The Sharkman meets Jeremiah Sullivan
Sharkman: Many years ago, as a young kid, whilst walking along a Hawaiian beach, you made an astonishing discovery. What was it?
Jeremiah: In the early 50’s I lived in Hawaii. My family used to walk along the beach at Waikiki on Sunday mornings. I must have been two or three years old, scampering along the waters edge ahead of my mother when I came upon one of the most amazing creatures I had ever seen, a baby hammerhead shark. I had no way of knowing that a few hours earlier it was probably cut from ‘its mothers’ belly by a fisherman.
Sharkman: Was it this encounter that started your interest in sharks?
Jeremiah: Certainly it contributed. That stunningly beautiful creature, immaculate in its pre-birth perfection still remains one of the powerful visual imprints of my life. The Japanese have a word that resembles my memory of that young shark. It is ‘Shibumi’ — ‘the art of effortless perfection’.
Sharkman: Perfection indeed. Was this the reason why you then went on to become a marine biologist and underwater photographer?
Jeremiah: Not exactly. Though most of my youth was spent in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Brazil, and other tropical environments, Africa was part of the mix as well. Early on I planned to become a veterinarian and work in the game parks of East Africa. Not many people were interested in the work because it was difficult, remote and provided little reward. It sounded like fun to me. The thought of being away from water for extended periods began to weigh on me, so I stayed with the sea.
My photography career began at the suggestion of photographers Des & Jen Bartlett, Ron & Val Taylor and others. For many years I worked for one of the men that pioneered the adventure travel business, Lars Lindblad. I was the only American there in the beginning. My job description was; waterman, naturalist, divemaster, zodiac driver, resident surfer, and occasional lecturer. Basically I was the guy that got to have the most fun.
As our ship the ‘Lindblad Explorer’ was the only access to many remote parts of the world, we often provided transport for scientists, authors, filmmakers, photographers etc. The pro’s noticed my images when I gave lectures and encouraged me to consider the photography business.
Sharkman: Do you remember your first shark dive?
Jeremiah: No, but I do remember the first one that spooked me.
Sharkman: Oh!! When was that? Tell us about it.
Jeremiah: It was at Devils Crown in the Galapagos back in approximately ’73. Sir Peter Scott, then head of the World Wildlife Foundation, and a marine biologist from Mozambique by the name of Rod Salm, were with me as we surveyed the marine life in the area. There was a lot of everything, including sharks. The depth was perhaps 100 feet outside the old volcanic caldera. My friends were snorkelling, and I decided to put on a bottle and have a closer look at all those sharks we had seen below.
Once on the bottom I realised how big the Hammerheads and Galapagos sharks were, and there were many. I looked for cover, but there was none nearby as they rapidly and curiously closed on me and my noisy bubbles. Rod was a great freediver and must have seen from the surface that I was in a jam. Like a subaquatic angel he appeared on the edge of my vision, distracting the sharks enough for me to recover my wits and find a little friendlier dive spot. That was my first experience with packs of hammerheads. REALLY CURIOUS ONES!
Sharkman: You have had many close encounters with sharks during your filming days. In September 1985, you were filming at Guadeloupe Island. Howard Hall, Tom Allen and Marty Snyderman were out of the cage and you were inside. What happened that day?
Jeremiah: Oh! now that was fun! I nearly drowned laughing in my regulator. It was my watch as the ‘Master – baiter’ so I was exiled to the cage to break up tuna and keep an eye out for visitors.
As you know waiting for sharks to show up is often a test of patience. A couple of the guys had planned to utilise the quiet time to shoot a few production scenes of Tom, swim-by’s, facial expressions, etc. As I recall the visibility was limited, and they had drifted out of sight downstream, when the first Great White shark appeared. At first, I thought I was seeing things on the periphery of visibility, but there he was swimming up the chum line I was putting out. The boys apparently had not seen the shark, and of course would have wanted to know that we had company. So I sent them an S.O.S. by banging a frozen tuna on the bars of the cage. It was the only way to let them know while, at the same time holding the shark’s interest. Hey, those guys were good in the water, I figured they could handle it, and they did.
