Sunday, August 21, 2005

The story of a man nicknamed "Sharkman"

ANDRE Hartman, South Africa's internationally famous "Sharkman", knows every local great white shark, personally.Some smile, others scowl, he says. They can be curious or shy and are sensitive to certain types of touching and to wind changes.

A self-taught animal-behaviouralist, as a child he kept poisonous snakes and identified them.
Mr Hartman became the first man in the world to be able to lure the ocean giants to his boat and gently rub his fingers along their highly sensitive snouts, causing the sharks to open their awesome jaws.

He loves watching the giant sharks when he brings them close to his boat.

"You just read his expression," he said. "Some look very friendly – they've got a beautiful smile. Some have got a mean expression on their faces. It's a subtle difference, but if you work with them every day you can see."

Barefoot, Mr Hartman, 53, a burly South African seadog, runs a shark cage-dive boat in Gansbaai, 190km southeast of Cape Town, with his partner.

On the southern-most tip of Africa, where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet, is one of the world's biggest populations of great white sharks, where they thrive by eating cape fur seals.

His knowledge of great white sharks has brought him worldwide notoriety and helped transform his sleepy fishing village into an international mecca for great white shark film-makers in the winter shark season from May to September.

Wildlife programs, including National Geographic, FOX's Discovery Channel and Australia's croc man Steve Irwin, have beaten a path to his door.

The town he has made famous will soon feature on the latest British reality-TV show Celebrity Shark Bait, which was filmed last month. In it celebrities, including former British Olympic hurdler Colin Jackson, climb into a Perspex cage in the waters off Gansbaai, known as Shark Alley.
He denies claims, reignited by Celebrity Shark Bait, that he has increased the risk of great white sharks attacking people.

Leading shark scientists working in South African waters support Mr Hartman's claims that sharks do not associate cage-diving with people.

"The resemblance of a surfer to a cage-diving boat are worlds apart," said Ryan Johnson, a New Zealander researching great whites.

Mr Hartman has had a healthy respect for the sharks since he was young.

As a teenage spearfisherman, he came face-to-face with a 5m great white in 1977. Terrified, he used his spear-gun to lever himself over its body, but it turned and bit his spear. He vowed to sell his dive gear and never swim again, but a fascination for the giants drew him back to the ocean.
Mr Hartman is a pioneer of the eight shark cage-dive businesses in Gansbaai, which have enjoyed worldwide publicity and spawned a multimillion-dollar industry.

Mr Hartman takes boatloads of tourists diving with great whites.

His two-to-three people shark cages give an amazing close-up view of the sharks circling the boat or monstering tethered bait-bags.

Mr Hartman said that while the sharks were sometimes curious about the cage's yellow ropes (the colour yellow attracts sharks) and the white buoys (similar in size and colour to the bait), the great whites have little interest in the divers inside.

For a few days a year when the water is crystal clear, Mr Hartman has had professional cameramen join him and dive with the feared predators in open water outside cages.

"The person who dives with me must have confidence in himself as well," Mr Hartman said. "If the guy's going to panic and run away, that's big trouble."

Mr Hartman controls a shark by using its acutely sensitive snout – he says sharks "touch" things to work out if they're worth eating.

"You've got to have something hard in your hand," he said. "He (the shark) will come to feel if you're soft, if you're edible."

He said that when a shark nudged a hard object, such as an unloaded speargun or a film-maker's camera, the shark would veer away in disinterest or insecurity.

But Mr Hartman bears the scars of a too-close encounter – when a great white took a bite.
"You see the teeth marks there, a couple here and another one," he said, pointing to scars on his right foot.

Earlier this year, while he sat with his leg dangling in the water, a great white grabbed his foot.
"He was chasing a piece of tuna and all of a sudden he's got a whole lot of bone in his mouth and is hanging out of the water," Mr Hartman said.

Gansbaai cameraman Russell Smith, said: "In one, little fishing village on the tip of South Africa (Gansbaai), here's this guy nobody has heard about and he's dossing (playing) around with sharks."

The scientific community thinks Mr Hartman "pushes his luck", but he has won their respect.

"A lot of us conservationists talk about white sharks and how they are not man-eaters or dangerous to humans, but a lot of us aren't willing to stand by our statements and interact with them," Mr Jackson said.

"Andre was the first person to step out of the mould and freedive with them, to swim alongside, to grab hold of their dorsal fin.

"It showed a lot of us how much humans can interact with them without getting eaten."


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