“What the volunteer brochure doesn’t say….”

I just wrapped up and left for the airport after three weeks volunteering at White Shark Diving Co. It´s really hard for me to fit such a superb experience into a few paragraphs, so I thought I´d cut out the tasks and responsibilities of the volunteer, beautifully explained in their volunteer brochure, and rather zoom in into those, less tangible, but often determining aspects of volunteering with this group. For this reason, my perspective will focus more on the “feeling” vs. the “doing” while in the volunteering project.

Arguably, a good, positive experience depends on several factors, but I´d like to narrow it down to just three… (can´t but blame my aging mind for not handling more than three things at a time). In this line, the three ingredients for this “secret sauce” are purpose, context and satisfaction.

So, let me begin with the Purpose. What you do as a volunteer does matter. Right from the get-go WSDC makes you feel like you belong to something greater. 20 Minutes into the project and you have a sense of contributing to their cause, and that cause, as all you shark lovers know, is a very important one – to help protect, understand and respect those, often misunderstood sharks. It´s encouraging to feel the passion that the program managers, boat crew and office managers put into every single trip – a contagious feeling of excitement as you near Dyer Island or whatever anchoring spot. It´s certainly hard to keep up the same level of motivation on every single trip, every day, quite early in the am, but these guys excel at that, even in the bad times (we had couple of weeks with no shark sighting, seemingly due to Orca activity in the bay). Volunteers become an integral part of the conservation team – whose generosity is out of this world as they feed the customer’s hunger for adrenaline, knowledge and memorable experiences. It´s a very intimate relationship that is established between volunteers and the project team. Personally, most times, I didn’t feel like a volunteer, but part of a group who shares my passion, ingenuity and admiration for sharks. Not being a biologist myself, nor related to wildlife conservation, I often struggle to explain my immediate setting – why sharks?? If this is the case for you,  in this volunteer program, you´ll think, breathe and feel sharks, day and night, your passion running wild with endless opportunities to interact with the team members and other volunteers. You always wanted to learn about and help sharks –  well, you found the best spot and culture broth to start making that purpose come true. No questions asked!

Second aspect is Context. What makes volunteering with WSDC unique?

If I were to single out one aspect of what makes WSDC different…..well, I wouldn’t do any justice to this great program. So, let me stress three aspects (you already know I can only handle three…) that made my decision easier.

  • People: a fantastic group of individuals who take the volunteer program seriously. These folks really make you feel part of the family, not only when things are good and you are enjoying a delicious BBQ (braai) and local beers, but also in the heat of the moment, when everyone is working to offer customers a great, memorable experience. Size matters, and in this realm, small groups make it more practical to enjoy all planned activities and enjoy learning as you tag smaller sharks, collect data on white sharks, or snorkel with kids form the local school. You feel constantly supported by everyone. It´s a highly collaborative environment, where no stone is left unturned for the program members to fulfill volunteers learning and practical expectations. Special mention to the interaction with other volunteers in the house. It´s really encouraging to learn the individual stories and expectations of living-in volunteers, folks like you coming from all over the word, with a common language, could we call it “Shark-glish”? WSDC does offer a platform to interact with other volunteers, further expanding your network of think-alike global shark lovers.
  • Accommodation: the resources made available to volunteers are unmatched. I truly enjoyed the volunteer house. We are volunteering, fine, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to trade in comfort, right? The place is superb, location can’t be beaten, ample comfortable rooms with well-groomed common areas and outdoor possibilities to make for an amazing stay throughout the project. ¨Feels like home¨ is no utopia, truly. Beyond the diving boat, the research boat is also a great asset on your tagging trips for smaller sharks.
  • Activities: We had a number of no sea days, and no-shark days. While this might be a downer, it didn’t jeopardize the overall volunteering experience. For those of you not aware, we experienced an unprecedented situation with orcas and white sharks in the bay. Three great white sharks were washed up after, seemingly, being attacked by killer whales. I feel absolutely privileged to have had the opportunity to witness dissections of two of those deceased individuals – yes, as a volunteer. Very few people in the world have witnessed this, but we did – yes, as volunteers. Of course, you want to see these amazing animals swimming and breaching after seals, but the necropsy of these corpses was an amazing learning opportunity, led by world-know scientific experts. Downright fantastic experience. Besides cage diving, tagging smaller sharks, fishing, snorkeling, beach cleaning, wildlife viewing, biking, penguin conservation, scientific presentations, you name it – never a dull moment.

Finally the Satisfaction, as fulfilling a desire or expectation. In this line, WSDC really delivered, not much to add. My personal expectation was to learn and contribute, and boy, I did! I feel the project and the team are flexible enough to fulfill the individual´s expectations – science, conservation, experiments, discovery and networking. In my personal case, my goal was to have a balanced experience between all those aspects, and I couldn’t be more appreciative of the generosity of a superb group at WSDC and resources deployed to make this experience a memorable one. I´m personally humbled by these guys going the extra mile to help me fulfill my expectations with this project – who said tailored to the customer?? Bravo WSDC!!

Honestly, shark activity wasn’t the greatest during my stay, nature wasn’t keen on me seeing lots of sharks, but I can absolutely guarantee that it had no impact on my experience overall. These guys deserve all my credit for creating a unique ecosystem around each of their volunteers so they leave Kleinbaai, (as I am right now), with a smile on their faces, a genuine feeling of satisfaction and unforgettable memories of one´s time with WSDC. I´m sad to leave, but feeling like I´m a bit closer to going back and help this team in their conservation efforts.

As intangible as the above aspects can seem, these often give a different “flavour” to any experience. Beyond the mere tasks / responsibilities as a volunteer, it is the “feel” vs. the “do” that made the difference at WSDC in South Africa.

Let me please finish by recognizing each of the WSDC program members.

Mary, you are immensely generous. I´ve learned so much I can´t thank you enough. Your passion for sharks is absolutely contagious. It´s comforting that people like you are looking after the sharks in ZA.

Imke, forever grateful for your support, patience and genuine sympathy. You have made the stay in ZA a truly enjoyable one. You beautifully combine science and conservation in your work.

Donovan, my dear volunteer buddy. Man, I could have not asked for a better companion over these weeks. Your passion for sharks and marine wildlife is just moving!

Lalo, keep doing what you are doing man. Once again, I’ve learned tons by sharing this time with you. Can’t wait to hear about your new adventure.

Mitch, Anthony, Ruhan, Phillip(s). Can’t thank you guys enough! You make for a fantastic group. It’s been a true pleasure to be part of your family for a while.

Lots of truly fascinating folks I’ve met in such a short space of time, Tom, Gibbs, Richard, Sharleen, Kasey, etc, would love to see you anytime anywhere.

Luis Martin