"What are you actually doing in China this summer?"
A number of friends and family have reached out to me to ask why I did not come back to the U.S. this summer after teaching for one year in China. The school I work for and its leadership organization gives staff between contract years (for me being between year 1 and 2) three weeks of vacation. After those three weeks are over staff are required to return to work during the final five weeks of the summer. I knew before I came that I probably would not go back to the U.S. this summer. Actually, I was looking forward to being in Qingdao this summer, especially considering the fact I arrived over 6 weeks after my planned arrival date due to VISA issues last year. I was looking forward to spending some more time getting to know China through the course of my summer.
The question you have now is probably something along the lines of,
"What are you actually doing in China this summer?"
Staff between contract years are required to participate in leading and teaching an English Summer camp hosted by our school. In previous years, the school has had the benefit of bringing in summer teams of teachers to assist with the camp. This year however, has seen a real tightening of regulations and limitations when it comes to obtaining a work visa in China. These new restrictions meant that, in addition to being on a new campus and in a new location, the school’s summer camp was going to look very different this time around.
I’ve really been looking forward to this summer camp for a number of reasons. First, I volunteered to head up and lead the ‘Morning Rally’ portion of the camp day. There was not much planned outside of the fact that this would be a time for all of the students to get together and do activities as a group.
Something you may or may not know about me is that I worked at a summer camp in North Carolina for four years both during and after my time in university. Also, when I was in high school I participated in our Pennsylvania home fellowship’s VBS program for four or five years. I believe these experiences prepared and equipped me to be the perfect person to lead the ‘Morning Rally” portion of our summer camp. My goals for the “Morning Rally” have been to get kids moving, singing, and engaging with the English language. I also pick songs and topics that align with my heart for “character” building (read: truth-based songs).
If you want a glimpse of some of the songs we are singing you can visit my YouTube playlist HERE.
The most special thing about our summer camp is that it is open to both foreign and LOCAL students. You see, in order to attend our school during the regular school year, students are required by law to have a foreign passport. National administration has instructed that no native passport holders may attend a foreign-run school (for obvious reasons due to conflict of background and beliefs).
Local students are encouraged to attend public school or pay to attend Chinese private school. A lot of people are surprised when they hear that I am teaching in China, but only a very small percentage of my students are actually Chinese—and only ethnically at that. They all will have been born in and be a passport holder of another country.
This means that our summer camp is very special because ANY student can register and attend. As a result, of our 66 total campers only 22 of them were actually our own students. The rest all attend Chinese private, public, or Korean private schools in Qingdao! What an open door! I am so thrilled to be investing in China first-hand through camp! The students I am working with this summer are students that I would never even have a chance to interact with without this camp (unless I went to teach at a Chinese school). I am so honored to have this opportunity to love on and pour into the lives of these wonderful students.
I am working specifically with students aged between 5th and 6th grade. Our students though fall into a range of skill levels when it comes to their English language comprehension and ability. It is really enjoyable to make them laugh and watch them grow as we practice reading, writing, speaking, and listening in English. I took a TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) course in university, but didn’t really enjoy it. It is a totally different ball game to teach English Language Arts (from the stance of a native English speaker). I do believe that teaching English during this camp has challenged me to be more creative and innovative as an instructor. I am asking hard questions of myself, “How can I turn this simple vocabulary worksheet into an opportunity for students to improve their English and grow in confidence when it comes to speaking in a foreign language?” We’ve done everything from playing charades and listening to “School House Rock” songs, to writing stories of our own and sharing them in new and fun ways. It is hard, but again, I really think working at this camp is pushing me and growing me as a teacher.
Another part of our summer camp that I deeply cherish, is that I am getting to spend more time getting to know our national staff. Many foreign staff (who are not in between contract years like myself) travel to their home countries for the summer. This means that there is a lesser number of international teachers in country at the moment. In the absence of this ‘safety net’ of familiar culture and language, I have been provided with a wonderful open door to continue building relationships with my co-workers who are nationals. It’s easy during the school year to get caught up in working with the same people (those who are in the same department, on the same hall floor, share an office space, etc). Yet, now teachers from all departments and grade levels (the majority of them being national staff members) are all working together through the course of the English camp. It is a wonderful time of learning and growing together.
The second focus for staff during their working summers is completing and extensive study of the Chinese language. I had about 2 weeks of daily two hour one-on-one classes at school. This little diagram below is the most accurate depiction of learning Chinese I have ever seen.
