You are here
Television's human shark baits return
"PLAN for the worst but hope for the best" - that is the mantra of wildlife cameraman Andy Casagrande, who regularly dives alongside one of the world's most dangerous predators, the Great White Shark. Although the 38-year-old has been seen facing off sharks for the last 15 years, the worst - touch wood - has never happened. "I have never had a situation when I thought I was going to die," he says. "Even though I had Great Whites chase me and bite my camera."
See his close shaves in Isle of Jaws and Jungle Shark, which are part of the line-up of Discovery Channel's Shark Week. The 10 programmes will feature everything from Great Whites hunting at night to sharks interacting with crocodiles and dolphins.
Casagrande's goal in filming sharks is to refute the image of them as blood-thirsty man-eaters, a reputation that has been reinforced by classic Hollywood films such as Jaws and by media reports of shark fatalities.
"Sharks are predators and they need to eat to survive," he explains. "If you choose to surf in the ocean, you have to expect a shark lives there. We co-exist on the same planet."
He adds, with a wry laugh: "If they're really malicious predators, they would eat us every day. Humans are the slowest seals out there."
Having been up close and personal with sharks, Casagrande reveals that they have different personalities just like humans. He stays away from aggressive sharks but he can even swim uncaged with the more relaxed ones.
Treating each shark as a unique individual is also important to wildlife filmmaker Jeff Kurr, who has produced five of the 10 most highly-rated episodes of Shark Week and can be seen in Air Jaws: Night Stalker.
In a career spanning 26 years, he has seen his share of shy, cautious sharks that will not even come close to the bait that is offered to them from the filmmakers' boat. "They are really intelligent and discerning predators," he points out.
The fact that sharks are not really hunger-crazed beasts saved Kurr's life. He reveals that a few years ago, a strong wave caused him to fall off the back of his boat, right onto a four-metre-long Great White Shark.
"I held onto the edge of the boat for dear life, waiting for the shark to bite," he describes. "But it did not and I realised that sharks are actually afraid of us rather than actively seeking us out. That shark must have been more confused than anything when I fell onto it."
Falling onto sharks is not even the most frightening thing that Kurr has done. To get the perfect shot of a shark breaching the water, he has been pulled behind the boat on a metal raft called a seal sled, which contains the bait for the shark to grab. "We wanted to get the perspective of a seal when a Great White attacks. That was the most nerve-wracking moment for me, not knowing when it would happen," he admits.
Using such gadgets to attract sharks is one of Mr Kurr's main interests. He has also developed the robotic seal which simulates the swimming patterns of real seals to film the predatory behaviour of sharks. "We had this US$10,000 seal that lasted for 15 seconds because Colossus our friendly shark came and ate it," he laughs.
Yet, Colossus' small meal pales in comparison to the highlight of Kurr's career - watching 27 Great Whites feasting on a 12-metre long dead whale. "These sharks were in a feeding frenzy and in the end, they were so full they were turning on their backs with over-stuffed bellies," he adds.
Despite Kurr's enthusiasm, he says that his 11-year-old twins remain uninterested in his passions. "I think it is boring to them that I spend my time waiting around for sharks to emerge," he quips.
Yet, he feels that his efforts will pay off if he can raise a little more awareness of shark conservation. Kurr emphasises that sharks have been heavily over-fished and they reproduce slowly, with only four to 10 pups depending on the species. "We need people to appreciate sharks and also realise that they are in trouble and need our support."
Each shark-diving experience shows Kurr more of the "mysterious and beautiful" apex predator that he has fallen in love with. Unlike the popular belief that sharks are driven by instinct alone, Kurr asserts that they can learn and remember behaviours.
He cites the example of a shark that appears every year on the same day at the same location, circles the filmmakers' boat and looks at them before swimming away.
"They can see in the dark, smell prey a long way off and navigate around the world without a GPS," he adds. "What human can do that?"
- Discovery Channel's Shark Week airs on Singtel TV 202 and Starhub Ch 422 from June 27 to July 1