Sharks: To ride, or not to ride?

posted by / Blogs / October 24, 2013

Mark Healey gives “The Heisman” to a shark that just 30 minutes prior, he was riding.

Interview by Taylor Paul

A few years ago we would have laughed. The same way we would have laughed about people paddling into Jaws before Marcio Freire started doing it in 2007. But then he paddled it, survived, and now everyone from Shane Dorian to Ricky Whitlock are out there. Everything is impossible until it’s not, and then it’s common. We’ve known for a few years that riding sharks was a real thing, thanks to Mark Healey. And while Mark wasn’t the first, he helped bring it into the popular consciousness and in his wake we’ve seen a surge of swimmers clutching the fins of great whites, tigers and more. It’s in ad campaigns and on national morning shows. Most say they do it to show the public that sharks are not the man-eating machines they’re sometimes depicted as, but rather majestic creatures that should be conserved. And that’s great. I agree. But a few times a year they do eat man, and aren’t we increasing those odds of becoming an exotic dish to an open-minded great white when we start mounting them like a pony at the county fair?

So I called Mark Healey, and I asked…

SURFING: Are people getting too comfortable?

Mark Healey: Well if you’re talking about people like Ocean [Ramsey] and Kimi [Werner], they’re really good divers. Ocean’s been doing this for a long time, and Kimi is super experienced with ocean animals as well. But it’s definitely an example of, once it’s known that something’s possible, whether it’s riding sharks or big wave stuff or anything, then you’re past that barrier and more people will start doing it. But it’s not for everybody, that’s for sure. It’s not a sport. [laughs]

So why do it?

The whole point of doing it is to make people think about how they perceive sharks. If more people are feeling comfortable with sharks and seeing them in different ways, then that’s a good thing.

Do you think there would ever be a time when people could pay to have someone help them get on a shark?

Not with great whites, and not with tigers. But there could be a way to pull it off. When I did that GoPro shoot with Roberta [Mancino], I got her onto that tiger shark and she’d never done it before. Which was great. But when we were heading back to the boat, about a half hour after we’d got on that shark and it was really mellow, it turned on me. I was on the surface and it swam right at me [see above video]. And since I didn’t have anything in my hands, I basically had to give this 12-foot tiger shark the Heisman. And that just shows how quickly things can change, because that shark could not have been more disinterested in us earlier.

Do you ever think someone who’s inexperienced will get hurt trying something like this?

Well, it’s a numbers game. The more you’re around sharks, the more likely it is you’ll get hit. But if you’re inexperienced, you’ll probably be all skittish and scare the shark away, anyway. Because it’s not like you’re forcing them to do anything, they make the conscious decision to let you be there with them. But at the end of the day it’s natural selection. Like, I just answered that question for you [for SURFING’s Feb 2014 big-wave issue] that asked, “How do we prevent more deaths in big waves?” And the answer is to stop surfing big waves. That’s basically it. Because you can dance next to the fire in a calculated way but there’s a certain amount of risk that will never be taken out of the equation. These things aren’t safe and they never will be.

Kimi Werner:

Ocean Ramsey:

Healey and Roberta Mancino: (rides shark at 3:10)

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  • kauai diver

    Riding sharks is nothing but a macho publicity stunt to make sponsors happy. People who care for sharks don’t ride them.

  • legh davies

    Personally I wish people would leave these beautiful creatures alone and stop making ludicrous videos for their own publicity. There’s a lot of supposed surfers out there who are beginning to give the sport a bad image because of their egos!

  • PuraKai Clothing

    This is a good question and thanks for sharing Mark’s views. I think whether its cage diving or freediving with sharks there’s a fine line between science/learning and exploitation. For the most part I think what Mark and the others have accomplished by interacting with the sharks has been overwhelmingly positive.

    If you ask a 100 people what their greatest fear is when in ocean it’s typically being eaten by a shark. Showing how highly skilled waterman/woman can interact with these creatures that have been perceived as mindless killers does a lot to change that perception.

    Will there be some Jack Ass that does something beyond his capabilities or a rogue shark that decides it doesn’t want to be ridden and attacks, probably, but as a lifelong surfer, spearfisherman, etc. I absolutely love watching the interactions, because as you say we never thought is was possible. What else might we be overlooking and misconceiving in the world? For me the challenge is in surf clothing, as surfers maybe we look to embracing a method of manufacturing it that doesn’t pollute the environment we spend our time in.

  • lame

    Totally agree. Stop harassing them. I surf, I don’t harass wildlife. What is your problem…? Why do you publish this trash?

  • Helene Stevens

    I absolutely agree. It is NOT a sport!!! It,s an EGO TRIP!!

  • chameleon

    Mark healy and others are just like the Grizzley Man who after spending so much time bonding with these wild creatures, finally allways in the end get eaten by them.

  • SurfingKook

    Please keep doing it Mr. Healy. To watch the film when you are actually attacked will be amazing footage because I guarantee your luck will someday run out if you play with sharks long enough. Ask most snake handlers. Ask most rodeo clowns. Ask the Grizzly Man. Oh, wait! You can’t, he’s dead. Please post the footage when he’s attacked and label the clip, “One Dumb SOB”!

  • North Shore Paddle

    These animals are predictably unpredictably. I work with them for my job and know that swimming with them is away from goodness yet I do it anyway. Why? Because it is fun and exciting. Chicks dig it! It is not as dangerous as people make it out to be, but it is still dangerous. Play with fire and ask Timothy Treadwell or Steve Irwin what happens. It results in an injury/fatality and more bad press for the animal. Fun? Oh yeah! Irresponsible? No doubt.

  • Aloha Surf Guide

    Riding sharks is not a sport, respect these creatures!

  • Emma F

    Sharks are wild creatures, the are unpredictable and we can never be certain. However in saying that. When surfing or even swimming for that matter, we need to remind ourselves that we are surfing in their territory, their home, leave them alone! Where I am from the government has implemented a shark cull and myself like many others are very strongly against it, sharks are a very important element and creature of our marine ecosystem and we should not disturb it.

  • MediaBlitz

    I agree with all the above. Sharks are NOT for riding, theyre for eating!