Shark Stroking

Shark StrokingI get all sorts of input from readers and I welcome it. Sometimes it’s to tell me about some great new dive site, to tout a particular dive operator, or simply to grind an ax or two after some youthful divemaster tried to perform an unappreciated rescue on them because they dared to place their mask on their head upon surfacing. But the call I got in late August in 2002 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 then summoned one of my youthful twenty-something staff to help me wade through the Internet because at that time I was the last executive on earth to learn how to use the Web properly. I’ve got staff members who can’t spell or walk fully erect but they can zip through the Internet like a Jimmy Dean sausage patty through a wolverine with irritable bowel syndrome.

Shark pettingIn a matter of seconds I was  connected and viewing the images. I  was enthralled and had to banish my assistant who rapidly lost interest
once he found out the site held no promise of bare breasted nudity or
fart jokes.

So if you ever harbored any smug satisfaction that your dive experiences could best anyone in bragging rights at the sundown beer fest… well, move over Stingray City Survivor and meet Michael Rutzen, the champion of pure brass nuts bravado.

Actually, my connection to Michael, the mad shark stroker, came through Ralf Keifner, a German photographer who was the first to chronicle Rutzen’s insanity. Since Ralf’s first language is not English and my German can barely get me a beer at Octoberfest in Munich, we struggled a bit initially as Ralf related his tale via email.

It seems that Rutzen runs a pretty fair shark diving service out of the village of Gansbaai in South  Africa. He 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. Ralf visited him with more than a little trepidation since Michael’s special passion is to free dive 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 his noon meal include a little homo sapiens on the hoof. But I figure this guy is a sure winner on Fear Factor if nothing else.

Ralf reflects, “What’s up in a man’s mind who risks his life swimming with the biggest predator of the seas? Especially when the sharks are attracted by bait to the area.”

Exactly, Ralf. I couldn’t have said it better.

It turns out that Rutzen was a then 32-year-old diving entrepreneur who is the boss of Shark Diving Unlimited and has developed quite a following during the last 15 years or so from a cadre of international filmmakers and photographers as he indulges their “unusual ideas” as Ralf puts it.

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 my old buddy Peter Benchley is going to groan from the grave 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 thirty 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.

Anyway, Ralf had been working with Michael for several years and their mutual goal on this trip was to get some encounters with great whites outside the cage. Michael had told him that to do that will take a lot of patience and luck.

“To swim with white sharks can be very dangerous,” says Michael.

Okay, I think that 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 questions? 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 the 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 that 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 on 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.

Shark Riding“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 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.

Shark Contact

“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 should provoke a response from even the most jaded dive adventurer. And while the photos missed some of the action, he captured the highlights to sufficiently alter the dream sequences of many readers. We feel he is worthy of our “First Annual Linda Lovelace Award” as may have blown a couple… but he didn’t choke on the big one.

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 2013 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”.

Closing Notes For A Real Perspective:

The negative press and bad reputation of sharks is chiefly caused by sensational films and over-the-top nonsense like The Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” that annually sets record for total bullshit. If you were to believe such accounts then you’d be certain that sharks come from the bottom of the seas and greedily fall upon humans as soon as they put a toe in the water.

In fact, statistics prove quite the opposite. Between 1959-1990 about 1500 people were killed by lightning in the U. S. but only 12 died through shark attacks. The risk of being killed by lightning is very small when compared with the amount of daily incidents that happen routinely in households. Recently in one year alone almost 200,000 people were injured by nails, screws and bolts. Another 140,000 were hurt by ladders, over 40,000 were hurt on toilets, and around 10,000 managed to achieve injuries involving buckets. But only 18 persons were injured by sharks.

Of course, you wouldn’t do much movie box office with riveting titles like The Killer Toilet Seat or Revenge of the Buckets.

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 that still might believe that it’s more safe to spend your vacations at home and out of the water consider the following summaries:

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.

Bret Gilliam
54 Stonetree Rd.
Arrowsic, ME 04530

direct phone (24 hrs.) 207-442-0998
cell phone 207-841-0998

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4 thoughts on “Shark Stroking”

  1. I know about Rutzen because they had a documentary on television a few years back and I copied it off of tv. I still have the copy of the show. I’ve been diving for 20+ years, spearfishing for 8 years back in the 70’s. and i also taught scuba from the early 90’s till 2007. When i saw Mr. Rutzen’s documentary I was fascinated. I figured this guy has the biggest cojones in the world or is totally insane. But yet what he says and believes in makes some sort of sense if you stop and think about it. when I taught, I would tell the students that you shouldn’t be afraid of sharks because they are beautiful animals, but you should respect them since they are wild. even a nurse shark can get pissed off if you bother it and and it can and will bite you. I used the analogy of a dog in the street (which is supposedly a domesticated animal), you don’t want to go up to it and pet it because you don’t know it and it doesn’t know you and he may not be as friendly as you think. anyway, I use that to tell people not to be afraid of diving (do follow the rules though) and Mr. Rutzen shows that some sharks,you can play with. Just don’t try that at home.

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  2. To the nice invitation from my ol’ buddy David Shem-Tov,

    I might take you up on a meal in the UK but I’m definitely not going with you in Indonesia: the last time you were there a crocodile ate YOU for dinner. I’ll stick with taking my risks with Marmite! It may taste like crap… but it doesn’t bite back.

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  3. Next time you come to England, John and I will take you to some decent restaurants.

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  4. Unfortunately Mike Rutzen was recently involved in a bad car accident whilst driving back from Mozambique. His girlfriend was killed and he is seriously injured. Ergo: Diving with sharks is safer than driving your car.

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