Being surrounded by sharks conjures the eerie Jaws signature tune, pre-empting a bloodbath of severed limbs.
One woman is determined to change this Hollywood-inspired perception of sharks.
Former actress and model Lesley Rochat has been diving with sharks for 15 years. She says it was her time as a travel journalist and underwater photographer that awoke her to the problems in the oceans.
“I decided I was not just going to take photos, but do something to lobby for the conservation of our marine life,” she said.
Speaking to the Daily News after another shark dive off the coast of uMkomaas on Tuesday, the founder and director of AfriOceans Conservation Alliance said this was part of her efforts to raise awareness and dispel the misconceptions about sharks being aggressive, bloodthirsty and hungry for human flesh.
Fewer people were killed by sharks than bitten by dogs, she said. “Yet of the 100 different species of sharks found in South African waters, only three are fully protected; the white shark, whale shark and basking shark. The rest may be caught and 600 are killed every year.”
She added that as a shark diving attraction, South Africa would lose out on ecotourism revenue if the government failed to implement laws to protect more species. Not only will the decrease of sharks have an impact on the ecosystem in the oceans, but also a knock-on effect on the business surrounding shark diving sites, she said.
The diving was part of the awareness leg of AfriOceans, which also does scientific research and education. She took along professional surfers Frank Solomon and brothers Daniel and Josh Redman.
“We will be taking more high profile people on dives so they can lend their names and fame to the cause, to help raise awareness,” Rochat said. Her organisation is also working on other campaigns to raise funds in order to lobby government for more protection of these supreme predators.
The Shark Warrior, as Rochat is known, set off in choppy waters to Aliwal Shoal, a long stretch of protected marine reef off the south coast.
With her was Cape Town-based big-wave surfer Solomon, 29. He said raising awareness for the protection of these animals was a way for him to give back to the sea in which he spends most of his time.
Rochat said they were soon surrounded by up to 40 blacktip sharks, some over 2m in length, swimming within arms reach.
Although novice shark divers, the hardened sea “warriors” got confident enough to take off their scuba gear and free-dive. Solomon described the experience as being in a totally different world.
“I was so amazed by how they just swam all around us, over our heads completely uninterested in us. It was totally peaceful and there was absolutely no noise, but for what sounded like whale calls.”
Solomon is off to compete around the world for the next three months and said this was the best send-off.
Daniel Redman has been surfing since he was six years old. Shark diving is something he has been wanting to do since his, “nutcase friends jumped into the ocean with Tiger sharks,” some time ago. “Surfing is about trying to stay above water. During the dive, I discovered there is a whole different world down there. The stuff daydreams are made of.”
He said during the dive, some of the sharks seemed to be staring dead at him and swimming straight at him only to duck away gracefully.
His younger brother, Josh, said he didn’t know what to expect, but was blown away at coming face to face with one of the world’s greatest predators.
“I didn’t think twice about doing this, but when I saw the number of sharks, that we were about to swim with them hit me.”
The Durban surfer said because of the bad reputation sharks have, he always had an eerie feeling in the back of his mind that a shark might come from underneath and bite him as he surfed. After the dive, he has total respect rather than fear for them.
“They were completely unfazed by our presence, which opened my eyes up to the fact that we are not really on the menu for them.”
Josh travels the world chasing winter waves, which he said are bigger with better swells. He hadn’t seen a summer for a while. “My life revolves around nature. Conservation is so important to me that any small thing I can do to raise awareness, I do,” he said.
Rochat is hoping to take more influential people on shark dives and have them spread the shark conservation message. She wants it to reach every corner and will be travelling to the Bahamas in November. More diving is certainly on the cards on the island.
“Each time I go down it’s always a special experience.
“They move so beautifully through water and allow us into their space, not showing any aggression.”
Her work has earned her much acclaim. She has been selected as one of the finalist for the Johnnie Walker Sunday Times “Nation’s Greatest Awards” in “The Nation’s Greatest Challenger” category.
Her previous accolades include being a finalist in South Africa’s most influential women in business and government awards, selected as one of 50 women chosen to feature in The Mail and Guardian Book of Women 2013, and was one of 26 women featured in Oprah magazine’s annual “Women of Authentic Power”.