“I’m not sure why, but I’ve had a fascination with sharks for as long as I can remember,” said VanGilder (BSJ, 2013). “I grew up watching the movie ‘JAWS,’ and I would get shark toys for Christmas and birthdays.”
Growing up in Fairmont, West Virginia, VanGilder only imagined seeing a shark in its natural environment, but in October she fulfilled that dream. She participated in a one-month internship with White Shark Africa, a great white shark conservation and ecotourism program in Mossel Bay, South Africa.
One of the organization’s main goals is to educate people about the dramatic decline in the world’s shark population and to change negative perceptions about sharks. They do this through community outreach, boat tours to view and learn about sharks in the wild, and other educational programs.
As an intern, VanGilder assisted in these efforts. In addition to helping White Shark Africa collect shark data, she briefed clients before their boat excursion and talked to African school children about the important role sharks play in the ecosystem. VanGilder says the experience was the perfect combination of realizing her passion and using her professional skills.
“In advertising I learned how to persuade people in a positive manner,” said VanGilder. “Most people are afraid of sharks, so I want to take a negative ‘brand’ – which in this case is the shark – and turn it into a positive one,” said VanGilder. “I want people to see that shark conservation is a cause worthy of their support.”
VanGilder says the internship helped her gain a better understanding of sharks because she was able to witness their behaviors while cage diving. Now that she is back home, she hopes to put her newfound knowledge to work for a non-profit agency dedicated to creating awareness of shark finning, or the removal and retention of shark fins for profit. In the meantime, VanGilder has been visiting elementary schools in her hometown to talk to children about her experience.
“When I speak to them, I like to share this quote [by Baba Dioum]: ‘In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.’”
CONTACT: Kimberly Walker, Reed College of Media
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