How to film a great white shark

The producer of BBC1's Shark tells RadioTimes.com how his team got up close and personal with the legendary sea predator...

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Fancy going for a swim with the great white in Jaws? No, probably not. But the team behind BBC documentary series Shark did just that, and spent two years researching and filming all sorts of the sea predators. Although 507 of the 510 species are entirely harmless, things were a little more complicated when it came to filming the legendary great white. Series producer Steve Greenwood reveals how they did it…

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Do an incredible amount of research

“The difficult thing about sharks is that they’re not like wales and dolphins that need to come to the surface to breathe. So even scientists know very little about where the sharks are at any time, and it’s a real challenge to be in the right place when you need to be. We really are at the dawn of the age of discovery when it comes to sharks. So we spoke to lots of scientists, divers, people who run dive shops and anyone who could be the eyes under the water and know where to go to find them. The key to filming great whites is that you have a really good understanding of their ecology and behaviour.”

Use cutting-edge equipment

“We spent a total of 3,000 hours underwater and used a piece of equipment called rebreathers which mean you breathe the same air round and round again so divers can stand underneath the water for several hours at a time. 

“We were shooting the whole thing with a new generation of ultra HD cameras. They’re all kept in special cases to stop salt water getting in. We bought a new camera which we called Bruce. Depending on your generation, that refers to Bruce in Finding Nemo or Bruce [the name cameramen gave to the shark prop] in Jaws…”

Obsessively check the weather

“We had a shoot in the Great Barrier Reef which was hit by a typhoon. We spent a lot of time being complete weather nerds because it’s really important to go to places you can actually film. We went to South Africa to film great whites, but we turned up and there’d been a really massive storm. Somehow it must have freaked the sharks out, or the water temperature had dropped because they had all disappeared.”

And then, when you find your great white, watch your back…

“We had two people in the water — the cameraman and then the safety assistant who watched the diver’s back. The sharks are one danger, but actually diving in itself is something someone has to be very professional about. And sometimes there was a third person in the water who would be holding lights up for the more detailed stuff. We kept it a very small team.

“The great whites were 15 or 20 feet away. Of all the species we filmed, the great white was the only one we had a shark cage for. The danger zone with them is the surface, because that’s where the seals are, so the issue is that the cameraman will be mistaken for a seal. When the shark was in hunting mode, we’d get in this cage. It acts like an elevator and takes the cameraman down to the sea bed.

“And then on the sea bed, the cameraman would get out of the shark cage and just use it perhaps to cover his back, and sit nice and quietly on the seabed. He’d just watch the action around him, with the assistant looking behind. Great whites will always approach you from behind. Filming sharks is a very, very unpredictable world, which takes a lot of patience and time underwater.”

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Shark begins at 8:55pm on BBC One on Thursday 7th May