Sharkman: Michael, how did your shark interest start?
Michael: My shark interest started funnily. I was a fisherman, and when the shark industry started, we were very scared of the animals.
It was fortunate for me that the Industry needed people with sea knowledge to skipper the boats. I got to work with the sharks, and started to get to know them.
Sharkman: How long ago was this?
Michael: This was about 6 or 7 years ago.
Sharkman: That was basically the start of cage diving here in Gansbaai, South Africa.
Michael: That’s right. It had been going for about six months before I got involved.
Sharkman: You said that you were a fisherman before, did sharks interest you then?
Michael: When I was a fisherman, my interest lay in catching them. As a fisherman, our living depended on hunting for money, and unfortunately we had to catch them. These were small sharks not Great White sharks. I always loved to be on the ocean, and at that time it was the only work available that I was qualified for.
Sharkman: How were your first feelings when you started in the cage diving industry?
Michael: I was really afraid of the sharks. I did not even know what a Great White shark looked like. I knew them as “Tommy Sharks“, and when I saw the first ones I realized that Great White sharks are the Tommy Sharks that we saw nearly everyday.
Sharkman: The name “Tommy Shark” is specifically used in this area of South Africa. Tell us how did this come about.
Michael: When the “Birkenhead” sank in 1852, it was full of British soldiers, and when they went into the water, it is said that the Great White sharks had a feast.
The H.M.S. Birkenhead, a paddle wheel steamer that sunk of Danger Point, on February 26, 1852.
445 of the 638 people who had been on board died.
The British were known as “Tommies” so the Great White Shark was the Tommy Shark. When we got here, we did not know all this, it is just what older fishermen told of the Tommy Sharks.
Sharkman: Very interesting. Now you have been working in this business for nearly 7 years. You were Boat Skipper, Dive Master, etc. Now you have your own company. What does the work involve?
Michael: Well, skippering is basically that you go and hunt the animal. Fortunately we are now shooting with cameras these days. We have got to try to find the best possible places to find the sharks.
Sharkman: When you say “hunt” you mean “look” for them right?
Michael: Yes look for them, but that is hunting, because you have to find them.
Sharkman: But Hunting means that you want to kill them, so lets say you try to locate them.
Michael: Yes, but that is hunting. Only now it is with cameras, but the method is the same.
Sharkman: So you hunt for a location. Then what?
Michael: If we find a good position and we get a lot of good sharks, then it depends what the clients want, how the ecosystem allows us to interact with the animals. Of course most important, is how the sharks allow us to interact with them.
So far we have managed to control sharks to open mouths and breach very successfully, and support free diving. Free diving is of course more difficult to achieve. A lot more things need to be right before you attempt it. We are only just starting to understand a very little bit about these animals.
Sharkman: Yes, basically with sharks in general, we learn one thing today that changes all that we thought we knew before. One question is answered and a hundred more are added to the mystery.
Michael: There is only one proven fact about Great White sharks, most probably all sharks, but Great White Sharks in particular. They are highly unpredictable. You can get methods of doing something that usually works one way and then you get sharks that prove you totally wrong. That’s in every interaction you do with the animals. That’s the odds you take. Sometimes it works to your advantage, and sometimes it’s very much to your disadvantage. I have found this out a few times, when I was cut.
Sharkman: Yes. Shall we go into this?
Sharkman: Michael, you emphasis the word “cut” not bitten.
Michael: If I was bitten, I would not be here. With 27 “cuts” I would be half the man I used to be.
Michael: When you start working and interacting with these animals, all the cuts come from opening the mouths. We have refined this to an art, not perfected, but quite an art. You can manipulate a shark into certain positions to get certain pictures more or less, if you get the right shark. Some times you think you are doing everything right, as you learning and reading the animal, but the animal is also reading and learning about you. Every now and again the animal reacts to it’s own conclusion, and sometimes you do not react fast enough.
Sharkman: Like pulling your finger or leg out of the way as quickly as you should.
Michael: ... Thinking you have that one second and finding out you don’t.
Sharkman: One of the things that I, well everyone that saw you, noticed, is the fact that when you open the sharks mouth, he tilts his head back and goes into a sort of trance for a few seconds. What do you think is happening to the shark at this stage? Is it the effect of the touch on such a sensitive area?
