Rodney Fox is one of the world’s leading experts on great white sharks. At the age of twenty-three he survived one of the worst non-fatal shark attacks in history. Since then he has become a conservationist and film maker and has set up The Fox Shark Research Foundation which aims to increase public awareness of this endangered and misunderstood species. We were lucky enough to catch up with him ahead of his new documentary Great White Bite to talk sharks, films, conservationism and Karl Pilkinton.
By the time you hit your early-20s, not only had you almost been killed by a great white, but your friend had had his leg mutilated by a shark, you had seen someone die on the beach after another shark attack and you had dragged a dead body from Victor Harbour. What exactly do you think it was that kept making you go back into the water?
(laughs) Over the years I’ve tried to look at what it was, but I have a calling to the sea; a love of the ocean. Before any of that happened, there was an excitement, it is like going into another world. There is a beauty under the sea that’s only found in botanical gardens or in beautiful scenes. There’s serenity there as well and, of course, some horrible shark attacks. But the number of shark attacks, the statistics of it all, make it actually quite a good sport. It’s only that shark attacks are written up so dramatically as people have this incredible fear of being eaten alive, and they don’t understand the statistics of sharks, which keeps the interest in the sharks so high and the people out of the water.
Your first job was driving a truck around filled with explosives. Do you think you’re attracted to danger somehow or does danger just tend to find you?
Well I never went looking for dangerous things; I’m actually a bit of a squib. It just happened that these things just kind of went along. I like adventure. It didn’t happen all at once, it just happened over a period of time. When I went back into the water I knew I could make a good living collecting Abalone which was very highly priced at that time. I loved to dive and explore the oceans because it was like looking into a new world. In the ’60s or late ’50s, it was just starting and we had no idea what was out there. Every little reef and nook and cranny which no-one had ever seen before, it was quite beautiful out there and it was only these dark sharks that I knew very little about that came and disturbed it. Of course every time I went back into the water, if I felt a bit sharky I would have to say “well, only eight to ten people are killed each year in the whole world and I believe that I was attacked because there was a lot of spearfishing and lots of blood in the water and the shark was looking for something to eat and found me first.” So I had to go through a little rigmarole in my head if I felt a bit sharky to prove to myself it’s ok, it’s good fun and it’s not that much danger to go in the water.
In your book, there seems to be a shift in your opinion of sharks that happens quite quickly. You went from an attack victim and hunter to a conservationist and vocal supporter and defender of sharks. Was there one particular event that lead to that transition?
It didn’t happen quickly; it wasn’t like an epiphany. It started when Alf Dean caught five great big great white sharks from the first expedition I ever organised to go out and make a film and take a look at the great white shark. We hadn’t thought about Alf catching the sharks and what would happen next. And with five great white sharks on deck, I said to him “Well, what do we do with them now?” and he said “Well, you guys can cut the jaws out of them and we’ll dump them back into the sea”. And I thought “Well, they weren’t that hard to catch and look at all that lovely animal there, all that meat, there must another way”. So over the years, once we found out how rare they really were, I had organised a couple more expeditions with scientists who said they were a rare and endangered species and are a key predator in the ocean and in the food chain. I realised we couldn’t go on killing for the sake of fear and we had to learn how to live with them. Even today, you’ll get a shark attack and a lot of people will say “Yeah, we understand, we need the sharks in our ocean but just let’s get rid of them from around here.” It’s like living near a criminal on your street, “Yeah, we know they need to live somewhere but we don’t want them living around here.” So the sharks are still getting a bit of bad publicity and bad feeling and that’s hard to stop.
You were famously involved with Steven Spielberg on Jaws. It’s easy for people to forget that Jaws was a relatively small budget release and wasn’t expected to do particularly well, yet it turned into a huge global phenomenon. Why do you think it was such a incredible success, why did it resonate with so many people?
Well, I know now that’s its basically people’s incredible fear of being eaten alive. And now we’ve got the lions, the tigers, the bears, the jackals; the land animals that would eat you alive, behind bars, on great big national parks and we feel safe. But if you go in the water with the sharks, and the great white sharks as they’ve got the name, even though the shark in the movie has the teeth of a mako, are the most feared predator in the world today. Peter Benchley said he had no idea that he would hit a nerve in people’s psychic make-up when he wrote the Jaws book.
Because of the success of Jaws, there were an incredible amount of shark movies made in the late seventies and early eighties with people jumping on the bandwagon. There was an acute increase in people’s fear of sharks because of those films. Do you think that film makers should be more responsible when they’re making films about sharks so that this doesn’t happen, or do you just have to accept that Hollywood is an entertainment business and the bigger the head-count, the bigger the movie?
I think Hollywood has proved itself with so many incredibly bad and horrible examples of what we should do; look at all those car crashes and kids think they can drive like that and it shows how to jump through windows and shops. Movies have a lot to pay for, they are so powerful. I worked with the Costo’s on a couple of their films for National Geographic and spoke to the producers and directors and they said “If we don’t give the public what they want, we can’t sell our films so we have to weave our message into our movie and hope people will understand.” With the documentaries now, they’ve gone to the total extremes of showing them killing other animals and having sex and doing way out things so it’s basically entertainment for people. Money makes the world goes round and if you want to do the right thing you have to try and get your message across without seeming to bastardise the whole thing.
