Liz Parkinson describes herself as a free-spirited, adventurous kind of girl. That’s the least we could say about someone who dives with sharks as often as I manually refresh my inbox button. Liz has never been good at planning stuff or sticking to a schedule. “I do not really have a fixed routine. I get in the water as much as I can, and as long as that happens at least once a day then I fit everything else around it!” she says. As a competitive swimmer in college, she turned into a free-diver, dive instructor, captain, and a shark conservationist, now working in the Bahamas. Living on a boat and spending most of her time underwater, Liz learned to use her fascination for the ocean to raise awareness about shark conservation.
You were born in Windsor, just outside London in the UK, but grew up in Johannesburg. How was it to grow up in South Africa?
South Africa was an amazing place to grow up. The people, the lifestyle, the climate just made it a hard place not to explore. My parents love to travel, so from a young age, my brother and I were tossed into the back of the car and taken off the beaten path. We explored deserts, mountains, forests and the ocean. I was taught to be appreciative of this amazing natural environment that we have.
You’ve been a competitive swimmer for a long time. How did you end up swimming in the ocean?
South Africa is a very outdoors community. I was fortunate to grow up in a cool part of Johannesburg in the suburbs of the city where I went to a private school. At that time in South Africa, a lot of the influential families send their kids to private schools and, I was surrounded by people from all over the world; from Asia, Europe, Australia, and from all different parts of Africa. It was kind of a melting pot of people. And, with that, comes a lot of different skills levels, and talent. I had a bunch of friends who were really good athletes, and, later in life, they’d represent their country in their sports. So I just got pulled into that way of thinking, and way of life. My brother was a competitive cricket player so I got to do something that way. I think one thing just led to another, and I was recruited by a coach when I was 18. I moved out to Hawaii where I was part of a women’s swim team. The ocean was an easy step when I finished my swimming career to try to get involved with.
You’ve been living on the boat for the past few years. Can you tell us more about this experience?
Ah the boat… I have been living on a boat for the past 4 years. It is a 65ft Hatteras so it is quite big. However, it took a bit of getting used to initially, but I have learned to be more conscious of space, and to live life in a much simpler way. I love having less ‘stuff’, and it is a great way to see the beautiful Bahamas. There really is no better way than to go to sleep with the waves lapping up against the hull of the boat. Beyond its beauty, its necessity and the desire I have to help it, I have the utmost respect for the ocean as our most valuable resource.
What does your everyday life look like in the Bahamas?
I work everyday and I’m surrounded with like-minded people who live for their passion. You always hear about these people who hate their life, I’ve always had the mindset that I want to work for, or work with, people who have a passion for what they do. And, so that’s why, for me, it’s a lifestyle. I don’t make a lot of money doing what I do and I think I probably raise more money for sharks awareness than I’ve ever made in my entire life. But I really feel passionate about the ocean and about saving the underwater environment for future generations of kids and people who need it. It’s where we come from. I live on a boat so I’m on the water everyday. I dive everyday, I was part of the PADI free-diving panel. That was very cool cause I’ve never competed in the sport of free-diving. I came close but I never competed so PADI reached out to me and asked me if I’d like to be a part of that because I added a slightly different taste on what free-diving is, compared to the amazing athletes that compete in free-diving and dedicated their lives to yoga and all that. That’s way too time consuming for me. (Laughs) But I was involved for, I guess, an entertainment perspective where I go down and I free-dive with sharks and I get close to marine life.
Tell us more about the AWARE project…
It is a non-profit foundation related with PADI. We do marathons every year. This year we raised about 40,000$ for shark awareness. The team is called Run for Sharks. I have colleagues, people who I’ve never met, people who don’t know anything about the ocean, people who live in the middle of the United States. They have nothing to do with the ocean, they never see it, all they see are corn fields, and they’re part of the team. We’re all raising money for ocean conservation. So, it’s pretty awesome, the reach is far. The growing knowledge about what we do is spreading. In a nutshell, like I said, everything I do is focused on perceiving this vital commodity that we have and that we’ve been given. Doing my little bet, there’s people all over the world who’re trying to save the ocean, or save elephants, or rhinos, or whatever their influences. I get criticized for what I do. I think everyone gets criticized for everything that they do. But this is my way of giving back or helping. Someone else might be a scientist, and that’s their way they’re giving back. Someone might be a painter, or an artist, physically draw or paint something that resonate with them. But this is my way of doing it.
