‘There are two types of people – those who respect and admire sharks, and those who don’t.’ A chance encounter with a hammerhead on a safety stop five years into JULIE ANDERSEN’s diving career shaped her life. Few people leave successful businesses to pursue a passion for the oceans and take on one of the planet’s toughest PR jobs. She shares her thoughts with Steve Weinman on Shark Week, favourite sharks, what gets her through the dark days and much more (long read)
Julie Andersen was born and raised far from the sea, in Chicago. “But I grew up in the water… I was the kid who was always swimming in a lake, river or stream, eagerly peering to the bottom to have a chance encounter with some sort of marine life,” she says.
“I would catch guppies and put them in jars as my pets, obsessed with all things aquatic. I come from a long line of ‘mermaids’ – some of my favourite childhood memories revolve around my grandfather and father spending an afternoon swimming in the lake near our house.
“Until I met one, I was terrified of sharks – like everyone else. As kids, we played ‘Jaws’ in the pool, and I was nearly certain a white shark would swim out of a pool filter. It wasn’t until my first real interaction one fateful day with a hammerhead shark that I developed an amazing appreciation and admiration for sharks.
“But let’s be clear, at first I nearly swallowed my regulator! Instantly, my mind filled with bloody scenes from the movie that had haunted me as a child.”
The young Julie was able to take to the water not only locally but in some “pretty amazing” places. “I remember snorkelling above my newly scuba-certified father in Bonaire, wishing I was the one that could bury my nose in a coral head!” she recalls.
“So as soon as I could, in 1995, I began diving – my dad was my assistant instructor. In the cold waters north of Chicago, I was certified in a dark quarry, nearly deciding that I’d never dive again!
“But within a year my whole family had got certified – first my dad, then me, then my brother, then my mom, who was terrified of the water.
“Later, it became a way for an adult family to share something special, and we travelled the world together – Belize, Thailand, Burma, Hawaii, Tahiti – exploring the ocean. Now that we’ve lost my mother, these remain my best memories.
“The minute I dipped my head below the surface, my life changed forever. I have diving to thank for every meaningful thing in my life – from my favorite memories and career path to my best friends and countless adventures around the globe. That moment in the blue sealed my fate, as I discovered not just my passion but my purpose.
“Becoming a diver not only opens up a world that is more incredible than your wildest dreams, it will transform your life in ways you can’t imagine. I certainly never thought I would go to work for the sharks, but every diver sees our blue planet through new eyes and becomes an ambassador for ocean change.”
For all those early snorkelling and scuba adventures, Julie had to wait a long time after qualifying before coming face to face with a shark.
“Nothing was as magical as my first real shark encounter, which occurred five years after I was certified. Alone in Hawaii on a safety stop, relishing those last few moments under water, I suddenly had a sense that I was not alone.
“I looked to my left and there, no more than 6ft from me, was a beautiful scalloped hammerhead. And then I realised that this shark, though bigger than me, was more fearful of me than I was of her.
“Breathlessly gazing into the eyes of the animal I was taught to fear, I saw life – not a cold, cruel stare. This fascinating creature exemplified all that is beautiful and perfect on this planet, the extraordinary power of nature. A vital reminder of what we must respect and protect. That day, the hammerhead sealed my fate.”
Julie Andersen studied business and marketing at Miami University and, from 1999, spent eight years building her own digital marketing agency for luxury brands.
In 2007 she started the non-profit conservation organisation Shark Savers and the following year Shark Angels, putting her marketing expertise to work on sharks’ behalf. She sold her business, though she would soon also found Built By Wildman to help other non-profits get their messages over.
She would also start other shark-supporting bodies such as Fin Free and, with the late Rob Stewart, United Conservationists. She also applied her marketing expertise to scuba manufacturing on a freelance basis, and for four years was Scubapro’s global marketing director.
At the end of 2021, after working for two years on contract to PADI Worldwide, she was appointed its global director, brand & PR, and says her focus in that role is on inspiring people of all ages to seek adventure and help save the ocean.
“My passion is also my purpose – and I’m lucky enough to have the power of PADI, Shark Angels and PADI AWARE supporting this mission,” she says. Today she is based by the sea, in San Diego. “I’m lucky to live in an amazing place for seeing sharks. The coast of Southern California has hammerheads, makos, blue sharks, white sharks, thresher sharks and, let’s not forget, the adorable leopard sharks.”