Listen, I knew it would be hard. I knew that Chinese would challenge every piece of understanding I have of language, writing, and communication. What I didn't know was how mentally exhausted I would be from finally getting the opportunity to study Chinese daily over summer break. I definitely grew a lot through the course of these classes, but I recognize I still have a long way to go! Pr-y-rs for this passion are welcome. I truly believe by studying and growing in my Chinese language that my Father will open more doors for me to share my testimony and live out my conviction that my L-rd speaks EVERY language.
I finish up with camp this week on Friday, July 27th! It has been a memorable three weeks. Teachers head back to school for in-service week on Monday, August 6th. New Student Orientation is then on Monday followed by the first day of school on Tuesday, August 14th! I cannot believe I am headed into my second year of teaching in China. Not only that, but it will also be my 5th year of teaching! That's crazy. I am grateful to my heavenly Father for walking with me this far. I also would like to take a moment to acknowledge the people and pr-y-r warriors who helped get me where I am today. I know I couldn't do any of this on my own. I look forward to spending the rest of my life following where He leads me!
Click through the slideshow below to see some more highlights from this summer!
I’m finally getting around to writing Part 3 of 3 of my New Zealand blogs! Over three months after our adventures ended, I finally have my final written memoriam of our experiences there. I’m still in awe of the fact that Abi and I were able to travel to such a colorful, inspiring place and do so many unbelievable things all in ONE WEEK! Hurrah for a BUCKLIST ITEM COMPLETE!
The second half of our spring break travels was just as thrilling and beautiful as the first, though with a lot more driving! I mean, what do you expect? The South Island is twice the size of the North Island and we did the entire length of the east coast and back in about five days! Get ready for a tale of farmland, coastlines, fantasy battlegrounds, and encounters with amazing people!
Driving from Picton to Waianakarua (337 miles)
After we disembarked the Cook Strait Ferry, we set off on our longest leg of the journey yet; driving from Picton to the country village of Waianakarua. Yeah, I still don't know how to say that one. This drive remains without question my favorite driving scenery of the whole trip. One second we were driving through open grasslands with signs to watch for wild horses, the next moment we were passing through picturesque old towns, before suddenly we were along paradise-like mountains that bordered the ocean. It was breathtaking throughout the journey.
The evening after our ferry ride we stayed overnight at the home of a lovely woman who lives in the country on a little farm with two dogs, some chickens, sheep and pigs. It was just so pleasant and domestic (in the best way). I could easily imagine myself settling down one day in a place like that, surrounded by animals and gardens. Still, our picturesque retreat in Waianakarua did not last long because that day we had a bit of a trek south. Indeed, we were headed to the southernmost town in all of NZ (more on that later).
Driving from Wainakarua to Bluff (198 miles)
Our first stop on this drive was to see the famous Moeraki Boulders. I believe it was I who discovered this "recommended pit stop” when researching places to visit along our route in the South Island. Prior to our arrival at the boulders, both Abi and I confessed we didn’t expect much from the location. We were actually pleasantly surprised and impressed to discover a fascinatingly strange natural phenomenon there. Imagine a beach scattered with what looks like a cross between some sort of weird alien pod invasion and a unguarded nest of dragon’s eggs. It’s weird, but totally awesome.
Here’s the thing, I am no scientist, so I am not going to sit here and type out my clueless understanding of what is so cool about these boulders.
Here’s what I liked learning (and think I understand) about them. These boulders are almost perfect spheres that are surprisingly not manmade, but instead created by nature (erosion over time). Inside they are made up of different rocks, sediment and minerals. The coolest part is that at their center they contain a type of calcite crystal. This crystal can cause cracks in the boulders (and as you see in some of the pictures) and a number of them have been completely broken open as a result. They are old boulders (scientists don’t agree on how old), but records state that some boulders that have been 'excavated' and studied have been found to contain the bones and fossils of dinosaurs. Whilst the Moeraki Boulders are not the only example of this type of natural wonder in the world, they are extremely rare and unique.
KATIKI POINT LIGHTHOUSE
After enjoying some touristy time in the Moeraki Boulders Gift Shop, Abi struck up a conversation with the store’s cashier. Abi expressed that she had two big goals for this NZ trip the first was to go shark cage diving [HERE] and the second was to see some wild seals and penguins. The cashier told us about the nearby Katiki Point Lighthouse. She said it was less frequented by tourists than another nearby penguin/seal viewing location called Shag Point (the location we had planned to visit next). I am so thankful for that cashier because we had an amazing time at the Katiki Point Lighthouse.
