Sharks On Screen
Shooting Shark Documentaries – Behind The Scenes
By Dave Abbott, Liquid Action FIlms
Fourth Element Team Diver
Ever since I was ‘knee-high’ I’ve had a fascination for sharks, fuelled over the years by hours of watching shark documentaries and reading every shark book and paper I could get my hands on.
I know I am not alone in having a shark obsession, but for me it resulted in pursuing a career as an underwater cameraman and filmmaker that has seen me spend hundreds of hours underwater filming these awesome predators.
From a media perspective sharks take some beating, people love to see big dangerous predators on their screens, and televised ‘events’ like Discovery Channel’s ‘Shark Week’ have been drawing millions of viewers for almost 30 years.
While some of the entertainment-focused’ documentaries’ made for Shark Week have been overly sensationalized, there are many others that have featured fascinating shark research and gone a long way to correcting common misconceptions about shark behaviour.
I’ve worked on quite a number of Shark Week shows and other shark documentaries over the last 10-years, and the whole process of working alongside shark scientists as they do their research – and filming the shark themselves – has been an awesome experience. In fact assignments filming big sharks have given me some of the most memorable moments of my life!
I’ve been lucky enough to work with most of the big ‘iconic’ shark species, from White sharks and Makos to Bull and Tiger sharks, and while each have different characteristics and behaviours all of them have one thing in common; they are innately cautious and (most of the time!) avoid confrontation.
That’s not to say diving with sharks is totally risk-free. Most of the sharks the average diver sees underwater are in cruise-mode; – calm, controlled and cautious even when they are in an artificial ‘shark feed’ situation, but a shark in hunting mode, or feeling threatened or agitated is a different story altogether! When they are in ‘hunt mode’ sharks behave very differently; – they are fast, purposeful and focused, so diving with sharks at night can turn into a pretty intense experience!
A good rule of thumb when diving around big sharks is to maintain eye contact because sharks are opportunistic, and if you let your attention wander they are instantly aware and will sometimes use that opportunity to get closer than you might like! Projecting awareness, keeping eye contact and showing confidence is a big part of staying safe in the water with large sharks.
Of course broadcasters tend to want sequences of interesting shark behaviour and close encounters with big sharks, so filming them for TV often gets you into some very different situations to those a recreational shark diver experiences!
One encounter I wont forget in a hurry is diving with Great Whites in an open filming cage at night; there can be very few experiences as intense as seeing a huge predator looming out of the blackness, head rapidly filling your field of view, gaping mouth full of massive triangular teeth and pectoral fins as wide as the cage!
Another surreal moment from a shoot a couple of years ago was hanging in mid-water with eight large and pushy Tiger sharks as they tore into a dead cow; – these were sharks that weren’t accustomed to divers and saw us as competitors, so they were pretty ‘interactive’ to say the least! It’s not easy keeping track of eight constantly moving sharks in a 3-dimensional world – especially when there is blood clouding the water!
Having an air hose blow on my full-face mask while in a one-man bottom cage surrounded by four Great Whites was another experience that will stick with me. Blinded by a whiteout of bubbles I had to swap over to a regular mask and bail-out bottle just by feel …all the time expecting to feel a big snout pushing in through the open cage door!
I do like working in one-man bottom cages with Whites sharks though, it’s such an immersive experience being at eye-level with these huge sharks in their own environment as they cruise over the kelp like submarines. White sharks definitely seem more curious when you are down there alone with them, – and you get a better insight into how they interact with each other, – as well as an appreciation of their sheer size!
Over the years of filming for shark documentaries I’ve been bumped by Sevengill sharks in Fiordland, bullied by a pack of Lemon sharks in Tahiti, surrounded by 40 or 50 hunting reef sharks in an intense night dive in Tahiti, been forced out of the water by an agitated Mako, and had my dome port scratched by ‘too-close’ encounters with White sharks (when using a wide-angle lens ‘filling the frame’ means the shark is literally on your dome!).
While those experiences were all pretty engrossing at the time, what they really go to show is that sharks are not out to get us; …if they were I would be long gone!
A bigger danger than the sharks themselves is simply getting cold. White shark shoots are usually in water temperatures down around 8-10C, and as filming usually involves multiple, long duration dives, its easy for your core temperature to drop significantly over the course of the day – with all the discomfort and risks that brings, so a good drysuit and warm undergarments are essential!
As you spend more time you spend in the water with sharks you do get better at reading them, but it is a mistake to get complacent around any shark and think you can always predict what they will do. Although they usually signal their mood with body language, that mood can sometimes change so quickly that they are at ‘warp speed’ before you can react.
The chances of having a problem with a shark are really very low unless you do something stupid or risky, – like diving alone in a sharky area, diving in low light or poor visibility where large sharks hang out, or just not giving them the respect they deserve.
400 million years of evolution has honed sharks into superb predators, and to my mind one of the beautiful animals on the planet. I count myself as very lucky to have had so many opportunities to film these amazing creatures; – they are intelligent, often curious, intensely aware, and incredibly graceful …so anytime you get a chance to do a shark dive, don’t turn it down!
An underwater cinematographer and DoP for over two decades, Dave has spent thousands of hours filming marine life in both temperate and tropical waters.
Over the course of his career he has filmed stories on Great white sharks, Orca, crocodiles, Giant octopus, Tiger sharks and more; – shooting documentary sequences for many of the world’s top broadcasters from National Geographic and Discovery to PBS and Shark Week.
Happiest underwater with a camera in his hands and a challenging filming goal to achieve, Dave’s driving motivation is to increase people’s awareness and respect for ocean life and habitat through his cinematography, stories and images.