Certified dive master, safety diver, free-diver, conservationist and shark naturalist Kayleigh Nicole Burns answers our questions about diving with sharks as a career, and how she got to where she is today. Her story and collection of moments will inspire you to make the choice to "live your best life," starting now!
Kayleigh free-diving in our ISABELA SET / photograph by @camgrantphotography
Location: I was born and raised in the Philadelphia area but have lived in Hawaii for five years.
What would you say is your "career title"? Shark Naturalist, Conservationist, and Safety Diver for One Ocean Diving
Describe a typical day for you: My day always starts early and doesn’t fully begin without coffee in hand. I love to hit the day super early so I have time to work out, correspond with people on social media, work on my apparel line Breathless Collective, and at the end of it all be a homebody with my boyfriend.
Most days are spent working with the sharks and marine life on the North Shore of Oahu with One Ocean Diving. Even on days off from work I’m still diving!
How long have you been diving? I first tried scuba diving in Ecuador back in 2010 and fell absolutely in love with it. Being able to breathe underwater was a literal childhood dream come true.
Did you always know you were going to be a diver? My ocean obsession began at a very young age when I first saw the Little Mermaid. I could envision myself exploring the ocean depths, tail-fin and all. I started swimming at around 2 years old and I remember imagining what it would be like to be able to breathe underwater in my dad’s pool. I don’t think I always knew that I would grow up fulfilling my childhood fantasies, but I’m extremely grateful that I ultimately came back to myself.
Kayleigh in our ISABELA SET / photograph by @camgrantphotography
When was that moment that you realized THIS is what you’re going to do for a living? I was living in Hawaii, going through a really bad breakup, and on the fearless search to once again find myself (as I believe we all do at various stages in our lives). I remember looking around at my life and not being entirely happy with everything that I saw. I had a good job, lived in Hawaii, amazing friends, but there was something missing and I had no clue what it was.
So, I decided to take a step back. I moved out of my place, quit my job, bought a plane ticket to Thailand, and went on a month long, soul-searching journey. When the time was up I vowed to myself that it would always be O.K. to live like this. I vowed to myself that when I got home to Hawaii I would never do a job again that I didn’t love. I wanted to spend all my time in that state of bliss. And I told myself it was O.K. for me to love my life every day. I was already diving as a weekly hobby, but it was around this time that I made it my life’s work.
What's the best thing about the free-diving community? Free-divers are all on like a full-time life high. Haha. That’s what I love about it. Free-diving means constantly lowering your heart rate and relaxing your mind and body, just like meditating. Everyone should find their form of meditation. :) It makes the world a better place!
Kayleigh in our ISABELA SET / photograph by @camgrantphotography
What has been your ALL-TIME favorite dive? I’ve been so lucky to have dove many amazing spots around the world. And Humpback Whales and Whale Sharks are hard to beat! But I would say my birthday this last year was truly a magical experience that I shared with my bosses (Ocean Ramsey & Juan Oliphant) and some other lovely co-workers. We chartered our boat at One Ocean Diving for my birthday, just us. I was feeling the magic in the air that morning. We happened to come across a dead turtle which brought in 3-4 Tiger Sharks all feeding on it. It’s so extremely rare to see more than one Tiger Shark as they are incredibly shy and docile animals. It was fascinating to get to interact more closely with these misunderstood predators and have them nearly out number us!
Kayleigh the Shark Diving Goddess / photograph by Juan Oliphant and the One Ocean Diving Team.
Are you ever nervous to be in the water with so many sharks? When swimming with that many large sharks I am definitely hyper-aware. Though these animals are the most “polite predators” on the planet, you still need to be fully in the moment, attentive, and never get complacent. I am lucky to have been trained by the world's best shark behavior specialists, Ocean Ramsey and Juan Oliphant, so I am pretty knowledgeable on what behaviors from the animals I need to be aware of. For the most part, the sharks treat me like an equal or often a more dominant apex predator. Especially Tiger Sharks! They get the worst reputation but are actually the laziest predators and the most non-confrontational sharks I’ve interacted with.
Kayleigh swimming with Roxy, a female tiger shark that's become a victim of irresponsible and unethical fishing methods / photograph by Juan Oliphant
If you could hop on a plane tomorrow to dive anywhere in the world where would you be going? In Norway you can actually swim with Orcas legally! It’s a huge bucket list item for my inner Free Willy fan! Also, they have Northern Lights, which is pretty self explanatory. I’m a big believer in the universe, energy, and manifesting so that would be a very spiritual experience for me.
So, what's on the dive list for 2018? Cam (my boyfriend) and I are really looking forward to Tahiti for sharks and rays and Guadalupe for Great Whites this year!
What, along with the sharks, are you are hoping to see underwater every time you dive? Always sharks! But I love it all! I just got my first proper swim with an endangered Monk Seal and that was an unexpected treat since there are only 1,400 left on the planet.
Endangered hawaii monk seal (Neomonachus schauinslandi) / photograph by @camgrantphotography captured January 2018 with Kayleigh and the One Ocean Diving crew.
Your best advice for someone wanting to get into the sport? Diving and the ocean in general can be really intimidating to some people. I take people diving with sharks for a living so I know all about the intimidation factor. But just relax your mind. It's nature. It’s a way more peaceful place than the society we have made for ourselves as humans. It's really important people learn to love the ocean. People in general will protect what they love and the ocean needs that protection now more than ever!
You’re boyfriend is an amazing underwater photographer. Have you picked up any tips from diving and shooting with him? I think just not trying to force it. Photography is an art. I think people can tell with any medium of art when it's genuine and when it's forced. Like the ocean, just go with the flow. Respect the animals, stay calm, stay relaxed. That’s usually how we get our best interactions. The animals and marine life feel more comfortable.
Roles Reversed / Kayleigh captures a photo of Cam diving
You can view more of Cam's work at camgrantphotography.com, and follow him on Instagram at @camgrantphotography.
And of course we have to ask, have you ever dove with the manta rays?! I have! I was able to do a manta ray night dive off Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii. Manta Rays really are like angels. The way they glided and flew through the light rays was breathtaking. I'm really hoping to swim with Oceanic Mantas one day! They have the largest brain of any fish in the sea and are really incredible animals.
Follow Kayleigh for your daily dose of underwater inspiration at @mermaid.kayleigh, or book a shark diving expedition and join the research team at One Ocean Diving-oneoceandiving.com.
Love Kayleigh's bikini? It's made from abandoned fishing nets and every purchase returns a donation to ocean conservation efforts! GET YOUR OWN ECO-BIKINI NOW and give back to protecting our marine life!