One of my favourite stories from your book is how you managed to get the bullet holes on the side of the shark for Jaws. Could you quickly explain how you managed that?
(laughs) Yeah, so they wanted a shark with three bullet holes. So they sent over a bucket of red paint and a broomstick with a sponge screwed onto the end of it. The instructions were as the great white shark passes the back of the boat, plunge the sponge into the paint and press it onto the shark and they gave an exact diagram of how to do it. I thought just was a bit silly because in Australia paint and water don’t go together very well and the refraction in the water means you can’t really tell where the shark is. So somehow I came up with the idea that lipstick might be good, and Valerie Taylor, the underwater cameraman’s wife was there. So we borrowed her lipstick and somehow I got the job of hanging off the back of the boat, with someone holding onto my pants and trying to draw bullet holes onto this shark which was snapping away on this great big tuna. It took an hour and half to two hours and I thought I was going to fall into the shark’s mouth. The cameraman said “Let’s get some footage of it” but the director said “No, we definitely need three holes” so we all hung around, but when we got the third one in the right place, the shark did a circle around as he usually did and the cameraman got in the water, but the shark never ever came back again so it was a disaster and we never got one photograph or any footage of it.
What do you think your twenty-two-year-old self, lying in the hospital bed after a near fatal attack would make of that story, if you could go back in time and tell him?
Ohhhh, when I was attacked I thought you would never do that because it’s crazy because it was just one of those things young people get involved with. As I get older, and I’m actually 75 now, I’ve slowed down a lot and there’s a lot of things I’ve done that I wouldn’t do again. (laughs) I’m too slow.
How confident are you about the future of sharks now?
I’ve very pleased that the interest in sharks, the fear of sharks, has made people so much more interested in the films. With this particular film, what we’re trying to do is to have a positive look at the work being done to understand the most feared predator in the world. There’s a lot of work with the tagging. This film you’re about to see; we’re finding now that they aren’t the lone killers that go off on their own but they actually get around in clans and groups, and there’s four or five different groups and we’re putting satellite tags and they’re coming back every year. My son has got a library of something like a hundred and seventy thousand images and the university here are trying to work out how many sharks we can actually identify. We’ve found over four hundred sharks, so many of them have got names. Quite a few of them come back and we’ve identified them for up to twelve to fourteen years. They do these huge journeys and they turn up at the Neptunes, which is probably the best restaurant of the southern oceans of Australia, where they can call in for a few weeks or a month per year, top up with the baby sea lions and move on to the incredible three thousand kilometre journey that they do.
A couple of years ago, you were part of a Ricky Gervais programme called An Idiot Abroad with a chap called Karl Pilkinton. Karl is a bit of a cult hero in the UK and has been for several years so I just wanted to see what you made of him?
(laughs) I was quite amazed because when he first came out on our boat to go cage diving with great white sharks he thought he was going to swim with dolphins. When we took him out there he really was quite amazed at the whole thing. He hates swimming, he doesn’t like sharks and he doesn’t like being cold, and they were the main three things we had out there. But he did it all hard and tough and it wasn’t easy for him. And he said, which was quite funny, “I haven’t got anything against you guys, I’m quite impressed with the work you do” and the cook had just given him a cup of hot chicken soup and he said “I’d just prefer to be at home drinking this chicken soup than anywhere else.” (laughs) He’d just had the most exciting dive of his life. It was a great show and it certainly was unique and different.
I hope you get more enthusiasm from your regular customers than you did with him?
I think he’s the only person we’ve ever had we haven’t convinced. I think even now if you ask him he would say it’s a very exciting thing to do but he stayed underwater a lot longer when the sharks were around than when they weren’t around. He went out of his way to be with them even though he’d never dived before. It was incredibly difficult with the full face mask and trying to talk and clearing his nose and his ears, and he did an amazing job, but he wasn’t happy.
Sounds like Karl. It’s been great talking to you, is there anything else you’d like to say?
We’re learning a lot more about the sharks now. They’ve all got wonderful names; there’s Buffy and Omega and Cowgirl; they’ve all got little marks and things. Last year in Queensland I think twenty-six people drowned and no-one died from a shark attack. We don’t seem to care that much when someone dies from drowning yet when someone is bitten by a shark, it’s amazing how this incredible fear takes over. That’s what I found in the hospital and all my life I’ve been trying to get people to understand sharks better and draw public attention to the plight of the shark and to understand them better. It’s a primal fear. When our great-ancestors were in caves or in deserts or in trees, there was always the bears, the tigers, the jackals that were waiting to eat you. And every minute of every day you’d be aware that you had to escape. And that, I’m sure, is in our genes to fear the things we don’t understand or the things that might eat you.
Catch Great White Bite on Tuesday 24th May at 8pm on Nat Geo WILD, as part of Deadliest Week Ever.