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Great White Sharks at Seal Island in False Bay, departing Simons Town with African Shark Eco-Charters

Great White Sharks at Seal Island in False Bay, departing Simons Town with African Shark Eco-Charters

Old Aug 9th, 2008, 08:27 AM
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Great White Sharks at Seal Island in False Bay, departing Simons Town with African Shark Eco-Charters

Since there have been some shark questions, I'll post this part of my trip report that deals only with Great White Sharks in mid to late July. No pictures yet.

Where to Stay
-Sea Spray-With five or more shark visits, African Shark Eco-Charters provides a complimentary self-catering accommodation. Sea Spray is operated by Chris and Richard, who live on the second level of this hillside home. The lodging is beautiful and has 3 large bedrooms, each with its own balcony and spectacular harbor view; a larger common balcony with a grill; a big modern kitchen and dining area; a lounge area with TV; free Internet, washing machine with soap provided, drying rack and heating element, iron, and a shared bathroom with shower.

Outside is well-tended garden of native plants, complete with a few small fountains.

The place is impeccably clean and impressively decorated in local motif. Sea Spray is in Simonskloof, above the main street in Simons Town, about a 15 minute walk up meandering stairs that are marked as a scenic walkway.

Self catering means you BYO soap, shampoo, and any food that you wish to prepare in the well equipped kitchen or anything you want to store in the fridge. BYO napkins and tissues, but toilet paper and a bath towel are provided.

Chris did an outstanding job of making us feel at home and making various arrangements for us by phone. (There was not a phone for guest use.) He posted detailed weather reports with winds and waves and kept us informed of shark trip departure times because he was in direct contact with Eco-Charters. This was especially helpful in the morning when weather delays and conditions could change minute by minute.

As a favor, Richard could time his departure for work to coincide with the shark trips, and give us a lift to the dock, about 5 minutes away by car. If this convenient offer of a ride by Richard were not available for some reason, a Rikki taxi could easily bring you to the dock for a reasonable fare or you could walk to the dock by descending the scenic walkway stairs. It would be a bit dark, but completely safe, if you had a flashlight and were sure footed. I have photos of Sea Spray that I’ll put on Kodak Share later.

The Sea Spray setup is ideal for the shark trips and would be a lovely place to stay even if sharks were not part of your itinerary.

-Next to the Dock- A couple of days I stayed across the street from the water, which was a 3-minute walk from the shark boat dock, at Central Hotel (actually a B&B, but since it was built in 1824 and is on the historical register, rules required the name to remain as hotel.) This 3-star accommodation with a private bath was a tremendous bargain at 400 Rand a night and its charm was tremendous as well.

The native Simons Town family who owns it has decorated in an appealing feminine style and they offer warm hospitality and a delicious cooked breakfast for non-shark viewing days or an ample packed breakfast for the early departure shark trip days. There is a lovely common balcony that has the best harbor views on the main street. The place seemed to attract a youthful clientele, whose hustle and bustle could be heard on the creaking stairs at various hours. I have some photos on Kodak share that I’ll post later.

On the water side of the street, even closer to the dock, is the modern Quayside Hotel, set amongst the shops and restaurants of Simons Town’s waterfront. That place looked very comfortable and convenient but with less charm and character than the historic Central Hotel.

-In Cape Town- If you were coming from accommodations in Cape Town, an early morning 45-minute road transfer was part of the shark package. When asking around on the boat, most people came from Cape Town for the day.
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Old Aug 9th, 2008, 08:41 AM
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Daily Shark Routine with African Shark Eco-Charters
-Out to the Sharks- Get to the dock a little before 7:00 am, and board at 7:00 am. That was July, maybe times change in other months when sunrise is earlier. Crew members provided a hand on and off the boat, but it could be tricky if you had mobility problems because you had to land one step on a tire buoy as part of the boarding and exiting procedure. Under the seats in the cabin were waterproof storage bins for your stuff that you would have access to throughout the trip.

