“You’re going to need a bigger boat”

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A friendly shark visitor to our boat in Gansbaai, South Africa

An annual televised bash, this week is Shark Week. I know this, as I have spent way too many Friday nights in front of the Discovery Channel rewinding slow mo shark breaches and lamenting the fact that a bunch of whales have beached themselves en masse as they can’t bear to be apart from one another.

Apparently, Discovery Channel also run a Whale Week, which goes a little more unnoticed as whales do not tend to have the dramatic pull and Hollywood allure of the shark. Great White sharks mostly. I’ve never seen anyone get that excited over a Wobbegong.

Mercury. Supplied pic of a Wobbegong in the Towradgi pool. Photo. Norm Hoyland

I’ve seen more interesting shark specimens, myself.

Whales beat wobbegongs, at least, in the popularity stakes. Their habitual mass beachings usually get the locals all in a tizz and have led to several studies into what it is that makes them apparently launch into a suicide pact with a bunch of blubbery pals. Whales are intensely social animals. Their brains contain ‘spindle cells’ – which are the cells “which make us human” – neurons that enable feelings like love, emotional suffering, and which enable us to react to social situations. They are the catalyst that coerce you into buying a card emblazoned with the words “My love for you will last longer than Ned Stark’s head” for the object of your affections, the trigger that leaves you snivelling into a vat of gin when it all goes wrong and the signpost in our mind that points us in the right direction when manoeuvring through social interaction.

The fact that whales, dolphins and orcas have these neurons is disconcerting when you consider the fact that some of these animals are locked up in tanks for entertainment value. Separated from their families, often captured in the wild – taken from an ocean of possibilities, space and freedom and plonked into a glorified paddling pool. The death of Seaworld trainer Dawn Brancheau is a case in point for why orcas should not be held captive for the sake of splashing tourists and raking in some bucks.

If you haven’t already – see Blackfish – director Gabriela Cowperthwaite explores the history of keeping orcas in captivity and the incidents that have occurred as a result. It might make you cry and having your genitals ripped off by a killer whale does not sound like a barrel of laughs; but it’s eye opening, well informed and will hopefully make a real difference. SeaWorld need to realise that their original target audience is all grown up – we saw Free Willy; and these days we want to see these animals living free – we don’t want to stare at flopped over dorsal fins and a whale that can’t dive as deep or swim as far as is natural and healthy.

Orcas are the largest animal kept in captivity, according to PETA – who have written a nifty little article here on why marine animals shouldn’t be locked up in watery cells – http://www.peta.org/issues/animals-in-entertainment/marine-animal-exhibits-chlorinated-prisons.aspx. Not many aquariums have taken a punt at keeping a Great White. At the time of writing, SeaWorld have not launched a Great White/human interactive show where you can watch the trainers ride on their backs or applaud as the shark balances a seal carcass on its nose – although with SeaWorld – you never know. Monterey Bay Aquarium have kept a few Great Whites in 3,800,000 litre ‘open sea’ exhibits, where they make behavioural studies and then release the shark back into the wild, using the shark’s stay as a promotional effort for a predator not usually viewed too favourably.

Ever since I can remember, I have had an unhealthy obsession with sharks, especially the king of apex predators – the Great White. Unhealthy?! you might ask. A heroin addiction, an unstoppable Greggs habit or a fixation on burning things could be described as unhealthy. Sharks can be admired from afar, in safety – i.e. from a photo, or on a cinema screen.

The ill health side of the coin comes into play when you start swimming with them. It tends to the add to the general bad malaise when you are missing a limb, or seem to have misplaced your torso.

The Australian Shark Attack File states that the last 50 years have seen 50 fatal shark attacks in the country – a nice round average of one per year. How neat and convenient.

Over ten months in late 2011 and into 2012 however, there were five fatal attacks in Western Australia alone. I was living there at the time, and as pro-shark as I am, being out in the water did come with a splash of added peril. It was not uncommon to see a cresting grey shape and shit yourself before you realised that it was a dolphin.

The government called for a cull, with WA Premier Colin Barnett announcing that it was no biggie, as they were “just fish”. Sure thing, Colin. We’ll pop you in a tank with a 15 foot long Great White and a potato cod so you can admire the similarities. Conservation groups were obviously riled up at this plan – and as a lover of all things shark, I was resolutely not on the bandwagon.

I wasn’t just worried about the inevitable pissed up bogans getting their tin boats together and sailing off to hook themselves a real life Jaws in their Bintang singlets, Bundy red cans held aloft. The ocean is the domain of ‘sea monsters’, and always has been since horny sailors were putting the moves on manatees. More simply put, the ocean is the sharks territory, not ours. We’re visitors in their great blue expanse, and we’d better wipe our feet on the sand before we go in.

