Healey Rides Great White Sharks

A glimpse into our June issue profile on big-wave surfer and great white shark wrangler Mark Healey

Mark Healey takes a "calculated" risk with an oceanic apex predator. Photo: Team Effort Films

What’s it like diving with a great white shark?
If they want to take you, they’re going to take you. And the only way you’re going to interact with them is if you make yourself completely vulnerable and they make the decision to come to you. So you have to put yourself out there and there’s nothing controlled about it at that point. There can be a million people on the boat, 20 feet behind you, and all of a sudden when that thing tunes in on you, you’re all alone. It’s just you and the shark.

Do you carry protection?
I was just swimming with my spear gun, just unloaded. Something to put some distance between myself and the shark, hopefully. I was interacting with wild, healthy sharks, and the only reason I’m able to is because they’re coming up out of curiosity. I would definitely not be in the water if they were acting like they wanted to feed.

How do you know if they want to feed or not?
Just by watching their body language. I have a really good idea of how to read sharks and their body language, just because I’m always around them, and I realized that white sharks feed primarily on large marine mammals, which are really intelligent—that’s completely different from any other sharks I’ve been around. So I knew that they were probably a lot smarter. Within the first 10 minutes there was a big one off the back and just showing me everything I wanted to see out of a shark and it’s like ok, time to put my money where my mouth is. I just jumped in and did it. But that first time when it tuned in on me, I’ve never been so intimidated in my life. I shrank to about 6 inches.

After being face to face with one are you more comfortable surfing in sharky areas?
That’s the funny thing. After spending all that time with the sharks, I don’t necessarily feel any better about surfing. And that’s the thing I realized through interacting with them, that they were a lot more intelligent than I expected, and with intelligence comes extra curiosity. You can tell they probably get bored. A couple of them just loved to hang out. They’re bored and had nothing else to do. I was always trying to really approach them well and get away from them seamlessly without spooking them or freaking them out, and a couple of times, I realized I was a little rough or my approach was shitty and I could see him following me with his eye. But then he’d come right back around and offer his dorsal fin to me. It was weird.

So you decided to grab on and ride it…
I rode three different sharks 12 or 15 times. But the thing is, they don’t like everybody. That’s the weird thing. The nicest sharks would kind of get pissed at some other people. Sometimes we’d let go of these fin rides at like 60 feet. And you have to swim up. That’s when other ones that are less dominant come in and you could tell which ones were going to be punchy. And a lot of the times they have a lot of scars.

So the younger ones are more aggressive and want to assert themselves?
Exactly. Those younger ones seem to be willing to take more chances because they’re last in the pecking order. So I would imagine that they’d be more likely to hit a silhouette. And they would fully try to set you up and hunt you. Like Jurassic Park with the raptors—they fully try to set you up. They’re so smart.

Did you pee in your wetsuit?
Oh yeah, I peed all day in that wetsuit.

Why are you doing this? The sharks, the big waves…
I don’t know, it seems totally normal for me, for what I grew up doing, and maybe I’m so stuck on the inside of it that I can’t see outside, but it’s just the way I grew up and I’m pretty much doing everything that I wanted to do since I was a little kid. I’m getting it all done.

Which would you rather face, a Great White or a giant closeout set?
Closeout set. If a White wants to take you, it’s going to take you. Bottom line. Which they don’t, you know, they don’t want to eat people. It doesn’t seem like. But accidents happen. People get killed in friendly fire in war and humans are pretty intelligent for the most part. Animals make mistakes too.

To find out if Mark Healey is actually insane or not, check out our June issue.