In one role or another Julie has been involved in some extremely influential shark campaigns. Asked to pick out those which make her proudest, the list just rolls on…
“Making shark fin an illegal substance for more than 160 million people with Fin Free in several states in the USA, as well as Saipan and Guam… working with the team that just had the import and export of all shark fin banned in Canada – the first country ever to do that… working with celebrities in China like Yao Ming during the Beijing Olympics to reduce the demand…
“Providing thousands of hours of education, working with hundreds of thousands of children to give them a voice to stand up for their future… helping build the world’s largest shark sanctuaries… creating powerful media counter to Jaws and Shark Week… getting people in the water with sharks… I’m proud of all of it – especially since it’s employing so many different approaches to conservation,” she says.
“This year is an important one for sharks, with the most significant shark proposal in CITES’ history going to the floor for vote with solid backing. The proposal put forward by Panama and supported by the EU aims to bring the majority of the shark-fin trade under sustainable trade limits for the first time, by protecting over 50 requiem shark species.
“Both PADI AWARE and Shark Angels have complementary campaigns to support this landmark legislation through education, local action, awareness and activating the passionate globally. Playing a role in getting all requiem shark species protected would be monumental for sharks and the oceans.”
She is also “extremely excited” by the launch of Shark Angels U, a programme focused on sparking the next generation of conservationists. “We’re developing and mentoring young eco-heroes, connecting and empowering them and, ultimately, illustrating through first-hand experiences that connecting your passion to your profession will lead to an incredible, purpose-driven life.
“And from a PADI perspective, I’m thrilled to be working with PADI AWARE to launch the largest Global Shark Census in April 2023, giving divers and non-divers an opportunity to get directly involved in shark conservation.”
Many achievements; many major projects underway – I wonder whether Julie could have achieved what she has without having had that professional background.
“I don’t think so,” she says. “Much of what I do involves using my marketing and PR skills towards a positive image campaign for sharks, and realising the importance media plays in influencing our collective mindset.
“I have also become heavily involved in productions that involve sharks in a positive light. As a diver and lover of the oceans, I personally witnessed significant devastation of much that I hold dear – including sharks. And, when I wanted to do something, I realised that it wasn’t as easy as it should be.
“Learning about sharks, educating others, developing tools to build awareness and choosing the right things to focus on in order to make a difference were all cumbersome and challenging.
“With my marketing background, I believed in the power of media to make a difference on this issue – which no one seemed to be leveraging. I wanted to use media to work for, not against, sharks. And, there was no clear, globalised movement to join. I thought there should be, and thus Shark Angels was born.”
She points to the proven effects of PR campaigns in boosting the fortunes of another threatened marine creature. “Whales, nearing mass extinction, were feared and despised. Then, they were turned into media darlings – and their conservation followed.
“To me, there are two types of people – those who respect and admire sharks, and those who don’t… simply because they don’t have all the information. That’s where marketing and PR comes in.
“Say the word ‘shark’, and it strikes a primal fear in most. Sharks have been misportrayed as man-eating monsters, driving not just a collective fright, but often a deep-seated hatred.
“I believe that tolerance and understanding starts with education. We don’t want to protect or save something we’re afraid of, and when it comes to sharks, much of that fear is completely unfounded.
“That’s why I love creating beautiful images interacting respectfully with sharks that: grab attention, stop the endless scrolling, question perceptions and, hopefully, start a conversation. Visual media, in a single image, has the power to spark change – and there is no better way to share that than social media.
“So, as a Shark Angel and also as the global director of brand for PADI, I’m on a mission to change people’s fear of sharks – one of the biggest issues standing in the way of their conservation – into fascination using PR and media.
“And then, I want to turn that appreciation into passion and, ultimately, action for as many people as possible. Because, let’s face it, sharks need all the help they can get.
“In doing so, we’re igniting change for the oceans, our planet and one another. By harnessing the power of innovative education, citizen science and advocacy programmes largely through PR and media, we can not only shift perspectives but turn haters into activists, giving them the tools and the community support to protect what they love.
“And frankly, it isn’t just about sharks for me. By rethinking the shark and changing the dialogue to understanding, tolerance and respect, it’s my hope that we can then extend that interspecies kindness to one another.”
Divers are witness
My idle suggestion that scuba divers were in danger of becoming over-familiar with pro-shark arguments, to the point of fatigue, gets short shrift. “I’ve never met an apathetic diver, especially when it comes to sharks,” says Julie. “I think divers are incredibly passionate and supportive of ocean conservation. Once you’ve seen the world below, you can’t help but fall in love and in turn do something to protect it.
“As divers we are witness to the devastation first-hand – and we have a special connection to sharks. At the same time, I think it’s time to re-invent conservation and our collective approach, making it something that’s inclusive, hopeful, hands-on and rewarding in the process!