After orientation and a safety talk, the ride to Seal Island in False Bay took half an hour, motoring at a good clip. The maximum number of passengers was 12 and up to 6 could sit on top. The ride out to the island was cold, windy, and bumpy in July if you chose up top. I usually headed up top immediately because for some parts of the trip, this was the best spot to see.

The sunrise offers some nice photo ops if conditions are right.

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Old Aug 9th, 2008, 08:44 AM
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-Part I of the Shark Trip- Upon arrival at Seal Island, the first 30 minutes to 90 minutes was spent looking for shark predations on the seals. If the seals were moving out to sea to feed, the odds of predation went up. For two consecutive days, the seals did not swim off of the island in search of food and we saw no natural predations. Another day, lots of seals were moving and we had more than one predation going on at a time.

Mornings and evenings are when most of the predations occur, but they can happen at any time. The sharks may breach in a stealth attack from below, or they may grab the seal at the water’s surface. The breaches are the most exciting, but also the toughest to spot because there is no warning (none of that da-dump da-dump music precedes the attack) and the breach takes only a couple of seconds. It can occur anywhere in the 360 degrees around the boat, close by or near the horizon. You have to be looking in the right place at the right time.

In 7 shark trips, I saw over a dozen natural predations, many with the shark’s head briefly protruding from the water, along with several breaches completely out of the water. One of the breaches could have been the poster that appeared on the dock, advertising the company’s trips. For the time of year, the predation activity was less than normal.
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Old Aug 9th, 2008, 08:45 AM
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-Part II of the Shark Trip-After watching for natural predations, the next part of the morning was spent trolling with a seal shaped decoy to entice a shark to breach in response to the decoy.

The maximum number of breaches that were usually allowed was two. That’s because it takes a lot of energy for the shark to breach (two swishes of the tail), and with no food reward, too much of that activity can take a toll. Limiting decoy breaching was one of many indications that show this company respects the sharks. With real seals, the sharks have over a 50% successful kill rate.

Two days we had no breaching sharks from the decoy, two days we had one, and four days we had two breaches in response to the decoy.

The best place to photograph this breach for the decoy is to kneel to the left of the motor on the back end of the boat. They have a pad you can kneel on. Other good places are (1) to kneel or sit to the right of the motor at the back of the boat or (2) to stand up top along the left rail (left of the motor) at the back of the boat or (3) to stand up top along the right rail (right of the motor) at the back. Those are the four best spots, listed in order, so with 12 people, not everyone is in a prime spot for photography. That was never a problem on any of my 7 days out because we had only a few serious photographers and many people preferred to just watch because catching the breach on camera was hard to do and interfered with the ability to just enjoy the sight.
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Old Aug 9th, 2008, 08:47 AM
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-Part III of the Shark Trip-After the breaching from the decoy occurred, or after about 40 minutes of trying without success, the boat would make a trip around Seal Island where you could see the 40,000 to 50,000 noisy, pungent fur seals, plus a colony of penguins, and Cape Cormorants. There were about 20 nests of the rare Bank Cormorants as well, but we did not see them. This trip was executed so the light was in the right place for photos.

-Part IV of the Shark Trip- The last part of the trip was the cage diving. The cage is kept on the boat until it is used and then it is lowered into the water by three of the crew members and tethered to the side of the boat. For those not in the cage, the best place to see the sharks that would approach the boat was from the top deck that was limited to 6.

There was no chumming to attract the sharks (again to minimize intruding on their natural behavior) but the seal decoy and a fish head/buoy were each tossed out of the back on a rope. Sometimes the engines were momentarily revved and the crew would bang against the boat to attract the attention of the naturally curious sharks.

Then the waiting game began. Sometimes the sharks appeared immediately and sometimes it took over 2 hours. When a Great White appeared, the fish head was yanked into the boat so that it was not rewarded with food. If the shark just took a look at us and swam on by it was labeled a “drive by.” When one decided to hang around, it was called a “player.”