Spending so much time underwater gives you a global vision of the marine environment and of our ever-changing planet. What would be your message for our readers today concerning environment?
A lot of people hit me up on social medias ‘Liz what could I do?’. The best way to help is to start at home, start recycling, picking up litter, getting involved in plastics which is indirectly affected everything, sharks, marine animals, wild animals, and humans. Maybe as an easy way in environmental concern is to start at home to reflect on using sustainable plastics, cut down on your garbage and take and release on your day-to-day living. Anyone can help the environment. Become conscious of the amount of plastics and garbage you go through, and be active in your community. There are so many non-profits and organizations out there doing a great job in helping the environment. Go online and check out one that inspires you. There’re so many different avenues that people can take to help environment. Helping the environment, ultimately affects us all. A friend just did a skype track to a school in Kenya. These kids sit at these desks with no shoes, and she’s telling them about sharks, and about the ocean. These kids live in a country that’s landlocked, they have no idea where the ocean is. And I think that’s it’s amazing just to see their eyes open.
How did you develop this strong love and fascination for sharks?
Not a lot of people know this. I never really talked about it, but my first encounter with a shark was actually in Ireland. My mum is Irish, my dad grew up in Trinidad in the west indies, so they were from complete parts of the world, completely different cultural backgrounds. My grandfather used to be a geologist, so he studied rocks, volcanos and glaciers movements. And, in the 30’s he was on an expedition and he found a shark tooth in a glacier, in a mountain of Greenland. I was the only girl in the family for a long time. As a little kid, I was 5, he kind of favored me. I would never tell my brother that, so I definitely got more of his attention than the rest of the kids, or the rest of my cousins around me. He used to let me watch him work, which for him, was a big deal. He was a really hard old school english guy who followed the rule, who was aristocratic, conservative, “Go Margaret Thatcher!” (laughs). And, so he had this shark tooth, and used to tell me the story of finding it. So my first contact with a shark was in a seaside town in the south of Ireland, listening to my grandfather’s study and him telling about this whole shark teeth. And then, I guess, later in life, I got involved with ocean, and became a dive instructor, and I came to the Bahamas. Why did you end up in the Bahamas?
This sounds really stupid but, they needed a blonde girl to feed sharks for a film shoot. And I never fed sharks. I mean, I dived with sharks before, it was really cool. And I just got more involved in the film shoot, and interacting with sharks with more than an entertainment perspective. I guess spending huge amount of time underwater and thousands of dives with them, I just started to notice things that people were talking about. And I was like, “Wait, it doesn’t happen like that.” I had a scientist one day talking to me, and he was like: “We know that sharks do this.” And I was like, “Well, actually they don’t. When I’m with them, they do that. What I’m telling you is what I see. I’m Blonde, I’m not a scientist, but I’m a diver, and I’m telling you, sharks do that.”
In our society, the image of sharks that we have is very scary. It may come from the image of the monster depicted by Spielberg in ‘Jaws’ in the 70’s. However, you’re one of those people who know sharks more than anyone else. How would you describe sharks?
The media has definitely been very detrimental to the negative stereotype that all shark have. It seems that the emotions, ‘Jaws’, created 40 years ago, is as strong now as it was then. However, that being said, I think people are more interested in them then they once where. They are fascinated by the way they live and operate and want to gain a better understanding of these creatures. I can assure you that sharks are completely misunderstood. They are not the man-eating monsters that they have been made out to be. Jaws was a film made with a hydraulic shark called Bruce. I know it caused the guy a lot of grief, because it never worked properly. Sadly, I know that the author of Jaws, Peter Benchley, was really affected for the rest of his life, because of the writing of Jaws. He was a huge shark advocate. He died in 2006, but I know that his wife is now dedicating her life to fixing the damages that this book, that made millions of dollars, caused. Sharks are so misunderstood. For the most part, I can be down underwater with 50 sharks swimming around me, and I never feel any fear.As a shark conservationist, you experience what people would never ever get to experience. Do you reject fear or do you embrace those endless moments?
