joel

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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?!

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Cycling through New Forest: Adventure are Always Worth It

 

“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

 

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The Activity of a Lifetime: Whale Shark Snorkling in Tofo, Mozambique

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
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