By Suzannah Evans
Actress January Jones was raised in South Dakota, far from the ocean, but she has always felt an affinity for sharks. After making a name for herself in Hollywood as Betty Draper on the award-winning series “Mad Men,” Jones joined Oceana in the fight to save sharks from extinction. Jones’ first foray into the underwater world saw her swimming with Caribbean reef sharks to film an Oceana “Scared for Sharks” campaign PSA. Now, she has partnered with Oceana again, this time to draw attention to the world’s biggest shark – the massive whale shark. She traveled to Belize earlier this year to swim with the gentle giants.
Last year, you swam with Caribbean reef sharks. This year, you swam with a whale shark. How was this experience different?
This experience was different in a couple ways. The energy was different for me in Belize because I knew we had to first find the shark, and then hopefully time it right where we could get in the water and experience swimming with the animal and capture it on film, so there was an element of excitement on that level. I also wasn't as nervous because, not only was I very aware that whale sharks aren't a danger to us, but it was my second go-around in the wild with sharks so I was more comfortable in my surroundings.
Whale sharks are the world’s largest fish, measuring up to 40 feet long, but they eat plankton – among the world’s smallest creatures. Were you at all intimidated by diving with these huge animals?
I wasn't intimidated so much as in complete and utter awe. Seeing an animal of that size in the wild is incredible. And then to be able to swim alongside it? It’s a feeling that’s very hard to put into words. There was a peace that came over me and a feeling of hope and joy that was intoxicating. I was free diving so I was obviously holding my breath but I didn't want to surface.
What was the most unexpected thing about your dive?
The most unexpected point of the dive came at the end of the first dive day. We had just decided to give up at finding a shark for the day and were about halfway in and in much shallower waters when one of the crew spotted a shark. It was amazing how fast the boat stopped, all the gear went back on, and we were in the water! And it turned out perfect because the water wasn't deep and the visual clarity was excellent. And it turned out to be the only interaction with a whale shark on the trip so we were ecstatic.
What message do you think your diving with whale sharks can send to the world?
That sharks are amazing animals and that most, like whale sharks, are not interested in us. We know this because the science shows it – whale sharks eat plankton. There is no shark that really views us as lunch or dinner. That’s why shark attacks and bites are, thankfully, very, very rare. And sharks play a critical role in our oceans as top predators. Without them, things go out of balance. And, now tens of millions of sharks are caught, mostly for their fins, every year. So it’s silly to be scared of them. We should be scared for them.
How can people become involved to help you and Oceana save sharks?
Learn more about sharks. Oceana.org is a great resource and there are several great books out there, like “The Devil’s Teeth” by Susan Casey. You should also sign up to become an activist. You can help push forward legislation and policy that can help save sharks. It sounds funny, but sharks really need a lot more allies and friends right now.