Michael: I do not think so. I think you have to see what happens before and then again when this happens. The reason for the shark being there is the chum in the water. There are a lot of smells of things that are dead. When the shark sees something dead it goes to take it. Then the dead thing moves. The Shark is going for the dead thing, you pull it away and put in your hand. So your hand is now the dead thing and the shark is trying to eat your hand. When it feels something solid there that does not move, it starts tilting it’s head up because this dead thing has to fall in it’s mouth. Of course your hand is not going to fall in unless you are slow. It follows your hand upwards to make this thing fall in, because normally when there is something there it falls in. So the shark keeps coming up and up trying to get it. Then I think it gets into a position were it is totally confused and it stalls. Then it starts to sink.
Keep in mind that in nature, something like that has never happened to a shark before, so it gets confused. Then you get certain animals that are very relaxed and they are very curious animals normally, and they keep coming back again and again trying to get it.
Sharkman: Yes. That is another point I noticed with the different sharks I saw you work with. Some sharks come in and they are hungry. Others come in and they seem more “playful”. Am I right? Some of the sharks do seem a bit more playful. They seem to be actually enjoying it, whilst others don’t like it at all, and off they go.
Michael: I believe that Great White sharks are more individual then humans. If You say the words Great White Shark it is like saying the human race. If you want to say the human race is like this, then you can say that the Great White shark is like this. Great White sharks are very individual animals, and every one of them has their own way. You cannot get the same shark today and that shark will be the same tomorrow. Everyday it has different reactions. You have seen our waters, our currents, our conditions, everything changes. The Great White sharks are adapting to it all the time. The same animal uses everything in nature to his advantage and changes how to do things according to the conditions. You do not get the same shark twice in a row doing the same things. They change. They are very individual and there is no normal. This is what I think.
Sharkman: From what I have seen here with you, I totally agree. I have also noticed that quite a few sharks do not even roll back their eyes even when you are touching them. In fact, they seem to be looking straight at you.
“If you have your hand on its nose, the eyes stay open most of the time”
Michael: The shark only rolls back the eyes to protect them. It is not that when the sharks mouth is open that the eyes have to close. If you have your hand on its nose the eyes stay open most of the time, but when you slide your hand and get it close to the eyes, then the shark is going to protect the eyes and roll them back. If the animal does not get into that situation where it feels that it has to protect the eyes, then it is going to keep all its senses available, that it can have.
Sharkman: Michael, let us go back to free diving. It is an issue that has recently come more into the picture. How do you personally feel about humans free diving with sharks.
Michael: Free diving always has a margin of danger because the animals change so much. We have enough knowledge that so far, none of us has been bitten, but we do not know everything. We are not diving in a tank, we are diving in an ocean. You can go in with one shark and come out with eight.
You have to read and observe the sharks. How they are behaving with one another, how they are reacting, and by trying to adjust to what they do. So far we have done it right.
When the opportunity is right, I am the first in the water, so I do not say it is bad. I like to be in the ocean, to work and interact with the sharks. I don’t like diving in the cage. If you do not have the right knowledge, then it is definitely safer in the cage. These animals are unpredictable. If one Great White shark does something terrible that another Great White shark does not like, this shark can kill the other shark. I have seen it with my own eyes. These sharks have ways of interacting with one another normally, and we try to interact with them in that way under the right conditions. This is the theory behind free diving.
Sharkman: Do you think this line of work should be pushed towards the general tourist visitors?
Michael: No, definitely not, because we cannot train our tourists fast enough to learn all there is to know.
Sharkman: So basically in your opinion, free diving should be restricted?
Michael: I would say restricted to the number of people that have enough knowledge of sharks and their ways, to be comfortable in the water with them, and not do the wrong things. It is like these cuts that I have, which came from the opening of the mouths. This gave me more knowledge, confidence and respect for the sharks. If things are right, it is not that difficult to have safe interactions with the sharks. Remember that the shark does not attack you because it wants to attack you. Maybe you are in the wrong position and the shark had been warning you time and again…
Sharkman: True, if you do not recognize or heed those warning signs …
Michael: … Right. Then you can have a problem. You can have another shark that is on the other side of the border and maybe it is too hungry or too old to hunt and it comes rushing in and bad things can happen. These are the odds you take. You can lower the odds but you cannot get all of the odds out of the way. I do not think that getting tourists and just pushing them in the water without the cage would be good advertising.
