I had felt the shark, before I had been spun. I knew it was there. I had experienced something very rare. Would I do it again?
Thirty three. I am at 33, which signifies the number of shark encounters that I have had. To me, an encounter is defined as when an apex predator has come up and presented itself in a manner that was apparent and obvious. Marine Biologists generally agree that for every shark one sees, there are typically ten that one doesn’t.
The reasons for that are many, but basically those line items are what make the larger sharks apex predators. They are at the top of the food chain and achieve success within the animal kingdom by utilizing and maximizing their innate physiological facets and knowledge of environmental components which give them a tactical advantage.
Fifty two. The number of years I have been in the Ocean. I say “in,” but that means a lot. My life has run it’s course somewhat in the tradition of a Hawaiian, in that the Ocean, has been my home. So I have surfed, swam, dove, fished, hunted, sailed, worked, loved and yes, plied my Art within its watery expanse. And have done that globally.
Fifteen. The number of years that I have been a Water Photographer and Cinematographer.
Most of those 33 shark encounters were while I was filming. I was in the water with them.
So as a sort of baseline, a few things become obvious when you look at my watery life. Large apex predator encounters are sort of rare. And they sure like being around cameras.
Here is one tale.
I worked for several years with renowned nature film maker, Greg Huglin, who each year would head off to South Africa to film both dolphins and white sharks. He knows an awful lot about them as a result of his very avid and disciplined tracking efforts.
He had developed a camera system which we affectionately named The Beast. The Beast was a French high speed 35 mm film camera, an Éclair (Yes I know that is funny. Pastry, right?) which we had geared to shoot over cranked at 200 frames per second. It lived inside an aluminum water housing.
We called it The Beast, because I think it weighed around 48 pounds. It was an odd gold color. Unusual for a Waterhousing. It was one ugly mother, but we grew to love her as we both had her fire up somewhat reliably, and caught all manner of interesting things in the wonderful format of slow motion 35 MM motion picture.
Greg decided that he wanted me to do some first light wave cinematography with the Beast so that we would have it in the footage library. (During Shark week, much of the footage you see that is high drama, was shot by Greg, on The Beast).
So pre dawn one Fall morning, saw me wrestling The Beast out of the back of my car, across the long sandy beach, to a stretch of water that I like to shoot in. The surf break there is generally empty, mornings. Offshore of it, about two hundred yards, lies a submarine canyon. I have seen a lot of unusual marine life come up and out of that canyon. There are a lot of sharks around at times.
I remember that it was with great relief that I got the camera floated into the shorebreak and positioned myself behind it to push, what amounted to the weight and mass of a console TV set, into the surf, which was pretty big that day. Actually, the morning was perfect. What I look for. It was The Beast’s first surf session.
As the light came on and sun touched the horizon, I experimented with a few shots and learned that I could sort of use the mass of the Beast and to keep myself anchored in the critical part of the wave, while I would pivot the camera on it’s floating axis, to frame the pitching lip.
One by one I would pick my wave, maneuver into position, hit the trigger and with a grinding roar, the Beast would hit maximum frame rate in about a second. In about a half hour I was pretty stoked and knew that I was getting something special.
As I breeched the surface after one particularly large wave, relieved at having not gone over the falls with the camera, something unusual happened. I was aware of a large mass swimming right to me in the last vestiges of whitewater from the wave. The sun had just cleared the horizon.
I dropped the camera down over my legs and in a second, I was being spun like a top, by the large White Shark. I watched the water below me carefully, but from the wake, it appeared that the shark was headed back out to sea. Another wave came, and it was possibly the best one of the morning. I kept filming. As I was recovering in the whitewater, wave two of the set broke on my head in a spiral of whitewater and I triggered again, capturing an image Greg had described to me as needing. After that, I shot one more wave and the camera tailed out. I was out of film.
Back in the office that day in Montecito, Greg unloaded the camera and we chatted about the day. I told him that I thought I had seen a large white, but due to the surf and conditions I could not get a clear view. He looked up at me and stopped working. “What did you do?
“Well, I kept shooting. I reckoned that he was so foking big, that he could have taken me if he wanted me, and I wanted that shot we were after, more than I was feeling threatened by the shark.
Greg put the camera aside and took me into our viewing room and popped a tape into a player, and onto the monitor came a shot of a large white which somewhat promptly hit the camera and all went black ,as the lens stared down the pitch black void that was the end of the line. In a few seconds, the entire shot reversed as the shark disgorged the camera. It had let go. The view was sickening in slow motion. You could see what it would be like, being preyed upon.
He the took me back to the camera table, had me look closely at the golden aluminum camera housing and pointed out multiple marks on the body. “Those are the teeth marks Dave. When the white felt the aluminum, he spit it back out. We anodized the housing that color, because we think that it attracts whites (bright shiny object). Next time you see a white while you are filming with this camera, get OUT of the water!”
The next week I was just out of the water and chatting with one of my curmudgeonly pals, and had mentioned the encounter. He stopped me and said this: “All of us who have lived here and fished out of here for years have seen it. On bright sunny days a large white sometimes shows up. He makes a pass through the lineup, swims right up to the pier (where I had been filming) and heads back out and into the canyon. We think it is close to twenty feet in length. It is a very old shark”
I had felt the shark, before I had been spun. I knew it was there.
I had experienced something very rare.
Would I do it again?
Well of course I did.
It is a wild Ocean.
And my home.
End note: At approx. 1:06 and 5:46 in this video you can see those two key waves from that day. The piece is my demo reel and I called it Liquid Psalms. It was shot on 16mm film at 300 FPS and on The Beast (35mm) at around 200 FPS and transferred in Standard Definition. The footage also exists in HD.
David Pu’u was raised in Santa Barbara California. A lifelong artist and multi sport athlete, he terminated a twenty year career in the surf industry, in 1996. He left his role as CEO of his own manufacturing and retail corporation, in favor of pursuing his passion for photography and cinematography, and to raise his two sons.
Since then, David has established himself as a leading editorial and commercial photographer and cinematographer, with work regularly appearing in publications, films, commercial and art venues worldwide. He also works as a brand development specialist.
Preferring to shoot from the water, jet skis, helicopters, airplanes and moving vehicles, Pu’u relishes direct interactions with the environment inhabited by his subjects. This affords the viewer an intimate look at how Mankind connects with the world, and creates a fresh horizon, from which to receive inspiration and respite.
David’s work is represented Internationally by Corbis Images.
His website is www.davidpuu.com.