One late-summer afternoon off the coast of Baja, Mexico, Ocean Ramsey entered her own unique kind of underwater petting zoo, where the main attraction was a beady-eyed beast with a mouthful of razors—and a reputation for tearing apart anything in its path. With nothing but a dive suit and a snorkel mask as protection, the 5-foot-9 dive instructor gracefully fishtailed through the water toward a great white shark while a friend captured footage from afar. "It was the most thrilling experience, touching the skin of a great white with my bare hand," she says. "There is an instinctive fear, but the beauty of the experience outweighs that for me."
The videos captured of Ramsey hitching a ride on the dorsal fin of the ocean's most feared predator have been seen around the world, earning her the nickname "The Shark Whisperer." But the 28-year-old believes there's no magic or luck involved; she says it's years of practice and honing skills—like holding her breath for more than 6 minutes at a time—that have allowed her to successfully free dive with sharks. "I've worked up to this. I don't dive with any equipment that creates noise or bubbles that might scare them," she says. "And I've learned to read a shark's behavior. I try to stay calm, because a shark can sense fear and aggression."
While this all may seem like the antics of an extreme adrenaline junkie, Ramsey is out to use her fame for a greater cause: to get more people to care about dwindling shark populations around the world. "Sharks are a vital part of the ecosystem, but they're quickly being decimated due to overfishing and the practice of finning, when sharks are captured just for their fins and then thrown back in the ocean to die," she says. "It's such a sad waste of life."
Ramsey, who lives in Haleiwa, Hawaii, has come fearlessly close to countless different marine animal species—from stingrays to 30-foot whales—thanks to a degree in marine biology, which allows her to participate in research around the world. "One of my favorite night dives was off the coast of Cocos Island in the Pacific," she recalls. "There were hundreds of sharks swarming, and they were using my light to spot their prey. It was almost like I was one of the pack, just helping them out."
Ramsey hopes her videos will ultimately inspire people to support marine protected areas and bans on finning worldwide. "When I dive in the marine protected areas around remote Pacific atolls, I'm fascinated by how beautiful and healthy the reefs are—and 44 percent of their marine species are predatorial," she says. "It's a great window into what the oceans were like before we came along."