We got up close and personal with New Zealand Fur Seals! At one point, Abi even was investigated by a curious little pup who got so extremely close it was unbelievable. He was totally fearless. There were also many Spotted Shag (Maori word: Parekareka) birds scattered across the beach where the seals lay dozing in the warm sun. What I remember most from this day was how water was such a striking color blue with the grass complimenting it in a rich green of gorgeousness. I found myself once again thinking, “The only way I’m going to be able to describe this place to anyone is if I tell them it looks fake.”
Other than all the seal time, we also were able to spot some type of large sea mammal splashing in the ocean way in the distance. Even with my strongest zoom lens on the fancy camera, I couldn’t make out what kind of animal it was. Whatever it was, I can tell you it seemed to be having a lot of fun!
We were a little disappointed to learn that the penguins usually did not come into shore until late afternoon (it was still early morning and we had to get back on the road). BUT, we didn’t leave totally empty handed when it came to seeing penguins. A young couple hiking along the same cliffs as us spotted ONE lonely little Yellow-eyed Penguin sitting on a cliffside nearby. They pointed him out to us and we were so excited! This breed, the Yellow-eyed Penguin, can only be found in NZ and is the largest of the NZ breeds. I can now officially say I’ve seen my first wild penguin (from a loooooooong distance away, haha)!
After getting back on the road for a while, we stopped at a fish and chips shop where I tried Elephant Fish for the first time. The waitress recommended it to me as her favorite type of fish (though explained that it is actually more closely related to a breed of shark), so I thought “Why not?” I will now recommend it to all of you. If you get a chance to try Elephant Fish, do it! It’s delicious.
A few hours later we arrived at the 'almost literal' bottom of the world. It is the town of Bluff, New Zealand. A striking contrast to cities like Auckland and Wellington, Bluff boasts a resident population of under 2,000 people. It is the southernmost town (excluding the island town of Oban) on the South Island (and practically the world).
Bluff boasts three main attractions to the rest of the world. First, it is one of the final jumping off points for many expeditions heading to Antarctica. Second, it is renowned for having the tastiest oysters around. Lastly, it is famous for being one of only three locations in the world to have a “certified” shark cage diving experience (“certified” meaning legal & safe for both the humans and sharks, haha).
Antarctica was not on my Bucket List this time around, but I tried the oysters and they were indeed delicious! The shark cage diving, well that was the #1 thing on Abi’s list when coming to NZ. And after a good night’s rest, that’s where we were headed.
You can read about Abi and my Shark Cage Diving Experience in Bluff, NZ
in a separate blog post HERE.
Driving from Bluff to Greendale (356 miles)
After a deep sleep — that can only come after you’ve come face to face with a Great White Shark and lived to tell the tale — we packed up our bags and were headed back north on Route 1. We stopped at a lovely little coffee shop in a nearby town and ate a delicious proper breakfast (we’re talking omelets, bacon, home fries, etc.)! Then, we were on the road again headed back up the coast.
I have to repeat how thankful I am for the beautiful landscapes we were able to enjoy all around us as we drove. NZ is the most breathtaking country I have ever travelled to and I can’t think of a better place to “Oooo and Ahhh” out the window while enjoying singing show-tunes with a great friend like Abi.
One of my favorite spur of the moment pitstops was a little town called Oamaru, NZ. We had passed through it on the way to Bluff and I noticed the stunning antique buildings, statues, and reminiscent aura of the streets that reminded me of a town straight out of World War I film. It was the historic precinct of the city and we had a blast as we perused little shops, drank tea, ate biscuits, and even scouted for penguins along the coast (no luck), before ending up in a little antique book store in town.
The shop was called “Slightly Foxed Secondhand Books” and we spent far longer in there than anyone could imagine (well, maybe you can imagine how long two English teachers spent in a bookshop full of old books…) I was beyond delighted to discover a FIRST EDITION HARDBACK COPY of “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” published in 1961. FIRST EDITION PEOPLE! It was on sale for 80 NZD (which is equivalent to about $50 USD). Did I need it? Probably not, but imagine finding a first edition a novel that means so much to you whilst you are in NEW ZEALAND (the country where portions of the movie adaptations were filmed)!!! I bought it. I also bought a first edition of “Peter Pan” by J.M. Barrie for about $25 USD (because I love British Literature and “Peter Pan” was one of the first books/plays that I fell in love with in the third grade).
I know those books will remain be my favorite ‘souvenirs’ to bring back from the trip.
WALNUT TREE COTTAGE
As the sun was setting, we arrived in the farm town of Greendale to stay at our final AirBnB of the trip. It was a little cottage that the owners called Walnut Tree Cottage. It was a quaint little one room cabin in the family’s backyard. And, as the name properly name suggests, it sits right under a lovely walnut tree. This very quickly became my absolute favorite place to stay during the trip.
