. I haven’t felt so in tune with nature in years. The days at times would drag on for what felt like 48 hours. Honestly we were bored at times because it’s so hot but there’s not exactly a ton to do. Nothing will stand out more than being on Masirah Island, a desolate, mostly undeveloped island east of Oman. At night we pitched our tent to get our first sunsets in Oman. As the sun faded the night came on strong. I didn’t know you could experience that kind of black by the beach. The crabs would come out in full force and in the darkness you became so suddenly aware of all that’s alive around you. The stars revealed themselves like a blanket being draped above. For hours we were dazzled by the prospect of meteors. All of the sudden a bright light hit us from behind as the moon rose over the hills. As the light grew the stars began to fade out. I’ll never forget these hours. I’ll forever try to remember how small I felt.

Have you ever seen this color blue in the sea? Muscat, Oman.

Cuba: Disappear.

We’ve become so use to figuring it as you go traveling. As long as you have a local sim and a couple different atm/credit cards what can go wrong. Things like Uber, Airbnb, Google Maps and TripAdvisor have made it all so easy. Cuba is an exception to all of that. And honestly good for Cuba. It was nice to be free’d from the pressure of checking our phones, our phones were reduced to cameras. Cuba delighted all the senses. Much like a trip to Vietnam in 2017 I was challenged with a narrative for history and life that is so different than what I was taught growing up in the US. Cuba made me think a lot about economics and society. The Cubans we met seemed somewhat conflicted themselves with the duality of loving their healthcare, education and country but seeing the cracks in it as well. I’d highly encourage everyone to visit Cuba unless you hate music, drinks, food and incredible people.

Isn’t she pretty and how cool is this space.

Mexico City: My God I love Tacos.

I knew so little about Mexico City. We had the absolute pleasure of having my friend show us around. There’s so much to love about Mexico City. Of course the food is incredible. In just a few days I managed to eat 20+ tacos (they are small and I’m … big). But we all know Mexican food is good. Mexico City is a super beautiful city with stunning parks, statues, buildings and nature. The people are vibrant and friendly. 2 days in Mexico City was a joke, next time I’ll spend at least a week there.

Reuniting with my favorite Mexican at the best possible event.

USA: Home is where the heart is.

I’ve been spoiled to get over to Los Angeles at least 2–3 times a year since moving abroad. With 6 months off and a move to Cape Town in front of us I was not going to miss another Thanksgiving or Christmas with my amazing family. In spite of my Green Bay Packers sucking it was amazing to have about a month back in Ventura County. An extended trip that didn’t include working while visiting was new and fantastic. Being an adult and spending mornings with my parents is so special. I love the bond that we share even if it’s bound by cross continental hellos and goodbyes. Christmas in Lake Arrowhead (mountains) was easily the highlight. My sisters, brother in laws, their kids and my parents all crammed into a cabin. We were spoiled with snow Christmas morning. Memories of the kids playing in their sandals and freaking out about the snow will forever be imprinted in my mind. That kind of joy is unparalleled. 

Magical Christmas morning snow. We’ll be talking about this for years to come.

Guatemala: The Beauty of Not Knowing.

Years ago in London we became good friends with a guy from Guatemala so when he invited us for new years it was no brainer. We arrived with next to no knowledge about our plans, what a fantastic way to travel. A few of our friend’s friends made the trek over to London and we formed a fun little crew of 6. We had such an special time with this diverse group of friends. The views over Lake Atitlan blew us away. The thought of a volcano erupting kept us on our toes. I couldn’t have asked for a more fantastic group of friends to ring in the new year with. 

Best crew of 2018 and 2019.

Mozambique: All I want and the End.

