Hannah Fraser: The searing passion of tigress shark and the cause she's fighting for

By Rakhi Chakraborty|22nd Jun 2014
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Hannah Fraser is a living breathing example of how to live out your fantasies. She decided at age nine that she would grow up to be a mermaid. And that’s what she did. An average workday for her involves splashing out with dolphins, whales and manta rays deep within the recesses of the ocean. On not so average days, she hangs out with the sharks.

For her the ocean represents that elusive, deeply magical space that we spend our whole lives searching. “The Ocean, for me represents a way of an ecosystem completely reliant upon all of the aspects within it in a very visual and visceral way. The feeling that I get from being in the ocean is complete freedom. It’s an environment where you are working a 360 degree sphere rather than on a flat plane with gravity. Under the water you are free to fly. Floating through the ocean over gorgeous coral reefs with all these animals flying around with me is about as surreal as life can get.”

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Fraser defines what it means to be fearless. Recently she became the first person in the world to dance among tiger sharks at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. She did it sans any breathing or protective gear. A two minute clip uploaded on Youtube shows her ethereally dancing smack in the middle of one of the world’s deadliest apex predators- the fifteen to seventeen foot long tiger sharks. This video, a part of the upcoming documentary, “Tears of a Mermaid” has had more than three million views.

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When on land, Fraser is an entrepreneur, artist and dedicated ocean conservationist. This video is a part of the upcoming documentary, “Tears of a Mermaid.” Here she talks to YourStory about her life, passion, mission and being a fearless tigress among the tigers of the seas.

What was your childhood like?

My childhood was very creative, free and adventurous. I was born in England, moved to America for the first seven years of my life and finally moved to Australia, where my mother was from. During that period, before I turned twenty, I went to India nine times. I was visiting meditation and yoga ashrams with my mother. I did a lot of gymnastics. We travelled a lot. We went to places like Mexico and hung out by the beach. My mother always encouraged me to be very artistic. We didn't watch much television. I was always drawing pictures of fairies and mermaids. So I was always given a lot of freedom to be creative and follow my dreams.

How did your interest with mermaids begin?

I was interested in mermaids before I can even remember. As soon as I could draw stick figures, they had mermaid tails. I remember going to the library as a really little kid and trying to look up books on mermaids. I had sticker collections of mermaids. It was just something that I loved from birth really. But then when I was nine I saw the film Splash, where Daryl Hannah plays a mermaid, and lost my mind. I thought that here is someone who is actually doing it for real and I wanted to do it too. That's when, with the help of my mother, I made my first mermaid tail.

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In the ten years that you have been working as a mermaid, have you felt your work make an impact?

It’s been really fascinating to see how many people around the world have gained the appreciation not only for mermaids but also the ocean in general and the creatures that I am swimming with. I see people being woken up to the beauty of these animals and the whole ocean environment. For instance when I started out, there was not a single other person in the world who did what I do. People dressed up in mermaid costumes for birthday parties and specific events, but no one was making a living being one. This has created a new genre. Now there are thousands of people around the world doing this job. So there really has been an impact where the passion I felt has transcended to so many other people.

But for me the most exciting part has been to see how people have found an appreciation for interacting with animals in the ocean in a whole new way, creating harmony being enthusiastic about the ocean's balance and ecosystem.

Legions of activists and scientists have been trying to tell us for years how our maritime activities have been destroying the world's oceans and causing entire species to become extinct. But the mainstream media hardly pays them any attention. Why do you think your role in bridging the two is so important?

I think what I am doing has captured public attention in a really large way because we are inundated with horrible graphics of animals dying all the time. It makes us feel guilty and sad and we don't feel proud to be human. While that imagery is really important to show people what the reality is, it's very hard to inspire people with sadness. What I am doing is creating inspiring connected imagery that makes people feel happy. Then they want to get out there and do something to change the world.

People don't really want to share bad things all the time. We all want to inspire each other, we want to feel good and happy and we want to feel proud to be humans. What I am offering is a way for us to look at the issue in a positive light.

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How was it swimming with the sea lions in Ecuador?

They were like crazy little puppy dogs. They moved so fast that you can't even hope to keep up, even with a mermaid tale. But they definitely got much more excited by the fact that I was giving it a good go, and that I had more manoeuvre ability than your average human. They were zipping around like torpedoes. They would come in and pretend to nip my foot if I wasn't moving fast enough, as if saying, "Hurry up, hurry up. Come and play with us." I wasn't wearing goggles, so I could only see the shapes and they were all moving very fast. They were on a very shallow shelf, probably just a couple of metres deep. Eventually this one shot past me and went into the deep water. I thought, "Finally! This one wants to play with me where I can move around a little bit better." So I followed it over there, chasing it and it zipping away. Finally I needed to come up for air. And my photographer was screaming at me, "That's a shark! That's a shark! Stop chasing it,"

That was the first time I had seen a shark up close and I thought it was a sea lion.

Among whales, great white sharks, seals, manta rays, hump back whales and now tiger sharks- what sea creature is the most difficult to shoot with and which ones the easiest? 

It’s easy to assume that that the tiger sharks were the most difficult, but actually it was the hump back whales. Not because they don't want to come and hang out. They are incredibly interactive. I find it so bizarre that you can jump in the middle of the ocean in the middle of nowhere and a whale will come and hang out with you. But they are so big and they move so fast that one flap of the tail and it’s out of the shot. Getting close enough to be in the frame with a massive animal like that, in the right moment and getting the right speed, way out there in the ocean is really challenging.

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My favourite are probably the manta rays. They are not easy but they are extremely docile, interactive, friendly, harmless and just unbelievably graceful. They just look like they are from another planet. And so it’s fascinating to interact with them.

How was it shooting in the centre of the tiger sharks with no protective gear or breathing equipment? How did you prepare for it?

