The bull shark feeding frenzy
Can someone floating above amped-up bull sharks scare them away? The answer is yes, but it will take a multi-pronged approach. Wearing the electronic repellent Shark Shield is a good start, but the sharks will eventually decide the pain is worth the potential gain. Maintaining eye contact is a must, so you know when it's time for a defensive move. "I'm looking down in the water and I see these sharks coming up, and I'm tucking, tucking, tucking my legs up closer and closer and closer, and this shark is just coming right up for my nice little bare foot dangling there in front of its face, like it's teasing him," Dornellas says. "I had to put my foot on its head and push him down. That was a calculated move: I didn't want to kick the shark, but I wanted to let the shark know that, 'Hey, I'm not food. I'm not going to be that easy. You back off of it.'"
What saved Dornellas in the end was his concussive slap technique -- striking the water hard to create a boom that spooks the sharks and sends them away. It's something he stumbled upon years ago, when he was near a fellow spearfisherman who shot a cobia, a fish that likes to hang out under larger animals such as bull sharks to eat their scraps.
The bull sharks wanted the cobia, which tried to hide behind Dornellas. "There was five bull sharks trying to consume a fish underneath me, and I had nothing to fend them off with -- no Shark Shield, no camera to use as a shield. I was basically getting bumped out of the water by these bull sharks," he says. "So it was assessing the situation very quickly and creating something unnatural, which was a very loud boom to scare them away. For an animal that is so sensitive to pressure changes and vibrations and things like that, it was like an overload. They all took off and left me alone. I was able to push that fish away from me and get out of the situation."
The experience made him think the bull sharks he was taught to fear when he was age eight or nine are a lot smarter and more precise than he ever imagined. He wanted to know if the concussive slap was a kind of safety net he could count on. So he went out and created a feeding frenzy that he could put himself in the middle of. Only this time, he went a step further.
"I claimed the bait. I asserted my dominance over that area, and I said, 'This is my area, you're not coming close. I'm bigger and badder than you,' and it worked amazingly," he says. "It's a bluffing technique that I learned from a good friend named Riley Elliott, a very well-known shark scientist in New Zealand. He does it with makos. You just bluff them, make them think you are bigger and badder than them and they're going to get hurt if they get close. If the sharks believe that, they immediately change their behavior around you."
Dornellas has witnessed that attitude adjustment in bull sharks. "It's not like curiosity or aggression towards you, it's one of pure acceptance. Like you're one of them now, and now they're swimming by your side instead of behind you or underneath you. You can never explain to another person what that feels like to be in a pack of bull sharks and be completely accepted as another predator of equal strength."