The world’s sharks are in dire straits. Will Allen’s whole career has been defined by working with big beasts of the ocean and he teamed up with ocean champion, diver and late friend Rob Stewart, to make ‘Revolution’ and now ‘Sharkwater Extinction’, the film that’s a call to action to save these mysterious creatures before it’s too late.
Not even Rob Stewart’s tragic death while diving in 2017 is going to stop the campaigning to bring an end to the killing of 120-200 million sharks every year. RSNG caught up with Will Allen to find out why coming face to face with 1500lb great white sharks, unprotected by a cage, has become ‘like meditating’ for him…
RSNG Photographer Emory Kristof from National Geographic was an early mentor of yours – what did he tell you?
WILL ALLEN, CINEMATOGRAPHER ‘He was like: “Look, we're laying people off left, right and centre, so if you want to do this, you've got to find a niche. You’ve got to get in the water with the biggest, baddest shark face-to-face, no cage, and take a picture better than anybody else can.” I took him very literally. He just said it as a metaphor, or an extreme example, but that's exactly what I did.’
RSNG What’s your mindset when you are swimming in the ocean with multiple great whites, without a cage?
WA ‘Everything kind of slows down, and everything gets very focused. You've got to pay attention at all times, but it's almost like a meditation and you really focus. It becomes peaceful. You can have 17ft great white shark in front of you and not feel afraid.’
‘The great white is about six feet away from me and its mouth is as wide as my desk’
RSNG Is that because you have to get into that mindset because you shouldn't act like prey, because that obviously makes you prey?
WA ‘I think that's how it started for me – trying to stay calm, and recognising that when I do get worked up around them that they get more agitated and worked up as well. But it became more of a peaceful, calming place for me to be over the years. As soon as I enter the water now I'm completely immersed in their world, and you just feel that ocean, salt water all around you, feeling weightless. You want to go from point A to point B, you can fly to it. Then you get these massive creatures that could weigh 1500lbs, coming at you completely silently – underwater it's dead silent, other than your bubbles. So it becomes very calming, and it became a meditation.’
RSNG There must have been early shark dives when you were scared though?
WA ‘About 15 years ago, I was down on a submersible platform off Guadeloupe in Mexico about 80ft down with my friend Eric, taking photos. We watch each other's back, because it's never the shark you see you have to worry about. Great whites are ambush predators, so any kind of accident or bite that would happen with them, it's always misidentification on the shark's part.’
‘I had this 15ft long, great white in front of me, doing big wide circles around the platform, getting closer and closer, and this is quite early in my shark diving career, so I'm nervous. My heart beat is starting to go; I'm breathing a lot more. I tap Eric on the shoulder just to let him know I've got a shark really close to me and it's really big. He turns to me wide-eyed, taps me back rapidly and points, and he's got two great whites on his side that are the equivalent to mine.’
‘I just kept thinking about what my friends and the biologists that I've worked with told me: “Just stand your ground. Prey runs away. So if you just stay there and stand your ground, keep eye contact going, you’ll be fine.” But it's easier said than done when you're standing in front of a 15ft great white shark. It keeps getting closer and closer, and now it's about six feet away from me, and its mouth is as wide as my desk.
RSNG Wait, its mouth was as wide as your desk?
WA ‘Yes, they’re like a Volkswagen Jetta in girth sometimes. So I'm like: “What do I do?' I snap a few photos, and it comes even closer. It's not even swimming any more; it's just kind of stopped in front of me with its body half-cocked. I'm like, “Oh, I'm so dead.” I'm so nervous at that point that I'm breathing super-rapidly and fast, and my heart's going crazy, and I can see it changing its mannerisms like: “OK, well, this thing is definitely afraid of me, so I'm really curious as to what it is.”
‘Stand your ground. I just grabbed onto the side support of the cage and swung out with my camera towards the shark, to move as close as I could to it, and tapped it on the nose with the camera. It took everything I could do to do this, because I was so scared, but then it didn’t even startle or anything. It was like: “Oh, OK, you're not what I thought you might be, so I'm out of here,” and it slowly swam away. That was it.’
RSNG That’s an amazing story – did it change how you felt around sharks?
WA ‘That one moment really changed my mentality towards sharks. I'd always had a healthy respect and a fear for them, but that took the fear away. It's now simply a healthy respect, and to try to understand as much as possible, because they're really not interested in us. They're just curious of anything as they swim by.’
RSNG Over 120 million people saw Sharkwater, the original movie made by Rob Stewart – how did it change the world?
WA ‘Well a lot of policy and laws had been changed around the world due to it. Rob put it out there for free because he knew the sharks needed as much attention as they could get. It changed millions of people's views on how they are, and, unfortunately, what happened was the fishermen and the fisheries that are out there hunting sharks for their fins had to get more creative.’
RSNG These are the rules that meant they had to bring the whole shark in to port, rather than chopping off the fins and dumping the carcasses?