Tofo Mozambique is my favorite place on the planet. Towards the end of six months we were scrambling to cram in a few last trips. Tofo boasts stunning white sand beaches, giant sea life and a quaint african village meets expat community. It’s tropical, it’s remote, it’s beach bliss. Armed with our scuba experience we couldn’t wait to submerge into ocean wonderland. It was magical although we’ll have to get back there to spot some giant mantas. It was such a joy to end our travels alongside Annchen’s adventurous mom and her fiance. To top it off we snuck in a day in the Kruger National Park where we saw more than a days worth of lions, rhinos, elephants and of course birds. Have you ever been to a game park with bird watchers? It’s a whole new world.

Ended our travels with this insanely sweet Airbnb in my favorite place on the planet. Tofo, Mozambique.

Cape Town: What are you doing here? 

So now it’s time for the real challenge, putting down some roots. This isn’t something we’ve done in the past four years. While we’ve lived in London and Berlin we’ve really been all over the place. Living in Cape Town in itself is not a challenge, this city is stunning. But getting use to more of a routine and rebuilding a life here is something we’re really excited about but know it will come with a big time of adjustment. Annchen will be undertaking her Phd at UCT and I’m going to start a company paired with consulting. So all that to say, please come hang out with us. We have an extra bedroom, come visit Cape Town. Seriously, do it. We’ll be here.

Closing Thoughts. Should you go travel the world? Will it change your life? 

Traveling doesn’t change you. Most of the moments that should change you don’t feel as special as they should in the moment. It’s a realization that comes with time. So travel to me is an investment in memories knowing that our time on earth is short. Traveling didn’t reveal many epiphanies to me. It did however afford me time to truly reflect big existential things like thinking about who I want to be and what things mean to me. 

Travel and time with an entrepreneurial runway in front of me was interesting. I decided pretty early on that I am not going to work but at times streams of ideas and creativity would hit me. 

Traveling also can serve as an avoidance of reality and I spent plenty of time wondering if I’m making a huge mistake taking a career time out. At the same time though it gave me a chance to experience so many different ways of being, so much so that I could imagine myself living and thriving outside of the career frame I had been in. It’s funny how important we think we are. It’s funny how small our little tech worlds can be. There’s so much going on outside of there. 

But no traveling full time is not something I’m interested in. There’s only so much self indulgence one can handle before you start feeling distant from purpose. We don’t want to be a mile wide and inch deep kind of friends or people. 

So go and see the world. Leave only footprints (hehe). It might help you see yourself differently. It will challenge you. It will delight you. It is addictive. It is fantastic. But it’s just a part of a broader story. And as the time passes the memories will grow grander and the stories wilder.

It was 1992. I was 9. Our family of six was packed into a cute little motel outside of Monterrey, California. Being the only boy I somehow always managed to take control of the remote control. Flipping through quality 90’s TV I stumbled upon my greatest treasure yet:

Shark Week.

Wait what? There could be weeks of television dedicated to one thing? Apparently yes. My life was simple at that point. I loved baseball (primarily based on the Atlanta Braves being on TBS) and I loved all things the ocean. Like many a confused kid when asked what they want to do with their life I said marine biologist.

Okay, enough about pre-pubescent career aspirations.

Sharks!

If you haven’t seen Shark Week, I really feel sorry for you. It’s everything you could ever want. It’s shark attack stories; it’s shark tracking; it’s searching for sharks sleeping; it’s shark infested beach flyovers; it’s never before seen shark footage. About 8 years ago or so they started dropping these hot new ‘Air Jaws’ series with flying sharks.

At age 9, I couldn’t get enough and to top it off there was an entire segment about the Sharks of NorCal. There was also a segment on that one time the Monterrey Bay Aquarium (right down the street from our motel) tried to keep a Great White in captivity. The shark wanted none of dat shit. The rest of our family vacation I went around asking storekeepers, waitresses, complete strangers about sharks and shark attacks in Monterrey. Call me Joel Bronkowski Shark Detective. It was clear that my life would be centred around sharks and to a certain extent that 9-year-old aspiration isn’t too far from reality.

 

Flash forward to 2007 when I headed over to Cape Town, South Africa for a year of volunteer work. I ended up staying for nearly nine years and marrying a South African. Our first kiss actually took place during Shark Week: Air Jaws 4. Coincidence or destiny?

