Stan Waterman is a living legend in the field of scuba and shark filming, a field in which the “living” part – staying alive – is a big part of the challenge. For him, “swimming with the sharks” was never just a metaphor. Looking piratical in a black eye patch, the 88-year-old spoke Wednesday evening to a group of about 65 in the Environmental Learning Center at the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve headquarters off Collier Boulevard, as part of Rookery Bay’s Summer of Sharks.
Waterman has spent most of his life filming and documenting the world’s sharks. He opened a dive business in the Bahamas in 1954, and served as an underwater cameraman and co-producer for “Blue Water, White Death,” the 1971 film that was the first glimpse for many people into the world of sharks. He worked with his friend Peter Benchley on “The Deep,” along with 10 years of productions for ABC-TV and the “Expedition Earth” series on ESPN. Waterman won five Emmy awards for his work, and was the subject of a Discovery Channel biographical special, “The Man Who Loves Sharks.”
Actually, Waterman told his audience, that title wasn’t exactly correct. He doesn’t love sharks, he said, but he certainly respects them, and is grateful to them. “Sharks put my kids through college,” he said.
He showed an eight-minute clip from “Blue Water, White Death,” shot the first day that divers ever ventured outside of their shark cages and mingled with the sharks unprotected except for safety divers prodding those that got too close with “shark billies.”
Attracted by the carcass of a sperm whale bleeding into the water, hundreds of open ocean sharks came at the cinematographers from every direction.
“They bumped us, brushed us – each of us was targeted,” said Waterman. “But they weren’t attacking, they were feeling us out. If they approach at an easy pace with their mouth closed, they’re curious. If they come in fast with their mouth open, shove your camera into their mouth and get out of there.”
That day on the “Blue Water, White Death” shoot, the sharks got back to business, eating the whale. “In the middle of the blood and blubber debris, the sharks paid us no attention,” and Waterman and his crew came back with underwater footage like nothing seen before.
Much of Waterman’s talk was in question and answer format, as his anecdotes or his film clips would prompt questions and comments.
“What is the purpose of the shark in the ocean?” asked Sue Ann Ferbee.
“A very cogent question,” replied Waterman. “The term used is ‘apex predator.’ There is a balance achieved over millions of years in an ecosystem.” Disturb one element of the food chain, and the whole system is in danger. “When sharks are overfished, other species proliferate,” he said, with unknown and possibly disastrous consequences, citing the near collapse of the oyster fishery in the Chesapeake Bay, and the devastating shark fin soup trade.
“Seventy three million sharks are taken every year for shark fin soup, their fins cut off, and thrown alive back into the water,” said Waterman.
John Kalafarski asked about the incident of the USS Indianapolis, where hundreds of sailors were lost to sharks after the cruiser was torpedoed during World War II. This led to a reminiscence of the “Jaws” movie set, when actor Robert Shaw, playing Quint the shark hunter, ad libbed the story of having been one of the Indy’s crewmen.
Even at age 88, Waterman continues pursuing his passion. He travels to Fiji every year, he told his audience, and showed footage of a friend there hand-feeding an enormous tiger shark called Scarface. Waterman confessed to ambiguous feelings about shark feeding, and mentioned that his book “Sea Salt” contains a chapter “To Feed or Not to Feed.”
Most shark “attacks,” he said, occur in shallow water as the result of low visibility, and are not deliberate on the shark’s part. “It a shark is following a mullet, and a leg appears, a bite comes. There’s nothing malevolent about that,” he said. He showed the membrane that covers a shark’s eyes when it bites, to protect them from the thrashing of their prey.
“He’s lived an adventurous life, and he has an important story to tell,” said Rookery Bay administrator Gary Lytton, after listening to the lecture. “I loved his stories.”
“This was wonderful. He’s an inspiration,” said avid diver Emily Porter, who has seen schools of hammerheads in the Galapagos, and blacktips in the Bahamas. “Watching sharks underwater is one of the best experiences you can have.”
For more information on Rookery Bay’s Summer of Sharks, call the Environmental Learning Center at 417-6310.