What would you do if approached by a 17 foot great white shark? Probably panic, right? Well, not if you’re Ocean Ramsey. Model and conservationist, Ocean Ramsey, dives straight in with endangered and potentially dangerous sharks in the hope of encouraging greater conservation.
Having spent her childhood in the water as part of an active family, Ocean (yes, that’s her real name) naturally became a scuba dive instructor which then led on to her shark conservation cause.
“I am a professional PADI scuba instructor and I compete in free diving” she tells me. “Shark research and conservation are my biggest priorities and free diving and scuba diving integrate into that quite well. Whether it’s training new divers to understand and appreciate sharks, more advanced divers to read shark body language, or just for research, I love that my daily diving involves helping sharks.”
Ocean began her conservation group, Water Inspired, as a way to promote the protection of this misunderstood species. The photos and videos of her encounters, which she has published online as part of her campaign, have caused a stir across the world, with millions of hits on her extraordinary Youtube videos. The clips show the petite blonde hitching a ride on the back of a great white, elegantly gliding through the water, casually holding onto its fin.
“Great Whites have a very special place in my heart”
Ocean blames films such as Jaws for the fear and hatred associated with sharks and hopes to change the the way people think of them.
“The purpose of going out to capture images of a human and a rare white shark together was to get people to question what they really know about these animals and show that they are not the mindless man-eating machines they have been portrayed as in almost all media.”
While Ocean’s work may seem astonishingly dangerous, she does it for a good cause and, as she explains, it is not as risky as it may appear. Great white sharks may be the largest predatory fish on earth, with 300 serrated, triangular teeth arranged in several rows, but research (and Ocean’s experiences) shows that they are significantly misunderstood. They are in fact far more curious than predatory in nature and are an important part of our ecosystem. Worryingly, they are quickly declining in numbers due to overfishing, accidental catching in gill nets and a number of other factors, sadly resulting in their listing as an endangered species.
While traditionally ‘cute’ animals such as dolphins and turtles get significant funding and positive media attention, sharks are largely left out. It’s not often you hear of someone adopting a shark after all.
However, sharks need saving too and this is what Ocean is hoping to achieve. By altering the public’s perception of the animal she hopes that more people will support their conservation.
“I do see comments along the lines of its crazy to swim with a great white; my response is somewhere along the lines of it is even more crazy to allow such an important species to be killed off because fictitious movies inaccurately portray them as scary mindless monsters.” With fewer than 340 great white sharks left in the North Pacific it is clear that Ocean’s work is very important.
“They are not malicious demons” she explains, “they are in fact a vital and essential part of a healthy ocean eco-system, one that humans rely on. Humans in fact indirectly rely on sharks to do their job keeping marine species free of disease and populations in balance. It is devastating and ultimately detrimental to our own species to allow them to be hunted to the brink of extinction. The heavy misperception people have about these animals is what keeps people from learning the truth about sharks and making the needed changes to help save them.”
It is easy to see where Ocean’s motivation comes from; her love of sharks is evident in her passionate and emotional pleas for their protection and her one-on-one experiences with the sharks make her cause that much more persuading.
“I feel so grateful and lucky for all the many incredible experiences I have had seeing and interacting with sharks and I feel I owe it to them, to give back to them, to speak up for them because I know froma lot of first hand experience and a lifetime of study what they really are. I truly love seeing sharks and being around them and I know how important they are, and it only makes them that much more special to me. I want the future generations to be able to see the same animals I am seeing. I know that wont happen if humans don’t stop killing sharks at the rate they are.”
Although she supports the conservation of all sharks, and all sea creatures at that, she is particularly devoted to the great white’s cause.
“Great whites have a very special place in my heart” she tells me. “It was one particular great white that slowed down and really looked at me, eye to eye, many years ago that sort of woke me up to their dynamic plight. There is no doubt in my mind how incredibly intelligent white sharks are. The many interactions I have had with them have continually expanded and reinforced my understanding and deepened the level of respect I have for them.”
Through her work she feels she has really gotten to know the sharks she observes, and has understandably developed an attachment.
“Shark research and conservation are my biggest priorities”
“It honestly breaks my heart to think of the white sharks I have met and gotten to know being killed, especially by some trophy hunter who wants to put their jaws on a wall, or someone who wants to feel like they are of “higher class” by eating shark fin in a bowl of soup! At this point in my life there are a number of specific individual sharks that have a special place in my heart and it is for them and the ecosystem, and future generations, that I continue what I do.”
While Ocean seeks to refute the negative connotations associated with these sharks, she admits that there will always be some danger and that it is not for everyone.
Her bravery and skill stems from a huge amount of experience and careful preparation. “A lot of preparation, a lifetime in the water diving and working with over thirty different species of sharks prepared me to be able to understand and interpret white sharks’ critical body language so I could respectfully dive with them,” she explains.
Ocean also uses the skills she has developed as a competitive free diver to get as close as possible to her beloved sharks. Through extensive training she can hold her breath underwater for an impressive 6 minutes and 19 seconds. “Its 90 per cent mental and the rest is training my body to be able to tolerate high levels of C02, while staying conscious on low levels of 02”, she explains. This is integral to her dives because sharks are apparently easily spooked.
“Being able to drop my heart rate and hold my breath for long periods of time also helped me get a close interaction because a number of sharks are easily scared away, especially by the bubbles from scuba.”
While she is now able to dive without any kind of equipment, she has built up to this gradually, first observing the creatures from the safety of a cage.
“Out of respect for the animals and their capabilities, I stayed in a cage observing the animals for long periods of time first, to learn the ethology of this particular species and also to set an example to others so as not to risk the animal’s reputation.” Although Ocean wants to change the way we perceive sharks, she doesn’t advocate her hobby to others.
“White sharks are nothing like they are traditionally portrayed but they are also not a species that I encourage people to free dive around because of the small chance of confusing their sensory systems when we dress in black wetsuits and inadvertently act like injured seals.”
As well as her conservation work, scuba instructing, and free diving, Ocean is also a model. Obviously one to never sit still she explains that she grew up with four brothers and for a long time the idea of modelling didn’t enter the picture.
“I was very outdoorsy, active, and I never thought I would get into modelling. I pushed off offers when I was younger because I didn’t think I was the “model type” and I was busy with school and traveling. Once I gave modelling a chance I was glad that I did because I made a lot of money just smiling and laughing or even swimming in front of a camera. It always feels good getting paid to do what you would be doing anyway.” This multi-talented Hawaiian is obviously a force to be reckoned with and looks set to save the world one shark at a time.
While it may seem a daunting task, a favourite quote of Ocean’s, from Mother Terea, pretty much sums up what it’s all about: “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.”