(Video of the experience at the bottom of the blog.)
I think I have finally found something I like better than diving with sharks. Sharing that experience with others – especially those who are, shall we say, not yet enlightened, deeply rooted in that fear and misconception culture that surrounds sharks. And Saturday, I had the amazing opportunity to do just that. With a group of folks that are infamous shark haters... Surfers.
(Not only did these influential surfers take on their fears, they got the story in the Sunday edition of The Times today - Southern Africa's major newspaper read by 5 million people... http://www.thetimes.co.za/
At the Shark Angels screening at the Durban IFC/Wavescapes film festival, I met some very charismatic and famous US and South African Surfers including Ross Frylink, Steve Pike and Wes Brown. After a long conversation which included some heavy encouragement (especially in Wes’ case who openly admitted he was terrified of surfing here in South Africa due to all the frequent shark attacks), these surfers, notorious for despising sharks actually agreed to join me on a shark dive.
Mark and Gail Addison stepped up and funded our little adventure (so incredibly generous of them - as always anything to save the sharks.) So, we met early Saturday morning, freediving equipment in tow, to get these guys into the water with what was one of their biggest enemies – the monsters of their nightmares. A boat full of surfers (11 in total all big, strong stock including my incredible new friend Olivia Jones) and little old me – a tiny Shark Angel.
The mood to the dive site was somber and quiet – and many questions were asked which entailed things like “What do I do if the shark tries to bite me?” and “What if my fin touches the chum?” and the prodding jokes to one another about wills and Jaws.
When we finally found sharks, of course, I couldn’t get into the water fast enough. They, on the other hand, took an inordinate amount of time to put on their fins and mask.
Finally, all six guys joined me and my friends, 15 beautiful black tips, in the water. The black tips were frisky, and the vis was gorgeous – a perfect day for freediving. Suddenly I found myself tightly surrounded by six nervous guys who were practically climbing on me to get out of the water. I couldn’t move. Funny they thought this little shark angel could offer them any protection… and from what?
Then, I watched something I still cannot describe and still puts a huge smile on my face and warms my heart every time I think of it. Within 30 seconds, the fear dissolved into amazement and the misperceptions melted away as every single guy bolted down to 15 feet to get closer to the sharks they so desperately wanted to touch… I couldn’t figure out where everyone went, until I looked down and saw massive chaos as they flitted from shark to shark trying to get as close as possible.
In Wes’ case, I was even prouder - and more touched. Here was a guy who I couldn’t convince to give sharks a chance. Now, he was lovingly stroking them, and we literally had to pull him – and actually all of them - out of the water.
The enthusiasm and just the raw emotion of the event was contagious. I beamed with pride as the newly inducted Shark Savers were passionately describing their experiences and how much they regretted ever spending time worrying about a shark attack. They couldn’t stop telling everyone they saw about their incredible day – and I knew that we had, together, in some small way, made a little bigger dent in the problem.
Those of us who dive with sharks frequently still revel in the magical experience, but I think we forget what it is like the first time you realize here is something you have been taught to fear all your life, and instead of wanting to eat you, it is just the perfect, awe-inspiring creature. That moment that perception shifts is one of the most precious things a shark conservationist can witness.
I am so excited to continue working with the surfing community – with Ross, Steve, OJ and Wes – and gain even more surfers' collective support for sharks. Almost as excited as I am to get into the water with them as they transform me from a Shark Angel into a Surf Angel. Yes, after sharing sharks with them, turn around is fair play, and they want to share another perspective on the ocean with me. And I cannot wait.
Read about the adventure from the surfers' point of view on the Wavescapes site: