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  • Shark Diving with the Duchess
    A Royal Adventure
    By Jean-Michel Cousteau
    photographs by Tom Ordway
    Jean-Michel Cousteau Productions

    Diving with a novice is always challenging. A buddy must be constantly alert to all possible mistakes, while still putting the partner at ease. If the novice is a celebrity, the challenge increases because, in some way, the world is watching every move. Add a film crew and the palms begin to sweat. To make matters even more interesting, bring everyone into direct contact with sharks. All in all, this is a pretty solid recipe for risk.

    These thoughts raced through my head as I recently listened to an invitation to participate in a television special: Would I be willing to guide the Duchess of York on an undersea adventure involving sharks? The risks were there, but I agreed at once.

    I was told the footage would be part of an upcoming ABC television special featuring Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, as she confronts a variety of physical challenges. The Duchess' purpose is to show people that they, too, can overcome their fears and take control of their lives through active involvement. I was not acquainted with the Duchess but reflected that she had weathered turbulent times in the public eye. She must be a very courageous woman indeed to have made the decision to participate in these adventures.

    I was immediately caught up in the project, as if her enthusiasm had sparked my own. In the first place, I was honored to have been asked to participate. Beyond that, I saw great potential for the world of diving. I felt the program could demonstrate that diving is as easy as a walk in the park. I also believed we could show the world sharks are not rampaging killers but animals that serve a vital function in their native ecosystems. With more than 100 million killed each year, sharks need protection and a show such as this might serve to heighten global awareness of their plight.

    Logistical wheels now began to turn. We needed a site, a crew and, of course, sharks. The production company, Nash Entertainment, suggested filming with Blue Sharks off Southern California. Numerous operators offer fine programs, but I had some reservations owing to our very particular needs. The Duchess was not an experienced diver and I could not be certain how she would handle a confrontation with sharks in 3,000 feet of water in the chilly, open Pacific. Direct physical contact is limited. Besides, owing to El Nio, the normally reliable Blues had moved north, leaving the waters to pesky Makos. Rather than jeopardize the Duchess and the production, I opted instead for The Bahamas. Here a plethora of tour operators offer a wide range of shark adventures. They are safe and can be tailored to meet the most specialized needs and expectations.

    Neal Watson, President of The Bahama Divers Association, helped find our eventual destination, the Nassau Scuba Centre. The NSC allows divers to descend in 45 feet of warm, sheltered water;and virtually guarantees direct contact with sizable numbers of majestic Caribbean Reef Sharks.

    With the site selected, we could arrange the gear. The team would include the Duchess, myself, security diver Neal Watson, two cameramen, a lighting diver and a cable holder;and, of course, the Duchess' ever-present bodyguard. All would wear Ocean Technology Systems' underwater communication devices and would be connected with the surface, where the director was positioned in the boat. Video uplink would allow him to see what was being filmed and enable him to direct the action. The Duchess, Neal Watson and I would wear steel mesh shark suits.

    Neal took on the job of training the Duchess. Not only would she would have to master the basics, but she would also have to deal with the specialized demands of the mesh suit and the communication mask. In a single afternoon she became completely acquainted with the equipment and took to the ocean with no problems. It was quite a feat and just the demonstration we had hoped for.

    While the Duchess trained, I inspected the site. It was perfect. In glassy water, a half dozen female sharks swam lazily. The plan called for the Duchess to feed them fish from a small sealed box on the bottom. All was set for the big day.

    When the appointed hour arrived, the Duchess brought her bright eyes and irrepressible zest for life to the entire production. She moved among the crew, shaking hands and learning names. She was ready to take on the world, so what are a few sharks?

    We got into our mesh suits;laughing at our medieval outfits;then tested the masks, while the film crew fine-tuned the cameras and communication systems. It was a go. I had planned to descend without food, in order to acquaint the Duchess slowly with the presence of curious sharks, but I needn't have worried. She was a natural and moved with relaxed assurance, even when the first sharks appeared. She was overjoyed at their beauty and reached out instinctively to caress a passing female. It was a moment of perfect serenity. I should have known that excitement lay just around the corner.

    As I opened the fish box and began to assemble the first 'fish-kabob,' several aggressive groupers forced their way into the picture. Pushing up through our legs and from around our backs, they lunged for the fish. Then a dozen sharks moved in and, before we knew it, the water was swirling with 30 sharks. The communication masks filled with the shouts of the director, as the cameramen fought to get a clear angle. In the fray, I shouted to the unseen bodyguard, only half in jest: 'Please, don't shoot!'

    The sharks were biting everything now, including lights and cameras, and I realized these divers were not wearing protective suits. Meanwhile, Neal Watson was shoving the big animals out of the way with the patience of experience. Above it all, I heard the bright laughter of the Duchess and turned to see her mesmerized by the spectacle, like a child in a toy shop. There was no fear in her eyes, just wonder. I saw in that moment the passion of diving written in her smile.

    Things settled down. The Duchess of York got to feed and stroke the graceful predators in relative peace. She was energized by the excitement of her new discovery. Never can I recall having seen anyone master such a demanding challenge with such commanding grace and good humor. Perhaps this is because we rarely dare to expect such mastery of novices. If they really knew all that they could achieve, perhaps they would surprise us all.

    In the end, the Duchess of York demonstrated courage and joie de vivre, the sharks demonstrated wild beauty, the crew demonstrated seamless efficiency and diving demonstrated, once again, that it is an unparalleled pathway to wonder.