Sunday, April 27, 2014

A Dream Come True

At some point back in junior high I got hooked on Shark Week on the Discovery Channel.  I'm talking clear-my-schedule, turn-down-social-events-so-I-could-watch-it hooked.  I loved it!  I called it "my favorite holiday of the year".  I don't know if my love of the movie Jaws came before or after my Shark Week obsession, but I got hooked on that, too (and all its crappy so-bad-they're-good sequels).

Since moving out of the USA nearly 7 years ago I haven't found any channel that ever plays round the clock shark coverage, sadly.  But if there's ever a shark show on TV you better believe that's where I'll be for the duration of the program.

So imagine my delight when I realized you can cage dive - cage dive - with great white sharks in South Australia!  I booked that trip so fast my head spun, cost be damned!

And it was the greatest thing I've ever, ever done.  Photographic evidence:

My feelings on the experience summed up in one facial expression
The pictures aren't 100% clear because we had a GoPro and had to take still shots from the video.  It's difficult to get a good shot with bubbles flying around all over the place.  The bubbles are pretty necessary, though, since they allow you to breathe.

Since I've been getting questions on the logistics of this I will run through a Q&A of how this whole thing worked.

Where did you do this?
We had to go to Port Lincoln, South Australia, a small town that is deceptively far from the capital city of Adelaide.  We chose to drive there (and not take the ferry, which saves no time or money) for various reasons.  This is the starting point to get to the Neptune Islands, where the sharks are, which are a solid 3-4 hour boat journey from the mainland.  Pro tip: pack your sea sickness meds!

How deep did you go?
Once you're in the water they say you're "about 2 meters" beneath the surface, but calculating that to normal speak that's 6.5 feet.  No way were we that far down!  I think I could have reached the surface with my hands if I stretched my arms straight up.  My guess would be 2-3 or 4 feet, max, certainly not a full body length.  Maybe my perception was off (I forgot contacts so had to use a prescription mask that was not my exact prescription) but the surface was not far above my head.  If you feel the need to bail to the surface you can do so very quickly and easily.

Do you need to be a certified diver to do this?
Nope.  Scuba means "self contained underwater breathing apparatus", so this was more of what I'd call "uba".  It isn't self-contained with tanks on your back.  The air supply is up on the surface, on the boat, and you bring it down with you on a hose.  At the end of the hose is the regulator (mouth piece to breathe through) that you put in your mouth and breathe through that.  Your nose is in a mask (goggles) so is out of commission for the duration of your time underwater.

For those who have scuba'd for real before, this regulator is different than legit ones.  This didn't have a clearing mechanism in case you got water in your mouth or - comically - barfed underwater.  I don't know what would happen in situations like that.  Bail to the surface, I guess.  Just keep your lips sealed tight!

Are you alone in the cage?
Nope.  It's quite spacious, and they send 6 people down at a time.  Martin and I were in the same group, which we tried to avoid to maximize our videography time, but it didn't work out that way.  Oh well, at least it was fun to experience it together and communicate feelings such as "OMFG this is amazing and the best thing EVER" through nothing but hand gestures and squeals.

How long did you get?
The company advertises 45 minutes with the caveat that it all depends on the conditions and sharks.  That was a huge caveat they use liberally, as we had some seriously shy sharks who didn't show up for hours.  Our time was quickly running out (remember, 3-4 hour journey back home and there's nothing to see once it gets dark) so we had to rush through to get everyone in the cage.

We had about 15 minutes in the cage, and the shark was present less than 10 minutes of that.  It felt so much longer, though!  The only way I know those numbers is because of the GoPro video.  There was a good portion of the day we didn't think we'd get to see a shark at all, so a handful of minutes was a very welcomed relief.

Do they use bait?
Hell yes they do.  There is another company that uses sound to attract sharks, not bait, an an attempt to be eco-friendly.  It's not that I want to be eco-unfriendly, but this is my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see great white sharks.  I'd chop off a finger if that's what it took to attract one.

This is a good place to point this out: Everybody knows the statistic "sharks can smell a drop of blood from miles away".  I assume that's true, but I watched the crew work tirelessly for hours trying to attract a shark with fish guts and blood, and it took at least 3 hours for one to show its face.  There was a lot of waiting around, staring at the ocean willing a shark to show up.  Blood and gore does not automatically equal sharks.  If you ever find yourself in the middle of the ocean with a leg chopped off don't automatically assume you'll be shark food.