Sharkman: Then 3 years later, in 1988 you became the first person to “ride” a Great White shark in open water. Can you please tell us about that memorable afternoon?
Jeremiah: That was a wonderful day…a most extraordinary gift from the sea. To participate with nature so intimately is always profound, at the very least.
Following the completion of a “Wild Kingdom” program, we decided to make use of the afternoon and shoot some stills. The sharks seemed in no hurry to leave, so we lowered 2 cages full of film crew divers to the bottom, and enjoyed the opportunity. One of the sharks, approximately 17 feet, began swimming a consistent figure-8 pattern around and between the cages which were fifty or sixty feet apart. While the other guys were burning up film, I hung back watching, studying actually, just like he was doing. His eye movements, temperament, the radius of his turns, flexibility of his body and so on.
After a period of observation I felt compelled to make physical contact and prove my belief that divers could interact with these super predators relatively safely ‘under some circumstances’. Of course this flew in the face of conventional Great White shark lore … but that was entirely the point, wasn’t it? Most authorities beliefs at that time were primitive, outdated, and fear based, you know … Dogma 101.
I quietly slipped out the back door of the cage without notice by the others, and began the process of getting closer and closer to him as he swam by, brushing his massive side and dodging his huge pectoral fin. By this time we seemed to have an agreement, and on the next pass I looped my hand over his tail and went for a ride. It must have been quite a sight for the guys peering out of the front of the cage to see the big shark swimming by, this time, with a hitchhiker …
Sharkman: Was there a moment when you felt in danger?
Jeremiah: Swimming with Great White sharks is always potentially dangerous, just like messing around with pit bull dogs you don’t know. Earlier that afternoon the same shark had been quite aggressive. When I let go and dropped off the first ride, realising my exposure, I started to swim across the bottom, back toward the distant cage. Then I saw him turn, accelerate, and close on me. He had changed his swimming pattern, cutting that figure 8 in half. There was no way I was going to make it back to the cage, so I stopped and waited for him. For me, that was an extraordinary moment.
Sharkman: What happened then?
Jeremiah: He swam straight up to me. No doubt the guys in the cages were thinking they were about to get some ‘really good pictures’. As he closed to within a couple of feet, his forward momentum stopped and he turned to his left so that he could get a better look at me. He was clearly thinking it over… happily he recognized me as his new friend rather than a snack, so we continued our game the rest of the afternoon.
As the day went on, I felt a lot more concern for the other divers that came piling out of the cages after seeing that I had survived my efforts to make ‘Friendly Contact’. There were still three, if not four sharks swimming right among us, that I knew about, and it seemed that some of the guys might have developed a somewhat giddy and very false sense of security.
That was the day that the concept of ‘Friendly Encounters’ with Great White sharks was proven. Five rides, each longer than the other.
Sharkman: “Friendly Encounter” was how you described this experience in an article you wrote for “Sharks & Divers Magazine” in 1998. Was this the only time that you made such a dive?
Jeremiah: We did try to repeat the experience again a couple of years later in South Australia, but got skunked. Perhaps, the opportunity will present itself again. In the meantime there are plenty of other ‘new’ thresholds to cross. People tell me that other divers in various parts of the world are now enjoying experiences similar to those we had with Great Whites so long ago. As long as they stay safe, I couldn’t hope for more than that. Positive evolution of thought, is painfully slow at times, but always worthwhile.
Sharkman: Are you still working in the underwater filming business?
Jeremiah: Yes I am still very involved with photography. My time is split between art and science. I still shoot location images for selected clients, much of my work revolves around beauty/celebrity portrait photographs used in advertising campaigns. I was involved in the production of a film called ‘Into The Blue’ from MGM/Mandalay Pictures, starring Jessica Alba and Paul Walker among others.