When we picked up a player, it was such a privilege to know this wild creature of the ocean chose to hang around the boat out of curiosity and interest because they were not rewarded with food. Both drive bys and players could be seen from the deck (with the best views from up top) but it took a player for the cage diving to get underway.

-Cage Diving- Here is how the cage diving worked, as recounted by an observer from the boat who never went into the cage. My husband did not want me in the shark cage and I obliged since the only other demand he has made of me is that I replace the roll of toilet paper when I use it up. Because my compliance with the tp directive is sometimes shaky, I felt compelled to be 100% compliant with staying out of the shark cage.

The cage holds two, or maybe three participants if two are a pair and don’t mind being in close contact. The first group gets suited up in the onboard wetsuits (with masks, hoods, gloves, feet, and sizes up to 3X Extra Large, but BYO towel and wear a bathing suit or swim trunks) and waits for a player.

The 7-foot tall shark cage never leaves the side of the boat and a portion of it remains out of the water where the divers can surface. The divers are helped into the cage (which is completely safe to do even with sharks swimming by) and they are given the breathing device so they can remain under water. If they prefer to just hold their breath and surface periodically for air, that’s fine too. Divers can maintain a grasp on the bars at the top of the cage, which is out of water, at all times if they choose, to steady themselves. About 15 minutes in the cold water is sufficient for most people, and then the next group goes in. Anywhere from 4 to about 7 people chose to go in the cage.

All the while, everyone else on the boat watches the sharks swimming around. The best water visibility that can be expected is about 15 meters, which is considerable given the water is just over 30 meters at its deepest. Our best visibility when sharks were present about 7 meters, with most days about 5 meters. The clearest and calmest day must have been 10 meters visibility, but we had no players and no one went into the cage. There was also one day when the visibility was so poor and seas were so rough that no one opted to go into the cage. But the other 5 days all divers got to see
Great White Sharks underwater.

Everyone who went into the cage enjoyed the experience and felt it was worth it. Some were apprehensive at first, but they ended up being more in awe of the sharks than afraid. They said you could better appreciate the girth of the sharks from in the water as opposed to on the boat. One woman changed her mind right after she got into the cage and she was immediately helped back into the boat. There was no pressure to stay in the cage. A few people went back in a second time after everyone had one turn in the cage. Unlike most of the other operators who pull bait INTO the cage to bring the shark close and offer a thrill, Eco-Charters removes the fish head and buoy whenever a shark gets close.

No diving certification is needed for the cage and there is no problem flying after diving because you don’t go down more than a couple of feet.

The best underwater pictures were not taken from the cage. Instead, the photographers had their cameras in massive waterproof housings and hung them off the back of the boat. A couple of guys just submerged the cameras with their hands in the water as sharks approached the camera for a look. Now that would scare me, whereas the cage diving would not. A better technique was to attach the camera to a long pole. The best method was using a pole for the camera and two ropes hooked to a special belt on the photographer and tethered to the boat to hold him in place.
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Old Aug 9th, 2008, 08:49 AM
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-End of the Shark Trip-The cage was pulled back onto the boat and we would speed off, back to the harbor, arriving anywhere between 12:30 and 1:40. If we saw a whale, we would stop to look. There were two days when the 7:00 am departure was delayed an hour and one of those days we did not get back until almost 2:00. If you plan afternoon activities, keep the possible late return in mind. If they get enough bookings, occasionally there are afternoon shark trips that do the same activities, but look for predation at the end of the trip. Usually the afternoon activities focus more on the cage diving and see fewer predations, but you never know.

Each day a cooler with sandwiches, chips, drinks, and snacks was on board. It made a good lunch, but depending on the proximity to Seal Island and the wind direction, the smell did not always provide an appetizing ambience. People started eating about 9:30 am.
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Old Aug 9th, 2008, 08:52 AM
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Cruisewear and Fashion on the Shark Boat
Referring only to the winter rainy month of July, bring very warm clothes and rain gear. The crew all wore beanies (wool hats) and rain pants. They also had rubber boots, which is not a bad idea, but my Gortex boots were ok too. My waterproof socks helped keep my feet warm and dry.

