Off the coast of Tonga, in the deep blue heart of the Pacific Ocean, Cassie Jensen took a giant stride and went feet first. It was her first day in that water for 2018, and a new day always brought a different salty flavor. She just hoped the flavor would be extra special for her four customers.
It was her first year leading her own expeditions instead of just diving for herself. A desire to show people, not just tell them, the wonders under the surface led her start this new chapter. But lots could go wrong—flights could be delayed, violent weather could cancel outings, or the underwater creatures could decide “no, not today.” But a lot could also go right. And for this first splash in Tonga, her luck won.
“We had a group of five humpback whales,” said Jensen, 30. “There was this one—the biggest humpback whale I’ve ever seen in the water. She was massive. She swam right at the surface with us, so slow, like I was barely kicking next to her. She would roll over so her belly was facing me, and she’d reach out with her pectoral fins, just straight out at me, and just waved then back and forth, back and forth. I mean inches from me.
“And I would try to back up, and she would keep coming closer to me,” Jensen continued. “And if I got too far away, she’d roll back belly down, gliding on the water like upright, and then she’d come towards me, and then roll over on her side again. Just reach out with her fins like she was—I don’t know, it really felt like she was trying to hug me. It was so insane. And then there were four other whales just surrounding us going in between, under, over. She did that for at least 15 to 20 minutes; she would not stop. All she wanted to do was just interact with us.”
Jensen continued to hold down the shutter as the female led the dance. Between her underwater photography and her trips, Jensen found her passion in capturing and spreading the beauty of wild sea creatures.
This love for animals started early, above the surface. As a 6-year-old she first looked through the ears of a horse named Banjo at a barn in North Carolina. With supportive parents, her riding flourished, from lessons to owning horses in the family’s backyard in Texas to competing in the jumper ranks. So despite graduating from the University of North Texas with a degree in psychology, it was the horses she chased after.
“Four months before I graduated college, I was looking online for a horse job,” said Jensen. “Even though I had a psychology degree, I just really missed the horses that much. Even though I was riding them, I just knew that I wanted to stay with horses.”
She landed one taking care of and riding young horses at KD Sport Horses in Watertown, Wisconsin.
“We raised them from the day they were born until they were 6-ish years old,” said Jensen. “We taught them how to jump, took them to their first shows. We went to stallion inspections. They were Trakehners. And that was a whole other world.”
But in 2014, one of the owners died, and everything was sold in an auction. With that chapter ending, Jensen was offered her first grooming job with fellow Pony Clubber Eirin Bruheim at Nordic Lights Farm, in Tomball, Texas.
“And I can tell you to this day, the best groom job. I mean, I didn’t even know what was normal,” said Jensen. “I didn’t even know what FEI was. I didn’t know that there even was a groom world. I didn’t know any of that. So when she was like, ‘Well, can you work FEI?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know what that is.’ She was like, ‘OK … it’s fine. You’ll be fine.’ ”
Every Monday on her day off while working for Bruheim at the Winter Equestrian Festival (Florida), Jensen went diving. She had earned her scuba diving certification while she still lived in Wisconsin in preparation for a vacation in Costa Rica, but it wasn’t until coming to Florida that she rekindled the love.
“I went out one day and just fell in love with it right from the beginning. Anything from, like, the tiniest little creature to the giant ones, I was all about it,” said Jensen. “I started to understand how important the ocean is and that humans are destroying it. So I saved up for a long time and got a really nice underwater camera. It just started with photographing what I saw—fish, turtles, the reef, stuff like that.”
Through these weekly dives came a curiosity about sharks. For her whole life she had been afraid—refusing to go in lakes, especially after hours of watching Shark Week. But she kept noticing them swimming away the second they noticed her presence.
“They were timid and afraid of people, and they would just dart off,” said Jensen. “And then after seeing that like 20 times, then I was like, OK, I want to see these things up close. They’re so timid and afraid of us; I want to see them, really see them, and get to understand them as how they really are. Because obviously they’re not what the media portrays them. Then I went on my first gated shark dive.”
While her companion threw up on the way to that initial dive, Jensen felt exhilarated.
“I love bringing people in the water with sharks who’ve never been in the water with sharks before, because they are very anxious before they get in,” said Jensen. “ You can just see the look in their eyes. They’re just scared. And then when they get in—and you brief them, and you tell them how it’s going to be and how to interact with the shark if the shark comes too close and how to act in the water—and then when they get out, they’re like, ‘Oh my God, that was the most incredible thing I’ve ever experienced. They’re so unlike anything I’ve ever imagined.’ And it’s true. So my goal is to help promote conversation through education through showing people how beautiful they are and bring people into the water with them.”
After Bruheim left the sport, Jensen took a training job briefly in California where her parents lived. But the diving was chilly and not as colorful as Florida. With the sharks and reefs calling her back, as well as the horses, Jensen started grooming for Deeridge Farms in 2016. During the Wellington circuit, she worked with their equines, and then in the summer months she would travel to places like Tonga to photograph the humpback whales or Bimini (the Bahamas) to swim with the spotted dolphins. This WEF, she worked for CO’R Equestrian and then Deeridge again after the circuit, before the first first of eight excursions this summer, starting in June.
“I love the bond that you have with the horses—I know that sounds really cheesy but true. When you know that the horse is going well and competing well and is happy because of the time and the effort that you’re putting into their care every single day, that is what makes it work it,” said Jensen. “Sure it’s great when the riders are happy and everything, but really, at the end of the day, the thing that matters the most is the actual horse’s well-being, so I love being a part of that. Knowing my hard work, blood, sweat and tears that go into these animals is worth every bit of happiness that you can bring them.”
Admittedly not able to sit still long, the balance provides Jensen the best in both worlds with no burn out. She’s able to see the proudly pricked ears of her charge after completing a clear round during the winter while not sacrificing the moments where she can close her eyes, listening to the song by a lone, male whale under the water.
“I never really saw myself having a normal 9 to 5 job,” said Jensen. “I truly believe you have to make yourself be happy. It doesn’t just happen. And if you sit around and all you do is work, work, work, and you don’t get to have all these adventures in your life, then you’re really missing out on living. So it sounds so cheesy; it really does, but I genuinely just want to live life the right way: happy and fulfilled. And every single time I get in that water, it just takes my breath away that it is possible. And I feel like I’m truly living life the right way because I’m taking every adventure. I’m literally living my dream, and that’s what I want other people to do.”