This article appears in the August 2011 issue of LouisvilleMagazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.
It’s the summer of 1975. You’re sitting in a dark movie theater too scared to eat your popcorn. On the screen, a sun-beaten fisherman with bad teeth, leathery skin and a three-day growth of beard is describing the monster you haven’t seen yet.
“Bad fish,” the ever-imitable Quint says famously. “Not like going down the pond chasin’ bluegills and tommycods. This shark, swallow you whole.”
Bah-dum . . .
Blame Jaws for at least one generation’s shark-phobia. The Great White that swallowed Quint is up there with Frankenstein and Dracula on the movie monster Mount Rushmore. And Jaws begat a litter of pups. A Google search for “shark movies” nets 136,000 hits. These days, there’s even a show devoted to egging on Great Whites to leap from the water like trained dolphins. Air Jaws! Tonight on Discovery!
Comes now into the water Shark Men, currently in its second season on the National Geographic Channel. At first glance in the TV listings, Shark Men may look like another version of Quint vs. Bad Fish. But if you’ve seen Shark Men, you know it’s a different breed. The idea behind the show is to study Great Whites by tagging them with electronic tracking devices to learn about their little-known life cycles — the better to protect the species.
“We’ve caught the 15 biggest fish of all time,” says Chris Fischer, 46, the Louisville native and Shark Men expedition leader. “No one has ever been able to capture, handle and release Great Whites alive because they’re too big. But we’ve managed to catch them, give scientists 15 minutes with them, and let them go.”
You may have heard of Chris’ big brother Greg — you know, the mayor. “I tell people that we flipped a coin and he lost,” Greg says. “I got to run for mayor and he had to go catch sharks.”
So how did a boy from landlocked Louisville wind up tagging sharks on the high seas for some 300 million TV viewers worldwide? The Trinity High graduate points to a childhood fishing Kentucky’s ponds and streams. When the family business took him to Southern California, he fished the ocean — and fell in love.
He started Fischer Productions, which led to Offshore Adventures on ESPN, which led to Shark Men. “Sharks are the great moderators of the ocean,” Fischer says of the near-endangered species. “They keep everything in balance.”
Yeah, but those teeth. And they come on the business end of a 1,500-pound body. “There are a thousand ways to die every day,” Fischer says. “If a shark hits you, it can break your leg. And just scraping against their skin can cause radical infections. . . . But sharks are very charismatic creatures.”
No one on Fischer’s crew has lost a limb yet, although these guys have handled massive sharks like season-one star Amy — a female Great White the size of a minivan caught off the coast of Mexico — as if they were coddling the family dog.
The science of Shark Men isn’t the draw for most viewers. The guy who sat in that movie theater wants to see the shark. And one of the attractions of Shark Men is that you see these rascals up close, literally manhandled, so there’s always the lurking danger of . . . Bah-dum.
But a funny thing happens once these predators are raised out of the water and given their 15 minutes with the scientists. For once, a shark on television isn’t being assaulted by man but tended to. It actually makes wrangling Great Whites seem less life-threatening, if not quite like chasin’ bluegills and tommycods.