I wore a black fleece balaclava that made me look like a seal and I also had a water resistant cap. I appreciated my gloves, especially the waterproof ones.

A dry bag is a good idea if you want to keep your camera stuff with you on the top deck when it is raining. The rain in July comes in buckets so I was glad I had a waterproof jacket and rain paints on.

Many people wore too little and were freezing. There was room for about 8 max in the cabin which was protected from wind and was therefore a little warmer. But inside you miss much of the shark action.

Other Shark Watchers
There was one particularly warmly dressed large group of Americans with hats, scarves, gloves, etc. I told one of them they should get the best dressed award. That led to the guy explaining to me that they had expert advice on the weather as they were staying with a local family.

He went on to recount this amazing tale of his sister-in-law being reunited with her biological mother, after a lengthy search that ended in South Africa. The biological mother had considerable means and paid for an African holiday reunion for about 8 family members, spouses, and partners, along with her newly found biological daughter.

Their itinerary included the posh Vumbura Plains and Singita Ebony, among other places. This 40-something guy recounted how it was his first trip out of the country and that he had passed up a previous opportunity to travel to England because he could not even afford the passport. He was so moved by his whole Africa experience—the wildlife, the time around the campfire with staff, the scenery—that he admitted being in tears upon leaving Botswana. He got it, the whole Africa thing, and though he was sure he would not be returning, he believed his daily outlook would be forever changed as a result of this extended family reunion/African safari that had been so emotional on so many levels.

What a delightful encounter and an enjoyable contrast to the loud-mouthed husband of an American hunter couple (not that all hunters are obnoxious) who were on the boat a few days later. They had just finished a stay in Limpopo where they had “harvested” 11 animals, beginning with a giraffe.

I knew all this because while we trolled for a shark breach, the man stood next to me, filming the surfing decoy with his camcorder and waiting for the big moment. He filled the down time with his own narration of their trip so far and what was to come. When he ran out of thoughts, he belted out the “da dump, da dump” Jaws theme as filler.

Besides these folks, the other Great White viewing participants spanned the globe to include South Africa, England, Scotland, USA, France, Sweden, Dominican Republic, Spain, Germany, and several pairs of Irish honeymooners. Ages ranged from 12 to mid-60s; the 12-year old went in the cage, the 60isher did not. Compared to other safari activities I have done, the shark trips skewed young.
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Old Aug 9th, 2008, 08:55 AM
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Cruella the Shark
Named for the nemesis in 101 Dalmatians, this shark was the most active one that had ever been seen in the area with a habit of stealing the buoy/fish head or seal decoy. Her tactics were stealthy and evasive. This was one smart shark. Cruella was a joy to watch and even the experienced crew was sometimes outwitted by her techniques and had to replace the buoy she destroyed.

She was easy to spot because her dorsal fin had a white mark on it and her nose was slightly blue from brushing against a blue boat. She had first been seen about 3 weeks ago and had immediately established a reputation. She was expected to be around for another week or two.

The extreme unpredictability of sharks was demonstrated when Cruella showed up during one of our outings and we expected to be treated to her routine of antics. But she had other plans and pulled a drive by that day without any interaction.

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Old Aug 9th, 2008, 09:02 AM
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Random Observations, Comments on the Shark Trips
*For the peak predation season of June-August, book early, especially for a group, because space is very limited with a max of 24 spots. If a pro photographer has booked one of the boats, as was the case for 3 of my days, then it is down to 12 spots.

*The 24 spots represent two boats that each take 12. Chris Fallows has one boat and Rob Lawrence has the other; both are part of African Shark Eco-Charters. I spent the entire week with Rob, but both boats went to the same area around Seal Island and stayed out about the same amount of time, so the only difference was the luck of where the sharks decided to swim.