“That’s what Shark Angels and PADI AWARE are both doing in their own, complementary ways.”
Younger people have plenty of problems of their own, but has Julie noted an intergenerational shift in attitudes towards marine conservation? “I’ve engaged in many different forms of conservation, from patrolling the high seas to going undercover to document the issues, and from participating in scientific studies to rallying for legislation. But the most fulfilling work, to me, is working with the next generation of change-makers.
“I believe youth have an enormous voice – and power: Shark Angels aims to fuel that. We focus much of our efforts in shark conservation by developing a new generation of Shark Angels around the globe.
“By working with young change-makers, connecting them and fuelling their passion, we can inspire far more children to participate in positive, results-oriented conservation – while building the ethos of kindness for each other, other species and our planet.”
The impact has already been felt, says Julie: “Our first Shark Angels are well on their way to bringing about change through marine biology, environmental law and media advocacy.
“Young people are such incredible activists because they don’t limit themselves by assuming their dreams aren’t possible, they don’t reason themselves out of change because it’s too hard, and they certainly haven’t lost the fascination with and the love of the natural world that we are all born with.
“I’m the perfect example of someone who has combined their passion with their talents to make the world just a little bit better. Young people easily recognise – when given the right role models, encouragement and support – that they can do the same, whether their passion is sharks or underprivileged kids in their local community.
“I love it when kids realise – way earlier than I did – that there is a whole world of possibility beyond becoming doctors and lawyers (though we still need those too!) and they see with their own eyes that the same life of adventure, the same purpose and the same fulfilment I’ve experienced is waiting for them too.
“All they need is someone to help fuel their passion and make them believe anything is possible… because frankly, it is.”
We’re talking at this point in time because it’s Shark Week, the annual stream of big-hitting TV programming from the Discovery Channel. That same day I had seen many sensational headlines generated by a teaser for one of the programmes, about how a great white shark had smashed into a plastic viewing cage and thrown the shark expert inside it into the open sea.
The salient fact for me was that the expert had been none the worse for the experience, but if Julie Andersen’s aim is to convert public fear of sharks into fascination, how does she think Shark Week, on which she appears every year, squares with that objective?
“Shark movies and shows can be great – and also, more often than not, quite problematic – for sharks,” she says. “It’s a complex topic that certainly polarises even the shark-conservation community, and in any conversation debating the pros and cons, Shark Week always comes up.
“For sure Shark Week shows only a very small portion of a shark’s life and true behaviour and can quickly be blamed for the constant reinforcement of our collective fears. I don’t think it’s as black and white as that.
“In the end, I’m happy that a whole week is dedicated to the animal I work so hard to protect. You can’t possibly create PR campaigns without that kind of awareness. While Shark Week does sometimes reinforce the myths about sharks, it also gets people talking about sharks, starting a critical dialogue – which I can continue, as a shark conservationist.
“As a shark lover, I want to show a different side of sharks – to help people learn more, become even more intrigued, and hopefully become shark-lovers themselves. After all, sharks are underdogs – the unsung heroes that everyone has villainised and loves to hate.
“I don’t think the answer is as simplistic as “Ban Shark Week”. Shark Week exists because it has an audience that wants to see it. I’ve also talked to many young conservationists who have turned their Shark Week fascination into meaningful action.
“For years I tried petitioning the producers, rallying support for more conservation, more realistic shows, more balance. Then I realised, I can work with these shows… or against them. I choose to participate because it’s an incredible platform to talk about the true reality of sharks, their importance in the ecosystem, and the issues facing them.
“I do it because I’d love it if every one of the viewers of Shark Week turned their fascination with sharks into positive action – and did at least one thing to protect sharks – and their watery homes.
“Because the truth is, every single person has the power to bring about change. Small changes add up and, together, we can make a difference. I’ve experienced it, witnessed it and even had the honour of fuelling it time and time again.
“So, I’m on Shark Week every year – talking about what is fascinating about sharks, why they need protection, how misunderstood they are and, of course, the real infinitesimal risks they present to us.
“I mean, would you get out of a safari Jeep in the Serengeti next to lions? Not a chance. But every day people around the world get into the water safely with sharks and, in places around the world, people and sharks peacefully co-exist – including children and sharks.
“Fortunately, thanks to the responsible production companies I’m working with, the questions become more and more conservation-oriented, as the audience also realises there’s more to sharks than just blood and teeth. And I even get the opportunity to ask everyone to do their part to save sharks – after all, no sharks, no Shark Week.”
Men carrying machetes
Julie Andersen’s mission to protect sharks has often placed her in dangerous situations, although the threat has, of course, come not from the sharks but from their human adversaries.
