Ocean Ramsey, Hawaiian-born shark expert and conservationist, is arriving in New Zealand on February 8 on a two-week mission to drum up support for sharks. She will work alongside local shark expert Riley Elliott in his research on blue sharks and the two are collaborating on a book due for release in the second half of 2014.
Ramsey gained notoriety last year when she posted a YouTube clip on Valentine's Day that showed her freediving alongside a large great white shark, holding its dorsal fin and allowing herself to be towed into the deep while gently stroking its flank. The video has quickly surpassed more than two million YouTube views.
Ramsey has been studying shark behaviour for two decades. While she doesn't advise others to mimic her behaviour, she wants to show the world a gentler, more beautiful side of this misunderstood creature of the sea.
When Ramsey was seven years old her father took his daughter out to his favourite dive spot on Oahu, and she has been freediving and interacting with sharks ever since. When she is not teaching students to appreciate the open waters through diving, Ramsey spends most of her time travelling around the world helping various shark research groups. She raises money for conservation efforts and dedicates her life to educating people about the issues facing our seas.
Her trip to New Zealand is a special one for her, not just for its stunning landscapes above and below sea level, but also for its culture. "I'm particularly interested in Maori culture and how it compares to Hawaiian culture in relation to how they honour sharks," she says.
"In traditional Hawaiian Huna philosophy sharks are regarded as 'Aumakua' or 'spiritual guardians' whose role is to protect not only the ocean from evil spirits, but also some humans and their families."
In Maori mythology, the Milky Way was formed when the demi-god Maui placed the shark Te Mangoroa in the sky. Several Maori legends relate to sharks. In one legend, Tamatekapua and his relatives set out for New Zealand from Hawaiki in a double-hulled canoe. They were confronted by a huge sea creature that almost swallowed the canoe and its crew. But then a shark came to their rescue, and in its honour the crew renamed the canoe and their tribe Te Arawa, after a species of shark.
New Zealander Riley Elliott is studying sharks in the last year of his PhD thesis at Auckland University, and at the same time spearheading one of the largest shark tagging exercises ever undertaken. His PhD thesis is focused on his ongoing research of blue sharks in relation to their trophic influence on the marine food chain in New Zealand waters, as well as studying their habitat and their migration patterns.
These two passionate ocean activists are working together to tell new shark tales that they hope will change the way many people see sharks and, in turn, affect public consciousness to the point that shark finning is banned worldwide.
On January 9, the New Zealand Government announced a plan to completely ban shark finning by 2016. This proposal will see a first tranche of species protected from finning in October 2014. All other species except blue sharks would be protected from October 2015. Blue sharks would be protected from October 2016.
In New Zealand, three species of sharks - the porbeagle shark, the blue shark and the shortfin mako shark - are all listed on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species.
New Zealand's Animal Welfare Act stipulates a shark must be dead or part of "accidental bycatch" before a fisherman takes the fin. Coincidentally, shark finning in our waters has increased dramatically in the past decade and New Zealand is one of the top 20 exporters of shark fins to Hong Kong, with an annual average of 24,000 tonnes.
During their mission in February, Ramsey and Elliott will meet with Parliament, as well as other concerned activists from the New Zealand Shark Alliance and the White Shark Conservation Trust.
An event for the general public will also take place. Attendees will have the opportunity to listen to the pair speak about their experience with sharks, ask questions about ocean safety, and become more involved with the movement.
Find out more at sharkwhisperers.com.