Jessica Smit, new CEO of White Shark Projects in Gansbaai, arrived at the organisation by chance and has just dived in deep by buying the company.
Smit took over from CEO, Charmaine Beukes, in December, but her journey with WSP started six years ago when she decided to join its volunteer programme. “I’d travelled all my life but never been to Africa so I started looking for places I could spend some time volunteering while touring too,” she said.
She spent three months in Kenya with a sea turtle programme, three months in Uganda helping out at an orphanage and then took a few weeks off in Mozambique before deciding where to head next. “I was looking at what to do next, and White Shark Projects just suited me. In terms of my itinerary, they offered real opportunities to travel around and see the country while still making a difference.”
Smit initially planned to spend four weeks at WSP but ended up staying for much longer. “I just fell in love with WSP and Gansbaai. The sharks, the people, the work – it all made me excited to wake up in the morning.”
After leaving WSP and travelling home to England, she said, “I took a chance and wrote to Charmaine saying that I had noticed there was no volunteer co-ordinator at WSP and offered myself up for the position.”
Beukes gave Smit a chance to pitch herself for the position, and after a nervous presentation, she was offered the job. “But she warned me, ‘You’d better not be coming back here for a man’, and I told her that I was single and wasn’t looking for a man in Gansbaai,” said Smit.
However, as it turned out, Smit had unwittingly lied to Beukes as she met her future husband in a bar in Gansbaai the very next day. “It’s not at all what I was expecting. I was 35 and unmarried with no kids and had no plans to meet anybody.” She laughed, saying that now she was married with a little girl. “It’s just funny that it all worked out.”
Apart from her volunteer tourism experiences, Smit had spent most of her life travelling and picking up odd jobs in tourism and hospitality. “I did all sorts of things. I worked in hotels and clubs and even on a boat in Greece. Charmaine saw the boat on my CV and said ‘Oh I see you have experience with boats’, but I had to tell her that it was a party boat and absolutely nothing like the cage diving boats at WSP.
“But I still always wanted to make a difference.” She went back to university and obtained her Bachelor degree with Honours in animal welfare and behaviour in conservation. “That’s what interests me. I’ve volunteered at about 60 different places around the world and most of those projects have been centred on animals.”
It was this vast volunteer experience that allowed her to step confidently into the role of volunteer co-ordinator. “That’s what made taking over such an easy choice.” She said having already been with WSP for five years, she already knew the ins and outs of the business.
Although she noted a few things that she hadn’t yet been involved in and that Beukes had managed alone, like dealing with tour operators, Smit was excited and confident to start taking on those roles this year.
“I am feeling extremely positive about 2021,” she said. “We have an absolutely die-hard crew at WSP, and we’ve all missed the boat, seeing the staff, the tourists and our outreach projects.” She added that she and the staff would be grateful to get back to work this year. “Once you’ve had a break from something, you appreciate it so much more.”