Curiously, the shark didn't come until people got into the cage just for fun.  Sharks can hear your heartbeat and electromagnetic whatever-it-is humans put off, so I have decided it's not blood and guts sharks are attracted to, it's living things (ahem, prey).  Trust me, I am a qualified sharkologist after many Shark Weeks.

How many sharks did you see?
I'm told there were 2 around, but I only saw 1 [at a time, at least].  I'm perfectly happy with this, again because there was a long period where seeing zero sharks was a very real possibility.

There was another boat about half a football field away and we could see quite early in the day that they had a shark swimming around them.  I don't know what they were doing to attract it, but we should've done the same thing!  They got so much more time with a shark than we did.  I don't think it was the same shark that came to check us out, but I can't be sure.

How big was it?
10-12 feet (3.04 - 3.6 meters).  The boat crew could tell it was a female.

There's one that comes around sometimes that's 18+ feet.  I would have died!  Of happiness, to be clear.

Did the shark attack the fish I see there in that picture?
No, it didn't even look at them!  It's like those fish didn't exist to the shark.  They must have been too small/inconsequential for it to waste its time on.

Did the shark attack the cage you were in?
Oh god no.  I wish!  It swam around the cage - I know it knew we were there - but it just swam around chillin'.  No violence whatsoever, not even on the bait chunks.

How close to you did it get?
It got closer to us the longer we were down there.  They're curious about us, and it was there to check us out more so than to chomp on the bait (it had a few nips but never devoured the bait chunks).

At its closest it was probably 4-5 feet directly in front of me, and at one point swam directly beneath my feet, which is harder to gauge distance but no more than 3-4 feet I'd say.

It was so cool!

Sorry, I just had to interject that.

Is it safe?
Completely and totally.  The most dangerous part is getting in and out of the cage, which is tied to, but not completely secured to, the boat.  It clanks around in the waves so you've got to jump from the cage platform onto the boat.  The crew are there to steady the cage and help you cross, but I'm sure that's not what you want to know when asking this question.

Even if the shark did have murderous intentions, it wouldn't get into the cage.  It's totally safe.

Was it scary?
Oh hell no!  It was just fun, and exciting and awesome.  I remember distinctly thinking, when it was right in front of me, "I'm not even scared at all.  I'm just happy!"

How much did it cost?
Oh man, a lot.  A thousand bucks all up for the two of us, and that doesn't even include getting to the remote(ish) departure location and spending 2 nights there before and after the big day.

Was it worth it?  Would you do it again?
Yes.  Yes.  A thousand times yes to both.

Are you f@<%*$g nuts?!
That has yet to be determined.

Martin isn't the shark nut I am, but even he said it was so awesome and totally worth it, even if our face-to-shark time was very short.

Calypso Star Charters is the company we used on this magnificent journey, and they really put on a comfortable ride for everyone on what turned out to be a long, often eventless, day.  I'm so grateful to them and the 5 crew members on board!

Humans are horrible, horrible beings who could eradicate these fabulous creatures for selfish and ignorant reasons.  It would be to the detriment of our planet and ourselves if we let this happen, and seeing one up close only reinforces my belief that we should do more to protect these species (not just the great white).  Killing off the ocean is killing off ourselves, so killing off the apex predator of a vast ecosystem is shooting ourselves in the foot.

Sharks were here long before us and we would be so lucky if they remain long after we're gone.  Seeing one up close and personal was really, truly a dream come true.

Go here to view the video of all the action (sorry, I haven't been able to successfully embed a video on this blog for years now).  It starts off really bouncy and shaky but I promise it straightens out.

The squeals and grunts, embarrassingly, are all me.  It's hard to convey excitement underwater, OK?!  And I had a lot of excitement!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Celebrate Good Times...Come On!

When a person does something big with their life, we celebrate.  It's the human way.  To celebrate it with unspeakable amounts of champagne, well, that's the Heidi way.

Two of my friends here have celebration-worthy events coming up next month, one day apart.  One is getting married and the other is having a baby.  We celebrated these two joyous events on two consecutive weekends, and my liver can't handle any more big life changes!  Here's a handy little guide on how to throw a successful baby shower.

Decorate the venue with poufy, pink (or blue, or whatever) crap:

Then add a buffet table full of grub:

My personal contribution to this buffet was a tray of crustless sandwiches:

I made these specifically because I recently watched the episode of Sex & the City where Miranda refused to allow crustless sandwiches at her baby shower.  She's not into cutsey crap (or storks), and she demanded fried chicken.  I even made signs indicating which fillings sat where, which people took to mean I am Martha Stewart!

