Friday, January 4, 2008

5 Questions With a "Shark Whisperer"

We had a chance to speak with Richard Theiss CEO of RTSea Productions and the filmmaker of the recent shark documentary "Island of the Great White Shark".

Richard spent the last 3 years of his life documenting the Great Whites of Isla
Guadalupe, Mexico and the efforts of a small band of shark researchers from Mexico's CICIMAR and California's U.C Davis to study and track these sometimes elusive and magnificent critters.

He was granted access to researchers and sharks that no one has ever had. Typically film crews are limited to just one week of shooting,as such they fail to get a complete look at the animals they are documenting.

The film was shot in all weather conditions from 2004-2007. It is the most complete look to date of the sharks of Isla Guadalupe, Mexico.

Richard will be at the Long Beach Aquarium this month for the world premiere and private screening of his new documentary: "Island of the Great White Shark".

5 Questions:

1. Why film sharks?

They are unique, they are mysterious, they are exotic, and they are endangered – all rolled into one. As a nature filmmaker, I have had the opportunity to film a variety of flora and fauna - from bugs to fish, from jungles to arctic tundra - and nothing so far has captivated my attention like the multi-faceted shark. And they are emblematic of all that is right and wrong with man’s ongoing relationship with Nature. My greatest pleasure in filming animals like sharks is knowing that it may enlighten others; my greatest fear is that I may be filming them for posterity.

2. Most exciting moment over the past three years with Great Whites?

For me the most exciting moments have been when I have looked through the viewfinder and realized, at that instant, that all the elements were coming together to capture the true magnificence of these animals. Sure, over several years, the odds increase to see dramatic bites or close brushes with the cage, but as a filmmaker what really gets my blood pumping is when I know I’m getting imagery that is truly doing justice to these creatures. It’s magic. But if I had to choose one moment, I would say it was when a large Isla Guadalupe female, known to the researchers as “Mystery”, spent nearly two hours cooperating by giving me some of the best close-up footage I have had to date. It gave me goose bumps. She and I will be picking out china patterns in the Spring.

3. Shark Porn and the shark documentary industry, your take on it?

Well, much of it is a little out of whack and certainly not doing the sharks any favors. As a filmmaker, I understand the commercial factors that drive the decision-making process when it comes to shark documentaries. It’s that need to “sell popcorn”, as I call it, and keep the advertisers happy. Let’s face it; to the general public, sharks, like the Great White, will never win popularity contests and there will always be a macabre fascination with these predators. But there needs to be a balance between appealing to that sensationalism and documenting the truth. And if these animals are to have any kind of future, it is incumbent on those who film sharks to strive towards turning myths and fear into truth and respect.

4. The future of sharks worldwide, shark fining, eco tourism?

The future. . . well, when you read the statistics it can be pretty depressing. The demand in Asian cultures for shark fins is taking a staggering toll on many shark populations. I’m sorry, but the whole issue of shark finning – for soup or homeopathic medicine – just drives me a little crazy. For me it seems so senseless. But changing cultural and commercial mindsets is very challenging. There have been small victories here and there but it’s a tough row to hoe. After all, how many of us have changed to fluorescent light bulbs or ditched our SUVs? This is where eco-tourism can play a very important role. has done a great job in providing divers and non-divers with both an exciting experience and a chance to learn about the extremely critical role sharks play in a balanced marine eco-system, while also providing critical support to ongoing shark research studies. I just hope that we continue to unlock the mysteries surrounding sharks like the Great White and enlighten people everywhere as to their importance before it’s too late.

5. Your question here

I would be interested in hearing others stories of how someone’s attitude about sharks was changed for the better. Perhaps that will provide a solution or an idea for someone else. Filmmakers sometimes shine their light to illuminate a problem or issue, leaving the viewer to ponder over solutions for themselves. I’d like to hear what others have done or are doing.