A look back at 10 years of Celebrating Sharks
My pitch on Oct. 1, 2010 was simple: create a film that would allow viewers to “experience what it’s like to come face to face with sharks at Tiger Beach in the Bahamas. Reveal why sharks are so valuable to the reef and the economy. Discover why sharks, even in this paradise, could be on the verge of being slaughtered. Find out what’s being done to protect them — and what you can do before time runs out.”
I wrote that as a pitch to Wyland, Guy Harvey and Jim Abernathy on what we could accomplish on a week-long expedition to Tiger Beach in the Bahamas.
To rewind the clock a bit, it all started at a meeting with Jim and Wyland during a goliath grouper dive off the coast of West Palm Beach in the summer of 2010. We heard Sunco Wholesale Seafood Company was considering harvesting shark fins in the Bahamas, and they were looking for a permit from the government. Those who know the Bahamas know that if shark fishing were allowed by the government, it would be a very short harvest. Even though it seems like there are a lot of sharks in the Bahamas on a good shark dive, they were all the same sharks centered in one dive location. Take them out, and the shark population would crash.
We wanted to show what was at risk, and we had a great team to tell the story. Guy Harvey had just raised $500,000 to help restore the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Wyland had just completed 100 “Whaling Walls” around the world, which depicted the grandeur of marine life. Expert shark diver, photographer and filmmaker Jim Abernathy had published the first in a series of children’s books called Sharks: Close Up.
Wyland and team got back quickly to say the film was a go, but I had no idea it would completely, and forever, change my life.
I came to the project as a journalist and producer. My brother and I had just finished a series of DVDs and VHS tapes (yes, 2010 was a long time ago) for school libraries across the country to help teach young students about ocean exploration and conservation.
To make those films, I’d worked side-by-side with Jim Abernathy on several trips to Tiger Beach. I’d witnessed Jim’s incredible skills underwater, and I saw this project as a way to combine art and science to shatter the public’s perception of sharks.
With everything ready, we set sail on Jim Abernathy’s vessel, the Shear Water, in October 2010. Wyland would be on board the entire expedition, Guy Harvey would meet us in the Bahamas. On the first night, we were able to go night diving with dolphins, which provided some spectacular video — and it also gave Jim the chance to take some truly enchanting shots of dolphins after sunset.
The next morning, we found ourselves at West End in the Bahamas to collect Guy Harvey. It was the first time I’d ever met Guy in person, and his enthusiasm for the project was palpable. With the full team now ready, we left West End for Tiger Beach. Tiger Beach, by the way, is the reference to a shallow area (15–20 feet deep) a few miles away from West End. There’s actually no beach at Tiger Beach.
One of my favorite things about a Jim Abernathy shark expedition are his briefings. I knew I had to reveal to the audience the precautions we take when diving with large predators. Jim is very direct in his approach, “… but the more serious sharks, the tiger sharks, the great hammerheads and the bull sharks, if one of those sharks bit us, chances are we’re going to bleed to death on the boat.” His briefings are stark, but safety is everything.
For the briefing, I had Jim sit in the middle of Guy and Wyland. Wyland reacted to everything Jim said in a way that was very engaging for the audience. Wyland is quick to point out, “It’s pretty serious business when you’re diving with sharks.”
Guy also listened attentively to everything. “I want to dive by Jim’s rules and do what he asked me to do because it made sense.”
With the dive briefing over, we jumped in the water. The weather was perfect, as if nature was helping us tell this story. I was able to get some cinematic shots of Wyland, Guy and Jim with the sharks in gin-clear water. The Bahamas are always magical, but on the first day we shot This is Your Ocean: Sharks, we couldn’t have asked for anything more — and the next “star” was about to align perfectly.
