Meet the Jiu Jitsu Black Belt Who Swims With Sharks

…and hear about the time he dealt with a shark using BJJ 101.
30 March 2016, 6:30am
Photo by Luiz Rocha

Even though Dos Equis's Most Interesting Man in the World is being put out to pasture, Dr. Yannis Papastamatiou might be his spiritual successor. Originally from the UK, Papastamatiou is a renowned shark biologist and an assistant professor in the marine sciences program at Florida International University, traveling the world and getting in the water to study some of the most mysterious fish in the sea—and, occasionally, bringing them out of the water to tag them. Turns out he's also been training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu since 2003, and he wears a black belt earned under Ricardo De La Riva student Beto Nunes.

Fightland spoke with Papastamatiou about his overlapping loves of sharks and jiu jitsu, why free-swimming with large predators isn't as dangerous as it sounds, and whether punching an aggressive shark in the nose does a goddamn thing. But first, Papastamatiou recalls the time when he channeled Royce Gracie to control his own personal Art Jimmerson: a flailing gray reef shark.

Fightland: When it comes to sharks, has training jiu jitsu ever helped you out in a direct way?
Dr. Yannis Papastamatiou: I was [near] an uninhabited atoll in the central Pacific, and my colleague and I brought a shark on board to tag it. I was sitting on top of it to keep it pinned, with a towel over its head to keep it cool. The keys are that you don't want to hurt the animal in any way, and obviously you don't want to get hurt yourself, and she'd been very calm. But just before we were about to release her, she caught me by surprise.

She just suddenly erupted. The strength of the animal just threw me forward, and I instinctively did mount retention—pinched my thighs, legs under the body, and based my arms out. She launched me forward enough that my head hit the side of the boat, but I was able to recover and basically keep her down. We just had a few more seconds left to put the tag in, then we released her, and she was fine—several years later, we're still hearing from her as she's swimming around. I'm not saying I would have gotten hurt otherwise had I not done that, but I would have landed head first next to her head. So I'm glad I was able to retain mount.

What first captivated you about sharks?
I'd been obsessed with sharks since I had been as young as I can remember. I'd seen Jaws at age five or six, and even though that was meant as a film to scare you—and it did—I was just fascinated by these animals. As soon as I got old enough to scuba dive and got to a place where I could see them underwater, I thought they were just the most beautiful animals I'd ever seen. I still feel that way every time I see one underwater.

Since then, what have you learned about sharks that's most profoundly affected how you think about them?
One of the first big revelations to me was when I started looking into their feeding ecology. My initial opinion of them was as eating machines, but the image of them being voracious foragers who are constantly on the hunt—so if you get in the water and you see one, it's gonna go for you—is total nonsense. For the most part, they eat far less than other fishes of similar size would consume. And in fact, they spend a lot of their time digesting food, doing nothing. You look at lions and they're considered lazy from our standpoint. With sharks, it's harder to measure lazy because they have to swim all the time just to get enough oxygen from the water. But when we use some of these sensors, you can see that they do swim all the time, but they manage to do it in a low-active state. It's quite infrequent for them to get active and start chasing things.

I've been fortunate to study a wide range of different species—I've spent a lot of time studying tiger sharks, for example, a lot of work with various reef sharks, oceanic white tips, hammerheads, white sharks. I've worked quite extensively with the cookiecutter shark, which is a much smaller species—it doesn't get larger than half a meter or anything—but it goes around and takes small bites out of animals much larger than itself. You see everything from orcas to white sharks have these cookie cutter bites on them. They always amaze me—this little shark was technically able to bite almost anything in the ocean no matter how big it was.

Photo J. Rummer

What are the big, overarching questions you're concerned with today in your research?
When I started off, I was most interested in movement ecology of sharks, in terms of where they go and relating that to conservation issues—for example, if you wanted to protect different species of sharks, what areas would you need to protect to conserve those species? As time has progressed I've gotten more interested in not just understanding where these animals go, but why they do what we see them do—understanding their behavior. I'm sure you've heard of satellite tracking and using that make nice maps of where the animals go. That's very important, but all that does is show you where the animal is—it doesn't tell you what it's doing, or why a shark swims up the East Coast to Cape Cod and then comes back down to Florida. I use a variety of different tags now that go beyond just saying where the animal is—for example, I attach video cameras to the sharks, I have sensors that measure acceleration and swim speed, stuff that tells more about not just where they're going but what they're doing and what could be driving those patterns. That's very powerful from a conservation standpoint: we can essentially predict how distributions of sharks will change with climate change and answer other broad questions like that.

To be clear, you go out and affix tags yourself—that's a standard part of your research.
Yes. We have a variety of different fishing methods, and we have methods we've developed to tag pretty large sharks, often from a pretty small boat. Especially tiger sharks—we tagged up to 15-foot tiger sharks from a 17-foot whaler. With the right technique, it's possible to do it safely for us and for the animal as well.

Photo J. Hall

How do you approach diving with sharks without a cage, and why is it not as dangerous as it might seem on the surface?
The risk will vary by species—there are a lot of species that you can safely dive with. Taking tourists outside of the cage with white sharks is not a smart idea, but for the most part it can be done safely. The things to remember are first of all, we very rarely appear on the menu of sharks. What I've discovered having spent time in the water is that it just comes down to knowing the animal, knowing how to behave around it, and also knowing when it's time to get out of the water—there are times when the animal is agitated, or for whatever reason it's time to go. The other key behavior I use is that you never want to turn your back on a shark, especially one that is actively swimming around you. That doesn't mean they're going to attack—often they're just curious. At the same time, it's not a pet, it's not a friend. It's a wild animal.

Switching gears, you discovered jiu jitsu at Relson Gracie's school in Hawaii about the time you started your PhD there. What was it about jiujitsu that spoke to you?
I started off as a striker. I had boxed as an undergrad, and I love boxing, but I was a terrible boxer. I loved the biomechanics of jiu jitsu. It just looked beautiful—I didn't even know what the submissions were, all I saw was a blur of motion and then someone would just tap. And I really believe the old saying that jiu jitsu is a physical chess match—I was a competitive chess player from like 10 to 12. You're trying to predict ahead of time what your opponent is going to do. You could say the same thing for any martial art, a boxer or a kickboxer. I guess with jiu jitsu you can get away with a little bit more without getting punched in the face all the time.

Do you see jiu jitsu and sharks as being distinct parts of your life, or do they overlap somehow?
Juggling them has been challenging. Trying to train consistently while traveling a lot to remote places is obviously a little hard to do, but I've managed to get it done. And the fact is without jiu jitsu, I think I would do a miserable job with my job. It can be quite stressful at times and I don't know how I'd do it if I didn't have jiu jitsu.

In case of a life-or-death situation in the water, what kind of vulnerabilities do sharks have that we should keep in mind?
We're far more of a threat to sharks than vice versa. I really like to always make that clear...I'm not sure where it came from, but there was a theory that the nose was especially sensitive and that you should strike a shark in the nose, and that's just worthless information. But obviously, you don't want to do nothing. There are places that are more vulnerable, like the eyes and gills, and your chances depend on the size of the shark. You may just do enough to dissuade it that it's just not worth its effort. Certainly, there are people that have managed to fight off sharks that have been trying to attack them, but as far as if there's a magic punch or something like that, I'm going to say no.

You couldn't arm bar their dorsal fin?
No. It's just cartilage.