Australia does love a cull, and often they are quite necessary. Cane toads are a blight on almost every native animal population in Queensland – soon even Irukandji jellyfish will be decimated because cane toads evolved gills and went swimming.

Kangaroo culling is a little more contentious, with one side arguing that the ‘roos damage ecosystems and are a threat to other indigenous wildlife; and the other pointing out that the kangaroos have been around for a pretty long time and have done a half decent job of managing their own population so far.

Animals are culled in Australia when they are perceived as a threat to local flora and fauna. Sharks are as much a threat to marine life along the Aussie coastline as any other ocean predator – from octopus to humpback whales. They eat what they need to, in order to survive. In fact, they play a very vital role in the smooth running of the ecosystem down there. They keep food webs in balance, and keep prey populations and habitats healthy. The only fauna that sharks pose a threat to is humans.

And what of the sharks? What if they floated around one day, observing the depleted fish stocks, the coral that has been bleached by human-caused global warming and the thousands of turtles, dolphins and their own kind that get trapped in nets and on drum lines every year and thought – “you know what guys? these humans have really got out of control. it’s time for a cull.”

Yes I love sharks, and yes I am biased. I also have not been stared down by a Great White without the safe haven of a cage around me, although I have swam with tiger sharks cage-free and am pleased to report that I am not dead. I have also stroked Great Whites on the nose from a boat on several occasions and they didn’t mistake my hand for a tuna.

I spent a month volunteering on a Great White cage diving boat in Gansbaai, South Africa; and was repeatedly blown away by the sharks that we saw. Majestic, agile and almost always giving off a remarkably calm aura. They were curious and playful, and any signs of aggression were purely as a result of baiting by the staff on the boat. I mean they probably weren’t even being aggressive. It’s just hard to look passive when you have a face the size of a Ford Focus and jaws full of Hattori Hanzo sharp teeth.

funny-sad-shark-tears-attack

A great amount of the people that have survived brutal shark attacks are against reprisal in the form of going after the shark. Rodney Fox is a South Australian who was attacked by a Great White in 1963. His ribs were broken, his abdomen “fully exposed”, his lung ripped open and the main artery from his heart was exposed. He needed 450 stitches after the attack.

And yet even after being used as a chew toy, he dedicated his life to studying and observing the species that had almost killed him. He has made documentaries, led expeditions, founded the Fox Shark Research Foundation and designed the first underwater cage to dive with sharks.

I am not always hungry. I don’t walk down the street and grab every piece of food that I see, snatching burgers from the hands of innocent bystanders with wild abandon. Likewise, sharks are not constantly ravenous. They don’t have a burning need to eat every chubby seal or errant human that they come across. They’re always out there. Swimming or surfing off the coast of Western Australia, and many other places for that matter, the chances are that there is a shark somewhere in the vicinity. I’m sure that you could casually cruise past a Great White whilst paddling around in your Speedo and nine times out of ten, it wouldn’t be in the slightest bit bothered by your presence. Obviously the aim of the game is to avoid the one time out of ten when he’s still not bothered, but he’s eaten your head.

Itchy Feet Syndrome

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I suffer from a serious condition. It is relatively common, although the effects can be devastating to your close friends and family, bank balance, and career prospects. It can strike you down at any time, and despite its debilitating symptoms, there is no known cure, and you will find no allowances for company sick pay or government disability benefits. I have a chronic case of Itchy Feet Syndrome.

When I was 18 and friends were eagerly filling in UCAS forms and heading off to university open days, I planned instead to head off to Europe – with no known destination or outcome in sight, my plan of action stretching little further than my childhood dream of moving to Spain, dying my hair jet black and becoming a flamenco dancer.

University beckoned however, as I became jealous of friends wittering on about all night drinking sessions, curling up in the library with a flask of coffee and taking up lacrosse. As it happens, I only ever achieved one of these things. Whilst at university I filled the hours spent in lecture halls (probably an average of 1.5 a week) daydreaming about hitting the road in the Australian outback and swimming with sharks in South Africa.

My first boyfriend was a stony faced sentinel on holidays as I skipped around booking paraglides with unlicenced instructors that launched from illegal spots towering on the mountainside; had my nipple pierced in a shady tattoo studio and hatched covert escape plans from our tour guide of less salubrious spots in Marrakech. I was successful, dragging my ex through twisting alleyways and little visited souks and poking my head into every nook, whilst he clung to my arm hissing about potential abduction.

This boyfriend had a possible opportunity to work in Mumbai, and would be relocated with his girlfriend. I was thrilled at the prospect and spent every passing minute scouring the Internet looking at apartments, bars, yoga studios and Marathi language classes. I bought Shantaram and had my nose stuck in it for the next week, skimming endless pages of analogies on life to get to anything remotely related to living in the sprawling, heaving city.

