Interviewed by Veronica Farmer, images by Mike Bhana from www.wildfilm.tv
Ocean environments are vital to us on so many levels, especially for island nations like my own home of New Zealand. Oceans are intrinsic to our way of life, to our culture, summer holidays, happiness; all of those elements for us of being truly Kiwi. If we woke up one morning to find that all our waterways were polluted, that there were no more fish in the oceans, no more Saturday mornings out with our kids, teaching them to fish or swim, we would lose a sense of home and who we are as a people. The sea has always been a huge part of my life, it's in my blood and helping others understand and connect with that world is important to me.
In my early 20’s I was a journalist working with special interest and adventure magazines. As a keen surfer I had an altercation with a white shark and didn’t think I was going to survive it. I found myself deconstructing and reconstructing what happened in my mind and that developed into a fascination with sharks. When I moved away from the world of magazines and into television I had the intention of doing natural history documentary work and like any profession I was looking for a gap where I could create a niche. When I first started in the genre of documentary television, there wasn’t anybody creating documentaries on sharks. I pitched a couple of ideas and got them off the ground and suddenly I was “The Shark Guy”
Sharks play a major role in keeping our oceans healthy. I’ll explain how. Just imagine for a moment if the trash collectors or rubbish trucks went on strike in every major city on Earth. There would be refuse piled up everywhere and within months our cities would be hotbeds of disease and stench. Sharks play a vital role in getting rid of the diseased and dead in the ocean and keep fish stocks healthy. In the Spencer Gulf in South Australia, marine scientists recently studied what happened when white sharks moved out of the area. Human predation of the pilchards to feed tuna farms, cleared out the seals; which in turn had sent the sharks looking elsewhere for food. Suddenly, the local snapper population exploded and without sharks keeping the population free of the weak and diseased, the fish quality dropped which meant that the commercial fishing operations in the area were affected.
Sharks offer a great clean up service. They keep all the ocean species on their toes, fit and healthy. So, it’s a big role that they play on the planet. The movie “Jaws’ did not do sharks any favors. That movie taught us to believe that sharks are mindless killing machines but they most definitely are not. Any predator has to be smarter than its prey to have any chance of being successful. The top end predators - the mako and white sharks, feed on dolphins and whales and in order to feed on those mammals, they have to be smarter than they are, so that gives you an idea of their intelligence levels! These sharks are warm-blooded and have reaction times much faster than all the cold-blooded species. They have a higher brain function and incredible memories. We have taught mako sharks in documentaries to hit particular shapes to get fed within only a few hours. They learn very fast and there is a level of intelligence within this species that people just don’t give them credit for.
Sharks are born ready to rock, to do their important work in the oceans immediately. The grey nurse pups learn how to hunt even before they are born and practice inter-uteri cannibalism. These sharks have two uteri and a number of eggs are developed in each one. As those pups develop, they ready their hunting skills by attacking each other. When they pop out there is no need for parental care. They are ready to go as refuse collectors from day one.
If sharks come across a human, they don’t know what we are. We give off all the signs of being a mammal. If they are a shark species that eats mammals, then they will eat what is in front of them. There is a myth out there that we taste pretty bad to sharks and that is why people often get one bite out of them and the shark moves off. The truth is that Great white sharks in particular have a very simple attack strategy, they strike hard and then release. All of their sensory systems are close to their mouth and most of the animals that they attack are able to defend themselves. So, they get in quick, then let go and hope that their victim weakens and dies from blood loss so they can feed.
If we were seals, all the other seals would be up on the rocks looking out at ‘poor old Bob’ the seal as the shark moved in, maybe saying to themselves “Oh well – see you Bob.” But being human, we fight for life and often race in and grab the person who has been attacked and bring them back to shore. These days we have facilities to survive major trauma such as shark bites. Humans taste just fine to sharks, it’s just that quite often we can get out of the water before we bleed out.
Great white sharks are coming closer to shore in Australia, but not just because we have fished out their food supply further out. They were always big mammal eaters and their natural predation areas are close to shore. They moved out to sea over the last 100 years as we took their primary food sources – the seals waiting on the rocks and the whales cruising through our coastlines. Now we are not hunting those creatures so fiercely, the sharks are returning. They are cutting into the seal populations once again close to shore, and because there is a lot more of us in the water that can mean that there is a higher chance of attack.
