When was your first encounter with sharks?
I was down in the Florida Keys with my parents at age five and got to see my first reef shark while snorkelling with my dad. And, rather than being terrified, I was absolutely thrilled and knew that it was going to be my life’s goal to work with sharks.
What’s the most fascinating moment in your experiences with sharks?
I worked at an aquarium in the States that was the only one to maintain and keep a tiger shark. What was really interesting was to build a personal relationship with the shark – knowing how she was going to behave, how she reacted to different people. Then I got to dive with sixgill sharks and, up until recently, very few people got to see sixgill sharks outside of a submarine. But really any time getting in the water with sharks it is certainly a lot better than a day at the office.
What is your favourite species of shark and why do you find it so fascinating?
For me it’s the tiger shark. I guess it’s just personal – it was one of the first sharks I got to work with, so it ingrained itself into my psyche very quickly. The fact that they are known as the second most dangerous shark in the world is mystifying to me because all my experiences with tiger sharks have been very similar to [my experiences with] a big Saint Bernard. Not that I recommend anyone to go out and find a tiger shark and swim with it, because they have the potential to be very dangerous.
What is your most beautiful memory associated with sharks?
I think for me it was when I was on a very shallow reef called Hammerhead Gulch in the Bahamas. In 15 years no one could ever remember seeing a hammerhead there. I was in nine feet of water when the sun kind of disappeared, so I looked straight up and there was about a 12ft great hammerhead essentially skimming over the very top of my head. Because hammerheads are more and more rare to see these days – and they were never overly common to begin with – having an animal come in to shallow water and feel comfortable enough to come that close overhead was probably one of my most beautiful memories of sharks.
So, er… is it at all possible to well…domesticate a shark?
Sharks are like bears and a whole host of other animals like tigers and lions. You see them all the time in the zoo and when they are in a captive scenario they are conditioned. It is not really possible to truly domesticate a shark, but you can condition them. If you put it out in the wild it would survive just as well after 20 years in an aquarium as it would the day it came in.
How big is the fear factor in what you do? Aren’t you a little afraid that you could follow in the footsteps of Steve Irwin?
He is a person who always impressed me. His love and passion for animals was plainly obvious to anybody who met him or watched him on TV. The reality is he unfortunately passed away, but while doing a job that he dearly loved. Am I more at risk than someone sitting behind a desk? Potentially, but the reality is that driving somewhere is probably the most dangerous thing any of us are going to do on a given day – so it is all relative. But for me, ultimately, it is something I truly love and I have never felt threatened being in the ocean with large sharks. What happened to Steve is certainly a possibility for anybody who works with wild animals, whether it is sharks or lions. It’s just a risk of the job, but certainly one that is more of a well-educated risk than just blindly going on a safari without knowing what you are doing.
Thanks for speaking to us Andy.
Nice to talk to you. Happy Shark Month!
Interview: Devina Divecha Shark Month starts at 10pm from Monday to Saturday in August 2009, and at 11pm on Sundays, exclusively on Animal Planet