The move to Mumbai never transpired, and the relationship fizzled shortly afterwards. My next boyfriend was offered the opportunity to work in Australia, and the process started up again. I called Sydney job agencies on Skype, trawled through the Melbourne Gumtree branch and zoomed in on sunny Perth through my Google Earth telescope. When the Australia move began to look unlikely, I told my Mum that if he didn’t go, I’d go by myself. We had just moved in together, and I was off on a three week trip to South Africa to fulfil my lifelong dream of staring a Great White shark in the eye.

The three week trip turned into over a year, after I stroked the Great Whites, partied in the townships, rode an ostrich and decided that I was never going home. I called him to break up with him over the phone and tell him that my parents would be coming to move my stuff out of our flat. I quit my job by email, and spent hours on payphones and Facebook convincing friends and family that I was not being held hostage by an amaZulu tribe and was doing the right thing.

Aside from worrying my parents, breaking someone’s heart, detaching my retina and being mugged at gunpoint – I had the time of my life. I came home in August 2010 to a London where I struggled with directions, traffic that did not include livestock, being able to use an iPod in public and wearing shoes for the next five months, before packing my bag and moving to Australia.

In Australia itchy feet continued to plague me. I spent four months in rural South Western Australia: heading to the beach after work; appearing in the local newspaper three times and the TV news once as anything can count as news in remote WA; spending my weekends crabbing on a run-down boat and camping in the karri forests where possums act nice and then steal your food and bush pigs snuffle the ground outside your tent – sounding like Babe and looking like a Triceratops.

South Western Australia is one of the most beautiful places on Earth, but after four months of living in a tropical Truman Show, I moved to Perth. I lasted a surprisingly long time in Perth. Perth is the kind of place where trying to make friends takes the kind of mental investment usually reserved for Olympic training or joining Opus Dei. After several nights out by myself where I danced hopefully around groups of people, smiling like a maniac and trying to ooze into their sphere of conversation, I rather luckily met Sam.

Our meeting could have spelled disaster. I was sitting in front of him at my new job in a sports events company, as a glorified debt enforcing racketeer. Within approximately 5 seconds of introducing myself, I had spilled my coffee all over my computer. Within 5 seconds of exclaiming “Fuck, I spilled my coffee” and dramatically sweeping kitchen roll around my desk, I had done it again. I think he was only friends with me because he thought I was mentally challenged and might throw hot coffee over him otherwise.

Perth lasted a mammoth eight months before I wanted to move back to South Western Australia. I immediately informed my manager at my new job that I would shortly be leaving, and set about finding yet another new job. I scooped up an Event Manager role for a celebrity cricket tournament, and started with nowhere to live, residing between my boyfriend at the times parent’s house; a friend and her Labrador and my car. Eventually my manager gave me a house to live in on his vineyard estate, and I spent a month chasing Huntsman spiders around with a broom and wandering with seven foot tall red kangaroos in the garden.

After a few moments where I’d start cooking, realise I’d forgotten a vital ingredient, and have to drive for half an hour to get to the nearest supermarket, I decided South Western Australia wasn’t for me, and moved to Port Hedland in North Western Australia. This lasted for two weeks, as it is a hell hole. I walked into the tavern I would be working in (called The Last Chance – apt) and was met by dank darkness; Chop Suey blaring over speakers with a lone, deafened gecko trundling over them; men with no teeth and rumbling welcomes such as “Welcome to the Jungle”, and “New Meat”. It took two weeks of breaking up fights between burly miners, being spat at by alcoholic customers and coming home to find local crack dealers making themselves at home on my couch before I surrendered and flew back to Perth.

This was followed by London, which was followed by Perth again (chasing an ill advised relationship), which was followed by Sydney. Sydney was eight months of being convinced that I found the place I could live in forever, before I missed my Mum and came home. I have been home for four and a half months now. The sun has decided to come out, I have a brilliant job, my calendar is full of trips to Amsterdam, birthday parties and weddings. But with the sun has come my old nemesis: Itchy Feet.

In the past 48 hours I have searched for jobs in Cape Town, apartments in Northern Spain, and considered a career in the Honduran hinterland. I had an hour long chat to a friend in Australia over Skype and am pining for a trip to the beach to drink a cold Little Creatures and watch the sun set and dolphins ride the waves.

I love London. Really I do. I love the bars, the markets, the museums, the multi culturalism and the raw, urban grittiness of it all. But it is very rare that you see a dolphin. Or a beach. Or the sun.

I spoke to friends and family a couple of weeks ago about how much I love my job, and that I can see myself sticking with it and staying for a while. I take it back. I take it all back. I can see myself throwing my woolly scarf away, reaching for my flip flops, waving London goodbye and going to find the dolphins.