Sharks and crocodiles have a bum rep. Their advocates are few and far between, but a pair of intrepid camera-wielding scuba divers are on a mission to prove that they're better off alive than dead. Paul Wildman and Julie Andersen have dedicated their lives to debunking the myth that these massive swimmers are in the business of hunting humans, by photographing and videotaping them on a super up-close-and-personal basis. By swimming with them, they've captured human-meets-shark footage that is literally like nothing you've seen before.
Andersen is a former corporate advertising guru from Chicago, who left her lucrative job in 2007 to dedicate her life to sharks. She also founded Shark Angels, the organization under which she and Wildman do much of their work as conservationists. Wildman is South African, and does all the out-of-cage filming with great whites, among other things.
Despite their portrayal in the media as ravaving killers (think Jaws), sharks actually think humans taste like ass. Wildman and Andersen have established this in their stunning footage, which shows that even when a human dangles itself in front of a shark, it still isn't as likely as we think to take a bite. Wildman and Andersen have countless videos and photos like this, documenting their (entirely unarmed) quests down into the ocean where they come face to face with great whites, oceanic white tips, tiger sharks, hammerheads, whale sharks, bull sharks, and ragged tooth sharks, to name a few. For most of us, the closest we'll get to a shark or a croc is a Graeme Base book, so it's safe to say that what they've managed to capture is pretty remarkable. The aim? To encourage us to sympathize with the creatures and therefore care about what happens to them, because according to Andersen, "the thing that stands in our way when it comes to conservation is that people want these animals off the planet."
And there are quite a lot of people who do. Over 100 million sharks are killed each year, and their population as a whole has dropped by 95 percent in the last two decades thanks to intensive (and illegal) hunting and culling practices. Sharks are butchered for things like shark fin soup, meat, their teeth, jaws, their cartilage for unproven "cancer" remedies, shark liver oil, the makeup industry, and also for some morbid interior design stuff. Culling is also a common knee jerk government reaction when a swimmer has a run-in with a shark. Australian Prime Minister and resident quack Tony Abbott (and his Western Australian counterparts) famously allocated $20 million of the budget to a four-year shark kill plan.
"We've done undercover filming in 15 different countries and seen a lot firsthand, but we've found that people turn away from the gory culling footage because they don't want to see it," Andersen told me. So instead, their approach focuses on "celebrating the beauty" of the animals. This way, the Shark Angels reach an audience that's different from other conservationist groups.
"We feel it's easier to engage people by showing them these perspective altering videos, and that's where the dialogue starts. People are then more open to hearing what sharks are facing, and consider that—love them or hate them—we need them on the planet, and that maybe we need to give them a chance," said Andersen.
So they throw themselves in the water with sharks, swim frighteningly close to them, and—shockingly—do not get eaten. As Andersen explained, "unless we trigger their predatory behaviors by doing something unwittingly, they—the sharks and crocs—do not pose a threat."
"We're not going to suggest that they're teddy bears," said Andersen. "But as long as you respect them and are aware, these kinds of interactions are possible." And that's what they want us to understand: that it's OK to recharacterize sharks outside of the traditional scary-beasts-that-will-definitely-murder-me category.
Their videos are beyond stunning. There's one called Black Swan, which features Andersen literally dancing beneath the sea alongside an enormous oceanic white tip. She's twirling and flirting around the shark so effortlessly that it almost looks fake. Oceanic white tip sharks are known as some of the most dangerous sharks in the world, but again, Andersen does not get eaten. "It was one of the most incredible experiences I've had," she told me, explaining that the entire thing happened organically after they hopped in the water to find it swimming by one afternoon.
Then there's Water Dragon, a video of a 12-foot-long saltwater crocodile lurking in the shallow waters of a tiny atoll called Chinchorro, near the border of Mexico and Belize. He seems remarkably relaxed, given that there's a scuba diver with a camera in front of his face. Shown close up and underwater, it looks more like its dinosaur relatives than ever—more solid, more brutally strong, more intricately detailed, and admittedly more majestic.
"This was my first time in the water with a crocodile," Wildman told me of his foray with the croc. "It was a slow going process, figuring out its behavior. It took a while from both sides for us to get used to each other but once that barrier was broken, it came right in and put its nose on the camera." But the crocodiles didn't threaten him: "At one point one of the crocs turned around and I had the whole tail draped over my shoulder."
Wildman and Andersen emphasize that if sharks become extinct, the entire ecosystem will collapse. The toothy creatures are at the apex of the oceanic food chain, which means that their survival is integral to a healthy and balanced marine ecosystem—and with a damaged ocean ecosystem, the remainder of the earth is screwed too.
"When you look at what happens in the local ecosystems when sharks are removed, it's downright scary," Andersen told me, and it's true. One example is Chesapeake Bay, near the east coast of Virginia, where giant shellfish fisheries went bust because shellfish were all being eaten by the rays, which were no longer being eaten by sharks because sharks were all being killed. "There's nothing extra in nature," Andersen explained. "It's easy for us to forget that and think that we can control it and take out what we don't want anymore."
"They've survived five major extinctions on this planet; do we really want to be messing with that?" said Andersen. "People don't usually know this and if they do, they don't usually care."
As for the crocs? Saltwater crocodiles have a reputation for being mysterious and bloodthirsty, so Wildman and Andersen have recently started capturing similarly angled footage of them in order to continue "demystifying" the idea of apex predators. This is new ground for Wildman and Andersen, and it'll be interesting to see where they take it.
Aside from swimming with sharks and other predators, Wildman and Andersen are also heavily involved in the push to outlaw shark fin across North America and beyond. They were active in a fin-free program that was ultimately successful in banning the import, export, and sale of shark fin in Toronto, Canada. Stateside, Hawaii, Oregon, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, Washington, and California are among the states that have enacted similar laws.
Wildman and Andersen also raise awareness with educational programs in schools that teach children about why sharks are important. It's become so popular that they're teaching classes virtually, via Skype, in countries all over the world, with Russia as the most recent country to sign up. They show their videos and recount their stories, and I get why it works. As someone who previously hyperventilated in the middle of a university lecture because of a shark photo in the PowerPoint presentation, I have to say I'm a convert.
Follow Shanrah Wakefield on Twitter.
Topics: sharks, Shark Angels, Paul Wildman, Julie Andersen, swimming with sharks, jaws, underwater, shark conservation, activism, Black Swan, Water Dragon, crocodile, great white shark, shark culling, poaching, hunting, Tony Abbott, shark fin soup, environmentalism, fin-free laws, shark education, environmental education, animal rights, save the sharks