As swimmers and safety crew prepare for this week’s Wild Swim, Luke Riley reports that sharks in the sea are not the only threats that need to be addressed.
Ocean adventurer John McCarthy has warned the organisers of the Wild Swim to prepare for sharks. “There’s a sense of inevitability that they are going to have a shark encounter,” said McCarthy.
He was speaking ahead of a daring 22 kilometre swim along a stretch of the Wild Coast earmarked for heavy minerals mining.
“As I understand, it’s about 5km a day over four days and that stretch of coastline is very well known for its high incidence of many different species of shark,” said McCarthy, who recently accompanied swimmer Sarah Ferguson on her record circumnavigation of Easter Island.
“It’s a very, very bold initiative, and whoever is managing it needs to be really switched on. If there is any doubt, I suggest erring on the side of caution,” said McCarthy.
Fred Kockott, the swim organiser, agreed but reckoned it was the “other men in grey suits” everyone should be wary of.
Kockott was referring to those punting the Xolobeni Mineral Sands Project as a panacea for unemployment and poverty in the area.
The proposed mining area stretches from just below Port Edward in the north to the pristine, eco-sensitive Mtentu estuary in the south.
Supporters of the Australian mining company, Mineral Resource Commodities, include top government officials and leading politicians.
The Wild Swim aims to raise at least R250 000 for ecotourism in the area and associated marine conservation initiatives.
Kockott, who directs the environmental journalism training agency, Roving Reporters, insisted the swim was not an anti-mining protest.
“We simply want to spark public debate about what would be in the best interests of those likely to affected by the mining,” said Kockott.
This follows a recent High Court ruling that the Xolobeni Mineral Sands Project cannot go ahead without full and informed consent of people holding traditional rights to the land earmarked for mining.
“Those advocating mining as a viable option have had this tendency of bussing in thousands of people to public meetings in the area to demonstrate public support for the Xolobeni Minerals Sands Project,” said Kockott.
Vasco da Gama
“But these are not people who stand to lose their homes where their families have lived for generations, some for probably longer than the days of Vasco da Gama’s explorations.”
Over seven days, from April 26 to May 2, the eight swimmers and their safety crew — more than 20 people — will be living in the community, sleeping at home-stays along the route.
Their experiences are to be documented by Roving Reporters and seasoned television producer Gordon Greaves.
They might not be the only visitors to the proposed mining area over this window period.
The minister of Mineral Resources, Gwede Mantashe is planning a follow-up visit to Xolobeni to discuss “potential development in the area”.
“The Eastern Cape has great potential for a number of mineral deposits, including titanium and molybdenum deposits in Pondoland,” wrote Mantashe in a letter last week inviting people in the Amadiba community to a “consultative meeting” this Thursday.
The next sentence in Mantashe’s letter is confusing. It reads: “However this resource area also happens to fall within a “hotspot” mining area.”
Mantashe does not mention the fact that the proposed mining sites lies within Pondoland Marine Protected Area (MPA) which is vital to South Africa’s ocean economy.
But he did acknowledge concerns that mining would be detrimental to tourism and agricultural prospects in the area.
“However, as government we are of the view that co-existence between these sectors is possible and would boost the economic growth and development of the area,” said Mantashe.
Responding, the Amadiba Crisis Committee’s legal representative, Richard Spoor, said his clients had first learned about Manthashe’s meeting in “a tender announcement that was forwarded to them”.
“The Minister’s previous visits to Xolobeni have been characterised by disrespect to our clients, and needless violence against them. They have served to exacerbate the tensions in the community, and have achieved nothing whatsoever,” said Spoor.
Given that Mantashe has appealed the recent High Court ruling that mining cannot proceed without informed and proper consent of the people living on the land, Spoor urged Mantashe not to visit the area until appeals process had been completed.
Whether Mantashe heeds this, remains to be seen.
In the meantime, the Wild Swim organisers have heeded advice from McCarthy and other experienced ocean adventurers in finalising their safety plans.
“For a start, we will only swim when the conditions are clean and clear, and conducive to covering a long distance,” said Kockott. “We are also swimming in two small pods, with each group of swimmers accompanied by safety kayakers and free divers who have vast experience in diving with sharks.”
The lead safety divers, aka shark spotters, Cera-Jane Catton and Emil Pirzenthal, have assured the swimmers they are in “good hands”.
Sporting a hollow PVC pipe, 53-year-old Emil Pirzenthal, a legendary diver on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast, said his homemade shark prod was all that would be needed to “gently” ward off potentially dangerous sharks that get “too curious”.
All the wild swimmers also have the option of wearing Ocean Guardian shark shields which use electromagnetic fields to deter sharks.
An emergency and rescue preparedness plan has also been put in place by Med-Evac emergency services personnel and the Port Shepstone SAPS Search and Rescue team in consultation with specialist emergency physician Dr Sean Gottschalk, who is serving as the expedition doctor for the Wild Swim.
Having invited people to join with the Wild Swim, Kockott said he had felt a heavy sense of responsibility over the past few weeks.
So, in preparing for his role, Kockott accompanied Catton on a shark induction dive arranged by Blue Wilderness Shark Adventures on Thursday last week.
“I will now definitely be joining the safety divers as extra eye in the water on the lookout for sharks. At the same time, I hope these very real concerns about what sharks we might encounter, do not distract us from what the Wild Swim is all about – promoting alternatives to heavy minerals mining.” — Roving Reporters.
- Luke Riley is a political science and communication student at the University of Maryland. This story was produced with the support of the School for International Training Study Abroad programme and the Human Elephant Foundation.