When you think about sharks, certain “facts” may come to mind. They are ferocious, man-eating predators. They attack humans any chance they get. Their fins make a delicious soup that you really should try some day.
Lauren Mezzanotte ’12 will tell you unequivocally that all of these “facts,” popularized by Jaws and Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, are myths. She should know—she swims with sharks for a living. A 2016 graduate of the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, Lauren is a shark handler and dive guide for Calypso Dive Charters in West Palm Beach, Florida.
How did she wind up in a tropical paradise doing what has to be one of the coolest jobs on the planet? Last semester, Lauren shared her path to her dream career during a virtual visit to Associate Dean of Students and science teacher Rod Gerdsen’s marine science class. As it turns out, it all began when she was a student in that very course as a Blair senior.
“We took a marine science trip that year to the Turks and Caicos, and I realized while on a dive that being a dive operator was something I could get paid to do,” Lauren said. People tried to dissuade her from pursuing a career in marine biology, saying that it might be difficult to find a job, but Associate Dean of College Counseling Joe Mantegna advised her to set herself up for success by going to school where the potential jobs were. Thus, in the summer of 2012, Lauren packed her bags and headed for the University of Miami, where she had earned an academic scholarship.
“My experience there was awesome,” Lauren told her audience of juniors and seniors, describing how she changed her major from marine biology—which was considered a pre-med course of study—to marine affairs and policy during her sophomore year. Her coursework included classes in fisheries management, coastal law and other subjects that she now uses daily in her work on the water.
Lauren took full advantage of her Miami location by getting involved in diving as an undergraduate. She interned on a dive boat every weekend and took classes to earn her certification as a scuba instructor. During her senior year, she went on her first-ever shark dive in Jupiter, Florida, and the experience set the course for her future.
“We saw eight species of shark on that dive, and they kept bumping into us as they swam by,” she said, tapping her shoulders and arms to simulate the sharks’ gentle nudges. In a situation that might be nerve-wracking to some, Lauren never felt calmer. “I was absolutely speechless because the sharks were so beautiful. The whole experience Blew. My. Mind.”
Diving into Sharks
Knowing that she wanted a career that centered around sharks, Lauren continued learning and training after her college graduation. She worked as an unpaid intern on a shark diving boat, did a stint as a yacht dive instructor, and traveled to Bimini to work with hammerheads and observe their annual migration. As a PADI Master Scuba Dive trainer and Scuba Schools International (SSI) Scuba Instructor, she also became an instructor at one of the top dive shops in Miami, where she trained the entire Miami Beach fire department in scuba diving so they would know how to respond to diving emergencies.
Lauren’s focus and hard work paid off when she was hired in 2019 by Calypso Dive Charters, a shark ecotourism and diving operation. In her roles as a shark handler and dive guide, she takes people shark diving and snorkeling every day, leading them into the clear blue waters off Jupiter and West Palm Beach to observe and interact with hammerheads, lemon sharks, tiger sharks and other species. During each dive, she manages the divers underwater, keeping them safe and calm, feeds sharks to attract them to her group and maintains awareness of all the species swimming around them. Her clients have included everyone from curious tourists with basic swimming skills to advanced-level divers and professional photographers from National Geographic and Discovery Channel.
“Our goal is to take people up close and personal with sharks and show them how they truly act in the water, dispelling any myths they’ve come to believe about sharks’ aggressiveness or desire to eat humans, which are entirely not true,” Lauren said. “Sharks are basically perfect examples of evolution; they are designed to eat dead and dying fish, not people. We want to change people’s fear of them into fascination.”
Lauren noted that the end goal for local shark ecotourism operators is to educate the community on the importance of a healthy shark population to the ocean ecosystem. “Sharks maintain the balance in the ocean, and eat dead, dying and diseased fish, keeping the rest of the population healthy,” she explained. “Without sharks, everything under them in the food chain will grow out of control. They keep the entire ocean ecosystem in check.”
By putting those two pieces together—the beauty of sharks and their importance to the environment—Lauren and her Calypso colleagues hope to create shark conservationists, people who will help to save local shark populations. She invited her audience of students to join the global movement to save sharks by sharing with others what they had learned about sharks, avoiding makeup that contains squalene (a substance derived from sharks), and by not eating shark, which is unhealthy for humans to consume due to the species’ diet of diseased and dying fish.
As her career progresses, Lauren would like to establish a nonprofit centered on shark behavior, an area of study about which she has found very little existing research or information. “The more people understand about sharks, the more connected they will feel to this vital species,” she said. “People are only going to save what they are connected to, and I think if they know more about why sharks behave the way they do, and see how beautiful they really are, it will help create that connection.”
In the meantime, Lauren will continue her own research through daily up-close-and-personal encounters with sharks. And, she will share her excitement and passion for this magnificent and little-understood species with everyone who accompanies her on a dive or snorkeling adventure.
To learn more about Calypso Dive Charters, click here.