Diving in Behind the Scenes

Shark Week 2011

I guess growing up in Cairns, on the doorstep of the Great Barrier Reef in North Queensland, Australia it seems inevitable I would end up with a profound love of all things marine. What was not apparent in the beginning (at least for my poor mother) was the attraction that followed to all things deadly and dangerous.

After 13 years in the university system, both learning and teaching, with limited exposure to the "normal" working world, I was offered the role as scientific researcher for a production company based out of Los Angeles, Calif. It seemed like a unique opportunity to combine research with teaching (albeit in an unconventional form) and to share my passion for science on a larger scale.

Shark Week has been my latest project and I know, I know, for all of you who are groaning right now, it does tend to polarize people somewhat. However, I am happy to say there has been a real shift over the years to a much more educated and conservation-based approach to this programming. Sure, there still has to be the "shark porn," shots of big teeth and biting, but there is a real shift to getting content from the researchers themselves and making sure the information presented is both educational as well as entertaining. We in the industry term it "edutainment."

For my part, I consider myself to have the best job in this area. Not only do I get to do the background for the shows and spend time discussing cool geeky science with the people doing cutting-edge research, but as a producer, I'm an integral part of the filming process as well. Yes, that means at times getting very up close and personal with the stars themselves. I have been fortunate enough to dive in many beautiful parts of the world and without a doubt, the shark dives I have done are some of the most memorable.
Diving Distant Destinations
In terms of sheer remoteness, I think diving off the coast of Mozambique is probably the winner so far. Just the journey to reach our ‘base-camp' was an adventure in itself. The never-ending maze of unmarked winding sand roads after you cross the border from South Africa is a stern reality check as to just how far away help is. Safety on dives trips like this is obviously the top priority. Being so far from medical assistance on adventures means we always travel with fully-stocked first aid supplies, but there is only so much you can manage without proper medical facilities. The untamed element can really add to the experience though and for all the preparation, travel and frustration endured, actually finding and filming bull sharks (Carcharhinus leucas) in this part of the world was magical.

The bull shark is certainly not the most attractive looking of the shark species, but an imposing animal all the same. Bull sharks lack the defining characteristics of some of the other major shark species but make up for this in pure body mass and strength. We finally located these animals swimming above a deep sand trench about 160 feet deep. Visibility was minimal and currents substantial, but the curious sharks seemed willing to investigate our presence and passed quite close several times. The real problem when filming such magnificent animals is remembering your surroundings. It is so easy to be transfixed to your camera monitor that you forget you are not watching it on a TV screen, but are actually there. Too many times I have had to look up and realize that this "amazing shot" I'm getting is because I am quite literally staring into the face of an oncoming bull shark at 120 feet down in the middle of the ocean. This is when having safety divers watching your back becomes essential!

Nighttime involved sitting back on land by candlelight watching the lights of the pirate fishing vessels off the coast. The most heart-breaking thing about finding these little remote pockets of paradise can all too often be the feeling of helplessness as you see how they are all too easily exploited.
Shooting in a Shark Sanctuary

From one extreme to the other and to one of my favorite frequent shark dive locations: the Bahamas. As of July 2011, the islands declared 243,000 square miles of surrounding national waters a shark sanctuary. Due to the tireless efforts of the people and government of the Bahamas, they have succeeded in not only banning the fishing of shark species, but also prohibit the sale, import and export of all shark products. This sets an amazing example — one that hopefully will set a standard for other countries to follow.

The main shark species in this area is the caribbean reef shark (Carcharhinus perezi); these animals are a major source of ecotourism dollars to this region. Reef sharks inhabit the Bahamian waters nearly year round making them an excellent resource for not only tourism, but also for filming and research. Considering the numbers and consistency of these sharks in this area, they are amazingly under-researched but the divers that live and work there can provide a wealth of information and are a testament to their dedication and passion for these animals. After several dives with bull sharks and tiger sharks (Galeocerdo cuvier) under my belt, I always forget just how tenacious these "little" sharks can be. Usually our trip tends to coincide with breeding time, during which the sharks are a lot more ‘tetchy,' but reef sharks really are a species with lots of energy and often little regard for personal space. Actual bites from these sharks are very rare under normal conditions, but on several occasions reef sharks have bumped me and that in itself is always a wake-up moment. Especially if one comes up from behind and give you a little "hello" nudge, those encounters remind you of the pure strength of these animals and just how much of a visitor you are to their world.

