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Mike Rutzen: The man who stuns sharks

Mike Rutzen once convinced Halle Berry to touch a shark's snout. But no, that's not entirely how he stuns the Great Whites

Mike Rutzen
Image Credit: Supplied picture
Mike Rutzen.

You've dived with one of the ocean's foremost apex predators, the Great White, without a cage. Why?

Actually I've now dived with every shark that could potentially hurt a person and each dive has been as exhilarating as the one before. The Great White is my favourite though. It's such an honour to get so close to these amazing animals.

Why do sharks have such a bad rap?

Great Whites are probably the most misunderstood predators on the planet. Sharks get a bad rap because people fear what they don't understand. When you look at it in the grand scheme of things, shark attacks are actually very rare but the public responds to them in a hysterical, emotional way instead of doing a proper forensic investigation into why a shark responded physically in the first place. Sharks don't just attack because they have nothing else to do. There's always a reason behind them making physical contact with something. Through my work I'm trying to encourage people to see sharks in a different light by educating them using fact, not fiction.

In your documentary, Sharkman, for the Discovery Channel, you demonstrate tonic immobility on sharks. What is that?

Tonic immobility can be described as a sleep-like state animals enter, usually when presented with a threat. In sharks it's usually caused by an external force, such as another animal or person. There are two types. The first is caused by turning the animal upside down so it passes out. I've seen an octopus do this to a shark, and ragged tooth sharks are known to do this during mating. The second type is caused by over stimulating the Ampullae of Lorenzini - sensory organs in sharks' snouts that help them sense electric fields in the water - by rubbing them. While it's believed sharks enjoy this, it also puts them into a temporary state of catatonia. Many marine animals utilise this technique in their natural environment to hunt and mate. I perform it on sharks to learn more about them.

Can you interpret a shark's behaviour to avoid being attacked?

Yes. When I'm diving with a Great White I am always looking at the dive from the shark's point of view. As animals, they react to your presence in the water and I need to observe them carefully. Sharks speak to each other using body language, so I have to communicate with them in the same way. Having said that, body posture only works if the shark is fine with me being in the water; if it's angry with me that's a different story.

So what happens if a shark is angry with you?

Well, it will probably display signs of agitation and if I can sense it's coming at me, I have to punch it. The myth is that you punch it in the snout. If you hit a shark's nose there's a good chance it'll bite you. If a shark is getting too close for comfort, I punch it in the eye to temporarily stun it.

So, how is Halle Berry in person?

We made a fictional movie with her and her character had to touch the snout of a Great White from the boat, which she did! After she was done she was really excited, hopping around the boat and making a noise. When we were finished I said to her, "You really are a good actress, hey?" And she replied, "Mike, that was the only time I wasn't acting."

If i wasn't doing this, I would have probably been: diving or doing something that's ocean-related.

A person who has had the most influence on my life: Jacques Cousteau, Dr Sylvia Earle, Dr Mike Meyer

A fictional character who's after my own heart: I'm not going to answer that, that's a silly question.

A word or expression that i use a lot An Afrikaans saying, ‘n boer maak n plan' which translates to ‘a farmer makes a plan'.

Stuff that I always travel with My Cressi-Sub Edy dive watch and my 1970s military-issue teardrop mask.


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