Andy Casgrande is an award winning wildlife film maker with more than thirty documentaries completed in the last 9 years. If you’ve seen any documentaries involving sharks on TV, chances are pretty good that Andy was the guy behind the camera. He has filmed all over the world, but seeing that South Africa is his favourite spot on earth to dive and film, we though we’d phone him up in New York and have a chat. Also, sharks are fucking awesome. Actual sharks. Not the rugby team. That spot belongs to the Lions.
Obviously Andy does’t speak Afrikaans, so don’t tune us kak for posting in English on Watkykjy once in a while. Gaan fokken eet ‘n broodjie of iets.
What is your typical shooting schedule like?
Depending on the species, we either get up before the sun and we’re back at dock after the sun goes down, but it all depends on the behavior we’re looking for. For instance, we just did a big Air Jaws special focused on night hunting – great white sharks hunting at night time. So instead of getting up before the sunrise and coming back at the end of the day, we would basically get up in the middle of the night or as the sun was going down, go out to the seal colonies in the evenings and then film the white sharks hunting with new low light technology. Basically under the cover of darkness with only the moonlight or sometimes no light and they were still successfully able to hunt. So, it really depends on the species and the behavior but we pretty much try to spend as much time as possible with the animals to capture the best content.
Can you tell me more about the technology that is involved and some of the groundbreaking stuff you guys are using?
A lot of it is now available on the market. There’s the Sony A7S2 which shoots 4K and has an extremely sensitive sensor, so you can essentially shoot in total darkness but still be able to see the behavior of something you couldn’t see with the naked eye, you could see through these cameras. That was our main camera. We used it both topside and under the water which was very cool. You crank the ISO up to 40-50 thousand and still not see any grain so the low light camera technologies have really become a pretty big component this year on Shark Week.
How did you get into shark cinematography?
The first time I saw a shark was on television. I was about 7 years old and from that moment on I was very inspired by sharks and fascinated with them. So from a very young age I was just addicted and obsessed with sharks. I went to college and studied marine biology and photo journalism and eventually moved to Cape Town to work with a research team in Gansbaai, which is quite a famous great white hot spot. That’s where I sort of learned about sharks and started working with film crews and media, so it really all stems from a fascination with sharks from a very young age.
Could you take us back to the single most memorable moment during filming?
We recently went to Cape Town to film white sharks hunting at night time. We had a number of days where the sharks weren’t hunting and we started to get frustrated because we were there to film white sharks hunting in the darkness and we weren’t even really seeing them during the day time. So we started to get very concerned that we wouldn’t get the night time hunting behavior that we needed and almost a month went by without us getting any really good usable footage except for one predatory event. We went back for a second time to try again and then this time within a matter of a week we got something like 20 night time hunting behaviors from the breaching sharks to the lunging, chasing the seals. So I guess that was a very cool moment to almost fail and be like ‘Oh no, we’re not actually going to be able to capture this behavior’ and then persisting and going back and being successful beyond what we expected. I think that’s just a testament to wildlife film making. It’s never really that easy – wildlife and weather are two very unpredictable things, especially in South Africa, so I was very lucky to actually get some amazing night time hunting behaviors basically at the 11th hour.
It seems like there has been a rise in shark attacks, so it could be more people going into the water? In some incidents cold water species like the great white are the culprits in some warm water territories. Why do you think this is?
Well in general, you mention South Africa and a potential rise in shark attacks. I’m sure you’re aware of, obviously, that Western Australia has a very marked increase in shark attacks over the past couple years, even two weeks ago two people were killed. One surfer, one scuba diver and it’s really hard to say, a lot of people sort of want to point fingers at the cage diving operation, the industry based in Cape Town, but a perfect example is that Western Australia has completely no cage diving or shark baiting or anything where you’re bringing the predator in for ecotourism purposes. At the same time their incident rates are the highest in the world and no one knows why white sharks are primarily ther (when it comes to shark attacks in the surf zone) and the number one suspect is that they are hunting and they’re looking for seals and dolphins and other prey items that live there. It’s just unfortunate that humans and sharks are still struggling to find a way to coexist and I think, you mentioned at the beginning of the question, there are a lot more people using the water, a lot more media out there to report shark attacks. It’s a reality, sharks are predators that live in the ocean and for people to venture into the ocean to surf or swim or scuba dive, most of them are well aware of the risks involved, although it’s very low, it is a possibility. I worked on a show this year called Jungle Sharks, which was actually about bull sharks and crocodiles and one of the interesting things about that was, crocodiles, I’m sure you know, kill exponentially more people than sharks do, but sharks always get much more of the lion’s share of media coverage. It’s a pretty scary thing to have animals in the ocean that can and are capable of eating you but to me it’s exciting. We’re no longer at the top of the food chain when we enter the ocean, so obviously it’s unfortunate for those who lose their lives and friends, but again I don’t think it’s the sharks being malicious, I just think it’s part of their biology
Sometimes they mistake us for prey?
Yeah, sometimes they make mistakes. They think a surfer is a seal, sometimes it’s just a hungry shark. It’s like if you tried to run a marathon through the Serengeti you’d have to expect that hyenas, lions, leopards will potentially eat you because you are roughly the same shape and size of the prey they consume.
South Africa and shark cage diving – are we doing it the right way? is there anything that can be improved?