 

I know this is a travel blog. I’m getting there.

So, with all that shark background, I’d like to share some opportunities to encounter the majesty and wonder of Sharks in your travels: the ultimate shark travel bucket list. I know this post will just scratch the surface of opportunities out there so forgive me for having not lived out my full Shark travel life yet.

 

Home to The Largest Concentration of Great White Sharks in the World

Cape Town, South Africa is home to the largest concentration of Great White Sharks in the world. They are not the biggest but they have a reputation for being the fastest and most aggressive (ask Mick Fanning). Back in 2008, I had my first go at shark cage diving experience and have gone back twice after that. So, you’ve got shark cage diving questions? I got answers. 

I’ll give you a quick breakdown of the experience and what stood out to me. I’ll also share some tips on when to go and who to go with.

Which  Company to Choose?

The majority of Shark Cage diving expeditions in South Africa run out of Gans Bay – 70-90 minutes from Cape Town. However, you will find a few companies that operate out of Simon’s Town. I’ve done both and they don’t seem to differ that much.

I’ve had varying experiences with the level of professionalism with this. I would say White Shark Projects stood out as the most professional and educational. Great White Shark Cage diving is right there with scuba diving and skydiving, you don’t want to go with the cheapest company, am I right?

What to Expect?

Most of the boats will take 20-30 people out to sea. Out of Gans Bay, you can expect about a 20-minute boat ride until you anchor. Some companies will tow a seal cut-out in an attempt to get a Great White Shark breach. I’m 0 for 2 in this department.

Two big considerations for Shark cage diving, which play the largest role in whether you enjoy the experience or not, are weather conditions and water visibility. Rain and high winds can cause poor underwater visibility. High seas can make for a perfect storm of sea-sickness, especially once the boat stops moving and begins rocking. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this go really wrong for a lot of people. (There’s something about a rocking boat and the smell of chum (fish guts & blood) that can stir up some stomachs). Consider taking Dramamine or other motion sickness drugs before heading out.

Most Common Misconceptions

In talking with people about the experience of shark cage diving I’ve realised there are a lot of misconceptions (thanks a lot Hollywood). The cage is actually attached to the side of the boat and about 2/3 of it dips below the surface. You simply prop yourself into the water when the sharks come by and then come up after.

 

The staff will hang a big ball of bait – usually some frozen fish – off the back of the boat to attract the sharks. They can usually spot them swimming towards the boat. This is one of the most dramatic and exciting parts of the experience: seeing a massive beast swimming at the boat and then coming up from the depths to take a lunge at the bait. The staff will try to pull the bait out of the water just before the shark is able to attack, causing the shark’s open mouth to come bursting to the surface. This all takes place about 10 meters from where you would be positioned in the cage. The shark(s) then swims around the boat to take another stab at it.

Some people seem to think that sharks will be interested in the cage, and that companies bait inside of it. In my experience, the sharks do not care about the people. All the videos you see of sharks flying into and onto cages are because the bait ball was thrown near the cage and the shark grabbed a hold of the bait ball and is fighting to get it. In my three trips, I’ve seen this happen twice – once with me in the cage. I’ll never forget seeing the ferocity of the shark as it tore side to side.

Managing Expectations

Shark cage diving can be one of the most exciting and disappointing activities possible. At best you are right next to one of the strongest animals on the planet. Its might is on display; it is terrifying and exhilarating. At worst you are waiting on a boat for minutes or hours to no avail. There’s no guarantee you will see sharks and when you do there’s always a mad scramble to give everyone a chance to get in the cage to get close. Be sure to have realistic expectations for the experience. I’ve also been in the cage with bad visibility where a shark went by but all you saw was bubbles. However, viewing sharks from the boat is always really amazing and in some ways you see more – especially if you are on a boat with a top deck.

How much does it cost?