“Everyone always says: ‘Oh wow, you’ve worked under water with sharks, you must be crazy or have nerves of steel.’ Truth be told, I’ve definitely been in harrowing situations – but not under water. It’s the undercover work I did that was difficult – and the people that I dealt with were far more dangerous than sharks.
“I’ve been chased off beaches by men carrying machetes, forcefully ‘escorted’ out of countries by those protecting the illegal animal trade, boarded illegal factory-fishing ships with only a single unarmed officer who instructed me not to leave the bridge of the ship for fear I would be killed, and had my life threatened several times.
“Things have gone from bad to worse in the shark trade and, having gotten the footage we needed to prove the massive issues facing sharks, driving regional, national and global legislation to protect them, I’ve turned my attention to other forms of conservation to which I am better suited to make a real difference.
“The incredibly lucrative market for shark products is, more than any other factor, driving the slaughter of sharks. This extinction trade, full of greed and corruption, is often compared to the illegal drug and weapons trades, as each of these is rife with murder, cartels and multi-million dollar deals.
“And they are tightly linked, as the same distribution infrastructure and criminals are involved in all three. Fishermen, frantic to feed their families, will stop at nothing to bring home boatloads of sharks and are being driven to extremes, though it is only a handful of individuals – wholesale traders and middlemen – who are reaping the benefits, at an incredible cost to the rest of us.”
Julie has spent hundreds of hours diving with sharks, and scuba divers will be less surprised than most to hear her say that “for all my time in the water, I’ve never felt threatened by a shark – not even diving with a white shark outside a cage.
“As divers, we assume a critical responsibility when we enter the water with sharks,” she emphasises. “We must always act with the utmost caution to ensure that no thoughtless risks are taken. This is not to say that we can instigate a shark-bite through a single flutter of fins, or that sharks are intrinsically dangerous. However, the few times I have ever witnessed a potential issue, it has been due to the diver’s carelessness.
“And we can’t afford to make mistakes with sharks. Not because they will eat us but because it is extremely irresponsible to contribute to the misperceptions of sharks. An otherwise incredible experience can be quickly marred.
“While these incidents are highly unusual and the diver at worst may need only a few stitches, they are doing an incredible disservice to sharks. No one stops to question the diver – they assume the shark is the monster.
“Careless, avoidable acts can quickly spiral into uncontrolled over-reaction – from culling to the end of local shark diving.”
Neither does she want to imply that diving with sharks requires any special skill or talent. “Quite the contrary, anyone can dive with sharks. In fact, I hope you do. But we owe it to ourselves, the sharks and the oceans they keep healthy to stay informed and educated – thus protecting places where sharks still thrive, not to mention our continued ability to dive with them in those locations.”
With shark-diver responsibility in mind, Shark Angels has written its own set of best practices, while PADI AWARE has produced responsible shark & ray tourism guidelines.
Canaries in the coal mine
As the planet changes, so too does its dwindling shark population. “We know so little really; we are still learning about the oceans’ important role in our climate, atmosphere and planet, still exploring their depths and still discovering their inhabitants,” says Julie. “And as we slowly build our knowledge base, human-driven phenomena such as pollution, habitat destruction, global warming and overfishing are ravaging our seas – and all that dwell within.
“Sharks, unfortunately, as apex predators are impacted by all of these things. I often think of them as ‘canaries in the coal mine’, since we are so collectively obsessed with their behaviours. Nearly every shark study, incident and behaviour generates news, serving as decades of documentation. We simply can’t get enough shark stories and even regional shark news goes global.
“So while many other species are impacted, the fact that sharks dominate the media and pop culture makes us highly attuned to the significant impacts climate change is having on them. Simply do a Google news search and you’ll find dozens of recent, relevant articles from around the world, from Egypt to the USA and from South Africa to Australia.
“As we see warmer waters extending much further north, that means shark food sources and the sharks themselves are extending their ranges, while others are changing their preferred food sources or even turning from hunters to the hunted.
“We’re already witnessing trophic changes in the food web, shifting ocean currents and temperature changes impacting migration and timing, and even fundamental changes to their very biology. One thing is for certain, shark behaviours are changing.
“Is that because their prey is shifting – and in some cases disappearing – the ocean temperatures are changing and warming, or because we’re disrupting their delicate balance? There’s scientific evidence pointing to all three.”
I wonder whether Julie ever has moments when her mission to protect sharks all seems too much of an uphill struggle. “I do,” she replies, “because I’ve been in the field, spending years undercover documenting the heart-breaking destruction.
