Plenty of people travel all over the world and pay to climb into a tiny submerged cage floating amongst a school of sharks. You already know the cliché photo that comes from it; jaws wide open with the ocean’s angry, giant apex predator making a beeline right for you. Lucky for mankind, that cage is there. At least that’s the implication.
I’d venture a guess that not as many people will consider paying money to do this all without the cage, but that’s the version Ocean Ramsey and Juan Oliphant offer. Just hop on a boat in Haleiwa, cruise out to the middle of the Pacific, and jump straight into the ocean with nothing but a snorkel and a pair of fins. The conservationists spend their 20 minutes riding from the harbor to a congregation site reciting the rules and what to expect scenarios for their guests. Ramsey describes the body language of a shark as if it were a household dog. “When they’re agitated, they’ll do this. When he or she is curious, they’ll do that. You should definitely not do x, y, or z…” It’s an actual crash course in how to swim with sharks. And I’d be lying if I said there isn’t a part of you that will ask “am I crazy?” leading up to the moment you dive into the ocean.
I can’t speak for anybody else about how long it takes for that question to fade away once you’re in the water, but the idea behind the entire experience is to have a firm “no, that wasn’t crazy at all” by the time you get back on the boat. We’re mostly surrounded by reef sharks, which aren’t exactly the species most often associated with those open jaws and vicious teeth. But swimming with any animal larger than yourself is still a moving experience. And even in a school of 20 sharks you can’t help but notice the individual qualities of each animal. They’re curious. They’re attentive. They follow a distinct hierarchy in the water, which, once she’s in the water, Ramsey sits at the top of. At one point a shark swims a little (a lot) closer to me than most people should be comfortable with. She’d told us on the boat how to create and keep distance between the animals, but for the moment I’m a little caught up in the fact that a shark is curiously inching its way toward me. Before I start to back away instinctively, Ocean sticks her feet out to gently nudge the shark with her fins. It’s kind of a diplomatic way of asking to have our personal space back. The shark obliges and I’m dumbfounded at how effortless she makes it all look.
“All I’m trying to do is facilitate people experiencing sharks in their natural environment, and the sharks are kind of speaking up for themselves at that point,” Ramsey says, which is about as simple an explanation you could offer of her work in Hawaii with Oliphant. When the two first met they were each passionate about protecting the ocean and sharks, because as Oliphant explains it, the entire ocean is healthier when shark populations are healthy. They’re giving people a reason to care by offering a first-hand experience with the animals we’re typically taught will take your entire leg, or worse, on a whim. And that widely accepted and commonly perpetuated idea that sharks and humans can’t coexist in the same space has made protecting them an uphill battle. So before Oliphant met Ramsey, he was photographing and sharing sharks in their natural environment, hoping others would see them as he did. The only catch was as beautiful and serene as the photos might be, it was still tough to remove the animals from that ultimate predator context associated with great whites, tigers, and the list goes on. Everything changed when he started photographing the “little blonde girl” swimming alongside them.
“There’s a great white. There’s a little blonde girl, just like in the movies,” says the little blonde girl herself. “But in the movie – which is fictitious – the little blonde girl gets eaten. So in reality, what’s happening? We’re coexisting.” It’s an incredible image that no SharkWeek special or NatGeo documentary would ever let you see, but somehow it’s turned into the most meaningful conservation work these animals have.