In the company of sharks

Larisa Steele

PHOTO courtesy of larisa steele

Larisa Steele often wears a gray hooded sweater emblazoned with the words “Dive girl”—fitting attire for a scuba diver who puts most of her paychecks toward swimming with huge, razor-toothed sharks. Steele credits the ’80s-era television show Oceanquest for instilling in her a lifelong goal to dive with all marine species. She made her first dive earlier this year at Stuart Cove’s in the Bahamas. Now, whether she’s swimming with gray reef sharks during a feeding frenzy or descending 40 feet to say hello to her favorite great whites, the 38-year-old legal secretary says she lives to share her diving experiences. Steele hung up her snorkel and mask long enough to talk to SN&R about her love for water, her most memorable dive and why sharks are just like celebrities.

Were you always drawn to water and sharks?

I was always a water baby. My mom would put me in the bathtub if I was upset. I [was] always happier in the water. When I was a kid, I grew up in a pool and I … would pretend that I was diving with sharks. I had my snorkel and my mask and at 10 years old, [I’d be] pretending I [was] in the water with sharks. It just became a passion, and it’s just taken me a while to get to this point.

What was your first shark encounter?

They were gray reef sharks. You never know how you’re going to feel when you actually get to see one live, in person [and] not behind glass at an aquarium. It was everything I thought I would feel. It was excitement, joy, compassion [and] respect. It felt really natural for me, actually. I had a couple of gray reefs just come up to me while I was descending, and they were just checking me out, and I’m thinking, “Hello, it’s been a long time. I finally get to meet you.” It’s like seeing a celebrity, for me at least.

What’s it take to become a legitimate scuba diver?

You need to get certified to scuba dive. It’s technical. There are gas fixtures that you’re going to be putting on your back. There’s heavy equipment and you need to be trained [on] how to use it. There are standards set; like when you learn how to drive, you go through the course and you learn the skills to do it safely without hurting yourself.

Most memorable dive?

Just last September, [the co-editors from Shark Diver magazine and I] got to cage dive with great whites. [It was] four days of cage diving off an island off Guadalupe, living on a boat. It’s about 20 hours out [and] it was quite the choppy ride. … I did get a little seasick going out, but once [I was] there it was calm, it was sunny, it was warm, and there were like 10 to 15 sharks a day just coming up to the cage [and] coming up to the boat, [measuring] anywhere from 8 feet to 17 feet long.

Seventeen-foot great white sharks?!

On the second or third day, one of the cages gets submerged about 40 feet, and [we were] still in the cage. It was a really cool environment down there: It was really clear, and the sharks were just everywhere. I’m filming one and then I’d look, and there was one right next to me—there was always a shark right there. The biggest one was about 17 feet. She was a monster just coming up [to us], and we were like, “Wow!”

Are you always in the company of sharks when you dive?

No. I didn’t encounter sharks in a lot of places: in Monterey, in Jamaica, [and] in Maui even. I’m having to go farther and farther away to remote areas to see them, and that’s unfortunate. I should’ve been able to see sharks in Maui because they’re protected there, but because the population is diminishing worldwide, they’re not coming in like they used to.

Are sharks endangered?

They’re being overfished to the extent they don’t reproduce enough to keep up with the way they’re being fished. They’re being fished accidentally by longline fishermen, and they’re being illegally fished for their fins and teeth. Almost 100 million sharks a year are killed either by the finning industry or [via] illegal fishing for trinkets like teeth and boots.

What can people do to change that?

I am contacting my local [state representatives] to ask them to support the [Safety and Fraud Enforcement for] Seafood Act. We need to put pressure on Congress. [This] will support transparency throughout the entire seafood process to put a stop to seafood fraud. What that means is you can go into a restaurant and they can tell you you’re eating swordfish, but you’re actually eating mako shark.

What people can do is not purchase shark products at all. If we take away the demand, there won’t be a market for destroying a species on the brink of extinction.