Movies like Jaws, Deep Blue Sea, and Shark Attack Spring Break (for the five of you who saw it) like to portray sharks as mindless eating machines that, in the words of Richard Dreyfuss’ character from “Jaws,” are “a miracle of evolution” that do nothing but “swim and eat and make little sharks, and that’s all.”
Any movie buff knows that line but Lesley Rochat of Cape Town, South Africa knows it couldn’t be farther from the truth. That’s because she’s been on countless dives with an even more countless numbers of these miracles of the deep. And she’s done most of them in nothing but a bikini.
Man Cave Daily spoke to Rochat on Skype from her South Africa home about her first encounter with Maxine and other sharks, the misperceptions humans have about these animals and the funny nickname she had before she became known as “The Shark Warrior.”
Her love and passion for preserving and changing the way people think about sharks started at the turn of the millennium when she met Maxine, a massive beauty that once resided at the Town Oceans Aquarium in South Africa. The ragged tooth shark caught Lesley’s eye after she noticed the large scar over the fish’s gills. She put together a documentary film on Maxine called “Maxine’s Journey” and an awareness campaign that made her and the shark global celebrities. Maxine was set free a few years later, which led Lesley to form the AfriOceans Conversation Alliance.
She continued her conservation efforts by diving with these mighty predators in nothing but a pair of flippers, some goggles and a bikini. These photos have been circulating around the net with great fanfare for obvious reasons (Lesley used to work as an underwear and swimwear model before dedicating her life to shark and ocean conservation) and have raised a greater understanding of the need for these awesome creatures, despite what Hollywood would have you believe.
“I’m actually going back to do some more in the Bahamas this year,” Rochat said. “I knew they would have an impact but I didn’t know they were going to have that much impact.”
Man Cave Daily: Were you an animal photographer when you started?
Lesley Rochat: I was a freelance travel and environment journalist and underwater photographer, and that’s when I met Maxine, the shark that changed my life. I met Maxine in maybe 2000.
MCD: What about Maxine prompted you to do this work? What about her story changed something in you or made you want to study and swim with them and do all these things with them?
LR: The answer has a few facets to it. One is my own spiritual path in life which I was following believed that we were all on this planet to give something back. I was caught up in the corporate world at the time and I was making loads of money but I was very unhappy and I thought there must have been a better reason for being here than just to do what I was, to chase the buck. It was a slow journey of two years of really soul searching and meditation and looking for my true purpose in life. Then I met the shark.
By that time, I had already been a freelance travel journalist and started to go back to destinations and seen destruction in the areas I had returned to and that’s where the environment journalism started. I wanted to do more than tell more the pretty stories. I wanted to share more and tell more about what I was learning about the environment. So it was that and meeting the shark and letting myself be guided and then it kind of got a life it’s own.
The next thing I knew, I was always the person who was into extreme sports. My partner at the time was a famous South African solo climber and alpinist, so I was a rock climber. I was also into white water canoeing and paragliding. I had an adventurous spirit in me anyway. So diving with sharks wasn’t a big deal, especially after you’ve jumped from a mountain.
MCD: (laughs) Yeah, but a mountain can’t eat you.
LR: (laughs) Actually, falling and killing yourself jumping off a mountain can be dangerous.
MCD: Oh sure, don’t get me wrong. Any extreme sport is dangerous but sharks, and maybe because popular culture has embedded this way in our minds, but sharks just seem scarier or more dangerous because they are such impressive predators.
LR: To be honest, when I first started diving, I did have an inherent fear of sharks and so much so before I changed careers or ever saw a shark underwater that I was nicknamed by my diver, “Shark Bait,” because I was so petrified and so tiny. I weigh about 47 kgs. I don’t know how many pounds [103.6! --Your friendly neighborhood editor] but that is tiny, (laughs) so I felt I was vulnerable and a food source being so tiny and I was always the first out of the water when went on dives because I didn’t want to be the last at the surface in case I was attacked by a shark.
MCD: So was Maxine the first shark that you swam with or was it after that?
LR: I became a scuba diver traveling around the world and seeing these different destinations that I wrote about and going back to the places, I would see sharks on my dives. So I got to deal with sharks just by diving with them in different locations. My interest in doing more was returning and seeing the degradation of those different areas and writing environment about them and not just doing scuba dive travel articles.
Then I went to photograph the sharks in the Two Oceans Aquarium here in Cape Town and that’s when I saw Maxine. I was taking photos for an article I was writing on the plight of sharks. I saw her and a scar around her gills. I investigated how she got the scar and found this was an incredible animal with an incredible story and that’s when the idea sparked to make a documentary about her. Then that developed further where I thought I’m going to make an effort for her to be put back in the ocean and set free and have my own real Free Willy but a real true Free Willy story about a special shark. Then I decided I would do even more than that and create a whole awareness campaign around the sharks.
At the time, it was then about 2000, people were not interested in saving or protecting sharks. They were seen as monster man-eaters and when I approached people to support me and helping me to raise money to do a project on sharks with Maxine as the icon, I came across a lot of negative thoughts like “Why do you want to save sharks? Sharks don’t need help? Why don’t you save something more cuddly and friendly like a dolphin?” I realized they were very maligned animals and needed help.
We did a whole international thing on this animal and it was about 12 months…and reached over 100 million people worldwide about Maxine. Now sharks are obviously in more in need of help and very much in vogue as animal to protect and to look after. I think a lot of people care.
MCD: When you say they are maligned animals, are they actually more gentle than people imagine?
LR: There’s no way you could go into a den of lions and mingle with them without getting devoured, but we can go in the water with sharks and spend an hour or two hours with 60 sharks around you and you come out of there with no harm at all and they’ve been within centimeters of you. There are huge misperceptions about sharks, that they’ll take one look at you and take your limb off. Yes, they do have the potential to do that with certain species, but there are over 500 species of sharks and there’s, I think, less than 20 that are considered dangerous to humans. So it’s not a high statistic.
MCD: So how did that start?
LR: I just wanted to do it. I’ve scuba dived with sharks and I’ve free dived countless times but it was in the aquarium tank here in Cape Town…and we wanted tigers (sharks) and we’re not always successful in attracting tigers here in South Africa. Also, in the Bahamas, it’s such beautiful water and here, you’ve got to get out being in your bikini because it’s much cooler. (laughs) I also did an awareness campaign called “Rethink the Predator,” which is a slideshow of myself on YouTube.
The primary reason was to show, I’m a tiny woman. I’m petite and I’m in a bikini, so you look vulnerable and I wanted to show people that it’s not what people make them out to be. I must say though in all honesty, I did feel vulnerable because there were a lot of sharks and they are big. They’re not small sharks (laughs) and they’re bigger than me. When you’re free diving with them, they do behave slightly differently because there is no interference with the bubbles. I actually had a lemon shark come very close to me and actually, their skin is very rough like sandpaper and she scraped my stomach with her snout. It was my own fault though because I swam down and I went too close to her and she was curious as well, to sniff me (laughs).
So it is like jumping out of an airplane or rock climbing on a complete vertical cliff. Now I’m used to it. Diving with a bunch of sharks but it’s not something too many people would want to do. Being there with them and in their presence is an incredible presence and it confirms that to me each time.
Donations to the AfriOceans Conversation Alliance can be made here.
Danny previously helped save the world by cataloging The World’s Worst Workout Songs. –>