Story by Julia Steele
Late 2012. Far off the Baja Coast of Mexico, Ocean Ramsey is on a research ship in an area where great white sharks are known to gather. The svelte 27-year-old dive instructor from O‘ahu is here for the third time, drawn back once again by her guiding passion: to understand and protect sharks. Ramsey has swum in the wild around the world with more than thirty species— tiger sharks in Hawai‘i, bull sharks in Fiji, silver tips in Tahiti, angel sharks in California— but on this trip she will have an experience she’s never had before: free-diving with great whites.
Ramsey is with a group of colleagues who are here to photograph and gather data on great whites. The ship they’re on has two observation cages at its stern: divers sit in the cages, either on the ocean surface or in the water column below it, breathing from scuba tanks. They sit sometimes for hours waiting for the sharks to appear, then watching them once they’ve arrived. They take pictures of specific markings, gathering information for an identification book that is tracking as many individual great whites as possible.
When the divers can see that the sharks are relaxed and not displaying any signs of concern—for example, popping gills or dropping pectoral fins — they occasionally leave the cages and swim out to the animals. They take pictures and videos of themselves swimming alongside the creatures. These pictures, they know, have the power to subvert perception: Show someone a picture of a great white swimming solo, and that person will in all likelihood see a threatening predator. Now show a picture of a great white and a diver swimming peacefully together, and that person is bound to rethink things.
On this day Ramsey is in a cage at the surface. Three to four great whites swim around her, and she reads their behavior, focusing on finding the shark that is most relaxed. She settles on a large female, takes a deep breath, opens the cage and glides down into the deep blue. She wears a wetsuit, fins and a mask, nothing else.
“I am easing close, and I notice the shark kind of slows down,” she remembers of what happened next. “I reach my hand to the top of her head, and she accepts my touch, so I slide my hand back to the base of the dorsal fin.” Without the bubbles and noise that come from a scuba tank, Ramsey is able to get even closer to the shark. She has chosen not to wear gloves so that her skin will touch the animal’s. When she looks into its eye, the shark acknowledges her. “It was such a beautiful, rare thing,” she recalls later. “In an encounter like that, your heart stops rather than races.” The shark swims through crystal-clear water, calmly pulling Ramsey along until she lets go of the shark’s dorsal fin and swims to the surface. That day the intrepid free-diver rides on the backs of other great whites, too, and over the course of the trip free-dives with seven of the sharks.
Hundreds of thousands of people have now watched her do it. Driven by their zeal to let the world know that sharks are not the monsters they’ve been made out to be, Ramsey and her colleagues at Waterinspired.com posted a three-minute compilation video of those dives to YouTube, where it quickly went viral. It shows a graceful woman with a long blond braid undulating through the sea alongside large and powerful sharks, each moving with an extraordinary efficiency born of four hundred million years of evolution. As a piece of filmmaking, think of it as the anti-Jaws.