I’M BACK IN THE PLACE I love most with the animals I love most, the ocean and sharks. I’m suspended at about 4m in the big blue, three miles off the coast of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, at the Aliwal Shoal with more than 40 sharks around me.
It’s perfect diving conditions today, calm sea and good vis of about 20m. But because I have no mask on I can’t see properly, so the sharks are blurry dark shapes moving closely around me. My two dive-buddies are static blurs in the distance.
Now, not only do I have no mask on, but I have no fins on either, and on top of this, I have no air supply. I’m on breath-hold. And I’m not suspended because of perfect buoyancy, but rather because I’m balancing on an unusually large hook with a chain attached to it and a big orange buoy keeping it afloat.
On top of all of this, I’m totally naked! That’s right, in summary: I’m naked in the middle of the ocean, holding my breath while hanging on a large hook in a sea full of sharks.
And while all of this is going on, I’m modelling, trying very, very hard to look relaxed so that I can look dead.
Totally insane, you might say, and yes, you might be right, but then again I have jumped out of aircraft (and only ever landed in trees), whitewater-canoed down rivers (mostly upside-down), rock-climbed sheer vertical walls (with my knees trembling), and run off mountains with my paraglider (total ecstasy, that one!).
But this has nothing to do with my addiction to adventure or adrenaline, and everything to do with the fact that extreme times call for extreme measures.
After all, I am a conservationist driven by my passion to make a contribution toward the conservation of our precious oceans. Reaching the masses with important messages, and rallying support that will help drive positive change, is my business, or at least a part of it.

IT’S MORE THAN A YEAR since I did that insane dive. I've done some pretty extreme things for shark conservation, but that campaign called “Get Hooked On Conservation, Ban Drumlines”, which I did in partnership with Walter Bernardis of African Watersports, is my most extreme.
Not that I hadn’t already stripped naked for sharks in our previous campaign, the anti-shark net “Catches Anything, Kills Everything”campaign, but that shoot was way more challenging.
I was very motivated: in light of the international outcry by conservationists and scientists against the culling of sharks in Western Australia using drumlines during 2014, we decided to turn the spotlight back home.
Shark-culling is not new in South Africa. The KwaZulu Natal Sharks Board has been using shark-nets and drumlines for decades – up to 600 sharks plus hundreds of other marine life, including turtles, dolphins and whales, are caught by these barbaric killing devices every year.
People from all over the world come to see our sharks, and the loss of large sharks such as the tiger shark is having severe negative impacts on the shark eco-tourism business in KwaZulu Natal.
This senseless slaughter of our marine life is perpetuated by the fears of a public that knows no better.
Through the campaign we aimed to raise public awareness and lobby against the use of drumlines and shark-nets in South Africa, as well as in Australia.
Culling of sharks in South Africa goes way back to when, between 1943 and 1951, there were seven fatal shark bites.
Tourism revenue was threatened and the KwaZulu Natal Sharks Board was “charged with the duty of approving, controlling and initiating measures for safeguarding bathers against shark attacks”. Their answer to safe bathing came from Australia, where shark-culling had been in place since 1937.
Similarly, and early in 2014 following the death of seven people within a period of three years, the Western Australian government led by Premier Colin Barnett (known as Cullin Barnett by conservationists) introduced shark-kill zones off parts of the Western Australian coast.
Baited drumlines targeting tiger, bull or great white sharks longer than 3m were deployed off Perth metropolitan beaches from January 2014, followed by a similar roll-out in parts of south-west Australia. Sharks caught that were longer than 3m were shot dead, while smaller sharks were released, though many released sharks were severely wounded and also died.
The principle behind the culling was to reduce the threat of shark bites by reducing the number of what they termed “potentially life-threatening sharks” by attracting them to baited hooks, rather than to human activity. The policy was part of a shark cull trial with the intention of continuing the practice annually during peak summer periods.
Culling strategies of this kind originate from more than a half-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. In most cases political agendas, power, greed and ignorance drive such decisions.
I was very disturbed by what was happening in Australia, but admired the Australians for gathering in mass for public protests against the culling.
Back home my fellow South Africans were very apathetic and accepting of the fact that our sharks were being culled daily, and had been for decades.
A handful of shark conservationists in the area with little power, many of them caught up in “shark politics”, prevented any real movement toward change regarding the shark nets and drumlines.
There was so much attention about what was happening in Australia, and I felt I had to do something to support them but also to make my people wake up and take note that the same thing was happening in their own front yard.

