By Dave Abbott, Liquid Action Films
Images © Dave Abbott, unless otherwise credited.
Ever since I was knee-high I’ve had an enduring fascination for sharks, fuelled by endless hours watching shark documentaries and reading every shark book and paper I could get my hands on.
I know I am not alone in having such a fascination, but for me this obsession resulted in my pursuing a career that has seen me spend hundreds of hours underwater filming these marine predators.
From a filming perspective sharks take some beating. Most people love to see big, dangerous predators on their screens, and shows like Discovery Channel’s Shark Week have drawn millions of viewers for 30 years now.
While some of the entertainment- focused documentaries made for Shark Week have been overly sensationalized and included dubious science, there are plenty of others that feature fascinating shark research and go a long way to correcting common misconceptions about shark behaviours.
Shooting for this type of shark documentary and working alongside shark scientists is a rewarding process, and assignments filming big sharks have given me some of the most memorable moments of my life.
I have been lucky enough to work with most of the big ‘iconic’ shark species from Great Whites and Makos to Bull and Tiger sharks, and while each have differing characteristics and behaviours, all have one thing in common; they are innately cautious and usually non-confrontational.
That’s not to say diving with sharks is risk-free.
Most sharks that the average diver sees underwater are in cruise mode; calm, controlled and cautious, even in an artificial ‘shark feed’ situation. But a shark in hunting mode, or feeling threatened or agitated is a different story altogether!
Tearing into a dead cow
Broadcasters want sequences of shark behaviour and close encounters with big sharks, and filming sharks for TV gets you into some very different situations to those the recreational shark diver experiences.
One I won’t forget is diving with Great Whites in an open filming cage at night. There can be very few experiences as intense as seeing a huge shape looming out of the blackness, head rapidly filling your field of view, gaping mouth full of massive triangular teeth, and pectoral fins as wide as the cage.
Another surreal moment from a shoot earlier this year was hanging mid-water with eight large and pushy Tiger Sharks as they tore into a dead cow. These sharks weren’t accustomed to divers and they saw us as competitors. They were extremely interactive! It’s not easy keeping track of eight constantly moving sharks in a 3-dimensional world, especially with blood clouding the water!
I have been bullied by a pack of Lemon sharks in Tahiti, bumped by Sevengill sharks in Fiordland, surrounded by 40 or 50 hunting reef sharks in an intense night dive in Tahiti, had my dome port scratched by a very close encounter with a Great White, and been forced out of the water by an agitated Mako.
While those experiences were all pretty intense, none made me feel that filming sharks is overly dangerous – as long as you prepare properly, stay focused, and work with the right people.
Yes but how dangerous are they?
People tend to get very opinionated on whether sharks are dangerous or not. They seem to fall into very polarized camps: those who think sharks are all mindless man-eaters out to get us, or at the other end of the spectrum, those who believe all sharks are safe to swim with. I think the reality is somewhere in between; sharks are potentially dangerous predators that deserve respect, but in general are not likely to pose a problem unless you put yourself in a risky situation, ie diving in low light or poor visibility in areas frequented by large sharks; diving in sharky areas without local knowledge; diving alone or out of your comfort zone; or not giving sharks the respect they demand.
Obviously diving with shark species that hunt large prey like seals, turtles and game fish pose significantly more potential risk than diving with smaller reef sharks. However all sharks are opportunistic and if you don’t maintain regular eye contact or let your attention wander, they are instantly aware and will take advantage of your inattention.
Maintaining eye contact, showing confidence without aggression, and projecting awareness is a big part of staying safe in the water with large sharks, as is becoming more attuned to their body language.
Spending more time in the water with sharks does help you understand them better, but it is a mistake to become complacent around any shark, or think you can always ‘read’ them. Yes, they usually signal their mood with body language, but sometimes that mood can change so quickly they are at warp speed before you can react.
While regularly diving with sharks makes you more objective about the relatively low risk of most shark dives it also hones your respect for them. It pays to recognise that even a small shark can give you a bite requiring 20 or 30 stitches. This is not to demonise sharks, just to acknowledge what they are capable of!
Watch your back
Certainly when filming sharks in open water it is important to have someone you trust watching your back. It is pretty difficult to see what is going on behind you when you’re focused on framing a shot, and that second pair of eyes makes all the difference. It also pays to remember that when shooting sharks with a wide-angle lens, ‘filling the frame’ means the shark is going to be on your camera dome, literally!
400 million years of evolution has honed sharks into superb predators, and to my mind one of the beautiful animals on the planet. I count myself very fortunate to have had so many opportunities to get into the water to film these amazing creatures; they are intelligent, intensely aware, often curious, and incredibly graceful …don’t ever miss a chance to do a shark dive!