Beneath the surface
Five years in a row we used to travel to the village of Umkomaas, not far from Durban in South Africa. Time enough not only to shoot material for three festival films but also to make new friends and try out tons of risky practical jokes. As for me, I also acquired a considerable addiction to “jaws”. They say one look into the eyes of a shark will change your life for ever. Well, it certainly changed mine.
The Broom Handle
It all began with a chat I was having with Richard Jaroňek, the photographer. Both of us had read that somewhere around Durban there was a guy who organised tiger shark diving. “That´s right up our alley,” we said, toasting our snap decision and setting to work. A few months later we were on a plane together with filmmaker Mirek Hrdý and diver Vašek Pištora. In our cases we had two underwater cameras, a land camera, still cameras and a broom handle. “What on earth do you need that for? You don´t look like kung-fu warriors,” said the stewardess with a smile. Maybe you have also read Sharks by Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws, who subsequently wrote this book by way of apology for his contribution to the anti-shark hysteria sparked by the box-office hit of the same name. In one chapter he describes how he used a broom handle when diving with sharks. Vašek figured that as far as safety was concerned he was the worst off since we would have our cameras in our hands whereas he had nothing. So back home he shortened a broom handle (in the eventuality that they didn´t sell broom handles in South Africa). Then he bored a hole in it, added a loop of string just in case an attacking shark tried to pull it out of his hand, and there it was! Walter Bernardis, who was responsible for our dives, burst out laughing when he saw his safety device. “Just wait, buddy, till a tiger grabs you by that broom and takes you for a dive into the depths with that loop cutting deep into your hand.” On top of that Václav´s name in the local lingo sounded something like vaslap, which is what they say when they need a rag to mop the floor. To quote a friend of mine: “Some events deserve to be recorded for future generations.” Václav is stuck with “Vaslap” and “Broom Handle” for the rest of his life. Right away our first dive was rather “nourishing”. Walter´s Zodiac had barely began bumping its way across the tidal waves when everything on board got jumbled up, including stinking sardines and shark “colas” – that cocktail of rotten fish and guts decently braised by the sun and mixed with water. In comparison to this long drink our soppy beer cheese from Lostice is actually quite a pleasant perfume. The maturing fish are dumped into an old washing machine drum which is then attached to the head and torso of a large tuna and the whole lot is dumped overboard. The “cola” oozes out across the surface with the odour of decay leaving behind its unmistakeable olfactory traces. This is what attracts the sharks. My tummy was in a state of upheaval even before I dived. Ugh! Walter assured us that we weren´t on their menu, as far as the sharks were concerned, that they were only going to be curious. His advice was: “In case of attack just give them a slight tap on the snout.” It didn´t taken even ten minutes for the water to start boiling. Steve Lichtag, nicknamed “the shark man”, has a saying: “Each one of us revels in a little bit of fear.” His mantra came to my mind at this point. We slipped on our jackets without the usual banter, each one of us privately savouring that final moment before tumbling over backwards. But just try chickening out at the last moment. The “brave” gang would tear you to shreds that evening. Later we did run into a couple of individuals who, upon seeing the shark rodeo beneath the boat, decided to opt out. I preferred not to watch how ready the others were. Jump! The next minute I´m in the middle of the sharks´ kitchen, right up in the soup. Surrounded on all sides by black tip sharks a metre and a half long and in their midst, close to the drum, majestic three metre long tigers. Wonderful beyond imagination! The moment the camera starts to roll I am glued to the monitor. Oblivious to everything around me. Checking focus, aperture, composition. I try to swim fluidly to avoid wobbly shots. My first hour with these predators seemed to me like five minutes. Fantastic! Mirek Hrdy was followed by a female tiger shark right up to the surface. Richard shot several films. That was the time when we were still not shooting on digital. Vašek gallantly covered my back even though he was unarmed. But I have to confess to one moment of shame. The first time a tiger swam into contact distance I did not tap him gently on the nose as per instructions but gave the poor creature a healthy blow with my camera. Walter saw this and later ticked me off about it. “I keep trying to get them in front of your lens and you keep driving them away.” Well, there´s always a first time for everything. Later that evening, talking it through, we were all heroes “for a day” (although next morning we all concurred we had spent the night each one of us dreaming the same film and waking up with our brows drenched in sweat). Richard has got a sensitive touch for photographs but he also has a great instinct when it comes to reading animal behaviour. “Hey guys, next time we just have to get closer. They´ll let us,” he suggested. “Are you nuts? Didn´t you see how that female tiger shark nearly shoved me out of the water?” said Mirek, defending himself. “Easy man, she was just escorting you to the surface. I´m going to get those critters eating out of my hands,” said Richard confidently and took a swig of slivovice to seal his wager. He wasn´t joking. “Well, so far no one even thought of that,” said Walter, laughing. “So why not give it a try?” Richard then turned to me: “You´re game to cover me with your camera?” There was no way out of this We reserved this folly for our last dive. Richard went down with a hunk of tuna, convinced that the female tiger shark was going to be there waiting for him. Only that sharks have a thing in their snout which goes by the name of the ampullae of Lorenzini which are sensitized to electro-magnetic fields. In other words, if there is a camera running underwater the shark is interested in it and couldn´t give a damn about the tuna. In the end the female tiger shark did take the titbit out of Richard’s hand. “Lunatic,” flashed through my mind while I was underwater but once we were back on the dinghy we were slapping each other on the shoulders and laughing like little boys. Richard couldn´t resist a threat: “I hope you´ve got that in the can otherwise you´re going back underwater like bait.” Naïve fellow! I´d like to see him stuffing me into the washing machine drum.
Thumbing a Lift
A year later I set off after the sharks once again with Richard together with film director Petr Horký and - much to the chagrin of my wife Ivuška – with our twelve year old son Michal as well. “Our boy´s got enough dives under his belt and we´ll look after him under the water,” I said, “so why shouldn´t he come with us?” This finally broke down her resistance. Neither of us wanted to give in. We were barely on our way to the airport in Vienna, chatting about all and sundry, when Michal, who was sitting in the back seat, said: “Are you all such brilliant actors, or are you really that calm?” We missed the point. “Well after all, we´re going diving with sharks!” Peter and I exchanged glances. It was obvious that Michael was fighting his own personal battle. A few days later in Africa we switched roles. It was now me talking him out of it: “Michael, you really don´t have to.” “Dad, I´ll cope,” he said, convincing me that he had sorted out the sharks in his head. For the dive he was given a reliable buddy and clear instructions to keep a good distance away from the drum full of bait. It just takes a few dives and everyone wants to touch those monumental beauties with at least one finger. Michal was enjoying his dives. All of us were keeping our eyes on him. Which in my case almost led to an underwater heart attack. Michal was suddenly so taken by the shark show that, camera in hand, he dived down at an angle towards one lady shark. I have no idea what really caused the following, whether it was the camera´s provocative electromagnetic field or the unusual position of the young diver, but the shark took off at Michal without the least sign of respect and took a solid bite at the camera. This happened in a flash but for me time was passing very, very slowly. Before my eyes the female shark sucked in my son´s camera into its jaws, along with his hands. My son instinctively pulled out one hand and pushed it against the shark´s snout. With his other hand he managed to dislodge the camera out of the shark´s jaws and complete his shot with the shark swimming off into the distance. He ended up with a once-in-a-lifetime view from inside a shark´s jaws – a view which for most individuals means the end of the world. That evening we made an exception and gave Michal a nip of slivovice. His cold-bloodedness and the way he had solved the situation were exemplary. We were chatting away when Petr asked him: “So what are your next plans? You´ve dived with sharks, you´ve coped with an attack excellently, what´s your next goal?” Michal: “That´s obvious, isn´t it?” Petr: “What´s obvious?” Michal: “You know …” “I don´t,” said Petr, raising his eyebrows questioningly. “But you´re always talking about it yourselves …” “What are we always talking about?” All of us were on tenterhooks as to what was coming next. Michal said shyly: “Well, one day I would like a woman, that´s obvious, isn´t it …” That moment I immediately saw the tiny face of the one that had been my “goal” when I was thirteen … Frankly, after this hitch-hiking performance I expected to have my suitcases packed and thrown out in front of our front door. My wife´s reaction to the contact footage showing our little boy struggling with the predator was surprisingly calm. With granddad there´s four boys in the house and after all the years she has got used to all sorts of things.
Soon after our return my shark addiction began to clamour for another dose of adrenaline. One day my a.m. underwater companion Richard Jaroněk convinced a former Czech free-diving representative Dan Exner to pit his skills against the sharks. “There´s no better underwater scooter than a tiger shark …” Dan swallowed Richard´s offer hook, line and sinker, and agreed. Upon arrival in Africa he was taken aback by our disappointment. A mere three years had passed since our first dive in this region but underwater everything looked different. An empty wasteland. Our shark squadrons had been drastically culled. The reasons are legion. Fishermen had taken lots of sharks just for their fins, casting their vandalised bodies back into the deep. The South African government launched a senseless attack on sharks by erecting a net along the coast and had recently added hooks with bait attached. Tourists on the beach now have a naïve sense of security. However the nets lie at least a metre below the surface and are anchored a metre above the sea bed. Furthermore, they are set up with gaps in between individual nets and the sharks only get caught in them on their way back to the open sea after having been scared away by noisy tourists. This senseless anti-shark hysteria evokes a sad sense of despair in me. In order to shoot enough takes with Dan for our documentary we had to keep coming back over the next two years. During these years he learned not only to dive masterfully hanging onto a shark plunging into the depths but even to hitch a ride, bare-handed. It is virtually impossible to find the words to describe the graceful image of a diver unencumbered by any breathing apparatus, together with a shark. This is an amazing interaction between Man and Animal, an indescribably underwater dance where the choreography is created by instinct. Certainly it would pay to shoot a clip featuring this game between Man and Predator, which gives us yet another justification to go back to “Jaws”. On top of that our son Michal, who passed his UE this year, keeps on reminding me how homesick he is for these sharks. By way of introduction I mentioned our risky practical jokes which brighten up our expeditions under and above the water. The philosophy behind these anecdotes isn´t complicated: things are funny for as long as we can laugh at them. Just a moment´s lack of attention and some good soul has stuffed a smelly sardine into the pocket of your jacket and then you wonder why underwater the sharks are so vehemently interested in only you. And sometimes you even bring “your” joke home with you. Like the time when one of our friends committed the fatal error of leaving his gear unattended for a few moments while packing for take-off. He ended up unwittingly as a dead fish smuggler. Fortunately for the customs officers he ended up opening his bags at home by himself … t