South Africa became part of my geographic vocabulary when I was nine years old. My best friend’s dad, a supporter of Nelson Mandela, was smuggled out of the country in the bathroom of a cruise ship to escape persecution during apartheid. Many years later he moved to the US, raised a family and told stories about South Africa over curry dinners. What I remember most clearly was the fondness with which he still referred to his former home. He extolled a country that was full of extremes – beachside mansions and close-quartered townships, bustling cities and vast wildernesses, arid escarpments and temperate oceans – a place whose identity seemed indefinitely locked in a tug of war. I wanted nothing more than to visit.
As fate would have it, 20 years later I found myself in a gyrocopter humming over Cape Town. The towering facade of Table Mountain erupted out of a fog bank. It was primeval. But below, brief windows in the veil of fog revealed glimpses of busy streets and mazes of neighbourhoods, thickets of industry. The daily balancing act, or lack thereof in some cases, is what makes this place so dynamic, its story worth telling – and was the purpose of my being here. I would be documenting contrasting worlds, going back and forth between aquatic wilderness and urban shorelines, riding the intersecting lines of their coexistence.
The initial week of the assignment began with a series of firsts: my first time driving on the opposite side of the road; my first time diving in temperate water; my first time swimming with large sharks. Getting thrown into the deep end would be an apt description. Sure, I grazed a few curbs and soiled my wetsuit along the way, but I came to understand that the success of this assignment hinged on problem solving. When my pilot couldn’t fly because of strong winds, I hiked up to high ground. When I couldn’t dive because of choppy seas, I invested time in getting to know the trek-netting fishermen and the Shark Spotters.
The Save Our Seas Foundation believes that photography is a powerful tool for marine conservation. We invite emerging conservation and wildlife photographers who have a passion for marine subjects to apply for our 2016 grant. This is a unique opportunity for photographers to go on assignment, earn an income and gain experience under the guidance of National Geographic photographer Thomas Peschak.