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The shark whisperer

Ilaitia Turagabeci
Monday, February 18, 2013

IT's an extraordinary love affair, frightening and full of affection.

A great white shark — one of the most feared of all the ocean's predators — and the petite blonde woman from Honolulu whose deft graceful touches won the confidence, and the heart, of the king.

The heart-stopping footage of their meeting shows how shark conservationist Ocean Ramsey swam up to the powerful animal and delicately approached to caress the great white and take a ride with her.

It was a delicate dance between two species whose fear of each other broke through their understanding of their body language.

Having travelled through the South Pacific and the Caribbean to study their behaviour, Ocean released the footage on YouTube on Valentine's Day as an expression of her love for the great white and her big family who are on the verge of extinction.

"I feel blessed, honoured, and extremely lucky to have had such incredible experiences with so many beautiful and magnificent marine animals," she posted on the website for Water Inspired, an underwater photography company that raises awareness for shark conservation

"Growing up surfing and diving in Hawaii and San Diego, I've shared water with sharks on a regular basis. My best friend and free diving partner and I both love and appreciate sharks.

"At home on Oahu, we regularly dive to photograph galápagos, tigers, sandbar, and other reef sharks. I've been privileged to dive with a diverse range of sharks and other cartilaginous animals in my travels …

"Many of my dives have also involved interaction with large marine mammals, including humpback whales and curious dolphins."

The greatest moments in her life since she started swimming with sharks at the age of 14 have been diving with great whites.

"I recently took my third swim with a group of great whites. 400 million years on this planet has produced an amazing creature and intelligent apex predator. It's difficult to express the incredible joy and breathtaking emotion experienced locking eyes with a great white shark.

"Watching the shark acknowledge and observe me, while I peacefully and calmly allowed it to swim towards me, and then experiencing it accepting my touch, allowing me to dorsal and tail ride. The connection felt as I repeatedly pet and hitched a ride on several of these sharks reminded me of my experience with horses.

"A lot can be said between two creatures that don't speak the same language. Even without eye contact, hanging on to the dorsal fin allowed me to feel the sharks' subtle unseen movements; feeling the way the water displaced as we glided together, and the gentle but strong swaying of the sharks' caudal fin (tail) so careful not to kick me as I released my hold.

"Sometimes the larger dominant females would even become shy or scared of the camera or other divers. While interacting with these sharks I could sense the change in the animals comfort even before physically seeing the change in body movement."

Ocean said just as anyone would not recommend jumping into a yard with a strange dog, she wouldn't advise people to do what she does with the great white.

"Sharks do need to be respected as wild animals and appreciated for their role as top predators in the ocean ecosystem. My shark experiences have all been positive in part because while I know sharks are not mindless man-eaters, I simultaneously have respect for their capabilities, a lot of experience interacting with animals and reading body language, behaviour, and I am comfortable with my own water abilities while also trusting my dive partner.

"Given the number of surfers and swimmers who frequent shark territory in low visibility often dressed in black wetsuits or floating on surfboards portraying a seal-like silhouette, it is a huge testament to sharks sensory systems and intelligence that mistaken identity bites "attacks" are so rare.

"Like many animals, individual sharks display different dispositions and personalities or temperaments and not all are comfortable with or interested in interaction with humans."

Her interaction with the great white shows a gentler side of the shark, whose portrayal in the 1975 American horror, thriller film, Jaws, influenced millions of people across several generations across the world to think they're aggressive man-eating creatures.

Helen Sykes, who researches sharks around Fiji's waters and has documented their declining numbers, said such interactions with great whites are rare.

"They're not common but it just goes to show that these fish are not automatic eaters as people think," she said.

"Interaction in a properly controlled environment is very much possible. They can co-exist with human beings very safely.

"Our concept of sharks as dangerous is far-fetched. It only is when we arouse their feeding response. That's why we should always respect them and the environment they're in."

Former Uto ni Yalo captain Johnathan Smith, who now sails on the Nai'a and continues to dive with sharks, said people should always be calm when they face sharks in the water.

"Sharks are generally very calm and graceful fish. You have to be calm when you face them," he said.

"When you disturb their environment, they can mistake you for food.

"So it's important that when you're in Rome, you do as the Romans do, just stay calm, be gentle and they won't bother you."

Great whites are cold-water sharks and don't swim out into tropical waters.

There has only been one recording in Fiji waters, a radio-tagged one that strayed.

Great whites have joined tropical sharks, including the big tiger sharks, on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (ICUN) red list as vulnerable to extinction and threatened species.

Ocean, in her posting, said it was sad to think that the human race could be responsible for the extinction of such vital and beautiful animals.

"Sharks are being overfished and finned at unsustainable rates. There are estimated to be less than 400 great whites in the North Pacific and less than 3500 great white sharks left worldwide."

She said while crocodiles kill more than 2500 people per year, they are protected in many areas.

"The world offers little to no protection for sharks. Sharks are vital to the oceans and planet. They need and deserve to be protected."

It is not illegal to fish sharks in Fiji's waters and moves are afoot to implement a shark management plan to control the numbers fished in our 1.2million-square-kilometre Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

The Pew Environment Group and Coral Reef Alliance are supporting moves for this to happen.

Until then, people such as Ocean will continue to travel the world, do what once seemed the impossible, shoot footage and photographs and inspire and teach the world that we can do more to save them.

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