Swimming with the Big Boys

Ever since Jaws premiered on the big screen over two decades ago, great white sharks - with their rows of spear-tip teeth - have muscled into our consciousness as the incarnation of our worst nightmares. Reaching upwards of 20 feet in...
August 1, 2000

Ever since Jaws premiered on the big screen over two decades ago, great white sharks – with their rows of spear-tip teeth – have muscled into our consciousness as the incarnation of our worst nightmares. Reaching upwards of 20 feet in length and tipping the scales at well over a ton, great whites dwarf all other carnivorous sharks.

The thought of swimming with such creatures – unprotected by a rebarred steel cage – is terrifying for most people, but it’s a dream come true for veteran marine cameraman Ron Corben and marine biologist Mark Marks. Together with London-based HIT Wildlife, Corben is coproducing White Sharks Outside the Cage, a US$500,000, one-hour documentary filmed primarily in South Africa and Chile, and slated for completion by MIPCOM in October. Marks is presenting, while Corben is directing and shooting.

Outside the Cage will portray the unseen world of the great white. Marks has worked without a safety cage for four years, and gets close to the sharks – armed with only a small digital camera and assorted props. ‘I have been attacked many times, but never bitten by a great white,’ he says.

Marks’ fascination with great whites began with an encounter off Anacapa Island, California. ‘It had been watching me for a while before it snuck up behind me, following the wall of the reef. It was only about 12 feet long, but it seemed huge,’ he recalls. After a couple more passes, the shark vanished into the deep, but left an indelible impression. This experience eventually led Marks to Capetown, South Africa, to study shark behavior and ecology under world-renowned shark authority Len Campagna.

Marks spent three years living at one of the world’s premiere great white feeding places, Dyer Island, where he began a behavioral study. He first worked from the relative safety of a small skiff, and from a tower on rough days. Later, he began underwater observations from a steel, shark-proof cage – but with limited success. Frustrated, he began leaving the safety of the cage to swim out to the sharks, using himself as bait to attract them. The tactic worked.

‘They have very keen senses and never had trouble finding me. They would circle me and come in for close looks, often sneaking up behind me,’ Marks says. He also stopped using scuba tanks in order to be less intrusive, choosing to snorkel instead. ‘Losing my dependence on scuba enabled me to spend far more time in the water with the sharks than before, when my dives were limited by air supply. Free diving, I could spend four to six hours in the water.’

Corben met Marks in South Africa several years ago, when visiting to film great whites for a stock footage agency. Says Corben, ‘I had no intention of filming from outside a cage when I first arrived.’ However, after meeting Marks and observing his interaction with the great whites, he mustered the necessary self-confidence. ‘I started seeing their behavior – especially around people – as being no more aggressive than that of other sharks, and as more curious than menacing.’ He was also lured by the prospect of incredible footage.

After many discussions with Marks about swimming etiquette and technique, Corben felt it was time to swim outside the box. The key, he says, was treating them like any other large shark. ‘You look them in the eye, point your camera at them, and stand your ground.’

It sounded easy until the shark grabbed the camera housing on Corben’s first foray outside the cage. ‘I was shooting in high speed and the noise seemed to attract the shark. It charged right up to me, but backed off when I pushed the camera towards it. A minute later, it came right back, took the camera in its jaws and headed upwards. It lifted me and my camera completely out of the water, then dropped us and left. Later, I realized I’d forgotten to put my flippers on in my excitement.’ Undaunted, Corben recovered his composure, checked the housing for leaks and continued filming.

Since then, Corben has spent nearly a year of the past four pursuing great whites outside the cage, and is often down for two to four hours at a time. He has filmed these toothsome behemoths for many clients, including the BBC, Discovery Channel and Fox.

Corben has grown accustomed to facing great whites, but he tries to stay mindful of their awesome power. ‘Down there we’re in their element. They know where we are at all times, even when we don’t suspect they’re there. Often, two or three whites will circle round us, drifting in and out of view. Then suddenly one of them will come up beneath us or behind us within a few feet. I know it by the look in Mark’s eyes . . . You either move out of the way or push them off – gently – so you don’t hurt their eyes or upset them.’

Corben – like Marks – has never been bitten, though Marks has had some close calls. In one of their experiments, Marks holds a three-foot, round mirror in the face of the shark, presenting it with a life-sized image of what appears to be another great white. ‘Once, a large shark attacked the mirror and smashed it. The shark was pretty startled and I got it all on film. Luckily, Mark wasn’t hurt either,’ Corben says.

Corben and Marks have turned down high paying work to produce their own shark doc. Corben explains: ‘There was another side of great whites that people weren’t seeing – their intelligence, their social life, their interactions with Mark, and his research. They’re amazing animals. We felt it was important to tell that story.’

White Sharks Outside the Cage will revolve around Marks’ ‘hands-on’ research and interactions with great whites, as well as the animal’s ecology. In addition to the mirror experiment, Marks confronts great whites with a ‘gape-board’ – a life-sized mock-up of a great white displaying its teeth. ‘Some sharks gape back, while others turn and run. So far none have attacked Mark,’ Corben says. They also hope to include a sequence of South African white sharks hunting their favorite prey, the South Cape fur seal. ‘We’ll follow them in our skiff using polecams to show them hunting and eating.’

While most of Corben’s prior filming of great whites has been on film, Outside the Cage will be shot on video, in high definition. ‘Besides wanting to shoot on the highest quality format possible, I like hdcam because it’s quiet and not intrusive. We don’t want lots of shots of sharks reacting to the camera,’ he says.

They also plan to have Marks deliver some of his presentation underwater. Says Corben, ‘We use rebreathers, which let us stay down much longer and aren’t noisy like scuba gear. This makes it possible to talk and hear underwater. I’m rigging up a special audio package so we can do some narration underwater while he’s with the sharks.’

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.