This story has been updated.
Dressed in a striped full-body wet suit, the woman’s face is largely obscured by a black snorkel mask. Her long black fins propel her through the azure waters of the Pacific Ocean, roughly 15 miles south of Oahu, Hawaii. But out in the middle of the open ocean, Ocean Ramsey is not alone.
Swimming next to her, less than a few feet away, is an enormous great white shark.
“Beyond magic!” the shark conservation advocate and marine biologist wrote earlier this week in the caption of an Instagram video documenting her chillingly close encounter with the shark that had amassed more than 300,000 views as of early Friday morning. Several photos and videos of Ramsey swimming with, and even occasionally touching, the giant shark have since gone viral on social media, leaving many awestruck over the breathtaking images.
But for some other marine biologists also dedicated to studying the apex predators, Ramsey’s fearlessness has inspired more consternation than wonder, raising concerns that her risky behavior could have potentially negative impacts on humans and sharks.
“I can’t believe that ‘please don’t grab the 18 foot long wild predator’ is something that needs to be explicitly said out loud, but here we are,” David Shiffman, a marine biologist who studies sharks, told The Washington Post in a Twitter message.
The first video was shared on Tuesday to Ramsey’s Instagram account, which boasts a following of nearly 600,000 people. Accompanied by a caption that read “GREAT WHITE SHARK,” the video showed Ramsey and several other divers circling the humongous fish with cameras. In a second post, a video of Ramsey swimming about an arm’s length away from the shark, she announced that her companion wasn’t just any great white — it was a female named Deep Blue, believed to be the largest of her species on record.
“Incredible swimming with ‘Deep Blue,' ” she wrote, adding that the shark had used her boat as “a scratching post” and described her as “so mellow and beautiful.” Marine biologists have estimated that Deep Blue, who may also be pregnant, is approaching 20 feet in length and weighs around 6,000 pounds. On average, a female great white shark is 15 to 16 feet long, according to the Smithsonian.
Great white sharks, which are classified as a vulnerable species, are not usually found in the warm waters off Hawaii, but at least three, including Deep Blue, have been spotted by divers in the area as recently as Sunday, feeding off a rotting sperm whale carcass.
In a phone interview Friday, Ramsey told The Post that she and her team had been monitoring tiger shark activity around the dead whale on Tuesday when the massive shark suddenly appeared, accompanied by dolphins.
“The dolphins start to twirl up into the water column toward the surface and they come up kind of swirling around this massive big beautiful female great white shark,” Ramsey said.
Fellow divers and marine biologists have disputed Ramsey’s claim that she swam with Deep Blue, telling The Washington Post that it was more likely she had encountered another female great white. Deep Blue was first spotted Sunday by divers Kimberly Jeffries and Mark Mohler, who said they confirmed it was the famed shark, according to a Facebook post from Mohler. In an email to The Post, Mohler said Deep Blue was only seen Sunday, adding that he did not recall any other boats being out on the water at the time. Ramsey told The Post she has not yet been able to verify the shark’s identity.
Deep Blue or not, Ramsey’s posts have attracted widespread attention, many marveling at the shark’s size and praising the marine biologist for using the images to raise awareness of conservation efforts.
“The main goal is protection for sharks,” said Ramsey, who has been championing the passage of a bill to ban the purposeful killing of sharks and rays in Hawaii. “I need people to see that they’re not monsters so that they can care enough, or respect them enough, just to give them the same protection that dolphins and whales have been given.”
She continued: “We need them and a lot of people are just so unwilling to help support sharks ... because they think that they’re monsters, and they think that the world is better off without them.”
“What can I do to help save them, in addition to petitioning?” asked one commenter on Instagram. “This is so lovely.”
But when Michael Domeier, founding director of the Marine Conservation Science Institute, saw the photos and videos of Ramsey touching the shark, he was unsettled by her “alarming” behavior.
“Promoting through social media that it’s safe and okay to swim with these animals is irresponsible,” Domeier, who has spent years studying sharks, told The Post in a phone interview Thursday.
He added: “More than 99 percent of sharks are not dangerous. But that happens to be one that is very dangerous. If you want to talk about sharks being not dangerous, get your picture taken with a different species, not that one.”
