Shark Warrior Lesley Rochat dives naked with sharks AGAIN to make a point
(Diverwire) South African award winning ocean conservationist, Lesley Rochat isn’t shy about taking her clothes off for a cause. In fact, she’s pretty passionate about it. She recently stripped naked as part of her campaign against shark culling in her ‘Get Hooked on Conservation, Ban Drumlines’ awareness campaign.
“In light of the international outcry by conservationist and scientists against the culling of sharks in Western Australia using drumlines, we decided to turn the spotlight back home. Shark culling is not new in South Africa, the KwaZulu Natal Sharks Board have been using shark nets and drumlines for decades – up to 600 sharks plus hundreds of other marine life, including dolphins and whales are caught by these barbaric killing devices every year,” she says.
“People from all over the world come to see our sharks and the loss of large sharks such as the tiger shark is having sever negative impacts on the shark eco-tourism business in KwaZulu Natal. This senseless slaughter of our marine life is perpetuated by public fear, a public who know no better. Through the campaign we’re raising public awareness and lobbying against the use of drumlines and shark nets in South Africa, and in Australia.”
Sharks are perceived by most as monsters of the sea with insatiable appetites for humans, thanks largely to the cult movie, ‘Jaws’. But statistics say otherwise: on average less than 10 people are killed annually by sharks worldwide versus up to 100 million sharks that are slaughtered annually.
Irresponsible media that demonizes sharks together with unsustainable fishing practices, in particular the barbaric practice of shark finning, is resulting in the collapse of shark populations worldwide. At the current rate of slaughter many shark species will become extinct within our lifetime.
“Who is the real monster now?” asks Lesley.
Lesley believes that if we have any hope of saving sharks we need to reach the masses who have the power to help. But the general public is caught up in their lives and numb to bad news stories about the environment. They escape life’s pressures via mainstream and social media, and are dominated by its pop culture. They also fear and loathe sharks.
“By using the very mediums and channels that dominate society, and via powerful imagery that promotes a connection between humans and animals, especially through my own relationship with them, I encourage people to see beyond their fear of sharks to seeing the beauty and fragility of sharks, and thus inspire them to help conserve them,” explains Lesley.
Earlier this year, and following the death of seven people within a period of three years, the WA government led by Premier Colin Barnett, coined Cullin Barnett by conservationists, introduced shark-kill zones off parts of the WA coast. Baited drum lines targeting tiger, bull or great white sharks bigger than three metres, have been deployed off Perth metropolitan beaches since January, followed by a similar rollout in parts of the South West. Sharks longer than three metres caught are shot dead, while smaller sharks are released, though many released sharks are severely wounded and also die.
“This recent culling strategy hales from more than half-a-century ago when environmental awareness was lacking. It’s not based on scientific evidence nor in the promotion of education and awareness, prerequisites of the 21st Century if we have any hope of saving our planet. Political agendas, power, greed and ignorance drive this decision,” says Lesley
The WA trial shark cull program comes to an end on the 30 April 2014 but concern is that the WA government has made a submission to the Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt to continue the program with the aim of continuing the shark-kill zones using 72 baited drumlines between November and April each year, till 2017.
“Our government’s priorities are horribly flawed, they provide exorbitant amounts of money for the killing of marine life, supposedly in order to save a few human lives, but do not provide grants to AfriOceans, the most established marine focused organization in the country I founded in 2003, for the work we do in saving the environment upon which all of its citizens lives depend upon,” says Lesley.
To help bring awareness to the issue, Lesley and her team joined up with Walter Bernardis, owner of African Watersports to develop a follow up on their previous anti-shark net campaign, ‘Catches Anything, Kills Everything.’ But why go naked in the first place?
“For our previous campaign I had already stripped naked and tied myself up in a shark net so being naked for the cause was not new to me.” says Lesley, a former underwear and swimwear model who was once offered the cover of Playboy twice.
“I declined the Playboy cover offers because nudity in those cases was meaningless to me, save for men’s pleasure, but taking my clothes off for a cause is very different, it’s about fighting to save lives, the lives of sharks and other innocent marine life. I’ve joined women throughout history that have gone naked to make compelling statements for various causes.”
But exposing herself naked to the world and using nudity in the form of what she calls conservation art, she opens herself up to criticism.
“There are some who criticize me for swimming in a bikini with sharks, let alone being naked with them. These few people pale in comparison to the many worldwide that support me. Besides, conservation is not a popularity contest, it’s a fight against time, greed and ignorance to help save our dying oceans,” says Lesley.
“The ocean is the domain of the sharks and we are merely guests in their world. We have no right just because a few of us get killed by sharks annually to go out and start suffocating and shooting sharks to death. It’s like visiting another country where a few fellow South African tourists have been killed and then seeking revenge by shooting innocent people. It’s called murder,” says Lesley.
Before heading out for the open ocean to film the campaign the team had tested everything in a pool the day before, but the shoot still turned out to be very challenging, especially for Lesley.
“Hanging oneself on a great big hook, with no mask or fins, and no air is not easy. Though we ironed out a few things during the pool session, the open ocean environment presented a lot more challenges such as swell, current, as well as particles in the water, which we could not anticipate,” explains Lesley.
“The 30 or so sharks that surrounded me were of no concern, in fact we needed them to be close to me and in the shots so I welcomed them. Looking relaxed and covering up private parts was my focus until my safety diver, Lauren Chiccaro gave a scream through her demand valve when she feared a shark was coming in too close to my feet as I ascended for air. The hard kick I gave and the flashes of my white body aroused one shark’s curiosity. But Lauren’s scream gave me more of fright than the shark who just swam off!”
After more than an hour in the water thereafter it was a full memory card on the camera that drove the team out of the water, not the sharks.
“I’ve been diving with sharks for over 15 years now and I’ve done some pretty extreme campaign shoots and been on some hectic shark diving photographic expeditions, such as the sardine run where you’re in the middle of a feeding frenzy, and I’ve never had a bad experience with sharks. This campaign’s ‘Behind the Scenes’ production reveals the very thing we promote: sharks are not monster man-eaters, if they were I would not be here anymore – not whole anyway.”
“Our sharks play a vital role in maintaining the delicate balance of the marine ecosystems, and our oceans denuded of them will have severe repercussions on all of humanity. In simple terms, when our sharks die our oceans die, and when our oceans die, we die. We therefore need our sharks alive, every single one of them,” concludes Lesley.