'Shark Week': The impossible shot, story cameramen don't like to tell
This year marked the 25th anniversary of Discovery’s Shark Week. In a two-part interview originally published over the summer, Emmy-winning wildlife cameraman and apex predator expert Andy Casagrande, who’s worked on 13 Shark Week specials, told us how he’s able to free-dive with great whites, what we should do if we find ourselves swimming with a curious one (swim toward it?!), why he was once chased to the surface by a 10-footer, and how he managed to capture “The Impossible Shot.” For more stories behind this year’s top TV and movie moments, click here for EW.com’s Best of 2012: Behind the Scenes coverage.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’re known for getting outside the cage with great whites so you can capture angles TV audiences haven’t seen a million times before. How do you tell if sharks, in general, aren’t in the mood to be filmed?
ANDY CASAGRANDE: The smaller sharks will arch their back, drop their fins, and swim in weird postures. If you don’t have experience with sharks, you might not read those signs. They’ll get close to you, dart away, and then come back — mock charges where they’re essentially trying to scare you or let you know, hey, I’m pissed off, and if you keep swimming at me with your camera, I’m gonna bite you or whatever I can bite. It’s relatively obvious. Great whites are easy. They’re built like pit bulls on steroids. They can bend their fins here and there, but their way of showing they’re angry is they open and close their mouth. So they just show you the jaws sign. They swim right at you and gape.
So a great white is swimming at you opening and closing its mouth. What do you do?
You can’t swim away immediately because then you’re acting like prey and they’re like, oh, cool. That’s something I’m gonna eat. The best thing that I’ve found to do sounds counterintuitive, but you swim right at them. You always keep eye contact, and you swim directly at the shark, and that seems to trigger a defense mechanism. Now they’re like, wait a second, everything in the ocean swims away from me aside from orcas, which are known to occasionally kill white sharks. Everyone says punch a shark in the nose: the problem with that is that water refracts and magnifies things, so if you go to punch a shark in the nose and you think its nose is right here, it’s not, it’s back here, and as you follow through, your hand goes straight into its mouth. Their eyes and their gills are the most sensitive things. But the reality is, if you don’t act like prey, they won’t treat you like prey. You don’t want to swim away while they’re watching you. As they swim away, you swim away, and try to get back on the boat, open up a Red Bull, say, ‘Oh, that was fun,’ and downplay it.
Your website has a shot of a great white face-to-face with you, with just your camera separating you. How often does that happen?
Whether it’s the electronics in the camera or the fact that they’re just really inquisitive, they almost always swim straight up to the camera and either bump it with their snout, or, the more investigative ones, decide to bite it. I’ve said before it’s like you’re eating a bowl of spaghetti and you accidentally bite down on your fork. Most sane people don’t try to continue to bite through that fork and swallow it. They immediately let go and realize wow, that’s something that’s not natural for me to eat, so they don’t eat it.
What’s the most dangerous situation you’ve found yourself in over the years.
I try not to tell it. I had one situation [filming 2010’s Into the Shark Bite] where I was essentially running out of air, and I had to go to the surface, and I was out of the cage with great whites. Like I said, if you swim away from them, they pursue you. I was breaking my own rule of don’t act like prey or they’ll treat you like prey. I had one relatively curious juvenile great white, and the juveniles are like puppy dogs. They want to swim up and put their paws on everything. The bigger ones, they’ve been around. They know what boats are. They know what people are. They’re cautious, and that’s the reason why they’ve gotten so big. They’re mature enough to understand that they’re not the only dangerous thing out there. But this little shark, it didn’t really want to come and play with me either — it seemed like it wanted to bite me. I was interacting with it on the bottom, and it kept coming up doing the mock charging and bumping into the camera, and I’d bump it, and it’d swim away and come back. Well, I bumped it one last time, and I started to swim up. It was swimmin’ away, but it knew that I was swimming up, so it immediately turned around. It was the first time I actually witnessed a great white stalking and then attempting an ambush vertical approach from underwater. I saw this little shark — little as in, like, a 10-footer — coming up at me, and I saw its little white chin wagging. It was accelerating toward me. I’m like… uh, holy s—. I just relied on my standard instinct of using the camera, keeping the camera between me and the shark. The shark came up with its mouth open, and as I finned back, it sort of went past me and I hit it on the side on its gills. That time, when I hit its gills, it seemed to finally respond like, s—, that thing is dangerous. So it swam down. I kept an eye on it and kept finning, and I saw it circling back again. They’re just like teenagers. They don’t really know any better, and they’re really curious. But when a great white shark is curious, it can be catastrophic.
Luckily, I was able to get back to the boat, drink my Red Bull, and everything was cool. That is one thing that happens: When you get really caught up when you’re filming and you’re getting amazing stuff, especially on the bottom, you can forget about your air supply. Once again, it wasn’t really the shark that put me in danger, it was myself. I was running out of air and created this predator-prey relationship where I became the prey and the shark just gave chase. If I didn’t run out of air, I could have slowly ascended. The shark would have come up, circled around me, bumped some more. If you do things slowly and methodically, they respond that way as well. If you have to kick up because you’re running out of air and you’re freaked out now because he’s coming after you…
I now want to see that footage.
I was filming. On my camera, it’s not as impressive as if someone was filming what was happening. Underwater, you don’t zoom a lot, because when you zoom, it flattens the image and it doesn’t look good. So when you’re with great whites, you’re always really wide because they’re massive animals and they come right up to the lens all the time.
Did you have another diver with you that day?
I did have Mark Addison [an expert on South Africa’s shark diving sites] with me. There was another situation that happened with Mark, just before this. Mark saw the shark f—ing with me, and Mark swam over and was trying to tell the shark, like, chill out. But Mark is scuba diving. He doesn’t have a camera, he’s got nothing in his hands. I might have this shot somewhere: The shark swims up at Mark. Mark swims at the shark like I was saying you do. But instead of backing down, the shark just keeps swimming. The shark is opening his mouth and all Mark can do is [makes motion like you’re pressing yourself flat against a wall] as the shark goes by. If he would have put his hands out, the shark would have bit his hands. So I did have Mark, but Mark is a crazy f—ing person. I’m a bit of a dare-devil, but I don’t want to win a Darwin Award. Like if my family can read my obituary and laugh because it’s embarrassing, that’s not a good thing.
NEXT: Part II — Inside the greatest shot of all time
Discovery counted down its top 25 ‘Best Bites,’ or camera shots, of all time for the 25th anniversary of Shark Week. No. 1 on that list: The aerial view of a great white’s Polaris breach in South Africa dubbed “The Impossible Shot.” 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 Casagrande, 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.