I think I always have seen sharks differently. When I was 5 years old, I was snorkeling with my dad and saw a six-foot Caribbean reef shark. That’s a life-changing event. It was also around the time when “Jaws” was big news. I was probably scared out of my mind, but it was a very different encounter than what was being portrayed in the media. I knew right then and there I wanted to work with sharks, kind of like a 5-year-old that wants to be a fireman.
My most rewarding experiences have been when I get to work with the same animal over and over again. They never become pets; they’re never domesticated, [but] you get to know them. You get to know their behaviors. It’s very hard to know what’s clicking in their head, but I have found that sharks are more intelligent than we give them credit for.
I helped to open an aquarium in the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska. That was the first time I really got to see this relationship building. I was the only one that really had a lot of shark experience, so the night we got sharks in, I dove right in and started working with this animal. I got to dive with it five days a week. I’d get in the tank, and she had a habit of greeting me. She came over to check me out, oftentimes would hit me in the forehead with her fin. When you put different divers in, she would have different behaviors. She would go to the opposite end of the tank as soon as we put someone nervous in there. The people that were calm — myself and one of the other guys — whenever we were in there, she’d swim under your armpit, she’d be right behind you. We did all kinds of fun things. We changed what color wet suit I wore; we changed what color fins I wore and still got those same behaviors. There was a lot of observation that happened that made me believe that this animal and I had a relationship that was different than the relationship she had with other individuals.
For a long time, common culture and science thought [sharks] were kind of nonthinking beasts. They’re not. They’re graceful creatures, and it is possible for humans to have a relationship of sorts with sharks. They are very good at determining what’s prey and what’s not. Attacks on humans are incredibly rare — less than a hundred a year, per year, worldwide. Of those, five are fatal. You compare the five people sharks kill every year with the 75 million sharks that people kill every year, it’s pretty clear who should be afraid of whom.