|Sharks were coming at me from all angles, bumping into me, knocking the fish out of my hands. In panic I threw the bait-box on the floor. There were eight of them - two swam through my legs, one got caught in my hoses and lifted me off the bottom. Another sank its teeth into the chainmail, and another went for my fingers as I moved to point at a fish. |
We were in the Bahamas filming an episode on shark-feeding for the last series of Michaelas Wild Challenge (Channel 5). I was diving with experts and had been well briefed by professional shark-feeders, but when eight hungry sharks are heading straight for you, its a bit daunting.
I kept thinking that the expert was going to halt the filming, because it all got pretty chaotic. But he left me to get on with it until the shark got caught in my hoses and he was forced to step in.
By the end of the dive I was confident enough to push the sharks away and successfully feed them. It was an adrenalin rush, scary but thrilling, and it certainly made for good telly.
Some would argue that it was a dangerous thing to do, that it would give out the wrong message to viewers, encourage divers to take risks, or even that the act of hand-feeding upsets the sharks natural habitat.
I disagree. I had dived with sharks many times before, I was well-prepared, and our researchers had checked out the dive operation before the shoot, so I didnt see it as a dangerous exercise.
And theres no concrete evidence that hand-feeding is harmful to sharks - after all, fishing boats have been doing it for thousands of years.
I do believe that wildlife presenters have a responsibility for putting out the right message, and the current trend towards sensational programming is a worrying one. Some presenters set out to see how far they can push the boundaries, and the things they do are completely nuts.
Take Wildboyz on MTV - a couple of guys from the Jackass team who dress up as bananas to look for wild gorillas, or cover themselves in seal-fat to go diving with sharks. Stunts like that are plain stupid and set a bad example.
Of course, it would be a disaster for the marine world if filming shark-feeding encouraged everyone to do it, but that can hardly be a serious concern, because the activity is already fully accessible to the diving public.
For me, the main consideration is the lesson that can be learned from the exercise. People victimise sharks for being dangerous, but evidence shows that most attacks are accidental.
And there are plenty of creatures more likely to hurt you on a dive, and they can be much harder to spot - eels, stonefish, lionfish and so on.
A responsible programme about hand-feeding highlights the fact that sharks are not vicious predators on the prowl for humans, while stressing the need to be informed and cautious around them.
And I see nothing wrong with being sensational on TV if it captures peoples interest in a responsible way and teaches them to respect the marine world.
Better that people should be interested and informed than simply complacent or blindly fearful.
Take Australian presenter Steve Irwin. Dangling his baby in the jaws of a crocodile was definitely poor judgment, and I do find him a bit over-sensational generally. But his enthusiasm often makes up for his excesses.
He gets people interested, confronts animals in their natural habitat and shows predators for what they are.
Then theres cage-diving with great whites. I covered it in South Africa eight years ago for the BBCs Really Wild Show, and ours was one of the first crews to film it. It makes for sensational programming but, lets face it, sharks are sensational. When you come face-to-face with these predators in their own environment, it gives you a tremendous sense of respect.
Its thrilling - you look at them and realise that these creatures have been around for millions of years. And if youre lucky enough to see a shark breach, it takes your breath away.
These are very positive messages to put across, and I dont believe cage-diving itself encourages shark attacks on swimmers or divers. They dont see a cage, then see a surfer and decide to attack. I agree that youd be crazy to swim anywhere near a cage-diving site, and cage-diving near beaches is unacceptable, but safety regulations have been tightened up in recent years.
Dive boats in South Africa used to bait the sharks while you were in the cage, so you would see them getting into a frenzy and fighting with the boat. There was a real element of danger, and instances of sharks getting into the cages.
They still bait the sharks while youre in the cage, but now they try not to let them get the bait. Dive operators are restricted to areas well away from the shore, and again I think the positives outweigh the potential negatives.
I believe in championing animals, not mastering them, and anything that tips the balance is a step too far.
So Im usually happy to do a challenge if it involves meeting animals in their own environment, but I wont do anything too contrived or which I consider too dangerous.
I was once asked to sit on the back of a crocodile, but refused. I later found that the expert advising us had put his niece on a croc and it had leapt round and snapped at her. She was maimed for life.
By contrived, I mean manipulating or interfering with the animals natural way of being. When you feed a shark youre dealing with a truly wild animal, and there is a lesson to be learned. But I once did a shoot with a dive operator in the Bahamas on wild dolphins.
It was soon clear that the dolphins had been trained to follow the boat and perform tricks. They werent penned in, but they were no wilder than a pet dog.
It upset me. I looked into the dolphins eyes and they appeared vacant. The creatures looked like stuffed toys.
We did the days filming but eventually scrapped the item. I didnt feel we were being truthful to the public.
Dolphin-diving has been voted one of the top things to do before we die - I would agree, but its unfair to let people think they can experience the wonder of dolphins through a staged event.
When you dive with wild dolphins, its hugely satisfying precisely because you know how privileged you are. You have to work for a truly wild experience.
I went on a dolphin trip a while ago in Plettenburg Bay in South Africa, and we were out looking for two days. OK, the disappointment can be huge if you dont find any, but the rewards are that much greater when you do strike lucky.