I have worked with sharks for 26 years and still have all my fingers and toes. I am happy to get in the water with whites, with tigers, bulls or makos. Most of the time I will do that without a cage. It’s about understanding the animals and respecting them. Some people are really good with working with dogs and I am good with working with sharks. A good dog handler understands that a dog can sense fear and is looking at where you are putting yourself in the hierarchy next to them. Sharks are the same. When a shark first sees you, they are simply trying to work out what you are. Their first reaction is to answer a simple question - are you a predator or are you prey? To answer that question, they are looking for signs and signals you give off to understand which one of those you are.
I have learned to give off the right impressions to a shark so that he sees me as another predator. When I do that he will give me space and then he is quite happy to co-exist with me in that environment. If I do anything that might suggest that I am prey, then he might look at me a little bit differently and think about whether he can take a bite out of me or not.
There are three things going on when I am working with sharks. Recently I had a psychologist try to understand how I work with the animals. What he concluded was that although my primary task is to film the sharks, what I don’t do is apply all of my focus to that one task. If I did that, I would lose all of my awareness of my environment, and of my own reactions. In the water I am focused on keeping the shark happy, I am also keeping a close eye on how I am behaving in the water. One of the things that set sharks off are a pulse rate that starts to accelerate (a sure sign of acting like frightened prey). So, I am acutely aware that if I am working hard in the water and my heart rate starts to climb, I get out, calm down and then get back in.
I also watch the shark’s body language and my body language. There are ‘tells’ that each shark species have, which you look for when you are with them. My time is divided between filming, watching the animal and its behavior and checking my own.
The size of the documentary audiences we attract now, mean that we can educate and connect with many people globally. The process is to create entertaining programs that are educational, where people can learn about the science of what is happening in our oceans. The more that people understand and have empathy for ocean creatures, the better they feel about them. People relate incredibly well to some predators, for example lions or tigers. Yet, if you walked onto the savanna in Africa, it wouldn’t matter how much you liked them, they would still most likely eat you! Humans pick and choose which predators we like and we fail to remember that we are in fact the biggest predators of all creatures on the planet.
My hope is that this work I am doing helps people develop a little more empathy for these great creatures who are so incredibly important to the health of our oceans, to see how unique they are. Things are looking up. We have worked hard over the last decade to eliminate some of the terrible things that were happening in our seas, particularly with shark finning and we managed to get that banned in New Zealand. If a fisherman wants to take a shark now, that’s perfectly fine, but he must bring the whole shark to shore, he can’t just take the fin and dump the shark in the water. A reduction globally in the shark-fin trade is happening along with less demand for shark fin products in China and that is wonderful to see.
From a documentary point of view we can target education to the younger population coming through which hopefully gets them questioning how they are connecting to the ocean, what they are eating out of it and why. When you look at what shark fin soup is, it is essentially a bowl of chicken flavored broth with no nutritional value whatsoever. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that if the shark’s job is to eat everything that is not healthy in the ocean, it’s not going to be the best meal for you. Sharks are loaded with heavy metals. The status symbol of that bowl of soup, of wanting to show that a great predator of the sea can be turned into dinner is changing, as empathy and connection with nature in the younger generations grows. I hope my work can help that.
The populations of sharks are starting to turn, but it’s a slow process as they are not fast breeders. Sharks have only a limited number of pups annually or bi-annually, not unlike our whales or our dolphins.
While I have worked with sharks for as long as I have, I never get in the water without respecting that these are incredibly dangerous animals. There is a high element of risk for us as wildlife cameramen or animal researchers. We are always trying to calculate that risk and minimize it, but the risk remains. Almost everyone when they climb into the ocean thinks about sharks. Jaws did irreparable damage to our ability to get in the water and not think about that animal. Yet we can jump in our car and not think for a moment about crashing into someone, even though that is the most dangerous thing we do on a daily basis in our lives. Risk is relative. You’ve got to put it into perspective.
