Growing Up Sharks

For shark wrangler Andrew Fox, Australia's great whites are part of the family.

Our son Andrew was born in 1965 to a very sharky lifestyle. Just 18 months earlier I was attacked by a great white shark, surviving an ordeal that was reported as miraculous by newspapers all over the world. At just 5 days old, Andrew attended a lunch meeting with shark experts Ron and Valerie Taylor. I had designed and made the first shark cage for filming great whites underwater and successfully run my first expedition. Ron Taylor had filmed it, and we had the first underwater footage of great whites ever produced. Andrew slept as we discussed our project, but maybe some of it sank into his subconscious.

He saw his first great white at the age of 7 at Memory Cove in the Hopkins Islands. We went there to catch a great white using a long rope and drum, with a big hook attached to the drum. The rope was attached to my 20-foot fiberglass boat. We anchored in the cove, threw two buckets of cut up fish pieces over the side and started a slow drip of whale oil. We sat back, enjoyed a dinner of roast chicken and waited. As the sun dipped low on the horizon, we saw the fin of a huge shark coming up the odor corridor. It bumped the stern of the boat and started circling. Andrew and I just looked in awe. I estimated it to be 16 feet long and in excess of 2,000 pounds, much too big to catch with my little boat!

As the shark circled only a few feet away, Andrew, just tall enough to look over the side, got a good look at him and saw his big black eye. As the shark was checking us out, he turned to me with eyes wide open and said, "He's as big as the boat!" I decided not to deploy the hook. We put our last bucket of chum over the side and lay in our bunks that night talking about the shark swimming below us.

As Andrew grew up, he met many photojournalists, divers and filmmakers. When I organized an expedition for the film Blue Water, White Death, Andrew observed the whole process curiously and got to know such greats as Peter Gimbel, Stan Waterman and the Taylors. I remember him sitting on Valerie's lap, delighted in the throaty noise she made teaching him how to get enough spit to defog a mask. When Andrew was still small, I organized an expedition filming sequences for a major Hollywood project that turned out to be the famous horror movie Jaws. Universal Studios sent out a little person as a shooting double so that in all our sequences, the sharks would appear twice as big. Andrew loved the little half-size cage we built for filming and thought it was made for him. He used the wetsuits and dive equipment until he outgrew them.

Andrew, far left, stands with his siblings next to a tiny shark cage used in the filming of Jaws.

On the heels of Jaws, I was organizing two or three film expeditions per year. When Andrew was a tall, strong teenager, he would work on these filming expeditions as a shark wrangler, holding the important job of attracting the sharks and helping to prepare our two shark cages for diving. The Jaws movie frightened many people out of the water, but it also created quite a large group of people who wanted to see white sharks firsthand. We started the first great white shark tourist expeditions in 1976, a year after the movie was released.

Each new charter and film project brought many interesting people into our lives: film crews and producers, TV personalities, marine scientists, shark researchers, even famous U.S. baseball players and Fred Gwynne from The Munsters TV series. When Andrew was 19, we had a two-week shoot with Al Giddings as part of the Ocean Quest series. The star of the film was Shawn Weatherly, Miss Universe 1980. Our expedition was a roaring success with calm seas, blue skies and sharks every day. At the wrap-up dinner party, Andrew was given the honor of escorting Shawn, the most beautiful girl in the world, to the event. I must ask him more about that one day!

In 30 years, Andrew has hardly missed a liveaboard expedition, except when absolutely necessary for school exams. During that time, we have hosted film crews from every corner of the globe. We worked with wonderful underwater photographers like National Geographic's David Doubilet, Jaws author-turned-conservationist Peter Benchley, and filmmakers Stan Waterman, Al Giddings, Howard Hall and so many others.

Rodney and Andrew Fox both lead cage diving expeditions and research curises.

Inspired growing up with leading shark researchers like "Shark Lady" Dr. Eugenie Clarke and Dr. John McCosker, Andrew attended The Flinders University of South Australia, where he achieved a bachelor's degree in marine subjects. Afterward, Andrew wanted to continue studying sharks and to lead expeditions. He now heads the Fox Shark Research Foundation (FSRF), whose policy is "to inspire the appreciation and understanding of great white sharks through research and education." Monies raised go toward educating the public, supporting other researchers and helping to buy expensive satellite and acoustic tags.

On our expeditions, the crew keeps daily records of size, sex and identifying marks plus the location of any tags for all sharks sighted. This information is forwarded to the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organisation (CSIRO), which leads a program to study great whites. He is now compiling a photographic index of individual sharks we see while out on charter. In partnership with the FSRF/CSIRO tagging program, we have now identified hundreds of individual sharks (including our most famous big boy, "Jonny") returning to the Neptunes each year.

I am so very pleased that Andrew now leads many expeditions in a way that gives ultimate respect to the shark and focuses on the beauty and natural history of the sharks, not a circus-like behavior. He's grown up sharks, and I'm very proud.

© Alert Diver — Winter 2010