Filming Date; December 4, 2005,
Filming Location; Somewhere out in the Northern Bahamas
"I'll do it, we're making history here!" Those were my chosen words when we were discussing one of the film sequences in our daily shooting schedule. Those were my words all right, and they were almost the last words I ever spoke...
We were discussing how I was going to get one of the shots for the promotional video SDM was creating for our new TV series. This was a surface "In your face" sequence of sharks chasing the hang baits right up to the edge of the dive platform. To film it right, you need to make sure the shark wrangler and the pole cam operator are on the same page. The shark wrangler's job is to tempt the sharks in by pulling on a hang bait, which is attached to the end of a 10-foot line. The idea is to keep the bait inches away from the sharks snapping mouth. If it is done properly the bait should glide right in front of the pole cam. A pole cam is simply a submerged camera attached to a pole, held by a camera operator who is standing safely on the boat. With luck, the end result will be the shark's gaping maw bumping off the camera’s dome port. This particular shot had been filmed many times before in other shark documentaries. There is a reason for it, the shots are very dramatic, and it adds a very cool edge to any film.
We kept talking about the scene and I was excited. I really wanted this for our show. The sharks were already chasing the hang baits all the way up to the dive platform, so it would be easy to slip a pole cam setup into the water and get the footage we wanted. It was such a great day for shooting this sequence. Along with the five big lemon sharks swimming around, we also had flat calm seas, clear blue water, and the sun was out and shining. The conditions were screaming at us to do it! Lawrence then reminded me about one tiny little insignificant detail... we did not bring a pole cam setup with us. And, since we were way out in the Northern Bahamas with the nearest underwater camera store many miles back in Florida, we were out of luck.
No problem, we were just going to have to get creative and improvise. I was determined to get the shot. So Lawrence suggested, we should have someone hang off the dive ladder and film it that way. However due to the nature of this sequence, filming it off the dive ladder was a very dangerous idea. If it went wrong, someone could get hurt. So, if we were to consider trying to film it this way, I would be the one to do it. Risking anyone else's life for a piece of film footage that I wanted, was just out of the question. My mind was racing with all the pros and cons of the idea:
Pro; Using a mask and snorkel, I would be able to follow the sharks from the initial pursuit of the bait, up to the thrashing and chewing of it right in front of the camera... The footage would be unreal!
Con; I would be breaking my #1 rule about interacting with sharks, NEVER SNORKEL WITH BIG HUNGRY PREDATORS. These are 9 foot lemon sharks with really big teeth and things could quickly turn bad (and, I don’t want to die).
Pro; BUT, I'll die happy because... The footage will be unreal!
Cool, I'll do it. We had sharks, smooth seas, a movie to shoot, and I was going for it. I felt confident that I would be ok, and if it did get out of control, I would chuck the camera, bail, and climb up the ladder. There was no risk in losing the camera, as the water was only 13 feet deep. Besides, the underwater camera housing was huge, and I would use it as a shield if one of the sharks got too curious.
I pulled on my black half mil. full suit, covered up my hands with black gloves, took some very deep breaths of air, and I climbed down the ladder until I was submerged up to my neck. Lawrence handed me the camera and waited for me to get into position. I raised my hand out of the water, gave him a thumbs up, and he tossed out the hang bait. The first shark rushed in towards it. Now I know that everything underwater is magnified, but by how many times? Because from the surface I could see that the sharks were big, but underwater, from a couple of feet away they looked HUGE.
Lawrence pulled the first hang bait right across my dome port with a lemon in hot pursuit. There was a loud echo as its fin grazed the camera housing. I got the footage and gave everyone on topside the thumbs up sign. I could hear their laughter. My adrenaline was pumping but my emotions were in check. I was thinking, "That wasn't so bad". Lawrence tossed the bait out a few more times and the sharks kept chasing it back in. I had some good passes, but I had not got the footage I was after. The sharks were swimming up close to the camera, but they were not rubbing their noses on it, I needed them to RUB!
On the next pass, Lawrence slowed up his pulling action and the shark got a hold of the bait and was chewing down on it right in front of the camera. I was on fire. I was finally getting some action. The shark was right in front of the dive deck and was shaking its head hard, trying to rip the fish off the line. When that didn't work, the shark started thrashing its whole body. It slammed right into me. I was tossed around and lost sight of the shark in the churned up water. I tried to steady myself and keep the camera in front of me, while also looking hard for the shark. It had dropped straight down and away from the boat. My heart was pumping hard and I tried to regain my composure. New thoughts raced through my head, "ok, that was not so easy, but it was really cool."
I looked into the viewfinder and was enraged to find that the camera was NOT recording. I had missed the shot. I guess that when the shark slammed into me, the camera's record button turned off. I took a quick break to slow my heart down, and watched while Lawrence fixed another hang bait onto the float line. The sharks were swimming all over the place looking for the hang baits. If I thought the sharks were amped up before, they were REALLY worked up now. I dropped back down the ladder and resumed filming. As soon as the bait hit the water, the sharks were right back on it. Lawrence pulled it by me again, except this time the lemon didn't follow it; she turned at the last minute and swam straight for my dome port, her face filled the frame, and BANG!
The shark bumped the dome port then swam off to my right. As I followed it's motions, BANG! Again the shark went at me. This time I was knocked off the platform. I was now in the water with four circling lemon sharks. I was trying to grab the ladder, while simultaneously holding the camera between the sharks and me. I was not wearing any fins, so trying to kick was proving difficult. I knew it was not very smart to have my uncovered feet flailing around; it was a fast way to get bit - and I remembered that I didn't want to die. But, there was no choice; I couldn’t reach the dive ladder unless I swam for it.
I finally got a ladder rung in my hand and quickly pulled myself back into my filming position. I gave everyone a shaky thumbs up. Lawrence called out for me to come in, "the sharks are too amped up, you better get out." I didn't argue with him. I handed him the camera, climbed out of the water, totally on FIRE. My adrenaline was pumping so hard at that point, I felt like I was going to explode. It was an amazing experience. I had done many crazy things in my life and escaped some pretty hairy situations, but that dive goes down as one of the craziest things I have ever done in my life. My only fear was that I did not get the shot, and it would of all been for nothing.
Fortunately... after reviewing the footage and seeing the end results of the sequence, I am proud to say that my crazy 12 minutes in the water gave me the 2 seconds worth of film history I was hoping for!
Next filming stop for the 2006 Sharks, Legends, & Lies, Tour...
June 9-14, 2006
Morehead City, North Carolina