12.11.08

Anderson Cooper Hunts Sharks, Monkeys and Wild Rats

The Daily Beast talks to Cooper about his new high-octane environmental special, racing Michael Phelps, and tangling with great whites while protected by nothing but a bathing suit.

In a genre that slides ever further into glossy infotainment and shock-of-the-week stories, Anderson Cooper is a vocal advocate for putting more actual news in the ratings-focused cable news cycle. But he still knows how to package, which is why tonight’s CNN special, Planet in Peril: Battle Lines, promises serious environmental issues, but also Cooper hunting wild monkeys with bush men in the Congo. The sequel to last year's award-winning documentary, in which Cooper explored the threats to tigers and rare amphibians, this year’s two-hour installment also features chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Oprah’s Lisa Ling. The Daily Beast spoke with Cooper about America’s resurging interest in hard news, racing Michael Phelps, and why out-of-control population growth will be one of the world’s most pressing issues in the next few decades.

Where did Planet in Peril take you this year?

I was in Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and South Africa. I was pretty limited because of the election season and wasn’t able to travel as much as I would have liked. Lisa Lang was also in Chad and Nigeria, looking at a rebel movement, which has sprouted up against the oil companies, against the government there over oil. She was in Chad looking at elephants. Dr. Sanjay Gupta was with me in Cameroon, hunting viruses and he was also in Peru. Lisa also went up to the Arctic and was off the coast of Costa Rica and I was also in Taiwan, looking at shark-finning, which is decimating shark populations around the globe.

How did you stay up on news while you were on these shoots?

I sort of didn’t. It’s tough in Cameroon. We were out with hunters for days at a time in very isolated, remote regions where, obviously, there was no internet service and BlackBerries didn’t work for email. So there would be days where I was sort of cut off. I kind of enjoyed those days.

“I had never really spent intensive time with a hunter searching for food, and it takes far longer than I had possibly imagined.”

What was the most challenging part of the filming?

There were two things. One, we went out with hunters who were hunting for bush meat. Bush meat trading around the world has exploded. It’s no longer hunters trying to feed their families and local populations. It’s really become an international, global trade. There was just this story yesterday, a woman smuggled a sedated monkey into the United States. It’s all part of the illegal international pet trade. Going out with hunters is really tough. I had never really spent intensive time with a hunter searching for food, and it takes far longer than I had possibly imagined. We’re talking three or four days, and they come back with nothing but two or three rats and a small monkey.

The most challenging was diving with great white sharks. I started off on a cage dive, but then the man I was with, Dave Rutzen, was known for free diving with great white sharks. He’s one of the only people who does it and agreed to take me out. So I actually went free diving with great white sharks, with no cage. That was pretty intense. You know, you’re stepping into bloody water and there are three or four sharks circling around you and they’re great whites. It definitely gets your heart pumping.

More so than swimming next to Michael Phelps for 60 Minutes?

[Laughs] Yes. Swimming with Michael Phelps seemed tame by comparison. Equally hard on the ego.

Which did you do first?

The sharks, actually.

So you were ready, you were kind of trained for Phelps after that.

Exactly. And there was no blood in the pool.

Whose idea was it to swim with Phelps?

Actually, it was mine. We were just tossing around ideas and I thought of challenging Michael Phelps to race and see what happened. It’s always interesting to me because when you watch the Olympics, it’s all these top competitors competing against each other and you know they’re fast because you see their times, but you don’t really have a sense of how they would do against a regular person. And then the producer suggested we would put some sort of limitation on Phelps so that it wasn’t just a complete rout. I think it was more interesting to see that no matter what, just to see him swimming underwater without taking any strokes at all, how he just moves through. I swam all out and he just moved right through me.

As far as storytelling goes, how do you approach the challenge of making an international story, be it for— 60 Minutes or Planet in Peril—appeal to domestic audiences?

I don’t buy that people aren’t interested in what’s happening overseas. I’ve seen plenty of examples where people are very interested. There’s so much information today and there’s so much information overload, you have to cut through the clutter in some way. But I think if you tell a good story and you tell it in a way that’s compelling; you actually bring people along on this journey with you. I tend to focus more on the very human aspect of it and the very real aspect of it and try to bring the viewers along. Have them walk in somebody else’s shoes overseas rather than focus on theoretical and geopolitical machinations... Any larger issue boils down to how it affects people and how people react to it and are dealing with it. So, for me, it’s just the most organic and real way to tell a story.

Does all of this traveling make you somewhat immune to pain?

You never can become immune to pain. You shouldn't even try. Pain, loss, sorrow, these are things which are not desirable, but they bond us one to another. I'm always suspicious of reporters I meet who act as if they've seen it all and done it all, and no longer are bothered by what they see. If you aren't bothered by what you see, you should find another line of work.

Do you have the patience to cover more gossipy tales when you know there are bigger issues out there?

Thankfully, especially this last year, we’ve been in a situation where there’s real genuine interest in very serious things. There’s interest, obviously, in the political season. There’s huge interest in the economic crisis that we’re all facing now. So, if anything, we’re on a nightly basis covering the most serious issues, and probably more so than a lot of other folks who are out there. So I don’t lose patience with what other people are doing. I get why other people have shows that are based on crime and other things, which are more geared toward ratings. It’s just not something I'm all that interested in doing. It’s a scary time. People are tuning in, they want information. As a viewer, I’m not interested in yelling, or seeing people yell, or anchors yell their opinions. I’m much more interested in getting facts and making up my own mind.

There’s this Anderson Cooper Twitter feed that CNN has. Do you use that yourself? Do you know how many followers you have? Do you have your own Twitter?

I don’t know how many followers there are. Do you know?

About 6,000.

We do this live blog during the broadcast, which I contribute to pretty much every night.

Have you met [ Real Housewives of Atlanta star] NeNe yet? [She told the New York Post this week, "He's my biggest fan and I'm gonna see him tonight. I love Anderson, and I know all about those messages he's been sending me. I'm gonna give him kisses and tell him how cute he is when I see him tonight."]

No, I have not met NeNe yet.

She’s supposedly following you.

I think she’s dealing with some other issues right now, from what I hear.

And you’re still doing New Year’s for CNN?

Yes, Kathy Griffin and I will be doing New Year’s.

You have new competition from Luke Russert and Amy Robach.

Uh, well, good for them, there’s plenty of room. I think we have a good track record on New Year’s Eve, so the more the merrier.

If you were interviewing yourself, what would you ask yourself?

I wouldn’t waste the time or energy on me.

Henry Seltzer is a homepage editor for The Daily Beast. He previously worked at UsMagazine.com and The Huffington Post and filed for Gawker and Wonkette (plus briefly, CNN's 360) under the moniker of "Henry the Intern." He occasionally contributes to Project.ioni.st and The Drone Report and once published Press Gaggle, a blog about the White House press briefings.