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February 2019    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 45, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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A Huge Great White Shark Controversy

what’s the difference between advocacy and self-promotion?

from the February, 2019 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

An online hubbub has erupted about images posted of a huge great white shark that had been seen feeding on the carcass of a dead whale off the Hawaiian island of Oahu last month. Is it the same giant shark seen and photographed at Mexico's Guadalupe Island? And was Ocean Ramsey (the real name of a woman who is both a marine biologist and underwater model) right to swim with it, touch it, and use the photos as a tool for self-promotion?

The Controversial Photo (by Juan Oliphant)Those who first spotted the shark in Hawaii initially thought it to be "Deep Blue," a giant female shark so named by those who saw it through the bars of a shark cage diving experience at Mexico's Guadalupe Island in 2013. At 50 years or so of age and 20 feet in length, Deep Blue was one of the biggest sharks ever caught on camera. She became such a celebrity shark, she even has her own Twitter account. (Goodness knows what keeps the water out of her phone.) So, had Deep Blue moved over to Hawaii's cooler waters?

On January 13, a behemoth was spotted feeding on a decaying sperm whale carcass about 20 miles off Oahu's north shore. Some thought the animal was pregnant, while others wondered if it was simply an animal full of dead whale. Was it Deep Blue? Comparing photographs taken of her at Guadalupe and the shark in Hawaii, some experts believe them to be two entirely different female sharks, and the Hawaiian one is now named "Haole Girl." But that's just the start of the conversation.

Ocean Ramsey, whose company, One Ocean Diving, runs shark tours out of Oahu, had taken a group out to watch the sharks feeding off the decomposing whale, and told the press that the female great white approached the boat. Ramsey was filmed swimming alongside the shark and apparently hitching a ride by holding onto a pectoral fin. Her Facebook page is full of photos of her swimming and touching various sharks, but not everyone was thrilled with the pictures posted online of her with this giant great white.

For some marine biologists dedicated to studying the apex predators, Ramsey's fearlessness has inspired more consternation than wonder, raising concerns that her risky behavior could have potentially negative impacts on humans and sharks.

David Shiffman, a shark biologist and conservationist based at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C., accused Ramsey of trying to grab and ride a free-swimming animal. "This photo that you're all sharing is wildlife harassment from a serial wildlife harasser," he told the Washington Post." It doesn't show that sharks aren't dangerous, it shows that some humans make bad choices."

Ramsey thought differently and posted on Facebook alongside her picture, "I hope my conservation images like this help people to question their perceptions and realize the beauty and importance of sharks, and I hope that they inspire the kind of compassion and connection we need to have with nature and sharks, to help protect them and coexist alongside them. You don't have to love them, but they do need to exist, they are absolutely critical for the health of marine ecosystems, which all life relies on." She got more than 63,000 'likes' on Facebook and more than a million on Instagram.

Michael Domeier, founding director of the Marine Conservation Science Institute, saw the photos and videos of Ramsey touching the shark and told the Washington Post he was unsettled by her "alarming" behavior. "Promoting through social media that it's safe and OK to swim with these animals is irresponsible. More than 99 percent of sharks are not dangerous, but that happens to be one that is very dangerous. If you want to talk about sharks being not dangerous, get your picture taken with a different species, not that one."

Data gathered by the Florida Museum of Natural History's International Shark Attack Files confirms Domeier's assertion -- great whites are one of three shark species responsible for a majority of fatal unprovoked attacks against humans. There have been at least 80 instances worldwide in which one killed a human with no provocation.

The outcry among divers was mixed, equally for and against the actions of touching the shark. Patric Douglas, founder of the cage diving tour company Shark Diver, wrote on Facebook, "I have been involved for most of my career with serious shark conservation, tourism and tagging. The one thing I have never done is mix the two or confuse the message. The rule of thumb with big shark encounters should always be, if there's no net benefit to the shark, don't do it.

"As was pointed out, the shark is likely pregnant and carrying over 500 pounds of soon-to-be born-shark pups and facing a 1,900-mile trek back to Guadalupe Island to mate again this fall. The last thing she needs is divers crowding and posing with her while she is opportunistically feeding. There was no net benefit to this shark. The net benefit to all involved comes in the form of Go Pro deals, TV appearances, 'pro' deals with gear companies, all under the dubious claim that the participants here are 'dispelling shark myths.' Let's call this what it is -- a stunt with sharks."

However, there were opposing views. Eric Cheng, a California-based underwater photographer and founder of, wrote, "It's one of my dreams to be in the water with sharks that are feeding on a dead whale!"

Andy Brandy Casagrande IV, an Emmy awardwinning cinematographer, was full of admiration for Ramsey when he posted online, "Instead of fighting and attacking those passionate, hardworking shark activists like Ocean Ramsey who are genuinely fighting to save sharks, changing perspectives and creating massive global awareness for the greater good of sharks, maybe consider taking a look at that bigger picture and make better use of your time by fighting against the real dangers that sharks face -- shark finning, overfishing, plastic pollutants, loss of habitat, and reduction in prey species."

Evidently it was Rosalind Nicklin and her husband, iconic underwater cameraman Chuck Nicklin, who got Ramsey started shark diving after a trip to Fiji. She obviously approved by posting, "Our girl Ocean Ramsey has done it again! Worldwide coverage from news media -- swimming with one of the largest female sharks supposedly pregnant at 50 years old!"

For Ramsey, the great white's Oahu visit couldn't have been better timed -- she is trying to drum up support for Hawaiian legislation against the intentional killing of sharks and seeking to have the measure introduced in the state House this month. While Hawaii was the first state to ban shark finning in 2010, "that doesn't mean you can't kill sharks," she told the Honolulu Advertiser.

Tim Ecott, author of the book Neutral Buoyancy, told Undercurrent, "I can't help thinking there's a lot of sanctimonious nonsense out there about this 'harassing' of wildlife. Which of us divers in that position wouldn't have been tempted?"

If Haole Girl had been offended by the human interaction, she would have made her feelings known. She certainly didn't look stressed. She neither went into flight nor fight mode, both of which options were patently available to her. Putting the well-being of the shark to one side, it seems that the shark population needs confident young people to push the envelope when it comes to conservation and saving their lives. Those divers who survive often get pilloried by their peers, whereas those who don't survive are soon forgotten.

-- John Bantin

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