Then add a festive punch bowl containing non-alcoholic punch (remember, there's at least one person in the room abstaining from alcohol):

But don't you dare forget to add in a few bottles of champis to add to the punch!  Most people (ahem, moi) wouldn't survive the shower without it.

The final component of a successful baby shower is a few cutsey games to break up the drinking.  I don't claim to have invented this game, but I'm still proud of it:

I named several famous families and everybody had to list out the children in those families.  This was harder than anticipated, because we had a very diverse group of people.  I had to pick celebrities/TV shows/movies that were known to all nationalities, so I had to spend a fair bit of time on it.  If you're ever tasked with coming up with a baby shower game, hit me up and I can send you the game that I lovingly handcrafted.

Surprisingly for an American female over the age of 30, I'd never been to a baby shower before.  Lord knows it won't be my last.  I had a blast!  And a hell of a hangover the next day.

For the bachelorette party we headed out of town to the Gold Coast, which is an area of Queensland about an hour south of Brisbane.  All we wanted to do was soak up the rays all weekend long, so we rented an awesome apartment right on the beach that had amazing views.

The difference between a bachelorette party in your 20's and one in your 30's is that in your 30's you're happy to stay in.  Like, the only time we went out of our apartment was to go to the beach or stock up on supplies.  No restaurants, no bars or clubs.  It was perfect!

Yeah, I'm old (and curmudgeonly).

We ate.

We drank.

We played flip cup!

I had never played it before!  I don't know what the hell I was doing in college.

The Gold Coast takes a lot of heat for being "bogan" (white trash) but Coolangatta, where we stayed, was a much more chill - and less backpacker - part of the Gold Coast.  And of course it's beautiful!

Neither of these events could have been so fantastic without the presence of one very important character:

This champagne is the bomb dot com and legit affordable.  It's the bubbly swill of choice of the bride-to-be and it's French, so you know it's classy (and available all over the world).  I love this champis!

I had a great time celebrating various life events with my lady friends.  I'm very fortunate to have such a good group of girlfriends, when we first got here we didn't know a soul.  It's been a very female-centric few weekends.  Girl power!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

World Record Attempt

One night I was out drinking wine and a Facebook invite pinged on my phone.  It was an invitation from my friend Kim inviting me to join an event attempting to break a Guinness World Record.

Yes!  Accept!  Count me in!  I'll do it!

I accepted the invitation before thoroughly reading what the record was and what I had to do to break it.  Oops!

Turns out the record was the largest circuit-based personal training session, which in layman terms (or should I say lazeman terms) means working out.  Early in the morning on a Saturday working out...oh the humanity!

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not as unfit as my white bread Midwestern upbringing would have you believe.  I've gotten my rear in gear enough the past 13 years since leaving home to be able to handle a cardio ass whoppin' every now and again.  But at 7 a.m. on a Saturday...damn!  That's not usually how I roll.

It turns out this record breaking attempt was also a charity fundraiser, so there was no socially or morally acceptable way to back out.  It actually sounded pretty fun, and with a few fun peeps to do it with me, getting up at the crack of dawn to workout didn't seem like such a bad idea after all!

Me & the crew working on our fitness
Here's a bunch of pictures I took from the Muscle Up for MND Facebook page:

My favorite parts were hula hooping and cardio dancing.  We danced the Macarena, Gangnam Style and Thriller, which I would happily do any day of the week.  I hadn't attempted to hula hoop since I was a kid and was pleasantly surprised to learn I can actually do it.  I was even more surprised to learn it's a kick ass workout!

The event was held at The Gabba, which is the cricket stadium (is that the right word?) here in Brisbane.  There were 10 stations set up around the field (is that the right word?) and you'd workout at each station for 4 minutes.  Then you'd have 2 minutes to rest up and get to the next station.

Four minutes doesn't sound like a lot, but when you're doing lunges for 4 straight minutes, trust me, that's a long time.  I was sore the next day!  And a few days after that.  It was worth it for a good cause, and of course brunch afterwards.  I don't get my ass out of bed on a weekend unless there's the promise of brunch at the end!

If you haven't guessed by now from my casual avoidance of the topic no, we didn't actually beat the world record.  But we attempted it!  It's the thought that counts, I say.

We heard through the grapevine that we were 400 people short, but that hasn't been confirmed by a source more credible than randoms in workout gear walking down the street near the stadium.  There were 1,810 of us which is still a highly commendable effort.

I had a super fun time, and could always use more exercise (have you seen how often I hashtag beetus on Instagram?), so I'm very happy to have participated.  But this has opened a great big, gaping hole in my life's bucket list.  I want to be in a Guinness World Record!  I don't care what, when, where or how.  I just want in!