There are a handful of places in the world to Great White Shark Cage Dive but I am certain South Africa is the most affordable. Prices can be as low as R900 ($70) but on average expect to spend R1,500 ($110). Winter (June-August) is a time when you can grab some deals.

 

Outside of South Africa, you can check out Guadalupe Island in Mexico to see some of the largest Great Whites in the world but these chartered 5-day live aboard trips are very pricey at $2,000+. In October and November, the Farrallon Islands 30 miles from San Francisco offer day trips with cage diving for $775. Out of Dana Point, you can take part in shark search Saturdays where you look for juvenile great whites just 100 meters off the shore. A 2-hour boat tour is $45. In South Australia, you can dive with Great Whites for $495 AUD ($365).

Shark cage diving in South Africa

Shark cage diving in South Africa. Can you spot the beast?

A Sweet Spot for Swimming with the Largest Fish in the Sea: Whale Sharks

People love to ask us about our favourite travel destination. It’s a really tough question…but if I have to choose there’s one answer. I’m talking about a corner of the world place called Tofo, Mozambique. This amazing little village is not easy to get to (more on that later). But once you’re there it’s a delicate balance of expats from around the world and local villagers living in relative harmony. The economy in this village is driven by white sand, incredible scuba diving, and whale shark snorkeling expeditions.

 

I wrote a post back in 2015 on our most recent adventure to Tofo so I will keep this somewhat brief. Snorkeling with whale sharks is the most incredible thing I’ve ever done. There’s just something so wild about buzzing around the ocean searching for massive shadows cruising along. Every single time they tell you to jump is electric, as you scurry amidst the fins and bubbles to spot the shark. Swimming next to a shark that is up to 20x your size is just something that will never seem normal and watching them descend into the depths is an immediate reminder of how tiny we are.

 

The most common and affordable route to Tofo, Mozambique is via Johannesburg, South Africa. You can catch a bus from Johannesburg which will get you to Maputo. From Maputo, you can catch a number of vans/taxis that head to Inhambane which is about 15 mins from Tofo. It’s a long journey and not the most comfortable, but it’s affordable and adventurous. The other alternative is to fly into Maputo or even Inhambane but expect to pay a big premium for these flights.

Snorkeling with whale sharks

Snorkeling with whale sharks in Tofo. Image sourced online.

Deep Blue Visibility and Sharks Bay 

In terms of size and proximity, this last experience falls a bit short. But in terms of ocean beauty, I would say it’s easily the most stunning.

Some would say Sharm El Shiekh has peaked. Some would say it’s not safe to travel there. I’ve heard it’s picking up steam in terms of tourism, which is great because I’d hate to see people miss out on an incredible destination like this due to unwarranted fear.

 

I’ll get to the sharks but before I do that I want to highlight what makes Sharm El-Sheikh a place I will continue to visit as often as possible.

The visibility of the water, the colour of the reefs and the abundance of sea life are unparalleled.

It’s not only unparalleled but it’s available right off some of the coastal resorts (two of the best resorts  for this are the Hilton Waterfall Resort and Reef Oasis Blue Bay). We stayed at the Hilton and experienced incredible beauty snorkeling before embarking on our Advanced Diver PADI course. If you are looking for some R&R at a nice resort and want to be blown away by natural underwater splendour, then I can think of nothing more incredible than Sharm.

Photo credit: EY Tours

Sharm El-Sheikh has an interesting relationship to sharks. There have been a few reef shark attacks in last decade even though these sharks are not well known for fatally attacking humans. On our last dive in Sharm El-Sheikh’s Ras Mohammed reserve, we came upon two Black Tip sharks at about 35m. It was my first time being with large sharks in the open water and it was incredibly peaceful. If you are looking to spot some sharks in one of the best dive spots in the world then look no further than Sharm El Sheikh. (From Sharm you can also do one of the most incredible hikes ever).

 

Shark Week 2018 is upon us! So happy Shark Week – I hope I’ve inspired you just a little bit to jump in the water with these great fierce beauties. I’d love to hear about your experiences with travel and sharks below.

