Best of 2012 (Behind the Scenes): A 'Shark Week' cameraman tells all

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Image Credit: Andy Casagrande

This year marked the 25th anniversary of Discovery’s Shark Week. In a two-part interview originally published over the summer, Emmy-winning wildlife cameraman and apex predator expert Andy Casagrande, who’s worked on 13 Shark Week specials, told us how he’s able to free-dive with great whites, what we should do if we find ourselves swimming with a curious one (swim toward it?!), why he was once chased to the surface by a 10-footer, and how he managed to capture “The Impossible Shot.” For more stories behind this year’s top TV and movie moments, click here for EW.com’s Best of 2012: Behind the Scenes coverage.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’re known for getting outside the cage with great whites so you can capture angles TV audiences haven’t seen a million times before. How do you tell if sharks, in general, aren’t in the mood to be filmed?
ANDY CASAGRANDE: The smaller sharks will arch their back, drop their fins, and swim in weird postures. If you don’t have experience with sharks, you might not read those signs. They’ll get close to you, dart away, and then come back — mock charges where they’re essentially trying to scare you or let you know, hey, I’m pissed off, and if you keep swimming at me with your camera, I’m gonna bite you or whatever I can bite. It’s relatively obvious. Great whites are easy. They’re built like pit bulls on steroids. They can bend their fins here and there, but their way of showing they’re angry is they open and close their mouth. So they just show you the jaws sign. They swim right at you and gape.

So a great white is swimming at you opening and closing its mouth. What do you do?
You can’t swim away immediately because then you’re acting like prey and they’re like, oh, cool. That’s something I’m gonna eat. The best thing that I’ve found to do sounds counterintuitive, but you swim right at them. You always keep eye contact, and you swim directly at the shark, and that seems to trigger a defense mechanism. Now they’re like, wait a second, everything in the ocean swims away from me aside from orcas, which are known to occasionally kill white sharks. Everyone says punch a shark in the nose: the problem with that is that water refracts and magnifies things, so if you go to punch a shark in the nose and you think its nose is right here, it’s not, it’s back here, and as you follow through, your hand goes straight into its mouth. Their eyes and their gills are the most sensitive things. But the reality is, if you don’t act like prey, they won’t treat you like prey. You don’t want to swim away while they’re watching you. As they swim away, you swim away, and try to get back on the boat, open up a Red Bull, say, ‘Oh, that was fun,’ and downplay it.

Your website has a shot of a great white face-to-face with you, with just your camera separating you. How often does that happen?
Whether it’s the electronics in the camera or the fact that they’re just really inquisitive, they almost always swim straight up to the camera and either bump it with their snout, or, the more investigative ones, decide to bite it. I’ve said before it’s like you’re eating a bowl of spaghetti and you accidentally bite down on your fork. Most sane people don’t try to continue to bite through that fork and swallow it. They immediately let go and realize wow, that’s something that’s not natural for me to eat, so they don’t eat it.

What’s the most dangerous situation you’ve found yourself in over the years.
I try not to tell it. I had one situation [filming 2010's Into the Shark Bite] where I was essentially running out of air, and I had to go to the surface, and I was out of the cage with great whites. Like I said, if you swim away from them, they pursue you. I was breaking my own rule of don’t act like prey or they’ll treat you like prey. I had one relatively curious juvenile great white, and the juveniles are like puppy dogs. They want to swim up and put their paws on everything. The bigger ones, they’ve been around. They know what boats are. They know what people are. They’re cautious, and that’s the reason why they’ve gotten so big. They’re mature enough to understand that they’re not the only dangerous thing out there. But this little shark, it didn’t really want to come and play with me either — it seemed like it wanted to bite me. I was interacting with it on the bottom, and it kept coming up doing the mock charging and bumping into the camera, and I’d bump it, and it’d swim away and come back. Well, I bumped it one last time, and I started to swim up. It was swimmin’ away, but it knew that I was swimming up, so it immediately turned around. It was the first time I actually witnessed a great white stalking and then attempting an ambush vertical approach from underwater. I saw this little shark — little as in, like, a 10-footer — coming up at me, and I saw its little white chin wagging. It was accelerating toward me. I’m like… uh, holy s—. I just relied on my standard instinct of using the camera, keeping the camera between me and the shark. The shark came up with its mouth open, and as I finned back, it sort of went past me and I hit it on the side on its gills. That time, when I hit its gills, it seemed to finally respond like, s—, that thing is dangerous. So it swam down. I kept an eye on it and kept finning, and I saw it circling back again. They’re just like teenagers. They don’t really know any better, and they’re really curious. But when a great white shark is curious, it can be catastrophic.

Luckily, I was able to get back to the boat, drink my Red Bull, and everything was cool. That is one thing that happens: When you get really caught up when you’re filming and you’re getting amazing stuff, especially on the bottom, you can forget about your air supply. Once again, it wasn’t really the shark that put me in danger, it was myself. I was running out of air and created this predator-prey relationship where I became the prey and the shark just gave chase. If I didn’t run out of air, I could have slowly ascended. The shark would have come up, circled around me, bumped some more. If you do things slowly and methodically, they respond that way as well. If you have to kick up because you’re running out of air and you’re freaked out now because he’s coming after you…

I now want to see that footage.
I was filming. On my camera, it’s not as impressive as if someone was filming what was happening. Underwater, you don’t zoom a lot, because when you zoom, it flattens the image and it doesn’t look good. So when you’re with great whites, you’re always really wide because they’re massive animals and they come right up to the lens all the time.

Did you have another diver with you that day?
I did have Mark Addison [an expert on South Africa's shark diving sites] with me. There was another situation that happened with Mark, just before this. Mark saw the shark f—ing with me, and Mark swam over and was trying to tell the shark, like, chill out. But Mark is scuba diving. He doesn’t have a camera, he’s got nothing in his hands. I might have this shot somewhere: The shark swims up at Mark. Mark swims at the shark like I was saying you do. But instead of backing down, the shark just keeps swimming. The shark is opening his mouth and all Mark can do is [makes motion like you're pressing yourself flat against a wall] as the shark goes by. If he would have put his hands out, the shark would have bit his hands. So I did have Mark, but Mark is a crazy f—ing person. I’m a bit of a dare-devil, but I don’t want to win a Darwin Award. Like if my family can read my obituary and laugh because it’s embarrassing, that’s not a good thing.

NEXT: Part II — Inside the greatest shot of all time

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