A deeper appreciation

SHARKI find myself sitting on top of a submersible cage 30ft below the hull of a 90 ft live aboard vessel in the middle of the pacific ocean, surrounded by sharks… 

I catch a reflection in my mask lens and swiftly turn around to see an 18ft great white shark (known to me as “Shredder”) just meters away looking straight back at me! For most people this scenario may sound like a nightmare but for me it is a lifelong dream that has become a reality and just happens to be another day at the office.

Every year from September to December I run five day trips 220 miles off the coast of California to a uninhabited island made famous by its high numbers of great white sharks. The high numbers of visitors that I accompany confirms that I am not the only one who has a great passion for these animals as each year our daily trips are sold out, often with many guests retuning again and again to see these majestic creatures up close.

Many people ask “how did a guy from Jersey end up suspended underwater face to face with one of natures most feared predators?” Well this was not my first “job” with sharks. Prior to my most recent adventures I have worked all over the world as a scuba diving instructor and guide. I’ve done everything from taking people diving daily in Sydney aquarium, to conducting snorkel tours with the worlds largest fish, the whale shark. It seems I was always destined for a life on (and in) the water, I guess coming from an island this was inevitable. I also spend five months each year working in South Africa onboard a shark boat showing people the “breaching” great white sharks down there.

Im not an adrenaline junkie,in fact I’m terrified of heights and veer away from these types of activities. However, it became apparent to me early on that being around sharks is not at all scary or terrifying, but in actual fact very calming and for me it’s almost spiritual. Most of what people know about sharks they have read about in the media, or watched in films, I mean who hasn’t seen Jaws? The truth about these complex animals is very different and far more fascinating than anything you’ve read or seen, which you soon discover when you get to spend time around them.

Over the past five years myself and the rest of the crew have got to know these sharks very well and have became very fond of certain individuals. Whether it’s  “Bruce”, “Shredder”, “Bella”, “Lucy”, “Mystery” or the aptly named “Biteface”, when a shark swims past the boat we  know them like you know your pet dog or cat. They all display individual characteristics just like us. They can have mood swings and can display a number of different behaviours. Most people will tell you sharks are unpredictable, but this is only true for people that have never met one. They have some tricks up their sleeves but even these can be identified whilst in the water with them, through displaying complex and subtle body languages.

It is knowing these animals so well that allows us to safely run the trips with no accidents. It also allows us to work closely with film crews, including the BBC and Discovery channel. Where we have even been free-diving outside of the cages in a controlled situation. In fact, one of my greatest memories was free swimming with a 12ft great white (I later named her “Livvy” after one of my nieces)  for a French production company. In the time spent with her she never showed myself or the rest of the team any aggression  and allowed us to get some incredible images.

When you spend so much time around an animal that is so often perceived in a negative way I see it as a duty to help stand up for them and give them the full credit they deserve. The truth is like the majority of marine life, these sharks have much more to fear from us than we have of them and they behave in ways very similar to many animals on the planet that society cherishes and protects.

As humans we like to categorise animals into two sections. In one section we put all the animals we think have the “good” human traits, these animals include Elephants, Hippos (both species that kill far more people each year than sharks) and in the other section we put all the animals with the “bad” human traits, these include Spiders, snakes and the sharks. This is all based on our perception, much of which is influenced by what we read and watch. Most of these animals are just doing what they do in order to survive, they don’t kill for revenge or fun and are by no means evil.

I have been privileged to have an inside and more in depth knowledge than most would have about sharks and to help stand up for them is the least I could do given how much they have given me in my life. We need these types of animals on the planet to make it the fascinating place it is today. It seems that many people have lost their sense of wonder and all that they see of the world is through their technology, iPad, internet or even the latest phone gizmos.

The trips we carry out are simply incredible and to call them a “once in a lifetime” is an understatement. We depart from San diego, spend five days at sea showing our guests the sharks before returning back to land and doing it all over again the following day. Living on a boat for three months can take its toll but the rewards of experiencing so many incredible encounters with the wildlife is well worth it. Even though the trips are specifically for great white sharks we often see many species of marine life from literally thousands of common dolphin riding the bow wave of the boat to blue whales feeding of shoals of plankton on the open water crossing to the Island itself.

Many people begin the trip with a certain apprehension and preconceived ideas of an animal they have never met. By the end of the trip we have changed that, given the guests one hell of a holiday and they leave the boat never looking at sharks the same way again. I see that as my job being done.

So, when I turned around to see “Shredder” looking and swimming straight towards me I knew from his body language exactly what “kind” of mood he was in. Instead of panicking and making a a dash for the confines of the cage suspended below me, I calmly (so as not to scare him) picked up my camera , held my breath (to not deter him with the bubbles from my scuba regulator) and we faced each other, within touching distance, for a split second, before he turned away and continued on his way. Not hyped, not “almost eaten” but exhilarating and a moment never to be forgotten.