Shark dive tames fear

Up close and personal with ocean predator

AMY MAAS
Last updated 08:23 02/12/2012
KRISSY DWYER/Fairfax NZ

Reporter Amy Maas had to face her fear when she plunged into Kelly Tarlton's shark tank meeting 24 of the intimidating creatures.

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Can sharks smell fear? I hoped not. I was about to submerge myself in a tank full of the predators at Auckland's Kelly Tarlton's Underwater World. On feeding day. Fear held my hand.

It strangled me as I attempted to breathe under water for the first time. It settled to the pit of my stomach as I groped my way down to the bottom of the shark tank.

But with Discovery Channel kicking off Shark Week tonight and the chance to get face to face with the creatures, feeding my courage was essential.

More adventurous at heart is Discovery Channel's Shark Week host and former Cronulla Sharks rugby league player Andrew "ET" Ettinghausen, who joined me on the dive. He is no stranger to seeing the creatures in the flesh. He also still has 10 fingers and 10 toes.

"I guess my first dive, I wasn't quite aware that we were even going to see sharks down there. It was this big volcano mountain up in Papua New Guinea and I cruised down the line and I wasn't thinking about much at all, just concentrating on all the technical things about diving," he says.

"I was so focused on that and I finally got down to the bottom, looked up, and there were seven sharks just swimming around me. So my first encounter was a bit of a fright."

OK, so maybe you can't compare sinking to the bottom of an aquarium tank to diving an underwater volcano in the depths of a remote island. But a shark's a shark - and they were swimming right by my wide-eyed face. I was very "aware".

Ettinghausen's face is the picture of calm when he admits that, while horror stories make him "nervous", the creatures are simply "misunderstood". Perhaps - in the right water temperature of about 19°C - they are docile creatures.

"Realistically, I think we kill something like 73 million sharks every year, which is just unbelievable," Ettinghausen says. "So I think on the other side of the fence, the sharks are certainly copping a raw deal from us humans."

Shark Week begins with Air Jaws Apocalypse (Sunday, 7.30pm), in which photographer and shark expert Chris Fallows embarks on a journey to capture an iconic shot of a great white. He has one goal - to showcase the power and beauty of the great white, even if it means risking his own limbs.

Other programming includes a countdown of the biggest myths (Mythbusters Jawsome Shark Special, Monday, 7.30pm), the story of what led a group of shark-attack survivors to band together to save the creatures (Shark Fight, Tuesday, 7.30pm), and heaven forbid, how two friends survived on a flimsy raft in shark-infested waters for 47 days (Adrift: 47 Days With Sharks, Friday, 7.30pm).

So whether you think they're terrifying or magnificent, this is the week to become reacquainted with the ocean's apex predator without dipping your toes in shark-infested waters.

Besides, there's no way they'd smell your fear from the sofa.

Shark Week From Sunday, 7.30pm, Discovery Channel 

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