Briefly, the “Great Projects” great white sharks South African program may be alright for teenagers and mid-level or untrained/moderately trained, budget conscious college or possibly even graduate students seeking a thrill and a travel opportunity, however, if you are well educated, have a profession that you are taking time from in order to obtain a real opportunity to volunteer in a way that allows you to truly give back and assist constructively with shark conservation and/or if you are looking for a more meaningful level of education about shark conservation, then this program is NOT for you. At its essence, this is a themed sleep-away camp for young people on a budget.
In more detail, the “Great Projects” promises you training in shark biology and conservation, cage diving, data collection, training in basic seamanship, and much more. Delivery is pretty hit-or-miss and really depends on luck. If the weather is bad, as it often is (when I went, the group before me had just experienced 4 “no sea” days during which time several told me they were bored out of their skulls and I myself experienced only two “sea days” the entire time I was there and never got to get in the cage, despite the program’s guarantee) the volunteers are mostly left in their “cottages” with massive amounts of downtime and nothing to do. When I was there, the project intern would take people out to drink, smoke and dance at the local pub. While this can be fun, it’s not why I volunteered and contributed nothing toward the shark conservation mission. **Note to parents of high school kids: be sure you trust your teen and that she or he can handle him/herself because the intern and the volunteer program coordinator try to be “friends,” not guidance counsellors or mentors or babysitters or teachers. The program coordinator regaled a group of two young volunteers with stories about how she used to party all the time. These 17-20 year olds look up to the volunteer coordinator. Just keep in mind that the level of professionalism and maturity is very low. Will your teens like them? Probably yes because they may seem very fun and let them do all the things parents might not. Will people older than 25 like them? Maybe but I think much less likely if they’re professionals. Depends where you are in your life.** The company comes across like just one more in the sea of semi-ethical companies capitalizing on well meaning people, taking their labour and money.
Breaking it down some more:
1. The Training
The entire time I was there, I got one lecture from the marine biologist. It was quite decent and he was a smart, interesting man, but that was it. Another volunteer who is studying biology in the UK created an ad hoc lecture on ocean pollution for us at the request of the volunteer coordinator because there was literally nothing else to do. The boat crew did give an excellent basic training on seamanship for those unfamiliar with all things nautical. That training takes only an afternoon and is done. For the majority of the time, the volunteers are hanging out in their “cottage” or washing wetsuits or cleaning the boat. There is very minimal education. Again, fine for high school students or even low level college students or grad students without much biology training. If you want to learn how to wash a wetsuit, though, you will definitely learn that. If you’re lucky to have good weather and be at sea regularly, without having to rely on the volunteer coordinator, you may have a very good time. But that will be based on luck.
2. The Lodging and Food
Expect bare bones. The bathroom in the upper cottage had black mold colonies growing on the walls, a toilet permanently stained, paint peeling off the shower floors, and was unheated. If you go in the winter, expect it to be freezing and pack accordingly. The lower cottage has two bedrooms and the upper cottage three, which are fairly dirty and have twin-size bunk beds in them to dorm everyone up. They provide a pillow and one coverlet. They do not provide towels. Nobody goes on this project expecting The Ritz so it’s fine, but don’t expect anything too nice. The breakfast foods provided are milk, inexpensive bulk cereal and white bread. If you are vegan, you will have to go and buy your own food. If you’re lucky enough to go out on the boat, they will have water, crisps (with dairy - sorry vegans) and peanut butter sandwiches. Other than that, food-wise, you’re on your own. Good luck.
3. Location and Poaching
It is a small touristy town with several shark cage diving companies, one of which you’ll be working for, washing wetsuits and cleaning the boat. There is very little nightlife. There is one restaurant within walking distance. It’s beautiful for all ocean and nature lovers. Sadly, the first thing the project intern informed us of was that it’s unsafe to go out alone after dark because of, according to them, an abundance of poachers who will threaten and even physically harm anyone they perceive to be watching them too closely. The intern stated there are many, many poachers who collect abalone illegally every night and that the local police are paid off to look the other way. I suggested reporting the poaching to a level above the local police. The intern advised us not to report the poaching and that it’s the “Great Projects” policy not to interfere with poaching, which was surprising and disturbing. I reported the poaching to a third party watchdog group anyway and, a week later, was told by a Cape Town resident that arrests for poaching were made in Gansbaai. Coincidence? And why didn’t the staff of the “Great Projects” do that from the start? How can you say you support and promote marine conservation yet turn a blind eye to poaching and actively dissuade others from reporting it? Hmmmm.