Nassau, Bahamas has really found its place in the film and television world since the silent movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was filmed there in 1915. From a filming standpoint, it is really a great resource to use; however, there are always exceptions when your stars feature animals and nature. By day three of our reef shark filming this year, there was not a shark to be seen. Our visit this year coincided with the sharks' urge to head out for breeding and pupping for three days, there was not a shark in sight. Not exactly great for natural history filming, even if it is natural.

Thankfully, the sharks returned and so did our enthusiasm, the result of which brings you the show Shark City on this year's Shark Week lineup. Shark City is a very different type of Shark Week show. It is a combination of natural history mixed with a whimsical tale of two sharks and their adventures on the reef. This was a massive challenge to film as unfortunately the sharks don't care too much about scripts, but with great support divers and amazing underwater camera guys with a seemingly endless supply of patience, I think the result is really something unique.
Survivalists and Tiger Stripes
The second Shark Week show with which I was involved features a dynamic pair of survivalists: Dave Canterbury and Cody Lundin of Dual Survival. The show is called How Sharks Hunt and is a host-driven production that takes Dave and Cody on a trip around the world looking at the differences between some of the large shark species and how they vary in their attack strategies.

Working with these guys was really a fantastic experience, and I think we had as much fun off camera as we did on. In his previous work, many years ago on fishing boat, Dave had occasionally come across sharks, but he had never been diving specifically to enjoy them. As soon as we arrived at our first location, Dave and I jumped in the water to take a bit of a refresher and wash the cobwebs out. Seeing the excitement and enthusiasm in his eyes on that first dive, I knew this would be a fun trip and I was not disappointed. Cody as well was genuinely enthused, and I was fielding questions both on camera and off for the duration of the shoot.

By far, my favorite location of all this year was the section we filmed in Tiger Beach. I must admit that tiger sharks have long been my favorite shark species, and while I've had a few tiger shark encounters over the years, I've never felt like my curiosity for these animals was satisfied. This year we did a night dive with them and that was truly incredible. With the darkness, they seemed a lot more at ease and approaches to us were all that more frequent and persistent. I exited the water with such a thrilling mix of excitement and pure adrenaline that I will be remembering those moments of my life long after Shark Week is over.

As with Shark City, high-speed underwater footage was maximized, making these shots visually spectacular. The most frustrating part of these shows is seeing all the footage we just can't fit into an hour of programming. There are some magical moments that inevitably have to end up on the cutting room floor.

Shark Week shows present various challenges for a production crew as it combines the uncertainties of weather, underwater conditions, animal behavior and dangerous animals but in the end after all the exhaustion, saltwater and sore muscles, it is always an amazing experience. I hope that as divers you can appreciate the way in which we try to bring the underwater world to the living rooms of others, and I certainly hope you have as much fun watching it as we had making it.
About the Author

Starting my university life I knew I needed to find something that fascinated and inspired me, which led me to the wonderful world of science and, in particular, Zoology. My Masters and Ph.D has revolved around the venom ecology of deadly box jellyfish, but along the way I have been fortunate enough to work on various projects including scorpion venoms, snake tracking, cone snail ecology, spider behavior and of course shark research to name just a few. My work and research has taken me all around the world and given me the privilege of meeting many amazing people and animals on the way. Feel free to drop on past my website and take a look at the photos and publications I have posted there: http://web.me.com/teresacarrette
More Shark Coverage
Bites & Attacks
Close Encounters of the Oceanic Kind
Cocos Islands 2010
Conserving Sharks
Extinct for Soup?
Filming Great Whites
Growing Up Sharks
Man Meets Shark
Myths and Truths About Sharks
Shark Identification Quiz
Sharks of the Bahamas
Sharks of the Bahamas: The Slideshow
Shooting Great Whites
The Great White Shark Experience
Underwater Updates - Cape Town