I knew an old and
learned man, a naturalist and experienced deep-sea fisherman, whose views on
sharks were dogmatic although he had never been in the water with one. He would
state with certainty which species were dangerous and how each would behave in
People of long
experience in face-to-face exposure to sharks in the open sea, however, have
few positive opinions about their behavior toward man. As for me, I am certain
on only one point: most large sharks are armed to do the complete job if they
feel like it.
In the summer of
1960 I spent many hours taking still photographs of great blue sharks off
Montauk Point, Long Island, from the protection of a rusty old cage that I hung
from two floating oil drums at a depth of 10 feet. The drums were tethered to
Captain Frank Mundus' charter boat Cricket II by a 50-foot line that kept the
whole clumsy rig in the chum slick.
The great blues,
or blue whalers, as they are also called, usually swam back and forth through
the slick, swallowing the small pieces of fish or meat. By expanding the
pharynx, they set up a current that made the chum pop into their mouths like
wadded cocktail napkins jumping into the intake of a morning-after vacuum
cleaner. On a couple of occasions, when we hung a large carcass over the side,
they went into a feeding frenzy. Their lazy, gliding pace was replaced by a
rapid, jerky swimming action. They would hit the bait at speed, clamping on
with jaws opened so wide that they seemed actually dislocated. With wild,
vicious shakes, the blues would tear loose a 10-pound hunk of flesh. I was
impressed and didn't have to consult my physician to know that that would be
too much weight to lose so quickly.
After many hours
of watching the great blues and also brown and dusky sharks, I began to discard
wholesale most of the commonly heard "theories." For example, contrary
to legend, sharks do not have to turn over or roll to either side to bite. They
can bite from any position when they get within range, and that position is
usually upright. The roll-over idea probably derives logically from the fact
that the snout of a shark overhangs the mouth so prominently, a physical
characteristic particularly striking in the great blue. Yet even the blue
nearly always hits its prey while swimming on an even keel; at the instant
before contact it is apt to arch, so that the thrust of the jaws is slightly
upward. When the mouth is opened wide, the lower jaw seems to dislocate forward
and downward and the big ring of teeth is right there, front and center.
respect for the great blue in those days and became convinced that it would be
possible to make an exciting and strangely beautiful movie about sharks. But
for the film to be good, it would have to be done honestly: the sharks must be
in their natural state—unharmed, undrugged and free-swimming, far from land in
the open sea.
intervened and I did not begin to work on the shark film until the spring of
1964. The basic requirement for doing such a movie was obvious: I would have to
spend a lot of time among feeding sharks without becoming part of the menu.
Having photographed from a cage four years before, I never considered doing
otherwise. Since Captain Mundus' old steel cage was rusted out, I had a new one
fabricated of a corrosion-resistant aluminum alloy. About this time I was lucky
enough to meet Bob Young, a talented moviemaker with underwater experience.
Young was tied up with several other projects and there was no chance of his
being free for a year, but he liked the shark-movie idea and agreed to shoot it
with me when I had solved the basic problem of getting us down among the
At our first
meeting Young remarked on the need for a stable platform. It was mentioned
casually enough, but it filled me with apprehension and started me thinking
about a problem that was not even on the way to solution until the last shark
had left Montauk in 1964 to winter in friendlier seas to the south. A cage
suspended underwater is affected by wave action even more than one on the
surface: the suspension cables, at one instant slack, come taut the next and
pull the cage about violently even in a moderate sea. Still photography is
possible under these conditions, since the photographer need only frame the
action for an instant, but the movie cameraman has an impossible time when he
is being yanked about.
In the summer of
'64 I tried many modifications to dampen the violent instability of the cage.
None worked. By the end of the season I gave up on surface dependence
altogether, and in a last desperate attempt mounted on the cage a crude
buoyancy system that ultimately led to a solution. The new device, which cut
the cage free of the surface, embodied two free-flooding tanks secured to the
top, into which air could be introduced by turning two hand valves. It was
possible to dump air from the buoyancy chambers by operating two other valves.
The machine had one drawback. It took a man with extraordinary manual dexterity
and four hands to operate it.
That winter, with
the help of Mitchell Bogdanowicz, an inventor of motion-picture equipment, I
improved the buoyancy system, reducing the number of controls to two and
incorporating an electrical system that would automatically introduce air into
each of the buoyancy chambers. The contraption was ready to be tried out by
mid-May and a test was scheduled for Sunday, May 16, at Quarry Lake near White
Plains, N.Y. Dr. Carleton Ray, a zoologist and frequent diving partner, and
Philip Clarkson, owner of a nursery and an accomplished mechanic, were to meet
Mitch Bogdanowicz and me at the lake. Some other friends were coming along,
too. It was going to be a regular launching celebration.