Shark Week: Get back in the water

Diver, documentary maker and shark week fanatic Paul de Gelder takes a deep dive into his adventure with Will Smith

Will Smith is one of the most famous action men in the world. But when he was putting together his 50th birthday bucket list of fun and daring activities he wanted to do in his lifetime, even he had his doubts about diving with sharks. Maybe he was born with it, maybe it’s residual trauma from working on 2004 animated movie Shark Tale. But Will knew just who to turn to for help with his phobia – shark attack survivor, motivational speaker and staunch shark lover and supporter Paul de Gelder.

The result of their collaboration will be up onscreen this August during the Discovery Channel’s (DStv 121) Shark Week specials (running from Monday, 17 August to Saturday, 22 August). It’s titled Will Smith’s Off The Deep End, and it airs on Saturday, 22 August. We chatted to Paul from his home in Marina del Rey in Los Angeles.

Shark talk with Paul

Paul came to Will’s attention through a completely unrelated project. “Myself and my friend, John Joseph, created a show where we would help to rehabilitate ex-convicts from the lower economic area of Los Angeles. We would embed ourselves into their lives and give them some life skills, some training, physical training and experiences like parachuting to get them outside the realms of the thought that they grew up with. One of the producers of that show (later) contacted me out of the blue and she said, ‘Hey, so I'm working with Will Smith and he wants to do a bunch of stuff because he’s about to turn 50. One of them is, he wants to go shark diving… I instantly thought of you.’

“And I thought, ‘Well, you have come to the right place,’” says Paul. “Will kind of had his eyes set on Great Whites but cinematographically, it’s not always great. When you want to get a superstar like Will Smith in the same frame as a shark, having the cages in the way and not really having that intimate connections with the sharks, I didn’t think would be as beneficial, or a cinematographically amazing, as taking him into the Bahamas where we’ve got crystal clear waters and such a variety of sharks, everything from tigers to bulls to hammerheads, and there’s no cages. You can have this really incredible touching interaction with those sharks.”

Paul made his proposal and despite everything his years of experiences in Hollywood had prepared him for, he and his team found themselves jetting off to take Will diving. “All of us were just over the moon,” says Paul.

The Celeb-shark handshake

Paul wasn’t just onboard for the superstar thrill ride. “The benefit of working with someone like Will is really a benefit that we get from working with all of the celebrities on Shark Week. We get sharks a greater exposure to a group of people who might not be interested in sharks, so might not understand sharks or might have a terrible fear of sharks,” he explains. “We introduce a whole new audience. That’s the benefit for the sharks, because the more people we can get to love or respect them, the more chance they have of people not wanting to vilify them, and kill them and eat them. And we get to pass on our messages of conservation about how much trouble sharks are actually in, because I don’t think a lot of people actually know…

“I don’t want to vilify any certain group of people, but the Asian market is the greatest consumer of shark fins and that’s clearly evident right now with this humongous fleet of 280 Chinese fishing vessels lining up abreast and just pillaging the oceans between Ecuador and Galapagos Islands. The Galapagos is a protected sanctuary, and a lot of the sharks that lived there don’t specifically just stay in that protected area, they migrate, and the Chinese fishing fleet are just taking everything. They can stay out there for years because they have boats that come out and refuel with new sailors and they take the stocks away and then the fishing fleets can just keep going indefinitely. It’s pretty clear who’s causing the most damage. Everything like this is linked. It is usually a very small handful of people and conglomerates that are parading over destruction for profit.”

Shooting sharks

When Paul and his team got into the water with Will, they couldn’t just focus on what was happening in front of the lens. Sharks sometimes can’t resist taking an exploratory nibble while your back is turned. “You definitely keep your head on a swivel at all times,” Paul admits with humour. “Something that they taught me in the military is, have a very good sense of all-around awareness. We do really like to keep a very small crew on the bottom. We want to have minimal impact on the sharks, and then we don’t have as many people we have to watch. If we’re doing something like when we’re working with Will, then I’ll usually be the guy watching the celebrity’s back, watching Will’s back. Depending on how many cameramen we have down there, we’ll have people watching their backs.”

Swimming with sharks

Will depended on Paul and his team’s shark expertise before they even set toe in the water. Over the years since this Australian diver lost his lower right arm and his right leg when he was ambushed by a bull shark, he has learnt to read their behaviour closely. “We have to lure the sharks in a lot with food. There’s a huge competitive scenario when you have 20 or 30 sharks swimming around you and they’re all competing for that food source you have. Sometimes they go into a big predatory feeding frenzy and at that point, you can either go to the surface or, most of the time, we’ll just back away from the food. We’ll keep the bait box closed so they can't actually access the food. We’ll take a couple of steps back and we’ll just wait for them to calm down and that usually happens pretty quickly,” Paul reveals.

He’ll also watch individual sharks to see what they want. “A lot of people don’t realise that these sharks, they’re very individual. They have different personalities depending on what they have been through in their lives. With Great White sharks, if you come across one that has a lot of battle scars on it, you want to be very wary of that shark because it’s clearly had a rough time and it’s not scared of getting into a scrap,” Paul explains.

Don’t be shark bait

No matter the shark, there are a few musts when you’re entering their world. Paul reveals, “We always teach people two main things: Don’t act like food and they won't treat you like food, so no panicking, no splashing. You don’t want to flee from the shark because that’s going to instil a predatory mode and they’re probably going to chase you down.

