South Africa’s shark whisperer

Mike Rutzen reaches out to a great white
shark.

Rutzen relaxes on deck.

Unfazed by the fangs, Rutzen reaches out
to a great white shark from the boat.

All sharks have different personalities.
This one looks friendly, so Rutzen
prepares to say “hi” in shark language.

Rutzen can tell by the shark’s body
language if it is calm or agitated. This, he
says, is a mellow shark.
(Images: Shark Diving Unlimited)

Jennifer Stern

Mike Rutzen dives with great white sharks – without a cage. While he isn’t the first to do it, he’s taken shark diving to a previously unimagined level. He does it not for fun, to win bets or for the adrenaline rush, but to prove a point. And the point is that great white sharks have a gentle side to their nature.

While great whites are protected in South African waters, every year hundreds of the fish, and many other species, are slaughtered by the shark nets lining the beaches of KwaZulu-Natal, which were place in the 1960s. Rutzen is a passionate crusader against shark nets.

“They’re decimating the shark population,” he says. “The Sharks Board’s initial purpose was protection by eradication, and they haven’t changed. It was understandable in the 1960s; no-one knew better. But now they should take them down.

“Gill nets are banned for use anywhere except on swimming beaches. They kill sharks, turtles, dolphins – everything. And they don’t really stop the sharks getting to the beaches. Most of the sharks killed in the nets are killed going back from the beach. So they’re really just killing them, not actually stopping them from getting to the beaches.”

It’s largely to campaign for the removal of the nets that that Rutzen wants to change the image of sharks. In some places the gill nets have been removed, only to be replaced by baited drum lines that target bigger sharks – including great whites. Rutzen feels this is not compatible with their protected status.

But he’s not an airhead hippy claiming sharks are harmless. He is fully aware that sharks in general – and great whites in particular – are fearsome predators. But, he insists, they don’t target humans. If they did, a person would be taken out at least once a day.

“When we get in the water, we’re the dumbest, slowest form of protein,” he says. But we don’t taste good. White sharks are extremely selective in their diet.”

They’re not mindless killers, he insists, and he sets out to prove this by hypnotising them.

Body language

Rutzen slowly developed the idea of hypnosis while working on shark cage diving boats off the small coastal town of Gansbaai near Cape Town, where he now runs a cage diving operation. There he got to see sharks from the safety of the boat and, occasionally, from the cage. And while acting as a safety diver on film shoots, he also had the opportunity to join underwater photographers and videographers. It was while diving safety that he started to think differently about sharks.

“The body language thing started when I was safety diver for a cameraman,” he explains. “I started observing what the animal would do. Someone would do something and the animal would react to it. You start picking these things up as you go along.”

Rutzen’s ideas about communicating with sharks through body language are similar to the principles of horse whispering – the technique used to communicate with horses. But horses are domesticated animals and herbivores, while sharks are wild carnivores.

Some people think he’s crazy, and certainly it takes a great deal of courage to slide into the water with these large predators, but Rutzen approaches each dive calmly and philosophically.

“I have to be calm,” he says. “I have to be focused.

“I take small calculated risks to try to gain knowledge to learn about the sharks for conservation reasons. If you try to be Rambo in this game you will be dead. They’re not mindless man-killing machines, but they do have a shorter fuse than anything else I’ve dived with. They are the apex predator and nothing stuffs them around.”

When he enters the water, he curls up, cross-legged and hugging himself, making himself small so the sharks will not feel threatened. Then he reacts to their body language. If a shark approaches in an aggressive way he will stretch out, lifting his hands above his head and making hostile moves towards the shark to chase it away.

“These animals speak to one another in body language. If you can read that language you’re halfway there. The animal can read what your intentions are. It reacts in a way as if it understands your intentions. It’s a very basic communication method. So far it works for me.”

Alternatively, if the shark is calm and curious, he will reach out to it.

“When I first reached out and touched a great white shark and it reacted to me in a positive manner I was stunned, I couldn’t believe it. The moment I touched the animal in a placid manner the animal started treating me in a placid manner. That was a life-changing insight for me. When I touched it without aggression, it reacted to me without aggression.”

Something amazing

On shark-cage safaris, the crew would pat the sharks, stroke them and get them to open their mouths as they approached the boat. In the course of this rather ostentatious showmanship Rutzen noticed that, sometimes, the shark would go limp when he touched it on the nose.

Then Christina Zenato, who dives with Caribbean reef sharks in the Bahamas, came on holiday to Gansbaai to dive with great whites. She told him how she puts reef sharks into tonic immobility by stroking them on the nose – effectively hypnotising them.

That got him thinking that, perhaps, the same thing could be done with great whites. But to find out he would have to dive regularly with them, and they are a protected species.

Diving outside a cage can only be done in South Africa with a specific permit, usually only given for research or filming. Not being attached to a university, Rutzen couldn’t claim to be doing formal research. So he and Zenato planned a documentary in which Rutzen would attempt to hypnotise a great white shark. Once the paperwork was sorted he began to dive with the sharks.

The resulting film, Sharkman, was Rutzen’s second documentary about great whites. The first was Beyond Fear, in which he dived with no protection. Most people who dive with white sharks without a cage carry an unloaded spear gun or camera, with which they can push the sharks away.

He has since made a third film about great whites, called Living Legend, and is currently working on a documentary about rare and endangered oceanic white tip sharks.

