Dive Briefs

Con­ser­va­tion­ist, po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist, CEO — no mat­ter how you la­bel her, this shark lover is mak­ing an im­pact

Sport Diver - - Contents - BY B ROOKE MORTON

The heart and soul be­hind Op­er­a­tion Blue Pride; 3 mm wet­suits for warm wa­ter; the shark-feed­ing de­bate; the ta­ble man­ners of four scav­engers of the sea.

Sue Chen’s first and only visit to Sea­world didn’t go as planned. The CEO of Nova Med­i­cal Prod­ucts was 8 when her fam­ily took her to the Orlando, Florida, theme park, and af­ter some beg­ging, she held a bucket of her­ring to feed the dol­phins.

“We made eye con­tact, and I just started cry­ing,” says Chen. Scrapes cov­ered the dol­phin’s face. “I could tell he was sad, and that wasn’t at all the con­nec­tion I wanted.

“But I knew I would go back to see ma­rine an­i­mals as soon as I could — not in that way, but in their en­vi­ron­ment.”

It wasn’t un­til she was in her early 30s that she ful­filled that prom­ise to her­self, earn­ing her Open Wa­ter Diver

card and quickly amass­ing a port­fo­lio of ex­otic lo­cales, in­clud­ing Hawaii and Cozumel. Fol­low­ing a get­away to the Gala­pa­gos, Chen re­turned with an over­whelm­ing feel­ing.

“I don’t know where it came from, but I woke up know­ing that sav­ing sharks was my call­ing,” she says.

Chen spent the next few weeks talk­ing about it, un­til her fam­ily told her to search the In­ter­net to find a way to con­trib­ute.

And so it was she came across Shark Savers, still in its in­fancy in 2007.

“I cold-called them and said, ‘I’m a diver, and I want to help,’” says Chen.

At first, the only way Chen could as­sist was fi­nan­cially.

“So I made a do­na­tion, which helped launch the web­site. Peo­ple of­ten un­der­state the im­por­tance of get­ting that ini­tial fund­ing — it doesn’t have to be a lot of money.”

Shortly there­after, a friend in­tro­duced her to Reef Check.

Says Chen, “I went to a board meet­ing, joined the board, then be­came the board chair. It all hap­pened re­ally fast. I was all in!”

Then in 2011, the state of Cal­i­for­nia’s shark-fin bill be­came a hotly con­tested is­sue, spurred on by a sim­i­lar bill in Hawaii.

“I wasn’t in­tend­ing to be a spokesper­son for the move­ment, but some­body needed to go, and the epi­cen­ter of the op­po­si­tion was Sen­a­tor Ted Lieu, and I was in his district,” says Chen. “I’m Asian, I’m a busi­ness owner, and I knew I had a voice.”

The bill ban­ning the pos­ses­sion of shark fins passed.

Says Chen, “What was so pow­er­ful was the grass-roots or­ga­ni­za­tions — I had never seen any­thing like it. Shark lovers of all ages and all walks of life came to­gether. It was an amaz­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion of 30 or so non­prof­its, in­clud­ing the Mon­terey Bay Aquar­ium, the Sierra Club and Reef Check.

“It put a lot of pres­sure on the politi­cians. This is a rep­re­sen­ta­tive govern­ment, which is sup­posed to rep­re­sent the wants and wills of the con­stituents. When peo­ple protest and speak up, it’s a re­minder that politi­cians need to vote in fa­vor of what the peo­ple want, and the peo­ple wanted this ban.”

Through it all, Chen met ac­com­plished film­mak­ers and shark con­ser­va­tion­ists (among other things) Jim Aber­nethy, Ge­orge Schel­lenger and Shawn Hein­richs.

“These are peo­ple I never would have met in my day job,” says Chen.

The topic of her day job came up one day when Aber­nethy was suf­fer­ing ap­pen­dici­tis and learned that Chen works in the mo­bil­ity-aids field.

Chen says Aber­nethy was shocked. “What? There’s some­thing in your life other than sharks?” Aber­nethy said to her. “Wouldn’t it be amaz­ing if we could bring to­gether your two pas­sions?”

In that mo­ment, the idea was born to help in­tro­duce wounded vet­er­ans to shark div­ing, and Chen went on to co-found the or­ga­ni­za­tion Op­er­a­tion Blue Pride.

“Vet­er­ans tell me they have tried ev­ery­thing to get back into some kind of nor­malcy, and they say div­ing is it,” says Chen. “The ca­ma­raderie of be­ing in a team, the pro­to­col, the act of look­ing out for a buddy — it re­ally works for vet­er­ans.”

On the in­au­gu­ral trip, three vets as well as busi­ness­man and phi­lan­thropist Richard Bran­son trekked to the Ba­hamas, where they all shared an un­der­wa­ter first: div­ing with tiger sharks.

Op­er­a­tion Blue Pride has since helped more than 100 vet­er­ans earn dive cer­ti­fi­ca­tions, all thanks to Chen’s shark­like ap­proach to busi­ness and her pas­sions.

Her be­lief: No mat­ter what, just go for it.

“I hear peo­ple say­ing all the time, about one thing or an­other, that they’ve found some­thing they’ve al­ways wanted to do. I al­ways en­cour­age peo­ple, no mat­ter how old you are or if you have ex­pe­ri­ence or not — just do it. I did.”

The roots of Sue Chen’s love for ma­rine life can be traced back to her child­hood.

Ed­u­cat­ing the next gen­er­a­tion is an im­por­tant mis­sion for Chen and the or­ga­ni­za­tion Shark Savers.

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