First of all, the family was absolutely lovely. They were having a family reunion with relatives who lived in Australia and Dubai and were home for a visit. As soon as we arrived, the wife made us some delicious tea, she offered to let us do some wash, and she was just was so interested in talking to us about our trip and our lives living abroad. It was really kind for her to be so interested in investing in her guests as individual. The family was so enjoyable to talk to and I enjoyed being able to share a bit of my testimony with them when discussing my decision/motivation in moving to China.
In the morning, after a good night's sleep, we were served a delicious English breakfast (we paid about 25 NZD extra for it, but it was worth every penny) before heading out on our last day in NZ.
To end well we were hitting up some natural sites and another one of my personal top wish list locations!
Greendale to Devil’s Punch Bowl (75 miles)
We drove from Greendale to the outskirts of Canterbury, NZ before entering Arthur’s Pass National Park. The park was actually the first established on the South Island in 1929, and is named after famed land surveyor and cartographer Sir Arthur Dudley Dobson. It is the home of some of the most awe-inspiring natural sites I have seen in my lifetime. Crystal blue rivers lines with pearl-colored pebbles. Domineering mountains sporting every shade of green mixing in with the new fall colors that were beginning to arrive. All the while draped beneath treacherous rock faces and cliff-sides. Miles open canary-yellow grass fields envelop mysterious forests of pine and juniper firs. Just driving into the park alone was captivating, gripping me with awestruck bewilderment.
(in Maori 'Castle Hill' is known as Kura Tāwhiti
meaning “the treasure from a distant land”)
Our first location was an area known as Castle Hill. The official tour site describes Castle Hill in this way, “The hill was so named because of the imposing array of limestone boulders in the area reminiscent of an old, run-down stone castle. The front of ChristChurch Cathedral in Christchurch was made from Castle Hill limestone” (SOURCE).
I heard about Castle Hill because the 2005 film adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe” filmed here. In fact, any avid film fan would recognize these unique rock structures as the location where Aslan and his newly freed Narnia reinforcements arrive to help the Narnians led by Peter and Edmund in their final battle against The White Witch.
NOTE: Film clip contains SPOILERS for "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe"
I wandered around the battle field for what felt like ages, trying to distinguish exactly where which character had stood and fought. It just made me really happy to (again) stand in a place that I knew to be a physical form of Narnia. The sun came and went from between stormy clouds giving the entire site a whimsical, almost other-worldly feeling. It was stunning and dangerous all at the same time. This natural formation presents a striking display with its rolling hills littered with jagged, fearsome rocks. I found myself pondering life deeply as I climbed over and slid between different rock faces... dreaming, imagining, and being filled with humble joy.
Our hosts in Greendale suggested we drive a little further after Castle Hill in order to hike up to Devil’s Punchbowl, a landmark considered the most impressive waterfall in Arthur’s Pass National Park. After a semi-strenuous hike up to the lookout area, it was wonderful to feel a cool spray falling on heated skin and weary muscles.
This area of the forest is also known to be home to the NZ native bird the kiwi!
One interesting fact I learned about the kiwi bird is that as a bird it lays the biggest egg in comparison to its body size. Kiwis are nocturnal though, so we sadly did not get to see any in the wild. Another thing we discovered during our time here is that the people of NZ do not like to be called “New Zealanders”, but instead, “Kiwis”, like their iconic bird.
After hiking back down from Devil’s Punchbowl, we hit the road to Christchurch, NZ to make our evening flight back to China.
Devil’s Punchbowl to ChristChurch (88 miles)
We finally dropped off our rental car exactly nine days after we picked it up in the city of ChristChurch. From ChristChurch Airport - after a delay - we flew to Auckland, Guangzhou, and finally about 16 hours later we arrived back in Qingdao. Immediately the next day we were back to school wondering if it was all a dream!
MY FINAL THOUGHTS
How can I express what this trip meant to me? I regret to find that I do not wield the best skills in writing and language to paint a worthy picture of NZ and the impact this trip has had on me. The colors, the people, the moments of terror and bliss, exhaustion and exhilaration, laughter and surprise... I cannot find the words to give color and life to this enchanting place. It was magic and adventure, and honestly the best trip I’ve experienced (to date)! My favorite part of this journey was how in CONSTANT awe I was at my Father’s creation. This world is so big. The more I see of it, the more I realize how much I haven't seen. I do not know if I will ever have the opportunity to return to NZ again in my lifetime (I sure hope I do!). Still, I pr-y that I am forever enraptured by the faithfulness and wonder that comes from being in a relationship with the Almighty. To know Him is to see the world in the most fulfilling way. I could see and feel His glory and majesty throughout our travels in NZ.