*There was never a day when we saw no sharks--some days there no predations, some days no decoy breaching, and once no players around the boat. But there were always at least 3-4 sharks that swam past the boat and we usually ended up seeing about 10 or more, between predations, breaches, and swimming sharks. Every day was different, but successful.

*Half a Bonine before departure worked wonders for me with no drowsiness.

*Bring sun cream to prevent burning your face, even in cold weather, plus sun protection lip balm.

* Though water and soft drinks are provided, I liked my own water bottle.

* There is a regular toilet on board and a small amount of paper could be used. You had to tell Captain Rob to flush it with an external button.

*Bring hand sanitizer for use after the toilet and before eating from the cooler.

*On Sundays sometimes other private boats would come out and follow to get a look. A permit is needed to tow a decoy so they had to watch ours. I was told this could be a nuisance but the Sunday I was out, the bad weather kept the other boats in port. A few other days there was one, maybe two other boats in the area that were not supposed to be there.

*Captain Rob and the crew were very informative and congenial and they mixed with the guests on the main deck and up top. They were a great group that was fun to get to know over a week’s time.

*I saw no tipping guidelines and I did not notice others tipping, but I gave a very modest lump sum at the end of my week to Captain Rob for the crew.

*The estimate was that there were between 20 and 30 Great Whites that hung around Seal Island at one time, with new sharks coming and going on about a monthly basis.

*The people really interested in sharks or serious about shark photography booked 4-10 days of trips. Those of us with longer stays represented about 3 of the participants each day, the rest being day-trippers. I extended my 5 days of shark viewing to 7 because it was so fascinating. To get a broad spectrum of the behavior of Great Whites, several days are needed. To just see a Great White Shark, only one day is needed, assuming weather does not cancel the trip.

*I was told that as predation picked up, the breaching for the decoy and the interest in the boat and cage diminished. During my week’s stay, my observations and experience supported that theory.
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Old Aug 9th, 2008, 09:03 AM
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Other Shark Trips in the Cape Town Area
There are three boats licensed to operate shark viewing trips and permitted to tow seal decoys in False Bay around Seal Island. Chris Fallows and Rob Lawrence represent two of the boats and there is another guy with a similar sized boat named Swallow.

I did not go to Gansbaai; I only was told about it. In Gansbaai where Shark Alley and Dyer Island are, there are eight licensed operators. Chumming is the norm and the sharks do not breach over there. False Bay is the only place where sharks routinely breach. Several days when we were able to go out in False Bay, the Gansbaai trips with Dyer Island and Shark Alley were cancelled due to high winds and waves because Gansbaai is not as protected as False Bay.

If you wish to see Great White Sharks predating naturally on seals and minimize intrusive actions to the sharks’ behavior, then False Bay with African Shark Eco-Charters is what you want. If your interest is primarily shark cage diving, even some of the crew mentioned that Gansbaai with Dyer Island and Shark Alley might be a better bet. The chumming of the water that is routinely done in Gansbaai brings in more sharks and the trip is devoted to cage diving and viewing sharks drawn to the boat. There is no time allocated to watching natural predations on seals and no time pulling a decoy in hopes of coaxing a breach.

Some shark enthusiasts I met on Rob’s boat were combining False Bay and Gansbaai, with several days at each.

If I am able to return to Cape Town, I will book several shark trips with the Fallows’ African Shark Eco-Tours, probably on Rob Lawrence’s boat, and I’ll take advantage of the Sea Spray deal if it is offered. The shark predations and seeing the sharks maneuver in the water are a high point of my travels.

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Old Aug 9th, 2008, 10:21 AM
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Lynn, now I’m really ashamed of my inefficiency writing trip reports. I’m quite incompetent, but I would not dress like a seal when on a shark boat!
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Old Aug 9th, 2008, 11:45 AM
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Thanks, Lynn, this is so helpful and of course enjoyable. Cruella sounds like quite a shark.

I am happy that your obnoxious-hunter encounters have been mitigated by the nice man who thoroughly appreciated his experiences.

