Josh Gates dives into shark infested waters to understand the nature of fear surrounding fin predators and returns to defend the species facing a senseless slaughter for its fins.
Swimming with sharks, what’s it like?
Well, it’s scary before you do it. The idea of swimming with sharks is something I think most people are afraid of. And when you’re there on the dive boat, you look down and see all these fins in the water, everything in your body says, “Don’t jump in the water. But once you get down and see these animals, not only as a fin on the surface, but as a real full bodied creature gliding through the water, your fear so quickly turns to wonder! You are so mesmerized that a lot of that fear flies away.
What kind of precautions do you take? Are you wearing a chain mail?
It depends on the type of shark you are diving with. Shark week maintains these long-standing relationships with the world’s best shark experts. So when you step into these environments the most protection you have is the people you are with. For our particular show, William Shatner and I dived with different types of sharks. For the reef sharks of the Caribbean, which, although they don’t have a reputation as Great Whites, can actually be aggressive, we wore chain mail. While we were initially trying to work with sharks, we had a bait box, which is a food container. You want to have chain mail because you literally own a food source, so sharks really care about you. But for the other dives, we did not wear chain mail. We dived with tiger sharks, which are considered man-eaters, with no cage or chain mail.
Has a meeting ever been too close for comfort?
Yes. When we were diving with the reef sharks one of them took an interest in me and tried to nibble or head butt me. It made me fall underwater because you don’t really realize how fast and powerful sharks are when they swim lazily in front of you, but they do have huge acceleration and thrust from their tails. And this shark knocks me off my feet. You get these little reminders that these animals are extremely capable predators whenever they want. but at other times you feel incredibly comfortable because you can see that it’s not just about these unpredictable and crazy things.
How are the meetings going? How deep are you likely to find sharks?
We did a few different dives. I went to the Bahamas with William Shatner. We did a show about him facing his fears. We dived at the Atlantis Resort in their huge lagoon reservoirs with hammerhead sharks and sawfish. So it was in a way a first opportunity in a controlled environment to get closer to these large predators. We’re not wearing armor, we’re just in full diving gear and we’re probably only about 20 feet away. Then we moved on to more difficult ocean dives.
In the Bahamas, shark populations are everywhere. So you don’t necessarily have to be deep to meet them. Often they are just sailing on the surface. The dive we did with the reef sharks in the armor was probably around 40ft, but in reality we were just stuck to the bottom. You are weighed down by the armor. We were able to remove our fins and stay at the bottom still with snorkel gear, but just sort of in one place.
And then the last dive we did with the tiger sharks, same idea – traditional scuba diving, no cage, no armor and free diving in the water, but trying to stay close to the bottom and place in a position to be able to observe sharks without hindrance.
Dolphins are our friendly neighborhood sea creatures, but is a friendly shark a myth?
I don’t know if they are friendly. But the question is: are they dangerous? And I think sharks are very misunderstood creatures. They obviously had a PR campaign that demonized them in movies like Jaws. They are considered stupid killers. And they certainly are not. Sharks are like any other predatory animal. When they are hungry, they hunt, they search for food. When they aren’t, they don’t.
Most shark attacks on humans happen because sharks think that a fin that is in the water is a seal. They are not serial killers looking for people. And my experience now that I’ve been doing Shark Week for two years is that they’re so much more predictable than people think. If you enter the water with a shark, it’s not like it’s going to come and attack you. They are curious animals. They are predators. We must have a lot of respect for them. They can be dangerous. But they are not hostile. They are not there to have you.
How did you deal with the containment induced by the pandemic, given that your profession requires you to travel to remote corners?
It has been an incredibly difficult year for everyone. For me, as a professional traveler, this meant big changes. I spent a year without flying. I’m usually at the airport every two or three days. So that was a huge change for me. I was very lucky to have been able to spend that year in our expedition headquarters, hosting my talk show, Josh Gates tonight. I got to talk to amazing celebrities from all over the world. So even though I wasn’t traveling, I was meeting people virtually. As we cautiously return to the world, it is still a challenge. The Bahamas had a very strict protocol for Covid. We had to be tested several times before and during the trip.
When did you shoot?
About a month ago. Protocols differ from country to country. Many restrictions have been lifted or relaxed here in (US). We were in Columbia to film an episode of Unknown shipment. They’re really fighting Covid there right now. It was a difficult place to shoot. Hope things improve, but I think the road will be a bit bumpy.
If wishes were horses, where would you take the next episode of Unknown shipment?
Oh, that’s an impossible question, because there are so many places I want to go. When you start to travel you think, oh, I’m going to visit a country. And once I get there, I can tick it off my list. And then when you start to travel, you realize how vast and dynamic each country is. Take India, for example. I remember the first time I went to India, I went to Delhi and a few different places, and I looked at a map and thought to myself, I haven’t seen India! Every country is like that for me. I wanted to take the show to a lot of islands in the Pacific, Micronesia and places like that. I would love to go to Sri Lanka, Maldives, Croatia, Serbia … I have visited over 100 countries, but there are so many other places to visit and so many countries that I want to visit again.
You brought a Yeti imprint to Walt Disney World in Florida. Where did you get it?
It was from a trip we took to the Himalayas many years ago. We did a show on the Yeti, the mythical creature of the Himalayas. And we found these remarkable footprints in the valleys leading up to Everest Base Camp. And we made an impression cast of it and brought it back to the United States and showed specialists and scientists. After graduation we ended up donating it to Animal Kingdom in Orlando at Walt Disney World. The imprint is there in the Yeti Museum, which is part of the queue for the Expedition Everest expedition. As a kid who loves Disney, it’s very gratifying to have a little piece of me inside a Disney park!
If you walked into a restaurant today and found shark fin soup on the menu, what would you do?
Oh, I would go out, for sure. Shark fin soup must go. I know it is a cultural tradition in many places but like many traditions it is a tradition that needs to be taken away. And it’s so destructive and unnecessary. We still lose something like 70-100 million sharks a year to finning. It kills a huge population of sharks and doesn’t really eat them responsibly.
Shark Trek airs on the Discovery Channel on August 23 at 7 p.m. and airs on Discovery +