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

jettygirl photographer shannon switzer (Publisher's Note: Our biggest apologies for the delay of this Letter from Africa. Shannon sent it to us over a month ago and we didn't get it posted until today. Sorry Shannon...and sorry to you readers too.)

December 22, 2007

Dispatch No. 6: I'M IN LOVE

Yes, that's right I am head over heels in love. I know most of you thought it would never happen (let's be honest, I never thought it would either), but there's no denying cupid- he has struck and I have fallen hard. I am in love with Denis. We met five weeks ago in the middle of the Indian Ocean. I landed on him in fact, and the rest is history.

Granted he is made of coral remnants so we will probably never be able to have kids, but I've come to terms with this. Denis is in fact an island, an outer coralline island of the Seychelles.

Since whale shark season ended, it was time to move onto a new project, and that's when Yvonne showed up. She's a German Master's student who flew in to work with David and the Marine Conservation Society collecting data on a tiny outer island for her thesis on dolphins and whales (cetaceans). There just happened to be an extra spot on the island and David asked if I would like to join her. He thought I was a good candidate as my job would be photographing any marine mammals we spotted for later use in identifying the species and individual animals encountered, and I (of course) jumped at the opportunity.

After a few promised and immaterialized departures, Yvonne and I were waiting to hear about the latest possibility on a rainy Tuesday. We got word 20 minutes before the flight left that two spots had finally opened on the tiny plane that flies to the privately owned island 6 days a week. The flights main purpose is to transport guests who stay at the secluded four-star resort (apparently we just missed Prince William and Kate Middleton). A frantic bout of light-speed packing ensued and we were off!

Camille, the island's Conservation Officer by title, but in reality the employee manager and all-around go-to-man (seriously this guy never sleeps!), greeted us off the plane and got us settled in. The following night we found ourselves under a full moon, learning the fine art of grilling bread fruit, or fwee-ah-pay, in a cocoon of coconut husks and enjoying the sizzle of flames licking red snapper meat. To complete the feast we had sliced heart palm tossed with lime and onion known as "Millionaire's Salad." We topped off the meal with a dessert of ice cold papaya, pineapple, passion fruit, and tamarind all mingling together and drizzled with fresh coconut milk.

My favorite part of the meal was watching the ingredients turn up throughout the evening. Each one was brought by a different gift-bearer. First came the bread fruit, then ten minutes later the fish showed up, then- oh here comes the heart palm and so on- all just picked off the vine or plucked from the sea.

We've had many delicious meals since (my all-time favorite being the coconut curry lobster and rock crab!). Meal time always serves the dual purpose of Creole language lessons from Camille and Mary Rose, his girlfriend/wife (the word is used interchangeably which leaves me endlessly confused). They are patient teachers and were very amused that the first phrase I wanted to learn was "Ek-low gee-zef torch-ee!" ("Lay your eggs turtle!") I had seen a momma hawksbill turtle come up to nest earlier that day and go straight back to sea without laying, so I decided I must be ready with some encouraging words in her native tongue for our next encounter. I'm pleased to report my Creole has steadily expanded from this modest beginning.

My initial fear of living for six weeks without proper sweets, such as ice cream or chocolate, quickly subsided as we found ourselves the grateful recipients of a steady stream of goodies often stealthily smuggled from the hotel or sent on the plane by someone's relative and passed on to us. Yvonne is actually in contention for loving sweets MORE than I do, that's right, I think I've finally met my match (I know, shocking- I'm almost ashamed to admit it).

I love Yvonne. She is ALWAYS laughing, no matter what. I often stand puzzled watching her, trying with all my might to figure out what she could possibly be laughing at, then usually give up and just join in. My favorite is when somebody does something she really likes. First she gives a big giggle and then blurts out "You are soooo cool!" She says it just like the geeky girl in Jr. High with thick-rimmed glasses would to Mr. hot-shot jock, who would then wave a dismissing hand and call out "Get a life four-eyes"- except that Yvonne is 25 and absolutely gorgeous, and every time she says this to a guy, I watch his heart melt on the spot. I always get a kick out of it.

She is also a dedicated conservationist and is the first person to record cetacean sightings along a drop-off in the continental plate just north of Denis Island, where the ocean floor plummets from a depth of 200 ft to 7,000 ft. It is an area known to be visited by sperm, humpback, pilot, melonhead, and false killer whales as well as bottlenose, common, spinner, and Rhiso's dolphins. Before arriving here and upon hearing this, I had visions of all of these species simultaneously jumping and breaching in one giant cetacean disco…reminiscent of Disney's The Little Mermaid with Sebastian the crab orchestrating Under the Sea. So far this has not been the case. Of nearly 100 hours of data collection we have had only 20 brief sightings and without fail they have been good old bottlenose dolphins.

But, hey I am definitely not complaining, the dearth of cetaceans has proven to be just a minor blip in mine and Denis's relationship. He's made up for it in other ways. We get to dive nearly every day (for free!) with all kinds of sea creatures like giant manta rays, a whole assortment of toothy sharks, turtles, sting rays, and marlin that often swing by and pay us a visit.

When there are no clients going out on the diving or fishing boats for us to tag along and do our observations with (the only way we get to go out is if clients have booked a trip), we often snorkel out front of the dive center. I explore this area so often that I have come to know each one of my turtle neighbors, and I have my favorite. He's a little hawksbill turtle and loves to munch on the algae growing on various coral heads. Most importantly, he's the only one who actually seems to enjoy my company as much as I enjoy his, and yes I have named him- Harry, Harry the hawksbill (I just can't help myself!). Our favorite game is to swim in circles, spiraling up and down around each other like water ballet partners. We've been discussing training for the next Olympics- he's all for it, I'm still not convinced.

I've also been sharpening my free diving skills while on Denis, which I absolutely can't get enough of. So far my record is 75 feet, I began seeing stars on my way back up but managed to make it safely to the surface, my lungs spasming and never more thankful to suck in air (but don't worry I am being careful!)

As Christmas approaches I have been practicing with some of the Seychelloise staff for our Christmas Eve caroling concert intended for the hotel guests. I've found that I mainly provide entertainment for the other ladies in the choir, as half of the songs are in French, which I'm always butchering, so I usually just hmmmmmm along or mouth "watermelon" over and over. Then the other half are in English, including such favorites as Silent Night and Joy to the World, but the melody is completely unrecognizable (which I find more maddening than trying to sing the songs in French!!!). It should be an interesting performance.

In the meantime, I am truly missing home right now and carrying all of you in my heart!! I pray for a Christmas and New Year's full of love, family, fun, and safety!
If you don't hear from me for a while don't worry…After New Years I'm heading back to Kenya to work with Moving Mountains and am not sure when I'll have access to internet again.

Thanks for making it through another novel!


PS. Surfboard shaper Sean Reilly has graciously offered to sponsor me, definitely check out his website at:

Thanks Sean!!!



Shannon's Previous Letters: Ode to Surfing - 2007.11.29
  Bachelorhood and the BBC - 2007.11.13
  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

Denis Island

crab on Denis Island

underwater paradise at denis island

denis island clouds

denis island sea turtle

solitude on denis island

sand leap on denis island

denis island beauty

foot bridge, denis island

All Photos ©


Photo: Gabe Rogel


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