2000-02 Cue the Sharks

By Karl Shreeves

Ah, the joys of shooting video underwater. It’s loaded with technical challenges that would entertain MacGyver for hours. The DSAT video team travels to international locations and shoots near water, in water and underwater with very expensive electronic video cameras with zero tolerance for water; the challenge being to keep them actually working despite baggage handlers and moisture.

Then there’s lighting, and for us, battery-powered stuff doesn’t cut it. We use surface-supplied 1,200-watt Hydropars with a zillion safety circuits (to avoid frying the diver team), each happy to shut down the works at the first hint of trouble. Trouble hints constantly, so we spend a good bit of time unhinting trouble. And then we need divers and deck hands just to handle the massive cable and light.

A typical production means shooting underwater actors playing scripted scenes with specific action, so to the mix we add another cable, from camera to topside, so director Ken Berry can see what’s going on, and communications so he can direct. Fifteen to twenty people work together so that when we get underwater and Ken yells, “Action!” through the hydrophone, miraculously, everything works. Most of the time, anyway. You’d think this a sufficient challenge for the most ardent tekkie or MacGyverphile. I certainly did. But not an artist (that’s artiste) like Ken. While shooting PADI’s Underwater Photography video in the Bahamas, in a fit of artistic inspiration, he declared, “we need sharks.” Immediately, I realized that a) Ken had never worked with sharks; b) he had never heard of the ampullae of Lorenzini; and c) he’d be safely on the boat the whole time, so why would he worry anyway?

But I’d be underwater with the ampullae of Lorenzini (“jar of cough drops,” if I recall my Latin), which are shark organs that sense electrical fields of prey. Or those put out by cables, video cameras or (especially) 1,200-watt Hydropar lights like the one I’d be holding. And every piece of cable and hardware was irreplaceable where we were—a misplaced chomp would mean more than instant shark kabob. It would shut down production. It might even hurt.

“Let’s go cave diving with only one light and no guideline,” I suggested.

But Ken insisted that sans sharks our video lacked artistic merit, so we were off to shoot them, meeting up with Frazier Niven, shark feeder extraordinaire, who would make it so.

“We do shark experiences for tourists at this reef all the time,” he told us, “So there’ll be plenty.”

“Any words of caution?”

“Yeah. Don’t try to pet them—they’ll think your hand is food. Oh, and stay away from anything electrical. Ha, ha—just kidding. Sort of.”

We dropped to 70 feet, and Frazier began squirting fish guts from a chum bottle. At first everything went perfectly, as far as I was concerned. No sharks. Apparently, our schedule didn’t coincide with SAG (Shark Actors Guild) policies.

“Okay, Frazier,” Ken’s voice boomed through the hydrophone, “We’re ready for the sharks. Action!”

Sure. Unleash the sharks, Frazier. What are you waiting for? “What’s going on down there? Show me the sharks, Tom,” Ken directed our cameraman. Tom showed him Frazier, who improvised a signal meaning, “I’m working on it.”

“We need the sharks quick, Frazier,” Ken yelled. Frazier gestured like kiss my ass and piped, “I’m working on it—be patient.” My peripheral vision caught a shadow drifting in from the right. Big shadow, nine footer. Then another and another, each an Atlantic Gray Reef Shark (Carcharhinus perezi).

“Good work, Frazier,” acknowledged Ken. Given that the sharks had figured out the yummy smell came from Frazier, he was too busy to improvise a clever reply. To distract them and please Ken, he sprayed a massive chum cloud about two feet in front of Tom’s camera and my light. Sharks churned from all directions into a maelstrom of fins, tails and teeth.

Sharks to the left, sharks to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with the largest electrical field for miles. Whang! The Hydropar buffeted a shark venturing too close. The cable jerked backward, yanking me and the light with it—my pet peeve when I’m lighting. I turned to give my support diver a dirty look. Oh, she’s dodging sharks. I’ll let it slide…this time.

If I felt inadequately protected with my massive Hydropar, the actors only had little snapshot cameras. But being pros, they hovered next to the escalating shark frenzy, calmly signaling and pretending to take pictures:

“Look—a shark.” Click, click.

“My, my, that’s a shark? Cool.” Click, snap, flash.

“Goodness. Look. Another shark.” Snap, grin, wink, wink. “Ho, hum. Look at all these sharks. My, my.” Snap, crackle, pop. And so on. Meantime, topside Ken’s ecstatic.

“This is great! Frazier, MORE sharks. MORE!”
Save slitting his wrists, Frazier had no chum left—just as well because we had almost no air left. Tom pointed the camera at me and I gave Ken the “we can’t breathe in water” signal.

“Cut! Everybody up,” Ken directed. On cue the tempo calmed and the sharks dispersed, except a few hanging around to sign autographs. “Great dive, great stuff,” Ken exclaimed back aboard as I completed a fingers/toes and important body parts inventory. Ten, ten, check. Our precious cables came in bite-free, inspected inch by inch. “That’s odd,” commented Frazier, “They almost always bite cables when we have them in the water. What with the electrical fields they put off, you know.”

“What!?” Ken exclaimed. “That would have shut us down completely! We would have been ruined.”

Ah, finally Ken understood ampullae of Lorenzini.

Karl Shreeves is VP, technical development for DSAT and PADI. His duties include video production responsibilities, such as, but not limited to, swimming with sharks in the middle of chum clouds.