Sharkman: From another point of view … someone at home is watching one of these documentary videos and sees someone like you, with all your experience, free diving with these sharks. Do you think that this makes them think “Hey this is easy. We can do it”.
Michael: If it does, it’s a false sense of security, because it took me 4 years of working with these animals to get in to the water. I waited to get the right conditions. It took 8 months to get the right conditions. I have been working with these animals weather permitting, 365 days a year. I have been free diving with them for 3 years outside the cage.
Sharkman: Tell us about the real Michael Rutzen that the people do not know so much. The Michael Rutzen that only those that go out with you and spend the day with you see.
Sharkman: Not the one that never stops talking …
Michael: Let me concentrate on this one. Let me try to put it this way. Let me tell you what I am trying to achieve. Of course, I have my own commercial company. I am trying to make money. I am not trying to make a lot of money because otherwise I would do it in a totally different way. I would like to get people out there and teach them a little bit about this animal if possible.
The first thing that you need to teach the people is about the animal. Try to let them go away with a little bit of positive knowledge and respect for the sharks. If we can achieve that little thing, these animals will be here for a long time. Many animals on earth died out, but nobody knew about until they got into a book that says “extinct”. Sharks have survived all these millions of years. They deserve to be here.
Sharkman: They sure do.
Michael: They are not toys, they are sharks, and they are not “Jaws” either. They are Great White sharks, and they do what Great White sharks do. If we can understand a little bit about it, then I have achieved what I want.
Sharkman: You are doing a great job. Being out with you on the boat is never boring. As you very well know, the hours waiting for the sharks to come can be very long, but you always make sure that your guests are never bored. You are joking all the time, and driving everybody crazy. Is that the character of Michael Rutzen all the time?
Michael: I can put it this way. If I enjoy doing something I do it. That’s me. I do not want to be different. I love doing what I do and if I get a little overboard, well sorry but that is me.
Sharkman: I have been out with you for quite a number of times now. There was never one person that did not enjoy the outing, even when there was very little or no shark action at all.
Michael: We are working in a small area and if someone is bored, it is not a fun place to be. When you have fun, at least you have fun. If we have fun and Great White sharks, then that will be even better.
Sharkman: When Michael C. Scholl, is around things get even wilder. It is just one great fun day. Just like when he climbed into the cage, just for fun and we nearly pushed him in the water. Tell me … was there ever a funny situation that Michael was involved in?
Michael: M.C.Scholl was working with Franky on the boat when the clients asked him if a shark will jump out of the water with the bait in the water, Scholl answered no. His words were not cold when a shark jumped out of the water, and the clients just looked at M.C.S. with surprise on their faces. Scholl was lost for words. He wished to disappear.
Sharkman: I can imagine that. Michael, you have worked with many top scientists and researchers. Is there someone that you liked working with the most?
Michael: The best professional team of photographers I worked with are Maris & Marilyn Kazmers and the best scientist is Michael C. Scholl. They are all fantastic people to be with.
Sharkman: Yes I agree with you. They are great people. Michael, what are your personal dreams for the future?
Michael: I hope to change a few dedicated peoples’ minds about the sharks, and work for real protection for them for the future generations. I hope to learn as much as I can about these animals and share it with others.
Sharkman: What is your “Most Memorable Moment in Life”?
Michael: My first day free diving. I’ll never forget that. I was very stupid, and did a lot of things wrong and the shark quickly showed me. I’ll never forget it. That was an achievement.
Sharkman: I bet it was. Michael, any last message you want to pass on?
Michael: My philosophy is that when we look at any animals, we do not look at them always with human eyes. Look at them with their own animal eyes, and try to see what you see, not what you want to see. If you manage to see a little bit of that, then you will respect them for what they truly are. Wild animals are much more perfect to me. Every single creature is perfect, in their own ways, much more than humans make them out to be.
Sharkman: Michael, once again it has been a great experience to spend time with you here again.Thanks also for the kind hospitality that you and your lovely family has shown me in these past few weeks. I hope that I will return soon.
Michael: Remember you are always welcome. My home is your Gansbaai home, and my family is your Gansbaai family.
Sharkman: Thank you for your time and for being here with us at Sharkman’s World.
Michael Rutzen and The Sharkman
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