We speak to wildlife expert Steve Backshall about the most feared, but also the most misunderstood, predator on the planet
By Laura Rutkowski, Senior Staff Writer
In his new Sky Nature series Shark With Steve Backshall, Steve has made the bold decision not to mention shark attacks or fatalities. Instead, rather than another show ramping up the unwarranted terror, this programme focuses on why sharks – of which more than 100 million are killed each year – need to be saved. “If we’re their greatest threat, we also have to be their saviours,” he tells viewers in episode 1.
It comes at a time when public opinion about the animals is beginning to shift. In July, Australia led the way by deciding to ditch the term “shark attack”, instead calling them “interactions” or “negative encounters” – with more than a third of these encounters resulting in no injuries at all. Still, more needs to be done.
In this docuseries, Steve celebrates their diversity, from tasselled wobbegongs to whale sharks, and highlights the threats sharks, rays and skates (they’re all close cousins) that live in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans face, across three powerful episodes.
Here, in his own words, Steve discusses his experience diving with sharks for the past 30 years, and why sharks are marvels, not monsters…
Steve Backshall started underwater presenting in the late 1990s
“I saw my first shark, a blacktip reef shark, when I was about ten or 11, and I was terrified. I was snorkelling on a coral reef in Malaysia and I can remember this sense of excitement, but the shark appeared to be going around me in circles, and I lost my mind. I clambered up onto a rock, sat there for about two hours and got a terrific sunburn, and then I had to get back in the water and swim to shore.
Retrospectively, I know there was zero potential danger to me and there is no way it was actually circling me looking for a place to bite me. That was just my perception. It shows how powerful the human mind can be, particularly when it comes to negativity, and how just a little bit of understanding can make all the difference.
Steve can hold his breath for five minutes while free-diving, which is his “utter passion”
Since then I’ve done more than 1,000 dives with sharks. I built up my experience, knowledge and comfort to become more confident in the water over time. I’ve worked up from blacktips and whitetips, nurse sharks and lemon sharks to a stage where I feel confident with makos, threshers and oceanic whitetips, and even great whites outside the cage.
I have had interactions with blue sharks that have felt to me as emotive and reciprocal as interactions that I’ve had underwater with sea lions, whales and dolphins. They have personalities and characters. A blue shark is everything I love about sharks. They’re sinuous and sleek, they have the most transfixing colour. The blue is almost ethereal.
Sharks survived four of the “big five” mass extinctions, meaning they have existed for at least 420 million years, but they are now critically endangered
What I’ve learned working with all animals is that if you’re afraid, you shouldn’t be there. Animals sense fear exactly the same way that human beings do, and they react negatively to it. It counts even more when you’re underwater. If you’re stressed and frightened, your heartrate increases, your breathing increases, and you send tiny tremors out into the water that marine predators are triggered to focus on. Particularly with the bigger species of sharks, if I felt frightened, if I felt nervous about the conditions, then I wouldn’t do it.
I understand the problem with presenting sharks in the media, it is a very easy sell to present the demonic side of sharks as ravenous monsters with big, sharp teeth. It’s because the universal fear corresponds to a universal interest. It’s no accident that the animals I’ve chosen to focus on have been things like snakes, spiders, scorpions and sharks. Featuring animals like that enables me to draw people in and bring them into the conversation.
“You’re gonna need a bigger camera!”
Most of the shark programmes I’ve made over the last 20 years have had to start with the fact that we immediately perceive sharks as being man-eaters, and they’re not – the statistics prove it. If you were making programmes about tigers, lions, elephants or rhinos, that’s not how you’d start, and sharks are responsible for far less fatalities than any of those animals.
If I got bitten by a shark, millions of people would go, “Well, we always knew sharks are horrible creatures,” so I have a responsibility to make sure I don’t put myself in danger.
A shark safety team looked after the crew while they were filming underwater
I thought it was really important that if we were going to do any service to sharks that we, pure and simple, show them as being beautiful, majestic and intoxicating – and critically endangered.
People that think sharks are dangerous, threatening animals are never going to get on side with advocacy. By constantly enforcing the old Jaws aesthetic, all we do is maintain the possibility that we can harm sharks further.
Steve certainly doesn’t feel like a fish out of water in his latest series
Over the course of the one shoot in the Bahamas with the oceanic whitetips, we cut 14 fishing lines and wires off them and there were at least 100 that swam away that we could do nothing with. Half of them had signs of disfigurement from lines and hooks. Over the last three to five years, I’ve seen this on every dive, and it is overwhelming. In many of the places where I first dived with sharks a decade or two ago, there are no sharks anymore.
Our simple ambition with this series is to speak to as many people as possible and hope there are some out there who fall a little bit in love with sharks – who are excited by them and want to find out what we can do to save them.”
When is Sky Nature’s Shark With Steve Backshall on TV?
Shark With Steve Backshall airs on Sky Nature/HD (CH 280/279) on Sundays at 8pm, with the first episode screening on 7 November. All three episodes will also be available in Catch Up > Channels > Sky Nature.
The three-part series will subsequently air every week until 21 Sunday November. A special about the sharks of the British Isles will air after Christmas.
To find out more about how you can help with conservation efforts, Steve recommends The Shark Trust (www.sharktrust.org), Bite-Back Shark & Marine Conservation (www.bite-back.com), and The Manta Trust (www.mantatrust.org).
TV channels: Channels, content and features available depend on your chosen package. Channel line-ups and content are subject to change at any time and to regional variations.
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Catch Up TV: Catch Up TV content available for up to 7 days or up to 30 days after broadcast, depending on content.
Interviews: Any opinions expressed in interviews are those of the interview subject and not those of Virgin Media.