Jeremiah: My involvement was building protective gear for the many shark scenes, working with the sharks, etc. Having sustained thousands of shark bites and created biting scenarios for so many years, stuntwork and consulting for the film industry is another aspect of my work. I personally only shoot still photographs, but have worked on camera for some 35 or so film, television, and documentary projects.
Sharkman: Talking about protective gear, Jeremiah, back in the late 70s, you designed the first original chain mail “Neptunic” suit. How did this come about?
Jeremiah: In 1978 I was studying shark behaviour at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. I had been reading some work on electro reception by Kalmijn. At the time, I felt the research suggested that sharks do not like the galvanic currents created by metals in seawater. This thought, though naïve, was the initial trigger that started the project.
Following logic, the thought of medieval armour came to mind – chainmail – designed to defeat sharp blades and arrows. Hhhhmmmm, arrowheads look like shark teeth, perhaps it will stop them as well. I had the theoretical support that the sharks would not want to bite the metallic material, and if that didn’t work out I would still have the physical barrier between their teeth and my body. Simple as that really.
I began calling museums asking to borrow some armour for a test. Well, you can imagine the response I received. I then went to the Navy, Sea World, Scripps, etc looking for a little support for the project and was laughed out of each office. I decided to call my friends Ron & Val Taylor since they had expressed interest in the project during a dinner conversation, about a year or so earlier. Ron offered to help fund the building of the first full suit, as long as he was allowed to make the first film about the suit’s development.
Sharkman: That first suit was the birth of “Neptunic Sharksuits”. How has this advanced over the years?
Jeremiah: Personally it continues to be the human/shark interaction. How, why, under what circumstances do contacts occur. Of course I needed to figure out ways to alleviate the negative ones. Here at Neptunic Sharksuits, we continue to advance our technology, designing, testing, and building new versions of sharksuits from many new materials. I have never been fully satisfied with what we have accomplished so far, even though Neptunic Sharksuits have been requested for exhibits at the Smithsonian Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, The Museum of Natural History, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
It doesn’t make sense to build just one ultimate suit because of the varied threat levels for different species of shark. Large species like the Great White, if in the mood, could always swallow you whole or simply drown you. We build different suits for different needs. Our classic Neptunic SharkSuit (steel mesh), the Nemo II & III (fabric suits), Neptunic HardArmour Sharksuits (for the big boys), and we have two very substantial developments in the works, for freedivers.
One other point, for obvious safety reasons, we remain concerned about the pirating of our gear. Several companies that likely don’t know the taste of saltwater, claim to make our products (sharksuits), so buyers beware. Neptunic Sharksuits is the only legitimate source for Sharksuit Technology. They are designed, built, and tested by our professional divers under the circumstances for which they are intended, protecting us from sharkbite, accidental or not.
Sharkman: What is in the future?
Jeremiah: At Neptunic we are designing and building new Sharksuits for Free-divers as well as suits for super predators; Bull, Tigers and others. I suspect these experiences will keep us busy and stimulated for a while.
Sharkman: What do you think of the global shark situation?
Jeremiah: Well I think it sucks. Most rational people don’t like to see wasteful exploitation. During my short fifty years in the sea, I have seen many changes. Nature’s changes are one thing, part of the natural process. Man’s often mindless destructive contribution, I find extremely difficult to watch. Humans should be forced to go to a special school. Let’s call it ‘Pavlov’s School of Manners’. A school where students do the right thing from an environmental and humanitarian perspective or they get no air! How long do you think it would take the sleepy heads to develop a little respect for their environment and the others creatures who share it with them?
Sharkman: Good idea. Would this be your advice to our readers?
Jeremiah: Yes. Attend and support ‘Pavlov’s School of Manners’, make sure your children go as well, study hard, and graduate with honours.
Oh, and of course, beware of knockoff sharksuits …
Sharkman: Jeremiah, it was a pleasure to have you here on Sharkman’s World. Thank you for taking the time to be with us.
Jeremiah: Thank You Alex. Keep up the good fight.