“At International Marine Volunteers our mission is to inspire our volunteers to make a difference in the world around them by providing them with life-changing opportunities and experiences, and creating awareness that eco-tourism, conservation, community, research and education can all dovetail into a sustainable and mutually beneficial relationship.” – Meredith Thornton, IMV Manager

The legendary great white shark attracts thousands of visitors to Gansbaai, a small town in Western Cape, South Africa. This world renowned hotspot for the apex predator is also home to the International Marine Volunteers programme, known as IMV.

The programme is primarily focused on the Great White Shark working in partnership with Marine Dynamics Tours which established the volunteer programme more than a decade ago.  This award winning shark cage diving company has been operational since 2005, is Fair Trade Tourism certified and renowned for its five star service and responsible practices, most recently winning the African Responsible Tourism Award 2015 in the Best for Wildlife Conservation category.  Sister company Dyer Island Cruises conducts whale watching and eco trips, and all trips have a marine biologist on board.

The IMV Programme has recently joined the Fair Trade Tourism family and offers numerous marine opportunities in the unique Dyer Island ecosystem.    Here is the opportunity to work with the Marine Big 5 – the great white shark, the African penguin, the Cape fur seal, whales and dolphins.  Volunteers work with tourists and alongside marine biologists studying the great white shark and other species.

The volunteers form an integral part of the team and many return repeatedly to work in this unique area.  The volunteers have on board duties such as assisting clients and helping collect data yet also enjoy opportunities to cage dive where possible – in fact their first day is just pure enjoyment of the experience. There is some work behind the scenes such as wetsuit washing and helping clients with life jackets- when everyone pitches in, this goes very quickly.

The volunteers work on the various conservation initiatives of the Dyer Island Conservation Trust, started by founder Wilfred Chivell in 2006. The Trust is involved with great white shark research and with reliable sightings all year round, research activities include tagging and tracking of great white sharks, behavioural surveys, wound healing, environmental parameter monitoring as well as daily observational data that includes fin identification.

There is also Baited Remote Underwater Video (BRUV) studies and the volunteers have the opportunity to assist with the deployment of acoustic monitoring devices. These receivers pick up any tagged sharks and other fish species in the area and this information is used by many scientists to establish migration patterns of various species.

The Trust is committed to turning around the possible extinction of the endangered African penguin. The artificial nest project aims to improve the fledgling success of penguins in the wild and volunteers may assist with nest deployment and management. The Trust recently established the African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary, a crucial rehabilitation facility, which is just opposite the IMV lodge. Many volunteers are finding this work rewarding and although the sharks are the basis of the programme, the penguins have captured many hearts.

The Dyer Island Conservation Trust’s Environmental Education Programme known as DEEP works with a dedicated group of young learners and runs for three years to monitor and evaluate the impact and growth of each and every individual learner. The aim is to expose these young learners to the field of science and conservation and serve as a forerunner for future skills training. The volunteers assist with this group and all local community projects.

Volunteers also assist with the fishing line bin project and do regular beach clean ups. These marine pollution efforts in the area contribute to international data. The Trust and IMV team is the first port of call for any stranded animals in the area so various opportunities are presented to the volunteers. Where possible dissections of species washed up are conducted as a learning experience for the volunteers.  With a special 4×4 vehicle called a Samil the team can head out and have even retrieved a couple of great white sharks that have washed up.

Hatched shark egg collection also contributes to an important study for other smaller shark species. There is a series of talks that include shark biology and behaviour, whale and dolphin biology and research, conservation work, safety at sea and monthly marine evenings with visiting biologists and conservationists are a favourite. A dedicated management team is on hand to coordinate all activities.

Accommodation is at the International Marine Volunteer Center with fully equipped cottages plus a fun communal area with free Wi-Fi, satellite TV, DVD player, board games, pool table and foosball. There is an activity hall with some weights and table tennis. The facility has a large, safe swimming pool and garden. Here we grow vegetables and have a recycling system in place. There is a specialised beach vehicle for outings.

The area and surrounds also offer some great outdoor activities from trips to Cape Agulhas, wine tasting, the Klipgat Caves, zip lining, quad biking among others, which are enjoyed on no sea days. Kelp diving is one of the favourite activities. In fact, volunteers are able to do their PADI Open Water diving course here too. Sunsets at De Kelders especially in southern right whale season are stunningly beautiful and round off just another perfect day. Passionate people want to go where they can make a difference! At International Marine Volunteers in Gansbaai, they will get to do just that.

Marine Volunteer testimonial… 

My name is Angus Ellsmore, I’m from a town called Picton in the state of New South Wales, Australia. I first did the International Marine Volunteer programme in the months of September, October and November, 2015 and then came back in June, July, August 2016 because I loved it so much! I wanted to do this programme because I was always fascinated about the great white shark and I wanted to see one up close in real life. I loved everything about the programme, working on the beautiful Western Cape of South Africa with the Marine Big 5™ and making friends all around the world that I still catch up with today.

When I came to Marine Dynamics, I learnt so much more about the great white shark!  The marine biologists and all the staff were amazing with how much knowledge they have about the great white shark and most importantly how we need to protect them as they play a major role within the ecosystem for other life in the ocean.

The experiences I had working with the marine volunteer programme are something that will stay with me forever. Not many people in the world could say they get up in the morning to dive with great white sharks or see southern right whales migrating up the coastline, it is truly breathtaking! I was truly thankful when I got to work on the research boat with the wonderful marine biologists to do acoustic tagging of great white sharks and I even worked with film crews from Discovery Channel that were filming Shark Week. These opportunities were offered to me because I was there for several months.

Some of my favourite moments in Gansbaai, South Africa were when I was lucky enough to see orcas passing Dyer Island and when I was working on the boat with Discovery Channel we decided to do to a breaching tour as it was late afternoon and prime condition for a good breaching of a great white to happen, we set up the seal decoy and our positions on the boats with our cameras, I was so excited when the shark breached with the sunset and Danger Point lighthouse in the background, it was just so majestic to see.

Diving with great white sharks is something I’ll always love, my favourite day was when I dived with my friend Ben from USA and the visibility was crystal clear that we could see the bottom of the ocean and the sharks swimming on the sea floor and then they would come up to the surface and swim peacefully right in front of us, it was a fantastic experience. Last but not least, the friendships forged with people from the company, from South Africa and the volunteers who joined us from all around the world.

Doing the International Marine Volunteer programme has been the best experience of my life! To anyone out there around the world that is interested in travelling, loves sharks or any marine life and wants to have the time of their life, then I highly recommend this programme with Marine DynamicsDyer Island Cruises and the Dyer Island Conservation Trust because “Life is adventure to be lived, not a problem to be solved”.

Read the article in Responsible Traveller digital mag… click here

www.marinevolunteers.com / www.sharkwatchsa.com / www.dict.org.za