Im always stunned by how intelligent wild dolphins are. They are untrained, yet you feel theyre communicating and trying to entertain you. You cant capture that experience with a quick fix, yet contrived stunts on TV encourage people to expect quick-fix experiences - and when an activity becomes consumer-oriented, environmental considerations tend to take a back seat.
But not all wildlife tourism is harmful to the environment. I recently did a programme for the Really Wild Show about the South China Sea, not only looking at the amazing coral reefs, but at the ecological problem of over-fishing and bomb-blasting.
The seas are being raped for money, and so much damage is being done - the kind that will take hundreds of years to put right. Where this kind of thing is happening, responsible wildlife tourism can be a lifeline. If divers start boosting the local economy, a sharks fin is suddenly more valuable in the water than in soup. But how do you encourage tourists to be responsible This is where wildlife television can play a positive role.
At one end of the spectrum, we have programmes such as the BBCs Blue Planet, which wow you with beauty. How do you top something like that
On the other hand, we have the ludicrous beastie boys, vying to capture viewers with increasingly outrageous stunts. We need to occupy the middle ground, with programmes that balance the good and bad, the thrills and dangers, the excitement of the marine world with an environmental message. We dont have to provide answers, just get people thinking.
Thats why I love doing childrens programmes - were tapping into the next generation of wildlife tourists.
If wildlife TV could encourage people towards the truly wild experience, it would be doing divers as well as the environment a favour. The challenge is to show that such experiences are worth the extra effort. And wild experiences are self-regulating - theyre not easily accessible, so are harder to overdo.
Take an extreme example: South Africas annual Sardine Run (see above), where the fish are herded into a bait-ball and pushed along the coast by dolphins using bubbles and sonar attacks.
All kinds of wildlife come to feed, including dolphins, whales, sharks and birds, and the noise is amazing.
Its like a big party to which every species is invited, but you never know exactly when it will happen. My partner filmed it for Discovery and the crew had to wait five weeks. But its one of the most amazing wildlife experiences.
So are divers pushing the wildlife experience to dangerous and destructive extremes Yes, if they seek excitement without a responsible and informed approach, and try to manipulate the marine environment.
Is wildlife television to blame Partly, in that TV influences expectations and attitudes. But divers too must accept some responsibility.
If the media is part of the problem, it could also hold a solution. We need to step back, learn to respect the marine world, be more informed and, crucially, have more rules and regulation.
|Michaela Strachan on location |
|filming sharks during a feeding frenzy - sensationalism, or a useful PR exercise for a misunderstood creature |
|Michaela examines the results of shark-finning in Malaysia while filming for the Really Wild Show |
|The sad sight of a dead hammerhead shark. |
|TV can help show the public that sharks are more sinned against than sinning |
|Dolphins swoop for a feast of fish in South Africas Sardine Run |
Wildlife photographer Tony White was bitten by a copper shark while filming in South Africa two years ago.
It was my first experience of the Sardine Run, and I was leading a group of divers. We were hovering near the surface, expecting to photograph the bait-ball from a safe distance, when the sardines began racing towards me.
Before I knew it, I was in the middle of the bait-ball, and I was hit in an instant - a copper shark sank its teeth into my arm, ripping the flesh and pulling off a huge part of my forearm and elbow.
I was lucky - after an operation and three months of agonising physiotherapy, I made a full recovery. Doctors said that if the shark had caught me half an inch to one side, it would have hit an artery and the injury could have been fatal.
Despite what happened, I stand firmly in defence of sharks. It was an accident. The shark was not in attack mode. When a copper shark attacks, a protective membrane comes down over its eyes, but this sharks eyes were clear.
It let go of me as soon as it made contact, and when the blood started flowing there were several sharks below me, but they didnt come near.
I was the first human being ever reported to have been bitten by a copper shark, and Im not surprised. Humans are not in the sharks food chain. It was just trying to move my arm out of the way to get to the sardines.
The Daily Mail ran a feature about the accident and I was disgusted with the way it sensationalised it. The press is out of control - it will do anything for a good story, and its very damaging.
I dont think sensationalism can ever be a positive thing when it comes to sharks. Thanks to Jaws and now Open Water, its very difficult to portray sharks in a positive way. Being sensational is certainly not the way to do it. However you dress it up, sensationalism just feeds into peoples fears.
Are we putting the marine world and ourselves at risk Yes, as soon as we interfere. I certainly dont think holiday shark-feeding does anyone any favours - its one thing to dive with sharks in the wild, with a professional crew and expertise, but to take a group of inexperienced divers into the water to hand-feed sharks is asking for trouble.
Sharks will bump you out of their way, and even dolphins will give you a nasty slap - theyre not the cuddly creatures that people imagine.
So where would I draw the line You tend to think youre invulnerable until something happens, and since the accident Ive become more cautious. I wont dive near sharks in poor visibility. You cant see them coming, and theyre more likely to mistake you for a seal.
I wont snorkel near them, because youre more vulnerable on the surface and visibility is impaired. And I will always dive on scuba, with experts. Im sure I would have lost my life in the accident if I hadnt been diving with professionals who knew how to handle the situation.
Sharks are thinking, inquisitive creatures - and they have big teeth - so you have to be careful. But for every human whos attacked, we kill thousands of sharks. They dont deserve their reputation, and the media has a lot to answer for. Theres nothing wrong with observing them in the wild, but they are not a form of entertainment, and we should learn to stop interfering.