November 13, 2007
Dispatch No. 4: Bachelorhood and the
I'm currently still all aglow
from swimming at the epicenter of a feeding frenzy-
Bert held true to his wink plus brought back two of
his friends, and they were all hungry. It was a hurricane
of fusiliers, pilot fish, plankton, and three enormous
whale sharks all whirling about with frenetic energy.
I just sat there spinning around at the eye of the storm.
This place doesn't so much grow
on a person as it is infectious.
When I first arrived, I felt like
an eager little kid pressing my face up against the
glass window of a candy shop. My smooshed nose and lips
peered in at the sparkling assortment of treats to be
tasted. The catch was mom wouldn't let me go in just
yet. I first had to somehow earn those treats: clean
my room, do the dishes, or complete some other tedious
chore. So it was with the Seychelles- I wasn't granted
access to its secrets straight away.
So, in the meantime I've been walking,
a lot, and I slowly learned more about the locals and
life here. If I want to get anywhere it usually involves
quite a long walk (or bus ride, but I usually end up
waiting so long for the bus to arrive that I could've
already reached my destination had I just walked). The
wonderful thing about this country is that I often begin
walking and end up getting a ride. I am always so beside
myself with thankfulness that someone would take time
out of their day to stop and give me a ride that I immediately
want to strike up a conversation. Then I encounter a
I never know which language to
speak- there are just too many options. I wonder if
I should use the few Creole words I know, or maybe French,
then Spanish starts popping into my head, which is what
my brain automatically switches too when in foreign
language mode (seriously it took me a while to stop
saying "Hola! Como estas?" to every local
I passed). Finally I blurt something out like: Kichi!
Merci beaucoup for the ride. How are you today sir?
(it's usually a male driver- surprise, surprise). After
a mildly amused look the usual response is "Yes,
fine, where you goin?" followed by a pleasant silence
for the remainder of the ride, often with some Seygo
music pulsing through the speakers, lending a Creole-reggae
soundtrack to the scenery.
Occasionally I get a talker. Case
in point, Alvin. He was a baker, tall and hefty, wearing
a Sey Brew (local beer) t-shirt and distributing his
goods to each and every little shop we passed along
the way. Once again I probably could've walked and gotten
to my destination more quickly, but then I would have
missed out on Alvin's priceless commentary. In response
to my asking about having a wife or children he looked
at me with grave seriousness, "Oh no. Bachelor
is best here. Have family is responsibility. Is no good."
I was surprised by his response
but have since learned that it is the consensus among
the majority of Seychelloise men. In fact, Elsey told
me that the very institution of marriage is actually
frowned upon by many locals. It is apparently seen as
a throwback to the days of slavery when they were forced
to be monogamous and marry the opposite sex before being
"allowed" to have relations together, which
went against the traditionally polygamous cultures of
their homeland. It makes sense then that, unlike in
Nairobi, I get a lot of attention here. Any girl does,
white or Seychelloise, with a bunch of self-proclaimed
bachelors on the loose.
The best way to grasp the scale
of the islands themselves is to fly over them. Enter:
the Microlight. Picture a Hang glider with a tiny engine,
propeller, and two seats, the pilot's and one stacked
behind and raised higher than his, similar to a two-seater
Harley. Not only does flying in the Microlight afford
a spectacular view of the islands, but it is also used
to spot the whale sharks. They are most easily seen
from above as the pilots can scan a vastly larger expanse
of water then we can from the boat, they can even distinguish
the sharks tadpole-esque shape when they are swimming
30 feet below the ocean's surface.
It works like this: One of two
of our South African pilots, either Guy or Johan, are
sent up as the boat full of tourists itching to see
some big spotty creatures pull out of the bay. Bringing
the tourists along provides sole funding for all the
research done by the Marine Conservation Society of
the Seychelles (MCSS). As a volunteer who is not a certified
Dive Master I am relegated to manning the radio.
Now don't get me wrong, this is
an important position which requires lightning-fast
reactions and, more importantly, the ability to decipher
a South African accent over a crackling radio connection.