New Zealand, you were the best. Thank you for reminding me that…
If ever I stumble through an enchanted wardrobe…
or if I find an aged grey wizard standing outside my door asking if I want to go on an adventure…
or if I have a new friend ask, “Do you want go on a trip with me? I’m buying the tickets today!”
No matter my lack of confidence, fear, or uncertainty… if the Spirit gives me assurance that it is okay, I must say “Yes” without hesitation. I obey His call. I follow where He leads. I know I am never alone. He walks with me, guides me, teaches me, and is continually revealing Himself to me when I step outside of my comfort zone. To see the world, is to see the glory of G-d and be moved by the story He is writing in every breath of it.
I will choose to never be one who “listens to fears” and I will walk confidently in the knowledge that “not all those who wander are lost” when they walk in the footsteps of the Master.
"SO, DO YOU FEEL HOMESICK?"
This is a question that people ask me a lot and not to be rude, but I think it is a horrible question. Of course, I get homesick! Everyone does! It is a normal and expected part of life, especially when you've moved to another country. Asking someone “If” they are homesick is a not question because it's almost like setting them up to be judged. If they say "No," then you think they're heartless. If they say "Yes," people assume they must be adjusting to their new life poorly.
Something else that frustrates me about the question is that I do not get "homesick" in the way I think most people expect.
Below are two better versions of what you may think are the same question, but actually lead to more honest and thorough answers.
Before I share my answers to these questions, I have to explain something.
When people ask me if I’m homesick the first thing I say is, “I feel homesick, but not for a specific place or America or anything like that. I feel homesick about people and relationships.”
Let’s look at my answers to these questions and flesh these thoughts out a bit.
WHEN I FIRST ARRIVED
When I first moved to China, there were two times of day when I felt the most homesick. They were when I left school to go home and when I went to bed. The reason I felt most homesick at these times is because this is when I missed my dog Benji the most. I hadn't started to miss my family yet because I was still able to talk to them often via technology. The physical loss I felt from not having my dog was painful. I hated going home to an empty house where I lived with a stranger (my roommate is nice, but when we first moved in together we really were complete strangers from totally different backgrounds, thrown into living together). I hated that my apartment did not feel like a home because my beloved dog was not waiting on the other end of my work day with a wagging tail and happy spirit to greet me. To go along with that, I hated going to bed because I missed the warm presence sleeping at my feet, protecting, comforting, and just giving me that feeling of comfort that creates a home.
You see, one of the first things I did after graduating college, other than renting my first house and starting my first job, was getting Benji. Sure, I didn’t go to a pet store and necessarily pick him out (read about how Benji became my family HERE), but the decision to keep him and the three years where we did EVERYTHING together was life-changing for me. We travelled across the east coast and south together. We moved to different homes, went hiking together almost every weekend, and really he was my one constant … in a way my first constant in a life full of change and transition. Now, I am in China… full of new-ness and change without my constant beside me.
I know that I have a Heavenly Constant that is worth far more than my furry four-legged friend, but still… those were the times when I felt greatest level of homesickness.
A few pictures my family has sent me of Benji since I left.
ALMOST ONE YEAR IN
At this point I have been in China almost a year (UNBELIEVABLE) and though it would be nice to tell you the homesickness for Benji has lessened, that would be a lie. I’ve just gotten better at living with it.
Meanwhile, in the past two months, I have discovered something else that causes me great amounts of homesickness. Through May and June, I have felt a homesickness for missing out on important events in lives of people I love and care about deeply.
In May (actually at the same time as “The Jungle Book” was premiering), my sister graduated from her undergrad studies. Then in June, my baby brother graduated from high school. The daughter of a close friend was married in a wedding in which I’d overheard and sat in on many a conversations about. My family attended the annual Memorial Day reunion picnic. One of my best friends from youth and his wife are expecting their first child (today actually)... and so much more!
I find myself sitting in China realizing that I am missing all these things… and it hurts.
Every Memorial Day Sunday the Mannings have a family reunion and holiday picnic! This is the first year in many that I have not been able to attend. I was able to Skype in at one point to say hello at one point.
It's also not about the events themselves even, but about being present with these people whom I love to celebrate these milestones by their side.