According to data gathered by the Florida Museum of Natural History’s International Shark Attack Files, great whites are one of three shark species responsible for a majority of fatal unprovoked attacks against humans. Around the world, there have been at least 80 instances in which a great white killed a human unprovoked.
“It’s not a cuddly thing that you can just jump in the water with,” Domeier said.
Ramsey, Domeier said, was in “as safe a situation as you’re going to have with a white shark” because it had just been feeding and was “not really hungry.” He added that when sharks gorge themselves, they can sometimes eat so much that they slip into a comatose state.
Regardless of how full they may be, touching sharks in the wild is a “very serious ethical concern in the shark diving industry,” Domeier said. Aside from being a marine biologist who has spent more than 10 years working with sharks, Ramsey is also part of a group that leads educational shark diving tours in Oahu.
“If you go shark diving almost anywhere in the world with a legitimate, respected shark diving operator, the very first thing they will tell you is, ‘Do not touch the sharks,’ ” he said.
Beyond the risk of being bitten, too much human contact can disturb the shark, which not only has a negative impact on the animal, but also ruins the experience for everyone else, he said.
There appears to be only one picture of Ramsey on her Instagram where it looks like her hand may be resting on the side of the shark. “I waited quietly, patiently, observing as she swam up to the dead sperm whale carcass and then slowly to me passing close enough I gently put my hand out to maintain a small space so her girth could pass,” she wrote in a separate post.
In a lengthy Instagram post on Thursday that included a video of Ramsey swimming toward the shark and running her hand down a portion of its body before diving down to stroke it again, Domeier pointed out that her words did not entirely match her actions.
“This is not shark advocacy...it is selfish, self-promotion,” Domeier wrote.
Shiffman had an equally scathing rebuke of Ramsey’s actions.
“There is absolutely no reason for this person to grab and attempt to ride a free-swimming animal,” Shiffman tweeted. “It doesn’t show that sharks aren’t dangerous, it shows that some humans make bad choices.”
In an emailed statement to The Post, Shiffman said that though sharks are not the “bloodthirsty mindless killing machines” some people believe them to be, “they are large wild predators capable of injuring or even killing humans.”
Shiffman drew attention to Ramsey’s large social media following, expressing concern that her numerous followers could be inspired by her experience to try it themselves, which increases the risk that more people could be hurt by sharks.
“And when a shark bites someone, it’s the shark that gets demonized, regardless of what human action triggered the behavior,” he said in the statement.
The day after Ramsey shared the videos to Instagram, Domeier said he was told that 60 people flocked to the sperm whale carcass with the hope of seeing a great white. On Wednesday, the Hawaii Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement cautioned people to “stay out of the water around this carcass,” adding, “it is truly dangerous to be around this carcass with so much shark activity,” the Star-Advertiser reported.
“We don’t want anyone to get hurt if a shark swimming around the carcass mistakes them for food,” the statement said.
Though critics have accused Ramsey of harassing wildlife, she said that she had been trying to protect the other people in the water and the shark.
“At one point, she did swim up and there were maybe at least 15 people in the water and I put myself between them and her, and I gently redirected her,” she said, adding that because of their thick skin, sharks are not likely to be hurt by human touch. “Some of the videos that have gone out, it just looks like I’m pushing and pushing and pushing her, but I’m either trying to gently redirect her off of people, or off of boats and props to keep her from getting hit ... which could potentially actually hurt her."
Ramsey also defended herself on Instagram. In at least two separate posts, she stressed that she has always discouraged people from “jumping in the water with great white sharks or tiger sharks or any large shark” and touted her knowledge of sharks from years spent working with them “on a daily basis in a safety and research and conservation program.”
“I try hard to replace fear with scientific facts and encourage a healthy level of respect for sharks as #apexPredatorsNotMonsters but not puppies…but not monsters,” she wrote in one of the posts.
Domeier said he hopes people will understand that great white sharks deserve the same level of respect as other predators.
“If you go on a safari in Botswana, you don’t grab onto the mane of lion and let it drag you around,” he said. “You just don’t do that.”
He added: “There’s a balance between the Jaws era when everyone wanted to kill them all and what’s happening now where everyone thinks that they’re warm and cuddly and want to ride them. We need to show them our respect, we need to appreciate them.”