Shark Stroking: Free Diving with Great Whites

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A call I got recently from Dr. Chip Scarlett of Austin, Texas got my attention.

“You have to drop what you’re doing and check out these white shark photos on this guy’s website,” he gushed enthusiastically into my speaker phone.

“C’mon, Chip,” I yawned. “I’ve seen more white shark images than a sea lion at Dangerous Reef. Don’t you think that’s a subject that’s been covered enough. What’s this about: more flying shark footage or are these whites actually flying planes now?”

“Just check it out, you’ll see what I mean.”

Chip and I have done some extended diving together in Palau and Yap, and he’s as accomplished a photographer as most pros. I figured if he was excited about some photo gem he had uncovered, I’d probably be well served to check it out.

So I dutifully copied down the cryptic instructions and in a matter of seconds, I was viewing some enthralling images of Michael Rutzen, the mad shark stroker and champion of pure brass nuts bravado.

Rutzen is a 32-year old-diving entrepreneur who is the boss of Shark Diving Unlimited in the South African village of Gansbaai. He has developed quite a following during the last eight years or so from a cadre of international filmmakers and photographers as he indulges their “unusual ideas.” Rutzen takes divers from all over the world out to Dyer Island with a mind to introducing them, up close and personal, to his own great white petting zoo.

Michael’s special passion is to freedive regularly with the sharks outside of a protective cage. You have to kind of wonder what prompted that first foray outside the bars. Something tells me you don’t want to have Michael as your driver as you idle the Land Rover through Lion Country Safari Park, or you may wind up as an unwilling pedestrian when the king of beasts decides to make a little homo sapiens his lunch. But I figure this guy is a sure winner on Fear Factor if nothing else.

Why free diving? Michael explains, “It’s fun and I want to demonstrate that white sharks are not these insensitive and man-killing machines that people think after watching Jaws. Although they are quite dangerous predators, I want to show the people that in reality the sharks are quite peaceful and gentle animals. With my activities, I want to make people aware that white sharks play an important role in the ecosystem of the seas and that these animals are an endangered species that must be protected.”

Pretty fair sentiments. But I know Peter Benchley is going to groan for the millionth time as the fate of the entire shark species is once again laid at his feet for scaring the world population into shell-shocked terror by means of simple work of fiction nearly 30 years ago. I wonder if Melville was accosted in New Bedford pubs by the iconoclastic environmentalists of his day when Moby Dick was released. He certainly wasn’t worried about his movie rights.

Ralf Keifner, the photographer who got those dramatic shots I saw online, has been working with Michael for several years, and their mutual goal was to get some encounters with great whites outside the cage. Michael told him that to do that would take a lot of patience and luck. “To swim with white sharks can be very dangerous.”

Okay, I think we can all agree that this may well be the understatement of the month. Is there anyone reading this that has a question about the relative mortality demographic you have just stepped into if you attempt to try this at home? No hands up in the back? Then we’ll move on to further explanation.

Our hero continues, “First of all, the visibility must be more than 25 feet so the sharks cannot mistake us for sea lions, which surely would cause an attack. You must know that sharks don’t have hands, so they cannot touch or feel to check out their prey before taking a bite.”

I am compelled to interject at this point in the interest of public safety: If any of you brain surgeons out there do not fully appreciate the manual impairment of sharks, including the lack of opposable thumbs, then it might be a good idea to “just say no” to a career as a white shark wrangler.

“Sharks only know if their prey is edible after taking a bite.” I could say the same thing about the food in most restaurants I’ve visited in England.

“Most of the attacks on surfers are based on error. Mostly they never take a second bite after the first mistaken bite.” I know exactly what he means. Have you ever actually tasted that English delicacy known as Marmite?

“They just see the silhouette of a surfer at the surface and mistake it for their favorite prey, the sea lion. But as sea lions are mostly swimming rapidly to avoid being eaten, the sharks have conditioned themselves to strike on the first look without closer scrutiny. Sometimes they attack with such speed as they rise from the bottom that they are flying completely out of the water with their entire body.

“Also, the water surface must be flat and without waves so we can coordinate our movements much better. And no current, so you don’t drift away from the boat. Besides all this, the sky must be clear so our safety guards on deck can see the sharks better and warn us if they make an approach from behind. And finally, we’d also like to have a relaxed shark around the boat. It’s no fun at all to free dive with a Rambo-shark.”

Once again, I believe Michael possesses a rare gift for stating the obvious.
Ralf picks up the narrative here. “All in all, I had to wait three years to get the conditions just right. My heart started beating up to my throat with excitement. It’s definitely something different to watch ‘Mr. Teeth’ out of the safety of the cage. Now it is too late to hesitate. Mike is already in the water with a 14-foot great white. He has his unloaded speargun with him to keep the shark at a distance in case he gets too curious. In relation to the shark, the speargun looks like a toothpick. Armed only with my camera, I slip into the cold water.

