'I Swim With Great White Sharks for a Living'

From a very young age, I've had this bizarre and uncontrollable fascination with sharks. Seeing great white sharks on TV as a kid, I thought they were fake, then I realized they're just so incredible that they look fake, like sea monsters.

I studied marine biology in college, but after year one I realised it would take too long—I just wanted to get in the water and swim with sharks. I moved to Cape Town, South Africa aged 21 and volunteered as an unpaid research cameraman at the White Shark Trust. I was supposed to be there for three months and stayed for three years.

The first time I swam with sharks outside the cage I remember it being extremely cold and murky, and that I was hyper-vigilant.

I remember being nervous, but I didn't venture very far from the cage. I realized that great whites were more curious than aggressive. I have come to learn that sharks aren't actually these "bite first, ask questions later" predators, they are actually cautious and intelligent. I realized that if I didn't present myself as prey, swim away or panic, then they wouldn't treat me like prey. Panicking and freaking out can trigger a cat and mouse situation where the shark will pursue you because you're swimming away.

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I've had a lifelong fascination with sharks, but I became a wildlife film-maker completely by accident—National Geographic offered me a job when I was volunteering in Cape Town. I've now been in 17 different locations around the world to swim with and film great whites and other sharks and I've been lucky enough to dive uncaged and capture some amazing natural behaviour. Every shark has a unique personality, so you do sometimes run into sharks who are not super friendly, and some who are really friendly and curious.

I had an incredible encounter in Mexico around 10 years ago. We were trying to attract sharks in a certain area for almost two weeks, with no luck using tuna.

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Then on day 15, we saw seagulls were diving and picking up the remains of a creature. We rushed over and in the same area we'd been looking for weeks, there were five different great white sharks feeding on an elephant seal. I was really amped up and I wanted to get underwater and film it, but one of the guys I was with told me I'd be crazy to get in the middle of feeding sharks. I reassessed the scenario and realised he was right.

But seeing the hierarchy of these five sharks interacting with each other was incredible. They were polite with each other, but they didn't like our boat. So the guy was right—they would have had me as a snack.

The scariest experience I've ever had with sharks didn't actually happen to me but to my wife. When I met my wife, it was love at first sight, and when we got married, she moved to the U.S. and I took her on her first dive with tiger sharks.

Sharks, great white sharks, ocean, filming
Andy Casagrande has been fascinated with great white sharks since he was a child. He has now travelled to more than 17 locations around the world to film great white sharks in their natural habitats. Andy Casagrande/ABC4EXPLORE

I stupidly focused more on the cinema of the moment than the safety, and told her to hold steady and let the shark enter and exit the frame and to try to maintain composure. She was doing all of that and then this huge tiger shark swam over her head. One thing I'd forgotten to tell her was never to take your eyes off the shark's face or its mouth. I never let a shark swim past me without maintaining eye contact all time.

While she was focused on the tail, the shark opened its mouth—it put its bottom jaw on her left shoulder and its top jaw on her right shoulder, and had her head in its mouth.

I was too far away, and she was so focused on getting the shot that she didn't realize she was about to be decapitated. I screamed some profanities through my mask, and she reacted and pushed her camera up over her head and got away from the shark. So she was able to save her own life, but it was a really close call.

We now have a four-year-old and a six-year-old and they love sharks. I took my four year old diving with great white sharks in Cape Town, in a cage of course, and we took both kids swimming outside a cage with hammerhead sharks in the Bahamas earlier this year. If you teach kids that sharks aren't monsters, they'll believe it. A lot of their friends don't believe it, and their friend's parents definitely don't believe it—Jaws really screwed the world up!

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Great white sharks do look like monsters and they sometimes eat people, so they are sometimes people's greatest fear, but I think a lot of that is based on Jaws. People demonize sharks, you hear about "shark infested waters." But how can a creature be infesting its own home? Humans infest the waters, not the sharks.

After Jaws, the phrase, "the only good shark is a dead shark" was used everywhere and people would go and kill sharks for fun because they thought they were ridding the ocean of these evil predators.

Thanks to social media and programs about them, people have since fallen in love with sharks. They've become the most famous creatures on earth—sharks have captured more people's attention worldwide than any other predator.

There are even sharks that have become celebrities worldwide, like Deep Blue and Lucy. Amazing actresses like Angelina Jolie and Charlize Theron have some competition now! I've actually been lucky enough to take some celebrities out to see sharks—people like Michael Phelps, Shaquille O'Neal and Rhonda Rousey. It's truly a life changing experience for anyone.

My dad is 71-years-old and I took him out to swim with sharks in Guadeloupe. He'd never seen a shark, apart from in my work or TV, and he'd never worn a scuba mask or breathed on a regulator. We kept him inside the cage to keep him safe, but he loved it—he was blown away.

The holy grail for me is to film great white sharks mating. The term "shark porn" gets thrown around, because no one has really seen how great whites mate. But if I was a great white I probably wouldn't get busy in front of other people either. Like humans, they probably want privacy.

Sharks can actually be really therapeutic to be around. They're so polite and so curious as opposed to what they're often portrayed as. The fatality numbers each year from sharks are comparatively low— mosquitos kill exponentially more people—but sharks are still seen as the scariest creature in the sea. Though perspectives are changing.

People have dreams when they are kids, and then they grow up and life gets in the way. So instead of becoming an astronaut you might become an insurance broker or sell real estate. And there's nothing wrong with those jobs, but people often put their dreams aside in the face of reality. Every day I think about how lucky I am.

Andy Brandy Casagrande IV, is an Emmy award-winning wildlife cinematographer, field producer and on-camera presenter. He specializes in adventure wildlife films around the world. With more than 100 wildlife film credits to his name, Casagrande has shot and produced films for the world's top television networks and is featured in the upcoming World's Biggest Tiger Shark? and Most Wanted Sharks – both shows will screen as part of the 2020 National Geographic SHARKFEST, which starts on July 19.

All views expressed in this piece are the writer's own.

As told to Jenny Haward.

'I Swim With Great White Sharks for a Living' | My Turn