How Diver Mike Dornellas Survived Shark Week 2018's Most Insane Hour, ‘The Laws of Jaws’
Spoiler alert: No one died making The Laws of Jaws, the Shark Week special that enlisted three diving experts -- Liz Parkinson, Mike Dornellas, and Nick LeBeouf -- along with Shark Week's most prolific and trusted cameraman, Andy Casagrande, to recreate five real-life shark-attack scenarios and show viewers the behaviors that may help them avoid being bitten.
Dornellas knows people will have watched the hour and thought he's nuts for getting in the water with feeding bull sharks, and for doing a night dive with tiger sharks and turning off his flashlight for a full 10 seconds. But he insists he's always very calculated in his decisions. For example, he opted out of the final experiment -- is there safety in numbers when a great white is circling in South Africa? -- because he didn't like the conditions. "I was the first person in the water, out of the cage. It was horrible visibility, and I just said, 'I'm not doing this,' and I stepped out," he says. "I respect the white sharks in South Africa. I saw the way they hunt. They breach on eyesight. They'll breach a piece of seaweed out in the water. And I knew those sharks were [tenacious] juveniles."
Here's how Dornellas mastered those tiger and bull shark encounters.
The night dive at Tiger Beach
The first time Dornellas ever saw a tiger shark, he was living on Andros in the Bahamas, working for the Navy, when he was rushed by a "very skinny and hungry one" at the deep drop-off known as the Tongue of the Ocean. He froze -- until he open-hand punched it in the face.
"It swung around so quickly, came straight back towards me, and that was the first feeling that I was being hunted in the water," he says. "After two to three times, it immediately calmed down and just swam around me. I was scared shitless when that happened, because this was before I really started diving with sharks, but I remember looking at those stripes and going, 'Wow, that is a cool-looking animal. That thing is awesome.' After that, I began to seek them out. A tiger shark, when they lock eyes with you, is just different from any other shark. You can see the intelligence and curiosity. They are really scoping you out and trying to understand what you are. I know a lot of that is them wondering if you're food, but it's one of those animals that through understanding and time in the water, you're able to teach them you're not food. It doesn't mean they won't try to bite you again, but they're big gentle giants almost. They come very gently and put their nose up to you really gently. I love it."
Having spent all day diving at Tiger Beach with the sharks he and Casagrande would encounter during their Laws of Jaws night dive, Dornellas felt comfortable getting in the water. He was surprised to spot four tiger sharks and a hammerhead, but shutting off his flashlight to test how darkness would affect a tiger's interest in a diver -- would it come closer or lose interest -- was like a fun guessing game. "What it probably looks like to you guys is a scary, 'Holy crap! He's putting on the light and the shark's sneaking up on them!' It really was more to do with the experience of the people in the water, timing the sharks, and understanding their movements and when they would be back by the bait crate," he says. "A couple of times they showed up a little faster than we expected, so they were right there in front of us." (That's when he'd grab them by the nose and guide them away -- and decided it's better to keep the light on so you can at least see their approach).
A night dive is always nerve-wracking, he says, because your mind is hyper-vigilant. "Your eyes, and your brain, and everything in your body is telling you, 'Think and look for sharks,'" he says. Then you bump into the cameraman's leg. Or, worse, one of the remoras that suctions on to sharks nips at your ear or thumb. "Your brain is telling you that you're getting attacked and you're dying, but really, it's this little tiny remora that has no teeth. I remember I was so pissed off at that little remora [at Tiger Beach], like I just wanted to grab it and choke it," he says. "I'm like, 'Come on, man, don't you realize the situation I'm in? I'm already on edge, and then you come and bite me?' It's like jeez."
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."