The Sharkman meets Wolfgang Leander
Sharkman: As always, my first question is how long have you been interested in sharks?
Wolfgang: That's a simple question I can answer precisely; I got interested in sharks when I was six, and that was 57 years ago.
Sharkman: Six years old is a very young age. Do you remember what prompted this shark passion in you?
Wolfgang: It was a photograph of a mako shark in a book about helmet divers called “Danger is my Business”. I was impressed not only by the fearsome teeth but also by the huge black eyes of the shark.
Sharkman: You have been diving for so many years, but you still prefer Free Diving much more than Scuba Diving. Why is that?
Wolfgang: Three basic reasons: First, I am a lazy guy. I hate the work that goes with handling scuba diving gear. Second, I am a loner, and free diving alone is probably safer than scuba diving without a buddy. Third, and most importantly, breath hold diving is more natural for a mammal than breathing underwater. Free diving enables me to get closer to sharks and other large marine animals.
Let me be more philosophical: When I free dive I genuinely feel that I belong. As a noisy, bubble-producing scuba diver I would feel an intruder, and I don’t care what confirmed scuba divers would say to convince me otherwise. The most frequent remark I hear from them is: “Free diving limits you tremendously, even if you are able to hold your breath for two minutes or so.” True, but I don’t need to stay an hour under the surface to enjoy diving or to take photographs. If scuba divers talk about time restraints, they are the limited ones. Two dives a day is about the maximum they can do, whereas I can stay in the water for six to eight hours in a row. That’s what I normally do.
Sharkman: Well, as a professional scuba instructor, I would agree with you that we do make it noisy down there, but today re-breathers have reduced a lot of that noise, but there is also more equipment work involved in them. What made you take up UW photography?
Wolfgang: Books! Hans Hass, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, and others were the pioneers who shared their UW experiences by way of photographing the ‘silent world’. It was their black and white images that fired my imagination when I was still a kid.
Sharkman: I know the feeling. They did the same with me. I have noticed that most of your photos are in black and white. Is there a special reason for this?
Wolfgang: Well, as I said, the first UW pictures I saw were in black and white. Even then I was captured by the mystique that I believe only black and white photographs can transmit.
Sharkman: Very true. I guess that whilst diving with sharks, you must have had a few close risks. Was there ever a moment when you felt in danger?
Wolfgang: Yeah, when you free dive with sharks you simply have to consider the risks of any “hazardous” activity. I have had some encounters close enough to get my heartbeat up to 180. But it happened only once that I was actually bitten by a shark a few months ago.
It happened in the Bahamas. The shark, a 5 ft Caribbean Reef Shark, bit me in the forearm. It bit just once, and then let go immediately. The razor sharp teeth severed the wet suit, major muscles, nerves, and blood vessels leaving me in a red-green cloud of blood. There were other sharks around, including a large Caribbean Reef Shark and an 8 ft Lemon Shark. Luckily, my blood did not attract them. I was able to swim back to the boat, pull the anchor, and call for medical help by radio.
Eventually I made it to the harbour where I was given lifesaving first aid treatment. Since I take blood thinners due to a cardiac problem, it was difficult to stop the bleeding. I had lost so much blood that I was about to pass out once I laid on the stretcher. It took 42 stitches, including 8 internal ones to repair the severed muscles.
Sharkman: Has this incident changed your feelings towards sharks?
Wolfgang: Absolutely – now that I belong to the 'privileged' few who had the closest encounters possible, I love sharks even more than before!! I am sure that you will fully appreciate that I did not feel any sort of aggression toward the shark that bit me whatsoever. Also, I have to stress that this was clearly a provoked incident. I was teasing the shark with a speared fish. The shark's reaction to my naughty behaviour was, in a sense, very 'human' and understandable. Sharks command respect at any time. Since I have dived with sharks hundreds of times without fear I guess I must have grown overconfident in their presence. The shark that bit me taught me a well-deserved lesson in humility. How could I resent that shark, or sharks in general, for that matter?
Sharkman: I am glad that you see it this way. Is it true that out of all the sharks that you have dived with, this is your favourite shark?
Wolfgang: Definitely!! The Caribbean Reef Shark is my favourite because I have gotten to know this shark better than any other species I have encountered. I have never dived with bulls, tigers, or great whites – unfortunately!
Sharkman: Guess you have to go to Guadeloupe for those. You have dived in many places all over the world, but do you have a favourite shark diving site?
Wolfgang: The Bahamas and the Galapagos. There are probably other very fascinating sites, but I prefer to stick to these two places I know so well.
Sharkman: Wolfgang, is there a special moment that you will never forget?
Wolfgang: An 18ft Great Hammerhead that came straight toward me while I was interacting with 5 – 7ft Caribbean Reef Sharks in the Bahamas. The huge shark made an elegant turn when it got as close as five or six feet, and vanished into the blue.
Sharkman: Are there some special dreams that you still wish to fulfill?
Wolfgang: You know, Alex, once you are nearing age 64, you do not really dream anymore. I am thankful for the privilege of having been able to marvel at many facets of Mother Earth and Mother Sea. I would feel rather depressed if I still had unfulfilled dreams and the urge to chase them. I'd tell myself: 'Hey, old Wolf, better go chase butterflies than dreams in your age.'
Sharkman: What final comment or message would you like to pass on to our readers?
Wolfgang: Sharks have feelings, they have memory, they are intelligent ancient animals that have outlived dinosaurs. What nobody would have thought only a few decades ago is now a tragic certainty: Sharks are an endangered species, not due to some natural Darwinian selection process but because they are being exterminated mercilessly by the worst killing machines that roam the earth: humans.
My message would thus be:
PROTECT THE SHARKS FROM HUMANS.
Sharkman: So very true. Wolfgang, thank you for sharing your time and experience with us at Sharkman's World.
Wolfgang: Thank you very much.