“I’ve walked among 7,000 bloody sharks landed in a tuna fishery in Japan, sorted through chest-high whale shark fins in a seafood mall packed with hundreds thousands of fins in China, and watched a starving fishing village in Indonesia fin the last of its baby sharks – having decimated the population in only two years. It’s impossible not to let those things get to you.
“I remember everything – even the horrible smell of a rotting shark – as if it were yesterday. But those dark days are fuel to keep going. And I remind myself that I’ve learned three very important truths on my journey.
“First, sharks are not the monsters they are portrayed to be – and they desperately need our help to turn that around. Second, we definitely have something to fear – that they are quickly becoming extinct. We are at a tipping point at this very moment, and the sharks’ futures as well as our own lie in our collective hands.
“But the third, and most critical learning, is that a single person can bring about change. All is not bleak – I’ve also seen the power of a single person to bring about change.
“From a six-year-old, Luke in Toronto, who got 1000 signatures on a petition in three days single-handedly, to a 10-year-old, Thomas, leading Fin Free Florida, to the kids in a remote village in Fiji taking back their reefs, I am constantly inspired.
“And believe it or not, I am hopeful. If they can do it, we certainly can. Anyone can become a guardian angel to the sharks – and you certainly don’t have to be a diver like me.
“Get educated on the issues and then take action. Lobby for their protection, vote with your dollars, volunteer for a marine-conservation organisation, educate people about misconceptions, read labels and ensure that you aren’t unknowingly buying shark products, swim with sharks to prove their value… whatever you do, just get involved.
“After all, it’s not just about the sharks – it’s about the oceans and our collective futures.”
Food for the soul
In her new PADI role, Julie says she has been thrilled by the level of media interest in seeing sharks in a new light.
“Selfishly, I love taking people to meet sharks for the first time – from journalists to celebrities to kids. Witnessing that moment where the shift occurs – when they realise that everything they’ve been told couldn’t be further from the truth – is food for the conservationist’s soul!
“Sure, I’ve developed a special relationship with sharks. I’ve learned to love them – certainly those known as the “most dangerous” supposed man-eaters. And growing numbers of non-divers are interested in having the same experience – turning their fear into fascination as well.
“But even those who aren’t interested in meeting a shark are keen to learn more, realising how important, and delicate, the balance in our world is. Love them or hate them, we absolutely need sharks on this planet. As apex predators, sharks are critically important to the ocean’s fragile balance.
“Recent studies indicate that regional elimination of sharks can cause disastrous effects further down the food chain, including the collapse of valuable fisheries and the death of coral reefs.
“As shark populations plummet, we risk disrupting the very ecosystem that provides hundreds of millions of people with food and incomes, produces half of the atmosphere’s oxygen, and is one of our best natural defences to global warming, removing more carbon dioxide from than all the rainforests combined.
“There is nothing extra in nature. Everyone I speak with, from a five-year-old to a centenarian, understands that!”
Does Julie have a soft spot for any particular shark species? “I love sharks, period! From the adorable endemic cat sharks of South Africa to the iconic great whites, sharks are simply incredible. Here’s an animal that has survived five major extinctions and has been on the planet for 450 million years, literally forming our oceans as we know them. It is the perfect predator.
“And when you get to know sharks, you realise that the term mindless monster couldn’t be farther from the truth. Scientists have proven that they each have unique personalities, they can recognise one another, they form social bonds, and they have cognitive abilities that rival dolphins’. Last year, scientists proved that sharks even had ‘besties’!
“Even though they have their own Week, there is a lot we don’t know. But if I have to pick, I’d say the great hammerhead. I love that hammerheads are proof that weird is wonderful – regardless of species!
“Who doesn’t love that iconic and bizarre-looking hammer – also called a cephalofoil? They literally give hammerheads superhero powers… I mean even more than most sharks, which have seven highly evolved senses. Not only can they feel the heartbeat of their prey hidden in the sand, but they can see 360° at all times. Evolution at its best.”
What about favourite shark-diving locations? “My favourite place to see sharks is under water. I love the whites in the moody green waters of South Africa and the tigers in the crystal-clear waters of the Bahamas. I love the schooling scalloped hammerheads in Cocos and the gentle giant whale sharks in Galapagos.
“Seriously, I still consider myself lucky to encounter these incredible animals every time I see one. And on many dives I don’t see any. After spending hundreds of hours with sharks, I still appreciate and cherish every moment with these majestic predators we are lucky enough to coexist with.”
Find out more about Shark Angels, Shark Week on Discovery+ and PADI Dive With Sharks
Also on Divernet: Plan Dives Now For Great Shark Snapshot