“And the second thing is, always keep your eye on them because they are opportunistic hunters. A lot of the time, they don’t want to get injured while they’re getting their food and we can tell that by the way they roll their eyes back, trying to protect their eyes whenever they come in to get the food. You always want to keep your eyes on them. We’ve done tests with this as well. We did this last year in Laws Of Jaws 2, where we put Michael Dornellas on the bottom and he had his back turned to a tiger shark. We were on underwater communications, so we could see the tiger shark creeping up from behind him but at the last minute, we told him and he turned around and the tiger shark went, ‘Oh, no, I’ve been busted.’ And it just did an entire little turn to the left and went around him.”

Feed your fears to the fishes

Because panic responses can be fatal during shark encounters, especially while diving, Paul teaches Will what he passes on to all his divers – the power of taking a breath. “When you feel that fear, really, the best thing and almost the only thing you can do – and we trained for this in the military as well – is what’s called combat breathing. Your breathing has such a powerful effect over not only your body but also your psyche. If you can just slow down your breathing (and you do this in meditation, as in breathing exercises with Wim Hof), it is beneficial to your body. You just slow down your breathing, that floods your body with oxygen, it clears your mind, and you become much more calm.”

But Paul reveals that a surprising side effect of diving with sharks can be a sense of complete calm. “The funny thing is, everyone thinks they’re afraid of sharks until they get in the water with sharks. And then all of a sudden, they want to get closer to them,” Paul laughs. “It’s a strange dichotomy of mindset. Everyone wants to get closer to the sharks.”

Paul’s favourite shark facts

Shark Week is one of Paul’s favourite weeks of the year. He loves a good shark documentary. “I love them all. They all come in such different experiences. This year, we did a show called Great White Double Trouble. It’s a very heavy, science-based show, which I really love. I love teaching people about new things that scientists have discovered and obviously, I love learning myself. I didn’t even know that there are two separate populations of Great White sharks, one from the East Coast and one from the Southwest Coast, and they only really mix when they go down south towards New Zealand. But they very, very rarely cross into each other’s part of the country. And from the discovery of the scientists, they never interbreed. That blew my mind. How do these sharks know they’re from different parts of the country? Do they have accents or something? I don’t know.

“And then we get to test a potentially life-saving wetsuit that is embedded with polypropylene. They created a very thin layer of this plastic and embedded it between two pieces of neoprene and we put it up onto a pressure plate and got the Great White sharks to bite it to, one, measure the bite force, and two, to see how the bite of the teeth would go through. It actually prevented about 80% of the teeth penetration. When humans get bitten by a shark, a lot of the death and trauma is created by traumatic blood loss, but if we can stop the teeth from going through to the depth of the arteries, then we’re going to prevent that,” says Paul. “Trust me, I’ll take some bruising other than bleeding, like I did, any day.”

What scares the shark man?

Overall, Paul wanted to teach Will how much brighter life can seem once you overcome your fears, no matter what they are. “My greatest fears in the world were sharks and public speaking and now, strangely, I’m a shark-diving public speaker. So, there’s really not much left to be afraid of,” Paul jokes. “Sometimes I let my imagination run away with me after I watched a horror movie at night. Like everyone else, you start hearing things. But really, there’s nothing left for me to be afraid of. And the benefit of that is, it frees me up to chase after my dreams and be free of hanging to that mortal coil. I get to experience life in its fullest which, you know, is a blessing.”

Watch Will Smith: Off The Deep End from Saturday, 22 August on Discovery (DStv 121) at 22:35

Shark spotting

2020’s Shark Week documentaries on Discovery (DStv 121) will shine the spotlight on the global need for shark conservation in the face of the killing of an estimated 73 million sharks each year in the name of shark fin soup (and in the case of smaller sharks, fish and chips). Discovery Channel will be highlighting the work of the world’s most respected marine biologists and science institutions, the latest shark research technology, and this year’s most intriguing insights into the minds and lives of sharks. And we will get to see how the global shutdown has impacted shark behaviour in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. It’s fun, fascinating, fearless and once these shows sink their teeth into you, they won’t let go. Shark Week forever!

Air Jaws: Ultimate Breach Off

Three teams of researchers use decoys, drones, and underwater cameras to collect data on sharks’ hunting techniques and populations to determine how lockdown has affected the shark population. Footage captured off Seal Island in False Bay on the Cape West Coast of South Africa by Chris Fallows will reveal some of the greatest ever Great White shark leaps to capture their prey.

Watch from Monday, 17 August on Discovery (DStv 121) at 22:35

Sharkadelic Summer

Snoop Dogg turns his voice as nature’s greatest narrator to the issue of Great White sharks’ supposed population boom along America's shores. As well as narrating some of the craziest shark encounters caught on film lately, Snoop will meet with experts to discuss what they’ve uncovered about the rise in shark sightings.

Watch from Tuesday, 18 August on Discovery (DStv 121) at 22:35

Sharks Of Ghost Island

Dr Craig O'Connell returns to Ghost Island on the edge of the Bermuda Triangle with a group of scientists to study the local shark populations and determine what it is about the island’s waters that makes it a shark spotter’s heaven with so many species hanging about.

Watch from Wednesday, 19 August on Discovery (DStv 121) at 22:35

Shark Lockdown

Researchers in New Zealand built a remote-controlled shark cage that allowed them to study the behaviour of Great White sharks during the early 2020 lockdown. With mankind out of the oceans, what did the sharks get up to?

Watch from Thursday, 20 August on Discovery (DStv 121) at 22:35

Tyson vs Jaws: Rumble On The Reef

According to Paul de Gelder, champion boxer Mike Tyson was so afraid of sharks that he was sick at the start of every dive or at the end. But he went into the water anyway. This documentary will follow Mike’s fight against his toughest ever opponent – his own fear – and reveal how Paul taught him to fight off a shark without using his fists

Watch from Friday, 21 August on Discovery (DStv 121) at 22:35

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