Photos of Valentine Thomas, a freediver who travels the world spearfishing in exotic places, went viral this summer.
In June, shortly after Thomas had quit her finance job in London to spearfish full-time, an Instagram account known as Spear Sluts posted a picture of the 28-year-old French Canadian. Like other ocean fishing photos featured by the account, the post of Thomas was lifted from her own, public account and showed her standing on a beach in a bikini, posing with her gun as she prepared it for a dive.
Soon thereafter, her name and photos were all over the Internet.
The Daily Mail interviewed her at the end of June about the sexism she faces as one of the few women in the sport and called her the “glamorous spearfishing huntress.” Grind TV listed all the reasons they loved her, including one that stated she “bedazzles in a bikini.” Her own Instagram account grew from 8,000 to more than 30,000 followers in two months.
All the attention made Thomas a little nervous. “As soon as I saw the [Daily Mail] article, I thought, ‘Oh my God,’” Thomas told The Huffington Post. "I didn't want to read the comments because I knew there would be people ranting and saying bad stuff about me and calling me names."
She was right.
Online critics began questioning her spearfishing credentials, despite the many photos of Thomas actively hunting. People claimed that she only wanted attention and that all the photos that showed her in a bikini were proof of it.
"Let's be real here," one commenter wrote on a BuzzFeed story about Thomas. "95% of her fame is because she's a hot chick posting pictures in a small bikini... if she was only in it to represent spear fishing, we'd see a whole lot more of THAT and a whole lot less of what she actually posts."
These are the types of comments that hurt Thomas the most.
"It affects my credibility," Thomas, who holds a record for spearing the world's largest Atlantic Jack, told HuffPost.
In a majority of the articles that feature her, Thomas says, "the journalists picked the bikini pictures" off her Instagram account. While she's not ashamed to wear a bikini, Thomas says that in her actual profile, "you're going to see that I'm pretty much always in a wetsuit."
"If I just wanted attention," Thomas said, "I would be naked. I wouldn't even bother with a bathing suit."
While Internet trolls try to focus on her looks, Thomas is hoping to steer the conversation to sustainable ways of eating, which, she says, is what made her get into spearfishing in the first place.
"What made me fall in love with spearfishing was the fact that I was picking my own food [with] no collateral damage," Thomas said. "Spearfishing really made me look into where my food was coming from and I realized that everywhere you buy food in London, it comes from slaughter houses."
While the connection between hunter and conservationist may not be obvious, many spearfishing lovers feel the same way as Thomas.
Kimi Werner, a spearfishing national champion in Hawaii who Thomas greatly admires, says that by hunting her own food, she naturally comes to understand and care more about the ecosystem.
“In order to hunt the animal," Kimi explained to Freesurf Magazine, "I have to first know that animal; what it eats, where it lives… and through this I fall in love with this prey. Today, people are so disconnected to their food source, they don’t even know what it means to be conservative.”
Thomas says some of her critics confuse her love of spearfishing with taking joy in killing. Not so, she told BuzzFeed earlier this summer, noting that it wasn't long ago that "if you couldn’t kill your own food, you wouldn’t eat."
"I don’t do this because I enjoy killing things and because I enjoy fish suffering. I am just realistic about where food comes from."
Looking back on her whirlwind summer, Thomas told HuffPost that all the attention has been "a double-edged sword." Despite the Internet's efforts to sexualize and sensationalize her, the publicity has led to various projects and offers, including TV shows. While she wouldn't share any specifics, she says she's hoping to parlay these offers into raising awareness about sustainable consumption habits.
"I've never claimed to be the best one," Thomas says of her spearfishing career so far. "I've never claimed to be the prettiest one. I've never claimed to be anything. [Spearfishing] is just a sport I love."
Below, proof that Valentine Thomas is a badass huntress, with or without the bikini.
This capture of a hunting moment made me giggle. Eyes on the surface, waiting for the wahoos to grace us with their presence. They are such a powerful and graceful fish to watch. Thank you Mr. Wahoo for the food you provided us. We also learned that they can become very snappy when annoyed! #catchyourdinner #huntersinstinct #bluewaterhunting 📷 Barret Harvey @africanspearfishingdiaries
What a day blue water hunting! The sea was very rough and it was super windy! Current against wind, the swell was out of this world. Despite my extreme sea sickness (I got sick on the boat AND in my snorkel several times!!) I managed to place a solid shot on a wahoo...sadly I was so eager and scared of loosing it that I pulled it in too quickly and ripped it off 😔 I am a bit bumped out but it's life! At least Barret @africanspearfishingdiaries saved the day and got two in the boat! And I got cleaning and cooking duty 😁 A nice fish pasta for dinner? wahoo season is officially ON in Zanzibar with @extremebluewaterspearfishing #beginnersmistake #boooo #cooking
I'm a little girl trying to play with a big big toy! This is my first wooden gun and despite the fact that it took me quite a while to load, I am finally getting comfortable with it. I often feel that a euro gun is all you need but those guns evolved to be so much lighter than they used to be! @deepwwmagazine I could talk about the recoil I got in my forehead but let's keep that for another time 😂😂
The face. There was no shadow on the boat so I had to cut the fish to prevent it from rotting in the sun. We used the guts as chum to attract wahoos. I must admit that I still feel a little unsure when cutting pieces of bloody dead fish in the sea. Everything is used. This one must have been very happy because she squirted blood all over my face 😂. #doitall #useitall