What Really happened to AfriOceans and me in 2010

Lesley Rochat Photography - 2010 AfriOceans Highlights

2010 comes to an end as one of the most difficult, yet liberating year’s of my life. I have worked hard, achieved much against many odds, and learnt a great deal, in particular about people and the business of shark conservation. It’s been over a month that I blogged and I know I let down those who follow my blogs, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. Knowing too that as my energy as an activist and success as a conservationist, albeit very humble, continues to grow, so do the numbers of those who watch my every move, perversely searching for fault, the pimple on my nose, and so the more I felt like stepping back to hide my light. And then I reached this place where I felt flattered, humbled and honored to have anyone follow me at all, for or against me. I realized how insignificant these few people are compared to the many more wonderful people who support me in my fight to help save our oceans and our sharks. I am filled with gratitude toward my supporters. Thank you!

As for those of you against me, I have learnt to exercise compassion toward you, understanding that it can only be deep insecurity and personal unhappiness that drives the need for anyone to hang on my every word, image or move and attempt to turn good efforts into something negative. Then I realized that it is all part of my chosen path: when you take a stand and don’t allow others to stand on you, you will gather friends and foes. I stand tall for what I believe in. I am passionate, ethical, loyal, committed, focused and unswerving in my mission. I make mistakes and through my meditation practices I seek guidance to learn from them. I’m not in this conservation business to be liked by everyone. Instead I’ve sacrificed much to be a conservationist for one reason only: to make a meaningful contribution toward conserving our beautiful oceans and in particular our sharks, which I love so much. I know I need both types of followers because together they reflect whether I am on the right path or not. I am therefore grateful to both.

Though it is now water under a bridge, it’s time to share what really happened to me and AfriOceans this year. There are many rumors and many who don’t know at all: The year began with the shock of being given, by the former executive director of the Save Our Seas Foundation (SOSF), Chris Clarke, one week to move AfriOceans out of the Shark Centre, a public education, awareness and research centre, which I envisaged, created and successfully ran through AfriOceans with the help of a wonderful team of supporters, on limited funding donated by SOSF during 2008 and 2009. The reason I was given by Chris was that, he said, although he could not fault my outstanding work, I had become an activist as a result of my award winning film ‘Sharks in Deep Trouble’ (even though he had previously asked for a copy of one of my awards in the name of SOSF despite it not being an SOSF production). In all six years that SOSF funded AfriOceans, I was an activist, which he was fully aware of. He, however, explained further that SOSF did not support activists because their mandate was passive education and awareness. Despite this he welcomed the activist-type film I had produced, directed, script wrote, offline edited and titled ‘Save Our Sharks’ earlier in 2009 in order to help SOSF raise awareness about the plight of sharks, and in which I used my hard hitting shark finning footage from ‘Sharks in Deep Trouble’. After I left Caroline Brett, a SOSF producer who worked closely with Chris, entered it into the Wildscreen Festival 2010 without my knowledge and approval, and won a Panda award for it and gave me no credit. (This is the 8th award I’m aware of which Chris and Caroline have collected from work AfriOceans and I are responsible for and legally own but failed to credit us for. But this is a story of its own.)

From the Centre, and during an 18 month period, and supported by an incredible team of special people who worked exceptionally hard, Verona Smith, Charmaine Rochat, Zaneli, Mathew Nahole, Adam Carnegie, Michael Carnegie, Terry Corr, Lindie Warren and Glenn Seiler, we reached over 18 000 children and 30 000 adults. Shattered and horrified by human nature, and followed by my staff, Terry and Glenn, who equally horrified, resigned from the Centre a month after I left, leaving only Mathew, who does maintenance, and Zaneli, the housekeeper, of the old fulltime team behind, we picked up the pieces of AfriOceans. At the same time Dr Leonard Compagno resigned from the advisory board of the SOSF, and also left the Centre as Chief Scientist, leaving it with no highly respected scientist. One of his main reasons was how I and AfriOceans, for which he is a Director, had been treated.

It was heartbreaking for us to leave and to see what we had worked so hard to build up and achieve close down for a number of months: Through an intensive 3 month period prior to opening the Centre, I had taken what was once a residential home, and with the support of many, including volunteers, renovated it into a public shark centre, a place which literally buzzed with thousands of happy children we taught, visitors, functions, and events all focused on raising awareness about the plight of sharks. We were incredibly busy. When it finally reopened, but lacking leadership, it has never been able to reach the numbers and energy we had achieved. I continue to hope that what we created will be revived, but I also realize that my vision and ambition for the Centre was in conflict with that of Chris, who had never visited the Centre since it opened, but who had kept telling me to stop the growth. To stop the growth would have meant turning children away and people who came to me for help with projects, something I had explained I was unable to do. I believed a solution would be to turn bedrooms, which he had reserved for his film crew, into  more office space to accommodate our growth (while administration and education crammed into one office, three large bedrooms  remained unoccupied 99% of the time.) In addition, since I was overloaded with responsibilities,I proposed on numerous occasions that we hire a manager so that I could focus on the education and awareness. But this was not forthcoming except criticism of my management skills despite my staff resigning when I left, and all my sponsors and partners following me, many of which were equally shocked that I was told to leave since it was common knowledge that the Centre was my vision and it was doing exceptionally well, despite any limitations. I also received many kind messages of disappointment about my leaving from members of the public who had got to know me at the Centre. It was a tough time and I appreciated the kindness extended.

