“Most People Don’t Realise Sharks are Older than Trees” – Joe Romeiro
Shark Week is back. From Sunday 4th August Discovery Channel’s acclaimed and heralded series of programmes focusing on everything shark-related returns to our screens and it’s bigger and better than ever.
There’s so much to look forward to including a premiere for Discovery Shark Week, a scripted feature-length film ‘Capsized: Blood In The Water’.
Add to that the usual investigations, explorations, scientific studies, stakeouts and experiments and you’ve got the recipe for a bumper week of television.
One man who’s a veteran of Shark Week is award-winning cinematographer and shark expert Joe Romeiro. He’s produced and directed some of the excellent content that’ll be coming your way.
By his side and another key part of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week team since 2013 is Paul De Gelder a former Army Paratrooper and Navy Clearance Diver, who lost two limbs after a brutal shark attack in February 2009.
We caught up with both men for a chat about all things sharks, how on earth you wind doing such a dangerous yet exhilarating job and, some lesser-known facts about these wonderous beasts.
The MALESTROM: So tell us Joe, how on earth did you start out doing what you do for a living?
Joe Romeiro: Well, I was born in Portugal and when I came to the United States I couldn’t speak English at all, so watching films I was attracted to monster movies and Natural History footage of the films about sharks. Between that and Jaws being made the year I was born, that kind of drove my passion for a while.
So that was one of the things that really attracted me to it. I began to get involved in it and started diving in my twenties when I could actually afford to dive, and I think around my late twenties was when I started picking up doing it more professionally.
From there I’ve been diving fifteen years, twelve years of filming and now almost ten years shooting for shark week. It’s like if you work in sharks, all roads lead to shark week you know!… I’m a kid who was an immigrant in this country, that didn’t speak any English, I don’t have any formal training as a scientist as a cameraman.
I just have training as an artist, and through that, I’ve been able to do a lot of that stuff, learning and understanding stuff and I’ve been able to gain a reputation working with the best scientific minds in the field so, I’ve been very, very lucky that way.
Through that, I now have a 46-foot research vessel called RV Warfish, and we just closed on a building to start the Atlantic Shark Institute, so we’re doing really well right now.
TM: Being that it’s something you love, do you still have to psyche yourself up before a dive?
JR: I tell people this all the time, but, there’s no loss of foreboding feeling. It’s your life, you go to work all the time, you work with these sharks all the time, but if you don’t feel something in the back of your head saying ‘watch out’ then you’re not human, that’s a primitive survival skill.
I always try to keep a very positive attitude, a lot of the time it’s just waiting for the animals. When I work with actors or celebrities I’m always thrown by how easy it is to do stuff, because most of the stuff we’re trying to do is with animals and they don’t follow instruction.
TM: How do you prepare for a dive, there must have been times when things don’t go to plan?
JR: Well I heard a long time ago through a mentor of mine, 90% of it is being ready, only 10% of it is being there. So when we arrive on location, we immediately try to be as ready as possible because there are so many times when you show up with a million cameras and then the thing happens and you’re not ready for it.
So that’s the really important thing, is to be ready for the thing that is happening. When I show up, we usually set up, get the camera rolling, make sure everything’s working and then we start planning out, almost like cinema or film, you storyboard stuff.
You are operating a camera system that a lot of people have a hard time operating on land and we’re doing underwater within a box and I’m operating life support at the same time, so, it’s all-encompassing and it has to be taken seriously every time, like I said, life support, you know.
TM: Paul, tell us about yourself, your navy service, and how you became a TV host – specializing in sharks. What motivated you to switch jobs?
PDG: I joined the Australian Army Airborne at 23 years old then transferred to the Navy at 28. In 2009, during a routine military exercise, I was attacked by a shark, losing part of my right arm and leg. I left full-time Navy Service in 2012, after continuing to instruct Navy Divers for 3.5 years after the attack.
Since then, I’ve travelled the world as a top motivational speaker, passionate conservationist, adventurer and mentor. I’ve been part of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week since 2013 and I’ve been fortunate to learn from some of the best shark experts, scientists and researchers in the world.
TM: When did you first become interested in sharks?
PDG: My interest in sharks didn’t come about until after my bull shark attack in 2009. Since then, I’ve focused my career on protecting and conserving these beautiful creatures. They are a vital part of our ecosystem and we need them to keep our oceans healthy.
TM: There hadn’t been a shark attack in the Sydney Harbour for decades when you had your accident. Can you tell us what happened?
PDG: Honestly, I was just unlucky that day. I was in a black wetsuit that made me look like a seal in warm and murky water. That day, we were testing a new Navy tracking device and within about four minutes of jumping into the water, I felt this strong whack in the back of my right leg.
It took me a moment to realize what was happening, but I soon came face-to-face with a massive bull shark head. Once the shark realized I was edible (it grabbed the flesh of my leg), it started shaking me and eventually pulled me under. I tried to jab it in the eye and punch its head away, but it wouldn’t let me go.
At one point, I gave up as I the shark was pulling me under, but luckily, I had an amazing team of medical experts and Navy brothers nearby who were able to pull me out of the water.
TM: Did you realize right then what was going on – or was it too fast and confusing for you to notice?
PDG: It took me a moment to realize what had gotten my leg, but as soon as I saw the bull shark head, I knew immediately what was happening.
TM: How long did it take you to dive again? Didn’t you feel fear? How has your life changed since then?
PDG: I was itching to get back in the water, and only waited 3 months (long enough for my stitches to be removed) until I went out to try surfing.
Of course, I was upset when it happened because it was such a traumatic experience, but now, every aspect of my life is different, and these creatures are magnificent and often very misunderstood. They are the only apex predator that will allow humans into their home.