4. Who Will the Other Volunteers Be?
Based on my experience and talking to others after the fact, the volunteers are majority female, white, teens to early 20’s. They tend to be majority from the UK, and most seem to be smokers. Based on what others told me, volunteers over 30 and volunteers who are professionals tend not to fare well with the project, partly due to the immaturity of the intern and volunteer coordinator and partly due to the lack of organisational structure/cohesion and partly due to the fact they’re bunking with excitable kids that may be their own kids’ ages. While I was there, though, even the teens had had it. At least three people under the age of 25 also left the program early.
As mentioned above, volunteers appear to be predominantly white. When I was there I was the only person of colour and did feel a bit of an outsider. The staffers dealing directly with the volunteers from authority positions were also white and British. The only black South Africans I met on the project (who, by the way, were all lovely and the bright shining positive part of the program) were working in labourer positions, not authority positions.
6. Most importantly, will you actually help sharks and aid in shark conservation?
Sadly, my personal experience was that I did not feel I had the opportunity to actually help sharks or aid in shark conservation. Because I was left alone to my own devices the majority of the time, I felt pretty useless. I offered to help with anything from data entry and collection to shark observation, but was mostly ignored. The two times the boat actually went out, we didn’t cage dive or take data. I do think there’s a potential for a great experience if you have luck and don’t need to rely on the volunteer coordinator. If you go when the weather is good and can get out on the boat frequently and really observe the sharks and collect data, you might have an eye-opening experience. Sadly, that didn’t happen for me. When I was there, instead of using all the downtime to educate the volunteers on other ways to educate the public about shark conservation or take other constructive measure to help sharks (which you can do without needing to be on a boat), the volunteers were either left alone with nothing to do or the intern took people to the pub or the volunteer coordinator would arrange some sort of typically touristy excursion. If you are 17 and have never traveled before or if you’re older and on a serious budget and have never had these touristy experiences, they will likely be fun for you. If you are already well traveled and came to the program as a means to really throw yourself into shark conservation for two weeks to give back to the community and not to holiday, you will feel like it’s been quite a waste of time. I was able to take lemons and make lemonade though. After it became clear there would be no more sea days for the remainder of the project, and after three days of nothingness, the volunteer coordinator sent the volunteers to a youth hostel for two nights where they could pay to go on tourist excursions like a safari, etc. I did not go. Instead, when it was clear no efforts would be made towards shark conservation, I promptly left and spent the remainder of my time traveling South Africa solo, which was a wonderful and eye opening experience.
7. How to Help Sharks
What I will say is DO support the shark education and conservation efforts of the eco-conscious shark diving operations by going on cage dives with them. Your contribution toward the local economy and support as a tourist will probably be more meaningful than washing wetsuits. Bonus points if you utilise a company actually owned and operated by South Africans.
This project was a waste of my time and I would not recommend it to anyone well versed in biology, serious about social good and over the age of 30. Teens looking for a low-cost summer camp with a shark theme, however, will probably be just fine.
What would you improve about this program?
Advice for Volunteer World and the “Great Projects”:
1. Disclose the typical age range and educational level of the average volunteer. It will help others determine if this program will be a good fit for them personally.
2. Consider an application process for potential volunteers and try to form cohesive groups based on educational attainment and age range. Learn what skills volunteers have (maybe they are graphic designers or data analysts or PR mavens) so their specific skills can be put to good use in the program to actually constructively assist in shark conservation efforts in ways suited to the volunteer’s individual skill set. This will greatly help in the numerous “no sea” days, enduring volunteers are effectively utilised so that an actual social good is happening.
3. Improved Staffing and Organization. This is, perhaps, the most important thing of all. Volunteer World could use more professional travel consultants. The project needs to have a better monitoring system in place for its staff, including interns. Overall, there is a major organisational failure here. The coordinator is creating a spur of the moment and ad hoc schedule (which often consists of nothing -e.g., days of boredom and downtime, followed by pay-for-yourself touristy activities that, while they may be fun, have nothing to do with social good or volunteering) that does little to help with shark conservation or the creation of social good. Properly done, “no sea” days could actually be educational and useful, both for the parent company and the volunteers.
Professionalism is critical to good business. A small but telling example of unprofessional behaviour consisted of the volunteer coordinator actively lying when the travel consultant asked if it was true I’d been on no cage dives. The coordinator made up a story that I opted not to cage dive rather than simply saying, “True and it was regrettable.” I have been free diving with sharks, sky diving and many other things along those lines. You want a program with staff that is professional, mature and honest. They set the tone for the entire experience.