9 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of a Shark Week Cinematographer
What is it about sharks that fascinates us so? And why would anybody ever intentionally get in the water with them? Mental Floss talked with wildlife filmmaker Andy Brandy Casagrande IV, an Emmy-winning cameraman with more than 40 Shark Week credits to his name, about the reality of working with these magnificent predators.
1. IT’S A COMPETITIVE FIELD.
Casagrande got his start as a cameraman for a research team in South Africa, but he says there's really no single path to becoming a shark cinematographer. “I get about a hundred emails a month from people who want to do what I do,” Casagrande says. “Something about sharks just captivates the world ... You get to travel to these really pristine, remote places around the world. You’re diving in amazing conditions with amazing predators.” Casagrande says the best way to get started is to literally dive in, logging hours underwater and shooting lots of footage.
2. THAT CAGE IS NOT JUST FOR SHOW.
The shark-proof cage so often seen in TV specials serves a real purpose. Casagrande is well-known for diving without one, but there are times when even he prefers the security a cage can provide. “The cage protects you from sharks that might be a little more bitey than usual,” Casagrande says. “It can keep you safe from sharks that might sneak up on you, or if visibility is bad, or in the dark.”
3. SHARKS HAVE THEIR OWN PERSONALITIES.
Sharks have personalities just like people, according to Casagrande. “If you’re at a party or a bar and you see some dude that has bloody knuckles or a black eye, and he looks angry, that’s not the kind of guy you walk up to and stick your GoPro in his face," he says. "Often if a shark is all chewed up and looks like a brawler, that shark is not afraid to engage in conflict.” But many sharks are ambush predators, and so you may not see that brawler coming—which is when that cage comes in handy.
4. THERE'S ONE THING THEY'VE NEVER BEEN ABLE TO FILM.
For all their bulk, great whites are elusive creatures. “The holy grail for most shark filmmakers would be to capture great white sharks mating," Casagrande says. "No one’s ever witnessed it. There’s no video proof or satellite data or anything to show when, where, and how white sharks mate.” Footage of two great whites getting it on would be a huge triumph not only for filmmakers, but for scientists, who know that we need to understand animals' lives in order to help protect them.
5. THE MOST DANGEROUS PART OF A SHOOT IS GETTING THERE.
The odds of the average person getting killed by a shark are 1 in 3.8 million. Even among shark cinematographers, shark-related injury and death are extremely rare. Car crashes, on the other hand, are pretty common. “I’m leaving tomorrow to go to the Bahamas to go film tiger sharks just for fun," Casagrande told us. "If you asked your average man if you wanted to go dump a bunch of blood and bait in the water and then jump in with a dozen tiger sharks, they’d be like, ‘Are you effing crazy?’ But the reality is that driving or flying to the location is way more dangerous. I’m way more likely to get killed on my way to a shark dive than I am in the water with the sharks.”
6. SOME OF THE MOST USEFUL CAMERA EQUIPMENT IS HOME-MADE.
Off-the-shelf technology is great—Casagrande uses GoPros as well as the RED epic 5K digital camera system—but most of it has its limits. So, like many wildlife filmmakers, Casagrande has started building his own. His inventions include a "bite cam" that consists of GoPros in waterproof housing surrounded by foam and a fin cam made with buoyant foam that clamps painlessly onto a shark’s dorsal fin to provide a real shark’s-eye view. The rig is equipped with fasteners that dissolve in sea water, which eventually releases the camera from the shark's fin and allows it to bob to the surface.
7. THAT “PUNCH THE SHARK IN THE NOSE” TRICK IS A COMPLETE MYTH.
Someone, somewhere, once decided that the best way to fend off an approaching shark is to punch it in the nose. And somehow, that advice caught on. This is absolute hooey, according to Casagrande. “The reality is that sharks are pretty durable," he says. "Plus, water magnifies images. The shark’s nose might look like it’s 6 inches in front of your face, but in reality its snout is further away, and when you punch and miss its nose, your punch trajectory will go slightly downward right into the shark’s mouth. Don’t put your arm in a shark’s mouth. You generally just do not want them to be within biting range of your body. They’re unpredictable, and you never really know when one’s had a bad day.”
8. SHARKS ARE NOT MAN-EATING MONSTERS.
Your average shark just wants to eat its seal meal and be left alone. “Sharks get such a bad reputation and it’s so unwarranted it’s just bizarre," Casagrande says. "They’re really very polite and professional predators. They’re not malicious in any way. Jaws painted them as evil monsters that sought out human flesh, but the reality is that sharks want to have very little or nothing to do with us."
Sharks test their food with their mouths and, unfortunately for us, we're roughly seal-shaped. To find out if a swimming, seal-shaped animal is in fact a seal, a shark will take a bite. "If they do bite someone, it’s usually an accident," Casagrande says. "I’ve gone to parties in dark rooms with tables where I know there’s food. It looks like a piece of pizza, but maybe there’s a pretzel smashed on top of it, or some potato chips. You don’t really know what the hell it is, but you know that it’s on a table that has food. It’s most likely food, and you’re so hungry you’re going to try to eat it. Occasionally, I think sharks are in that same predicament. They know you’re something potentially edible, but it’s not as if they’re actively seeking us out.”
Want to avoid a case of mistaken identity? Steer clear of the food table. "Sharks aren’t going to jump up into your living room and eat you," Casagrande says. "The only way you get bitten by a shark is by entering their domain."
9. THEY’RE ALSO NOT OBJECTS FOR OUR AMUSEMENT.
“Every time I dive with sharks, it’s like the first time. And yes, I want to hug sharks and kiss them and tell the world how incredible they are, but they’re not toys," Casagrande says. "People need to respect them for the wild animals that they are. Don’t grab their tails or ride on their dorsal fins.” Any interaction with a wild animal, especially a stressful interaction, disrupts its life and can affect its ability to eat, migrate, or mate. If you really love sharks, you'll give them what they want: to be left in peace.
A version of this story ran in 2016.