TM: What was your reaction? How did it save your life? Is it useful to give advice to people in such a situation? Is following your instincts a good idea?
PDG: My initial reaction was to fight for survival, but I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the incredible team of colleagues, paramedics and surgeons that saved my life.
One of the biggest things for people to know is that these creatures are still wild animals and we are going into their home, so we always need to be aware of our surroundings and every time you go out on a boat, you need to have proper medical supplies on board. Shark attacks are rare but having access to quick medical care can make a huge difference.
TM: We all perhaps know the common misconceptions around sharks Joe but are there perhaps some less common myths, or interesting behaviour you witness that we the average viewer don’t know about?
JR: Interesting behaviour… Every day I see something interesting, I think the biggest thing that always surprises me is they’re much smarter than what we originally thought. They’re one of those animals that, you have to be to a certain extent smart to have the ability to learn and have the memory.
That’s one thing I’m always super surprised about is how quickly they learn and how smart they actually are. I feel like the kind of people who were first around dogs in a way, who started figuring out how intelligent dogs are in a way, how intelligent dolphins are.
These are one of those animals that we never really knew how intelligent they really were until we started working with them. When you’re working with them you can spend twenty hours getting prepared, but when you get to the location you probably only spend a few hours filming with the animals because you only have an hour-long in your tank to go in the water each time.
So that ability to see that world in a big scope it grows every year. Remote cameras, better equipment all that stuff, we just get better at it. I think the behaviour always changes, we see a lot of different stuff that I just thought we would never see.
TM: You talk about their intelligence, is it true that Great Whites hunt their prey strategically and learn from their mistakes, honing their skills?
JR: Oh yeah, yes… All species of animals, if something doesn’t work try again. The thing with animals, they don’t get angry, they don’t have vendettas, they do get frustrated though and you do see them try different angles, and when that angle doesn’t work, they try another.
They experiment at different things, so there’s a reason they have to be smart, to be able to learn how to hunt. You can’t be a good hunter or predator without having some degree of intelligence, but with that intelligence comes the ability to be afraid of things, and you do see that in those animals as well.
That’s one of the biggest things that breaks my heart about it is watching those animals go through anything, and you know that it’s not justified.
TM: How are shark populations being influenced by the increasing effect that human’s/we are having on the oceans?
JR: Oh the effect we are having on the oceans is tremendous!! We had estimates of sharks disappearing off the planet at about 70-100 million a year, that’s about three sharks a second. This year we’ve got data coming through that say, some years could be from about 60 million and years that could be as high as 250 million sharks!
Between that and regular pollution, noise pollution, our constant overhunting of them, all the things that are piling up, the odds are not in favour of them doing very well for a long period of time. No animal can withstand that treatment for that long. It’s an amazing amount of time to still be on this planet.
Sharks are… this is something that people don’t even understand, sharks are older than most things on this planet. Sharks are older than trees, they were the first animal to ever have a placenta, they were the first animal to ever have the type of birth that we have!
They have three different types of birth the shark, no other animal has that. They have egg births, they have live births and they have something called ovoviviparous which means that they have eggs inside of a live body, hatch inside of a body and then come out which is fascinating.
That they have these three different ways, they’ve created the placenta and the womb and all these different things that we know as that type of birth and they’re older than trees. And you think they’re not going to survive, but they’ve survived cataclysmic events for four hundred million years and now they’re not going to survive us?
TM: Paul, you mentioned you fight for the conservation of sharks…
PDG: Shark populations are absolutely in crisis in our oceans. Hundreds of millions of them are killed every year for sport fishing, commercial fishing, illegal fishing and we are decimating the oceans. If we don’t do something about it soon, we’re going to lose all of these beautiful creatures.
TM: What in your opinion makes sharks so special?
PDG: Sharks are just incredible because they are perfectly evolved to be the ocean’s top predator. They exist in their own realm, which we can just go and visit and be a part of and you can’t just do that with any other predator. You can’t go and hang out with a bear, a wolf, a lion or a tiger.
But these animals, these predators will allow us to go into their environment and be one-on-one with them. That just blows me away and makes me so happy to be a part of that.
TM: Maybe just to finish, tell us about Shark Week?
JR: Well we’ve got ‘Laws of Jaws’ which is something I’m really proud of because I helped write and direct it and film it. But that’s a show where we look at all the negative interactions people have had with sharks and we replicate them and show people a better way to handle them.
It’s in no way, shape or form an instruction manual but it’s something where we show people interacting with sharks in a really intense way and show how people would react to it. The other one is ‘Monster Mako 3’.
This one is super important to me because the Mako shark has made the endangered species list this year. And it’s going up for possible life protection in August this year, the first stages at least.
And this is what people should be paying attention to with these animals, knowing that they’re disappearing. And this particular one could be gone off the face of this planet and we never see it again.
In the nineties, we were able to protect the Great White, in the 2000s we can protect the Mako, we can protect one more.
TM: Paul, you’re part of the Shark Week team as an expert. Could you tell our readers what shows you were involved with?
PDG: This year, I’m on three different Shark Week specials – Shark Trip: Eat. Prey. Chum. Sharkwrecked: Crash Landing and Laws of Jaws: Dangerous Waters.
The documentary ‘Laws of Jaws’ is something new and something a little crazy and dangerous. It’s kind of like a Mythbusters for sharks, breaking down some of the common held misbeliefs about shark attacks and shark and human interactions.
There was one that I took part in, with Joe in the water as well, who was filming it. It was crazy, I told my friends about what we did and they think I’m nuts, so I can’t wait for it to be on Shark Week this year so that everyone else can think I’m nuts!
TM: Well we can’t wait. Good luck with it all and Happy Shark Week guys.
JR: Happy Shark Week to you. Enjoy!
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