Meet Shark Warrior Lesley Rochat – She’s preparing for battle to save sharks
(DiverWire) She’s petite – just 5’4” and a little over 100 pounds. That’s a far cry from the typical description of a “warrior” preparing for battle. But Lesley Rochat isn’t your normal soldier in an international battle either. This super-charged South African has enlisted in a global battle to protect sharks and thinks in very aggressive terms.
“We are in an environmental war. It’s a fight that we have to win,” Rochat explains. “Sharks play a vital role in our marine ecosystems and we’re in a battle to save them.” To that end, she has spent the last 11 years fighting to protect the sharks in her country and abroad. Her efforts and dedication led one media publication to dub her “the Shark Warrior”. The label has taken and Rochat spends her days creating new messages, lobbying, taking images and making productions to inspire action.
The Founder and Executive Director of AfriOceans Conservation Alliance, the Director of Media Productions for the Shark Research Institute, and multiple other projects, she has used her diverse background, which includes modeling and TV/film productions, to create numerous campaigns and educational programs designed to create awareness of what’s happening to shark populations worldwide.
Her first real encounter with a shark was a life-changer. The former travel journalist is now an environmental journalist, thanks in part with an aquatic encounter with “Maxine” a ragged-tooth shark living in captivity in the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town. The large shark had been caught in a fishing net and scarred. Rochat swam with the shark and made a “connection” that has helped give her direction and purpose.
“It was the most significant shark encounter I’ve had,” she explains. “These animals need our help and I’m going to do everything I can to make that happen.” Rochat helped to secure “Maxine’s” eventual freedom and return to the open ocean. That story is chronicled in an excellent mini-documentary shown below:
Many of Rochat’s encounters with sharks have been filmed and incredible still images of her in a swimsuit have helped generate additional attention to her cause. While the shots certainly demand attention, they’ve also caused some controversy. It seems that there are many people out there looking for something to complain about. An attractive lady free diving with a shark in a bikini makes an interesting target.
“When I take images of sharks I attempt to lure the viewer with a sense of awe and wonder into their world,” she says. “And when I have images taken of me with the sharks I do so in order to help me promote the message that sharks are not monsters maneaters with insatiable appetite for humans. I need to walk my talk and the photos help illustrate my message.”
Rochat does admit, “I do have a lot male fans, and though I have many female supporters too, there are some who seem to have issues with me swimming in a bikini with sharks – maybe it’s just a girl thing. I’m reached a place, however, in my career that I realize you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”
One thing it’s not is insincere. Rochat is passionate about what she does and is equally passionate about what she describes as individuals or organizations that “talk” about protecting sharks but don’t really “do” much for the cause.
“Shark conservation has become fashionable,” she explains, “but it’s not as easy as just announcing that one is a shark conservationist. There’s a lot of unglamorous and very hard work that needs to be put in, often with little financial reward. When lobbying for the protection of sharks there’s also a careful process. Dealing with politicians is an art – you have to be specific to each region.”
Her bluntness has created some tension with other groups, but Rochat stands by her achievements. This includes more than a dozen award-winning productions in the last 10 years and millions of impressions through the internet and other media outlets.
“I take a stand, have an opinion and will fight for it,” she says in her “Warrior” tone. “It’s not a popularity contest – what good activist isn’t getting criticized. Once you’ve earned your stripes, it (the criticism) doesn’t matter anymore – the only thing that does matter is getting the work done.”
Never one to sit and relax, Rochat has just unveiled her latest campaign, RE-THINK THE PREDATOR which once again brings home the truth that sharks are not the enemy, but humans are.
While she works primarily in South Africa, her efforts have made international headlines and generated worldwide praise. Last year, Rochat was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame, a prestigious honor that put her in good company with other prominent women in the aquatic realm. “I was very humbled,” she said of the award. “There are many times that the work we do and the time we spent goes unnoticed. It felt good that the Women Divers Hall of Fame would seek me out for such an honor.”
Rochat continues her battle as the “Shark Warrior” daily. Living near the ocean provides her amble opportunities to get in the water and spend time studying a variety of sharks and other marine life. While her work is getting noticed, she admits there is one “battle” she isn’t going to come close to winning, that is getting through the piles of work: “There just isn’t enough time in the day to do everything, but I’m certainly giving it my best shot! ”
PHOTOS COURTESY OF MIKE ELLIS AND MICHAEL AW