Where should we go next?!

 

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!” ― Hunter S. Thompson

Some of the best moments and activities in life start with a bit of chaos and frustration. Annchen and I decided to venture outside of London for the weekend without hoping on a plane- instead we rented a car from Waterloo and headed south to Lyndhurst. We should’ve known better but getting out of London on a Friday ain’t no small feat. The weekend rewarded us with peaceful and exciting time in quaint England. When Saturday rolled around we knew we had to drag our lazy behinds out of the cute Christmas town and do the whole bike, forest thing. It was rainy, the first shop we went to was closed. We got lost. It was really tempting to leave the adventure and exercise, I actually argued for it. When we finally got to the bike shed it was more than double what I expected to pay and the map seemed impossible to read. I grouchily rode on until we got lost lost. A local man walking his dog pointed is in the right direction and soon became clear that we had made the right decision. Forests full trees, wild ponies, colors, moss, deer and gentle rain spurred us on through miles and miles, hours and hours of pure exploration and adventure. The ride ended with us stumbling upon a beautiful idyllic historic hotel where we treated ourselves to a fancy lunch. We will never forget or regret the adventure – a constant reminder to just get past our shitty attitudes.

 

Autumnal New Forest

 

New Forest

New Forest detail

 

Our regal lunch spot

Our regal lunch spot

New Forest Bike Trail

Cycling Adventures

 

If you’ve been fortunate enough to have been exposed to Shark Week on discovery channel you would’ve had your mind blown at the images of the massive and gentle whale shark, the largest fish in the ocean. As a kid growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles I remember telling friends of mine that I had a neighbor who once swam with whale sharks in Australia (yes all the right friends in all the right places). I was that removed and the dream seems that far off – Shark Week indeed turned me into a weird kid. Swimming with sharks of any kind seemed like an unattainable reality for a LA suburbs kid.

Once you break the seal of traveling and find a home abroad, particularly South Africa, opportunities have a way of presenting themselves to you. And long story short there I was – a 23 year old American on a bus headed from Johannesburg to Mozambique with two South African buddies en route for Tofo: land of the whale sharks and giant mantas.

From Maputo we took a 12 seater van/taxi crammed with 20 people on their way to Tofo – quite the adventure. I happened to sit next to a late 20’s British guy who was just enough older than I was to be incredibly cool. Turns out that he specialized in underwater video and had plenty of tales to tell about all there is to see in Tofo. I knew though from other tales of Tofo that I needed to be practical and realistic. The weather in Tofo can vary in December and likewise the likelihood of swimming with beautiful monsters too can be unpredictable.

Without digressing into the wonderful world of Tofo and Mozambique let’s just say it’s paradise. Beautiful long beaches with rolling waves. It’s just undeveloped enough for it to feel like you are truly on an adventure and amongst locals. The town is fairly integrated between locals and a diverse group of expats.

The Mozambiquean Coast

The Mozambiquean Coast

Nearly everything you need is within walking distance including the scuba centers. Being that we were rookies we just went with the most experienced and popular Tofo Scuba. It seemed almost too simple: we headed in, paid our deposit, and then were told to return 15 minutes before departure. It didn’t take more than 5 minutes to get a feel for the operation. From the office on the beach you could watch the boats depart, people grab their gear and see the friendly staff answer ‘all the questions’. Anticipation was building. The staff made it clear that whale shark spottings were happening regularly and I could feel the excitement and nerves building inside me. Could this really be happening? How did I get here?

Tofo Scuba sits right on the beach

Tofo Scuba sits right on the beach

Pre-departure you are shown a video and fitted with fins, masks and if needed a rash guard. A video is shown talking about safety and whale shark interaction. Honestly, it still feels almost too easy and surreal that within moments you will be in the vast ocean, possibly with a massive creature. When all is ready the group heads out to the shore where the sturdy rubber boat awaits. You throw your gear in and help embark by pushing the boat out to sea. Once the people (stronger people) are about waist deep in the water the leader waits for a wave to come in and then asks the people in the back to jump in. The engine is started and voom you are skipping over waves headed straight out to sea.