We conceived of the outfit because we needed to create as much safety as possible. That required that Ii not look very light or white because their natural prey is light white fish. It also just catches their eye. So the darker I was, the more I looked like the scuba divers who they were used to seeing in this particular area. They understand that's not food. That's why I also covered my blonde hair with a dark wig because the white blonde flowing hair is an attractive lure to the tiger sharks. Painting me black would just look weird, so we went with blue and black because they are the ocean's colours and it should look Ii belong with them. So they made me look like the tigress, the human tiger shark.

I am very comfortable with my movements under water because I have been doing that for nearly twelve years now. The number one thing to get your head around when going swimming with one of the world's biggest predators is not to emanate any fear. You need to have absolute confidence and be the alpha within that group. If they come up to you, you have to manhandle and push them away. So the energy of the dance moves I was making was all about communicating that to myself and to the animals.

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How did you hold your breath through all this?

As far as holding my breath underwater was concerned, that comes from 12 years of practice and plenty of other challenging situations to learn from. I have swum with great white sharks, reef sharks which bumped me a number of times and also grabbed my tail when I was trying to go towards the safety diver who had my air. All of that training brought me to this point. It wasn't just like, "Oh lets go swim with tiger sharks." I also did a training regimen leading up to this where I was running, doing yoga, breath work, free diving and holding my breath while doing aerobic exercises.

My static breath hold before I went in was three minutes. When I was working with the tiger sharks, it was about a minute and a half. That’s because you are using so much more energy, the water is cold, you are dealing with fear which makes the heart beat faster and use more oxygen. So I would go and take air every ninety seconds or so while dancing.

With this stunt you were protesting the culling of the tiger sharks by the Australian government. What exactly are they doing? What kind of awareness are you hoping this documentary will raise?

The Australian shark cull was called because there were a number of shark attacks of off their beaches. I believe the number was around five over the last few years. So they started putting the drumlines into the water around the beaches to capture the sharks. They have killed over two hundred sharks, none of which were the type of sharks which cause the attacks in the first place. Most of the ones killed were tiger sharks, of which there has never been a reported case of attack in that area. Along with them were killed manta rays, smaller sharks and a number of other smaller ocean animals that are being affected by this cull.

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The government was quoted as saying that it was a successful cull because people are now more confident to go back in the water. I do not call it successful to kill a species just to make humans feel more comfortable while lounging in the beach. In the small numbers that were actually attacked, you have to understand the risk of entering the home of another species. There will always be a very small number of attacks that will always happen because they are dangerous predators that have mistaken identities or are very hungry because there aren't enough fish left since we have overfished the oceans so much.

All these are just part and parcel of living in the natural world. I don't think humans should have the right to annihilate another species that is an important part of the ecosystem just for our confidence and self-comfort. So what I am hoping is that the connection that I was able to make with the tiger sharks illustrates to the government and the people around the world that these are not mindless killing machines. There is a way to interact with them harmoniously and that there are other ways that we can educate people on to how these species can interact with humans and what to be careful of so we can minimize the risks involved.

Have you had any close shaves in the past ten years, an instance where it got unbelievably dangerous?

When I was swimming with the reef sharks in the Caribbean, I had been holding my breath for about two minutes. My safety diver was about ten meters away. I had a very glittery and shiny mermaid tail on and of course my long blonde hair. The sharks were circling around, they were definitely interested and checking me out. We were getting this amazing shot so I pushed my breath hold right to the very end. I just had enough time to swim back those ten meters before I could really start freaking out. When I started swimming back towards my safety diver, I felt a bite on my tail and this little shake. Luckily the shark had chomped down on the end of my tail, which is just plastic, realized it doesn't taste good at all and spat me out.

Never have I had any other experience where I felt threatened by an animal. Once a great white shark started coming directly towards me. I put my hands out, started screaming and went directly towards it. That scared it off straight away. That's the things with sharks. If you act like you are not dinner, then you won't be dinner.

How do you deal with the challenges you face on land? When people either scornfully dismiss the work you do or pass judgements, what's your reaction to all that?

I've always been someone who didn't really care very much what people thought of me. I have a passion, I am going to do it and there is not much that will stop me. That's not to say I am not aware of the negativity. I obviously like the approval of other people much more than their disapproval but it’s not going to stop me. Despite trolls online saying, what a stupid job. Why would you ever do that? This girl is crazy; whatever stupid comments they make. I am actually amazed by the overwhelming support and interest that what I have done has created. I would have to say that it is at least ninety five percent positive to five percent negative. I have got a pretty thick skin and when it comes to the silly comments they just don't match up to the love that I feel from everybody else.

Another major challenge has been learning how to run a business myself, how to promote myself and feel good doing that. There is so much more involved other than just getting into the water. I am such a creative person. The business side of things I have had to learn as I go along.

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What future plans are you most excited about?

I am really looking forward to swimming with the dolphins in the Bahamas. They are supposed to be the friendliest dolphins on Earth and after cavorting with the tiger sharks, I could really use me some dolphins.

Wise words for those looking to follow their passion in life.

Perseverance is really the main thing. If you do something long enough, then people start to know you as that person. It’s really just continuing to do something because you love it so much. Whatever you choose to do, whatever is your life's path, it should be something that you would do regardless of the money. Money does not always matter and it won't sustain you through the challenging times. If you find something that you would just stay up all night doing it anyway, then that's where your passion lies and that's where your success lies. Do it no matter how outlandish it sounds.

If I can be a mermaid professionally, then anyone can do anything. It’s funny that the more unconventional, the stranger and the more outrageous a thing that it is; in many ways, as long as you have the perseverance for it, it is the easier way simply because there are not many people doing it.


Check out more about the Tears of a Mermaid and the people behind it here