Whale watching in Hermanus
Before we started traveling extensively, I had certain very fixed opinions on animal rights. I thought I knew what was right and wrong and where it was that I was willing to draw the line. But, in the last two years, I have realized that the universal line regarding animal rights and animal treatment is so blurred that it could be said to barely exist.
In France, dogs are pampered and cosseted, allowed even in the fanciest restaurants, but geese are cruelly fattened for foie gras. Indians never eat beef but leather sandals commonly adorn those same Indians’ feet. In my own country, Americans consume more meat than any other nation per capita but we were outraged by GoDaddy’s CEO’s hunting of a single elephant in Zimbabwe.
T he endangered bontebok, found only in the western Cape, once commonly hunted as pests
Where do we draw the line? What makes the cattle in a ranch more deserving of death than an elephant in Zimbabwe? I have known many meat eaters who refuse to go to zoos or aquariums. If we were all like Mark Zuckerberg, willing to eat only what we killed, would we treat geese and chicken in the same way that we treat our dogs?
These are not hypothetical questions for us; we ask them constantly as we face the animals across this world.
Whale breaching at Plettenberg Bay
In Thailand, we refused to engage in the typical elephant experience---where animals may be beaten or cruelly maltreated to paint pictures, play cricket or soccer, and carry passengers---instead spending more money to visit Patara Elephant Farm, an elephant conservation center . In South Africa, we chose to spend time primarily in large national parks, such as Kruger and Addo , where big game hunting is banned rather than visiting the private game reserves which allow big game hunting every year.
When we reached the edge of the Garden Route in South Africa, we dipped into Hermanus, a pretty little coastal town smack in the center of the whale’s migratory patterns.
Calf breaching at Hermanus
For three days, we stood at the coast and watched more whales than we had ever imagined, surface, breach, and spray surfers with their tails.
View of shark under water (yes, the water is really that murky)
We spent one day driving to nearby Gansbaii, known across the world for its large population of great white sharks.
We took a shark diving cruise: an intense experience in which we hopped onto a fishing boat, pulled on wetsuits, and jumped into the frigid water in a steel cage attached to the side of the boat. Our captain and his crew threw chum into the water to attract the sharks and swung out a large tuna head, attracting the sharks within inches of the steel cage.
We held our breath, ducked our bodies to the bottom of the cage, and watched the large gray body, the sharp teeth, and the beady eyes glance by us, within a fingernails’ breath. Exhilaration and intensity marked our thirty minutes in the 50 degree water until we were too cold to breathe, whether above the surface of the mucky water or below.
Taking pictures of the shark from the boat
I’ve heard many call shark diving cruel because the crews tease the sharks with the tuna head for our benefit. The shark diving company we used claimed that diving assists in conservation because proceeds assist the sharks and, by going on shark diving excursions, average people appreciate the awesomeness of these animals.
Shark diving out of the water
Awesomeness: yes, I got that from our shark diving experience. In fact, we both agree that shark diving is the most awesome activity --- in the old-fashioned, you-must-do-this sense of the word --- we have experienced in the last two years. I don’t care if you’ve seen Shark Week a million times on TV; nothing prepared us for their sheer speed and ferocity. One of sharks tore apart the tuna head as easily as we pick apart a piece of bread. Blood spattered through the water and it rushed away from our boat in fury.
Shark fin near our boat
But, did our shark diving experience assist in conservation? Was it right? Was it cruel? As with much of what I experience in this world, I simply don’t know.