I knew I had to get out of the water when I couldn’t open my hands anymore.

I was free-diving without a wetsuit in a small marine reserve on the Cape Peninsula of South Africa, and after 40 minutes the freezing sea had crushed my resolve. As I was swimming back to shore through the thick, swaying kelp, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a lone pyjama shark cruising along the sea-bed. 

All thoughts of the cold vanished as I tailed it. The pyjama shark or striped catshark, aptly named because it looks like it’s wearing striped pyjamas, is a species of catshark endemic to South Africa. Harmless to humans, I often see them in the reserve, where this threatened species is given a chance to flourish.

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Curious, I continued to swim in the direction the shark had taken. Suddenly, I was horrified to see it wedged headfirst in a crevice, its body writhing. “What creature”, I screamed silently to myself, “has dragged this poor innocent into its lair?”. My concern turned to excitement when I realised that the animal was not in trouble – the not-so-innocent pyjama shark was engaged in a death-roll with an octopus. 

I only recognised this behaviour because my colleague Craig Foster had recently filmed this rare sequence for the BBC’s Blue Planet II series. It showed exactly the same battle, and is considered one of the top sequences in what has become the most popular natural history show of all time. Billions of people all over the world have seen this unfold on their screens, but here I was, watching this drama in real life.

I am an unlikely, grateful member of a diverse group of Sea-Change volunteers who are dedicated to exploring the ocean. We established the Sea-Change Trust, a South African non-profit organisation, and our mission is to tell stories that showcase one of the greatest natural wonders in the world – the Southern African kelp forest, which is home to over 14,000 documented species.

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Seeking connection

Two years ago, just before my 50th birthday, I pushed my boundaries and took a leap of faith and followed Sea-Change Project founders Craig Foster and Ross Frylinck into the ocean. Fueled by my desire to do something completely out of character before ushering in the next 50 years, I donned the permitted kit of bathing suit, snorkel and mask. Glaringly missing in the 13°C water was a wetsuit.

The cold that had seared painfully through my body gradually subsided. Buoyed by this unexpected resilience to the cold, I lost sense of time and was immersed in this new world. I truly believe that for the first time in my life I was completely present, and this sense of connection has changed my life irrevocably.

The irony isn’t lost on me that I studied media and mass communication, worked with some of the top film people in the world, and spent almost two decades connecting millions of people to nature content, but somehow always felt disconnected. I was an enabler of other people’s stories. I can run off a litany of mind-blowing nature experiences that I never experienced - always a good few steps ahead, never present. But all of us who warp time know that it has an uncanny way of catching up. My physical body crashed; it refused to move and forgot how to sleep.

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Realising I needed to heal myself, I started a programme of “deep nature immersion” in the kelp forests, and have never looked back. I totally appreciate that not everyone has the opportunity to re-author their world in the way I have mine - this is just one of the ways. Any immersive connection with nature can have a similar effect. Without connection there is no emotional drive to care for the world. If we don’t care then we will continue to plunder towards an ecological disaster.
Science has proven that storytelling has the unique power to change opinions and behaviours

In a hyperconnected, high-tech digital world, stories are everywhere. Billions on the planet have access to global media. It is through stories that humans make sense of their world, but can we harness all that hyper-connectivity to make a difference? We think so. 

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The biggest threat to South Africa’s oceans is that of economic pressure: a desperate need for jobs and national revenue. As the South African government moves to commodify the ocean through Operation Phakisa, 98 per cent of South Africa’s marine territory has been earmarked for mining. Only 0.4 per cent is protected! A great GDP is meaningless in the face of an ecological collapse. All the science points to the need to strongly protect at least 30 per cent of our Ocean. In South Africa, our leadership should try to get to at least 10 per cent before the end of this year. 

Without connection there is no emotional drive to care for the world. If we don’t care then we will continue to plunder towards an ecological disaster.

I know how important it is to have wild spaces to connect to. Castle Rock sanctuary, where I witnessed the shark going to battle with an octopus, is a MPA. My experience in deep nature has started me teaching my children and their friends about the lives of these kelp forest animals. Helping them foster a deep respect for nature, is my biggest gift and joy. These protected pockets are an ecological savings account for future generations of human beings.

“She believes in hard graft, but always a party at the end of it” – happy birthday @evebranson! https://virg.in/3TY

The Sea-Change Project tribe is bound together by our love for the South African kelp forests. We’ve formed deep relationships with the underwater creatures and have made biological discoveries that are changing the way we understand these undersea forests. This has led to the aforementioned groundbreaking sequence in the BBC’s Blue Planet II series, plus an outdoor photography exhibition seen by an estimated 1 million people, and even the discovery of new species.

Our current projects include a film, a book, field courses, exhibitions and an outreach campaign with a focus on Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). Today I am the author of my own story, and know without a doubt the best stories are going on in nature.

- This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. 

This post is part of a series produced by Virgin Unite in partnership with Ocean Unite, an initiative to unite and activate powerful voices for ocean-conservation action.