Last night, Discovery counted down its top 25 ‘Best Bites,’ or camera shots, of all time. No. 1 on that list: The aerial view of a great white’s Polaris breach in South Africa dubbed “The Impossible Shot” in a special that kicked off this year’s 25th anniversary Shark Week last Sunday. This shot was more than just cool: It offers a possible theory as to why roughly 50 percent of seals are believed to escape that kind of ambush attack — they’re the lucky ones who see the flash of a shark’s white chin beneath them before the great white breaks the surface. To score the shot, a team of veteran Shark Week filmmakers mounted a $300,000 Phantom camera on a helium balloon that was towed high in the sky off the back of their boat and lined up with a decoy seal being towed on the surface. Watch a clip below.
We asked cameraman Andy Casagrande, a veteran of 13 Shark Week specials and one of the leaders of that team, to take us inside the shot and tell us what is left to film if the impossible has been captured.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The helium balloon was not without its drawbacks. You would have lost the $300,000 camera if it came into contact with the water, which it almost did the first day. What other methods of getting this shot were considered?
ANDY CASAGRANDE: We had a crane built that was, like, 60-feet long. After it was built and put on a boat, we just started laughing. You put a 60-foot crane on the back of a boat in an area that they call the Cape of Storms, the room for error is zero. We just realized the folly of our attempt and laughed it off and scrapped it for sheet metal. We thought about using parasails. I actually went up in a parasail in Florida with a camera and my fins on to get towed behind a boat and point [the camera] down to see if I’d be able to capture a breach that way. It was all possible. It lined up. But the people in Cape Town had told me that there’s no way we’re gonna allow you to take a parasail out in False Bay, the great white sharkiest hunting ground on the planet, and put you up in there in a kite essentially and tow you behind the boat. If anything goes wrong and the boat needs to stop and turn for any reason and you lose your lift from the wind or the winds change direction, and you crash down into the water with great white sharks hunting, it could end pretty badly. I think also for insurance purposes that was ruled out. We thought about helicopters, but it took us weeks to get the shot, and helicopters are over $1,000 an hour, so that just wasn’t in our budget. We thought of all kinds of crazy stuff, and the craziest one was the helium balloon, and that’s the one that worked.
An interesting side note is if you’re actually out hunting in the morning with the sharks trying to film them killing real seals naturally, you watch for seagulls. You don’t look for seals or sharks because they’re primarily under the water. The seagulls are the first to detect and anticipate predation events or kills because they have such a high vantage point. They’re not stupid either. If a seagull sees a lone seal, they follow that seal because they know when the shark makes a kill, there’s gonna be little bits and pieces of blubber and blood that they can pick up and get an easy meal. So they’re just like, we’re gonna hang out here and be ‘mine, mine, mine’ seagulls and wait until this apex predator makes the kill. Our perspective was what better vantage point to get a shot from than the seagulls’ perspective.
If this was the impossible shot, what’s next?
The holy grail for most shark filmmakers is to film great white sharks mating, which, hopefully we can do next year for Discovery. There will be an Impossible Shot 2. (Laughs)
Ultimate Impossible Shot: Apocalypse.
(Laughs) Just like Tom Cruise gets four Mission: Impossibles, we’re going to have multiple Impossible Shots. Impossible Shot 2.5. No, I really don’t know. Every year, we throw out ideas and bounce them off Discovery. Some they like, some they don’t. It’s always a lottery to see what shows get picked up. Usually it’s exciting stuff generally based around new camera technologies. I would love to do a show along the lines of Kill Cam. We’ve seen the kill from the prey’s perspective. We’ve gotten cameras inside of sharks’ mouths, so we know what it’s like to be eaten by a great white shark if you’re a seal. We can see it in slow motion from the surface or underwater. But no one’s ever really seen it from the shark’s perspective. So to be able to attach cameras to the shark’s fins with non-evasive methods and to get them naturally hunting — I’ve tried this in the past. But we’ve never been able to successfully get the cameras to stay on while the sharks were hunting, or the sharks just swim around us all day and we get them filming us, which is cool, but not what we’re after.
Is there any hope of capturing great whites mating?
Some shark species, like leopard sharks and reef sharks, have been viewed mating. There’s definitely hope. Even out at Guadalupe Island, a lot of the females have massive bite marks on their fins and on their gills and on their flanks where it can only be mating love bites. So there are signs of mating going on at least at Guadalupe, whether it’s happening right there or in and around the Pacific Ocean or at the White Shark Cafe, I think with the continued advancement of GPS and camera technologies, maybe. If I could make the ultimate shark porn cam that stayed on for a long time and deployed that on the fin, but maybe pointing back, you might get lucky. I think it would be very challenging to get it around two white sharks making out. I think they’re pretty private about it. And they’re negatively buoyant, so people surmise that when they do it they slowly are sinking. Whether they do it way out in the Pacific where it’s thousands of feet deep and they do it as long as they want, or they do it in shallow areas and they’re on the seabed, no one’s even come close to seeing it. But it would be cool to do a shark porn series…. Sex sells, so do sharks.