Swimming Through Forests
We departed from where we were staying in Cape Town at dawn to traverse an entirely different South African landscape. We were headed about 45 minutes south down the cape peninsula to Simon’s Town, where our snorkel safari was set to take place. The drive was nothing short of stunning, the landscape epitomized the image of where mountains meet the sea.
We arrived with a good amount of free time before we were scheduled to meet our snorkel guide. We had no trouble killing the time on the beach, especially since this particular beach, known as Seaforth Beach, is home to a colony of endangered South African penguins. It was early, but Seaforth was already littered with people. Tori and I weaved our way past towels, umbrellas, and the beginning of sandcastles, venturing towards the far end of the beach where the colony sat on a large boulder, presumably sunbathing. They were behind a roped off section, no doubt for their own protection. As we were scoping out the penguin population, we also noticed a middle-aged man donning a bucket hat and carrying a sign, stopping occasionally to pick up trash along the beach. He came close to us, reaching the perimeters of the roped off area and planting the sign in the sand.
The sign warned against touching, feeding, or harassing the marine birds in any way. Earlier in the parking lot, we had even seen a sign to check under your car for penguins before pulling away. As self-titled conservationists and naturalists, we decided to greet him, mentioning that it was nice that someone was giving a voice to the birds. “What else are we supposed to do on this planet? We must be of use,” he said. Terry Corr introduced himself as the director of the Shark Warrior Adventure Centre. It turns out Terry is rather passionate about conservation, not just of the penguins but of marine species as a whole. Not only do the penguin colonies of South Africa face numerous natural predators, but they are also victims to habitat loss and perhaps more significantly, loss of preferred nesting sites. Other than Terry, there are organizations such as the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) that aid in chick rearing, rescue, rehabilitation, and education about these marine birds.
Thinking about the loss of preferred nesting sites, I was suddenly saddened by the number of tourist that filled the beach. I looked from the crowded beach to the quiet penguins who had hardly even moved in the time we’d been watching them. They seemed at peace with the reality of their circumstance, accepting of the intrusion of their beach. Terry shared that some are surprised to see penguins on the beach, surprised that they can even be found in South Africa. But it’s a fact that penguins can be found anywhere south of the equator. “Some people think the penguins are lost.” Terry said, “but this is their home.”
Before we knew it, it was time to meet for our excursion. Funny enough, Terry turned out to be the director of the center where we booked our snorkel tour. He greeted us again warmly as we entered the Shark Warrior Adventure Center, introducing us to Jon, who would be our snorkel guide that afternoon. Jon claimed the water would be cold, so we geared up, wearing form fitting wetsuits, booties, gloves, and fins.
We were all set. Upon leaving the adventure center, the heat of the day immediately caused beads of sweat to prick at my skin. We were hoping to enter the cool water quickly and as experienced snorkelers we relayed to Jon that we felt comfortable without any refreshers before diving in. We followed him down to the beach, through sand dunes, and over a set of boulders to a more secluded portion of the beach. We waded our way into the water off the beach, and soon we were swimming through thick patches of kelp. Kelp forests tend to indicate the ecological health of an area, as they’re typically teaming with biodiversity. Jon informed us we should expect to see a range of invertebrates and fishes, and perhaps we’d encounter sharks or seals.
The water consumed my senses as my ears filled with the muted sound of the underwater world. Despite my mouth being plugged by the snorkel, I could still taste salt. Around me all I could see were the vast stretches of kelp. Some patches were so dense; it was difficult to see anything below. Jon had also warned us not to be spooked by a gully shark, as they favor swimming through the safety and seclusion of the kelp. We weren’t spooked by the sharks, but we did spot two of the gully sharks, also known as sharp toothed houndsharks, swimming low to the ground, navigating smoothly through a patches of kelp. Jon also informed us to keep an eye out for shy sharks too, a species of catshark that tends to cover its face with its tail when spotted.
Sharks fall into the taxonomic category known as elasmobranches, which classifies not only sharks, but stingrays. Swimming along closer to a rocky portion of the shoreline, we reached an area with a sandy bottom. Hardly distinguishable below a thin layer of sand was a giant Southern stingray, it’s wing span reaching around six feet. We moved delicately around the ray, careful not to spook it but awed by its sheer size and ability to hide so well. Jon shared that he had yet to spot a southern ray in his time working with the Shark Warrior Project; our second safari and the second time our guide told us we’d experienced something rare. It was as if the wildlife of South Africa was as open to us as we were to it.
As we made our way back to shore, I took pause, popping my head above water. I was happy to be greeted by penguins pondering on the boulders. The temperature of the air was so hot it seemed as if it lingered above the water. I took a final look at the reflective turquoise up against the mountainous backdrop, a final reminder of the cohesion and coexistence of the seemingly different scenery.
In its entirety, the experience of being in Africa was humbling. As our plane left the continent behind in the distance, I was left feeling grateful for investing in myself through travel. The country left us in awe of its natural habitats and at the same time concerned over the threats that this landscape faces. These species and ecosystems are attempting to take shape alongside a world that is developing and modernizing. While the experiences the country gave to Tori and I will leave a permanent mark on us, we hope we only left behind footprints in return.
It is important to remember that this world, this life, is truly expansive. The human experience is so incredibly diverse, and there’s no one way to navigate through it all. But if you keep your values close, living this life as an example to others, being kind to people, this earth, and yourself, that’s all you really need.