Beyond the Cage

By Jean-Michel Cousteau

A decade ago, I was privileged to lead a film team that observed Great White Sharks off Dangerous Reef in South Australia. For six months we tracked them, filmed them and sought to learn their ways.

By the end of our time there, we felt we were well acquainted with the Great White, which we had come to see as a majestic and somewhat lonely creature.

We also became very well acquainted with the shark myth, spawned by countless movies like Jaws. According to this myth, all sharks are fiendish predators who pursue and devour humans. But the Great White Shark is the most fiendish of all, hunting humans for sport or vengeance or any number of other motivations drawn from humans. While many sharks have been rehabilitated in the public mind, for most of humanity the Great White Shark is still a relentless man-eater, the incarnation of evil.

It's easy to understand the fear. We spoke with well-known victims of shark attacks. One of these was Rodney Fox, the spearfishing champion who nearly died when a Great White, attracted to the speared fish on his belt, seized his torso in its mouth and dragged him into the deep. But for all their gruesome intensity, it was hard to hear these tales and conclude that the shark is a desperado. Even Rodney Fox now speaks out on their behalf.

This is important, because shark hunters use public hysteria to gain acceptance-and cash-for their periodic slaughters of sharks. Shark fishermen, and those who take large numbers of sharks as bycatch, also benefit from the perception that the sea is better off without sharks.

In fact, the sea is worse off without sharks. This is recognized even by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, which has placed several species of sharks under its protection. All sharks contribute to a balanced marine ecosystem. The Great White, with its bulk and impressive array of slashing teeth, is one of the top predators in colder waters. Its presence, and its appetite, keep populations of pinnipeds in check, preserving fish abundance. Its scavenging ways also help reduce the amount of dead debris in the water.

I learned something important on that expedition: the Great White has no particular interest in people. When circumstances are right-or wrong, depending on your point of view-it will attack. It may take a bite, but once it realizes a person is not what it was hoping for, it will most likely release what it has taken hold of. We tested the proposition by putting various objects on the ocean surface-a box, a rubber duck, a dummy diver. The shark attacked, in a predictable, investigatory way, but did not devour any of the objects.

Still, we did not feel safe enough to venture out of the cage and swim with the Great White. The closest we came to that was inserting a diver into a lexan cylinder that allowed us all the illusion of almost inhabiting the same space.

For a decade, I have wondered what it would be like if that "almost" were to be removed and I could occupy the same ocean as the Great White Shark.

Not long ago, I got my chance to find out.

As part of our first film project at Deep Ocean Odyssey, our team journeyed to South Africa to dive with Andre Hartmann, a tour operator and local expert on Great White Sharks. Our mission was simple enough: Go beyond the cage.

That said, we took the logical precautions against the unexpected. The water was alive with up to four species of sharks at the same time. We carried poles and shark billies, knowing that sharks are easily repelled by hard objects. Security divers accompanied the cameraman and lighting diver, acting as their eyes and hands.

With Hartmann as my guide, I was able to, at the appropriate time, gently freedive as a 12-foot female Great White swam below me. Carefully, I pinched the upper back side of her dorsal fin. The shark did not flinch. It felt like she did not even notice my presence. And without changing depth, direction or speed, I was able to take a 15-second ride, after which I let go while she swam on, seemingly oblivious. But she returned many times during that and subsequent dives.

The feeling is hard to describe. On one hand, it was exciting, because I was operating outside my comfort zone, exploring new physical and psychological terrain. But on the other hand, it was almost mundane. For I was left with the realization that the Great White is not a man-eater bent on the destruction of all divers, snorkelers, surfers, and swimmers, but a shark like any other. A predator and scavenger, going about its life simply and efficiently.

Naturally, I don't recommend that everyone go out and dive with Great Whites. My dive was a test, under closely controlled conditions, with experts in shark diving. But I do recommend that we leave our mental cages, and appreciate the Great White Shark as an animal with its own beauty, dignity and right to exist.