Unfortunately you get an F on this report because you have neglected to say how many safaris you have been on and how many shark trips. Try harder next time.
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Old Aug 10th, 2008, 06:01 AM
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Nyamera, dressing like a seal on a shark boat is not even my worst fashion faux pas.

Leely, this was my first Great White Shark trip. I remember my 1st shark trip, though, several decades ago. I was on a small boat in the Bahamas for a snorkel trip. I didn't know about anti-seasickness pills back then and was terribly nauseas. We arrived at a spot and were told, "You can jump out here on the reef to snorkel, but there are sharks around." I was so sick and wanted to get off the boat that I jumped into the shark infested waters and saw some small reef-type sharks that ignored me.

Though not superstitious, I hoped this #13 trip to Africa would not be jinxed. My #13 year of work was the worst ever so I hoped the curse would not return. I was lucky on flights, sightings, fellow travelers, and especially the weather for 9 days in Cape Town with about 4.5 hours of rain.

Even the loud mouth on the shark boat ended up going on the only day when there were no sharks around to cage dive. I was chuckling because he had been bragging about the big cage dive that would bring him face to face with the terror of the seas, as part of his narration on his camcorder. Conversely, one day there was a delightful Irish zookeeper who had never snorkeled and finally went in the cage near the end of the trip. No shark, no shark, no shark. He was in about 25 minutes and must been freezing. Finally, the biggest shark of the week came by and hovered around the cage for him to see. He was thrilled with the good fortune. Maybe the Luck of the Irish over rode my #13.
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Old Aug 10th, 2008, 11:11 PM
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Thank you so much for this fascinating report. I am a diver and have been wanting to do a trip like this for awwhile now. I have never read a trip with all the details included like you have done and now this makes me want to go all the more. We thought about going last year for my 40th birthday but but it just didnt work out. My boyfriend thinks I am nuts to want to get into the cage (and he is a diver as well) but I told him he could be in charge of the photos if he didn't want to go in. I need to go send him this link to urge him on a bit more!

Thank you also for the lodging info, they both sound like the type of places we would like. Can't wait to see your photos !!!
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Old Aug 11th, 2008, 12:36 AM
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Very interesting and detailed, but you would not catch me doing it. How do people get in that water it is freezing cold in summer in July it must be far worse.
Sounds like the operation you went on differs a lot from those operating out of Gansbaii glad you enjoyed it, I'll stick to land based viewing myself.
 
Old Aug 11th, 2008, 05:49 AM
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Sniktawk, That cold water would have been more of a deterrent to me than the sharks. But with a directive from my husband to remain out of the shark cage, I never had to face the prospect of cold water.

Kellyee21, Glad you liked the details, everying boring last one. But when I was investigating shark trips, that's the stuff I would have liked to know so I put it in for future shark watchers.
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Old Aug 12th, 2008, 03:19 AM
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Lynn - this was so thrilling and fascinating I went right to the site and booked our trip for September 6! Thanks so much for all the detail. I'm wondering if anyone used snorkels and masks in the cage? We have prescription masks, and I'm wondering whether we should bring them.
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Old Aug 12th, 2008, 06:42 PM
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Everybody used masksm whicy are provided, but I'd bring my own if I had perscription. If I had been going in the cage, I might even have just brought my own anyway because I it fits right.

You might want your own snorkel too. I think you can get further down using the oxygen tube they give you.

If that stuff fits in your luggage, it cannot hurt to bring it. It could be easily stored on the boat if you decided not to use it. You could also ask Af Shark Eco-Charters what they think.

Glad to hear you are booked!
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Old Aug 14th, 2008, 09:33 PM
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Lynn, Wow, what detail --- thanks so much because now I can't think of a single detail I don't know about. We're going in December and are in the final planning stages right now. This helps sooooo much and I now feel much more confident (if not overwhelmed)!
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Old Aug 15th, 2008, 10:56 AM
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Great job Lynn! all I ever wanted to know and more.
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