Social Media is such a wonderful tool to stay connected with friends and family, especially when you live on the other side of the world. I am grateful that I don’t have to wait months or years before hearing from/seeing those I love who are far away. Yet, I think social media and seeing all these important events I am missing being present for is one of the biggest causes of my homesick. Knowing I am not there. I will never have a picture with my brother or sister on their graduation day. I won't get the phone call from my friends when their baby is born. Little things like that have become much more painful in these past few months.
A SIDE EFFECT OF BEING A TCK
I know I share about being a TCK (Third Culture Kid) a lot, but it’s because living abroad has revealed to me so much I knew about myself, but could not always comprehend in a way that I could explain to others. Every month I am in China, sharing these pieces of myself gets easier... and harder at the same time.
When someone asks me questions like, “Where are you from?” or “Where is home?”, I have hesitated my whole life. In my heart I want to say Senegal, I felt a longing and homesickness for that country ever since we left when I was a teenager. Still, as much as I long for Senegal to be my home, even when I was there I was a foreigner, an alien. I lived in America on and off from birth to last year for about 18 years of my life, but it never felt like home. I have lived in over fifteen towns and cities, five countries, and 3 continents throughout my 27 years of life.
Home to me has never been a house, a neighborhood, a state, or even a country. Home is where the people I love are… and because of the life I’ve lived, the people I love, those people are all over the world.
I have come to understand that no matter where I live I will ALWAYS be homesick.
It is a blessing and a curse.
It is the fate of the TCK.
As a believer in J-s-s Ch--st, I believe that my true home was never meant to be on this earth.
No country, no people, no nation will ever be where I belong.
I have come to know what it is to be a wanderer without a home.
A nomad without a place on the globe to return to with the knowledge that it is MY PLACE.
My true home is NOT on this earth. It never was and never will be.
My true home is being prepared for me by the Son of Man, the Son of G-d, who took my death, my guilt, my failures upon Himself so that He could give me a FOREVER home.
If I ever feel sad that my homesickness does not look the way people often expect it to, I remember this truth.
I was not MEANT to find a home here, therefore, I will long all the more for my true home… an eternal home with the K-ng of K-ngs.
"But our citizenship is in heaven,
and we eagerly await a Savior from there,
the L-rd J-s-s Ch--st,
who, by the power that enables Him to subject all things to Himself,
will transform our lowly bodies
to be like His glorious body."
Let’s be honest, this what you have all been waiting for… the sharks.
And a story of how I survived being near them… kind of.
Flashback to my spring break trip and April 4, 2018. My travel buddy Abi and I have driven from the city of Auckland in the North Island all the way to the bottom of New Zealand's South Island (in about four days). After arriving at our AirBnB (in one of the most southern towns in the world), Abi and I chased after a good night’s sleep before facing southern waters and the Dustbin of the Deep the next day.
Our adventure began at 5:00 AM when we met with the crew and shark team at the Shark Experience in Bluff, NZ. The crew was really cool and nice. The team was made up of a father-daughter duo and a professional diver name Tittles (can’t forget a name like that, but he is awesome). There were about six guests headed out on the boat with us. Two of them were professional divers, while the rest newbies and landlubbers like Abi and I.
We loaded up the boat and headed out about an hour south to the shore of Stewart Island (Rakiura) along the Foveaux Strait.
Our Skipper Mike warned us that the seas were a bit “choppy” today. I’ll be honest guys, I had about twenty minutes of enjoying the gorgeous aurora sunrise behind us as we headed out to sea… before spending the rest of the voyage heaving my breakfast over the side of the boat. Yeah… I’d love to say I was cool, but it was rough seas for this girl.
When we arrived, we were each given a thick wetsuit. I don’t think I’ve mentioned yet that it was much colder in Bluff than anywhere we’d been so far on the trip. We watched the fall colors get brighter and more vibrant the further south we drove. New Zealand was heading into fall and considering that Bluff is practically the bottom of the world... it makes sense that not only was the air colder, but the ocean was more than a little chilly. Still, we headed out as the boat was tossed around, rocking constantly as wind and waves pushed against it.
Then, we arrived and dropped anchor along the coast of Stewart Island. The crew took a little bit of time to explain some of the basics and rules. Keep your hands, cameras, and really - ALL other body parts - inside the cage at all times. Climb out of the cage if you feel at risk or something goes wrong with your equipment. Don't stay in the water for more than 30 minutes (because you could get hypothermia). And lastly, don't be stupid and die.
Those of us who hadn’t ever been scuba diving before would be getting a lesson and a practice run in the cage with the equipment prior to going in officially for an extended viewing period. Our first task, putting on our wetsuits. As hard to get on as you probably can imagine, the suits were super thick and not very flexible. To put them on, you have to basically roll the suit on backwards. Then we got gloves, boots, masks, and head covers.
