Michael Rutzen in Dubai

We spoke to South African great white shark expert during Atlantis visit

Michael Rutzen in Dubai
Michael Rutzen in Dubai Image #2

How did your fascination with sharks begin? I imagine fear played a part
Yes, I was afraid of the animals, then quite by accident, somebody asked me to skipper a boat one day and the sharks blew my mind. The more I learned, the more I understood that I didn’t know what I was talking about. Then I started losing the fear, slowly though education.

What do you think it is about the animal that fascinates us so much?
They are nothing like anyone thinks. Everything we learn is new. It’s totally not like what is written in the books. They are extremely complex animals, extremely clever and they are not mindless killing machines. They have got their social orders are we are trying to disturb all of that by our fishing practices.

People’s attitudes to sharks are improving, though, are they not?
It’s not changing that much. It is not changing quite enough. These animals are almost extinct; it is not a myth. I dive in the oceans and the most places I go, the less I see. We are working on high wastage practices on the ocean and we are supposed to work on sustainable practices.

I am not saying even stop eating sharks, if it is sustainable. You have got to stop it now until the numbers pick up, and then you have to have to figure out what their social structures are, which habitats they move in, what is their food, to ensure their survival. Then you have to figure out how much to harvest and which methods of harvest so that you do not disturb the animal’s social networks.

Tell me about free-diving with great whites. It must be exhilarating.
Yes. It is an honour. I haven’t done anything with great whites that the animals don’t allow me to do. It is an honour that they allow me to do that. The documentaries we make show the animal the way they really are; the truth. Hopefully in the documentaries, we can make great whites ambassadors for themselves.

What did people say to you when you first told them you were going to free-dive with great whites?
Of course, those years they thought if you put your toe in the water, a shark would bite it off. I think we have passed that stage. Hopefully, we can get the plight of these animals into people’s living rooms with these images so that they start wanting to know more and start caring.

You have got to write to your politicians and say ‘no more, otherwise I won’t vote for you’. Politicians like votes.

There has been a recent increase in shark attacks on humans. What do you say to people who say that’s the proof this is a dangerous animal?
I think that what we need to do is stop being emotional and start analysing the attacks. Don’t say it’s an unprovoked attack, and that’s it. That’s stupid, because that’s not true. We need to analyse those attacks in a forensic manner and come up with why that specific animal make a physical negative encounter with that specific human on that specific night and place. We start working through that data and hopefully, if we can change our behaviour, they will. These animals are not mindless killing machines out there to hunt us. Something made that animal do that [when it attacks a human]. We, through our own stupidity, do not want to take the time and the expertise to find out why.

And what can we do then? Am I taking a risk every time I go into the ocean to surf, for example, in certain parts of the world?
Surfing is a high-risk sport. Surfers, especially good surfers, surf in high-energy areas. That is where the animals come to hunt. There are a couple of things you can do; surf in clear water where the animals can see you, and don’t surf dusk and dawn because that’s where they are most active hunting in that manner, when they strike you from below.

And don’t have too much bling on you surfboard. Everything today has to have bright colours. It fascinates them. It’s like a kitten with a ball. If there is a shark looking at you and you don’t see the animal and you catch a wave and you are moving at speed away from it, that when it will immobilise you.

Have you ever thought a shark might kill you?
I have done a few stupid things and fortunately the animals have not behaved in the way we think they do. I made the animals uncomfortable and as soon as I rectified the situation, the animals calmed down a bit. I have never seen an aggressive animal, unless we make it aggressive, but they do have very distinctive personalities – more distinctive than ours.

You are well-known for inducing in sharks a state of paralysis called ‘tonic immobility’. They seem to enjoy it, and often come back for more. Tell me about it.
There is nothing to describe it. If I didn’t have ears, my smile would have gone around my face. It’s incredible that an animal will allow you to do that with it. And it seems to be enjoyable to them. It works for tiger sharks, but it doesn’t work for white sharks. I tried to put a great white into tonic immobility to put tags on it. They have on and off switches – if you push the wrong one, you have a problem.

Which is your favourite type of shark?
Whities of course – they are my puppies.

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