The entire ocean environment and particularly the Pacific Ocean is our company’s area of expertise, not just the world of sharks. We know the islands very well, all of those marine environments, the cetaceans and the dolphins. I have just returned from Niue working on a project to support healthy tourism, a positive renewable resource. It takes very little out of the environment but can put a lot back in to the local economy. The thing about whale watching is that it connects people at a deep level with these great mammals, and they can choose to interact with humans in a positive way in their natural environment.
While there, we filmed a mother and calf. By giving her respectful space within a couple of hours she chose to engage with us. These intelligent animals can actively identify individuals and by the second and third day she would single me out and bring the calf over. By taking the time to understand her needs, a warm and real relationship was built fast. It was amazing to be out of the water for a few days and get back in and there she was again, bringing her calf over to me to say Hi!
People have been worried that if we start leaping in the water with humpback whales we might be putting pressure on them or cause issues. That is really not the case. We are talking about animals that can hold their breath for 20 minutes, if they don’t want to be there, they will just dive and come up five kilometers away. These animals choose to interact with us and the benefits of engaging with them offer healthy relationships between species to be built, empathy to grow and connection to develop in a natural environment.
I grew up every summer, driving to the white sand beaches of the Coromandel, swimming, diving, surfing and fishing. It’s those experiences that I connected to as a child that I want to give back to the next generation. That is why preserving these environments is so important to me, and should be important to all of us. If our children connect with the sea, they see the value in keeping plastic off the beaches, they see the importance of protecting an animal that is endangered and in choosing what they eat from the ocean with wisdom. Connection is the hope for keeping our environment healthy, clean and ongoing for future generations to enjoy.
THIS IS AN EXCERPT of Mike Bhana's story from the book Made Beautiful by Nature due out 2018, Connect with our email tribe to find out when the book is out and to read more incredible stories like this!
ABOUT MIKE BHANA AND WILD FILM Te Arawhakaata I te Tai Ao
Mike has been producing, directing and shooting television programming for the past 25 years. While his history reflects a love of the ocean, Mike also focuses on charity, humanitarian, and domestic social issues including travelling with the Red Cross documenting the work of its teams in some of the most dangerous and stricken areas of the planet.
From 2009 till early 2012, Mike was one of the curators of the largest shark exhibition in the world – Planet Shark. This huge educational installation was designed to promote awareness, conservation and understanding of sharks and our oceans. Mike was one of the creators and wrote all the interpretation material, multimedia content as well as Planet Shark’s extensive educational resource programs for schools.
In 2013 Mike produced two 3D New Zealand documentaries for Chinese Broadcasting giants CCTV and in 2014 produced/directed and filmed the new television series SHARKMAN www.sharkman.tv for TVNZ’s TV1. The Series won "Best Documentary Series" at WorldFest International Film Festival in 2016. In late 2014/2015 Mike produced 3 x natural history one-hours entitled SEVEN SEAS for WATN-TV for Tianjin Television in China.
In 2016 Mike completed filming series one of FISH OF THE DAY - a new travel/fishing show for prime time in New Zealand. The series I a Gold Remi at the WorldFest International Film Festival for "Best Lifestyle TV Series." It screens on National Geographic Channel in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa - 100 million households across 35 countries. He is currently in production on series II.
In late 2016 Mike was also brought in to film water-based scenes for Warner Bros blockbuster feature film MEG starring Jason Statham. Mike filmed on the project for three months here in New Zealand as well as in China.
This year Mike completed yet another shark film on Mako's over the summer for NHNZ, Love Nature Channel and the Smithsonian. Now he is completing Season two of FISH OF THE DAY for screening on National Geographic.
To date Mike has produced, directed and shot over 45 hours of natural history documentaries including 15 hours of prime-time documentaries for the US channels including Discovery, Animal Planet and National Geographic. His work has resulted in a dozen international awards for excellence. Mike has also produced and directed for current affairs show 20/20 internationally. To date Mike has produced, directed and shot 28 films exclusively on sharks. His shark images have been seen in more than 100 films worldwide.
Veronica Farmer, Author and Therapist, Brisbane, Australia. Passionate about sharing raw human stories that matter!