By Kyle Hall / Photos by Donald Miralle (unless noted)
In February, a video of a graceful woman free-diving with, and holding on to, a 15-foot great white shark went viral. But even after the clip was picked up by Transworld Surf, CBS news and other media outlets, next to nothing was revealed regarding the woman herself... and what had caused her to lose her mind.
To get to the bottom of the story, or even deeper, PacificSD sent local photographer Donald Miralle, who has some serious chops in the water-photography department (read his story here) to photograph the fearless former San Diegan, Ocean Ramsey, at play in her now-natural habitat of Oahu, Hawaii.
Meet Ocean Ramsey...
Ocean Ramsey has modeled in ad campaigns for Xcel Wetsuits, Maui Jim and Hawaiian Airlines, but those are probably the least interesting entries in her bio. She's also a professional dive instructor who's on the water every day. She can hold her breath underwater for 5 minutes and 45 seconds. She's upset that she can dive only to a depth of 150 feet with a single breath, but is currently training to reach 200. And, for casual exercise, she does yoga, jiu jitsu and muay thai. When she gets serious, she competes in sprint triathlons.
Also, she SWIMS WITH SHARKS. Seriously, Ramsey freedives with massive predators and holds on to their dorsal fins, but let's get back to that in a minute.
Ramsey grew up between San Diego and Hawaii; her father was born here and owns property in both areas. Her passion for sharks was sparked when she was five, during a family visit to La Jolla to see leopard sharks.
She went on to train at SeaWorld San Diego with the dive-safety instructor, and worked at the now-defunct Diving Locker in Pacific Beach. She recalls night-diving during San Diego's mystical red tides with an air of longing, and says she'd love to move back here, if only there were a way to raise the water temp for year-round diving.
Over the years, Ramsey's passion for sharks eventually led her to Water Inspired (waterinspired.com), what she describes as "a platform to change the initial perspective people have of sharks." To drum up awareness for its cause, Water Inspired captures breathtaking images of Ramsey swimming with, and often touching, sharks.
The shock-value created by juxtaposing a beautiful woman with one of the world's most dangerous predators is not unintentional. Through mind-bending photos of Ramsey holding on to sharks with mouths big enough to swallow her whole, the crew is drawing attention to what is likely the worst thing ever to happen to the nearly 400-million year-old fish: a brutal form of fishing called "finning."
Finning is an inarguably cruel form of shark fishing that involves harvesting (read: cutting off ) only the dorsal fin, and then tossing the rest of the still-living shark overboard to sink until discovered by other predators and eaten alive. This horrible end is shared by between 23 million and 200 million sharks each year, depending on which study you choose to believe. Despite the wide range in study results, scientists agree that even the low estimates represent
unsustainable fishing practices that will lead to extinction.
The only real use for harvested shark fins is as a flavorless addition to a traditional Chinese soup that was once reserved for special occasions and affordable to only a rich few. However, the recent economic surge in China, and the associated increase in disposable income among the middle class who has never been able to afford shark fin soup, has caused an unprecedented explosion in demand in what is now estimated to be a billion-dollar industry.
Those who think an ocean without sharks would mean happy days of anxiety-free surfing should probably rent Bio-Dome for an important lesson in ecology: environments are all about balance, and can thrive only in homeostasis. Knock off the top of the food chain, and the detrimental effects will ripple to the base.
Fortunately for global food supplies, Ramsey and her cohorts at Water Inspired are risking their skin daily to alter public opinion and make sure this never becomes a reality. While it's unrealistic to think the general public will ever approach Ramsey's level of comfort with sharks, her interactions with them provide valuable counterpoints to pop culture stigma.
In February, Department of Fish and Wildlife officials were presented with evidence showing there are fewer than 350 great white sharks left in California's coastal waters. These essential predators were granted protection under the Endangered Species Act the following month, but cannot officially be added to the Endangered Species List until more studies are complete.
One of Ramsey's most telling encounters occurred during a 7-knot drift dive (a type of SCUBA diving involving riding currents to cover long distances) in French Polynesia, what Ramsey calls the "shark capital of the South Pacific." The current she was riding made the area a popular feeding ground, and she found herself swimming with hundreds of tiger sharks.
The only way to slow down to observe the animals feeding during such a dive is to escape the current by dipping into breaks in the hard coral. During one of these momentary respites, Ramsey struck a sharp piece of the coral with her thigh and immediately started to cloud the water with blood.
As if alerted by the underwater equivalent of a mass text message, every shark turned in unison, bloodlust guiding them to tear whatever was bleeding to shreds. As they descended towards Ramsey, several of the sharks snapped at each other, fighting over the anticipated meal until they reached the easy prey.
In a Hollywood film, this exactly how one would expect the scene to play out, but reality is a bit less marketable.
"Your blood looks green underwater, it looks like green smoke," says Ramsey. "So, I'm bleeding in a school of like 200 sharks, and they can care less that I'm there. They kind of remind me of birds or cats sometimes. They don't really care that you're around."
Sharks are capable of sensing blood in very small quantities, but they aren't particularly interested in human blood.
"When it's fish blood in the water, it's a different reaction; they can taste the difference," says Ramsey, her having survived the encounter serving as a convincing testament to the claim.
Tiger sharks have a reputation for being bloodthirsty predators that eat just about anything, but the characterization is only partially accurate. While they have been found with all manner of trash in their stomachs (like tires and license plates), tiger sharks are primarily scavengers who prefer to feed on the dead or dying, and attack humans only in cases of mistaken identity.
Despite a mountain of scientific evidence showing the benefits of sharks far outweigh the danger they pose to humans, Ramsey is faced with myriad skeptics in a society trained by JAWS. Many critics have compared her to the ill-fated Grizzly Man who ended up a victim of the wild animals he was trying to cohabitate with and ultimately save.
To those critics, Ramsey's message is simple: "I'm not living with the animals, I respect them for what they are: apex predators and wild animals. I'm not going out there to be a part of their society, I'm going out there to study them and help with a perception change."
Visit waterinspired.com to see more amazing photos.
States where shark fin sales are banned