This cage cage is not like the ones you see in films. Instead, the cage is completely connected to the back of the boat (no hanging from a cable that breaks off into the depths). Also, the cage has a railing and tight wiring all around to prevent any overly excited sharks from flipping into the cage accidentally. Meanwhile, Tittles – a professional scuba diver and trainer – went in with each of the newbies on our first go. Before going in we were required to have heavy weights strapped onto our torso. The purpose of these weights is to help keep you grounded in the cage as the water rushing in and out (plus the rocking of the boat) prevents you from having any sort of secure footing when inside.
The first time we went in the cage we had to display two skills before we could be in by ourselves. The first skill was to be able to “clear your mask”. It’s probable, because of the rushing currents, that at some point your mask will end up with a lot of water in it. By lifting your head, holding the mask down and blowing air through your nose, you are able to clear your mask of this excess water. The second skill is in case your mouthpiece comes out at some point during your time in the cage. You must calmly take a deep breath, remove the oxygen mouthpiece from your mouth, hold your breath for a few seconds, then put the mouthpiece back in and begin to breathe again. Sounds simple, right? Think again.
I had no idea what to expect as I climbed into the cage slowly. They had already begun baiting the sharks by sending a half of a giant tuna fish through a grinder before stirring it up into the rolling waves. Once in the cage, I was totally overwhelmed. Having never used scuba gear before it was easy to forget that I could actually breathe. I found myself holding my breath as I turned away from the ladder to face where Tittles stood motioning for me to begin my mask clear.
I felt panic rising, I couldn’t breathe!
Colorful fish darted around the cage eating the pieces of churned up bait floating around us.
The water was rushing in and out of the cage around me and it was all I could do to keep holding on to the ladder and not slam into the walls with the raging currents.
My mask was filling up with water at my nose and I could see Tittles motioning to me, but all I could feel was an overwhelming sense of panic.
I couldn't breathe!
I began to p—y… and suddenly I felt calmer. I could breathe, I just had to concentrate. It felt strange. To be surrounded by water, but breathing normally through the mouthpiece I held tightly between my teeth. It was then that I realized I hadn’t put my feet into the ropes at the bottom of the cage and that was part of the reason I was getting tossed around so easily. I focused on getting my feet in the ropes. Then, I looked at Tittles.
He gave me the hand signal to ask if I was okay. I gave a thumbs up in return. He again motioned for me to clear my mask. I felt the panic returning. I looked up and sloppily held my mask while pushing air out of my nose. It wasn’t a great clear, but I had gotten most of the water out. Now was the real test. Taking the mouthpiece out. It honestly was so terrifying. I took a deep breath, then removed the mouth piece. Staring at Tittles waiting for him to give me the okay to put it back in. He did. I put the mouthpiece back in and immediately breathed out in a rush. After clearing the tube, I began to breathe normally again. I had done it! It struck me that I was okay and I could do this. I just had to not psych myself out within my own head. As I processed my relief, Tittles grabbed my arm and pointed.
There he was. A Great White Shark swimming just a few feet outside the cage.
It passed slowly, I gripped the hand rails, amazed and surprised at how unhurried the shark swam by the cage. This animal appeared nothing like the raging Hollywood version I knew.
My test was over. Tittles motioned for me to climb back out so someone else could come down and have their test. I started to climb out the wrong ladder exit, but Tittles fixed me and I climbed out correctly. Mike helped me pull myself up (with a wetsuit and giant weights strapped to your chest it’s a lot harder than you may think). Mike asked, “Did you see the shark?”
“I sure did!” I said after breathlessly removing my mouthpiece. I climbed out before watching others, including Abi climb in for their practice. On the boat we got a few more glimpses of the dark grey body gliding by in the dark water. Once everyone had passed their “test”, it was all systems go to spend an extended period of time in the cage.
I must admit to you that when I envisioned shark cage diving, I imagined peaceful seas with the sun beating down overhead. I also imagined an angry Great White thrashing outside the cage trying to capture the bait dangling overhead.
So, you can imagine my surprise in discovering the most peaceful thing about shark cage diving was in fact the sharks themselves. They swam by the cage at a snail’s pace, just observing before disappearing into the murky distance. Then, they would be back around again, just to look, curious about the four divers in the cage. They were so calm, graceful, and unhurried.
