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letters from africa, nine months with shannon switzer Letters from Africa - Nine Months with Shannon Switzer

jettygirl photographer shannon switzer November 13, 2007

Dispatch No. 4: Bachelorhood and the BBC

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 problem.

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 relative.

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 fascinating.

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 up! or Under Nairobi and the Seychelles Galleries. Check em out!

And don't forget about too :) Ok that's it.



Shannon's Previous Letters: She Sells Sea Shells - 2007.10.23
  Unexpected Flight Delays Lead to Unexpectedly Good Times - 2007.10.05
  Whale Sharks, Sea Turtles, and Chimps- OH MY! - 2007.10.01



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 SURF, Walking 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 --Chris Grant

whale shark under brilliant light
Whale shark under brilliant light

underwater view of whale shark
Whale shark

whale shark food
Soon to be whale shark food

whale shark silhouette

whale shark and friends
Whale shark and friends

divers swim in for a close up view of whale sharks
Divers swim in for a close-up view

airborne  view of mahe
Mahe from the air

mahe from the air
Mahe from the air

All Photos ©


Photo: Gabe Rogel


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