Shark expert and conservationist Stefanie Brendl has spent years doing the stuff of most people’s nightmares: swimming with sharks. In an effort to spread awareness of the importance of protecting sharks and to counteract the effects of media sensationalism around shark attacks, Brendl spends most of her time on the north shore of Oahu educating customers through her company Hawaii Shark Encounters. She freedives with 18 ft. tiger sharks, the most aggressive of the species, on a regular basis and is one of the few women in the world to dive cage-free with big sharks, including 20 ft. great whites in Guadalupe, Mexico.
Together with filmmaker and ocean photographer Phil Waller, Brendl set out to create a portrait of sharks without the help of Hollywood special effects. In their documentary Extinction Soup, what begins as a story about action sports legend and shark activist Jimmy Hall quickly turns into a deep dive into the shark finning industry that has wiped out a recorded 90% of the world’s shark population.
We caught up with Waller and Brendl to get to the bottom of what makes sharks tick and why we’re all in danger if they were to disappear.
THE RED BULLETIN: Why are sharks important?
STEFANIE BRENDL: There are so many different sharks across all the different ecosystems of the ocean. The ecosystems change depending on depth and sharks take on a role in every little system: in deep water they make sure dead animals are cleaned up; in shallow water they make sure animals don’t spread diseases. For example, when there is a dolphin with a disease and a shark is not there to eat it, the dolphin will spread it to the rest of the group. They are like the white blood cells of the ocean. We can’t replace that function. Humans can’t get lower than 300 ft. and it is insane to think we have a technological way to control what is happening in the ocean. Sharks do such a perfect job for us; it’s free and it’s a beautiful system.
Why is swimming with sharks such a life-changing experience?
PHIL WALLER: It’s the most relaxing thing I’ve ever done. When you are out there with these creatures there is no sound. You have no other senses available besides sight. You feel insignificant, which I think is important for humans to feel. Looking up and seeing sharks everywhere with the sunbeams just shooting through the water, that is hands down the greatest experience any human will ever see and feel.
Stefanie: I think it’s different when you can make up your own mind to see how calm sharks actually are. You’re so close to something very natural and very wild, not controlled by humans. A predator is the wildest thing there is. It’s a very primal experience. When you’re in the water with a shark looking at you, there is this simple feeling of two animals in the water and you think, “What am I at this moment?” You just fit into the whole system. It’s a nerve most people never get to hit.
Have you ever been in a bad situation while diving with sharks?
Stefanie: I’ve never felt threatened by sharks. Mostly when cameramen are oblivious to their surroundings or other people are doing stupid things is when situations can turn. When you’re diving with sharks there is a hierarchy. There is a dominant layer. It’s not just about being aggressive or running away. When you have a calm presence, there is something in the middle between fight or flight; you are on an even level. When you feel that you are not, you just slowly back off. Doing extreme sports is the same thing, the better you get at it, the fewer scary moments you have.
Phil: Sharks will give you a little sniff when you get into the water. If you are not prepared for that, you’re not going to be happy.
Do sharks want to eat humans?
Stefanie: They have to be in a very specific situation to actually eat. They approach a person as an unknown item. We could just be another weird fish with a bunch of bubbles. They look at us as something very bizarre.
Phil: We are the most pathetic things in the ocean. If we were on the menu, they’d be picking us off left and right. People think I’m crazy for surfing big waves or swimming with sharks. I think the people sitting on the freeway are crazy.