“The visibility is about 30 feet and I’m staring into the water filled with tension looking to spot my first white shark from outside the cage. Suddenly he appears out of nothing. With slow consistent movements he passes us by, observing us with his black eyes and fixed stare. I don’t really feel afraid but I do have great respect for the animal.

“Somehow the shark looks bigger from outside the cage. If you watch sharks from a boat, they seem to be quite big and when you view them from a cage, they get even bigger. Now the shark looks huge! The shark disappears only to reappear from a different direction a few moments later. Each time he passes, he gets closer. In order not to scare him, we put our knees to our chest and try to appear as small as possible.”

To me, this posture would make perfect sense as it would allow immediate access to one’s posterior in case you needed to quickly kiss your ass good-bye.

“Finally the shark passes by close enough, and Michael holds on to his dorsal fin and takes a ride. The shark continues his calm swim, totally unimpressed. Again and again, the animal passes by us coming a bit closer and eyeing us carefully. Suddenly he comes directly towards us and Michael can only avoid the collision by gently pushing away the animal with his outstretched hand. The shark turns away and then returns. This time Michael signals to me that he will attempt to get the shark to open his mouth in a similar behavior to that he has perfected from the boat’s dive platform on the surface.

“Michael has successfully performed this touch contact over a thousand times for topside photographers. This time the shark swims up to him and he reaches out to grab its nose. The shark opens his mouth exposing the razor-sharp teeth and jaws. He seems irritated by the contact and goes motionless for a short moment. Then he tries to bite Michael’s hand but it is skillfully withdrawn and Michael maneuvers his body out of the shark’s path.

“The shark stands vertically in the water in front of Michael with his open jaws above the water. For a moment they are locked in this confrontation and each remain completely still. Then suddenly with a quick stroke of his tail, the shark jumps completely out of the water over Michael and vanishes forever into the blue. Although the whole encounter happened very fast and only lasted a few seconds, I still see it in my mind in slow motion.”

Ralf certainly broke some new ground here; his images are unique. And while the photos missed some of the action, he captured the highlights to sufficiently alter the dream sequences of many readers.

Michael concludes by suggesting the obligatory “don’t try this at home” counsel while adding, “White sharks are not pets and you have to be careful when you touch them. You have to be prepared, you have to be able to read their behavior, and you have to have the right shark and perfect conditions. When it all comes together you can have such interactions.”

So now that you know there’s really nothing to such daredevilry, we will declare the official opening of the 2009 Darwin Games wherein the contestants compete to engineer their own extinction. Please take your positions, the starting gun is only moments away.

Remember: “He who Hesitates is lunch.”

Note: I have to add some information to dispel the bad press sharks get. In the year 2000, 79 humans were bitten by sharks, with only 10 being fatal. But every year, around 150 tourists are killed by falling coconuts. For those who still might believe  it’s more safe to spend vacations out of the water,  consider the following:

In an average year there are:

2500 fatalities from alligators

1250 fatalities from bees

250 fatalities from elephants

10 fatalities from sharks

But over a hundred million sharks are killed annually by humans.

Think about it.

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Shark Stroking: Free Diving with Great Whites, 4.8 out of 5 based on 24 ratings
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5 comments for “Shark Stroking: Free Diving with Great Whites

  1. John Bantin
    August 11, 2009 at 10:42 am

    I know Mike R. A nice guy. Bonkers, of course!

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  2. David Shem-Tov
    August 16, 2009 at 9:37 pm

    Bret can always make me chuckle… So much my chewed up left hand hurts!

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  3. mb
    November 25, 2016 at 3:50 pm

    Recently Undercurrent came out against riding sharks. It seems to me, though I may be remembering incorrectly, that it has always been against shark feeding dives. Now it is in favor of shark petting? What money got to you, Ben?

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  4. John BANTIN
    November 26, 2016 at 7:27 am

    The irony is lost on commentator mb. It is not proposing that Undercurrent readers participate in such activity. This blog was written in 2009.

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  5. Ben Davison
    November 30, 2016 at 5:05 pm

    I find it ridiculous that a reader accuses us of taking money to run a blog. That’s quite a blindfolded stretch. We condemn shark riding and lots of other activities directed at sharks, but a posted blog has nothing to do with our policy nor was the blog suggesting people turn sharks into circus animals. I also find it amusing that our reader thinks someone in the industry would pay us to post such a blog. This is a tiny industry, there is little money in operators hands, there are all sorts of sources with more influence than we have (none of which can influence more than a handful of people at a time) and what would be the point of paying to plant such an article? I’m sure MB, if you think a little more deeply about this, you’ll see the folly of your jab.

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