jack aquariumHello! My name is Jack Cooper and I have spent just over two weeks in Gansbaai, South Africa, volunteering for White Shark Diving Company. I have come here from the University of St Andrews in Scotland to gain valuable field work experience, to see a whole new side of the world, and to come face-to-face with the great white shark, an animal I have dreamed of meeting since I was a child. I am currently working towards an Honours degree in Evolutionary Biology and have always found sharks to be a wonderful case study in evolution. These magnificent animals have roamed our oceans for over 400 million years, coming in all shapes and sizes from the tiny cookiecutter shark, to the bottom feeding and uniquely shaped hammerhead shark, to the enormous sizes of the filter feeding basking and whale sharks and the extinct megalodon shark, and yet their general morphology has changed very little over this time.

I was first made aware of White Shark Diving Company on a field trip with my university where an exchange student from America mentioned to me that his own university had been contacted in search of volunteers. I asked him to send me a copy of the email and I quickly started updating my CV and writing draft after draft of letters of motivation, pestering my friends Clara and Jaz and my dissertation supervisor, Professor Mike Ritchie, to look over them so I could have the best possible chance. In November, having finally submitted my application, I was contacted by Mary and offered a place to volunteer here for a month. I was overjoyed to hear about this and couldn’t wait to be contributing to precious research towards Carcharodon carcarias, which many forget is an endangered species in dire need of conservation.

Six months after my offer was confirmed, the day finally came and I landed in South Africa after an 11 hour flight from Heathrow. This followed a few nervous days in the aftermath of a computer failure at British Airways. Upon arriving, I was instantly absorbed by the beauty of the country and was able to spend my first day exploring Cape Town. A night’s sleep later and I was on the bus to Gansbaai, crossing my fingers that I would soon be able to finally meet a great white. I was cautiously optimistic of my chances following the deaths of three white sharks after orcas had been spotted in the bay in the previous month. But after meeting Mary, Mitch and the rest of the crew, we were told that the sharks were starting to return and that we would be able to go out immediately. I threw on my wetsuit and we set out to sea.

jack sharkNo sooner had I finished puking from the rough swells, the first shark arrived at the boat. Although just minutes earlier, Mitch had stated “Only Spielberg holds the rights to the dorsal fins cutting the surface,” I turned around to see just that. A singular grey dorsal fin emerged from the depths and passed the cage, curious of the bait. Once we had jumped into the cage, the next shark didn’t show up for some time. But when it did, it seemed to appear out of nowhere. In a flash, we were told to duck under the surface as a 3m white shark passed by. As I finally saw the great white shark in its natural habitat, it moved back towards the bait, its tail fin flicking water into the cage just inches away. My first thought upon feeling the waves hit me was just how powerful this predator was. Nicci later said that nobody forgets their first encounter, and she was certainly right about that.

In the days since then, I have tagged my first shark – a dark shyshark – and have learned to use fin ID to identify great whites in the bay, even adding a new shark to the database. We have gathered environmental data on every trip out, be it on the cage diving trips to observe white shark behaviour or on the research vessel to collect data for an elasmobranch diversity survey of the bay. There is very little data on this particular study for many of the shark species in the bay and is essential if we wish to obtain an accurate population estimate. On our last research trip, a very keen great white even swam by to greet us. Other activities I have taken part in while in Gansbaai include a beach clean with 7-Seasrope, where we were able to cover a stretch of around 3 miles, and a trip to the Two Oceans aquarium in Cape Town, where we were able to examine an enormous diversity of marine life that can be found along both coasts of South Africa. I have also been lucky enough to meet African penguins and to see a pod of common dolphins on our second cage trip. Just yesterday, we had our best cage trip so far, with 5 white sharks passing by, one 3.2m female even breaching twice and taking bait down to the depths with her.

Last week, we found ourselves in the path of a storm that battered the Western Cape, which the Twitter-sphere has called CapeStorm or CapeTownStorm. Unfortunately, this prevented us from going out to sea for several days, but the aftermath of the storm brings more white sharks and that can only be a good thing. The storm itself was a sight to behold, a hurricane of a magnitude that I would’ve never been able to see back home.

To this day, I remain taken aback by the beauty of South Africa. There are more mountains than I can count and at night, I can see the Milky Way above me, along with shooting stars passing over. I feel very privileged to be here, contributing to vital conservation research for not just the great white, but for many other species of shark I was barely aware of before coming here.

I cannot thank Mary enough for the opportunity that has been given to me. I also want to thank Imke, Mitch, Tom and everybody at White Shark Diving Company for making me feel very welcome here and for introducing me to some great South African ciders. I extend further thanks to Clara, Jaz and especially Mike, who all bared with me as I desperately tried to perfect my application to finally meet the great white shark, and to Caleb who first told me of this unique and wonderful trip of a lifetime. It scares me that I am already halfway through my month here and it will be with a heavy heart that I depart South Africa in July. But the most important lesson I have learned so far from this experience is that if an opportunity like this arises for any of you interested in marine biology, conservation, ecology or even evolution like me, then take it. It is experience that you can’t find in a lecture hall.

Jack Cooper