As our ten-person car stuttered along the beautiful coastline of Mossel bay towards the Ocean’s Office & House, feelings of excitement and nervousness began to set in.
The first day or two seemed like a blur. On the first full day we woke up at seven, had orientation, socialized, and then explored the facets of our new research environment. By the third day, most of us had gotten the hang of things and it felt like we had become seasoned veterans---although maybe these sentiments were due to the fact that we hadn’t slept much.
For about half of us, our first chum trip provided such spectacular events that five hours on a rocky boat went by as if it were fifteen minutes. Almost immediately upon our arrival to Seal Island, a wounded seal greeted our boat, eliciting queasy stomachs, and a feeling that we might be in over our heads. Ten minutes later the wounded seal was gone. What the sharks didn’t finish off, the seagulls slowly and surely did. Although we were initially inclined to stare at the remnants of the injured seal, it was time to start the real work---chumming, data taking, photography, and probably the coolest, bait roping. Great White Sharks were even more magnificent in the water than they had been in any pictures that we had seen. We felt both amazement and utter respect for the sleek, agile and fast animals. Just when it seemed like the chum trip couldn’t get any better; we heard a loud splash on the port side of the Cheetah. It was predation. No one except for Dylan was prepared for what we saw next. While half of us cheered for the shark, the other half prayed that the baby seal would get safely back to the island. After a minute or two, the outcome was clear as the water turned blood red and the splashing ceased almost as quickly as it had occurred.
By the end of the week, everyone was more than ready to have a few days off. After all, a twenty-four hour seal survey will take its toll on anyone---except for our resident Italian, Michele, who managed to stay awake for over a day. From sitting on the Cheetah and listening for seals coming and going in sector two, to watching from a “snipers nest” at the top of the Diaz Strand hotel, seal survey definitely required patience.
While the seal survey was an exciting experience, at the very least it was also a long, arduous, and uncomfortable one for some. The seal survey from the boat was broken up into shifts, and ours was the night shift. Just when we had succumbed to sleep after the previous day’s duties, we were awoken in order to board the boat. It was a beautiful cool and crisp night, a stark contrast to the previous blizzard-cold nights previous groups had endured. Those that were on-shift utilized any night-vision senses they were equipped with in order to listen and spy fur seals coming and going from Seal Island. While the Cheetah boat was an excellent vessel for chumming, it did not have the best sleeping accommodations. Many of us played musical chairs in the attempt to find good sleeping positions. The cubby, in the steering wheel compartment of the boat, seemed to be the warmest and most comfortable area of all. Half of the boat seemed to be rooting for a breach; the other half hoped that all seals would make it through their journeys unscathed. Although a breach would be an exciting event, for this half the seal’s safety was more valued.
And to top off the week, everyone also managed to have a little social time. Despite thinking that going out would be a leisurely event, it soon became clear that going to Carouse, the only and best nightclub in Mossel Bay, required dance skills and a lot of energy. Dylan impressed even the locals with his excellent and exotic dance moves!
Overall, the first week at Ocean’s was excellent. It started out with a little apprehension but after seven days in the intern house, everyone seemed like family. The excitement of doing groundbreaking research and the experience of seamanship culminated in making the first week a very memorable one.