Last week, solo adventurer Ray Chaplin arrived at the Two Oceans Aquarium, donned his wetsuit … and then donned his business suit, for a dive in the I&J Predator Exhibit.
Ray is an ambassador for the South African Shark Conservancy (SASC), and was here to film a shoot for their latest awareness campaign.
“I was introduced to Meaghen McCord Gray [founder and director of SASC] in 2012, during the early stages of planning a source-to-sea descent of the Breede River, the estuary of which plays host to Zambezi bull sharks.”
The South African Shark Conservancy heads up the research and monitoring of the Zambezi sharks on the Breede, and is undertaking an active tagging programme to gain more information.
Meaghen asked approached Ray about working with SASC as an ambassador, and to help raise awareness of their work through his adventures and expeditions. This year alone, Ray’s adventures include the first source-to-sea descent of the Senqu-Orange River by riverboard, the first source-to-sea descent of the Breede River by riverboard, a four-day walk long the coast, from Kalk Bay to the Two Oceans Whale Festival in Hermanus, and the Riverboarding World Champs, to be held in Indonesia.
“Over and above generating awareness and support for SASC’s work, I focus on the impact of mankind on the environment, carrying through my source-to-sea endeavours the message that what we do inland ultimately impacts the marine environment,” Ray says.
“The ‘impact’ is directly portrayed by me progressing downriver in unbroken expeditions … carrying a message from one community to the next, in the very river alongside which they live.”
Swimming with Sharks
SASC’s ‘Swimming With Sharks’ campaign is aimed at educating the public about lesser-known species of shark, and the direct impact we have on our marine ecosystem, “sometimes without realising it”, Ray adds.
Ray has spent the last year swimming with and documenting 12 different species, and the final images and educational info will go towards a calendar, which schools can use in their classrooms.
Documenting the event
To document the dive, Ray was joined by photographer Natasha Faccio, after several other photographers Ray usually works with on land indicated that diving with sharks was not an option for them!
“If it means that Ray and I have to go to the strangest corners of Africa and get into the water with either the greatest nightmare or the cutest or strangest, then that’s what I’m willing to do to save the life of a shark and a human!” Natasha quipped.
Ray says he was quite nervous before the dive: “It’s one thing watching the sharks on screen or through the windows, but knowing that you’ll soon be eye-to-eye with them is a whole different story. Risk management is an integral part of my expeditions, so I tried to focus on the lighter side of things trying to calm the nerves and contain the excitement while going over the briefing from Iain (who would be leading our dive) to constantly reminding myself that people regularly dive in the Predator Exhibit.
“Added to the stress and potential dangers was the fact that I was wearing a shirt, jacket & tie over my SCUBA gear for the photoshoot, so my movement would be slightly more restricted than usual.”
Ray says the suit and tie garb highlights how some businesses and corporates are completely unaware of their impact on the environment, and the consequences of their actions on marine life. In some photos, Ray is looking everywhere but at the sharks – ignoring the looming issue at hand, so to speak.
“But having a shark pass less than a metre from your feet as you sit on the entry platform to put your fins on changes everything – this is real, it’s now or never! That certainly got the heart racing and the fear was suddenly all there.”
Finally, it was time to take the plunge: “The moment I descended to the bottom and had the first shark cruise by as though I didn’t even exist, my heart rate and breathing slowed to normal. I hadn’t descended among flesh-eating killers … I’d descended into a world of complete peace and serenity. My world became one of pure admiration, and respect, for the incredible creatures I had the privilege of diving with.”
“It took me the better part of the afternoon to come to terms with what had actually just happened and what we’d done. Looking through photographs and reliving the experience through video constantly reminds me of the most calming experience I’ve had in years. A truly incredible dive, and one that I certainly look forward to doing again soon!”
Natasha added: “The experience at the Two Oceans Aquarium has only fuelled my love of the ocean and my determination to see this project though!”
“Open your own minds, step into a world you may never see again, learn something and grow attached to the beauty and majesty of the oceans. And do it safely with the incredible staff and resources at the Two Oceans Aquarium.”