I have now come to the opinion that humanity does these creatures a great injustice when we choose to portray them only as man-eating, revenge seeking monsters of Davy Jones Locker. Don’t get me wrong, I’m under no disillusion that the rows of razor sharp, icicle-like teeth aren’t used to inflict major damage, but that’s only a part of their need to survive. At one point I looked the shark, I swear he looked me in the eye, and I saw those teeth and had this “WHOA” moment of terror followed by simple awe at the strength and enchanting nature of this beast.
While the sharks were peaceful, the most horrific and violent portion of the trip was the cage itself. I can only describe the sensation of being in the cage as feeling like you are inside a washing machine.
As I explained earlier, the sea was particularly rough that day. Our skipper Mike told us on a scale of 1-10 – 10 being they don’t take the boat out – our day was a 7. He told us that the waves crashing into the boat were up to about 30 feet in height (over 9 meters). I’m not exaggerating. The waves were constantly rushing in and out of the cage as it rocked harshly from side to side. You, meanwhile, are in all this gear, wearing weights to keep you grounded with your feet tucked into a rope beneath you just being slammed over and over into the sides of the cage or the divers beside you.
After about twenty minutes in the cage, your mouth and throat begin to get extremely dry because you cannot swallow only continue breathing in dry oxygen. All of the pain and discomfort is worth it though, when a 11 foot (3.4 meter) Great White Shark swims by you over six times, getting so close you feel as though you could reach out and touch him (no one did, ha). After about twenty minutes of awesome shark interaction a pair of us still in the water were hit by a giant wave that lifted the cage up out of the water before slamming it down again. It knocked the air out of my chest, jostled every bone in my body, and it was at that moment I decided I was finished. I'd seen the shark more than enough times to be satisfied with the experience and I was in a lot of pain. I climbed out of the cage, removed the weights and mouthpiece from my body and then, I am not kidding, I immeidatley proceeded to be sick over the side of the boat… again. I probably should mention that wasn’t the only guest who was sick through the course of the trip, which I suppose is a small conciliation to my pride, but still... it was not fun.
The shark I had one-on-one time with would move on before an even larger 13 foot (4 meter) female would come by toward the end of our outing. Strangely, while we were out there a Discover Channel boat (filming a documentary) also came out and began baiting only a short distance away from us. I was able to see three more sharks from above water before our team packed it up and moved our boat to another location near Stewart Island. At this spot, we could see a bunch of seals napping on nearby rocks.
The crew prepared a lunch at the sea for us, but I chose not to eat (because if the boat ride out was any indication of what the boat ride back be like for me, it wasn’t worth the effort). Abi and I struck up a conversation with a nice Minnesotan couple who was road-tripping through the South Island in a rented camper van. It was fun to swap stories of the things we’d seen and loved about NZ throughout both our journeys so far.
When we finally made it back to Bluff, a trip that went over as well with my stomach as I imagined it would (READ: not well at all) we were gifted certificates of introductory scuba course, as well as, a “Congratulations for surviving a shark cage dive” certificate. I shall show both of them off with pride!
Once on solid ground, Abi and I showered, scarfed food (I was so unbelievably hungry, and we ironically got some take-out Chinese from a little restaurant right below our AirBnB, haha). After discussing all our thoughts and processing through what we had actually seen and done we went to bed WAY early, haha. I remember I was so tired that the coldness of Bluff almost! didn’t bother me that night.
One thing I haven’t mentioned yet, is that Abi bought a waterproof GoPro just to take into the cage with her and video her shark cage experience.
This means that below I have some actual footage Abi recorded during the time we were both in the cage together. The fool you see waving like a crazy person is, of course, me... and the shark is the 11 foot Great White I first mentioned.
This is the moment when, I could swear to you that, I made eye contact with the shark. Maybe it’s in my head, but it was a cool moment to watch him going after the tuna bait the crew was dragging through the water above the cage. You can hear the currents rushing forcefully in and out and see how intensely the cage rocks around us.
Despite the date error in the top left hand corner, this is underwater film is actual footage Abi took during our time shark cage diving in New Zealand! This shark was estimated by the crew to be about 11 feet (3.4 meters) in length.
I am really glad that Abi dragged me along to go shark cage diving with her. I mean, I definitely have learned that all my dreams of becoming a pirate and living a life at sea are not really plausible anymore, but nonetheless it was an incredible adventure.
I also love that, after this experience, I will never think about sharks in the same way. They’re beautiful. They are also fierce and threatening. Though this combination of attributes makes me think that they are not unlike their Creator in capacity for both wrath and stillness. I'm hearing the faint whispers of a line about Him not being tame as I reflect on the majesty of these masterful deep-sea predators. I feel grateful to live on an earth with such a awe-inspiring G-d and to see pieces of His character and passions in all of His creation.
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