My Swim with the Great White Sharks

CNN's Anderson Cooper, on assignment for 60 MINUTES, writes about plunging into bloody water to swim with one of the world's most vicious—and endangered—predators.

It is an odd sensation, sitting with your legs dangling in bloody water, watching enormous great white sharks swim underneath you. It is an even odder sensation knowing that you are about to plunge your whole body into that water and swim with the sharks, who are searching for food. I kept thinking of that line in The Godfather, “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.”

I am not one to take risks unnecessarily. I don’t jump out of planes, or bungee jump. I don’t see the point. But I had agreed to dive with the great whites because I was doing a profile of Mike Rutzen, who in South Africa, where he lives, is known as the Sharkman. Rutzen is not a marine biologist, in fact, he’s not a scientist at all. He is a fisherman who has become fascinated by great whites, and has spent more time up close with them than just about anybody else on the planet.

CLICK HERE to watch video of Andersoon Cooper swimming with the great white sharks.

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Rutzen dives with the Great Whites to learn about them, and to prove the point that they are not mindless killers out to eat humans. He is not an aquatic version of Timothy Treadwell, the eccentric man who tried to live with bears in the wild, only to be eaten by them. Rutzen does take risks, but he is not under any illusion about what these sharks are capable of.

I’ve dived with Rutzen once before, and agreed to do it again because it is among the more thrilling and interesting interactions you can have with an animal in the wild. Great whites have been around for millions of years, and yet there is still a lot we don’t know about them. They’ve never been seen mating for instance, or giving birth. They can travel great distances, and getting close to them for long periods of time is difficult and obviously dangerous. Few people like great white sharks—or any kind of shark, for that matter—so the problem with that is that few people seem to care that some 70 million sharks are slaughtered every year to make shark fin soup, a delicacy in Asia. The sharks are caught in nets or long fishing lines, and their fins are cut off while they are still alive. Their bodies are dumped back into the sea. Rutzen believes if more people understood sharks and respected them and their role in the ecosystem of the ocean, they would work harder to protect them.

So what’s it like diving with great whites? In a word - terrifying. They are enormous. The sharks I could clearly see from the surface of the water were about 15 feet in length, but what you don’t realize until you are underwater and they are coming straight at you, is just how thick they are; their girth is massive, and what’s worse, they seem completely un-intimidated by humans. It turns out they don’t like scuba bubbles, which seem to make them nervous, and when they get nervous, they open their mouths and display their teeth. It is quite disconcerting. Mike Rutzen told me to try to “project confidence,” but I forgot to ask him how to do that underwater through a wetsuit.

I did ok in the end. I survived and did gain a new appreciation for sharks. I am glad I’ve done it, but I am not sure I need to do it again.

You can watch Anderson Cooper swim with the ocean’s most feared predator on 60 Minutes tonight, March 28.

Anderson Cooper anchors Anderson Cooper 360° on CNN and is a reporter for CBS’s 60 Minutes. He is co-host of CNN's documentary series Planet in Peril, with Sanjay Gupta and Jeff Corwin.