One thing to mention is that our boat had a large whale shark spotting seat raised at least 8 feet above the boat to make it easier to spot the sharks who generally swim near the surface. Some scuba companies do not do this. Once out at sea the boat generally head south and go in and out towards and away from the shore using the waves to get high enough to get a look at the sea surface. Our first time out we were searching for about 10 minutes before coming across a dark shadow. Our leader yelled out, get your gear on. The boat repositioned itself in front of the whale shark and then the leader pointed and yelled go there. We all fearfully and excitingly jumped out.

tofo-scuba

These first moments looking at the clear, boundless ocean are invigorating to sun-soaked skin and it’s incredibly mind-blowing as you try to come to grips with what you are seeing – vast blue ocean. A second or milliseconds in, after acclimating yourself with the ocean, you are desperately looking for the shark and in our case it was not difficult because as we turned to our right the shark was coming right for us. Now try to remove yourself from any Jaws visions, this is a whale shark, and while any animal that is 15 feet coming at you is going to be scary, whale sharks are particularly non-threatening. Did we want to get out of the way, oh hell yes, but was it overly frightening, not at all. As we positioned ourselves along this massive beast we began to swim.

Respect the whale shark's space and lengthen your experience

Whale sharks are deceptively fast, I would say on average you have to kick and use your arms to swim at a moderate pace to keep up, at times at an aggressive pace – all the while the shark looks like it’s it’s just slowly cruising by.

Swimming next to the shark you can’t help but feel small and meaningless. Being in the middle of the ocean next to such a being is simply envigorating. I would describe the entire experience as surreal as you try to take in what you are seeing and how fortunate you are to see what you are seeing.

I think what makes the experience even more incredible is that the effort that goes into seeing them can never prepare you for what you get to experience. Watching a massive creature peacefully move through the water is unlike anything else you will ever do. As you are swimming along you will reach moments of tranquility where you are just along for the ride and you have no idea how long or where you are going. There will also be moments where you suddenly become aware of where you are. This is not a game park or enclosed environment but the wild and you have no idea what is behind or below you, but frankly, when next to whale shark it doesn’t matter.

My favorite part of swimming alongside whale sharks is the time when they decide they are over company and depart. Their departure is effortlessly graceful as they slowly descend into the great abyss below – beautiful and mysterious.

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Most whale shark snorkling trips will head out for around 1.5-2 hours. All in all I’ve been on 5 whale shark trips on 3 different trips to Mozambique  altogether. The first 2 times on my first trip it felt like it was almost like there must be whale sharks all over the place because we just kept running into them. On the second trip we were way less fortunate. The weather all week was quite bad and our boat ride out was hopeless. The third time we had good weather but very high seas, an hour in we hadn’t seen much and I was pretty discouraged especially because it was Annchen’s first time, first time to Tofo (I had talked it up big time), and her birthday. When all hope was lost we spotted that familar shadow and together we had the most remarkable experience all over again – it doesn’t get old. I was so in the zone of swimming next to the shark that I hadn’t realized that all the people from my boat had given up trying to keep up with the shark and I found myself all alone next to the monster, honestly one of the best moments of my life until a new boat group jumped in and it gets quite chaotic quickly –  can’t blame them!

Hopefully you’ve caught my passion and excitement for swimming with whale sharks in Tofo. Doing it has been some of the best experiences in my travel but just keep in mind there is no guarantee and do not expect the snorkel companies to be that honest with you although many of them will give you a 1/2 price second trip if you do not see anything on your first. I can’t say enough good things about Tofo and will be sure to write more about traveling there very soon.

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P.S. Can’t take credit for any of the photos in the post 🙂 – thank you, internet!

Photos included were sourced via google and not taken by ourselves