'It's like being on the moon': Inside Shark Week's first night cage dive

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Image Credit: Discovery Channel

He’s worked on Shark Week for more than two decades, but veteran filmmaker Jeff Kurr still experiences firsts. In Lair of the Mega Shark (premieres Aug. 12 at 10 p.m. ET on Discovery), Kurr and fellow shark expert/cameraman Andy Casagrande head to New Zealand to investigate the sightings of a 20-foot great white. As Kurr watches on a monitor aboard the boat, Casagrande and colleague Kina Scollay take part in the first-ever cage dive at night in those waters—where aggressive sharks are known to work in tandem as a gang. The resulting six-minute sequence could deliver the most nerve-wracking moments of Shark Week 2014.

EW: Before we dissect the night dive, which people will have to tune in to see, we have an exclusive clip of you and Andy in a tiny boat trying to put a fin cam on a great white in order to track it to a location where you hope you’ll find the mega shark. It’s nuts.
JEFF KURR: I didn’t really like that. That boat was not the most stable boat in the world, let me put it that way. Every time a shark would just brush up against the boat, it felt like we were going to go in.

I’ve fallen in with sharks before: When you’re wearing your rubber boots and all that stuff, it’s just the most awkward thing in the world and very attractive to sharks, so I did not want to go in the water that day. I don’t know how he did it, but Andy was [finally] able to attach that fin cam, actually pretty easily. The shark really cooperated. The dorsal fin came right up next to us. He was able to reach out and stick it on there. That could not have happened quick enough for me. It was a rickety little boat. I said, “Isn’t there another boat we can use that’s a little more stable?” That’s all they had. We had to make it work.

Watching Andy put his hands in the water—that’s safe because the shark’s mouth had already gone by?
Yeah, you always want to avoid the business end. Luckily, the dorsal fin is a good place to be, rather than the front of the shark. Once you saw the head go by, and the dorsal fin pops up, that was his window of opportunity and he sticks the camera on. Seeing that fin cam footage—seeing the shark reacting to the other sharks and leading us to where we needed to go—it worked out really well. It’s just one of those things that you have to do to achieve a goal, but I don’t know if I want to be in that little boat again.

The night dive will go down as one of Shark Week’s all-time greatest sequences. Talk us through it.
Our mission was to find this legendary, huge great white shark that had been seen quite a bit around Stewart Island and that the locals and fisherman had spotted. Filming down there last year, shooting the program Great White Serial Killer, I saw some of the biggest great whites I’d ever seen in my life including Slash, who is an incredible shark, ramming into Brandon McMillan’s cage, so it got me thinking, what’s down here? We really need to spend some time in this area because New Zealand, for me, is really the last frontier for great white sharks. So much has been done in South Africa, in Guadalupe Island in Mexico, even off California. But New Zealand, not that much has been done with great whites, especially from a filmmaking perspective. Research is in its infancy there. We wanted to really see what was out there.

We had an inkling that these beasts are more active at night, and we encountered, I almost want to say a pack of these humongous great white sharks that all of the sudden, when the sun went down, were switched on, hanging out at the bottom. The interaction between Andy Casagrande, Kina Scollay, and these sharks on the bottom was one of the most breathtaking sequences we’ve ever filmed for me in over 25 years of Shark Week. We just had no idea where these sharks were coming from. They materialized out of the murk and came in to investigate the cage. It was eerie and spooky and spectacular. I guess the big takeaway from that is just the fact that these humongous sharks are way more active at night. They seem to come out of nowhere at night. It’s difficult to even estimate how big they are. Perhaps there’s a population of really, really big sharks cruising around New Zealand waters that’s rarely encountered, but every now and then people see them.

Why do you think white sharks are so much more aggressive in New Zealand? To see multiple sharks approaching the cage at once, watching one whip its tail at the cage is amazing.
I’ve been wondering about why the sharks in New Zealand are so much more aggressive. At least it seems like they are, more than other places in the world. It may be the fact that they’re not as used to humans being around, and they have absolutely no fear of humans. In other places, there are dive boats that are out with the sharks a lot, and they become used to these dive boats, used to people—I think maybe bored with the people. Here, people are a novelty in New Zealand because it’s a sparsely populated area, and there’s not even a lot of activity there—your odd fisherman or things like that. It may just be that they look at people as something they don’t understand and want to investigate. It may have something to do with even subtle things like water temperature. It’s cold there in New Zealand, so maybe that makes the sharks switched on, a little more active. It’s hard to know, but it’s an interesting thing that we want to definitely study and go back there again and again. To me, it’s one of the best places to see a great white shark.

Was there any part of you that wished you were down in the cage with Andy and Kina, or were you perfectly content to be up on the boat?
There’s really no part of me that wishes I was down in that cage. I was going to go, but it would have been a little [crowded]. I was happy to monitor things from the surface. I can’t think of many things more eerie than descending into this inky blackness and being surrounded by three, four, six, eight massive great white sharks. That’s pretty scary stuff. Obviously, we have a lot of safety plans in place and everything went fine, but that’s something you never forget. The only way to see what Andy was doing was the shark spy, our spy camera. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing in real-time. Usually, we have to wait for the diver to come up and tell us what happened, but I was able to sit there and watch it unfold live. Usually, we have this anxiety: What’s going on down there? Sometimes, the communication doesn’t work as well. To see it live, like we did, just made it extra cool.

At the time, I described it as almost like looking at that grainy moon landing footage. It just had that eerie look to it. It felt like being on the moon, because here’s a place where humans have never been before, in the company of great white sharks, on the bottom of the ocean in New Zealand in the middle of the night. Put all those elements together, and that’s spooky. It’s very interesting to see their behavior. That’s what we do. It’s what I grew up with, watching the Jacques Cousteau specials. We’re always doing these things that people have never dreamed of before. If you spend enough time on the sea, your mind works in ways where you’re trying to think of new ways to film these sharks—new angles that you can get, and new behaviors that you hope to capture. We’re always thinking of new ways to do it.

There is that moment when the pack of sharks leaves because a larger shark is coming. When you see that happening, are you just thinking, “We’re going to get something great,” or are you also thinking, “What are we getting ourselves into?”
The thing about a shark cage is it’s designed to be a bluff: A shark cage can never keep a white shark out if a white shark wants to get in. Normally, the shark will feel the metal bars. It just won’t pursue anything. It’ll think, This is something I’m not really interested in. Of course, they have to investigate things by bumping them and sometimes biting them. They have no hands—they can’t reach out and touch it. I’m sure they saw this thing all lit up at the bottom of the ocean and thought, What is this contraption—and what’s inside of it, more importantly? Obviously, when a shark that big comes in to test your cage, you’re hoping that it’s going to stay together and survive if the shark somehow really wants to get in. Ninety-nine times out of 100, the shark is going to bump the cage and say, that’s not what I’m interested in, and then move off. Hopefully, that’s what happens with us.

Last question: Between Lair of the Mega Shark and Air Jaws: Fin of Fury, it feels like there’s a lot more swearing in your specials this year. I’m not saying it’s not warranted.
[Laughs] I just got some crew members with potty mouths this year. I guess that’s what it is. I usually don’t swear. I had to train myself because I have 9-year-old twins, so I’m very careful. But there were a few moments in the two films we did this year where swearing was definitely justified. Apologies to any kids. I think we bleeped them all out. In the heat of the moment, things get said. I’m very happy—knock on wood—in 24 years of doing Shark Week no one has gotten hurt, even the slightest little bit, and no shark has gotten hurt. Safety first, but definitely adventure is right close to that.


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