Enter Emma the tiger shark. She is one of the most photographed wild animals in the world — and her celebrity status hits you to the core when you meet her. Jim had already known this 14-to-16-foot “supermodel” tiger shark for several years. I knew she was going to be critical to the film. Emma delivered by swimming around Jim, Wyland and Guy repeatedly. It led to some of the most amazing moments in the film. As Wyland says, “Emma is just an enormous tiger shark that has so much character. One look at Emma and you have to say, ‘wow, that is a superstar shark.’ ”
One critical visual for the film would be unprecedented. Jim found a way to have Emma give him a “kiss” or “head bump” on the mask. It was captivating to watch and really drove home the point that sharks have not been portrayed accurately.
I knew in a heartbeat one of these “kisses” would be the centerpiece of the film.
Soon the expedition was over and there was even more work to do back on shore.
I went back to the editing studio to begin to put together the film, Jim went back to Tiger Beach to continue to get more video.
I met Guy in Davie, Wyland in Boca Raton and Jim in West Palm Beach for follow up interviews. To help flesh out the film, we decided that another expedition to the Bahamas was necessary so that we could work with Eric Carey and the Bahamas National Trust. He gave us additional background into why people still enjoy the pristine waters of the Bahamas even to this day.
Back on shore as the film came together, we had one other surprise that would give the film additional star power. Wyland asked Dr. Sylvia Earle, the legendary oceanographer and “Her Deepness” to be our narrator. She immediately said yes; now we had a voice for the film.
Next, we needed a venue to show the finished work. We were able to secure a 650-person theater at California’s Newport Beach Film Festival in May 2011. Ann Church, from KIDS FIRST!, the Coalition for Quality Children’s Media, worked with us to help craft the film for all ages. We hoped the film would be a catalyst for the next generation to join the fight for conservation.
We were all given a tremendous boost when legendary IMAX film producer Greg MacGillivray selected This is Your Ocean: Sharks for “Excellence in Documentary Filmmaking.” His company has produced such IMAX films as Everest and The Living Sea.
This is Your Ocean: Sharks would play in theaters in Washington, D.C., London, Vancouver, Hong Kong and Palm Beach. The fundraiser in Palm Beach was a fundraiser for the Bahamas National Trust.
By the end of it all, we couldn’t be happier. Sunco decided not to apply for a shark fishing permit, and the Bahamas made its waters a shark sanctuary.
Over the past 10 years, I’ve worked with the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation on more than a dozen other films, many focused on sharks, including This is Your Ocean: Sharks — Part 2, where we took a group of students to Tiger Beach; and This is Their Ocean: Sea of Life, where we introduced students to whale sharks off the coast of Mexico. These documentaries fit in with the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation’s continued commitment to inspire and educate the next generation.
But This is Your Ocean: Sharks was a life-changing project. Through the incredible passion and commitment of Jim, Guy and Wyland, sharks were seen differently, and the film has played a key role in the campaign against shark-fin soup.
For many years This is Your Ocean: Sharks was consistently one of the top shark films on iTunes; in fact, you can still watch it there today and on Amazon Video.
Even 10 years later, there is work to be done. The International Union for Conservation of Nature says more than 30 percent of shark species and their relatives are threatened with extinction. Overfishing is still a problem worldwide. Even so, there is hope. The United States Senate passed the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act in June of 2021 with the intent of banning the buying and selling of shark fins and related products in the U.S.
As we enter this new world after a global pandemic, social responsibility to our planet falls upon us all. We all must do our part.
The one question I’m always asked when it comes to the film, “How is Emma the tiger shark?” I can tell you she is still alive and well in the Bahamas. Thanks to Jim, she continues to be one of the most photographed wild animals in the world. She is a special creature, and if anything, This is Your Ocean: Sharks captures her essence and the magic of a place called Tiger Beach.
George C. Schellenger is a two-time, Emmy award-winning producer and author with more than 30-years of experience in television and content development — with an ongoing focus on conservation and environmental education. He has a master’s degree from the University of Missouri with a focus on environmental reporting.
For the past decade, he’s worked with legendary marine biologist and artist Dr. Guy Harvey to create compelling content about the ocean and the creatures who live there, with a focus on large pelagic animals.
He’s written two books, Not Because It’s Easy and Sharks, Space, Time: Field Notes from a Road Less Traveled.