For Middlebury filmmaker, swimming with sharks is all in a day’s work
Most of us have a healthy fear of the creatures lurking in the depths of the deep blue sea. And with good reason. We can’t breathe underwater; we can’t out-swim a predator; we don’t have sonar or any cool geo-location tech in our anatomy; and to top it off salt water tastes bad, stings your eyes and it’s often cold. Our squishy, land-loving, air-breathing bodies just aren’t made for the sea.
And I, for one, am quite content to keep my tasty little toes out of the salt water and away from any snapping teeth.
Andy Mitchell, on the other hand, is not.
For the past 20 years, this two-time Emmy Award winning cinematographer, director, producer, writer and storyteller, has documented anything and everything he can — including great white sharks. He has over 100 credits for National Geographic, Wild, Discovery, Animal Planet, Smithsonian, POV, PBS and others, and has filmed all over six continents and in four oceans.
Recently, Mitchell was filming off an island in uncharted waters (literally) — about a 9-hour boat ride from Esperance, West Australia — in an area known as the Great Australian Bight. To give you an idea of exactly how remote this place is, the next piece of land to the south is Antarctica. Mitchell was there with a crew getting footage for Discovery Channel’s 29th season of Shark Week. “Return to the Isle of Jaws” airs July 23, 7 p.m.
The mission: To observe and find out why so many male great white sharks were congregating in newly discovered area.
The crew: Two cameramen (Mitchell was one of them), an Aussie Special Forces soldier (who had his arm and leg bitten off by a shark in training exercises), the fisherman/guide who discovered the island, two scientists, an Aussie medic who served on the frontline in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the “Strictly Business” boat crew.
They spent 12 days filming in the water with the sharks, and everyone lived.
“I love sharks,” said Mitchell, a 1996 Middlebury College grad who lives in Middlebury with his wife Lisa and their two kids when he’s not traveling. (Together they also lead the event planning non-profit Middlebury UndergrounD). “I love adrenaline, and I love exploring and adventure,” he added, though it’s more of an understatement than explanation considering some of his past exploits. Among his adventures he includes: petting a wild lion; photographing an illegal Mexican Cock-fight from inside the ring; chasing Kangaroos on a golf course in Canberra, Australia; tagging Bowhead whales off the coast of Greenland; climbing to the beehives of Waiag (in Indonesia); singing with Howler Monkeys; standing up to multiple Grizzly Bears on a forested path in Alaska; snuggling a baby Elephant; holding the world’s largest uncut diamond; wrestling a crocodile; hunting Boa Constrictors on the face of an active Volcano in Nicaragua; and so much more.
To be clear, I’m not afraid of adventure, and I too love exploring… But I don’t scuba dive. It’s just not where I belong. A guppy could out-swim me — let alone a shark — and so, my defensive reflexes take hold.
Really, it doesn’t matter if I’m in a lake, a pond, a river, an ocean or (if I’m being honest) a deep swimming pool — I’m always looking over my shoulder to see what’s coming from the deep.
I am afraid of fish.
All of them. Big ones, little ones, nice ones, mean ones — it doesn’t matter — if there is a fish near me I freak. My two sisters and dad learned this the hard way when we went on our first tropical vacation. The excursion of the day was snorkeling; I told everyone I was “not cool,” but did they believe their little 12-year-old sis? Nope.
So what happened? A bunch of parrot fish — you know those massive sherbet-colored things with chomping beaks and buggy sideways eyes — came straight for me. I snapped my head to look behind me, there was another pod swimming at me from the back… and the side… They were everywhere!
I garbled a shriek through my snorkel, inhaled a mouthful of saltwater and sped toward my unsuspecting dad. Now, I love my dad so don’t get the wrong idea, but he was going down and I was going up. Anything to get me out of that water.
After that incident, my fears of fish were no longer questioned. For the rest of the trip, my sisters and dad swam with their snorkels and fins through the clear azure water, pointing at colorful fish and coral with oohs and ahhs. Me? I was stiff as a board and happy as a clam on top of an inflatable tube — not a single toe dangling in the water — being pulled around by a rope attached to my dad.
My fear hasn’t waned. I’m a 30-year-old who has never jumped in the water first — and I have no plans of starting. So when I came across a picture on Instagram of two great white sharks swimming over a cameraman — sans cage — I almost passed out.
I showed my sister Christy and she said, “Oh, that’s Andy’s crew.”
I was mystified. I knew Mitchell did some pretty gnarly adventure-shoots with his film company (AK Mitchell LLC), but how on earth did he survive? I mean honestly, how are he and the rest of the crew not fish food?
Well, here he is folks — live and with all 10 fingers and toes — to tell you his story of diving with great white sharks and the documentary he helped film.
Q: Why did you get in the water?
That’s just what we do. This trip was the full package: sharks, adrenaline, exploring and adventure! It’s not Shark Week without pictures of sharks.
Q: What sort of protection did you have?
We were in a specially built underwater mobile shark cage, nicknamed the “Widowmaker.” It was equipped with three engines and ballast control so we could drive the cage around. When we found a good place, we’d lower it to the bottom, open the side door and get out. The cage also served as our refuge if we need to get to safety quickly.
Q: What is it like being in the water with that many sharks?
It is an amazing experience to be in the water with that many sharks. There is nothing like it. It truly is exhilarating. It is a rare thing in our modern world to be in a place where you’re not the top predator. I love that!
Q: What were the sharks doing all gathered there?
What the sharks were doing, is actually being touted as new science. First of all, they are all males — most of them young adults — which is a mystery in itself. This could be a very real discovery. What we think is that there is a birthing ground nearby and they come down here to basically grow up. We believe that at least three of them are brothers. Related great whites hanging out and hunting together is new and revolutionary. This has never previously been recorded. Scientists previously believed great whites did not stay together in family groups. We’re hoping to go back later next year year, when we think females arrive… that could be what the males were waiting for. We shall see.
Q: What do the sharks think of you?
These great white sharks were just curious. They’ve never really seen people before, so they are really just checking us out. They are not threatening. Even when they bite the cage, they are just tasting what it is. They’ve never seen anything like it before. That said, every shark does have its own personality. There are some players that will stay with you and circle the cage for hours. There are some that are more wary, and stay in the distance… and every now and then, there is an alpha — a shark that is more aggressive — and they will show you that they’re in charge. That’s when its nice to have the safety of the cage.
Q: What was the scariest part of the trip?
The bends… not the sharks. We had a bit of an emergency ascent to the surface from more than 75 feet (after more than an hour underwater)… so we were very lucky to not get bent. That to me is a far bigger concern than the sharks themselves. We were a long way away from the nearest Decompression Chamber. It would have been very dangerous to get decompression sickness that far off shore.
There was also a scary moment when the team crashed the cage on the rocks, and it was getting thrashed around by the currents.
Q: Is “Return to the Isle of Jaws” a sequel?
This is the second film ever made in this location. The first trip, the year before, confirmed the existence of a new “hot spot,” but they weren’t able to get in the water much, or get to the bottom with the sharks. We were lucky; knowing exactly where to go, we could explore the entire time. It was so much fun.
Q: Why do you film sharks?
Ultimately the people that do this really do want to save sharks. I do believe Shark Week, even with all its dramatization, does have the best interest of sharks in mind.
I am a whole-hearted environmentalist. Sharks are NOT evil. They are not dangerous if you treat them with the respect they deserve. They were here long before us, and we are dangerously close to wiping them out completely. Scary as they may be, they are a very important part of our ecosystem and must be protected. That kind of thing is why I got into documentary filmmaking. (That and the life experience.)
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