This volunteer experience has been life changing, to say the least.

Without a background in the field of marine biology, nor any hands on experience working with these magnificent creatures – simply a passion for the conservation and protection of white sharks and the ocean – I was terrified to step out of my comfort zone and into this experience; but truly it has been the best decision I ever made. Surrounded by people as passionate about sharks as I am, I went head on into the role of a volunteer and was immediately welcomed by a crew and staff who quickly became my second family.

15049698_10153946446797761_1069202094_nMy lack of field experience was no obstacle; with the vast knowledge and experience of Mary, the head Marine Biologist and Imke, the other Marine Biologist on staff, I was given exceptional guidance on all tasks we were assigned to. On our first day, we were thrown right in to the program with a trip on the cage diving boat – none of us really knew what to expect but we were welcomed by the crew with open arms. Although I had the opportunity to spend time in the cage, I chose to watch from the boat, observing the data collection process and learning about the ins and outs of the operation. The twelve sharks that we saw on the boat that first day was quite a warm welcome to the program!

A few days later, we were taken out on the fishing boat to catch, measure, tag, and release smaller sharks in the area. Talk about hectic! As I do not have much experience fishing, nor is fishing a hobby of mine, I was completely out of my realm. With six of us on the boat, there were plenty of helping hands. Although we were thoroughly briefed on the data collection process on the fishing boat, when the sharks are caught, only hands on experience on the boat can truly prepare you for the task – obviously the objective is to record the necessary data, tag, and release the shark as quickly and efficiently as possible.

The first few sharks were caught and handled primarily by Mary and Imke while we recorded the data; however, as the day progressed we were able to do more of the handling. By the second fishing trip we were allowed to do most of the handling of the sharks with Mary’s supervision. On that second trip we caught and tagged a total of 31 sharks – it is pretty amazing what a strong team the three of us volunteers make.

On no-sea days (days where the conditions are too bad for us to go out on the boats) it allows us an opportunity to analyze the data that we have collected. The analysis of the white shark dorsal fins is one of the most complex and challenging tasks but also the most fascinating! Learning about the notches and how each shark is unique, as determined through the trailing ends of their dorsal fins, is truly incredible. Although we are here to work, it’s not all research, data collection and analysis. We have traveled to Betty’s Bay to see the penguin colony, Cape Town to zip-line, along with exploring Hermanus, and have a braai from time to time with the crew .

There is a nice balance between work and play! The longer I am here as a volunteer, the more comfortable I am jumping in and helping with various tasks on the cage diving boat, fishing boat, organizing and analyzing data, handling the sharks, and speaking to clients about what we do here as volunteers and researchers.

Lately I have been assisting more on the cage diving boat (learning how to tie tuna heads for the bait lines, helping people enter and exit the cage, organizing wetsuits following each trip) – and it is so exciting to be able to work more closely with the clients and the crew. When I was accepted into the program, I knew it would change my life, I just didn’t realize how great an impact it would have. From watching the behavior of the white sharks in their natural habitat, to catching, measuring, and tagging smaller species of sharks, I never could have imagined a more incredible experience. The people I have met, the friendships I have formed, the knowledge I have acquired – South Africa has truly become a second home and the crew and other volunteers, a second family.

My life will never be the same after this. If there is one thing that I have to stress to anyone interested in volunteering, it’s this – don’t be afraid to do something that challenges every part of you, to do something you have never done before – dive head first into this experience and soak in every second of it – learn everything you possibly can – it is once in a lifetime and I promise, it will be worth it. As Neale Donald Walsch once said, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

By Erin Moreira