Every year, 100 million sharks are killed for their fins, which are used for prestigious shark fin soup. Sharks reproduce very slowly, so it’s difficult for their populations to recover once depleted.
Filmmaker Geert Droppers created this documentary Gimme a Hug with a clear purpose–to save a species headed for extinction.
Deeply thought provoking in content and mesmerizing in its visual grandeur, Droppers’ Gimme a Hug is a stunning example of discovery filmmaking. Portrayed as man-eaters by films like Jaws, sharks have a reputation of being treacherous. But with Droppers’ film, viewers are surprised by an underwater ballet of sharks displaying the amiable docility of dolphin. Filmed off Freeport, Grand Bahamas, Gimme a Hug evokes a deep compassion for one of nature’s most misunderstood sea creatures. In never-before seen footage, Droppers reveals an almost Ripley’s Believe it or Not behavior of sharks to succumb to a hypnotic state of passivity–causing one shark to stand on its head at the tip of the diver’s hand!
I recently got a chance to ask Droppers a few questions. Our conversation follows.
How was it shooting such wild creatures?
–In one word: FANTASTIC! The first time I entered the water, knowing I was going to meet Bull sharks (one of the most dangerous shark species) up close, I felt the adrenaline rushing trough my veins. I was surprised and amazed that these animals were only interested in the bait we put in the water to attract them. Instead of ‘man-eaters’ who ‘attack’ on humans, these animals showed no aggressive behavior towards us.
–In the past 10 years, I never felt really threatened by a shark. Of course, some of them were curious and interested in who/what I was, so they will check you out. But if you respect them, know what to expect, recognize certain behaviors and learn to understand their body language, there is no reason to be afraid.
Were there any mishaps? Unpredictable behavior?
–I’ve hardly seen this in most species I dove with. If there is an unpredictable shark species, I think, it might by the Great White. In terms of unexpected behavior, the Tonic Immobility shown in Gimme a Hug is something few people know about. Actually, there is so much we still don’t know about how sharks behave, and that’s what interests me the most and what I want to share with other people. In other words, how do sharks really behave and why? What purpose does tonic immobility serve, and why does a White Shark swim 11,100 km in 99 days only to return to its original location within a few months?
–The Caribbean Reef sharks we filmed in Gimme a Hug were easy going with the docility of dogs. You feed dogs a cookie to attract them, and pet them; sharks you feed sardines. Cristina wore a chain mail suit to avoid accidental bites. Sometimes the sharks get a little too enthusiastic and overly eager to get the sardines. Unfortunately, even a very small accident would be blown out of proportion in the media with a devastating impact on the image of sharks. The headlines would shout, “SHARK ATTACKS DIVER” and there are many people would love to kill these beautiful animals.
Why did you choose sharks for your film?
–Actually, sharks are the reason I started filming at all. I noticed how totally different sharks behaved, opposite of what I had learned and seen in movies and TV. I wanted to share this with other people, to alter their negative perceptions about these fascinating animals. I felt sharks were key in maintaining the balance in our oceans, and I knew several species were being threatened with extinction, so I was determined to learn as much as I could about them.
–I strongly believe that what you don’t know, you can’t love, and what you don’t love, you are not willing to protect. This is why I started collecting shark footage. I met other shark divers, with the same ideas, and we decided to put all the footage together in hopes of finding a producer who wanted to help us make a ‘real’ shark film. Then, a few years ago, we found a producer. But our story was turned down. They claimed it was too soft, no aggressive sharks, no dangerous situations, not ‘thrilling’ enough to attract viewers to a commercial station.
The tonic immobility aspect was amazing. What did you learn about sharks that you never knew before?
–I had observed Tonic Immobility before, but what surprised me most was how some sharks would go into T.I., then swim away, only to return and repeat this behavior–up to four times in a row! I had to conclude that they really enjoyed T.I. Sometimes, as the film shows, they even competed with each other for their T.I. session. And of course, I’d never seen a shark balancing on its nose. I still don’t understand why they accept this. (Some sharks go into tonic immobility when they’re turned upside down. Scientists believe a shark’s tonic immobility may be related to mating, because female sharks seem more responsive than males.)
What affected you the most emotionally about these sharks?
–The way huge numbers of sharks are killed. Scientists estimate that more than 100 million sharks are killed annually, that’s almost 300,000 a day! They’re often just killed for their fins, by far the most profitable part of the shark’s body. What’s even more horrific, is that, to save space on fishing vessels, the shark’s fins are removed and the bodies, often still alive, are tossed back into the water. Unable to swim and bleeding to death, the sharks suffer a slow death where about 95% of the animal is wasted!
What would you like viewers to take away from this film?
–I would hope to instill in every viewer a more positive view of sharks. To regard sharks like other animals, NOT the man-eaters portrayed in films like JAWS. Or the aggressive beasts in so-called ‘documentaries’ whose singular goal is to attract as many viewers as possible to a commercial TV station, never showing a shark’s true beauty and docility.
–I noticed that Gimme a Hug really moved people, changed people, creating a positive awareness of these beautiful animals. Viewers were amazed that this “man-eater” (a perception they held before seeing the film) could be approached so easily. They were truly surprised to see these “dangerous” creatures behaving much like other animals. Kids, especially seemed to love this film.