Student Wins Contest to Free Dive with Sharks

WINTERVILLE—A month from now, Pitt Community College student Ivanya Johnson will be free diving with sharks in Hawaii’s crystal clear waters with some of the world’s top conservationists.

Johnson, an 18-year-old Snow Hill resident also enrolled at Greene County Early College High School, received the surprising news this month, shortly after completing her final exam in organic chemistry at PCC. After finishing the test, she was asked by her instructor, Stephen Gabriel, to return to class to complete “an extra assignment.” When she entered the science lab with her classmates, she discovered that her additional project was actually a chance to participate in the adventure of a lifetime.

Two years ago, Johnson entered Xploration Station’s first-ever #StudentExplorer Contest. Her video submission, in which she explained her passion for exploration and understanding the world through science and travel, was good enough to make her a finalist, but the top prize ultimately went to Duke University student Carmen Hoyt.

Undeterred, Johnson leapt at the chance to enter the 2019 #StudentExplorer competition when it was announced this fall. She submitted a new video and checked Xploration Station’s Facebook page repeatedly for the results. Unable to find any news, though, she figured she’d come up short once again – that is, right up until the moment she found out about her “extra assignment.”

With a two-man camera crew hiding in a storage closet ready to capture her reaction, Johnson watched a video message from Philippe Cousteau Jr., host of the Xploration Awesome Planet television show. Once Cousteau explained to Johnson that she had won the contest, her smile widened considerably and tears started to flow.

In an interview with the camera crew immediately after receiving the big news, Johnson said she was “excited, nervous” and shaking. A week later, she said it still feels like she’s in a dream.

“You just want to keep thinking about it, but it’s not completely clicking that it actually happened,” she said. “… I can’t wait to look back on this (someday) and say, ‘Wow. That actually happened.’”

As this year’s winner, Johnson will embark upon an all-expenses-paid expedition to Hawaii in mid-January to participate in a shark experience with One Ocean Diving, alongside Cousteau. She’ll also join Cousteau, who is the grandson of legendary explorer and marine conservationist Jacques Cousteau, as co-host of a special episode of Xploration Awesome Planet to air nationally on Fox sometime in the spring of 2020.

“Actually being able to meet (Philippe) in person is a dream for a lot of divers …, so I’m super excited,” Johnson said. “He seems really, really nice, and I can’t wait to learn a lot from him.”

Gabriel, who considers Johnson’s victory “beyond awesome,” feels her experience in Hawaii will serve as inspiration for her to continue pursuing her life’s goals.

“I’m excited for Ivanya to be able to participate in this very special experience,” he said. “She has stated many times that her goal in life, both personally and professionally, was to study and contribute to shark preservation.”

Johnson, who will complete her high school diploma and three associate degrees this spring, says she’s not sure where she wants to attend college, but she knows she wants to major in marine biology and minor in zoology.