I absolutely do not fear sharks. Sharks do not scare me. As an animal, there’s nothing about them that scares me. But the thing that I do have for them is complete respect. The minute that I lose respect is the minute that I stop diving with them. Because they’re all wild animals, and like anything in life, being a domestic dog, or being an African lion or even a crazy human in a prison, if you lose your respect for something, and you take advantage and become very blasé about it, that is when the accidents happen. So when I’m down underwater and I’m swimming around sharks, I never look at them with fear. But I know that at any point, things can change. And I think that the experience that I have, and the experience of the people that I surround myself with, especially when I’m free diving with them, or doing a photo shoot, help me a lot. When I can’t see underwater and I can’t breathe, and I’m swimming around all these sharks, I have complete trust in the people that we share that same respect level for an animal that is dangerous. But all animals are dangerous. Everyone says to me, “Oh growing up in Johannesburg must be very crazy cause it’s such a dangerous place.” But I know for a fact that there’s certain places that as a female I wouldn’t go by myself at night. I wouldn’t go to certain places of London by myself at night, New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, …It’s all very relative to the world that you’ve created for yourself. So, I think people really need to take a step back, and if you don’t know about something, then it’s not really a place to criticize it. And I wouldn’t do this if I knew that being in the water, I could die. Because I have a family, I have friends, I have responsibilities, and I have a baby niece on the way that I want to be around for. So I’m not gonna put myself in a dangerous position. I do push the boundaries, but I also push the boundaries surrounding myself with people who are doing the same things. Am I going to surround myself by 50 great white sharks? Probably not right now. But if I was in a situation that I knew I’d be safe doing it, then I would do it.
You have been bitten and bumped several times. How do you overcome fear?
Sharks are not out to intentionally get you, I think. There’s a very fine line between a shark attack and being bitten by a shark. A shark attack is such a rare thing. You hear these stupid statistics everyday of ‘There’re more chances of you being killed by a coconut hitting you on a head or by a vending machine, or by taking a selfie than it is by a shark attack.’ It’s ridiculous. Statistically, yes it is proven, but there’s a lot more people in the ocean, doing a lot more risky things these days. Because of Go Pros, because of the Social media aspect of trying to get sharks. People are prepared to push the boundaries, I think it’s those people that don’t really know about the limitations that certain animals, and here we’re talking sharks, have. There are things that people do that I wouldn’t do with sharks, because I don’t trust them enough to do it. But, they’re fish. They don’t think cognitively the way we do. There’s that respect level, and I’m going into the water thinking everyday ‘I don’t want to get hurt but I don’t want to hurt them.’ They don’t intentionally come after me.
How would you describe the adrenaline and the happiness in those precious moments?
I’m fortunate to be able to dive with 14-16 foot tiger sharks. They’re my favorite shark because they’re immense animals. And, although it’s a fish and although they’re more primitive than we are, from an existence level, they’re so much more advanced than we are. In 30 feet of water on the sand, with two tiger sharks swimming around me, there are just amazing; the way they move, the way they look at you. It’s almost like they’re figuring out what you are. But there’re so evolved and they’ve been around for so long, that it is an incredible feeling. I feel very fortunate to do what I do. And any time I’m in the water with a shark, I really know that I’m in position that a not a lot of people get. I don’t know if I get an adrenaline rush like jumping out of an airplane, but there have been moments where everything worked. The cameras were on me, the photographers were on me, and it happened when the shark and I free-dived at the exact time. I felt so close to them that I could feel their muscles moving on my stomach, I get hit by their tail, and it is an amazing feeling. It’s one of those things that you can’t really describe unless you absolutely had that experience. It’s one of those special moments I do live for.