Although the Centre was essentially an AfriOceans project, I had neglected AfriOceans during those two years in favour of helping to build the SOSF in South Africa, believing and trusting that we had a long-term future together. This especially considering the four years of partnership prior to the Shark Centre project during which SOSF funded AfriOceans, and how much we had done to help establish SOSF in South Africa through our high profile work. I did a lot in trust with Chris and not enough in writing, a hard lesson learnt. The lies, which perpetuate that were told to justify our removal after the fact, the backstabbing, accusations and professional jealousy by Chris’s team, including from an insecure shark scientist who I thought was my friend, hurt. But now I see them all for their human weaknesses and it does not surprise that to this day their gossip continues. Fortunately the time has come that firstly we have picked up the pieces as a formidable team and successfully so, and secondly, with the support of wonderful and powerful people, we will no longer allow others to harm my name or that of our organization and now stand our ground for that which is right and is our right. Thirdly, shortly after I left it came as no surprise when I received a call from a company commissioned by SOSF to do an internal investigation/survey of SOSF and asked  my opinion of Chris, and when I heard of much amiss with others Chris had dealings with, and within the organization as a result of his leadership. A few months later Chris Clarke was suddenly no longer executive director of the SOSF.The reasons were quite obvious.

As I had explained to Chris after he told me I must leave, and shocked and unable to hold back my tears: it is wrong to treat people like disposable items when you believe they have outlived their usefullness (it was no coincidence that at the time of him removing us from the Centre he had just completed registering SOSF as a non profit organisation (NPO) in South Africa, and therefore no longer needed AfriOceans, a registered NPO, though this was never given as a reason). I also reminded him of something he appeared to be overlooking: people don’t follow organizations, they follow people, and an organization is only as good as its leader.

Individuals aside, I have always believed in the SOSF and its mission statement hence wanting to help establish the organization as we did, in particular in South Africa. The SOSF does a wonderful job supporting the good work of many people worldwide. Funding is difficult to come by and SOSF has helped many, including AfriOceans and myself, to achieve great things for the conservation of our sharks. AfriOceans, through donations from SOSF, and initially supported by Chris and for which I thank him, achieved many things such as our M-Sea Programme, which resulted in our Panda award winning ‘Rethink the shark’ campaign, created for AfriOceans by Saatchi & Saatchi, and our vision of establishing the first public SOSF Shark Centre in the world. Through this support we reached millions of people worldwide. For this I remain filled with gratitude and wish the new leaders of the organization years of successful conservation achievements. There is much to do and we need organizations like SOSF who have an important role to play, and who, with the right leadership will help win the battle.

Through this all I have certainly learnt a great deal and become a better leader for it. I know for sure karma exists and I have learnt more about the meaning of forgiveness, which I exercise towards all those that tried to stop the good work we were doing in order to fulfill their personal agendas. To my surprise I also learnt that not everyone in the profession has integrity, is driven by altruistic beliefs or motivated by ethical principles, and that fame, power and money can change the nicest of people. More importantly, I have learnt that we can’t save our planet unless we are willing to find peace with each other by putting our egos and differences aside, by working together, and realizing that we are working toward something much greater than ourselves, that being the future survival of many species we share this beautiful planet with, including our very own.

Despite the financial carpet unexpectedly being pulled from under our feet after six years of loyalty, and having to set up new offices overnight, while at the same time searching for funding in difficult economic times, which we continue to do, we have had a remarkably successful year. The highlights have been: the continuation of our AfriOceans Warriors environmental education programme run by Terry Corr and Verona Smith, our environmental educators, and the thousands of children’s lives we have touched. In addition we have established new partners for a meaningful shark conservation research project, we have set up a new editing suite and have began new projects, and I have participated in exciting photographic expeditions which have brought me closer to where I belong, the Ocean against my skin and Her creatures within arms length. We have also developed compelling new awareness campaigns, a new TV commercial (to be launched soon), new book projects, taken on new members of the team (to be announced), and shared knowledge far and wide, to mention just a few achievements during 2010. The images I have selected here depict only some of the highlights of each month. See our latest Newsletter here. 

With a tough, but rewarding year behind, the New Year is filled with the promise of very exciting projects and challenges, including our continued fight to get improved protection for a number of shark species in South Africa. I look forward to what I know is going to be a very successful year toward making a difference in conserving our beautiful oceans and our sharks. We can’t do it alone and I thank everyone who has supported AfriOceans and me during this transition period and contributed toward helping us achieve our goals in 2010. I wish you all, friend and foe, a wonderful 2011. We have oceans and sharks to save, bring it on!

  1. mermanmerman12-31-2010

    Hey Leslie, time it was said! behind you girl. what you achieved and continued to do no matter the difficulties i can only imagine makes you an example to follow. inspiring and 1 in a million. c u in the new year!

  2. KenKen01-18-2011

    Since you and your team left the shark centre absolutely nothing much happens there. The place is dead. I loved seeing how much you were all doing and all the kids that filled the building that you taught. There was a very good vibe in the place and the pace and passion your team had was really cool and infectious. Its become a white elephant and dull and lifeless and it would do them better to give the money they spend on keeping that building to other worthy projects. It's a terrible shame that chris and his supporters allowed their egos to destroy the good work you created and that was being done there. Most of all a shame for all the kids and people you would have reached but that now will never be reached by that place. I agree that people follow people and i have continued to follow the awesome work you do. Regardless of the adversities you have gone through you continue to shine!

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