As Rutzen expected, hypnotising great whites was not that easy and, both to facilitate the making of the documentary and find out as much as he could about tonic immobility, he headed off to the Bahamas.

First he worked with Sam “Doc” Gruber, a biologist who has perfected the technique of putting sharks into tonic immobility by turning them upside down. This results in a deep trance-like state.

But the sharks Gruber works with were small, and he works in shallow water where he can stand. While Rutzen had some success with Gruber, he had no illusions about his ability to turn a great white shark upside down in deep water.

So he headed off to his next stop, where he spent time with Zaneto, who showed him the basics of nose-tickling tonic trance. It took him a while to get the hang of it, but eventually he found he could put the sharks into light tonic just by stroking them on the nose. A big discovery was that it was only once he started trusting the sharks that they trusted him.

It is a humbling experience, Rutzen says. “You can see the shark’s eyes watching you. Its breathing is getting slower and slower. I’m amazed that such a light touch can have such a drastic impact on such a wild animal.”

“If people can only feel what I felt, and see these animals through my eyes, they’d never look at sharks the same way again.”

Two types of tonic

While Rutzen had a Caribbean reef shark in tonic, he tried turning it over to see if he could get it into the deeper state that Gruber achieves. The shark immediately swam away, clearly unimpressed.

He thinks there are probably two distinct types of tonic, of which Gruber’s is the deeper. Gruber explains how he thinks his type of tonic works.

“[The shark’s] visual fields are reversed and her gravity is reversed and I think this produces a kind of a sensory overload and the brain secretes serotonin.”

Putting sharks into tonic by stroking their noses works in a different way. Sharks have extraordinary powers of perception. Their eyesight is excellent, they can feel vibrations along the lateral line that runs the whole length of their body, and they have unusual sense organs on their noses, known as the ampullae of Lorenzini.

These are a cluster of sensory pits around their snouts, connected directly to the brain and able to sense electromagnetic fields. (This is how electric shark-repellent pods work – they send an impulse that the shark finds unpleasant.) Clearly, there is more to it, though, and the sensations the shark experiences when it is put into a light tonic by this method appear to be pleasurable.

When Rutzen was diving with Caribbean reef sharks, he tried an informal experiment. He put a shark into tonic, and then moved away from it. The shark had the choice to follow him for further nose-tickling, or to swim to the canister of sardines they had used as bait to attract it in the first place. The shark chose the tonic.

Rutzen’s experience with Caribbean reef sharks gave him the confidence he needed to try the technique on great whites.

“Realising that these animals want to go into tonic and that I am capable of putting them in, that was an awesome experience,” he says. “It’s a big key to the whole progression to achieve tonic with bigger animals.”

A useful tool

Gruber uses the tonic immobility to work with sharks. He tests shark repellent, which he is trying to perfect to protect sharks from being killed by long line fishing, he takes blood samples for analysis in the hope that shark antibodies may hold the key to the cure of some human diseases, or he inserts subdermal radio transmitters.

Gruber explains that inserting a transmitter while the shark is in tonic is a simple operation as the shark is completely docile and feels nothing. The transmitter will work for up to four years.

Zenato also uses the lighter tonic to do basic work with the reef sharks. While they were filming, she removed a fish hook from a shark’s mouth while in tonic. The shark just floated there, feeling nothing.

Rutzen wants to bring the technique to South African marine biology. A lot of good information can be obtained by radio telemetry – a shark tagged in Gansbaai was found to swim as far as Australia. But all research with great whites, such as tagging and attaching radio transmitters, is currently done by hooking the shark, manhandling it to the side of the boat, and then releasing it. This is dangerous, expensive and hard work, and is very stressful for the shark.

So, Rutzen thought, if he could reliably and consistently put great whites into tonic, research could be much cheaper, more effective and less traumatic for the shark.

Research is necessary to ensure the survival of great whites and other sharks, many of which are seriously endangered. Rutzen also believes that changing people’s perception about sharks will help to get protective legislation passed.

An amazing experience

After returning to South Africa from the Bahamas, Rutzen had a short period to complete the filming before his permit expired. He spent some time off the coast of KwaZulu-Natal, diving with tiger sharks, where he managed to put three-metre shark into tonic.

Tiger sharks are more dangerous than great whites, and possibly more aggressive, so this gave him more confidence to attempt to hypnotise a great white. After a number of attempts, he managed to get a great white into a mild state of tonic for a few seconds, so from that point of view, the exercise was only marginally successful.

But he accomplished two other important things. First, the documentary seriously challenges the notion that sharks are mindless killers so it will, hopefully, contribute to a better understanding of sharks generally.

And on a more personal level, Rutzen had an amazing interaction with a 4.5-metre great white. While he didn’t manage to get her into tonic, they bonded, achieving a level of trust that is hard to imagine. For about a minute, she towed him gently and slowly through the water while he held on to her dorsal fin.

“I’ve never ever in my life had an experience like that with such a big animal,” Rutzen says. “You realise how wonderful and powerful these animals are. You’re so in touch with the animal, you can feel every little thing. If the animal starts looking at you, you can feel how it’s banking its head and looking at you. We’ve just done the longest dorsal fin ride I’ve ever ridden. It’s surreal, it’s super-peaceful. It feels like you want to stay there.”

It was Rutzen who broke the contact because – well – a man’s got to breathe.

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