OVERLOOKING FALSE BAY, home of the white shark in Cape Town, I called Walter in Durban and posed the concept: “Let’s take the anti-shark-net awareness campaign we did last year a step further – I go naked on a large hook in protest against the culling of our sharks in Australia and back home!”
Walter, passionate about saving the sharks he knows by name in the area, loved the idea, but finding a drumline hook proved impossible.
No problem. As with our shark net, which we made ourselves, Walter got busy with making a hook, and rallying support for the shoot, while I amped up my training. Being physically fit and working on my breath-hold is important for a dive like this, as is being mentally fit, which my training addresses.
Timing was everything. We needed the campaign to launch while the heat was on – another public protest involving thousands of people was being planned in Australia and international support from South Africa would go a long way.

WHEN I GOT TO DURBAN a week later, Walter had done a great job on the hook, and underwater photographer Raffaella Schlegel and Lauren Chiccaro, my safety diver and air supply, were on standby.
The day before the shoot we did a test-dive in a swimming pool, sorting out my weights and other technical issues. We needed to be sure that when we got to the challenging open-sea conditions things would run smoothly.
An early-morning start with promising ocean conditions saw us launch from the Umkomaas river and through the surf, a tricky launch that has a long history of boats overturning.
At the site I slipped into the ocean, naked. It was a strange experience: being naked in general in any situation out of the norm makes one feel very vulnerable. This situation was totally abnormal!
I dangled from the hook as gracefully as possible, strategically covering my nipples and fuzz, closing my eyes and just hoping the sharks were well-positioned in the shots.
After an hour in the water, and despite one near investigation from a curious shark when I broke the plan of asking for air and instead bolted to the surface for a breath, it was the cold that drove me out, not the sharks.
The end result was a powerful poster campaign, a fast-paced 30-second ad and a five-minute behind-the-scenes video, which I produced. All went viral, successfully raising awareness by reaching millions of people all over the world.
In addition, it secured a live interview across continents on a popular Australian TV chat show, allowing me to support efforts against the culling.
The power of the people must never be underestimated. Together with the public outcry both locally and internationally, in September 2014 the Western Australian Environmental Protection Authority recommended against the setting of drumlines during the proposed summer months.
Premier Colin Barnett later announced that the state government would no longer pursue its drumline policy. A victory in some ways, but unfortunately the Western Australian government has retained the option to deploy drumlines under certain circumstances under its “imminent threat” policy, which it has exercised since.

MEANWHILE, THOSE WHO CARE work hard to find alternative non-lethal shark mitigation measures such as the Eco Shark Barrier, which provides ocean-users with a safe swimming enclosure.
In addition, a shark-spotters programme, which we use successfully in Cape Town, is also being considered, as well as elevated lifeguard beach towers, and buoys to detect tagged sharks, which will activate a beach alarm to warn ocean users of any tagged sharks close by. So their battle to save their sharks continues.
Back home my own battle began almost 15 years ago when I satellite-tagged and set a shark named Maxine free from an aquarium after she had spent nine years in captivity as part of a shark conservation programme I designed.
Today I’m still on the same battlefield and my best weapon remains the media.
I believe that if we have any hope of saving our natural environment, sharks included, we need to reach the masses that have the power to help us win the battle. The challenge, however, is that people mostly fear and loathe sharks.
We live in a media-dominated society, however, and by using the very channels and methods that have successfully branded sharks as Nature’s outcasts, we can win support to save our sharks.
By promoting a connection between humans and sharks, especially through my own relationship with them, I am also able to educate the general public that sharks are not monster man-eaters.

MY EFFORTS, IF SOMEWHAT BIZARRE at times, aim to encourage people to see beyond their fear of sharks to seeing their beauty and fragility, to understanding the need to have sharks in our oceans, and thus inspiring them to respect and help protect our sharks.
Compelling imagery, still or moving, environmental writing as well as public speaking are my tools in reaching people. We’ll need to hand these tools on to the next generation of conservationists, which I do through my internship programmes in conservation photography, writing and film-making.
And when I’m not swimming naked with sharks, I’m teaching gap-year or university students, or leading photographic expeditions and tours in Africa, making documentaries, running AfriOceans, the non-profit organization I founded, or public speaking.
When our sharks die our oceans die, and when our oceans die, we die. So we need our sharks alive, every one of them.
And yes, I am an attention seeker, not for me but for what I believe is worth fighting for, and I’m prepared to do whatever it takes for my cause.

Lesley Rochat is leading a South African Shark Safari in May 2016, www.sharkwarrior.com