Shark cinematographer Joe Romeiro reveals how to think and behave in the presence of sharks

Underwater videographer Joe Romeiro routinely gets up close and personal with the greatest predators of the ocean, from great whites to tiger sharks.

Ever since he spotted his first shark on a fishing trip, aged five, Romeiro has been hooked on these beautiful but terrifying denizens of the ocean, spending a decade running shark diving trips in America and the Bahamas, and filming them for TV.

RSNG spoke to Romeiro to find out how he has learned to share the water with these intelligent, but deadly beasts, as his latest footage is due to appear on the Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week…

RSNG Sharks continue to inspire fear and wonder worldwide. Why do you think they possess such a powerful psychological allure?
JOE ROMEIRO, SHARK CINEMATOGRAPHER
I have always interpreted sharks as one of the most iconic – if not the most iconic - animal in the world. And I think when we look at the animal, even though we’ve seen that face a million times – it’s like a celebrity we know really well – we know that that animal doesn’t know us at all.’

‘So there is this mystery to it. These animals also possess traits which we would love to see represented in ourselves: strength, beauty, being a loner. Everybody would love to walk out on the street and have everybody give them a wide birth and respect them and look at them as this beautiful and majestic creature.’

‘These traits are things that we admire so sharks have become almost like a spirit animal for us.

RSNG What sparked your own fascination with sharks from such a young age? JR It was just their charismatic nature. When I was a little kid (moving to America), I couldn’t speak English so a lot of stuff I watched was monster movies, and natural history films, with sharks being a huge part of them.’
‘Between that and Jaws being made the year I was born, that kind of drove that passion for a while.’

RSNG You sometimes film sharks from a cage, and sometimes swim with them. What have you learned from interacting with them so closely?
JR
Interacting with them is always different as it is all a matter of the species you have. But the biggest lesson I have learned from filming sharks is that it is not really sharks that cause the issues. It is always the people that cause the issues.’

‘A shark has 400 million years of evolution which means it knows how to do a certain amount of things very well. Humans, being as complex as we are, we are the ones that are causing accidents, unbeknown to us. But if we better understand these animals, we can have a better way of engaging with them and coexisting with them.’

‘Our show this week revolves around the laws of sharks: how do you act around sharks and how do sharks surround you? We sat there and put our money where our mouth is and tested these theories and showed how you would react to it – all being an amazing display of how to react to a shark when it’s being inquisitive.’

‘I now know certain tiger sharks just by face’

RSNG What is your own emotional response to being in such intimate proximity to sharks?
JR
‘You understand what you confront. And you protect what you love. And you will love them if you confront them. Filming sharks has grown into this thing where it is almost like a relationship with some of them. I wouldn’t say like pets. But certainly like an animal you respect.’

‘There are now great whites and tiger sharks that I know just by face. I could tell you where that individual was from and where he was last summer. That’s the sort of intimacy that people will never know.’

‘I didn’t even know that was going to happen. I just started to recognise that one here and that one there so there are ones I now know by name. There is a tiger shark in the Bahamas called Emma which a huge amount of people know.’

‘I would argue she is the world’s most famous tiger shark. You see her on T-shirts everywhere. But if I saw that tiger shark, I know that’s her. It is like looking at a human face. Someone else would look at this tiger shark and they wouldn’t know the difference.’

‘It takes time to know those faces but the characteristics on a shark’s face can be identified almost as human characteristics if you are around them long enough. You can look at one of them and think: oh, there is Steve!’

RSNG Which species of shark do you admire the most?
JR
‘The mako is my favourite. It is the fastest shark in the world (capable of swimming at around 75kph) and one of the most beautiful. But sharks encompass a whole gamut of stuff. A blue shark is strikingly blue. There are only two sharks that are blue – the mako and blue shark – so they really do stand out.’

‘There are sharks that actually walk, like the epaulette shark. There are pygmy sharks which are a really tiny species. There are cookie-cutter sharks which have large teeth. There are 500 different types of animals in all.’

RSNG You love sharks but must still experience a raw, primal reaction to being in the presence of a great white – how do you address that fear?
JR
Well, I now know great white sharks better than I did, which helps. But yes it is not natural if you don’t feel some kind of foreboding feeling with the unknown. That is part of your primitive survival instinct.’

‘You have just got to know and accept what that is when you feel that foreboding. But I really believe confrontation is how you understand things. A lot of our fears are unjustified and you can get through a lot of things.’

‘Anything that runs is usually afraid of something - or food.’

RSNG What type of behaviour do humans need to adopt when in close proximity to sharks?
JR
‘The biggest one I have – which I would give to everybody – is: don’t run. Anything that runs is usually afraid of something – or food. You could run away from the smallest animal on the planet and those animals will most likely chase you.’

‘Run away from a small dog and that animal will chase you. Everybody knows if you turn away from a dog, he will smell you. But if you look him in the eyes, that is a different story.’

‘That confrontation you have with dogs is the same with sharks. If you confront sharks in a certain way – and I don’t mean an aggressive way, I just mean acting in a certain way – they understand that. And eye contact has a lot to do with it.’

RSNG Is our fear of sharks rational?
JR
A lot of people say: you go on a beach, there is a shark there and something happens. But I equate it to this: imagine going in the water where the visibility is not that great, perhaps at a certain type of day or whatever, and you can’t see into it.’

‘Well, if you knew there was a room where there were possibly lions and tigers and maybe a bear inside, and there was a hole cut into that room, would you put your entire body in there and keep your head out?’

‘You need to understand that when you are in the water the only parts of you that are engaging with the water are the ones that are in the water. So unless your entire body is in there and your eyes can see things, you are not as vigilant as you should be.’

‘There are certain areas where shark attacks are extremely rare but you need to make sure you know that sharks are there. In Cape Cod right now, there are lots of great whites there. So be careful.’

‘There is bad visibility. They are looking for seals. They might bump into something that is not what they are looking for. Be careful. That’s good advice for people: sharks are not looking for you but always be careful with interacting with wild animals.’

RSNG Do you believe sharks are misunderstood?
JR
I really do believe these animals are misunderstood. I think Shark Week has a great blend of making things exciting, but also highlighting all the important things that are going on with Sharks.’

‘Jacques Cousteau once said that you “protect what you love” and I really believe that. The only way to make people fall in love with them is to tell great stories about them.’

WHAT NEXT? See some of Joe’s best shark footage here. Shark Week runs on the Discovery Channel UK from Sunday August 4.