WA ‘That’s was the governments’ ways of compromising, trying to make the eco-warriors happy, and then make the fishing companies happy. But what it did was it created a whole new market for different parts of the shark. So their skin was used for a lot of things: wallets, handbags, belts, whatever. The shark liver oil became a huge thing in cosmetics. Squalene is in a lot of cosmetics, and people have no idea… Then in fertiliser, in cat food, pet foods, and then relabelling it and selling it to us as flake, and ocean whitefish.’
RSNG So what is the aim of the new movie Sharkwater Extinction?
WA ‘It wasn’t: “Okay, well, we need to make another one because that film did well.” It was: “We need to do another one because sharks don't have any more time.” They're being fished at a more rapid rate than they were ten years ago when we estimated between 80 and 100 million sharks were being fished out of the oceans every year. Now they're being very secretive about it, they’re going to the UNESCO sites at night doing longline while people can't catch them. They're going further offshore, and then they're doing trans-shipping and processing out at sea, so you don't even know what boat's bringing in what. But between 120 and 200 million sharks are being fished a year now.’
‘If nothing changes then within 20 years even seeing a shark will be extremely rare’
RSNG That’s a terrifying number – how long does that give worldwide shark populations with that kind of rate of attrition?
WA ‘Probably within 20 years, to see a shark will be extremely rare.’
RSNG You must find that very sobering, given the importance of sharks for the health of the whole ocean?
WA ‘What's going to happen to humans if we continue down the road that we're going and we don't change anything? Basically, we figure by 2048 there are not going to be any real fish populations left in the oceans. So that's all the major stuff; that's tuna, sailfish, sharks, the typical things you'd see on a menu.’
RSNG Do you see the evidence of falling populations on your own dives?
WA ‘In my 25 years of diving; I've seen drastic changes in the water from schools of fish in the reefs, and things like that. We tend to go to places where we know there's going to be more life and big shark populations, but even in these places, they are going down. The Galápagos Islands was known for thousand of hammerheads congregating, and now I've had reports from people that were there this year saying: “We saw ten, when normally it would be 1000.”
RSNG It’s common to feel helpless when we hear the state of things, but is there anything that we as individuals can do to try and reverse it?
WA ‘Something we always say is: “Every dollar you spend is a vote.” So if you’re aware of what's on a label, you're aware of the issues now that they're relabelling fish, what they're being used in: cat food, dog food, fertilisers, plants. Be aware. Tell the store that you go to: “I'm not going to buy this because of that.” Tell everybody you know, because there is no more time to deal with this issue. If we don't make a major change now, then definitely within 20 years the oceans are going to be desolate, where they should be teaming with life.’
‘There are stories of Columbus or Champlain coming up the Saint Lawrence Valley, and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, and the fish are just bouncing off the hull of the ship, when they were discovering Canada, but I don't know a single place in the world where I've ever seen that – unless it's an infestation of an invasive species that comes in and destroys the native species.’
‘So it's being aware, and not buying anything would encourage the industry. But not just that; also, telling the companies, telling straight up the line, telling the stores: “I'm not buying this because of it. I won't come here if you sell this.” Calling the companies and telling them you won't go to stores if they sell. Then informing everybody you know to try and make sure that everybody does it, because as soon as they stop making money on it, it will stop.’
‘If you can get in the water with a snorkel and see what a reef looks like, it will definitely change your life’
RSNG Talking more specifically about the movie, can you describe an inspirational dive that you went on with Rob for the filming of Sharkwater Extinction?
WA ‘The shots where he's free-diving with the hammerheads. It's in about 30ft of water, and he's hitting the sand, and kind of coming up with them. That was just Rob and myself, and a friend in Bahamas who brought us out on his boat. For a lot of reasons now, that's probably the dive that means the most to me. We've been in the water with great whites, and all sorts of other sharks, but those particular dives are a memory that I'm definitely going to cherish for a long time, because it was free-diving; there's nobody else, there's no tourist boat near us.’
‘These incredible great hammerheads, and bull sharks nearby, and a ton of nurse sharks, and I was with two people that meant a lot to me. That's probably the most inspirational one, just because it was so peaceful and it worked out so well. We were worried about getting shots and the film – it’s an unpredictable thing. I know that Rob was stressed before we got there; I was stressed before we got there. Then we got in the water and all that stress went away for a while, and it just worked out perfectly.’
RSNG The experience of diving is connecting us back to something, isn't it? Especially free-diving, where you’re taking the technology out of it?
WA ‘When you get into that proper head space of freediving, and it's going well, and you're under your own power, and then you have to get back up and get air with a few kicks, it's incredible. It's just remembering that you're not in your element, and that you have to respect everything around you at that moment. The water, the sharks, the rays, the turtles, everything around you. It really, really connects you to it. Not everybody can scuba dive, but everybody can get in the water and snorkel. If you can get in the water and just see what a reef looks like, it will definitely change your life.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch this amazing exclusive clip of Rob Stewart swimming with sharks from Sharkwater Extinction, out in cinemas now…