This was my biggest challenge; at first it was nearly
impossible. They would shout orders like "120 degrees
left, 600 meters ahead, swimming north-east away from
the boat," and I would translate to the skipper,
"I love purple and pink polka dot puppies that
taste like cotton candy?"
Eventually I got the hang of it,
and now whenever I am onboard we operate like a well-oiled-shark-finding
machine. As we approach the shark, we instruct the clients
to get ready to hop overboard. We wait for the spotter
to jump in (yeah, those lucky volunteer you know-whats
who are Dive Master certified) to verify that it is
indeed a smiley whale shark and not some other toothy
The excitement builds, and when
we give the go ahead, it often culminates in a heap
of tourists scrambling to get in the water as the boat
haplessly lists to one side. Despite our repeated instructions
to jump off the side of the boat on which one is sitting,
they inevitably all run to the side the shark is spotted
on, toppling over one another with fins and masks flying.
Eventually we get them sorted, in the water, and voila!
The spotter gets photos of the gill slits and the sex
of the animal for later identification in a program
called IRIS. Every whale shark has a unique spot pattern
around the gill slit area that can be used like fingerprints
to ID different individuals, which is exactly what we
do back in the office the next morning.
Some added excitement to this routine,
came with the arrival of the BBC film crew (you know,
the British Broadcasting Commission that brings us the
World News, classic films like Pride and Prejudice,
and apparently documentaries about whale sharks). They
were here to film one chapter of an epic saga exploring
the plight of the whale shark. Already having filmed
for a month in Australia, they were now doing the segment
on the scientific cooperation between there and the
Seychelles. They wanted to film David Rowat (my boss)
and Mark Meakum (Aussie expert) affixing a satellite
tag and "critter cam." I found this all very
The part I found most fascinating
was the specific scripting and directing that went on.
This was not simply capturing a moment, it took staging
and planning. I had always thought documentary makers
were charged with the task of recording things as they
happened, as they would be happening irregardless of
their own presence. But now I was watching one of the
most renowned underwater filmmakers in action and saw
that this just wasn't the case.
This meant I got to play tourist,
a much more graceful and adept tourist than those I
described earlier mind you. Emma, the producer, had
to keep instructing me to splash about and look less
rehearsed. I was giggling like a teenager, and by about
the 11th take of swimming closely passed the camera,
I began seeing star-studded headlines that read…The
Crocodile Huntress flash across the big screen in my
mind. I saw images of myself swimming hand in flipper
with a sea lion off the banks of the Galapagos, playing
hop scotch with a tiger in the wilds of India, and teaching
a shark about the subtler sides of dental hygiene off
the tip of South Africa.
Hmmmm. I will leave you with that.
If any TV producers happen to be reading this my direct
line is (760) 726….alright, alright getting a
little carried away.
Once again, I hope all is well
wherever this finds you. I've so enjoyed hearing from
everyone so please don't hesitate to write, and I'm
sorry to those I haven't responded to yet, I love you
and you will be hearing from me soon!
Also, I finally have some photos
Under Nairobi and the Seychelles Galleries. Check em
And don't forget about www.jettygirl.com
too :) Ok that's it.
About "Letters From Africa -
Nine Months with Shannon Switzer": JettyGirl photographer
Shannon Switzer left a few weeks ago on the trip of
a lifetime. Although not necessarily a surf trip per
se, we think her adventure is a story well-worth sharing
with others. Before she departed, a few surf companies
jumped on board with sticker donations for Shannon's
trip. Her plan is to pass stickers out to the kids she
meets as she travels throughout Africa. Special thanks
to all who answered our call for stickers: Transworld
on Water, Mutiny
Media, Leucadia Surf Shop, and Dal Sarcos. The kids
are going to be stoked! If you or your company is interested
in donating stickers to Shannon, please contact me at
email@example.com --Chris Grant
Whale shark under brilliant light
Soon to be whale shark food
Whale shark and friends
Divers swim in for a close-up view
Mahe from the air
Mahe from the air
All Photos ©ShannonSwitzer.com