I think there are over 13 permanent cage diving operators in South Africa and South Africa was the first country in the world, as you know, to protect the white sharks worldwide, well in their country, but the first country in the entire world to actually protect great white sharks which is very cool, so I actually think they have a pretty good protocol for shark cage diving because there are so many of them, they are very competitive. When you have competition, obviously, they are always looking at each other, how their operating and being run. Are they doing good? Are they bad? Are they mistreating the sharks? I think a lot of that, you know, when they first started out cage diving, they could do whatever they wanted, but now they are so strictly regulated, I think they are doing a good job with respecting the sharks, operating respectfully of the animals and the tourists that come to see the sharks . So, I think they are actually doing a pretty good job.
So South Africa sort of set the bar, would you say?
I would say so, I think the Australians would want to say that they’re the first to cage dive but I know both South Africa and Australia have a long history of shark cage diving and both of them run very good operations.
What is the toughest species to film apart from sharks and what is the rarest shark you’ve ever filmed?
I filmed orcas quite a bit and orcas are very intelligent animals and often if they don’t want to be filmed it’s very hard to get close to them. But I’ve had some good success with orcas in Bull’s Bay and also in New Zealand. Tey are incredible predators because they eat great white sharks for breakfast potentially, they are the two apex predators.
The most rare shark?
I’m still not 100% sure but I was in Hawaii filming at night time and we were actually trying to film a cookie cutter shark and we just saw a quick shadow and when we reviewed the footage it was the same sort of size class of a cookie cutter. To be honest I can’t guarantee that we’ve filmed it, but the cookie cutter shark is a very rare shark that I’ve always wanted to film and I’ve maybe filmed it, it’s hard to tell. Also, the goblin shark is quite a cool looking shark. That’s one I would love to film but I haven’t had the opportunity yet. I’ll definitely have that on my radar for the next couple of years.
What’s the deepest you’ve ever gone and how did you achieve it?
The deepest I’ve ever scuba dived was 270 feet and the deepest I’ve been in a submarine was about 500 feet. One was in Tahiti, where I was scuba diving, and the other was on Guadalupe Island, Mexico, where it’s a famous hot spot for great white sharks. That was quite cool being in a submarine with the great whites. They were very curious with the submarine, some of them were bumping into it and we just wanted to make sure it was strong enough for them to do that, which it was. Sharks are fascinating because they all have unique personalities. They’re almost like people, where some people are not very nice, some people are very shy, or nervous or some people sleep in too much and they seem like they’re lazy or whatever – sharks also seem to have these unique personalities where some of them are aggressive, some are shy, some them just don’t seem to care about anything you do.
Have you ever been attacked by a shark?
No, I’ve never been attacked by a shark. I’ve had a few sharks try to bite my scuba diving fins and they’ll come up and bite the camera. It’s more of an investigation where they’re curious to see ‘Oh what does this rubber fin taste like?’ or ‘what does this metal camera taste like?’ Luckily I’ve never had sharks bite me to the point where I’m bleeding. My diving equipment, my fins or my camera seems to be victims of curiosity. Sometimes there are aggressive sharks and you can – when they pass you and got around the camera they might try to bite your arm or your leg. When you encounter an aggressive shark you usually try to maintain eye contact. Try to not swim away. Don’t panic because generally a move can allow a shark to react to you. If you’re swimming away it will instinctively try to chase you. So, in general if it’s an aggressive shark you try to keep it as relaxed as you can and slowly get out of the water. If you have a safety diver he can watch your back while you’re getting out and vice versa, but luckily I’ve never been attacked by a shark.
What is the biggest myth about sharks?
That they are evil monsters. The reality is they have to go out and hunt and stalk and kill their prey essentially every day in order to survive, whereas we can go to Starbucks or wherever you want to get your breakfast or your tea or your dinner or your lunch. We can go buy it but for a shark it’s a tough life. They actually need to go out and kill a living animal which is risky because they could be injured during the process and lose one of their eyes or have their gills injured by a seal. Seals are very vigilant. The bottom line is, although sharks look pretty scary and have to kill things, it’s not that they’re doing it because they’re malicious animals – they’re just predators trying to survive and that’s their life. It’s easy to look at them and say ‘Oh these things are evil, they’re trying to eat everything and kill us’ but the reality is I don’t think sharks pay humans much attention. Occasionally they mistake us in the water for something they want to eat, but for the most part I think they just want to be left alone. Obviously a lot of them like to be on television and be famous for Shark Week but I think they are just pretty misunderstood.
Why do we need to protect sharks?
The world has realized any animal in the ocean plays a role in the ecosystem. Everything is interconnected and if we removed the top predators from the ocean it would throw the ocean into turmoil – the seal population would explode, the fish populations would increase. No one really knows for sure, but we do know sharks play a critical role where they actively hunt and kill weak prey items and they even thin out strong groups – they allow evolution to occur by letting them know they need to be on their game to survive. Sharks basically clean up the ecosystem – they will target the sick and the young and the weak but they essential eat whatever they can catch. If we remove them it would be like removing humans from planet earth. They are essentially the marine apex predators. It would be interesting if there were some sort of computer modelling or some kind of weird formula that we could plug into a computer and show us what would actually happen to the oceans if sharks weren’t there…